how wonderful it is, well, everywhere

how wonderful it is, well, everywhere

But in the age of the iPhone, we don’t really know how it feels to truly eat alone any more. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, e-readers and Instagram, most of us will be eating lunch, holding in our hot, mayonnaise-y fingers access to more reading matter than the entire Library of Congress and more people than the UN General Assembly. It’s become an act of discipline to sit and observe your food and the people around you rather than slipping back into the comforting company of constantly scrolling avatars and news sites updating in real time. But like most things involving a modicum of willpower, it’s probably one worth savoring.

Pretty much ever since I was born (maybe a little bit after), I’ve always wanted to go to China. I had books about China as a kid; Mulan is one of my favorite Disney movies. I’ve already planned to go to China when my contract here is up, but I reasoned that it has to be for a long time to justify the hassle and cost of getting the visa, and in order to see everything. I’d been hearing lots of good things about Taiwan, and I had a Taiwanese friend in my Korean class at Yonsei this summer. For Chuseok vacation, a historically long vacation in early October, I decided to go to Taiwan. (The only other place that remains on my list for this continent is Thailand, but I promised to go there with my younger brother when he graduates from uni.)

I had a very ambitious plan for getting there, attempting to knock out two of my goal-trips in one fell swoop. The plan was to take the bus down to Wando, on the southern coast, to visit a café whose owner followed me on Instagram all the way back when I was in America and I’d always intended to visit. From there, I would take the ferry to Jeju Island, check into a hostel, find a beach to chill on and dinner. The next morning, I would climb Hallasan, shower, ship out, and somehow fly out of Busan Airport the next morning at 8am. Busan and Wando are not close. Busan does not have a ferry to Jeju. There are already flaws in this plan, as you can see.

There was a second plan to try to salvage this weekend. I would take an early morning bus (or midnight bus) to Seoraksan so that I could reattempt the mountain, and then bus home that very day.

Neither of these plans were followed out. In actuality, the weekend was filled by Netflix and getting my house cleaned before leaving. I also started Inktober, which is a illustration challenge where the goal is to draw one new ink drawing each day for the month of October. I’d done it for the previous two years, and it just so happened that the first week of this Inktober fell during the time when I was in Taiwan. That night at 10pm, I headed for the Dong Seoul bus terminal. I had to bus still to Busan, because the plane ticket was booked from Busan. From the midnight bus, I hopped right into a taxi because it was pouring buckets. It was an expensive-ass taxi. The airport wasn’t even open yet, so a relatively big crowd of people were waiting outside for the airport to open up at 5am. The check-in counters opened a half-hour later, and soon after that I was sitting in a Holly’s coffee listening to One Direction (a good omen) and charging my phone. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to non-American airlines actually treating you right on a flight; even if it’s only a few hours, they feed you a full meal and have the option to watch movies.

.

I landed in Taipei Monday, October 2nd and procured my transportation card to get into town with relative ease. On the way, I saw an advert of Kris Wu that kind of derailed my whole day, but continued on. I dropped my stuff at the hostel and took a wander around my “neighborhood” Ximen. I was starving, so I stopped in at the first café that caught my interest, a bear café which had those 3D lattes. I didn’t succeed in ordering one of those lattes, but I did get a Gudetama lemon tart and some milk tea. It didn’t do much to keep me from starving to death, though, so I kept wandering, eventually stumbling on a cool café in an old wheelhouse, Belle Epoch (it reminded me of a café in Sydney called The Grounds of Alexandria), where I had eggs benedict and a rose latte. I saw lots of street art, perhaps from the yearly Pow-Wow Taiwan street art festival. I wandered through cinema street too, gawking at the huge standalone cinemas (movie theaters in Korea are often located in shopping malls).

The nearby historical district Bopilao was closed that day, so I eventually found myself at Longshan Temple, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in the area. Temples in Taiwan (and I’m sure, by extension, China) are much more ornate than in Korea. Whereas most of the decorations in Korea are rough-hewn from wood, perhaps constructed more quickly, the temples in Taiwan are extremely detailed, finely carved and painted elements on every possible surface. Longshan Temple is huge and I’m sure I could have spent ages there. As it is, I always get nervous taking photos near temples (the same goes for churches, by the way) and never know what is acceptable to buy or offer for gifts to the altar, especially not being able to speak Chinese at all.

I trekked back, still trying to orient myself within my neighborhood and the city at large. After I checked in and napped, I had intended to go roughly north to a night market for dinner; however, I accidentally went south, thinking it was north, ending up right back down next to Longshan again, in the night market on Guangzhou street instead. Nothing looked appetizing, it was darker and scarier than the night markets in Hong Kong, and I was sick with a cold and also really lonely, full of despair and regret for taking the trip by myself. In defeat, I finally settled on a banh mi, picked up some toiletries at a Daiso-like store, and walked home to eat dinner. It was so spicy that in my sick state I could barely eat half of it. I was not optimistic for this trip, seeing as it had such a disappointing start.

I was partially able to be more optimistic about Tuesday, October 3rd, the next day, because I planned to fill it by going to the National Palace Museum. I ate the other half of the banh mi for breakfast, heading to Shilin station. At Shilin, I dallied in Starbucks while I pondered the bus situation to get to the museum. From the bus, we waited in a huge block-like formation of a line to get tickets. This is what confused me the most about Taiwan: there are so many things which require lines, and there are never the rope dividers. Everyone somehow wraps themselves into orderly folding lines and somehow there is minimal line-cutting. If that were in Korea or the United States, utter chaos would ensue. It was heartwarming to hear Korean people in that line who were somehow following that system without starting any fistfights.

