원주여행 / Wonju Trip

A friend I met through a language exchange app lives in Wonju, which is located in Gangwondo, a giant province which spreads from the eastern border of Gyeonggi-do to the East Sea. He came to visit me in Seoul last weekend, so it was my turn to visit him out there for a daytrip this weekend.

The bus ride was relatively short, about an hour and a half, and the ticket was only about 7,000 won. We spent Sunday driving around, eating lunch, and going to a cafe with a really nice view of the city.

It was nice to get some fresh air. Whenever I see nature in Korea, I realize that I hadn’t realized I needed a break from the city hustle and relentless stacks of people and buildings. I love Seoul, its busyness, its many cultural offerings, its shopping, its food, music, cafes, transportation… But as a California native, nature is part of my constitution. Going into nature feels comfortable, like I can breathe a little deeper than I could before. The cafe we visited was on a mountain. As we began the ascent, I kept exclaiming “green!” because it was lush, verdant, and bright green like you can really only see in Spring in punctuated, organized scenery in Seoul. Geongu thought that was funny, but I couldn’t help it.

When we were sitting on the rooftop of the cafe looking out over the view of the whole city, nestled into the mountains, with the gray cotton wool clouds descending into the stacks of apartment complexes, everything looking kind of like it belonged there that way, a breeze was blowing and I found myself almost crying. I refrained from tears for the sake of Geongu. I’m pretty sure it’s distressing to see a new friend cry the second time you meet her.

This trip also made me realize that I’m slowly getting better at conversing in Korean. I’m slowly becoming more confident and speaking even if I’m not sure how to end the sentence, which was something I was absolutely incapable of even six months ago. I wouldn’t even be able to say the beginning of a sentence because I knew I couldn’t finish it. These days I’m picking up speech patterns and intonation and repeating them. I often make mistakes and am aware of it, but there’s a comfortableness that’s arisen out of my willingness to try to say what I want to say, and this often gives rise in turn to the occasional outburst of English vocabulary that most Koreans are too shy to display. While meeting people like Geongu who speak little to no English but have been forced by the education to memorize words, I notice in them an increasing effort to use their known vocabulary within the familiar context of a Korean sentence structure.

Wonju is a place I’d like to visit again, if only to go back to that rooftop on the cafe.

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Seattle: 1

Back in the day, I mean, way back in the day, the days nobody cares to think about except while tipsy-insulting all the people who were mean to us for no reason then, I attended San Clemente High School and through the International Baccalaureate program I met Sanj, who was a big personality and well-known at school but a bit intimidating to soft-spoken, poetry-enamored, little me. It wasn’t until senior year we began to hang out because I became close with one of her best friends, but despite being extremely different in almost all aspects except academic motivation, we became close. We kept in touch after graduation and continued to meet up when we could despite her moving to Berkeley for school at Cal and my choosing to stay in Orange County to attend UC Irvine.

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I stayed with her in San Jose while she was a university recruiting intern at Qualcomm during summer 2013, and now I’ve come to stay with her for a week in Seattle, where she’s been working at Facebook for a while. I’ve been here a few days and am just making my coffee shop debut at Uptown Espresso in Belltown.

I flew in early Saturday morning. Sanj and her boyfriend John picked me up and took us back to her apartment, a cute one bed one bath in Lower Queen Anne’s. We mapped out a few coffee shops I’d be interested in visiting on the way to Pike Place sometime later after getting coffee at the cafe across the street, and then we walked to a little Vietnamese restaurant for Pho. I’d never tried vegetarian Pho before so I was a little more excited than the situation probably warranted.

We went back to the apartment to nap before going to get dinner and start out drinks at Big Mario’s Pizza, which is extremely close to her apartment and where I discovered the very addicting Jalapeño, Pineapple, and Feta pizza which I may or may not have drunk ate too much of. They had excellent cider, after which I switched to rum and coke and can’t admit to remembering everything that followed perfectly.

We ended up taking an uber to a dive bar with a big dance floor, where we…well, danced, with what I admit was some admirable abandon, and where I got way too excited when the DJ played half of Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home,” sang very loudly to it, and then complained loudly enough to draw attention to myself when he didn’t play the whole thing…we moved to the karaoke room to root for a girl who sang Spice Girls and then went back to dance. Sober, I can’t be paid to dance in public, but drunk me likes it more than one would guess.

I actually can’t remember how we got home, but John showed up with pizza, which I couldn’t identify at the time. I woke up the next morning still drunk with a bindi on my right cheek and had to rely on Sanj’s snapchat story to fill in the regrettable gaps in my memory. I can’t even share all of the photos publicly…

Sunday morning we went to brunch with some of Sanj’s Seattle girlfriends. They were all disarmingly friendly and outgoing—and all white, and pretty…my hangover started to kick in while we were there so I was spacing out or trying not to get up to projectile vomit the whole time, which I feel bad about… I tried to socialize but would consistently forget what I was saying while I was saying it and found I had nothing in common with most of these girls anyway, so I sat back and observed this as a phenomenon rather than my own experience. But still what I remember most is the feeling of being disarmed by their friendliness to me and then feeling queasy. Also the weird waiter trying to catch my eye at inappropriate times just because I smiled at him when he took my coat to hang up on the coat rack, which I had tried to do by myself. Also I was only smiling anyway because of how awkward it had been to wrestle over my jacket with a waiter while trying not to barf on him or punch his ginger beard right off his pasty face.

