Category: Korean adventures


Sunday, February 20, 2011:  I am walking down the main highway in front of Keimyung University, trying to get some exercise, trying to get my bad knee used to taking long walks in preparation for my upcoming trip to India.  On my iPod Nano, Mick Jagger is singing “I can’t get no satisfaction.”  And I am singing right along with him, with no care in the world that the Koreans passing by me on the street may think I’m crazy.  I just don’t care anymore.

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no

I’m feeling good and the air is crisp and cool, but not as frigid as it usually is in February in Korea.  And I realize this song is an echo of my feelings about Korea and why I am so happy to be leaving here in 8 more days.

I have had a great adventure here in Korea.  I have traveled all over the country, explored many nooks and crannies that even native Koreans have never seen.  I have been able to travel to 5 other Asian countries while I’ve been here:  Turkey (1/2 Asian, anyway), China, Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia.   I will travel to India on my way home, so including Korea, that will make 7 countries total.   I have made many new friends, both Koreans and expats, and have learned that I have the ability to be flexible enough to survive in a foreign country.

On the other hand, I have endured a horrible 1 1/2 hour commute each way every day for the last six months.  I have struggled with loneliness and have found little in the way of romance.  I have missed my children.  I have had  to work in conditions no Westerner would ever expect to work in, namely, a classroom that is not properly heated in winter and not air-conditioned in summer.  I have been surrounded by people who I know have been learning English for the past 20 years, yet refuse to speak a word in case they make a single mistake.

I finished reading a great novel in early February called The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey.  I actually bought it in the Siem Reap Airport in Cambodia.  In this book, a husband and wife, George and Sabine Harwood, move to the Caribbean island of Trinidad from England.  George is immediately seduced by the enticing island, with her lush curvaceous mountains and tropical greenery.  Sabine, on the other hand, feels isolated, heat-fatigued and ill at ease.

She describes her arrival to the island in 1956.  Her stomach is twisted in knots.  She is frightened.  She describes the heat: “Hot countries I knew, European countries.  But this heat was indecent, like breath or fingers.  Hands on me, touching me.” (p. 198)  She describes how she wards off boredom by cleaning her tiny flat until it is immaculate.  Shopping, she encounters strange unlabeled fruits and vegetables, “forlorn and shriveled” or “root-like bulbs, dirty and hairy.”  Tomatoes “a little rotten” and cauliflowers “heat-tired and turning brown.”  The shelves are dusty and sparse.  She can’t understand the accents of the locals and she feels like they are all staring at her as if she’s some kind of apparition.  She feels the locals won’t engage with her, as if she is an irritant.

At the markets, which resemble a “mass of bees swarming,” where the bright sun is “polishing the black bodies,”  she sails by on her green bicycle, “a white ghost in their midst.”  Her face flushed “with the embarrassment of not knowing the rules.”

While reading this book, I can relate to Sabine’s experience, though the setting is different.  Here in Korea, everywhere are swarms of shiny black hair, straight and gleaming and lovely.  I feel like an albino walking around with my whitish hair.  Everyone wears black or dark and subdued colors.  Things seems dark and depressing.  The only bright colors are on the garish signs written in Hangul, all of primary colors and punctuating the city streets like childish cartoons.

The Koreans all sit quietly and primly on the metro.  They barely acknowledge I am there, such an obvious outsider.  The young girls at the university wear the tiniest skirts imaginable and their legs seem to stretch to the heavens.  Young couples wear matching shirts or even specially ordered matching outfits. I find these things annoying.  Koreans on the street look at me briefly, but then avert their eyes, as if I have some unsightly deformity.

It’s almost as if I am floating above and observing this strange world.  I’m removed, not really a part of society here.  I will never fit in.  I will be a curiosity at best, an anomaly.  Sometimes I look at the strange people in what to me is a strange land and wonder what on earth I am doing here. I’m sure they look at me in this land of theirs that is perfectly normal and everyday, and wonder what is this stranger doing here, interloping in their town.  Sometimes they are very friendly, happy to say “Hi” or “Hello” in chipper voices.  Other times they regard me coldly and with irritation.  Sometimes they touch my hair and wonder why I don’t dye it.  They wonder why I’m different. They are fascinated by the hair on my arms.  I do not meet their ideals of uniformity. In this society, individuality is frowned upon.  Conformity is pervasive.  I don’t conform and I never will.

Yet.  This is how I have chosen to live.  It doesn’t seem as bad, somehow, to NOT belong in Korea.  In the U.S., where I also feel that I don’t fit in, it seems much worse.  Back home I’m expected to fit.  I should fit, shouldn’t I? After all, I’m an American.  Here in Korea, I expect NOT to fit in.  Because my expectations are such, it is not as painful to be outside of things.  It’s the nature of the life I have chosen.  Here I have an excuse to be different, to be on the outside.  In the U.S., I have no excuse.  Yet.  It is the case that in the U.S., I always feel slightly removed from people, like I’m on the outside looking in.  This is how I’ve felt most of my life.  But here, I’m not so disappointed about this.  In the U.S., it’s disheartening, depressing.  Disturbing, even.  But here, well, it’s okay.

I wonder if this is how other expats feel.  Like they’re an outsider no matter what they do.  Reading this book about the white woman on the green bicycle gave me a friend in Sabine Harwood.  She’s an expat, though fictional, who says it like it is.  I feel not so totally alone when I read her story, share her outlook, her experience.

It’s true. Here in Korea, I can’t get no satisfaction.  But in the character of Sabine Harwood, I feel some relief to know I’m not in this alone.

