Category: EPIK


In Pico Iyer’s fabulous book, The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, Pico tells a hilarious story about a meeting of Amnesty International he attended in Kyoto.  I wish I could copy the entire story here verbatim, but I imagine that would constitute plagiarism of some kind! So I will try to tell the story in short fashion, just to relay my point.  The best thing to do when reading this story is to substitute Koreans for the Japanese.  Because I think in this particular scenario, Koreans would behave exactly the same.

The story goes like this: In the meeting room, mostly young Japanese are seated on the floor. Pico is ushered to a seat near the front of the room.  In the book he says this is typical: “foreigners were given the best seats in the house (a sign of Japanese graciousness) and, in the same act, were segregated from all locals (a sign of Japanese prudence).”  (Substitute “Korean” here as well!) An older gentleman is then ushered in, who turns out to be Reverend Farnsworth, along with a family of 3 Argentinians who proceed to describe their torture “at the hands of the military government.”

Now, here I must quote because it is funniest when told in Pico’s words: “And then the [Argentinian man] began speaking, delivering a sentence or two of introduction, in the rough Argentinian Spanish that turns yo into zho and vas into vasch. There was silence.  The man looked at me….Thirty pairs of Japanese eyes looked at me.  I looked at everyone else.  And then, with a sinking heart, as the silence deepened, I realized what was going on: mine was not, it seemed, just a foreigner’s place of honor – it was the translator’s chair.  Apparently my Spanish-sounding name and vaguely Hispanic looks had been enough to have procured for me, unbeknownst to me, the job of interpreting from Spanish, a language I had never learned, to Japanese, a language Francis Xavier himself had considered the work of the devil.  My only qualification for the task, I thought bitterly, was that I was probably the only person in the room who spoke neither Spanish or Japanese.”

While Pico Iyer sits silently baffled, registering this entire misunderstanding, the tortured Argentinian asks Pico Iyer if he speaks Spanish and Pico responds that he’s not Spanish; he’s Indian.  But he tells the man he might be able to translate a little if he speaks very slowly and simply.  So in a torturous translation to follow, Pico struggles to remember what few Spanish words and Japanese words he knows, and everyone in the audience is squirming in pain at the resulting translation.

Finally, in the question-and-answer session following the lecture, “out of nowhere, a Japanese man in the audience, unable to wait for the interminable process of translating Japanese into English and then into Spanish and back again, suddenly spoke directly to the family, in Spanish.”

Pico says, “Madre de Dios, I thought, my mind on anything but the desaparecidos: here was a man who was perfectly equipped to translate from Spanish directly into Japanese, and vise versa.  I was off the hook!”

After unsuccessfully trying to convince this Japanese guy to take over the translating, Pico then goes on to say:  This “only shows how little I understood Japan…. Try as I might, I saw that there was no way at all of persuading him to speak a tongue in which he might possibly, just possibly, in the space of several paragraphs, make a single tiny error.”

Herein lies the problem in Korea as well.  Most Koreans have been taught English since they were in first grade.  The Korean government in fact, under the auspices of EPIK, English Program in Korea, imports thousands of native English teachers to teach English in their public schools.  In addition, many Korean teachers who speak serviceable English are employed by the school system to teach English.  So why is it that when I, a foreigner, approach a Korean on the street to ask the dreaded question, “Do you speak English?”, do I get brusquely waved off, the Korean refusing to even acknowledge that he/she knows even one word of English?  It’s because of this Pico Iyer effect, told in the long story above.  In Korean culture, everything is about being perfect.  A Korean cannot afford to take the chance of losing face, of making one single mistake, in his conversation with a foreigner.

As I was preparing to leave Korea, I heard through the grapevine that one of my two schools, Chojeon, was going to get a full-time native English teacher next school year.  My other school, Byeokjin, where I taught 2 days a week, was NOT going to get a native English teacher at all.  I was baffled as to why, since Byeokjin students seemed to love English and had a higher ability level than Chojeon students.  I finally found out that the other Korean teachers did not feel comfortable having to speak English to a native English teacher!!  So, in essence, the students at Byeokjin will suffer because the adults are AFRAID of having to speak English.  This despite the fact that overall, Byeokjin teachers are much more capable of speaking English than Chojeon teachers!  This is a real shame for the Byeokjin students.

This is why I ask, in the title of this blog: How will Koreans ever learn English?  HOW will they EVER learn?

Practice makes perfect.  We all know this.  But if Koreans refuse to ever open their mouths and speak, making some mistakes along the way, how will they ever learn?

On top of this is the fact that Korea gets so few tourists.  I know in Seoul there are a lot more foreigners than in most of Korea.  But in Daegu, where I lived, I could walk the streets for weeks without seeing one foreign face.  Face it, Korea is not a tourist destination.   The Korean peninsula is quite isolated from the rest of the world.  A tourist has to make a big effort to get there.  And for what?

When I was in Cambodia, I was shocked by how well the lowest levels of society could speak serviceable English.  That’s because they have TOURISM in Cambodia.  The most uneducated and poor people could actually speak very good English.  This came as quite  a shock to me after having been in Korea, where even the most educated people profess to know NO ENGLISH!!!

In many ways, Koreans are as insulated as we are in America.  We are a big land and we are bordered by English-speaking Canadians and Spanish-speaking Mexicans.  We don’t have the luxury, as do Europeans, of hopping next door to practice our French or our German or Italian.  Many Americans never leave the country and have no need to learn another language. Koreans are the same.  Most of the Koreans I met have never left their country and have no intention of ever doing so.  So why bother making an effort to learn another language?

The problem is that no one else in the world speaks Korean.  So, if Korea is going to compete fully in the international economy, English, as the international business language, should serve them well.  Not to say they’re not doing okay without it.  In 2010, South Korea was ranked as #15 by the International Monetary Fund and by the CIA World Factbook as sorted by gross domestic product.  So they’re not doing too badly NOT being able to speak English.  Maybe, just maybe, they really don’t need it.

It’s funny.  One Korean told me he believed that eventually the Korean language would take over as the international business language.  His argument was that Korean is very scientific and English is very convoluted and complicated.  Korean makes more sense and thus will replace English anyway at some point in time.

The other funny thing I heard was that many Koreans believe that Korea should become a part of the United States, in effect, the 51st state.   The argument is that the U.S. has military personnel in Korea, that we have a great interest in protecting South Korea from North Korea, so they may as well become a U.S. state!  That really is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard.  How would it ever be in our national interest to bring non-English-speaking Korea and all of its issues with North Korea into our folds?

This shows the inward-looking nature of Koreans.  Are we, as Americans, like this too?

Every day in November, I want to write down three things I am grateful for.  I feel a strong need to cultivate gratitude in my life, to improve my outlook on life.  I’m trying to appreciate the small moments of happiness I have here in Korea.  So sad to miss Thanksgiving and my family in the U.S.A. 😦

Monday, November 1: 1) I am thankful for Korean hospitals.  I went to the bone hospital where the same doctor was there who I saw last week, thus saving me from the excruciating situation of having to communicate without knowing the language.  I had an hour + of physical therapy on my left knee and got some anti-inflammatories for less than 10,000 won ($9).  In addition, there was no wait whatsoever. 2) I am thankful that the bus from Chojeon to Seongju arrived at exactly 5:00 (this never happens!) so I was able to catch the 5:10 bus to Daegu.  3) I am thankful to have spoken briefly to one of my Turkish friends online.

grateful for gorgeous fall trees

grateful for gorgeous fall trees

Tuesday, November 2: 1) I’m thankful for the cleaning lady recommended by a Keimyung University professor.  She gave my apartment a nice deep cleaning this evening! 2) I’m thankful for Anna, who picked me up some feta cheese from Costco.   She remembered I loved it in Turkey. 3) I’m thankful for finding a good little market near Anna & Seth’s house that has a good selection of fruits & vegetables.

grateful for gingko trees and friends in korea

grateful for gingko trees and friends in korea

Wednesday, November 3: I’m grateful for… 1) Kim Dong Hee, who “accompanied” me on my bus ride to Seongju and waited with me at the bus terminal for 20 minutes; 2) talking by Skype to my best friend, Jayne, for over an hour tonight;  3) my delicious dinner of shrimp, pasta, capers, Korean pumpkin, green pepper & garlic.

Thursday, November 4: I’m having a hard time finding anything to be grateful for today:-(  I had a really hard commute this morning.  I arrived at Seongju 2 minutes too late to catch the bus to Byeokjin and had to wait 40 minutes for the next bus.  I tried to call Kim countless times and she didn’t answer.  So, today, simply grateful to be alive.  Grateful for beautiful weather.  Grateful to have  roof over my head.

Friday, November 5: 1) Grateful to meet David on the EPIK trip at dinner tonight.  He asked what my struggles were here in Korea, and I said loneliness.  He is Korean-American but hates it here in Korea because he feels like he’s an outcast among Koreans.  He had hoped to discover his heritage here.  We had a great conversation about religion.  He’s a strong Christian and feels the beauty of Christianity is God’s love for us.  2) Grateful for a fun game of Farkle in our hotel room and meeting some fun new people.  3) Grateful that I won the game… good luck all around!

thankful for more glorious gingko trees

thankful for more glorious gingko trees

Saturday, November 6: 1) I’m grateful for the beautiful fall colors we saw at Naesosa Temple.  2) Grateful to meet DeAnne from North Carolina.  She’s full of positive energy and enthusiasm, really cool! 3) Grateful for the walk through Mai-san provincial park, even though I didn’t get to see the Tap-Sa temple because of a miscommunication about the time we were required to be back to the bus.

Sunday, November 7: 1) I’m grateful for a whole day relaxing in my apartment; I didn’t set foot outside all day.  2) Grateful for time alone to write.  3) Grateful for talking on Skype to Mike and having him consider the possibility of paying for Alex to come visit me in December.

Monday, November 8: 1) Grateful for Louise’s birthday.  2) Grateful for a lovely Indian dinner with a new Pakistani friend I met randomly at Banwoldang subway stop two Sundays ago.  3) Grateful for getting my Lonely Planet Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos & the Greater Mekong book, along with a book called Catfish and Mandala that I ordered from What the Book today.

Tuesday, November 9:  1) Grateful for another physical therapy session on my left knee that felt really great and relaxing.  2) Grateful for an unusual evening with my Pakistani friend, having pizza and beers.  3) Grateful that it’s not freezing cold yet since Chojeon doesn’t turn on the heat.

Wednesday, November 10: 1) Grateful that I went to Byeokjin today and rode the later #250 bus.  The one I usually ride to Chojeon on M, T & F was in an accident.  We passed it along the way.  Whew!  2) Grateful for Kim, who heard about the bus accident and tried to phone me several times to check on me. Also grateful that I had to teach a total of only 20 minutes today because of student testing.  3) Grateful for Anna and Seth and their hosting of another great game of Ticket to Ride at their cozy apartment (despite the fact I didn’t win…).

thankful for another fun game of Ticket to Ride

thankful for another fun game of Ticket to Ride

Thursday, November 11: Grateful for… 1) the 2 Pepero sticks that my vice principal gave me in celebration of Pepero day~ even though I think you’re supposed to get 4 sticks! (11/11);  2) U.S. veterans;  3) a nice quiet night at home to read, plan my trip to Vietnam & Cambodia, and watch a movie.

Friday, November 12: I’m grateful for: 1) ever-patient Kim who insisted on accompanying me to the skin doctor for an allergic reaction I had to medicine for my knee; 2) a fun time eating pasta and drinking red wine with her at the Italian restaurant near my apartment; and 3) going to see the movie about Vietnam called Indochine.