After brunch we went back home and began a marathon of Season 22 of ANTM that did not end for me until about 4PM the next day.

By the time I finally managed to drag myself off the couch, get showered, and clean the kitchen on Monday evening, Sanj was already on her way home from work. We had dinner and some (eheh) wine together then headed to her old roomie’s apartment for “wine and the Bachelor.” These were mostly the same girls that were at brunch minus a few. Did I mention they were all white and pretty…? I admit to having a predisposition sort of…against this kind of girl, and yeah, I think it’s fair to say there’s a kind of girl; she comes from a sort of privileged background and, due to her succession of various environments, including university, has had barely any exposure to different cultures or challenging opinions; her “type” is a nice, successful business man who was a frat boy in his glory days; these are facts I gathered after grilling Sanj about them after seeing how they reacted—poorly, to say the least—to a statement about women of color not really being interested in watching The Batchelor and certainly not being too interested in (or allowed to) go on the show. There’s a lot I could say, but I’ll just sum it up: when we left, I was glad to leave.

Girls who are nice, pretty, and as a result of various circumstances generally privileged; well, to be honest, I wasn’t surprised at all to realize they have regular brunch dates and name their boyfriends by first and last name when asked who they’re dating. I’m not really for typecasting, but in Seattle, I’m finding there’s such an overall lack of diversity—which really, deeply surprises me, as I just assumed that all big cities would be notably diverse—that nobody really feels challenged to break stereotype or become interesting or individual. There’s a very laid back vibe here; it fits with the idea that people are comfortable how they are and might be satisfied with everything staying the same.

Todayimg_2499, Tuesday, I travelled to the Facebook offices to meet Sanj for lunch, and my hope in the city was restored somewhat; there was a very active, energetic community there with enough diversity to give me some warmth to carry with me throughout the rest of my experience here; I walked past conference rooms, peering in curiously as people mapped out things and were engaged with each other; it was clear to see that this was a place where new ideas are appreciated and probably implemented with some ease. In a way, it feels like its own world; it’s not hard to understand why engineers and coders who enter the tech world never really want to or need to leave, especially if they’re at Facebook. I’m thinking I might go back tomorrow to try to see a little more of the place.

After lunch at Facebook I walked down to Belltown, where I stopped at the first of Sanj’s recommended coffee shops, Uptown Espresso, which makes a delicious Sea-Salt Dark Chocolate and Cranberry Scone (all words capitalized on the sign). I’ve been img_2501here a couple hours, putting together a playlist and working on some long put-off story notes. In a little under an hour I plan to head out to the next on the list, and after that, to Pike Place. As I’ve got my laptop and notebooks and stuff on me, the hike around town is pleasantly strenuous, but with stops along the way everything seems within walking distance and I’m excited to venture out to see more of the city.

Tomorrow I plan to visit the square around the Space Needle, which has some museums and other little places to see. Rather than shopping, which is my regular routine when I sightsee in Seoul, I’m trying hard to focus on taking photos of the places I visit and writing consistently for once in my life.

Visiting Gwangju / 광주 여행

Gloria and I met at college during our fourth year. Actually, we met through our mutual friend—the first time we met I was mad at this friend and bailed out on our coffee date, so my meeting with Gloria was short and (not so) sweet. I can only imagine what impression I gave off, quite cool when angry and not in my best “hi nice to meet you” mindset. It all worked out, though, or she changed her judgement of me after some time.

{As I write this post, “London” by Benjamin Clementine comes up on shuffle—appropriate, as Gloria and I both spent some considerable time in London whilst studying abroad.}

Although during our years (four in mine and five in her case) we did manage to share one Asian American Literature class, we did most of our real bonding at her apartment or, later, out and about as we continued to meet up during her fifth year of school, after I’d graduated but was hanging around Irvine for a teaching job at an academy on the Irvine/Tustin border. We shared a lot, more than I could have guessed I’d have in common with one of my close friends’ apartment mates—and our friendship was natural, blossoming out of some of our darkest moments—there was some safety between us, so secrets came out. I think our biggest, perhaps first serious conversation about, amongst other things, depression and anxiety, happened in the small food court of a Korean supermarket.

