Thursday, December 9, 2010

Model behavior

Randomness is an inherent part of traveling, and is undeniably one of my favorite parts of venturing abroad. Almost unfailingly, the experiences that were unplanned and unexpected throughout my travels are the ones that I hold nearest and dearest to my heart. Each new place brings with it its own idiosyncrasies, surprises, and entertainments; to this, Seoul is no exception. So when Allison and I were asked to be models in a make up competition, how could we resist?

The weekend before the competition we arrived at the Seoul Fashion Design School in Gangnam not sure what to expect but ready for anything, or so we thought. We were expecting a once in a lifetime experience, something fun and interesting to write home about, take some interesting pictures of, and get a few laughs out of. We took the term “model” loosely, thinking it was just a more polite way of saying we were going to be make up test dummies on which to practice the latest and greatest trends in smokey eyes and bold lips. Never did we expect to be actual models. For starters, in a world where models are by definition 6 feet tall, size 0, and are set apart from the rest by unique and interesting features, we fall well below the bar. Under these standards, we are both too short, too fat, and too plain. Incredibly, Korean standards are less demanding, putting us well above the bar. Both at 5’7” we were at least above average but with the extra four inches from our high heels we could even be considered “tall,” our curves weren’t considered “fat” but “glamorous,” and being the only foreigners in the competition, our Western features weren’t only desirable but set us apart from the dozens of Korean models. Somehow, we had found ourselves models in one of Korea’s most prestigious competitions for make-up artists.

As we spent several hours trying on our hand made dresses and sitting while our make up artists tried to adjust their make up designs to our western proportions, they gushed over our height, small faces, and large eyes; fretted about how to fit our curves into the A-cup bodices of our dresses; and discussed just how high our heels needed to be, practically rejoicing when I proved I could strut my stuff in the four-inch stilettos I had brought along for good measure. By the time our trial day had ended, it was quite clear that this competition was about more than just makeup. It seemed we had volunteered ourselves to be canvases in what was turning out to be a human art exhibition.

The following weekend, the weekend of the competition, it sank in just how serious our roles were. The night before the big day we stayed near the school at one of the make up artist’s apartments so there would be no delay in starting our day. After our 4:30am wake up call, we hurried to make it to get dressed, get breakfast, and make it to the school by 5:00am to get our hair done. As Julie bought us a breakfast of egg McMuffins and coffee she informed us that this would be our last food and drink for the rest of the day (we couldn’t risk messing up our look or schedule with spills or trips to the restroom). We were real models. But, too late to back out now. So 2 hours and several pounds of fake hair, hairspray, and bobby pins later, we left the school to take vans to the Kintext Convention Center in Ilsan, a suburb of Seoul.

From the moment we left the school we made quite the spectacle. In the few yards between the school and the vans several gaping Koreans, probably on their way home from a night of bar-hopping, stopped us to take pictures on their iphones. (The first of many impromptu photoshoots throughout the day.) The gawking was understandable though - while Allison had her hair piled onto her head in a bouffant-meets-treasure-troll look, I was channeling Queen Amidala with my hair and braided hair extensions twisted into two huge buns on the sides of my head. Who wouldn’t stare? Our day in the limelight had begun.

Once we got to the convention center we were completely at the whims of our make up artists. For the next three hours we sat as they applied the final touches, when the actual competition started they would have no time to waste on hair and accessories. As they gave us costumes and applied feather headdresses, hair jewels, 2-inch long fingernails, jewelry, and tubs of glitter we were poked, prodded, and dragged all around the convention center. When they wanted us to sit, we sat; when they wanted us to move, we moved; when they wanted us to pose we posed. Yet their instructions only came minute by minute, we still had only a vague idea what would happen during the competition and what our roles would be. One moment we would be “go, go, go!” and it would seem as if something big was about to happen, the next moment we were back in the dark, utterly confused and waiting for someone to tell us what to do. Maybe it was the language barrier, but a lot of the time it seemed they were being purposely elusive, no one even attempting to enlighten us.

