Tag Archive: Korea


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!

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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

 Who is this kid and why is he calling me “Mom?”
alex arrives at incheon airport on the outskirts of seoul

alex arrives at incheon airport on the outskirts of seoul

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.

after a 20 hour flight with no sleep, he has to take a 4 hour bus to daegu.... :-(

after a 20 hour flight with no sleep, he has to take a 4 hour bus to daegu…. 😦

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?

alex on the streets of daegu

alex on the streets of daegu

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.

socks for sale in Daegu

socks for sale in Daegu

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.

chicken korean style

chicken korean style

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.

chicken, chicken and more chicken

chicken, chicken and more chicken

being a mom again :-)

being a mom again 🙂

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

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

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

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

Korean schoolchildren at a rest area on the way to Jeonju

Korean schoolchildren at a rest area on the way to Jeonju

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

Danny, Seth and Anna

Danny, Seth and Anna

fall colors on the grounds of the Jeonju National Museum

fall colors on the grounds of the Jeonju National Museum

the jeonju national museum

the jeonju national museum

the grounds of the Jeonju National Museum

the grounds of the Jeonju National Museum

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

some amazing ceramic "woven" vases

some amazing ceramic “woven” vases

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

a diorama in the Jeonju National Museum

a diorama in the Jeonju National Museum

pots for keeping kimchi

pots for keeping kimchi

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

lunchtime: bibimbap

lunchtime: bibimbap

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

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

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

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

the pavilion above hanok village where we hear pansori

the pavilion above hanok village where we hear pansori

shoes all lined up on the steps of the pavilion

shoes all lined up on the steps of the pavilion

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

a street in Jeonju

a street in Jeonju

Anna, Seth and Suzanne under a ginkgo tree

Anna, Seth and Suzanne under a ginkgo tree

sweet little goodies for sale in Jeonju

sweet little goodies for sale in Jeonju

colorful fans for sale in Jeonju

colorful fans for sale in Jeonju

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

making rice cakes

making rice cakes

one of the guys making rice cakes

one of the guys making rice cakes

me with Seth, sampling the rice cakes

me with Seth, sampling the rice cakes

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

Jeondong Cathedral

Jeondong Cathedral

inside Jeondong Cathedral

inside Jeondong Cathedral

a grotto with the Virgin Mary

a grotto with the Virgin Mary

part of the Jeondong Cathedral

part of the Jeondong Cathedral

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

the rooftops of hanok village

the rooftops of hanok village

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

me at an outdoor cafe in Jeonju

me at an outdoor cafe in Jeonju

a little fish pond

a little fish pond

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

Friday, October 22: On the bus to Tongyeong, I listen to Glen Hansard’s Falling Slowly on my iPod Nano (which has suddenly come to life after 6 months of silence): I don’t know you but I want you All the more for that….Take this sinking boat and point it home, we’ve still got time.  Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice. You’ve made it known…

tongyeong and geoje on the south coast of korea

tongyeong and geoje on the south coast of korea

Little do I know that on this trip, I will be pointing my own “sinking” (or at least on-the-verge of sinking) boat home through the rough seas off Geoje. 🙂

My little collection of music transports me to the world slipping by outside the window, the world filled with fringe-headed grasses & cosmos & trees turning the colors of squash and rhubarb.  The songs add flavor & scent to my journey.  They inundate everything with meaning, carrying my thoughts along tangled mazes of memory.  I simply listen to my songs and gaze absently out the window.

ornamental grasses add life, sound & motion to landscapes!

ornamental grasses add life, sound & motion to landscapes!

Ornamental grasses wave to me from the side of the highway, beckoning in whispers. They bring the landscape to life with motion. Korea does roadsides right. I find cities in Korea unattractive; they’re not aesthetically pleasing at all, at least not to me.  It’s as if the powers-that-be decided long ago not to bother making man-made things beautiful but to devote all their energy to making nature sparkle.  Along the roads, out in the middle of nowhere, someone plants pretty little somethings.  The swaying grasses make me think of caresses. Gentle soft caresses, which I am seriously lacking in my life.  They speak to me in a sensual voice.  I imagine someone, someone I might love, holding these fringes of grass and running them over me, gently beckoning.  I remember past caresses.  I wish.

provisions in my "love motel" room in gohyeon

provisions in my “love motel” room in gohyeon

Recently, someone I know told me she is an asexual person.  Another person told me she has been dead to sexual urges for so many years she’s forgotten what it even feels like. She stopped having any desires of that nature.  It’s funny.  I think I could go without for years and years but I would never forget what it feels like; I would never stop desiring it.  I can say without a doubt that I’m a very sexual person.  But.  I cannot be casual about it; I want the heart stuff to go along with it.  I want the passion, the emotion, the commitment, the love.  My heart is too sensitive to settle for less.

I cruise along, mesmerized by these elemental earth things, these grasses.  I long for the caresses they promise.  But.  They will not deliver, not on this trip.  I journey on, untouched. Before I know it, I’m in Tongyeong, where I am immediately herded into a bus to Geoje.  People are crammed in, dangling from rubber handles on the ceiling.  What I was told was an hour ride is happily only a half hour.  At the Gohyeon Bus Terminal, we pour out, and I find a taxi that takes me a whole two blocks to my motel, the Migeumjang Yeogwan, for 30,000 won a night.

my "love motel" room: Migeumjang Yeogwan

my “love motel” room: Migeumjang Yeogwan

There are these motels in Korea known as “love motels.”  Often a love motel has these rubber fringed curtains similar to those found at a car wash; they hang halfway down over the entrance to the motel parking lot.  This is so that people driving by cannot see whose cars are in the parking lots ~ to keep sexual liaisons private.  Often young Koreans come here to be alone, since they often live in their family homes until they marry.  Rooms are also used for extramarital affairs and can even be rented by the hour, or so I’m told.  But they are also cheap places to stay for travelers like me.  They’re comfortable & clean and they provide shampoo, conditioner, hair dryers, even toothbrushes and toothpaste (used by countless previous customers).  In these love motels, several of the T.V. channels feature Korean pornography.  When I stay in these motels, which are not always for “love” (as witnessed by my lonely stays in them), and I’m flipping through the channels, sometimes I come upon one of these shows.  Maybe I am prudish, in some ways I certainly am, but I have never watched porn. Embarrassed, I switch the channel as quickly as possible.  Tonight though, I am curious.  I pause for a few minutes to watch and I can’t help but think these people look like robots.  Where is the passion, the love?  Where is true sensuality?  I don’t see the appeal in this and I wonder why so many people in the world watch it. It’s too bizarre.  I go back to watching consecutive episodes of CSI until late at night.