Even before then—Gloria has seen me in several (not quite flourishing) conditions, not least of which occurred after she chortlingly fed me six soju shots, and I withered into the onesies-clad blubber clutching a pillow spread eagle on the floor that she and her roommates preceded to photograph and send to, amongst other recipients, my father

Who sent it to me~ And while it’s too devastating to share here, here is another, taken at another time but in the same location, that sufficiently sums up what goes on when I drink soju (in any location, by the way, after as few as three shots…hence my lack of “going out” in Seoul):

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So Gloria and I grew closer as time passed after college. When I headed out here late last summer, it was after a few months of regularly meeting Gloria at coffee shops on Fridays or Sundays, sharing our personal writing, just chatting, or writing our joint blog about our big “scientific” excursion into app dating. Gloria’s absence as I made my way through Seoul and ran into trouble here and there or went through several firsts while here on my own and emotionally vulnerable after a particularly toxic summer at home… I felt it.

So when she told me sometime in March this year that she’d be coming to Korea, I was extremely excited, hopeful for the first time since the new year that the rest of my time here wouldn’t just be difficult. When she told me she’d be settling somewhere in Jeollanam-do, I cheered myself up by reminding myself that I sometimes drove three hours into LA if there was traffic and that really, it wasn’t that far away. Within reach, at least.

When she flew into Korea mid-April, she stayed with me in my Seoul apt. for a night before heading down to Gwangju for her EPIK orientation, and in that single night and day I felt like we fell back into old habits; it was surreal that she was here, after thinking about it for so long—we once jointly applied to something over here that didn’t work out back in December 2014—but it felt natural. I warned her about the difficulties I faced during my first few weeks here, which she immediately decommissioned by making a ton of friends at her EPIK orientation. We went to one of her favorite cafes from her study abroad stint at Yonsei that weekend, but the meeting was too brief. I kept telling her to let me know when she was settled down in Gwangju and that I’d come visit her.

Eventually, about a month after she’d stayed with me on her first night here, I bussed down to Gwangju to meet her.

I hate flying, but for some reason, bussing is sort of tranquil. The most pleasant memories I have of bus rides are those I’d take into the town centre of Norwich from my dorms at UEA while studying Shakespeare and Creative Writing abroad there three years ago, and the few rides from London Stansted through birch-filled, hog-housed countryside…   But the ones through Korea aren’t too bad, either.

I left from Central City Terminal in Seoul at 8.30PM on a Friday night, so it was dark outside. I watched with interest as we exited Seoul and passed through what appeared to be a quite industrial sector in Gyeonggi-do, and then as we passed through dark countryside and small towns, the view of darkness interrupted only by the eerie, somewhat unsettling red glow of church crosses and the vibrant, nearly half-moon hanging bulbous above the mountains and cities.

I burnt my mouth on tong-gamja at the rest stop—running through the rain back to the bus in the nick of time—at the half-way point. It was late. I didn’t get to Gwangju until nearly midnight (after passing the KIA factory, looking in without knowing what it was and thinking—no, could it possibly—? making cars? car factory? no…—before seeing the sign).

Taxi queues at post-subway/bus hours are never something I like to participate in, but somehow always get stuck in. This time, a lady behind me stood next to me instead of behind me and, I’m used to being stared at but, she was really looking and I thought… We’re not in Seoul anymore. Then she asked me what direction I was going in, and I thought a moment before realizing I didn’t know either—so I told her that, shrugging a bit, and turned away in line. After texting Gloria about it, I realized, she was probably just trying to help me, but I’d been nervous she’d suggest sharing a cab because of the long line and I’d seen people do this before on one occasion.

As I was fourth or fifth in line, I was joined in queue from behind by two late-twenties males who stood way too close to me (and that’s me talking after three-fourths of a year to acclimating to Asian personal space philosophy) and began to pester each other to say something in English and then, after all the fuss, only managed to come up with incredibly dull and random phrases (“I will change it now” / “Really? I didn’t know it” etc). I texted Gloria through it all, and she apologized on behalf of such a welcome to her city, but I was so delirious on (usual) lack of sleep and simple reaction to a too-long day that I could barely count it as my real “welcome.” That would come later, I told her.

The cab driver kept asking me which direction I wanted him to go to drop me off at the apartment complex I asked him to drop me at, and although I said, “I don’t know, I’m not sure,” not wanting to divulge that I wasn’t from here so he wouldn’t try anything sneaky, eventually he dropped me at the back of the correct complex and I waited a while for Gloria to find me. We said our hellos and headed back to her apartment, which is on the second floor of an elevatorless building in a small and kind of quaint neighborhood. I later stopped to photograph the vibrant blue roofs of the neighborhood buildings—Gloria side-eyeing me and asking “what are you doing” as if I had stopped to admire a piece of chewed gum on the ground—but there’s a style there that I like, which I can’t describe in any other way than to say that they’re what I think of when I think of “Korean style” neighborhoods, though where I get that impression from…I’m not sure.

