Wednesday, June 14, 2017

7 Years

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of Daddy's death. If I were a non-Christian Korean, I would have prepared a table full of his favorite food, and genuflected in front of his portrait, if not at his gravesite itself. However as I am a Christian and not Korean, and still recovering from last weekend's insomnia, I neither cooked nor bowed, but went to bed early.

We are in the throes of the second round of test preparation for the seventh graders. I only have 11 students in each class this time, which is a blessing. They have a vocabulary quizzes at the beginning of each session, and then we launch into review of their dialogue testing books. Both of my classes are from the local girl's school, and some are sillier than others. Earlier this week I had to make one girl put away her makeup--it turned out to be her friend's, not even hers!--the full kit of which she had spread out across her desk. I confess I would rather fuss at girls about makeup application than at boys about making ribald comments.

I have 19 adult students in my English III class, and nine in my English I class. The former class members are a great group, and most have been with me since February. The latter has three old faces, and six new ones, including a retired hedge fund manager, and a coffee appraiser.

I have signed up to be on the roll at the Korean language church, and may be meeting the pastor this Sunday. I'm not exactly sure how membership works here, or if you're just clerically associated by virtue of putting your name on the list. Kristen had to translate the sign-up form for me, and will definitely have to translate the conversation when I meet the pastor. I'm learning a few new Korean words each week, but it's hardly rapid language acquisition! Again, Sunday morning people smiled at me, and little old ladies gave me some sweets. A young high school science teacher sat with me and Kristen at lunch. He was genuinely puzzled by the fact that I had walked to church on my own. It's going to be a major personal cultural adjustment for me to go to church with someone – I ran into Kristen just outside the parking lot, and so we ended up sitting together. Over the past 15+ years, I've gotten used to going to church by myself, as well as doing many other things by myself. I told him this solitary behavior wasn't an American thing, it was just a "me" thing. Perhaps actually being included as part of a group is going to be more of a shock to me than being excluded!

I am really grateful for Kristen and for the several ladies in my adult class who have asked me to hang out with them.  Saturday afternoon I went to a calligraphy museum with Roxanne and another lady, whose father-in-law was the calligrapher. None of the captions were in English, and I asked, through Roxanne, if I could perhaps help translate anything. But the super enthusiastic docent  explained that since much of the calligraphy was in Chinese characters, they were already losing a great deal of meaning being translated into Korean, and he felt that they would be removed that much further from their original intent if an attempt was made to put the captions into English. The characters were beautiful, although I could not appreciate them fully. One was a sort of life motto, which read, basically, "Eat, Sleep, and Write." I would love to have a poster of it. The majority of the museum gallery space was dedicated to a photo exhibition about the artist, who lived from 1907 to 1997, despite a fondness for cognac and cigarettes. The old gentleman looked exactly like one of those sages one imagines lurks on cloud-shrouded mountaintops, as he always wore traditional clothes and had a long white mustache and goatee that reached almost to his waist. In the last few years of his life he leaned on a natural wood cane, though his hands were smooth and youthful looking, perhaps from decades of exercise wielding calligraphy brushes. In the summertime, he wore a woven wicker cooling frame between his body and his shirt--the rattan kept the cloth from sticking to his moist skin, while the stiff collar resembled a Victorian chair back.

After the museum--at the gift shop of which the daughter-in-law gave me a silk scarf--we went out for tea, and it took some fancy footwork for me to sneak up to the cashier and insist on having my card run for everyone's snacks before my companions could beat me to it! Such a wonderful afternoon.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Slouching Towards Slovenliness

South Korea is a society with superb posture. Even the little old ladies have backs that are ramrod straight. I am learning to stand taller here, as everyone walks around with his or her shoulders thrown back commandingly, and I don't want to be the one person who's slouching.

Taxis here operate the way I always thought taxis ought to operate. They are everywhere, ready to be hailed, and when you phone for one, they show up within two minutes. None of this D.C.-area nonsense about ordering a taxi an hour or more ahead! One of the ladies in my adult class is a massage therapist, and I made an appointment for last Wednesday morning. She even gave me a face pack while she worked on my legs. I felt thoroughly relaxed. After lunch (she whipped up homemade jjajangmyeon, which I wolfed down like a competitive eater, it was so tasty) she rang for a taxi and they said they'd arrive in two minutes. They were there within 45 seconds. And the base rate is only 2800 KRW.

I have been sleeping like a log at night for weeks and weeks and weeks. It's been wonderful. And Thursday night, insomnia sucker-punched me, following up the low blow with a right hook last last night. I've slept for less than seven hours in 48. I do not like waking up at 3 AM. In the wee hours today, I caught up on a bit of Kdrama watching (The Best Hit--the first two hours, which are all that have aired thus far, were hilarious, stuffed with cameos and meta references).

