Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Price of Wisdom

Eight-and-a-half months have passed—two-thirds of my time here in Korea is gone. And yet, in some ways, it seems that I have been here eight years. Time has moved in an unbelievable way, like a race car spinning wildly out of control. The weeks pass and I don't know where they've gone. I turn around and my three-year-olds are speaking in complete English sentences. I step back and realize that my five-year-olds are reading, that my clothes smell constantly of pollution and Asian detergent, and that I can sleep through a two-hour commute and never miss a bus or subway transfer.

I have found a crack here where I fit, but still, especially on quiet nights when I look for stars and can’t find them, there are things that I long for from home— the stars, the people, the dusty skies, the desert rain. The rain here smells like bleach, a smell I can’t quite wrap my head around, when every memory I have tells me that rain should smell like chaparral and electricity and dripping desert flowers. At home, the rain was saving, a divine shower of life on the dry desert. Here it is filled with acid, the acrid water eating the roads—a force of nature, but not of life. And yet, there is so much life here .The greenness of this place is as foreign to me as the people, and as unpredictable.

This civilization has been around for millennia, making my own country seem young and naïve, and much less steady than this place that no longer even recognizes the opposition it moves through, does not balk at it, does not complain or feel that it should have an easier lot.

Whereas I, long accustomed to success, find myself torn by the opposition I have found here, indeed, by the very wisdom I am gaining.

Wisdom isn’t cheap, and it certainly isn’t free. The older I get, the more I realize that, of all things in life, wisdom demands one of the highest prices of all, especially for me. The price of wisdom is something that I value deeply, that I cling to tightly.

The price of wisdom is innocence.

It is a price that I tremble to pay.

But I am beginning to see a terrible thing. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is not happiness. And wisdom may leave terrible scars, but they are scars that save. Wisdom sees the complexity in simple things, the sorrow in the joy, and the meaning in the sorrow. Wisdom shows that all of humanity is broken people trying to find a way to be whole.

But still, sometimes I miss the innocence I had before—before I understood poverty, before I really understood sacrifice. Before I saw what it really costs to change. Before I looked at an innocent child and cried inside for what I knew the world would do to them in the coming years. Before I saw such goodness in people who would never understand where goodness comes from. Before I learned in the depth of personal experience how hard the spirit must struggle to remain strong in a broken body. Before, when I could go to a nice restaurant, and not feel the urge to throw up when I saw the prices on the menu, my mind flashing back to the eyes of starving little ones in the Philippines, their tummies slick and bloated in the rain.

I miss the way innocence once made life easy. And I look every day at my kids, still shining with the light of that purity--cruel and tough and brittle and quivering and cutting and forgiving and laughing and brimming over with the raw, bubbling, guile-less honesty that only a child can know. And I mourn for innocence.

But innocence goes and wisdom comes. And as I begin to see the shady corners of the world-- not the geographical corners, but the moral ones, the social ones, the individual corners of emptiness that haunt every heart--I see my own joy become deeper. It is still a reckless joy, still wild, still candid, still exultant over the tiny and mundane, but richer as a whole.  I love fog over misty water a little more. I adore crooked stacks of books a little more tenderly. I play hopscotch on fence posts with a little less reserve.

And in all the opposition, I’ve learned that happiness is the easiest thing in the world.

Though I am still not sure, perhaps this makes wisdom worth the price. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Falling in Love with the Philippines: Days 4 & 5


Wednesday was our day on the water. After checking in to the Bamboo House, a beautiful two-story house entirely made of bamboo, we left our luggage and hopped onto the catamaran we'd rented for the day. Our two Filipino sailor-guides took us around to show us the different islands from out at sea. There are a lot of them—over 7,000 islands in the Philippines, many of them tiny ones close together. We could see the outline of Taal Volcano far off in the distance, heavy clouds quivering over its mouth, heat and ash in their bellies. The ocean here is a color that I have never seen ocean be before. They always talk about the crystal blue waters, and that’s exactly how it is. Just looking over the edge of the boat, I could see the ocean floor in the more shallow areas, and fish gliding in the reefs beneath us.

After some sightseeing, they drove us out over the reefs, gave us snorkels, and set us free to explore.We had some bread that we broke pieces from and held beneath the water. Whole schools of fish swarmed us, enveloping us in amongst them, their slippery bodies flipping against my skin as they crowded for the bread.

There were so many different kinds of fish down there—rainbows and snake-looking things and black fish with frilly fins. The coral was all different colors and shapes and here and there, a purple starfish or a sanddollar, still living, squirming in the water of their world. After we had swum around for awhile, we hooked ourselves to a little motorboat, and were pulled along the length of the reefs, keeping our heads in the water, watching it all open up and spill away beneath us.

At one point, where the reef fell away into open ocean with a long, empty, sandy floor, a three-foot long, green sea turtle appeared out of nowhere and glided along the ocean bottom. He was incredible! We decided to dive down and see if we could get closer to him, but by the time we went up for air and dove back, he was gone. As fast as a blink of an eye.

After snorkeling, we hooked up with a kid on a motorboat, and paid him to take us to an underwater cave. There was an underwater entrance, and one above, hidden in the rocks that you had to climb to and lower yourself through. The light came in through that little hole in the top. The tide was stronger inside, because it was contained. If I just let myself float in the water, it would grab me and throw me to the other end of the cave, against the rock. The light filtered in from above, and also from the hole that reached below the water, giving it some crazy cool lighting. It was beautiful--the the rock with the green and blue growing on it, and the way the light came in from two different angles to hit the water. 






We came back home to our Bamboo House after that, ordered some dinner, including a real coconut, and watched a gorgous orange sunset over the water. After that first Sunday of pouring rain, the only rain we saw was at night. But the clouds that floated across the horizons built up the most incredible sunsets. I love the sunsets of home. But I was mesmerized by the sunsets there. They’re wild like the ocean, instead of wild like the desert.
The sun was setting when we realized that we were in for a rotten day the next day. The sunburns that we had started to feel on the boat suddenly became full-force. It’s been a long time since I’ve been sunburned like that. I was fire-engine red—back, shoulders, arms, legs. Jon’s back and calves got almost as bad of a dose, and he’s actually tan.

I kind of felt cheated. It wasn’t like I was being neglectful. I put on sunscreen. 80SPF. Twice. But then, I don’t know anyone who’s been to the Philippines who didn’t get burned. It’s a hot sun over those islands. Hot and low.

Wednesday night was awful. Any way I laid was painful, and every time I moved, it felt like someone was sticking me with fire. So, basically all of Thursday was spent the same way. I guess I wasn’t looking too good in the morning, because after breakfast, Jon put on a shirt (which had to hurt like crazy), and went off to search for aloe vera. If I’d have known that he was going to traipse across three beaches looking for it, I wouldn’t have let him go. He came back with some fruity smelling lotion that had aloe as an ingredient in it somewhere, some aloe soap, and some burn cream from some clinic he had run across. We gave the burn cream a shot, but sunburns aren’t like other burns.