Saturday, October 23: In the morning, I get up early because I have to make my way to Jangseungpo-dong to catch the 9:40 boat to Odeo-Botania and Geoje Haegeumgang, two islands off the coast in the Hanryeo National Marine Park.  When I arrive, I buy the ticket for 19,000 won.  On the ticket they ask me to complete a bunch of information: name, birthdate, address, telephone number, passport number.  When I board the boat, they rip off the part of the ticket with all my information and keep it on land.  It doesn’t take much of a look at our boat for me to see why they keep all this information.  It’s a rickety thing, old and sitting low in the water.  Our little vessel doesn’t look very seaworthy for the over 100 passengers who cram onboard.

on the not-so-seaworthy boat

on the not-so-seaworthy boat

I think about this for a minute, but then I toss my worry overboard.  The boat starts up eventually and we pull out of the little harbor.  I am excited because I love being on boats.  I grew up in Yorktown, Virginia, near the York River, and our neighborhood, Marlbank, sat on a hand of land reaching into the waters of Wormley Creek.  We spent countless summer days crabbing off docks, sailing on my friend Louise’s sailboat, water-skiing, or just swimming.  Sometimes we went out on boats with friends and motored around the York River, drinking beer and listening to 1970s rock. Other times, we rode bikes to the end of Wormley Creek Drive, walked through a field and some woods and then swam across the creek, holding our towels over our heads, to the other side where there was a sandy beach.  M*****, my best friend in middle school, had a little aluminum boat with a motor on the back, and she would often bring it to the creek, where we took turns driving and riding in the boat.

our little boat

our little boat

While we are boating out on the ocean toward these islands off Geoje, I think about water and how comfortable I am with it.  I have to admit I’m feeling a little smug as the captain of the boat starts selling some kind of liquid in bottles for seasickness and handing out little plastic vomit bags.  The water is a little choppy on this overcast day and people are getting seasick right and left.  It seems everyone but me is gripping a plastic bag, poised for the moment when they’ll lose it.

heading out to the deep gray sea

heading out to the deep gray sea

Meanwhile, I’m having a grand time and think of this as an adventure. I think about my swim team days and how I’m a fairly strong swimmer and how I could conceivably float on my back indefinitely.  I don’t feel at all afraid.  Even though the boat is bouncing along and waves are coming over the bow and we have to close our windows, I’m having fun.   I’m not at all worried.  If the boat goes down, I can swim.  I can float.  I’ll be fine.

one of many seasick Koreans

one of many seasick Koreans

The boat continues on until we reach Geoje Haegeumgang, two steep craggy islands only a half-kilometer offshore from a more southern point of Geoje than where we departed from Jangseungpo-dong.  We cruise around the islands and pull up for a close-up view of the sheer cliffs.  It’s quite beautiful with the white stone rocky faces of the islands rising before us.

Haegeumgang ~ "like mountaintops protruding above a sea of clouds"

Haegeumgang ~ “like mountaintops protruding above a sea of clouds”

A memory comes to me as we bounce over the sea.  One day we were at Wormley Creek and M***** was pulling 3 or 4 of us on a rope behind her little boat.  I was closest to the boat and several friends were behind me on the rope.  Suddenly, M***** lost control of the boat.  I don’t know what happened, but the boat turned around and was bearing down on us.  Everyone behind me swam off to the sides, but I had no time to do anything; the boat was going to be on top of me in a second.  So, I held my breath and dove underwater.  In front of me, with the boat over my head, I could see and hear the motor roaring and churning.  I thought, this is it!  I’m going to die!  I’m going to be chopped up by this motor!  But M***** had her wits about her and, in a sweep, she shut off the motor.  Sacred silence. I emerged from under the boat, shaken, but fine.

I think about this water incident, and I think about M*****.  My mind wanders to the 2nd time she could have killed me.  We were teenagers and had been drinking heavily at a party near the Amoco oil refinery.  Driving home from the party in her father’s new car, we were talking and laughing and not really paying attention to the road.  We didn’t wear seat belts in those days.  Suddenly, in front of us, I saw a line of cars at a standstill.  I looked at her and it hit me much too late that she didn’t see these cars; her foot never even hit the brake.  We crashed into the cars, totaling the car in front of us, which got hit from behind and in turn hit the car in front.  I stuck out my hands and stopped myself by bracing against the dashboard.  Luckily, neither of us were hurt, but her father’s new car was seriously damaged.

haegeumgang ~ another view

haegeumgang ~ another view

I’ve known M***** a long time.  She’s one of my oldest friends.  I think about what makes a friend, what are the criteria for friendship?  Can someone be a friend who almost kills you twice?  She and I have a long history; we’ve been through so many things I can’t even remember them all.  I know her family; she knows mine.  To this day, she is one of my strongest supporters. We share a love of travel and different cultures.  She reads all my blogs religiously.  She even subscribes to them!  It’s hard for me to believe that anyone can care that much about what I have to say.  But she must.  She reads them.  It shows me she cares.

another island we pass in the boat

another island we pass in the boat

Friendship is beyond definition.  Friends bring such a variety of blessings into your life; you can’t possibly list the things that make a friend a friend.  Some people make you laugh, bring a lightheartedness into your life.  Some people are great listeners; others great sharers.  Some you can talk to about anything.  There is no single definition of friendship but I know it when I see it.  M***** is one of those rare people, a blessing in my life.  This I know with certainty.  This despite her almost killing me twice.  🙂

**********************

topiary near the entrance to oedo-botania

topiary near the entrance to oedo-botania

We motor off toward Oedo Botania.  This is an island that’s been cultivated since 1963 by Korean couple Lee Changho and Choi Hosook; it’s the first island in Korea ever to be owned and developed by an individual.  Every inch of this island is abloom with gardens and punctuated by statues.  I walk along the pathways with hundreds of other Koreans who have taken boats from other locations in Geoje.  I check out the cactus garden, the Venus garden, the flower garden, the bamboo road, the Hope of the World garden, the Dreaming Heights, the Stairway to Heaven, and the Eden Garden.  It’s like a fairy-tale land bursting with beauty.  The island itself is gorgeous with gardens, but the view of the surrounding ocean doesn’t hurt it one bit.  Most definitely, Korea does nature right!

crazy octopi cacti....

crazy octopi cacti….

I love the cactus garden full of its spiky succulents, its pale jade tear-drop-shaped cacti.  Everything is prickly and untouchable, covered in porcupine-like needles or spiked bark.  Some of the cacti look like hundred-armed octopi.  Even the normal trees have spiked vine-like appendages.