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We spent the first day finding our way to a panini cafe, looking out at a small but verdant park, and then immediately turning the exact opposite direction and walking probably a mile the wrong way while looking for “downtown.” To be fair, that is not my fault. Since it was my first time there. Anyway eventually we turned back around but ended up walking down side streets to the downtown area where we shopped, stopped for a while at a Gong Cha, and then went back in a cab and rested before ordering in, my first ordering-in experience in the land of ordering in… I’d heard before, from Dad’s Seoul-born coworker via Dad, that Gwangju had good food, but I can confirm now from experience. Not that Seoul doesn’t have good food—in all the lands I’ve tried soondubu-jjigae, a spot near exit 8 of the Gangnam Underground Shopping Mall in Seocho-gu still carries my heart—but the doenjang-jjigae I ordered in, even the kimchi that came with it, was better than any I’ve had here, and later, at the bus terminal waiting to bus home, the udong was also better than farther north.

The next day we made our way to an area near the university where there was purported to be a, somewhat predictably, younger, uni-age population. We walked around for a while wondering where to eat, found a “casual dining food court,” where I ordered our food to the apparent discomfort of the boy who took our order who expected Gloria—who is so often mistaken as Korean and spoken to in rapid dialect before she’s able to relay that actually she’s not Korean—to order, and where we ate peacefully before trying unsuccessfully to find a cafe she’d seen in a blog. We think it’s not there anymore. In the end, she forced me to choose where to go, so I wandered us down side roads long enough to find a Cafe Pascucci’s, where we parked it for a few hours and I attempted, with small success, to break through the writers’ block that has had a stranglehold on me for six months now… mostly, I gazed out the third-floor window to the foot traffic below. Mostly couples, but not as many matching outfits as Seoul.

Gwangju is… a bit dirty. A bit spread out. The busses are hot and crowded. The main “downtown” is kind of nice, and so is the uni area. But I decided after all that I wouldn’t want to live there; I’d feel even more cut off and bored than I do in Seoul. Being somewhere is partly about who you’re with, but in the case that you’re alone, place really matters. Since I’ve been to London and I know what it’s like to feel like you could live somewhere forever, I feel like I’m just playing around in the meantime and so it seems it wouldn’t matter where I was, but in a way, Seoul has come to seem like home base for me, a safe place to return to after travels throughout the rest of the country. You wouldn’t think it’d be refreshing to come back from a friendly place to a place where people could push you halfway to the ground trying to get somewhere in a crowd and not even spare you a glance, but, well… I like this place.

Going to Gwangju was about seeing more the country in which I have found myself, yes, but it was also just about spending time with a good friend. So perhaps there are more Gwangju-y things to do in Gwangju than the things I did, but I like to think I enjoyed the city pretty well.

Throughout the time I spent with her over the weekend, I found that there were many times when Gloria appeared in frame behind me when I turned on selfie mode, so I began a mission to capture selfies with “Gloria behind me” and acquired what I consider to be a good few. Though she threatened to kill me and declared her hate for me more than once after I snapped some less-than-flattering shots, at one point in the cafe she said out of the blue—“I’m behind you.” I looked at her strangely and said, “okay,” like I was responding to one of my students’ passionate outbursts of random information, but then she repeated herself until I understood that I should take a photo. (After six months of acute insomnia… there’s bound to be some clogs up there, in the brain I mean).

Kindergarten Student 101

One of my kindergarten students is the master of the half-compliment.

“Teacher is small [a little bit] cute.”

“Teacher…you are handsome.”

“Teacher is why is looks fat? No—Teacher’s t-shirt looks fat.”

“But why Teacher’s eyes is so pretty?”

“Teacher is a white like milk. I like the milk.”

(I say—I think I look better with short hair—after showing them my passport photo, taken four years ago, in which my hair was long, dyed blue at the ends, and in which I was wearing full makeup, something the kids have never seen on me before, I think)

No. Long hair is prettier than short hair.”

When I visit her place at the table to check up on her work or help her with something, she always grabs my hand. “Don’t go,” she says. “I’ll come back,” I say, and she pouts, but accedes. When the bell rings for break time, she throws her arms around my hips. “Don’t go,” she says. She struggles against me as I move towards the door. “I’ll come back,” I say. She watches me go from the doorway with a sad face, her entire 2.5 foot frame wilted with disappointment.

As if to make up for the time we’ve spent apart, whenever she can, she’ll wrap her arms around whatever part of me is nearest, or simply lean in towards whatever part is close to her, and kiss it. My stomach, back, arms, chest, legs—anywhere.

In class these days, while I’m sitting at my teacher’s chair at the front of the class passing out homework or listening to students recite their Daily Oral Expressions, she’ll come up to me and sling an arm around my shoulder, not even as tall as me while I’m sitting down. One day, her arm around my shoulder this way, she looks me in the eye and says, “Teacher is my friend.”

“Your friend?!” I say. Sometimes, abandoning their polite pretenses, the students will call out to me—“Lily!”—usually in a bid for my attention. “Lily?!” I’ll say, affecting disbelief. “Am I your friend?

So Elizabeth smiles up at me after the familiar question and simply nods her head. “My friend,” she says. “What can I say to Teacher now?”

I think a moment, and then say, “you can still call me Teacher.”

