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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
~~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.
Saturday, December 18: In the morning, we venture out into Seoul to see 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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
At noraebang, Alex wears dreadlocks and belts out songs along with the rest of us, losing all his inhibitions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Saturday: December 4: The first weekend he’s here, I expose Alex to public transportation in Korea. We take a bus to Jinan, which takes about 3 hours. I don’t think he’s fully gotten over the trip to get here and he gets a little irritable about having to be on the bus for so long. We end up in the Jinan bus station waiting for a bus to Maisan Provincial Park, but we can’t get any information about when this bus arrives. People tell us such a variety of things, our heads are spinning. The Jinan bus terminal is one of Korea’s more grungy terminals. Old people inundate this corner of the world.
When we arrive, a girl in a school uniform immediately accosts us and starts speaking a little English with us. Once we fall under her “care,” we can’t shake her and as our wait stretches from minutes into hours, she attaches herself to us with a vengeance. She keeps repeating some kind of English-Korean mixture of words, none of which we can understand, and then she starts jumping at us and poking us in our heads to startle us. It becomes quickly apparent that she’s a little uh— crazed.
Finally a bus driver speaks some English and informs us that the bus we are waiting for to take us to Maisan doesn’t arrive until 7:00 at night!! We would have been waiting a long time….Someone tells us we should take a taxi; I have no idea how far it is, but at this point we have no choice. We take a taxi. It turns out to be a 2o-minute ride and costs only about 7,000 won. No big deal. When we arrive at Mt. Maisan, I see there are no taxis just sitting around waiting to take people back to Jinan, so I ask the driver for his card so I can call him when it’s time for us to leave. He is a jovial fellow and agrees that all we need to say is “Maisan” and he will come for us. Later, I am glad to have thought of his ahead of time, or Alex and I would have spent the night in the wilderness!
At Maisan, we stop for bibimbap at one of the many restaurants lining the path to Tap-sa, the temple we have come to see. Alex has his first taste of true Korean food! He likes the bibimbap; admittedly this is some of the best bibimbap I’ve even had in Korea.
After, we walk the long path to Tap-sa and have a fun time exploring this unique and quirky temple. In 1885, lone Buddhist hermit, 25-year-old Yi Gap Yong, came to Maisan to meditate and “cultivate” himself. Over the next 30 years, he single-handedly constructed over 120 conical-shaped natural stone pagodas, without using mortar. Today, 80 of his pagodas still remain standing. This is a very unusual temple in Korea, an almost lunar-like landscape, thus it draws many tourists. I came to Maisan before for an EPIK field trip, but didn’t see this temple because of a miscommunication about the time we had to see the sights. Determined to see this bizarre place, I drag poor Alex along for his first Korean “temple” experience.
We meander back and probe around in the Golden Hall Temple, which I saw last time I was here. With darkness falling quickly, we call the taxi driver and head back to Jinan.
I have thought of many options because I want to see a particular temple in Jiri-san park, but after talking at great length to Tourist Information, I find any which way we travel to this temple, we will spend 7 hours on multiple buses on Sunday. As Alex is of no mind to spend so much time on a bus, we decide to go to Jeonju to spend the night. Though I’ve been to Jeonju twice already, Alex is interested in seeing Hanok Village (which I’ve also been to twice), so we plan to do that on Sunday.
Sunday, December 5: Sunday morning we head to Hanok Village.
At Hanok Village, we walk all around the quaint little town and do a bit of Christmas shopping. We buy gifts for Alex’s grandmother and aunt, his sister, his brother, and himself.
We see the Catholic Church, a historic building of some sort, and wander about enjoying the village.
We stop to warm up and eat waffles with ice cream at a cute little shop, where we find some interesting signs on the toilets.
We stop at Gyeonggijeon, built to preserve the portrait of King Taejo Yi Seong-gye, founder of the Joseon dynasty. Gyeonggijeon used to be a gigantic building with numerous other buildings attached, but it lost half its land during the Japanese occupation. On the grounds of Gyeonggijeon today, there is an art show with some very strange art.
Finally, we continue our walk around Hanok Village, enjoying the colorful foliage.
Later in the afternoon, we catch the bus back to Daegu and take a walk around Keimyung University, where we can see a great view of west Daegu and my neighborhood near the university.
We have dinner at Olive del Cucina, watch The Hangover at the DVD bang. I prepare for a week of work.