Saturday, November 13: Grateful for 1) what would be Mike’s and my 22nd anniversary and all the years we spent together; 2) a trip to Seoul where I went to Cheonggye-Cheon Stream and found by chance the stream brightened by lanterns for the lantern festival; 3) for a fun evening drinking beers and hanging out with a friend.

thankful for the unexpected surprise of finding a lantern festival in seoul

thankful for the unexpected surprise of finding a lantern festival in seoul

Sunday, November 14: Grateful for 1) getting to browse in What the Book, an English bookstore in Itaewon; 2) chicken schwarma in the Arab section of Itaewon (brought back happy memories of Turkey); and 3) a beautiful day wandering around the Korean War Memorial Museum.

grateful to see the war memorial museum in seoul

grateful to see the war memorial museum in seoul

Monday, November 15: Grateful… 1) that I booked my tickets today from Seoul to Hanoi, then from Siem Reap back to Seoul: January 13-24; 2) that I had time to read up on Vietnam and Cambodia and get some good ideas; and 3) that a taxi gave me a ride to Seongju for only 1,000 won so I could catch the 5:10 bus home.

Tuesday, November 16: Grateful 1) that my two 3rd grade classes were canceled today because the little hooligans went to the English Village;  2) for dinner at the warehouse and having leftovers for the next two nights; and 3) that I think I found a good hotel to stay in Hanoi.

Wednesday, November 17: Grateful for 1) getting a ride home from the 6th grade teacher so I got home BEFORE 5:30!! 2) my quiet day at Byeokjin where I got most of my EPIK field trip essay/blog written; and 3) for leftover dinner from the warehouse so I didn’t have to cook!!

Thursday, November 18: Grateful for 1) hmmm… NOT grateful for the irritating fact that it was absolutely impossible to book a ticket online with Vietnam Airlines for a one-way ticket from Hanoi to Phnom Penh for January 19.  I was truly irritable and pissed, but then decided maybe it’s not meant to be and I should look for other options.  I am trying to see it as an unplanned adventure where something amazing might happen.  So am grateful for developing “another” way to look at the situation; 2) watching the movie The Killing Fields about Cambodia that was extremely intense and disturbing but gave me a good understanding of Cambodian history; and 3) a good night’s sleep.

Friday, November 19: I found it hard to be grateful for much early in the day.  I felt a darkness hanging over me from watching The Killing Fields last night, from my unresolved flight problems with Vietnam Airlines,  from the looming and probably lonely weekend coming up with no fun plans.  As I stood at the bus stop in Chojeon, feeling this darkness, I watched the off-balance town drunk, smoking and talking in his raspy voice, and thought “There but for the grace of God go I.”  1) Happy and grateful that I’m not the town drunk; 2) happy to talk to my friend Jarrod on Facebook chat; he has such a great perspective on life and really cheered me up;  3) happy to get my Lonely Planet India guidebook and a book about Vietnam called Paradise for the Blind delivered today.

Saturday, November 20: Grateful for 1) passing a 100 question exam on grammar to FINALLY finish my 120-hour TEFL certification; 2) talking by phone to Jayne today; and 3) having time to read a book about Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge called First They Killed My Father: a daughter of cambodia remembers. Although incredibly disturbing, it’s great to learn about a part of history I really didn’t know much about.

Sunday, November 21: Grateful… 1) to have a nice long conversation on Skype with Jayne.  I love her because she always makes me laugh!  2)… to see the movie The Social Network about Facebook.  It was really interesting that Mark Zuckerberg was so driven and motivated to establish Facebook because of not getting into the top Finals Club at Harvard and losing his girlfriend.  3)… to chat on Skype with my friend Ed from the State Department and to chat by Yahoo with Chetan in Italy.  And even a 4th thing: to be able to go back to sleep for a couple of hours after I woke up, as always, at 6:30 a.m.  I usually can never go back to sleep once I wake up!

Monday, November 22: Grateful… 1) for a free period today at the end of the day because my 4th graders didn’t show up; 2) for a taxi ride from Chojeon for 1,000 won, even though I still arrived in Seongju 2 minutes too late for the 5:10 bus; and 3) that I am becoming more discerning about who to have in my life and who not to have.  Today, I made a decision to eliminate certain time-wasting, dishonest and/or self-absorbed people from my life.  It felt so refreshing!

Tuesday, November 23: 1) Thankful that Mike bought the ticket for Alex to come to Korea on December 2-19.  I am so excited about him coming!  2) Grateful to get permission from Byeokjin to take the day off Thursday, December 2, to go to Incheon to pick up Alex from the airport.  3) Here’s HOPING to be thankful that the current tensions between North Korea and South Korea will dissipate very quickly, so the situation doesn’t interfere with Alex coming here to visit.  And 4th) thankful that I am not in Phnom Penh yet, and especially was not at the water festival last night where over 330 people perished in a huge stampede.

Wednesday, November 24: 1) Today I’m grateful for my friends’ and family’s care and concern for me following yesterday’s attack on South Korea by North Korea.  2) I’m thankful for finally finding a decent flight from Hanoi to Phnom Penh through China Southern airlines.  Most of the flights were outrageously expensive and had long layovers in China or Bangkok, so I am happy to now have it booked.  3) Happy to watch the movie called Outsourced and get psyched about my trip to India.  Also… 4) grateful that no one showed up today for my absurd conversation class.  Since no one can really carry on a conversation, I have such a hard time keeping the class interested and on task.  Thus, I always dread it….  (I’m NOT grateful that Coffee-J told me today that I must have the “Residency Certificate” from the U.S. IRS by December 15 or they must collect over $1,000 in taxes from me!  Though Mike filed the form with the IRS requesting this, we still have heard nothing.  Where is it? This is money I need for my trip to Vietnam!!)

Thursday, November 25: 1) Grateful that it’s Thanksgiving Day in America (even though I’m not there to celebrate it), reminding me to be grateful for all the good things I have in life.  2) Happy to know Sarah is with her dad, Kema, Nick and Cody and that the boys are with their dad and grandmother and aunt.  3) Happy for Kim Dong Hee, my ever-faithful Korean friend, who went with me for dinner and wine at a pasta restaurant  to help me celebrate Thanksgiving and then accompanied me to see the movie Sex and the City 2 which was set partially in Abu Dhabi and made me yearn for the Middle East.

books to get me in the frame of mind for the mekong

books to get me in the frame of mind for the mekong

Friday, November 26: 1) Grateful that my classes went well today, not too stressful for a change.  2) Grateful to know my kids are having a good Thanksgiving at home in the USA.  3) Grateful to have finally started the process of getting my visa for Vietnam.  I can’t believe it costs 105,000 won, not as much as China’s 210,000 won visa but still outrageous!  Do all Asian countries hate Americans?  I think lovely Cambodia is only $20.

Saturday, November 27: Thankful for 1) watching the documentary The Secret, which gave me a lot of food for thought; 2) a fun evening having dinner and doing noraebang with a Korean friend who came to visit from Seoul; and 3) a fun conversation online with a young guy from India who got me all psyched about my upcoming trip to India.

Sunday, November 28: 1) Thankful for being able to sleep in till 8 a.m.!  2) Grateful for watching a good movie: The Kids are All Right.  3) Thankful to talk to Mike by Skype about Alex’s upcoming visit.

getting geared up for india

getting geared up for india

Monday, November 29: 1)  I so adore Korean hospitals!  I went tonight to get some physical therapy on my shoulder which is so painful, mainly due to tension.  I got an hour of heat and electric therapy, a chiropractic neck crack and a short but intense massage.  All for less than $5!  2) Grateful for a long talk with a friend in India.  3) Grateful for a so-relaxing sleep…..

Tuesday, November 30: Grateful for  1) my sister Joan’s birthday; 2) figuring out how to apply online for the Cambodian visa for $25 so I don’t have to pay the travel agent 95,000 won to get the visa for me!  3) the fact that I’ve officially completed 9 months here and only have 3 more months to go!  In December, Alex will be here for 17 days; in January, I will be in Vietnam & Cambodia for 12 days; and in February we have the lunar new year holiday.  Time is ticking down.  Thankful beyond belief for that… 🙂

Saturday, November 6: In the morning, we head out toward the coast to see the Saemangeum Tidal Embankment, a seawall dubbed “The Great Wall on the Sea.”  This is the world’s largest sea dike measuring 33.9 km in length, beating the former largest dike in the Netherlands, the Suiderzee Afsluit.  It was completed in April, 2010 after 18 years and 5 months.

Saemangeum Tidal Embankment

Saemangeum Tidal Embankment

The purpose of the dike was to secure enough arable land to ensure food security for the future.  The reclaimed area is about 2/3 the size of Seoul, about a square meter of new land for every Korean.  The original intent was to allocate 70% of the land for farming and the remaining 30% for industrial use.  Now, with an oversupply of rice, the plan has been changed to give 70% to industrial use, tourism or logistics, and the remaining 30% for agriculture.  A large part will go to tourism, such as casinos and other facilities, which is hoped to bring 8 million tourists by 2012.

the biggest dike in the world

the biggest dike in the world

We walk down to stand over the water as it roars out of the dam.  When one level is higher, they open the gates for 45 minutes and let the water flow out.  It is a quite impressive and powerful flow of water we see bursting from the floodgates.  I walk up to a hill where there is a park and observation area.

a tunnel under Saemangeum Tidal Embankment

a tunnel under Saemangeum Tidal Embankment

Memorial at Saemangeum Tidal Embankment

Memorial at Saemangeum Tidal Embankment

From the embankment, we head south to Buan-gun, a peninsula that juts out into the Yellow Sea.  Within the Byeonsan Peninsula National Park, we walk through a gorgeous scarlet-hued tunnel of fir trees, and then rows of cherry blossom trees, to see Naesosa Temple.  Originally called Soraesa Temple, it means “a place to visit to be reborn.” The weather is cool and crisp and the autumn colors are stunning.  Naesosa was built by a Buddhist monk in 633 A.D. during the Silla Dynasty and rebuilt in 1633 during the Joseon Dynasty.  Daeungbojeon, the main building, is built with interlocking wood blocks without nails.  Each door is decorated with lotus blossoms and chrysanthemums. The temple also boasts the Goryeo Bronze Bell, with three Buddhas on its body, from 1222.  It is thought to be the leading creation of the late Goryereo Dynasty.

me at naeonsa temple

me at naeonsa temple

Korean pancakes

Korean pancakes

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typical Korean restaurant on the way to Naesosa

Naesosa Temple

Naesosa Temple

thankful messages at Noesosa Temple

thankful messages at Noesosa Temple

inside Naesosa Temple

inside Naesosa Temple

The best thing about visiting Naesosa Temple is the setting, with its bright tunnel of trees.  My interest is also piqued because they offer temple stays.

the stunning tunnel of trees at naesosa temple

the stunning tunnel of trees at naesosa temple

Finally, we start our journey west to Daegu, with a stop in Mt. Maisan Provincial Park. Mt. Maisan’s claim to fame is its donkey-ears shape.  A myth tells of  two gods that came down from the sky, had a child and lived on earth for a while. As they were going back up to the sky, a village woman saw them ascending, and were trapped on earth and were transformed in to a rock mountain. Even today, you can see the father peak and the child peak, and the mother peak on the other side.

