Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Decembrists

Here are this weekend's top stories:

1. I very much enjoyed an all-expenses-paid trip to Busan (aka Pusan).
2. The phones in our apartment stopped working.
3. It snowed.
4. I began reading War and Peace.

Well, all right, let's take them one at a time, then.

Not one to be outdone by a slew of world leaders, I of course had visiting Busan on my agenda. It's the second largest city in Korea, it's on the coast, it's about one and a half hours from here by train, and there's no good reason why I haven't gone yet, other than studiously avoiding it during the recent APEC gathering. But I was invited to go this weekend on one of the strangest trips I've ever gone on (a short strange trip) and it turned out to be loads of fun and my best day yet in Korea!

Last weekend at American Thanksgiving, I met the American couple's Korean friend, J.J., who has over the months been their guide to Korea. They've seen tons of sights, their families are good friends now, and J.J.'s father is even making my American friend a traditional Korean wooden backpack (chigae). Stuff like that. J.J. works for a global company whose workers often galavant off to Shanghai or Toronto on business. On a regular basis the company pays for "work club" trips where they go on a little field trip with some foreigners so that they can get used to being around Westerners.

For some time, J.J. has been urging American friend Bryan to come be a token foreigner on the trip. They were discussing it last weekend at Thanksgiving and invited me to come be a token foreigner as well. It did seem a little weird -- what exactly would I be doing? I'd really be getting a free trip to Pusan and all I had to do was hang out and be the English-speaking person that I am? What's the catch? But there was no catch. Really. I felt a bit more comfortable because Bryan was going too, and I decided I was up for an adventure, and a free trip, so off I went!

We met at the Daegu train station at 9 a.m. and J.J. introduced us to our two new friends for the day, B.K. and S.G. I was beginning to feel a little left out for not going by my initials! Actually, it's just easier for foreigners to deal with initials, so for example if your name is Byeong-Kuk you might shorten it to B.K. on the English side of your bilingual business card. I did have to restrain myself at first from calling him "B.K. Broiler," although by the end of the day when we were all old friends that was fine.

It was such fun! I guess there are a dozen or so people who participate in these "work club" trips, but it's a busy month so only these three could make it this time. On the train we talked about the initial things you talk about: where are you from, where have you been, have you been to____, did you like it, what should I do when I go to ___. They spoke pretty good English, and they were nice, easygoing, maybe thirtysomething? I'd wondered if it would be really bizarre, just hanging with some random Korean businessmen, but it was all very casual and fun and we got along famously.

I was next to S.G. on the train and we got to talking about Buddhism. He asked me if I knew why the Buddhist temples are almost all secluded, nestled in the mountains. "Well,"I replied, "during the Joseon dynasty..." He looked at me funny. Was I saying it wrong? "Um, the Joe-sohrn dynasty," I continued, trying to emphasize the different "o" sounds in the two syllables correctly, "when the Confucianists ruled they exiled Buddhists to the mountains." Then I realized he was looking at me funny because I knew the answer and it surprised him. He said he was impressed. I said are you kidding, I've been fascinated learning about Korean history these last few weeks! I try to pay attention in the museums! (When I can read something, that is.)

Pusan has a great energy and we strolled happily. I'd heard a lot about Haeundae beach from the Canadians at work, who frequented it in the summertime. It is nice. We hung out in the sand for a while, took pictures, and looked at the sea. It makes me happy to look at oceans/gulfs/ seas/bays. I really think when I "settle down" I don't want to be landlocked, and I will have to live in a coastal city. Now, which coast -- in which country -- remains to be seen. (Then again, when will I settle down? That also remains to be seen.)

The Busan aquarium is right there by the water, and that was our big event for the day. Normally, I am not one for aquariums. I am not a fan of the whole animals-in-captivity scene. But I am also not a total plebe; I was on this fully hosted adventure and it was my job to go in and be Western on all the planned activities, so I did my duty. Though I believe you can safely offend some of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, there are some times when you should most assuredly not offend people, and this was one.

We got to see fish from around the world, divers in the huge tank feeding sharks, jellyfish, crabs, you name it. And of course, my two favorites: frogs and penguins. How I love those little guys. "Hello, froglets," I said. "I'm sorry you live in these tiny glass houses." There were a whole bunch of varieties of frog, and a big frog statue that many kids sat on to take pictures; we got a picture of me kissing the frog, to turn it into a prince, of course. The penguins, I can't even go there. I love penguins so much that it makes my heart hurt even when they're not trapped in a big room. And this year, being fresh off the March of the Penguins movie, I just stood there overwhelmed as I looked at them. They're brilliant and so cute, yet tough. Intrepid, that's what they are!

