Sunday, March 26, 2017

Blood, Sacrifices, & Socks

Blood splatter cooks right off these Korean heated floors. No I didn't murder anyone. I pulled a hangnail on my least toe, and it dripped blood in a thick dramatic splotch next to the wheel of my desk chair. Editing exacerbates my trichotillomania.

I video called my friend Susanna, who plans to come out to Korea in a few months to visit. She ditched Sunday school when she got my "can you chat now?" message and went out into the hall. Bella happened by and popped into the frame to grin and wave at me. I assured her that I was not neglecting her--this was my first international voice contact with anyone besides my family and financial associates that I'd made. 

I've been editing all evening. There's an impressive assortment of writers coming up in my queue. My mother also forwarded me a Russian history monograph that I'm to review for an online journal. 

I found a set of brass Buddhist prayer bells in a rock hollow on the seashore yesterday. I left it where it was just in case someone left it there accidentally, but if I return to discover it still in place, I am thinking about retrieving it and taking it apart and turning the pieces into a wind chime. Divorced from its religious context it should be effectively deconsecrated, right? I want to be careful, though--it's one of those "meat offered to idols" sort of situations.

When I took off my shoes this morning after the Korean language church service to go into the social hall for lunch, I noticed that I was the only person whose socks were in a poor state. I looked like an unkempt bachelor with my toes gleaming through the threadbare spots in the black flannel. This is because I have been procrastinating about sock-shopping; there are loads of socks for sale here, most proudly labeled "Made in Korea." There was even a small truck rolling slowly through the neighborhood a few weeks ago topped with a loudspeaker proclaiming the virtues of the socks that they were selling out the back. There are socks for sale at department stores and at the open-air daily market. Heck, they even have them at grocery stores and there was a double wide booth selling nothing but socks at the Fire Festival, of all places. But because I have been hit by an impulse to bargain shop--saving what, a couple of hundred won, total?!--I haven't actually purchased any. I have got to do so before next Sunday. When you are in a culture when you don't have to take off your shoes regularly, you can often get away with sorry socks, but here it's just not going to do.

Incidentally, I found out why the municipal trees hereabouts are covered with oranges that are left unpicked. There were some along a roadside that were hung with explanatory plaques in Japanese, Chinese, and English, and these signs informed the curious that they were a sour variety with a thick skin and not good for eating, but are used in making tea. Now I know.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

It's A Small Town

This afternoon I went to the dollar (5000W) store to get supplies and I ran into one of my adult students – a single guy about my age, with whom the adjummas in the class are apparently hoping to set me up. He is a really nice fellow, and he went into super relentless helpful mode when I told him I was having trouble finding some tongs to pick up trash, and managed to find them for me. I don't think he really understood what I intended to use them for, though both of us had out our smart phones and were passing digital translations back and forth.

As I walked from the store to the seashore, I encountered one of my third-grade students with his four-year-old brother. My student was hailing a cab, and he and his tiny sibling soon got into one and rode off. I think South Korea (or at least Jeju) is a lot like the US allegedly was in the 1950s in some ways--parents here don't worry about their children going off to play or to the store or riding buses or in cabs alone. It's safe. I can walk the street by myself at night as a female and not worry much about getting assaulted.

At the seaside I quickly proceeded to fill two bags with mostly recyclable refuse that had been tossed down among the rocks or washed up there. Several older locals walking along the road above me called down their thanks. I started the two mile trek back home with my overflowing bags and was overtaken by an older gentleman who insisted on taking the rubbish back to discard at his apartment building. We had a nice chat--he and his wife retired here a year ago from the mainland, his son lives in Seoul and his daughter lives in Dallas, Texas. No grandchildren yet, but he is hopeful. He is a Christian and goes to one of the local Presbyterian churches.

Once I was unencumbered and back on the main road, who should call my name but the school director, with whom I walked and talked for several blocks--she is preoccupied with planning for her eldest daughter's upcoming wedding. She jovially threatened to contact a journalist to record my ocean trash-retrieval efforts. I assured her that I am just trying to be a good guest, not to shame the locals--they are busy enough. Litter bothers me. I hate it on the sides of the roads in Georgia and South Carolina, and I hate it on the beaches here. And here I can clean up some of it.