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Thursday, December 30:  In my inbox this afternoon is an email saying I have a message on Badoo.  Badoo is some kind of social/dating website, but honestly, I don’t even know how I got on there.  Possibly someone invited me at one time; I don’t know.  When I open the email, I find it’s from a French wine professor in Seoul.  His message is: It looks like you and I have the same color of hair.  It’s not black!  I laugh.  True, there is his picture and yes, he has white hair as I do.  I write him back and a chat ensues where he asks me what I’m doing this weekend.  I say I’m either doing a temple stay or going to explore the Baekje dynasty in Buyeo and Gongju, near Daejeon. He says, “I hope you won’t be shocked, but I’d love to get out of Seoul this weekend.  Would you like to meet somewhere?”  I say, “Well, if I meet you we’ll have to get separate rooms since I don’t even know you.”  He says, “That’s fine.”  I say, “Let me think about it and let you know tomorrow.”

pierre at gungnamji pond

pierre at gungnamji pond

Pierre is a 59-year-old wine professor in a university in Seoul.  An OENOLOGIST, he says. I can’t even believe they have such a thing here in Korea, as Koreans don’t have a climate or topography conducive to cultivating grapes for wine.  It’s difficult to find wine in Korea at all.  Most common beverages here are makeoli, a milky-colored Korean rice wine, beer, and soju.  But, he assures me he is a professor, that his English is not good, and that he is adventurous enough to come on an outing with me.  Complete strangers we are. Yet.  I’ve been traveling alone in Korea for so long the thought of having some company is appealing.  On Friday morning, I text him, tell him I’m going to Buyeo and if he’d like to come along, he’s welcome to come.

gungnamji pond

gungnamji pond

details of the pavilion at Gungnamji

details of the pavilion at Gungnamji

Saturday, January 1:

We meet at the bus terminal in Daejeon.  I suggest we stay the night in Daejeon; it’s Korea’s 5th largest city so there will be something to do in the evening.  We can venture to either Buyeo or Gongju on Saturday, return to Daejeon in the evening, then go to the alternate city on Sunday.  He’s agreeable to all my ideas, so we meet, drop our bags at the Star Motel (in separate rooms, which the motel proprietors find highly amusing), and then head back to the bus terminal to catch a bus to Buyeo.  It turns out there are two bus terminals in Daejeon and we happen to be at the Dongbu Intercity Bus Terminal, which only has buses to Gongju.  For some reason I can’t remember, we decide to go to the unkempt Seobu terminal to take the bus to Buyeo.  It takes an hour and a half to get there, despite the fact Tourist Information told me it would be a 40-50 minute ride.  Apparently the bus makes numerous stops and sidetrips so it takes much longer.

the pavilion at Gungnamji

the pavilion at Gungnamji

When we arrive in Buyeo, we take a taxi right away to Gungnamji, a circular pond ringed by bare-branched weeping willow trees.  It was built in 634 as a pleasure garden for the Baekje royal family.  It has an arched bridge to a little island topped with a pavilion.  There is snow everywhere and the trees are bare, so it has a stark and clean beauty to it.  It conjures up images in my mind of what Japan might be like.

me at

me at Gungnamji

We call back the taxi driver who dropped us off, and he takes us next to Busosanseong, a hill where once stood the central Baekje fortification and royal palace.  We see the shrine Samchungsa, which showcases portraits of three loyalists to the last Baekje king.  We stroll up snow-covered paths to the top of the hill to point overlooking a bend in the river.  A hexagonal pavilion is perched at the top of this rock, Nakhwa-am, or “Falling Flowers Rock.”  Legend has it that 3,000 Baekje court ladies flung themselves off of this rock rather than chance being “deflowered” by invading armies.

nakhwa-am or "falling flowers rock"

nakhwa-am or “falling flowers rock”

This hike takes us quite a while and when we get back to the bottom, it’s getting dark.  We decide to take the bus back to Daejeon and have some dinner.  I find a highly recommended Italian fusion place called the Flying Pan in my Moon Handbook, but when we get there, the management is at the door denying entrance to anyone.  When we ask why, they say they are “all sold out!”  All sold out of EVERYTHING?  We ask if we can just come in and drink some wine, but they refuse to allow us to even do that.  We find a lesser quality Italian restaurant, Sorrento, down a pedestrian street, where the only kind of wine on the wine list is a Chianti.  It’s mediocre at best.  Oh well, so much for sharing a good wine in the company of a wine professor. 😦

sorrento: the only wine on the "wine list" is a chianti

sorrento: the only wine on the “wine list” is a chianti

Pierre tells me he has two daughters, age 14 and 18, has been divorced 5 years, and has been in Korea over 3 years now. He still has a house in Bordeaux.  He thinks he will be ready to leave Korea in another year.  We agree on many things about Korea: the cities are all alike and ugly, filled with grey block buildings; the country’s efforts to learn English are failing; it’s a very inward-looking and nationalistic culture; Koreans think everything in their country is unique.  We both agree it’s claustrophobic here.

It’s great for me to have company on this trip; Pierre is easy-going and adventurous.  He goes along enthusiastically  with my every suggestion.  He’s fun to talk to, smart and knowledgeable.  The thing lacking is chemistry, of which there is none on either part.  It’s fine, because he is leaving for France on January 9 and won’t return until a day after I leave Korea for good.  There would have been no future in it, even if there had been any chemistry!  However, he is fun and enjoyable, and I think we can be friends.

We go our separate ways after dinner.  Luckily there are computers in the rooms, so I’m able to check emails (and Facebook, of course!).

Sunday, January 2: In the morning, we go to the Dongbu bus terminal and head to Gongju, where we visit the Gongju National Museum; its collection includes Baekje artifacts, including gilt-bronze shoes (which look humongous ~ too large for any human feet!), gold earrings and ornaments, comma-shaped jades, a gilt-bronze standing Avalokitesvara, bronze and stone daggers and a stone seated Buddha.  There are also artifacts excavated from King Muryeong’s tomb in 1971, including a cool stone animal guardian.

a mystical buddha at the gongju national museum

a mystical buddha at the gongju national museum

A 5 minute taxi ride from the museum is Gongju’s “principal point of interest,” Songsan-ni Gobungun, a group of Baekje-period royal tombs.  These just look like a cluster of grassy knolls.  I’m never excited about seeing Korean tombs, but these are right in our trajectory so we might as well see them.  Apparently four of these tombs were discovered in 1927 and robbed of their treasures.  The fifth and sixth were looted 5 years later.  Only in 1971 was the 7th tomb accidentally discovered, the tomb of King Muryeong and his queen.  As it had been sealed in A.D. 529, it lay undisturbed for nearly 1,500 years.  The treasures in this tomb were preserved and serve as historical evidence of the Baekje dynasty.

a walk at

a walk at Songsan-ni Gobungun

baekje-era royal tombs... excitement galore!

baekje-era royal tombs… excitement galore!

yummy snowballs :-)

yummy snowballs 🙂

We are told that Gongsanseong Fortress is a 10 minute walk from the tombs, but it seems longer as it’s freezing cold and the path along the highway is crunchy with ice.  We finally arrive at the fortress which sits on a grand hill punctuated with yellow flags.  The fortress is built on a ridge-line overlooking the Geumgang River, so it’s an imposing sight.

walking along

walking along Gongsanseong Fortress

gongsan fortress

gongsan fortress

We take pictures on our short walk up, but instead of exploring the entire fortress as we did in Buyeo, we opt to head for lunch in Gongju.  We search for something suitable, but end up eating bibimbap with what I think are a bunch of roasted peppers, but turns out to be raw beef strips.  Surprisingly, as the beef is lean, I eat it and find it not so unpleasant.

