Saturday, August 28, 2010

Concerning one year.

Well, dear readers, we've come to the end of the road. I am at such a colossal loss as to characterize Korea and to characterize me in Korea. Whenever my thoughts can't quite obey my orders for coherence I resort to lists. So here goes, see how many references to previous posts you can spot. In my life, this year spanned....

  • 1 two bedroom apartment
  • 8 foreign coworkers
  • 2 Twilight movies
  • 5 jimjilbang afternoons
  • 1,920 classes
  • 3 different ages (22,23,24)
  • 5 beaches
  • 3 pieces of Korean pottery (all vases)
  • 27 kindergarten students
  • 1 cooler of spiced frozen beef
  • 21 books (Fiery Cross, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, Drums of Autumn, Dracula, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Chasing Harry Winston, Shoe Addicts Anonymous, The Mermaid Chair, The Glass Castle, Babyville, The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, Twenties Girl, Glittering Images, The Thorn Birds, Have a Little Faith, Weekend in Paris, First Impressions, Shirley, Midnight's Children, Peony in Love, and Remember Me?)
  • 53 blog posts
  • 6 trips to Costco
  • 4 birthday cakes
  • 15 pounds (lost, not gained, woohoo!)
  • 43 phone numbers
  • 12 end of session scrambles
  • 1 stomach bug
  • 4 temples
  • 3 palaces
  • 12 cities
  • 1 Christmas movie marathon
  • 24 Korean characters (that I can reproduce and remember...)
  • $33 spent on skype
  • 2 parking attendant friends
  • 16 hours of difference from home
  • 1 bit of romance
  • 12 focused flirtations
  • 1 wedding
  • 5 hikes
  • 3 Whittie connections
  • 20 sheets of stickers
  • 5 ink jet markers
  • 1 winter olympics
  • 1 world cup
  • 57 weeks
  • 13 hours on a plane
  • 1 expat Thanksgiving
  • 2 seasons of the Bachelor/Bachelorette
  • 8 copy boys
  • 3 Korean Dramas
  • 1 burned wish
  • 2 nail polish colors
  • 108 prostrations
  • 1 surprise birthday party
  • 48 pills versus 1 sinus infection
  • 6 Paris Baguette chocolate fondu brownies
  • 23 gifted tubes of Korean toothpaste
  • 18 English club meetings
  • 2 pieces of luggage
  • 1,000 cherry blossoms
  • incomprehensible amounts of ramen
  • incalculable heart pangs
  • indeterminate growth
Thanks very much for following me, the support of people looking over my shoulder was the difference between lasting a year and lasting a month. What did my time here achieve or mean or do or change? Umm. Well. I don't know. Was it foreign? Oh god yes. Was it fabulous? Actually it really had its moments. Overarchingly, I have this sublime impression of something big where I won't appreciate its view until I move out of its shadows. But something is something no matter what, and at the end of this road, I know my Korea is a something I'm proud to have.

Love and goodbye to you too.

Becky


Friday, August 27, 2010

Concerning goodbye.

My god, these children have put my heart through the wringer. I walked out of ECC for the last time today and still, even with the two packed (ish...I still have time) bags in the corner of my room, I haven't processed that this is it, I'm leaving.

The weekend after the temple stay was pleasantly busy. We all went out to dinner at a shabu shabu buffet which is nice (you grab raw meat and veggies from the counter and cook them in your broth with tasty sides) with a few friends and my replacement Alicia. Really yummy if tortuously hot with the steam. That actually turned out to be a theme for the weekend. The next day I ran around to several grocery stores (including Costco where I tried bulgogi pizza which is actually viable) to prepare for my potluck. It was suuuuuch a nice time, lots of people came and I had the opportunity to say a nice goodbye to a lot of them in between running to the kitchen to refill the onion dip or make more bruschetta. Good food though, if a bit assorted in flavor. We had pizza, sushi, the stuff I made, hodu kwadja (walnut nuttella donut balls), kiwi, a blueberry whipped cream cake and chicken. We even had soondae which is Korean sausage, but blood sausage. The blood part doesn't faze me, I had that in Scotland and it was fine. Howeeeever, this was described to me as "pig colon" after I had already put it in my mouth. The taste wasn't a big deal but the...sponginess...was unexpected. I was happy to try it though and be adventurous in another small way before I leave. After we ate, we went out to Sponge and had a drink and there was one of my favorite bar characters of all time. He was an older man in the army with a button down tucked into tiiiight dungarees. He seemed to enjoy shakin his ill disguised behind and he was pretty entertaining to dance with.

The next day, Alicia and I slept in and went for a walk in the eastern part of Hanbat Arboretum. So SOOO pretty! There is this whole side of this park that I hadn't discovered. I always knew it was my fave spot in Daejeon with the art center and Expo bridge and have walked there many times, but it was made even prettier with rock gardens, maple gardens, water falls, and multiple fountains. However, this was made ever so slightly less enjoyable by the near 100 degree heat with drenching humidity. Oh. MYYYYY. God. We basically shade hopped the whole way there until we found a shack that sold water and bagged milk shakes and took advantage of both. Then we walked for about 10 minutes and soaked our feet in a delicious air conditioned waterfall. Then we walked for about 10 minutes and went fully clothed into a fountain. Then we scooted the 20 minutes home and I took a cold shower. I remember last year when I talked about the heat pooling around my ankles and I felt that again, like I was literally wading through the temperature. WOOOOW.

However, despite the continued monsoon rains, I think that day broke the dog streak of summer. Now, nights have the slightest most minuscule hint of a breeze which is absolutely palpable progress. This entire week has still felt really hot and really sticky, like it has for weeks and weeks, and I still think I will freeze my behind off when I get home but it has been more bearable here at least. Class-wise, it's been one long goodbye. Nothing much changed from the little episodes I talked about earlier, they just grew more frequent. Tuesday, I got the sweetest little note from David, one of my older kids at the end of his journal that said "Beckey Teacher, I miss you. God bless you, love David." and when I looked up he just put his finger to his lips because he was embarrassed and then he put a separate letter on my desk, elaborating that 'this is not forever goodbye, thank you" and giving me his email. So so cute. Thursday, I said goodbye to my fave Tues/Thurs class with Phantom of the Opera on my laptop because we read it in class. I expected the two girls to love it but the boy was quietly singing along as well, SO adorable. And one of the girls handed me this letter, faithfully reproduced:

Hello, I am Jasmine. I loved you so much because you called me Sweety, or Sweety Girl. And, I loved the words, too! Anyone (she meant no one, I asked her) called me with this words. And, you didn't yell at us at all. I won't forget you, never. Thank you for teach me with lovely words. You act good to me than a new teacher. Love, Jasmine.

To say today was hard is like saying that Koreans sort of like kimchi...understatement. I was not prepared for that, or maybe I was just dreading it so much that I didn't think about it. I got teddy bear socks, a fashion umbrella, and a letter that said "to Beckey I love somuch. :) (Heart heart heart heart heart heart) SUNNY"

My last class with Brown I handed out fruit by the foots (like I did to all my kids, all kinds of HILARIOUS watching them dubiously put it in their mouths and smack like a dog with peanut butter...without meaning to demean my kids with canine comparisons) and we played a ton of games. Then, The Great Goodbye began and I gave each of the girls a huge hug. I was choked up but managing until I saw Irene sniffle out of the corner of my eye. "Sweet heart are you crying?" "Noooooo......" and then it started. I gave her one more hug and my co-teacher told me it took her a while to stop crying.

