Monday, February 25, 2008

Transience.

Part of living in a foreign country is that you tend to make friends with other foreigners. Especially ones who speak your language. There are lots of English speaking people in Korea (besides of course the Koreans who speak English of which there are many) from all over the world (but mostly Canada).

Thing is, you have to be a little crazy to uproot yourself from your comfortable surroundings and move halfway round the world (or less) to a place you know very little about. And that particular brand of crazy, which I possess, tends to make friendships form quite readily. But in Korea, it seems like everyone is here for a short amount of time--one or two years, unless they fall in love--and then returns to where they come from. This week three friends are leaving the country, probably never to return. And it's hard. These are people I've become fairly close with over the last six months--Tracey from my Korean class and then later swing dance club, Yumiko who I met at the YMCA because she was in advanced but bonded with over girl talk and has been mentioned frequently in this blog, and Amanda who was in the beginner class at the YMCA and I've hiked/lunched with now and then.

It's different than leaving people "back home." I was going off to have my adventure. This time I'm being left behind (granted it's in Korea... which I also will leave eventually). And part of me believes (naively, I know) that they'll always be there to come back to.

But Tracey's from England and going to volunteer in Africa. Yumiko's from Japan and going to finish her master's and then maybe get a TESOL certificate in Thailand or something. And Amanda's going to grad school back in Canada. Even if we keep in touch, it seems unlikely I will see them again (other than a trip I plan to take to Kyoto this spring... if it doesn't cost too much).

That's heavy.

For now, I go to goodbye parties and lunches and hug them and wish them luck and let them know they will be missed. And I'll meet new friends and so will they and it will be ok. But it's never really easy.

Best Idea Ever

Bored on the subway? Too broke for an iPod and forgot your book?

Well, Korea brings you the Book Vending Machine. In Banwoldong station.


Never ever spend twenty minutes with just your own thoughts to occupy you ever again.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Halfway Point.

I've been in Korea for six months, as of today.

It seems both longer and shorter. It's hard to believe I've only been doing taekwondo and speaking Korean (and drooling over hot Korean men) for six months. It sounds like such a short time for things that have become such an important and integral part of my daily life. I don't think I've gone through so many profound changes in such a short period of time since puberty.

Yet so many things still feel so new and unfamiliar here. I feel like I just got here, just began learning about this strange and elusive country. And when I think of America, I assume it's just being preserved in some kind of permanent August 2007 time capsule and that whenever I do come back everything will be the same. I know that can't be true. I know that things can change back home just as much in six months as I have.

I know it. Logically. But I can't feel it. So I don't believe it.

People have said reverse culture shock is harder. I have little doubt this will be true because I won't even be able to comfort myself with the fact that I'm doing something fabulous and awesome and highly unique and making people back home super jealous (yes, my brain resorts to petty jealousy sometimes to make me feel better).

So now what?

Now what, indeed...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

This blog's negative space.

William and I sit at a coffee shop downtown. I am waxing poetic on the sad state of dating for foreign women in Korea, a favorite topic of mine.

"I guess it's not so bad," I admit. "I did have a date last weekend."

"Yeah? Korean guy?"

"Of course."

"Well?"

"It didn't go so well." William stares. He doesn't need to say that this explanation is insufficient. "Ok, so he really likes hip hop culture. I mean, of course he does. We met at a dance club."

"Frog?"

I look down. "Maybe."

"That's disgusting."

"I know."

"Go on."

"He kept talking excitedly about 'black people' or 'black guys.' Like how he saw a fight at Frog and it was between two 'black guys,' only adding later that they were American soldiers. It was said in admirable tones and all... but there's only so much 'I'm from a homogeneous society'-isms I can look past, you know?"

"Why don't you blog about this stuff? It's amusing."

"I don't know. It's a little humiliating. And there are other things I hold back. Like all that stuff I just told you about..."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sparring

We are strapped into padding that reminds me of the Ninja Turtles, but doesn't actually feel like it would protect much if I really got hit. I'm red. She's blue.

We giggle. Sa Beom Nim explains in Korean, no punching the head, no kicking the legs, three rounds one minute each. I still don't know how you get points or what exactly you're supposed to do when he says go.