“And go to Teacher’s house?”

I laughed. “Maybe sometime.”

Later in the day, Elizabeth came up to me and put her hand on my arm. “Is it ‘sometime’ now?”

Then, maybe a week ago, she reminded me. “Teacher is my friend. Teacher comes to my house?”

“What would your grandma say…?” I said, and she just smiled.

Today, at break time, I stayed in the classroom to mark the last of their homework, and she came over to my desk to see what I was doing, inching closer and closer until she was leaning fully against my side.

“Yayyy,” she whispered, and then hoisted a small leg over my lap. “Now you can’t leave.”

It was the rare moment I had my mobile on me while I was in the classroom, having used it earlier to broadcast our open class song throughout the room, so I picked it up and turned it to selfie mode quickly. As I was doing this, another student, Ji-Ah, was coming in the door and noticed the impending activity, so she ran over to join us.

 

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Sometimes, receiving their affection, I think of how kids are just ready to love someone; I think of how if more people were like kids, ready to learn, curious, still open and unafraid, not yet having experienced the pain that closes us and hardens us and traps us in what we already know and went through—perhaps we’d have less reasons to be hurt at all. I encounter children like Elizabeth and remember the words I learned in my own childhood, but too young and innocent still to understand their value—blessed are the pure in heart—knowing now that it is so rare to be kind and to mean the best, and wondering—what would it be like, to be that way? Untouched by deep sadness, unscarred by memories, guilt, fear, hesitation…

I think of all the lies I told to get here—I’m energetic, I’m active, I’ve never been treated for mental illness, I’m generally healthy, and normal, and positive, etc—and then I remember the perhaps one and only thing I said that was not a lie, that was true—I like kids.

Despite her half-compliments, which imply some kind of pre-calculation (but in fact, I believe, are not a result of that), Elizabeth is to me a beacon of a pure heart—she’s uncomplicated—she tries hard, she’s honest (“Teacher, I didn’t do my homework because I forgot”), she wants to help her friends, and she says what she wants without reservation, without self-consciousness. I know a child wants and thinks and wonders as much as adults do, that a child’s simplicity isn’t…simple, that they’re as aware and nuanced as adults—but their experience, it can’t be argued, is simpler, and less. And I think kids are still hopeful and excited for their futures. I envy that.

I’m sure all adults have gone through more than they wish they had, have done things they regret, are scared by their own futures and their own pasts; I’m sure a lot of adults struggle with unhappiness and emotions they can’t control; I’m sure everyone’s been heartbroken and everyone’s been shy and everyone’s been uncomfortable and everyone’s struggled… but I’ve been feeling these things so acutely lately, just down on myself, regretful, and wistful. Watching the kids play, or watching them watch me as they learn in the classroom, unguarded and unburdened, I want to hide these things from them, and I want to learn from them instead—what should I do about my nightmares, how can I be happy and gentle, well-meaning and earnest like you?

Banpo Bridge (반포대교)

The place where I live seems secluded and narrow, smells like fish and bakeries and fried food and spice and exhaust fumes and sometimes lovelier things—fresh air, dirt—the moment after exiting the underground and breaking street-level. There are a lot of buildings, a lot of apartments, and the looming dark faces of the mountains visible from most windows. There are the udon shops, the soju jibs, the kimbab snack bars, the toast take-out places, the Paris Baguettes and Pizza Huts and Lotterias and T-worlds and second-story bars and underground Norebangs and, the ever-on-the-move landmark visible at most hours from my fifth-floor apartment, the fifty-strong packs of elderly hikers in full hiking gear—shirts, jackets, trousers, trainers, backpacks, hats, and hiking sticks—roving the streets, their own urban trails.

I haven’t seen much of Seoul, yet. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’m not here at all. Living isn’t hard here, or extremely foreign—except the language barrier and the little cultural differences that add up and leave me overwhelmed and sometimes shaken at the end of each day. I find myself wondering all the time—why did I come here? When I don’t even speak the language, when I don’t know anything about it here, when there’s nobody here I know or who knows me… why did I come here? And what I’m seeing, is this the country I came so far to see? I teach “animation” one period to a different kindergarten class each day, usually the animation Franklin about the animal kids, and this past week we watched  “Franklin’s Bad Day,” in which Franklin is upset because one of his best friends moved away. In two different classes it made me tear up—one student noticed me, so I smiled and shook it off. But I’m feeling a bit homesick for the first time, these days. Homesick…but I’m glad I’m not home.

When the line 7 train I’m taking to the Express Bus Terminal in Seocho-gu from Hagye, there’s a jarring moment at which the train exits the darkness and the carriage is washed with white light—I see the blood red sun disappearing into the cotton wool clouds and colorless sky above a mildly shining river, the bridges stacked up with evening traffic headed north after work, the mountains in the distance, the towering buildings, apartments, the vague and frenetic motion of a city quite alive and unaware of my gaze—and I think, this is why I am here—for the privilege of observation and a small partaking in a culture much larger, much more mysterious, much older and much more persisting than any I have ever observed or encountered before—this is the country that rebuilt itself after being nearly eradicated a hundred years ago, and after being rent in two by the bigness of its own aspiration, is at the forefront of world thought—the country and culture that somehow worked its way into my interest and stayed there until I got curious enough to meet it… the culture that met me graciously when I wanted away from my own.