Oedo Botania

Oedo Botania

Oedo Botania

Oedo Botania

Oedo Botania

Oedo Botania

Ornamental grasses at Oedo Botania

Gardens at Oedo Botania

gardens at Oedo Botania

gardens at Oedo Botania

textures and colors

textures and colors

topiary at Oedo Botania

topiary at Oedo Botania

the gardens of Oedo Botania

the gardens of Oedo Botania

Statues of naked women, naked men & Venuses abound.  A whole “Venus Garden” full of well-trimmed hedges, white iron gates and fuchsia flowers sits on a hilltop with a semi-circle of marble columns and Venus statues at one end.  I enjoy the view from the garden out through the columns and statues to the sea.  So many Koreans are here it’s hard to get photos; since they love to take pictures, they are hogging all the good photo ops.  At the Venus garden I have to wait a good long time before I can snap a shot not inundated with the entire Korean populace.

flower gardens at geoje

flower gardens at geoje

The flower garden is a profusion of colorful flowers and topiary and smooth-barked trees.  It seems odd that all these flowers are still blooming at the end of October.  I walk up the hill and also discover the Eden Garden with a lovely statue sitting on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea.

me at Oedo Botania

me at Oedo Botania

After exploring this awesome island for an hour and a half, we board the boat again and head back to Geoje.  The ride was fairly choppy on the way out, but on the way back it is more than choppy. The waves are quite big, creating deep troughs between; the boat is banging up and down on this angry & frothy sea; it tosses foam and waves overboard onto the windows of the boat.  It seems every Korean on board has a vomit bag and both children and adults are using them in large numbers.  For the first time I am worried.  The boat is rickety so I can hear it straining and creaking as it bounces and twists roughly over the waves.  I remember my thoughts on the way out:  how I’m not afraid of water and how I’m a strong swimmer and how I could float indefinitely.  Now, I am thinking that this is how people drown, in rough seas where it would impossible to keep your head above water no matter how strong a swimmer you are.  And now that it’s getting colder, I am thinking about hypothermia and how easy it would be to succumb to such in this weather.

So.  Coming back, I’m not so brave as I was going out.  I’m not really afraid, but I am wary and vaguely nervous.  The sick people on board aren’t making me feel any better.  After an hour of this bouncing along, we finally arrive back at Jangseungpo-dong.  Whew!  Safely on land.  I catch the next bus to try to go to Windy Hill and Sinseondae, but I’m told I have to switch buses at Hakdong Pebble Beach.  The black Pebble Beach is honestly not much to look at, so I don’t want to stay long. I try to ask a lady selling street food about how to catch the bus to Windy Hill.  She doesn’t understand, but a Korean man around my age comes to the rescue and asks where I’m going.  His English is good; he works at the Korean Central Bank.  He says he and his wife are going to Windy Hill and they’d be happy to give me a ride.  They are so kind and save me much headache trying to make my way down the coast.

a street food stall where I meet the lovely Korean couple

a street food stall at Hakdong Pebble Beach where I meet the lovely Korean couple

Hakdong Pebble Beach

Hakdong Pebble Beach

When we get to Windy Hill, I thank them profusely after taking a picture of them, and we part ways. I walk down to Windy Hill which is a quite lovely promontory topped with a windmill and ornamental grasses blowing in the strong wind.  The view of the water and the other islands and fishing boats is beautiful.  I walk down the hill and explore the cove where numerous fishing boats are anchored and then walk back uphill by another route to cross the street and go to Sinseondae.

the lovely Korean couple who gives me rides to and from Windy Hill

the lovely Korean couple who gives me rides to and from Windy Hill

the windmill at Windy Hill

the windmill at Windy Hill

me at Windy Hill

me at Windy Hill

Korean ladies at a little market at Windy Hill

Korean ladies at a little market at Windy Hill

boats in the bay at Windy Hill

boats in the bay at Windy Hill

Boats in the water at Windy Hill

Boats in the water at Windy Hill

I love the description in the Geoje Tour Map of these places.  Obviously written by a Korean in flowery language and translated into English by an English-speaking Korean, I find it quite quaint:

“When we come down to the north at a corner going to Haegeumgang after passing Hammok, we can see a fishing village Dojangpo like a picture and can see ‘Windy Hill’ as a watercolor when we raise our head.  When we stand by an observatory in the south of a road after going up the hill, there is where we become a wizard who looks out over the sea.  Its name is ‘Sinseondae.’ ‘Windy Hill’… is where sea wind always meets visitors since there is a long extended clean sea around there.  It comes to the spotlight as a drama photographing place since sea is well-harmonized with the hill.  In ‘Sinseondae,’ we can look out over [see].  It has a shape playing a wizard game with harmonious landscapes around it since a large rock secures its position on the seashore.  There is a small Mongdol Swimming Beach at the lower edge, which makes its landscape more tasteful.”

Windy Hill

Windy Hill

I find this description amusing and cute.  Yet, it captures the essence of these two places which are right across the street from each other.

Beautiful cosmos cover the hillside looking out to Sinseondae.  It is another rocky promontory that also juts out into the sea and has quite a distinctive rounded chimney shape.  I spend quite some time wandering here and taking photos with my new camera.  As I walk down to Sinseondae, who do I run into but the nice Korean couple again.  They have finished at Sinseondae, but I haven’t gone yet.

Sinseondae

Sinseondae

Sinseondae

Sinseondae

walking back up the hill from Sinseondae

walking back up the hill from Sinseondae

The husband says he & his wife want to drive me back to my hotel in Gohyeon, so they will wait for me.  I am surprised, but I’m happy to take them up on their offer.  So when we are done, we drive back all together and they drop me at the Gohyeon Intercity bus terminal.

I go to an internet cafe for a while to check my emails, then eat a good chicken, noodle and vegetable soup (Dak KarGukSu) for dinner at a lovely little Korean restaurant that is decorated with a bunch of jars filled with roots.  Later I relax and read and watch TV for the evening.

jars of roots in the restaurant

jars of roots in the restaurant

Dak KarGukSa ~ chicken noodle soup

Dak KarGukSa ~ chicken noodle soup

Sunday, October 24: In the morning, I have a plan to go to Camellia Island, but when I wake up it is raining quite steadily.  Instead, I go to the Historic Park of Geojedo P.O.W. Camp.  This prisoner of war camp was built in November, 1950, and was used to keep the increasing numbers of P.O.W.s isolated from the rest of the country.  About 170,000 P.O.W.s, whether communists or anti-communists, were accommodated in this camp during the war.  The prisoners consisted of 150,000 North Koreans and 20,000 Chinese.  The camp is an impressive array of historical war facts, dioramas, war vehicles and weapons, actual tents and a kitchen and latrine area.

