Sunday, October 30, 2005

Hunting & Gathering

Can I be the only one who thinks it's just plain wrong that the Tous Les Jours bakery is closed on Sunday?

Oh, well. And it's not a translation thing because the sign is in English. Or, well, French. I meant the Roman alphabet. Funny, I hadn't thought about that before, that the two bakery chains Tous Les Jours and Paris Baguette are both actually written in French, although I think of them as being "in English" because they're not in hangeul script. They are everywhere in Daegu. I am fond of lunching at the ones by work (where there's one of each). But as for my bakery on the corner, I was out of luck this morning.

I have decided to allow myself the treat on Sundays of eating at a Western restaurant (TGIF, Outback Steakhouse, and any others I can find). This probably disappoints some people I know, but such is life. I will also freely admit that I have been frequenting Dunkin' Donuts in the mornings. It's as if I never left Boston! The Dunkin' Donuts thing, though, is one to which I see no alternative for getting a coffee. There are a billion coffee shops here, but not as we know them in the states. They're great: comfy seating, food, and beer, too, in addition to the coffee, but they are a nighttime hangout! They are not open for the morning fix.

I will also just declare right now that I did visit the Starbucks. Only once so far. Regrettably it is not on the way to work, but one can hope that when one moves to one's new place in a few weeks it just might be. Starbucks is in central Daegu in the bustling shopping nightlife fun times district on the second-floor of a big bookstore called Kyobo Books. The bookstore has some English books and a very Barnes & Noble feel. That's right, Barnes & Noble. I wanted to cry tears of joy when I stepped into that Starbucks. They served me my grande iced latte in a glass! I might go there once a week.

Finally, to complete my fall from grace, I located a Subway (the sandwich place) and I decided life here would work out after all. It is conveniently located down the block from the subway (the train station) so my new system is to walk to work, as before, but take the slightly-out-of-the-way subway to Subway on the way home. Way way way way cool. This week I had reached my breaking point with the Korean food, I think. It is just not my cup of tea (pun oh-so-intended). With the notable exception of the vegetable pancake-like thing I had at Gatbawi. And then, Subway appeared and it was like the heavens opened up and I heard glad tidings of great joy: "Fear not, for you shall bring forth a vegetarian sandwich to your home each day, and if you get a 12-inch, you can have dinner for the next day, too." And so it is. I seriously think I will eat there every day, at least until we move. So, for one month I will, aspiring only to be as cool as that Jared dude who ate at Subway every day for a month and now his pants are way too big.

I am aware that this gets me some demerits in the intrepid traveler record book. Demerits I can live with. The clam in my tofu, I can live without.

In Outback Steakhouse, there was random restaurant music playing overhead, including English pop, soft rock, R & B, and then, suddenly, some rap. Serious rap. Now, I know that all things hip-hip are cool here, but this was the unedited version of some seriously intense rap. It was so jarring to be sitting in a restaurant and suddenly hear "the mother f-in this and the n-word that" and to look around and realize that no one had any idea how, well, inappropriate it was. It was really amusing. It was weird to imagine what exactly it sounded like to native Korean speakers, how innocent it clearly must seem, compared to how loaded the words are for me and my fellow native English speakers.

Before I went in search of my bloomin' onion, I visited the Daegu National Museum this afternoon. It was just lovely. It is a nice brick building with grounds that include a flower garden, poetry garden, medicinal plants garden, traditional dye plants (including indigo!) garden, and so on. Inside there are art and artifacts on display from the Daegu region and the Gyeongsangbuk-do province. They come from various periods in this area's history, going as far back as the neolithic. Neolithic! !!! That's 10,000 B.C.E.! I couldn't believe I was staring at pottery and spearheads from more than 10,000 years ago.

I learned a lot about the development of the different styles of pottery from each of the different kingdoms and from the unified Three Kingdoms period. The archaeology gallery was fascinating, but I must admit my favorite was the Buddhist art history gallery. There were Buddha statues of all sizes -- again, really old -- plus bells, gongs, metalwork, jewelry, and even a big carved dragon head that once sat atop the flagpole of a temple. Some of the pieces had really intricate carvings of the lotus flower, which is the symbol of Buddhism, and I finally learned why it's the symbol of Buddhism (duh!): it is supposed to represent overcoming the evils and suffering of this world, just as the lotus emerges from the swamp to become a very beautiful flower. Isn't that nice?

Except when the occasional rambunctious child ran screaming by, delighted by his voice echoing through the gallery, I was pretty much in a reverie as I wandered from room to room and display case to display case. I kept finding myself staring transfixed at a 9th-century earring, or at the model scenes of Confucian ceremonies in the Traditional Folk Life gallery. I was so struck by the long history of this country and all the remnants of it that I can walk in and look at, six inches from my face. The museum really got me thinking about life, in the sense of just what do we leave behind?

I remember doing an exercise in elementary school (SAGE, for those to whom that means something) where you were reading about an imagined archaelogical excavation and it turns out they're way in the future unearthing things like golden arches. What will the archaeologists think about Dunkin' Donuts? What if they think it started in Korea and spread to New England? Will they understand what a Chinatown is? And are we going to stop keeping written and printed records because everything is on computer chips? Will we revolutionize communication so much that we unwittingly lose the ability to communicate with the future? Or will they just travel back in time to learn what they need to learn?

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Got bawi?

So I was going to go to Seoul today, but I climbed a mountain near Daegu instead.

Of course it's very dramatic to say that one climbed a mountain, but I assure you, this was no easy little paved hike. I was sweating! It was similar to a, say, Squaw Peak (yeah, Piestewa, whatever) in that it had a wider cement-laid path at first but you end up scrambling between rock crevices and sweating through the switchbacks, swearing you'll quit but somehow finding the strength to keep going. It was definitely a higher mountain than the peak formerly known as Squaw, though. And it was a 2 km trail, so that is about the same length, right? Translation: some of it was really steep.
(apologies to those of you who don't hail from Phoenix and are wondering just what exactly is a Squaw and/or Piestewa Peak. it's just a really good frame of reference for a bunch of people in my life.)

I climbed the mountain to see Gatbawi, described by Lonely Planet as "a national treasure some 850 m above sea level." You do the math. What is this treasure, you ask, this Gatbawi (pronounced got-bah-we)? Well it's a medicine Buddha sculpted out of stone on top of a peak and it is very famous in these parts if for nothing else than for the flat stone "hat" that seems to hover above his head. There is now a stone plaza in front of this huge rock sculpture where believers do their thing in droves. They climb and climb and walk up a bunch of stone steps to pray and it is quite a sight to behold.

The Koreans do love their mountains! Many of them hike every weekend. They all have walking sticks and killer hiking boots. I had neither. A lot of them also wore gloves, sparking in me fears that there are all manner of weird diseases to be picked up. This was not exactly off the beaten path though. There were oodles of people, refreshments and restaurants and a youth hostel at the bottom, benches, and so on. The Palgonsan Provincial Park is supposedly a fifty-minute bus ride from Daegu, but my long-past-intrepid-and-pushing-crazy bus driver took those curves at some speed that got us there in just under thirty.

I caught the bus near Dongdaegu Station, a big bus and train gateway, where I arrived my first day. Which was actually my second day, or even my third, depending on how you look at it, but you know what I mean. Anyway, I felt much more knowledgeable wandering around Dongdaegu Station this time (it means East Daegu, by the way) but not quite knowledgeable enough to figure out where the bus was, amid many choices: the Express Bus Terminal, the Intercity Bus Terminal, the train station bus stop, the nearby street bus stops, and none seemed to have the bus number I needed. Luckily, I spotted a "Tourist Information" (in English!) sign, where a very nice woman told me all about catching bus #104 across the way, to the right, down the stairs. She also said, "You know if you go to Gatbawi you are climbing one hour?" I nodded eagerly. Well, I mean, the Lonely Planet guidebook had said 45 minutes, but you know. Give or take.

I was at Dongdaegu because I had vaguely planned to catch a train to Seoul, but here's why I didn't: number one, I sort of frittered away the morning and I didn't get over to the train station until about 1:30 p.m., so I decided it might be better to go to Seoul tomorrow and have the whole day there. Two, I was somehow feeling a pull to check out Palgonsan Provincial Park, which I'd heard so much about, so when I got off the subway I checked the guidebook to discover that the buses to said park leave from Dongdaegu station (or thereabouts) and I took it as a cosmic sign. Three, I will also admit, a large part of my motivation for going to Seoul this weekend - larger than it should be anyway - is that I read rave reviews on-line about a Mexican restaurant there.

Can you believe it? Real live good Mexican food, in Korea! Now, I've been planning to sightsee in Seoul anyway, obviously, it being a huge city full of adventures-in-waiting, but now that I know of this Mexican eatery I may have moved my Seoul trip up a few weeks in my mental schedule. Yes, I may have done that. But I decided to be a tiny bit more practical today than going all the way to Seoul just for dinner, and at least take the trip on a day when I can see a Buddhist temple or two there as well.

Which brings me back to our good friend the Buddha.

The bus dropped us at the bottom of the mountain in the Gatbawi tourist village. I followed the stream of people onto a wide path that got progressively narrower as it led me up the mountainside, but not before passing by a stage performance of some traditional dance and drumming. I was struck by how much in look and feel and sound-of-drum it sounded like Navajo music. Interesting, what with ancient peoples crossing land bridges and whatnot.

After a few minutes I had already gone from signs that said "Gatbawi 2km" (mostly in Korean but I can read "Gatbawi" now) to "Gatbawi 900 m" so I thought, oh, man, I've totally licked this. Even if I am carrying just a few more things in my backpack -- in case I decided to stay the night in Seoul I'd brought extra socks, contact lens solution, and the like -- than I'd reasonably like to be lugging up this trail, but no sweat, I've totally got this.

That's when I passed the first temple terrace. There were a couple of buildings to peer into to see golden buddhas, candles, and so on, and a big water fountain at which people were drinking like racehorses. That should have been my first clue. I climbed the steps and headed on down the path and then my thigh muscles started asking, now, Linda, just what have you roped us into here? Luckily I had brought water in my bag o' tricks.