We met June less than a block from school, and while the director continued to work to lock up the building for the day, we foreigners went off to do some shopping. I need to buy a toaster oven. I want to teach my quiet seventh grade students how to make bread, since that's the topic of the next chapter we are going to be reading in our textbook. Unfortunately, when June and I got off the bus, we found that this was one of the weekends during which the big stores are closed so that small businesses can compete. Darn. So we walked to a nearby hamburger restaurant and ate. I won't get their Nutella milkshake again--it was weak and thin. Their bacon cheeseburgers are pretty peppery, but still the best I have had hereabouts. And I would have to be starving to eat at McDonald's.

We were returning to the bus stop when we saw a long-awaited poster on the movie marquee: for Hidden Figures. So we went to the cinema to see when it was playing, and ran into our English colleague and her Yorkshire boyfriend, who were just emerging from watching Beauty and the Beast. Sadly, Hidden Figures is only showing in the mornings. I hope it stays around through next Saturday – then I'll surely be able to see it!

Grades for this month are due on Monday. One of my first graders will not be getting a good conduct mark. On Thursday, I preemptively removed his Apple Watch, but he took his shoes off and began shooting his socks across the room at other students. I confiscated the socks. However, he did not do any of the work (one page of tracing the letters G, H, and I), but was constantly out of his seat, bouncing around. At one point he was standing on top of a desk. Then he proceeded to poke his arm through the neck of his shirt and flex for the girls, showing off his muscles. The girls ran around and squealed. Since the boy was totally ignoring me, I called the male co-director to hike up the stairs to the fifth floor and talk to the small miscreant, which resulted in said boy's putting his clothes back on and sitting down for the last few of minutes of the period. Meanwhile, during all this upheaval, another boy in the class, a round little mild-mannered fellow, had fallen into a deep sleep in his chair, his head flung back and his mouth open. I did check a couple of times to make sure he was still breathing. It turns out he was quite ill with a bad headache. 

Several of my grade school classes had tests over the last couple of days, and a question on the speaking portion for one book asked each student to talk for three sentences about what their family members had been doing earlier in the week. And I found out that one of my fifth graders is the only child of a single mother. So he added a tree to the family and answered the question that way. I gave him a pass.

My adult students have been talking about hobbies. One woman told me that she doesn't have a hobby right now because she takes care of her elderly parents. Her father is 99 years old and in good health – he took up calligraphy as his own hobby 40 years ago and practices it every day. Her mother is 96, but suffers from dementia – each morning my student takes the old lady to a health center for daytime care and each night she picks her up. The parents' bedroom is right across from hers and her husband's, so they can hear if the older couple needs anything. Meanwhile, their son, who attended university in the US but returned home without graduating, is studying for the notoriously difficult Korean Civil Service Exam. 

I was looking at some historical photographs of this area, and only 40-50 years ago Jeju had mostly dirt roads and thatched huts. It's amazing how much has changed in the interim. I hope it doesn't get over-developed, though. The soil is so rich. I would love to have a garden plot surrounded by a traditional mortar-free lava-stone wall. I would grow onions the size of bowling balls, and carrots with the heft of baseball bats.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Praises (& Weight Complaints)

I am happy to report that despite this weekend's threatened relapse, 36 hours of intense rest beginning Saturday evening did the trick (unfortunately, I missed church meantime) and I've been feeling good, respiratorily. The weather is starting to warm here, gradually. Blooms are appearing, as are bugs. I wish there were a screen on my bathroom window.

However, I am gaining weight. Again! I'm not getting enough exercise--that's the main reason for the spread of my waist and the unpleasant heaviness of my hips. I need to arrange to go on morning walks with somebody. The only way that I will actually get out of my bed, into clothes for the day, and out the door is if I have a commitment to someone else. I would walk at night, but I'm too tired, and I usually have some class planning or editing to do.

Following the wise counsel of one of my stateside friends who is the mom of six-year-old twins, I talked to my fellow faculty member, the parent of one of my squirrelly first graders, and the Apple Watch was not turned on yesterday, and the student was delightfully dedicated. I was forced to confiscate the other child's watch midway through the class, but it didn't help very much in improving his scholarship – I kept having to shepherd him back to his seat, and advise him to apply his pencil to his letters. I like having more games than seat work, but unfortunately the game I tried turned into complete chaos. The children love coloring (one of my wiser purchases during the last week was a large collection of crayons) so my classroom walls are slowly being papered with bright illustrations of alphabet words, from alligators to flowers.