When the competition part of the day finally rolled around, both of us were exhausted, starving, thirsty, and in pain from the pounds of fake hair, feathers, and product that were piled on our heads. For the next hour and a half we sat perfectly still and model-like as make up was applied to our faces, necks, shoulders, and chests; the roving judges monitoring our progress. By the time the bell dinged, signaling the end of the competition, we had been transformed. Between Allison’s portrayal of a contemporary Maria Antoinette and my resemblance to Lady Gaga, we stood in stark contrast to the dozens of Korean models covered in feathers, tassels, and rhinestones and resembling glorified Vegas showgirls.

By this time, Allison was glaring and I was shaking, but we did our best to look poised and modelesque as the judges continued to roam and scrutinize. (Not as hard as you would think, we looked 7 feet tall next to our make up artists and with the make up completed we looked as if we had just walked off Hollywood movie sets.) Soon we were milling about with the other models, thinking we were close to finished and waiting to be told what to do next, when all of a sudden Allison was being dragged off for photoshoot (we’re still not sure what for) and I was being pushed to the front of a queue leading up to none other than a runway. As music blared and cameras flashed I strutted my stuff, posing and pouting to the best of my abilities (all the while trying to remember every ANTM episode I’d seen in high school). And as far as I’m concerned my debut on the runway was a success; making it off the stage without incident was good enough for me.

Weak-kneed I found Allison (who had somehow bypassed the runway ordeal) and posed for dozens of pictures with Korean spectators before running off to sneak bites of gimbap from our make up artists’ bags. It was finally time for the results and to our surprise and our artists’ delight, Allison and I took first and second place, respectively, in the entire competition. This of course prompted another lengthy photoshoot, but eventually we were allowed to start the long-awaited process of becoming our normal selves again. When it was all said and done, we walked out of there one crazy experience and 100,000\ richer, but more than happy to leave the modeling life behind to dig into a feast of fried chicken and cold beer at the nearest Chicken Hof.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The amazing race

Chuseok – the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving when Koreans spend time with family, give thanks for the fall harvest, and honor their ancestors. Most Seoullites head to their family homes in other cities or the country, but teachers also use the short break from school as an excuse to vacate the city and visit some of the other Korean sites. As Maria, Allison, and I tried to decide what to do with our few days of freedom, it quickly became clear that going to one of the must-see locations was out of the question. The three of us had only arrived in Korea within six weeks of the holiday, and by then domestic flights and bullet trains to popular destinations like Busan and Jeju Island were already fully booked. But we were itching to explore our new resident country and a staycation was less than desirable. So we hedged our bets and decided to venture into the nearby Yellow Sea to the island of Muuido.

Even with a forecast of rain, we wanted to get an early start to escape the stifling heat and a Seoul that was quickly becoming a ghost town so on Tuesday morning, Maria and I set out at 9:30am, a pair of travel-hungry teachers ready to seize the Chuseok holiday. With $10 a day tin huts on the beach calling our names and an estimated travel time of 3 hours, there was little that could hold us back. That is, until we were halted dead in our tracks by torrential rains and monsoon floods. (Welcome to September in Korea.) When we got off the subway in Incheon, we stopped for a bite to eat in the Chinatown right across from the subway station.During lunch our Korean friend Jun called, cautioning us about the impending storm and urging us to return to Seoul. “You will drown. You will be ghosts floating in the Yellow Sea!” he warned. Looking at the light drizzle outside, we laughed at his hyperbole and concern.

Moments after we stepped out of the restaurant we were caught in a downpour. We took cover under the awning of a closed convenience store figuring the rain would soon subside. We were there for an hour and a half. Within minutes the road turned into a gushing river, the rapids collecting all sorts of debris (including Maria’s umbrella) and sweeping it past us down the hill. At one point, we were joined by a pair of Jehova’s Witnesses, but just as they were about to start evangelizing the rising water forced us to retreat onto some plywood tables and our guests made a dash for it down the road, clutching their bibles to their chests and ineffectually holding newspapers over their heads. When the rain slowed we evacuated our shelter for the subway station at the bottom of the hill, only to find that it too had been flooded. It was not long before we discovered that all routes of transit were blocked. We spent an hour in a taxi futilely trying to circumvent the flooding, but wound up right back where we started.