After lunch, we make a trek to Nonsan to see “an ordinary temple with an extraordinary statue.”  Gwanchok-sa temple has Korea’s largest free-standing stone Buddha image, Unjin Mireuk Buddha. The Buddha dominates the temple compound and looks out serenely at us.  The statue is from the early Goryeo Dynasty and supposedly took 38 years to complete.

on the way up to Gwanchok-sa temple

on the way up to Gwanchok-sa temple

Gwanchok-sa temple

Gwanchok-sa temple

Gwanchok-sa temple

Gwanchok-sa temple

Gwanchok-sa temple

Gwanchok-sa temple

the unjin mireuk buddha at gwanchok-sa temple

the unjin mireuk buddha at gwanchok-sa temple

Nonsan is quite off the beaten path so it takes us quite some time to get back to Daejeon, where we end up back at the Seobu bus terminal!  We take a taxi back to the Dongbu station, retrieve my bag from the hotel, and then go to Daejeon Station, where I take a quick KTX ride home.

a door at the temple

a door at the temple

I’ve explored a lot of Korea now, and my time here is about to end.  This place is one of the last on my list.  A year here is much too long.  I’m ready to go home.

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2010 in review ~ my blog stats:-)

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2010. That’s about 5 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 30 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 354 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 422mb. That’s about 7 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was June 27th with 39 views. The most popular post that day was Gyeongju, the case of the missing co-teacher & reflections on age.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, obama-scandal-exposed.co.cc, mail.yahoo.com, WordPress Dashboard, and imobilereview.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for hanok housing, catbirdinkorea, harmonious colors, topiary italija, and management systems international boat.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Gyeongju, the case of the missing co-teacher & reflections on age May 2010
4 comments

2

an EPIK field trip to jeollabuk-do: hanok village redo, the world’s largest dike, temples & donkey-eared mountains November 2010
2 comments

3

“taking a rest” ~ a journey into outer seorak-san and the inner me (reveling in being alone) October 2010
5 comments

4

an april jaunt to busan May 2010

5

insults korean style May 2010
7 comments

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the christmas that wasn’t

December 25: This is the first Christmas in my entire life that doesn’t feel like Christmas, not even remotely.  I barely see any Christmas lights, except a few in Seoul on Alex’s last weekend here. I never buy a Christmas tree.  I don’t see my family.  Christmas is all about family, at least in my eyes, and my family is back in the USA.  The worst thing is that on the Thursday night before Christmas, I am watching a movie on my computer when suddenly the screen starts morphing into bizarre shapes, emitting colorful sharp light rays, and then the blue screen of death appears, saying something like “Hard drive…memory…???”  I don’t know what else it says, because I immediately do what I always do when my computer starts acting up.  I turn it off.  The problem is, it never comes back on.  This is the most devastating thing that could have happened to me because it means I can’t Skype my family on Christmas day.

christmas lights in seoul

christmas lights in seoul

I make no real plans for Christmas.  Anna and Seth invite me over on Christmas eve for a little party.  Other than that, my only plan is to lie around in my pajamas all day and watch movies on my computer about Vietnam that Alex brought from home.  That plan is foiled by the death of my computer.

my house in the States at Christmas

my house in the States at Christmas

In all my adult life, I have done all the work for Christmas, buying all the Christmas gifts, wrapping them, decorating the Christmas tree and the house, baking cookies, buying groceries, cooking a Martha Stewart brunch.   First thing Christmas morning, after a month of serious preparation from which I am utterly exhausted, we open our presents and stockings, we enjoy checking out each others’ gifts, I take a long hot bath, and then I make the brunch.  For the last 15 years I have made the same brunch for Christmas.  We usually eat around 1:00 pm Christmas day and the meal is this: a goat cheese and roasted red pepper frittata, granny-smith-apple sausages, pancakes with cranberry syrup, cheese grits.  My mother-in-law and sister-in-law always come; the latter brings a fruit salad, including festive star fruits, with a delicious creamy mandarin-orange flavored topping. It’s always a warm and cozy day, often including a fire in the fireplace.  I love our tradition, but frankly, it’s exhausting and stressful for the entire month of December until after that brunch is done.  This is because, as the mom, I do all the work.

Christmas lights in Seoul

Christmas lights in Seoul

So, this year, I looked forward to doing absolutely nothing.  Alex was here visiting for much of December, so at least I had some of my family for a short time.  But I don’t feel the stress of Christmas preparation and so it is relaxing.

anna at her apartment with my cake in hand and her cookies on the table

anna at her apartment with my cake in hand and her cookies on the table

On Christmas Eve, I go to Anna & Seth’s for their lovely party.  I bring a cake from Tous Les Jours, a vanilla thing topped with sweet white icing and glazed fruit.  Anna makes delicious cookies.  A number of their other friends come over bearing treats and we sit around chatting and eating popcorn and chips and salsa and decadent desserts and then play a really fun game of Extreme Charades.  In this game, everyone writes 5 nouns down and tears them up into individual slips of paper.  We put them all in a hat.  Each person draws a word and then tries to get people to guess it using a description that cannot include the word.  The next round, we act out the words in regular charades.  The following round, we sit behind a sofa and act out the word using only our faces, and the last round, we hide behind the sofa and act out the word using only our hands.  It’s a fun way to spend Christmas eve.  But I am sad not to be home enjoying my regular traditions with my family.  I am thankful though, so thankful, for my “family” here, especially Anna who, along with Kim Dong Hee, has been a true friend to me here in Korea.

Merry Christmas in Seoul, South Korea!