I was really encouraged on Thursday evening by getting to have dinner with a woman and her daughter from Atlanta. The guy who brings me tea in my adult class runs several Airbnb apartments, and he contacted me Wednesday to see if I'd be interested in meeting them. We went out immediately after I left work for shabu shabu, and talked for hours. It was so good. The mom, a newish Christian, works in healthcare, and her high-school age daughter, who is a longtime Kdrama and Kpop fan (she described herself as having practically hyperventilated when BTS won the Billboard Music award a week or so ago), are on an almost month-long Korean tour, covering most of the country. They've had a great trip, and I was impressed both by their enthusiasm for travel and by their kind willingness to listen to me ramble on. I was a bit confused when I had first heard the mom's voice on the phone, because she sounds exactly like my aunt (who also spent years living Atlanta, and works in healthcare…), though she's a generation younger. It was refreshing getting to talk about Christian things, and the pluses and minuses of living in Korea as a foreigner, with people who are genuinely interested. They were a Godsend.

I wish the dishwashing fairy would make a visit to my house. On Tuesday, which was a holiday--and praise God it rained all day, because I was behind on editing, and that gave me time and inclination to catch up!--I attempted to clarify the beeswax that my colleague's parents had given us the previous Friday. It was absolutely full of bee debris. All of my pots and pans are now speckled and smeared with wax and apiary dirt. I hate not having a dishwasher. We're planning to have a student camp in the fall, and one of the little projects that has been floated is having the students make candles. I had thought that the beeswax would be perfect for the project. But I ultimately had shockingly little clean wax once all was said and done, and half a week later I still have a sink full of dirty dishes. Maybe that's the reason I can't sleep.

Or, maybe it's my fifth graders. Every other month, my school asks the teachers to choose one class from among the assortment that we are teaching to create a textbook-based skit to be entered in a nationwide speech competition. Last month was the first time I had done this. I carefully composed a script--geared toward the personalities of the children involved, and approved by the curriculum coordinator and my Korean co-teacher--and gave it to the fifth grade kids. We read through it. I had them practice it. I impressed upon them that they needed to memorize their lines. I told them weeks ahead of time when we would be filming, and got them to bring props. I collected more than an hour and 20 minutes of footage for a four-minute video. The one girl was the only one to commit her lines firmly to memory. One of the boys almost, almost had his lines down. Two other boys were less conversant in their roles (their intonation was terrible, and despite my physically moving them into the camera frame, and telling them where to look and how to act, they just didn't get it down, or loosen up), but the remaining kid hadn't bothered in the least, and ended up reading his lines off a paper on the floor. The video, which my curriculum coordinator spent more than three hours editing (making a silk purse out of a sow's ear!) was good, given the content I had sent her, but not good enough to be entered into the competition. And, I found out yesterday, not really good enough to be presented to the children's parents. I think my fatigue made me even more vocally unhappy about the prospect of having to re-shoot than I would have been; venting to the school director's daughter, I described the sensation of working with that unmotivated group of kids as akin to pouring money down a sinkhole. My next group of speech contest students are much more enthusiastic about the effort. They are one of my my sixth-grade classes, and I have already written a script tailored to them and had them read through it and suggest amendments. And a pair of them waylaid me in the hall yesterday to ask excitedly if the changes had been made. I am giving them weeks and weeks to learn their lines, and no special props are needed.

I've started my round of daily adult classes, and had 19 people show up for my first advanced English session on Friday. I don't know how many will return – the first day tends to be more well attended than any other– but it's a good group, with some new faces. Instead of tea, the fellow who supplies me with beverages brought a strange cereal slurry, best described as like Honey Nut Cheerios that had been allowed to dissolve in the bowl. I liked it, once I adjusted to the texture. It's called misugaru, and is a traditional milky multi-grain beverage. I hope he brings it again!

Theoretically, I'm supposed to go on a walk with Roxanne today, but I need to get some sleep…

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Bread & Beast Mode

I haven't made this many baked goods since college – or "university" as one must be careful to call it hereabouts, given that the word "college" seems to imply a two-year vocational program, which for all its practicality is not something that Koreans tend to respect. For all that I should be trying to reduce my carbohydrate intake, I made four loaves of bread this weekend, and this afternoon I'm taking in one – possibly two – to share with my fellow teachers. We need something on which to spread the fresh honeycomb! And my oven is so nice, it would be a shame not to use it. I miss my Morocco-bound colleague, who left last week, but I am loving the crockpot and the rice cooker I bought from her. I made a vast quantity of lentil stew, which the bread does well sopping out of my bowls.

I baked cookies on Friday for my seventh graders – the good seventh graders with whom I did a bread making demonstration (they were up to their elbows in dough). I couldn't find any chocolate chips so I used M&Ms instead. I also brought in bottles of milk, because the consumption of cookies requires it. The students were happy. They all did well on their tests, too.

The guy at the minimart down the street thinks I am some sort of weightlifter, because I bought two two-liter sixpacks of water at one go. He insisted on feeling my puny arm muscles. I pulled out my phone and showed him a video of my mom doing pull-ups, insisting that I was a marshmallow and the beast in the family was my mother, not me, but I don't know what he understood. Every time since that we cross paths on the street, he holds out his hand for a low five.