By the time we were able to board a bus to the airport, it was already 6:30 and by the time we arrived at the airport it was 7:08, the ferry to the island closed at 7:30. I’m sure we looked ridiculous as we dashed up and down escalators, our flip flops flying off, our soggy pants sliding down, and umbrellas and backpacks banging against our heads. With only fifteen minutes left we hopped in the first taxi we could find, threw money at the cabbie, and urged him to go “fast! Fast! Kam-sa ham nida!” As the taxi pulled up to the ferry terminal we only had four minutes to spare. With the ferry about to pull away, we raced down the dock and hopped onto the ferry as they powered up the engines. Stepping onto the deck of the ferry we were nothing less than euphoric and our laughing, jumping, high-fiving, and hugging earned us some strange looks and a request for a picture from the Korean Ferry crew.

The trip that was supposed to only last 3 hours had turned into 10. We walked into camp to the sheer astonishment of Allison and James (who had somehow managed to bypass the flooding, leaving hours after us but arriving hours before), soggy yet triumphant. Within minutes we were scarfing down a convenience store meal of rameon, chips, Ghana chocolate, and Cass, savoring every sodium-saturated bite. It wasn’t long before the rain returned, but after our jubilant arrival nothing could dampen our spirits so for the rest of our night we cozied up in our little hut on the beach, playing cards, listening to music, and laughing entirely too much.

Waking up the next day after our first chilly night since arriving in Korea, we stepped out onto the sun drenched beach. For the next two days we spent our days lounging in the sun, playing cards, and eating rameon from the convenience store. The nights we passed eating galbi at the beachside restaurants, bonding with other foreigners over bonfires, sizzling sam gap sal, and Cass, and admiring the stars. Even though I had to head back to Seoul after only 3 days to make it to work on Friday afternoon (I still don’t entirely understand the reasoning behind this) I felt more than satisfied with my first Korean adventure.

Seoul mates

I came to Korea not quite sure what I’d gotten myself into; with little to no idea about the job I would be taking, the people I would meet, and the life I would live. I knew of three other people from Macalester who were also moving to Seoul at the same time, but to say I knew them would be a huge exaggeration. Despite Mac’s size, I had only a vague idea of who these fellow Scots were and I had no expectations that our common collegiate background would spawn friendships of any sort. That being said, I met Maria, a girl who I shared many mutual friends with at school but had only met a few times, for a night out in the city shortly after we arrived in Seoul. Very quickly we discovered Mac wasn’t the only thing we had in common; serious long distance relationships, mutual feelings about Seoul and our jobs, and similar longings for travel and adventure immediately bonded us. With befriending Maria came the bonus of befriending her coworker Britney, who just happens to be a Minnesotan who went to school in the same conference as Macalester. Around the same time, a coworker introduced me to Allison, another Seoul newbie, Wash U alum, and fellow Europhile who conveniently lives two subway stops away and shares many of my passions, interests, and opinions about Seoul, the world, and life. The four of us had made quite the little quartet, taking Seoul by force and trying to make the most of our time here.

As you’ve probably noticed throughout my blogs, these girls have become my best friends in Korea with whom I’ve already shared many an adventure, thus I thought they finally deserved a proper introduction. Without these girls, the past four months would have gone very differently. Being able to share my time in Seoul with friends I deeply care about has added to my Korea experience in more ways than I care to go into here, and I’m so lucky to have found them. As Tennessee Williams said, “Life is partly what we make it, and partly what it is made by the friends we choose," and these lovely ladies have definitely played a large part in my Seoul life.