Once in the museum, touted artwork to see was a small jade cabbage. We had to wait for even longer to get into the room to see it and other jade masterpieces. I concluded that the cabbage isn’t the most impressive thing in the museum, or even the most impressive jade work in that gallery; but I did my time so that I could see it. It was cool and everything, but me being 5’2”, I can’t see much when there’s a huge crowd around this tiny detailed object. So, no pictures were taken by me of the jade cabbage.

Other exhibits proved infinitely more interesting: a gallery detailing the history of ceramics, especially the different glazes and firing techniques favored in different eras, an exhibit showing not only the different Chinese scripts but also the evolution of the Chinese characters from their ancient pictograms to modern characters, landscape paintings, bronzes, and even two full living room/study furniture sets from one of the kings of ancient times. I was hoping for a museum least rivaling the size of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, but it was not nearly as big. Perhaps the other buildings of the complex might have added more, but overall it was not a massive museum. It was disproportionately crowded, though, and I had to force myself to calm down when people took ages to take fingerprint-covered-glass pictures of the artworks instead of, you know, buying the museum collection book. (No picture you take will be better than the museum’s own photos of the artwork.)

After finishing the indoor collection, I strolled through the museum garden, one of those well-manicured gardens with ponds, trees, and pavilions. The pavilions were important because it was threatening to rain the whole time I was in the garden. There were the most remarkable solid-wood stools and chairs; I could picture them in Korea with a bunch of old ahjusshis sat around and sharing makgeolli.

The museum café was on the way out, but when I went in to investigate everything I asked after they had run out of for the day. Beef noodles? Sold out. Coffee bubble tea? Sold out? Iced Americano? (Literally if you have water and espresso beans you can make this drink) Sold out. I headed back to Shilin with my stomach grumbling but generally satisfied with my museum adventure. I was well and truly starving by this time, and I found a pork wonton noodles place where I got a huge bowl of noodles which saved my life. (Not that I was able to read that, but rather I saw somebody with them through the window and it looked delicious). I also got some lotus seed paste mooncakes for dessert, a matcha coffee (this drink combination will always speak to my soul, it seems), and headed back to the hostel, feeling a little too smug.

Opening up my prize in the hostel kitchen/lounge area, I discovered that the mooncakes were not lotus seed paste after all (these ones, in my experience, are usually marked with sesame seeds on top), but pork floss instead. Abominable. I was pondering my dilemma (not wanting to eat the dreadful salty cakes anymore), when some lady began loudly chewing on something or other, making the decision crystal-clear for me. I went back into Ximending and found a bubble tea place. The Korean beauty products store next door was playing EXO and I remarked that this second day was infinitely better than the first. What changed? Maybe more planning, more sleep, and a better attitude going into it.

I woke up late on Wednesday, October 4th. I had scouted some places the night before in Ximending, and I found a rather popular noodle place (it’s apparently very famous among Hong Kong tourists) where you slurp up the noodles right there on the street. They were hot, salty, and delightful. Next door was a very aesthetically-pleasing ombre juice place. I never managed to get a good picture of the juice, but it was still satisfying to see and drink it.

I walked up Dihua Street, which was a traditional shopping street for lots of traditional medicine and crafts, and while it retains the air of the traditional markets, there are also lots of cool little single-product shops, (like one store solely dedicated to rice harvested in Taiwan??), new cafes, and boutiques. I was particularly taken by the basket and wood kitchenware shops. I thought about buying a mooncake mold, but I thought it would be far too heavy and too silly to buy it now. I’d rather buy something practical which I can use immediately, like some wooden plates, cups, or bowls. I thought about buying those little unfurling flower teas for my brother, but chickened out that day. I bought taro pastries and pineapple cakes for my co-teacher and stopped in a café called “Mimosa” (very on-brand for me) for a brown sugar latte and an “American cookie” (that’s a chocolate chip cookie, apparently). I’d read that coffee is a big deal in Taiwan, and that there were many cool little cafes to visit. While I thought it unlikely that there were more cool cafes than in Korea, I still dutifully went in any café that caught my fancy while in Taipei.

Also on Dihua Street was a museum called the Ama Museum, after the colloquial Chinese name for “mother.” I only went into the building because the entrance was through a café, and the café looked really cool. I “came for the coffee, stayed for the museum.” It was a museum dedicated to finding justice for Taiwanese women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II. It was a soberingly thought-provoking place, but remarkably well-done. According to the museum, the Japanese still have not apologized to the survivors of these atrocities, even though all of them constantly carry the heavy weight of what they were forced to endure. This also happened to many Korean women at that time; Japan hasn’t apologized to them, either.

From Dihua street, I headed to Dadaocheng Wharf, which was promised to be a scenic place. There were no inspiring vistas to be found, honestly not a beautiful river (I’m perhaps very biased by our own Han River), but I also did not have the benefit of visiting on a sunny day. Perhaps, in the right sun, it could be a nice place to take a run through and enjoy the breeze.

I stopped at a tiny shrine temple to draw some flowers and then walked on, eventually crossing a giant overpass to get to the other side of the wall. I found the Confucius temple and the Baoan temple, a buddhist temple, two neighboring temples with vastly different purposes. The Confucius temple was an auspicious place to visit at certain life events, like before starting a new job or graduations, but not necessarily a place of religion. Traditionally, it was more like a philosophical school. The Baoan Temple was a beautiful complex, with hundreds of offerings placed on the red tables, people burning prayers and incense, and praying to huge illuminated pillars studded with name placards that looked like dragon scales. After the temples, I took a breather in a café called Norma Café and got a delightful panini and an iced coffee and waited out the rain.

