All-China Tour: Shanghai

All-China Tour: Shanghai

Last year, some friends of mine went to go teach in Shanghai after being in Seoul for more than two years. After some mishaps with their new school (mostly due to an illegal bait-and-switch scheme on the employer’s part), they returned after about a week to Seoul. Shanghai is the biggest and best city in China, most people say, but the friends sparing in their praise about it. Many advised me not to take such a long trip in China in the first place, and certainly not to see any more than the bare minimum of sights and major cities. After a long stay in Shanghai, I moved west to the more remote areas in China, far less well-trodden than the coastal cities I’d visited thus far.

The train from Nanjing to Shanghai, now that I was not actively becoming sick like the last train journey, was far shorter and easier this time. I would have to decide how long I would ultimately stay in Shanghai and whether to skip the next city or two on the way west. The subway from the train station proved to be easy, easier than Beijing, but crowded because it was rush hour time. It was also easy to find the hostel (it’s painted bright orange). I searched the neighborhood for food, but ended up getting McDonald’s as everything was closed even at 8:30. It was a residential kind of  area where I was staying. At Macca’s, there was this stunningly ridiculous black-cone, matcha-syrup oreo ice cream sundae mess which, of course, I had to buy. It was too sweet, but it looked like Halloween, so I couldn’t not get it.

This hostel, too, was one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at. Great café with a beautiful common area, easily accessible, and knowledgeable staff. In addition, it seemed to be a traveler’s kind of hostel. Behind the desk were scores and scores of China, Shanghai, Beijing, Tibet, and other travel guidebooks, all in different languages. There was a noticeboard filled with posters and business cards of similarly famous hostels in different cities around the world. In addition, one of my goals for a trip like this was to bring a book, finish the book along the trip, and trade that book at the hostel. This hostel was the first one where I actually finished my book (Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84) and got to trade, even though most of the books there were in German, French, or Chinese and almost none in English.

While in Qingdao, at the beer museum actually, I stumbled on a phenomenal piece of good luck. I was scrolling through facebook in a rare moment of wifi access when I saw one of my friends from high school’s post. He was in Shanghai? Had he been here this whole time? I messaged him to find out. He told me we could meet up when I got to Shanghai, and to ask him for any advice I might need.

My first full day in Shanghai, the plan was to meet with that friend, Nick and check out some museums. I didn’t have much of a breakfast because I just snacked on things I’d picked up at the convenience store. I became addicted to this “salt” lemonade (maybe the salt was electrolytes?) during this trip, and it sustained me on many long days.

The first stop was the Shanghai Museum. In many ways this museum was better and more impressive than the museum in Beijing. There were many more facets of Chinese art history covered here (compared to some of the more propaganda-like communist art exhibits in the Beijing museum), and I enjoyed the exhibits on carved name stamps and clothes from ethnic minorities from Tibet, Mongolia, and elsewhere. I had some moments of pause here because I saw some art pieces (particularly a centuries-old painted stoneware pillow) that I distinctly remembered from a book on China that I had when I was a kid. How surreal to read about something like that in childhood and get to see it in person years later! But, I suppose, that was the point of the trip.

The second stop of the day was the Shanghai Urban Planning museum, which was a cool combination of maps, old and new photos, dioramas, and interactive exhibits. There was this unreal model of the city that lit up with the different buildings and rivers; it took up an entire floor of the museum and you could walk around it to see it from different angles. It was fascinating to see how much Shanghai has changed in such a short time—the comparisons are truly jaw-dropping.

I met my friend Nick in People’s Square. It’d been so long since I’d seen him, and I was a bit jealous to find a friend who seemed to have his life so well figured out, to find a place that suited him so well. He certainly has a very solid and comfortable niche carved out for himself in the city, and intends to make it his forever home. We got bubble tea, walked through the park, and tried Yang’s fry dumplings. We walked through Nanjing Road to see the Bund, the famous riverfront park where everybody has to take their selfies with the new and bright buildings on one side and the historic buildings on the other.

There were some banking issues that I wanted to resolve, and mostly these stemmed from using the wrong ATMs and the fact that my bank didn’t know I would be in China. When I got back to the hostel, I asked the front desk girl where an ATM was, which she readily told me, but after an hour of walking around, I never found it.

I don’t know how I planned to stay only three days in Shanghai. There was a lot to do and I didn’t nearly touch the half of it. I’d seen some truly lovely pictures of Yuyuan Garden and bazaar, so it was my plan to go there. I didn’t consider two things: 1) that Yuyuan gardens is one of those crazy-busy places all the time, like Myeongdong in Seoul, and 2) that the day I was planning to visit was a Saturday. When I arrived, it was so crowded at the bazaar, when I finally made it to the entrance of the gardens, I didn’t even go inside. Something for the next trip.

A highlight of the Shanghai stay was the art compound M50. It took a while to find, but the walls covered in graffiti led the way like blazes in the forest. It was a very avant-garde complex set in an old factory with spaces set up for each artist or group of artists. Some were active studio spaces, others were galleries, some were installations, and some were a mix of all of them. There were little cafes and restaurants hidden in some of the spaces, too. I had some curry rice for lunch while I took some wifi. In the evening I found the neighborhood called Tianzhifang, another one of those historical districts like Nanjing’s Laomendong where there are no cars and the houses are all in the old grey-brick modular style. It was crowded there, too, with an insane amount of bars, eateries, and boutiques crowded within the small space. I ate chips for dinner at the hostel and extended my stay.

The next morning after my social media binge over breakfast, I went to Jing’an Temple. This is definitely one of the more resplendent temples that I visited in China (some would argue that I left out some of the most stunning examples, but I tried my best), with beautiful wood carvings and plenty of gold-painted details. The contrast between the traditional temple and the modern glass skyscrapers behind is what I think China is all about. Visitors get to light incense and try to toss a coin into the bronze tower in the center of the courtyard. I think real monks live in the temple, but I’m not sure. I got pho for lunch near the station, and afterward got my tickets to Changsha at the railway station. The last stop of the day was the Rockbund Art Museum, which I ended up having a blast at. It was a really nice modern art museum, and the explanations for the choices in art works were really thoughtful, too. I got some cute stickers for my laptop there and got an iced americano at the museum café while I curated some photos for Instagram. The station closest to my hostel was Zhangshan Station, and in the food court of the station I finally got some xiaolongbao, soup dumplings. I think I could easily eat these soup dumplings every day and never get sick of them, and these were definitely some of the best. After dinner and a nap, I’d intended to go to another neighborhood called Xintiandi but I was too sleepy. I formed a “snack fortress” and chilled out in the hostel bar drinking tea and beer.

The last day in Shanghai was a non-starter day. I slept in, had a leisurely breakfast, and did my laundry. I tried to get the soup dumplings in Zhangshan station again, but it was too crowded at lunchtime so I lost my nerve. I went to Xintiandi, but that ended up being a more highbrow version of Tianzhifang, just a very upscale lifestyle center that just so happened to have these extremely pristine historical buildings. There were lots of chic-looking cafes and restaurants on the block, but not much to do in the way of entertainment. In the evening I had a long Netflix session, camping out on one of the couches in the hostel café. The normalcy of that was very comforting.