Then...UCLA. We did the lesson, played a rousing game of duck duck goose and this time I did not have the self control to not cry before the kids, I definitely cracked first which they thought was funny. I just felt their little arms go around my neck and it made my heart ache to know I wasn't ever going to see them again. They have been my lifeline back to sanity and human connection this entire year and even though I know they'll move on soon, they'll never know how important they became to me. All of these thoughts pressed against my head until I seriously reincarnated my father at the end of The Return of the King, crying but fighting tooth and nail not to sob. I got great hugs, and then we went upstairs. This is when the emotional tugs crossed the line into sadistic because Hannah and Sunny in particular just grabbed hold of my hands and would not stop saying "Don't go don't go, come to my house." Sunny literally wouldn't let go and after many hugs, I tried to gently make my way to the teacher's room so I could stop crying but then he crumpled. Like, seriously face screwed up, lower lip sticking out, chest heaving kind of wailing. I gave him one last hug and ran because I knew the longer I was there the more upset he would be, he couldn't calm down until I was out of sight but I was just as much running away so I could calm down. Even so, I was still leaking at the eyes when I took the elevator down to close out my bank account and in a bout of ill timing, it happened to be with Anna and her mother. The mom saw how upset I was and made Joy translate that she was so thankful for what I had done for Anna and I was the best teacher she's ever seen. It was so so sweet and I was overflowing with emotion. I even started crying a little more when I was on the way to the bank and my favorite parking attendant greeted me with "Heh heh heh, my daughter!" Good god, for all of its hardship, this country is not making it easy to say goodbye. The rest of my classes were fine. The same class that threw me a surprise birthday threw me a mini surprise going away party. With 10 mins to go in the class, they produced all of these gas station bags from the cabinet and gave everyone chips and juice and cookies in honor of my departure. I also got a sweet letter and a weird photo frame...and then another weird photo frame in the next class complete with a row of plastic red chairs flanking the front and a note saying "This is Rina. You not forget me."

And then....freedom. I am here, about 12 hours left to go in the country and time for one last post...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Concerning laying down my mind

That was the title of my 20 hour dip into Buddhism at Myogaksa Temple in Seoul which was lovely, but winding back as usual.....

Last weekend my fellow Whittie an
d theta, Amy Soderquist, graced Daejeon with her cheerful presence for a visit. Friday night, I caught Inception with my friend Tracy. Pros: great idea and I loved the details of dreaming logistics like the kick. Cons: way over-hyped, I was expecting a twist in the end that never happened. The one thing I still wonder about, and if you solve this for me then you're my hero, is in the part where Leo talks with his wife about how they did have their time and grow old together in the world they made and you see two old hands linking with the limbo architecture in the background. BUT, when they go to end limbo, die, and wake up at the train tracks, they're both young. Why?

Anyways, Sat morning Amy came and
we hung out at my place for a bit before making our way to one of Korea's national cemeteries almost at the end of the subway line with Tracy in tow. It was a bit of a trek from the station, I think it was a bit misleading to name it after a landmark that is nearly 20 minutes away but what do I know? It was pretty though, fairly green, surrounded by mountains and with several monuments and obelisks as well. Also, almost every tombstone was decorated in shockingly colorful fake flowers which made for quite the rainbow spread as we walked around. We also saw a huge tribute to Korea's deceased servants and got politely told off for shielding our eyes from the sun with umbrellas in its presence as we were hiding our eyes from their spirits. As a side note, yes this means I've gone Korean and walked around in the sun with an umbrella. In my defense, it's hot. Like, really hot. We hopped a convenient shuttle back to the subway that entirely escaped our notice on the outgoing trip and went to Shi-Chung, or City Hall for a nice lunch of mandu and cupcakes. Amy and I split double chocolate and red velvet. None too shabby. That night, we had galbi which was also delicious and met some friends at a bar downtown. Pretty chill night but pleasant to be sure. The next morning, I took her for her first gimgilbang experience and soaked up the relaxation. I even found this amazing bonus room in the washing area in the locker room that was new to me. I'd never gone in because it was a 75 degree (celcius) steam room and I knew the 60 degree one was quite hot enough for me and with pretty mosaics to boot. However, the hotter one has a small air conditioned water pool inside of it with really gorgeous stone paintings of fish and octopi and seaweed on it. Quite the luxurious find, it felt like the set of a movie save all the old naked women. Amy liked it and I bid her goodbye, very glad to have seen her before I blow this popsicle stand!

The week after she left spanned about an hour until I somehow arrived at that weekend. Friday night, I went back for my final English club meeting. I was really glad to catch up with some of the members and rope them into a potluck I'm throwing this Saturday for some added time with some of my favorite people here. We went for some chicken and then for round 2, we drove like 40 minutes to the edge of the city and had some soju and beer at a random little restaurant. There were only 5 of us and it was very nice and relaxing. They ordered some snacks and I tried abalone (which looks terrifyingly slimy and requires about a thousand chews to subdue) AND a shrimp head. I've only seen people suck shrimp heads in movies about the south and travel shows, much less chew it but I did both. To be fair, I stopped before the eyes but there I was pleasantly surprised...it was crispy, like eating a seafood chip. We sipped and talked until 2 when I decided to be sensible and go home.

Good idea, as I woke up bright and early the next morning to begin my temple stay in Seoul. I navigated some steep little side streets outside the designated subway stop w
ith surprising ease and found the temple about an hour before I had to be there so I went and had a rather disgusting hot dog for lunch. Culinary disappointment aside, I made it back in perfect time and was immediately ushered up into a reception room to change into a grey tunic and harem pants to be worn for the duration of the program. I met some lovely Korean girls who christened me Hye Mi in Korean, or beauty and wisdom. How's that for a first impression? Once everyone was there, we went downstairs to the main program room and all introduced ourselves. It was quite the international group- Korean, of course, plus Swiss, American, French, Polish, Australian, Chinese, Italian, Argentinian, Egyptian and British. Very nice people, I must say. Then, we learned some basic Buddhist philosophy.

One of the biggest truths in Buddhis
m is that everyone and everything is Buddha. Our only job is to respect each other and do our personal best to recognize and wake up our Buddha mind. Being human, there are several things that get in our way. There are six main failings (among them greedy minds, ignorant minds, and angry minds) and six senses (taste, touch, sound, sight, smell, and thought) six times six times three (for past, present, and future) equal 108, the number of all our potential shortcomings. We do prostrations to literally pour out our mind of its impurities and recognize our mistakes...108 to be exact. To do a prostration, you stand straight, bring your palms together in front of your rib cage, sink down to your knees, tuck your toes under your feet, put your right hand down, then your left hand down, touch your forehead to the ground (thereby establishing five points of contact with the earth) and then flip your hands palm upward and lift them a few inches. Then, the hands go back down, you put one prayer bead on a string, the left hand comes up to you chest, followed by the right, and palms touching, you rock back on your heels and stand up slowly. Yep, we did that 108 full times to make a full blown prayer necklace. I literally couldn't walk down stairs, my thigh muscles gave out every other step so I had to stumble down as best I could clutching the rail for support. My legs still K.I.L.L. but it was a cool experience so no regrets here.

After making the beads and finishing the prostrations, we went to the very top of the temple to do a sunset bell striking ceremony. This was a cool one. A nun chanted in a very rich voice and guided us as we used a medium sized log to strike the bell. It was so big that the reverberations literally throbbed with sound in between tolls, it zinged up your arm. After, we went to the main room for a quick evening chanting service. We basically did about 10 prostrations listening to the monks chanting and I appreciated the cool sort of harmonies that they make. It's a lovely sort of music. Then, we went downstairs for dinner which was surprisingly delicious as I heard horror stories. Buddhism absolutely forbids killing any animals so it was strictly vegetarian but nice- tofu soup, zucchini, onion, radish, mushrooms, noodles. Not bad. During the meal, we were not allowed to talk and strictly requested to finish absolutely everything on our plate as any unconsumed food would come back to us in a future life.

After dinner, we were introduced to meditation. First, Yeo-Yeo, our nun guide to the temple stay with the requisite shaved head and flowing grey robes, explained some more about Buddhist principles. Drawing heavily from both Kungfu Panda and Avatar (which cracked me up to no end---this woman
was hilarious and awesome), she explained how our minds needed to embrace the idea of nothing. All of our problems, all of our possessions, our bodies, ultimately came to nothing as they were just lent us for the short space of our lifetime. It is dangerous to attach or fixate on anything outside of yourself because our only real mission is to do the best we can with what's given to us with no mind to result or consequence, that's it. Beyond that, all we can do is trust that things circle back at some unknowable time and that the universe enforces accountability in a way infinitely bigger than ourselves. Interesting thoughts. Then, meditation. Well this was certainly not what I thought....some luxurious, relaxing, languid time set aside for us to lie down with soothing music and think about ourselves. Nope. First, we had to sit in lotus position which is Indian style but with both feet pulled upwards on top of our thighs. I'm 23 and I'm proud to have even managed half lotus. Then, we put our palms down one on top of the other and made a circle with our thumbs, channeling the energy of the universe to the hottest part of our body by our belly button. Then, when the actual meditation started with three clangs of her wooden bamboo switch stick, we could not move a muscle or even look above the spot of floor directly in front of us. And were we supposed to spend the time contemplating ourselves and the universe? Uh-uh. We counted our breaths. I kid you not. The first time, we only did it for 8 minutes and I got to 28. After that, we talked some more and then went to bed on the floor. By Korean standards, it was luxurious though, very cushy bedding and a rice stuffed pillow. However, they didn't turn off the Buddha in the room for the night so it was like sleeping with an overwhelming, golden, blinding night light. Weird to wake up to at 2, let me tell you.