They’re like burns that have mutated so that they are impervious to all defenses.

 The burn cream stung. A lot. And I don’t think it did much good, except that it made us feel like maybe it would. Here I must concede that the placebo effect is a valid bit of science.

After the room got too stuffy, we went outside and sat in the shade. I was going to read, but I kept getting approached by salesmen wanting to sell me jewelry. And baskets. And dart guns.

Jon wanted a dart gun. Probably he would have mixed his own poison and used it as a tranquilizer at school. Luckily for his kids, he resisted buying it.

That afternoon, we ate at Lucio’s Italian Restaurant, supposedly the best food on the island. As we were eating, I noticed three very skinny little kitties wandering around on the fringes of the restaurant. I’ve never seen such skin-and-bones cats. I started feeding my expensive Italian pizza and cheesy chicken to the hungry kitties.

As we were eating, a couple of men selling baskets came up to the edge of the porch. They were looking up at us from below, and at first I shook my head and indicated that I didn’t want to buy. But every time I looked over, they would place a basket on the edge of the porch in my view, until they had a quite a little row lined up. And I knew that I was eating expensive Italian pizza and feeding cats, and those men were starving.

I didn’t even have to say anything. Jon looked at me and said, “We’re buying something from them,” and pressed P200 into my hand.

I bought a very small basket. I could have bought it for less. But why would I? I love that basket, not so much for its beauty as for what it stands for.

I loved how much good I could do there. I loved that all I had to do was step out my front door, and opportunities to give were screaming in my ears with silent, broken voices.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Falling in Love with the Philippines: Day 3

On Tuesday, we spent mostly the whole day traveling, first taking a jeepney to the LRT train station, and then the train to the bus station, and then a long, three-hour bus ride to Batangas, the port city where we wanted to catch a ferry to the beach in Mindoro, the island just south of Luzon where we had spent the first few days. The ferry ended up costing more than we had planned, what with insurance fees, and “optional” tips to the random people who yanked our luggage away, carried it a hundred yards, and then asked for a little something for their trouble.

Jon was getting pretty stressed out by all the salespeople and conniving baggage-carriers. As we were sitting at the boat terminal, waiting for our ferry to board, women kept coming up, trying to sell us hotel reservations, maps, more hotel reservations, vacation packages, refusing to be put off by our obvious lack of interest.

But there was one woman that stopped me that I will never forget. We were weaving through the markets of Bachlaran, up toward the stairs of the LRT station. She came forward gently, and, hand outstretched, palm cupped up, brushed my arm. I looked down at the open hand. She said nothing, but I knew that she was hungry, and I knew that she wouldn’t be begging if she had any other choice. In her arms was a baby boy, less than a year old. His arms beneath the white T-shirt had sores on them, and his face was dirty. Bits of colored string were threaded through tiny holes in his earlobes—the only adornment she could afford for her child. I turned to Jon who was carrying the money, and he pulled out a P20 note and handed it to her. She took it gratefully, but I wished it had been more. And it was I who should have given it. She had appealed to me, as a woman and as a mother—to someone who might really understand. I wish I could find her again. I wish that I would somehow cross paths with her one more time. But I know I won’t. Opportunities come once if you are lucky. And they don’t come again.

When we finally got on the ferry, a pretty little catamaran, the ocean breeze was hitting our faces, and all was feeling good, until they suddenly decided that there was a little rain coming down from above, and they had better shroud all the openings in rolls of thick, foggy plastic. No more breeze, no more ocean spray, no more beautiful vistas. The stifling heat made me feel a little naseous, so I eventually opted to ride the trip standing up, where I could feel a little air coming in from the bow of the boat and the movement of the ocean under my feet. After a while standing on a boat, looking out at the ocean, it feels like you are walking on water.
 
 Then the island came into view, and it was beautiful. We disembarked at Puerto Galera, where they had a free jeepney waiting to take us all to White Beach. It was a beautiful ride along a winding road in the jungle, little huts and simples houses built along the road and half-naked Filipinos running along, ladling water or carrying laundry or logs or fishing nets, laughing in that completely free and joyful way that Filipinos do, their lean brown arms swinging as they ran, their bare feet skipping between the trees, heedless of the way that those trees followed them, laughing with them.

We got to White Beach just about as the sun was setting. It was a sunset of blues and purples, not at all like the fire of home. We had planned on continuing out to Aninuan Beach or Talipanan, the next two beaches over, because they were supposed to be quieter, more open with fewer people and touristy stuff. But it was getting late, and we were able to find a cheap place to stay that night. We each paid about five dollars apiece for accommodations.

After feasting at a candle-lit beach restaurant, while sand crabs feasted on us, we caught the flame-throwing show some of the native boys put on. Their brown bodies shining with sweat in the flickering orange light of the fire, moved and danced and played with the power of nature, flames dancing in the black stages of their eyes. They threw and caught and morphed the flames, spinning, dancing, tumbling together, man and fire, on a tiny speck of land in the middle of the Pacific.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Falling in Love with the Philippines: Day 2




Monday, the second day in the Philippines, was about  as near a perfect day as there can be in this world. That day, we decided to hit Pagsangan Falls. It was a three hour bus ride to get there, and and then another fifteen minutes or so on tricycle. The bus ride was incredible, because it was like a getting little snapshots of the island as we sped through it. Everything from ramshackle shanties of rotting cloth and rusting tin that people lived in, to georgous mountain vistas and fields of rice and banana plantations stretching up into those mountains. Palm trees, curling streams, and towering mountains were everywhere. I was amazed at the poverty of the people living in the midst of such a stunning wealth of beauty. People stared up at me from the streets as I looked out the bus window. That’s something that was both flattering and really disconcerting; I get stared at everywhere there. By everyone. Openly, and unabashedly. I guess I am nothing like them.  At least on the outside. At least in our backgrounds and language and lives and stories. But somehow we're the same. Our smiles mean the same thing.

There was one town that we passed, where there was a group of women sitting at an old picnic table outside, next to their drying laundry strung from lines in the trees. One of them saw me through the window of the bus, and started whispering to another, pointing towards me. Pretty soon, the whole group was casting furtive looks in my direciton. I grinned and waved at them, and they suddenly all burst into smiles and started waving wildly at me. In that moment I felt so connected to them, though I knew nothing about them, not even a name.

Finally, we arrived at Santa Cruz, and took a tricycle to an old hotel that ran the boating service up to Pagsanjan Falls. The river was wide and beautiful, and all along it were small huts and homes, simple, bare dwellings for the fishing folk who made the river their home. We got in a canoe, and, paddled by two Filipinos who knew those waters natively and intimately, we started upriver. The fishermen stopped and watched us, unmoving, as we paddled past, probably quite used to the little wood canoes moving up and down the river. As we moved upriver, and started fighting against the rapids, the two boatmen became like little frogmen, jumping to and fro—out of the boat and back in, a leap over the bow of the boat to the other side, bouncing their bare feet in and out of the water, and pushing off rocks, guiding us perfectly up the stream, against the current, and avoiding the hundreds of rocky traps in our path. It was incredible! We would have capsized and wrapped that boat around a rock fifty times if we had been the ones guiding it.