I've been thinking what a great blessing it has been from God himself to have had such good bosses here and before. My managing administrators here have been kind and more than willing to answer my questions and respond to my concerns. The weekly meetings have been focused, and my fellow teachers are amazing and inspirational – particularly our new curriculum coordinator, who is always energetic and full of good ideas, with clever and original notions for arranging activities. I am really grateful for her and for the other ladies, all of whom are hard-working and genuinely fond of their students.

One of my chief weaknesses as an ESOL instructor is not only talking too much, but using vocabulary that is way beyond my students' comprehension. Sometimes, even when I think I'm being clear, I realize later that I was unnecessarily obtuse. And in my adult classes, I occasionally go off on tangents, which is good for History teaching, but not for basic language instruction. And I have also been guilty of trying to pack too much information into a single lesson, of moving too rapidly. Metaphorically, it's like I've been pouring boiling water into cold china cups, which are shattering from the sudden onslaught of intense heat. I have got a long way to go before I become a good language teacher. I am grateful to have a steady job with strong co-teachers who make up for my failings, and for sweet-spirited students who greet me cheerfully. They don't hug me--that's not customary here--but the younger ones bounce and grin adorably.

I pray one or more of Korean adults I know will ask me to join them on morning walks. I know I would feel better, I would get to know them better, and I also might learn some Korean!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

I Am Tempted To Ludditism

What in the name of all that is reasonable, logical, and financially prudent inspired the parents of two first graders in my class to purchase them Apple Watches?! They are six-year-olds, for crying out loud, and six-year-olds have a hard enough time paying attention in class. And these are my two most naturally squirrelly students, of course. On Friday they were so engrossed by the technology they were wearing on their wrists that they had no clue what was going on around them and they had no interest in doing what I wanted them to do. The duo were too busy snapping photographs of random things, and fooling around with other apps at their tiny fingertips to copy out letters A through F of the alphabet on a single page in their textbook. The other four students in the class were discombobulated by their colleagues' toys, and one girl sought to make herself feel better by pulling out her own pendant communication device and phoning her father on it in the middle of class just to chat. I felt like I was in charge of a three ring circus. I took the ultimate step and picked up my own phone and rang down to the administration, and the daughter of the director came up and relieved the two small fry of their digital devices, but much of the instruction time had been irretrievably lost by that point. What makes this particularly sticky to handle is that one of the small offenders is the offspring of one of the Korean teachers at my school, a person with whom I share office space. How, without offending that nice coworker, might I break the news that this only child, who is a sweetheart otherwise, needs to be denied electronics for the time being and learn to stay in the general vicinity of one desk and seat?

I'm getting sick again. At least this time I know it's not exacerbated by the mold in my apartment – my dehumidifiers have been working beautifully, and I have not had to Clorox the walls as often. No, this time I have a small lineup of likely suspects in mind, mostly boys in the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades who were coughing juicily this past week without covering their mouths. One of them was sitting right in front of me Friday afternoon, complaining of illness. I have a sore throat, my nose has been running, and I suffered a mild headache this afternoon. The throat and nasal symptoms seem to be worsening, though, thank God, the headache has disappeared for the time being.

Although I knew I was under the weather, I also knew I needed some fresh air and exercise, so I went on a long walk with June this afternoon. Nothing too fast, and we frequently paused to snap pictures as we followed along the sea coast west of town. We were walking on the shore road when I heard my name called, and I looked up to see one of my older adult students standing in her stone-edged garden and grinning at me. I introduced June, and told my student that we were out walking. Over 7 miles, it turned out, though at a slow pace. We did happen upon two places that were astoundingly litter free--one was a small cove overlooked by a modernist mansion, and the other was a turquoise blue water inlet that's officially part of the UNESCO natural preserve. Other than that, the sheer accumulation of garbage along the tide line was shocking. 

One of the stranger things we saw was out in a one field of seaside boulders there were taller asphalt black volcanic rocks whose many rough indentations were covered with pools of clear wax, where people had been burning candles and incense. It was odd to think of conducting some sort of rite among the pieces of mildewed styrofoam, broken soju bottles, plastic vessels, lengths of dirty rope, snack wrappers and other debris. I don't know if they were makeshift shrines or if there is a less creepy reason for offerings there. June said she felt a burdensome atmosphere around the place, which I am disposed to credit, given her keener sensitivity to such things. We also passed an archery school, where white garbed groups were aiming at large numbered targets 100 meters away. And we met a quartet of fuzzy puppies, who lipped our fingers and wagged happily, but who were too shy to admit petting.

