I took a walk around Jeju-Si.
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)
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.
It’s been a busy couple of days for me, so I haven’t been writing very much. I moved into my apartment (finally) on Saturday and went to the Jeju Fire Festival yesterday which was thankfully not rained out.
I took a bus there, which was an adventure in itself.
It was really exciting just to see more more of Jeju besides the city. As soon as I stepped off the bus and saw Korean military men controlling the throngs of people with incomprehensible shouting, I was overcome with a reminder that not only am I in a foreign country, but a culture that is completely foreign in every way. My walk to the festival was an immediate barrage of crowded stalls selling strange, previously unencountered (unthought of, even) food. Silkworm pupa, anyone?
I wandered around the festival all day, eventually making my way up to the hill to see the haystacks that were later torched. There were booths set up near the hill where people could write wishes on little flags and attach them to the haystacks. I wanted to make a wish too, but of since I can’t write in Hangul, I decided that it wouldn’t really fit in. I was taking pictures of the haystacks when I was approached by a woman who appeared to be trying to tell me that I shouldn’t photograph the people who were praying, but then I realized that she was asking me to pray! It soon became clear that some Koreans wanted me to enact the part of a praying and pious foreigner. I have to admit, I had trouble looking solemn as I clasped my hands in “prayer”while stifling laughter. Later, I met some other foreigners and went to get some squid- infused pancakes and soy/rice wine known as Mageoli. When it got dark there was a fireworks show and as they lit the haystacks, the smoke and fireworks merged spectacularly.
The last few weeks have been a continuation of this strange, exciting new life I’m finding myself in. I played in a volleyball tournament last weekend (my team came in somewhere in the middle, amazingly. I’m not very good- surprise, surprise. But I at least I can serve the ball…kindof ). My first article was just published in Jeju Weekly, and I spent yesterday (we had the day off for Election Day) on a small islet off the south coast of Jeju called Marado.
Marado is home to 40 people and takes about 45 minutes to walk around. It has a Buddhist temple, a Christian church shaped like a submarine, a chocolate shop, many, many noodle shops, a rock jutting out into the ocean that the locals used to perform sacrifices (of what? still a mystery) on, and a field of solar panels (very cool, I assume it makes electricity so the islanders can be somewhat self-sufficient). Last week I also had to write evaluations for all the kids…..glad that’s over. I only see some of them twice a week for 50 minutes so assessment was a bit difficult. Others (the evil misbehavers) are quite memorable. Looking forward to this weekend and a quadruple birthday party/camping on the beach. June already?!
Today I woke up bright and early at 4:30 am (not my choice) and jumped right into life at the Bambini School.
Lorenzo picked me up at 9:30 and we headed to the school, where I met the other teachers and helped them get ready for the Kindergarten Graduation. I have to say, it was cute overload. These teeny little kindie kids wear special cap-and-gown outfits, and are handed portraits of themselves in their graduation caps after they each give a little speech in English and bow to everyone.
There were also a lot of well-heeled Korean parents there (I learned today that this type of small English Kindergarten costs more than a typical college…) Most of the private schools are much bigger and the kids don’t see the same teacher more than once a week. The public schools are even less personalized. The kids at Bambini receive tons of personal attention from the teachers, who get to know each kid’s quirks and talents, as well as any issues they might be having. On a sad note, I took a walk with April, the teacher that I’m replacing, and we passed by a dog farm. I don't think I would have known what it was if she hadn’t pointed it out. It was just a fenced-in area with a whole bunch of wooden shacks and a lot of barking. We turned around before I was able to see very much, which was good because it was hard enough just listening to the dogs howling.
We also walked past a beautiful tangerine grove framed by a small wall made of black volcanic stone. I wish I’d had my camera but I will be here all year, I suppose.
At 4:00, it was time for my health exam at the local hospital. It turned out to be a full physical exam, complete with urine and blood samples, chest x-rays, etc. The doctor didn’t speak any English whatsoever, so I had to figure out what she wanted me to do. It went pretty smoothly, except for when I thought she wanted me to emerge from the changing room once I had my hospital gown on. With a stricken look, she gestured me back into the dressing room. I thought it was because I was slightly indecent in my gown (but I had to get from there to the x-ray room somehow) but it turned out that it was because I was barefoot. Once I had my shoes on everything was cool. The whole shoes on/off thing is confusing. Apparently shoes on inside is bad, slippers are the norm, and barefoot is horrifying. My question is: what about barefoot in slippers? I need to figure this out before summer arrives. Based on the weather today, it isn’t far off. Oh, and the little boys want to call me “Sereni T Rex” because they learned about dinosaurs recently….and just because they are little boys and they love dinosaurs.
I went to a huge Korean store that is right next to my hotel to get some dinner tonight. I was feeling adventurous again and went into a few Korean restaurants, but had no idea what to order and am now afraid of accidentally ordering dog after I saw the farm today. Also, the first place I went into had English translations on the menu, which consisted of “oxblood hangover stew” along with some other odd choices…so that, coupled with the confused stares of everyone when I wander in to these places, made me head for the grocery store. It was enormous, fascinating, and full of strange things- especially the seaweed department, meat on a stick department, and a few department that remain a total mystery. There were heaps of things covered in red goo. Meat? Vegetables? Sea creatures? Still not sure. So, back in my room, very tired, think it’s time for a movie.
*Update: I have since discovered that it is impossible to "accidentally" order dog. It is served in very specific restaurants and is quite a pricy item.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.