Tag Archives: Korea

The Korean Folk Village brings Joseon Dynasty to life

Before heading to Seoul, the Dents and the Warrens visited one final cultural attraction: The Korean Folk Village. It’s called THE Korean Folk Village, but I’ve heard there are many. The brochure says, “Happy coexistence with pleasant tradition!”


Kind of the like the Korean version of Colonial Williamsburg, this village featured historical interpreters demonstrating what life was like in a bygone era. Here, Korea’s last imperial dynasty – the Joseon period – has been recreated “on a 243-acre site regarded as a propitious location according to the principles of feng shui, with a river flowing in front of it and a mountain behind it,” the brochure explains.

Here’s a rundown of the Joseon era, from Wikipedia:

Joseon (Korean: 조선; Hanja: 朝鮮; also Chosŏn, Choson, Chosun, Cho-sen), was a Korean state founded by Taejo Yi Seong-gye that lasted for approximately five centuries, from July 1392 to October 1897. It was founded following the aftermath of the overthrow of the Goryeo Dynasty in what is today the city of Kaesong. Early on, Korea was retitled and the capital was relocated to modern-day Seoul. The kingdom’s northernmost borders were expanded to the natural boundaries at the Amnok and Duman rivers through the subjugation of the Jurchens. Joseon was the last dynasty of Korean history and the longest-ruling Confucian dynasty.
During its reign, Joseon consolidated its effective rule over the territory of current Korea, encouraged the entrenchment of Korean Confucian ideals and doctrines in Korean society, imported and adapted Chinese culture, and saw the height of classical Korean culture, trade, science, literature, and technology. However, the dynasty was severely weakened during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when invasions by the neighboring states of Japan and Qing nearly overran the peninsula, leading to an increasingly harsh isolationist policy for which the country became known as the Hermit Kingdom. After the end of invasions from Manchuria, Joseon experienced a nearly 200-year period of peace.
However, whatever power the kingdom recovered during its isolation further waned as the 18th century came to a close, and faced with internal strife, power struggles, international pressure and rebellions at home, the Joseon Dynasty declined rapidly in the late 19th century.
The Joseon period has left a substantial legacy to modern Korea; much of modern Korean etiquette, cultural norms, societal attitudes towards current issues, and the modern Korean language and its dialects derive from the culture and traditions of Joseon.

Strolling through the village on New Year’s Eve, I joined the crowd offering up wishes for 2014. The sign said: “Tie your wishes onto the elaborately piled up stone tower. The wishes hung from the straw rope are burnt along with sheaves of rice (Dalh-jib) for the first full moon of the new year and go up to the sky.”

The village comprises 260 traditional houses relocated from various regions of Korea. There were opportunities to weave shoes out of straw, operate a millstone, create a silkscreened print, make a kite or fan, and participate in many other workshops, including the “experience of government office implementation of punishment,” which we missed, unfortunately.




We were encouraging Will to say “moo” to the cow, while a Korean family was coaching their baby to say “oo-may.” No wonder the cow wasn’t looking at Will! It didn’t speak English.

The Korean Folk Village has also served as a shooting location for popular TV dramas, so many visitors come as part of their “Han Ryu” (Korean Wave) cultural tour. I had never heard of this Korean Wave phenomenon, but apparently it’s a reference to the popularity of South Korean culture (such as K-Pop music videos) and the tourism that follows it. Here’s Tony, joining the Korean Wave and posing with Jang Geum from the K-Drama “Jewel in the Palace.”

According to the DramaFever website:

Jewel In the Palace is arguably the first successful historical feminist drama, retelling Jang Geum’s rice-to-riches story during the Chosun Dynasty 500 years ago. Jewel is the real story of Jang Geum, a young girl who is the first woman to become the King’s supreme royal physician in a male-dominated society. Behind her child-like eyes lies an ambitious working girl with a 21st century mindset. See how Jang Geum goes from being a virtually abandoned child to becoming the King’s doctor. This unforgettable drama of epic proportions tells the touching and tear-jerking story of a true underdog.

Random shots of the folk village.








Check out my flickr set if you want to see more photos!