This week five of us Western teachers and two of the Koreans lunched at a traditional restaurant, where the staff loaded each of the two tables we shared with 15 side dishes in addition to individual bowls of rice and seaweed soup. One of the things on the table which I first thought was some sort of slimy grey sea creature turned out to be garlic-sauced fern. I didn't know that one could eat fern, but it was quite good, once I got over the sketchy appearance. I also went twice to a great kimbap place between my apartment and school to get delicious tuna kimbap for 3500w a roll. 

June and I climbed another oreum as part of today's walk, and as with the first we ascended, there was exercise equipment installed at the top. It is as if the planning committee had a diabolical mission: "Congratulations, you've made it up the incredibly steep hill! Now you can begin to work out."

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

White Pi Day

Among nerds in the United States, today was Pi Day. Among the romantically involved in South Korea, however, it was White Day.

Traditionally (or at least since the confectionery and greeting card industries established a foothold here on the peninsula), women give men handmade chocolates on Valentine's Day. The men give women chocolate one month later, on March 14, White Day. Why it is called White Day I do not know (and I don't feel like looking up on Wikipedia at the moment). Certainly, it is a name that wouldn't fly in the US and Canada. But this is a different world.

I teased several of my young students about not giving me any candy when they mentioned the occasion. They all claimed to be penniless. A likely story, given the fact that they have smart phones in third grade... One of my older adult students gave me a packet of peanut butter sandwich cookies. I think she was trying to cheer me up, as I was dismayed that the class numbers had shrunk (it now averages a faithful 17 on my teaching days, having begun with thirty odd) and I was moved to apologize to everyone for talking too rapidly, unclearly, and frequently for beginners.

Today has been one of those days where every small hiccup seems like an earth-shattering catastrophe. This afternoon I attempted to introduce my third-grade class to the book Frog and Toad are Friends, a longstanding favorite of mine. It turned out to be way beyond their comprehension. Within minutes, most of them started running around and talking, totally oblivious to me and to any of my efforts to reestablish control, and several resolutely announced they were leaving, and even donned their backpacks. I had to scramble for alternative material to fill the last 15 minutes of class and bring the students back into a semblance of order.

Yesterday, like today, the weather was clear and lovely and I was incongruously fretful. I embarked on retail therapy: I went up the street to do some overdue grocery buying, and on the way back I passed a bicycle shop. In the window there was a beautiful old fashioned green bicycle with high red-brown leather-wrapped handlebars, a wide leather seat, and a metal basket. I went in and bought it (and a handful of accoutrements) in ten minutes. And three minutes later I nearly got run over by a car that failed to observe the traffic signal as I wheeled my new toy via the crosswalk at a lighted intersection. The tiny sedan screeched to a stop less than 6 inches from my front white-walled tire. I was wearing my new helmet, so my brain might have survived unscathed, but the rest of my body would've been considerably worse off.

The weather is beautiful but it is damp. After several days of inactivity, both my dehumidifiers have been running nonstop for 48 hours. I may have to buy an air purifier, too--a thick blanket of grey dust coats everything daily. I hate dust almost as much as I hate mold--well, not quite, but it does make me sneeze, and a dust cloth only collects the stuff that has settled, while more is airborne. However, all these gadgets certainly have hefty price tags...

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Week's Highlights

CNN has sunk to featuring clickbait headlines--yesterday's title of the feature was "South Korea in Turmoil," with a subtitle that two people had died in protests. There wasn't any turmoil hereabouts--a man did start singing loudly and melodiously in the street yesterday mid afternoon, but that was the extent of any public demonstration--at the news of the unanimous decision by the constitutional court that the president should be removed from office. The two people who died in Seoul were the unfortunate victims of accidents – one had a loudspeaker dropped on his or her head, and the other was an elderly person who fell from a police van, leading me to wonder why said elderly person was climbing on the police van to begin with. Of course there have been huge demonstrations in the capital (what is fascinating to me is not only the number of Korean flags in the pictures, but also the number of American flags which are being waved simultaneously), and Jeju is to a certain extent a backwater, but the primary danger to all protesters seems to be the sheer crush of human beings rather than any particular intent to wreak havoc. In fact, the ROK's seems to be a pretty healthy democratic system – investigative journalists found out that the president was involved in corrupt activities, many people lobbied peacefully (if fervently) for her removal, and she was removed by due process. New elections are scheduled within the next two months. I'm sure the voters are pretty preoccupied with questions about who's going to be the best choice to be the new president.

