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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Octopus

I thought I was immune to most Korean cultural differences, or at least able to cope silently, but I couldn’t suppress an audible gasp of shock this afternoon at a late lunch hosted by the local church elders for newcomers like me.

We were seated at a long row of picnic tables on the plastic-enclosed porch of a restaurant overlooking the ocean. It’s gotten quite chilly here in the last few days, and though a big heater was warming the porch, many people left their coats buttoned. First, the restaurant owners brought out big brown earthenware cauldrons of boiling broth with whole chickens (minus the head, feathers and innards) bobbing under stacks of fresh chives. They put these on little gas stoves in the center of the tables, one for every three people, next to a selection of standard side dishes—kimchi, spicy bean sprouts, spiced fresh tofu, fried tofu strips, anchovies, etc. Several people handed out utensils and poured up water (Koreans don’t usually drink more than one small cup during a meal, unlike Americans like me, who drink even more than usual to cope with the local seasonings). The blessing was said and the last of the people were stepping over the benches to seat themselves when the restaurant owner approached each cauldron in succession with a large white plate, dropping the contents—fresh abalone and a large octopus—into the boiling liquid.

The octopus was still alive.

It writhed, clinging onto the hot sides of the pot in front of me, trying to escape. One of my fellow diners cheerfully seized the creature with a pair of metal tongs and forced it under until it stopped struggling, and the pale body turned rosy and the thin tips of the long, fat tentacles curled into painfully tight spirals. The creature was then efficiently chopped up into bite-sized pieces using the ever-present table scissors. The inside was bright white.

I ate the chicken, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat any of the octopus. The rice in the soup was tinted pink.

I may have mentioned already in a previous post that they have octopus-ink bread here at one of the local coffee shops—at first glance, it looks like marbled chocolate and vanilla, and then you notice upon closer inspection that the “chocolate” is actually a really dark green. It doesn’t taste particularly odd, and Jeju people consider it quite healthy. I prefer chocolate, though.



Friday, November 17, 2017

Strange Dreams, Pleasant Company

It's a terrible thing when your apartment smells like donuts at 4 AM. All you can think of is, "I really, really want a donut. A deep-fried, chocolate glazed donut." Except deep-fried stuff upsets my stomach, if I eat any more sweets I will have a permanent donut around my middle, and there are no proper donuts to be had at 4 AM in South Korea. The local Dunkin' keeps bankers' hours. And the pre-packaged pastries at the CU are just sad.

There was no reasonable explanation for the donut aroma. It was likely due to the same subconscious mischief that caused me to dream that strands of my hair were encased in Caribbean blue pistachio jello. I also dreamed that I was half-asleep and talking to my mother on the phone about a fender-bender in a parking garage at an unnamed airport. In my dream I'd been offered scrap value for my car on the spot and declined, my car had been hauled away and impounded, and I'd forgotten about it for months, with the consequence that I now owed vastly more in impound fees than the vehicle was worth. I also dreamed I was taking a shower and people kept abruptly walking into the shared bathroom, while I attempted to hide behind the mostly translucent shower curtain and wash the jello out of my hair. It was not a restful night.

Tomorrow I hope to arrange to meet a Russian artist who is also an avid animal rescuer--she's a friend of my British former coworker. I spent half an hour this evening watching Edouard the stripey adolescent orange cat bouncing under and around the edges of my skirt while I made awkward small talk with his master and swigged a strawberry yogurt smoothie. I need more feline time. And I would really like to take some concrete steps towards getting my children's story series about a particularly winsome Russian cat illustrated and into print. I still haven't heard anything about the fate of Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands. How much longer do I have to wait for good news?

My discouragement and loneliness was nicely offset this evening by three friendly female colleagues coming over for snacks after work. It was a direct answer to prayer, as I had been wandering the dark and rainy streets after my smoothie and silently lamenting my lack of energy and social life. The fact that so many businesses that are usually open later were already shuttered for the evening reflected my feelings of isolation and boredom. The ladies' smiling company was like warmth and sunshine--I hope they'll come over again soon! But before they do, I need to buy more cheese.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Features, Fish & Fabric of Korean Life

The Korean Peninsula looks like a westward-facing silhouette of the face of character actor Brion James as Leon Kowalski in the original Blade Runner movie—scruffy bearded, with deeply hooded eyes, and mouth agape in dumb disbelief (or a howl of frustration), a splash of either sweat or blood falling from the long chin. The blood, sweat, or tear is the island of Jeju, where I live.

Wednesday last week I walked to HomePlus for milk and Swiss Miss—I was buying the latter for my fifth grade advanced class, who were supposed to read the scary stories they had team-written (the hot chocolate was a hit; the stories weren’t as successful). Across from the store is a large elementary school. At 2 PM there was long uninterrupted line of yellow hakwon minivans waiting to collect students—all the small school buses were identical except for the logos which indicated the assortment of academies (English, music, martial arts) they represented. I suppose it beats the American parental car line in some respects, but it indicates another half-day of schooling for the young students.



On my latest Olle trail hike, I was struck by how many water treatment plants—long low buildings covered in heavy evergreen-colored plastic fabric that muffled the sound of roaring water inside—there seemed to be along the coast. Mark told me that they are in fact fish farms. All those flounder and eels swimming in the tanks outside local restaurants are not ocean-caught as I had assumed. The big fleshy-pink shellfish sliding along the glass water cases are likewise commercially grown. Fish farms occupy some of the most attractive real estate on the southern shore of the island—the industry took off in the 1980s, after the collapse of the banana plantations which had been a major cash crop, before developers realized that hotels and other buildings could capitalize on the views. At least some of the farms are owned by the huge conglomerates which dominate the national economy: some had the eMart logo on the signs.


Dark green and blue woven synthetic fabric covers not only the fisheries, but also many of the tangerine packing plants here. It’s pulled and stitched tight over the curved buildings, a heavy skin that muffles sound and light. Jeju people use natural and manmade cloth in many other novel ways. The rotating drums on concrete trucks here are laced into tight cement-colored canvas corsets. Scaffolding on buildings under construction is festooned with ruffles of sky blue scrim to prevent debris from falling onto people’s heads, and the ground from which pavement has been torn is usually covered with blankets to prevent mud from being tracked hither and yon. In previous posts I’ve already mentioned the thick hemp matting that is laid down over many of the local walking trails, cushioning the feet and preventing erosion. And all Korea still uses big swatches of solid-colored satin to wrap gift boxes—why bother with unrecyclable ribbons and single-use paper when knotting up a simple opaque cloth will do?

One thing that’s remarkable to me is how fast construction and reconstruction proceeds here. The Baskin Robbins down the street from my house was open for business until almost midnight one day, and by mid-morning of the next the store had been professionally gutted by workmen, and the only indication of its former life was the sign that remained on the front. And that, too, quickly disappeared. I’m a bit bummed—I did not go often, but I did like to walk down occasionally for a scoop, and now the closest ice cream store is half a mile away, and not as nice as this one. That's definitely one of those First World problems...oh dear, a kilometer for an ice cream cone?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Musical & Medical Equipment

Maxwell has a vintage Technics SL-D1 turntable. That turntable has some of my happy childhood memories wrapped like a thread around the spindle. Daddy bought ours when we were still living in middle Georgia, when I was five. He played his Russian records on it. He played the Michael Jackson Thriller album on it. He played Segovia, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and other classical composers on it. And, every Fourth of July, he played our John Phillip Sousa records on it, cranked up to maximum volume, the bass so strong the walls, the windows, and our blood vibrated with the sound. I listened to Willy Nelson's Stardust over and over, flipping the big thin black disk and carefully dropping the needle just inside the grooved edge. The split silver and charcoal design on the side of the plate spun into a mesmerizing blur, and a scratchy bumping came out of the speakers before and after the music played. Daddy changed the stereo system only a few years before his death--the turntable and all the records ended up in one of my closets and stayed there until we were cleaning up the house for sale. My brother Nate took it to Atlanta. I doubt he still has it. For all I know, Maxwell's turntable could really be ours--the key evidence would be Daddy's SSN carved into the bottom, as he used to do with all the family valuables in the age before the internet and wholesale identity theft.

Of course, this sentimental encounter with my childhood sent me home to YouTube for hours of Michael Jackson and other Eighties videos. I should be writing about a Chinese author (because I'm in South Korea, my contract employer seems to assume I know all about Asian subjects--everything about this author is in Chinese, so even with Google Translate it's taking me a while to cobble together basic information), but I'm still listening to Cyndi Lauper and Jackson--that man wrote and sang an incredible number of songs! And what a great performer, even with his ever-shrinking nose and paling skin. I'd only ever watched the Thriller video before; he had amazing stage presence.

June and I went to the city's best cake shop today after a late lunch of udon. In  the curved glass case was a special confection for Pepero Day, chocolate cake layered with cream, topped with big dark chocolate shavings, and fenced with assorted Pepero--strawberry, cookies and cream, green tea, etc. I got a piece to go with my glass cup of hot jasmine tea. It was delicious. Perched atop the artfully swirled stack of paper napkins on a side table was what resembled a giant seal for making wax impressions. I lifted the heavy thing by its wooden handle and saw that the thick round steel disk was smooth on the bottom. What was it? Later, when I stopped by Maxwell's shop to get a takeaway smoothie, I observed him using the same curious implement. It's for tamping coffee grounds into the basket of an espresso machine portafilter so that their level surface will absorb the hot water evenly. We agreed that in case of attack, both it and the portafilter would made excellent weapons.