When the bus drops us at the entrance, we are told we have until 3:40 to go explore.  We jauntily walk off, not even knowing what we’re supposed to be looking for.  We linger along the path, checking out the interesting food stalls and restaurants along the way, snapping pictures.

succulents in pots for sale along the path

succulents in pots for sale along the path

a snack of silkworms, anyone?

a snack of silkworms, anyone?

big hunks of meat for sale

big hunks of meat for sale

Finally, we come to a temple with a bright gold roof, Geumdangsa Temple, or “Gold Hall Temple,” built in 814 during the Silla Dynasty.  I think this is the temple we have come to see, so I take a bunch of pictures and spend too much time exploring the grounds.

Geumdangsa Temple Buddha

Geumdangsa Temple Buddha

bright leaves and lanterns at the "Gold Hall Temple"

bright leaves and lanterns at the “Gold Hall Temple”

drum at "Gold Hall Temple"

drum at “Gold Hall Temple”

I see other EPIK teachers walking further down the path, and I meet my friends Anna and Seth, who are heading to the really cool and unusual temple we are meant to see, Tapsa.  By this time it is 3:20 and though Anna and Seth are determined to walk to it, none of knows how far away it is.  I keep walking with them for a while, but as we round each corner and don’t see it, I become worried it about making it back in time, with my troublesome knee.  Finally at about 3:30, I say I better turn around.  I make it to the bus at 3:40, but no one is in any hurry to leave as they apparently changed the departure time to 4:00!  I would have had time to see the amazing Tapsa after all!  I am so disappointed, especially when Anna finally returns with her pictures of the very unusual temple.  I can’t believe I was right there and didn’t see it.  I have determined to return to this park sometime in the next couple of weeks to see it.

me with Mt. Maisan's donkey-eared peaks

me with Mt. Maisan’s donkey-eared peaks

Tapsa is a temple where a retired scholar built numerous pagodas one stone at a time over a period of decades. There are some marvelous towers which are so tall and massive it’s hard to believe they were erected by just one man. It is said that he built 108 towers over 30 years from 1885, but only 80 of them remain today.

the golden hall temple, but not the one i was supposed to see :-(

the golden hall temple, but not the one i was supposed to see 😦

We are on the bus a long 4 hours after this, heading back to Daegu.  By this time, I am bus-burned, especially as these seats are tight and narrow with little leg room, unlike most public transport buses in Korea which have plenty of room to stretch out.  We arrive at the Gyeongsangbuk-Do Provincial Office of Education around 8 p.m.  Wiped out, but happily so. 🙂

the beautiful grounds of Geumdangsa Temple

the beautiful grounds of Geumdangsa Temple

November 5:  It’s Friday morning and it seems there is to be no Hite Brewery for us.  This despite the fact that we are the chosen ones, the “best EPIKers,” at least according to the name tags we are given.  I have no idea what the criteria were that decided which Guest English Teachers (GETs) from Gyeongsangbuk-Do would get to attend this two-day field trip to Jeollabuk-do province, but somehow, we are special.  Due to our specialness, our first planned stop at 11:30 a.m. is to be the Hite Brewery, where all of us are dreaming of sampling brews before heading off on the rest of our field trip.  However, as we pull up to the brewery, we are told that on Fridays, Hite does not allow tourists to enter.  Hmmm…. Strange thing, this, as wouldn’t you think our fearless planners would have checked this out in advance and confirmed our arrival with the brewery?  Oh well, no beer to boost us off on our first day.  It seems it will be a dry day.

no Hite beer for us ~ at least not from the Hite brewery:-(

no Hite beer for us ~ at least not from the Hite brewery:-(

Instead we bus onward to the exciting Jeonju National Museum.  On our way, we make a stop at a rest area where we see this group of schoolchildren.

Korean schoolchildren at a rest area on the way to Jeonju

Korean schoolchildren at a rest area on the way to Jeonju

At the Jeonju National Museum, we see treasures we could never have imagined glimpsing in our lifetimes.    Opened in 1990, this museum houses Jeollabuk-do’s cultural heritages; its collection encompasses 24,000 works including archeological and artistic relics from the prehistoric and Mahan and Baekje periods, as well as folklore materials.  Nearly 1,400 works are displayed in 5 exhibition rooms and an outdoor exhibition area.  The museum also houses Buddhist arts, ceramics, and metal crafts.

Danny, Seth and Anna

Danny, Seth and Anna

fall colors on the grounds of the Jeonju National Museum

fall colors on the grounds of the Jeonju National Museum

the jeonju national museum

the jeonju national museum

the grounds of the Jeonju National Museum

the grounds of the Jeonju National Museum

I am bowled over by three huge ceramic beautiful woven vases, swirling with jade, lapis blue, and deep Indian red & gold strands.  I don’t know what these are, but they are stunning.

some amazing ceramic "woven" vases

some amazing ceramic “woven” vases

I see scrolls and paintings of interesting characters from the Joseon royal family, vases and pottery, bronze crowns and caps, dioramas of jumak taverns where tired travelers stopped for liquor, food and sleeping.  A Jangdokdae jar stand depicts how Koreans keep their spices on a low stone embankment on a sunny side of the house.  Basic seasonings are kept for all cooking done in the household, including soy sauce, soy bean and red pepper paste, red pepper powder, sesame, salt and kimchi.

a diorama in the Jeonju National Museum

a diorama in the Jeonju National Museum

pots for keeping kimchi

pots for keeping kimchi

After the museum, we head to a lunch of bibimbap.  We eat bibimbap continually in Korea, but apparently Jeonju is especially known for two dishes: bibimbap and gongnamul gukbap (which I won’t discuss because we didn’t eat it!).   Bibimbap is a mixture of a half-dozen seasoned vegetables, strips of marinated beef, sesame seed, seaweed, a fried egg, and a dollop of red pepper paste over a bowl of steamed rice.  Often served in a brass container, the ingredients are to be mixed before eaten.  As bibimbap is one of my favorite dishes in Korea, I enjoy it, and do even take note that it is better in Jeonju than in other places where I’ve eaten it.

lunchtime: bibimbap

lunchtime: bibimbap

After lunch we head to Hanok Maeul, a village of traditional-style Korean houses with tile roofs, high walls, and narrow alleyways.  Most of us EPIK teachers saw this village during our orientation in February, 2010, so we’re a little baffled as to why we’ve come here again.  We don’t complain too much as it is quite quaint and lovely.  Possibly our planners may have thought, because we were a little disoriented during our orientation, that we might not remember we had come here before!

jeonju hanok village ~ haven't we been here before? Me with Anna

jeonju hanok village ~ haven’t we been here before? Me with Anna

To start we go to a hilltop pavilion where we hear a woman perform traditional Korean music called pansori.  It is vocal and percussion music performed by one singer and one drummer playing a barrel drum.  From the hilltop, we have a great view of the tiled roofs of the village below.

the pavilion above hanok village where we hear pansori

the pavilion above hanok village where we hear pansori

shoes all lined up on the steps of the pavilion

shoes all lined up on the steps of the pavilion

This village is said to be the largest concentration of such traditional housing in the entire country.  In recent years, many homes have been spiffed up and turned into accommodations, restaurants, gift shops, coffee shops or tea houses.  The town is quite cheery at this time of year with its bright yellow ginkgo trees and other red-and-orange speckled trees.

a street in Jeonju

a street in Jeonju

Anna, Seth and Suzanne under a ginkgo tree

Anna, Seth and Suzanne under a ginkgo tree

sweet little goodies for sale in Jeonju

sweet little goodies for sale in Jeonju

colorful fans for sale in Jeonju

colorful fans for sale in Jeonju

Several guys in our group dress up in traditional costumes and pound rice with wooden mallets in a stone bowl to make rice cakes.  It’s pretty funny as they really get into their roles and eat up the attention.  We all get to sample the rice cakes after.

making rice cakes

making rice cakes

one of the guys making rice cakes

one of the guys making rice cakes

me with Seth, sampling the rice cakes

me with Seth, sampling the rice cakes

At the far end of the town, we explore the plush interior of the Jeondong Cathedral, a European-looking Catholic Church.  On the grounds is a grotto guarded by a gleaming statue of the Virgin Mary; inside are candles that can be lit for prayers.

Jeondong Cathedral

Jeondong Cathedral

inside Jeondong Cathedral

inside Jeondong Cathedral

a grotto with the Virgin Mary

a grotto with the Virgin Mary

part of the Jeondong Cathedral

part of the Jeondong Cathedral

For dinner, we are supposed to have samgyeopsal, grilled three-layered (meat-fat-meat) thinly sliced pork loin, but instead, we have some kind of soup with unknown meat (possibly beef?) in it.  We sit on floor mats at long low tables and drink Cokes and soju and eat the soup and other roots and vegetables and pancakes that usually accompany Korean meals.

the rooftops of hanok village

the rooftops of hanok village

As part of the purpose of this field trip is to meet and mingle with other EPIK teachers and forge new friendships, I sit somewhere randomly hoping to meet some new folks.  I happen to sit next to a nice Korean-American young man named David.  He surprises me by asking a fairly intense and thoughtful question, not the usually superficial banter that goes on at these gatherings.  He asks, what is your biggest challenge here in Korea?  I answer straightaway: loneliness.  Being older than most of the EPIK teachers, I find I have little common ground with other teachers.   And I don’t speak Korean to be able to make Korean friends. I ask him in return, What about you?  He says he came here to discover his heritage, as both of his parents are Korean.  Though brought up in California, he feels as Korean as a person can be.  But, he describes that Koreans have a circle of who’s accepted.  On the outside are the foreigners, who will never be inside of the circle.  But on the fringes of the inside are people like David, Koreans but not Koreans.  Both his parents are Korean; he was brought up Korean, but he’s American.  He will never be a part of the inner circle.  He is looked down upon because his first language is not Korean and thus not perfect; he seems uneducated to native Koreans.  This despite the fact that he speaks several languages.

me at an outdoor cafe in Jeonju

me at an outdoor cafe in Jeonju

a little fish pond

a little fish pond

After we check in to our hotel, a number of people congregate in our room to play a rousing dice game called Farkle.  We have a lot of fun; it’s great to meet some new people I’ve never met before.  I also happen to win the game, which is always a happy event!

Saturday, October 31:   My friend Jarrod comes to visit, searching for a change of scenery, a new place to explore.  Though he’s been to Daegu probably too many times to count, he says he’s never been to my part of town near Keimyung University.  He’s a 32-year-old Australian I met at the EPIK orientation, a very laid back and cool drummer who has found his groove in Korea.  I liked him from the first moment I chatted with him at breakfast at Jeonju University on the cold & dark February when we arrived.  He comes to my Daegu neighborhood solely as a friend, which I need sorely in Korea.  I have no thoughts of anything romantic with him because of our huge age difference.  But, I’m very happy he is taking time out of his busy schedule to come and visit me.

angels on the campus of keimyung university where we walk

angels on the campus of keimyung university where we walk

He arrives around noon on Halloween.  I have been searching frantically in the dark recesses of my brain for something interesting to show him in west Daegu.  I have only come up with a few lame options.  The first is a walk around Keimyung University.  The leaves are colored like pomegranates and summer squash and the air feels like a sliver carved from a pumpkin, cool and sharp.  We walk around the university, up and down hills, panting a little at the effort.  He tells me how he was seeing a girl named Virginia, how they went to Japan and it was difficult because one of them couldn’t access money so they stayed together a too much; Virginia said things were starting to feel too “couple-y” and then said she needed a break from him.  He is a little sad about it, maybe even more than a little.  He felt comfortable with her and truly enjoyed her company.

