Saturday, September 07, 2019


For the most part, the inland aftermath of Typhoon Lingling on Jeju seems to consist of some green pine straw on the road. Despite the storm having been the equivalent of a Category Three hurricane, it was good business as usual here before and after, with the exception of about twelve hours when the storm was particularly active. A few flights were canceled, and ferry service was temporarily interrupted, but events planned for Saturday morning went on Saturday morning. Shops were open, construction workers were busy with their hammers and drills, the roads were full of the usual weekend traffic. At 3 o’clock in the afternoon the sun came out—we’ve not seen much of that for weeks! The tops of some trees looked a little tousled.

South Koreans seem to have a much less histrionic reaction to impending typhoons than Americans do to hurricanes. Perhaps because everything here – almost every business and dwelling—is constructed from stone or concrete and rebar. Roofs tend to be concrete or metal, or (in some elegant cases) heavy glazed clay tiles, so there is not much to take wing. By comparison, American residential construction tends to be rather flimsy. My academy did cancel classes for Friday afternoon, but this was not decided upon until the last minute. Also, the only notice that I had gotten that there was going to be a storm was a casual mention from a coworker (“There’s a typhoon on Friday”), with the understanding that I would simply add it to my calendar. Americans would be glued to frantic newscasts, but as far as I can tell (given my linguistic insulation), what with the two little emergency alerts I received on my phone (the equivalent issued for all extreme weather, including heat, cold, and smog), there just wasn’t the emotional response I’m used to. No windows were boarded up (my heavy double-paned sliding glass doors in my sitting room and on my porch offered a full, if uninteresting, view of the rain), things that might blow away were taken in, and cinderblocks and chunks of Jeju stone were used to weight down others...

...although I’m not sure this piece of old metal machinery really needed the extra weight.

It was a fierce storm, judging by the evidence of the storm surge along the seacoast, where breakers were still roaring in this afternoon. The forest smelled like the ocean; the bushes and trees several meters above sea level wore salt-withered leaves. Pinecones and pine brooms and crushed cedar fronds obscured the hiking path, which was alive with whiskered sea roaches, dislocated from their usual rock beach playground.

And a lot of decent-sized rocks themselves had been relocated by the heavy tide—several stone walls were undermined.

And this metal one was flattened.

But there were hardy individuals perched close to the fierce water fishing—women and men both.

I was grateful that although there were a couple of blinks in the power during the typhoon, there wasn’t anything like during the storms a week or so ago. It rains often (one could argue this summer and fall it’s been raining constantly!) here, but we rarely have thunderstorms. However, the end of August was electrical. Blue-white light flickered through the three glass panels between my bedroom and the outside, and thunder growled and mumbled all night. Torrential downpour. I wore flip flops to work, because walking through the puddles guaranteed to ruin any other shoes, besides galoshes (which I do not own). There was such a loud, close CRACK next to my fifth floor classroom that the children screamed. I got home to find that the power had surged, knocking out the wall control panel for my water heater. Happily, the gas still worked, so I heated up my big kettle on the stove and bathed out of a bowl before bed. I was relieved that my dehumidifiers didn’t die—they simply turned off (likewise, my air purifiers). The landlady had the heater switch fixed within a day (hers was also affected).

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Oh, My Achin' Back

Thanks to weeks and weeks of seldom-relenting rain, the air was incredibly pure this afternoon, which was a good thing considering I was gasping great gulps of it on my precipitate race to school, half an hour late for my first class. I’d set my alarms, but I was so deep under that nothing reached me. I pulled my clothes on and ran out without combing my hair (I must not have—at least one student looked at it in horror and asked what was wrong) or putting on makeup (several people have told me I look ill). I hope this sudden exertion will not further complicate the saga of my aching back.

This week, I have had four injections into my lower spine and a long session of physical therapy, which included hot pads and electric shocks, machine and manual massage. I’m also on a three-day prescription of neatly packaged oral medications, to be consumed with breakfast and dinner. The nurse at the physical therapy center told me that I needed to buy a Pilates foam roller, and she showed me how to do daily exercises with it. I have reached the stage where just remaining comfortably mobile requires directed mental and physical effort. In the midst of it all, I’ve been quite unhappy just trying to work and to sleep, with occasional of pain spasms that send me teary-eyed. I really pray that the Almighty doesn’t leave these symptoms with me as a humbling “thorn in the flesh,” because that’s what they really feel like at times.