On the wall of his shop, behind the counter, is a device that looks a lot like an antique anesthesia machine, only it's missing the rubber bulb for manual ventilation. When I was eleven, Daddy took me on a medical mission trip. When we arrived in the Podunk town in southern Jamaica, he looked at the hospital equipment in horror, saying he hadn't seen anything that antique since medical school. There were tall rusty cylinders of oxygen and other gasses lying in the weeds outside the operating theater--the team had to hook them up to see which had anything in them. Daddy was always resourceful, and he managed to get the old machines to work; I remember watching him carefully squeezing the rubber bulb, "breathing" for the unconscious patients in the crowded operating theater, where the surgeons were performing two procedures elbow to elbow (there were two rooms, and each had two operations proceeding simultaneously). I asked Maxwell what his device did--it's a water purifier, so his espresso machine and other equipment don't develop mineral scale.

Koreans believe in replaceable gas cylinders--every business and many homes have battered metal tubes of gas hooked to the outside, tucked into spaces between, behind, or underneath the buildings. My apartment building doesn't have a central gas tank, but instead individual ones for each apartment. And here in Korea they also have cylinders, not kegs, of beer--I saw a delivery truck filled with them. Beer is the beverage of choice to accompany chicken. June orders chicken (without the beer) all the time, and I'd been wondering why until last Sunday, when I went to her tiny efficiency for lunch and an afternoon of relaxing jigsaw-puzzle assembly. I was stuffed to bursting from the midday meal, but immediately started salivating at the aroma of roast meat that drifted up enticingly from the restaurant downstairs. I'd be hungry all the time if I lived in her building.

Olle!

Before he enrolled in medical school, my cousin (he who died in Peru earlier this year) worked in Spain as an English teacher. The last month he was in the country he spent hiking the northern route of El Camino de Santiago, seeing the Spanish coastline countryside, and meeting an assortment of entertaining international wanderers like himself. On Saturday, I met a woman who had also hiked El Camino, and had been inspired by the experience to create the Olle trail system by which pedestrians can circumnavigate Jeju.



As with most good ideas, the olle system seems so natural to me and other visitors that I had presumed it had been in place for scores of years. It turns out, it is only a decade old, and the brainchild of this one lady, a former political journalist who had been born and raised on the island, but who, like many, had gone away for university and a career. She told me that at age 50 she had decided that she wanted to do something different with her life (to her mother’s horror—the older woman could not understand why her daughter would leave a successful and lucrative job to do something that paid nothing), and she decided to return to the island and create the trails (despite the system’s Spanish inspiration, “olle”, rather than a bullfighting crowd’s encouragement to the matador, means “lane” in the local Jeju dialect). And, according to one of my students, whom I encountered as we were hiking, she met a lot of local resistance to the idea in the beginning—people didn’t want strangers trekking on or alongside their land. But in the ten years since the first olle trail’s creation, local attitudes toward the system have completely reversed, as it has brought unforeseen economic benefits: coffee shops and pensions and other small enterprises have sprung up along the trails, and now people beg to have the routes near them.



Saturday a week ago was the last day of the annual International Olle Festival (the “international” bit was supplied by me and three other foreigners among the hundreds and hundreds of Koreans, all kitted out in bright outdoor clothing like REI catalog models), and took place along Olle 4, from Namwon Port to Pyoseon Haevichi Beach. Albert and his sidekick Mark had invited me to go with them, and we set out walking about 10:30. We finished the course when the sun was setting about 6 PM, at a cluster of uniform white tents flanking a bandstand, from which a husky-voiced singer was belting out James Brown’s “I Feel Good.”



We’d stopped for lunch at a midpoint along the 12-mile trek, at a school where the sunny soccer pitch was full of hiking groups sitting on the close-cropped grass and eating bibimbap out of metal bowls. You had to pre-order the main course, and Albert had considered it too expensive, opting to buy several Styrofoam trays of kimbap instead (the wind was fierce, and I had to chase a getaway tray across the field, and later watched a napkin and other items take wing). You could buy makeoli and sweet potato pancakes outright, though, so the three of us split a bottle and a plateful. I rented three pairs of metal chopsticks for 100W (about 10 cents) each, and we drank the makeoli out of metal bowls, then carried our washables and recycling over to  the collection point. Plastic was being tossed into a gigantic black container shaped like a flower pot, five feet high and at least that broad.

I saw my first Kdrama star in the flesh! It was someone I recognized immediately: Jung In-Gi, a character actor who has been in at least nine series I’ve watched. He was sitting on a folding chair just a few meters away, playing the guitar with a younger bleach-haired fellow, and singing a song about hyenas, complete with animal noises. I would have liked to have gotten a picture with him, but I was too intent on lunch (and not embarrassing myself in front of the camera which was taking my “token foreigner” picture) to try, and by the time I’d eaten he’d been replaced by a young musical group and had vanished. He was thereby spared from my adjumma-age fangirling.

The mid-fortyish Mark himself, otherwise a nice guy, behaves not a little like the typical male kDrama character in some ways. He’s subjected me to wrist-grabbing—“c’mon, let’s do this!—and Saturday he also physically moved me out of what he considered to be unfeminine situations (walking right next to the road, for example). I’ve discovered I HATE this. It’s incredibly condescending, no matter how well-meant. If you want to be gallant, do it in an unnoticeable way that doesn’t interfere with my personal agency. Ask me where I want to walk. Don’t crowd my personal space. Simply offer help—if I need it, I’ll be happy to accept it. I pettishly retaliated to his chauvinistic behaviors by treating him exactly the same way—I moved him over (grabbing the loop on his backpack and pulling) from the roadside several times, when he was arguably too close to cars or bicycles--considerably closer than I had been earlier, I might add, and distracted by looking at his phone as well. I don’t know that he grasped the larger implications of my actions.

Despite the bright sun and clear skies, it was cool all day, and when the sun went down I zipped up my coat and pulled on my leather gloves. Thankfully, Albert had forewarned me that it was going to be chilly. Given my overdressing for my Dulegil hike the previous fortnight, I would have gone to the opposite extreme and been woefully underdressed for this one.



The leafy citrus orchards are full of bright orange fruit, and at one point Mark hopped down a low stone wall and retrieved a newly fallen tangerine (you shouldn’t pick, but you can pick up) from the ground. It was cold and fresh and delicious. My dad told me that we he was growing up in Florida he could walk outside and pick fresh oranges—now I know what this feels and tastes like.
It was so restfully quiet on the trail. The sea itself was as flat and unperturbed as a pond. The ocean-roar came from the swish of the wind behind us as it jostled the needles of short shore-side green pine trees and tossed the soft creamy fronds of the tall reeds. The ocean was silent, stirred only by gentle currents underneath the surface. We saw several haenyeo at work, their signature orange floats bobbing a hundred meters or more from shore. At one point, a round sweet faced woman wearing an old fashioned bonnet tied under her chin and a thick black rubber diving suit passed us on a motorbike. Many of these ladies are middle-aged, even elderly, but they still pick their way deftly across the rocks and wade into the water with their knives and nets to pull food from the sea.



Although there are (exceptionally clean) public toilets along the olle trail (the ones by the sea are programmed to play classical music from the moment you open the door to go in), as was to be expected, the nearest ladies’ room after the lunch location was packed. Albert graciously kept an eye out for alternatives, and we happened upon a building that was being renovated into a café. There was a vintage white Jaguar parked out front, and the owner cheerfully allowed me to used the men’s room, which alone probably cost more than my apartment. Such nice fixtures. And a choice of hand soap. In the café, I spotted an exquisite carved oak breakfront cabinet set with beveled glass mirrors and commented on it. The owner had lived in California until 2003 (apparently he’d done well there, or after, since besides the car, the bathroom, and the cabinet there was a shiny big Harley, with custom saddlebags, parked inside near the bar), and he and I chatted for a while. The guys admired an old German Army helmet (it looked almost exactly like my Swiss Army helmet, but this was actually from World War II), and I noticed the set of three heavy grey metal and glass nautical lanterns, which the owner casually admitted to having had imported from a dealer in England (there are cheaper, less attractive versions on 1stdibs right now for a minimum of $750 each). The man must have money to burn. He did have a Georgia license plate on the wall, which with the other vintage accessories made me feel right at home—it looked a bit like one of the estate sales I sorely miss. He says he plans to open sometime before Christmas. I shall have to return once he does.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Spelling Bee

Today was the fall festival at my academy. For the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, there were a series of “Golden Bell” style group challenges after an individual winner spelling bee. The winner’s class was awarded points for the triumph, but as many were to be had by the class whose spelling-challenged members had spent the rest of the bee diligently making “Thankful Leaves”: construction paper maple leaves on which they had written things they were thankful for. The class that won the most points from these and the Bell tasks got boxes of Pepero as a prize. Pepero Day is November 11.

The seventh graders had a locked-room style series of challenges that involved logic and word puzzles and finding hidden clues. My girls (I was in charge of a subset of the seventh grade classes I have at test prep time) won a large pizza, which they consumed in about two minutes flat.

