Tuesday, September 28, 2010


The past week was an unusual one, as smack in the middle of it was the Korean Thanksgiving, or harvest festival, known as Chuseok. Though pilgrims and natives are not involved, it does carry some parallels to the American Thanksgiving holiday in that it is a time for food, family, and days off from work!
I did some reading on Chuseok and came to learn that at the time of origin (maybe as early as 57 B.C.), it was all centered around a month-long weaving contest between two teams. At the end of the contest, the team who had woven the most cloth was rewarded with a feast, prepared by the losing team.

Today, there are no weaving contests to speak of, but there certainly are feasts! Koreans celebrate Chuseok by traveling to their hometowns, to be with family, eat mass amounts of traditional food, and celebrate their ancestors. EVERYONE travels on this weekend, which I discovered in real time by finding it impossible to buy a bus ticket out of town, even by the Friday after. Ah well, I thought, I was willing to save further travels beyond the reaches of Pohang for another weekend.

As for us foreigners, we had Tuesday-Thursday off, and we decided to make the most of it by celebrating with a potluck. According to wikipedia, one of the traditional foods that is prepared during Chuseok is is songpyeon, a crescent-shaped rice cake which is steamed upon pine needles. Unfortunately, I did not get to try this particular dish, but one of the Korean teachers, Kang-Mi, who is also my teaching partner, did bring a few delicious Korean dishes for us to try. I will have to ask her for the names once again. One resembled potstickers, filled with pork and rice noodles, to be dipped in a spicy red bean sauce. Another was a spicy cold noodle dish, and another resembled a pancake made with rice flour, seaweed and onion. All were quite delicious.

Throughout the evening, we drank, ate, and played games. We took our time, and Stephanie and Tony did a bang-up job of making sure every course of the meal ran smoothly. The amount of food was overwhelming, but everything was delicious. We paced ourselves between courses with rounds of bananagrams and conversation. It was a lovely evening.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Seoul Weekend

This past weekend, I went to visit two of my college friends, Greg and Babbie, in Seoul. It was the first time since I arrived in Pohang that I had ventured outside of my city. I knew I needed it. I knew it would be good for me. Looking out the window as we pulled out of the intercity bus terminal and into the Korean countryside, I became light. A smile spread across my lips reminiscent of the one I felt overtake me when my airplane first began it's decent into Incheon international airport back on the first of August. The feeling spread through me beginning with that smile--of adventure, of independence, of anything being possible if only I make the choice to take a leap. I began to feel life overtaking me in the best way that it can, when the wholeness of the spirit is felt, and there is nothing for you but to feel true joy, seeping from your pores. The four and a half hour ride was short, and full of thoughts of all the things I might see in the year ahead of me, just beginning. I reminded myself that this feeling is always within reach. I only have to be open to it.

Greg met me at the Dong-Seoul bus depot, in the heart of downtown. He doesn't live in Seoul, but close enough that he's learned a few things about the city. I didn't plan a thing, I just told him I wanted to visit him, and showed up. He took the reigns, and proved to be an adept tour guide. He first took me to Gyeongbokgung Palace. A time capsule in the middle of the bustling metropolis of Seoul, it really was a surreal experience. Such beauty, such intention, such precision and attention to detail in the architecture, artwork, and horticulture. Breathtaking. We walked and walked, took pictures, and absorbed some history. After a time, we sat on a bench in the shade. The sun was bright and the sky was blue, and we passed an hour or so catching up on the last few years, drinking in the calm of the early afternoon and a few days with no obligations. The company was perfect, and a sense of easy comfort was palpable.

That afternoon we ventured to another neighborhood, Insadong, where I was lucky to happen upon some Nagchampa as well as some Korean phrase books which I have been yearning for since day one. We ate bulgogi at a rooftop restaurant on a busy mall, where traditional goods were abundant, and the views were worth the number of stairs it took to arrive at the top. Now well-fed and ready for more sitting, we found a coffee shop where we chatted and waited for Babbie to get in touch with us. She would be arriving in the evening.

We eventually met her in Meyong-Dong, an insane shopping district, thick with people, LED displays, designer brands, and street vendors selling everything from knock-off gucchi sunglasses to bizarre little plastic characters in action poses--some dangling from springing cords designed to dangle in window fronts. It was a sensory overload.

While we waited for Babbie, Greg bought me a delicious pastry from a street vendor, reminding me of elephant ears and funnel cake. It had a sweet and cinnamon taste, warm and sticky.

Babbie and her friends arrived and we feasted on spicy dahk galbi: chicken grilled at the table with vegetables and spices. They drank soju, but I had already learned to avoid it. I had a beer.

Greg and I elected to depart from their group at this point and head to the jimjabang, where we would be staying for the night. We were exhausted. For those unfamiliar, a jimjabang is the Korean version of the public bath, but is also so much more. There are many spas of course (separated by gender) where massages and body scrubs and other services are available, but that's only the beginning. This particular jimjabang also had a rooftop movie theater and garden, an arcade, a restaurant, several common areas, sleeping rooms, a swimming pool, an ice room, additional clothed co-ed saunas, outdoor spas, and a full gym. The entrance fee? About $10.