Sometimes, on the back side of the slope, when things got really hairy, it was hard to tell exactly which way the trail went amid the scattered stones and layer of fallen leaves. But it was definitely well-traveled and I never went more than two minutes without seeing someone I could follow at the fork in the road. I also didn't mind stopping to enjoy the breathtaking views of the autumn mountainside, a coating of green on which it looked like someone had thrown handfuls of amber and goldenrod leaves like you would toss grains of sand.

As my heaving lungs and pulsing veins got closer to the top, I heard the familiar sounds of chanting and I was able to follow it like a little guide to the still-hidden-from-view Gatbawi. At the very end, when you're basically scurrying up a slab of rock, there are ropes to guide you. The chanting was getting louder. A smell decidedly like nail polish washed over me. I rounded the corner and there were a building, stairs, and a vendor or two. And suddenly there was the promised stone plaza, covered by people on prayer mats mid-prostration, ringed by hikers along the railing enjoying the view.

The medicine Buddha was up high, so I gazed at him for a while, stepping carefully around the faithful. There was so much incense burning up at the front, below him, that it nearly gagged me. I'm not entirely sure what the nail polish-esque smell was; there were some construction workers mixing cement off to the side who seemed to be repairing part of the plaza's foundation (a simultaneously comforting and disturbing thought), so maybe that had something to do with it.

I found a plaque in Korean and English, and it informed me, among other things, of the following: "It is said the image was sculptured from natural rock in 638...Its hair style and treatment of two hands reflect fashionable Buddhist image in the 8th century...The serious expression of face and lines of robe prove a masterpiece of Buddhist images sculptured in the 9th century." Oh well, seventh, eighth, ninth, who's counting?

Bizarrely, I saw someone I know. And I don't know that many people! I'm pretty much used to Koreans, especially middle-aged and older (perhaps I should say "those past the MTV generation"), staring at me like I have three heads. It happens to us foreigners all of the time. So it took me a minute to realize that someone making eye contact and holding my gaze was actually greeting me and I should stop ignoring her. It was one of the administrative directors at Ding Ding Dang! How fun, to chat with her on top of a mountain. She said, "Did you come by yourself?" Sure. I think maybe she was on a date, so I didn't keep her long. We saw each other a couple more times on the way down, too; she passed me while I stopped to tie my shoes, and I then passed them while she rested on a bench. She seemed happy to see me there. "This place is very famous in Daegu!" she said. I'd noticed.

As I went down the most treacherous, never-ending, jagged stone portion, I thought, wow. This was really hard to come up! I kind of felt like Spider-Man, crouching and slinking my way down the path. Only without any suction cups or webbing to hold me. It was just easier to crouch and then straighten my leg a lot of the time than to take the giant steps down. I was worried about my trick knee (you know, the ol' bookshelving injury...) and it did feel a little on fire when I got to the bottom.

Luckily, right there was a woman making some sort of pancake concoction outside a restaurant. I eyed them carefully and then asked (in Korean!) "Vegetables?" Affirmative. "No seaweed?" Right, no seaweed, and a raised eyebrow, as if to say why on earth would there be seaweed? But you can never be too careful. So I bought one and I must say, it was the first food I have had in three weeks that I would actually describe as "delicious." HOW'S THAT for irony? I was ready to indulge in the express train to Seoul's Casa Loca, and a last-minute inspiration to climb to the stone Buddha led me to wonderful Korean food! It was something like a potato pancake in texture, but not potato. It looked like corn, or corn meal, but didn't really seem to be corn. It could have been, though. There were carrots and a couple types of onions involved. All I know is it and its accompanying red sauce got my enthusiastic thumbs up.

There was still daylight but the sun was below the mountain, so it was not shining on me and the canyon anymore, and I swear the smattering of red leaves seemed to have multiplied a thousandfold in the time I was hiking.

I wanted to write in my journal on the way back to Daegu, but the Gat-out-of-bawi bus driver made me carsick when I tried to do so (and I don't ever get air/car/sea sick). So I just enjoyed looking out the window and musing about all things Buddha and about how downright fun it is to go galavanting around southern Korea each weekend. I watched night fall as we approached the city lights of Daegu, and I discovered that there is an IKEA store right by the Daegu airport. IKEA! Wow, I loved the delightful things I discovered today.

J is for jack-o-lantern

What shape is his nose? It's a triangle! B is for bat. Can you say bat? G is for ghost...

It is the end of a long week wherein Halloween was celebrated in full force at Ding Ding Dang, while the communication (or lack thereof) with the foreign teachers was a bit less celebrated. In fact it was more like maligned.

Yes, Halloween is still on Monday (we haven't actually traveled ahead in time here across the date line) but because we have M-W-F classes and T-Th classes and had to have two days of Halloween parties, and because it is just plain better to have a class party going into a weekend then fresh out of one, we celebrated Halloween Thursday and Friday the 27th and 28th.

Some of you may be thinking, "I didn't think they had Halloween in Korea." Some have already asked me that. It's not a Korean occasion, but because we teach English we also teach some Western things that happen in English, so there you go. I still had some real teaching to do, but I also had a bunch of parties with my classes, including quite the extravaganza with pre-school on Friday morning.

The great thing, she said sarcastically, was how oh-so-prepared we foreign teachers were for the whole thing. We were all a little dismayed when every time we turned around, it seemed, some Korean teacher was saying, "Oh, didn't you know you're doing X for Halloweeen?" and "So, which one of you is the ghost for the haunted house?" and we were like, er, ghost? what?

I thought about Halloween even while I was still in the States packing up my life (or trying to) and wondered if I might be able to have some spooky fun times with the kiddies. I love how at the last minute the Korean Teachers(KTs) say, "OK, Halloween parties! Go!" We English teachers were printing every last Halloween word search and pumpkin maze we could find on the web, and we nearly overheated the copy machine in our last-minute frenzy to get activities for all our classes.

Another weird thing is that I think some of these kids don't know how to have fun. They are so used to the school's mandated teaching style, I guess, which is basically lesson-activity-lesson-activity-lesson-activity in order to most effectively motivate them and keep them happy, that I don't think they know anymore that games are actually fun, not just part of school. It certainly didn't occur to them they were supposed to just have fun and not worry on Friday.

My level one class of seven-year-olds literally asked me as I handed out sheets of bats and jack-o-lanterns to color, "Teacher, test?" I said, "No, are you serious? No. Not test. Just color. Just have fun." They wouldn't get up and hang out and eat candy (as I fondly remember doing in elementary class parties). They furrowed their brows and hunched over their colored pencils and then held the papers up with a flourish calling out, "Teacher, finished!" I seriously asked my KT (albeit sardonically), "Can you explain to them they just need to have fun today? That's the only thing on the agenda?" One Canadian teacher joked with me after, "You should have just said, 'Yes, test,' so they would have been less stressed out and known what to do." He's seen it in his kids, too, of course.

Pre-school was another matter entirely. I do love my pre-school: twelve little rugrats all of five years old who came dressed in costumes: black witches, sparkly princesses, butterfly wings, masks, the works. We did fun stuff in class and then after lunch each class walked to the house of one of the students in the class who lives close by for trick-or-treating. I guess the school recruited the walking-distance parents to volunteer their doors and living rooms earlier this week, or month. We English teachers, as I've said, had no idea what was going on until one day this week a kid announced, "Friday we're going to my house!" and at first we just thought they were making it up or something.

Anyway, we also had to teach them these eye-roll-worthy "Halloween songs" which were in fact songs like Mary Had a Little Lamb or Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star with altered lyrics. "Here we come to trick or treat, trick or treat, trick or treat" and "Pumpkin, pumpkin, on the ground" were those two. I opted for "In the graveyard" to the tune of My Darlin' Clementine: "Oh my monster, oh my monster, oh my monster, Frankenstein..." etc. Yes, I know. Ridiculous. But mildly amusing. Until the songs get stuck in your head for days. After we left the students' houses, we all met back up at the park across the street from school for relay races, water balloons, and bobbing for some treat. It wasn't apples--dough, maybe? in a big floury mess that got all over their faces, much to their delight.

After I found out on Wednesday from one of the KTs I have a bunch of classes with that I was supposed to be doing Halloween parties, I was irritated, but the next day there were other foreign teachers even less clued in than I was lucky to be. The teacher who conducts our weekly meetings came to me Thursday and said, "Linda, I announced this in the meeting, right?" I thought it was funny she was coming to me for what vindication; obviously one of the guys had expressed his dismay at the whole situation. I told her no, that I'd found out from a KT. She was shocked. Sorry!

But I think the best part was when they pulled us all into a classroom on Thursday with the KTs -- I mean, the assistant director actively came and got each of us English teachers -- and then proceeded to explain how to make little orange cups into these (actually kind of cute) jack-o-lanterns for every class to use trick-or-treating. They explained it all right -- in Korean! The Canadians, Brit, and I kept looking at each other: why are we here? Later in class my KT was surprised when I got the cups out and asked her to explain it to the kids. "They told you how to do it," she said. Oh, the joys of the workplace.

Meanwhile, some Canadian teachers from another branch of Ding Ding Dang (the one in my old neighborhood, actually) had a little pumpkin-carving soiree on Thursday night. It was fun to hang out with some other peeps who 'preciate a pumpkin! And who are a bit more positive about their school and their experience in Korea than the negativity quadruplets I work with.

I also think I am going to carve a jack-o-lantern with my Chinese roommate this weekend. She is of course baffled by the whole Halloween thing, unlike the Korean teachers who clearly have an annual ritual in place at Ding Ding Dang, even if they can't be bothered to communicate it. On Friday they told my roommate one minute before her Chinese pre-school class start time that she wasn't teaching it that day. "Because of Halloween party!" they said enthusiastically. She was livid. We lamented together a bit on Friday night and were laughing at our Dingy-Dingy-Dang school when her friend, the Chinese teacher at another branch of the school, called to vent that they had done the same thing to him that day. Sheesh! Ever hear of writing a memo, people?

