photo essay: one saturday

I took a walk around Jeju-Si.

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Oh my darlin ‘

Sitting tonight in my favorite make-your-own bibimbap place on a rainy night. Rainy nights seem to be good for reflection. Maybe it’s the meditative rhythm of the raindrops, or maybe it’s the underlying metaphor of the world being washed. I think, for me, it has more to do with childhood walks in the rain, deep in the woods.  Rainy days used to be an event- rather than staying inside, I got to put on my rubber boots and coat and wander through a world made new by water, looking for bright orange salamanders.

So, I’ve never disliked rainy days like some people do. They’ve always seemed a little magical to me.

They play very interesting music in this bibimbap place.  When I walked in, the little old lady and her husband were listening to ragtime.  I picked a table right next to the toasty woodstove and stood with the old lady, who smiled with me as we rubbed our hands together over the stove. Soon, they started playing old American folk songs, starting with “Clementine.”

That got me thinking about being a little kid again.  Growing up in a succession of rambling old farmhouses around the country with no TV, I found a lot of other ways to amuse myself.  My father had this small paperback book called “The Backpacker’s Songbook” that I used to pore over as though it were a storybook.  I knew every one of those songs by heart.  My father would get out his guitar and we’d sing them, too, but I liked to just sit and read the lyrics. They always started off sort of sad and pretty, but by the third verse or so, some poor girl was getting dragged down to the river by her one true love.

As I sat there in front of my tray of neatly arranged Korean dishes, I began to wonder how much those tragic songs planted seeds of mistrust in my child’s brain. I sure didn’t want to end up like Clementine or Little Maggie. Even “Beautiful Brown Eyes” turns out to be a tale of woe. But on the other hand, I wondered what it felt like to “lay ’round the shack till the mail train comes back, a-rollin’ in my sweet baby’s arms.”

Those songs taught me a lot.

Willie, my darling, I love you,
Love you with all my heart.
Tomorrow we could have been married,
But liquor has kept us apart.

Chorus: Beautiful, beautiful brown eyes,
Beautiful, beautiful brown eyes,
Beautiful, beautiful brown eyes--
I'll never love blue eyes again.

Down through the barroom he staggered
And fell down by the door.
The very last words that he murmured:
"I'll never get drunk any more."

(Chorus)
Seven long years I've been married,
And I wish I was single again.
A woman never knows her troubles
Until she has married a man.
(Chorus)

Quick Update

I finished moving all the old entries from my mobileme site. They go back to last February, when I first came to Korea, but I couldn’t find a way to import the blog and keep it archived by month. So, all the posts are in “November.” You can go back to the beginning by clicking on “November” and then a list of entries should come up. I had fun reading through them and re-living the first couple of days on Jeju.

Side note: One of the little things that I really love about Korea is that you have the option of smoking in the bathroom.

By that I mean on the toilet.

Most bathrooms have a thoughtfully-placed ashtray (which is often a beer can with the top cut off) right there at seat-level. I don’t actually smoke (at least not anymore..not for five or six years) nor have I ever wished I could smoke while sitting on the toilet, but it’s so nice and accomodating.

That just kills me.

A Few Interesting Things About My Room At The Sakura Hotel

  1. My room comes equipped with the following:

               one half-used tube of normal-sized toothpaste

               one half-used bar of plain white soap

               an economy-sized jug of shampoo/conditioner

               a nearly empty bottle of aftershave

               one bottle of “control lotion for man”

               a pink hairbrush

               a pair of brown pleather slippers

               a small refrigerator with a set of chopsticks in it

2. The proprietors have thoughtfully provided a bookcase of porn (VHS tapes) in the hallway outside.

3. All of the towels are hand towels

4. The bed is quite possibly just the boxspring.

5. I have not seen a single other person since I got here yesterday morning…even in the lobby.

6. I spend a lot of time surveilling the streetcorner out the window (the only way I can get wireless is to perch my computer in the windowsill).