Church Change

I think I'm going to start going only to the Korean language church (the one I attended last week), simply because I feel much more welcome there. The English language service at the other church, where I went for the last time today, is isolated in the basement. We may be able to understand the words of the service, but we are never invited to participate in other activities, including lunch, which the whole Korean congregation eats together. Nowadays, there are only two Non-Koreans there: me and June. We've been effectively quarantined in our own language isolation cell. I am tired of it. Not one person in the halls smiled at me on my way into the building--it's like I'm a hostile alien. It's so lonely, I spent half the sermon today wiping tears from my eyes and contemplating just walking out abruptly. Which I didn't, because that would have left June alone, unable to explain why I had left.

I believe I can worship Jesus more directly and enthusiastically with people who are singing comfortably in church in their own language, even if I don't understand much of it. Particularly if they smile at me, and I can follow the order of service in the hymnal and Bible, I know we share the same heart. I want to feel like I am part of a family – a family of Christians – rather than an experimental control group with carefully selected staff members sacrificing their comfort to interact awkwardly with me during a designated interval and then metaphorically disinfecting their hands and returning to their regular lives away from us peculiar foreign folk.

The Navy guy didn't say anything to me today, nor did the drummer guy. (I had joked a month or so ago that I had made them have coffee with me, but I had no idea how true to the facts that was. They have made no attempt to talk to me of their own accord then or since, only speaking when spoken to.) The girl who was in charge of the PowerPoint presentation smiled briefly. The man who gave the sermon seemed mildly irritated, perhaps because I was less attentive than usual. The wife of the ruling elder (he is the one person who earnestly tries on an ongoing basis to make us feel welcome) did ask if there was something wrong, but I didn't spill. Once I have been vulnerable to people whom I have later felt to be on a different comprehension wavelength, I don't repeat the mistake. And what would an emotional burst have solved? It's not like this can be "fixed" by my input, and I don't believe that I am supposed to be staying there anyway.

Always well before this point in Russia, I had found a good church, with solid fellowship. I had established a relationship with at least one other Christian local. Of course, my language abilities in Russian, however minimal, certainly exceed my Korean skills. Still, Korea is an intercultural challenge. On one level I had expected this, and have been forewarned by others who had lived here. But I am severely handicapped in ways I didn't anticipate by the language barrier, and by the seeming unwillingness of many people to try to make gestures of goodwill. It's a learning experience, certainly. It has made me wonder how many people I have similarly excluded by not proactively smiling and speaking at home. How important it is to ask people of all ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds to join you for meals and even small social activities! And how essential to the life of the church is moving beyond a nominal "friendship" on social media to real, in-person relationships!

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Golden Evenings, Mornings, & Maids

Tuesday night I was invited over for dinner by Roxanne, the Korean lady with whom I went on a walk two weekends ago. She had told me that her brother-in-law was a fabulous cook, and he and her sister and their little girl happened to be visiting this week. The little girl, Korean age 5, was struck by shyness upon my arrival, but while her parents cooked and her uncle watched the World Cup qualifying game between South Korea and Portugal, she ran around happily. She was clearly invested in the soccer match as well, as when Portugal made the second of its three goals, she wailed "an-dae!" (Nooo!). We all sat on a quilt on top of another blanket on top of a mat at the low table, which would've collapsed under the weight of all the food if it hadn't been constructed of solid wood. It was a huge spread. There was spaghetti with freshly made sauce, and salad topped with fried tofu and Jeju tangerine vinaigrette. There was kimchi and pickled garlic and hashbrowns, and scrambled eggs with peppers and rice. And more. And when I had finally stuffed myself to the point of pain, they brought out the soup! It was really, really good. The Koreans must have the world's highest metabolisms. How can you eat so much – admittedly good, healthy things – and still remain thin? Last week, I got a health assessment at the City Hall, which informed me that I needed to lose 10 kg. Now, if I lost 10 kg – not that that is likely to happen in this lifetime – I would be exactly the weight I was in college. But how am I supposed to lose any weight when I keep being fed all of this gloriously delicious food? And I don't walk enough. Roxanne and I did walk around her neighborhood for about an hour after supper, before she took me home; we're supposed to go on another long walk next weekend.

Friday morning June and our curriculum coordinator (a tall thin muscular girl I'll call Mel, who reminds me a lot of my sister) and I went with Kristen, a Korean teacher, to see her family's beekeeping operation. Her parents have beehives partway up Hallasan, where the air is fresh, and are purists in that they don't feed the bees sugar water, which is common practice to boost production even here. Instead, during the months when there are no blossoms, my colleague's father makes his bees their own special rice cake (they are Korean bees after all!) which includes pollen and honey (Kristen grumped "he loves his bees more than he loves me!"). Right now, however, there are blooms on the trees, and the bees can busy themselves conventionally. We had to wake up ungodly early (6 AM) in order to see the honey harvest in action; Kristen told us that her mom usually gets up at 4:30 AM so that they can be finished by nine, before it gets hot.

We drove up the winding 531 Road until we came upon a whiff of smoke and a blue farm truck parked in a gap in the trees. There were two small fires burning in the grass near a tent where three older ladies in boots, hats, gloves, and kerchiefs were industriously processing rectangular wooden frames of honeycomb. A man with a netted hat trundled the frames in from the hives on a wheelbarrow, and the women loaded them into a huge aluminum centrifuge, which spun them first one way, then another, causing golden honey to leak from a spigot at the bottom through a sieve and into giant semi-translucent white plastic containers that were sitting in a depression dug into the ground and lined with a tarp.