I had planned to go out with the rest of the teachers after work, but I had some time before the others finished and went home. And then, in classic middle-aged person fashion, I didn’t want to go out again once I had my shoes off, had supped on pieces of the second and third graders’ leftover Trader Joe’s gingerbread turkey kits (a visitor had brought them from the US for the occasion), and had done some editing. I have regretted not joining them since—I went to bed and slept for only three hours, then came awake and have been alert now for four. I had planned to go hiking tomorrow with my new coworker, but he forgot that his climbing instructor had already scheduled an early morning practice. However, some of my adult students also had asked me to go walking with them, so I messaged Albert about the late cancellation and asked if I could still join the group. We’ll see. He said it was “early.” How much so, I don’t know.

My student Jeff is resting up in a Seoul hospital. In typical American fashion, I was highly concerned about the hospitalization; after all, he does have pancreatic cancer! But my other students and Maxwell (to whose shop I rushed, thinking he might have more information) assured me that it was nothing serious, that he’d just overexerted himself—everyone expects him to be back here in a few days. Because Koreans work so hard, and have basic universal public healthcare, they don’t regard hospitalization as a big deal—nor is it that big an expense—but rather a fairly common recourse for exhaustion. It’s not that unusual, I gather, for people to check themselves in for a pajama-clad break from the daily hurly-burly. Of course, there are truly ill people in hospital, too. And given his diagnosis, I am surely not unreasonable in expressing worry about Jeff. Maxwell just listened to my disjointed jabbering with equanimity, fixed me a cup of thyme tea (which I immediately spilled, so he calmly brewed me another), and remarked in his usual unruffled way that in a recent text the patient had assured him he was fine and had used a smiling emoji, so he was truly OK.

My classes are changing slightly come Monday. I am going to be with the accelerated fifth graders again, trading in my slow group to the curriculum coordinator. The balance is shifting, too. Some days I will have seven teaching hours, others I will have only three. I hope I can rest well on the light days.

It’s finally gotten cool enough to justify a coat here, though I’ve been wearing one, and a scarf besides, for a couple of weeks just because it was the end of October, for crying out loud, so it ought to be cold! Certain sartorial standards must be observed. My cough and runny nose have mostly cleared, and my voice is no longer a growling bass. The gauges on my dehumidifiers and my own skin tell me that the water content of the air has dropped, and altogether the atmosphere is quite pleasant. The sunshine on these shorter days feels like a caress rather than a burning torch, and I’ve hung up both my parasols for the winter. But I have somehow, somewhere mislaid my hat, so I am in the process of searching for a new one.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Drawing A Blank

Recently, there have been many days when I wonder whether I am even barely competent in my teaching role, particularly when I am dealing with less gifted classes. As my mother pointed out, it takes a smart teacher to get through to duller students, and I've been despairing of my functional intelligence, as they seemed to absorb nothing, but instead gaze at me with glazed eyes in mute incomprehension. Then, there are other moments when, despite the gnashing of juvenile and early  adolescent teeth over worksheets and actual assignments (rather than games, which are much begged for), I know that some information, no matter how rudimentary, has trickled through the cracks in their carapaces of confusion and lodged itself in their brains.

And then there are the intense bouts of loneliness. It's finally occurred to me that June has been dealing with something along the same lines, but she has been much less vocal and demonstrative than I. She is a person who always puts others first, and is of a retiring nature, and so the extremity of her condition didn't filter quickly through my own thick cloud of self-absorption. I'm not sure what I can do to help, however--I've gone home every night this week and simply collapsed. Knocking back shots of Vitamin C drinks has only allowed me to cope so much with the waning daylight, cooler temperatures, and fresh serving of debilitating germs so kindly shared with me by my students.

On the other hand, there's nothing like sheer exhaustion and a bad cold to curb the romantic cravings of an old maid's heart. I just can't be bothered to walk over and admire Maxwell's rugged profile over a cup of tea. I'm just too tired. I've got two entries to compose for the academic publisher this weekend, and more to edit. My ears are stuffy and my nose is running. I'm pickled to the gills on NyQuil, and pushing through the school day (afternoon/evening?) is a one-hour-at-a-time pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps come-on-honey-you-got-this sort of effort.

A new little boy has joined my phonics class. We're all the way to STUV and he hadn't learned ABC as of Wednesday. However, he does seem to be an enthusiastic sort, and one of the precocious girls has taken it upon herself to mentor him, so he should be able to catch up in short order. I'm ready and willing to take advantage of peer-to-peer teaching when it's available and useful!

My adults continue to treat me with extreme kindness. One of the men went to Japan with his wife and brought me back a packet of cantaloupe-flavored KitKats. Surprisingly good. The whole class gave me a gift certificate to HomePlus for Chuseok, which was a boon as my dairy habit continues unabated. Roxanne went with me to the hospital Tuesday morning for more sleeping medication, which should see me through the short term, at least. I do wish I had someone to walk or hike with on a regular basis--June's been having some leg and foot pain, so she can't commit to excursions. Also (and I am sure that she feels similarly) it would be nice to have someone else to talk to.

More than a month ago, stinging from sticker shock from visiting the painting exhibition on Art Street, I went out and bought two drawing pads--what I can't afford, but can make, I ought to make. Both drawing pads are still in plastic on my desk, slowing sinking under successive layers of sediment: medicine bottles, makeup, half-dirty shirts, etc. I need to dig them out and actually use them for their intended purpose. Sunsets here have been stunning purple and orange affairs lately, with the palm trees silhouetted black against the darkening sky. And electric signs in foreign languages always enhance ordinary nighttime cityscapes.  Perhaps when I'm not craving a hot shower and soft sheets so earnestly, I will sit down and sketch. Meantime, I'm following June's advice and taking "pictures" with my brain, so that when I'm a little old lady who can't see properly, I can remember views that my aged eyeballs aren't able to register. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Health, Brain Fitness, and Hiking

My sole objection to my fancy liquid bath soap is that it strongly resembles the slurry of blood and fat that oozes into the pan when one is cooking a boneless skinless chicken breast. It’s a deep semitransluscent orange red, with a thick head of opaque pale yellow stuff floating on top, and though it smells divine and lathers richly, it looks disgusting when I squeeze it onto my bath sponge. And no, it’s not expired, and it’s also not made from animal products. Perhaps your average vegetarian wouldn’t make the connection, but it reminds the carnivorous me of the unpleasant pudge lurking underneath my own plucked chicken legs.

Maxwell got his cat neutered. I went into the shop for a cup of lavender tea Monday afternoon and was impressed how quickly he’d acted on my advice. I think the operation was harder for human than animal (as the small fuzzy beast was running around happily); June had spent two hours at the shop Saturday and later reported that Maxwell remarked how guilty he’d felt, as he would hate it if someone had done the same to him. “Is Maxwell going around peeing in the corners, fighting over lady cats, and fathering litters of street kittens that will either starve to death, get run over by cars, or be put down in the shelter?” I muttered rhetorically, though I do sympathize with his identification with his pet. One of my colleagues told me Jeju has the highest animal euthanasia rate in South Korea. Little Eduardo should have a much longer, healthier, and more peaceful life this way.

Employers can access health records of their workers (and applicants) here. It’s no wonder the suicide rate is astronomical, if you cannot quietly get help—getting treatment for mental issues hereabouts is much more taboo than in the US, where it is much more a cause for shame, social ostracism and legal restrictions than it ought to be. If you are not actively harming other people, your mental condition is nobody’s business, frankly, except those who care about and for you, who treat you like a human being even at those times when you may not be capable of treating yourself like one. I am grateful that my employers are not bothered by my medical situation, and in fact kindly released me from the obligation of attending the weekly faculty meeting today when I texted in about having a migraine. I slept for two hours, dosed up on aspirin, and felt completely refreshed, which made a huge difference in my afternoon classes. Last Friday, the end of a thoroughly sleep-deprived week, was left an unpleasant and quickly fading memory.

Saturday night I actually got a great night’s rest—but I had gone to extremes to tire myself out, hiking more than 12 miles on Hallasan’s Doneko Trail. According to my pedometer, I also climbed more than 100 stories’ worth of elevation – all rocks! Ed, the new teacher from Oregon, Nell, and her boyfriend and I got to the trail head at 9:15, and finally made it to another paved road where we hailed a taxi a little before sunset at 6. The weather was perfect—cool, no bugs (a fair number of large spiders had to be avoided, though, and we saw one short, thick-bodied snake with a pointed nose), and sunny. I will never go on a hike again without a trekking cane. It helped me so much—not only when clambering up steep hillsides, but also when I was staggering over random loose cobblestones that occasionally served as the trail. I walk like an inebriated salaryman on flat pavement, so I looked like a two-legged cat with severe cerebellar hypoplaysia on the uneven and unstable ground. Ed took some good and intensely colored pictures of our excursion—the whole day, we encountered a total of six other people, all heading in the opposite direction. The only noises were birdsong and the wind in the trees (whose leaves have only just begun to blush)...