Historic Park of Geojedo P.O.W. Camp

Historic Park of Geojedo P.O.W. Camp

The P.O.W. camp diorama

The P.O.W. camp diorama

another diorama at the POW camp

another diorama at the POW camp

mist over the mountains

mist over the mountains

the POW camp

the POW camp

the POW camp

the POW camp

Leaflets for psychological warfare

Leaflets for psychological warfare

After the P.O.W. camp, I take my 2 buses to Tongyeong and then home to Daegu while listening more to my iPod.  I hear a funny song about memory called “Eid Ma Clackshaw” by Bill Callahan.  The lyrics go something like this:

Last night I swear I felt your touch / Gentle and warm / the hair stood on my arms / How, how, how?  Show me the way, show me the way, show me the way / To shake a memory…..  I fell back asleep sometime later on / And I dreamed the perfect song / It held all the answers, like hands laid on / I woke halfway and scribbled it down / And in the morning what I wrote I read / It was hard to read at first but here’s what it said:  Eid ma clackshaw / Zupoven del ba / Mertepy ven seinur / Cofally ragdah.

I find this song so amusing.  The way I understand it, he is thinking about someone who left him, either due to death or just leaving.  At one point in the song, he uses imagery of a horse flipping his forelock and twitching his withers to shake these memories.  Finally, he dreams about a song that gives the answer, but it’s nonsensical.  I feel that he’s saying there’s no way to shake a memory; it’s with you and no amount of magic can rid your mind of it.

I think about my memories of love, of caresses, of intimacy ~ those memories that crept into my consciousness as I traveled to Geoje.  Memories.  Sometimes they can bring pain & misery, sometimes joy and serenity. Sometimes they make me yearn to have the experience again, to feel what I felt.   Sometimes I can bask in a memory, if it’s a long ago one and any pain associated with it has faded away.  Other times a memory can still be painful.  But memory is part of who I am; all the memories I hold in my heart shape the person I am today.  When a memory comes to me, I must honor it, give it due space and time, but not dwell too deeply in it.  After all, I am a composite of all past experiences that dwell in the recesses of my mind.  Eid ma clackshaw.

flower garden on oedo

flower garden on oedo

If you want to go to Geoje from west Daegu, here’s what you do:

1) Take the 805 bus to the Seobu Bus Terminal and get on the bus to Tongyeong for 12,800 won.  I was told the trip would take 2 hours and 2 minutes.  It actually took just a little over 1 hour.

2) In Tongyeong, take the bus to Geoje-Do for 3,300 won.  I was told it would take 1 hour, but it actually took 1/2 hour.

3) The boat cruise to Oedo Botania and Geoje Haegeumgang left at 9:40 a.m. and cost 19,000 won.  It took about 3- 3 1/2 hours.  This boat left from Jangseungpo-dong but I think there are boats from other parts of Geoje as well.

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Saturday, September 4:   This is a story of a girl who, entranced by various articles and books about a “silver sand beach” on the south coast of Korea, determines to get there, come hell or high water or interminable bus rides.  This poor bedazzled (befuddled?) girl has been dreaming about this place since she first read a previously mentioned article put out by the Official Site of Korea Tourism: “Twelve Beaches Worth Visiting in the Summer.”  She even went so far as to find verification of this article in her trusty Moon Handbook which sang the praises of this beach: “Sangju Beach is one of the finest beaches along the southern coast of Korea.”  It goes on to say: “This two-kilometer-long crescent of silky sand nestles into a small cove protected by rocky promontories at each cusp and a diminutive island at its opening.”

sangju "silver" sand beach

sangju “silver” sand beach

Many of her friends thought this girl to be crazy, enamored as she was with the idea of this place.  But, female Don Quixote that she is, she would not let go her fantasy.  Weekend after weekend through the summer of 2010, as her plans were foiled by rain and forecasts of rain and imminent clouds and other untimely inconveniences, she kept that dream in her heart until happy skies were forecast.

The girl embarks on this odyssey one Saturday morning in early September.  A day forecast to be sunny and 90 degrees. She leaves her tiny dust-filled apartment at 6:20 am.  She walks 5 blocks to metro, takes the metro to Dongdaegu, where she then takes a bus to Masan, where she takes a bus to Namhae, where she takes a bus to Sangju Beach. All told, this journey takes her 7 hours for what should be a 3-hour drive in a car.

waiting for the daegu metro

waiting for the daegu metro

Her plan is to spend the last weekend of summer lounging on this mythical beach, sleeping and swimming and reading a book she’s brought along, The Black Book by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.  She’s already much of the way through this book, and though it’s a deep and dense book, not really your typical light beach read, she is into it enough now that it will keep her from being bored or lonely in her journey.

on the bus at namhae ~ a half hour from the mythical beach

on the bus at namhae ~ a half hour from the mythical beach

On the bus, she waits with the anticipation of a child to catch a glimpse of, and drive across (oh, unbelief),  the Namhae suspension bridge over the Noryangjin Strait between the mainland and the island of Namhae.  She is surprisingly unimpressed by this bridge that is supposed to be Korea’s version of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.  But crosses over it she does until she’s on Namhae-do, land of mountain bulges, highly cultivated farmland and ocean waters.

the namhae suspension bridge ~ Korea's version of The Golden Gate Bridge

the namhae suspension bridge ~ Korea’s version of The Golden Gate Bridge

After being tossed off the bus at a spot where no beach of any sort is visible, she schleps along with her bag into the speck of a town, looking for a hotel, and finds a Korean-style room for 30,000 won.

Welcome to Sangju Beach

Welcome to Sangju Beach

Korean-style means no bed, no furniture, and in this case, no sink.  Only a red plastic washtub for a “sink”, a bunch of quilts for a bed, a nice TV with all Korean-language stations, and a small refrigerator that is not cold. The hotel proprietor also generously gives her two small hand towels, the norm in Korea.  Koreans apparently don’t believe in or have never been introduced to large bath towels.

my korean-style room in Sangju

my korean-style room in Sangju

After dropping her bag and changing into her bathing suit, she ventures out to her treasured destination.  On the road, she is accosted by two older Korean men, one of whom rolls down the window of his car and, spewing food out of his mouth that clings stubbornly to his cheek, asks where she is from.  She says America, and he asks where she is going and then motions for her to get into the back seat which is piled high with stuff as if he’s a homeless person who lives in his car.  She waves him off and says, I’m going to the beach!  And turns on her heel and walks away.

the pine grove that borders the beach

the pine grove that borders the beach

The season is over at this beach; it’s sparsely populated but quite lovely.  The girl is a little mystified as she is unable to find any “silver” sand.   She realizes, much too late, that she has been duped.  But, determined to enjoy this place she has fought so hard for, she settles in on a Korean aluminum foil-type mat, applies her sunscreen in a sad attempt to save her already sun-damaged skin, and lies down to nap.