I went to my first Korean wedding reception this afternoon. The wedding itself is actually not for another week, and is to take place on the mainland in Busan. But it is an island tradition to have a daylong reception from about 9:30 AM to 7 PM where anyone who is acquainted with the bride or groom drops in (when they have time) to eat a full meal and present envelopes of cash to the parents as wedding gifts. I was not acquainted with the bride, but her mother works at our school, and she had extended the invitation to all the teachers. I went with one other western teacher and two Korean teachers to the modest hall, where the door was flanked with a pair of giant flower arrangements beribboned with congratulatory messages. The bride's mother and the bride herself were both in hanbok and looked like classic beauties, while the groom shrugged awkwardly in his own traditional wear. The left side of the hall was the traditional raised wood floor with low tables, where folks could sit in their stocking feet, and the other side was equipped with western style tables and chairs. Everybody was seated on the right side, and when we sat down the servers wheeled out a vast quantity of side dishes with soup and rice. There was eel and beef and pork and kimchi and spinach with garlic and oysters and perhaps half a dozen other things I didn't recognize. What I ate was delicious but required chopstick dexterity beyond my ken. The fish and the beef had bones, and the pork had fat, and while my Korean colleagues made the process look easy, I fumbled around ungracefully. The mother of the bride brought us each a bag full of wedding favors – the best favors I've ever gotten at any wedding, actually. Inside each black plastic bag was a large container of wet wipes, and a box of powdered laundry detergent. So practical.

Then I went home and did laundry, though not with my new soap, which I carefully stored under the sink in the kitchen. Due to the heavy schedule at work and some ongoing digestive issues that had sapped my energy, over the last two weeks my house had turned into a complete mess, with once-worn clothes covering the bed so thoroughly that I had been having to wiggle underneath them to sleep. So I sorted out two large loads, including my bedsheets, and put the whites on to wash before I set out for the grocery store. I met June near the grocery and we first went to a discount (a 5,000 won or less) store where I got some needful things, including plates (I only had two before, which limited my entertaining capabilities). I bought a 1kg wedge of parmesan cheese at the grocery store and then we went back to my house to leave the refrigerated items and nosh some pastries.

Afterwards, we walked a mile or so to see a seaside waterfall. The sidewalks on the main streets were thronged with students strolling in the sunshine. Many wore their school uniforms, and I noticed that the backs of the suit coats and trousers on some of the boys were polished from hours spent in desks. This week, one of my elementary school students told me that he leaves his house at 9 AM every day and doesn't get home until 8 PM. Several other children in another of my elementary school classes were clearly feverish, with flushed cheeks and glassy eyes. Although I appreciate their parents' determination that they shouldn't be truant, these kids ought to have been at home in bed, not out sharing their germs with their classmates and with me. And how much can you really learn when you are that ill?

One of my western colleagues is a former runway model who appeared in major magazines and one of the world capital fashion weeks. I had known her for two months and never suspected, not because Cindy isn't lovely, but because that sort of career is more foreign to me than being an astronaut! So now I know both a former fashion designer and a former model, both of whom are currently teachers. Teaching is less glamorous, but certainly quite interesting, and one needn't worry about changing trends all the time. Cindy is fun and cheerful, notwithstanding a fondness for Thomas Hardy, with a tender heart for fuzzy beasts. June and I had dinner at a great Chinese restaurant last night with her and her boyfriend, who put us in stitches several times with short vignettes about odd jobs he'd held back in his native Yorkshire. Laughing became painful after I ate about twice as much as I should have--we were so hungry we'd over-ordered and most restaurants here don't have takeaway containers for dine-in customers. But I felt great after the meal, because my body had clearly needed all the vegetables and meat. I had been subsisting on carbs in an effort to pinpoint a digestive cause for my stomach ailments.