I keep thinking about my Grandmommy, who was just ten years older than I am now when she went through a similar spate of back problems four decades ago. As a two or three year old, I was warned not to jump up on her, that she couldn’t bend over to pick me up, and so forth. She eventually got much better, but Granddaddy had to make some changes to their space—putting their bed on a slight incline, making sure their mattress was firm enough, and so forth, that she’s maintained ever since. The springs in my six-month-old mattress here thrum every time I move. The doctor told me not to sit down much (especially on the floor, which is my preferred spot) and not to stand still, but to walk. This is a hard charge for a school teacher. I’ve been wary of going to the gym for fear of injuring myself more, and my arm and leg muscles have already withered. I’m quite tired.

I went to bed at 11 last night. Slept from around 2 AM, woke up at noon, ate a banana with peanut butter, made sure my alarms were set. Dozed back off, and woke up to see that my clock said 4 PM, which completely freaked me out because my class begins at 3:35. My school director was keeping an eye on my students when I arrived. I apologized to everyone and got through the lesson. All the students got the right answers on the comprehension section. Then I sent them out the door and sat down to catch my breath.

All I want to do is lie in an ergonomically designed chair and read. For like six weeks. While servers bring me giant peanut butter cookies and lime margaritas.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Travels Past & Prospective

Reese and I went on a hike three (or was it four?) weeks ago Thursday, which was Korean Independence (from Japan) day. To get to the oreum, we had to walk around a pasture where a herd of robust brown cows was grazing. There was a newborn calf in the meadow, wet from the womb and the grass, afterbirth still trailing to the ground beneath its mother’s tail, its umbilical cord swinging from the center of its curly belly. Its mother seemed unconcerned about its welfare except when another adult cow wandered too close, and then she lowered her horns toward the intruder. For the most part, she seemed disposed to ignore her offspring and the little creature’s tentative efforts to approach her teats. At one point, she curved her neck to nibble at an itch on her opposite hind leg, thereby preventing the calf from any access to her udder. I had always thought cows fairly maternal creatures, but if that one was typical, they don’t exactly set a standard for devotion.

Speaking of estrangement, despite the less than ideal relations between South Korea and Japan at the moment, Reese and I have arranged to go on a short trip to Fukuoka over Chuseok. We’ll be there less than 48 hours, and we both hemmed and hawed a bit about whether to spring for it (the tickets weren’t very expensive, but it’s such a short visit), but I hate to pass up an opportunity to travel internationally with a pleasant companion when I have it, particularly as this is the only time that both of us have simultaneous holiday time.

If all goes according to plan, I'll be traveling a great deal in the next two months. I’ve bought the in-country transport tickets and arranged for lodging for my mom and John for their October visit. The same comfortable AirBnb I stayed in with colleagues a couple of years ago was available in Seoul, I chose another one in Busan that had good reviews, and the KAL hotel here in Seogwipo was surprisingly affordable in the off-peak season (Jungmun hotels, which are too far away from my house anyway, were still horribly costly). I got plane tickets for the three of us from Seoul to Jeju and from Jeju to Busan, and reserved business class bullet-train tickets from Busan to Seoul. I’ve drafted an activities plan for Jeju, but other than jotting down a list of things that are interesting to see I haven’t mapped out our prospective Seoul adventures yet. We’re only to be in Busan two full days, so that’s last on my priorities list, other than going to the church I visited when I was there last month.

One of the Jeju places I’d like to show Mums and John is the trail Reese and I covered on our Independence Day hike. The pinks, greys and greens of the layered forest were lovely. It didn’t rain, but little misty droplets tumbled in the wind. There were tiger striped dragonflies. Red, white and black butterflies. A moth on a thistle. When we finished, the herd of cows had moved to a different field, closer to a fence, and we walked around a big makeshift plastic-fiber tent supported by tall bamboo poles to look at the ruddy beasts up close. There was a village fete with impressive amounts of homecooked food under the tent—the men were rosy-cheeked and playing some sort of traditional game and the women were tidying up, and Reese struck up a conversation with them. Turns out that Independence Day is also 백중제, a traditional pre-harvest “rest” festival, which used to be celebrated all over the country, but which is now only observed in small spots in the countryside. Reese sweet-talked them into giving us some leftovers. Oh, so very good. They also told us that those magnificent cows are communally owned, as is the land, which made me happy, because then there’s no fear of the picturesque rural area being developed into ghastly concrete apartments.