After our walk we eat lunch at Vince Burger, which has the best chili-cheese fries ever!  We drink several 1,000 won beers… How can we resist at such a price?  Jarrod talks about how he hangs out with the EPIK teachers but he feels he doesn’t really relate to them as most are in their 20s.  I tell him my difficulties with being older than other teachers, how I don’t relate to them, and they seem to form their own little cliques and I’m on the outside.  This really seems to be the story of my life.  I’m always doing things in my life at the wrong times: having babies in my late 20s and late 30s, getting my Master’s degree much too late in life for it to benefit me in the job market, teaching English with a bunch of 20-somethings in Korea, interning at the State Department and MSI, when most people my age are in mid-level or senior positions in their jobs.  This is my life, and this is what I’ve made of it.  I don’t know how my time sequence has unfolded in such a confusing manner.

Jarrod and I talk and talk. He likes Korea and is working to save up for an extensive, maybe year-long, trip around Europe.  He’s saved $10,000 already.  I say I’m traveling as much as I can now; I never know how my health will hold up and it’s already late in life for me.  So, instead of saving, I spend now, immediate gratification through travel.

He has been studying Korean, something I’ve never made any effort at since I’ve been here.  He has a number of close Korean friends.  He thinks Korean girls are too whiny and prissy, little princesses, and says he can’t see realistically having one as a girlfriend.  He lives in a small Korean town and he actually likes it.  He plans to re-sign here for another year.

After lingering over lunch and our beers, we play billiards at a billiard bang; I tell him I’m terrible and that truth plays out.  The only time I win is when he accidentally hits in the eight ball too early.  We drink beer the whole time; I feel like we are a spectacle in the midst of these young Koreans, the young hearty bearded Australian and the white-haired woman almost old enough to be his mother.

We go back to my apartment and we show each other YouTube videos; I introduce him to Turkish bands I like and he shows me the kind of music he likes, none of which I now remember.  I show him the “I’m on a Boat” rap song, “Jizz in my Pants,” and the “What is Love?” video done by the Oakton Otters swim team coaches, just so he can see the neighborhood where I live.

We eat dinner at a Chinese restaurant near my apartment, very mediocre.  We have been drinking beer all day and I’m really tired; I could use a nap.  Jarrod talks about his parents, who are divorced, and the difficult relationships he has with his family.  His father asked him once if he is gay, because he doesn’t seem to have many girlfriends, and he told his father, What if I am gay?  What difference would it make?  He wishes his parents would just accept him as he is.  We talk a lot about dysfunctionalities in families.  Later we go to Sydney Street Cafe.  I think he might like it because the owner, Mark, is Australian.  When we go we happen to meet one of Mark’s friends, also Australian, who is just visiting Korea.   Jarrod and I talk to them, and to each other.  At one point, I ask Jarrod if he needs or wants to get going as he had signed up online to attend a Halloween party in Daegu and I figure he will want to get going to that.  He said he really doesn’t care about going.  Later he tells me that if he were in Australia, he would probably never talk to those two guys.  The one was too much into “footie” and Mark hails from an area that doesn’t really mix with Melbournites.

heart-shaped leaves at Daegu Confucian Academny

heart-shaped leaves at Daegu Confucian Academny

Ben and Lilly come in to Sydney Street all decked out in skimpy Halloween costumes; Lilly is a bikini-bottom clad Superwoman.  Ben is the Owen Wilson Hansel character from Zoolander.  I’ve never seen Zoolander before, so when Jarrod wants to leave Sydney Street, we decide to watch a movie at a DVD bang.  We happen to find Zoolander, which we watch but I don’t particularly like.

After the movie, we go back to my apartment where I invite Jarrod to sleep on my mat on the floor of my apartment.  I have to put on my pajamas because I cannot sleep in my clothes.  Jarrod has on layers and layers of clothes and says he will sleep in them.  He lies on the floor and me in my bed and we talk & talk until an ungodly hour, chattering away like two girls at a slumber party.

Never has Jarrod shown any attraction for me.  I feel like he’s a good friend, easy and fun to hang out with.  In the morning I offer to make him some scrambled eggs; he turns me down so I make some for myself and he drinks coffee and we chat at my small kitchen table.  He lingers quite a while, until about 12:30, at which time he says he should go.  As we stand to say goodbye, he looks me directly in the eyes and then we hug each other.  I wonder if it’s a sympathy hug.  Maybe he feels sorry for me that I’m here in Korea at such a late stage in my life, friendless and utterly alone.  He leaves and I know in my heart he will not be hanging out with me again.  I think it is awkward for him, hanging out with someone so much older.  If I were a man, it wouldn’t be a problem, I’m sure, because we have such a nice rapport.  But since I’m a woman, it must be uncomfortable.

love the clouds

love the clouds

After he leaves, I go alone to Kyobo Books in downtown Daegu.  This bookstore has a small English selection, but I decide the prices are just too high.  I then visit Daegu Hyanggyo, or Daegu Confucian Academy.  This was established as a local educational institution for Confucian scholars in the 7th year (1398) of King Taejo of the Joseon Dynasty. I take some pictures and then head home on metro.  I go that evening to Bible study at Anna and Seth’s, where we also play a fun game of Bullshit!  and eat pizza.

Daegu Confucian Academy

Daegu Confucian Academy

I feel particularly sad tonight because I truly enjoyed Jarrod’s company, but seriously doubt we will ever hang out together again.  Sad. 😦

possibly the founder of the Confucian Academy??

possibly the founder of the Confucian Academy??

another building in the Confucian Academy

another building in the Confucian Academy

Confucian scholarship

Confucian scholarship

Thursday, October 14: It all starts Thursday night, with my 11th visit to a urologist for a persistent infection that I’ve had since late August.  This infection has attached itself to me with a vengeance and won’t let go.  I’ve seen this doctor variously for nightly injections, 3-day medicine rounds, check-ups and then more visits.  I’ve never in my life had an infection this persistent.

the entrance to seorak-san national park

the entrance to seorak-san national park

For the first time, my Korean friend Kim accompanies me to see Dr. Ahn, who is finally able to speak to me in more than one-word sentences, since Kim can translate. He tells me this: The infection is not going away because of stress.  You need to drink plenty of cranberry juice (which by the way is next-to-impossible to find in Korea), eat a tomato a day, drink a cup of water every two hours, take a break from drinking coffee and alcohol, and above all: “take a rest.”  I tell him I am planning a trip to Seorak-san this weekend.  He advises me against it.  I get very agitated and tell him the only thing that keeps me sane and gives me any happiness in Korea is traveling.  I tell him, I will rest in Seorak-san, take a hike, breathe fresh air, be outdoors in the crisp fall air.  He says, okay, but please, take it easy.

Friday, October 15: I take his advice to mean I should call in sick on Friday. I sleep in, relax, and most of all, take a break from my 5 classes at Chojeon and my two-hour nightly commute home from that school (Chojeon is frankly the cause of most of my stress).  Friday evening I get on the bus from Daegu to Sokcho, a town right outside of the national park.  Sokcho and Seorak-san are in the far northeast of Korea, almost up to North Korea.  I actually find the bus rides relaxing here; I put the seat back, read, sleep.  As long as there are no fights on board, I’m generally pretty stress-free on these express or inter-city buses.  The bus ride is 5 hours long.  When I get there, I find a hotel, the Miamore in Sokcho, drop my bag, and walk to the E-Mart-ah, several blocks away, for a late dinner.

another lovely korean hotel room at the miamore in sokcho

another lovely korean hotel room at the miamore in sokcho

I am gorging myself on fried chicken at a Popeye’s when this crazy looking white dude with a goatee and one of those knit caps with a bill on the front walks by with his wife and gives me a huge grin and a friendly hello.  His wife goes off to buy the groceries while he eats bibimbap at a nearby table.  When he sits down, he immediately starts chatting, about anything and everything.  He asks me all about myself, what brings me to Korea, where do I live here, where do I teach.  He is so easy-going I didn’t mind telling him anything he asks.  He introduces himself as Justin, his wife is Bonnie.  He’s a screenwriter and she teaches teachers how to teach English.  It’s a good job and she gets lots of vacation time and good money.

He says, I see you don’t color your hair.  I think it’s great!  It’s stunning; it really is. Most Koreans dye their hair till they die, and it looks horrible!

Wow!  I’m bowled over since all I get in Korea is people giving me dirty looks and advising me to dye my hair. We discuss how especially on the men, it’s so ugly and makes them look so unattractive, especially as they age.  We are in total agreement on this subject.

following the crowds into seorak-san

following the crowds into seorak-san

I tell him about being separated for 3 1/2 years, about my children.  He tells me his mother has been married three times and she picks the same kinds of losers every time.  He says she believes marriage is THE ticket to happiness.  I tell him I’m on a different kind of journey.  At first I was hoping to find love, but now I have accepted that I will be alone here.  I tell him I try to travel somewhere every weekend and traveling is my passion.  And I mostly do it alone.  Right now I don’t want to be tied down in a relationship, unless that person shares my enthusiasm, as well as the financial wherewithal, for travel.  I tell him I’m an anomaly here, coming to Korea at my age.  He is so supportive and enthusiastic that I am doing this, that I start to feel quite good about it myself!  He says he wishes his mother would spend time getting to know herself instead of diving into one relationship after another.

We talk about writing, since he’s a screenwriter, and I tell him I’ve written the first draft of a 480-page novel.  I say no one has ever seen it; it’s just sitting on my computer waiting for me to revise and cut.  He encouraged me to send it out because then I can get other people to help me work on the revision.  I know he’s right, but I feel like it needs some major work before anyone else sees it.

a temple in Saroksan

a temple in Seorak-san

We talk a lot, and after a while Bonnie joins us.  She tells me with my Master’s degree, I should be working at a university.  She says I could get a job easily.  She is very talkative as well.  Justin loves her so much, I can tell.  He says she is the greatest because she has her dreams and her goals, and she is a strong individual.  He is the same.  That’s the only way to have a relationship.

I agree with him on this.  I have spent 25 years of my adult life being married and when I’m married, I tend to give up too much of myself.  I felt the need to be separated to find myself.  I know it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason, because there’s truth to it.  I have never learned how to truly be alone.  I have always had someone there to catch me when I fall, someone to love me, but I don’t know how to be alone, truly alone, to feel secure in it and to revel in it.  I want to learn to do this.  And, in my time here in Korea, I am learning this lesson above all.  How to be alone.  How to be confident in being alone, how to enjoy my own company, how to take one day at a time.  It’s extremely difficult at times because it’s something I’ve never had to deal with, not in gargantuan doses such as this.

In the book I just finished reading, The Surrendered, by Korean author Chang-rae Lee, the characters go through unimaginable traumas before, during and after the Korean War.  One of the characters, Sylvie, witnessed the slaughter of her parents in Manchuria in 1934.  At one point while working as a missionary in a Korean orphanage after the war, she describes the loneliness she feels when her husband leaves her to go on a trip:  “He had not gone a kilometer and she felt the loneliness already.  Her body wasn’t frantic anymore but now felt instead like a forlorn hive, every chamber of her desiccated and empty.  As if she were made of a thousand tiny tombs.  Of course it was having been left now to her own devices that was most disturbing….”

the crowds eating at the park

the crowds eating at the park

I love this description; it brings back memories of how I often felt being married, when my husband would leave for work and all I had ahead of me were long hours of loneliness and drudgery with my infant and toddler boys, 21 months apart in age.  I would often have panic attacks and feel so estranged and lost on these mornings, with the whole days stretching like ominous caverns before me.   The feeling I have here in Korea is similar, but it’s not when my husband leaves me in the morning.  It’s a constant.  Yet.  I finally came to a kind of acceptance of this just last week.  I even wrote in my calendar: I AM ALONE HERE.  GET USED TO IT.  There is something good about accepting this fact and just letting go.  It takes away some of the panic I often feel about this.  I WILL learn to be alone.  I WILL.