I ventured over to the Expo Park, which was first made for the Taipei International Flora Exposition. I didn’t know that at the time, of course, but there was a nice food court and some boutiques, and it seemed like a good place for music festivals these days.

I headed down the line to Daan Park, which ultimately turned out not to be a wonderful place to visit on a rainy night. However, it was peaceful, so I wasn’t resentful that there wasn’t much to see. Nearby was the Taipei 101 Tower. As I entered the basement to investigate going to the observatory, the crush of people immediately overwhelmed me. Walking through the overly swanky mall, I mused that for NT$50 I could get 5 coffees or bowls of noodles instead, and that I’d rather get a view of the tower than from the tower. I decided against staying in the food court and shipped back to Ximen where it was less crowded and I knew the area better. I planned my Thursday adventures on the train back. I finally got the promised beef noodles, as well as chowing down on the taro cakes and bubble tea back at the hostel. These taro pastries were what I was hoping for from the horrific pork floss mooncakes the day before. In the small illuminated cube of my hostel bed, I listened to youtube and caught up on social media as I let sleep hit me.

On Thursday, October 5th, I woke up early because one of the roommates in the hostel had an annoying case of the sniffles and seemed to refuse to blow his nose under any circumstances. I ate some taro cakes for breakfast and proceeded to look for coffee. For whatever reason, all that I found was Starbucks because I’m an incorrigible American.

I took the train to Jiantan station and then proceeded to wait ages for a bus. The plan was to go to hike to the top of a mountain for a nice view and then go to the Yangmingshan hot springs, which were apparently free to whoever was willing to trek up there. Taiwan is also apparently famous for hot springs. I met two girls, an American and a German, Fiona and Susanna, on the bus, and we all somehow convinced each other that we should get off too early by mistake. We waited for the next bus, and from there took another shuttle up the mountain. From the shuttle bus, it’s still a bit of a walk to actually get to the hot springs. It’s always nice to have somebody to talk to. The craziest thing was that both of the friends had also come from Korea. Fiona, from Los Angeles, was not much of a hiker, so she continued straight onto the hot springs, while Susanna and I got a bit turned around but made it to the small waterfall that we wanted to see. I stopped for a water and ice cream (the Taiwanese strawberry shortcake ice cream is better than American, and that’s saying a lot).

After the hike, we felt like we really “earned” going to the hot springs. I had expected the hot springs to be similar to Japan (I didn’t go to any hot springs in Japan, but I’ve seen plenty of pictures), big ponds with pearly mineral water and mists floating all around. In reality, they were just very small indoor nude baths with coppery-colored water. It wasn’t even worth getting undressed for. Disappointed, I resolved to go to the famed hot spring area Beitou a few days later.

After another series of busses, we found ourselves back in Shilin, where there is apparently the most famous night market in Taipei. I finally got my xiaolongbao soup dumplings, along with lots of other food, like lamb skewers which Fiona swore by, a mysterious (but apparently famous) “cake within a cake”, popsicles, and iced tea. I intended to get the iconic Taiwanese roll ice cream, but none of the stands were open when I passed by. I took a snack run back at the hostel after my shower. The Doritos were so salty, but welcome after eating a year’s worth of Korea’s sweet Doritos. I was pleasantly surprised by those and the green tea yogurt drink that I picked up. Good snacks all around.

The next day, Friday, October 6th, I woke up much later because Sniffles had checked out. Getting ready quickly, I headed to that Ximen noodle place, got another rose latte, and met with Susanna from the day before. We had planned to meet and go to Maokong, where there were apparently lots of tea houses in the area. Fiona was uninterested and had a very dogmatic list of aesthetic cafes and food-blogger-recommended restaurants she needed to check off. I personally find that kind of travel exhausting.

We took the train to the Taipei Zoo area, then the gondola from there. I was expecting the kind of soul-crushing long lines that we found at the Hong Kong gondola, so being able to get on the gondola within even a half hour of arriving was an unexpected blessing. I was expecting it to be far harder than it was.

Halfway up, there’s the impressive Zhinan Temple, so we stopped there. I “bought” a wish that you can write on a little gold tag with a red tassle. You’re supposed to hang it on one of the trees or bushes around the temple. I stopped to sketch a particularly scenic pavilion and take a rubbing (Taiwan has old-school kinds of souvenirs), then got back on the gondola. There was this delightful ubiquitous black tea and green tea ice cream swirl, and finally my curiosity got the better of me and I bought it. It was delicious! Susanna got a grass jelly tea, which doesn’t taste terrible, but would never be something I would select from a menu.

The goal was to find a cool teahouse with a good view. It was hard to find one that had both a decent view but wasn’t backbreakingly expensive. I could tell Susanna was getting frustrated with me, but I wasn’t looking to spend $300 on a hot tea ceremony on a hot day. Finally we found a place that seemed to be kind of famous and had a great view, but more importantly had iced tea and dishes that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. We got tea fried rice, tea fried egg, something called “nest fern” salad, and iced tea. I made the mistake of assuming that Susanna was with me for the day, but when I wanted to stop at some little shed of a café on the way back, she continued back to Taipei without me. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but she had no reason to stick with me after that.

I returned to the hostel for a nap, Doritos, and more tea, briefly emerged for beef noodles and bubble tea, then went back to do laundry and read. It’s worth noting that, while the caffeine in tea usually doesn’t have any effect on me, on that day I drank enough tea to keep me up and buzzing late into the night.