What little sleep I did get (that insomnia thing has not gone away and I've accepted it probably won't until I'm home) ended at the reasonable hour of 4:30 with the sound of the same wooden bamboo switch. We shu
ffled awake, and shuffled back to the top of the temple for the predawn bell striking ceremony, unable to speak. It was kind of cool to hear chanting coming from the main room and then hearing the bell tolling out over the sleeping city. Then, back down to the program room for more meditation. This time, the temple's zen master came down which was cool. He was this old-ish but well preserved monk and it was cool to see how everyone deferred to him. Apparently, he's the head of Buddhism in Korea and is regularly consulted by Korea's president, Lee Myung Bak. Translated by Yeo-Yeo, he told us that you can't climb the Himalayas without preparation and without the right mind, but with the right mind, you can do anything. Very kung-fu movie sensei. Then, we were plunged into 20 minutes of meditation, a 1 minute break, and 20 more minutes. I am proud to say that despite two really intense ear itches and a tired back, I did not move. I did not look up. I breathed 74 times the first session and 72 the second. So boo-yah. As for profound self realizations, they were pretty much nowhere to be found but that wasn't the point. They told us very sternly that it is a form of greed to attempt too much with meditation and no one finds their Buddha mind without lots of practice, but I do suppose it was peaceful in its own right. Little stupid thoughts kept intervening, like how much there is actually to look at in the pattern of wood grains, but I kept counting, I did not look up and I did not move. Interesting. I especially didn't want to move or be the one to cough or anything because they told us they bang the bamboo switch on anyone who fell asleep or was too restless and it doesn't necessarily hurt but it's loud so it disturbs everyone else and informs the room you're thoughts have strayed. They didn't end up using it but the zen master stayed for our meditation so no way was I going to be that person who couldn't sit still.

After the meditation, we went for a walk on a little hill behind the temple. It's one of three surrounding Chongwadae (presidential house, remember?) and so part of the feng shui of ancient Korea. By then, it was about 7 and it was already sticky and slightly uncomfortable towards the end. There was a nice portion where we were supposed to slowly walk and identify and pour out our flaws, relaxing. Then, breakfast. This one was more of a struggle because even though I've been h
ere for a year, I'm still not used to eating the exact same food for breakfast as the other meals, despite my long relationship with day old pizza. We had a very similar menu to the night before and it was far from gross, just weird at that time of day. After a break, we had a traditional tea ceremony. THIS was cool. The ritual is really precise. First, you pour hot water in the tea pot, swish it out, and dump it in the waste bowl to cleanse it. Turn over the tea cups. Then, you pour hot water in the preparation bowl and do the same thing, followed by the tea cups. Pour more hot water into the bowl. Then, you put two and a half scoops of tea in the tea pot, swish and quickly dump it into the waste bowl to wash the dust from the tea. Then, fill the bowl with hot water and pour that hot water into the tea pot from a decent height to produce the bubbly, aerated sound. While it brews, grab the three tea cups with tongs and stack them inside the bowl. Fill it with hot water until it spills over the lip of the third cup over the second and first to the bottom of the bowl. Then, turn the third cup over on its axis and spin the rim through the water now collected in the second cup, shake it off, and put it on its saucer. Repeat for the second and first cups and dump the water. Then, pour the tea into the bowl so it mixes properly. Fill the first cup a third of the way, the second cup a third of the way, and the third cup a third of the way, then fill the third cup the rest of the way, the second cup the rest of the way, and the first cup the rest of the way, to ensure everyone gets tea of comparable quality. The "tea master" (which was me) hands a cup to the most honored guest first, usually the adult male, who takes it with both hands and raises it up and then down to thank the tea master. The rest of the cups are handed out, the tea master is thanked, then the tea master tells everyone to enjoy it. Then the guests have to say how wonderful it is. Although it's still not my first choice to curl up on a rainy afternoon, green tea is growing on me and I enjoyed the ceremony. It is one of the few things monks and nuns will splurge on, this was expensive stuff.

After that, we were done and I changed back and headed out to Insadong to pick up some last stuff- a bracelet of mini Bhuddist prayer beads with the year of the rabbit for when I was born, and metal chopsticks in anticipation of the delicious stir-fries and ramen I'll make when I get home.

All in all, despite my absolutely aching thigh muscles (even two days out), this was well worth doing. If I came to any personal conclusions, it was that I could do with thinking about nothing more and letting go. I think too much. I need to analyze less and trust. Anyways, it was also a nice feeling to realize how at home I felt in Seoul. There was no anxiety whatsoever navigating myself to the temple, being on my own, or hopping a bus back and I remember how far from that I felt when I first came months ago. How could I have described the subway system as a heap of worms? It's the easiest thing to navigate in the world. As predicted, just in time to leave, I've found my bit of peace here.

This also applies to food. Realizing I now have less than two wees left I've tried to not eat foreign food as much. Good choice. I've had a lot of bibimpop and mandu and tried some new stuff. Donkatsu is a fried pork cutlet filled with cheese and tastes like a Korean mozeralla stick. YUM, so glad I didn't discover that until now because that would not have been good for my health. Tonight I also picked up a tofu soup that was mild and nice and I also tried oma (mommy) rice, which is fried rice with veggies wrapped in an omelet with a sauce on top. Heavy but also not bad. I plan on having more and again, I find it tragic and ironic that I finally lose my fear of Korean food just in time to go back go burgers and fries. Ah well.

So, 2 weeks to go. Can't wait to come home. My big sister Caitlin just got engaged this week so I should be arriving in the thick of quite the bustle. Feelings are getting more mixed, Hannah (one of my 7 years) has now started quietly hugging my arm and hopping in my lap almost every class when she's done and despite me teaching her for 6 months, she only started this after I announced my departure so every time it breaks my heart. She's a perceptive one and I think she understands and feels more than she lets on....this will be quite the transition and I'll be sure to let you all in on every sappy stage of it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Concerning things I kind of won't miss

OK, I have to air them...the year's worth of little grievances that have festered under my skin, and fine, that have occasionally been given voice in this blog. Don't worry, the sappy, bittersweet parting from my host country and all that it has unexpectedly come to be to me is coming right around the corner but this is my chance at some details before the rose colored glasses of departure and distance become welded into place. Here we go.

Public spitting, especially the prodigious hawking employed by gross old men who sound like they are choking and vomiting at the same time. I've had to frequently dodge pools in the street, this is not a pretty habit.

Being absolutely in real danger of losing my life every time I walk on the street. Llllleeeeaarrrn to drive, people. And, let me say that every time my Dad made an ironic joke about the Asian inability to work a car just to rile me up I was suitably rankled back home, but it's absolutely true. A Korean friend recently asked, in a dead pan voice, what checking your blind spot really does like it's an appendix or something. To be fair, it's because Korea's only had a motor culture for about 50 years whereas our laws have had twice as long to keep pace with the growth. But, all the same, this country hasn't figured out yet that a car can't die but a person, in fact, can.

Vanity. Men in salons artfully twisting every little hair into place and women obsessing about small features and maintaining perfectly white skin beneath their umbrellas. Korea, you've already got great genes. This is going to be harsh, but stop trying to make yourself look western, you never will be and you undermine your own culture and beauty by doing it.

Being gawked at everywhere I go. I am a person. I'm really boring. I look like death in the mornings, I have a weakness for bad TV, and I probably didn't shave my legs the day you were looking at me. THIS is not the recipe for a celebrity.

Lingering sexism. Soko, wake up. Women are not defined by their ability to bear children. In a marriage, a husband never calls his wife by her name but after their kids are born, she is known as 'Name's Mother'. Nor does their professional capability end with dressing up in a tight secretary uniform. Korea barely ranks above Saudi Arabia in terms of women's rights and I have to say, not so surprised.