I slept terribly that night, so I woke up even before my 5:40AM alarm rang. I was packed up and checked out by 6. Of course, in order to do so I’d woken up the front desk guy sleeping in front of the door to give back my key. It’s a rough life for a hostel front desk worker on the overnight shift. I was at the train station ready for Changsha by 7, and one of the most surreal parts of my trip was yet to come.

Nanjing << All-China Tour 2018 >> Zhangjiajie

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trap city Pyeongchang

trap city Pyeongchang

It’s not just Americans who are obsessed with the Olympics. Olympic fervor had been heating up in Korea since at least the beginning of fall 2017, so by solar new year the advertisements and merch, including full-on curling-themed wraps covering the entire inside of subway carriages in line 2 trains, were in full swing.

That being said, I’m not a Winter Olympics person. All the sports I love, swimming, water polo, volleyball, track and field, are all summer sports. I’m living during summer Olympics time when, for a few short weeks, everybody pretends to care about swimming for a hot minute before it fades into obscurity again. (I’m sure that professional curlers feel the same way about the winter Olympics.)  Basically, I was salty it was a winter Olympics in Korea and not a summer one.

I didn’t plan to buy tickets, but a few things changed my mind: first, my dad politely ridiculed me for thinking of not going, saying that it’ll never be this “easy” to go again, nor will the Games be this close to my backyard. Second, one of the friends in the squad acquired an insane amount of tickets and offered to sell them off to us. Finally, when Aidan came to visit he was also hell-bent on going to see the Games. In this way, I somehow ended up with tickets to events on two subsequent weekends.

My dad wasn’t wrong. The tickets for Pyeongchang were chronically undersold, so it was not difficult to get into any event you wanted as long as it wasn’t figure skating. The trouble, it turned out, was getting transport to the games. After spending billions of dollars on the venues and infrastructure leading up to the Games, there should be more ways than just the KTX to get to the events. Instead, the KTX trains to the Pyeongchang mountains in the east and Gangneung on the coast were booked up for months and months. I’d thought it would be okay to just buy bus tickets there. After all, we had taken the bus to Gangneung and Sokcho last year with no hitches, so I figured it’d be okay.

Haha… nope.

I still followed the proceedings on social media eagerly. There seemed to be lots of controversy beforehand over the expense and extra trouble of the two Koreas going to the Games under one flag. Lots of South Korean athletes were angry about their places on the team being given to, in their opinion, less-accomplished North Korean athletes. In hindsight, that may have started us off on the road to peace that we’re currently navigating.

The first week, I had tickets to go see snowboarding slopestyle. As the event started at 10 or 11, and it was functionally impossible to get tickets to stay in Gangneung or Pyeongchang on short notice, that meant taking the first subway to get the first bus out of the city. I took squadmate Rachael, who was an unexpected boon in my stressed planning of this event. Her eternal calm, positive unflappability, and good humor helped when we were late to the bus station, running across the street, and arriving to be the last ones on the bus.

It’s not any great leap of logic to assume that a bus to Pyeongchang would take you to Pyeongchang, right? And that you’d be able to see the Olympic venues from there? Instead, we disembarked in a still-asleep town in front of the bus station, where there was no sign of the Olympics being held there other than an advertising standee telling about the shuttles to the events. We ended up taking a 50-minute taxi to another town, Jangpyeong; from there we would be able to take a shuttle to the slopes. I was salty AF but Rachael managed to talk me down.

The shuttle was easy, and as we already had the tickets, it was easy to get through the lines and climb up to the slopes. It was wicked cold, but at least the huge crowd standing helped to block the biting winds a bit. At snowboarding slopestyle, the spectator area is at the bottom, after the last jump, so most of the event is watched on a Jumbotron screen. Being short, I struggled to be able to see both the screen and the jump, but the energy of being at the games was infectious. We were a bit annoyed with the overly loud and enthusiastic Americans in the crowd, so we were cheering for the Canadians, saying who we thought would win. It turns out that Canadian Mark McMorris’s parents were next to us, so our cheering for him was a nice coincidence. Luckily, I didn’t miss Red Gerard’s legendary last run, despite being so short I had to stand on my toes the whole time.

We returned to Jangpyeong, and knowing that I’d be starving to death if we waited all the way until back in Seoul to eat, we found a beef BBQ place which was super delicious. It was a sit-on-the-floor kind of place with nice windows that had views of the mountains. After lunch, we were able to buy tickets and walk directly onto the bus back. It turned out later that the tickets were also good for women’s slopestyle, but because of the cold weather, that event was postponed anyway. So, no harm done in leaving early.

The next weekend with Aidan went similarly. We had tickets to men’s hockey and skeleton luge. Planning-wise I was already nervous that at the end of the skeleton event, it would be nearly midnight, and we might not be able to get back to Seoul. Once we got off in Gangneung, it was easy enough to follow the crowds of people going to the hockey match. The match was Canada versus Czech Republic, and nearly everyone assembled was cheering for Canada, with the exception of the little boy next to us, who kept yelling in Korean “Czech! Czech!” (It sounded more like “재거!재거!” Mine! Mine!) I never stopped telling Aidan about how nice it was to sit down, to not be freezing our butts off in the wind, to be able to see everything. I sounded like an old lady, but never overlook the nice privilege of having your own seat at a sporting event. Canada was pretty soundly beaten, and after we searched for food.

There’s a big events tent near the venues where you’re supposed to get food (a.k.a food-court-style dining in a big, white, noisy tent), but we bypassed that in favor of something better. Keep in mind that this was also Seollal, Lunar New Year, weekend, so many actual restaurants were closed. But after walking around for a while we managed to find a good spot, ordering up some budaejjigae and watching Yuzuru Hanyu’s stunning gold-medal figure skating performance on TV. A Korean boy, Cha Junhwan, had also skated that day, but his routine didn’t go off as hoped and he didn’t medal. His performance played over and over in the background wherever we went. Near the end of the meal, we managed to help out an Aussie family, perhaps one of the athletes’ family, with their ordering in Korean. Over coffee and bingsu afterward, we somehow both agreed that we didn’t want to have to stay for skeleton and  stand outside in the cold, so we left after that, taking a taxi and a bus back to Seoul.

The takeaways, of course, were that I was glad I went to the Olympics, winter or otherwise. I just wish they had been more user-friendly. It certainly gives perspective to all future Olympic Games that I’ll watch on TV, and of course I’ll still hope to watch a Summer Games in person one day. I’ll forever refer to Pyeongchang as a “trap city,” as will Aidan.

“Ragrets,” “Regerts,” and Rolodexes

“Ragrets,” “Regerts,” and Rolodexes

So you’re homeless sort of…  if we hadn’t raised you so we’ll I would be more nervous for you. But I’m not. I know you’re going to do just fine, and you’ll also be fine flying by the seat of your pants, much like you did when the Korean Army gave you a lift home.

Currently, I’m sitting in one of my favorite cafes in the city, which I call “Fern Café” (on account of all the ferns), reminiscing and looking ahead. This is perhaps my last time in this café and I’m thinking it’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. I had a lot of stuff to say before my family came to visit before Christmas, and then it became insanely busy in the last few months preparing for my China tour and moving out of my house.  While applying for my China visa, I hit an unexpected snag: when I was filling out the form, it asked for “home address.” What is my home now? I expect I’ll be answering that question for many years to come, but it never caused me such consternation. Were they looking for my home here in Korea, which (at the time) I was going to be quickly leaving, or my “permanent address” in the United States, which I haven’t been to in more than two years? Which feels more like home?