Well, it’s no secret that I love this kind of stuff. If I could quit my real job, dress up in period costume and play act all day, I would do it! Not sure what role I would play at The Korean Folk Village. Any ideas?

From the serious to the nonsensical: War Memorial of Korea

A short walk from the Dragon Hill Lodge in Seoul stands the imposing War Memorial of Korea. The attraction provided us with an afternoon that was both solemn and ridiculous. First, the solemn part.

Outside the building, we roamed through an exhibit of planes, tanks and other war vehicles from Korea and abroad.

The building itself was immense with powerful imagery and excellent exhibits on Korea’s warfare history, including models, artifacts, photos and film clips. I could have spent the whole day there. Here’s a nice wrap-up from CNN:

With a 5,000-year history, Korea has certainly seen its share of wars and that’s precisely why the War Memorial of Korea has an extensive array of stories and artifacts.
The museum, which is located on the old site of army headquarters, has two main exhibitions.
The indoor exhibition includes six halls. The first is a Memorial Hall, which pays tribute to all those who have fought in Korean wars and lost their lives.
The next room is the War Room, featuring Korean weapons from as early as the Paleolithic age, armor and helmets used throughout different periods, as well as swords and other Korean weaponry used over the centuries.
Also indoors is a whole exhibit dedicated to just the Korean War of the 1950’s. Beginning with North Korea’s surprise invasion on the South on June 25, 1950, this hall depicts all aspects of the war, such as the role of the United Nations played and what wartime life was like for Koreans.
Here you get to experience eerily life-like Combat Experience Room, a re-creation of a Korean night battle full of special effects, video, sound, canon smoke and the smell of gunpowder. Just the re-enaction of these battles induces a sense of horror, leaving you with a sense of what actual combat experience must have been like.
Other rooms include the Expeditionary Forces room, a testimony to Korea’s overseas dispatches throughout the world, and the ROK Armed Forces room, which shows the history and changes of South Korea’s army through weapons uniforms and tactics throughout the years.
In the Defense Industry room you can get an in-depth view of the equipment that currently protects South Korea, from gas masks to aircraft. But if you really want to see some amazing machinery up close and personal, then head to the Outdoor Exhibition.
The Outdoor Exhibition features restored tanks, vehicles, submarines, aircraft and artillery that were used in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. But more than just standing right next to these mega machines, you can actually get inside them.





I didn’t take a lot of pictures of the war exhibits because it was quite dark. However, Megan had spotted an exhibit for kids that was clearly designed for photo opps. Here’s where things took a turn for the ridiculous. Tony opted out.

We had to buy separate tickets, and nothing was labeled in English, so we weren’t sure what we would see. But there were animals on the poster, and Will likes animals!


It was like Hello Kitty, Willy Wonka and Doctor Doolittle got together and planned an exhibition. There may have been some attempt at educating kids about the animals through Korean signage, but nobody seemed to stop long enough to read anything. Everyone rushed to place their child in the tableaux for a nonstop photo shoot. There’s going to be a whole generation of Koreans who think ostriches teach school, African animals participate in organized sports, bears hold dinner parties, kangaroos really wear boxing gloves, tigers play the bongos and polar bears do a poor job of keeping house.

Here’s what I read later on the Korea Be Inspired website:
The International Animal Exploration Exhibition, a collection of taxidermy animals, is set to run from December 1, 2012 through March 3, 2013 at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul.
The collection, which comes from the Masai Gallery in Belgium, showcases stuffed figures of endangered animals around the world including lions and giraffes of Africa, kangaroos of Oceania, tigers and leopards of Asia, and coyotes and water buffalos of America. All figures were made using already dead animals after the taxidermy had been approved by the Belgian government. The collection is held to raise awareness of the dangers and threats faced by wild animals.

Whew! What a relief that the figures were made with “already dead animals”! Well, I’m not sure if this exhibit will actually raise awareness of anything, but it was definitely a highlight of our trip to Korea!

These pictures don’t do justice to the spectacle of this experience. Here’s a link to my flickr album if you want more.

Everyone knows black bears enjoy sharing bananas, pineapples and pancakes when they host parties.


