This story is a bit dated, but I still remember it well. Most of The Misfits were doing their own thing. Potato asked if I wanted to check out some museums in Gwangju.
“Yawn…” Anxiety-Brain chided.
“I’d rather be bored with friends than having fun alone.”
“Who knows? Maybe we’ll learn something.”
Several hours later, I found Potato and Nightmare at our typical Gwangju meeting place – the NC Wave shopping center. Nightmare had his own introverted plan – skating in a public park. Potato and I relentlessly joked that he would go to jail for grinding on a sacred statue. Gwangju is famous for a democratic uprising in the 1980s. They built monuments to it. We said we would bail him out after giving him an hour or two to “sweat it out.”
We parted with a mutual “good luck.” One taxi ride later, Potato and I arrived at the Gwangju National Museum. The exterior was gorgeous, if not a bit intimidating. I feared I would be arrested for stepping off the path or farting on a perfectly manicured shrub. Trees and gardens bookended a reflective pool divided by stepping stones. Stairs ascended to a gorgeous facade. Photographs abounded.
Admission was free. I fist bumped my wallet. As we wandered toward the first exhibit, an older Korean man with impressive English approached.
“I am a tour guide. Let me show you around.”
Not ready to pass up free assistance, we readily agreed. We started with an array of ancient artifacts.
“These items are paleolithic. Paleolithic. Do you know?”
“Yes. I have heard this word.”
He was extremely helpful (if not a bit condescending with his (impressive) knowledge of big words). The amount of learning and enjoyment far exceeded my expectations. For example, in ancient Korea, wealthy individuals were buried in intricate clay pots. I crouched down next to one and imagined my claustrophobic corpse.
“Nope,” I thought. “Cremate me. “
Farming seemed like an arduous task back then. Potato noticed an iron hand plow and got my attention.
“They dug into the ground with this by hand. Can you imagine?”
“Nope. My back hurts just thinking about it.”
After an hour, Tour Guide gestured for us to sit down.
“It is break time. Let me tell you about this shipwreck. Listen closely. There will be a quiz at the end.”
Some fatigue set in by this point. I was grateful for a break. My shoulders were screaming from my backpack’s weight. However, I had barely taken a single sip of water and settled into a story about a Chinese merchant ship when-
“We need to move over here. Break time’s over.”
It was the shortest break of my life, but the show must go on. We proceeded forward and digested a tale about a Chinese merchant ship that sunk off the coast of a Korean island, leaving a treasure trove of luxury goods at the bottom of the ocean.
“Okay,” said Tour Guide, “so the ship sunk in 1580. It was discovered off of Wando Island in 1978. How long was it underwater?”
“Wait,” I thought, “I listened to that whole story and the quiz is just a math problem?”
“402 years?” I guessed incorrectly. Fortunately, I wasn’t hired to teach math.
Other than the misleadingly short break, he was a great tour guide. We delighted in fascinating artifacts and learned some even more fascinating stories. When we reached the end, Potato asked him for direction to our next stop – the Gwangju Folk Museum.
“You follow the stairs down to a winding path through the trees. You will go down that path and cross a parking lot with many cars. From there you will reach a road. Be careful crossing the road. The cars go fast. On the other side of the road, you will go through a tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, you will find [insert forgotten Korean word for ‘folk museum’].”
We said goodbye and set off on what sounded like a Tolkienesque journey to a faraway land of learning. We followed the directions faithfully, repeating them to ourselves and laughing uproariously in the process. Finally, after receiving some assistance from a nearby bus driver, we found the Gwangju Folk Museum.
From the moment we reached the entrance I knew this museum offered a different vibe. The national museum seemed very classy and high culture (if not a bit foreboding). In front of the folk museum, the first thing we saw were children playing traditional Korean games. We proceeded to struggle with all of them. We threw arrows through rings (poorly), played a game that resembled a carnival ring toss, and even made up our own rules to a mystifying ancient board game.
“Okay. I threw the sticks. They show two black faces and one white face. That means my piece moves to the tiger space.”
“Oh…the tiger space means you have to go back three spaces.”
“Damn. I guess you’re right.”
Potato threw the sticks. Three white sides.
“Oh, Three white sides? You’re in the dragon space. That’s too bad. Looks like you lose a turn.”
I honestly forgot who won or even if we finished playing.
Inside the museum (also free admission), we had no tour guide. The responsibility fell on our shoulders. Fun and pseudo-historical hilarity ensued. First, we saw a massive sculpture depicting an ancient festival game. Men on both sides engaged in a tug of war on a boat being held up by men on both sides (I know it sounds strange but hear me out). Apparently, it was a contest in which men were divided into two teams – the male team and the female team. If the male team won, then the harvest would be bountiful. If the female team won, it was the bellwether of famine.
“I’m sure there’s someone on the female side who wants to win every year. Let’s call him Jeff.”
“Come on guys! Let’s win it this year! It’s our time!”
“Damn it, Jeff, shut up! I want to eat this year.”
“I’m going to pour oil on the male side so they all slip and fall. Victory shall be ours!”
“Damn it, Jeff, knock it off!”
This ridiculousness ensued for nearly every exhibit. At one point we saw mannequins of ancient Korean noblemen with the most dejected expressions I have ever seen.
“Oh man…the peasants aren’t paying their taxes.”
“I know. What are we going to do?”
“At this rate, I’m going to have to trade in the Ferrari for a Lexus.”
We saw small dioramas of ancient Korean houses. They appeared to be separated by status.
“Damn it, Michael! Our neighbors have a tile roof. Why is our roof made of straw? We need to keep up!” Why did I keep giving everyone the Westernmost names I could think of?
After an hour of self-guided frolicking (less authentic learning but far more fun), we sat down for a break. I appreciated my first taste of a 300 won ($0.30) cup of coffee. As we sat, a Korean child approached me. I don’t remember the encounter, but Potato filled me in. Apparently, the word “hwa-jang-shil” (bathroom) slipped his lips. He thought I was the right person to tell me (in Korean) about his toilet exploits. We erupted with laughter.
We had one more museum to hit before meeting with Nightmare for dinner and a night out on the town.
This lovely neon painting glow-in-the-dark painting of Gwangju was the main highlight of the art museum.
My school feels big when I approach it, but when I photograph it from a distance I realize how small I really am.
My office just installed a 3-D printer. For what purpose I do not know. These tiny plastic shoes were the printer’s first creation.
“Feel Our Own Delicacies?” Awkward Korean translation is awkward. This sounds like a trap.
Cake lovers rejoice!
Kim Dae-Jung (a former Korean president) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. He is the only Korean to earn this honor. This is one of his monuments – at the Gwangju Convention Center.