Last Sunday after church I pulled chronological rank on two unfortunate Korean men (they are both in their twenties, and old-school enough to be too polite to reject an adjumma's earnest demands) and persuaded them to have coffee (or in my case, a smoothie) while we chatted and asked questions about the other's culture. Much to my embarrassment, they insisted on paying for my snacks. The conversation ranged over the reasons for the current international popularity of English to ideas of American's impressions of Korea. One fellow said he had read that Americans thought Koreans were obstreperous because of the chant of "hwighting!" (fighting) during sports games against Japan. I told him, honestly, that I had never thought so because I knew that "fighting" meant "you/we can do it!/let's go!" Although perhaps Americans might have had that impression of Korea 15 years ago when the soccer match in question happened, a lot has changed since then. His remarks reminded me of that book I read about Korean culture that had been drawn from experience in the country 25 years ago, and how much of it appears to be outdated. Which isn't to say that there aren't profound cultural differences still--I think one reason they haven't been as noticeable to me is that my school is a sort of independent social system. I don't have any close Korean friends yet, just friendly (and kind) acquaintances, and both of us are doubtless trying to put our best foot forward in our interactions. I am also oddly insulated by my lack of language. I simply can't understand all the behind the scenes commentary that goes on, and so I operate in my own ignorant bubble. I am sure there are things that would/will drive me nuts were I to know of them. Yet for the time being I am grateful for this period of grace, however misbegotten.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Water, Fire, & Horse Racing

We've had lovely weather the last few days. On Friday I got up early enough to take a stroll down to the nearby park before work. It felt good to sit in the sun, in these still slightly cool temperatures, and watch the water, and listen to the water and the birds. I had wanted to get some fresh air, and there was no yellowish smog from China which blanketed the city the last weekend.

The water in the stream is so clear you can see down three and four feet to the depths of the mossy creekbed, while the small waterfall gurgles richly nearby and the birds twitter and trill overhead. The sun dances on the water's surface and the large stones beneath it look like they are shimmying too in the eddying ripples. A small breeze occasionally pushes the water into brisk uniform patterns. The rough edges of the creekside rocks are all polished smooth by generations of people kneeling and clambering on them, and they shine in the sun like oiled bronze. The big craggy rock behind me was twisted and pinched millennia ago by volcanic power and is now grey and specked with blue-green lichen. I look forward to playing on the creek when the weather gets warmer. The pools are delightful, and the rocks call for climbing. There are small pearly frogs eggs in one of the quiet shallows, a collection of crystal balls clinging to the rust-toned rocks in the trickling current. Spring is coming.

Saturday I decided to go out with some other teachers and one's local Korean friend. We five girls met at a horse racing track near Jeju City, where we had heard (erroneously, it turned out) that there were special events before the nearby evening Fire Festival.

The racetrack was almost entirely peopled by somber-faced middle-aged men clutching racing forms. Many looked to be grizzled veterans of chance, and some of those clearly long not in its favor. All were far more intent on the statistics on the betting boards than the actual animals in the race. There was a small collection of spectators at the fence by the ring where the horses to be run were being paraded counterclockwise by unspeaking grooms wearing protective helmets. There were only a handful of people in the observation stands. One of my friends remarked that the scene looked like North Korea, what with the barrenness of the grey brick plaza and the almost empty open gallery. There were hundreds more patrons indoors, though, crowding "Luckytown," as the betting pavilion was called. The "Happytown" pavilion next door was presumably geared toward libations--we didn't go in.

 Very few people at the track looked like they were actually enjoying themselves. The employees principally appeared bored, and the scattered other guests seemed either depressed or distressed. I saw several people grinding their crumpled betting slips under their heels after a loss. The horses would burst from the gate on the far side of the track, there would be a brief pounding of hooves on the sand, a small crescendo of shouts at the rail near the finish line, and then sighs, and the several dozen people who had emerged to watch the race drifted away from the rail.