Justin talks my ear off quite some time and then asks me what I will do when I leave here.  My plan is to leave Korea after my contract ends on February 28 and meet my friend Jayne in India for 2-3 weeks.  Justin tells me he and Bonnie lived in India for a year before coming to Korea, and it was the most transforming experience of his life.

After India, I will go back to Virginia and hang out with my boys for at least 6 months.  In the meantime I hope to have a job set up either in Turkey or the Middle East.  That is my dream.  I have never wavered in wanting to work in a Muslim culture and I don’t see this dream vanishing until I’ve actually done it.

I leave this super-friendly couple and head back to my motel, where I finish reading the only book I brought on this trip, A Cup of Light by Nicole Mones.  I go to sleep a little worried that without my book I will get incredibly lonely and bored, especially on Saturday night after hiking.  But, what can I do? I only brought the one book, and it is done.  I will learn to deal with it.

me & buddha

me & buddha

Saturday, October 16: Saturday morning, I eat some yogurt I bought at the E-Mart-ah and head out to catch Bus 7-1 on the main road.  I hate Korean breakfasts, so it’s always a problem eating on my travels. Actually, I don’t even know where one would find a Korean breakfast.  The 7-1 bus goes south all along the beach highway in Sokcho.  Sokcho is a harbor town of 90,000 and is Korea’s northernmost city.  It actually is quite a notch above most other Korean cities; I could say it is actually a little NON-ugly.  It still has the normal Korean city qualities: garish rectangular signs in primary colors with the squarish Hangul letters, grimy soot- or dust-covered storefront windows, the rare English sign, mobile phone stores on every corner, concrete high-rise apartment complexes in beige or taupe, schools with their playgrounds of fine gravel or dirt, Family Marts, soju & hof places, 7-11s, hair salons for all the perming and dyeing that goes on, shops with not a single enticing product or just plain ugly clothing, coffee shops and jijimbangs.  But Sokcho is a little cleaner than most, a little more spread out, designed a little more tastefully.  I don’t mind it at all; it isn’t so bad.

prayer tiles offered to the buddha

prayer tiles offered to the buddha

When I get on the bus, there is not a single seat available.  I must stand and hold on to the rubber handle hanging from the ceiling.  It’s packed with Koreans and all their hiking paraphernalia: colorful hiking outfits, walking sticks, expensive hiking boots, backpacks, cameras.  It isn’t that far distance-wise, but when we turn inland onto the two-lane road heading to Seorak-san, we come to a dead standstill in a huge traffic jam heading into the park.  We sit for probably a half-hour or more in this can of silkworms.  Finally, we get to the entrance of the park, where the parking lot is overflowing.  The place is buzzing with people.  Commercial establishments line the entrance: restaurants and gift shops of all types.  Outdoor cafes.  People making corn on a stick and selling it.

corn on a stick for sale!

corn on a stick for sale!

I must take my medicine with food, so I grab the only palatable looking thing there, a piece of corn, and sit down to eat and take my meds.  The corn is cold and rubbery, as always.  I don’t know how they manage to do this to a piece of corn.  Granted it’s not just Korea; I found this same rubbery corn on a stick in Turkey as well.   Despite its chewiness, I eat it, as I must.  Then I head into the park with the hordes.

eating rubbery corn on a stick for lunch

eating rubbery corn on a stick for lunch

I come to a huge new seated bronze Buddha statue to Shinheung-sa (“Divine Undertaking Temple”), the main temple of Seorak-san and a district temple for the Jogye Buddhist sect.  The Buddha sits on a huge stone lotus bud; a bronze mandala sits behind its head.  In front stand two large bronze lanterns and an incense burner.  The Buddha was built as a prayer for the unification of the country.  It’s pretty darn cool.

the new bronze buddha with the mandala

the new bronze buddha with the mandala

I am in search of some waterfalls I read about, so I sit and study the map.  I decide to go up the cable car to the mountaintop first.  They tell me at first the next ticket they have is for 4:20.  It is 12:40.  I almost walk away, but the ticket girl says, are you alone?  I say yes.  OK, then, you can have a 1:15 ticket.  I guess there is some benefit to being alone!

the view from the cable car

the view from the cable car

The view going up in the cable car is amazing.  When I get to the top, I hike further up the mountain to the bare rock peak.

a bit of fall color at the top of the mountain

a bit of fall color at the top of the mountain

This peak is literally swarming with people.  The wind is blowing like there’s no yesterday, today or tomorrow.  The view is stunning.  I can see the main ridge-line of the mountain, Ulsan-bawi across the valley to the north, and the Buddha statue in the valley below.  Looking south, I can see the silhouette of  face looking at the sky, formed by the edges of a distant ridge.  A Korean flag is mounted on the very top of the rocky peak.

the view hiking up from the cable car to the peak

the view hiking up from the cable car to the peak

at the bare rock peak at the top of the mountain ~ with the hordes of people

at the bare rock peak at the top of the mountain ~ with the hordes of people

one view from the top

one view from the top

 

another view from the mountain top

another view from the mountain top

I take some pictures and of course, since I’m traveling alone, I can’t easily get a picture of myself.  I look around for some Korean who might be open, but usually Koreans try never to meet a foreigner’s eye; they are so afraid we will speak to them and they’ll have to speak in English.  So, instead I put my little Canon on a big rock, set the 10-second timer and take a picture.  The wind is blowing so hard that I feel like it might knock me over.

the picture right before the one that broke my camera :-(

the picture right before the one that broke my camera 😦

I should have stopped at that one picture, but no, I try for another.  That’s when my little camera meets its demise.  I set the timer, and start to sit down, but think (ah flash of brilliance!) I’ll put the strap of the camera under my heavy bag, so the wind won’t blow it off the rock.  Bad plan, for as I sit on the rock for the photo, a huge gust knocks my bag off the rock, the bag that was supposed to be the anchor; the camera goes right along with it.  The lens is smashed totally, the glass broken.  I look through the viewfinder and all I see is the black silhouette of the shutter.  Ruined:-(

the picture that killed my camera

the picture that killed my camera

I am so bummed.  This camera has been all over the world with me.  I bought it before I went to Mexico in 2007.  Then it traveled with me to Egypt for a month, then to Singapore & Thailand, all over Korea, to Turkey and to China.  It’s dead now, and I feel like I’ve lost my main fellow traveler and companion.  I truly am ALONE.

By now my knees are really sore just from the little hiking I have done, and I really am tired.  I think I really am quite sick, truly.  I guess that’s why the doctor didn’t want me to travel.  But I am so hard-headed; I have come all this way, by golly, and I am going to find at least one of the waterfalls even if it kills me.  I’m disheartened though; even when I find it, I won’t be able to take a picture.  Suddenly, a flash of inspiration!  I can use my phone to take pictures.  I have no idea how to transfer a photo from my phone to my computer, but there must be a way.  I’ll figure it out!

The guidebook says the hike to Biryong (“Flying Dragon”) Waterfall is 4o minutes one way.  At first it’s pretty easy, because much of it is along the river and thus flat.  But as the path turns away from the river, it starts to climb, over rocks and numerous staircases and little wooden bridges crossing back and forth over the river.  It’s shady and cool and the water is rushing over the rocks, the sound soothing and peaceful.  I love to hike along rivers that flow off a mountain.  Water gushes over the rocks into little emerald pools, too many of them to count along the way.  It’s so pretty and peaceful, and not as crowded as the other parts of the park.  I love it truly.

along the walk to biryong waterfall

along the walk to biryong waterfall

Biryong Waterfall is a 130-foot-long ribbon of water that slides down a rock face into an emerald pool.  It’s very idyllic here; the large number of people sitting on the rocks around the pool are blissfully quiet and just enjoying the serene spot.  I sit here for quite a long time just enjoying being in the presence of nature at its finest.  One Korean couple has set up a tripod with a camera and they have been taking photos of themselves together all along this hike.  Now, they are in the center, capturing themselves and this moment on their fancy camera.  I snap a picture with my cell phone.

Biryong Waterfall and its emerald pool

Biryong Waterfall and its emerald pool

I dread getting up because my legs are killing me and now my LEFT knee feels like somehow it’s been twisted.  I don’t even remember anything happening to it.  So I now have to walk down all these steps and rocks with TWO bad knees!  I don’t know what is wrong with me.  I feel like I’m falling apart!  What is happening?  I am also incredibly tired.  I walk the long walk back and am about to keel over at any time.  I finally make it back, get on the 7-1 bus where this time I’m able to secure a seat, thank goodness!

While I am riding, I call my trusty Daegu Tourist Information people and ask them about the bus timetable for my trip back to Daegu tomorrow, Sunday. After some checking, she informs me that the only buses back are 7-hour-long rides; she warns me not to take the 7:50 bus because it’s 9 hours long!  I am bewildered by this information.  I ask how can this be?  The ride up here was 5 hours from Bukbu, how can the ride back be 7-9 hours?  She says there is no bus to Bukbu going back, only to Dongdaegu.  I find this hard to believe and I tell her I don’t feel this information is correct.  She assures me it is.  Now this idea stresses me out.  This again is why the doctor didn’t want me to travel.  The unexpected nuisances and problems you encounter along a journey can sometimes be highly stress-inducing!

Overall, the ride back into town is much faster, and I’m back at the Miamore in no time.  At the hotel, I lie down for a little bit and wonder how my legs can be hurting me so much.  I must really be out of shape.   I am NOT going to accept the fact of getting older and slower, I’m just NOT!  I refuse to succumb to age or to sickness or fatigue.  I make myself get up and find a restaurant that serves seafood.  There I have a beer (despite doctor’s orders!) and a huge kind of crab, maybe like an Alaskan king crab?  The regular roots and kimchi and other strange veggies and squid (ick!) accompany the meal, all of which I leave untouched.  There IS a really good soup though.  One thing I almost always like in Korea are the soups.

Back at the hotel, I grab a free movie from the lobby, 13 Going on 30, with Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo.  Such a girlie chick flick.  But I have no book and there isn’t much of a selection, so I watch.  That is, after I take a long hot soak in the bathtub; ah such a rarity in Korea, a bathtub in a bathroom!

Sunday, October 17: I am so exhausted, I sleep well and sleep in.  I take a leisurely trip to the inter-city bus terminal where I find, sure enough, that there IS in fact another 5-hour bus back to the Bukbu bus terminal in Daegu at 11:05.  It turns out in fact the bus is only 4 1/2 hours. I can’t help but call the Daegu Tourist information to inform them they had given me wrong information.  On the bus, I sleep a bit and read my Korea guidebook, thinking of next weekend’s trip to Geoje-Do.  I get home at a reasonable hour.

It’s amazing how people come into your life when you most need them.  A lot of my friends from high school know Chetan Payne.  She and I have been talking a lot on Facebook over the last year, but especially in the last couple of months.  She is always positive and encouraging and such a good listener and supporter.  I would love to be like her, really.  She goes out and buys an Asia calling card and she arranges to call me on Sunday night.  It is such a treat when I get her call.  It actually is the first time we’ve spoken in well over 30 years.  She is an ex-pat American living in Italy; she met her Italian husband when she was in the wine business in Florida and has lived in Italy many years now.  She and I have connected lately because she feels a kinship with me in my own journey and life here in Korea.  Although she wasn’t in my class in high school, she knew my two little sisters and was in the same sorority I was in, Sigma Phi Lambda (SPL).  I love her outlook on life, her non-judgmental and supportive attitude.  She’s such a great person; she’s loving, spiritual, easy-going, and open-minded.  I feel so blessed that she feels a connection with me, of all people, as screwed up as I am!  Anyway, she calls and we have an amazing talk.  We commiserate about living in a foreign country and how foreigners just don’t “get” Americans.  She has many of the same challenges in Italy that I have here.  But, by gosh, I keep thinking, SHE’S IN ITALY!  It’s so different.  Italy is beautiful, has great food, a beautiful language, everything should be wonderful.  But there, she deals with the same cultural clashes that I deal with here; and she has spent a great part of her life doing this.  I’ve only been here 8 months; she’s done it for decades!