  The end result? I feel a little bit like I’m in a spy thriller.  

buddha, wedding, dumplings

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

 We had Friday off in honor of Buddha’s birthday (and according to her “weekend diary,” one of my kids met Buddha!) On Saturday, I went to the Korean-style wedding of two long-term Canadian expats. It was officiated by Koreans, and the bride wore a traditional Korean wedding dress. It was much simpler than most western weddings (except for the fact that it was in Korean, required a translator, and involved a complicated series of formalities that were never done at the right time during the ceremony, which led to the bride and groom being scolded, repeatedly. “Ok bow…”NO NOT NOW!”) and as per Korean custom, we sat on the floor. Afterward, the reception took the form of an open mike gathering, which took a hilarious turn when one thoroughly soju-soused guest, eager to share tales of burgeoning homosexuality run wild on an island of (apparently) closeted Koreans, seized the mike and regaled everyone with thoroughly explicit tales of late-night encounters around the island while everyone basically squirmed in their seats.

I also turned in my first student evaluations. I decided to be honest about some of my worse students.  I get the feeling that I’m not supposed to actually criticize any of them, but some of the boys are really bad (evil, methinks), and that keeps them from doing well in class. Then again, they are 5-7 years old, as I keep reminding myself.

This weekend, there is a volleyball tournament that pretty much everyone on the island is looking forward to. It’s really an excuse to spend a weekend on the beach with a bunch of people and almost everyone plans to camp there. You can just throw your tent down anywhere you feel like it here. There’s a surprising amount of freedom on Jeju, and a lack of crime as well as drugs. It’s kind of like being in the fifities or sixties (well, the sixties without any drugs). I discovered a new favorite food last night as I was dropping my scooter off to get the muffler fixed- Mandu (Korean dumplings.). mmmmmm mmmmannnduuu.  

Arrival Journals

1:51 am Wednesday (Asian time) 11:52 am previous day, Vermont time

Did I just lose most of Tuesday?  

It feels very strange to be flying over China. So far we’ve flown (very) north from NY through the Arctic Circle, and are now heading down through northern China. It appears that we will be giving North Korea a very wide berth.  

6:45 am Gimpo airport, waiting for the plane to Jeju.

Bus ride was much better this time, with a cheery Korean woman driver and a bus full of travelers all noisily watching Olympic speedskating. I have been so hot for this entire trip…I can’t wait to take a shower. So glad I didn’t wear a winter coat. It feels weird to be in Asia, but not as much as it probably should, maybe because I’ve been planning for it for so long. I’m not sure if I could get any farther from home, in terms of physical distance. In terms of information, communication, and the presence of American goods and services, however, I’m actually pretty close. I think this is  one reason why I wasn’t filled with an overwhelming amount of excitement and trepidation upon coming here. When the first thing you see is a Dunkin' Donuts, it kind of takes the thrill out of culture shock.  

Looking out the window of the plane as we start to fly out of Seoul. This airport isn’t close enough to see the city, but I can see clusters of apartment towers. There are so many of them! There don't appear to be any neighborhoods or other houses..does everyone here live in these huge, impersonal blocs? Korea is so densely populated I guess they don’t have the luxury of individual houses. The weird thing is the uniformity of these towers, and they way they appear in evenly spaced clumps across the landscape.    

Tres Mes Ya?

Have I really been here for three months? Well, almost. I have to say that it definitely feels that way. Time has not been flying by, and a lot has happened in the last three months. I realized how much adjusting I’ve done while sailing down the busy streets of Jeju-Si today on my scooter, which I’ve become a lot more confident on. I love that instead of waiting in slow traffic, I can weave around the cars and drive on the sidewalk to bypass everyone and jump back in after the light. How many times have you gazed longingly at a sidewalk and wished you could do that in a car? I also love that I can park anywhere I feel like throwing down my kickstand…I’m not sure if this scooter lawlessness works the same way back in the US, but I like it!