Not to mention the trials and tribulations of finding a pumpkin in Daegu. I learned the word, "ho-bak" (or "ho-pak") but received the usual blank stares and why-are-you-even-trying-to-speak-Korean? looks when I said it. There were some at street fruit and vegetable vendors, but only at about one percent of the street vendors, and the first ones I passed were way too huge to be lugging on the bus and not particularly good for carving anyway, but I did end up finding one. I pointed at it instead of speaking Korean but that particular vendor was quite nice to me so I was glad to give her my four bucks.

The lengths I go to for good ol' All Hallows' Eve! I did have fun with my advanced classes, though, who were quite good at making words using the letters in "trick-or-treat." And blindfolding my level threes for "draw the face on the jack-o-lantern." I also wrote a little Halloween mad-libs for my advanced 13-year-olds, and it was fun. AND I still love orange things!

Did you know that All Saints' Day used to be celebrated on May 13? Brilliant! Happy Halloween, everyone!

Monday, October 24, 2005

Why it's hard to learn Korean

It really didn't occur to me at first how very much I get to speak English here. That's probably because I was so new and so overwhelmed by how jarring it was to walk down streets awash in hangeul characters with only bits of the alphabet I've come to know and love peeking through.

But I was thinking about it today at school as I was teaching what felt like my eight billionth class. I speak English a lot. All day. And I am paid to not speak Korean, in fact, and to take points away from the children who are heard speaking Korean...Ah yes, the points. The teacher giveth and the teacher taketh away. Points for being a good student, getting your workbook out in a timely fashion, winning a game, sometimes even forming a sentence correctly. Points are great, because they totally motivate the younger ones. The older kids, who are so totally over the points reward system, have to be motivated in other ways. But I digress.

So yeah: Korean. I disappear into my cozy little Ding Ding Dang world each day at 11 a.m., emerging only for a short lunch break which is usually easily handled in the vicinity. On days when I have no lunchtime errand (post office, store) I can pretty much get through with no more than "hello" and "thank you" since they'll tell me the total I owe either in English, with their hands, or by showing me the numbers on the cash register or a calculator. Then shortly after 8 p.m. I re-emerge into the Daegu night and have to start trying to process the Korean language all over again.

Weekends could be my best chance to learn and practice Korean. This past weekend was of no use for that. Friday night and Saturday I slept a lot, what with my new sore throat/Asian bird flu/hepatitis/insert hypochondriacal suggestion here. Also on Saturday I was hanging around the house awaiting the long sought and oft-promised repairman who was to bestow hot water upon our household. He arrived in the morning, but had to go get a part, so he came back that afternoon. In between I pretty much sat, lay down, rested, sat some more, and so forth.

The fun bonus of the repairman visits was that it turns out the downstairs landlady has a twentysomething son who speaks English! He came up with the repairman each time to translate, and we chatted a little bit while repair-dude was in the closet behind the hobbit-sized door doing things to the water heater. Landlady's son lived in Australia for a while, so he actually does speak the English, and he was nice. He said the last time American teachers lived in that apartment it was two boys who drank a lot of beer and had noisy parties. I said I don't have noisy parties. He also looked at my Lonely Planet guidebook to Korea and was intrigued that it had a (very small) section on North Korea. "But we're not allowed to go there!" he said.

"Well, you and I aren't," I told him, "but she is" - I motioned to my Chinese roommate - "and Lonely Planet is headquartered in Australia and writes for the Brits and Canadians and so forth. You have to go through Beijing and very few people go, but it can be done." I offered no further statement about my desire or lack thereof to do such a thing. He was fascinated. He also wants to hang out and do something. I might try him out as a friend. It was hard to tell if he was planning on flirting with me or not. I am of course not planning on returning the flirtation.

When I finally left the house Saturday it was cold and I still felt like crap, so I couldn't be bothered to do much beyond wander the neighborhood a little, eat, go on-line, watch two gyrating dancers on a platform outside a building blasting dance club music, and buy some more apples from a street vendor to take home. I also spent a lot of this weekend on the phone (in English).

Sunday I went with one of the Korean teachers at my school and an American friend of hers who teaches at a different school to the International Oriental Medicine Expo at the big fancy-schmancy convention center. It was really interesting, but lest ye be picturing a marketplace teeming with herbs and teas and aphrodisiac antler powders, it was super-modern and very conventionally convention-like. We wandered up and down the aisles, we had water massages and circulation tests, we sampled samultang and lotus-flower tea, and we watched lots of professionals do their thing networking and selling and handing out business cards.

One booth displayed the work of Komsta, the Korean Medical Service Team Abroad, a humanitarian relief organization that has been bringing Oriental medicine services to other countries since starting with Nepal in 1993. There were amazing photographs, including recent work in Sri Lanka and other tsunami-affected countries, and as I watched the video accompanied by an instrumental "Born Free" I got really choked up. It was nowhere near as cheesy as it sounds. I just really love it when people are nice to other people and try to help those who are disadvantaged. There aren't very many people who really do that, you know. We all talk a great deal about it. "Many are called but few are chosen..."

Furthermore, it got me thinking about resistance to medicine, especially "Western medicine" (my own and others' resistance). I recently discussed with my sister the pros and cons of vaccinating babies, as she knows some people who have apparently decided to opt out of getting their children's shots. When you see pictures of people lining up in a Himalayan village to get treatment from an international medical team it makes you reconsider scoffing at the medical advantages you have, I think. Now, those who know me know I am no fan of over-the-counter cold medicines, because they seem to treat the symptoms, not the disease, without really speeding the healing process (for me). But I just think about how we can do amazing things to relieve suffering (like: wiping out polio) and I think the romanticizing of "natural living" can be taken too far. People used to die a lot of ugly deaths that are totally preventable now. I like to think, a la Noam Chomsky and Lewis Thomas, that we the human beings are perhaps working with our knowledge and experimentation toward some greater good we know not of.

Wasn't I talking about learning Korean?

I also have another confession. After we left the Expo, armed with herbs and sample packets of a liver tonic -- good for my newly self-diagnosed hepatitis that one machine's test results print-out convinced me of when it said my liver is my unhealthy body part -- I parted ways with the girls at a big intersection where there just happens to be a TGIFriday's. And, well, I was hungry and I'd been sick and I was tired and so not in the mood for tofu infiltrated by oysters and clams, nor spicy rice with unidentifiable pungent aromas, nor a noodle of any sort. So I went in. I ate Western, treating myself to soup, a baked potato, and a salad with bleu cheese dressing. Plus a soda and saltines. Ahhhhh, I was in heaven. I am also happy to report that TGIF does a birthday song here in Korea as well, though I couldn't make out a word of it, so if you think you can escape the candlelit desert and clapping wait-staff just by fleeing the States, think again!

It was interesting to spend time with a fellow American, but as I said, I didn't speak much Korean over the weekend. American girl is near the end of her stint here, eleven months down and one to go, so she's totally winding down where I'm just getting wound up about all things Korean. I asked her how her language skills were. She said she hadn't learned all that much, one reason being how discouraging it was each time she attempted to speak it. People either stared blankly, gave up quickly, criticized, or just ignored her attempts to use a few words or struggle through interactions. I've noticed that, too! It's nothing like any prior conversations I've had any place when trying to speak a foreign language. It can be disheartening. I definitely want to find a Korean class.

On the other hand, one of the other Korean teachers at school said she was impressed how quickly I'd learned to read the hangeul, that ususally the ENTs (English Native Teachers) take months, not weeks to learn the sounds. Then again, she also said I sound like a six-year-old reading. And boy, do I! It takes me so long to sound out a line of text, syllable by syllable! It's great fun, though. I cannot remember a time when I did not know how to read English; my learning to read predates my earliest memory, so this is a new sensation for me, and a terribly interesting one at that.

My roommate and I are also working on my plan to learn some Chinese. She said I have good pronunciation and a talent for languages. I do love them so. I will be happy if I can pick up a little Chinese this year, too! A billion people speak that one!

Friday, October 21, 2005

Camp Buddha -- part 2

The monks were sitting in the "front rows" right up against the long grand pedestal with the statues, and to see them from behind was inspiring. They sat so still. After about twenty minutes, one stood to begin chanting, and I was awestruck. He sang a line, and everyone repeated it in a resounding chorus, including the guests. It was absolutely breathtaking.

Bowing or prostrations came next. You kneel, lean forward, place your hands down and touch your forehead to the mat, lift your hands palm up to offer thanks, lift up to sit back on to your heels, then push up to standing. It was starting to feel a bit like when I go to Catholic mass: I can follow it, and sometimes I do all the stand-up-sit-down, but in the end it's best left to those who really feel what they're doing, or it's kind of hypocritical. I should not do it just to go through the motions. So, I did prostrate myself, but I also returned to the sitting pose on the mat for part of the service. I know about and really believe in mindfulness practice and some of the dharma, and the rest I shouldn't fake.

The chanting went on and on and on. It was so mysterious and beautiful! I was, as I have said, pretty much in awe. After a short time the monks leave, and then it's time for the regular folk to do their thing supplicating. This is when I mostly just sat, as I wasn't really asking the universe for anything in particular. Quite the contrary, I was actually musing about how I had everything that I wanted in the world: not possessions, just everything in my heart. I had left behind my decidedly not nourishing job, I had taken the step of coming to Asia to teach English, I was traveling, I was surrounded by nature's beauty on an incredible adventure, I felt independent, I was truly happy, I had people who loved me, I felt free.

The day before, Friday, I had been having similar thoughts actually -- so thrilled with where I am, and so thrilled with the turns my life has taken in this latter half of 2005 -- and as I sat in my pre-school class I noticed a bunch of unidentifiable bug bites on my itching arm. I thought, in my sarcastic-but-maybe-a-tiny-bit-serious way, "Great, random Asian bugs biting me, surely I'm going to die now, and oh my gosh maybe I really am going to die, because I am so truly happy right now! I have everything and it's all good! I've been wondering this whole week why the universe is allowing me to feel this happy and maybe it's because I'm allowed to feel this happy for a little while right before I die..." This thought went on for a good long while, longer than it reasonably should have while surrounded by precocious and hyperactive six-year-olds who you would think could draw my attention away from it.