Aesthetic over-embellishment. Everything here is sequined, bedazzled, lit up, dipped in frosting and covered with a Christmas bow. Quality is sacrificed for glitz, in architecture, shops are gutted in days and as long as it looks OK, business continues as usual. The classic, the simple, the elegant, the understated have all been outshone by the flashing neon lights.

Hypochondria. Korea, a sinus infection does not require 16 pills a day. A cut does not need a legion of antibiotics. A bump, bruise, ache, or pain is all a natural function of the body. It was built to deal with this stuff, so let it. You won't die, promise.

Literally thousands upon thousands of apartment buildings with no variation whatsoever. That, more than anything, drives the ruthless anonymity of Korea home. This all feeds into a latent and cultural hive mentality that settles into the very concrete, same same same. It's not wrong but it rubs against the grain of the fierce individuality that my culture has taught me to value.

It's on the wrong side of the Pacific! This is probably my biggest beef...it's not home. And that actually says a lot to how much I did eventually like it here that this was the most serious and lasting problem that I had with this country.

As I said, Korea has won my grudging respect and even affection in a number of ways that will get explored at emotional and contemplative length very shortly. These are just my personal little pet peeves and I hope they aren't given more weight than I mean to assign them. But, I'd be lying if I said I fell in love with everything about where I've been for the last year, so this is an honest parting snap shot of some of its foibles.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Concerning Jeju-do

Well the bulk of my summer vacation was spent on Korea's main holiday destination, Jeju Island. Right after work on Monday evening, I had the brilliant idea to spend the night in Gimpo International Airport. Unfortunately, I did not follow my thoughts through enough to realize that the comforting hoards of layover-ing travelers would be through security when I would not. This led to a somewhat hairy moment of me being by myself in the international terminal, not a traveler to be found, when they entirely shut off the lights. Cue a brief moment of panic, followed by a speedy retreat to a nearby cab and a plea for any and all nearby cheap motels. Luckily the guy found one easily enough and (despite fixating on a story my friend told me about a guy coming in her hotel room at 3 in the morning somewhere in South Korea) got a few hours of sleep before the morning. I made my way back to the airport and immediately found my group. There were a lot of single travelers in the same boat as I was so within 5 minutes I was deep in conversation. Before we even took off, I had my 3 roommates lined up.

The flight was surprisingly uneventful and thankfully did not live up to horror stories I've heard of aborted landings and such. True, that episode happened in winter time but I was very happy to have smooth sailing. Or flying. After a quick lunch of Jeju black pork (because the pig is black...) we immediately went to Udo, or Cow Island because apparently the very random squiggly horizon looks like a prostrate cow. I just think someone must have been in the grips of quite the craving when they named it because to my eyes, there was nary a bovine feature to be found. We walked up this bluff to a lighthouse and had some nice views of the ocean and grassy meadows and neat, tidy fields bounded by tottering rock walls. These walls were a favorite of mine because despite the fact that these islands are famous for their wind, they look so precariously balanced and delicate as to be pray to the gentlest passing breeze. And yet they stand. Very cute. After walking back down, we saw a white coral beach filled with what looked like popcorn kernels from far but what my guide termed as "monkey brains" up close. Yes, we stole some for good measure. Then, we stopped at a beach nearby and attempted to sunbathe in the midst of a light rain. But, it being monsoon season, the rain wasn't cold and it wasn't as miserable as it sounds.

Then, we hopped a ferry back home. A funny note is that the "ferry position," referring to the time honored maritime nap tradition practiced by my parents in the San Juans, is apparently quite international. In fact, that boat didn't even have seats but just a long wooden floor where people were spread out in all degrees of disarray. Funny. After a weird but passable international buffet, we were shown to our 4 star hotel. 4 star might be slightly debatable...I did see 4 indiscriminate flowers on a plaque where we entered but I am not sure that a hotel with neon day-glow table runners, plastic orchids, no shower curtain, and one person on the floor per room is quite up to the Ritz. BUT, it was right on the most gorgeous beach and from what I've seen here it could be much much worse so I was far from disappointed. Especially as I won the coin flip and missed out on the floor. That first night we were so so tired we just brought a beer back to the room, watched Angels and Demons, and passed out.

The next day started around 11:30 after we all dragged ourselves out of bed. Everything began with lunch, as well as a few pictures by some Harubang Statues which are the symbols of Jeju. Since way back when, they've been at the entrance of every village to guard them against evil spirits. If the right hand is above the left, it is a warrior for defense and if the left hand is above the right, it is a scholar for wisdom. Then we began our day. First, we went to the O'Sullock Tea Farm. Now, as far as untamed beauty Boseon outshone it with its lush green hills that fairy steam with productivity, but was a nice place nonetheless. They had a great selection of old tea cups and we got to try a prized varietal of young leaf tea. I also really liked smelling all of the different infusions that they came up with, my favorite was chocolate green tea. All in all, I liked learning more about it and it complemented my more raw introduction to the process quite nicely. Next, we walked part of the Olleh Trail. We saw some pretty wind-beaten cliffs and ambled along the coast for a while at a really leisurely pace. After a bit we made our way down to a beach where we saw man made caves used to store weapons from the Japanese during WW2. ALLLLL along these caves, and in fact everywhere even remotely by the beach, there were these collosal Jeju island beetle roaches which were really hairy and scuttled everywhere. I had many close calls and narrow escapes, especially as I did not care to have any of my island food supplemented with any extra protein...

After walking, we went by "Ghost Road" which sounds so cheezy but is in fact a convincing optical illusion of a bus drifting uphill. Our driver cut the gas and the bus definitely kept going, it was worth it. Then, on to Love Land. Oh, Love Land. In all the places of the world to have a Sex Park, it would of course be Korea haha. Well, it was actually more entertaining than I thought it would be. I mean sure, there's not much variety after the 144th penis and the 1,893rd sexual position but it reeeeeally broke the ice quickly with my group. There was one unfortunate moment when I was posing on this giant mosaic penis to take a picture when I saw an old man gesture towards his friends and start sprinting towards me. This is when I kept smiling and started frantically muttering "takethepictureTAKEthepictureTAKETHEPICTURE" to my friend but alas, he turned out to be a spry one and got there too soon. He just sidled up behind me, lay down, and the picture was taken. I was off but he proceeded to follow us around the park, a funny extension of the local decor...all in all, harmless and pretty funny.

After Love Land, we had another dinner and got back to the hotel. Everyone took a short breather and then got some drinks and met each other on the beach. This night was one to remember, it was really fun and definitely felt like being young. A giant circle of the best friends in the world who of course were basically perfect strangers. Midnight swims. Random conversations. Beer. Nothing scandalous happened, it just was so nice to get to know everyone and it seemed like the entire group mostly clicked very well.

The next morning, we had a quick jaunt through a hedge maze before we headed off to one of the biggest lava tubes in the world. For my money, Mt. St. Helens was more of an adventure (as it did involve search and rescue haha) but it was fun to amble along. I always love the perfect darkness of a cave, and this one even had the great drippy sounds to add to the atmosphere. It even kind of started in this tropical hole with vines growing over the edges which was cool and you could feel the incredible heat dissipate with each step down. After, we went on a nice hike to the crater of a little has-been volcano. The weather was lovely and we saw some funny wood carvings on the way up. Once the true hiking began, it was brutal and relentless until you were at the very spine of the ridge, obedient to its country, but I kept up just fine and the top was pretty enough, if distinctly un-craterish with its trees.

Then, beach time. Our beach had a couple of great sand bars so we got some sun, went swimming, grabbed dinner at a beach-side restaurant, and had another communal evening. It was really fun, lots of good memories to be had, one more great midnight swim, and then the next morning, after a bit more sun, it was time to head back. I am sad I only got a few days with these people, they were so much fun and I deem the trip an undisputed success. Even when, as the result for running from a cold for two weeks and flying twice in the middle of that, I came down with a sinus infection. More to come though! Love!!

Becks

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Concerning the End of the World

My but it's been a busy week. Last Saturday, a couple of coworkers and I went on a pretty epic road trip down to the Joalla province on the southern most tip of Korea. Saturday started at the obscene hour of 5 to get going on the road. We got a few hours under our belt before making our first stop at Meta sequoia Road which is basically an avenue with trees and then hitting up an amazing bamboo forest. It was just like the movie "House of Flying Daggers" because literally everywhere you looked was green- the stalks, the leaves, the air. It was lush and really lovely. We did a little bamboo reflexology trail and had some fun strolling around.