I joined the food co-op today (which I found completely by accident.). I don’t really get any benefits (well, 2% less on food) but I got a membership card! I also have a few favorite restaurants near my house now. There’s a place near my gym where I can get a salad with raw tuna, a bowl of miso soup, and fried sweet potatoes for about $4.50. The salad comes with rice and a spicy sauce- you put everything in the bowl, douse it with sauce and mix it around. There’s also a vegetarian restaurant near the arboretum (a 5 minute scooter ride away into a land of meticulously labelled gardens and greenery) where dinner is about $5. Everything is served in rustic pottery, and the bi-bim-bap (like the tuna salad, but with vegetables) comes with tea, a salad, soup, tofu, 3 side dishes, kimchi, and rice. I went there after work yesterday and my table was covered with dishes. There’s also a soup place that’s my other favorite.  All of this food seems really healthy. I also discovered that my favorite frozen yogurt (pinkberry-style) is from Korea.

 On Friday, I discovered another Korean holiday that I think we should definitely adopt in the US besides Children’s Day (which everyone gets the day off for)…..Teacher’s Day. We don’t get the day off, but teachers here are showered with presents and of course cake. The Korean teachers get stressed out because they feel the burden of heightened expectations from parents after such blatant bribery. I however got a nice pile of loot. Apparently it used to be pretty out of control, but the government made the  schools put a moratorium of gift giving/teacher bribery because the education system was suffering as a result. I don’t think public school teachers are allowed to accept presents anymore at all.

Today I covered the Seolmundae Halmang Festival at Jeju Stone Park for the paper. I’ve added pictures from the festival to my albums here, and I’m also adding pictures to my Galleries page on Mobileme. The festival celebrated the legend of Seolmundae Halmang, Jeju’s legendary grandmother who created the island but unfortunately fell into a giant soup pot and was unwittingly eaten by her 500 sons. The ceremony was beautiful, beginning with a dance to clear the way for the spirit of the Great Mother to accept the invitation of the people, followed by a mime performance/dance  culminating in paper, representative of silk clothing for the goddess, being offered to get things off to a good start, and then a series of prayers for a good harvest and many children led by a monk and women in traditional brown garb. Then there was a ceremony that involved a lot of chanting and drumming, and an older woman dressed in a traditional costume who I assume was representative of the goddess, although by then my translator had gone so I had to guess. After that, they incorporated a bit of humor into the festival with masks and human puppets. At the end, the life-sized puppets grabbed people’s hands and made everyone join in the dance (even me.) Throughout the festival, they encouraged audience participation and noodle eating, and I was sometimes in danger of being squirted by the teats of the Big Mother.

Departure Journals, Cont.

12:20 am

Am now successfully on Korean Air plane. Just opened “Jeju Pure” brand water- good sign, must be a nice place if they’re bottling the water! Trying not to get my hopes up, but I might be next an empty seat…! That, along with the ticket agent who didn’t make me pay for my overweight bag might make up for the nasty bus driver (LaGuardia to JFK) who brought me to the Finnair gate and then actually yelled at me when I said I was going to Korea and told me  that I should just admit I told him Finnair and then changed my mind.

I burst out “I didn’t just change my mind on this bus ride and decide to go to Korea instead of FINLAND. ”

At which point he told me to get off and take the train but then relented and drove me around the loop again, all the while grumbling incessantly, finally dumping me and my three huge bags at the curb.  

Bus #174, last run of the night. Duly noted and reported to my mama, who plans to call and give them an earful on my behalf. I have no doubt that she will.  

“Please Don’t Trrow Your Thrash”

My co-teacher noticed this sign as we were sneaking up onto the roof of a neighboring apartment building during our lunch break to read in the sun. This Saturday, I went 4 hour hike as part of the research for my first newspaper story. The story is on Geomunoreum, which is one oreum that actually consists of 9 peaks. Here is a view from the top of one of the peaks.      