The view was stunning as we started heading into the canyon. Stretching up on both sides was jungle and rocky cliffs—banana trees, plams, and thousands of other kinds of tropical vegetation. We could hear chattering monkeys, but they stayed out of sight. Apparently they only come out in the morning. I had never seen that kind of beauty before. The vines hanging down were dripping with water; the whole jungle was heaving with water that came down in streams and rivulets, along the trees and down the rock. The first fall we came to was tall and beautiful, and flowed well. This is the rainy season, and the river is high and the falls are strong. Sometimes during this season, they cannot take people past this first set of falls because the river becomes too flooded and dangerous. The day we went was, coincidentally, the first day of the season that the water had been low enough to take people all the way to the main falls.

Pagsanjan Falls is huge and heavy. It is not terribly high, at least visibly. The rock hides much of it. But it comes down as a mighty torrent of water, and shakes the river, creating huge waves the rock out from the place where the falls hits the surface of the river. Behind the waterfall is a black cavern called Devil’s Gate. When we got to the falls, we got out of our canoe and transferred onto a bamboo raft, paddled by more shirtless Filipinos. We headed straight into the waterfall. They say that the falls pounding on your body as you are directly beneath it is the best full-body massage you can get in all of the Philippines. We didn’t get to actually find out, because the falls were so heavy that going directly beneath them would have snapped our bones. We rode under off to the side, still getting a decently heavy downpour over us, but missing the real strength. Once inside the cave, they stopped the raft, and we looked out at the falls from the other side.

Jon and I took the guide’s invitation to swim with him, and jumped off the raft into the water inside the cavern. It was a great swim, an amazing ride, and as we pulled the raft back out and headed to the bank, I looked back and saw a perfect rainbow falling over the falls and into the water.

The ride back was fun, as we shot with the current over the 14 sets of rapids along the river. The sun was getting low, and kids were out along the river, washing clothes with rocks or pulling in the day’s haul of fish. We even saw some Cebu feeding along the river, obviously tamed by the folk who lived in the huts there. As we pulled past the rapids, the sun started getting low, and the river smooth out to glass that we glided along, seemingly effortlessly.


After a quick shower at the boat rental shop, we hopped the bus back to Paranaque, where we gave most of our coconut pie and twenty pesos or so to a few small, starving children, and hopped a jeepney back to Happy Coconuts, the look of a little girl’s stunned, joyful face, and her words, “Oh, thank you!” completely egraven in my eyes and ears. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Falling in Love with the Philippines: Day 1

We woke up the first morning in the Philippines to pouring rain. And I mean, torrential rain. The tropical storm that started a week or so before had not let up much, and when it rains, it rains hard. The streets were literally rivers, the water completely burying car tires in some places. It looked like cars were just being washed down a river. But no, they were driving, and somehow managing to get from A to B as if swimming in their vehicle was a normal part of their routine.

We decided to try to find church that morning, and set out, hopping on our first jeepney. Jeepneys are the major form of public transportation here. It looks like a jeep, except stretched out. Like a stretch limo would look if it were made of silver and rust. Apparently, they originate from World War II. Each jeepney has its own special name in curling letters across the front—the Christine, the Jennifer, the Workaholic. And in the window are little signs denoting roads and stops that are on that jeepney’s route. They cram people in; up to twenty people can fit on the vinyl benches if you get cozy and half sit on the guy’s lap next to you. But, they’re cheap. For a flat rate of 7 pesos, sometimes 10, you can get to any point on the jeepney’s route. Matted stuffed animals hang from the dashboard, and the plastic tarp they put over the open sides blows up in the wind, letting the rain in. But I love them. They are a brilliantly fun way to get around.

As long as you know where to get off.

We did. We were going to transfer from jeepney to the National Rail, which would take us to within a few blocks of the chapel. Unfortunately, when we got to the rail, we found that that particular piece of the rail had not been built yet. Thus began two hours of jeepney rides in what we hoped was the right direction, and then finally a crammed train ride into the area of town we were headed.

As we were standing in line, waiting for the train to come, I decided to put my camera away, back into Jon’s backpack. A man off to the side of Jon, who had been watching us, noticed what I was putting away. He slowly maneuvered from the side of to directly behind us. Jon put his arm around me and pulled me to his side so that when he talked to me, he had to crane his neck sideways, giving him an excellent corner-of-the-eye view of the would-be robber. I took a more direct approach. I looked over my shoulder and stared at the man—direcly, and unblinkingly, until he moved away.

The train ride was packed and sweaty, but not too bad. However, having come a different way than planned, we no longer knew where we were, or how to find the chapel, although we knew that it was close.

This section of the day is already a little muddled for me—so much happened. There were the beggars—the man with no legs that I didn’t see, but that Jon stopped for and gave all our change to. Then, there was the man, huddled and unmoving on a low brick outcropping, one large T-shirt on his body, and that was all. Not even any pants. There was some kind of see-through scrap of cloth wrapped around his lower body, and he was wet and shivering. He was badly diseased, and yellowed bandages covered about half of his face. He was barely moving, and I knew that the small stack of change we left on the wall next to him was not going to save him.

There was a feeling that came over me then, of a pain like I have not felt before. I’ve seen beggars, but I’ve never seen a beggar who was more than a beggar, who was so sick and poor and tattered that life was actually hell. I have never seen a beggar that I knew would die. It is haunting, and I felt so helpless, standing there, knowing that I could not change anything for him, shaking to realize that life is fragile and that, though we often think we are gods with our gadgets and medicines and shuttles to the stars, we ultimately have little power over life, and even less over death.

And then there were the children. As we were wandering around, lost, I saw a jeepney named “Jesus is the Lord,” turning off of the street in front of us. I decided it was a sign, and we should turn down that street. It led us right to them. Three boys, possibly brothers, none of them wearing anthing more than a pair of shorts, their bodies glistening with the rain and the murky water from the street. They were calling out to give rides on “tricycles,” another form of transportation here that is either a motorcycle or a bicycle with a sidecar fitting two people attatched to it. They ride or pedal you around for a fee. The place where the boys were was a section of road that had been badly flooded and was a couple of feet deep in water. They saw us dressed in our now soggy Sunday clothes, and tried to get us to hop in one of the waiting tricycles. They were probably working as recruiters for the drivers. When we told them no, they followed us, finally asking for some money. Unfortunately we had run out of change. We looked, but had nothing. We finally had to tell them we didn’t have any coins to give them. Then one of them said, “Please, I’m really hungry.”