And the sound of me embarrassing myself. I alleged it was Moses’s staff (it was Aaron’s—the brothers were together, but I got the rod owner wrong!) that swallowed the Egyptian magicians’ staffs (one of my companions was raised by a relative who was a Jehovah’s Witness, and he recalled the Old Testament stories; I’m ashamed that it had been so long since I’d read Exodus I got the detail wrong). At one juncture, Nell’s boyfriend mistook my description of his ancestral pirate with a cutlass between his teeth for a swashbuckling privateer with an “atlas” between his teeth. Which is a rather dissimilar image, and gives a new interpretation to the term “scurvy dog.” While we were sitting on the front steps of a brightly painted, but padlocked temple at the end of the trail, Nell became fascinated by the progress of a determined ant hauling the half-desiccated body of a worm across the paving stones. “There is nothing on earth that works harder than a Korean ant,” her sweetheart observed. It had almost reached its nest with its plunder in tow when when began descending the mountain. And at that point, the air was finally chilly enough to make the longjohns I’d been sweating in all day comfortable!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Case Of Miseries

Sometimes being alone just gets you right in the gut. Being tired doesn’t help matters. I’ve been coming home every night immediately after work, eating supper, taking a shower, and collapsing into bed. I’m still waking each morning feeling frazzled, as usually I have had a bout of insomnia in the wee hours. In addition to my teaching load (which resumes full force tomorrow morning) I’ve completed one editing assignment and am in the midst of another—far from overwhelming, these latter tasks have been a real psychological salve. Although there is nothing like hard work to prevent too much despondency, my whole outlook for the last week has been Decidedly Grim. My sixth graders shouldn’t have cause to discuss the possibility of their immediate northern neighbor and the US getting into an active nuclear exchange, for one. For another, despite the publisher’s having expressed his interest in the TMTF manuscript, there’s no assurance yet that it’s going to be accepted. And, finally, I haven’t received any subsequent indication that my last Friday evening’s suggestion about Scrabble playing was met with anything beyond perfunctory cordiality—if there were genuine interest, some message surely would have established an acceptable date and time. Given that I’ve been too tired to venture more than three blocks from my house for the past 4-5 days, this should be a relief, but I imagine that if I knew my company were craved, I might be able to gin up more energy!

If I ever get a book contract, I think I will probably greet it with the same enthusiasm with which typical people welcome a marriage proposal. The publisher I approached five weeks ago is still considering whether the manuscript is marketable. In the email I read today, he said I should hear something by December. I am earnestly praying that this effort won’t end with the literary equivalent of “he’s just not that into you.” If I cannot be lucky in love, I hope to be a successful writer. Frankly, it would be nice to find satisfaction in both areas, but no one’s beating down my door with offers.

I hope that the long hike planned for Saturday with Nell, her boyfriend, and June (provided her feet aren’t aching too sorely) will give me a fresh perspective and plenty of the exercise I’ve missed in the last fortnight. I walked 46 miles the week I was in Hong Kong, and I slept beautifully each night there. In the ten days since, I have walked less than 13 miles. This, too, may account for my despondent mood. I should also pray that I find a daily walking partner—I get bored wandering the same pattern of streets, and would venture farther afield only if I had someone to talk to.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Call To Artistic Arms

As empty plinths proliferate throughout the American Southeast, many struggle with the question of whether the removal of Confederate memorial statues constitutes an erasure of history. I would suggest that instead of a campaign that concentrates exclusively on removal, the focus of protesters and politicians alike should be on replacement.

The solitary Southern soldier, either depicted gallant on horseback, or in downcast contemplation of his fallen comrades, has for more than a century and a half testified to only one small, sanitized version of the conflict which notoriously cost the lives of more Americans than any other. Where have been the images of the tired soldiers who fought brother against brother, starving, perishing of disease, ragged and exhausted?  But more importantly, where are the visual representations of the miseries of the slave trade, or of slave life, the crushing disappointment of family separation under divided ownership, and the thwarted freedom which represented the African American experience for generations, whose repercussions still haunt us? This is the historical moment when these images can surface. Even facsimile reproductions of pages from inventories of slaves—that antique beautiful handwriting denying the humanity of those it recorded—would be an excellent counterpoint to  marbles and bronzes romanticizing the “lost cause,” even if the rest of these images were to be left in place.

It is a good step to tear down objectionable, inaccurate images, but it is even more beneficial in the long run to offer counter images that accurately represent past tragedy in context of future hope. Certainly there are talented artists in all communities who can rise to the occasion.

Don’t leave the squares empty. This is a moment for new public art to serve a redemptive, unifying purpose.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Cool Beans

I had to turn the air conditioner on in my classroom Friday. This morning, when I went out the door to church, it was chilly enough that I ducked back inside to grab my sweater to pull over my long-sleeved shirt.

The breeze was so stiff while I waited for Kristen that there were ripples on the gutter puddles. I had combed my (newly cut) hair, but it was tossed into chaos by the wind, which plastered my heavy skirt to my legs, while occasional stronger gusts attempted to knock me off my feet. I really wished that I had worn my thick long johns instead of the thin tea-length silk leggings I acquired in Hong Kong after the heat rash debacle.

My hairdresser was wearing a new left hand ring yesterday, and happily confirmed that he'd just gotten married. I'd thought he was just taking a long Chuseok vacation--he'd sent me a message postponing my scheduled haircut--but it seems he was actually on his honeymoon. I expressed my congratulations (one of the few words I know in Korean), which he graciously accepted. His female colleagues always look mildly panicked when I come in to the salon, because none of them speaks English. I wish my Korean were better, but that would require my actually dedicating time to study, and when I have spare time, I'd much rather watch a fluffy K-drama than slave diligently over vocabulary words.

Rita shares many of my same OCD symptoms. I am so glad that hers has been diagnosed early. I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, much less my dear niece, the seventeen years of misery I had to endure after my problems first became acute. During our chat yesterday, she asked about my life here in South Korea, and I told her that on Thursday I'd met a nice young cat (she loves all animals) at a coffee shop my adult students had taken me to.


Its blog name shall be Edouard. It was passed out so deeply on the chair when I took this picture that it was floppy. I recommended to the cafe owner that he consider getting a cat wheel, which would assure that Edouard got plenty of exercise after the neutering surgery I suggested (being for the moment one of those dreadful pushy people that barge into complete strangers' lives and tell them how to take care of their own animals!) "Chop off his little fuzzy balls!" isn't exactly the opener that's recommended to endear a 42-year old woman to a (quite good-looking and personable) 33-year-old fellow American (who speaks Korean and is of Korean heritage--he's been here 5 years, but mostly in Seoul, and only opened the coffee shop in April). But then again he informed me that when my students had showed him my picture, he immediately thought it belonged in a dictionary next to the definition of "English teacher." I'm not exactly sure how to interpret this...I immediately thought back to all my English teachers, who were extremely competent (and for whom I will be forever grateful), but not exactly stunning beauties. Maybe it's the glasses and the strong chin?

Maxwell, the coffee shop owner, was shocked to learn that I didn't know the level of expertise possessed by my student Jeff, the man with pancreatic cancer, who is acting as his professional mentor. I didn't realize that Jeff was the coffee equivalent of a sommelier, being qualified to grade coffee beans and instruct others on the selection and roasting thereof. It's a completely foreign world to me, one I'd never considered investigating. Jeff mentioned that he and his wife and another student of mine were shortly departing on an eight or nine day coffee-centered trip to Japan, and that he would like to go to the bean growing areas in East Timor. Ideally, he would like to establish a relationship between farmers and cafe owners, so that the farmers would make a better living and the cafes would have access to fresher beans. I said the idea warranted an app.

It was with not a little humor Friday that I recalled being considered the picture of an English teacher, as I had to go full-throttle schoolmarm on some of my less attentive classes, dragging my sixth graders through sentence composition and the one remaining seventh grade boy in my lower level class (I've had three others boys and one girl drop out because they didn't want to write) through the process of constructing an essay. I went back to the cafe that evening with the umbrella that had been pressed on me and my companions. I was assured that I was welcome to keep it, that it had been left there months earlier by a patron who never reclaimed it. As he was making me a cup of tea, I awkwardly asked Maxwell if he played Scrabble. He said he hadn't, but "I was welcome to bring it by anytime." Well, unless he contacts me with a specific date (if he were genuinely interested, he could find out my details from my students), I shan't. It would be mortifying to me for a pleasant and attractive younger guy to consider me to be making unwanted advances. And of course my adult students didn't help the situation any by loudly remarking that he was single, and clearly trying to set us up. If I were him, I would be sorely tempted to run, not walk, in the other direction!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Chuseok Week Adventures

June and I rode the 800 bus to Jeju City the Saturday before Chuseok, and after some confusion based on an inaccurate electronic location of a physical address, eventually found the third-floor apartment of our hospitable acquaintance and located the hidden key to let ourselves in. We walked a mile for Mexican food in the new district of the city, where illuminated construction cranes shot like fireworks into the fog. I had an apple Camembert pizza and a margarita for supper.



Sunday, we braved steady rain to go to the English service at the church we’d briefly attended earlier this year (before settling on a Korean congregation closer to home). Afterwards, over a hot stone bibimbap lunch, the divinity school director told us about the annual trips he leads to the Holy Land and various Mediterranean area New Testament sites. While the Israel excursion is only open to seminarians, the tour that traces the missionary journeys of Peter and Paul can be joined by anyone. I’ve asked for my month off in June so I can go on that one, but who knows if that will happen, since they need to find a substitute.