We throw some kicks, some punches. She seems unsure, too. I think we are both half trying, not really wanting to hurt the other but still wanting to try this sparring thing for real.

Lots of giggling, a couple of minor bumps and bruises later, we're both declared the winners. Sa Beom Nim then spends the next few minutes explaining what we did wrong while demonstrating on one of the (increasingly frightened of Sa Beom Nim's flying legs) uni students. I think I'm starting to understand. Maybe.

And maybe sparring is not so dissimilar from swing dancing--moving with another person, responding to their body's movements; knowing the technical moves are less than half of the point when confronted with the real situation. I think Sa Beom Nim was telling us that yelling when we spar can help throw off the opponent's thinking and is therefore important. I know he was saying something about watching morning drama programs to study yelling. I think this man would strike me as even more hilarious if I understood everything he was saying.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Black and Blue.

My feet hurt this morning, even before I got to taekwondo. After book club, I headed to Babalu for salsa dancing with Meg and Kirsty. I ended up dancing a bunch and staying out way later than I intended to in shoes that are not right for dancing because I hadn't planned on doing so. Well, the blisters (or "water houses" 물집, as they are called in Korean) on my feet made walking a bit painful.

But still, I met Samantha for taekwondo this morning.

After we changed, one of the uni students (Noah) was waiting to use the changing room. Two more showed up during warm ups (and got yelled at by Sa Beom Nim for being late), so it was half regular practice, half watching/trying to keep up with the flying death machines/uni student black belts. I've gotten so used to surprises at taekwondo that it didn't even phase me. And then Samantha and I won the unannounced, unofficial yelling competition when we were practicing kicks with the mitts. So there!

But oh, practice. Between it being Monday, keeping up with young ridiculously athletic men, and my blisters this was a rough one. I fell hard once trying to do this flying kick thing that was way over my level (and then went back to doing normal kicks) so I think I'm going to have a nasty bruise later on my left ankle. Even my toes hurt, dammit.

It's good. I can't even explain it. Six months ago, a fall like that, missing a kick, landing stupidly, not being able to do what it seems everyone else can do easily, would have defeated me. Just like in dancing and skiing, I feel myself trying, recovering, laughing through the pain and the (at one time far worse) humiliation of a screw up. Something about living here where even communication is hard, studying this difficult sport and language, pushing myself to try new things, silencing that stupid judgmental voice in my head that used to torture me so has been good for me.

Great for me, actually.

At the end of class, Sa Beom Nim started teaching us the next poomsae form, which for me is 6장. It's a little tricky because it's the first one with a lot of backward movement (before it's been side to side and forward), but I think it's going to be fun to learn. Wednesday I get my new belt--blue! And Sa Beom Nim starts teaching us sparring (which has been the main thing our training's been lacking because it was a private lesson).

I'm rather excited. Even if I'm limping a little on my way to work today.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Swing Dance

I've been going to a swing dance club Saturday nights for about a month now. I take a lindy hop lesson with a bunch of folks from Ben, who is from Oregon and reminds me a lot of my swing dancing buddy Jonathan from back home, and then after that there is free dancing where I try to practice lindy hop and jitterbug as best I can (even though I pretty much suck). It's been a lot of fun. I'm kind of addicted now. I really want to learn how to swing dance well, not just be thrown around haphazardly by guys who have various degrees of knowledge about the dance and get charmingly apologetic when I screw up ('cause even when it's my fault, it's the guy's fault... ha ha!).

The best part (besides the dancing) is that the people who come regularly are pretty awesome, and I'm getting to know them a little better each week. It's about half Korean/half foreigners so I get some language practice and meet some pretty awesome people. I have enjoyed hanging out with them thoroughly.

At any rate, chalk this up to one more way Korea is changing me--now I'm also a dancing fool.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Books and Clothes

Why isn't the spell checker on blogger working? It's annoying the crap out of me. Sorry if there are more errors than usual in my meanderings...