I never ever want to hear those words from a child’s mouth again.

Jon and I looked at them, and Jon said, “I believe you,” as the other boys echoed the first. “Can you get us some food?” they finally asked. We walked to the corner drugstore.

The boys pointed us in the right direction for the church, and we walked into the last ten minutes of the meeting, just in time to hear the end of a mixed English and Tagalog talk and to sing a closing hymn. While we were there, we learned that there was a ward that met not ten minutes from our hostel, though we had traveled two hours to try to find a congregation.

But I was different after that day in the city.
And I don't believe in coincidences.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Falling in Love with the Philippines: Part One

Most people when they come to the Philippines, come and find a beach, buy some beer, and don’t move more than a one kilometer radius for the next six days. And they miss so much. They play tourist, and miss the heartbeat of the place they’re visiting.

We arrived in Manila Saturday night, and ended up taking a very expensive taxi ride from the airport to the Happy Coconuts Hostel where we had booked a stay for the next two nights. It was a good twenty minute ride into Paranaque, the next town south, with mellow English music playing in the cab. The taxi driver had been a taxi driver since he first learned to drive—basically his whole life. He pointed out the different things we saw as we passed them, and told us what prices to expect on jeepneys, and how to get from here to there.

It was one of those life-defining moments as I looked out of the taxi at a world so different from home, and so different even from the home I have found in Korea. Everywhere, tattered buildings looked like they were pieced together with rusty screws and spit, and then had the ocean waves beat on them for days on end.  Signs were mostly in English, mixed with some Tagalog, and here and there a word of Spanish.
The people themselves were sprawled out in the heavy, humid heat. Guys hung around at broken picnic tables and outside fruit stands, barefoot, shirtless, their teeth white and shining in the darkness. Kids ran around, played in the gutters, searched through garbage. I saw one skinny, dirty child begging on a street corner, not an adult in sight. Elsewhere, men were peeing on the side of the road, girls in shorts laughed and jangled in huddled groups, and toothless men and young boys picked through the refuse left by others.

One dog, skinny and hungry, slithered by, sniffing at an empty wrapper.

Between all the buildings rose palm trees and green vegetation, crawling up walls and around bends and curling around the spaces between things. The whole scene was heart-wrenching and heart-capturing, and I think I fell in love with the Philippines on that first taxi ride.

Well, the hostel proved a bit tricky to find. We knew that it had a bamboo gate and was across the street from a fruit stand, but the taxi driver, I think, wanted to fatten up his fare a bit, and we drove past it, and then for a long ways, going very slowly. We did eventually arrive, and found the hostel to be basically the nicest building I had yet seen. Real beds. Polished wood floors. Air conditioning. Wood cabinet dressers and large mirrors. Lavish for what I had seen thus far of the island.

A little ways down the road from the hostel is a river that flows through and tunnels under the road. It has tangled vegetation on both sides, but it flows strong and fast, and looks like a roaring snake curling through the jungle. It smells badly, and is littered with trash, but from a distance, is quite beautiful.

Beautiful. Even in the middle of a city, the palm trees wave, and there is salt in the air, and you can tell that it is an island. Filipino people look South American in every way, except that they have Asian eyes. The islands feel South American too. Even in the city, out away from the beaches and coconuts and fire dancers, you can tell that these are island people, and that, even if they're living in a cement box with a tin roof, they are people of the sea and the sky and the trees that wave in the air curling in from their salty shores.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Train Bound for Anywhere




I love trains. And buses. And subways. For someone who gets lost when she comes out of her apartment turning right instead of left, I have become quite adept at crisscrossing the country on trains.

Seoul by itself has 9 subway lines, with a combined 291 subway stations. Add in Incheon and the other surrounding cities in the metropolitan, and you've got an impressive tribute to mankind's refusal to stay in one place. 

There is a world of movement here. Underground subways with advertisements flashing outside your window like an electronic flip-book, magnet trains that can cross the country from tip to tip in three hours, completely silent and going so smoothly that you don't realize you're moving...These are only part of it. Five to ten times a week, I find myself on buses driven by men who think they're driving compact cars on straight highways, careening around corners and honking at red lights before barreling through. Every weekend, just to get to get to church, I take a bus from Incheon to Seoul, get off, and transfer onto a subway, which levels out into a track going straight over the Han River, fog and sparkling water on both sides, and then dives back underground. 

Sometimes I take buses without ever caring where I end up. Some people find comfort in a bottle, letting alcohol send them to a place where they can watch the world spin by without having to be a part of it. I suppose I have a somewhat less destructive, but just as effective escape of my own. From a bus or a train, I can look out my window at people and shops and cars, a world going about its usual business, as I sit all alone in a seat, isolated by language barriers and a glass window.  I hop on buses going anywhere, and then when I am the last passenger on the bus, and the driver asks "Odi, odi? Where are you going?" I say, "I don't know," and get off, and wait till a bus comes along going the other direction.

Sometimes I ride a bus with a friend, just to talk for an hour or two until the bus comes to the end of its route. 

Sometimes I really do need to get somewhere, and I look carefully at the Korean words denoting stops and transfers and arrival times. It was bus and subway signs that taught me to read Korean, and they are still what I read most. 

Sometimes I am given preferential treatment because I am white--like the bus driver who shared his package of gum with me and told me about his sister in America. Or the girl in the window seat next to me who gave me her last coffee before smiling quickly and waving, and embarrassedly hurrying off the bus. Sometimes people are prejudiced against me because of my white skin and blue eyes. I get pushed, yelled at, knocked over. I sit next to Koreans, and they change to a different seat on the bus or tell me in perfect English that they are not comfortable sitting next to foreigners. Sometimes they leave the bus completely. 

I ride buses when I want to be alone, and subways when I am feeling lonely. There are as many people on a subway as you want there to be. Subways are not so much like buses. On buses, people usually do not talk to each other. Human interaction is rare. On subways, everyone talks. You can make friends if you want to. You can also be invisible if you choose. Often, on subways, beggars come through. Usually beggars here are old, and often blind, lame, or missing various limbs. Many are veterans of war who have no means to care for themselves. I have a stash of cash in my backpack I keep for the beggars on the subways or on stairs of the subway stations. 

Once, I rode the Airport rail to the Incheon Airport island, because I felt like a sunset, and the sun always sets awfully majestically when it is over ocean. And then, just this last weekend, I took a three-hour train ride across the country to the beach on the eastern sea. There is nothing like a train ride where green, foggy mountains interspersed with rice fields and tiny villages and curling rivers, pass by outside your window like a National Geographic special.

Trains make me feel like I can get anywhere. When my days are hard, and in life I feel stuck, trains give me mobility. Buses let me feel like I am moving. And even if I end up back where I started, the trip is never wasted.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

City of Water





I will always think of  부산 (Busan) as a City of Water. Perhaps this is an inaccurate representation, but having only been there once, and unlikely to ever return, this image of the city is all that I will ever have. 