Monday, we went to Jeju’s lava tubes, a UNESCO world heritage site. Our Alien Resident Identity cards allowed us free admission. The gap in the earth where the cave ceiling had collapsed was ringed with determined trees which wrapped their roots over the edge. Green vines hung from the branches over the long series of wet stone staircases that led into the pit. We had to use our umbrellas underground, as water cascaded down from the porous ceiling. A chair rail of lava lines ran along the inside of the tube, where subsiding flows of molten rock had left their mark. I told June that the walls’ smooth texture reminded me of chocolate frosting, while the floors’ cracked rough surface reminded me of baked fudgy brownies. June joked that she’d find a sweets shop for me the minute we returned to the surface. Instead, we walked down the road to Kimnyong Maze Park, which a dozen or so scruffy cats call home. Founded by an expatriate American professor, the complex arrangement of Leland Cypress-flanked paths was filled with families and couples finding their way towards the tinny success bell hanging on a raised platform. I don’t remember ever doing a proper maze before, and enjoyed myself.



We were starving by the time we returned to the city, so we caught a taxi to our gastronomic stand-by, the Mexican restaurant. The cab driver was a sweet man in his sixties who told us that he hoped to visit Australia next year, where he planned to try to look up the pen pal with whom he’d corresponded as a teenager. He referenced The Bridges of Madison County (a movie that is based on the errant Daphne DuMaurier presumption of an affair having positive effects on one’s relationship with one’s spouse), but I did not get the impression that he was imagining a passionate encounter so much as a ennui-shrouded meeting between two people who’d first made contact as teens and finally met in person a full four and a half decades later, as grandparents. And that is a sweet romantic thought—a dream cherished by a man who sees hundreds of people each day who yet retains a thick stack of stamped envelopes at home, not knowing the fate of their author, but wondering if perhaps it is possible to meet her.

After our meal—this time I got enchiladas, and the person who mixed my margarita measured a larger portion of tequila—I started talking about the Las Vegas massacre relative to the “statistic” quotation imputed to Stalin (but actually originated by the Austrian satirist Kurt Tucholsky, with whom I’ve become familiar in my editorial work), and how we characteristically treat stateside victims of crimes as individuals—however we slant the coverage based on the person’s skin color—whereas reports of tens and hundreds killed overseas (outside of Western Europe) are usually just nameless numbers, a grim register that occupies at most a footnote (or the digital equivalent) in the news. I was stuffed with cheese and meat, but June expressed interest in an Italian dessert café on our stroll home. I ended up with a small cup of chocolate gelato so dark it was almost black, a rich frozen custard that I relished slowly in tiny bites with a miniature spoon.

I had two hours of sleep before I woke up in the wee hours, nervous I would miss my flight Tuesday morning. But I managed to hail a cab and get to the airport in plenty of time. There was an entire fenced area in the departure terminal dedicated to Chinese tourists’ unbagging of their considerable quantities of duty-free shopping and repacking it in less bulky ways.

My first impressions of Hong Kong included: the formidable humidity (even in October!)—a steamy atmosphere that dampens every upper lip; the territory’s vital network of large suspension bridges; the many incredibly tall apartment buildings with laundry swinging from racks outside the windows (“What happens if the clothing falls from the sixtieth floor?” I wondered); the highways cut through and into mountains; a plethora of red and white four-seater Toyota taxis that resembled Soviet Ladas; the British remnants of street names, left lane driving, and right side steering wheels; and a giant red communist banner in the old revolutionary style just outside the airport that celebrated the latest anniversary of the establishment of the PRC. The Hong Kong harbor is the third biggest/busiest in the world. Tens of thousands of shipping containers, all emblazoned with Scandinavian and Chinese names that we encounter worldwide, were stacked as far as the eye could see. Enormous cranes shifted them around on the docks and moved them to and from the waiting ships. It was awesome to glimpse. Essentially nothing remains of the Hong Kong my grandfather encountered seventy years ago. There are towers of steel and glass everywhere, and though clearly some people live in ramshackle tarp-covered boats that float just offshore, the harbor was exceptionally clean and trash-free. And the only rickshaw in the city whose streets were once thronged with them was one being used as a window display prop in a clothing store. However, bamboo remains the most common construction scaffolding material, an ancient renewable resource laced together into a snug if irregular grid dozens of stories high. Shiny offices tower next to rough older residential buildings retrofitted with window and wall mounted air conditioning units. Space is at such a premium that the wealth of some establishments is evidenced more by the empty volume of their lobbies than by any expensive decoration.




There are many more Westerners in Hong Kong than Seoul, but not so many that locals don’t give you curious looks—far more directly than Koreans, who tend to pretend polite indifference, as if you were something slightly embarrassing that good manners dictated they not stare at. Perhaps people were curious about me sitting outside the 7-Eleven on one of three random chairs, next to a hopping vegetable stand, typing on my phone. It was too loud to dictate. Or maybe they were looking at my strange attire, Most people were dressed much more lightly than I was. Many were in tshirts and shorts, whereas I was wearing long sleeves and a long linen skirt. There were some Indonesian Muslim ladies, heavily draped in the heat, wheeling around the elderly—I could only imagine how hot they were! Hong Kongers do not have the fiercely correct posture of Koreans. They slump like Americans, though I didn’t see anyone as outrageously fat as we tend to be. I spent twenty minutes sitting, typing, and waiting for Pula, my Airbnb hostess, whom I was initially scheduled to meet at 12:30, rather than 11:15. The plane arrival time seems to have been listed in Jeju time, rather than local time, which is an hour later, and a comfortable sixty-minute double-decker bus ride (40 HKD) had brought me into the city and dropped me less than 100 feet from the entrance to the old apartment building where I was staying. I had changed $200 at the airport. The rate wasn’t that great, but I didn’t want to be marooned without cash, and the transport people only accept cash for the Octopus Card, which is not only good for public transport, but also can be used in many shops. It cost 150 HKD, about $20—50 HKD for the card, and a 100 HKD minimum deposit.

My young hostess has a slender, boyish figure. She rents out the apartment she shares with her brother – her brother is recovering from surgery in their hometown on the mainland two hours away. She said she didn’t go to university because she doesn’t like studying, but she loves reading. She’s reading a complicated and diverse assortment of books, from strategy texts to historical disease transmission accounts (Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel) to art (just Tuesday she had acquired a beautiful collection of works by Feng Zikai, who in addition to being a superb artist also translated classic works from Japanese and Russian into Chinese). Again, although she doesn’t claim to be much of a student, she has become pretty fluent in English in the six years she’s lived in Hong Kong. University isn’t for everybody, but in the highly competitive Asian educational and employment system, she is certainly an outlier. After our chat, and laundering the clothes I brought dirty from Jeju in her nice kitchen washing machine and hanging them up to dry—two shirts and a pair of leggings on the line outside the window, swinging tens of meters over a neighbor’s patio—I figured if they fell it would be an opportunity to introduce myself to more people!—I retired to my room for a short nap, then walked down to Causeway Bay, a main shopping district with tons of stores on all levels. I found one of the city’s several Lush emporiums and bought more of the bath soap I’d just used up in the past week, plus several other pleasant smelling unguents.

I walked around looking at the magnificent diamond necklaces in the windows of the high end jewelers (their size and design resembled pageant jewelry, and some were priced at mere hundreds of thousands of dollars), and the peculiar pure gold jewelry that is worn at weddings hereabouts: solid gold necklaces fronted by huge plaques in the shape of jolly fat recumbent pigs, with dangling pendants in the shape of piglets. It is meant to represent prosperity and fecundity, but it reminds me a lot of the Sconyers barbecue logo back home. And while the dragon and phoenix motif on necklaces and heavy bangle bracelets is lovely, and frankly more than a little sexy, pigs just aren’t my go-to image when I imagine a lovely bride!


Choosing a restaurant by pressing a random elevator button in a building full of eateries, I was told by the hostess that I had an hour to finish my meal. This is typical for an area notoriously short on space—you have to eat and clear out for the next customer. The appeal of shabu shabu is a little diluted when one must eat it alone and at speed. The steam rolled off the boiling broth and the voices of other diners echoed from the surrounding booths, while I silently stirred my meat and vegetables. I noticed that my hand was stained pink and sparkly from trying out various aromatic concoctions at Lush. I overpaid vastly, but the food was good, and I managed to eat every bit.