After a few more hours in the car, we made it to Boseong which is famous for it's green tea farms. This became a definite theme. We broke for lunch and had delicious green tea inflused nang-myeon which is a cold noodle soup with egg and vegetables. Mmmmmm. Then, on to the fields. These were stunning, neat hedgerows of tea lining dramatic slopes, green stripes in the very fertile and very green landscape. We trekked up the hill and wandered through the bushes for a while and took it in. FYI- if you haven't had it, green tea is nutty and bitter and not meant to be sweet but it still does make for delicious ice cream, which we used to cool off after our little jaunt. The weather certainly decided to cooperate for us, as we had no rain but my God, it's monsoon season and you never forget it. We only walked for maybe 20-30 minutes but my shirt was soaked through with the sticky heat. The only suitable follow up to that was the beach so off we went.

As it turns out, this beach left some things to be desired. It turned out to be more of a mud flat with some sand attached but we had a bit of fun squelching through it. That is, until we decided on a whim to try out a banana boat. Given the fact that our driver was certifiably insane, it could have been worse. As it is, he viciously and purposely whipped us off the raft on a sharp turn and my shin collided with something and came away with a spectacular rainbow of a bruise that is still making a brave show a week on. However, the real show stopper was that my lower left jaw collided with m
y friend's leg hard enough to reverberate through my face and bruise the bones at the top of my right jaw, under my ear. Within 20 mins I swelled up enough that chewing wasn't really an option. When he saw I was a bit hurt, he decided to give us a free boat ride. Now I'm comfortable in water and reeeeally love going fast in speed boats but he was keeling over so much all of us were clutching the sides and he flooded the engine three times. THEN, as we were getting into the dock, we saw an unconscious guy lying in the company loading area so our driver jumps off of the boat (which is still on) to go check on him, leaving us still in it. After getting CPR for a bit and then having a grand mal seizure, the guy was OK and they laughed it off as him having drunk too much the night before as we found out AFTER we managed to turn the boat off and somehow get it back to the dock. Not the most restful 10 minutes I've ever had and I remain distinctly unimpressed by some of Korea's safety measures. So, after hanging out a bit, we got back into the car and drove to the very southern point of the mainland country (the town is literally called World's End) after getting me really strong ibuprofin for my dysfunctional jaw. We were all starving so after getting a minbok room (basically you get a shower, a mat, and a floor but at least it's cheap) we had a traditional dinner of rice and fish and sides. I have to say, I'm really looking forward to having seafood again back home because though I love fish, I most distinctly do NOT love fish that has been cooked whole, complete with skin, bones, head and tail. Nope.

Regardless, we slept a bit and woke up early the next day. After a quick breakfast, we took a monorail up to see an observatory and got some great views of the ocean, it was really pretty to see the islands and the trees. We also took a lot of stairs down to the physical southern most point. Then, we got in the car and managed to find a really cute and sandy little beach perfect for swimming. So, we stayed abo
ut an hour before heading back. Despite a faulty GPS, getting lost, freaking INSANE Korean driving that made me afraid for my life, and 8 hours worth of time, we did get home in fine form and I had a legitimately fun weekend. It was really satisfying just being in the car, listening to music and having a good time with everyone.

Due to extraordinarily bad timing, I fell ill the second I got home, just in time to wake up the next morning, go to work, and then STRAIGHT on to Jeju Island....

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Concerning a great overnight to Seoul

Winding backwards, last weekend was a lovely and quiet rest. I enjoyed some relaxing moments with friends, finished a 1200 page book that I'd been chipping away at for some time and entirely devoured another in the space of 3 hours. It was a fluffy Nora Roberts romance novel but it was the perfect mental snack food to munch on for a time, complete with a Christmas proposal from the modest carpenter turned secret billionaire at the end. Perfect. I must say, I love it when a book forces me to do mental yoga and stretch my muscles by seeing something new but sometimes I equally love a mindless screen saver escape. Delightful. I don't know why but I've been more ravenous for books than usual lately; after I finished that one, I'm already half way through "Thorn Birds" in not even a week's time. It's a tangible comfort to me that even if I don't land my perfect job that somehow miraculously uses my connection to lit or language, it is such an easy thing to keep in my life. I have a perpetual "to read" list and the day that I complete it is the day I die, haha. So that was nice and a big mental refreshment.

My workweeks have been absol
utely flying by ever since I hit the 10 week mark. 10 flew to 9, raced to 8 and catapulted into 7 so here we are. Work's fine though I think it's starting to slightly sink in that I'm leaving...partially because I've been talking about it more lately. It's adorable, Hannah (very smart, in my 7 yr UCLA class) always preferred my partner teacher to me even though she was always happy and affectionate and cheerful regardless. But, the last two weeks she's been a barnacle at my side from the moment I set foot in the classroom. If I'm correcting the kid's workbooks, she's there quite literally clinging to my arm, not even saying anything, just hanging on to me and seeing what I'm doing. I think it's because I'm going because twice when she's been like that she's said "Becky Teacher don't go" which is slowly breaking my heart from the inside out. I don't want to upset the kids but I also know from watching all of my very capable and loved foreign predecessors leave that they bounce back with almost shocking speed. So, for the moment, it's nice to feel appreciated and loved.

Friday night, Tracy and I hopped a bus to
Seoul. We dropped our stuff at the hostel, got some milk shakes and burger king, and wandered around the Cheonggyecheonno Stream (yep spelled correctly) which was pretty at night. The relationship between the temperature and the humidity gets a bit challenging during the day but the nights are really pleasant to walk in, balmy and comfortable. We collapsed back to the hostel and had a solid night's rest that was abruptly ended when I realized we had overslept. So, we scrAAAAAmbled to the subway, through a transfer to Gyeongbokgong Station. The only directions we had was that it was "in the parking lot adjacent to the palace" but the problem is that not only is the palace enormous but under construction. So, we breathlessly pleaded directions from the palace info booth who confusingly waved us through the palace...so through the palace we went, sprinting and dodging tourists left and right before finally getting to our bus 15 minutes late and not a minute to spare.

We then had a cute, free tour of Cheong Wa Dae, or "The Blue House" so named for its Arabically tinted (and regal) blue shingles. Lee Myung Bak, the Korean President, lives and works there. We saw the press room (interesting because this guy's not exactly known for free speech given that he has both banned candlelight marches AND is seeking to nationalize all media companies), a sumptuous lawn and garden, the Blue House itself, and a guest house. Some of the buildings struck me as very weird, adhering to old Korean architectural motifs but with new construction materials, to confusing effect. Imagine the same swinging roof eaves and sloped roofs. Imagine the same legendary mythical figures perched on the gables, protecting the buildings (note- Cheong Wa Dae is the only building in Korea to have all 11 animals protecting it, a sign of it's vital importance. Even Gyeongbokgong has only 9.), imagine the rice paper wooden lattice patterns. Now imagine all that in concrete. As I said...weird. Bullet proof history. Anyway, it was well worth the free admission and we got a free ceramic mug to boot. Woohoo!

After that we were both starving from our lack of breakfast so we had Dunkin Doughnuts followed by an impromptu and thorough jaunt through the Sejongno Square fountains. Had I swam in a pool, I would have been drier and every bit of my clothes from head to toe were soaked. However, given the July weather it was really refreshing. We then went to Myeongdong, I bought a new shirt and shoes, and then we saw Nanta which is Stomp but with kitchen utensils. Cute and pretty funny.

After the show, we schlepped a few subway stops away to get the first good Mexican meal I've had here. There was guacamole. There was a strawberry margarita. There was a chicken burrito. There were rice and beans. Happy. Becky.

Today I've been lazy, worn out from our packed overnight. I watched TV, read, cleaned the tiniest of bits and then went to treat myself to Eclipse. I don't care what the reviews said, I loved it. I did find two things funny: 1.) That apparently Seattle has both hurricane rains and blizzard snows that I've somehow missed for 23 years and 2.) That all of the sudden the Cullens all have their own little accents that came from nowhere. Other than that, a toe-curlingly successful afternoon.