After our respective spa-ing and unwinding, we met again in the common area. We played some games I had brought, ate ice cream, and gradually became too tired to sit up any longer. We retired to our respective sleeping quarters. I awoke the next morning refreshed. I took a spa, showered, and packed to go. We met up with the rest of the crew and decided on an easy day. We made it to an Asian art museum, but took our time. The sun and blue sky had left us and as we each carried our umbrellas, the rain falling all around us, I breathed in a reminder of home. We walked more, and rode the metro. We ate Italian food and then sat in food-coma state while we felt the warmth of a good weekend wash over us in quiet repose. We talked of the week ahead--the Korean thanksgiving holiday right in the middle of it, giving us 3 extra days off. I felt it had been a good weekend, but welcomed the idea of my bed and my space. I thought of future weekend trips and smiled to myself. There is so much life to explore.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bus Exploration, Number 1

On Saturday, I felt determined and eager to set out, by myself, into the unknown. I didn't know where to go or how to begin, so I decided to make it easy. I found my bus route map, chose a route that I could see had a wide breadth of north to south distance, the 107, and decided to ride it to the end of the line, both ways. I packed a sandwich and my ipod, my camera and a book for good measure. It was drizzly but warm, and the air smelled of rain.

Me and my anonymous companions passed through the busy downtown of Pohang and into the countryside. We wove in and out of suburbs and rice fields, watching the sunlight weave in and out of clouds. We drove on city streets and highways, and I tried to follow our progress on the map. Difficult, as it was all in Korean, as were most of the road signs.

We arrived at one end of the line, and I got off, looked around, and wondered as to my best course of action. I really didn't know where I was, and my initial plan had been to just hop another bus of the same route back the way I came. However, I as I watched other buses come in and out of the depot, I thought that maybe I was up for grabbing a different route number, and see where it would take me. I couldn't read the time tables though, and two buses had already come and gone. I began to tell myself I would hop on the next one, no matter what it was. The next bus to pull up was a 107, my route. I was a little disappointed and began to reconsider, but I only had a moment to make the choice. As I debated, I saw a mi-gook (American) hop onto the bus. Meeting people was not the objective of this venture, but I had admittedly been feeling lonely the past week, and saw a chance. That, and I can't yet seem to release my insane (and insatiable) desire to attempt connection whenever possible. I'm working on it. But at this moment, I laid that aside, went with my gut, and followed him on.

His name was Marshall. He was in Korea with a program called Epik English (one I had considered, amazingly), and would be staying for five months teaching at a small hagwan outside the city. He was 21, in his mid-college years at Michigan State University. I told of him my incredible propensity to meet people from Michigan wherever I go. He laughed. We chatted in a friendly manner for the next hour or so before we began to near his small town. We exchanged info and said we would try to reconnect sometime. I don't doubt it. But that's just how it is here--foreigners connect to one another, and stay connected.

I said goodbye to Marshall and put my headphones on and listened to the rich timbre of Alice Russell's soulful voice, drifting in and out of my thoughts. I began to wish it were always that easy to talk to strangers here. And by that, I mean Koreans. I wished that I didn't feel a pull to talk to every foreigner I see simply because I don't have the option of talking to most Koreans--we just don't have the tools. There's that whole language barrier thing. I began to wish I had studied Korean for at least a year before I came. I began to think about how maybe I'm not trying hard enough to connect to locals, and I'm only reaching out to foreigners because of some silly fear or something like it.

...but then I wondered about what just happened as well as all the interactions I'd had with other foreigners I had met up to this point. I had quite enjoyed Marshall, as well as the other friends I've had the met since I arrived here. I began to wonder as to weather the simple ease and approachability in our interactions would hold out if it were a possibility to communicate with just about anyone--if there were no language barrier.

I began to think to myself, maybe I should stop wishing for things and just be where I am now. Stop fighting with my frustration, and really enjoy things as they are.

After all, where I am now is pretty nice.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

new toys!

This week, I received my first paycheck, a great reassurance! I have resumed paying off school debt, which is always a good thing to do. But the income also gave me the chance to make 2 purchases I have been eagerly awaiting.

#1: New Camera!

I have never had a digital camera before, and I have already begun taking pictures like mad. I started with my apartment and neighborhood. You can see them on my flickr site here.

#2: New Bike!

Soooo green! It has a basket, a rack, a bell, a crazy under wheel wrap-around kick-stand that allows the back wheel to spin freely when in use, and a cool built in lock which locks the back tire to the frame. Her name is Lilly (thanks, Eli :). I also got a helmet and attached my lights, no worries. Safety first!

I plan to take my maiden voyage this evening, when the sun gets lower in the sky, and it's not so terribly hot. I look forward to exploring and covering more ground than I have been able to in the past few weeks. I want to go all over, with no destination in mind. I have a good sense of direction, so I doubt I will get lost. And even if I do, I know how to ask the way home. The acquisition of the bike is making me feel adventurous and independent, as I knew it would.

It's been another mellow weekend, which I think is good for me. No nights out this time, just some movie watching and food cooking at home. Also on the agenda for today: guitar practice, letter writing, meditation, bike ride!

In other news, Katie and I have made plans to start writing our new zine split, and I am eager to begin. It will be called "Across 5,248.5 Miles," and will likely be a monthly publication. Our first deadline is Oct. 1, and I am optimistic. It will be a comparison of our lives and experiences in Pohang and Portland, respectively. I feel good to have a project in the works! If you want a copy sent to you when we are finished with the first issue, you should email me your address. You should do the same if you want me to send you a letter or a postcard! I have been writing letters weekly, and I must say, there is nothing better. I simply love letters.