Anyway, she says something very wise to me.  She says, You are right now in just the place you’re supposed to be.  It’s difficult, but God (or did she say God?) has given you all the tools you need to make it through.  Either she says God, or I read God, but possibly she is referring to some more undefinable higher power.  She says maybe now is the time for you to read a lot, write your blogs, travel.  You have what you need to make it through.

I know in my heart that what she says is right.  I feel like I’m here for a reason.  I don’t know exactly what it is.  I think the reason has to do with learning something valuable about myself.  How to be alone, how to be independent, how to find my own lost soul.  How to find happiness within.

I’m here for more practical reasons as well : To write, to read, to meditate, to learn Arabic, to finish my TEFL, to get the credentials to move to the place my heart is calling me.

It seems that when you’re on a journey, everything along the road seems to be a sign for what you’re supposed to be learning.  This weekend, it started with the trip to the doctor followed by the conversation with Justin and Bonnie in E-Mart, enjoying nature, losing my camera, and then talking to Chetan.  Everything this week has offered a clue to the challenge of being alone.  Being alone without feeling that constant of heart-wrenching loneliness.

Thursday, October 21: The culmination clue comes on Thursday night, when my friend Kim and I go, on the final night of its showing at Lotte Cinema in Daegu, to see Eat Pray Love.  The movie isn’t great, but it reminds me of what I learned when I read the book, which I loved.  The author, Elizabeth Gilbert, writes about her quest to learn to love herself, to know herself, to find balance in her life.  To do this, she travels 4 months to Italy, where she learns about pleasure, enjoying life, doing the things she loves without worrying about pleasing a man, or anyone for that matter.  She spends 4 months in an ashram in India, where she learns to meditate, to go within and stare her pain and heartbreak in the eye, to come to grips with who she is.  And finally, to Indonesia, where she spends 4 months learning about love, family, friends, being in a community.  Most of all, I think she learns about how to love herself, so she can be whole enough to offer herself to others.  How to live without that urgent and desperate need for a man, or for anyone.  In the end, she finds love by happenstance, but she has become strong enough that she doesn’t have to give up herself and her own needs to be with him.

This is what I am seeking.  I am no longer feeling a desperate urge to find love.  Or even friends, for that matter.  I am seeking to learn to be alone.  Back in the U.S., I have 4 good friends that I’ve had since high school.  We will always be friends until the day we die.  We have known each other for a long time; we accept each other and care for each other.  I also have a group of more current friends who add incredible depth to my life.  They are easy-going, non-judgmental; they make me laugh.  They don’t judge me if my religious beliefs are not the same as theirs, or if I am sometimes crazy and maybe too adventurous.  If I struggle with things, they listen without offering unsolicited advice.  These are my friends;  unfortunately for me, they are all in the U.S.  Here, I have not been so fortunate.  This I am learning to accept.  I am alone here.  And I will revel in that…. 🙂

a monk chanting along the path.... an outward sign of my inner journey?

a monk chanting along the path…. an outward sign of my inner journey?

For anyone interested in going to Sokcho and Seorak-san National Park from Daegu, here’s what you do:

1) Take a taxi to Bukbu  Bus Terminal.  Daegu Tourist Information tells me I should take metro to Duryu and then take a taxi, but my friend Kim doesn’t feel that’s correct.  She advises me to take the same 250 bus that I take from Seongju; it goes directly to the Bukbu Terminal.  Anyway, I take a taxi, about 7,500 won.  I do actually see the 250 bus departing from Bukbu as I arrive, so I know Kim’s information is correct.  I don’t know the cost of the 250 bus from one point in Daegu to another.  All I know is the fare from Seongju is 3,300 won.  It’s probably cheaper within Daegu itself.

2) The bus times to Sokcho are: 8:00, 11:00, 14:30, 18:00 and 22:00.  The ride is 5 hours and costs 24,100 won.

3) From Sokcho, where there are plenty of motels, you can take the 7-1 bus to Seorak-san for 1,000 won.  If you don’t want to stay in Sokcho, there are plenty of motels nearer to Seorak-san as well.

4) Coming back home from Sokcho, go to the inter-city bus terminal and take the bus back to Bukdaegu (the Bukbu terminal where you originated).  The times are: 7:20, 11:05, 14:30 and 18:10.  The ride back is only 4 1/2 hours and costs 24, 100 won.

This number for Daegu Tourist Information has proved invaluable to me on my travels.   Even though their information is not always correct, they try hard and there is always someone there who speaks English.  The number is: 053-1330.

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 Wednesday evening, October 6:  The white-haired Korean bus driver is yelling at me.  At first I don’t realize it; I mean I don’t realize he is yelling at me because of course I can’t understand a word he is saying.  I am on my nightly bus from Seongju to Daegu, and we are a little west of the city, possibly near an area known as Jukgok-ri or Bugok-ri.  I don’t know what the area is but it’s not in Daegu proper, and this bus driver is yelling angrily and gesturing wildly with the bus tickets and everyone on the bus is staring at me.   I ignore the tirade because I can’t think of a reason in the world he should be yelling at me.   I look out the window, trying to ignore the stares and his vituperative monologue.

the 250 bus that goes from seongju to daegu

the 250 bus that goes from seongju to daegu

It becomes blatantly obvious that I am the object of his wrath when he pulls the bus over, gets out of his seat, comes to the back and stands over me yelling.  Something about Daegu and 3,300 and 2,100 (he’s putting up his fingers with these numbers so I know it’s something to do with the bus fare).   Still.  I have no idea what is going on.  I just look at him and shrug and say, sorry, I don’t understand.  And promptly go back to staring out the window.

People are getting uncomfortable now and my blood is beginning to boil as I realize he is not going to stop.  There is a man with a ponytail one seat back and catty-corner from me who speaks some English.  He doesn’t look Korean to me, actually he looks Hispanic, but what do I know?  He comes to my rescue.  He says, the bus driver says you only paid the fare to here so you need to get off.  I say, NO!  I paid 3,300 won; that’s the fare to Daegu.  He says, the bus driver says he remembers you paid only 2,100.  Of course the bus driver has taken my ticket, so I have no way to prove what I paid.  The bus driver, who has held up the entire bus for this 1,200 won (less than $1 USD) is not budging and is standing over me gesturing that I must pay the difference or get off the bus!

on the 250 bus in august

on the 250 bus in august

I am now shaking and so angry I could tear his head off.  I say, NO!!! I PAID 3,300 WON!  I put up both hands with 3 fingers sticking up.  THREE thousand THREE hundred!!  He insists otherwise.  I say, I am NOT getting off the bus!  The bus driver shoves his hand in my face to collect the fare.  The man in the ponytail says, The bus driver says you always get off at this stop; he remembers you distinctly.  I say, NO!  First of all, I have never seen this man in my life.  Second, I DO NOT LIVE HERE and I HAVE NEVER and WOULD NEVER get on or off at this stop!!

Now.  To argue over less than $1 seems unreasonable, but now that I have this horrible commute that costs me twice as much as I used to pay when I had the carpool, I am very stingy with my money, especially for transportation costs.  I don’t really care about the money, but I am outraged as a matter of principle.  He is relentless.  He is holding up the whole bus over this matter and every single person is looking at me as if I’ve committed some heinous crime.  So.  I pull out my wallet and take out a 1,000 won bill and thrust it into his hand.  He puts up two fingers to emphasize I need to pay 200 won more!  By then I am shaking so much and am so furious, I take out my wallet, open my change purse, and literally THROW all the change at him.  I yell, HERE!  Take your fucking money!! Take it all!  What the fuck do I care!!

The money is dumped all over the bus floor.  It is rolling everywhere.  The bus driver just stands there for a minute.  Everyone is shocked, including him.  Everything is at a standstill while the traffic goes by outside the windows.  Then, he thrusts the 1,000 won bill back at me; I throw it back at him.  It lands on the lady’s lap beside me.  The bus driver goes back to the front of the bus and starts driving again.

a teddy bear and an ajuma on one of the 250 buses

a teddy bear and an ajuma on one of the 250 buses

The man in the ponytail says, he must have made a mistake.  He thinks he remembers you always get off at this bus stop.  I reiterate that I live at Kay-Day Dong Moon…. The East Gate of Keimyung University.  I DO NOT live in this place, so why would I ever get on or off at this stop?

This is the weirdest thing I have ever heard.  How many people in Korea look like me?  I have never seen even one person who looks like me, with my white hair.  This white-haired bus driver is an anomaly himself.  Does he have some animosity toward me because he’s allowed to have white hair but I’m not???   What the hell???  Or maybe, just maybe, he thinks all white people look alike. 🙂

the 250 bus at the seongju bus terminal

the 250 bus at the seongju bus terminal

Anyway, he goes on his merry way.  The nice Koreans on the bus have gotten over their initial shock and are now bending over picking up all my change from the bus floor.  The lady with my 1,000 won bill in her lap hands it back to me and all the people give me back the change they’ve picked up.

We still have some distance to go before my stop.  By the time we get there, I go stand at the front to show I need to get off (there are no buzzers on this bus to signal a desire to stop!).  I decide not to say anything.  When he stops, I say, very politely, Kamsamnida (thank you), and I quietly get off the bus.

Now, every night when I get on the bus at Seongju, I hand the bus driver my ticket and I say, very clearly and loudly, “Daegu.”  Just so there is no confusion again.  I want him to notice when he takes my ticket that I paid 3,300 won and thus should be able to go anywhere in Daegu.  But this week, another odd thing happened.  When I handed a totally different bus driver my ticket and said “Daegu,” he looked at me incredulously, scratched his head, and said, DAEGU??  Like he was baffled as to why I would be going to Daegu.  All I can think is there really must be another white woman with white hair that gets off at that earlier stop.  I’m going to be on the lookout for  her.  Maybe we can become friends……

On Friday afternoon, September 10, my Korean co-teacher Coffee J (who is my assigned manager and “advocate” here in Korea) pops his head into my English classroom and asks me to come on down for a drink and an ice cream treat.  I say, Really? To the teacher’s room?  He says, No, come to my classroom!  I think, Nice!  A party!

Little do I know I am being set up for an ambush.  I go to his classroom and in the room are three people, Coffee J (aka Kim Hyun Jun) & Mr. Son, who are both in my Chojeon carpool and Mr. O, who is my Byeokjin carpool.  After joking around with me and asking me what are my plans for the weekend & how my day has been, etc., and after I finish eating my fish-shaped ice-cream wrapped like some pastry in a waffle-cone, Coffee J says to me: Mr. O and we, myself and Mr. Son, think that it is time to end the carpool.  We think you should start taking the bus to work now.

I say: Why?  It is no inconvenience to you whatsoever.  It is not out of your way and I just sit quietly in the back seat.  He says, No reason really.  We just think because of “cultural differences,” it is better.  He says, It doesn’t mean we don’t like you or anything like that.