Wednesday, I went on a long tour of Hong Kong Island, with a brief stopover on the Kowloon harborside, so as to look back at the ever-changing skyline. I had hired a young local lady to show me the city, an individual tour which I hoped would give me a sense of area history and culture from the domestic perspective. My petite guide was efficient and well-informed, but persistently bitter. Even though she probably wasn’t even in grade school when the British relinquished control of the crown colony to the Peoples Republic of China, she harbors a great deal of resentment for both the British colonialists and for the Americans who apparently briefly volunteered to relieve them of local management during the transition period (I don’t remember this offer, though I do remember the kerfuffle leading up to the handover). She also voiced considerable frustration at the local authorities who continue to tear down older buildings to replace them with skyscraper shopping malls and office buildings, while the residents must live in cubicle size apartments, unable to afford larger dwellings. According to one real estate ad I saw, 5.7 million HKD will buy a clearly dilapidated 243 square foot apartment—the size of my bedroom growing up. My hostess told me that one of her friends pays 5000 HKD a month for a tiny room that barely accommodates one single bed; she has to share the bathroom down the hall. According to local calculations, an average person would have to save her entire paycheck, without any expenditures at all, for about thirty years to afford any property hereabouts. Apple is paying 3 million USD per month in rent for a large 3-level store near the harbor. Most businesses, including restaurants, are chain franchises, as independent mom-and-pop shops cannot pay the exorbitant sums charged to lease space. My guide told me that she’s glad not to have siblings, for although it means she has the full responsibility for her parents’ elder care, there’s also no one to fight with over her prospective inheritance. And given the value of real estate here, she says family fights are almost universal and vicious. And there remains—despite modern legal guarantees of equal rights—a presumption that married women shouldn’t get part of the parental estate, since they are now a member of their husband’s family.

After our early ride up the funicular to Victoria Peak (At the overlook whereon my guide fussed at a young mainland Chinese guy, who had apparently never seen someone of my complexion before, for wanting to take a picture with me—I would have been happy to, but she’d scared him off by the time I understood what he wanted. She ranted about mainland children being raised by their grandparents in the countryside while their parents go into the cities to work: due to the Chinese version of the propiska system, the children can’t accompany their parents since they wouldn’t have legal access to education or health care, and so, according to her, they are brought up separated from guiding adult supervision and thus taught no manners.), we descended to Central, the financial district downtown. My guide talked about the vital importance of feng shui and the costs of violating it as she led me around. The Bank of China building, for example, was designed by I. M. Pei, who though China born is Western educated, and so doesn’t give a fig about traditional design principles. So, he incorporated all sorts of attractive and eye-catching but philosophically untenable motifs into his work, particularly triangles, leading to the banks’ neighbors to complain of “aggression.” The final product, opened 8/8/1988 (eight being a number representing prosperity), can be said to resemble a knife, and a nearby competitor, HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation), alleged that due to the negative energy they lost 40 percent of their business. Consulting their own feng shui expert, HSBC installed two window-washing lifts in the shapes of cannons on the top side of their building closest to the offensive BOC knife, thereby balancing the energy and restoring their fortunes. Between these two banking headquarters is now a mirrored building (reflecting the images of the others back on them) owned by one of the richest men in the city and in the world. Since China only has a handful of holidays a year (“We Asians are really good at torturing ourselves,” my guide remarked.), and hurricane days are automatic holidays (and structures in the city are never seriously affected by the inclement weather) locals joke that earnest prayers for hurricanes should be directed to this particularly powerful fellow, who made his early fortune in the artificial flower industry. BOC, HSBC, and Standard Chartered are the three private banks which issue Hong Kong currency in denominations over 10 HKD, which is a semi-translucent pink, white and blue plastic note printed by the government. At the bottom front of the HSBC building are two bronze lions, once taken as war booty by the Japanese. They still bear shrapnel wounds, and my guide said that people dropped coins into the fissures, but when I shone my phone flashlight inside, all I could see was empty gum wrappers. The statue of Queen Victoria that once sat in the park across the street was relocated to Victoria Park (I never found Prince Albert, though I was told he’s there now, too).

On Cat Street, the local name for Upper Lascar Row in the antique district, my diminutive companion pointed out one booth absolutely filled to the brim with junk, as a place where one could actually find real treasure, as opposed to the fine stores where everything was professionally cleaned, dusted, and tagged. I bought a vintage marcasite ring there. The ring is from the 70s in my estimation, so nothing truly old, but it fits and it’s pretty, and it’s only missing two tiny rose cut stones (which I could theoretically have replaced, but whose absence no one will notice but me). Not far away, I also got three small lanterns for the Lantern Festival, which so happened to be taking place that evening in Victoria Park, five minutes’ walk from my apartment. Two were of the traditional goldfish, and one of the traditional star fruit design; I don’t like rabbits enough to have gotten one of those. For most of the 20th century the lanterns were made out of colored plastic film, a kind of brittle saran wrap, but the suppliers aren’t manufacturing this sort of material anymore. I prefer the cloth variety. Although I had initially planned to, I decided not to carry a lantern to that evening’s event, since I knew the crowds would be thick and I suspected—rightly as it turned out – that most adults wouldn’t be carrying them. A lot of little kids were – and many of those lanterns were definitely nontraditional: Disney Frozen characters, and images of other popular toys and figures in blow-up plastic with little artificial lights inside.




I was disappointed at not being able to find any palace lanterns. I saw a total of six scattered through the city—it seems they are not native to Hong Kong. My guide had no idea where to find them – but then again she doesn’t like traditional oriental designs, but prefers, like most Hong Kongers, the sleek European look. We walked past a shop selling old vases, and she commented how hideous they were, whereas I thought most of them were pretty. I noted that many shops have cats—I met three at various places in the city: a cross-eyed tabby at a clothier’s (they sold printed purses and backpacks), another dappled tabby at one of the city’s oldest spice shops, and a mostly white calico at a florist’s. Sadly, the last forebade pictures. The feline among the flowers would have been a lovely one. However, I cannot imagine a more exquisite torture for a cat, like the irritable animal I met on Saturday, than being the resident pet in a dried fish store. There were districts for almost all types of stores, of which lighting fixtures were one and dried fish was another. Fish bladders are a delicacy, only bought and eaten on special occasions. The cheaper bags on the tables outside the shops were priced at thousands of HKD.


We visited a temple which was under renovation (along with one Anglican church, it dates from the nineteenth century, and so is by far among the most ancient places in Hong Kong) where thick doodle bug coils of incense hung smoldering from the ceiling—people pay weekly fees to hang their names on papers in the center of the coils, which drop hot ash and contribute to an unbreathable atmosphere. Outside the temple, surrounding a glass case holding dolls of the gods, a mass of bright pink artificial silk plum blossom trees were hung with hundreds of slips of paper covered with calligraphy of people who hoped to have their wishes granted. Inside the temple anteroom was a wall full of letter cubbies topped by clay images of the sixty deities who trade off earthly jurisdiction on a yearly basis—people put petitions in the cubbies. In the lower level of the main room, to the left of the entrance, were statues of the ten gods of hell, with candles and incense sticks lit in front, not unlike the rows of votives I have seen in churches in front of Catholic and Orthodox saints’ effigies. On the upper level were several large statues, including one of the revered Bao Zheng, a legendarily just judge during the Song Dynasty, and of the gods of war and the moon, to whom the temple was dedicated. My guide explained how people facing difficult decisions would shake a can of numbered sticks in front of their chosen god, then consult a book based on the number that fell out to determine their probabilities for success, read short stories of similar situations, and decide on a course of action. A donation was expected for such fortune-telling. Historically, the temple was considered a place of truth-telling, and was where locals would settle disagreements out of the British-controlled courts. Nowadays, the temple (its managing board is a local Who’s Who list) is still respected for its role in the founding and continuing support of a local network of hospitals; the theoretically Christian English lost considerable religious credibility by not supporting healthcare initiatives. Burial space is at such a premium here that some people cannot even have their cremains interred, but settle for simple name plaques in the small third room. Incidentally, the lantern shop where I bought my fish and fruit also sold paper images of everything from beer and cigarettes to fish and brand-name clothing which were to be burned for the spiritual use of the dead.


My guide told me to go see the Fire Dragon Dance in the Tai Hang “village” (now a city district of 40-50 story apartment buildings) where it had originated. According to local lore, more than a century ago villagers had killed a giant snake (later identified as a son of the sea god) that was slaughtering their livestock. After the snake was killed, a plague descended on the village. A local holy man had determined that the plague was retaliation from the sea god, and thus the annual dance was born, as the sea god is afraid of fire. Unlike the lion and dragon dances performed elsewhere, which feature colorful cloth creatures, the Tai Hang fire dragon is a 67-meter long 8-inch thick serpent made of straw that is studded with burning sticks of incense and carried on thick poles by a large number of strong men (and the occasional hardy woman) who live in the neighborhood. However, there was no place to fit to see the dance—I could see clouds of smoke rising above the crowds, and hear a swell of voices as the dance progressed, but there were too many people to squeeze in among them. I finally retreated to a narrow road between Tai Hang and Victoria Park and ducked under a police tape to wait alongside a white woman from South Georgia, her African American military officer husband, and their precocious six year old son (who had stunning eyes fringed with enviably thick eyelashes, and increasingly voiced his growing boredom at waiting for the dragon to pass). Although I had a great time talking with his mom—the world is so small to meet a fellow Georgian!—it turned out that the little boy was right: the dragon had been extinguished by the time the sweaty dancers trailed by us, and so our more than an hour’s worth of waiting had been for nothing. At least the police officers controlling the crowd were handsome. There must be some sort of looks standard to qualify for the local force. Likewise, foreigners in Hong Kong are predominately young, slim, and above average in attractiveness. Of course, there are also a handful of sweaty dumpy middle aged folk like myself on vacations, and the usual smattering of loud voiced, ruddy, unshaven shorts-clad college students, but overall there is a statistically improbable number of international beauties.And then there are the remarkable outliers: on the way from the Tai Hang alleyway to Victoria Park for the Lantern festival, I was briefly behind a blond Western European guy who was over seven feet tall. My eyes were on level with his elbows.