I did commit a major faux pas at the event—when a man handed me his business card, I tucked it immediately into my wallet, without perusing it carefully for at least half a minute, as is the custom. I didn’t find out about this social gaffe until days later, when my seventh graders were doing research on local rules and turned up that one. Hopefully, I will remember the proper etiquette next time.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Udo: A Second Visit

One of the many reasons that I like hanging out with Reese is that our conversations are spurs to creativity. Interacting with nonnative speakers really loosens up rote thought patterns—in your own language, phrasal progression becomes so habitual that software can predict your next words. But in a foreign language, you usually aren’t bound to the patterns, and when you try to express your own ideas you make connections that upset the established norms, sometimes beautifully. And besides, your listeners often learn new things about your culture, which is foreign to them.

Yesterday, I accompanied Reese and her husband and his boss to Udo, an island off the east coast of Jeju (which I visited once before with June and Susanna). Both the men are shockingly early risers, so they picked me up at 7 AM. Which meant we were at the ferry dock by 8, well before the usual weekend crowds.

On the way there, Reese and I sat in the back, and I didn’t get carsick because we were on a highway the whole trip. She pointed out that her husband’s boss had small, thick hands, which in Korean culture is associated with being diligent. I asked her what other physical characteristics were associated with certain traits. She said that people whose eyes were close together usually tended to be intelligent, while people with wide-spaced eyes were more creative. If your fingers didn’t taper towards the ends, but were a constant width, you were drawn toward manual labor, but a person with tapering fingers, like me, chose more intellectual pursuits. She said I had “writer’s hands.” She was surprised to learn that in the US we don’t really have ideas of predictive physiognomy. Perhaps we are such a mix of ethnicities, and our culture is relatively new?

When we drove off the ferry, I saw two small columns of black smoke from the edges of the concrete pier—the dock workers were burning trash. The Udo coastline continues to be riddled with garbage—there’s discarded refuse from the land and the sea (fishing paraphernalia) washed up on and floating next to the shore. It drives me mad.

Nonetheless, the view of the cliffs on the far side of the island was spectacular in the clear morning.

No one else was there, and the air was good (so much so that on the ferry over Seongsan Ilchubong remained visible, along with a good number of oreums on the big island).

I can only image how lovely it was (before pervasive air pollution) to look over from Udo at the pattern of Jeju's soft green hills stretching off towards the horizon. A fleet of fishing boats sat on the sparkling sea.

After “breakfast” of peanut-sprinkled soft-serve ice cream at the tacky tourist trap across the road from this dramatic overlook, Reese and I set off to hike up to the lighthouses on top of the cliff. It was a short walk, and the lighthouses are picture postcard pretty. In a rare fit of preservation, the powers that be didn’t tear down the little century-old one after the facilities became outdated, but renovated it. And the new lighthouse is classic in design, with a small but well-curated museum on the bottom floor.

On the granite stoop outside, a man was sitting alone, and he directed us around the edge of the building to the most spectacular view! Turns out, he lives in Jeju-si, and comes to Udo every day (!) to climb up the hill to the lighthouses. I asked him if he had a “frequent rider” pass for the ferry, since it’s 10,000 KRW round-trip, but he said he didn’t—he pays regular fare. “It’s just money,” he said. Reese asked him what he did for a living. “Arbeit,” he responded. This German word has been imported into Korean to designate part-time employment. At his request, we co-followed on Instagram. I notice that many of his posts are subtitled in Japanese, which makes me wonder how many languages he speaks—he talked to Reese in Korean (I didn’t notice a foreign accent, and she didn’t comment on one) and to me in English. Oh, to be truly multi-lingual!

Reese and I walked down the other side of the hill, past a display of model lighthouses and a paddock with horses (saddled mares and their tethered colts) which, like a host of little electric scooters and bicycles, were available for tourists to rent. Unfortunately, one couldn’t rent the horses for “real” rides around the island—they basically just were walked up a hill and back down, on a lead rope. On the scooters and bikes you could drive yourself.

I kept stopping to take pictures of wildflowers--yes, even the hydrangeas grow wild!

But the little yellow flowers are peanut blossoms--Udo is famous for its peanuts.

By lunchtime, crowds of people had arrived, and the roads were clogged with these wee vehicles. We ate lunch at a locally-favored place (not flashy, but the island's peanut farmers were already there, which spoke to its quality). Of course, the dishes they were eating weren’t on the menu! The proprietress said they weren’t available. But what we did get—baked fish, a squid bibimbap, and a host of banchan (side dishes)—was all scrumptious. We drove around the island once more and then boarded the ferry to go home.

Unfortunately for my insides, Reese’s husband decided to take scenic two-lane roads on the first part of the return trip, and I promptly got carsick. No wonder Reese has told me I am “a princess”—I’m like the lady and the pea when it comes to curves in the road. Bless her husband’s boss, who then let me sit in the front seat, and her husband, who returned to the highway after we drove through a traditional thatched-roof village. I promptly fell asleep in front of the air conditioning vents and felt much better at the end of the journey.