Merry Christmas in Seoul, South Korea!

Christmas morning, I sleep in late, make myself some simple scrambled eggs, toast and honey and coffee.  It’s a far cry from my regular Martha Stewart brunch.  Since I don’t have my computer to watch movies, I turn on the TV and happen upon a movie with Richard Gere called Hachiko: A Dog’s Story.  I stay in my pajamas most of the day.  Later I venture out, going to Starbucks for a Christmas-like coffee and then visit the PC bang where I can read my emails.  Later Myrna lends me her computer and I’m able to watch Three Seasons, a movie that takes place in Hanoi, where I’ll go on January 13.  In the movie I think I actually see the Hotel Ncogmai where I will be staying!  In the late night here, which is Christmas morning in the U.S., I talk to Mike and the boys by phone.  It’s not the same as seeing them on Skype, but I’m happy to hear their voices.

For the first year ever, I just make myself imagine it isn’t Christmas.  Surprisingly, I’m not horribly depressed or sad being alone.  I just accept in my mind that it’s just a day, a day like any  other.

On the day after Christmas, what the British call Boxing Day, I call everyone in my family: Mike and the boys (again), Sarah, my dad, my best friend Jayne.  There it is still Christmas Day and I live vicariously through their celebrations.  I watch The Duchess on TV.  I read Paradise of the Blind, a novel about Vietnam.  I go to the PC bang and read emails.  And in the evening, I have a lovely dinner with Kim Dong Hee at Olive del Cucina and have a beer with her afterwards at Sydney Street.  She has just received some kind of bad news this afternoon, something very upsetting to her that she doesn’t even care to share.  I am feeling sad today about an issue of my own.  So, we are a sad pair.  Kim needs to go home early because she is just too emotionally distraught; I go to the DVD bang to watch The Sleeping Dictionary, which I get so bored with, I leave halfway through.

I can’t help but wonder about myself.  Why?  Why didn’t I make any effort to carve out a little celebration for myself?  I don’t know why.  Sometimes, and maybe this is one of those times, I simply feel like there is no point.  I don’t want to be bothered.   I wonder and worry about myself:  Do I even care anymore about anything?  Am I turning into a sort of zombie, walking through the days of my life with no feeling whatsoever?  Toward the end of this, my time in Korea, I think I have changed.  In some ways for the better: I am learning to be strong, to be more patient, to be independent and be alone.  In other ways, I’m changing for the worse: I am starting to believe there is no such thing as love, as hope.  I wonder seriously about my ability to feel love from or for other people.  I am starting to feel, especially on certain days, defeated, tired, dead.  And that is a sad thing to me.  In the last five years of my marriage, I felt like a dead person; I feared that each of my days would be the same as the one before; I panicked that I would feel this deadness for the rest of my life.  I thought: this is it?  This is my life?  This is how it will be until the day I die?  I was terrified that I would never feel again.  Now, here I am, after having been separated for nearly 4 years, feeling the same thing.  I guess it is me.  As they always say, you can never escape yourself, no matter where you go.

Merry merry Christmas to me.  To my family back home, especially my wonderful children, my dad, my sisters and brother.   Merry Christmas to Mike.  And to you, my friends, who somehow keep me going.

Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night :-)

Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night 🙂

~~grooming the waygook on the escalator~~

December 20, 2010: I’m in the midst of a crowd going down the escalator on metro, holding my down-stuffed winter coat in my arms and staring off into space when suddenly, I feel fingers picking at my back.  I turn around and two old ladies are busily pulling the down feathers off the back of my sweater.

They’re like mother monkeys picking fleas off their babies.  I smile at them and they are not deterred; they pick, pick, pick.  I show them the inside of my coat, where feathers are always escaping through the soft cotton lining and sticking to my clothes.  The monkey-ladies yap and yammer, saying something about the feathers and the mess they have made all over me.  Another older woman is watching; she too throws in a few comments.  Life in Korea.   One place where people have no concept of personal space and no qualms about grooming complete strangers.

A waygookin (외국인) is any person not of Korean ancestry. Waygook (외국) simply means “foreign”. Koreans call people of non Korean ancestry “waygooks”.

~~you are my sunshine: a rendition on the bus with a stuttering korean guy ♪♫•*¨*•.¸¸♥ ¸¸.•*¨*•♫♪ ~~

December 8: Kim Dong Hee and I are riding the bus home from Seongju Wednesday evening when a Korean guy sees me, stops in the aisle, leans over Kim’s shoulder, and starts speaking to me in English:  Oh!  Where are you from?  I’m Jun …… What is your name?  Cathy, I say. Oh Cashie?  I say, no CaTHy.  He says oh, Cashie, okay. Pleased to meet you.  What are you doing here in Korea?  Me: I teach English in Seongju.  At Chojeon and Byeokjin Elementary Schools. He: Oh, how long have you been here? Me: Nine months.  He: When will you leave?  I say in three more months.

His English is not bad, but he has a bit of a stutter.  When someone doesn’t speak English very well, sometimes I have difficulties telling if they are mentally challenged or if they’re really smart but they just don’t know English.  Because he has a stutter as well, I can’t help but question his mental capacity. I  DO KNOW a stutter is not a sign of low intelligence.  But.  I’m confused nonetheless.  Because lately I have a lot of mentally challenged people, adults and children alike, who have taken a great inexplicable liking to me.  On this Wednesday night, Jun goes on his merry way to the back of the bus.

December 13: The following Monday, he boards the bus and spots me sitting alone.  He plops down on the seat beside me and starts talking, asking me again some of the same questions he asked in our first meeting.  He asks my age and for some reason I tell him outright.  Usually I refuse to tell Koreans my age just because age is so important to them. It determines all the interactions people have with one another.  He tells me he is 40 years old and a businessman.  He has boarded the bus at some godforsaken bus stop, so I am curious about just what kind of businessman he is.

He has an MP3 player with earphones and he hands me one, keeping the other earphone in his ear.  Immediately, blasting in my ear is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.”  He starts singing and I can’t help but sing along with him!  We are both singing away on the bus, singing and singing, oblivious to the other passengers:

You are my sunshine,
My only sunshine.
You make me happy
When skies are grey.
You’ll never know, dear,
How much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.