For all the strangeness, the feeling uncomfortable, the tiredness of my days here—at this time I feel the privilege of being here, of being allowed, even sometimes welcomed, to a place like this with a story that is available to me if I chose to find it.

The people facing me in the carriage watch my face as I watch the river. My eyes burn and it is a relief to look back at my feet when we reenter the darkness.


I meet Gina and Tiffany at the Express Bus Terminal station after getting lost in the underground mall. I had heard so many times before coming here that the best shopping you can do (and the most affordable) is in the subway stations. I usually use stations off line 7 in Nowon-gu—Nowon station, Hagye station, and Suraksan station most often—and while they have cosmetics shops and food places, drug stores and convenience stores, I have not experienced underground shopping until I reach the Gangnam Terminal Underground Shopping Center on a Thursday evening.

Most places sell clothes and shoes or accessories for low prices—you can find knock-offs and cheap, bargain-priced things, as well as stores with their own lines and brands. Gina and Tiffany have been out all day by the time I reach them, so Tiffany rests while Gina accompanies me down a row of the mall. We spend about thirty to forty minutes shopping—I buy four teeshirts (one 15,000, and three for 5,000 each) and five pairs of socks (each 1,000)—and we don’t even make it halfway down one length of the mall from where we started. Two of my shirts say Maritime Surveillance in a small print. I am charmed by this every time I think about it.

We walk to Banpo Han-gang Park to watch the Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountain show at 20.00. A friend back home who studied a semester at Yonsei a few years ago has told me that this is something I should see, so I am especially glad that Gina and her friend want to see it, too. I have been told that it is something like World of Color at Disneyland, and I have a hard time picturing this of a bridge, so I don’t know what to expect.

We walk all the way to the water and I sit with my legs dangling over the river. A park sprawls behind us with trees, tiny grassy hillocks, a bike path, and a small amphitheater facing the river. A few flashily-lit cruise boats move slowly at the other shore. Couples sit on either side of us and pervade the waterfront. I get a feeling for the theme of the thing.

banpo bridge

When the show starts, a song, muffled and foreign, plays from somewhere behind us—I can’t understand it or really catch the tune. Water shoots straight out from the bridge in hundreds of streams that move up and down in choreography with the music, and lights from the bridge shine out into that spray and color it with a modest spectrum. It lasts about twenty minutes, for four or five songs. People take photos and videos the whole time—glancing back into the amphitheater over my shoulder is perhaps more entertaining than facing forward. I look out over the dark water and the dark sky and the dark mountains and the city now properly lit by traffic and building lights, feeling peaceful, and slightly wondering. Is this what people here enjoy? I am far from being touched by the water show itself… but glancing around at the crowd, looking out at the city… that’s all something for me. Afterwards, I’m left with a single overriding impression: quaint.


We walk back to the station in search of food. I am the only one of us that can read Korean so I scan the buildings for promising signs. On a big building outside of exit 8 I catch sight of a kimbab sign directing us to level B-1, so we walk down into the building and stumble upon a hidden food court, interspersed with flower shops. We end up walking into a place that’s almost full because they have bibimbap on their menu. The owner speaks no English but we manage to communicate a little through my limited vocabulary. He gives us menus and after briefly explaining, leaves us on our own. We discuss the things we understand on the menu—kimchi fried rice, radish bibimbap, soft tofu stew, kimchi stew, a bunch of other meat soups, seafood—and then the middle-aged ladies sitting at the table next to us come over to the table and start pointing to things and providing usually one-word translations like pork or drink.

I manage to charm them, in Gina’s words, by speaking with them in fledgeling statements—we know what these ones are, we don’t know what these ones are, what is good, we don’t want to drink. They ask us where we’re from and I speak for us—California. They nod. Ah, America. They tell Gina and Tiffany that they have “Korean faces”—I wonder if it’s their first experience with the non-ill-intentioned but mildly racist statements people—especially older people—sometimes make here—they bristle slightly and say, Chinese. The ladies ahhh. Gina tells me I should tell them I’m an English teacher. I tell them I’m an English teacher and I live in Nowon-gu. The ladies ahhh.

When the owner returns, Tiffany orders three soft tofu stews in Korean—the owner looks slightly pitying, as if we chose it because we couldn’t figure out what anything else was…which wasn’t halfway wrong. At home, I have had good soon-dubu, but Gina, who is wary of spicy food, is wary of what will come our way.