The months of January and February, during my time in Korea and before, have always been a mad clusterfuck to figure things out, whether they be future jobs, housing arrangements, visas, or travel plans. Naturally, there’s not much time for major trips, but I did manage to sneak in two separate trips to the Olympics (more on that in a separate post) and two major visits from friends and family, in addition to steadfastly checking things off the “to-do list.”

I’d intended to write up a whole thing about my parents’ visit and hyung Aidan’s visit in February, but I think it’s more useful to put them together and contrast the two different travel styles and two different trips. My parents came to visit during some of the coldest days of the winter. They also came from knowing absolutely nothing about South Korea and Seoul, the food, and the culture, so it was pretty much Korea 101 for them. They don’t normally use public transportation and are never in a place where they would not know the language. The best way to travel, according to my parents (which I don’t think is wrong, just different from my own), is to book a long, guided bus tour through a travel agency. Everything is taken care of and carefully planned for you, and all you have to do is pack your bag and get on a plane.

For this trip, I was essentially my parents’ and younger brother’s tour guide. I tried my best to prepare them before they arrived, as well as guide them through the food, cafes, and most important sites, despite having to work some of the days and many of the places being closed due to holidays. In addition, my brother and dad were at different times really sick due to stomach bugs (I think, not due to food poisoning), so we had to navigate that as well. Nonetheless, we squeezed in a trip to the DMZ in the rain, two cooking classes, a city and palaces tour, a visit to the Arario Museum, jjimjilbang, noraebang, and some shopping. My life here revolves around walking a lot and taking the subway, but my parents were more than content to take a taxi whenever it got dark. (My brother was more daring, but only a little). The experience was pretty extraordinary for me because my parents encouraged me to think of things I normally couldn’t afford/ wouldn’t splurge on, and we would do those. In this way, we had a wonderful salmon and yukhoe (raw beef) dinner near my house that we had been meaning to try. My mom loved all the things that were cooked right at our table, watching the do-it-yourself aspect very closely. My dad seemed to enjoy the historical and economical aspects. My brother, who is just months from turning 21 in the States, was just excited to drink a beer with every meal. In a way, it’s probably fortunate for him that he didn’t come by himself because we both would have drunk ourselves to death.

In comparison, Aidan had already been to South Korea once before, on that ill-fated trip when I had first arrived here. Getting all of the big palace-things out of the way, and him crashing in my house, enabled us to have a more relaxing and chilled-out hang session. His guidelines were nothing more than “just do whatever is still on your list that you haven’t checked off yet.” As such, I took him to that huge library at the COEX mall, the StyleNanda Pink Pool Café, the Coffee Prince Café, on a hike in Cheonggyesan, and to Insadong. Somehow we also squeezed in a trip to the Olympics. This visit was much more gritty and grungy than my parents’, but I think it was more representative of how I actually live here. Aidan was perfectly content to just wander around and get lost all day in Hongdae while I worked, and if I told him to meet me somewhere at a subway station, he followed the instructions well enough to actually get there.

That being said, of the two travelling styles, while there might be one that I prefer over the other, they’re both good. The other day, I was talking with my friends Matt and Steph when we were talking about “rating” your travel style. Let’s say, 1 is the poshest most luxurious kind of traveler, who needs all of their hotels, meals, and activities planned for them before they go. 1 is the person who would book the cruise or bus tour that has all the activities planned for you. In contrast, 10 is the most grungy, low-maintenance, “let’s wing it” kind of traveler. Our friend Zach is like this, just arrive in a place and figure it out as he goes. My rating? Somewhere around 6 or 7. I like to have, say, my sleeping accommodations sorted, so I know which city I’ll be in each day, but everything else can be figured out along the way. 8-hour bus ride from town to town? I don’t mind that. Asking the hotel for recommendations or bookings? That’s good too. Memorizing the Chinese characters for that day’s destinations and getting by with minimal Chinese language skills? I can do that too. I’ve grown tremendously both as a traveler and a human while I’ve been here.

It’s been a good run. I’ve learnt and grown so much I feel like I might be nearly unrecognizable when I return. In some ways, I’m ready to leave. I love teaching in some ways, but I don’t love the Korean education system. The focus on memorization over understanding is something that I will never appreciate or like, and I don’t think it’s a great way to learn a language. I’ve never been much of a disciplinarian, except in swim coaching, where even the punishment of pushups, wall-sits, or squats still makes you stronger. You can’t do that in school, and in this last year’s school nothing seemed to motivate the kids to want to do anything. I don’t think teaching is really my calling, so the end of this contract came at a good time. In addition, I never truly intended to stay forever. It would have been hard to leave whether I’d been here for only 4 months’ study abroad or whether I’d been here for 3, or 5, or 10 years. I expected to have some breaking-point moment where I would be like “Fuck this! I can’t take it anymore! I have to leave Korea immediately!” but it never came. No going out with a bang. In the same way, I feel like I’ve done so much, that there’s really not anything I will regret not having done. I’ve “seen it all,” pretty much.

I do have some regrets, though. None of them are about things to see or do, all of them are about leaving friends behind. Once you leave your parents’ house the first time, most of your waking hours revolve around your “chosen family,” your friends. I put down so many ties here without realizing it that I will be really sad to miss all of them when I go. That’s the thing about being an expat, and why a lot of expats report that it’s really hard to make friends here in South Korea (and abroad in general, despite it being otherwise really rewarding); you need those friends to help you make it through your time here, but you will always, always have to leave them or they will have to leave you. Nobody is going to be with you forever, despite how many promises you make to visit them in Cape Town or Derry or Seattle.

My nana was well-known for being so adept at keeping in touch with her friends from high school and beyond. For decades and decades, she steadfastly exchanged letters and emails and phone numbers, updating the Rolodex each time a friend changed their address or got married or eventually passed away. I want to channel some of that ability. It’s easier than ever now with social media and internet, there’s almost no excuse. When asked about my regrets, it’s leaving behind my Geoje squad, my Canadian “parents” Matt and Steph, old coworker Jenn, brunch buddy Kevin, old man friend Gwan, and my old co-teacher Miss Tiffany. After I leave, my memory of them will be retained like a snapshot frozen in place, but in reality, many of them will quickly be scattered to the four winds. Like friends from college, you yearn for that time when everyone is still together, easily accessible, when really it was only a short time that everybody was all in one place. People leave and people change, but it’s up to the friends to keep that contact alive and keep talking. Anyway. I’m kind of a mess of emotion right now, but I would be basically nowhere without my chosen family.

 

A toast, to the families who get you through the week.

fireflies, kiln firing, and friends who break up the lonely stretches

fireflies, kiln firing, and friends who break up the lonely stretches

Lonely is good sometimes, but not all the time. I do a lot of travelling by myself these days, many of the books I’ve read in my more recent years are about solo travels e.g, Sailing Alone Around the World, On the Road, etc.) However, when you travel with someone, your experience takes on a different flavor. Instead of keeping your observations to yourself, you blurt them out to the other person. The learning curve in a new city is shorter. Two heads truly are better than one (sometimes), when travelling.