The song ends and then another English song comes on that I’ve never heard in my life.  He’s shocked I don’t know it but I assure him it’s new to me:  “Handsome.”  I don’t think he has the title right because later, I can’t even find it on Google.  He knows all the lyrics though and sings along as I listen to both him and to the song through the earphones.  After our singing encounter, and before he gets off the bus, he tells me I am very beautiful and I have a nice smile.

December 15: Two nights later, he is back.  He gets on this time wearing white fluffy ear muffs and a royal blue shiny puffy jacket.  He plops down beside me, immediately reaching into his backpack for a notebook and a pen.  He starts writing: My name is Jun Young but you can call me Jun. After writing this, he reads it to me.  He asks me the spelling of my name and writes it on the page: CATHY.  He writes, How long will you be in Korea? He reads the question to me.  I say 3 more months.  He says, Oh no.  That’s too bad. The he writes:  Cathy is a very smile face and beautiful girl.  He reads this aloud to me, pointing to each word in turn.  Oh, happy days. 🙂

~~the light saber guy and his identity crisis~~

November 30: I’m standing on the curb in Chojeon, next to a cardboard box filled with trash, waiting for the 5:00 bus.  It’s a lovely spot, a dream spot really.  Directly across the street is a market with grimy windows, stuffed to the ceiling with foodstuffs, canned drinks and household paraphernalia.   In front of the store, several old ladies with canes sit on overturned primary-colored plastic crates, plaid scarves wrapped jauntily around their withered necks.  Bags of garbage keep them company.  The butcher shop next door displays meat carcasses in the window; giant radishes and roots lie on the concrete sidewalk in front.  On the opposite corner is a ubiquitous SK Telecom store, one of probably trillions of mobile phone stores in Korea.

Across the street, the most regular of the town drunks is talking in a deep raspy voice; he has apparently taken a chain saw to his hair.  Some parts of his head are shaved, other parts are sticking up like a confused bed of nails.  Other parts are shaped like jumping fish.  He’s stumbling about, rasping and coughing and hacking, gesticulating with everything he’s got.  Bits of white spittle cling to his rough face and after some of his rants, threads of drool drip from his mouth.  I think he lives at this spot, possibly even sleeps here.  Though he never speaks directly to me, he does do a lot of rude staring.

As I do many times while waiting for this infernal and untimely bus, I step off the curb and walk into the street so I can see if the bus is approaching from the distance.  Suddenly, a second town drunk appears in front of me. On his sweatshirt is a big A, sort of like the big S on Superman’s chest.  He is slashing the air with a pink toy light saber and as I step into the street, he sticks out the light saber horizontally across my stomach, stopping me from stepping into the street.  I say, Excuse me!   Who appointed you policeman?  Of course he can’t understand me.  I love to say ridiculous and outrageous things to Koreans because I know they can’t understand a word I say.  I step back on the curb, amused by this guy’s antics, but in a few minutes I am again curious to see if the bus is coming, so I step off the curb.  Even though light saber man has moved a distance from me, he rushes over and again juts the light saber across my belly.   I say, What are you doing?  If I want to step into the street, I will!  He snarls and mutters something mean in Korean.

I step back up on the curb and walk alongside a blue Hyundai Porter parked next to the sidewalk.  From the rear of the truck, I walk to the front, and again step out from the curb into the street.  Light saber man sees me and rushes up on the street side from the rear of the truck to where I am.  I immediately turn, step back up on the curb, and walk to the back of the truck, where I step back into the street to see if the bus is coming.  He catches on that I’m playing cat and mouse with him and he starts growling and yapping in Korean, waving around his light saber.  He comes toward me again, and I reverse direction, going back to the front of the truck and stepping back into the street.

Fun times.  This is the way I once decided I would escape if a bear ever tried to attack me.  I’d just put a tree between me and the bear and keep going back and forth, around and around.  This is the first time I’ve tried this maneuver with a man and I’m proud to say it works quite nicely.

~~the curious incident of the pakistani on the motorbike~~

Sometime in October: One night I walk out of my apartment and come face to face with a helmeted Pakistani guy on a motorbike.  He smiles hugely and says a very friendly hello; he has such an air of confidence and familiarity with me that I’m taken aback.  I ask, “Do I know you?” He says something that I can’t understand and then asks me if I wanna meeta.  Do you hava tima? I say, uh, I don’t know. Where?  He says, I donna know, somewhere.  I say, well, hmmm.  I guess so.  He motions for me to get on the back of his motorbike and I say, I can’t ride on this!  What about a helmet?  He assures me it will be okay. I hesitate but in the end hop on the back; he zips down my alley of a street to the 7-11, where he motions for me to get off.   I’m surprised as this is only about a half-block ride.  He says he needs to go to the bank to get money.  Will I wait for him here?

He returns within 5 minutes and brings me a can of cold coffee, which I guzzle down.  He then tells me once again to hop on the back of his motorbike.  In the meantime, he says a lot of other things, none of which I understand except the repeated “wanna meeta.”   He removes his helmet to reveal a balding head, which he is embarrassed about, and hands the helmet to me.  I put it on and he zips off once again, this time on the main road, weaving along between Hyundais, Kias, city buses and taxis.

I don’t ride motorbikes often, so I enjoy the wind whipping my hair about and going up my nostrils.  I have no idea where this guy is taking me.  I’m not afraid as it’s very populated and I know I can hop off if I want at any stoplight.  The motorbike is small, but it has a tough roar.  We ride and ride, approaching eMart, when suddenly he veers off into a fringe-curtained parking lot.  I recognize right away the typical Korean “love motel” parking lot.  He parks the bike and I say, Why are you stopping here?  What are you doing?  He says, go uppa and talka.  I say, No!  This is a motel!  I’m not going to talk with you in a motel.  We can go talk in a public place.  He is baffled and I am stunned, but I hop back on the bike and tell him to head back in the direction where he picked me up.  We cruise along and he points to a small park, dark and deserted.  He says, Here?  I say, NO!  We can go to a restaurant or a coffee shop.  That’s it.  I don’t know you!

Disgruntled, he takes me back to a restaurant I point out in my neighborhood and he motions me off the bike.  He says, I have to go to the bank for some money.  I say, I thought you already went to the bank!  He says, I’ll be back in a minute.  Wait me here.  As soon as he zooms away, I speed-walk down an alternate back street directly to my apartment.  Close the door, lock it.  Whew!