LOTS to come, I promise. Stay tuned and for those of you keeping count, 7 weeks to go. Mwah!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Concerning... Monsoon Season

Hello monsoon season, nice to meet you. Well folks, I'm not in a temperate Seattle faux summer, that's for sure. This last week, the air gained all the weight of a wrecking ball and it hasn't really gotten below the 80s in my recent memory. Mostly I've transitioned pretty well, the heat isn't really something new (I haven't even thought of a jacket for 2 months) and the humidity hasn't done much save poofing my hair something fierce. So far, still alive and kicking with the help of a fan and my AC. This week fuh-LEW by, being the dreaded last of session, so I was happily occupied in a flurry of standard evaluations, syllabi, and test taking, ever mindful I only have to go through those little motions two more times. Thursday, we had a field trip to a potato farm and the kids hoed and pulled and rummaged to their heart's content. I also snagged a few por moi and made some pretty fabulous home-made hash-browns to accompany a veggie scramble. Mmmm-mmm. Man, I love cooking when it actually yields something good.

Friday night was chill, I went and watched the Brazil (or Bradjil in the local dialect) vs. Portugal world cup game...and was kind of bored to tears by the 0-0 outcome. Oh well, the Becks beer was nice. Saturday, I talked to the parents and met my friend Ella downtown. We shopped and then grabbed some dinner at an "Italian" restaurant that served everything from pasta to pilaf to fried chicken salad...all with a side of kimchi and pickles. Of course. It was tasty enough though, if in a rag tag kind of way, and we walked around some more dodging the sporadic (yet somehow still torrential) rain. To dry off, we headed into a cute coffee shop where we had a little room to ourselves, in the typical Korean style so often found in bars, karaoke rooms, and...well, coffee shops. I had a tasty strawberry smoothie. That night, I did some laundry and watched the Korea vs. Uruguay game which was fun while it was a tie but alas, ultimately dashed all of Soko's aspirations to glory. When they did score, I heard an ambient rumble pass through my apartment building. Sometimes, like that one weird blog post I did about the "artery road" outside my window, it seems like the country is sort of alive around me, a many headed organism. I think that feeling of hyper connectedness just comes from everyone living in suuuuuch close quarters. And a shared passion for soccer. Today was also low key- I slept AMAAAAZINGLY last night, worked out this morning, read my book for hours, and then met a friend for Indian. Not too shabby at all.

Time update: 2 more months come tomorrow or 9 more weeks as of yesterday aaaaand ...home. Yes I'll be distraught with leaving my kids (they've already begun to mob me with cries of "Becky Teacher NOT go!") and my friends and even my little apartment but yes I'll also be somewhat manic to set foot on my home soil. And to have that Red Robin whiskey river BBQ chicken wrap with steak fries and ranch sauce. And a peach milkshake....

Monday, June 21, 2010

Concerning...goodbye 22, hello... something.

As I've explained before, age ra-heeeally becomes just a number because of the weird Korean counting systems so numerically, my birthday wasn't that big of a milestone. When I left the US, I was 22 and immediately upon entering Korea, I added a year to reflect the Korean consideration of the time in the womb, deeming any newborn automatically one year old. Then, January 1st, I added another year along with the rest of Korea. So in four months I went from 22 to 24. Given that, going from 22 to 23 to 24 somewhere back to 22 in my mind and now firmly landing on 23 didn't give the extra year much punch.

Age loop-di-loops aside, I did have a pretty nice birthday. Despite this, the build up was not entirely pleasant and in fact I was somewhat dreading the day but my kids started the weekend off on a good note. UCLA gave me all sorts of great gifts, including hello kitty pens, a 5 inch barbie cell phone charm, a hand painted fan and other assorted nick-nacks. Brown wasn't as in tune to the day which made it all the more endearing when Irene came up behind me, put her little arms around my waist (I was sitting down) and said "Becky Teacher, happy birthday to you." ALL KINDS OF ADORABLE, I'm telling you. After lunch, another one of my kids gave me a card wishing me a "Happy Bathday" but the real icing on the cake was my 4:00 remedial class. I'm not that close with them because their English is at a super low level, like I've taught them almost everything they know, and so I can't communicate very freely with them. And, there's only 4 kids. However, they quite literally rendered me speechless when I walked into the room and the lights were out, a candle-bedecked cake waiting at my place on the desk, with cute little presents around. They popped out from under the desk and exploded confetti at me while yelling "Happy Birthday" and I had to fight not to cry. They got me this huge, violently pink, ribbon and bow festooned rose, another cell phone charm, and a little chair tea light candle holder. Beyond words. Then, my last class, one of my favorite 11 year olds threw me a paper airplane note that exactly read:

From Becky Theacher
Theacher, Becky teacher, Happy birthday! Today is your school birthday. Today anything is yours. I not have your gift. I'm sorry. But I am very like you. Happ birthday!
(Really big heart)
To Chris

Oh my god. These kids have melted me down to levels of my soul that I didn't know existed. Right now, through the steadily growing excitement of going home eventually, I am slowly realizing it's bittersweet. It was obvious in England that I'd leave a part of my heart there but my attachments to my students here have been slower and more subtle in their development. I didn't know they were under my skin until they were there to stay. That will be a definite tug when I do leave.

That night, we went to Level Eks for the first time in a month and it ended up just being me and 5 Koreans going out to fried chicken. They found out it was going to be my birthday and also surprised me with a cake, and sang happy birthday. It was so sweet and it totally reminded me of that scene in "A Christmas Story" when the waiters are trying to sing Jingle Bells on Christmas. Hilarious and so heart warming, despite the indecipherable lyrics.

Then to the actual day. Knowing me, and how my homesick heart refuses to deny one moment of nostalgic twangs, it of course had to start with the teary phone calls back home but once those were over and kleenex firmly thrown away, the fun could begin. Well, after cleaning my apartment, mopping, fixing a light-bulb, getting groceries, and a shower. That done, I went to a BBQ for my friend Chad whose birthday is two days after mine and had a little too much fun with some water-guns from his roof. That, and yummy sangria. After dinner there, a friend and I went back to my place for some wine and Sex and the City to get ready for our night.

We went out to a local foreigner bar which was so much fun, we had about 3 tables combined for Chad and myself. Another friend got me a cake (4 and counting- work also got one for me) which was so sweet. That, combined with the flaming unidentified shot that I drank out of some kind of citrus-y fruit equaled a haaaaappy Becky who was well into the festivities. We went out dancing at a club nearby and it was so so so much fun, everyone kind of let loose and popped a move. There were also an inordinate amount of attractive Koreans, or maybe that was the screwdrivers. In any event, much fun was had. I made it back to my apartment in time to see the sun rise and plop in bed.

Sunday was mostly spent sleeping, after which I went out to dinner with another friend and had an early-ish night. Work is good, winding up the June session and as I said last post, no matter how much I try to live in the moment, my mind will not release its grip on the countdown. We're almost at 2 months now, in case anyone was wondering. Love!!

Becky the Birthday Girl

PS- Sorry for the lack of pics, I'll try and remedy that one of these days.
PPS- Thanks to all who sent along birthday messages, they were so appreciated and did a lot to get me in a festive mood!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Concerning freak outs

Ooooh my but this was a dicey week, but let me retrospectively assure all of my readers that all is well. Work-wise we have started bi-weekly outdoor gym days for the summer, which means for the first three periods after lunch we go to Hanbat Park and frolic around. Half of the teachers go each time which means every month, I go once and one morning I have completely off which is lovely. The first time I was up, however, so we trecked out into the crystal blue morning on our meandering and geographically nonsensical way to a grassy patch in the park. We played a ton of games including red rover, duck duck goose (the runaway hit of the kindergarten world), and freeze tag (IMPOSSIBLE to teach to non-native 5 year old English speakers). I got a welcome bit of color and was pleasantly tired after we got back.

Last weekend was a bit on the relaxed side. Friday night I went out to a baseball game with my friends from work, Daejeon Haenwa (I think) against some Seoul team. It was an adorable little stadium, a quarter the capacity of Safeco, and we got some chicken from outside the door, grabbed some beers, and strapped in. Sports wise it was humiliating, we got beat 8 to 2, but it was fun to compare cultures. I would definitely say that Americans can be more raucous, booing and shouting to their hearts content. However, Koreans are way more coordinated and attuned to the game. They all had the plastic, blow up bangers and the two cheerleaders (in tanks, white gloves, and jean skirts) would lead them in elaborate chants and routines that everyone knew. Maybe I underestimate how many English nothings I can roll out at a ball park but they had a really impressive repetoire that incorporated different and personalized beats for each player. Wow. There was also a couple who got engaged, he fully bowed to the ground in front of her, she said yes, and got a tepid pat-on-the-back hug until the crowd made them kiss. Once. Like a peck. All I can say is that will not be me, haha. Food-wise, fried chicken and pizza could be brought in from outside, but you could by any convenience store style snack along the perimeter, along with coal grilled squid, fries, and dok bokki (thick rice pasta) which I have come to like. My taste buds have finally submitted to the garlicy spice.