The shady clearing on the other side of the tent was full of white hives. There were hundreds of bees in the air, but they were lulled by the smoke from the smudge fires and the little bellows-powered smoke dispenser that the three men (the husbands of the ladies in the tent) used when they lifted the lids off the boxes. I noticed that the men dunked each frame in water before they stacked it on the wheelbarrow. Perhaps to discourage clinging bees? A few insects still rode into the tent, but only one or two remained when the centrifuge turned on; they were destined to be drowned in their own honey. I was impressed by how few bees were harmed in the process--there was a small pile of bodies in the honey sieve, but the spinning doesn't affect the larva sealed in their hexagonal incubation chambers, and most of the adults had decamped before the machine activated. We caught the honey drizzling from the tap with a spoon and ate it.

Before the frames were returned to the hives, a woman pulled a large knife from a pot of boiling water on a small gas camp stove and quickly tidied them by scraping off excess beeswax into a gargantuan plastic strainer--they later bagged this and gave it to us. They also presented us with an entire liter of fresh honey, and treated us to a huge breakfast at a lowland restaurant owned by the parents of one of Kristen's friends--the restaurant actually isn't open that early, but they served us anyway. We told Kristen that we should have been the ones doing the treating, but she just smiled and shrugged it off. Beekeeping is an extremely hard job. When her parents aren't minding their bees, they are working in their tangerine orchard. Her dad doesn't look his seventy-five years. He claims that bee pollen and stings are medicine. Mel got inoculated on the inside of her cheek when she fished fresh honeycomb from the strainer and popped it in her mouth--it contained a bee. She was a tough girl and a good sport, pulled the stinger out, and kept smiling. Surprisingly, she didn't swell up. Maybe if you're eating the honey of the bee that stung you, you're ok! I did check my own piece of honeycomb carefully after that, though.

I had already bought two liters of her parents' honey from Kristen two weeks ago--one for myself, one to be sent back to Grandmommy via Susanna when she visits at the end of this month. It was nice to meet the bees it came from. A middle aged man stopped by during the morning to buy several hundred thousand wons' worth; her parents don't advertise, but he's a regular customer. He asked us if we could drink--that's a sort of "getting to know you" sally around here. Neither he nor Kristen's parents and their friends speak any English, but I was able to discern from my minimal Korean that they were harassing her about not being married – she's in her mid 30s, and beautiful. She told us that she wanted to be a "gold maid" rather than an old maid. If you are a "gold maid" you are accomplished and single. Therefore, you are perceived as unwed by choice rather than otherwise.

Oh, a while back I just wrote about a lady in my adult class who is taking care of her elderly parents. I had simply assumed she was married (as that generation of Koreans usually is), but I have since have longer conversations with her and discovered she's also single. She's an impressive woman. And her spoken English has improved remarkably over the last several months. She claims she doesn't see a difference, but I do; her confidence is much greater. My Russian, on the other hand, continues to deteriorate. June, Mel, and I ate at my house Friday night (Kristen and the other teachers were invited, but they declined, primarily because my dinner wasn't announced until the last minute!) and spent the postprandial period chatting in Russian – or rather, Mel spoke beautifully, June concretely, and I stuttered painfully. I understood everything, but listening is a passive skill. I have lost so much facility. Мой язык как камень. I continue to pray that Irina's and my book will find a publisher.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Courtesy & A Woodland Walk

Most of my grade-school students do not bow to me. The vast majority do not even nod their little heads in greeting, though many of the younger ones grin, wave, and call my name enthusiastically, which always lifts my spirits. But I am glad that among my middle schoolers there is one guy who always inclines in thanks after lessons. Bowing is a mark of respect here. And the fact that most kids don't bother to do so within the hagwon system hasn't distressed me until recently. But as I've dealt with a spate of logistical and behavioral issues this last week, the absence of bowing has started to chafe  a bit. I am these kids' teacher, and I spend an increasing (!) amount of time each week deciding what and how to teach. Particularly among the older students, it seems to me that they should recognize the effort. And so when this one kind fellow bows, I feel like the lesson has been a success, that someone appreciates my work.

Saturday a week ago I went on a long walk with one of my adult students. Her second son recently went into the military for his obligatory 21 months of service. We drove up into the higher hills to a trail she knew, but the forest service had closed the regular parking area and was directing everyone to a alternative space  a little more than a mile distant.  There was a free shuttle bus between the parking area and the trailhead. Standing room only when we boarded. The trail was great. One of the many things that I like about Jeju is the fact that their hiking trails are covered with woven hemp matting, natural fiber rugs which both prevent erosion and cushion the feet, making forest excursions  comfortable and quiet. We walked almost 6 miles, to the other end of the trail, where another shuttle bus (we thought) would be available. It wasn't. It was a good thing the weather was lovely and the conversation and company were delightful, because we had to walk all the way back to where we started! By the sides of the trail were ferns in the shape of enormous badminton shuttlecocks, and wicked-looking vegetable  purple chalices under green leaves that my friend told me had been a source of poison for executions and assassinations during the Joseon period. Apparently some people are even allergic to touching the plant, but I am not. In one forest of ramrod straight Japanese cedars – each tagged with its own little numbered disk– a young couple was getting their pre-wedding portraits made. Every so often we passed beehive boxes, as the area is well known for its delicious honey, and a blue farm truck trundled through.. One of my coworkers' parents keep bees, and I was able to buy several liters of beautiful anber honey from her last week