I went to bed when I got home, despite it being only 5 PM. And I had a long and glorious night’s sleep. And made it to church, where I used the Papago translation app to follow the gist of the sermon, which was on Matthew 5:13-16. I was going to walk down to the seaside in the afternoon, but when I got home I had a headache, so I took a nap instead. It’s been a good weekend.

I am trying to decide what to do for Chuseok. We only have two days off (thankfully, next to a weekend, for a grand total of four days), and I thought I might go somewhere on the mainland, just for a change of scenery. Gwangju? Cheongju? Daegu? I wish there were more people offering AirBnb history tours…

Thursday, August 22, 2019


Today was a seven hour teaching day. Some of my colleagues bear six hours a day, when my off-height days are much shorter, so I really shouldn’t complain of fatigue, but I am tired. My need for rest is attributable not just to the periodic length of my schedule, but to the lower back pain that’s been dogging me for weeks, increasing rather than the reverse, and to the acutely unsettled stomach that plagued me for hours today after my lunchtime consumption of a mayonnaise-dressed salad (a homemade concoction given me by one of my adult students). I am supposed to see a doctor tomorrow morning. The Korean colleague who kindly agreed to accompany me initially described the physician’s speciality as “archeology,” but I told her that though I felt ancient, I wasn’t quite that old.

Boy, was I sick this afternoon. I told another coworker I was losing weight, and she innocently assumed I was on a diet. No, this was the faster and less pleasant method.... It was hard to tell at times exactly what pain had me doubled over—stomach cramps or my poor aching back. I have huge purple bags under my eyes.

I think that at least some of the back pain is due to pride. A few weeks ago, I just HAD to show off that I could pick up a concrete garden planter that weighed in excess of 100lbs. I forget that I am close to fifty years old, not 25. And that I have injured my back before. It was a stupid, stupid move. Of course, after today I was also worried about the state of my kidneys. I showed signs of significant dehydration, and my symptoms, developing indoors, were like those of heat exhaustion. I swilled a liter of water after that scare.

A friend of my mom, who has published more than 500 poems (she’s a “professional,” as Mums put it) has just declared that she’s basically completed that part of her writing career. I wonder if I will even get to the 50 publication mark, much less ten times that. The folks who’ll be issuing Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands told me they’ll keep me updated as to when the book will be available for preorder. Priya is busy sketching the illustrations for our children’s book and promises drafts soon.

I had a good Korean lesson this morning. I am grateful that my teacher’s automatic default setting is patience, rather than frustration. He’s probably explained the future tense to me a score of times, and I hope that one day, it will sink in! As he regularly intones, “Korean and English are very different languages.” 네, 네, 선생님. 알겠습니다!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Near Misses

In my adult class which ended recently, I had two Chinese students, a married couple from Beijing. We were talking about less than perfect travel experiences, and the husband recalled a flight from Busan to Seoul in which the plane lost the use of an engine. The plane was pitching around like a roller coaster. People were weeping and the man’s young son was holding on to his arm and crying, “Dad, I don’t want to die.” Probably exhibiting more confidence than he actually felt, the man assured the boy that the pilot knew how to fly on only one engine. They landed safely back in Busan. However, the airline (which he prudently didn’t identify—in some ways, Korean law tends to treat the use of negative words with more gravity than it does actions) didn’t even offer them vouchers to compensate for their inconvenience or discomfort. My student told me that when he’d shared his story with a friend of his in China, the guy said, “Oh, you didn’t have anything to worry about.” During a bad flight the friend had been on, the flight attendants had passed out paper on which people could write their last words. Upon my voiced skepticism, my student assured me that this was a true story. Perhaps someone who has flown perilously on a SE Asian carrier could comment on this?

One sweet quiet lady waylaid me after that same lesson to tell me about her own travel issue. She said that she and her husband were in Nice three years ago. They’d just walked in from the promenade to their hotel lobby one evening when they heard firecracker sounds, to which they didn’t attach any special meaning. They continued to their room and to bed. It wasn’t until the next day that they discovered how close they had come to being the victims of the infamous terror attack. As she was sharing her story, my arm hairs rose and stood straight, while a mountain range of goose bumps seemed to push them even higher. I don’t think I’ve ever been physically affected like this before.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Busan Part II: Twelve Hours

My host doffed her hat and handed me a visored helmet as she put on her own. And then we were off on the motorbike across the oldest span in the city, toward Yeong-do, a large island largely shrouded in seasonal clouds. The taller apartment buildings disappeared into mist, and outside the plain picture window of the industrial-style coffee shop that was one of our first stops, there was nothing but white fog, rather than the seascape visible during clearer weather. As we walked along the cliffs, my guide absently plucked herbs, which she tucked into her blue blazer, and deplored the recent popularization of the area among tourists, which has quickly pushed out many older residents and converted their old homes into boutiques and coffee shops. South Korea's passion for discarding the architectural past in favor of bland modernity led her to remark that one new church "had nothing of the tabernacle about it." Which led to discussion of John Ruskin, C.S. Lewis, and John Piper.