Will and Megan race with the animals!

All the animals listen carefully to their teacher at school, while Will and Mommy read a book.


Making music.

Poking around with the beavers.

Sure, why not pitch your tent right there?

Don’t you hate it when warthogs and polar bears trash your kitchen?

Just like Gee’s basement.

Arts and crafts and other chaos.

Finally, a dose of reality.

Hop on! Hop off! Seoul City Bus Tour

For our last few days in Korea, we took a bus to Seoul and checked in to adjoining rooms at Dragon Hill Lodge, an Armed Forces Recreation Center at the Yongsan U.S. Army Garrison.


Britt accompanied us only to babysit while Meg, Tony and I jumped on the Seoul City Bus Tour. He had to work the next morning, so he caught an afternoon bus home after we got back to the hotel. (Thanks, Britt!)


The hop-on hop-off bus offered a glimpse of downtown Seoul with a recorded narration detailing 27 highlights.


We only hopped off twice, but there were plenty of intriguing destinations I would have loved to visit, given more time.

The 777-foot N Seoul Tower perches atop Namsan Mountain (hence the N) and overlooks the city sprawled in all directions. I had no idea Seoul was this vast! The city spreads over 605 square kilometers (234 square miles), creeping into the surrounding mountains. The website Hi Seoul has lots of interesting facts about the city, if you want to know more.


Waiting for the elevator, we watched a cheesy light show. On the ride up to the observation deck, another quick cartoon suggested we were flying right off the earth and into space. When we reached the top, the attendant said excitedly, “Arrive only 30 seconds!”


The observation deck included displays where people could leave New Year’s wishes.


Tony found a candy store, of course, and loaded up on malt balls.


I sent a postcard from the tower.




Megan warned me that Korean temples and palaces look just like the many temples and palaces we toured in China, but I wanted to see at least one anyway. So we hopped off to visit Changgyeonggung.



Originally built in 1418 as a summer palace for the king, it was expanded over the years, burnt down in the Japanese invasion of 1592, re-built in 1616, partially destroyed in an 1830 fire and re-re-built in 1836. Beautiful architectural details.


The main hall of Myeongjeongjeon is the oldest preserved throne hall of a Joseon era palace. This is where official meetings and state banquets would have been held.


Meg and I both loved the quiet tree-lined paths around the palace grounds. We felt far removed from the hustle and bustle of the big city.


(Yes, it did, in fact, look like all those Chinese palaces, but that’s because Buddhism was brought to Korea from China in the late 300s. Duh, Megan.)

Here’s the link to my photos from this bus tour on flickr.

Naked in Korea (Jjimjilbang!)

My sisters both went to boarding school in Switzerland when my parents lived in Saudi Arabia, and Megan has maintained a friendship with her high school roommate, Sun. Now an actress in Seoul, Sun has met up with Meg a few times in Korea. Knowing how much I wanted to experience a Korean bathhouse (jjimjilbang), Sun offered to take us Friday, Jan. 3, but she warned, “You’ll have to get naked and everyone will stare at you!” Well, that’s nothing new, right?

The Sparex Jjimjilbang was located deep in the bowels of the Good Morning City Mall. We never would have known it was there! We paid the $7 entrance fee and received a locker key and orange pajamas. After stashing our shoes and coats in the lobby locker, we flopped barefoot to the locker room, where we changed into the jammies. The unisex dry sauna was designed to look like a traditional Korean village. A big screen TV sat in the middle of the “courtyard” surrounded by smaller rooms where couples and small groups could hang out in privacy. (These photos were snapped with Sun’s phone.)


Sun said saunas were a popular date destination for young Korean couples. People, old and young, sprawled out on the floor with their heads resting on brick-shaped foam pillows. Archways cut into the walls provided enough space for individuals to stretch out and nap. Sun also showed us how to fold the towel into a traditional style, as I’m modeling here.