This past Friday morning, I met June and another colleague (Tori) and her boyfriend at a seaside swimming hole, where the fathoms-deep water was clear down to the bottom. It was really lovely. And chilly, before I got used to the water temperature. I managed to fall down several times on the rocks and give myself lacerations and deep bruises, but I still had a good time. I even jumped off a rock about 12 feet up into the pool. I'm not a particularly good swimmer, but it's much easier to stay buoyant in salt water than in fresh. It was also the first day I had taken my kick scooter out, and I managed to get the skirt I was wearing caught in the back wheel as I was going down a hill. I stopped safely, but the skirt was torn. Cheesecloth doesn't last forever! So I tore it off at an above the knee length and discarded the remainder. When I got home I discovered that my wounds were worse than previously assessed, and I've been hobbling around ever since.

Friday night I hosted an impromptu dinner for my colleagues (four other native English speakers and one Korean). I should host more often. I love having people over. I lit tea lights in the trio of holders I bought at the art fair in Seoul.  I've never had tea lights last more than an hour, and these have burned for more than four.

Saturday we went out to Tori's house in the countryside. Her garden overlooks the sea. We ate a delicious meal which her boyfriend prepared while we girls walked their big black moggie on a red lead in the sunny outdoors. They have a palm tree in their yard that produces fruit that is lethal to cats, hence their peculiar precautions on behalf of their pet. We sat around their table talking and laughing until it got dark, and then the four of us went down to the area by the new naval base, where the villagers are still protesting the military installation, and talked about past jobs and peculiar people we'd encountered. It was a lovely day.

Sunday June and I tried a new church, where the Koreans in attendance actually spoke to us, smiled and said we were welcome. It was awesome. The girl who had invited us to go with her took us to her favorite coffee shop afterwards. The signs for the toilets illustrated the urination position for the designated users. The front patio was given over to chalk drawings by little kids. Our hostess told us that many coffee shops on Jeju do not welcome children, but clearly this one did – and dogs too, as one little white one trailed its master in and came over to our table to be patted.

Tonight, the gas in my apartment has run out, so I am heating water for bathing using my electric kettle. Hopefully the truck with the new tanks will be by tomorrow! I really love hot showers.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Seoul Needs a Waffle House

[A post drafted a fortnight ago…]

“Girls,” I said, “We are living well!”

“You say that every time we eat,” my friends pointed out.

Well, it’s true. We may not be rolling in cash, but we certainly are living well, primarily because of the good food, from ice cream to noodles, which we can enjoy in quantity, on the cheap…but in Seoul, only before 11 PM.

Seoul’s the capital of a prosperous country. It’s a city of ten million people, with ten million more living within the outlying suburbs...where almost everything closes down at 11 pm. The streets are almost deserted after that, like the hundreds of thousands of cars have simply evaporated. Saturday night, before midnight, we caught the very last train out of downtown, and at some of the stations where we paused, the managers were already switching off the lights. What other major city turns into a pumpkin when the clock strikes twelve? Outside, only a few convenience stores were open, and neon lights indicated the odd norabang (karaoke bar) down a stairway; all other businesses were dark and many had steel doors rolled down over their windows. Past closing time, larger restaurants still had a handful of customers, but these were lingering at tables cluttered with empty plates and bowls, and short green and tall brown glass bottles. At smaller establishments, the proprietors had either sat down chatting with their remaining regulars, or were cleaning up the last vestiges of the day’s work, clearly ready to rest. And most restaurants don’t open for breakfast--some coffee and pastry shops do open at seven or eight, but most wait until 10 or 11. This is long after the average person is up and at work or school. Presumably, most people have a proper breakfast at home? Are the opening hours the function of most restaurants being family run (some time is needed for sleep!)?

At any rate, Seoul needs a Waffle House, or several of them scattered around town. Not only is there nothing breakfasty available in the wee hours, there are oddly few Western restaurants to be found outside Itaewon, a strange international enclave not far from the American base in the city. This past weekend, Itaewon was packed with a peculiar accumulation of assorted foreigners, from tall pale Scandinavians striding gracefully along the crowded sidewalks to dark African men talking in French, and one man clad in a white dashiki and red and white checked headcloth who clearly hailed from somewhere in the Middle East.

I like being the only foreigner around. It appeals to my vanity without showing me the physically deplorable company in which I actually exist. Seeing other Westerners robs me of the illusion that I am interesting, reminds me of my age, dumpy shape, vocal quirks, and lack of fashion sense. I can pretend that I am exotic and adventurous when I'm apart from my kind, but I am rapidly brought back to reality when I encounter other peculiar looking folks and realize how bizarre we non-natives really are.