In keeping with my highly anti-social nature this week, I've been reading tons of books. I finished Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaardner for the book club that will meet this Sunday. I read half or more of it in high school for Mr. Donaldson's Origins of Science class and remembered loving it back then, but I had to turn it back in before I'd finished it and never bothered to check it out again until the book club gave me an excuse to do so. It drags a little in places, but it's a fantastic story that also provides a great overview of the history of Western philosophy (and occasional references to Eastern traditions). I have lots to think about now.

Next, I read Anne Tyler's Digging to America, the story of an unlikely friendship between two families in Baltimore who meet when they pick up their adopted Korean babies from the same plane. Apparently Tyler's won a Pulitzer Prize but I'd not heard of her before picking up this novel from the book swap. It was good, but it really made me homesick for all kinds of things--Maryland, my blended family, my Lebanese aunt, love. I suppose that's a good sign for a book. I recommend it.

Now, I'm finishing up Won-bok Rhie's Korea Unmasked, a comic nonfiction about the history and character of Korean people by a well known cartoonist. It's fascinating. Although it's just one guy's perspective, it is helping me to understand some of the seemingly illogical things about this place that I deal with every day, like the reason why Koreans feel the need to belong to every group possible. Plus it has cute, funny cartoons. I like the cartoons.

***

My family is the best. In keeping with a long-established Valentine's tradition, Mom sent me pretty things to wear. I have dresses and tops in bright colors now! This makes me very happy. Too bad I'm being all anti-social. I need an excuse to wear them.

Maybe I'll wear one for swing dance on Saturday. Sounds like a fine excuse.

Touristy Seoul.

Last Sunday, Se Jin and I bid adieu to Sarah who was off for a day of shopping in the big city and headed over to Gyeongbok Palace. It was incredibly beautiful, so I'll let the numerous pictures speak for themselves:
Gyeongbok Palace and Insadong


I stepped into history. Notice the new sunglasses!


Look at the angry monkey! See how he chides you!


I was obsessed with the statues lining the edges of the rooftops on the palace. They were intricate and each section was a little bit different.


Behind the palace is the National Folk Museum of Korea which had lots of cool stuff to see, but I couldn't take any pictures inside. However, I did catch a bit of this performance outside the museum (observe my brilliant camerawoman skillz and the debut of my husband's video function):


Since Amanda was in nearby Insadong with Good Man, we decided to all meet up for lunch before Se Jin and I took the train home to Daegu. Insadong is an artisan district with lots of traditional Korean crafts for sale, neat little teashops and restaurants, and the Ssamzie Market. Amanda said it was the least crowded she's ever seen it, which was great because I felt like it was pretty crowded.

Prepping the ddok!


After Sunday, I was forced to admit that there are some amazing things about Seoul--the culture and sights are exceptional. The subway system isn't that hard to figure out (it's rather well labelled). However, I much prefer my laid back neighborhood in undeveloped Dong Gu.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sadness.

If you haven't heard, the number one cultural treasure of Korea, Namdaemun in Seoul, burnt to the ground just hours after Se Jin and I left the city. It appears to have been the result of arson by a recently released 70 year old ex-con.

I wish we had seen it...

Monday, February 11, 2008

Playing in the snow in Gangwondo.

The biggest family holiday in Korea is 설날, Seolnal, or Lunar New Year. In America we pithily call this holiday "Chinese New Year" on our calendars because apparently everyone who celebrates it is Chinese (can you feel my eyes rolling?). Since the holiday marks the start of the lunar calendar year (this year is the Year of the Rat--have fun moms-to-be with your rat-like children), the solar calendar day varies but usually will fall sometime around the end of January. This year it was Thursday, February 7. We got off work the day before and after, so it was a nice long five day weekend.

Originally, I had wanted to take a trip out of the country to some tropical destination and make the most out of my holiday. My plan was flawed. Mostly because everyone and their mom seems to have had the same idea. You see, Koreans are a hardworking bunch and don't really take much time off, it seems, so the ones who like to travel all have to do so on the same five days as everybody else in the country. So all the flights were booked up months before for outrageous prices. I kind of gave up on the idea of leaving Korea at this time. I still was itching to do something really cool for the long holiday.