We took a glass-bottomed boat ride on which we got to feed the fish and be inches from a shark. The sharks are so thoroughly non-plussed by humans at this point, though. I did pretty well on the shark quiz. My surprise favorite exhibit was the sea dragons. They look like pieces of plant! It was a challenge to spot all seven of them in their tank. For a while I watched two of them of different colors (clearly a male and a female) dance and float around each other, playing, swimming, touching, backing off, then dancing and floating some more. The one I'm guessing was male (the only printed information in English was the species name, so I had to guess) would brush some of his little fronds along her back, and then they would curl around each other and float up a couple feet together before swirling away, then back together again. It was fascinating.
I discovered that I love purple fish. I knew that I am partial to blue, violet, and purple flowers, but I didn't know that I also loved purple fish. I gravitated toward every tank with purple things in it. Who knew?

Lunch was, obviously and ironically, at a seafood restaurant across the street: Korean sushi. Still being dutiful, I was actually rather excited to eat at another traditional Korean take-your-shoes-off-and-sit-around-a-low-table restaurant, and yes, I did eat some fish. I had to warn them about my seaweed allergy, but it was all fine. What I did not eat was the live baby octopus. I'd read about this Korean delicacy. Lonely Planet warns that the suction cups still work and you can choke when the baby octopus gets stuck - truly - in your throat. So when our server put down the platter of flagellating octopi, I declined. Bryan declined, too. But the Korean guys were in the mood to tease by this point. I stood firm. They told me not to worry about the choking, you just use lots of sesame oil and they don't get stuck. "No way," I said, "I have a policy against eating things that don't hold still on my plate."

"Here, watch," one of them said, "I'll kill it for you." And he speared it with his chopstick until it was still. "There, now you can eat it!" Chivalry is not dead, eh? Don't worry, we were all laughing, and nobody got their feelings hurt (except the octopus), but no way, man. When those guys lifted a tentacle the suction cups clung to the plate!!! Why should I believe they wouldn't also cling to the inside of me?

Then, another great thing happened as we sat around the table, so familiar and fast friendly. We got into a political discussion! My first Korean war-American military-George W. Bush-even North Korea(!) discussion. It was fascinating, enlightening, and I think goes to show that we were clearly getting along like a house on fire, because that is like the unspeakable topic, the North. It was most interesting.

Next, we did a lot of walking along the beach and went to the outlook point past the big Westin hotel. We saw various things like islands, seaweed harvesting boats, and the site of that APEC "class picture" photo-op with all the world leaders. J.J. took pictures of us all day, so I'll try to post some soon.

Our last event was BEXCO (Busan Exposition and Convention Center), where a shoe and textile convention was underway. It was kind of random, but then, the whole day was random and surreal, so why not a shoe exposition? (My leather issues aside. At this point I could check my animal principles at the door, eh.) I was an old pro at this EXCO thing by now. I can't believe I've been to more conventions in Korea than dance clubs.

Among the highlights were a fashion show complete with runway and models, a machine that I stepped on and had my tread/pressure electronically analyzed, and a giant embroidery machine that had fifteen or so needles going at once making intricate patterns on a huge cloth. "Get a load of this thing," I said, "this is brilliant. It could so clearly put an end to children in sweatshops! No more little eight-year-old fingers needed for the needlework!"

Not five minutes later, as the five of us hung out near the "press some wool into a keychain ball" booth, a man asked me if he could interview me about my impressions of the convention. "Sure," I said, and turned around. Suddenly the guy behind him turned on a camera and bright lights and they held up a microphone. Oh, that kind of interview. They were from one of the big networks, MBC, and if they needed a quote from a foreigner then judging from the few of us I saw I'm sure either Bryan or I or both of us made the evening news, but it would only air in Pusan. Thank goodness. I would flip if any of my students in Daegu came in saying, "Linda teacher, I saw you on the news!"

They asked me what I thought, why was I there, what had I seen. I told them the embroidery thing was fascinating. I actually refrained from my sweatshop comment. I've seen the way things get translated around here, and it ain't pretty. They asked my age, of course, as there is a Korean obsession with that question. I resisted answering it because I've declared it off limits (for example, from my students). We need it for the chyron subtitle, they insisted. "Let's say 29 and holding," I said. I was kidding, but they turned off their camera and moved on. Oh, well. Age is different here anyway. They start at 1. They say they count the year you're in the womb, so I'm always a year off in Western age anyway, I just went in the wrong direction this time.

We ate some more delicious roasted chestnuts and had a hilarious subway ride on the way to the Pusan train station. It had been a long, exhausting, but immensely amusing day. Bryan and I were the only two who stayed awake the whole train ride back, which gave us time to have some good conversation, and upon returning to Daegu we all went out to dinner. I can't believe how much stuff the company paid for, and they absolutely would not let us pay for anything, not even coffee on the train. I had such a good time with these people! Of course we exchanged info and want to all hang out again. I can't believe how randomly in the past two weeks I've collected new friends and the most wonderful experiences.