The Itaewon area was crowded with clothing stores and restaurants of all descriptions, from fur to tennis shoes, juice bars to halal shashliki. Street booths sold sunglasses, tshirts with silly slogans, assorted plastic dustcatchers, and baseball caps. Based on the number of New York logo items I saw on adults and children, a full tenth of Seoulites must be Yankees fans. I parted with a good deal of coin at Lush, a natural cosmetics store which my cousin loves. Part of the motivation for the purchases was simply the pleasant experience of getting personal service in trying out the fascinating ointments and unguents in the store. Lush is lush. And lushly priced. I got some soap, body conditioner, and two tiny pots of face mask. I’ve never spent so much on personal care products.

Provided the governments of the world don't regulate it out of existence, I may hereafter lodge on all my travels with Airbnb. From last Wednesday until Sunday evening [May 3-7] I stayed with two fellow teachers at an apartment we'd arranged through the site. The place was sparkling clean, comfortable, and actually better equipped than the flat I call my home. And per person for five nights it cost less than $125. It was three blocks from a metro station, and close to many coffee shops, several good Asian restaurants, and an Emart. A stream that eventually flowed into the Han River ran about a block away; a bike path and a rubber-paved walking path paralleled the watercourse. Thousands of people were out on the paths Wednesday evening, walking tiny dogs, exercising, riding bikes, and even whizzing along on unicycle hoverboards, texting as they went (how do you get up on those things? I thought people who rode bicycles without holding the handgrips were marvels of balance…). June did voice a complaint about the pungent sewer aroma trapped under the bridges that crossed the stream, but I only caught a whiff here and there.

There are some perfectly romantic places in Seoul. On a clear night, the 31 Han River bridges glitter over the wide water, and I completely understand why couples want to stroll by the riverside, or sit looking at the lights and sharing a companionable beer. There are ferry rides. And there’s the Namsan Tower cable car, which we rode Saturday evening. We took a taxi to the bottom, driving past an election rally where a packed crowd of people was listening to a candidate and fervently waving tiny Korean flags. The wait for the cable car wasn’t long, and there was a huge poster of Lee Min Ho advertising a casino on which to feast our eyes. At the summit, on the lower observation deck, an enterprising vendor was selling love locks that could be inscribed with pledges of devotion and attached to the railing. There were lots of couples at the tower, but it wasn’t anywhere near as crowded as it had been at Chuseok last year. We were hungry after riding the cable car back down, and Penny—who had humorously threatened us, “I’m going rogue!”—asked a small group of Korean American college students if they knew of a place that was still open at that hour. A place other than McDonalds. “MacDonalds is awesome,” one of the guys said. Whereupon I decided they could not be relied upon to distinguish decent cuisine. Penny and I shared a Nutella crepe from a street cart, June and I each got schneeballen (a chocolate-drizzled pastry that we crushed with a wooden mallet) in the metro station, and we ended up ordering delivery chicken when we returned to the apartment.

Thursday, Penny and I went to the DMZ. It was a clear day, so we could stare through the 500 KRW per minute binoculars into the ROK’s northern neighbor, seeing its bare hills and barren settlements, from the uninhabited concrete village near the border to the abandoned manufacturing complex which the South had built and (until last year) where more than 50,000 North Koreans had been employed until the latest “provocation” on the part of Kim Jung Un had sent the 800 South Koreans who served as managerial staff, and presumably their equipment, packing back to less dangerous environs. Our tour guide told us that the DPRK workers themselves had been paid in food—all hard currency went to the regime. We were subjected to a short, silly, Hollywood trailer-narrated propaganda film (Really, is that needful? With beautiful kdrama production values, it was of the WWII-era newsreel genre, which took its toll on believability, no matter how credible its claims) in the museum where we didn’t have time given to read the captions. We did get to see some neat things, in addition to our brief glimpse of the DPRK itself. We went down into the “Third Infiltration Tunnel,” where the granite walls dripped moisture, and little bits of moss had begun to grow from the warm of human breath. I was grateful for my yellow hard hat, as I cracked it several times on the scaffolding running some parts of the tunnel. And I was grateful that I was in decent shape, because hiking back up the steeply inclined access shaft was a workout.

Besides the paid binoculars, there were souvenir shops at the tunnel and at the overlook point. They sold North Korean brandy at hefty prices, and chocolate-covered soybeans—the 36 gram packet (folks, that’s about an ounce) I bought as my memento (and also because I wanted to sample that peculiar delicacy known as a chocolate covered soybean…they weren’t bad) set me back 3000 KRW. And there were Jen-Yu-Wine 5” long pieces of rusty DMZ barbed wire, mounted on cheap plaques, which could be yours for 30,000 KRW a pop. There were tons of tour buses there. It’s like the ROK said, “Fine, North Korea, you want to be idiot commies? We’ll capitalize the hell out of the DMZ.” They are certainly making bank off the separation marker. The tour reminded me why I hate group tours—there is no time to really soak in anything, and the guide doesn’t have time to answer questions. We had originally paid to go to the JSA, where (in the shared conference room) you can technically stand in enemy territory, but the UN had shut it down that morning. The tour company refunded the money for that part of the tour, which was nice, as it was the more expensive part. The downside of the tour was that it finished in an expensive part of Seoul with us all being funneled like cattle through an absurdly overpriced amethyst factory showroom (ten key markup), and we all would have preferred a decent restaurant, as we’d been without food for five hours by that point.