Two dome-shaped caves sat at one end of the spacious room. These were the hot saunas. Digital thermometers outside announced the searing temperatures. We bent low to get through the tiny door of the cave heated to 107°C (224°F). Inside, we sat on the wall-to-wall woven straw mat and leaned our backs on wooden planks that were propped against the walls. After baking for a few minutes, we crouched through the door again and popped into the cold room chilled to -7°C (19°F). Posters of polar bears and penguins decorated the room’s outer area, but the interior was lined with ice. We sat on wooden stools while our feet cooled off quickly on the stone floor. It didn’t take long for goosebumps to form on our arms, at which point we dashed back to the hot caves. This time, we crawled into the hotter one: 124°C (255°F). As soon as we entered, I felt my eyeballs start to cook. I quickly pulled out my one contact lens and tossed it aside. I’m sure it disintegrated upon contact with the floor. The mat was so sizzling hot, we had to sit on our folded sweaty towels. Each breath felt like fire broiling my lungs. We didn’t last long; back to the cold room.




The second time in the super hot cave, I began to perspire profusely. Sweat poured down my face, arms and legs. It made me realize how NOT stinky the room was. How was it possible the room didn’t reek of BO? (Sun explained the Korean sauna was an ancient tradition, and the rooms were still built in the ancient fashion – same shape, same stink-fighting materials.)

After chilling once more in the cold room, we realized we had to speed things up. Tony was babysitting William, my 15-month-old nephew, and we had promised to return within three hours. So, we had to bid farewell to the fantastic dry sauna experience, as well as the photo shoot. No cameras allowed in the wet sauna!

In the locker room, we shed our PJs and plodded bare nekkid into the ladies-only wet sauna with only a small towel draped around our necks. “They say single ladies wear their towels like this,” said Sun, letting the ends drape modestly over her boobs. Then she flipped the towel off her chest and laughed, “But married ladies wear it like this.”

The vast space included open showers lining one wall, several steam rooms, a few pools of various temperatures, a small baby pool and a couple rows of sinks and spray faucets, where about 25 ladies busily scrubbed and splashed all their nooks and crannies. We three climbed into a pool with pink-tinted 40+°C (104+°F) water, which smelled faintly of lavender. Next, we stepped into hotter water with a green hue. Sun lamented that none of the Korean signs explained what herbs were infused in to the water. Megan gleefully dove into the cold pool, splashing her head under the running shower. I stepped in tentatively, recoiling at the shock of icy water on my hot skin. Finally, I took a deep breath and let the freezing shower wash over me. Yowza! Megan wanted a hot-cold pool redux, but Sun and I opted for the steam room. The room’s exterior wall was a big window overlooking the ladies at the sinks, and I couldn’t help but notice how it all seemed so … well, I wouldn’t say normal exactly, but it wasn’t totally weird. Despite Sun’s warnings and despite being the only white girls in the room, Meg and I didn’t feel conspicuous. There were no overt stares, and strangely, I didn’t feel compelled to stare at anyone else either. (That said, I can confirm that Korean women have tiny butts. That shouldn’t be news to anyone.)

Given more time, we could have indulged in a massage or scrub, enjoyed a drink at the snack bar, watched a little TV, gotten a manicure and shopped for glittery shoes or lacey underwear at the kiosks. You can even spend the night.

I felt so grateful to have Sun along for my first Korean sauna. She was an informative guide and lots of fun. I only wish I could have stayed another week to attend her wedding, which took place TODAY to Joo (an actor who just finished shooting a movie with Scarlett Johansson). Megan says it was a spectacular event, and William was the ring bearer for about two minutes (until they realized he couldn’t be trusted with the rings, so they found a stand-in)!


Korean Demilitarized Zone – the most militarized zone ever

Hot on the heels of Vice President Joe Biden, Tony, Meg and I visited Korea’s Demilitarized Zone Saturday. Three weeks after Biden attended a ceremony for U.S. troops who died during the Korean War, we stood in the same spot as he did, surrounded on three sides by North Korea at the Joint Security Area.

We caught a tour bus at Osan Air Base at 7:30 a.m. and drove about 2 hours to the first stop: Imjingak, a park 4.4 miles south of the military demarcation line, where 12,773 Korean prisoners of war crossed the “Bridge of Freedom” from North Korea in 1953. The park features several war memorials, including a 21-ton Bell of Peace.