I have (you may have noticed) had several opportunities to improve my skiing while sojourning in the mountainous peninsula of Korea, so when I heard about a special ski trip through Adventure Korea, a tour company based in Seoul that caters to English-speaking foreigners, for the Lunar New Year, I thought, That sounds fun! My Canadian friend from Daegu, Sarah, and my Korean sister, Se Jin, came as well.

The trip began early Wednesday morning (Se Jin and I crashed Tuesday night in Sarah's love motel room near Seoul Station so we could catch the tour bus) when we left the city for Phoenix Park, one of the largest ski resorts in South Korea. The holiday traffic was so bad that we arrived much later than scheduled, but it worked out ok because we got night skiing passes instead of afternoon lift passes. While I did think the skiing at High One Resort was a little bit better, Phoenix had some challenging runs, powdery snow, and respectable heights.

Se Jin and I at the top of Phoenix Park, ready to tackle the black diamonds! (Yoinked from her camera).

By the second day, I worked myself up to skiing advanced slopes. I'm gonna come back from Korea so "sporty" it scares me... The accommodations at the Youth Hostel were good (bunk beds, 8 to a room) and we met some girls from Seoul who we hung out with for most of the trip. I went to the Korean sauna (jjimjilbang) at the resort for about $5, which was awesome. We ate at a nice Korean/Chinese restaurant one night and ordered Dominoes pizza the other night (which was its own little adventure in speaking Korean because Se Jin was napping when I ordered).

On Friday, we packed up and moved out to a remote mountain hideaway in Gangwondo for the rest of the trip. The place was amazingly serene and made Se Jin ache for Yeongcheon (and... I have to admit... I also did, though for different reasons... by this point on the trip, having been surrounded only by other foreigners for days was making me edgy an withdrawn, but more on this in a bit).

Se Jin makes a new friend.

This girl was the daughter of the owners of the mountain resort. She immediately latched onto Se Jin, one of the 5-6 Korean people on the trip besides the Adventure Korea staff. She seemed lonely. She was very confused when I spoke to her in botched Korean and referred to Se Jin as my elder sister.

That evening there was a yummy barbecue. There were also a lot of foreign people drinking soju. In retrospect, this was the most disappointing part of the trip. I had a great time at the noraebang in the resort where I was even serenaded with Paul Anka's "Diana" by the Korean staff. However, in one of the most awesome settings I've travelled to in Korea with snow and beautiful things, the partying and melodrama of the evening felt like a bad night in college. The juxtaposition floored me. I wanted to be very far away from all these foreign people who ignored the culture and the nature surrounding them, who spoke only English to each other, who talked about how "All Koreans this..." and "All Koreans that..." or about how much they drank or didn't drink last weekend and who they did or didn't go home with. I just didn't fucking care anymore, you know? This is why I stopped going to Dave's ESL Cafe... the attitudes of so many foreigners here suck.

Maybe it's just my introvertedness kicking in, but from that night, all I've wanted to do is curl up with a good book. And I have. I finished two in the last two days.

And this is why, though everything about my experience with the organization Adventure Korea has been positive, it is unlikely I'll be joining them for another round anytime soon. Actually, for newbies to Korea or folks here just a short time (a few months or weeks), they are a fantastic travel company with reasonable rates and lots of experience catering to foreigners. I just think it's not for me. Sorry, but I've had better experiences in Korea--nearly all of them when travelling or visiting with Koreans.

Or at least with foreigners who care about Korea. Foreigners who choose not to live in Seoul. There is something about the city...

But I digress.

After a horrible night of being kept awake first by drunken shenanigans and then by loud soju-induced snoring from a roommate, Se Jin, Sarah, and I woke up early for a trek along a frozen river. Definitely worth getting my shoes wet and nearly freezing to death!

We had to avoid stepping on the thin ice and air pockets that broke through to the freezing water below. Some were not as lucky as I was and froze on the ride back to the resort...

Hiking on a frozen river in a valley. Stunning.

After the hike and some tasty bibimbap, we piled back on the buses and returned to Seoul. Sarah, Se Jin, and I decided to stay the night once more in the city. Sarah was going to go shopping the next day with her new friend from Seoul and Se Jin and I would hit up some of the cultural sites. I'll blog about this tomorrow, because it deserves its own post.