But it crept back up there in the temple, only in not nearly so morbid a fashion. I just felt wonderful in the truest sense of the word.

When the service was over, it was after 8 p.m., so there wasn't much time before lights out and bedding down at 9:00. Woman-who-speaks-English showed me the toilets (in the ground, gross, but tolerable) and the wash room (running water, but no sinks nor showers, just basins). Before going back inside I stood alone for a minute at the top of the steps leading down to the "dorm." The moon-- about 3/4 full?-- had just risen above the craggy, coniferous mountaintop silhouetted agains the violet sky. I stared at it as if I'd never seen it before.

"Do you like the Buddha?" my little friend asked me as we lay down on our blankets.

"Well, yes," I said. "I studied a little bit in the United States." Here I lifted my hand out from under the covers to hold my finger and thumb very close together to emphasize just how little. "I want to learn more."

"These people are here, they hope to the Buddha for something," she said.

I looked around the room. It was such a haggard group of women, all so exhausted. Haeinsa is apparently the most important temple for the Hwaom sect of Buddhism, so I imagine coming to the prayer service here must be like a Catholic going to hear mass at the Vatican? or a Mormon attending general conference? or something like that. Of course, as we lay in the dark and I tried to fall asleep and several of the woman started hacking and coughing, I was all the more convinced I was going to die because surely they had crazy diseases and that's why they were here, to ask to be cured,and now I was going to pick up some strange ailment, and...and....

To say I tossed and turned would be an understatement, but I did manage to get in some dreams. They were mostly about waking up early for morning prayers and finding other people from my real U.S. life up early for breakfast, surprised that I wondered why they were up before the crack of dawn.

And then it was 3 a.m., and time for "Rising" as noted on my schedule. I washed and put in my contacts, and for the first time another woman in the room spoke to me. In Korean, naturally. She came over to motion to me not to put anything (like my contact case) on top of the blanket (which would of course then be passed to the next person to sleep there) but to do it on the floor instead. The way I was sitting my shirt was riding up just enough for my tattoo to peek out, and when she crawled over to me she touched it, then touched it again, put her whole hand on it, and patted it a few times. I remain unsure as to whether this was approval or amusement.

3:30 a.m. I walked toward the temple and noticed the moon, now above the mountain on the other side of us, like it made its little journey while we slept. I had a flash of worry as to whether I'd fall asleep during the service so early in the dark, but there was nothing to fear. I was able to concentrate better that morning in my mediatation than I had the night before. Then, that initial invigorating jolt of chanting took me to a new place. I loved that I recognized it now. I can still hear it, if I try.

The morning service was just as captivating, and a lot more crowded, as two (Korean) tour groups were in attendance. I watched two particular girls a few yards in front of me, twentysomethings in jeans, going through all the dozens (hundreds?) of prostrations throughout the service. One stopped at the changing of the chant. They had taken places in the front row after the monks left, right up against the Buddha platform. I couldn't help wondering what they had journeyed here to ask for: university exam time is at hand, of course, and I'd heard how much pressure that exam puts on people. The mix of devout people in that temple was intriguing to me. I felt like such a heathen.

This service finished around 5:20 a.m. In the courtyard I marvelled at how MANY stars there were! It was comforting to spot the Big Dipper, and Orion, and remember it's all the same big world and I'm just standing on a different part of its surface. After a quick journal entry I rested on my blanket until 6:00 breakfast.

My English-speaking friend went to sleep and didn't come to breakfast, but one of the other women, maybe in her late sixties, adopted me. I'm glad she did, too. I thought I was taking a spinach soup thing in one compartment of my tray but after a taste I feared it might be seaweed (to which I am allergic). I did not know what to do, the wasting of food being so forbidden. With my two-word vocabulary and lots of gestures I managed to get this new friend to eat it instead. Phew! That was close!

But it's still not as bad as what I did in the sleeping room Saturday night. Out of habit, I killed a bug. I know, I know...I can hear you gasping from around the globe. Of all the places in the WORLD to kill a bug, I of all people just reach out and squish it at a Buddhist temple, where every living thing is sacred. This was when I was about to go to sleep. It was crawling on the floor right next to me and I was afraid it would bite me in my sleep (augmenting my collection of scary bug bites) and I totally, thoroughly, completely suck, but I reached out with my little tissue and killed it. And then I thought, Oh dear. If I don't get struck down by lightning now I surely never will. I seriously sat frozen after I did that. No one saw. I think the lesson here (besides the fact that I just plain suck and am clearly not approaching nirvana in this lifetime) is that I kill them when I feel defenseless against them and I felt so defenseless amid those women whom I didn't understand in a temple in the mountains...I mean, I generally do try to put bugs outside in lieu of killing them, it's only the cockroaches and the big scary ones I feel I must, whatever, I'm just rationalizing. I suck.

It was all of 6:25 a.m. There is not a lot of time wasted on eating there. I knew that at 8 o'clock the building housing the 81,000 wood blocks would open, and they were the whole reason I had been intrigued to come to Haeinsa in the first place. I wandered around and looked at the buildings again and saw the oldest fir tree in Korea, which legend has it sprouted when the famous monk who was around for the founding of the temple threw down a branch. It was big. I walked around the edges of the grounds looking at the hills and saw some monks performing chores. Time crawled along. I used my dictionary for a while to translate some signage. I could make out "every week Wednesday through Monday display 8:00 a.m." in front of the woodblocks building.

7:40 a.m. The Korean tour groups who had stayed the night were being led on their formal tour of the buildings, and I noticed they went through the gate up to the display hall. Then I saw two of the other women who'd slept in the dorm go through the gate as well. The other women were all wearing these gray pajama/robe/scrubs-like garments, but I had not got those. Who knows why? Because I wasn't part of a group? Because I wasn't Buddhist? Because I stayed only one night? I'd kind of stopped asking questions I didn't need the answer to. If they didn't seem to care if I wore street clothes, who cares, really, if I was the only one? I had zero chance of blending in anyway. And I'd purposely dressed in comfy pants I could sleep in since I'd intended all along to ask about staying at the temple.

The woman the night before had said I was free to roam and do whatever I wanted during free time, so I thought perhaps as a temple guest I could go up there now too. I stepped through the open gate and peered around a building. A man came over and said "no, no, no" and then pointed at his watch. "15 minute," he said. So, fine. I wandered around some more, enjoyed the sunlight finally hitting me to warm me up a bit, spotted a Westerner with a camera and said hi, he said hi.

I had my back to the Janggyong display hall when I felt a hand on my shoulder turn me around and it was the man who had said "no" now motioning me to go in. With him was one of the monks, who I figured was like "don't mind her, that's just some crazy girl who stayed the night," but actually he was handing me a gift -- a little piece of wrapped fruit candy. I remembered that I am supposed to accept gifts with two hands so I did, and I thanked him a lot, none of which he understood, I'm sure. I couldn't believe a monk who has nothing was giving me a little present, and yet I could. They both then gestured "go in, go in," so I did, and was finally on the top terrace of the temple site, where the two long display halls and two short display halls in a rectangle display the woodblocks.

It seemed like the culmination of days, not hours, at the temple. I peered through wooden slats to see rows and rows of long blocks with Chinese inscription. They are just so old! It's unbelievable. How very much wisdom is contained in those writings! There have been fires that have destroyed buildings at this temple, but not these tablets. Various Japanese invasions have wiped out other historically significant things in Korea, but these scriptures have survived, for nearly 1000 years. I wandered and wandered, up and down the lengths of the building, gazing. It takes up a lot of space to display 80,000+ woodblocks that are about 8" high and 24" long, by my rough estimation.

In one of the two buildings was a sign that looks like a swastika, but facing the other way (points to the left). I'd seen the same symbol on a flag next to my studio apartment in Daegu and was very intrigued. Western-man-with-camera was down at the end of one of the buildings, so I wandered over. He didn't look American, maybe European, but he had said "hi." I asked if he spoke English? "Yeah," he smiled. Australia, turns out. And he'd been there before. Jackpot! I asked if he knew what the symbol that looks like a swastika was, and he said it's a sign for Buddhism, he thinks specifically Korean Buddhism. "It's back to front from how a swastika is," he said. Well, sure, but it still looks like one--just as a mirror image looks like the person in front of the mirror. I am very intrigued by the origins of this symbol, and how a similar look came to represent both extreme love and extreme hate.

I looked for about half an hour, then slowly began walking away from the temple. What an amazing fifteen hours of my life! In the parking lot down the hill I saw one of the women from the dorm with a bunch of her family. She ran up to me and grabbed both hands and said, "Hi! Hi!" a bunch of times. She seemed to be showing me to her family. I smiled a lot.

On my way down from the mountain I saw the same Western woman from yesterday and we smiled and greeted each other. "Did you stay at the temple?!" she asked. I did, I told her. "So, you made your prayers at 3:30 a.m.?" I sure did! We talked for a bit. She was very friendly. She's from Holland and her husband from France. They asked about the food, the monks, etc. and we discussed the beauty of the national park for a while. I bade them enjoy the amazing woodblocks display, and they said have a good time in Korea, and we parted.

Another of the women from my 'dorm' room was boarding the bus to Daegu too, and she fell all over herself greeting me and started telling the people she was with something about me. I'd felt so out of place, but maybe those women found me a little bit endearing after all. Before getting my bus ticket, I bought a coffee in the Haeinsa town mini-mart although oddly I was not craving the caffeine, despite having been awake more than six hours. I was exhilarated. I think I was tired but I did not feel sleepy. I could not believe I had found my way through the tangle of life to this experience!

The end of Week 2

I'm sick today. Knew it, just knew it, last night. I went to bed cold and shivering (but clean and frescacita!) after washing my hair, for the first time in days, in our cold water. Man, we have just been having some issues getting this hot water thing resolved. I'm trying not to be demanding because I just keep thinking about all the people all over the world who have no running water at all, neither hot nor cold--who've never had it in fact. Well, a guy is coming tomorrow to repair the water heater, again, we think. The bilingual directors at my school are handling the negotiations. My roommate and I are the clueless ones who can't talk to these workers at all...I'm kind of amused by the whole thing.