The lava tubes running underground create all kinds of strange anomalies, like air currents that come up in different places and create tiny microclimates that are only a few feet apart. Flowers might bloom in one spot but not another, and the leaves on one tree might be blowing and completely still on another. The trees on the mountain are easily uprooted, but continue to live and grow with roots that curl around since they can’t grow into the ground.

 The paper set up a private tour with a translator, which made me wish I could bring the translator, Angela, with me everywhere that I go. Next weekend, I’m going to continue my research by going to the underground lava tubes that are open to the public. I tried to get permission to go to the sections that are closed, but you have to be involved in academic research to do so.

This weekend I just felt really lucky to be here. On Sunday, I met up with a couple of other girls and headed to the beach. Hamdeok beach is about 1/2 hour away. There’s a small section where the foreigners go, and it’s really easy to spot. Koreans stay really covered up….as in, they wear their clothes into the water. There are about 15 other beaches to explore, but that seems to be the one everyone goes to. It’s pretty close, and nicer than Iho beach, which is right in town and about a 5 minute scooter ride away. I go there after work sometimes to watch the sunset since it’s so close but kind of industrial.

I found out today that we have May 21 off, so I think I’m going to plan a trip to Seoul for the long weekend. I don’t think I could handle that amount of population density for more than a day or two so a weekend is perfect. Finally, here is one of my favorite signs. Yeah, they really like pig here.  

Departure Journals

Just finished the airport goodbye. It was surprisingly easy- saying that I’ll be back in six months helped a lot. Not too many tears this time. We’ve all been getting ready for today for a long time anyway.

Update: one of those things just happened that I should probably never tell anyone about. I realized that I was at the wrong gate. At  the Burlington airport. Where there are only four gates.

Well, I’m in my seat now. I was actually thinking about how successful my goodbye was, and almost forgot to get on the plane.

 Everything leading up to the goodbye: the tearing apart, the changing of routine, the sudden recognition of closeness, was the hard part. Now that I’m skimming the ground in the first plane I feel excited and lucky to breaking out of the familiar, although it still seems like this trip is planned for someone else, maybe because it was so easy and quick to arrange. Engines are speeding up. I remember how nervous I used to be, and the sense of foreboding I felt and the rapid apologies I would make to the great beyond for mankind and our nature-flouting inventions that overstep boundaries, that allow us to go where we are not supposed to into the great blue beyond. I’m still not sure that was so silly, or that a steamer ship wouldn’t be more fun.

Spring Is In the Air…Along With A Coating Of Yellow Dust

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Well, I’m sitting here on Thursday night, contemplating the fact that another week has gone by here on Jeju. I’ve been feeling a bit tired lately, and so I stayed home during the week. Which could also be a way of saying I’ve just been lazy.

I’m not sure whether my persistent sore throat is due to a cold or constant yelling. It’s getting to the point where I have to decide during class whether getting the kids to do what I want is worth the strain on my throat/voice. I’ve been experimenting with different vocal ranges and trying to use different parts of my throat to produce the desired shouting effect with limited success. I’ve also been drinking lots of tea.

Today was cookie-making day. I am beginning to dread these “immersion days” since they invariably involve a lot of chaos, mess, shouting, and confusion. Apparently Koreans don’t really make cookies, so the school’s kitchen didn’t exactly have an excess of baking supplies. We only had 4 pans, a few sheets of wax paper, 2 rolling pins, 6 cookie cutters, tables that are 2 feet high to work on, about 40 kids, and 40 minutes. Also, the lunch ladies needed us out of there and the place had to be clean for snack time, and THEN we had to take turns going back in and baking the cookies in one tiny oven with one rack and no way of telling when it was preheated. Does baking with kids still sound like fun? When the kids weren’t looking, I just cut out as many cookies as I could.  At the end of the day, each kid got a little baggie with 2 little cookies in it. We kind of shortchanged them on the cookies, but there weren’t enough of them that had been baked yet.

