March 1, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I had an amazing experience at the Paris Bar.

Admittedly, I do my job and don't think too much about the venue itself. But, through conversations with people who live in Seoul and go there regularly or travel through often, apparently Paris Bar is considered one of the very best venues in Seoul. Considering what a big city this is, that's pretty cool.

I've had the pleasure of being introduced to many important and famous Koreans who patronize the bar. However, a couple of weeks ago I had an encounter I won't soon forget.

I was only playing piano on my first set, which I sometimes do in order to build the momentum of the show. There was a table of Korean men and women seated right next to the piano who were applauding and whistling in appreciation. They invited me to their table for a drink on my set break. While a couple of them spoke English, the man who had been most vocal in his appreciation for my performance was sitting quietly, not saying a word. Suddenly he leaned over to his wife and began speaking in Korean. She began translating to me.

"My husband is Lee Seung Chul, and he is also a peformer. He wants to make sure you know how much he enjoys your piano playing. He thinks you are wonderful." I thanked them profusely for the compliment, and decided to give them a few CDs. I asked them to please stay for another set so I could sing for them.

Well, they ended up staying the entire night. I sat with them on every set break, and received more information about this man as the night progressed, both from himself and from all the staff in the bar who were telling me, "he is the MOST FAMOUS Korean musical star." By the end of the night he had, through his wife's translation, let me know that I could consider our friendship a true one, and that I could "drop his name" if it might help me at any time in my career. He then gave me an autographed copy of his CD and proceeded to invite me to a big concert he would be playing the following weekend in Busan. He was offering me free tickets, free accomodation, and inviting me to be a guest at their private party the following day. Unfortunately I was unable to attend becuse it was Valentine's Day, and my supervisor couldn't allow me to miss my performance that night.

It is difficult to express how much of an honor this interaction was for me because it involves many components of the Korean culture. For an older professional of high societal standing to (as they put it in Korean) "make a friendship with me" is one of the highest compliments that can be paid. Furthermore, to allow me to speak his name to others as a friend is also huge. I was extremely disappointed to not be able to accept his generous invitation, but he has been back to the bar since, and it is clear that he meant what he said about having a true friendship. In a society where "face" and position on the social hierarchy are things you encounter and deal with daily or even hourly, and where you are constantly expected to behave according to a complex set of social rules (which foreigners often admittedly do not completely understand), it was interesting to me that a common respect and love for music cuts through all of that, and allows genuine human interaction to take place.

One more reason why I love music......

January 18, 2009

I've been learning more about Seoul in the past few weeks. I think it's taken me until now, nearly the halfway point in my time here, to "settle" in, but I finally feel I am starting to understand the place I will be living in for the next nearly four months.

Highlights for me have been discovering the 24-hour women's spa, which offers two hour Thai style massage for under fifty dollars, amazing saunas of different intensities and styles (one was almost like a brick igloo, and was so hot they keep a sand hour glass inside to warn you of over-heating, and they actually had eggs hard boiling in their shells in there) great hot baths and all the spa services you could possible want. I've never been much of a spa-goer at home, but here it is very much a part of the culture - the Koreans literally schedule time to relax into their lives as regularly as possible.

I also did some reading up on Itaewon, which is essentially my neighborhood. Itaewon is considered the "international" neighborhood of Seoul, and is located directly near the US Army Base. When you walk down the streets of Itaewon, you will see faces from all over the world, and of course many soldiers walking around as well. Food from every culture, imported goods from places such as Egypt, and Africa, interesting vendors (like the man who sits all day knitting various items of clothing in his little booth on the corner near the grocery store where I shop) and live music venues give the place a lively feel - it's active around the clock, especially on the weekends. Itaewon is a bit run-down as the business fronts have not been re-done in decades, and the city is debating what the "new look" of this international district should be. Most people argue that since it is already international in flavor, more Korean flourishes should be added to the look of the storefronts. Overall, Seoul is one of the cleanest-feeling and cleanest-looking cities I've ever visited.

An interesting fact about Seoul is that while it is (I think) the largest city in the world, it is also considered just about the safest, and you might, in the wee hours of the morning, see adolescent kids on skateboards, ex-pats out for a night run, or insomniacs walking their dogs.

The Grand is located essentially on a small mountain, and next to the hotel is an expanse of land which has been turned into a park with miles of walking paths, "fitness" areas, ponds, outdoor art sculptures, the highlight being the 30-minute climb to the top of the mountain where one can go up into Seoul Tower - which reminds me of the Space Needle from home, though Seoul Tower is nowhere near as fetching - and get an amazing view of the sprawling, light-bejeweled Seoul.

In terms of my gig - I am enjoying this opportunity to learn many new songs, and transpose songs that I usually play on guitar to piano versions. I'm also trying every night to be creative and re-interpret songs I play almost every evening. Regulars at the bar have started coming in specifically to see me, and I've "earned" many Korean friendships with guests and co-workers. Where at first I was befuddled by the social hierarchies here, I've started to appreciate one aspect of this system very much: when you do obtain respect from a Korean and a friendship is begun, I absolutely get the feeling that this is taken very seriously and that the friendship will be cherished indefinitely. This reminds me of when I visited Japan as a teenager and stayed in a guest home. My initially reticent Japanese host father (who was disappointed I could not speak Japanese) ended up spending hours with the Japnese/English dictionary the night before I was to leave for home, writing me a letter telling me I would always have a family in Kasai. Hard-won affection, when given, is especially touching.

I have friends coming to visit me in Korea - a blessing which makes me realize how fortunate I am to have so many wonderful people in my life and also gives me so much to look forward to for the duration of my time here, much as my family coming to see me in Vietnam got me through some of the lonely spots there, as well.

I am making it a goal to write more often in the blog, so please check in every week or so to see if I've kept my promise! :) Also - if you're a Facebook member, you can look up the Hilary Scott fan club. It is actually a site written completely in French, because it was started by my French friend Agnes Dautraix, who is not only a singer herself, but is making a name for herself by interviewing music artists from all over the world, some of them quite big names. Please join - English language posts are welcome, and Agnes would like me to spread the word about the group.

More soon!@