Under shade on Sangju Beach

Under shade on Sangju Beach

After getting thoroughly bored with the napping, she gets up and goes for a swim after struggling through tangles of seaweed at the shoreline.  The water is refreshing and kids are squealing and people are walking around with hats and long sleeves and umbrellas over their heads.  She floats, she swims, she lingers.  She goes back to her mat and pulls out her book.

Sangju Beach after a nap

Sangju Beach after a nap

She is in the midst of The Black Book; a dense novel about a Turkish man whose detective novel-reading wife left him.  The book has layers and layers of stories about Istanbul, a blending of ancient history and contemporary (1980s) life. There is a famous newspaper columnist, Celal, whose columns make up every other chapter of the book.  Galip suspects his wife may have run off with this columnist, who is actually related to both him and his wife (!).  Galip slowly starts to take on Celal’s identity. It’s a difficult book, but this girl, our heroine, our wanna-be Don Quixote, has just been to Turkey and fell in love with it and the book takes her back.

Looking out on the little bay

Looking out on the little bay

Funny, she thinks, how various books have become intertwined with places or times in her life.  For instance, at one point in this girl’s life, she went on her honeymoon to Islamorada, one of the Florida Keys, with her first husband.  She spent the entire honeymoon reading The Thorn Birds; while reading this book,  it became evident to her that she would never find in her marriage the passionate love that was so palpable (yet doomed) between Ralph De Briccassart and Meggie Cleary.  Ah, the destructive power of books, as her first marriage fell apart seven years later in a fizzle of non-passion.

my view, looking eastward

my view, looking eastward

This book, The Black Book, fills her mind here at Sangju Beach with questions about her own identity, questions that can only be answered by stories in her own life. It gets her mind working, probing about in too many dark alleys & dusty corners.  She begins to think about her physical identity.  For one thing, how can she really see herself?  She can never see herself, not really.  She can look in a mirror, but the instant she finds herself in a mirror, she immediately puts on her best face; she corrects her slouch, she smiles to bring her hangdog face to life.  So is she really the person she sees in the mirror, this 2-dimensional person with the fake smile and upright posture?  Or is she the uncorrected slouchy version of herself who goes about her daily routines looking neither happy nor sad, neither here nor there?  She can see herself in a camera, but once she knows she’s in front of a camera, she immediately smiles, or puts on her best face, showcases her best angle.  In front of the camera, she becomes a star, someone who steps out of her own under-dazzling skin.  Heaven forbid the photo turns out badly, showing her at an unflattering angle or with an ugly expression.  She always deletes these pictures, which no human eye will ever see.  Of course she is fooling only herself, as everyone else in her world sees her all the time in these unflattering poses.

the "dimunitive island"

the “dimunitive island”

Upon thinking these thoughts, she attempts to take some pictures of herself by setting the 10-second self-timer.  But, in this blazing sun, the 10-second-timer lets in too much light and the picture turns out to be a burst of whiteness with an albino person it in.  She tries a couple of times with the same result and finally gives up, resorting to taking a picture of her feet beside her sand-covered flip-flops.

a sad attempt at a self-portrait

a sad attempt at a self-portrait

She goes back to reading her book.  A shadow of a person falls over her mat and when she glances up, she sees a stick-thin white guy with a reddish-blond beard and mustache and a bandana around his head.  He is standing right beside her mat gazing out at the water.  He stands there for quite a long time without looking at her.  When he turns around for just an instant, she smiles at him, but he doesn’t smile.  With absolutely no expression, he turns around and walks away on the beach, disappearing like an erased pencil mark on the horizon.

and he disappears down the beach....

and he disappears down the beach….

Weird.  She’s taken aback and thinks more about her physical self, this self that she can never really see.  The only other way she can see herself, she thinks, is in other people’s eyes.  So, she wonders, what did he see?  Did he see just an older woman, which is what our “girl” heroine really is, despite the fact that she still thinks of herself as simply a “girl?”  Did he immediately discount her because she is older, as many people do?  Or did he find her horribly scary and unattractive?  She wonders if she terrified him, although he didn’t look frightened.  Or maybe he didn’t see her at all, just looked right through her as if she were invisible.  She is baffled.  Especially as there are so few Westerners in this part of the world she would think that when they find one another, they should at least smile, if nothing else.

the beach at an angle

the beach at an angle

shadows on the beach

shadows on the beach

While reading her book, which probes questions of identity quite extensively, she thinks about how difficult it is to truly be herself.  Who is she anyway?  Is she the person who, when she is in the company of her best friend Rosie or her crazy friend Lisa, becomes a suddenly hilarious person?  She and these friends play off each other and she is brought to life as a comedian.  To these people, her identity is crazy and fun.  Or is she the person who, in other people’s company, becomes quiet and boring?  Is she the person who in yet different people’s company, becomes defensive and irritable?  How can she really even be herself when herself varies with each person she encounters?  Sometimes she likes herself a lot, enjoys her own company, but other times, she hates who she is.  Which one is she?  The one she loves or the one she hates?

Another little beach shack

Another little beach shack

In the book, she reads about a Crown Prince who, in an effort to truly become himself, decides that too many books have filled his head with other people’s ideas.  He is dismayed to realize that the thoughts in his head are really these writers’ thoughts and not his own.  So he burns all of his books and goes for years without reading.  These writers’ thoughts continue to permeate his being.  It takes him a long time, a strong effort, to remove the thoughts from his mind.  He is never really able to get rid of them.  And when at times he feels he can clear his head of these thoughts, he realizes he has no thoughts of his own.

the beach shack

the beach shack

The Crown Prince even shuns women because when he finds one he likes, thoughts of her take over his mind.  So, he deserts his wife and children and goes to live alone in a hunting lodge for 22 years.  All in a quest to “be himself.”

So, this girl wonders, after reading and reading hundreds of pages all weekend long, on the bus, on the beach, in her bedless room, and on the bus again, after being totally engrossed in this book and Orhan Pamuk’s thoughts, if she is losing her own identity and becoming Orhan Pamuk himself.  Who is she, this girl who fancies herself a Passionate Nomad, a Don Quixote?  It is all terribly confusing.

a self portrait of a nomad ~ Who is she, anyway?

a self portrait of a nomad ~ Who is she, anyway?

