Chapter 4: Sightseeing in Seoul

While staying with their Korean host family in June 1979, my grandma and her fellow Friendship Force ambassador were shown the sights of Seoul. Mrs. Lee’s brother was a student at Dongguk University in Seoul, so he and a couple of his classmates served as interpreters and guides. According to my grandma’s notes:

They were studying English literature and were very anxious to practice their knowledge of the spoken word — we had a lot of interesting conversations from discussions of modern English writers to the dating of girls.

As she was escorted around Seoul, my grandma had some experiences that will be familiar to American travelers in Korea or any foreign land today, such as being appalled by the traffic:

In Seoul, I have decided that everyone is insane who would even consider driving a car. Everyone seems to drive about 50 mph, with no regard to traffic lanes on the road. Traffic lights are there but I believe it takes a seventh sense to locate them. … All of this 50-mile-an-hour stuff is right down in the eight-lane-wide main streets  — and mixed among the cars are push carts and bicycles loaded sky high with you-name-it-it’s-there going along at their slow pace — and somehow they all seem to live through it.

My grandma, with her snow white hair, and her travel companion, an African-American woman, also experienced attracting stares and creating a stir wherever they went:

We were followed everywhere by a regular contrail of people — regardless of where we traveled. People with enough nerve would ask to touch my hair. When I sat on buses my hair would be carefully and surreptitiously touched and people would maneuver around the standing room part of the bus until everyone had satisfied their curiosity.

While waiting for a bus one time, and older woman zoomed in on me — and when I laughed as she touched my hair, she immediately touched my teeth to find out if they were my own — and then the next question was invariably to ask my age. I never felt such a young oldie.

By the end of two weeks, I was accustomed to being followed, but I can understand how it gets old and annoying for the newsworthy personalities.

While there are no pictures, my grandma wrote that they also visited two Buddhist temples and the National Cemetery, specifically the shrines to Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, and President Park Chung-hee‘s wife, who, as my grandma wrote, “was assassinated by a bullet intended for the president” in 1974.

They also visited Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace in Seoul and one of the city’s top historical attractions. But it was in a very different state in 1979 than it is today.

Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung was the seat of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty and has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries. When Japan colonized Korea, the Japanese government basically leveled the palace and in 1916 built the Government-General Building where it stood. The neoclassical structure was later used by the Korean government to house the National Assembly and then the National Museum.

The main palace gate, Gwanghwamun, was in turns destroyed, rebuilt, and moved around. If you look at old photos of the palace, sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. In 1968, the landmark, which had been badly damaged in the Korean War, was rebuilt directly and defiantly in front of the old Government-General Building, with a brand new sign written in Park Chung-hee’s own hand. A few other palace buildings had survived occupation and war, including the main throne hall and the Gyeonghoeru and Hyangwonjeong pavilions. That is the version of the palace my grandma saw.

The Government-General Building was demolished in 1995 and work began to restore palace structures in their original forms. The rebuilt Gwanghwamun was unveiled in 2010, complete with a new sign not bearing a dictator’s handwriting, and restoration of other buildings is ongoing. This is the version of the palace I saw.

Of Seoul’s palaces, my grandma wrote, “Their ancient culture was elaborate and lovely and well worth preserving — of which they have done a great job.” I couldn’t agree more.

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