Saturday, October 7th was my last full day in Taiwan. I had those HK-famous noodles and juice mix for breakfast and got the train to Xinbeitou. The Beitou area is warm and misty, as if the ground itself is beckoning you into the hot springs. The trees themselves bend and sway down to the ground like melted candles and the water in the stream seems to have an otherworldly color. My goal was the Longnaitang hot springs, which were the cheapest but also the oldest. Many hot springs are in more upscale hotels located in the area, but I was going for authenticity. Longnaitan hotsprings were actually so inconspicuous that I initially walked right past them. It was a nude bath and I forgot to bring soap to wash up before, and I spent all the time in the “cold” (45C) tub, never actually succeeding in getting into the hotter tub. It was relaxing, but not all that exciting. The tubs weren’t very big, and there’s not much place to go, unlike in the Korean jjimjilbang, where you can wander among the rooms for hours.

I had Taiwanese McDonald’s for lunch, too starving to find any place else, then headed back to the city proper. I “hiked” up Xiangshan, “Elephant Mountain,” to get a good view of the city and the nearby Taipei 101 Tower. I was glad I expended a little sweat for the much better view from there. The walk was only about 20 minutes straight up a series of stairs.

I finally visited Bopilao district after that. At one point it was a school, and the better part of the building seemed to tell about the history of Taiwan’s school system. It was a really cool area architecturally and aesthetically speaking, which is why I’d wanted to go inside originally. I went a little “stamp crazy” on this day. stopped at a café called Dante Café on the way back. I took a nap in the hostel and then went to that café that I’d been intending to go to all week, which turned out to be called “Now Coffee.” (The name of the café on the outside was only written in Chinese, but it looked like some hipster aesthetic kind of café that would serve a good coffee. I was not wrong). I got beef noodle-flavored ramen from the corner store, read, and chilled. The awesome ramen just further underscored how shitty ramen is in the United States and how wonderful it is, well, everywhere else.

Sunday, October 8th was my last day in Taiwan. There was apparently a beef noodles and jaozi dumplings place directly under my hostel, that I never went to for one reason or another, so I went there for breakfast. I got too ambitious and ordered too much, but it was all delicious. At the end, I told the ahjumma running the store 감사합니다, or thank you in Korean, as if that was my brain trying to tell me, “It’s time to go home.” I walked back up to Dihua Street for gifts, buying wooden cups, dried mango, tea accoutrements, and Gudetama mooncakes. I returned to my hostel for the last time to rearrange myself and then headed to the airport.

Lots of bad things happened on my way out of the Taipei airport: I went to the wrong terminal. I didn’t pay attention to which airline was at which terminal, so I had to take the long route to the other, costing me precious minutes when I was on a tight enough schedule to begin with. At check-in, they demanded to see my full itinerary, so even though I had everything written down nicely: flight numbers, airlines, times, and all—and they should’ve be able to look this up with my passport—they demanded to see the actual email, which was buried deep under months of other emails. I couldn’t get my phone to connect to the airport wifi no matter what I tried, and nearly had a crying breakdown over it, finally resulting in my opening up my data in order to download the email so I could show them. I believe that 5 or so minutes on data from another country might have cost me up to $40 USD but I’m not sure. It was not pretty, and not worth it.

I ran to the gate, thinking I had less than 10 minutes to get there until the gate closed. I arrived to a long line which didn’t move for more than 30 minutes. I needn’t have run, and standing in the line was exhausting. At least they fed us on this flight, because I didn’t eat at all in Nanjing.

The third shitty part of this returning-home saga was at Nanjing. I had originally planned to stay in the city, even booked a hostel if I could manage it. My layover was 12 hours, so it was technically possible. But I was warned by my friend that the hassle in procuring the visa and using the transport would make even getting in and out of the airport not worth it. That being said, since I didn’t ever leave the confines of the airport, logic dictates that the “visa” process should be easy, right? Nope. I was shuttled to various desks by scary-looking Chinese TSA/police-like guys for about half an hour, just to receive a scary-looking giant stamp in my passport saying that I was indeed allowed to stay the night in the airport. But hey, at least this visa was free.

I stayed up reading, first just on the floor next to a wall outlet so that I could charge my phone (until the lights turned off), and then in the seeming waiting-area as more and more of the airport shut down. At around 2am, new flights stopped arriving, so at that point it became clear that everyone there at that time was there until morning. At around 3am, I got too sleepy to keep my eyes open, and curled up in a massage chair to catch some Zs. This was hard with the angry little massage fixtures digging into my spine and every 15 minutes the chair yelling at the sleeping people in Chinese to put more money into the chair if they wanted to operate it. It wasn’t a comfortable night, but I felt very backpacker-y. Maybe it was foreshadowing to my China trip this year. That night, I finished reading Slaughterhouse 5 and also counted, inaccurately, how many times Vonnegut uses the words “so it goes” in that story.

The airport opened up again a few hours later, Monday, October 9th, maybe around 5 or 6. It was strange that on this trip I witnessed two different instances of closed airports starting up for the day in two different countries. I may be happy if I never have to again, but as they say, “It was a moment.”

 

I think I benefited so much from that trip. I learned to be more okay spending time on my own, more okay to look like an idiot, and became even better at asking help when I need it or following others’ leads. I also learned how to read small phrases in Chinese so that I wouldn’t starve to death, things like “noodles,” “meat,” “coffee,” or “dumplings.” Knowing those, as well as memorizing the Chinese characters for my destinations each day proved to be invaluable. I think it was good preparation for the China trip, which I’m starting to prepare for now that we’ve reached the new year. It’s scary to think that this trip I’ve been looking forward to for almost my whole life is approaching in only a few months. I hope I can make the most of it, as RuPaul says, “and don’t fuck it up.”