From about midway through the shoe and textile convention right up until we parted after dinner I seriously laughed so much side-splitting laughter that my mouth muscles actually started to hurt, along with my stomach! It was the craziest thing ever. My jaw was truly in pain, like after you exercise. I realized that I hadn't laughed like that in ages, and hadn't really laughed much at all in eight weeks. (Most of my good times here have been of the solitary, reflective sort.) The only amusement I get are two of my co-workers (the sarcastic ones) and that's not often, and it's just dry banter and witty asides. It was quite a realization. People, we need to laugh much! And I was out of practice. I need to seek out some truly laugh-out-loud reading material or something. That'll be the next item on my wish list.

After dinner I stopped by the Americans' place for a few. By the time I rode the subway, checked e-mail, and got home it was late and really cold, so of course I was excited to get inside, kick off my shoes, sprawl out on my warm bed, and pick up the phone...oh, what's this? No dial tone? Strange. I checked the line into the phone and into the wall. I checked with my roommate, in her room. I knew she'd planned to get a phone from her friend who now lives in our old apartment, where there are two phones, since we have only one in this new place. And the jack in our living room doesn't work and we'd rather have them in our rooms anyway but with only one we have to move it back and forth, what a pain. She affirmed that she had the second phone, but yeah, the phone apparently didn't work, she'd discovered when she brought it home around 9 p.m.

"!#$*%*&#!" I screamed as I hurled the plastic hinged pencil-case type thing I was holding into my room, where it broke apart in a very satisfying clatter. Unfortunately, I think I scared my roommate and her friend. "Of course the phone doesn't work," I muttered, as I got my sweatshirt and pullover and scarf and shoes and gloves back on, fished for a calling card, and grumbled my way out of the apartment to a pay phone down the block. "It was the one of the few things that did work in this place; it probably felt lonely." It was particularly cold, so I felt even more righteously angry as I huddled in my phone booth and left a bitter, petulant message on voice-mail, something along the lines of, "I had a great day. No, really, though maybe you can't tell by my !&$&#!* tone now!" I was so irritated. Today, though, after sleep, I resigned myself to the fact that I'll likely be without a phone until Monday at least. (Sleep always helps in these situations.)

Pray for me that the heat doesn't break next, because it's genuinely cold here now, and today when I stepped foot into the sunshine I was surprised to slide across the steps outside my apartment. Ice? I looked at the parked cars. The ones on the shady side of the street were covered in snow! I couldn't believe it! No wonder I was so cold in my payphone a few hours earlier! I slept through a dusting of snow. It had already melted on the street surface and the cars on the sunny side, though, as well as on the rooftops, but I can see little white patches on the mountains. Isn't that fun?

I spent today doing relaxing things, including a nice, long swim at the YMCA and a visit to Starbucks. I am happy to report that the Christmas drinks and their attendant red cups are here in Korea, but sad indeed to report that the gingerbread syrup is not. They have only peppermint mochas and toffee nut lattes. I'd already very much doubted that I would be able to find gingerbread-house making materials anywhere for my little Christmas cheer project, and this pretty much clinches it. If Starbucks doesn't even bother to do its gingerbread drinks, then I'm sure no one cares.

So, I had to settle for toffee nut latte this year, and as I enjoyed it I commenced Tolstoy's tome, the "best novel of all time" -- well at least the biggest, baddest book, right? Anyone who knows me probably knows I've planned to read it approximately forever, and in 2004 when Dubya was really starting to remind me of Napoleon I reawakened my desire and went so far as to examine all the translations at Cambridge Borders, settle on one, and purchase it (along with a collected works of Dante, I remember; the cashier was like, "Geez, Linda, a little light summer reading?") Plus Oprah was doing Anna Karenina (and as Oprah goes, so goes the nation, right?) but I read A.K. in high-school, so I needed to read a different Tolstoy. Regrettably, my real-life war and peace activism kept me busy, and then there were Borders sorts, and the Sox in the series, and holidays, and I got distracted by 2005, and so on. I never got around to it.

When I packed to come here it was the obvious choice: a big fat paperback that I could bring instead of packing a bunch of books, and it will keep me busy for a while. So Anna Pavlovna and Prince Vasily and all the other aristocrats and peasants and I are starting our long winter's journey together. I might just have to go into hibernation and emerge in the spring with it read. Anyone want to read with me? We can have a little on-line discussion group. Consider the gauntlet thrown down!

1 comment:

jnap said...

No taker here for War and Peace. Sorry. It is all I can do to read my mail daily.

Zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens are hard, but the better ones are actually doing breeding, species survival and research.

Penguins! Uncle Tony used to really like penguins. I wonder if he still does.

Hanging out. The value to the Koreans is to learn about being with Westerners. We never know what we have that may be of value to someone else.

Thanks for the tour.