Friday morning, Penny had in mind to go to the mural village, an older neighborhood in Seoul where the alley walls are colorfully frescoed with whimsical designs. It was thronged with teenaged Korean girls in old dark blue sailor style school uniforms and cherry colored lipstick. There was a cat cafe with no cats, only numerous tiny paintings patrons had done of their favorite felines. There were two long flights of stairs, one of which had had a bright mosaic of koi on the risers, and the other had had a design of sunflowers. These were pictured on postcards that could be purchased. But both mosaics had been painted over (!) in the last year, without explanation, the proprietress of one small shop told us. We noted that the drab grey paint had been scuffed in some places, letting small glimpses of color peek through. Why would you take a beautiful asset, and obliterate it? Is this an indirect attempt on the part of the neighbors to rid their irregular and sharply inclined streets of the multitude of chattering, selfie-snapping tourists?

We hiked up the associated oreum by the old city wall to look at the view. Penny and June amused themselves by spinning around on the adult playground equipment halfway up. At the top of the hill, we interrupted two young guys from Nepal who were taking glamour shots of each other to take our own.

Walking back near Seoul University Hospital to an area with restaurants, we passed multiple examples of interesting public art (and a huge poster advertising the musical version of that kdrama favorite Boys over Flowers). The most odd, perhaps, were three giant replicas of piles of poop that were covered with tiny mosaic tiles. June was disgusted, but I insisted she take a picture of me standing next to them. (There’s a science book on display at the hagwon where I work that’s wholly dedicated to the subject of excrement. I need to post a picture of it.) Then we went and had a great meal of bibimbap. June had a rice shrimp concoction that she reported “was kind of like shrimp and grits.” Then we found a store selling ridiculously cute socks. I bought 10 pairs for a total of 10,000 KRW.

Saturday was exceptional in that I encountered my first stereotypically gay Korean as well as my first punk Korean—talk about going against the flow in a straight and straight-laced society! I wonder how they can cope. I spent the afternoon on a free student-led tour around Gyeongbokgung Palace with part of the Australian cast of a traveling addition of the musical Cats. Penny and June didn’t stay with the group and we lost each other for an hour or so, eventually reuniting by chance (and without panic on anybody’s part) at an exhibit. Throughout the grounds, hanboks threaded gold glimmered in the sunshine and tossed in the wind, along with the girls’ beribboned black ponytails. The lovely colors contrasted with the sand and dusty stones underfoot and danced with the green leaves on the trees.

I had never been so happy to see asphalt as I was when we were leaving Gyeongbokgung. Inside the grounds, choking whirlwinds of sand spun up across the unpaved courtyards and across the walkways. I ended up clutching a Kleenex across my nose and mouth to breathe. I wished I had a facemask, as hundreds of other people were wearing, but I am not in the habit of carrying one. Probably 75% of the people on the street were wearing masks because of the airborne dust; I guess they keep them in their pockets just in case.

Going back to the metro, past election trucks emblazoned with the face and ballot number of their respective presidential candidates, we found a publication fair outside the Seoul arts academy, with little tables tucked underneath white umbrellas and green ginkgo trees. Here there was no dust, and it was lovely and cool. June and I met a children’s book illustrator who signed his books for us. I bought several handpainted cat planet pins (the curled cat the planet, its tail the ring) for my friends whose lives revolve around their felines. Then, after Penny texted us, “I’m going to go rogue”—we’d been shopping long enough!—we went to Itaewon.

“I swear, I don’t know why the internet is moving so slowly!” I complained on the subway.

Maybe your dad is gumming it up." June remarked mildly.

“It's a ghost!” I responded, not immediately catching her allusion to one of my favorite pseudo-expletives.

We ate Mexican in Itaewon. At the table next to ours, a pair of road shouldered ROK army guys in their fatigues shared a margarita. And at another, a skinny white fellow downed an entire liter of Caribbean blue alcohol over lunch.

Visiting the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace on Sunday redeemed me from my palace fatigue. After Gyeongbokgung, and its many buildings and layers (including the reconstructed smaller palace where Empress Myeongseong had been assassinated by Japanese forces), I had begun to feel the same about Korean palaces as about European cathedrals: all were tiresomely beautiful, constructed along a single guiding pattern, with only an occasional element to distinguish them from their relatives. Each featured multicolored multilevel eves over a throne room backed by an obligatory painted screen representing sun, moon, mountains, trees, and water as a visual map of the hermeneutical foundations for the Joseon regime. (I was fascinated to note that the throne room at Changdeokgung had been fitted by its last imperial owner with huge electrically-powered chandeliers, whose ancient yellow silk shades were rotten from age and exposure to the elements—the managers had replaced the matching curtains around the room, but not the chandelier shades). I hated to yawn at the splendor, but simplicity seemed so much more appealing. The Secret Garden was a beautiful oasis in downtown Seoul. It was quiet in the forest. The two-story library was the most imposing structure, and it was dotted with little cabins and gazebos where the royals could retreat. The largest pond had coalesced out of smaller pools and now coincidentally formed a simple map of the Korean Peninsula, unified in a murky puddle rimmed with granite stones. The living space was of simple stucco, white paper and grey-brown wood, and shaded by trees. There were a large number of Russians on the tour with which we initially roamed the garden, which deprived June and me of our “secret language” which had stood us in good stead on other occasions.