At first, the crowds really weren’t overwhelming. I assumed that everybody must be out of town for the holiday before I went to Tai Hang on Wednesday night. Sure, there were thousands of people shopping, but the density wasn’t any heavier than DC during tourist season, and lighter than Times Square on a typical evening. At no point did I feel borne along by a crush of people, and nobody ran into me. I had thought the people on the sidewalks would always be thick as the National Mall on July 4, or Times Square at New Years, and while it was certainly quite busy, it was not so crowded that I couldn’t proceed, although admittedly too busy in the main shopping areas to walk quickly (which would drive me crazy if I had to contend with it on a daily basis). High end retailers and brands appeared repeatedly: Escada, Dolce & Gabanna, Patek Phillipe, Yves St. Laurent, Armani, Tiffany, and others. And just around the corner were alleys full of marketers aggressively selling junk, from polyester clothing to plastic souvenirs. Before going to Hong Kong, I’d never seen such a huge number of people spending so fervently.

Months ago, I criticized Seoul for shutting down before midnight. Hong Kong, of all places, rolls down the shutters and rolls up the rug at 11:30. The crowds stream onto the buses and into the underground stations and disappear within half an hour, leaving nothing but neon-lit empty streets behind them. Perhaps because I am a night owl, I consider this strange. Why close before 3 AM? I’m usually still fine until that hour, and would enjoy shopping or dining or touring after the daytime heat has dissipated. But apparently most people don’t share my nocturnal predilections. One group that does is the absurdly wealthy. The superrich, whom one can spot occasionally in daytime, come out in force after dark, shuttled around in chauffeured sedans embossed with deceptively modest initials on the scantily traveled streets, at hours when the sweaty masses clutching shopping bags and pushing strollers have returned home. I was walking late one evening and came upon a scene where I could practically smell money: a Rolls Royce, a Maserati, BMWs, Mercedes, and Maybaches. No wrinkled t shirts or wrinkled faces for these folks, no dealing with tired lines of disheveled pedestrians waiting to squeeze onto public transportation or into squeaky taxis. They were fresh, well rested and impeccably clad in designers so exclusive that most ordinary mortals don’t know their surnames, while these people clearly are on a first name familiarity basis.

Although the wealthy can afford expensive cars and salaried drivers, for ordinary folks like myself, public transportation is plentiful. Except for the subway, running long trains at intervals of minutes, all the transportation systems are stacked in this densely populated land—the buses, the trams, and the ferries all have two floors. Thursday, Victoria Park was quiet enough that I could hear the leaves rustling in the wind. On the fences, banners warned of wax burning during the mid-Autumn festival, and others cautioned of heat stroke. There were hundreds of ladies picnicking under the trees. Most of the women were swathed in flowing Islamic gowns and colorful headscarves, but some were bare headed, in shorts and off the shoulder blouses. All were relaxing together on blankets along the shaded pavement, some listening to music, one group clutching religious books and singing, but most chatting. I ate my noon meal – a cookie and a twisted pastry I had gotten from a local bakery – on a bench near a playground overrun with small cheerful children and their parents. The sun was out, it wasn’t too hot, and it was a holiday. Everyone was in a good mood.

I rode the tram all the way out the end of the western line, got off and strolled round around, walking through an open air vegetable and meat market (cuts of raw meat hanging on hooks in the fresh air), then returned to the trams for the journey back. A word to the wise on trams: Keep your elbows in! Clearances are minimal. I was close enough to the stoplights when we paused to read the fine print: they were manufactured in Vienna, Austria. The absurdly tall and narrow doubledecker street cars are emblazoned with expensive advertising and running on narrow tracks, stumbling over the joints in the rails. Open windows let a cooling breeze through the car. Upstairs, the older ceilings feature exposed wooden ribs, like boats. All around is the roar of the city. Crosswalk signals make a dull metallic beat of slow for red, quick for green. Incessant construction rattles and bangs. Air conditioners hum, running full tilt, constantly dripping condensation onto the sidewalks (I got used to looking out for wet splotches, so I could avoid being splashed from the overhead units). There’s a cacophony of car horns—though traffic, even at rush hour, was nowhere near the level I’d though it would be—perhaps not so much because cars themselves are expensive, but that no one can afford space to park them! The tall buildings cast cool shadows. A few old neon signs with calligraphy on them remain, relics from a few decades ago—the oldest such things are in Hong Kong. Once back in my neighborhood, I window shopped a little bit, and ended up going into a jewelry store and buying a peanut pendant in pure gold with a chain to match. The metal is so yellow and shiny it looks fake.

Returning to my Airbnb room, when I climbed up to the sixth floor landing – actually the seventh, as Hong Kongers follow the British pattern of calling what Americans consider the first floor the ground floor, and start numbering the floors from the next story—I first smelled, then saw, fresh smoke in the hallway outside the apartment. Not incense, which suffuses the air here – not merely because of the nearby fire dragon dance, but also because almost every shop has a tiny shrine inside, or in front at the corner, burning incense to various moneymaking deities. And it was fresh smoke, not entirely the lingering odor of tobacco– and there is much of that in Hong Kong, with men and women (you never see women in Korea smoking out of doors) lighting up on the street, and carrying their cancer sticks along with them on the sidewalks. I hate cigarettes. But this was clearly something burning, and I looked around for the source and found that someone had thrown an unextinguished butt into the mop bucket next to the wall, and the long mop fibers were smoldering. It could well have caught fire properly, and I didn’t know the state of the smoke detectors in the building. So I unlocked the apartment’s front door, got a bowlful of water from the kitchen, and dumped it in the bucket. Some people are so dumb. Smoking is stupid to begin with – yes, I know it’s a habit easily picked up In times of stress or social pressure, and hard to break—as it is nasty, expensive, and demonstrably damaging. Still, you’d think that people would have common sense when it came to safe disposal. But maybe if you are determined to kill yourself slowly, you don’t mind if others die rapidly.

Friday, my homing pigeon instincts surprised even me when I walked directly to Cat Street as if being pulled there by a string. A toeless man was tossing crumbs to pigeons just a couple of meters across from a sign (one of many I saw around town) instructing people not to feed the birds as they carry diseases. The less exclusive stores and most of the booths stocked numerous uncomfortably carved chairs, jade baubles, dusty crystal chandeliers, and reproduction tchotchkes from the mainland, particularly of relics of the cultural revolution, from posters and blood-colored books to ceramic statues of various Communist leaders. My long antiquing and jewelry experience stood me in good stead rapidly sifting through the shops. I looked at a beautiful 14k and aquamarine ring from the 70s, but it was “discounted” to 2600 HKD, which was too expensive (about double what I was looking to pay); if $550 USD can buy 10 g of pure gold in jewelry form, less than 5 gr of 14k with 2 aquamarines should be $250 USD at the most. Like the others, this jeweler’s had its front windows stocked with wedding gold. Higher end boutiques featured better quality designs in the same bright material, and more fiery stones than I’d ever seen before mounted in royal necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings. One shop in particular near the Antique District looked like it catered to Middle Eastern potentates, displaying a multitiered white and yellow diamond necklace that was fit for an empress, and ridiculously gigantic gemstone rings that would dwarf even the largest man’s hands. Everything was exquisitely made, despite its size and material ostentation.

In the rush of corporate workers at lunchtime, I didn’t see a single man wearing a tie, and only a couple in suit coats—probably they leave those at the office along with a closet full of linen. It’s just too hot for layers. There were lots of shirtless workmen. My severe heat rash (being slightly overweight and walking 5+ miles in a skirt in this atmosphere guaranteed my thighs would rub each other raw—I had forgotten why I prefer jeans winter and summer, no matter the weather!) sent me back to jeans Thursday, and comfort. Of course, my jeans are a decade out of style and I was in my hiking shoes, so I looked like country come to town. At least I didn’t embarrass myself by looking the wrong way for oncoming traffic, but I can’t claim any credit for this, as all the minor streets are carefully painted with notices and arrows advising pedestrians of the direction whence vehicles are to be expected.

There once were dozens of Star Ferries roiling the waters between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, but their numbers have been reduced as ridership has fallen—people prefer to take buses across the bridges, or ride the metro. The ferries have two levels and reversible bench backs, with a five-pointed star punched into the white seats. I took the boat for the view, and because it disembarked right near the best spot on the Kowloon pier from which to watch the 8 PM Friday light and music show, which was reportedly impressive. There were loads of European tourists and folks from elsewhere in Asia, including Korea, around me. I thoroughly enjoyed perching on a railing in the breeze, listening to mostly incomprehensible conversations, watching the boats move through the channel (these included silent barges heaped with earth for the ever-ongoing land reclamation projects that have dramatically reduced the width of the watercourse) and hundreds of couples, individuals and families taking pictures against the brightly illuminated skyline. The biggest and brightest screen on the cityscape was Samsung’s, and between ads for its latest devices and apps, it acted like the board at a baseball game, encouraging spectators to kiss or take selfies. Another building across the way displayed a virtual PRC flag with brief digital fireworks. Everyone had their smartphones out. Only a few dedicated serious photographers were using independent cameras. A billionaire’s yacht floated insouciantly on the water as ferries and barges passed. The Ferris wheel on the opposite shore was dark—the Malaysian management company lost the lease suddenly a month ago. I got whiffs of expensive perfume, meat sauce, and beer, which suggested to me that Hong Kong officials must not (just as the Koreans don’t) care about people drinking in public.