I might have never paid the Muju Firefly Festival a second glance, but my friend Stephanie found it and asked me to go. After a disappointing try at teaching in Shanghai, she came back to Korea after a few weeks and ended up moving into my same apartment building. As such, we have a very college dorm-like setup, where we pop up or down to ask for favors and often have dinner or go out for coffee together.

That morning we got up early and grabbed coffee, nearly dying from lack of bathroom breaks due to so many late people at the various pickup points between Seoul and Muju city.

Before arriving at the festival grounds, we took a winery tour outside the city, venturing through a “wine cave” to get to the special wine tasting room at the back. At this point, there was supposed to be a wine footbath experience, but I didn’t have much faith in either my ability to get through that experience with any kind of speed or my ability to tolerate people touching my feet, so I opted out of that one. When we finally got to the front of the wine-tasting line, the sommelier gave Steph an extra portion of wine because she said she was pretty. Good marketing, so we bought a bottle of wine, naturally. It was sweet and very easy to drink. I could see people having weddings or cool parties in the wine tasting room of the cave; it was very secretive and atmospheric down there.

After the wine tasting experience, we were let loose on the fairgrounds. There was supposed to be a water gun fight, but as it was September, the time for comfortably walking around outside soaking wet had passed several weeks before. Neither of us were particularly sad about missing it. We wandered up the hill to see the traditional kiln-firing ceremony, which we found by following the sound of traditional dancers who were performing while they set up the kiln.

Slowly, more and more people gathered while the pottery studio people set up the food and artifacts in front of the kiln. Somehow, we had acquired front-row places to watch the ceremony. They set up fish, fruits, makgeolli, a pig’s head, and other offerings on a white-clothed table in front of the terraced kiln. It was explained to me that they have the different levels of the kiln so that different potters can use different sections of the kiln at once, rather than having to light the entire kiln every time they want to fire a batch of pottery. A white-robed priest came down the steps into the pit, sat in front of the kiln, and beat a drum while chanting a prayer. The prayer was written on several sheets of paper, which he then lit on fire and used it to light the kiln. The best part was the mayor (or some other high-ranking city official) in a bolero tie came up to greet us, and I got to greet him back in Korean. (To my chagrin, I used the less-polite form of the phrase, which still haunts me to this day).

The kiln-firing ceremony was a lot of standing, so we headed back down the hill to find somewhere to sit and some coffee. We found a little coffee outfit amongst the craft stalls and sat down on some beanbag chairs. The beanbag chairs? Ideal. Being assaulted by ants? Less-than-ideal. We relocated to a pavilion with lots of chairs, and as it turned out we happened to catch the warm-ups for the b-boy dance competition.

Heading down to the river, we witnessed a traditional Korean wedding ceremony performance as they walked across a very precarious bridge.  Then out came the jesters who contrasted the dignity of the ceremony with raucous dancing.

One or two coffees is not nearly enough for me, so we got another and ate some peanut pastries (ddang-kong gwaja, 땅콩과자),and made friends with the café’s cute dog. We got some dinner in one of the huge pavilions near the river. Since it was almost the end of the festival, there wasn’t much choice as to what to eat. It was becoming dark, so we headed back to the bus for the firefly sighting.

My home state, Pennsylvania, is renowned for fireflies, so far as to name the insect as our state bug. Nothing compares to a night around the Fourth of July when you can see all the fireflies in your backyard. We used to catch them in jars as kids, the lids perforated so that the bugs didn’t immediately die (our parents would let them out after we went to sleep). It was cold and cloudy in some farmer’s field, and we thought we might not see any fireflies at all, but we did get to see a few. The moon was full and the mood was pensive. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have never seen a firefly before. They and ladybugs are the only bugs I’m not afraid of touching with my own two hands.

We headed back to the hotel to check in. Our other roommate decided to go right to bed rather than go out again, which is a shame, because what followed was arguably the best part of the weekend. We put on more layers and headed back to the riverside to watch traditional Korean fireworks, kind of like sparking candlewicks tied to long ropes spanning the river. They resemble the ubiquitous “snow” lights that hang from in many Korean buildings, but these are way cooler. They are calming and less dramatic than the fireworks we know, but still retain the same spirit.

The best part was getting to write our wishes for the new year on big lanterns, lighting the base on fire, and watching them fly into the sky slowly. The sight of all those lanterns, all those wishes, floating slowly was incredibly inspiring and calming. We, of course, know the lanterns from the Disney movie Tangled, but people have been releasing lanterns like this in this part of the world for hundreds of years.

I slept terribly that night, but in the morning we had a beaut buffet breakfast of mixed Korean food and Western food (the western food mostly being toast and coffee). We got to see a masterful taekwondo performance. It’s cool to see these athletes who are at the top of their game do all the perfectly-timed kicks, flips, and aerials. Some boards were 10 full feet off the ground and filled with confetti that exploded into the air when broken, flying into the crowd with the force of their kicks.

There were less people on the way back from Seoul. I got two seats to myself and got a good rest. We had fried chicken and ddeok rice cakes at the rest stop, and when we arrived back to Hongdae we went to a café we’d had our eyes on a long time and got some galaxy lattes, galaxy cake, and pink tiramisu.

Overall, it’s good to have somebody to travel with sometimes. The festival would have been painfully awkward and lonely with just me, so I was really glad to have Steph there to make me do stuff. Many weekends it’s like that, one or the other of us pushing to go do something. Since then, I haven’t taken any major trips in Korea, and after Chuseok in October it got cold really fast. It’s also always fun to contrast the more traditional elements of Korean life with our life in the fast-paced capital city. Coming soon to a blog near you is my account of my Taiwan trip, and coming soon to Korea is my family (7 days!).

 

A toast, to friends who break up the lonely stretches.

Homeworld 2

Homeworld 2

2: Seoul – what is home

Georgia, after graduating the University of Pittsburgh in 2015, is nearing the end of her second year of teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Besides teaching, she has kept busy this year, traveling to Vietnam, Taiwan, and around Korea, as well as taking a rigorous Korean language course at the Seoul-based Yonsei University over the summer. We were happy to have her back at Myrtle Beach for our annual vacation this year, although the jet lag can’t have been easy. This year for Christmas, we are excited to fly over to spend time with her in Seoul and have her show us her world. As for next year, she is not quite sure where the winds will take her. A trip to China after she finishes her contract is in the works, after which she will return to America, hopefully “for good.”

A week or so back, I wrote the previous paragraph for our family’s annual Christmas letter. How do you condense a whole year into a few sentences? How do you convey the utter vastness of a year’s worth of experiences in a foreign country (or several), but also convey the utter normalcy of everything? How do you put things that are so wildly different from home into terms that even my grandmother could understand? The last post was concerned with what was home. This one is focused on what is home.

My family will arrive here in Seoul in about 10 days. How do you even cram all of those experiences, all the “‘essentials,”” into a week and a half?

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My friends asked me if I will take my family outside of Seoul, and I rationalized against it (plus, although I don’t work for long each day, I still don’t have a proper “”vacation”” during that time, so we wouldn’t be able to go far.) I think that, even though it’s one of the largest cities in the world, Seoul is a pretty accurate microcosm for Korea as a whole. What will you do when they’re here, the next question always comes. Foods, drinks, palaces. Noraebang, jjimjilbang. Hikes, if we can manage it. Trying to give a sense how Seoul has both the ancient and modern coexisting right next to one another, nature and high-rises competing for space within the city, and tradition and innovation in the cultural sphere.