View from the rooftop.

Meg at the Bridge of Freedom.

Tourists tie ribbons on the fence with wishes for peace and reunification.

As usual, the fascinating history unveiled during our daylong tour was news to me. Declared an Imperial Japanese protectorate in 1905, Korea became an independent nation with the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II. With the Allied victory in 1945, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to share temporary trusteeship of Korea, dividing the country roughly along the 38th parallel. Very different political and economic visions (communism in the north, democracy in the south) led to philosophical and, eventually, literal division of the country under different rulers. The Korean War, from 1950-53, saw both sides nearly take over the entire peninsula, but ultimately the Korean Armistice Agreement made the North-South division permanent. Both sides agreed to a demilitarized zone (DMZ), which stretches 250 kilometers (160 miles) across the country with a 2-kilometer (1.25-mile) buffer on each side of the dividing line.

Our second stop on the tour was DMZ Tunnel #3, one of four known tunnels built by North Korea. Tunnel #3, discovered in 1978 based on information from a defector, runs for a mile through bedrock about 240 feet underground. It was capable of moving a full military division (30,000 soldiers) each hour, and was apparently designed for a surprise attack on Seoul, less than an hour’s drive away.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures at the tunnel, dang it, but it was amazing! We walked down a steep incline to get to the actual tunnel. (Thank goodness they provided hard hats; I bonked my head on several low hanging sections of rock.) North Korea had painted the walls black and claimed the tunnel was a mine shaft. However, geologists say there’s no coal in this region. Tourists were allowed to walk about 1,600 feet into the tunnel before encountering the first of three blockades erected by the South. At that point, we were just 500 feet from North Korea. The North likely dug many more tunnels through the DMZ, but they remain to be found.

Our tour guide, Mr. Oh, in front of the tunnel map.

Next stop: Dora Observation Point, located at the northernmost point of the Military Demarcation Line. From the overlook, we could see both DMZ villages. Megan even spotted a few North Koreans through the binoculars.

South Korea’s Tae Sung Dong, or “Freedom Village,” is home to about 225 residents, who are required to stay there 240 days out of the year and observe an 11 p.m. curfew. Here’s an interesting article from CNN on the village: Life on the Edge in Freedom Village.

The North Korean village of Kijong-dong, or “Propaganda Village,” has always been uninhabited, and our military escort said the buildings are really facades with painted-on windows and doors. Until 2004, the village blasted communist propaganda encouraging South Korean defectors. A 525-foot flagpole (supposedly the tallest in the world) waves a North Korean flag weighing nearly 600 pounds.

This South Korean Army soldier insisted we stay behind a designated photo spot to take pictures.

But here’s a poster that showed our view of the North Korean village.

After a tasty Korean buffet lunch, we visited the Mt. Dora Train Station, where commuters can ride into North Korea for work at an industrial complex. The station was built in anticipation of rail service between Seoul and Pyeongyang. Maybe some day.

Our final stop was the most exciting: the Joint Security Area (JSA). Our tour group had to follow Pvt. Tekamp in two lines through the Freedom House (built for North and South Korean families to reunite, but that never happened) and out to the buildings where the two Koreas hold diplomatic meetings. South Korean soldiers stood guard in a taekwondo bulldog stance, facing north.

We spotted just one North Korean soldier on the steps of the Panmungak building. Here he is, and check out the binoculars in the window! It felt like we were stepping into a spy novel.

Inside one of the buildings (where microphones on the table relay everything to soldiers on both sides), Tony straddled the line between North and South Korea.

Here’s Megan with the South Korean guard (known as a Republic of Korean – or ROK – soldier) next to the table where microphones are lined up along the north-south dividing line.

This is the spot at the JSA where the demarcation line makes a sharp bend, so standing at the apex of the angle allows visitors to be surrounded on three sides by North Korea. That’s the North Korean flagpole on the left.

From the same point, we could see the “Bridge of No Return,” which was used for prisoner exchanges.

Next to the bridge sits a marker commemorating an event in DMZ history that nearly triggered another Korean war.