 

Advertisements

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 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).

being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble

being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble

I’ve gotten a bunch of worried comments from various adults in my life expressing their concern about this incident, so I’ve got to set the record straight.

Let me paint you a scene: young Simba has just returned after being rescued from the elephant graveyard that he has expressly been forbidden going to. His uncle (who definitely does not have his best interests at heart) was the one who told him about the elephant graveyard, so it’s really trusting one grown-up’s word over another. In tears, Simba explains to his father, Mufasa, “I was just trying to be brave like you!”

Mufasa replies, “I’m only brave when I have to be.  Simba…  Being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble.”

I use this analogy all the time to illustrate what I call the “Simba Complex.” I didn’t invent this idea, but I use it quite often to describe my boneheaded approach to life. When adults or other people have your best interests at heart and then you kind of… disregard that because you decide it doesn’t apply to you. This is one of the less-than-savory parts of my personality. I’m not proud of it. But I’m here today to say that it’s not 100% a bad thing, especially when traveling.

I got a lot of comments saying that the Daoist cult experience was “scary,” that it could have ended badly. I’m not dumb. I read articles all the time of women getting assaulted, killed, or mugged. It could happen to anyone. I’m not an entirely dumb, helpless child out in the world (contrary to what my stories may make it seem like.) It may seem like I get into crazy situations all the time, but I tell these stories (the getting-rescued-by-the-Korean-army story also comes to mind) not to illustrate their scary nature but rather because I’m a storyteller. I like to tell these stories to show how crazy and unpredictable this life is, not how frightening and tragic it can be. For those kind of stories, turn on your TV set or log on to twitter.

When traveling, of course, it is important to have a healthy amount of skepticism. Have your wits about you, one hand always on your bag, and eyes always looking around. You should be wary of talking to strangers. I understand this. But when you are traveling or living in a city you weren’t born in, your life will be considerably duller. How many of the best stories are made from chance encounters? How many amazing friends can you make that were once strangers? How many once-in-a-lifetime experiences can be made when you say “yes?” How dull of a trip to Vietnam would I have had if I didn’t take chances and go with my gut?

What I’m trying to say is, there’s room for both. If you follow your parents’ advice to a T and never talk to a single stranger, plan the ever-living hell out of your trip to leave no room for chance encounters and improvisation, or never leave your comfort zone, you will be safer. You can eliminate more of the variables from your experience. You can never control all of your experience, though. You can’t guarantee total safety. So improvise, talk to strangers, go off the grid and off-schedule, within reason. There’s a balance to be found. I haven’t really found it yet. Maybe I’ve just been lucky so far, my time is yet to come.

A toast to being dumb and lucky.

that time i got recruited into a daoist cult

that time i got recruited into a daoist cult

When this story was still fresh, I was actively prohibited from talking about it. once the prohibition had been lifted, I kind of forgot about it, except for referring to it as “that time I got recruited into a daoist cult.” They (being parents, teachers, anonymous travel blogs) often tell you about being careful in any of the big cities in the world: don’t get too drunk, don’t lose your money or your credit cards, don’t get into scuffles with the police, don’t leave your stuff unattended in a public place. Has anyone ever told you “be careful of who you talk to because they might conn you into joining a cult!”

This is that story.

I spend a lot of time in the city alone. I’m not dating anyone, I live alone, and it’s easier to get one person to go out to a cafe or restaurant than coordinating a lot of people from various places all over Seoul. As such, I spend a lot of time walking through crowded Hongdae streets alone. This works out mostly fine for me, except for after this incident. I had brought my laptop around and had intended to find a cafe to set up shop and write in. It was maybe 9:30 or 10 at night, so the cafe options are more limited, but still plentiful. The one I had wanted to go to, which I call “fern cafe” (that’s not its name), was too full or was having a staff meeting that night.

I was waiting for the stoplight to change when a boy and girl of about college age came up to me and started asking me questions. I’m immediately thrown off when somebody isn’t carrying flyers or hasn’t directly emerged from a store or outdoor table. (I must add at this point that I had just come from Vietnam, where talking to and befriending strangers had ((mostly)) yielded wonderful results). They seemed pretty genuine, and didn’t ask any of the leading questions that church people tend to ask you when getting you to join their church (yes, that even happens in Seoul). So, I was lulled into a false sense of security.

They asked me if I had ever worn a hanbok (traditional Korean dress), which I hadn’t for a myriad of reasons: fear of cultural appropriation, fear it wouldn’t fit me, too expensive, friends won’t do it with me, et cetera. They offered me a chance to wear one. I had heard of this sort of thing in Japan, where they had opportunities for foreigners to try on a kimono at a museum, to some backlash. They also said it was free. Free is my favorite word. I thought, these must be some college kids and they’re putting on some kind of event for their school club and they’re eager to get some more foreign faces for their promotional photo. So, stupid human that I am, I agreed.

w h y . . .

First of all, what they failed to mention is that their “studio” was not in Hongdae as I originally expected. They were not Hongik University students as I originally expected. We had to go way farther down the subway line and make a transfer. I didn’t notice this originally because the conversation flowed so nicely and I was so at ease throughout the ride.