On the last train of Saturday night out of downtown on Line 6, a poster on the metro featured a smiling ROK soldier with teeth so perfect he looked like a toothpaste ad. In the seats, a drunk couple leaned asleep on each other's shoulders, their heads lolling, a lollipop stick in the woman's mouth, the man's dark face soft and sloppy, his bottom lip protruding like a baby's. The decades dramatically degrade the youthful beauty of Korean men. There are many handsome fellows of twenty, and few indeed of 40. The soju and cigarettes really do take a toll. But then there is the occasional guy that is naturally ageless—Al, a fellow in my adult class, looks like he’s in his mid-thirties. We were recently doing a lesson on families, and he mentioned that he has a son and a daughter.

“Oh, do they live with your ex-wife?” I asked.

He looked at me oddly. “No, she lives in Seoul. My son is in the army. My daughter is 24. I’m fifty,” he said, grinning at my shock.

“Do you have any grandchildren?!” I sputtered.

“No,” he said.

“Not yet,” I responded. “You’re going to be the world’s youngest-looking grandpa.”

He laughed.

We got to Gimpo Airport early Sunday afternoon so that Penny could do some shopping. The Lotte Mall was stuffed with couples and families. Small children rode small scooters with flashing wheels. There were lots of dads holding kids, cuddling kids, feeding kids, pushing strollers, and carrying babies in chest pouches (their little legs waved with abandon or hung limp in slumber). Lotte Mall is a mall done right in terms of appealing to upper middle class members of a homogenous society. An entire wing of the upper floor was fitted out with a professional and fun child care facility. There were good restaurants--mostly Korean (there was one burger place, one Italian, and a TGI Friday's, and one restaurant labeled in English as Chinese), and lots of beautiful stores with beautiful (and pricey, to my second-sale oriented eye) things to buy.

In the airport, a quartet of black-clad young men cradling submachine guns strolled through the terminal. Maybe this is normal. I think June was mildly freaked, but I don’t think she’s used to being around as much weaponry as I am. I love flying in Korea. The security lines are so efficient. Boarding and seating on the planes is swift and painless. The only downside of the whole Seoul trip was the bus journey back across Jeju once we landed. The smell of rancid alcohol suffused the sickeningly warm atmosphere. Thank God, the stinking drunk got off once we were halfway over the island, but the aroma still slightly remained. A constant stream of preternaturally perky female voices announced approaching stops in Korean and English, Chinese and Japanese as the bus made one gut-churning turn after another. If there was a bump in the road, it was dutifully run over. If there was a turn, it was taken at speed. The vehicle shuttered and rattled, vibrated and shook. I managed to get the window open a bit, and stuck my nose close to the cool night air. The Koreans seemed entirely unperturbed by the jerk and sway, calmly texting or sitting mute. Perhaps kimchi has deep anti-nausea properties. I need more dramamine.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Lovely Lonely Day

There is little worse than thinking you've been at least somewhat accepted into a group only to discover that you've been entirely and particularly excluded from a group activity. Today was really tough. It was the first day that my being a foreigner was just unbearable.

We had a good English church service this afternoon, and had a pleasant time chatting with the half dozen Koreans who attended. They smiled at my jokes, we exchanged pleasantries and KakaoTalk IDs, and then everyone wandered off.

June and I determined to go to the market which revolves around the island on a five day interval. It was about a 2 mile walk, but we had nothing else to do and the weather was fine. June was looking forward to seeing some of the Korean church members who work at the market, who had been missing from the Korean language service in the morning (I overslept, but she'd made it). Yet we didn't see any of those folks.

Instead, we encountered the entire group of young Koreans who had been at the English language service! They were all out to lunch together. We had not been invited. Nor were we invited to join them then on the spur of the moment. We were both hugely disheartened by this. We are older than they are, but they are the only group that we have any interaction with outside of school, and to see all of them having assembled for a social outing made us feel like total outcasts. We both went home and cried.

Each of us wants friends so badly. But it seems impossible to get beyond the safety barrier of polite tolerance to real relationships with our limited language skills. But even if our language skills were better, would we have been invited today?

The encounter made me wonder whether the Koreans actually have enjoyed spending time with us at all. We've gone to coffee and on walks with them individually, had conversations about serious and light subjects, talked about getting together during the week – though none of these last plans materialized – and here we were effectively identified as outsiders, people with whom they they didn't really want to associate when they had the freedom to choose. It was enormously discouraging.

I am so grateful for June. I would be beside myself with loneliness were she not here. Both both of us need other friends, people who not only want to associate with us of a sunny Sunday afternoon, but also hang out during the week, people who really do enjoy our company and conversation, who aren't merely bearing with us out of a sense of obligation. We're each praying earnestly for such people to appear.