The Axe Murder Incident occurred on August 18, 1976, when CPT Arthur Bonifas, commander of the security company at the JSA and his executive officer, 1LT Mark Barrett, led a detail to trim a poplar tree that was obscuring the view of a United Nations Command checkpoint. Because the checkpoint was so close to the military demarcation line, guards were particularly susceptible to attack or kidnapping. The website ROKDrop has an excellent account of the incident.

Here’s the checkpoint as seen from the observation point. The gap in the trees was where the divisive poplar once stood.

In a nutshell, North Korean soldiers attacked the tree trimmers with their own axes, killing Bonifas and Barrett. In response, the UN Command decided instead of trimming the tree, they were going to cut it down. Operation Paul Bunyan was an overwhelming show of force designed to get the job done without escalating the tension between the two Koreas. Wikipedia has some fascinating details about the operation.

Capt. Bonifas’s wife, Marcia, was my mom’s neighbor at West Point at the time of the Axe Murder Incident. My mother recalls that Marcia was expecting her husband home in just three weeks when she got the news that he was brutally murdered. Megan says she’s heard the story many times, but visiting the DMZ made the story so much more real.

Beef on a Leaf – Korean Barbecue

Just down the hill from my sister’s house in Korea sits a nondescript hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I can’t even tell you what’s it’s called. What I can tell you is that the food is delicious!

Britt’s buddy Oliver – aka Slim (all the pilots have call signs) – is stationed here unaccompanied, but his wife, Heather, was in town for the week, so they joined us for dinner Sunday night. Nobody working at the restaurant spoke English, much less offered English-language menus.

Slim confidently ordered, “Two beef, one pork,” which turned out to be lots of small beef steaks and several pieces of thick bacon plopped on the grills built in to our tables. The waitress piled up the perimeter with small dishes of kimchi, salads, lettuce leaves, sauces, whole garlic, glass noodles, pickled veggies, rice, soups and a breaded schnitzel-esque meat.

After the meat cooked, we rolled it up in lettuce leaves with random selections from the smorgasbord. Yum!

I forgot my camera, so I commandeered Slim’s iPhone to document the evening.

We kicked off the meal with a little glass of soju, the ubiquitous Korean rice wine, but I quickly switched to beer.

Britt pouring the local beer, Cass.

Scissors for cutting the meat.

Megan, Heather and me (before and after Meg dropped her kimchi).

Ain’t no Napa, but beggars can’t be choosers – Wine Korea

My sister Megan has been talking up the “Wine Train” for ages. She tried to sign us up for a tour, but it was cancelled. We think there was a train strike, but we’re not sure.

The website Visit Korea describes the wine tour like this:

Situated in Yeongdong (Chungcheongbuk-do), Wine Korea is the only winery in Korea that maintains a vineyard and produces the wine brand, Chateau Mani. Beginning in November 2006, Wine Train run by Wine Korea offers a one-day train tour between Seoul and Yeongdong. Departing from Seoul Station, its passenger cars, themed Red/White Wine or Ginseng, boast an elegant café atmosphere. Above all, visitors can enjoy as much of the wine produced in Yeongdong as they want. Upon arriving at Yeongdong, visitors head to Wine Korea, enjoy foot massages in wine, participate in making natural cosmetics, and tour the wine production facilities. The tour goes on to visit Ginseng Exhibition Hall in Geumsan and Traditional Medicinal Herb Market. High quality wine, wellbeing grape juice, and Chateau Mani cosmetics are also available online for purchase.

Although we couldn’t take the Wine Train and despite the warning by Google Maps that the drive would take two hours (it did), we decided to check out the winery on our own with Britt behind the wheel. When we arrived at Chateau Mani, we found lots of exhibits and signs in Korean. The lady behind the counter covered her mouth and giggled, “Sorry, no English.” Megan phoned her friend, Sun, who got us sorted. We were supposed to taste a few wines, visit the exhibits upstairs and then relax with a wine-infused foot bath. So that’s what we did!

We sampled four wines from small metal plates. Dry white, dry red, sweet red and Nouveau (not sure what kind of grapes they used, but the wines were not bad).

