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.


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 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'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!!