I put 400 won (about 35 cents) on the sixth race, which was the first we saw, 200W on the eighth, and 100W on the ninth and last. And lost (as I had expected) every time; despite my compulsive nature, I figured that I could safely risk $0.65 given that I likely won't be at a racetrack again. The father of a friend of mine owned a small casino and told her that the only person who makes money at gambling is the casino owner, and this holds true at racetracks too. The Korean girl with us told us that Koreans are limited in their bids, and that the track was built to attract wealthy foreigners. Instead, there were us four English teachers and our local Korean acquaintance, who altogether cumulatively bet less than $6. But certainly someone was hazarding a lot: on the betting board, the total sum risked climbed to the equivalent of more than $3,000,000 on one race. The South African teacher in our group actually saw her horses show and place (she had bet 1000W, about 90 cents), and as we waited in line to collect her minuscule winnings (1600W) the man ahead of us brandished a sheaf of 100,000W betting receipts and furiously berated the cashier because he'd allegedly lost his winning ticket. Gosh, I would hate her job. The supervisor gave him a number to call. Other people in the neighboring lines were collecting large payouts. The woman behind us in line started laughing when she saw us happily gloating over our single bill and change.

For the last race, I figured out how to get to the infield, and we all walked over to see the horses loaded into the starting gate. It was a process! One animal threw its rider and took off the wrong way down the track, its tiny jockey limping to the nearby ambulance. The horses themselves were scruffy little beasts, not tall and graceful thoroughbreds. Most were not sleek, but patchy in their rough winter coats, and their manes were shorn short. They looked like Mongolian ponies, the sort of animal that would carry a barbarian across the steppes. They were beautiful when they ran, though. 

After the last race we went over to the children's area, where peculiar effigies of humanoid horses leered at small oblivious people. We speculated not only on the dubious character of the artist who had created the weird things, but also on the management which had approved them.

 Traffic was absolutely ghastly, two lanes bumper-to-bumper for the several miles between the race track and the site of the Fire Festival. It took an hour and a half to make what is usually a 10 minute trip. We could glimpse the ocean through the gaps in the highway-side hedge, and see smaller islands sitting just offshore in the flat sea. At the beginning of our trip, it was hours before sunset, and the sky and sea in the decline of the day looked like an Impressionistic painting. The reflection on the water was brighter than the light in the sky, as the sun was muffled by gentle foggy ribbons of lavender, peach, and baby blue clouds.

We didn't get to enjoy as much of the Fire Festival as we'd hoped, since we were starving by the time we found parking and the lines at the food trucks were extraordinary (we waited for 45 minutes to get fresh-made quesadillas--they had pickles in them, but were delicious). The festival was originally a pagan event to beseech the local gods for a bountiful harvest--as in Georgia, people used to burn off fields to get rid of stubble.

The festival featured a dance program accompanied by pictures of the island projected on an enormous screen and a laser show of a horse-headed bipedal figure gamboling on the hillside, a well-choreographed fireworks and spotlight program, and mercifully short greetings by local and national dignitaries who had been chosen to lead the parade of torch bearers onto the mountainside. There were tens of thousands of people in the crowd, most with their smartphones lifted to record the event, screens glowing in the darkness. Two-story pyres of logs stood stacked in squares at the bottom of the oreum. Drum beats sounded and hundreds of people carrying lighted torches trailed from in front of the stage to line the base of the hill. At the announcer's signal, they set the pyres and the grass alight. The entire hill quickly ran with red-gold fire, like Mount Doom in the Peter Jackson adaptation of the Lord of the Rings. The organizers had put the date and the name of the festival in a huge flammable pattern on the side of the hill, so the numbers and letters blazed out bright even under the thick smoke. We were hundreds of meters back from the fire and the warmth reached us. It felt good against the cold night.

As the intense heat and the crowd numbers subsided a bit, we decided to move forward to where a giant circle dance was in process led by ladies in hanbok singing traditional folk songs on the stage. Everyone in the undulating line was chorusing an echo, and my friends and I were quickly absorbed into the smiling group and found ourselves singing and dancing with everyone else, clutching the coats of complete strangers as we trotted in a rhythmic rotation in front of the stage. At one point I dropped my cell phone without having realized it, and someone came and brought it to me. So kind. We saw people we recognized from the church in Jeju city, and were called out by others. It was nice seeing Americans that were pleasant and well behaved, as opposed to the large drunk white guy who had been hollering in the crowd near us as we watched the fireworks. His type is the reason that I rarely associate with my compatriots abroad--many of them seem to be obnoxious blowhards intent on perpetuating the stereotype of the loud, uncultured, and boorish American at every opportunity. I always want to slink away silently, or sidle up and knife them in the ribs with my pointy elbow and give them a sharp admonition: "For God's sake, keep your voice down, you idiot." I generally just hide--but it's harder to do here!