Busan is the second largest city in Korea, and fills the southern coast of the country. It lives on the water, and drinks from the East China Sea. The first day I was there, it was sunny and warm. Then, it didn't stop raining for the next two days. By the time I left, the streets were like little rivers, curling between buildings, and stone stairs throughout town had gutters cut down the sides, creating waterfalls that cascaded all the way down on either side of your feet. 

Most cities have a background ambiance of sound that is particular to them, like their own personal fingerprint. But all I can remember from Busan is an orchestra of raindrops. I remember laying on my "bed" (aka a blanket on the floor) of the hostel I was staying in, right across from the raw fish market and docks, with the window open, listening to the rain crash down on pavement, drum across wooden roofs, dance over aluminum garbage bins, and crawl through the swaying trees. I thought at the time how loud it made the city, and how different it was from snow, which made the whole world quiet. 

At one point, I climbed up to the top of the building my hostel was in, and crawled out onto the roof. I stood in the rain and watched it fall down and drown the city. It's a remarkable sight, looking down and seeing a sea of moving umbrellas in a hundred different colors, crawling down the sidewalks like bright, wet caterpillars. 

Well, the first day I was in Busan, there was absolutely no indication of any of this. The sun was high and hot, and it was Buddha's birthday. We decided to go see Beomeosa Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in South Korea. It was up in the mountains, cradled by a whole lot of green. We took a taxi, but the curving, one-way road winding up was crammed. As our cab fare ticked higher, we decided to just pay it and hike the last mile and half. The hike was gorgeous, and took us through trees, across stone bridges, down meandering paths and icy streams. It was so stunning, with a beauty that is not mine. I'm constantly reminded that I'm only a visitor here, and can experience Korea's beauty, but can never claim it. 

The temple itself was magnificent, with ornate buildings and stone carvings, and a sea of colored lanterns. But it was the tiny glimpses of humility that struck me most. As I wound through the lanterns and climbed the stairs toward the Buddha statue in the center, there was a small gathering of five or six old Korean women, hunched and wrinkled, sitting on prayer mats. Two more were on their knees, folded over on the ground, praying. 

And I thought about how many people were down below, eating the free temple food and laughing, and how few were up there, praying to the only god they knew.

The world is changing so fast. The youth here grow up in a fast, chattering, glittering world, and forget the faith and the religion of their fathers. And I wonder if Buddha will die with those few old women who still honor him, if he will fade away in the face of a new generation that worships other gods. And a part of me fears that the same thing is happening to Christ. No mortal man has died so many deaths as our immortal Savior, as He perishes with every generation that forgets Him.

The other sight that struck me at the temple was a tiny bracelet of wooden beads draped over the ear of one of the statues. All along the row of stone-carved beasts, shiny coins had been placed in piles on the statues' heads, shoulders, and mouths. And in amongst the treasure was that one band of plain beads, hanging there surrounded by others' silver. What an offering. What a humble, perfect gift for a god/prophet who taught his people to forsake the riches of the world.

There are so many stories about this trip. Of necessity, I must skip many. But I would like to mention the motorcycle-riding monk. After we came down from the temple and were eating rice cakes under the lantern canopy, we were approached by this old Korean monk who asked if he could have a picture with us. There were three of us girls and one guy. He asked the guy in our group to take the picture. Then he wanted individual shots with each of us girls. I was nice and polite, but inside I was cracking up. Afterwards, he regaled us with his many travels and showed us all the pictures on his camera of him with beautiful women all over the world. He then physically herded us toward the parking lot to show us his Honda motorcycle, and told us all about it. Pulling back his monk's robe, he showed us the Honda T-shirt he wore beneath. 

Well, the next day the water came. And we visited the beach and played in the surf, and found seashells tucked in the corners of rough, black rocks, and dodged the umbrellas on the mostly empty beach and watched the tide take the raindrops and make them part of the ocean. 

There was one older Korean lady who was perched on one of the jagged black rocks piled along the coast at the far end of the beach. She was just sitting there, looking out to sea, a blue and white umbrella hanging on her shoulders. I could only see her from behind, her hunched back and bright umbrella, facing off into the wild sea.The cold rain made the water seem unstable and frenzied, and more than usually mysterious. The ocean was not inviting, as it always is on a sunny day, neither was it menacing as it is in a storm. It was independent, aloof, and quite unknowable. And the image of her looking out at that ocean, lonely and free, was somehow riveting.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Finding Ocean


Last Saturday, lacking any plans to venture off to far-away cities, I decided to wander around my own. My friend, Jon, and I concluded that since we live in a coastal city, there must be an ocean around somewhere. Oceans are beautiful. And fun. We should find it.

Well, neither one of us knew exactly where the ocean was, but I very rarely know where anything is, and that has never stopped me. Plus, Jon had a kind of general idea of the direction it should be. That was good enough. We started walking.

We walked for an hour or so before we hit water. Alas, it was not the ocean. It was a river. A pretty river, yes, but there were no waves and tides and gulls flying into the sunset. So we kept going. Rivers flow into oceans. It had to be around somewhere. After another hour, I told Jon that if we didn't find it soon, he was going to be carrying all 120 pounds of me back home because my feet were going to fall off. Exaggeration? Absolutely. But it was fun to watch him re-evaluate his confidence that the direction we were headed was the right one. 

Eventually, we found the ocean. Yes, we had to crawl through a hole in a fence and walk up a huge dirt pile to see it, but there it was--the water that stretched out forever at the edge of my world. The sun was just starting to turn pale gold and slither down the sky, and the gulls were still flying high over the water--so many of them that their silhouettes looked like a black cloud dancing above the water.

We could not get very close to the water because, you see, there wasn't actually a beach. Or any sand at all for that matter.

What there was, was a long stretch of gray clay, pocketed with little holes of water left from high tide. 

The gray ooze was keeping me from my ocean. While Jon found himself a nice little perch on top of the dirt pile and sat down, I looked down at the squishiness and evaluated. 

Now, most people think I am impulsive. That's not true. Perhaps I do things that seem impulsive sometimes, but the actions are always carefully weighed against the consequences before I choose to do them. 

Although, I probably should have taken off my shoes and rolled up my pants before stepping down into the wet clay ground. I started carefully walking out, as the ground got squishier and slimier. Finally, the inevitable happened, and the clay took my foot prisoner. And I mean, my whole foot. And leg. Up to the knee. Had I been barefoot, I would have been able to pull out, but as it was, the ground held my shoes and legs like quicksand. Fortunately, Jon had, by this time, joined me (feet bare and jeans rolled up like any semi-sane person would do). He and the ground played tug-of-war with me for a few moments before I was free. We then continued on out so that I could get pictures of the beautiful sunset, as it turned gold and then orange and then red, reflecting off the water like a thousand thousand mirrors, and then slipping behind the foggy city in the distance. 

