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.

Spring

The first spring of my life I experienced last year in Korea. California has one season with fluctuations–hot hot summer, hot summer, warm summer, cool summer–and living there for twenty-two years without break never seemed to acclimate me to heat. Anybody could look at me and see I’m ill-fitted for a sunny desert climate without the lows at night–light eyes, light skin, a tendency to freckle and burn–and though I used to tan during my days spent on the softball field throughout junior high and high school and my long afternoons on the golf course for a couple years on the high school team, I still never enjoyed the sunshine or clear skies, and I never learned to surf due to a combination of social anxiety and perhaps the seemingly vestigial evolutionary trait, present in me but not in the bulk of me peers, of self-preservation.

Of course everyone knows there are four seasons in a year, but to southern California people, the four seasons are kind of myth in the same realm as Plato’s world of first forms: the idea is great and yeah it probably exists somewhere…beyond, but it has nothing to do with me.

Most people who live there seem to welcome their reality. I wish it were sunny all the time, they say, and complain when it drops to 65 with a marine layer. Days like that allowed me to survive and to find a shred of meaning in continuing my life. But to be fair to the heat, I used to write poetry during heatwaves in January, watching shingles fall off the roofs of our neighbor’s house, peeling backwards and spitting off before falling like a leaf to the lawnless yard; there was something inspiring about the sheer frustration and existential crisis brought on by 90 degree heat in the first month of the year.

So of course–Spring is beautiful. I love it. There are a few bright weeks of blossomings, petals falling from the trees like snow–the temperature hovers around the high fifties into the high sixties–clouds burn off by midday, and the sky is the picture of blue–the yellow dust gives us all sore throats and colds….

Last year I also witnessed my first cherry blossoms. Of course I knew what they were–petals on a wet, black bough–and had seen pictures before. Very few sights in life that move other people to emotional reactions move me to the same extent, so I didn’t expect to feel much of anything but felt determined, at the same time, to go see them.

My then-coworker Heather and I made an impromptu trip to Jinhae, Masan, and Busan last April. We spent the day in Jinhae crowding onto busses with 2384729479 other people (though I can’t confirm the actual statistics) and squirming through anchovy-tin-packed crowds. In all of my photos there’s cherry blossoms up there at the top and then about eye level, a bunch of cameras held above the heads of all the thousands of other tourists. At one point I wasn’t sure whether I was capturing more scenery or backs of heads. There was a sort of concert thing happening at a park in the city and we walked around for a while before heading back to Masan to stay the night.

Heather had worked in Masan at a hagwon for a couple years and knew the city. Old ladies from the side of the road called out to us (how pretty! Cute girls!) and an older man in emart came up and introduced himself to us, after which Heather told me she’d already met him three or four times before. Apparently he needed to make sure every foreigner passing through Masan knew who he was.

We were only in Busan for a day and we never went into the main city, so it’s still a goal of mine to go back there this year to see it properly. I have a friend who’s living there now so may ask him to be my tour-guide for a day or two. He’s an amateur photographer and has sent me some photos taken from some optimal vantage points, so I expect to see great things.


But in the meantime, I’m in Seoul, and as the climate is cooler the flowers are a little later to open here, barely breaking the bud while others in the south are in full bloom. Last year the variety of flowers I didn’t know how to name was astounding to me; I’d go on hunts through Google images of “spring flowers in Seoul” and then read through the captions until I’d found the ones I was looking for.

One of the prominent new flowers for me was the 목련 (mog-nyun), or the magnolia flower. These bloom standing up, their long ovular petals thick and fleshy, a bright cream color, and close at night. I was fascinated by the quick lifespan–in bloom for a week at most, they then faded into a sort of putrid yellow and fell heavily off the branches in a matter of a day or two.

Another is the 무궁화 (moo-goong-hwa), or rose of sharon/hibiscus. The national flower of Korea is the white / light pink 무궁화 with darker purple towards the center, but I like a variety best that’s bright red in color with a shorter, fuller stamen. Last summer I came up with the first tattoo concept I’ve had that’s lasted more than a few months–one of these flowers overlapping with a red English rose, about two by two inches total, ideally placed on the back of my arm above my right elbow but more likely placed on my left upper thigh. I’ve got to ask my principal / vice principal or maybe even SMOE for permission before I make a consultation, but I’ve found a couple artists I like in Seoul already whose style fits what I’m looking for.


This week, spring is just beginning. I’ll enjoy it while it’s here, but at the same time, I can’t ever fully relax for dread–I know the hot summer is bearing down, and I know it’ll stay there for a long time.

Sometimes I express this thought to my friends who say, oh, it’s not too bad. It’s only really hot for a couple of months. To which I stare at them open-mouthed repressing my urge to knock them upside the back of the head because EXCUSE ME that is two months of my life. That I will never get back. Sweat which I will never unsweat. Misery which I will never unmisery. Etc.


There are two perspectives I find most people take on about Spring. One is that it’s their favorite season, and two is that Spring is too fleeting to be meaningful. There are the treacly cliches of Spring which emerge each year, there’s the coupling-up hype of Spring, there’s the everyone-put-away-your-black-clothes attitude of Spring, and there’s the underside of those cliches in which the high and mighty sit back and laugh at the dummies enjoying and finding meaning in something that ends so soon.

Thinking that way everything falls apart. There’s no defense against the logical hole that opens up upon making that argument–that each season comes and goes by design. The cliches, as sickly as they are, that Spring brings at least feed on that reality of feeling, the first walk in the sunshine after months of winter winds.

I find myself getting impatient with the impatient and impatient with the delighted. Unlike other times in my life in which the reasons for my frustration were easily transmutable into metaphor–a cage, a blind fall beneath me, idiotic friends (okay…not a metaphor)–these days when I attempt to locate the source of my restlessness, so many possible reasons rise to the surface that it becomes impossible even to identify them all. I can only assume, then, that it’s the changing of the seasons, the gradual inability to insist to myself that it’s still winter for a while yet, that I can keep things the way I like them, that the world as a whole doesn’t not give a damn what I want or what’s important to me.

I think that is what Spring is about. The world is moving. And it isn’t up to you or to me to make it do that. And the world is bigger than we think. And how comforting that is.

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).