Friday, December 17:  On Friday night, we take the KTX to Seoul.  The KTX is the high-speed train; it takes 1 hour and 40 minutes from Daegu to Seoul.  Apparently, according to the Korail website, it can go up to 300 km/hour.  It doesn’t seem to me it goes that fast.  I think it’s fast only because it makes only 2 or 3 stops.  I love the description of the KTX design on the Korail website:  “In order to reduce air resistance, the head part of front and back of the high-speed railroad is designed after streamlined shape of a shark, plus the characteristic of Korean culture which is the soft curve.”

So, Alex gets his first Asian train experience.  We arrive at Seoul Station, get on metro for one stop to Namyoung Station, and voila, right around the corner is our hotel, the Rainbow Hotel.  We check in and immediately go out in search of a place to have snacks and drinks; we find one that’s comfortable and sit and talk for a long time.  He tells me about his recurring dream of his true love Sarah, about another girl he met who conveniently forgot to tell him she had a boyfriend, about his closest friends.  I love this evening because we are so relaxed with each other and I feel so close to him after his time here with me.   I am sad that now his time here is drawing to a close.

the guard and alex at the palace in seoul

the guard and alex at the palace in seoul

Saturday, December 18:  In the morning, we venture out into Seoul to see Gyeongbokgung Palace.

the palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace

the guards at Gyeongbokgung Palace

the guards at Gyeongbokgung Palace

inside Gyeongbokgung Palace

inside Gyeongbokgung Palace

part of Gyeongbokgung Palace

part of Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung means Palace of Shining Happiness and was built by Chosun dynasty-era King Taejo in 1395, the fourth year of his reign.  The palace was destroyed several times by the Japanese, and now is only, at least in my mind, a bunch of poorly maintained empty buildings.  The only interesting thing is seeing a bunch of palace guards marching about with flags, and getting to take some pictures with them.  They seem quite disgruntled at having to pose with all the ridiculous tourists.

We go to the National Folk Museum which sits at the northern end of the Palace.  We don’t go inside but just wander around the grounds where cool statues and folk carvings abound.  We discover our Chinese astrological signs; surprisingly, Alex and I have the same sign: the sheep.  I don’t much care for this because I don’t consider myself a sheep!!

alex and i share the sheep astrological sign ~ baaaaa!

alex and i share the sheep astrological sign ~ baaaaa!

National Folk Museum grounds

National Folk Museum grounds

Alex and friend

Alex and friend

a party at the National Folk Museum

a party at the National Folk Museum

me at the National Folk Museum

me at the National Folk Museum

Alex

Alex

In Seoul

In Seoul

A Korean friend of mine who used to be into heavy metal in his younger days (his name is Young Dae, oddly),  suggests that we go to a huge guitar market at Jongro-3 station: Nak won sanga.  So. After the folk museum we venture into this market, where Alex buys two Korean ceramic type of musical instruments: one for himself and one for his friend for Christmas.  Then we go to Itaewon where we eat chicken schwarma at a Turkish restaurant in the Arab area, see the mosque, and browse in the English bookstore What the Book?  Since we are loaded down with a few book purchases, we return to the hotel to drop them off and taxi to City Hall to check out the Christmas decorations, which frankly were pretty darn disappointing.  We wandered around the stream and saw the minimalist lights, then went into JS Texas Bar for a light dinner of shrimp salad and beers.  We have to kill time for a while before taking the Seoul City Bus Tour, so we wander around the streets and step into a PC bang to check our emails.

alex at the mosque in the arab section of itaewon

alex at the mosque in the arab section of itaewon

The City Bus Tour is about an hour and a half of traversing back and forth by bus across the various Han River bridges.  Apparently each one of these bridges has some great importance, some grand design.  That is the tendency of Koreans, to think everything in their country is such a unique treasure, unlike anything found elsewhere in the world.  I actually find this nationalistic pride quite annoying.  (I could go on and on about this subject and I will in a final blog about Korea when I leave here!)  Anyway.  This bus tour would be fine except we’re supposed to see the city all lit up but it’s all a blur because the windows are all fogged up.  At one point  the bus takes us up to Nam-san Mountain to see Seoul Tower, but they only give us 20 minutes to wander around, not enough time to go up in the tower.

downtown Seoul

downtown Seoul

Seoul at Christmas

Seoul at Christmas

Seoul

Seoul

Korean what-nots

Korean what-nots

Alex in wonderland

Alex in wonderland

JS Texas Bar where we have beers to kill time before the city tour

JS Texas Bar where we have beers to kill time before the city tour

We’re both tired after the day, so we go back to the hotel and relax.   All night long, Alex can’t sleep.  He’s worried about his flight the next day.  On top of that, for the entire time he’s been here, he’s been complaining about my snoring!  All night he keeps saying, Mom!  You’re snoring!  Stop it!!  He actually gets quite vicious about it.  I don’t know what to do other than to stay awake myself, which I don’t care to do!

Sunday, December 19:  As Alex barely gets a bit of sleep, I let him sleep in late in the morning.  Finally, we go out, making our way back to Itaewon to have lunch at a Thai restaurant, which is delicious.

christmas tree near city hall in seoul

christmas tree near city hall in seoul

We go back to What the Book? to kill time and finally head to Seoul Station to catch the Express bus to Incheon airport.  We have coffee in the airport, kill more time, and then, alas, sadly, Alex departs back to the USA, where he will have Christmas with his dad and his brother, leaving me behind to while away my first Christmas ever all by myself in a foreign country 😦

As an afterward, he missed his connecting flight in San Francisco, was told he’d be on standby for the next flight, and ended up making it on that flight!  I was so worried about him coming here and getting home safely; it was a relief when Mike called to tell me he made it home.

at the airport after 17 days with mom ~ priceless

at the airport after 17 days with mom ~ priceless

Monday, December 13:  Alex sleeps in while I schlep into work today.  Again, he visits the DVD bang during the day.  In the evening we go to Lotte Cinema to see The Tourist, with Angelina Jolie & Johnny Depp; it’s quite cute.  We have an exciting dinner at Mr. Pizza afterward, where we are the last customers of the night.