I say, Do you know what this means?  I stand up and start writing things on the board, like the teacher I am.   I say: Right now, I give you all 100,000 won each month for the carpool.  If I have to start taking the bus, depending on how many work days there are in the month, at a cost of 8,600 won a day, my cost for transportation will go up from anywhere to 172,000-189,000 won.  In addition, because I have to take two buses, from Daegu to Seongju and then from Seongju to either Byeokjin or Chojeon, my commuting time will go up from one hour each way to one hour 30-40 minutes each way.  So now, instead of 2 hours a day of commuting, I will now commute 3+ hours a day and spend nearly two times as much.  Are you planning to give me the additional amount of money each month that I will now spend over my rural allowance of 100,000 won?

Coffee J ~ he's supposed to be my advocate

Coffee J ~ he’s supposed to be my advocate

They just sit there.  Coffee J says, I don’t know about the money.  I say, I just now told you about the money!  I don’t have an extra 100,000 in my budget, halfway through my contract, to start paying an additional 100,000 in commuting costs!

He says, well you CHOSE to live in Daegu.  This is where I want to rip his head off.  I say, I CHOSE to live in Daegu because when I came here, brand new to this country, you showed me one dingy apartment in Seongju and then said that most Seongju teachers live in Daegu.  You said that there would be nothing to do in Seongju and that I would like living in Daegu much better.  I asked you about  the commute and you said it should be about an hour.  I asked about the cost of the commute and you shrugged and said, I don’t know.  It shouldn’t be a problem.  You should have researched the cost and told me this so I could make an informed decision.  And then you offered to include me in your carpool for the time being which was fine.  I paid you 100,000 won, which is exactly covered by my rural allowance, and it was no inconvenience to you as all you had to do was stop right along the side of the road where you always drive every day and let me get in the car.

He just sits there.  He has nothing to say.  Mr. O is being his usual slimy self, wiping his sweating face with his plaid handkerchief.  Mr. Son has his head in his hands, avoiding looking at me.  Coffee J just sits there with a smug look on his face.

the abominable mr. o

the abominable mr. o

I look at them all.  I say, And don’t tell me it’s not because you don’t like me.  It is exactly because you don’t like me.  So, let’s just be clear from now on.  We will NOT be friends.   We will never again be friends.  We will keep at an arm’s length distance from each other.  This will be the way it is from now on.   We will be work colleagues only.  So don’t try to be my friend!

Cultural differences.  Yes, we are culturally different.  I am an American and I will never be a Korean.  Did they think when they hired me that I would be something other than what I am?  When there are problems in Chojeon, the only school where I actually ever have problems ( I love Byeokjin, by the way, EXCEPT for Mr. O), I speak up about them.  The fact that they control the heat and air-conditioning from a central location and I have to argue with them constantly so that I don’t have to work under harsh conditions of extreme heat or cold is the reason for their claim of “cultural differences.”  As an American, I will speak up if something is not right.  This issue has been a bone of contention since the moment I arrived at Chojeon in March, when it was freezing and they never turned on the heat.  The same in the summer, when they refuse to turn on air-conditioning.  Nowhere in my contract does it say I am expected to work under harsh conditions of heat and cold.  Nowhere.

So, yes.  There are cultural differences.  Did they really think that when they brought me to Korea, that I would become a Korean?  I am not one to suffer silently under any circumstances.  Koreans are.  They will give up their entire summer vacations without a protest.  They will suffer silently under extremes of heat and cold.  They will never call in sick, no matter how horrible they feel.

Other than this issue of climate-control, I can think of no other issue  with which they could have a problem.  Maybe they resent it that I actually took a summer vacation and left the country to go to Turkey for two weeks.  Maybe they resent it that I’m not required by my contract to work every other Saturday as they do.  Maybe they resent it that I’m confident and not willing to be pushed around.  Maybe they are afraid of me because they can’t speak English and they are embarrassed that they can’t (although I don’t speak Korean either, so they shouldn’t avoid me on that count!).

mr. son is on the left

mr. son is on the left

Yes, there are cultural differences.  But I know I am a good teacher; many other teachers who teach with me have told me as much.  I know that my students love me.  I know that their abilities in English are improving.  For the first six months, I never took a single sick day, even though I was sick several times.  I am always on time to work and come fully prepared to teach their children every day.

Today, I find out that coming to Byeokjin by bus is even more of an issue.  I leave Daegu on the 7:25 bus and arrive in Seongju at 8:10.  The next bus leaves for Byeokjin at 8:40.  The previous bus was at 7 a.m., so coming earlier is not an option.  I am supposed to be at work at 8:30.  How will that happen?  It is impossible.  Since I haven’t yet taken the bus home from Byeokjin, I have no idea where the bus stop is, or what time it leaves.  I suppose I will find that out after Chuseok, because my two friends, Kim and Julie will give me rides to Seongju in the next two days.

Now, because of this issue, I am likely to have a miserable remaining time in Korea.  As of today, September 15, I have 5 1/2 months.  Believe me, I was already counting the days, but now it is more insufferable and each day that I complete here will be a cause for great celebration.

Yesterday, I wrote a long letter to EPIK outlining this entire situation.  The letter I received back from them basically said there is nothing they can or will do.  How many days do I have left remaining?  5 months, 15 days, 3 hours and 37 minutes.

The abominable Mr. O (& the back-stabbing Coffee J)

I have come to despise Mr. O.  And I am not the only one who feels this way.  None of the other teachers at Byeokjin like him.  He has a class of 6 tiny 2nd grade students and he can’t even control them.  Just last week, in the cafeteria, I watched as he knocked one of his tiny little boy students upside the head about 4-5 times.  The poor kid was in tears.  Really, Mr. O.  You have 6 students and you can’t even control them without resorting to physical violence?

mr. o... his looks say it all

mr. o… his looks say it all

I’m actually happy to be out of his carpool, though not being in it will cause me great hardship and money.  Just two weeks ago, he got in an incident of road rage with me sitting in his car.  He was speeding, zig-zagging back and forth in front of another car on the road.  The other car was doing the same to him.  I yelled, Mr. O, please stop this!  You are putting my life at risk!  Of course, he can never understand me despite his Ph.D. in English, or maybe he just chose to ignore me.  Luckily I made it to school in one piece.

If anyone has ever seen the PBS mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice, and you know who Mr. Collins is, Mr. O is a malevolent Mr. Collins.  Mr. Collins is a social misfit and an idiot, but at least he’s harmless.  I cannot say the same for Mr. O.

As for Coffee J, I can no longer trust him or count on him in any way.  He is self-centered and has no heart at all.  He is supposed to be my manager and someone who will support me and be my advocate here in Korea.  We will now have only a very distant working relationship.

Tuesday, August 31: August 31 marks the halfway point for my time in Korea. I have survived 6 months!  🙂 I have six more months to go until my contract ends on February 28, 2011. Here, I look backward and forward, to what the last 6 months have brought and to what the next 6 months might bring.

At this time last year, I was working as a poorly paid intern at Management Systems International (MSI), commuting a nightmarish 1 1/2 hours each way. Our offices were on 13 boats in a marina in downtown Washington, D.C. and as an intern, my work there was under-challenging, to say the least.  I had started working there in March, 2009, and this date (August 31) also marked 6 months there.  These first 6 months at MSI felt like an eternity. I worked there until the end of December; luckily my last 4 months there were more challenging as I worked on a big contract evaluating all of USAID’s trade projects around the world for their effectiveness in actually improving trade.  It was one of the few contracts at MSI that involved research, which I loved.  So the last 4 months went quickly.  But finally, I left MSI as it was evident that, for some reason, they were never going to offer me a full-time position.

the boat at msi where i worked from march-august 2009

the boat at MSI where i worked from March-August 2009

I really wanted to live and work abroad.  Though Korea wouldn’t have been my first choice, it was the only country that didn’t require any teaching experience or the TEFL or that you be certified in your home country.  This is why I came to Korea, to get the experience of living abroad, to get the one year of teaching experience and to complete my TEFL while I was here.  I always looked at this as a stepping stone to get to where I really want to go: to the Middle East (or now possibly Turkey).

Overall my life in Korea is a fascinating, challenging, and sometimes difficult and lonely, experience.   Teaching elementary children is not particularly exciting, but the kids are thrilled to have a foreigner in their midst and I’m happy to be the subject of their enthusiasm.  They’re full of energy and sweet and crazy.  But.  Trying to figure out a way to actually teach them to speak English, that is more of the challenge.  It’s frustrating because the children have no place to practice their English except with me, in one or two 40-minute sessions a week.  Outside of school, neither their parents nor their friends speak English.  There are so few foreigners in southern Korea that they still see us as alien creatures.  My friend Kathy thinks that one of the reasons the Korean government imports all of us native English teachers is so people in Korea will get used to seeing foreigners.  As Korea is not much of a tourist destination and it is cut off physically from the rest of the world, it is a good way to have foreigners in their midst.  I have no idea if this is true; this is just her theory.  But it makes sense.

chojeon elementary school ~ august 30 ~ crepe myrtles in bloom

chojeon elementary school ~ august 30 ~ crepe myrtles in bloom

In the six months I’ve been here, I’ve struggled to adapt to a culture that in many ways is vastly different from my own, and in other ways is eerily similar.  It’s different in the way the people are.  When I happen upon the few Koreans who speak some English, I find them very friendly.  They’ll do anything for you; they’ll invite you to their homes, to dinner, to church.  But for the vast majority who don’t speak English, they don’t make any attempt at eye contact or any kind of approach at all.  I live near Keimyung University, where college students roam the streets until all hours.  I know these kids have only recently graduated from a public school system that has taught them English for at least 15 years, yet they all claim to know no English.  If I stop on the street and ask someone for directions or if I have any question, they wave me off, say, No English!  They are afraid to speak it because they never get a chance to practice.  I understand this perfectly, since I have studied a number of foreign languages and am afraid to speak any of them.  But it makes a foreigner’s life here difficult…and lonely.

julie & coffee-j, my korean co-teachers

julie & coffee-j, my korean co-teachers

Granted, much of this is my own fault for not making more of an attempt to learn Korean.  I should do this, and I do intend to work harder at it in the next 6 months.

There are a lot of differences that I find difficult to ignore.  Koreans don’t believe in standing in line.  They will shove their way into any place, metro, stairs, ticket offices, toilets, ignoring any semblance of a queue.  There are rarely trash cans evident, so people just toss their trash on the street.  People spit.  Young couples wear matching shirts, sometimes whole matching outfits.  Ajumas are always glaring at you or even yelling at you for reasons you can’t understand.  People, children and adults alike, touch the hair on your head or the hair on your arms;  they will comment on your appearance as if you asked for their opinion.  Recently one of Anna’s co-teachers asked her if she brushes her hair in the mornings.  Anna, who was taken aback, said yes she does.  The co-teacher went on to say, because it looks like in the afternoons, your hair is brushed, but in the mornings it doesn’t.  Korean people eat roots and condiments as if they are real dishes.  They believe every dish has some kind of health benefit.  They believe they are the only country in the world with 4 distinct seasons. They love beef and pork with all the fat still on it (some people love this but I don’t!).  They drive on sidewalks.  They wear sleeves that don’t attach to anything.  They get decked out in elaborate hiking gear to walk in the mountains.  They don’t wear bathing suits at the beach but instead wear a full regalia of clothing, including hats, long sleeves, unattached sleeves, and shoes.  The list could go on forever…..

a buddhist temple in seoul

a buddhist temple in seoul

Oddly, Korea is somehow not so different from America too.  People drive their modern cars (usually Hyundais) down their modern highways to their regular jobs.  They go to church on Sunday or to their Buddhist temples (although I haven’t met many Buddhists).  They love their families and take their kids to the beach, to the huge water parks, or to E-mart for groceries.  They care deeply about their children’s education.  It’s weird, sometimes I forget briefly that I’m even in a foreign country!