Thursday, December 2: My 19-year-old son, Alex, flies into Incheon Airport on Thursday, December 2, for the first solo intercontinental trip of his lifetime. Though he traveled abroad in his “youth” to France, Germany and the Bahamas, he did so under the protective watch of his father and me and was probably too young to remember much of those trips. I got it in my head that a trip to Korea would be an eye-opening experience, a voyage of emotional and intellectual growth, a way to jolt him out of his comfort zone. After much haggling and discussion with his father, we agreed he could come to visit for much of the month of December.
Alex is my middle child, but my first son in my second marriage to Mike. Alex and my youngest son, Adam, who is 18, live with their dad in northern Virginia. My daughter Sarah from my first marriage is 26 and lives on her own. Though Alex graduated from high school in June of 2009, he has spent the last year and a half struggling to decide what to do with his life. He attended Northern Virginia Community College for one semester, picking his classes not because of his own interests but because a close friend signed up for them, Japanese for one. He hasn’t been able to find a job, which both his dad and I are pressuring him to do. I’m not sure if his inability to land a job is because of a bad job market or not really trying hard enough. Alex’s greatest dream is to be a musician. He loves heavy metal.
As a mother, my dream for him is that he be a success, that he find happiness. It’s also more complicated. I don’t want him to be like me. I have always been good at many things but never great at any one thing. This is a good thing in many ways, but a problem in others. If you have a strong talent or ability in one area, it’s easy to find your direction. For example, my sister has always been very artistic, and so her career path led her in a straightforward way to be a freelance artist and eventually art director at Shape and then Fit Pregnancy Magazine. She’s very successful. My youngest son Adam not only has great abilities in math and science, but he also loves those subjects; he will probably be an engineer or a scientist of some kind. Most of my life, with my multitude of half-ass talents, I’ve floundered about, trying this and that and never really finding my niche. I’ve been an English teacher, a newspaper reporter, a banker, a stockbroker, a banker again. I’ve gotten a Master’s degree in International Commerce & Policy and did two internships at the State Department and one at MSI. In the midst of all this I was a mother and a housewife for 15 years. Now, I’m teaching English in Korea. It’s not really a career path, it’s a career meander, boomeranging eventually back to where it started from. Who wants to take a gamble on someone with this kind of resume?
I don’t want Alex to squander his life. I don’t want him to repeat my mistakes, my indecisiveness. So. It floors me when one of the first nights we share beers together in Daegu, he tells me he thinks he and I are very much alike. Though it’s nice he thinks that way, I cringe inside. Because I don’t want him to be like me. I want him to be clear in his direction; I want him to find a passion and stick to it. I want him to be a success, to make decent money, to find a girl he loves. But mostly I want him to be happy and self-sufficient, self-confident and assertive. I want more than anything for him to be the opposite of me.
Alex ventures to Korealand
This trip to Korea germinates, blooms and becomes reality. There are some moments of extreme anxiety on my part when, the day after he buys his ticket to come here, North Korea attacks an island in South Korea. The hullaballoo thankfully dies down and Alex arrives at Incheon in his brown plaid shirt, scraggly half-bearded face, and curly unkempt hair stuffed under a knit cap. It’s been nearly 10 months since I’ve seen him and at 6 feet tall, he dwarfs me when I hug him. We take the four-hour bus directly from Incheon to Dongdaegu; he’s not one bit happy to have to take a four-hour bus trip after 20 hours of flying, during which he didn’t sleep one wink. I get him settled into my little Korean “room” (not quite an apartment). The next morning I go to work and leave him to sleep the day away.
His first Friday night I take him to my neighborhood Dasarang for chicken and beer. He’s not old enough to drink legally in the U.S., but here it doesn’t seem to matter. I don’t even know what the drinking age is, but no one asks him his age or questions him in any way. I’m fine with drinking a few beers with him.
We have a lot of great conversations, opening up freely under the effects of the alcohol… 🙂 He tells me he is still in love with his old girlfriend Sarah. He can only think about her, wants to marry her, even dreams about her. He is a sweet boyfriend; I’ve seen him before with both of his long-time girlfriends, Lindsey and Sarah. Even if he is lost career- or direction-wise, I know I have raised him to treat his girlfriends well. He is a boy with a sweet and sensitive heart.
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.
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.
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!
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…).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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… 🙂