I can tell as soon as I try the banchan that this food will probably be the best I’ve had here so far and I am proved correct when the soup comes out, still boiling loudly.

soon dubu

I can tell it’s made with chicken stock and Gina pulls out a clam from hers—they look at me, worried, but I just pull out my clams and pile them into Gina’s bowl. You will be the clam queen. I tell them that when I came here I had a good understanding that sometimes I would probably have to eat this way. I order a pa-jeon (chive pancake) and jamong-soju (grapefruit soju) for us, convinced by Gina to try it. I end up having two shots and I get a bit dizzy even sitting down, bumping into the table as I reach for things and forgetting what I’m saying in the middle of a thought. I can see your lightweight, Gina tells me. There’s octopus in the pa-jeon. I tell them not to worry about it, I’ll just pick it out or eat the edge pieces.

What would I rather do—eat exactly as I do at home and so pack my own cooking with me and bring it everywhere I go, or experience a new culture to the best extent that I can? Eating meat-based stock and occasionally accidentally eating a piece of seafood is a price I’m willing to pay to experience a part of Korean culture that is inaccessible to me anywhere else. I came here to do something new, knowing it was possible that this sometimes meant changing my habits.

It’s not as though I can suddenly eat barbecue—I don’t know enough about the meat industry here to feel comfortable suddenly completely changing just because it’s what most people do—that’s not my style—and I don’t want to. But even if I did want to, eating meat like that after almost a decade of abstaining from it would make anyone ill. As it is, occasionally having soup with meat-based stock has already had quite an effect on my body…though I imagine it’ll get easier as I continue to do this.

Before I came, people were quite vocal about telling me I’d have a hard time being a vegetarian here, but usually they weren’t vegetarians themselves. Don’t you imagine that perhaps I have a hard time being a vegetarian all the time, anywhere? I’m from the land of hot dogs and hamburgers and sandwiches and ribs and steaks… not as vital as meat is to a Korean diet, but still. The American mindset isn’t one of vegetarianism and meat is taken for granted as a daily need. Basically—I’ve been at this a long time. It’s an effort every day. Not that people who are intent on telling me something I “didn’t know” are actually concerned about whether I’ve already thought about it or not…

We stay at the restaurant for an hour and a half at least—I finish my soup, something I am not known for doing—and we almost finish the pancake between us. I am tempted to take another shot but, knowing I have to get home on my own after this, refrain, and Gina finishes the bottle, apparently not lightweight like I have thought.

All of the food is cheaply priced—our stew is only 6,000 and the jeon is only 10,000, the soju 4,000. It is Gina’s first time eating somewhere that doesn’t deliberately cater to tourists, and the whole time she talks (and more and more as she drinks) about how much she loves this place—the ahjummas drinking next to us, the nice owner who sees us struggling with the jeon’s big pieces and brings us scissors, the quality of the food, the price of the food…she loves it so much that she pays for our meals, smiling and saying, so cheap, so good… Next time I eat out with her I know to get her full of soju…

I can now honestly say I like Korean food, next time someone asks. Every Korean dish I’ve tried at home in CA has either been quite spicy or a bit bland (except when I made it myself), but it’s probably true that everything is better at the source.

This was also my discovery of grapefruit soju. It could be a very dangerous thing to know.


Gina, Tiffany, and I part at the station, taking different lines back. Line 7 is packed and for a few stops I stand, still a bit tipsy, swaying above a tiny old lady on the seat below. Thankfully she detrains after not too long and I take her seat. Throughout the duration of the journey two good-looking guys sit on either side of me and I am careful to hold myself very still. I trip a little walking out of Suraksan to my apartment and wake early the next morning to cut my hair before work.


It’s now just after 21:00 on 12 September. I found out through Facebook that Beirut came out with a new album/record within the last few days and I still don’t have internet so I can’t access it yet. I’ve done a few loads of laundry. Later tonight I’ll have to descend to B-1 of my building to throw out my trash. I watched episode 1 of BBC’s Sherlock, series 1, after discovering that I had it in my iTunes library today.

Being here, I’ve thought a lot about what it is that I want to do. I have vague plans for my future: I want to go back to school, I want to be a professor. Where I’ll be or who I’ll be with are things I don’t know anymore.

Today I decided I’ll try to go home for Christmas on a budget airline. I wondered again and again why I’m here and the reality of it keeps hitting me with the same hard blow: I don’t acclimate to it and it is sudden every time, each time as if I haven’t felt it before. I don’t enjoy work much—I had a nice day on Friday and gave two of my problem students detention, which was suitably satisfying, but weeks seem so, so long, and then I’m almost too tired to enjoy the weekends. Of course—I’m still adjusting to it, here. I haven’t had time to get out much because I’m busy stocking my fridge and replacing things in the apartment. I’m still trying to figure out where stores are and where I can buy what and what’s a good price for certain things.

It’s hard not to have friends, here. I can chat with my penpal, but he’s busy lately and I don’t want to bother him and I’m still sometimes paralyzed by the thought that it’s always me getting in touch and that it might be annoying. One of the professors I learned under for a class called “Women and the City in Korea,” a class that kind of cemented in me a love for contemporary Korean short fiction by women authors, was teaching this last year at Yonsei and may still be there… I may reach out to her soon.