When the sun was gone, it started to get really cold, so we picked our way back to the road, sloshed through some pools of water to get off the worst of the mud, and then started back, eventually hopping a bus back home. 

My socks were stained gray and my shoes will never be the same, but those pictures, and the ridiculous fun of that random day are a hundred times worth it. 

Monday, April 19, 2010

An Anthology of Children

Just a little look into some of my kids:




1. The first day of class, about six weeks ago, I was in with my three-year-olds. There were a lot of them. I was intimidated. However, the lesson started off fairly well, and I had them expertly applying stickers to their workbook pages in no time. All of a sudden, two of the boys, Billy and Jake, who were sitting next to each other, turned in their seats (as if on cue) towards each other, moved their faces together until they were three inches apart, and promptly started screaming at the top of their lungs. I was completely caught off guard, and there was no way I could be heard above it, so I went over and physically turned them away from each other. The screaming stopped and they returned to their work. Five minutes later, they turned toward each other, moved their faces together, and started screaming again. This occurred every five minutes for the rest of class, with no apparent reason or motivation.  I don't know if they planned it, but it was so bizarre and completely in sync that it had to have been masterminded.

2. The other day, I took my youngest class into the gym, because we were learning about the five senses, and the lesson book said I was supposed to teach them how to play Blindman's Bluff. Of course, that is a super complicated game to explain to ten three-year-olds whose English vocabulary consists of about thirty words and a dozen or so facial expressions. So mostly I just blindfolded one kid and then let them all run around screaming and trying to tag/maul/drag each other to the floor. As I was refereeing this chaos, I looked over at the stage, and saw Billy sitting in the corner by the audio equipment and projector. He had several cords grasped in his chubby little hands, and was trying to stick them into their corresponding holes in the equipment. I immediately ran over to save the expensive toys, but when I tried to pry Billy from his game, he clutched the cords to his chest, threw himself onto the projector, and started screaming bloody murder. (Troy, I think I may have a guy for your crew in twenty years or so ).

3. There is, in one of my classes, a little four-year-old named Daniel. Daniel is very quiet, always happy, and always daydreaming. I don't know what he thinks about, but I can tell that he is far away a lot of times. He seems to like the other children, but I think he likes to be alone more. He loves to sit next to me, but only participates in the lesson when I consciously draw him into it. Over the first few weeks, I noticed something. When I gave drawing assignments, whether to draw shapes or family members, or anything they wanted, Daniel always, without fail, drew the same thing. First he drew a house. And then he started attaching balloons to it. All colors of balloons. He would get so engrossed in his picture, that he was usually the last to finish. But when he was done, he had a perfect rendition (as far as a four-year-old could do) of the house from the movie "UP." I love those pictures. They are somehow, just HIM. Last week, we were reading a picture book, and in it was a hot air balloon. Daniel saw it and got all excited, pointed to the hot air balloon, and shouted, "UP!!!"

4. Chris is one of my five-year-olds. He's been in English kindergarten for a year already, and he understands pretty much anything I say, as long as I keep it simple. His English is surprisingly advanced, and he is starting to read. Last week was his birthday, and after we finished a short birthday party in the gym, I led them back to class the classroom to wait for their Korean teacher (my partner) to come. I was leaving the classroom to head to my next class, when I noticed that Chris was kind of trailing behind after me. I turned back and knelt down and asked if I could have a hug. He ran to me, threw his arms around me, and kissed me. "Teacher, I love you." And then he was off, back to the classroom.

5. One day, as I was leading my five-year-olds down the hall to wash their hands for lunch, Andrew, always at the end, stopped at the window of another classroom, and stood looking in, with his hands on the glass. I went back to fetch him. "Teacher, Kelly is SO cute!" he said with a huge smile. (She really is. He has good taste).

6. Coloring assignment. Ten 3-year-olds. Ten papers. 100 crayons. I look around to see their progress. Half of them are eating their papers. The other half are eating their crayons. 

7. "Teacher? You have yellow hair and are from far away. And you are pretty. Are you a princess?"

8. Helena is one of the smartest kids I have. She is three. She also thrives on two things: being the center of attention, and being in a position of power. She's either going to grow up to be a brilliant business-woman, or the next dictator of North Korea. One day, I walk into class. The kids are sitting quietly on the floor, building something with blocks. Helena sees me come in, turns to the kid sitting next to her, and whispers something. Before I know it, the whole class is running around the classroom, roaring, pretending to be dinosaurs. It took me fifteen minutes to calm them down. She is also a sticker-stealer. By the second week of school, I caught her stealing stickers from other kids' sticker charts and putting them on her own. She cried when I sat her down to talk about it, and promised that she wouldn't anymore. The next time, she got a bunch of other kids to stand over there in the corner so that she could hide behind them when she stole stickers. Too bad teacher can see that her sticker chart is almost full and Billy's next to her only has two stickers. 

9. My six-year-olds think it's hilarious to hear me try to speak Korean. Their favorite thing in the world is to mock me. Crystal especially. When I try to teach an English word, she will say, "Teacher, teacher, in Korean, it's bulgogi'. Or whatever it is. Then, if I repeat it, she just laughs and laughs. Then she immediately tries to get me to repeat other Korean words. I must have a terrible accent.

10. I walk into class one day, and Sarah lifts her arms above her head into a heart. "Teacher, I lub you!" Pretty soon the whole class is copying. "Teacher, I love you!"  I didn't even teach them that.

Monday, April 5, 2010

If Easter Never Came

I did not intend to write this message. But yesterday was Easter, and there have been some thoughts on my mind that have been demanding a voice, that are too important to let fade in silence. Easter has always had a lot of significance for me, but this year, it positively changed me. This was not because of fun activities I participated in, or special messages I heard, or worship I felt.

It was because, for me, it never came.

Easter is the most important holiday in Christianity. I realize that in saying this I am going against thousands of people who would hold banners and holler that Christmas, the holiday named after the Author of Christianity himself, trumps this other tiny day that blooms for a brief moment in the youth of spring. But Christmas celebrates the fact that Christ lived. Easter declares that He lives. And this is the truth that saves me.

Usually, on Easter, I arise early, and in the dark of a still and pressing night, I climb a mountain. And then, sitting there on the peak or the summit of the only hill I can find in the city, I watch the sun swell over the horizon, lighting a blinding golden fire in the sky, filling the whole atmosphere with yellow and gold and pink and orange…and light. So much light that I can no longer remember my climb of darkness. And then I sing. 

“He is risen, he is risen, shout it out with joyful voice! He has burst his three days’ prison, let the whole wide earth rejoice! Death is conquered, man is free…Christ has won the victory!”

The words I can only sing haltingly, the notes pouring out with no precision and little beauty. But they mingle with the sunrise, and it is, somehow, enough. Darkness swallowed up in light. Death swallowed up in life. Despair swallowed up in hope. The end swallowed up in a new beginning.