Celebrating our sore muscles at a fine Italian place in Hongdae. Don't we look snazzy for a night out in the big city?

All in all, some wonderful times and a lot to think about. How different my experience here could have been had I taken that job in Kangnam... I cuddled Princess this morning before heading to taekwondo and knew I'd made the right choice for myself. I am renewed in gratitude for the kindness of Gwen and Samson, of my Sa Beom Nim, of the YMCA teachers and students, and especially of the Kwons--my Korean family.

Se Jin says her father is picking a Korean name for me. I cannot wait to hear what it is.

Adventure Korea trip to Gangwondo
Note that any pictures with me in them are provided by Se Jin and her camera. The others are mine from my nampyeon.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Valentine's Day?

I've been off adventuring about Korea for Lunar New Year, and I have much that I will post about in the coming days (including many many pictures, yay!), but one of the things I've been able to observe a lot of over the last few days was courting and relationship behavior. In light of the upcoming romantic holiday, I'd like to offer some advice to singles and random observations about love...

1) If the police are called to restrain your boyfriend from beating the crap out of you in front of 70-odd people, don't get back together with him the next day. I don't care if he was "just drunk." You're asking to be a front page news story.

2) Matching clothes is not the same thing as love. Really. I promise.

3) Hanging all over one guy then the next then the next may make you feel really hot, but guys (even the ones who sleep with you) think you're trashy. So do I. Sorry... I'm just judgemental about some things...

4) Guys... when you go for the trashy girls (see above), the others observing you think you suck. So don't go wondering later why you only ever seem to end up with "psychos." Observe your own behavior first, please.

5) When you're sharing a room with 6 other people you don't know that well, please manage to go ONE FREAKING NIGHT without having sex. Please. It's really not that hard.

Now for sleep. Stay tuned for updates!!!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

I love my body...

But I haven't been nice to it the last few days.

I've been terrified of (and yet anxious to) get back into the daily taekwondo routine after a month of working out only twice a week with the kiddies. On Thursday, Sa Beom Nim said that Monday we'd start at 11. So of course to prepare for the shock to my body I seemed to think that the best thing to do would be to go swing dancing Saturday night for 3 hours, then out to a hip hop club for a few more hours of dancing, get home at 4 a.m. and then go skiing at the biggest resort in Korea at 8 a.m. on Sunday. Because I am a GENIUS... right?

All of those things were fun (and of course I could blog about them for your amusement), but I'm currently high from taekwondo and cooking delicious tofu fried rice (yay I have time for these things again!) so I will write about practice.

Samantha's in the Philippenes visiting family (lucky girl), so I thought it was going to be just a private lesson, but a few of the older kids from my 6 p.m. class and a few of the black belt university students from Samantha's 9 p.m. class were there for morning workout. Sa Beom Nim said something (it was in Korean, so I only understand snippets) about how during vacation they can come work out at the time Samantha and I normally do, but that they must be on time (the uni students were 10 minutes late and we had to run laps while they warmed up. Grr. I hate running!).

That's cool because if they come daily, I'll get to know some of them a little more and feel the routine of the class. Plus with the particular students who were there, the workout was harder than it has been. Wow--it was intense. My legs feel like jelly right now. And I'm so tired. So very tired.

One boy got in trouble for dancing and so Sa Beom Nim made him get up in front of the class and do the ENTIRE "Tell Me" dance from the Wondergirls, a Korean pop band. The rest of the class was cracking up the whole time. I was probably laughing the hardest, but only because as I watched him, I realized I knew most of the choreography and could probably do it at this point. This makes me sad.

Warning: This is truly awful, but it is a huge part of life in Korea:


At the end of class, we practiced poomsae again. It was awesome. I think I almost have the fifth form down. I really want to get it right and get my next belt so I can start learning something new. One of my goals is to get my black belt this year. That will be awesome.

Being back in my routine feels fantastic, even if this week is still kind of off because of Lunar New Year (yay skiing and no work Wed-Sun!). I want to get back in the healthy groove, and I think it'll be easier than I thought.

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