What follows is a Cliff Notes version of what to do in Seoul, curated by me, of course.

Food

I think food is central to Korean life for all, foreigners and Seoulites alike. It’s unique in that everybody has to choose together what they want to eat, rather than agreeing on a general restaurant and all ordering separate dishes. Most of my days are planned around what’s for dinner.

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Samgyeopsal – It’s well-documented (as I mention it in almost every blog post here) that this grilled pork-belly dish is my favorite meal. It’s filling and fun to eat, and comes with enough vegetable side dishes and lettuce wraps to mostly cut through the grease of the pork. If your little lettuce wrap “burrito” bite is well-made, the combination of flavors is nothing short of perfection.

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Duk Galbi (닭갈비) – This spicy mixed chicken dish is wonderfully filling, often cheesy, and all of the friends can eat their fill without necessarily feeling like dying at the end of the meal.

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Salmon – Technically salmon sashimi, my friends and I are kind of addicted to salmon, especially the “infinite refill” (all you can eat) variety. Usually the salmon comes with tasty sides of mixed rice, beef soup, or raw beef called yuk-hoe.

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Bulgogi – While this Korean “fire meat” (the literal translation) is gaining popularity, or at least visibility, in the West, I’ve found that I never really liked it much until coming here. There’s a place in my neighborhood that does a wonderfully simple version – just beef, green onion, mushrooms, and japchae glass noodles – that is perfectly filling and definitely worth scalding the roof of your mouth for.

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Kimbap restaurant – These restaurants, described to me as the “McDonald’s of Korean food” when I first got here, serve so much more than just kimbap, the Korean answer to sushi. In fact, I find them closest to an American-style diner: open 24/7 and serving a wide range of food from snacks to full meals. This is the best place to try a “little bit of everything” without making the commitment of going to a dedicated restaurant for each dish.

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Budaejjigae – This Korean “army stew” came out of frugality during war times, originally: the American soldiers stationed in Korea would give their extra food, like packets of ramen, Spam, and hot dogs to the Korean citizens, who would then whip it up into a filling and flavorful stew with kimchi, rice cakes, tofu, and whatever veggies they wanted. Everyone tends to favor different parts of the stew, so there’s usually little fighting over who gets the spam or hot dogs.

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Samgyetang – A dish traditionally eaten during the summer, this whole chicken, ginseng root, and jujube soup is supposed to be very good for your health. Even though it’s supposed to only be around in the summer, the dish most closely resembles American chicken noodle soup, making it good for winter, too.

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Mandu – It might not be my favorite food, but there’s no denying that the traditional Korean-style dumpling, often filled with cabbage, noodles, and meat and veggies, is one that is important to everyone’s daily life here.

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Ddeokbokki – These rice cake dumplings in a spicy sauce can be at times a wonderful side-dish to your meal, a cheeky drunk food on the street, or a meal by themselves. My first week here, without even any chopsticks to eat with, I got a ddeokbokki from the stall near my house and took it home to eat sitting on the floor.

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Hoddeok – These brown sugar and nut-filled pancakes are the most delicious dessert you can crave in the winter here in Korea. I know that there are also savory varieties, but the sweet one is the only one I go for. However, the scalding brown sugar dripping from the pancake can turn into a deadly weapon if you’re not careful.

 

Drinks

Equally important to life here is drinking, maybe even more important. Almost every person here at any given time will either have a coffee, tea, or alcohol in their hand.

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Cafes – My love of Korean cafes is also well-documented. Before I came here, I made a resolution to try at least one new cafe a week. The real average is probably closer to 1.5 or 2 new cafes a week. There’s a cafe for all tastes, whether you crave a quiet place to camp out and study, a pretty dessert for your instagram, or a kitchy environment that captivates your interest.

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Makgeolli – Many people abroad know what soju is by now, but really, Korean rice wine makgeolli is my jam. A traditional drink after hiking or when it’s raining, it’s a hard sell for some. It’s tangy like a soda but a bit milky like a yogurt, usually drunk from a bowl, and makes for a perfect accompaniment to pajeon, the green onion pancake. After trying all different kinds, I can say with absolute confidence that I prefer makgeolli to soju.

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Soju – There’s no denying soju‘s reign as the most popular alcohol in the whole world. How else could you get completely trashed off of $4 USD’s worth of alcohol? That it comes in different flavors (my favorite is the “toucan soju”), certainly makes it more palatable to many more foreigners. The unflavored kind pairs well with beer, cider, and other things.

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Beer & other things – That Gordon Ramsay endorsed Cass beer was an unfortunate debate topic for a few weeks, but it makes sense: you need a smooth, relatively flavorless beer (water-like, almost) to wash down the strong and spicy flavors you’re consuming. Everybody here, Korean and foreign alike, has their favorite “mix”: somaek, the most common soju and beer mix, soju-cider-beer mix, soju-beer-cola mix, or even soju mixed with the yogurt drink that they give to children. (My favorite is soju, cider, and beer in equal measures).

Traditional Seoul

Some things haven’t changed much in decades. You get the sense that the same noraebangs and jjimjilbangs have stuck around for years and years, the old tried-and-true standbys of Korean life.

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Noraebang – Again, my love for noraebang is no secret. The singing room is a cheap and fun way to while away an hour or two while waiting for the train to start up, or keep the party going when everybody’s a little too drunk to keep dancing but doesn’t want to go home yet. Most people sneak their own drinks or snacks in, and the theatricality of the lights and secluded room really call to me. (It’s also been suggested to me that I only like the sound of my own voice, which.. no comment). You better bet I’m going to spend this New Year’s the same way as last year, singing in a noraebang and drinking toucan soju.

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Jjimjilbang – The Korean-style bathhouse was unlike the Japanese-style I knew about previously. You get a little gym uniform and some towels and go into salt-, charcoal-, or crystal-bedecked heated rooms to sweat out your impurities. You can rest from the heat in the cold room or in the middle room, where many people take a snooze, read magazines, or eat hard-boiled eggs. When you can’t take the heat anymore, you go into the bath area and scrub off all your skin at least three times with a rough cloth, then dip into the baths. Lots of foreigners are weirded out by the nudity (even though it’s segregated by gender), but as a swimmer I don’t find it that weird. At the end you truly feel like you’ve got baby skin, and it’s quite the treat in the winter.

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Hiking – “What, you like hiking? I never noticed,” said nobody, ever. I think that the hiking culture is one of the best representatives of Korean culture as a whole. The healthy practice of hiking mixed with the unhealthiness of drinking at the top of the mountain, generosity with individualism, the tradition of monks and priests walking into the hills to meditate balanced with the modernity of taking all the selfies at the top. Everyone says “hi,” in a mixture of Korean and English, and wants to help you get where you’re going. Young kids hiking with their parents, couples, and old people all coexist happily on the mountain. (We will probably not get to go hiking because it will probably be too cold in a few weeks’ time.)