Tuesday, December 14:  Alex goes to Chojeon with me, where one of Coffee J’s 4th grade boys plays the flute for him.  Alex thinks Little Miss Jailbird is quite a character and he likes her edgy personality; she’s the girl who constantly insults me and wears the gray and black striped knit pants (see my previous blog: insults korean style).

In the evening, I expose Alex to the samgyeopsal and noraebang experience with Anna, Seth, Maurice, Myrna, Lilly and Ben.  Samgyeopsal consists of thick, fatty slices of pork belly meat (similar to uncured bacon). Usually diners grill the meat themselves and eat directly from a grill. It is often dipped into a spicy pepper paste and wrapped in lettuce leaves along with other vegetables.  Noraebang, literally a “song room,” is similar to what we Westerners know as karaoke; it’s different in that a group of friends rents a room for an hour or two by themselves, and the public is not involved (as in Western-style karaoke).

Maurice, Ben, Lilly, Seth, Anna and Alex eating samgyeopsol

Maurice, Ben, Lilly, Myrna, Seth, Anna and Alex eating samgyeopsal

the thick slabs of fatty bacon that are the main staple in samgyeopsal

the thick slabs of fatty bacon that are the main staple in samgyeopsal

Anna :-)

Anna 🙂

Alex tries samgyeopsal

Alex tries samgyeopsal

At noraebang, Alex wears dreadlocks and belts out songs along with the rest of us, losing all his inhibitions.

Maurice, Alex and me heading into noraebang

Maurice, Alex and me heading into noraebang

Ben, the masked man, and Alex in his crazy wig

Ben, the masked man, and Alex in his crazy wig

Myrna belts out a song

Myrna belts out a song

Alex sings a serenade in his dreadlocks

Alex sings a serenade in his dreadlocks

Wednesday, December 15:   Tonight, we go to my neighborhood Italian place for dinner, visit an outdoor Asian market near my house, and then try a different DVD bang where we watch The Time Traveler’s Wife, which happens to be the first book I read when I got to Korea in March.

Thursday, December 16:  Tonight, we go to downtown Daegu and eat fat juicy hamburgers at Gorilla Burger.  Later that night, Alex, prone as he is to making exaggerated sweeping statements, says, “This is the best December I’ve ever had in my lifetime!”  This is so much in character for him; I remember when he was a little boy  and he’d meet some random kid at a soccer game and he’d say, I just made a new best friend today, Mom!

Friday, December 10: We leave at 7 pm Friday night to go to Suncheon.  I’ve given Alex many options, showing him pictures of places I’ve been, and as he loves the outdoors, he decides he wants to see the tea plantations and Suncheon Ecological Bay, a wetlands area.  I’ve already been to both of these places, but, alas, we go again so Alex can see them.  We arrive in Suncheon late and go immediately to the BMW Motel, where I stayed when I was here before.  I say, “Dul chimdae isseumnika,” which my Moon Handbook says is “I want two beds please.”  They tell me they have no rooms in the entire hotel with two beds.  Thus we must find another motel.  I ask for a recommendation, and they suggest one that costs over 100,ooo won (!).  The BMW is 30,000!  I say, No, making the big “NO” gesture where you cross both forearms in front of your face.  I write: 30,000 or 40,000 won!!  Finally, they understand and write down a motel name, which we give to a taxi driver.  We end up at quite a nice motel in a far-flung part of town, the Ibama, for 60,000 won ~ still too much. Our room is decorated brightly with one wall of huge pink flowers.

First we get this room, but then we request another...

First we get this room, but then we request another…

Our pink and purple flowered room

Our pink and purple flowered room

the Ibama Hotel

the Ibama Hotel

Later we find a cute cafe with wine-colored Jacquard sofas surrounded by leafy trees, flowers, greenery of every sort, all abloom.  We drink beers and talk and talk.  It’s fun getting to know Alex ~ the adult he is becoming.  As a mom, it’s always hard to see your children as grown-ups, but I’m pleased to say he’s becoming quite a mature young man.  During this time, we have a few tense moments when he tells me about a job he had briefly at UPS.  He lost it because he didn’t show up for work after the first day.  When he explained the situation to me, he said the manager never let him know his schedule by email or phone.  I said, You didn’t ask her when you left at the end of the day when you were next supposed to show up?  He said no.  For some reason, this infuriated me so much; my blood was boiling!  This is the kind of thing I cannot understand.  It is for reasons such as these that Alex and I used to butt heads constantly when I lived at home in the States.  Sometimes our arguments escalated to huge screaming matches where we said regrettable things to each other.  Though we have some moments of tension on this night, we are able to get past them; I don’t want to get into huge disagreements with him while he is visiting me here in Korea.

having dinner at the leafy cafe

having dinner at the leafy cafe

the leafy cafe

the leafy cafe

Saturday, December 11:  In the morning, we take a bus to Boseong to see the tea plantations.  They’re not as bright green as they were when I was here in October, but there is still a richness to them.

Boseong Tea Plantations

Boseong Tea Plantations

Alex at the tea farm

Alex at the tea farm

topiary at the tea farm

topiary at the tea farm

me at the tea farm

me at the tea farm

tea farms

tea farms

Alex at tea farms

Alex at tea farms

tea farms in every direction

tea farms in every direction

lunch at the tea plantation

lunch at the tea plantation

Alex waits at the bus stop

Alex waits at the bus stop

Later we go to Suncheon Bay Ecological Park and walk through the wetlands and up to the observatory on the point of the mountain hugging the bay.  We try to wait till sunset to get some beautiful pictures but it’s cold and we’re tired, so we leave and take some sunset pictures down in the wetlands.  Later we eat dinner at a very lame sandwich shop.  Later we find a Japanese restaurant that would have been great for dinner if we had discovered it earlier.

me at Suncheon Bay Ecological Park

me at Suncheon Bay Ecological Park

Boats at Suncheon Bay

Boats at Suncheon Bay

Alex at Suncheon Bay

Alex at Suncheon Bay

the hard path or the easy path??

the hard path or the easy path??