We got to the studio and I got to choose my hanbok. I settled on an American-flag-colored one because I’m tacky and uncreative. Second of all, it wasn’t just taking pictures, it was a full-blown bowing to the ancestors ceremony. (This is apparently what the younger family members do at Chuseok or Seollal when they bow to the grandparents and ask for money.) This is damn hard work, and with no understanding of the old Korean chant that is being said, there’s no way to gauge how much time has passed.  There were other foreigners at the ceremony but I seemed to be the only one having trouble remembering the movements, trying to perform them fast enough, and struggling to not tear the skirts of my hanbok in half. I was sweating buckets by the end.

But wait! That wasn’t all. Then we cut up the fruits and other food offerings at the altar and got to eat them, washing them down with a shot of soju. (The boys assembled at the table were impressed with how quickly I downed the shot, as if I don’t do more than that every weekend). This is where things started to deteriorate. The boy of the couple launched into a detailed explanation of all the mythology of the event. In short: maybe some of my ancestors had done some bad things, so instead of going straight to heaven, they were stuck as ghosts in limbo on Earth. They would be stuck there forever unless somebody with good karma (paraphrasing here) could open the door to heaven with their good deeds. Apparently – allegedly – I’m the sole representative of my family who could perform this ceremony and accrue enough good karma to get all of my family members into heaven. We wrote down wish-prayers and then burnt them to “”send them up to god””, but I was also told I wasn’t allowed to talk about the ceremony for 100 days or the prayers wouldn’t work (I think the secret is that you’ve thoroughly forgotten what you wished for in 100 days’ time, but they don’t tell you that).

My second mistake is that another way of accruing “”good karma”” is donating to their project, which seemed to be some kind of mission/meals on wheels/old folks’ home type of thing. I couldn’t really ascertain what the purpose of this group was. Even now, I still don’t know. So 10,000 won gone to that, and nearly missed the last train, and I was done, right?

My third mistake is not immediately deleting the boy of the pair’s number as soon as I’d texted him I’d arrived home. My judgement is constantly muddied by a business-school fog of “”networking”” for both friend, professional, and dating purposes. So I don’t like to delete friends unless they’re actively annoying or threatening me. Usually this doesn’t bother me much.

“So that’s that, right? You never saw him again, right?” people usually ask at this juncture. These people really underestimate the depth of my stupidity.

A week later, boy from the cult texts again. I need a few “follow-up” appointments, as he explained. “It’s like a surgery, the ceremony, so we need a few follow-ups to sort of check up on you,” he explained. I wasn’t too sure that they weren’t going to keep taking my green 10,000 won bills each time. But I a g r e e d, again, because I’m incredibly stupid. (Mistake number 4? 5? infinity?)

“You actually went back?????” the people continue, incredulously. Unfortunately, yes.

This second visit, I was more wary. I still didn’t get the answers I was looking for. I still don’t know what the group is called, what religion they’re actually affiliated with, or anything. The second visit the boy just explained more thoroughly what the mythology of the ceremony and whatever religion sort of thing he was preaching. Out of academic curiosity I continued on, but at the end he asked something to the effect of “so do you believe it?” as if he’d converted me with all this. I straight-up told him no, or something even more ambivalent. We had dinner at the sort-of cafeteria in the “studio,” and the other foreigners grilled me about this and that. I couldn’t really figure out why the other foreigners were there, either. Did they really subscribe to these beliefs or were they just here to language exchange? Were they here for the “”free”” food?

“Sounds like a cult,” my friend Stephanie said after I told her the story, breaking the rule of 100 days’ silence after only 3 days. My family is now cursed, probably (sorry, family).

Since then, I read other expats’ posts about similar experiences. Nobody was able to identify what the name of the group was, but it was deemed to not be of a nefarious nature. Just some fundraising for a college or religious group. That’s a long time and a lot of effort for just a measly 10,000 won, is what I think.

After dinner, I bowed out with a promise of returning back for my third and final visit. I still have yet to make that visit. I still have yet to delete cultboy’s number.  And this remains one of my most mysterious and confusing, yet most entertaining to tell of my experiences in Seoul.

A toast to weird chance encounters that only seem to happen to me.

Update: after lots of worried comments from older relatives/ adult people, I offer this as a rebuttal/ defense, flimsy though it may be.

 

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.

Don’t sweat the big stuff

Don’t sweat the big stuff

I’m just now clearing the backlog of all the travelling posts I’ve collected in the past 3 months but haven’t written. I understand what my cousin, Susanna, meant when she said she always made blogging out to be a big thing, and I totally get that now. I’m always collecting events and topics to write about but rarely actually sit down to write about them.

Ever since I was little, I’ve always been excited about my birthday. From birthday parties at the YMCA to going to the movies and out to dinner in middle school, to hiking trips and samgyeopsal the last two years, it’s always been a winning combination of comforting things and demanding fanfare. The day before my birthday, I had a language exchange with my old co-teacher, Miss Tiffany. We’ve long since strayed from the original purpose of the language exchange, but the camaraderie remains. Miss Tiffany very sneakily bought me a cake for my birthday!!! It was a lovely time. This was also shortly before I started the Korean classes at Yonsei which quickly ate up all my free time commuting and studying.

The next night, which was a weeknight so we couldn’t go too crazy, I met friends from my old school, Maxine and Stephanie, for samgyeopsal (as is the way) and drinking. We got too caught up in talking and arrived late to the bar where my friend Haru had been waiting for us for nearly an hour (!! I’m a bad friend..) Haru had brought a gift of a baby cactus which I’m still trying my best to keep alive, against all the odds. As we left the bar, I was trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to persuade my friends to come noraebang with me when Winner’s song, “Really, Really,” came on in the arcade across the street. That was enough to persuade all of the friends. There’s almost nothing in this country I love more than noraebang. After we had put Maxine in a taxi and seen Haru off to her house, I made Steph come back to mine and eat some cake, even though it was 3am and staying up that late is wildly out of character for her.