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Palaces – Seoul’s palaces are a well-known fount of history knowledge for foreigners and Koreans alike. Although there are many palaces in Seoul, two very close to one another are my top picks. While I think that most foreigners know about Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace, I argue that Changdeokgung is the best palace to visit in Seoul, as it is larger and more well-preserved (and also a UNESCO World Heritage site).

Modern Seoul

Sitting right alongside the many centuries of strong tradition are the modern high-rise skyscrapers and other amenities of city living. Arguably the best transportation system in the world gets millions of Seoulites from place to place every day and anything you can ever want is available at the touch of a button.

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Malls – Boy, do Koreans like to shop. Clothes, electronics, homewares, everything. While there are lots of malls in the recognizable Western sense, many more are underground in subway stations or under other buildings.

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Libraries – Speaking of shopping malls, there’s a huge library inside of a mall in Jamsil area. I haven’t gotten to go yet, but I’m eager to take my family, all avid readers, to see what all the fuss is about.

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Lotte World Tower – The new tallest building in Korea, this tower, well, towers over the Seoul skyline. They were just building it when I got here, and now you can ride up to the top to get a view of all of Seoul (although in my opinion, the view from the top of a mountain is better, and more well-earned). I use this building as a weather gauge each day when on my commute to work: if I can see the tower from the river, the smog isn’t too bad, if it’s obscured, the air quality is pretty bad (and certainly should not run in that weather).

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Namsan Tower – The former most famous tower in Seoul, Namsan tower is a common place for young couples to go and put a “love lock” up on the fence. You can hike up the mountain (not recommended, but that’s what I did, and on the way I met an opera-singing Italian man who was part of an international biking team), take a cable car, or bus to nearly the top. It may be a little overrated, but it’s still a cute way to see your Seoul vista if you don’t want to hike.

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Movie Theaters – Movies are something else here in Korea. While it’s a common and almost mundane part of American life, movies here retain their special-ness. You can see a 4D movie that rocks and shakes your seat or get a set that includes beer, coffee, or dried squid. I’m excited that we might see the new Star Wars soon on the big screen.

Museums

My family is also a big museum-going family, so besides some palaces, no trip would be complete without at least a little bit of outright “”educational”” experience.

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DMZ tour – Not for lack of desire, but rather all of my friends are either Americans who had already done the tour before, or non-American citizens who don’t care much to be so close to the North Korean border. It seems almost a rite of passage for many Americans who visit Korea to go on a tour like this.

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Arario Museum – Located between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces, I found this modern art museum quite by accident. It’s in the most unique building, and the maze of exhibition rooms are fascinating. It combines a modern glass building with traditional Korean hanok-style building and a 1970s office building with art pieces that really make you think. I’ve been twice already and can’t wait to go back. After you’re done with the art spaces, you can catch a coffee, dessert, and an art magazine in the museum cafe, which has a great view of the busy city life outside.

Neighborhoods

It’s hard to describe Seoul like other cities (like, say, Rome), where you have a checklist of things to see that are clearly defined. For me, Seoul is more a collection of unique neighborhoods to be strolled through at your own leisure. Each area has its own specialties and its own history, its own flavor. I usually go to different areas for different purposes, but find other reasons to stay.

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Hongdae/ Sangsu – My current home neighborhood is a young university-age area dripping with cafes and cute boutiques. I find it hard to go other places when everything I need and all of my favorite bars and restaurants are now within walking distance of my house. Hongdae is a hopping nightlife area whereas Sangsu is more of the quiet restaurant area.

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Insadong, Bukchon, Samcheong-dong, Gyeongbokgung – There’s a long walk that I like to do through all of these neighborhoods, and in it, you can take in the traditional arts-and-crafts street of Insadong, the boutiques and street food of hanok-lined alleyways in Bukchon, or the high-end shops of Samcheong-dong all in one walk. I could never give directions on this walk, but some of the best restaurants I’ve discovered in Seoul have been found on these walks.

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Gangnam – I roll my eyes, but no trip to Seoul would be complete without taking in Gangnam’s high-rises and bright lights, and yes, even the “Gangnam Style” sign that put South Korea on the map for most Americans. Gangnam may be expensive and crowded but it is quintessential modern Korea.

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Itaewon, Noksapyeong, HBC – The cornerstone for most foreigners in Korea is Itaewon. I have spent many a weekend drinking there, and many of the best restaurants I know of are in this area. My favorite cafe in all of Seoul is located in the quieter hillside area of Noksapyeong, and some really excellent restaurants line the quiet “kimchi pot” street of Haebangchon, usually known as HBC. Nestled right next to the U.S. army base, many foreigners work and play in this area, which makes it comforting in some ways and more dangerous in others.

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DDP/ Cheonggyecheon – The Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) is such an amazing sight, hovering like a spaceship in north central Seoul. Housing exhibition spaces, special events, and a design “market,” DDP is a celebration of modern creative thought. Within spitting distance of DDP are many Korean-style shopping malls (cheap clothes, no changing rooms), boutiques, movie theaters, and the Cheonggyecheon stream, which I first heard about when my urban planning-major friend, Earl, did a project on the excavation of the stream from underground and its elevation into a public park. At present, there will be a Christmas light festival going on which we will visit.

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Myeongdong – Quite frankly, Myeongdong stresses me out a lot, but it is the most typical and famous shopping street in Seoul. Geared towards mainly foreigners, the shops are always blaring k-pop songs and trying to get you to come in. The street food stalls are wonderful here and it’s always busy and bustling. The most famous church for foreigners is also located here, but it’s a bit hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Well. That concludes the Cliff-Notes. I’m not sure if it was short or concise at all, but it’s hard to keep in my enthusiasm sometimes.

 

A toast, to introducing new people to old things that you love.

 

Homeworld 1

Homeworld 1

1:  Rivendell – what was home

It wasn’t until last year that I failed to make it home for Thanksgiving for the first time. I spent the whole Thursday (illogically) mopey, sad that my Korean and Canadian friends wouldn’t ask me about why Thanksgiving is so important to me. I had one of my favorite dinners, samgyeopsal, with a big group of coworkers, followed by a tinder date, and still nothing seemed to fill the gaping hole in my chest where usually I had an overfull heart at this time.

A few weeks ago, I was skyping my mom, and she seemed genuinely shocked as to why Thanksgiving is so important to my brother and I. Why some arbitrarily chosen holiday, Thanksgiving, rather than Christmas, or Easter, or the Fourth of July? Why did we seem to choose this one to stake all of our fondest childhood memories on this one holiday? Just go shell out for some overpriced Thanksgiving banquet, my mom agreed, since I had told her there were many such events at American-owned restaurants in Seoul.

But, of course, it’s not about the food, is it? (I’m already sad enough to miss my mom’s cooking, but that’s not the point.)

It’s not about that p r o b l e m a t i c history of the holiday, tied into all sorts of Americana and patriotism. I know for a lot of Americans there is not a lot to celebrate, either because their rights and lands are being actively undermined, or because there isn’t much to celebrate in the way of family.

My family, then, is a superb rarity. Where everyone actually wants to see each other, there aren’t any blood feuds or big arguments, and everyone on both sides of the family comes together over food and tradition.  Thanksgiving is about family, really, about spending time with those who you love. It hit me right in the heart last year to see all the pictures of all the family members I was missing.