Suncheon Bay wetlands

Suncheon Bay wetlands

Suncheon Bay

Suncheon Bay

sunset over the wetlands

sunset over the wetlands

boats in the wetlands

boats in the wetlands

on the bus back to the hotel

on the bus back to the hotel

Sunday, December 12:  Today is cold and gray, but we decide to try to see a temple called Songgwang-sa.  It takes us 1 1/2 hours by city bus to get there.  We’re thinking that after we see the temple we’ll visit a folk village another hour away, but the bus drops us off at noon and no bus returns to the temple, which is quite remote, until 3:00.  We’re stuck there, it seems, to kill 3 hours! We wander along the path to the temple, finding colorful shops & restaurants along the way.

fruits for sale

fruits for sale

colorful shops & restaurants along the path

colorful shops & restaurants along the path

at the entrance to the temple

at the entrance to songgwang-sa

The temple complex is quite nice with one of its main halls jutting out over a small river, but it’s bitter cold outside.  After we explore the grounds extensively, there is nothing to do but have a traditional Korean meal, sitting on the floor at a low table, to kill time (& stay warm) until the next bus comes.

Alex at the temple

Alex at the temple

inside one of the temples

inside one of the temples

Alex at the temple complex

Alex at the temple complex

Songgong-swa

songgwang-sa

Alex along the path between temples

Alex along the path between temples

peeking out from the door to nowhere

peeking out from the door to nowhere

temples galore

temples galore

Songgwangswa Temple near Suncheon

Songgwangswa Temple near Suncheon

Lunchtime at Songgong-swa

Lunchtime at songgwang-sa

a typical Korean lunch

a typical Korean lunch

By the time it comes, we’re tired and know we have a long way still back to Daegu.  We pass on the folk village and head back to Suncheon, where we then take the bus back to Daegu.  When we get back home, I scramble us some eggs and we head to the DVD bang to watch the movie Chloe.  It’s actually a little risqué to watch with my son, but oh well, here we are.  I’m sure he’s seen movies as risque as this without me, so why fight it?

 

December 6-10, 2010: During the week, I try to expose Alex to Korea as I know it.  He can’t believe the genius of the DVD bang, a place where you rent a movie with a room, sit on a comfortable reclining leather couch under a fuzzy blanket with a heat lamp warming you up, and watch a movie on a big screen.  A place where you can have a drink, munch on popcorn or ramen noodles.  He loves this place and its proprietor so much, he goes to the DVD bang every day while I’m at work.  I also introduce him to the PC bang, but he becomes really irritated that he can’t play computer games on it because he’s not a Korean citizen.  Apparently you need a Korean ID to be able to log into these communal computer games.

lunch time at Chojeon Elementary School

lunch time at Chojeon Elementary School

Alex and two of my students at the lunch table

Alex and two of my students at the lunch table

Monday morning, Alex comes along to Chojeon Elementary School, where the students point at him, touch him, grab him.  Both the teachers and students continually call him “handsome boy.”  Coffee J’s 4th grade class puts on a vaudeville-type show for him, one they had done the previous week for the entire school.  This version is minus the costumes.  Afterwards, we hand out snacks and the students line up to get Alex’s autograph.  For the first time in his life, Alex is unquestionably a star!

Alex and me with my 4th grade class at Chojeon

Alex and me with my 4th grade class at Chojeon

My co-teacher Coffee J and his 4th grade students

My co-teacher Coffee J and his 4th grade students

the girls inspect and preen Alex

the girls inspect and preen Alex

"handsome boy" signs autographs

“handsome boy” signs autographs

my crazy 4th graders

my crazy 4th graders

Alex and one of my students hams it up

Alex and one of my students hams it up

That evening, after making a grocery run at Home Plus, we celebrate Alex’s first day of school at the local Aussie pub, Sydney Street, the only Western bar in the neighborhood.  We share impressions about Korea over beers and he meets a few of my Korean lady friends, 19-year-0ld university student Holly and flight-attendant wanna-be Becky.  Holly adds him the next day on Facebook as a friend.  In my apartment later, we relax and watch episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on the computer he brought from home.

Alex has a beer at Sydney Street Pub

Alex has a beer at Sydney Street Pub

Alex at Sydney Street Pub

Alex at Sydney Street Pub

Alex and me

Alex and me

Tuesday Alex stays homes and relaxes while I go to work.  In the evening, we go to Anna and Seth’s with Myrna and play a fun game of Ticket to Ride and share pizza & chicken.  Wednesday he also stays home, but after work we have pizza at Dasarang and then play billiards and watch the movie Sliding Door in the apartment.

the fabulous Ticket to Ride

the fabulous Ticket to Ride

Anna and Seth at their apartment

Anna and Seth at their apartment

Myrna and Anna

Myrna and Anna

Alex and me

Alex and me

Alex comes to Byeokjin Elementary with me on Thursday, but he is bored out of his mind because the principal has forbidden him to be in the classroom “because he has no teaching credentials.”  This is crazy as it’s not a requirement to be a certified teacher in one’s home country to be a teacher in Korea (unlike in places like Dubai where this is required).   Hell, I’m not even a certified teacher!  Despite this prohibition by the principal, Kim Dong Hee’s animal-named first graders bring Alex welcome cards they made for him.  My fifth grade class gets to ask him questions for 10 minutes before class begins.  They exclaim that he’s a “handsome boy” and want to know if he has a girlfriend.

Alex visits Byeokjin Elementary School

Alex visits Byeokjin Elementary School

Me at Byeokjin

Me at Byeokjin

That night, Kim Dong Hee and Young, two of my co-teachers from Byeokjin, come out to a dinner of shrimp pilaf with us at the Warehouse.  After, we make a trip to Home Plus to see if my Vietnam visa is in.  It is.  I get it and we go to the hat department and try on goofy hats like a bunch of clowns.   Young, a brand new and very young teacher, is really cute and often blends in with her 5th grade students at Byeokjin.  Alex thinks she’s the cutest thing ever.  After they leave, Alex and I head to the DVD bang, where we watch Funny People with Adam Sandler.

Alex and me at the Warehouse

Alex and me at the Warehouse

my favorite dish of shrimp pilaf

my favorite dish of shrimp pilaf

Two of my co-teachers from Byeokjin, Kim Dong Hee & Young

Two of my co-teachers from Byeokjin, Kim Dong Hee & Young

A night at E-Mart.  Alex tries on a hat

A night at Home Plus. Alex tries on a hat

E-Mart: I try on a hat

Home Plus: I try on a hat

Kim and her hat

Kim and her hat

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