I wish I could go running in the morning before taking a cold shower, is all. I haven't gone jogging yet here but keep meaning to do so. Only now I'm sick. I think I will have to jog by the river. (it's maybe 1/3 mile away? 1/2? ) (and by the way that is an urban, cement walled, canal-type, verrrry low level river at this point, not a lush flowing thing) In my neighborhood it is not possible to go jogging. You would so die. We don't have sidewalks. We do have gutters and narrow streets with fruit and vegetable vendors, parked cars, buses, or some combination of the three.

At any rate, I was cold last night, but I just felt in my bones that it was more than my cold fresh hair wash that was making me feel the way I did. And sure enough, this morning I woke up and preferred not to swallow. I lay there for a while enjoying not standing up, and then after a while I got up and drank a lot of orange juice (if I have to swallow, I might as well make it worth it, I figured). Then I went to work and thought, 'Wow, I have to get through seven classes like this.' First was pre-school. Fortuitously today we were making masks so I had less talking/shouting/making myself heard above twelve five- and six-year-olds to do. But I kept having to crouch down to help them with glue or scissors or to help put their masks on. And every time I stood up I thought I'd black out! But I didn't.

A couple of my Korean Teacher (KT) co-workers gave me some ginger tea, and that got me through a couple more hours. But by the end of the day, after my five-classes-in-a-row stretch, I was beat. I even took the bus home instead of my usual walk.

Don't even joke about it being Asian bird flu! 'Cause I already have!

I knew it would happen and was just waiting for it. Not quite two weeks, man. I'm superglad it's the weekend now so I can rest and relax.

Speaking of R & R, I talked to my first American soldier this week. On my daily walk to work which passes by Camp Henry I usually don't see anyone except the Korean policemen who are in the guard shacks, but one morning this week I saw a clearly American guy in camoflauge, boots, the hat, etc. "How ya doin'!" he said. I responded in kind. It was all quite lovely.

We Westerners tend to make eye contact and say hi to one another just in general. There aren't many of us.

Did you know a giant stem cell research center is opening in Seoul?? Yeah!!

Off to desperately needed sleep...

Monday, October 17, 2005

What's up with the screaming fruit trucks?

When I'm not Ding Ding Dang-ing it up, there is of course so much to see and do in Daegu, and I've hardly seen or done any of it yet! But I aim to do as much as possible. Right now the main thing that happens in the evenings after work is the adventure of getting food. Somtimes I cop out and go to a fast food place. In my first temporary digs, the studio apartment at the school's HQ where I stayed for one week, I was down the block from Burger King, so that was always a possibility ... now, in my new digs (did I mention I'm around the corner from a U.S. Army base?) I have Lotteria, the Korean burger joint, down the street. But what I usually try to do is get some tofu, or rice, or bibimbap, or something, but with NO SEAWEED and no meat. That is soooo much easier said than done, and for me it is not even easily said.

I'm not kidding, you should see me in some of these places. I walk in and stare at the menu for about ten minutes until I can spot the word "tofu." Then I order it and it's delicious but at the bottom is a random oyster in the sauce, or it comes with a side of squid (what?!?) But the price is right: you can get a take-out meal here, like a filling wonderful meal, for 3000 won. That's like three bucks-ish! Or less! Usually the people in these places remember me, too, when I wander back in a couple days later. Oh, hi, random English-speaking girl, they are undoubtedly thinking.

My new neighborhood is filled with street vendors selling fruits and vegetables, too, thank goodness!

But what's weird is the past few days I've noticed an abundance of these small blue pick-up truck type vehicles, with a cab and then flatbed back full of fruit/lettuce/ whatever for sale. They are parked on street corners by work, on the walk home from work, in the neighbhorhood where I live, and so on, and they have radios blaring some Korean shouting. It totally caught me off guard the other day when I first noticed. They all had the voice and they all sounded like a dictator yelling at people or something. Not random talk radio. I thought there was some military invasion happening, but it's just the thing, day in and day out, that these trucks parked on many a corner are blasting some ... something. News? Lecture series? I have no clue.

In my new apartment, where I will be until around mid-November, I have a roommate. She is from China and teaches Chinese at my school (at the Chinese learning branch of Ding Ding Dang, which is called Ping Ping Pang). (No, really.) So I get to have double the cultural exchange! She is really sweet and also funny. She hates Korean food. At least I have that advantage: I like most everything I've been given. I just have to be vigilant about making sure "no seaweed!" (which I do know how to say in Korean) or I will have my allergic reaction and I assure you it is not pretty. So my roommate cooks every night. We got to talking about Chinese food and I was explaining that everywhere in the States there are Chinese restaurants. I was trying to list things one eats there and couldn't remember all those same old items you see on like every single Chinese restaurant menu. I'm thinking about asking friends and family stateside to send a couple of Chinese restaurant menus for me to show her. You know how they are always flyering and leaving menus on your door? What better do you have to do with them than send them to me??? Bonus points if you can send one with Chinese and English on it ...

I really like walking to and from work. I haven't gone jogging here yet but I am going to try to along the river that cuts through town that I pass over on my way to work. It's not as big and beautiful as, say, the Charles but it has the same idea, a sidewalk along the water and people walk/bike along it.

I also spend time doing exactly what I'm doing now, which is sitting in one of the many, many "PC Bang" (means PC room) where I can use the Internet cheaply and that are just filled with a few rows of computers occupied by adolescent boys playing computer games with a crazy cacophony of sounds pelting my ears.

There is so very much to do here. And tons of restaurants, coffee shops, bars. And, things are open late and 24 hours and whatnot. (Are you listening, New England??)

And I am still trying to learn a few Korean words each day, of course. Some days are better than others...

Sunday, October 16, 2005

I've Moved!

the post below was written on sunday night, october 16th, and i was in a frightfully cranky and depressed state after a loooooong day (that began so nicely at 3 a.m.) and i don't know exactly what it was that made me snap but you should note that the mood totally passed. every once in a while you just have to do a little freaking out, and then you recover. i look back at this now (wednesday night) trying to decide whether it belongs on-line and i've decided it does because it reflects how i felt that night. but try not to hold it against me ... man, i was so cranky ... but i had personal things going on too, and i had been waiting on john for two or three hours to take me to the new apartment and he kept calling saying '20 more minutes' and then he left me there without explaining even where i was because he couldn't park the car! and i was just not good that night, man. not good. my fellow teachers here at the school also have a freak-out moment every once in a while. it just happens. well, then, with no further ado:

So I've moved down in the world.

Some might consider it like moving up - but I'm frightened.

I've gone from my happy, peaceful, temporary studio apartment digs into an apartment I share for one month with the Ding Ding Dang Chinese teacher, whose name is Snow. God knows that may well not be her real name. Who knows? Much like the English, Ding Ding Dang has a Chinese language learning branch for the kids, Ping Ping Pang. (I'm not kidding, OK.) There are only two Chinese teachers though. Far fewer classes in Chinese. So now I will be rooming with Snow, and she's very nice and doing her absolute able best to speak English and not doing too badly, I say, but here are the things about which I'm freaking out:

1. It's an actual apartment surrounded by other actual apartments, crowded, trash bags on the streets, and visions of rats and roaches dance in my head.

2. Snow OF COURSE takes her shoes off upon entry which means now I am too. I wasn't exactly given an option. Here, you can use these slippers, was more like what I was given. Well, my shoes are going to take up the whole entryway, friends.

(by the way, my bitter side is rearing its head tonight for the first time so take everything in this post with a very large grain of salt, please)

3. The stove top was covered with food bits and crumbs! Ack! Rats, roaches, what on earth can she be thinking!!!

4. We don't have hot water yet. (John warned me about this: we have to buy oil for the water heater) Until then, we can take a cold shower (yikes) or boil water and wash with it from a wash basin. That's fine--I don't mind the option. But Snow was like, "Use this basin. Boil water." I said, "OR I might take a cold shower." She said, "But it's cold." I can see we don't agree on this one. Girlfriend, no one is taking my shower privilege away!!! Got it?
When I talked with John it was "not-if-but-when" we'd get the oil for the water heater. It was funny because he reminded me it costs money and I said, "Hello, I came from New England where there are like the coldest winters ever" and the three Canadians piped up, "I don't think so!" especially Mr Winnipeg who lives in the middle of a vast frigid landscape...I said, "Wow, that's really funny, I'm surrounded by Canadians, I totally don't have the worst winters anymore." And we laughed. I said, "I should call all my friends back home and say, 'Quit your bitchin'..." and one Canadian teacher said, mock imitating what I'd say, "Yeah, it could be worse, you could be surrounded by Canadians..." and it was funny and we laughed some more.
BUT Snow is not at all interested in a hot shower. So I guess the oil is going to be all me.

5. The kitchen is just gross. That's fine; I probably won't spend much time there. But the refrigerator is all small and bogue, and the stove top - ay dios mio! - and I'm just like OK we take our shoes off so the floors stay all pretty everywhere but what about hip level? Or eye level?

6. ... I guess that's enough venting for now.

One silver lining, there is something Buddhist next door, so that's fun. I know because I saw on the building right next door (and I do mean right next door, these are PILED on top of each other) the Korean buddhism symbol, which looks exactly like a reversed swastika. A little strange, but what can you do.

I'm going to go try to readjust my attitude. I don't even know where I am. My last place was served by six or eight bus lines. Now we have ONE.

Camp Buddha - part 1

I have just returned from one of my top 10 most incredible life excursions - so far!

The destination was Haeinsa, site of a Buddhist temple founded in the 9th century that is nestled in the mountains of Gayasan National Park. One of its main draws, as if the gorgeous temple and surrounding nature themselves weren't enough, is the fact that it has the Tripitaka Koreana, which are 80,000+ wood blocks that are a thousand years old and contain the entirety of Buddhist scripture. I was all kinds of eager to see them. They are an official Korean National Treasure and Haeinsa has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because of them!