Saturday began my unfortunate streak of days. Mom and I missed our morning phone call which got me in a bad mood and then there was a lot of confusion surrounding the summer vacation. Basically, southeast Asia is not a good option for a 6 day jaunt in a time when I can't even politically go to Thailand, so that's out. I was going to find somewhere else with my coworkers (hence my 4 hour jaunt around Daejeon with said friends in search of a travel agent who turned out to be absolutely useless) but both of them had admittedly legitimate things come up which bound them elsewhere. So, it's looking like it's me. What did briefly cheer me was the discovery of an Adventure Korea trip to Jeju that leaves during my break and hits all the major places with beach time to spare so that would be a perfect way to have fun as a solo. It's a big milestone though- first trip my myself, eek!

Anyways, the thought did attempt to lift my mood before my computer went belly up. It wouldn't start and safe mode did absolutely nothing, always stalling on the same screen. So, I basically had a level 5 meltdown because it has skype and so is essentially my means of communication back home, my entire entertainment (for two reasons- 1.) even I cannot solely live off of books for two and a half months and 2.) I desperately plugged in the old TV in my closet to discover all of 5 channels, all in Korean), and my sanity. So, there were a few dark days in the middle where everything was a bit up in the air, compounded by the lack of contact with my family and this did not make for a composed, sedate Becky. Frazzled doesn't even begin to describe it.

Anyways, thank God for Korean copyright laws, because I finally gave in and dropped my computer off at this little stall in a nearby techie mall, and for 20 bucks, a day later they installed windows 7 and barely 15 minutes of formatting gave me a fully functional and personalized computer! My baby lives again! So that was resolved and I am making it a definite goal to try and incorporate the zen principles of Buddhism into my thought processes against future freak outs. I am even planning a temple stay, haha.

Anyways, much much better now. Looking forward to a nice, packed weekend, and then my birthday in a week!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Concerning coming to term(s)

The title is a bad pun...I've been here nine months! This week was hit by a snaggle as I became a newly initiated insomniac. Ick. I've always been really solid with sleep and it definitely messed with my head to have that disrupted. From about Sunday night to Wednesday night, I would drift into a very light daydream-y sleep for hours and hours until I would finally get from one to three hours of decent REM before the morning. Not awful, I managed to mostly keep a good mood, but Thursday I waved the white flag when I came down with a sore throat. That night I seriously went to bed at 9 and didn't move for 11 hours and while I didn't sleep that whole time, I finally accumulated a solid amount. This weekend I also caught up a bit. I'm not normal yet, it still takes me forever to settle into really thick sleep but I'm at least reassured that it's not serious.

This weekend, probably from resting up, was relaxed. Friday night I caught Prince of Persia which was the best bad movie I've seen in a while. I certainly enjoyed Jake Gyllenhall's abs but my friend and I were reduced to giggling hysterics by the clumsy script and plot. I was really entertained though and I suppose there's little difference between laughing at and with a movie, it was a success. Saturday morning I had a much needed skype convo with my momma and then met my friend downtown for a Thai massage. First, they served me shockingly blue tea in these awesome elephant tea cups, and then on to the main event. It was bliss, very different from the tried and true Swedish variety. For one, they had me wear these PJ type things. I later found out their practicality for two reasons. One, my massage was in a room with four other people. Two, it was basically sport yoga without any of the effort- my masseuse contorted my body into positions the like of which I will likely never experience again and woke up muscles previously dormant and innocuous. So not quite a nakie environment. It also involved little massage perse, it was more lots and lots of pressure points (with amazing kung-fu like agility and strength I might add- she put one finger on one little point on my shoulder blade and it felt like my whole back imploded) and lOTS of stretching. At points, it bordered on painful and I bad to definitely breathe deeply but my worked my body well and I was relaxed so job done. And only 50 bucks for an hour. I might do that again before I leave, who knows.

After that, my friend and I went and got some delicious steam pork buns and decided we wanted to go for a drive. We went out of the city, past Yuseong, past the National Cemetary (where the Cheonan victims are buried by the way), past Donghaksa, to this little artist village. It was sheer nirvana to get out of the city, I always feel like a drowning man clutching at straws when finally get a shot at fresh air and green. There was a sharp chill in the otherwise balmy city air which totally made it feel like Seattle and between that, the rolling lush emerald hills, reflective rice paddies, and delicious quiet, it was lovely.

Today I got up and worked out, and then had a picnic with my friend. We attempted to rent bikes and go down to the river only to be entirely thwarted by the very complicated renting machine. Oh well, we walked around Government Complex and ate to the very civilized background of classical music coming from the Art Center. There was quite literally no cloud in the sky and it was robin's egg blue. We popped into this dinky little museum and saw some bizarre art supposedly about the sense of humor (there was lots of poop memorabilia...) and then lay down on some benches to soak up the sun and the breeze. I got my first little shade of summer color and then took a very necessary and very heavy two hour Sunday afternoon nap. Mmm mmmm.

Regarding the summer vacation update, the latest decision is Jeju Island. We were going to go to Laos or Vietnam but I just realized it would be a poor replacement to Thailand (because of the protest instability...) and I'd rather go back and do that area properly when I have a few weeks. This way I can thoroughly cross Korea off of my list. Also, recently the predictable homesickness has popped back up but nothing I can't handle. I credit mom and dad with holding it off for two months, impressive and much appreciated.

I also had a nice talk with Shayna tonight and we had a very interesting and appealing revelation about my time here. I was joking that my year in Korea didn't "fix me" as promised, delivering the perfect career and life path that I probably did half-expect upon coming here. To be fair, I was still in the blind panic of graduation and the crippling indecision of infinite possibilities in August so it's understandable I craved that from my year here. Well, Korea didn't fix my indecision but I realized it did start to fix my outlook. I'm slightly different, I'm more relaxed to let the journey take me where it will and I'll find my way in time. I've had to battle so many things this year that being scared about my future just sort of fell to the wayside somewhere. I'm not saying it's completely anxiety-free but I'm at peace with it. So that's well worth knowing and a nice, satisfying development to see in myself.

As these reflections might hint, things have taken a turn in my mind towards the end. I tried to resist it but I can't shake the thought that I'm finally there, the home stretch, the last quarter, less than 90 days and then...

Well, not quiet "then" yet. Lots of adventure to be had, still chances to "love the reeling midnight through" in these summer months. Bye for now!! :)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Concerning Buddha's Birthday















Last week, on Sunday, I went to Seoul for the Lantern Festival, honoring Buddha's birthday which is May
21st every year. The first stop we made was at Bongeunsa which I think is the biggest temple in Seoul and it was amazing, its entire courtyard was covered in a red and white paper lantern ceiling, a riot of color and celebration. We walked around the grounds, saw a cool big Buddha statue and sat for a time inside the temple itself, watching people muttering and rocking while fingering their way through a strand of prayer beads (reminiscent of a Catholic rosary) and going through the motions of prostrating bows. It was kind of interesting to have that part of the temple- complete with a pervading scent of incense and profundity- interact with the loud colors and the cheerful crowds of the holidays, jostling outside in front of the domineering Seoul skyline. In an adjacent building, we saw a lantern exhibition which was stunning. I had never thought of lanterns as a medium of art, more decoration, but they have evolved it into a serious means of expression and creativity. Gone are the repetitive lotus paper molds, it has exploded into a significant collaboration between sculpture and painting. We saw paper replicas of kings, traditional drums, angel wings, and more abstract pieces. As the room was dark, the lanterns photographed beautifully and we had a lot of fun. After, we went north of the river (mom and dad- Jongak station, right where we were!) for the actual festival. There were lots of tents set up where you could make your own lotus lantern with petals of paper, someone handed us Buddha tokens, informational booths, and then at the end was another temple, even more lavishly coated with lanterns. This formation had a taeguuki (Korean flag) in the middle. There were some Tibetan monks doing a traditional sand drawing which was cool and we got to tie some wishes on a giant kite string. At the temple, there was also a bronze statue of Buddha absolutely festooned with flowers and ivy placed over a little pond in a shrine. People would come up, take a dipper, symbolically bathe the Buddha and bow their respect afterword. We grabbed some pah-jang (spring onion pancake) and mandu before watching a bit of the parade which was more lit and painted lanterns in procession with some monks and various groups of people. It was a close call getting back but we did and it was a fun day.