It’s not just a meal. We wake up early to do a “turkey trot” race, at least half of the family do. It’s only a 5k, but it makes you feel better about all the food you’re about to consume. After everyone is showered and in warm clothes, and usually after we’ve consumed a few gallons of salad between us all for lunch, that’s when the real work begins. Mom and the aunts prepare the food, and it’s my job to set the table. Or at least, it was. The last year I was there for Thanksgiving, I tried to teach my brother how to do it. I doubt he retained any of the information, just passing the duty along to one of the aunts or cousins instead. Dinner begins at 3 or 4, depending on when all of the family members arrive, and there’s a brief interlude in the middle where some dishes are cleared away and everyone rests their stomachs for dessert. Dessert is, after all, my mom’s favorite part of the meal. There are often up to 20 people who come to each Thanksgiving, and nobody goes away hungry. The best part, during and after all of this, is the talk. We almost never get to see so many family members at one time, except for at Thanksgiving. After long chats, some family members leave that night, some leave the next morning, and some might stay until sometime in the weekend. In past years, I would have to get up early to work or go to swim practice, but I even enjoyed this part of the experience, getting ready quietly to make my triumphant return later when most of the family members had only just woken up.

That was home. I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but sometime during my time at university, the feeling when I came home became more and more temporary. This is not a lack of feeling welcome, to be clear. Like Frodo and the Fellowship staying over at Rivendell, they wanted to stay forever but the feeling was the same: “You cannot stay here. Your destination is farther on. You must move on.” That Rivendell feeling accompanied me every time I went home after that, no matter how long or how brief the stay.

What is home? Is it merely a place to rest your head and keep your stuff? Is it, as my fellow millennials say, “the place where the wi-fi connects automatically”? (If so, then I have scores of “homes.”) Is it the place where you don’t have to explain yourself to others? I’m still exploring this, even now. I’m not sure whether my home for 22 years feels more real and tangible than my home for the past 2, even though I’ve fought so fiercely for the past few to keep it and keep on living here.

After all of those negative emotions surrounding my favorite holiday, I was fully prepared to have another horrifically sad Thanksgiving this year. Instead, I had a good little dinner with my best friends here, went to bed early, woke up early and cleaned my house, grabbed Starbucks for breakfast, and skyped my family over breakfast on Black Friday morning (in my time). It was right in the middle of dinner, and my heart was so full seeing all my family gathered there, so normal. You almost expect, when your own world is so different from what it was before, that everyone else’s lives are irreparably changed, too. So it’s at once jarring and comforting to see everyone in the same old way, gathering in the way they always have, and hopefully continuing to do so when I get back, too.

A toast, to continuity.

(Homeworld 2: Seoul, what is home, or beginner’s guide to Seoul).

category is: poncho eleganza

category is: poncho eleganza

After three days straight of drinking for one of the Geoje friends, Diarmuid’s birthdays and emerging in approximately one piece, I’ve found myself halfway through September not quite sure how I got here. I’d been telling people that I’ve been here for “a year and a half” for so long that it’s kind of crazy to see that time finally arrive. I talked with my parents a few weeks ago, and I agree with something my dad said: “It’s been a weird summer.” It’s been much the same as many of my summers in some ways, like trying to go to the beach every day that I can manage, drinking all the drinks, getting attacked by mosquitoes, and climbing mountains. But it moved too quickly and too strangely. That’s what my dad meant, I think. There was a strange quality to the summer that’s hard to place, kind of how the light after an afternoon rainstorm is a little strange and uncanny.

Anyhow, enough metaphors. Whereas much of last summer was me chilling in my house or trying to convince friends to do things with me, more of this summer was simultaneously solo doing things and having the perfect squad who always seems up for anything (s/o to Geoje squad, you’ll hear a lot about them this post). It passed by too quickly to measure. Maybe that’s how all summers go.

At the beginning of the summer, I made a list of trips that I wanted to take before the end of the year. I managed to tick many of them off already:

  • Jirisan hike
  • Sokcho beach/Seoraksan hike
  • Taiwan
  • Jeju/Hallasan hike
  • Busan re-visit
  • Japan re-visit
  • Myrtle Beach, S.C. for family vacation

As the last post was about Jirisan, the bulk of this one is about the second on the list, which happened in late June. It seems like ages ago now.

July is always a weird month for an American abroad, especially this year, where we have a veritable psychopath in office doing his darnedest to destroy relations with every nation in the world, including with South Korea. Nonetheless, the 4th of July is always a time when Americans take at least some semblance of pride in their country. Traditionally, this holiday for me meant belting out patriotic songs while working a long day lifeguarding at the pool, eating barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs and other red, white, and blue treats, and getting to play pool games when our breaks allowed it. It meant watching fireworks and getting to spend time with friends and family. In later years, it meant day-drinking and night-drinking with college friends. Being removed from all that, and in a country where the 4th of July is just another day, well it’s hard even though most days I actively try to avoid telling people which country I’m from.

July for me this year meant getting an IUD and some sort of steady friends-with-benefits situation (since estranged) and attending my first Pride festival. There is nothing like being surrounded by the love of friends, honestly. Also, this summer I was hard at work for my Korean class at Yonsei University. I will admit I didn’t study much outside of class, but the classes themselves were grueling and really pushed me to the edge of my mental limit.

At the end of July, I went home (or as close to home as I’m likely to get for 7-8 months) to visit my family on vacation in Myrtle Beach. I could have dedicated a whole 2,000-word blog post to this trip, but it would be boring and repetitive for anybody not present on the trip. It was just a trick of fate that it happened my vacation time off and the time my family were at the beach lined up perfectly. I was so grateful to get to see the family, spend so much time at the beach, and eat and drink everything in America. I’d missed salty and cheese snacks so much, and I ate pickles by the jar. I had lots of good talks with my brother and received lots of career advice from my aunts. I also got more updated on all of the family gossip that I’d missed out on for the past 18 months. A lot changes when you’re away. However nice it was, though, it was hard to get over the feeling of being a stranger in my own land. I felt like I had “I DON’T BELONG HERE ANYMORE” tattooed on my head, even though I’m really just the most unremarkable American person anyone has ever beheld, so I attracted no attention. I’m used to standing out in a crowd with my blonde hair. I’m used to being able to talk in a normal speaking voice to my friends across the store; because we’re both speaking English it floats easily above the constant murmur of everything else. While it was nice to be in a place where “everything makes sense,” I understand much better how I fit into the local ecosystem in Seoul. I’m not looking forward to fitting myself back in when I return.