But this year, there was no sunrise. There were no Easter hymns. And the world, my world, did not begin again. I could not find Christ. I could not find him on the subway or in the church, or on the grounds of His own temple. I tried. I looked for Him. But Easter morning turned to afternoon, turned to evening, and I found myself walking dark, foreign streets alone, shivering in the cold, my feet throbbing from uncomfortable high heels, wondering why Easter never came.

Normally when I am lonely, I know that God is there beside me. But there is another loneliness that is deeper, that swallows hope and quenches light. Last night, on those shadowy streets, I felt the loneliness of looking for God and not finding Him—like looking for the North Star and finding that, not only was it gone, but that every other star had also fallen from the sky, leaving it a vast sheet of everlasting darkness. The world felt as empty as if He had deserted all of creation and left it to spiral onward to its own self-destruction.

No, Easter did not come. And I wondered why I had to feel that—why when I desired to feel hope and life and light, I should be left in darkness. And then, quietly, and with the perfect teaching of a loving Father, a different question was put into my mind—What if, 2,000 years ago in a dusty city in a far-off land, that first Easter had not come?

What if Mary had gone to the tomb, and the stone was there, and it was not empty? What would the world be like today?

If, on that Sunday morning of long ago, Mary had found the body of her beloved Master, undisturbed in its borrowed tomb, my empty Easter would have been every Easter afterward. And every day. For every person in this crumbling, trembling, crying world.

The sacrament would be just another piece of bread. The temple would be just another building. And Easter would be just another day.

I know what life would feel like without Easter. I felt it yesterday, and I am full of gratitude for that gift. Because today I woke up with the sun and fell on my knees and thanked my God that the one time it mattered most, Easter came.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Two Words

Today I got to thinking about the five or six Korean phrases I know well. And then I got to thinking that there is only one of those phrases that I have used five to ten times a day since I got here. No, it is not "anneyong haseyo" (hello). It is not "goodbye" or "I'm sorry." It is not "I'm lost."

The one phrase that has lived in my mouth since I arrived is "gamsa haminda"--"Thank you."

And in a world that is sometimes incomprehensible and frustrating because I cannot communicate--when I end up walking out of a store empty-handed because I do not know how to explain to the clerk that I need garbage bags--I find that the ability to express gratitude makes all the other communication barriers mere trivialities.

"Gamsa hamnida" and I bow my head, and they smile, and I realize how easy it is to make people feel valued. No speeches, no lavish gifts. You don't have to make them your best friend and confide your deepest secrets. They just want to be noticed. Acknowledged. Connected with for half a second, when you put life on pause to say, "I see you."

Two words is all it takes.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Yes, Some Who Wander are Lost

Saturday. I'm hungry; my fridge is empty. I decide to go to E-Mart.  I've been there once, I know one of the buses that stops there...noooo problem.

Wrong.

The ride to the E-Mart was ten minutes. The ride home was three hours. (For those who are unaware of the significance of this, I could have ridden to Busan, on the southern tip of the country, in four). As I boarded the #1 bus, which I had arrived on, and settled into my seat, I was rather pleased with myself for not having gotten lost. It was two stops later that I realized that we were heading AWAY from home, and that the determined little Asian man at the wheel was not planning on turning around any time soon.

Not even for a silly little American girl whose eyes have just grown wide at the realization that she is headed into uncharted territory with no cell phone and no ability to communicate her address to the bus driver, assuming she knew her address. Which she didn't.

I saw three options:
1. Hop off at the next stop, find a bus going the other direction, and hope it went by my apartment. If I ended up in the middle of nowhere, I had food and a pocketknife.
2. Give myself a tour of the city and see where bus #1 ended up. Eventually it would reach the end of the route and turn around.
3. Wander back three rows to the boys who had been talking about me for the last fifteen minutes (quietly practicing their English of "Hi, how are you? Where are you from? You are cute.") and see if I could borrow a cell phone.

The boys amused me, and I didn't want to ruin it, so I decided on option number two.

So that's what I did. I gave myself a tour of Incheon. And Gimpo. And Hyundai.

And I ate cookies made in France and sold in Korea as I looked out at Asian shops with American posters in the windows and thought how fascinating the world is.

All the while, I filed away information on the Blue Bus #1 route:
3 middle schools
2 elementary schools
1 high school
1 Incheon Civic Center
8 Outdoors and Sports stores
17 clothing shops
1 tall clown on stilts handing lollipops to teenagers
1 Buddhist temple
2 parks with Asian trees and waterfalls
10 bars for Koreans
2 bars for foreigners
3 very skinny roads where a bus like ours should not have been allowed
1 stunning view of the Han River

Eventually, the bus did come to the end of the route. The bus driver tried to motion me off the bus, but I shook my head and tried to indicate that I wanted to stay on and keep him company on his way back (I was, by then, the only passenger). We played back and forth between American and Korean sign language for awhile, until I gave him the name of my town and he shook his head and muttered and indicated that it would be a long time till we got there. I nodded and smiled and sat back down.

By the time I got back home, I was tired, but my head was spinning with pictures from the city and countryside, and I went to bed happy.

I could end the post here and save myself the embarrassment of continuing, but I'm off work for the weekend and my apartment is warm and I have nothing better to do.

So, the next day was Sunday. And I wanted to go to church. In English. So, I took my trusty map of the subway system, and a piece of paper with my director's phone number in case of an emergency, and wandered out to my bus stop to find Bus #81, which, I was told, would take me to the subway station in Geomam.

It did. And the subway took me to the station at Gimpo, where I transfered subway lines. And that subway took me into Seoul, where I got off and started wandering the streets, trying to follow the vague directions I had been given to the church.

I found it. There are stories worth telling about the next seven hours, but not in this lovely post about being lost. We shall skip to after the single's activities and dinner, when my new friend, Jon, and I boarded the subway to head home. Jon was the only other person in the ward who lived out in my area of town, so he decided to travel back with me and see where I lived so that we could get together sometimes on the weekends if we were bored. We did just fine until we hopped the 81 bus to head back to my apartment. It should have been a 15-min. ride.

As it turned out, the bus never went by my apartment. I don't know why. Except that I am doomed to be lost all the days of my life. After we rode the 81's short circle route a couple times, we hopped off and caught another 81, hoping this one would make the right stop. It didn't. We got back on another 81, which was actually the same as the first one. The bus driver recognized us.

We got off. Walked to another bus stop. Got on. The bus driver was now quite perplexed.
We got off. And decided perhaps we should try a different bus. We got on a #78.

At one point, I made Jon get off the bus with me because I saw a Paris Baguette breadshop and thought my apartment must be nearby. Jon didn't bother to tell me until we had gotten back on another bus that Paris Baguette has shops on just about every corner in Korea.

Through the whole thing, he was grinning and teasing me and having a great time. He thought it was sooo hilarious that I didn't know where I lived and couldn't find it. He said he had been meaning to just hop a bunch of buses one Saturday and orient himself to the city.