This week was a pretty busy one. I feel like I've gotten pretty close to Brown as of late, I read them extra stories and they call me "Becky Mommy" which yes, does totally mess with my head sometimes. Clearly it's halfway between a joke and a lesson in child psych but seeing them every weekday has definitely formed a bond there. Also, on the other end of the spectrum, my most advanced students decided that I was the best teacher they'd ever had at the school, and they've been here like 3 years which totally warmed me to the cockles of my heart.

I learned a bit more about Korean belief as well, talking with some friends. Divorce is still extremely stigmatized, to the point where one told me a story of her Aunt forbidding her cousin to remarry after his wife died because his girlfriend was divorced, not a widow. Also, children are sometimes viewed as synonymous with the idea of marriage. I don't mean that most people strongly desire to have kids in their lives (that's not unique to Soko), but that most people think less of a marriage without them. Hmm. I absolutely want kids at some point but I also defend the right for others to decide. Kids should be a choice and a privilege, not an obligation. Not everyone I saw believed this, but it was indeed fun to discuss with those that did.

Wednesday night I had another new Korean dining experience- shabu kalguksu which was delicious. First, we cooked mushrooms and greens in this broth until it was boiling. Then, we added paper thin, frozen bits of beef which cooked on contact. The result was a spicy soup, course 1. Course 2 we added kalguksu noodles which was my favorite part. Course 3, they spooned out most of the broth and made fried rice with green onion. All for under 5 bucks. LOVE IT!

Thursday night, another coworker and I went out for ramen and then to a popular western bar. We met some of her friends, played darts, shamelessly flirted with the two hottest guys there (one French...mon dieu....and another Australian) and I called it a night at 3. Then, because Friday began the actual 3 day weekend holiday, I went to Busan with a friend. We arrived in time to get about 20 minutes of watery sun before it began to set but it was nice to sit on the beach. We took a long walk all around the beach area after it was dark and really got a feel for Busan. It definitely has the whimsical and surreal feeling of an English coastal resort- lots of lights and ferris wheels. After walking for quite some time, buying red bean paste doughnuts, and being given a charred marshmallow like dessert which was good, we went to the jjimjilbang to spend the night. Apparently, most are open 24 hours and have a nap room so they are a good, cheap, place to crash.

It started well- they had some really nice pools overlooking the ocean (as funny as it felt being naked and spying on people on the beach...), very relaxing and pretty to see the lights at night. Then came the sleeping part. It was a huge room with about 200 people in it, and many either congestively or aromatically challenged. The lights were one until 6 in the morning along with two TVs, people answered their phones and talked loudly...quiet wasn't even a far dream. Somewhere around 4 I made myself into a Becky lollipop by wrapping one of the blanket/mat things around my head just to try and get some dark and quiet. I maybe slept an hour, which is why the next morning started with a grande coffee. We went to the biggest department store in the world, I bought some cute green plaid converse, saw Robin Hood (chaotic plot but fun, energized cinematography and pretty shots of England) and then I realized that I was going on 6 hours with no food, lots of caffeine, and no sleep. So, we went to the nearest restaurant and then walked around the Jagalchi Fish Market which was similar to Pike for all of you Seattlites but way more raw around the edges. Long, silver fish flowed out of their bowls, tails resting on the ground where the inaugural monsoon season had formed a lake. Occasionally, we had to dodge some fish guts, these women know how to wield a knife. It was definitely another peak of what I expected to see here.

Thoroughly wet, we opted for an earlier train and I slept a good 12 hours to shake off the previous two nights. Up next, planning summer vacay and HOPEFULLY some proper summer weather though the forcast looks like lots o rain. Oh well. I'll be back soon and I promise to try and undo my bad once every two week habit!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Concerning the end of winting


Winting = spring + winter. Despite the absolutely stunning flowers, spring was a no-show weather wise. It was time for the warm, unpredictably sunny times of spring and we got the frozen nights of winter. Hence, winting. But, now winter went to winting, bypassed spring, and catapulted straight to summer. 80 degrees, humid, and sunny- hello! Becky is happy.

My happy m
ood from Mom and Dad, as predicted, has stuck around. Let's see...the last few weeks. I tried a new food- dak galbi. Basically, it's rice-cake pasta (some cheese stuffed) stir fried with chili sauce, chicken, and cabbage. And then covered with cheese. And then the remains are stir fried with rice. Mmmmm. I also tried a new kind of BBQ- dweji galbi. I thought galbi meant beef but apparently it just refers to the cut of meat. Dweji galbi is really tender, flavorful, lean pork so I'm a big fan, it's my new favorite Korean food.

That wee
kend was pretty relaxed. I met Nakeesa for her birthday at a bar and we had a nice night. This week's highlight was Strawberry Picking Day on Thursday. We bussed one hour outside of Daejeon with the kiddies. We all (including moi) picked and ate as many strawberries as could fit in our containers and bellies and then the kids got to make some jam. They squished the berries all up, got juice in places that gravity would deem impossible, and had a fantastic time. After they were done, we bussed back and Emily passed out on my lap which was really endearing.

This weekend, Saturday, I went to Everland. This is the biggest amusement park in South Korea. We wen
t on some rides, including the steepest wooden roller coaster in the world, got some ridiculous headbands, ate junk food...good day. On the slow train back a Korean university student offered to "buy me banana milk" before his friend leaned over and asked how his girlfriend was, haha. Sunday, I met Helen for brunch at an Italian restaurant and then went shopping and for coffee, enjoying the gorgeous weather.

Wednesday was a very welcome break from work as it was Kid's Day. This is actually a Korean national holiday that was created to raise awareness of child welfare during the Japanese occupation of the country. Originally, the Japanese forbade the holiday because they thought it was a subversive nationalist movement but it prevailed and survived to its present day candy and break from school reincarnation. I worked out in the morning and met a friend at the jjimjilbang for some good, old-fashioned relaxation. We had lunch on the rooftop terrace, bounced from hot rooms (with gorgeous stone mosaics mostly ranging from 50 degrees C to about 75 degrees C) to the i
ce room and back as our temperature allowed. It was so so so nice. We finished out the hot room portion by trying the dreaded 112 degree C room. Holy moly, that is honestly the hottest thing I have ever felt in my life without getting burned. No mosaics here, it literally looked like the inside of a kiln and I suddenly felt some sympathy for all of my projects in ceramics class last year. We forced ourselves to stay for one minute but the second we got to 60, we bolted. The hair was so hot and leaden we couldn't properly inhale, so 60 seconds was definitely enough for me. After, I showed her the sauna part of things and we showered and then went on our way. A mere 3 and a half hours after beginning, I left happy and essentially boneless.

Thursday the teachers all went out for Vietnamese to welcome Tracy, our new teacher. I had some decent pho' though Kels- the one we went to was better. Saturday, we all had to come into work for Sport's Day. We bussed to a mountain and had teachers waiting at different
stations along a loop path that the kids and their families were sent down. The flowers were perfect and the trees were lush and green, it was a lovely place. My post did a treasure hunt and that was kind of it. I liked playing with my kids a bit, always fun. School took us out for lunch after which was nice, more dweji galbi, mm mmmmm, and then I napped a bit before going out last night.

This club was one of the weirdest experiences in Korea yet. It was called a "booking club" where Koreans go to meet each other and get together. Basically, we were in a huge room (with a Safeco style roof that opened and closed) with many many many tables. The waiters would come around and grab girls and take them to other tables to introduce them to guys. Sometimes this was OK, we met some really nice, young, guys who spoke English really well. But sometimes....like the 4 times we were taken back into the "VIP rooms" to the 50 year old men...not so fortunate. The other really funny thing was the entertainment. As I've said time and again, Korea is fairly conservative across the board but there were live strippers for most of the evening. Cowboys. French women. Clowns. A guy in drag with an alligator G-string. I must say, I was NOT bored. It was a great laugh and worth the 3 AM home time.