In August I was buried in a fog of report cards and my impending Korean final exam at Yonsei. Towards the end of the month I also managed to lose/get stolen all of my important things, like my phone, ARC (alien registration card), and debit card, in Itaewon. I’m still reeling from the ramifications of that one night. In addition, I and some friends had a short but delightful trip to Busan, which was a re-do of my original trip last year in May, which I’d gone solo and not prepared for at all. Having friends to hang with you at the beach makes things a lot better. Finally, I also received a new Korean name. I’d been going by 조지아 (Jo Ji-ah), which is just the Korean transliteration of my first name, and unfortunately a completely legitimate first name-last name set. However, my friends-with-benefits decided I needed a “more Korean” name than that, deciding that my name should be 김지혜, Kim Jihye. This meant that he decided I should take his last name, Kim, and that didn’t sit quite well with me. I contacted my co-teacher from the old school, Miss Tiffany, about it, and she also thought the name he’d given me was too plain, and also wanted to give me a “full Korean” name, which means that none of the syllables in the name can be transliterated into Chinese characters, or hanja. I chose the last name of Moon because a) I’m already called “Georgia Moon” sometimes, b) I’m obsessed with moon phases (I have a tattoo of them, after all) and c) our friend/drag mother Haebin’s last name is Moon, so several friends all decided that they would take that last name. Miss Tiffany arrived at a few, from which I picked 가람, Garam, which means “strong river flowing” or “accomplish results,” I was told. In addition, I’m happy with it because of its resemblance to the Indian spice mix Garam Masala.

The Seoraksan/Sokcho trip formed the centerpiece of my summer. In my initial query to the Geoje squad group chat, I was just searching for even one other person to accompany me on a hike to Seoraksan. I clearly have no qualms about hiking alone, but for some reason I really wanted somebody to go with me. In the proposal, I said I just wanted somebody to go hiking with me, and then we could chill at the beach for the rest of the weekend, maybe get some barbecue, too. I didn’t expect much. I didn’t expect the rest of the group to be so on board. Of course, it changed significantly as to time and content of activities, but the initial premise remained intact. Hike, barbecue, beach.

A six-person squad all living in different areas of Seoul with different sleep and work schedules is hard to coordinate. I’m apparently not good at coordinating, so I’m just the idea man. I just say “what if?” and everyone else helps me make it happen. Six brains are better than one, after all. Also, not everybody is capable or wants to travel in the grungy style that I’m comfortable with.

Friday night before we left, I packed, headed to friend Rachael’s neighborhood out in Incheon (I don’t know how I was persuaded this would be faster to take the bus from, but I’m not very bright sometimes.) We got chimaek (chicken and beer) for dinner, and then went to Rachael’s house, which is also a loft, to sleep.

Waking up at 5am Saturday, we took a taxi to the express bus terminal, arriving just mere minutes after the bus left. We tried heading to east bus terminal (“Dong Seoul,” as it’s usually called, because dong means “east” in Korean), but our other friend Yoojin had found that the next bus from there was at 2pm. Unacceptable!! So, we made an about-face and headed back to where we started. We finagled a some kind of bus trip with a transfer, arriving at 11am in Sokcho. We then taxied to our hotel, the Mammoth Resortel, which was right near Seoraksan. It was a 1970s-style ski lodge, and we seemed to be the only people around. We rocked up the room to discover that pretty much our whole floor was deserted (I thought this was quaint or fortunate but the other friends thought the deserted floor looked more like a horror movie). We had 6 bunk beds in the room, and it was a pretty cool setup. I always demand the top bunk.

We headed out for our “hike.” I use this term generously because by Jirisan standards there was not much in the way of actual hiking. We did reach the top of s o m e t h i n g.

Walking toward the bus stop was like walking through that town in “Spirited Away.” It looked deserted in the daytime, but maybe it really might come alive at night? The other friends weren’t so sure. We managed to find one solitary open restaurant, where we feasted on just the right amount of bulgogi, pajeon, and budaejjigae, washed down with makgeolli like true hikers.

Right when we got off the bus to the mountain, that very minute it started raining. We saw the big Buddha seated at the foot of the mountain, and I will admit it was quite atmospheric with the mist floating by. I hate a day when I have to purchase a poncho, but this was one of them. (A wiser person would just keep a poncho in her bag for times like these. I never do.) It was a crapshoot as to whether we would be allowed to take the cable car to the summit, because they were very near to closing it due to rain and thunderstorms. We lucked out and got to take it anyway. The foggy views going up were amazing! At the cable car terminus, we got off and walked maybe a hundred yards to the “summit,” where there were enough craggy rocks and views from up high to convince everybody that we’d climbed to the top of the whole mountain. “Poncho eleganza,” we called it. We got ice cream while we waited for the cable car down.

Back in town, we took the most harried but awesome trip to E-Mart ever. Gathering beef, pork, kimchi, veggies, somaek (soju and beer), hongcho (Korean fruit vinegar perfect for mixing with soju and beer), ice, rice, and ramen, we returned to the hotel to stash our stuff in the fridge and get everyone showered, which was quite the adventure. With only one bathroom, some of the braver souls ventured out into the other deserted rooms to use their showers instead. We prepared for dinner, some cutting veggies and getting everything set out and others just cranking the tunes. It was a really cool setup in the hotel, with an open deck edged by grills, a communal kitchen open for all to use, and a fountain in the middle. Nearly everyone took a turn at the grill. There was lots of samjang (spicy red pepper sauce) and drinking, and I tried to get everyone on board with the hongcho. (It mostly didn’t work.) We also got Colton, seemingly one of the only friends who had never heard of Rupaul’s Drag Race, hooked on the show.

Somehow, even after a substantial amount of drinking, we managed to get everything thrown away, recycled, washed, or refrigerated. After that, we headed back to our floor’s kitchen/lounge/common room. We played “never have I ever,” like the middle schoolers we are, while drinking still more. The length of the day really struck me here, and even after I brewed and downed a full pot of coffee, I still couldn’t keep my eyes open, and I and other old-person-friend Shane had to sleep early. Early, of course, being 1 or 2 in the morning.

Shane and I obviously woke up the next morning far earlier than the others, early enough to have coffee and breakfast before anyone else. For a long time, we dawdled packing and eating breakfast, before finally checking out and heading for the beach. I seemed to be one of the only people to bring a towel, so while the others went to go procure towels, I just went in the water, which was freezing. It started to rain, but we still played around in the water (it wasn’t crowded at that time because it hadn’t reached swimming season yet) and threw sand at each other. We found a duk galbi (grilled spicy chicken and veggies) place for lunch, complete with cheese and fried rice. We got ice cream on the way back to the bus station and headed for home.

Here comes the sappy part. I spent nearly all of my Geoje trip this past January being ridiculously hungover or downright sick. I thought it unlikely that I’d ever see any of the people I’d met on this trip ever again, as I usually don’t keep in touch with people I meet on those group trips. Somehow, I made lasting friends with these people (I call them the “squad” to some of the crew’s chagrin) who still want to meet and do stuff. We’re not all interested in the same stuff. Some of us like drinking insane amounts, some of us take a crazy amount of business trips to foreign countries, some of us like to go hiking alone and have to get rescued by the Korean army, some of us like to go to book festivals, and some of us like traipsing through Mongolia alone. Somehow we found a squad that works in all of its various iterations, and I’m excited to see how we’ll keep in touch when we all part ways and before.

I’m so grateful for this s q u a d. End sappy bit.

I’m looking forward currently to my next grand trip during Chuseok, where I plan to make my re-attempt of Jeju Island’s Hallasan and then head on toward Taiwan. I’m looking forward with trepidation to the end of it all, when I’m attempting to travel for a month in China, maybe swing by Hawaii, and then finally come to a rest back on the east coast of the United States. My “real person” life sounds like a tired but happy balance of “side hustles” with finding a real and meaningful job that is even more well-suited to me than teaching.

A toast to looking forward and looking back on times well-spent with friends.