After all this contemplating, the girl leaves the beach and showers in her little hotel room.  She is unable to wash her hair, because after hauling along her hair dryer on every single trip she’s ever taken — only to find a hair dryer provided by the hotel — she didn’t bring her hair dryer this time.  This hotel doesn’t have one.  Oh well, she’s on a beach vacation; what the heck if she’s dirty?  This can be her identity this weekend, a dirty, ruminating, well-read vagabond.

reading The Black Book

reading The Black Book

After showering, she takes a nap in the hotel, reads some more, and then goes in search of a restaurant because, snap, she forgot to eat anything all day.  She walks to the west part of the beach where she finds one restaurant with funny-shaped fish in tanks.  She’s told any meal with the fresh fish will cost her 30,000 won!! She leaves to wander to the east side of town, where she veers left into a narrow alley and finds a restaurant that has a picture of a delicious-looking dish on the window.  She asks how much and they tell her 6,500 won.   The restaurant is a cozy mom-and-pop place painted in aqua and a baseball game is on TV and it’s cool because the “air-con” is on and she is sitting right in front of it.

the chinese mom-&-pop restaurant

the chinese mom-&-pop restaurant

She settles in for the meal along with a giant-sized Hite beer.  The whole thing, egg drop soup, shrimp with noodles, rice & black bean sauce, and the beer are 9,000 won.

shrimp with black bean sauce & noodles

shrimp with black bean sauce & noodles

Dinner in Sangju

Dinner in Sangju

Before dinner and before her nap, an Egyptian friend she recently met from Seoul, an Egyptian with a 6-letter name, calls her to see how she is.  Later at night, after going to sleep at 9:00 (sad!), her phone rings again at 11:00.  Not having her glasses on, she picks it up.  When she hears his foreign accent, she thinks it is her Egyptian friend again because the caller ID looks like a short 6-letter word.  He asks if he woke her up. She says, yes, but it’s okay, she’s happy to hear from him, how is he doing?  It takes her a while before she realizes she is talking to someone else, an Indian guy with a 6-letter name who originally contacted her through couchsurfing.com.  The girl is so befuddled and amused by this confusion about identity, especially after reading The Black Book and reflecting endlessly all day about this issue.

Sunday, September 5: The next morning, she lounges in bed a long while, reading and reading.  She thinks that being engrossed in a good book is one of the most enjoyable things in life.

glued to the final pages of The Black Book

glued to the final pages of The Black Book

Then she heads out for a walk; since she doesn’t like Korean breakfasts, she buys a pastry in plastic wrap, an orange juice and a can of cold coffee at a convenience mart.  She sits on a bench under the pine trees and eats her breakfast.  Then she decides to wander to the top of the hill at the east of the beach and take some photos.

views from the east hill

views from the east hill

view of the Sangju Beach surroundings

view of the Sangju Beach surroundings

She goes back to her room, puts back on her bathing suit,  checks out of the hotel, and goes back to the beach to lounge.  It is more overcast today. There she basks in the clouds and thinks that this beach sounds like beaches everywhere: the steady rhythm of soft waves, laughter, children’s voices and their squeals of delight, the whir of cicadas, the muffled roar of the cars on the road.  When she closes her eyes she thinks of all the beaches she’s been in her life from Hilton Head in South Carolina to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, to Virginia Beach, to the beach on Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, to the beach in Phuket, Thailand and to the Paradise Island beach in the Bahamas.  She thinks she could be anywhere and for a moment she is a little convinced she is back at her long-lost home in America.

the little cove

the little cove

morning view of boats in the bay

morning view of boats in the bay

After a while, she is beached out, so she tries to use one of the public showers.  She can’t believe that the showers are padlocked, closed for the season.  Whereas in America this would be Labor Day weekend, the last-hurrah beach weekend of the year, it is already past beach season in Korea.  So she rinses off her sandy feet in the sink and heads back out to the town to catch the 1:50 bus back to Namhae.  She’s a block or so away from the main road at 1:20 and she sees the bus; realizing she’s been misinformed once again about the bus times, she waves frantically at the bus.  Normally bus drivers in Korea will totally ignore anyone trying to flag them down, but this time, the bus driver sees her and pulls over and waits patiently till she is aboard.  Ah, kindness.

sangju beach from the road above

sangju beach from the road above

Despite this excellent stroke of luck at catching this bus in the middle of nowhere, the trip home takes even longer than the trip there.  Because of a huge traffic jam between Namhae and Masan, this leg of the trip, which was 2 hours coming down, becomes 3 1/2 hours going back.  So, all told, the entire trip back to Daegu takes 8 hours.  She arrives home at 9:20, totally exhausted yet wound up because on the entire bus ride home she was so obsessed by finishing her book that she didn’t “take a rest.”

the view of Sangju Beach from the hill

the view of Sangju Beach from the hill

So, what is the upshot?  About identity, our heroine doesn’t know the answer.  She only believes that her own identity is still in flux, constantly evolving, ever-changing.  It is a composite of all the books she has ever read, all the interactions she has ever had, all the people she has ever loved and hated, all the places she has ever been, all the hobbies she has ever pursued, all the aches and pains and heartbreak she has ever felt, all the happiness and sadness and anger…. as well as that blob of gray matter that is in her rather large head.  Plus. Many more things known and unknown, things remembered and forgotten, things experienced and only dreamed about.  Who is she?  She wonders if she will ever really know.

For the intrepid traveler’s reading pleasure, here is the article about 12 beaches worth visiting.

Official Site of Korea Tourism: Twelve Beaches Worth Visiting This Summer

This girl does not recommend making this beach a destination as it’s too much of a trek for too little.  The town isn’t much and the beach is just a beach, like any other.  But, if one wants to get there from Daegu, here’s what you do:

1. Go to Dongdaegu to the bus station directly across from the subway stop, immediately to the left of the Senior Center.  Buy a ticket to Masan for 8,000 won.  The trip to Masan is about 1 hour 40 minutes.

2. In Masan, you must take a taxi to the Express Bus Terminal (about 2,700 won) and buy a ticket to Namhae for 8,400 won.  This took less than 2 hours on the way down and 3 1/2 hours on the way home Sunday.

3. In Namhae, take the bus to Sangju Beach for 2,400 won.  This takes 30 minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

chojeon elementary school ~ august 30 ~ crepe myrtles in bloom

chojeon elementary school ~ august 30 ~ crepe myrtles in bloom

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

julie & coffee-j, my korean co-teachers

julie & coffee-j, my korean co-teachers

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

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

a buddhist temple in seoul

a buddhist temple in seoul

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

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

standing near the top of the andong dam in may

standing near the top of the andong dam in may

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

me at the folk museum in seoul

me at the folk museum in seoul

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

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

Wednesday, May 12: One day I was walking down the street near my apartment and an older Korean man caught my eye.  He pointed to my hair and shook his head, then he made a gesture with his hands: he formed a cup with one hand and then he dipped his other fingers into the cup.  Then he wiped his fingers on his hair.  The gesture obviously meant he thought I needed to dye my hair black, like most Koreans do.  He had a kind of disgusted look on his face; he was not at all happy that I was walking around his streets with my whitish hair so indecently exposed!