So for my first weekend's adventure I decided to hop the bus to Haeinsa, which superconveniently leaves from Daegu several times an hour and costs 4000 won (approximately $4). Haeinsa is a little more than an hour away via bus. It would make a nice day trip, but my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook said you can stay at the temple overnight, provided you will adhere to monastic customs like early lights out, rise for prayer service, sleep in separate men's and women's dorms, etc. I was extremely intrigued by this prospect.

When the bus plopped me (and a bunch of others) down in the middle of Haeinsa town, I thought I was in a Korean version of Aspen, or that main street of Park City, or some mountain town that consists of a bunch of shops and restaurants only there because of the tourists/skiers/hikers who flock there. I strolled up (and I do mean UP) the street to check out the "plush" acccomodation option, creatively called Tourist Hotel. It wasn't all that exciting: I thought the lobby might be more spectacular, but it was still a nice enough place to freshen up.

This being a national park, there were a LOT of Korean tourists. The whole thing felt very Yellowstone-like. If Yellowstone had a centuries-old cathedral, maybe.

In front of the hotel I made eye contact with the only other white/Western/non-Korean woman I'd seen so far in town, and she said hi in a sort of knowing way.

It was almost 4 pm, so I checked when the last bus left to go back to Daegu: 7:50pm. I had nearly four hours to explore the temple and decide if I was really going to stay the night here!
I deciphered a few more signs, spotted some English and arrows, and began making my way down the hill toward the entrance to the temple site. On the way, I met a girl from Daegu who wanted to speak in English with me. Sure, I said. She turned out to be a 20-year-old deep in the studying for her university exam. When I asked her if she had been to Haeinsa before she didn't understand my question at first so I rephrased it. (I've become quite good at rephrasing in my job here!) "Do you come here often?" I asked, and then I laughed and had a private joke with myself at how she would have no idea that that is the ultimate joke of a pick-up line.

We went to the Haeinsa museum together and looked at the amazing Buddhist painting, sculpture, and crafts. You had to take off your shoes and change them for "slippers" to walk through the museum. The slippers are actually hard plastic or rubber open-toed open-heeled shoes, like flip flops but sturdier, and they are everywhere here. Much better than exchanging your shoes for sweaty, gooey bowling alley shoes.

The museum had about five rooms in an arc with various Buddhist art from this and other temples, including folding screens of the 33 Zen masters, and lots of "color indigo." There was also a mural on the second floor. Some of the art had calligraphy, and if there was any writing on these screens, paintings, etc., it was all in Chinese (seeing as this temple pre-dates the invention of the Korean script, hangeul, which wasn't until the 14th century, I believe). Many of the museum's display cards were in Korean and English. Yes! Throw a bone to us Westerners who come to visit! I wondered idly how the Europeans and western hemispherians (no, but it so should be a word!) feel about the fact that the Roman-alphabet language of choice here is English -- that's it. Like in the airport, on the subway, you might see Chinese, or possibly Japanese, and then maybe English.

Anyway, most of it was pretty good at the museum, but occasionally there was an amusing translation. It was especially funny whenever it talked about the significance of a particular artifact. It would almost sound like it was lecturing, but it was cute. "That makes this a very important piece whose importance is very stated. It is not a small thing." Stuff like that. I wanted to say, hey, you don't have to convince me of the significance of all this! I was getting very excited at the prospect of seeing thesamazing 80,000 wood blocks at the temple. We left the museum and started climbing. My new nameless friend and I made pleasant enough conversation, but I could see why she was eager to practice her English. No offense, but she definitely needed to! Anyway, we had a nice walk up (and I do mean UP again) the mountain the half-kilometer from the museum to the temple.

What a sight to behold!!!

The temple consists of several buildings built up the mountainside, so you're at the first building and you walk up some steep steps to reach the terrace on which there are the next three buildings, around a 'clearing'-type area, and then up more steep steps to the next building, etc. The buildings are kind of Chinese-pagoda-sloping roof style and are very beautifully painted in bright reds, golds, blues, and greens with dark wood and roofs. The first couple levels are the boring stuff (an information desk and a few informative displays, now that this is a tourist site!) but then it gets really good higher up! There is an amazing building where the actual temple services are, with five golden statues of Buddha.

In one exhibit room, a worker approached me and said, "Welcome to Haeinsa." I said, "Thank you." That was about the extent of her English, but she sure tried to tell me about the displays in that room. In one case there was a small piece of gold from -- well, from something significant. No amount of rephrasing actually clarified the matter for me. She even enlisted the help of my Daegu student friend, who could not translate either. And then the worker decided Daegu girl was my translating companion and I was like, no, don't, it's OK! I'll just look, really! I didn't want this poor girl to get suckered into being used as my translator.

But suckered in she got. The next building had informational resources and a woman asked me, "Temple stay?" I replied, "Actually, I do want to know about staying the night here..." Well, those two words had exhausted her English supply, so she turned to my friend (all right, let's just say we were friends by this point) and I was like, "No!" and I think the poor girl was also trying to tell her she had just met me or something, and then the worker asked if she wanted to stay the night too and she was like "No!' I felt like she was probably cursing under her breath, 'Leave me out of this!' No, not really, she was very sweet.

Well, I used my dictionary a little bit, and 10,000 won later I had a schedule (in English!) and the woman led me to the dorm where I would stay the night. Miraculously, divinely, cosmically, or something, there was a Korean woman among the many staying there that night who SPOKE SOME ENGLISH! I mean, like a vocabulary of hundreds, perhaps a thousand? two thousand? words, not just pushing a dozen. What luck! How did that even happen? So that nameless woman became my replacement friend as Daegu girl took her leave of me. I thanked her profusely and apologized about a million times that she had got roped into translating. She reassured me that she was so happy to speak English! I said, "Well, listen, if you ever want to speak English in Daegu some time..." still amusing myself with how much it sounded like a cheesy scene being played out in a bar (and it was so *not* that at all) and I gave her my e-mail address and explained I'd be getting a new phone number within a day or two so I couldn't give her that but hoped she'd e-mail. I will speak English any time, friend. "Oh, and I didn't catch your name...?"

It was almost time for 6:00 dinner so the young friend went on her merry way and my new English-speaking friend wanted me to decide if I would sleep in the room she was in, with about 20 other 50-to 70-year-old Korean women, or in the room next door, also with about 20 or so women. I must have looked frightened at disappearing into the other room. "OK, you can sleep with me!" she said, that decided. She arranged me a blanket and a blanket.

Right. There weren't exactly beds. No, not mattresses either. No, I wouldn't go so far as to say sleeping mats. When I say "dorm" what I really mean is, a building divided into rooms in which groups of people sleep. On the floor. Twenty+ of us, in a room about as big as a small motel room, on the floor, in a square, then another group in the middle.

We walked over to the dining room. We bowed to the Buddha to offer thanks for the meal and went along the table filling our trays with various dishes the monks had prepared: rice (of course), different vegetables, tofu. I made it clear to my friend I could *not* have the seaweed, to which I am allergic, and she looked out for me when it came to the two soups. "I think you have this one," she said. She spoke a lot of present tense, but that's OK. No tense like the present, right?

We sat at tables on one side, us campers (I'd decided that's what this felt like, a very surreal summer camp), and the monks sat on the tables on the other side of the aisle. We were a living breathing representation of how the other half eat, I guess. Now, I did know a thing or two about a thing or two from my previous reading and learning about Buddhism and mindfulness practice, and I knew that I should eat everything I took, that these monks never waste a bit of food, not a morsel. I was also reminded that this was not social hour; no one really talked and the monks finished eating in about two seconds, undoubtedly to get on with the important business of cultivating their garden and whatnot. Well, I was close to done (though not quite) and quite handily using the chopsticks, I might add, though I had a spoon for the soup. There were about seven or eight rice remnants in the rice section of my tray, and English-speaking friend picked them up and put them on my spoon and said, "Eat! eat! You leave nothing!" I was like, "I know, I'm not done--OK, sorry." I ate. Humbly.

On the way out we each drank a cup of hot water. (I'd read about that, too.) Next was the 6:30 p.m. prayer service. What a truly awesome time! My friend ushered me into the long rectangle building. We sat in two long rows across, on gray prayer mats facing the five huge golden statues, Buddha in the middle surrounded by boddhisatvas and other wise ones, maybe a king or two. I've attended a (much much much smaller) Buddhist temple-like place in L.A., and the Cambridge Zen center in Massachusetts, so I knew what was going on here. Ironically it was harder for me to empty my mind and observe the space between my thoughts here than any of those other places, I think because I kept returning to the consciousness of the fact that I was meditating here of all places!

Tale of transcendence to be continued...

Saturday, October 15, 2005

So much shouting, so much laughter ...

On Wednesday, October 12 I taught pre-school!
And other classes! Lots of them!
And boy, are those kids loud!

But they certainly are charming as well. That pre-school class cracks me up, I swear. On Thursday, the entire pre-school had an "outing" (field trip) to Woobang Tower Land, which is an amusement park, but we didn't really go there for amusement parking, rather, the kids got to learn to make tofu. Don't ask. Sure, we could have made tofu anywhere. But why not Woobang? It's pronounced "ooh-bong" but the Canadian teacher co-workers were saying it superAmeican style "Whooo - bang!" and joking like "I put the WOO in WOO-bang!" etc. It's the little things, OK. Anyway, this place is like a fake Disneyland. Seriously. There's a little Wild West Land and there's a planter at the front with the flowers the same, and a fake Mickey Mouse picture welcoming visitors at turnstiles, and the woman taking tickets in turn-of-the-century dress...hilarious! The park and rides were more on the size/level of high carnival or low Six Flags, but the look and feel were total faux-Disneyland.

I suppose if I were a six-year-old in So Cal going on a a field trip I would think it's more fun to learn to make pizza, say, at Disneyland than in the local park. Also, the Woobang Tower Land people did the whole thing - their staff, their presentation, their tofu samples, their set-up. Like a little side business, I guess.

