Time Travel Korea

Stepping over the threshold of the Korean Cultural Centre in Abu Dhabi, is like stepping into the warm embrace of familiarity and memory. In an instant it is, once again, 26 December 1999. Y2K is looming as the popular doomsday prophesy of the day, as  I step into an icy cold winter’s day. With a steel grey sky overhead, and slushy snow at my feet, I inhale the first unfamiliar scents of Korea. I can smell garlic, and chili. Fresh air and smog.

In that fragile moment of newness I could not conceive of the exquisite flavours and aromas awaiting me in dishes like gimbap, bibimbap, samgyetang, japchae, bulgogi, or haemul-pajeon. I had no idea how the diaphanous light of spring would chase away the cold, short days of winter, or how the twirl of cherry blossoms, like miniature ballerinas, would delight my heart. I could not know how the explosion of green would intensify in the humidity of summer, contrasting sharply with cobalt blue skies, or how the golden autumn light would filter through a colourful array of thinning leaves, reminding me with sadness that my days of living there were also petering out.

I knew nothing of Korea. Its culture, its foods, its people, in that moment of first introduction. In the days before Google my only glimpse of the country was a quick browse through a guide book. Technology as we know and use it today was hardly conceived. I had no cell phone, no laptop, no digital camera, no e-mail address. My only link to friends and family was through long handwritten letters that I photocopied: a tedious and clumsy precursor to the world of blogging.

I had a whole year to fall in love with the people, the food, the culture. A year in which I learned a lot about myself and how to function in the world at large, but in that first moment, I knew nothing of the delight of living in that culture or the heart-opening experiences awaiting me.

 

Drinking Soju resized

Drinking soju with some students.

Memories of that year came flooding back in unexpected leaps and bounds, as I strolled through the Arirang exhibition hall, and the many interactive stations scattered throughout this creative space effortlessly blending old and new, traditional and contemporary.

Back home I open Google Earth and zoom in on Korea. I allow my finger and eyes to trail the roads criss-crossing the country over place names I’ve half forgotten, half remembered. I click through a measly 114 grainy photographs scanned from negatives, I keep on my computer. They serve as a reminder of a year filled with a barrage of life experiences, dense and amplified by the foreignness of it all that has helped to shape the person I am now, sixteen years later.

Notes:

  • GPS co-ordinates:  N 24° 25′ 52.27″   E 54° 27′ 55.74″
  • The Korean Cultural Centre is located on the 1st and 2nd floor of Building 5 of TwoFour54 Campus, just behind the Ministry of Labour building.
  • Because of its location, parking is problematic, so either take a taxi, or ask at security in the foyer for an access card to basement parking (you will need some sort of ID for this). The cultural centre has a couple of parking spaces in Basement 1, so check if any of these are available at the time of your visit. Be careful where you park, as you may well come back after a lovely visit to a parking ticket.
  • Opening times: Sunday – Thursday (9am – 6pm)
  • Visit their website or Facebook page for more information on special events, as well as language and cooking classes.
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