One of my kids threw a completely irrational temper tantrum when it was time to go home. You may be thinking “aren’t temper tantrums irrational by nature?” Nope, sometimes they make sense. In this case, Andrew (the biggest kid in class, which makes me forget that he’s only five) stole Megan’s fuzzy animal that she brings every day. It obviously belongs to her. So he took it, she (of course) cried, I told him to give it back, and he proceeded to wail and scream at the top of his lungs and refuse to get ready to go home. I decided that not putting up with his ridiculous behavior was the way to go, so I told him that if he didn’t get OFF THE TABLE and go home, he would have to sleep in the school all night.

Apparently hearing the ear-piercing screams coming from my classroom, Agnes came and at least got this kid to go home. My co-teacher Caroline told me that working at Bambini is a very effective form of birth control. So,between the three of us, we are probably saving the world from at least 6 babies.

Now about the Yellow Dust..supposedly Jeju doesn’t have as much of a problem from the dust as the mainland, but I could see it all over my scooter the other morning, so it’s definitely in the air and is probably what’s irritating my throat.

I’m pretty excited about research for my first Jeju Weekly story. I’m going to the Geomunoreum Lava Tubes on Saturday with a translator to get a tour of the tubes and interview a geologist and the village leader, who is an expert on the lava tubes.  

First Day On Jeju

Wednesday, February 20, 2010

Was easily spotted (I was literally the only non-Asian in the entire airport)and picked up at the airport by Jimmy, who works for Jeju ESL Consulting. Flying in over the ocean, I could see a beautiful snow-capped mountain in the middle of the island which I correctly guessed to be Mt. Halla.

As I stepped out of the airport, I was greeted by sunshine, warm salty air, and huge palm trees!

I soon discovered that we were headed not for my new apartment, where I hoped to take my long-awaited shower and maybe a nap, but straight for the school. In fact, after helpfully unloading my bags and carrying them in, Jimmy left both me and my bags at the school.   Struggling to adapt to this unexpectedly rapid introduction to my new job, I tried not to nod off in the cute, colorful office where Agnes, the school director,  excitedly explained my teaching schedule, showed me where my university diploma now hung proudly on the wall, and beamingly asked me if I could observe a few classes today after meeting all the kids in the entire school. I explained that it was close to midnight in US time, and  she kindly postponed the class observation until early tomorrow morning (when apparently I’ll also be meeting all of the parents ).

I didn’t realize that I’d actually be going to the school on the pitifully few days that I have to adjust before I officially start work, but I guess it will be good to get a sense of what the school is like I start teaching.  

I was soon being ferried to my hotel room (I don't actually get to move into my apartment until Friday afternoon) by Lorenzo, a curiously Spanish-named Korean man who also works for the school.  

Later this afternoon, I went for an exploratory walk around Shin-Jeju. It’s not a very scenic town. The buildings are all very modern in a late sixties/seventies concrete kind of way. I think that in order to see the good parts of Jeju (i.e. something that looks like the pictures I saw) I need to get out of town. You can’t really see the ocean from this part of town- maybe you can from my apartment. I did see a tangerine tree full of fruit, though, and the ride from the airport was pretty.  

Korea seems to be full of pleasantly hot and spicy food. I ordered something from a streetside vendor that was a complete mystery (was it fish? Eels? Turned out to be thick noodles and some sort of tofu-like curd) in a delightfully hot, spicy broth. To my surprise, the soup was dumped into a bag and handed to me with chopsticks! So I touted my plastic bag of soup back to the hotel and funneled it into a a bathroom cup.  

Later, I ordered another mystery food at a cafe- it turned out to be cold buckwheat noodles in a *very* hot sauce. The cook handed me a pair of scissors to cut it with and a pair of metal chopsticks to eat it with, which was a challenge. It required a lot of snipping before I could adequately maneuver the chopsticks without sloshing wet noodles all over my face.  

I also attempted to find a power adaptor in a five story Korean department store…without success but with much aimless wandering and halfhearted questioning of salespeople, none of whom spoke English. I gave up after one misguided (by me)  salesperson went over to the store’s computer and googled the word “shape” because he thought that’s what the thing is called after my botched explanation….