The tower is this huge Vegas-stratosphere kind of thing, very tall, very towering, but I could not leave behind my little rugrats to go exploring. I was in charge of Wendy, Brian, Jina, and Jinny (although we were all keeping an eye on everyone). Yeah, they all have English names for English school. So do the KTs (Korean Teachers).

In some of the classes I taught over the past few days, I would run way behind the lesson plan (remember, these were pre-drafted by the departing teacher and/or made by the KT) but in others I finished early and was like- help! I need a game to play! But it's all working out.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Ding Ding Dang

I was allowed the bliss of sleeping in on Monday, and sleep in I did. Interrrupted only by the Canadian teacher's Sunday 9 p.m. phone call (wherein we established that I had eaten and walked around and was happy to just sleep), my 12+ hours left me feeling like a new woman.

And I was waking up in Daegu City! As much as I want to say I was tripping out about that, I wasn't. It's more like I was just amazed at how normal it felt to be here. I have continued to feel that way. Part of me thinks "Holy cow! Asia!" and another part of me is like, "Yeah, OK, why didn't I do this years ago, again?"

John came around 1:30 p.m. with my two suitcases, a glorious sight to behold, which had been delivered to the school that morning. We dropped them in the studio and then headed to work. I had got ready without the luxury of a change of clothes, so I had on the same black soft-cloth stretchy pants I had worn on the plane with an extra black tank top I'd had in my carry-on. I really didn't want to wear the same blue three-quarter length sleeve shirt I'd been wearing for two days but I knew tank tops were not so highly looked upon here, so I tied my black with orange/yellow etc. print scarf around my shoulders to make a more modest and kind of nicer appearance.

Since I would need to start taking the bus to work the next day, John and I counted the bus stops that I might know how/when to get off. Within a few minutes we were parking and heading to the second floor of the multi-business building, all outside entrances and dingy marble stairs. Hello, Ding Ding Dang -- Suseoung branch.

The name of the school, Ding Ding Dang (pronounced dahng) doesn't sound as silly in Korean; I think it sounds more playful than nonsensical. It's a children's English school. And the children were everywhere! I'd forgotten the sheer cacophony to be had when you throw a bunch of children and their energy into a confined space like a classroom.

I was introduced to about 18 women in 30 seconds, so I hardly remembered anyone's name. They showed me my seat, and I chatted a little with the Korean teachers whose desks were on either side of me. One said, "You don't look like an American."

I spent Monday afternoon observing classes that in a few days I would inherit. Each class is taught by a Korean teacher and a foreign teacher, or ENT (English Native-speaking Teacher). We, the KTs and the ENTs, are to make lesson plans and incorporate all of the school's materials including syllabus, grammar book, reading book, phonics book, etc. for each level. I don't have to do lesson plans yet, but I'm definitely getting the hang of how the system works.

It was really amazing to see these kids! They chorused answers, were very attentive, and had boundless energy. The school uses a LOT of games to drill the lessons, like tic-tac-toe with random verbs, or read the sentence and jump to one side if it's correct and the other side if it's wrong. Stuff like that. The kids had these games down pat. And, they use rock-paper-scissors as a tiebreaker for EVERYTHING, although it's rock-scissors-paper here and is apparently a very popular Korean game of its own.

By the end of the day I was overwhelmed and drained, but it was cool to see the notes the departing Canadian teacher had left for me about each class and each student mesh with what I observed in the classrooms.

Tuesday was much of the same thing all over, only starting at 10 a.m. because starting Tuesday I also attended my morning pre-school class, in addition to the afternoon classes for students who range in age from 7-13. The pre-school class was absolutely hilarious! They are actually five and six years old, and they come for four hours each day, one hour of which I will be teaching them. I have twelve students. OH MY, they are a trip. There are so many cute little personalities!!! I will undoubtedly be rambling about them incessantly. They are probably my most delightful surprise; who knew how charmed I'd be by 12 five- and six-year-olds shouting "Teacher Linda! I'm first!" or yelling, absolutely screeching together answers like, "Today is Tuesday!" so that it practically pierces my eardrums.

Some of the classes were not quite as charming. There was one in particular the former teacher had warned me about in his notes of 10- and 11-year-old boys who so don't want to be there. They are about Level 5. They can make sentences and read, and they totally know more than they are letting on; that's my obsevation. From the first minute of observing them, this particular Korean teacher used a lot of Korean with them and said apologetically to me, "I can't speak much English in here; they don't understand. They need help." And so forth. But even she admitted that they just don't want to study. I think I'm taking the approach more like, I know you understand me so, eyes up here! Besides, I don't want to be having to ask the Korean teachers every five seconds for translation, and we're not supposed to, anyway.

Most of the classes are really well behaved, and they are a mix of really bright students and some who may struggle a bit more. But with all the fast-paced multiple activites, everyone gets a chance to practice, and I've noticed that they help each other out, too, with spelling and sounds and everything.

By the end of Tuesday I had a good handle on how the school day went: forty-minute periods, then switching to a new class, from around 2 p to around 7p, with a different break time each day. But I had not even come close to memorizing my list of classes yet. I was like, wait, where am I going this period? Oh, right, level 1, 7-year-olds, or whatever. I was tired, but very intrigued by it all, and ready to come back Wednesday for my first day of teaching (from lesson plans already made by the other teacher).

A Sunday Stroll

I was extremely tired on Sunday. Sure, I may have skipped right over large portions of Saturday, but I experienced enough of it to make my grand total <15 hours of sleep in 4 days. Those are not pleasant numbers. HOWEVER, this savvy traveler sure knows that the best (only?) way to combat jet lag is to get on the destination schedule immediately, and that meant staying awake through Sunday's daylight. I took a most welcome bath, allowed myself some lying around/relaxing/chatting with people in the U.S. time, and then strapped on my walking shoes to explore Daegu.

To say I had absolutely no clue where I was would be almost accurate. John had told me simply that my school was about two miles from there and that the building and lot across the street from the HQ there was the South Bus station. So I took my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook's map of Daegu and to my delight it had bus terminals noted, including a north, south, east, and west. Nambu (south) Intercity Bus Terminal must be me! God love Lonely Planet. Next, I used the sun to decide which way was east, and then I oriented myself on the map. Armed with no other knowledge whatsoever, I began walking toward central Daegu.

The noted Daegu National Museum was very close by, so I decided to take a long way around many blocks, thus seeing some of the area, and then end up back there. The streets and sights and sounds were amazing. I was bombarded with hangeul (the Korean alphabet) and after realizing it took me about a full minute to sound out any given sign I decided to abstain from deciphering and reading and just let it all sink in or pass by as it would. I felt like I was in a place both strange and secure, jarring and comforting, fast-paced and Zen. Down the block -- and by the way these blocks are major huge city blocks -- I passed a wedding chapel where a ceremony was just ending and people decked out in brilliant reds and other traditional costume were spilling out into the street. Across the way there was a 7-11. The occasional English word cropped up, namely in web site addresses, the adidas store, and "telecom" this or "digital" that.

Around then I remembered I was starving.

I popped into a small grocery where the woman in front of the bakery greeted me enthusiastically. I responded, "I'm sorry, I only speak English" and she smiled and nodded. As I meandered through the aisles (of which there were four, at about six feet long), I heard her talking in amused but tender tones with her friend the cashier. When I had selected some crackers and a cornbread-looking item, I placed them on the counter and the woman who rang me up said what was presumably the total in Korean, pointing at each number on the screen for me as she said them: 1160 won. Then she said to her friend in English, "One hundred sixty!" with unmasked pride. I smiled. Big thumbs up to the forty-something grocery women who were nice to the clueless American on her first day.

I turned off this main drag of bustling business and shopping activity onto another huge boulevard when I reached the Taegu Grand Hotel. Careful readers may note that I have just spelled the name of my city differently. The 't' and 'd' sounds are roughly interchangeable in Korean (points to anyone who knows what I'm alluding to there) and in recent years the government or some government offshoot (not quite like an Academie Francaise) revamped the romanisation of the hangeul sounds, standardizing but also changing some traditional ways of spelling things in a Roman alphabet. The preferred spelling now is Daegu.

While walking along this street, I realized I was not only still starving and exhausted but making myself progressively more so as I went along. I actually stepped into the Pizza Hut that reared its head just then, thinking maybe I could forgive myself for buying a slice. But she said, "no slice" and I didn't have the energy to pursue my options. I kept walking.

I was really, really enjoying walking through this city! It didn't feel anywhere near as strange as it should have to be walking around in another hemisphere. By the time I came back around to head north again, towards my home intersection, I passed the Daegu National Museum with little to no desire to actually visit it that day in my fatigued state. I rested on its steps for a moment. It was late in the afternoon by now anyway. Food loomed large in my mind. Food and sleep. I told myself I was allowed to go to bed as soon as the sun set.

Daegu is so modern! So big and bustling! So alive! My first impressions of Korea were decidedly fantastic. I felt incredibly at home, in awe of the beautiful mountains, and eager to see more.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Trek to Daegu

I woke up approximately once an hour, but I slept more soundly in the Seoul airport than I had on any of my flights. Around 4 a.m., the man in the floor-cleaning truck came loudly by, so I decided to rouse myself from "bed" and head to the bathroom (an actual bathroom, not an imagined room in my new "home") to wash face, brush teeth, and so on. I stood at the sink and thought, "Wow, I've been in these clothes for a while. Without showering. And without taking out my contacts. Good times."

Next I went back to my very favorite 24-hour airport convenience store and checked out the coffee selection. The Starbucks frappuccino-in-a-bottle cold drink was tempting, but at 3500 won not nearly the deal the Cafe-Latte-in-a-can was at 900 won. Plus, who could resist a can that said "loving you loving latte"? I drank up, made some more calls to the home front -- an old pro now at this calling card -- then headed to bus land to try once again to escape Incheon.