The light and music program began at eight. I’d eaten the last of my leftover midday pastry and opened a box of dark chocolate Maltesers, thinking of Granddaddy (he stocked the gas mask case he was required to carry in the WWII US Navy with malted milk balls, reasoning that the Japanese wouldn’t use chemical weapons at sea, but if his ship sank, he’d like to have something to eat). Hong Kong didn’t look at all like this when he visited. I wonder what he would think? The buildings gradually turned on their digital displays, but the show was a letdown—it included only ten of more than a hundred buildings, and five of those were only involved by shooting green lasers from their roofs. It was kind of pitiful, really. I kept thinking of the ways it could have been improved, from making a lighted wave design across the whole waterfront to incorporating many more buildings in a colored key “piano” playing in time with the music.


Saturday, I took the metro back to Kowloon. There, again, was another of the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s many betting outlets. As a result of what can be politely described as severe gastrointestinal distress, I made an unscheduled detour through the city park to find its public restroom (just in the nick of time!). Across from the park exit next to the local mosque, I saw a gregarious bearded man attempting to attract foreigners with the banner tag line “I love Jesus because I am a Muslim” and presenting Jesus as one of many venerated prophets, “peace be upon them.” Kowloon is how I imagined Hong Kong would be—packed with people and with items delightful and deplorable. I happened upon an entire multilevel mall dedicated to beauty supplies, from lipsticks and powders to youth serums and perfumes. The expensive fragrances were located near the entrances, so the sweet aroma suffused the air from the moment I entered the air conditioning. Sexy white girls in dominatrix makeup cavorted on the screens at the Makeup Forever entrance, their breasts decorated with makeup, the nipples artfully concealed with bits of pretty fabric. The roar of the crowd echoed through the mall, as tens of thousands of people ceaselessly rode the escalators and strolled the wide glass-fenced balconies, their sneakers squeaking on the marble floors. Outside, only blocks away, there were prostitutes, their profession clear from the deep cleft of their blouses and their faces masked with heavy lipstick and rouge. There was a stall selling nothing but vibrators and other sex toys outside the public library. There were more on tables by the public square. Incense stores stood next to others crammed with brassy idols and wooden stands for their display. In the Jade Market, I wandered the rows of tables selling low-quality freshwater pearls of all shapes and sizes, dubious jade, and ropes of other semi-natural and counterfeit stones. On Jade Street, where presumably more reputable (and certainly expensive) shops were installed, I saw a necklace in 18 karat white and yellow gold of carved tourmaline blossoms with diamond centers. The idea might be applicable to some of the carved loose stones in my collection (I need to contract with some Savannah College of Art and Design students to have these set into original pieces). On neighboring streets, where vegetables stands occupied spaces in front of meat shops, fishmongers held up samples fresh from the tank and hawked their virtues; men nearby lopped fish into steaks with large heavy knives. While seated customers waited, a woman carefully weighed out feather-light mushrooms on a hand balance. I bought high quality steel measuring cups and spoons at one of the many kitchen supply stores. If I were to need a crystal chandelier, I now know where to go. I don’t think even in Vienna I saw so many faceted prisms. The locals are definitely into the European look, both traditional and contemporary. In the hardware and building supply district were minimalist faucets and natural stone flooring. No ornately carved hexagonal wood chandeliers to be found! I know: I went through the whole area. Total bummer, but I am going to have to order my palace lanterns straight from the mainland. And quickly, before the traditional skills completely die out!

“Leave it all behind for a life of Sundays,” read one man’s tshirt (though it wasn’t intended as such, this frankly states what we Christians ultimately hope to realize). I made two attempts at church attendance Sunday morning—I know, I know, the third time is the charm—but despite consultations of maps and websites, I arrived 45 minutes late for each service, as both had changed the times without notice. The creepy thing with the latter church was (and it may have been dictated by the architecture, but I still found it odd) that while there was an escalator up to the second floor auditorium, there was no corresponding down escalator near it, and when my searches for an exit yielded nothing and I asked a member how to leave, they pointed me through the sanctuary, where the sermon was well advanced, as the only egress was a staircase at the back. Talk about awkward.

I boarded a tram and rode to the Happy Valley terminus, just short of the horse race course and the city cemetery. The cemetery was boring—not that old, and full of the graves of mostly colonial British expats and sailors that had died prematurely. The one exception was a lady who lived over a century. From there, I walked to Central, past a Sikh temple, a Hindu temple, and hundreds and hundreds of neatly attired Philippinas, their shoes removed, sitting or sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes and tarps in the pedestrian walkways between upscale shopping malls. Some had been selling items out of suitcases, from stuffed animals and electronics to counterfeit T-shirts printed with brand names. I went back to Hollywood Road to the former Police Married Quarters, now renovated into artisan shops and display space, where an international show was being held. Below the buildings, banyan tree roots seeped down the sides of the gray stone retaining walls. I was sweaty and scruffy, but joined a throng of much more well-dressed art fanciers in at the show, where about eighty young artists were displaying their wares (the entrance fee was 100 HKD, and for that you got a lovely catalog and a chance to browse). Downstairs, I met a frustrated Chinese girl from New York who lamented the 10,000 HKD booth rental fee which had garnered her only an 8 x 10’ space with a fan, electric lighting, and few customers. She bemoaned the lack of active buyers, and the considerable amount she’d spent developing the smartphone app which animates her etchings. Meanwhile, upstairs, a local woman who created watercolors with cheongsam clad beauties in Hong Kong hotspots had sold out a wall of pictures priced at 5000 HKD a pop. A middle-aged lady purchased the last one out from under me, quietly handing over her credit card while I was chatting up the artist, who, like her assistants, was wearing an apron printed with her watercolor designs. She also had slightly more affordable prints for sale, but I don’t like prints. Her work was representational, unlike the majority of the art at the show, and incorporated beautiful colors. She spoke Japanese, Chinese, and English.

Much of the other artwork on display was angry and modern. Many pieces were downright sloppy. There were some larger oil paintings of figures under fabric that were quite good, but they were really expensive. Affordability was not the watchword for the show, despite the verbal claims of the young lady at the desk who took my ticket money. The least expensive item I saw was 2000 HKD and most things averaged at least 5000 HKD. My favorite piece was by a South Korean artist who does painting in mixed media with embroidery (she was accompanied by her husband, and was actively working on a new felted design while she talked to potential customers) – however, what I really liked was priced at 15,000 HKD, which was a tad out of my price range. I bought a sterling silver cat ring and a cast broccoli necklace from one of the PMQ boutiques, then went to a noodle restaurant recommended by my Wednesday guide for a mid-afternoon meal.

Plastic Chinese restaurant chopsticks seem impossibly large and clunky to me after almost a year of using the thin metal Korean sort. To put it in a Western context, eating with them feels like trying to use a fork while wearing oven mitts—I just couldn’t get the hang of it. And though I have liked the Chinese food in Korea, the food in Hong Kong that I ate—with the exception of the egg bubble waffles—was nothing special. In fact, the recommended noodle restaurant was terrible. The noodles weren’t proper udon, but low-rent ramen, far less tasty than the instant stuff I bought at the CU weeks ago. The “fish balls” on top—baseball-sized seafood lumps—were mouth-scorching, and I subsequently suffered three hours of internal misery attributable to them (it may also have been due to the orange flavored Gatorade I consumed; I recalled that I had drunk the same electrolyte solution before my trip to Kowloon, which began with such considerable stomach upset). Although I had technically already checked out of my Airbnb, I’d left my luggage there, and when I returned in the throes of severe illness (which might also have been some form of heat stroke, given my symptoms), Pula plied me with tea and insisted I lie down for a few hours, as I looked terrible. God bless her. I felt dreadful before, but much better after my nap.

The express bus from downtown to the airport ceases its route after 10:30 PM, meaning I had to be at the stop early compared to my scheduled flight time of 2 AM. The Hong Kong Airport was remarkably quiet at the midnight hour. Every store but the one 7-Eleven in the ticketing area was shuttered. I was the only person in the security line and at customs, so that process took less than five minutes. At 1 AM, there was an announcement: “Attention please, the automated people mover will stop service in five minutes.” There was only the one plane’s worth of people in the waiting area. Middle aged Korean men were slumped in the seats, dozing with their shoes off. Other people, like me, were bent over their smartphones, bleary eyed and longing for home and a hot shower. At that moment, I reaffirmed my dislike for travel—I like arriving at and being in neat places, but I don’t like the process of getting to and from. The plan was an hour late departing. There’s nothing like clean, sweet sleep, and thank God I was able to get a full day of it Monday, after I finally staggered up the stairs with my heavy suitcases at 8:30 AM. One of the first things I did Tuesday was put up the lanterns in the window of my classroom, adding a bit of decoration to that long-barren space. And my new Lush soap smells so good; every night, I lie down in my lavender nightgown, feeling freshly scrubbed, and sniff my forearms appreciatively. “If you can’t look good, at least smell good,” is my new motto.