Then we poked around upstairs, where exhibits featured dolls and Korean signs that seemed to explain the wine-making process. With no translator, that took about two minutes.

Back downstairs, we were herded into a little garden where another woman was filling a square tank for our foot bath. Meg and I rolled up our jeans and happily dipped our frozen tootsies into the hot water, which probably included a cup or so of wine. It didn’t smell very wine-y. Eventually, we moved to a bench for our own individual foot buckets and a snack of mandarin oranges. Megan’s wine bath was scalding hot and nearly melted her toes right off, while mine was lukewarm. Never mind. My feet stayed toasty for the whole ride home.

On the way out the door, the salesclerk handed us two bottles of “Eau Wine” perfumed body mist. I wouldn’t necessarily use it, but I didn’t think it was disgusting. Meg thought it smelled like hand sanitizer.

And that concludes our Wine Korea tour. The general consensus was: Worth a visit, but take the train next time.

Christmas in Korea

When I told people we were heading to Korea for the semester break, well-wishers told us which sights to see, what food to eat, where to find the best skiing, how to get around on public transportation and so on. I smiled, nodded and thanked everyone for their tips. But there was really only one attraction for me:

I am absolutely smitten with my third nephew, 15-month-old William. He is the son of my sister Megan and her husband Britt, who is stationed at Osan Air Force Base, about an hour south of Seoul. Our three-week winter holiday gave us the opportunity to spend Christmas with them. We’ve been here a week and done a couple touristy things, but I’m more than content to hang around the house with my little lovebug.

When I hear his babbling in the morning, I race to be the one who gets him out of bed. I say, “Good morning, William!” and he says, “Sha Sha.” Can there be a better way to start my day? We let Mommy sleep a bit longer while we eat breakfast and play.

Will’s enthusiasm for life is contagious. He loves to play with balls. In fact, “ball” was his first word, and he says it with a deep reverent voice. Baaaall. His grandparents bought him a mini ball pit, where he rolls around, giggling and tossing the balls in the air. He also loves cars and frequently has one gripped in his little hand, even when he eats (thus, many of his cars experience cheese-related axle problems). Vehicles shooting down his car ramp trigger an excited “Ooooooh!” and lots of clapping.

Another favorite toy is an activity center on a round stand. He smacks one of the buttons to start the music and then marches around the circle in a wiggly dance, slapping a button with each pass to keep the tunes playing. He gets a kick out of it if the grown-ups join in. As a teacher and avid reader, I know that strong reading habits start early. That’s why I’m so thrilled to see William independently choose books over other distractions. Often he pulls books off the shelf and flips through them alone. Other times, he will stop whatever he’s doing, pad into his bedroom and emerge with a book. He’ll hold the book up to me and then plop down in my lap to read. A Christmas gift that we’ve read over and over is Honk, Honk, Beep, Beep (which is so cute that I just ordered it for nephew #5, due in April to my brother Mike and his wife Summer).

Although the weather has been bitterly cold, we all bundle up for long walks through the neighborhood and downtown Songtan, a strip of shops, restaurants and bars aimed at the American community based here. Meg, Britt and Will live on the top of a VERY steep hill, so she actually tethers the stroller to herself when we walk down. We also pop over to the Air Force base to exercise. Meg, Will and I hang out at the Parent & Baby fitness center while Tony and Britt hit the gym.

Christmas morning was a low-key affair. We all had a few presents to open, but Tony and I were mostly excited to give Will his new car ramp, which has provided countless hours of entertainment. My mom sent another surprisingly engaging “toy” – a wooden spoon and small pot filled with red tinsel. William has cooked lots of “spaghetti” in the last few days.

My best Christmas present? Time with my little man. I haven’t seen him since July, and I won’t see him again until next summer. Every day with him is a wonderful gift.

Getting ready for a walk (in front of their apartment).

Ass’s Hair Shop downtown. Ahh, Asia …

Playing with cars.

Ball pit!

Bath time. Love that tongue!

Merry Christmas!

Making spaghetti.

Legos from Mike and Summer. Will made his first Lego car.

Reading with Uncle Tony.

Mmmm… pasta.

Happy New Year, everyone!