I refused to take this insult lightly.  I shook my head vehemently and said “NO!” accompanied by the Korean style NO gesture, which is crossing my forearms in the shape of an “X.”  I then said, “I LOVE (making the sign of a heart with my fingers) my hair (pointing to my hair)!” And then I promptly turned my back on him and walked away.

Wow!

OMG, she has white hair, a big nose and fat arms!!

OMG, she has white hair, a big nose and fat arms!!

The attitude toward age in this country is infuriating.  My experience has been that basically if you are over 25, you are considered old.  I have two young Korean lady friends in their late 20s who truly believe they are old because they are no longer in university.  And, heaven forbid, they are not married!  I find this attitude really irritating.

Clara and Naree..."over the hill" in their late 20s!!

Clara and Naree…”over the hill” in their late 20s!!

One day I was in the carpool, sitting in my designated backseat, with Mr. O in front.  He said, “Mrs. Cathy (as he always says), do you find that you have problems with memory at your age?”  I said, “No, Mr. O, I don’t have any problems with my memory.  Besides, I am NOT old!”  He said, “I have seen your papers and I know your age.”  I said, “Mr. O, I am NOT old!”

Another day, Mr. O said, “Mrs. Cathy (keep in mind, Mr. O is older than me in body and MUCH older than me in spirit!), do you color your hair?” I said, “No, Mr. O.  I don’t believe in coloring my hair.” He said, “Well we Koreans people, we color our hair because we think it makes us look younger.”  I said, “No, Mr. O, coloring your hair black does not make you look younger!  It actually makes you look older.  Because when you get older, your skin changes and black hair does not look good against aging skin.” This I truly believe, because up until 5 years ago, I myself colored my own hair dark brown.  When I finally removed all the dye and went natural, people came out of nowhere to compliment me on how much younger I looked!

Another day I was hiking up to Gatbawi, the Buddha with the flat hat, and an older Korean man pointed to my hair and said something nasty to his wife in Korean.  I could tell it was nasty because of the perturbed expression on his face.  Again, I think he was really disturbed about my hair!

Then there are my students, some of whom are rude beyond belief.  I have one student in particular in the 4th grade.  Every day, she wears the same pair of knit pants with wide black and gray stripes.  They look like jailbird pants.  One day I wore a ribbed knit tank under a cardigan.  She grabbed the bottom of my tank and asked in Korean if I was wearing my underwear.  Coffee J laughed about this as he translated it for me.  I actually found this rude of him — that he found it funny and translated it so lightly, without reprimanding the girl.  I said, “No, this is a tank top, not underwear!” Of course, the girl couldn’t understand me.  But what I really felt like saying was, “No, this is not underwear, but are those your jailbird pajamas that you wear every day?? Do you ever wash them??  Why are you here?  Did you escape from prison today?”

Little Miss Jailbird and the Pig Farmer's daughter

Little Miss Jailbird and the Pig Farmer’s daughter

I went on a field trip and sat beside another girl in the same 4th grade class.  Funny thing is, this girl’s father is a pig farmer.  She pointed at my nose and made a funny gesture on her own nose, touching her nose and then lifting her finger in an arch away from her nose.  I wasn’t sure what she was trying to say, so I asked Coffee J what she meant.  He said she thinks I have a big nose.

Later in this same day, Miss Jailbird Pajamas pointed at my nose and made the same type of gesture.  Again, Coffee J translated this to mean she thinks I have a big nose.  Do I have a big nose?  Do I have a PIG nose?? How has this insult escaped me my entire life??  I have been insulted for things I know to be true before, but this?  Maybe people have been dying to tell me this my whole life but have kept it all bottled up inside.  Maybe this insult to my nose has been gnawing at people’s insides, churning and burning away!!

I’m not the only one who has gotten the big nose gesture.  Anna Schuett said she was walking down the street one day and some kid came up to her, pointed at her nose, and started making pig noises.

Finally, Miss Jailbird also had a comment about my arms.  Granted, my arms are my least favorite part of my body.  I wish they were thin and graceful, but alas, I have the German body!  So, the first day I wear a short sleeve shirt, little Miss Jailbird comes up to me, puts her hands around my arms and then expands them, showing me she thinks they are fat!!  OMG!  How can I shut this girl up???

OK, OK, I admit my arms are chubby...

OK, OK, I admit my arms are chubby…

Monday, March 15: I teach at two elementary schools in rural Seongju County, but I live in the city of Daegu. So… each day I have about an hour commute each way to work; luckily I’m able to carpool with some of my fellow teachers.  Otherwise, I’d have a horribly inconvenient trip by city bus and then by rural bus which could take me 1 1/2 hours and 10,000 Korean won/day.  The teachers offered me the option of carpooling with them during my first week.  I think it may have been a temporary offer, but now, much to their dismay, they are stuck with me; I’m like the guest they can’t quite shake, the visitor who is overstaying her welcome.   I’m playing dumb as long as I can….

Welcome to Seongju

Welcome to Seongju

Carpool #1 to Chojeon Elementary (M, T, F): I ride to work three days a week with three funny guys: my co-teacher Coffee-J, Mr. Yun, the PE and head teacher, and Mr. Sun, the 5th grade teacher.  During the entire drive, they talk together animatedly in Korean, laughing, making hand gestures, cracking crazy jokes; it’s high jinx.  Despite the fact that I can’t understand a word they’re saying, I find myself laughing along as if I understand their jokes.  I want to belong to their little group, but clearly I don’t.  Being the only woman and having very limited Korean speaking abilities, I mainly stay quietly amused in the back seat.

Coffee J, Mr. Yun, and Mr. Sun

Coffee J, Mr. Yun, and Mr. Sun at Chojeon Elementary School

I don’t know quite what to do with myself.  Some days, I simply fall asleep when my mind wanders off into an imaginary land where Englishy is spoken….inside my own head. (Koreans add “y” to the end of many English words: Englishy, lunchy, clothies, etc.) Sometimes I pull out my Korean flashcards and mutter words incorrectly to myself until one of them overhears me and corrects my pronunciation. (Odee, Yogi, Chogi – Where? Here. There.)  Other days, I stare absently out the window at the miles of vinyl houses where the yellow melon is grown. Other days I just can’t keep quiet and I start yapping to Coffee-J in English, probably taxing the poor guy’s mind first thing in the morning.  When I do that, of course, Mr. Sun and Mr. Yun become the outsiders, as they can speak very limited Englishy.  I don’t like to do this too much as it disrupts their camaraderie and may get me ousted from the carpool.  That’s something I DO NOT want to happen.