The woman sold me a bus ticket for the early morning discount price of 8000 won (instead of the usual 13000 won) and I was all set to pick up the bus to Seoul Station, which could be easily had at berth 4B. Or 10A. Or 12A. Or 5B. Which one? Well, it depended on whom you asked. One official gentleman behind the counter, in response to my query, circled the 12A on my ticket, so I decided to go with that one. I stood there for a while, in the dark pre-dawn, and eventually a bus pulled up. I handed my ticket to the driver and clarified, "Seoul Station?" He nodded, placed my bag in the suitcase area, and motioned "have a seat." Triumphant! We set forth, and I watched from my window as the sun rose over Seoul and we drove into the city.

Apart from the sheer astonishment of being in Korea and realizing that the outskirts outside my window were the outskirts of Seoul I was feeling many things: fatigue, still; relief; incredible curiosity as the Korean language floated around my head. In the city itself, I was pleased to learn that the five stops were announced in Korean and English, even though I knew that mine, Seoul Station, was the last stop. Lest ye be deceived, that bilingual perk was only due to it being an airport bus, the airport being the only place I could count on English subtitles to my new life.

On the Seoul Station street I spotted Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks. The driver courteously told me in English, "Seoul Station!" but I had already figured that out, since we had made all the other stops. I asked him, having consulted my dictionary, "Ki-cha? Daegu?" (train? Daegu?) He pointed to the stairs going down to a subway, so I headed toward them. The driver tapped his horn and I looked up to see him excitedly motioning to me to go down, then keep walking, then up again. I nodded; he waved. I smiled; he smiled. My hero.

The subway was a typical dirty subway complete with homeless people, dirty floors, scary bathrooms ( I opted not to use the in-the-floor Asian "squat toilets"), and lots of turnstiles. And not a lick of English. I kept walking, and walking, and walking, suddenly quite silver-lining happy that my luggage had been lost and I did not have to drag it with me on this trek. And then just as suddenly I was at the end of the corridor extraordinaire, where I found stairs up to a round plaza, then an escalator up to "Seoul Station" - in English! - and a big, airy, clean train station with many ticket windows, shops, escalators, Dunkin' Donuts, etc. I bought my ticket for Daegu and found a restroom, which had a sign outside that noted "2004 Seoul's Best Toilet." That's good enough for me!

Well, I just *had* to visit Dunkin' Donuts. Come on! Who could resist? They had sandwiches on the menu but were baffled by the concept of "egg" or "cheese" for said sandwich, so I got the "bagel and cream cheese set" and a decidedly small iced coffee. I called the school director, John, to let him know I'd be arriving on the 9:36 a.m. train, and I was on my way. The KTX (for, I think I recall, Korean Train? Transit? Express...something like that) is a snazzy new express train that gets me from Seoul to Daegu in just a hair over an hour and a half. Nice seats, a snack car, a little informational video, and KTX magazine included. Future rail lines in the works. My train would continue on to Pusan without me. All in all, the most pleasant leg of my journey so far. Or maybe I was just happy to be finally nearing the journey's end.

And so - Daegu. Up the escalator, through the turnstile, and there was John, not even bothering to confirm if I was Linda, partly because I had sent pictures to the school in advance, per their request for when they met me at the station, but undoubtedly also partly because I stood out amid the Korean travelers who weren't stumbling around in a wide-eyed daze. He carried my bag, ushered me into his SUV, and drove me a short two or three minutes through Daegu to my ... temporary digs.

Well, it's true, he informed me. There was a problem with my apartment. I think at this point he was like, I can't believe I have to deliver ANOTHER piece of news to this girl for her to contend with/adapt to, but I was fine. Turns out the place I was going to live fell through because they ('they' meaning official Korean people) are renovating an entire swath of high-rise apartment buildings, so for the interim until a new apartment is set up I am staying in the studio apartment attached to the school's headquarters where the CEO stays when he is in town. Nice!

It surprised me a bit when John turned the car onto the sidewalk in front of the school HQ building, but I've since realized that these huge sidewalks are in fact made for parking, in addition to walking. It's not a bad system. Up the stairs, through a large classroom, and there I was in the back studio apartment, complete with TV-VCR-laserdisc-DVD/CD player, bathtub, washing machine, kitchen sink/counter/fridge/microwave, and lots of mint green decor with touches of pink.

John gave me the phone number there, which I would share with the school HQ during business hours, and then he took me for a quick walk around the neighborhood. I bought water and orange juice, spotted yet another Dunkin' Donuts (my third so far, and only ONE Starbucks, in Seoul...), and just generally reveled in the lively Sunday morning urban random glory of it all. He pointed out the Burger King, to ensure I could eat something today if all else failed. Much obliged, my friend. He told me the Canadian teachers who would be my co-workers at the school were on an excursion to another town that day -- I was invited had I arrived in a timely fashion -- but that he would have them call me that night. He gave me one of their cell phone numbers as well. And then he left me, and on that day I rested. And it was good.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Journey Begins...

Well, well, well. Another continent. At long last, I have arrived in Asia. Specifically, South Korea. It is amazing to contemplate being half a world away from my East Coast peeps. (It also puts the R.E.M. song in my head.) I left Boston on Friday morning (October 7) after a frantic last two weeks of packing, throwing things away, storing things, quitting my job, occasionally freaking out at how much I had left to do, and obtaining from the Korean consulate a one-year work visa.

My route was Boston-Chicago-Tokyo-Seoul. I was so exhausted on the airplane after those excruciating last days of attempting to pack up my life, but I didn't sleep a great amount, mostly because the seats (I flew United) reclined about half an inch, if that. Whatever! I napped sporadically, and in between I kept tabs on where we were on the little armrest screen, noting our progress toward the international date line. Somewhere above Alaska, with every announcement from the flight crew coming in English and Japanese, it started to hit me that I was actually flying to another continent.

I had fun in the Tokyo airport buying bottled water in the duty-free shop and receiving my 18 yen change. My favorite part of the shop was an impulse buy display of things like batteries, film, you know, last-minute type travel purchases. You could well imagine a sign above such a display saying "Aren't you forgetting something?" But this sign, probably literally translated through a language or two, said, "Isn't there forgetting purchase?" Ahhh, I loved it. I decided that was my favorite part about the Tokyo airport and I want to say that all the time now. "Isn't there forgetting purchase?" Then I talked with some other random American girls on my flight to Seoul. One had taught English this past year and was re-upping for another year, and she shared a few words of wisdom, like 'make the effort to learn Korean' and such.

The flight to Seoul was short. I filled out my customs declaration (nothing) and my immigration card and it started to hit me a little more that I was actually going to Korea. But I have to say, by and large, there has been no weird, trippy feeling about any of this. It just feels normal. Yes, normal. It feels like I totally should be moving to Korea for a year (or longer?) and there doesn't seem to be anything particularly out of the ordinary about it.

Or, perhaps I was just too tired to trip out. When I landed in Seoul, I was eagerly looking forward to the bus to Daegu and my bed awaiting me in said city. Unfortunately, that little baggage carousel of love turned and turned and came up short, for me and about ten or twelve other harried souls. We all followed a nice United Airlines gentleman to the lost and found desk where took our bag claim numbers and descriptions of our suitcases, promising to hook us up with the bags the next day.

OK, fine, I thought. I have necessities in my carry-on. I shall remain undaunted! I went through customs and found the ground transport area where I was to buy a ticket for the bus to Daegu. There were dozens of buses departing for all kinds of places, and I saw the Daegu bus, but the woman at the counter cheerfully informed me it was "finished for tonight." Finished? What does that mean, exactly, I wondered? What it meant was sold out. Oh dear. That was not in the plan. This was starting to cross from "adventure" over into "nightmare" territory. I had my 30,000 won and was supposed to call my school director when I was boarding the bus to Daegu. So, I bought a bottle of water inside the airport's only shop remaining open, a 24-hour convenience store, in order to get some change, and then I took my 100 won coins to the public phones to call him.

He, too, was surprised the bus had sold out, but he had to be the bearer of the bad news that I would be spending the night in the Seoul airport. While I wanted desperately for him to say, "OK, we'll come get you," even I could see that their three and a half hour drive would not be worth it, in terms of time and sleep deprivation. I could go to a hotel, he suggested, but to the tune of at least 100$US I was not really interested, on my limited budget, let alone the hassle/cost of getting there from Incheon Airport, way on the outskirts of the city, and for how many hours, really? The next bus to Daegu would not depart until 7:30 a.m., but there would be a bus to Seoul at 5:30 a.m. to take me to the train station where I'd catch the express to Daegu. Sound good?

I do believe at that point I lost it.

I was so very tired, so very frustrated, and so very alone, not to mention sick to death of faux "taxi" drivers walking up to me offering me a ride to Daegu. I allowed myself a blissful minute in the bathroom to just cry and release tension, knowing full well the moment would pass and I would be fine. It did, and I was. I had gone back to my good friend at the 24-hour mini-mart to get an international calling card, which I could not figure out how to use, nor were its Korean instructions any help, thus necessitating my dropping all of my 100-won coins in the phone during my many phone calls to my contact. But now that I was feeling reinvigorated, I was bound and determined to figure it out.

In scoping out the airport, my new home for the evening, I found a suitable sleeping place with soft chairs and no armrests, where my "roommate" was already crashed for the night. Across from this "bedroom" was an airport information desk staffed by a man who greeted me in English. Wonderful! I showed him my calling card and basically said, "Why won't this work?" I imagine I was pretty pathetic at this point. He looked at it with me and said I have to press the red button. I trotted back to my "living room" area where the public phones were and tried his advice. So what if the red button said "emergency call"? I'd try anything once! It didn't like the first number I tried, but after some more fiddling around with the Korean instructions and various options I figured out which of the three phone numbers on the back was the toll free number I needed to use and I was in! Could it be?! Yes! A voice in the United States was on the other end of the line! I melted.

A few minutes chat was all I needed, and then it was time to settle in for the night, feet draped over my duffel, head on my backpack with an arm through the strap. Of course, I felt my good friends at 24-hour CSpace (the mini-mart) and at Airport Information would look after me. After all, at Airport Info there were comment cards (you know I love me some comment cards), bilingual in Korean and English, and there were two choices: Complaint Card and Thankful Card. How wonderful is that? I took one of each as a souvenir, but despite all of my trials I was still willing to give my arrival in Asia, overall, a Thankful Card.