But I kept thinking about it, today—there’s nobody here. At home I have only a few close friends who really understand me and who I feel quite close to—and I left all of them for some crazy thought. I keep feeling sad and scared—and then chiding myself because I chose to be here, and it’s not as though it’s my first time abroad, so of course I knew it could feel this way. But last time most of my good friends were in England at the same time as me. This time…really, there’s nobody here who knows me, who I feel safe with, there’s no unburdened or comfortable friendship waiting for me after I almost cry at work again, after my tampon gets full for the first time in ten years and I get blood all over my hands trying to change it during a five-minute break between classes, nobody who I can just exchange a glance with and not have to exchange words with, nobody I can just be near to and feel better, nobody around whom I am not aware any longer of my own self, my own body… I don’t like hugging people, but there are certain people whose hugs I miss, now. When Franklin’s dad hugs him at the end of his bad day episode—that’s the part where I nearly cry. Can I feel this way? I chose to be here. Why am I here? Why did I do it? Can I last a year? These are things I think of on a Saturday, with nothing else to occupy me.

I think it’s true that the brain and the heart aren’t quite connected, but it’s not true that the heart doesn’t think. It’s just a brain of its own, not subject to any knowable logic.

Of course I know—in the pursuit of any dream, we make sacrifices for it. The word sacrifice isn’t sacrifice for nothing. Some people dream of a perfect family while in the midst of something less than that and sacrifice real relationships for pursuit of the impossible, the learned ideal. Some of the perfect job, sacrificing interest or passion, some of interest or passion and foregoing a steady income, some of normal things and some of extraordinary things… in any case, we leave things behind when we choose.

I knew in my head how hard I hold to things. But I’m feeling the effects of it, now, in a way I have never felt before. I wanted to do this. I am here. But I am also somewhere else. Who could live in more than one place without their heart hurting sometimes, without feeling ripped in pieces sometimes? Of course when you take apart something that was not apart before, it hurts. It makes sense and I know it, but the pain is still surreal.

I haven’t been living in one place since I came home from England. So this emotional onslaught is not new in substance—but in magnitude. The texture is different, too—it yields less, becomes headstrong. I stop stifling the pain that rises up in my chest like I have done all these nights, all these years, to survive. It sits in me like a piece of wool. It’s hard to breathe. Eventually I fall asleep.

I’m aware that I miss home only because it’s familiar, and not because I liked being there, not because I was happy there, not because there’s a future for me there. What a human thing… and what a human thing to leave behind everything known for the pursuit of the sought after.

Dongdaemun (동대문)

One of my writer friends from California is in Seoul this week, staying off of Seoul Station, which is of course about an hour from me in Nowon-gu. Last night (7 Sept) after I finished work at 19.40, I got on line 7 at Hagye and after a transfer to line 4 at Nowon and about forty more minutes of travel, I detrained at 동대문역사문화공원역 (Dongdaemun History and Culture Park station) and met Gina and her friend from home in front of one of the giant department stores.

동대문역사문화공원

I’ve only been in Seoul for just over two weeks now, but most of what I’ve seen has been more like the “suburbs”–if suburbs could have skyscrapers and subways… Anyway I hadn’t been to central Seoul before. Every building has lights all over it–actually, even the small coffee shop in Hagye-dong where I’m at in Nowon-gu has a flashing light display over its main window.

Dongdaemun is well-known and if I’d had real shopping to do, I think it would have been a good stop. We wandered through a department store idly, walked past booths of counterfeits and flashy accessories and street food vendors, took a small tour by the river, and made our way to a street food stall, where it became my fate to order and exchange all communication with the woman in charge.

Originally I was just asking her if she had any vegetarian items and she explained to me (after double-checking if I could eat squid… vegetarian is still a rare occurrence here from what I hear and from what I have experienced) what I could eat, but I ended up ordering for us and asking for her recommendations. We ended up with 떡볶이 (ddeokbokki, rice cakes in a spicy sauce) and 김치전 (kimchi  jeon, a korean pancake/pizza), even though the jeon usually had seafood in it. But I think she made it for us with no seafood because I was able to eat it as well; the whole time I wondered why it didn’t have shrimp in it like in the picture and it wasn’t until I got home that I thought she probably made it special for me since I asked her about vegetarian food…

We forewent soju… all lightweights in the middle of Seoul with only one speaker of semi-Korean on a week night. In the end the other two gave me their cash and I again dealt in Korean, successfully interpreting the number she shouted over the grill at me in one try and handing over the correct bills without fumbling. It seems like it wouldn’t be hard…but anyway I’m still getting used to numbers over 10,000.

We walked around a little more after that and ended up at a cafe before descending into the underground station again and heading back home.

We have plans to meet again on Thursday–we have not yet decided what to do, but I expect to see a bit more of central Seoul~