So, in a nutshell, here’s what I’ve done my first 6 months.  I’ve explored Daegu. I’ve traveled to Pohang, Busan, Gyeongju, Andong, & Seoul.  I traveled outside of Korea to Turkey.  I’ve connected with some really great foreigners here in Daegu who also teach English in Seongju.  I have two very close Korean girlfriends.  I’ve studied Arabic. I’ve worked on my TEFL.  I am learning, by trial and error, how to teach English as a second language to Korean children.  I have started writing, which is one of my favorite things.  I have been to DVD bangs, noraebangs, and eaten a LOT of Korean food.  I have learned how it feels to be a foreigner; I know now how disoriented and scared and overwhelmed immigrants in America must feel.  I know how it must feel to come to America speaking only Spanish, and not bother to learn English because you have a community of people from your own culture who can speak to you in Spanish; outside of that community, you can get by with what little English you know.  I know what it feels like to be in the minority.

standing near the top of the andong dam in may

standing near the top of the andong dam in may

I’ve learned how to be alone with myself.  That’s probably one of the most important things I’ve learned here.  As one of the few older English teachers, in world populated by mostly 20- to 30-something teachers, I am the odd girl out.  I no longer feel like going out partying until all hours of the night.  I’m just no longer into that.  I love hanging out, drinking beer and playing games with my more mature younger friends.  I’ve learned I love being alone and even traveling alone.  I get caught up in writing stuff for myself that not many other people read.  But, it’s important to me all the same.

me at the folk museum in seoul

me at the folk museum in seoul

Finally, how will the next 6 months go?  I have no idea.  I will continue writing as much as possible.  I will finish my TEFL.  I will continue to explore Korea on weekends.  I will visit China in a couple of weeks and hopefully Vietnam & Cambodia over winter break.  I will try to meet my best friend Jayne in India for two weeks on my way home to the U.S. in March, and possibly stop in Turkey again as well.  I will continue to go to church and I will do a Buddhist temple stay or two. I will try to go hiking in Korea’s endless array of mountains, filled with temples and Buddha statues and many other unknown treasures.

I am losing hope of finding any romance here in Korea, but I will keep my heart open, just in case.  And I will continue to read my books, filling my head with crazy notions that will guide my life into places unexpected and surprising.

Gaya-san summer camps

Work, work and more work.  I returned home from my two-week trip to Turkey on Wednesday night, August 4, close to midnight, exhausted and dirty. By the time I unpacked and got organized, it was 2 a.m.  At 6, I got up and went to work.  And I worked the rest of the summer, teaching summer camps: 1) a 2-day camp at Chojeon Elementary School, where I teach during the regular year; 2) two 3-day camps at the Seongju English Village; and 3) two camps at Gaya Mountain ~ one 2-day middle school camp and one 4-day elementary camp.  On the 3 days not booked with camps, I reported to Chojeon to put in my 8-hour days doing “lesson planning” (i.e. writing my blog and goofing off on Facebook).

Arrival at Gaya-san

Arrival at Gaya-san for the 2-day middle school camp

Rock gardens at Gaya-san

Rock gardens at Gaya-san

Funny thing this.  Regular teachers in South Korea get only a 6-week summer vacation – a lot less than our 2 1/2 months in the U.S.  However, many of the teachers are required to work for all or a good portion of this “vacation.”  I surveyed different Korean co-teachers after the “holiday”; some had off a month, others not a single day!  As a native English teacher, my contract specifies I get a total of 18 days in a year: 8 in summer and 10 in winter.  I took my 10 in summer, so I only have 8 remaining. We also get a couple of national holidays, but those don’t amount to much.  Yes, WORK is the order of the day in the Korean school system.

the gaya hotel

the gaya hotel

The Gaya Mountain camps were overnight camps; we stayed and taught in the classy Gaya-san Hotel.  It was definitely not “camping!” The middle school camp was supposed to be 3 days, but one day was cancelled because of heavy rain.  A nice reprieve, to get a totally unexpected day off!  Rare.

Overall, the camps were high jinx and a gave me a different lens through which to see the students.  I don’t normally teach middle school;  my “comic strips” camp lesson was a little over the kids’ heads.  I thought they would be more advanced.

one of my middle school students draws a comic strip

one of my middle school students draws a comic strip

Students drawing comic strips

Students drawing comic strips

what one of my students produced in the comic strip lesson

what one of my students produced in the comic strip lesson

In the elementary camps, I taught the song California Dreamin’; I played a Power Point Jeopardy Game I made up, simplified Boggle games and another 5×5 word game.  In one camp, I read the book Balloonia, about an imaginary land where balloons live above the clouds, then I had the kids make up a travel brochure for a land they made up themselves.  Finally, I played a drawing game where I reviewed body parts & descriptive adjectives and said sentences like: He is a tall boy with three eyes, big ears, and short curly hair.  Two teams competed to draw pictures incorporating every item in the sentence.

balloonia and the kids' travel brochures

balloonia and the kids’ travel brochures

My class's performance

My class’s performance

All the students & teachers at the camp

All the students & teachers at the camp

The best thing about the camps was this: I wasn’t the sole English teacher.  Usually, during the regular school year, I’m the only native English teacher in my school.  Except for Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the Korean English teacher, my friend Julie, shows up, I have no one in my schools with whom I can just hang out and shoot the breeze (except Kim, who I talk about below).  I am always the lone “native.”  But here, at these camps, we bonded.  I got to know the other English teachers in Seongju who I barely knew before.  The teachers at the English Village were great: Suzanne and Manny from South Africa and Danny from the U.S.  I already know Anna, Seth and Kathy of course, but it was nice to work and hang out with them in a different setting.

After our two-day middle school camp, we also worked at a 4-day elementary school camp.

arrival at gaya-san summer camp for the second set of camps

arrival at gaya-san summer camp for the second set of camps

Kathy, Suzanne, Anna and Seth

Kathy, Suzanne, Anna and Seth

me, Suzanne, Anna and Seth

me, Suzanne, Anna and Seth

me with most of my students from Byeokjin Elementary

me with most of my students from Byeokjin Elementary

my students hamming it up

my students hamming it up

We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together (all the while complaining about the Korean food and wishing in vain for a western breakfast with coffee); we hung out and played poker and drank beer at night.  I loved and valued this camaraderie with my fellow teachers and native-English-speaking friends more than anything else.

playing poker at night to kill the time

playing poker at night to kill the time

at the teacher party the last night of camp: my fellow native english teachers: kathy, seth, anna, me & suzanne

at the teacher party the last night of camp: my fellow native english teachers: kathy, seth, anna, me & suzanne

Anna, me and Suzanne

Anna, me and Suzanne

our Korean co-teachers

our Korean co-teachers

We also had some free time in the afternoons to take mini-hikes on the grounds of the Gaya-san Hotel and on Gaya Mountain.

on the grounds of the Gaya-san hotel

on the grounds of the Gaya-san hotel

rock sculptures on the hotel grounds

rock sculptures on the hotel grounds

rock sculptures and bonsai trees

rock sculptures and bonsai trees

more rock sculptures

more rock sculptures

waterfall on the mountain

waterfall on the mountain

Anna and Kathy

Anna and Kathy

me by the waterfall

me by the waterfall

a narrow passageway at the museum

a narrow passageway at the museum

a little pond

a little pond

pretty greenery

pretty greenery

delicate flowers

delicate flowers

snow white flowers

snow white flowers

blossoms and fog

blossoms and fog

more delicate flowers

more delicate flowers

Actually, now that I’m back in my own schools to begin the second semester, I’m feeling kinda lonely and blue. 😦

my korean friend kim

Thursday, August 5: I do have one other close Korean friend besides Julie in one of my schools.  Her name is Kim and she teaches the first-graders at Byeokjin, the ones with the animal names.  Her English is excellent and she’s one of the nicest people I know in this world.  She is deep-thinking, intelligent, kind, soft-spoken and shy, but also worldly (she’s traveled a number of places outside of Korea, which is almost unheard of!)  She always tells me she loves talking to me because she likes older people, for one, and because I always teach her something new.  She says I encourage her to be more adventurous, because lately, in her life, she feels she’s in a rut and doesn’t much step out of her boundaries.  I am always happy to meet her for dinner every couple of Fridays or so.  She loves to eat pasta, and we end up going most often to VIVA where we have a glass of wine.   I’ve also dragged her along to Sydney Street, where she doesn’t feel too overwhelmed because there are never many people in there.

me & kim at sydney street cafe

me & kim at sydney street cafe on August 5

Kim is 42 and unmarried; this causes her great consternation.  Mr. O pronounced once that Kim is “old” and “not married.”  In Korean eyes, this is a bad combination.  She dated someone she loved very much for 15 years, off and on, but no longer speaks to him.  I know she would love to meet him again, or to meet someone new and kind-hearted and loving.  I wish this for her as well.

She always listens patiently to all my crazy or sad stories, my dreams,  my disappointments and my irritations. She’s always there to listen when I am struggling.  She never judges; she just listens and speaks her wisdom.  I like her so much.  When I leave Korea, I will carry her with me always, close to my heart.

hanging out with friends

Friday, August 6: Tonight, Myrna, Anna, Ben and I went out for pizza at our neighborhood pizza place after a week of teaching summer camps.

Anna

Anna

Ben, Anna, Myrna and me

Ben, Anna, Myrna and me

Myrna, me and Anna

Myrna, me and Anna

hangin’ & chillin’ with movies & games

Tuesday, August 24: Anna & Seth provide the house, games & movies for our entertainment nights.  As a married couple, they have the biggest apartment of all of us, with couches and chairs and even a coffee table!  We singles lack these simple things.  Always generous, they open their home to us and we congregate and play games, watch movies, or just hang out and eat dinner.  They also host our Bible studies.

anna & seth, the perfect hosts always

anna & seth, the perfect hosts always

It’s so funny, when they came to Korea, Anna & Seth paid an exorbitant sum for all the games, movies, books, etc. that they brought in their extra luggage.  But thank goodness for their foresight in bringing all this entertainment.  These things have given us many hours of pleasant companionship as well as some hearty competition.   Our favorites are: a cool railroad strategy game called Ticket to Ride (that Seth always wins!), Wii, Scrabble, poker with chips, and most recently, Spades.

Anna making steak fajitas

Anna making steak fajitas

I had Mike mail me some of my movies from home, including the 5-hour 1995 PBS version of Pride & Prejudice (starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy), which we started watching in June, and will just finish watching this Friday.  And we’ve watched the 2002 Catch Me if You Can with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.

Marice and Shihwan play Wii

Marice and Shihwan play Wii

We’ve had a couple of taco nights and just last week, Anna wanted to treat our Korean friends to some American food.  We worked together to make steak and potato fajitas…. delicious!  Shihwan was so funny; Koreans love their food spicy and he said, after eating half of his fajita, Do you have any spice to put on this? He looked a little bored with the whole fajita….

the makings for steak fajitas

the makings for steak fajitas

Maurice & Shihwan

Maurice & Shihwan

hot fun in the summertime

Here is summer in Daegu.  Unrelenting heat & humidity, sticky air.  Huge cicadas screeching at all times of day and night.  Swarms of huge dragonflies in pockets. A never-changing 90+ degree temperature, day and night.  Clothes sticking to your skin.   All I can say is I can’t wait till it ends and the cool crisp air of fall arrives. 🙂  Ahh, cool relief, where are you??

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