And really? It was a lot of fun. Riding buses around with a martial artist who is in love with literature, people, sleeping under the stars, watching sunsets on mountain tops, and trying to take a chunk out of world hunger by teaching economics, really made for a good evening.

The 78 didn't go by my apartment...

But, hey, the 76 did.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Taste of Korea

Korean food is something else. And often, it’s made from something else that I don’t really want to know about.  However, all my nightmares before I came of spearing my own fish and eating it raw and then puking from giardia for the next two days, seem to have been unfounded after all…So far.

Now, I will try almost anything once. And if it doesn’t make me sick, I will usually try it again. Two shots—that’s what you get to convince me.

So, let’s first cover the basics. In Korea, with every meal, you are served a bowl of rice. (The rice is sticky rice, which I love).  With every meal except breakfast, you are also given a bowl of soup.  And then, there are a variety of side-dishes. These are served in communal dishes that you just stick your chopsticks into right along with the dude next to you.  (If you have a problem with germs, this is not the country for you). Most Koreans will take bits of these side dishes and mix them with their rice. The kids are much more gung-ho about this, and will mix everything on their plates together, including the soup. It ends up looking kind of like it’s already been half-digested… Luckily, the adults don’t do this so much.

Also, on the table with most meals is kimchi. (Oh, the dreaded kimchi!) This is not, however, actually revolting. It’s not. It is very spicy, as are most dishes here, and doesn’t taste at all like the rotten vegetables it actually is. I don’t love it, but I’ll eat it.

Another thing that’s big here is seaweed. Seaweed is gross. I tolerate it.

Well, one of the first nights I was here, before I’d really been introduced properly to Korean cuisine, I had a cheeseburger that Patrick was so kind as to order for me. I think he told me “cheeseburger” just so he could see my reaction when I bit into it. He was amused.

This was, if you haven’t guessed, not exactly a cheeseburger. The wrapper said it was a “Hanwoo Steak Burger.” I initially intended to look up “hanwoo” and see what kind of animal that was, but then I decided that maybe shouldn’t.  And I left it at that.

The burger was not too bad, really. The strangest thing about it was the “fixings.” On one side, there were onions. On the other, was broccoli and mushroom pieces glued together in some gray colored-something and smeared onto the bun. 

Ask no questions, and you won’t throw up your lunch.

One more “interesting” experience before I tell you that I actually really love most Korean food:

On the first day of classes, I ate lunch with the kids at school, which is normal.  On this day, for one of the side dishes, they had these little crispy things that looked kind of like Chinese noodles, except a little darker and a lot stickier. They were covered in some kind of sweet sticky sauce, and tasted excellent!  I was about halfway through them, mixing them into my rice a little at a time, when I stopped, horrified. The crispy little noodle things had eyes.

I’m not talking like potato eyes or something. I’m talking EYEBALLS. That’s when I realized what I was eating—fishies. Itty bitty fishies who still had their itty bitty eyeballs and bones and everything.

I was suddenly a bit queasy. I don’t like fish. I detest it when it is still recognizable as such. But I had liked them before I knew what they were. It’s just that, now, every time they crunched, I imagined tiny little skeletons breaking into pieces. And the eyeballs…They were wide open, staring at me as they had stared in their moment of death…I couldn’t get over the eyeballs. At that moment, little Crystal held up her tray to me and said, “More fish please.” I just looked at her. She knew what they were and still wanted them?! Culture fascinates me sometimes. It’s kind of like brainwashing from birth. I’ll have you know, though, that I finished my fishies. I will not be outdone by a five-year-old.

Well, after all that, let me say that I have grown quite fond of Korean food. There are so many delicious dishes. Beef bulgogi is one of my favorites, as are the egg and bacon sides. Gimbop is really good if you can get past the seaweed it’s wrapped in. Sweet and sour is classic and is big here. The Ramen tastes like it has a whole bottle of Tobasco sauce in it, which is kind of fun.  But what Korea really does is pork.

A couple of nights ago, I was down at the school late, trying to finish up lesson plans for the next week, and eventually Patrick and Sunny were ready to close up, so they insisted that I come to dinner with them. So, I went to dinner with the boss, his wife, and his mother-in-law. We went to a Korean barbeque. And let me tell you, it is an entirely different experience going to dinner at a Korean restaurant with Koreans, than it is going with Americans.

I had been to a Korean barbeque with Sarah and Brianne, the other American teachers at my school, but the experiences were completely different. For one, when you go with Koreans, you are seated in a different place. Usually, part of the restaurant has normal tables and chairs like we’re used to in the West, and part has low tables and mats that you sit on on the floor. They will usually sit a group of Americans at a regular table. But if you go with Koreans, you take off your shoes at the door, and are seated at the low tables on the mats.

Another thing that is different—the sides that come with your meat. When I went with Sarah and Brianne, the sides were very good, but very safe. When I went with Sunny and Patrick, our sides included raw tuna, wasabi paste and stew (dang hot!), some other really hot something, cold kimchi water, and a drink made of burned rice.

But the BBQ was amazing. Korean barbeque is famous, and there’s a reason for it. In the center of your table is a hole, and in the hole are charcoal briquettes. Your meat is grilled right on your table. They slap the meat on there, and you cut it and turn it, and all that as you eat your sides.  And during this meal, I made a discovery. I have never really liked pork all that much, but that is because Americans have NO CLUE how to season or cook it. Pork here is to die for. Americans do steak. Koreans do pork.

It ended up being a really fun time. They wanted to order me some beer or soju (popular alcoholic drink made from rice), but when I declined and told them that I didn’t drink alcohol, they all ordered Sprite. That’s something else I noticed. Hospitality here is not only that your guest be provided the things they need, but that the very environment be tailored to their specific comfort.

Also, I kept watching the mother-in-law, Rachel. Through all of this, she was absolutely attuned to me. The minute my glass was empty, she would remind Sunny to refill it. She didn’t speak English, but that didn’t matter. As soon as a few pieces of meat were done on the grill, she moved them over to my plate. She ate a little, but if I had finished mine when more meat was done cooking, it went on my plate.

Finally, I announced that I was full, which was mostly true. I could have eaten more, but didn’t need to. And I realized that only after I was completely finished, would Rachel eat. I thought about this, and later asked Patrick some general cultural questions, and I realized that Rachel is part of an older generation—a generation that has seen harder times in Korea, that is more traditional, and more immersed in the old ways. In this country, “Have you eaten today?” or “What are you going to eat when you get home?” are
common greetings instead of “How are you?”or “Goodbye,” because there was a time when the majority of people here were poor and did not get enough to eat. Korea is now a large industrialized, modern nation, and starvation is not a real problem, but the traditions of the past still make up the fibers of their social and behavioral codes. And there is a kind of grace in it that is enthralling and mysterious, and very beautiful.