The next day was Friday. It was a really fun night, right? No. With impending open class, I stayed in the café to work on things for class. Moreover, I had class the next day, on Saturday, so there wasn’t any gallivanting to be had that Friday night. After Saturday class, I got lunch at a place near my work called American Factory, which I feel like they opened just for me, as I’m the only American in the area, and then convinced Steph to get some black ice cream that I had found in Hongdae area. We had to wait a long time but it was worth it “for the insta” and to find out exactly what flavor it would be. (With the black food dye, we figured it could be any flavor at all.) That evening we went out drinking with the Geoje lads and got up to some hijinks in the club.

Open class was the following week. To say I was terrified was an understatement. Last year, we submitted the lesson plans a month ahead. I had to re-write the plans several times. You have to rehearse the class ahead of times so that all of the students perform perfectly. It has to be “fun and exciting” (read: we have to create all-new games and materials for only this class) for the parents even though they have ostensibly come to see a regular, everyday class. My first open class, vice director (even though she had seen, tweaked, and eventually approved this lesson plan weeks in advance) took me aside right as I was going into class to try to add something else to the plan. We did not improvise in the practice and I was not prepared. She was right, of course, that I had not prepared enough material and I would have 10 minutes of extra time at the end, but she could have addressed this concern at any time in the previous weeks. That was enough to set the flustered and frustrated tone for the rest of the day. I went into the class, where 20 parents are crammed into a tiny room of about 12′ X 8′ and judging everything about you, from your teaching style to your outfit, and filming you for posterity. They are judging your teaching as well as how much you praise their child. It’s the toughest crowd I’ve ever seen, even though theoretically the parents are all there to see their children be happy and succeed. (theoretically) Since we had already practiced the game a few days before, the kids became bored quickly. Andy, our class’s resident troublemaker and notoriously ill-behaved (this kid once punched me in the face in the middle of a screaming fit, where I had to carry him out of the classroom so that the principal could talk to him) student, decided that he wanted the card Daniel had. A regular student would have used words: even “that one!!” would have been sufficient, or even gestures, but instead Andy decided the right thing to do would be to reach out and sock Daniel and take the card, thus starting a veritable fistfight in the middle of my open class. In the second class, preschool class, set in the gym, all the kids were sitting on the floor for a game which combined running and phonics, when to my horror I see Kyle has pulled his dick out of his shorts and is playing with it like it’s the most fascinating toy in the world. He had never done that before open class day. Luckily, none of the parents saw. Second open class, while nothing went wrong during the class itself, I had to rewrite my open class lesson plan more than everyone else combined. Even one rewrite is too many, in my book.

I love telling these stories to the incoming teachers and watching their eyes get really big. “What have I gotten myself into?” they think. I was really prepared for the worst with this open class. I had 4 50-minute classes to teach instead of 2 20-minute classes. The classes in this school are considerably worse-behaved than in the last school. There’s a lot less interesting material in these books and a lot more time to fill. So much can go wrong! Plus, class sizes can be much bigger at this school, so I was prepared to be watched by scores of parents. Instead, less than half of the parents came. They were mildly interested at best, playing on their phones the whole time at worst. (I also got a bit of a flash-forward to when/if I have kids and I’m forced to attend unending back-to-school nights.) After all that preparation, it turned out for once I really had worried too much. This is a recurring theme in my life.

And then, everything went to shit.

Briefly.

It’s still a little tenuous in this department. I’ll explain.

I was having a movie night a few days after open class (Steph and I had a standing promise to watch Riverdale together), scrolling through Facebook on my phone when I came across a post on the women’s expat in korea group. There are so many posts each day that it’s a wonder any given one will catch my eye. But I just happened to read this one. The long and short of it is that people with E2 visas (me) are apparently legally not allowed to work at after school programs (also me) or they will get deported immediately. I immediately spiraled into panic mode. The comments and suggestions off of that post and other related post fed my frenzy. Quit immediately, seemed to be the advice, go get a D10 visa, hire a lawyer, be prepared for the worst. Quit immediately, quit immediately, quit immediately.

I emailed my boss to ask for clarification (he hasn’t ever responded to that or subsequent emails on that particular subject…) The next day, I called him. It’s never fun calling my boss, not because he’s not perfectly nice, but rather because it’s so hard to understand him. His English is fine, but he’s a fast talker and is usually on speaker phone. He’s a busy guy. So it’s hard to tell if what I heard in this call is real or not. The essence of this call was thus: you shouldn’t worry because that law is coming after international schools and after school programs, but since we are registered as a hagwon (cram school) and only teach conversational English, it’s okay. The law is targeted at people teaching other subjects like science, math, social studies, and gym in English under E2 visas at places like international schools and after school programs. Only F-series visas are apparently allowed to work at these kind of places. I went through several really long spirals of logic to become okay with this situation. I haven’t been deported yet (If I do, my only plan is to get my hair dyed an insane rainbow color before I leave) and I’ll continue working hard for my school and keeping my head down, hoping that it stays that way.

That was my month of May in a 1500-word nutshell. During this time, I was really excited because it looked like hyung Aidan could make his ill-fated return trip at the beginning of June! It was not to be. A week out, he had to cancel the plans for the trip. I decided to still go on the hike that I had planned to take him on, climbing the highest mountain in mainland Korea, Jirisan. When faced between taking a slightly earlier bus down to the trailhead and having to find a pension in the dark and taking the midnight bus, sleeping on the bus, and hiking straight off the bus, I obviously chose the latter because I’m batshit insane, clearly. The “plan” follows:

  • Nambu Terminal midnight bus
  • Start at 2ish
  • Summit by noon
  • Cheonwangbong Peak
  • Descent by 2-3
  • Bus to Jinju to visit (Geoje friend) Hilary, if it’s too late to go back home at this point, then stay the night with her in Sacheon.