This past Friday afternoon, Coffee J and I got behind a slow-moving vehicle and he impatiently tried to get around.  He said, “What do you call this, this slow-moving car?” I said, “Hmm… I guess you’d say he’s pokey.” He said “porky? like the food?” I said, “No, p-o-k-e-y, pokey. Not a food!  You’d probably call him a slowpoke.” He said, “Oh, ok, a slow-pokey! That’s funny!” Then he kept saying that word all the way home.  “Oh, another slow-pokey. Haha!”

Tuesday, March 16: Carpool #2 to Byeokjin Elementary (W, Th) : My other carpool is with Mr. O, the 2nd grade teacher at my other school.  He is also my “manager” at Byeokjin.  I was excited before I met him because Coffee J said Mr. O has a Ph.D. in English.  However, Mr. O speaks very limited Englishy!!  As a matter of fact, hardly anyone at Byeokjin speaks Englishy; I honestly have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing at that school!!  Apparently Mr. O got his Ph.D. in English many years ago and, like many who study foreign languages, learned to read and write but not to speak.

Mr. O

Mr. O

The first day Mr. O picked me up, Coffee J met us in his car at the pick up spot.  Coffee J and Mr. O got out of their respective cars and Coffee J introduced me to Mr. O.  I promptly got in the front seat of Mr. O’s car, but first I had to move his briefcase, his phone, and his jacket to the back seat.  It happened to be snowing that day, and Mr. O drove very nervously and slowly to Byeokjin.  I could tell he was quite on edge, between the snow, trying to speak to me in his very poor Englishy, and having a strange woman in the car with him.

On Friday, I was back in my regular carpool with the Chojeon guys.  Coffee J’s phone rang and there was a very loud voice on the other end.  Coffee J held the phone away from his ear and then thrust his phone into the air so everyone in the carpool could hear what the other party was saying.  The three guys were laughing their heads off, but I was clueless as usual. After he hung up the phone, Coffee J said, “That was Mr. O.  He called to say that the next time you ride with him, he wants you to sit in the back seat. He can’t concentrate with you in the front seat and he feels very nervous!”

What???

The next day, I dutifully got into Mr. O’s back seat when he picked me up.  I figured since he wanted me to sit in the back seat (despite the fact that a perfectly good front seat was available!!) that I could just mind my own business in the back seat.  I planned to busily occupy myself putting phone numbers into my new Korean phone, looking over my lesson plans, reading emails on my blackberry.

Surprisingly, Mr. O talked to me non-stop.  He told me a story that went something like this: “I don’t like autumn.  It remembers me of my girlfriend in college.  She was rich and liked to eat (some kind of food I didn’t understand). She was the brother of my wife.  OK? You understand?”  There was some other stuff about the girlfriend eating a lot of some kind of food.  I tried so hard to understand what he was trying to tell me.  Did the girlfriend get fat eating all that food?  Did she leave him or did he leave her because she got fat?  Did he meet his wife through his girlfriend’s brother??

Vinyl houses for growing the yellow melon

Vinyl houses for growing the yellow melon

a typical rainy winter day waiting for the carpool on the main road from Daegu to Seongju

a typical rainy winter day waiting for the carpool on the main road from Daegu to Seongju

I patiently tried to process his convoluted tale.  Then Mr. O said, “By the way, I talked to Mr. Kim (Coffee J) and he told me you are a lot of fun, that you like to drink alcohol and soju.  So one night, I want to drink alcohol with you!”  Huh???  Now that’s an experience I can’t wait for:-)

Monday, March 29: Today, I’m informed by Coffee-J that our carpool is going out for dinner and drinks tonight after work.  This seems to always be the way things work in Korea.  No one asks if you might have other engagements; they simply announce some plan and expect you to follow along.  Usually, because I’m a foreigner and hardly anyone speaks English, I’m always the last to know.

Tonight we go out to a Korean restaurant in Daegu and eat bulgogi.   On this outing, it’s just the Chojeon car pool teachers; Mr. O is not included.

Mr. Yun and Coffee-J, making a toast with soju

Mr. Yun and Coffee-J, making a toast with soju

Bulgogi is made from thin slices of sirloin or other prime cuts of beef.  Before cooking, the meat is marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, pepper and other ingredients such as scallions, garlic, onions or mushrooms.

Bulgogi is traditionally grilled, but pan cooking has become popular as well. Whole cloves of garlic, sliced onions and chopped green peppers are often grilled or fried with the meat.  This dish is sometimes served with a side of lettuce, which is used to wrap a slice of cooked meat, often along with a dab of ssamjang (a thick spicy sauce made of soy bean paste, a red chili condiment, sesame oil, garlic, green onions, and optionally brown sugar), or other side dishes, and then eaten together. (Wikipedia: Bulgogi)

Mr. Yun, Coffee-J, me and Mr. Sun at our bulgogi dinner

Mr. Yun, Coffee-J, me and Mr. Sun at our bulgogi dinner

As always at any Korean gathering, the meal is accompanied by huge amounts of beer and soju, a distilled South Korean beverage traditionally made from rice.  It tastes similar to vodka but sweeter (Wikipedia: Soju).  There are always some bottles of Fanta also floating around.

Me and Mr. Sun

Me and Mr. Sun making a toast with soju

In short order, with all the soju and beer going around, everyone is quite drunk.  We laugh a lot and I feel like these carpooling co-teachers of mine are becoming good friends.

Mr. Sun and I have a race to see who can drink our soup the fastest

Mr. Sun and I have a race to see who can drink our soup the fastest

Mr. Yun doesn't speak a word of English, but he's always a jolly fellow

Mr. Yun doesn’t speak a word of English, but he’s always a jolly fellow

After dinner, we go to noraebang, where we all have a grand time belting out songs, both Korean and English.  Crazy times!!

me, probably singing Hotel California, always my song of choice! :-)

me, probably singing Hotel California, always my song of choice! 🙂

me and Mr. Yun singing in the noraebang

me and Mr. Yun singing in the noraebang

Tuesday, April 27: Today, I’m informed once again that we’re having a carpool party, this time including Mr. O from Byeokjin Elementary.  After work, we head to a restaurant between Seongju and Daegu.  As always, the meal includes a lot of beer and soju and as always, there are lots of laughs and high jinx.  This is typical Korean culture that I experienced too many times to count!

Coffee-J's face always turns bright red when he drinks

Coffee-J’s face always turns bright red when he drinks

me holding a bottle of soju

me holding a bottle of soju

Coffee-J with chopstick teeth

Coffee-J with chopstick teeth

the typical Korean pose with the V-sign

the typical Korean pose with the V-sign

Take one down and pass it around, 99 bottles of soju on the wall :-)

Take one down and pass it around, 99 bottles of soju on the wall 🙂

a pose with bottles of beer and soju

a pose with bottles of beer and soju

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