She turned out to be a really fascinating person--trilingual (Korean, English and Japanese), a tutor, well-read, a thoughtful Christian with an appreciation for antiques and art. To me, hers was the most "homey" of the multiple Korean houses I've visited, with an eclectic mix of old furniture, teapots, art, and books. Over tea, we found we share similar tastes and interests; even though she is a decade younger chronologically, I felt to a certain extent that she was the elder of us. She is getting married next year to a Japanese artist, who had begun reading the Bible and attending one of the few churches in his country (studies contend that about 1% of the Japanese population are Christians) after reading Mere Christianity. Given that Koreans (and Chinese) are superstitious about bad luck associated with the number "4" (which sounds like the word for "death"; the elevator numbers in my building go directly from 3 to 5), the couple chose April 4 for their nuptials--the dates before and after were booked solid, but if you've no fear of numbers, it gives you a great deal of freedom. She owns a house in Korea, and her future husband travels a lot, so she's not planning to change her place of residence after the wedding.

She took me to the beach, where on the inland side of the road a brand new multi-story haenyeo museum was being constructed...while right across the road, on the seaside, real haenyeo were living and working under makeshift tents, cooking food on fires in the open. She pointed out the irony--why not build a shelter for the real living women, rather than celebrating them in stone as if they are already dead?

(The haenyeo making do.)

(The under construction haenyeo museum, only a few meters away from the haenyeo tents.)

The beach was covered in trash, primarily plastic. Clearly, no local organizations have decided to tackle the problem yet. She teased me throughout the day about "feeling a call" to move from Jeju to Busan, and I told her that if I did, one of the first things I would do would be to come down to the seashore with some giant trash bags. She told me she'd actually never been to Jeju--and since the scenery on her home island is very similar to that on "my" island, I could understand. There are cliffs and wind and waves. And remnants of the coastal batteries and bunkers constructed by the military occupiers in the first half of the twentieth century. The sea was full of ships, most moving to and from the Busan port, one of the largest on the peninsula.

She invited me to dinner--she was having a younger couple over for sushi. I made sure it wasn't an imposition, and then wondered where the restaurant was that we'd meet them. Turns out, my host is a great cook, and she took me to the famous seafood market to two stalls where she is a regular to purchase the fresh fish and shellfish she was herself preparing for dinner.

(Yes, those peculiar looking things in front are the legendary "penis slugs" that some people eat--we didn't!)

(Our sashimi before it was cleaned by the fishmonger.)

Those herbs that she'd picked during our morning walk came out of her pockets and went into the soup and onto the sashimi as garnish. At one point, she fired up a blowtorch to crisp the skin of the fish, so that it curled from the rosy flesh. With our feast for the eyes and the stomach he four of us shared a bottle of "real soju"--100% rice liquor--which doesn't generate the burning sensation down the throat that most soju does (as it is diluted with ethanol).

We talked and ate and ate and talked, and after everyone was well and truly sober, she took me back to the metro station to catch the very last train to my AirBnb.

I had thought that on Wednesday I would do some sightseeing before my late afternoon flight (5:05). The idea was, I would check out of my AirBnb (required before 11 AM), take my huge suitcase to the airport, deposit it in a luggage locker, and walk or take the metro to some other interesting place to explore for a while. But to my dismay I found that Busan Airport has no luggage lockers (Seoul's central train station has them) or cloakroom (I always think fondly of the lady who works in the cloakroom at Seoul's Gimpo), in either the domestic or international terminals! And I was much too early to check in for my flight and thus rid myself of my burden that way. This rather dampened the jolly mood I retained from the previous day. Thank God, I eventually found a seating area upstairs with tables. I'd planned to write, but fatigue took over (my accommodations were clean and quiet, but not heavily curtained, and I woke up every morning with the sunrise, and so was not rested), and I dozed for hours while a small girl in pink jelly shoes was pushed back and forth across the wide hall on a luggage cart by her big brother, much to her delight and no one’s visible judgement.