Prior to the bus’s departure, I chilled out in a Tom & Tom’s charging my phone and drinking a latte. You’ll find this was my first mistake. Second mistake was that I had neglected to buy a headlamp or flashlight prior to this time, even though I was pretty damn sure I was going to be starting the climb in the pitch dark. Because of the coffee, I barely slept on the bus. The seats were reclined and comfy, but I just couldn’t fall asleep. All the thoughts of the unknown were too busy swimming through my head. I had hoped that it would take until 3 or 4 am to get to the trailhead, so we would only be hiking an hour or two before sunrise. Unfortunately, almost on the dot at 3am we arrived. I was the youngest person on that bus by 20 years, the only solo female, and the only foreigner of any kind. All the grunting and stretching and people gathering into groups only served to remind me of how alone I was, how stupid a venture this had been. Why am I trying to climb a mountain alone at 3am nowhere near Seoul? At least, if I decided to quit and sit on the side of the road until the sun came up, I rationalized, I only had to wait 2 hours until I could see again.

For some fool reason, I decided to try to head up the trail. I ended up following some groups of ahjusshis up to the mountain. Trying to maintain a not-creepy distance while still seeing which way they took was a distinctly difficult challenge. It was threatening to rain and I was very sad about that, as I was using my phone flashlight held up to my chest like Iron Man. After a branch in the way, it seemed like the original group I had been following was thinning out. I was alone, in the threatening rain, with only my phone as a flashlight, in the dark. Great job, go me. As with all hikes, I couldn’t really confirm I was on the trail until I saw other people go that way. There were people behind me, so I was trying to reverse-follow them, as in making sure that they were still following me to make sure I was going the right way. It’s at least a kilometer, I’d say, walking on the road to even get to the start of the trailhead. I passed so many minbaks and pensions I really wished I’d booked one of those instead. But I forged on. At the trailhead, a pair of ahjusshis, Mr. Choi and Mr. Kim, stopped for water and a chocolate bar as I studied the map. It was my intention to keep studying the map for as long as possible so that they could go ahead. It turns out, the ahjusshis had decided they would adopt me and I should go with them, as it’s dangerous to go alone.

You know that feeling when you’re offended somebody thinks you need help but you really do need the help so you’re also secretly grateful? That’s how I was feeling. It was nice to receive confirmation that I was going the right way, though, and let go of the reins for a bit. I’d initially thought that Mr. Choi and Mr. Kim were way better hikers than me, but we all averaged out to be kind of the same, going up the mountain. At our first stop for water, it had become light enough to turn the headlamps off. My phone was suffering.  The hiking itself was really quite easy, all the way to the top. It can be a far distance, and it requires advance planning, but the Jirisan hike that I chose was really not all that hard. At Rotary shelter, we stopped again. It was probably only 7am at this point, but we had been walking for hours. I was woefully unprepared, food and drink-wise. I had extra clothes and water that I needed, but Mr. Kim (I’d taken to calling him Himchan-ahjusshi because of his resemblance to B.A.P’s Himchan) had a few boxes of food that his wife had packed and he and Mr. Choi, he insisted, could not eat it all by themselves. It was just garlic bread and cherry tomatoes but it certainly took the edge off my hunger. To be sure I didn’t really like cherry tomatoes until then.

The flowered trees were beautiful and I seemed to gain strength as the sun rose. After climbing for hours, we made the summit by 9 or 10. My phone chose this time to die, as it often gives up early when it’s cold outside and it was considerably colder at the top of the mountain. Mr. Kim lent me his phone charger for long enough to charge my phone to get that selfie, and then we headed down the mountain again. The way down was both faster and much slower. We took more stops because the ahjusshis’ knees were getting really sore. There were also scores of school kids on some kind of hiking field trip/ scavenger hunt clogging up the works.

When we reached town again, I thought that it would be nice for me to buy lunch for Mr. Choi and Mr. Kim, but I had mentioned something about buying a bus ticket to Jinju to visit my friend, and so when we stopped into the convenience store to buy one, we found that there was a bus there leaving in only 10 minutes. Barely enough time for a bathroom break, let alone a lunch. So, I said goodbye to the ahjusshis who adopted me and went on my way.

In Jinju, I got changed in the bus stop. I was “earthy but not unpleasant,” as my aunt once told my parents after they’d completed a long bike trip. The dirt clinging to my ankles and the sweat on my bag was unmistakeable, though. I went for a bagel and coffee at Ediya first, and then a burger at Lotteria, where I was chilled to the core by the fan. Geoje friend, Hilary, and I met and we got ice cream, coffee, and walked around. To Hilary, going into Jinju is “going into town,” but Jinju is a pretty small place compared to Seoul. After a really nice visit, I got the bus home. The subway ended early so I thought, “why not walk some more?” and walked the 3 stops back to my house. I’m not one to measure steps but I’m sure I walked like 50,000 steps that day.

As for some conclusions of this time in my life?

I think that everyone should try to travel alone like this at some point in their lives. Accept help when you need it, even if you think you don’t. Take time out for friends. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t sweat the big stuff. Everything will sort itself out in the end. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.

 

A toast to planning, even though you know you’ll end up winging it anyway.