Tuesday, May 30, 2006

more Korean adventures

sure sure, my trip to Korea was wonderful. it was beautiful and full of adventure and just completely copasetic. right. or that was the first draft. I want to write more about all the beautiful things but I have a few things to get off my chest first. you know, all the crap that comes with being a woman traveling alone in a very misogynistic foreign country. occasionally a swear word may find it’s way into the passage.

I don’t want to see comments about how I should never travel alone again. or if you must write such things, feel free but I won’t heed your advice. I do promise to head my own advice, though, which may be on similar lines…. ( and I promise to get back to writing about the beautiful things too, I just can’t focus on them until I get the rest of this written)

Korean Script

I found Korea to be exhausting in part because of the foreign writing system and incomprehensible rominization thereof. For instance, when I see a Japanese word Romanized, I can instantly get within 85% of the correct pronunciation. Korean is a different story where the same Korean city can be written Busan or Pusan and the actual pronunciation is halfway between a B and P or Kwongju and Geongju, which have the exact same sound, if you read the Korean.

Theoretically, written Korean is much much easier to learn than Japanese because it is a sensibly designed alphabet and not just something that came about, like all the rest of ours. Some one sat down and designed it. All the characters are phonetic syllables and can be learned in a few hours (or so they say—I didn’t put in a few solid dedicated hours, so I don’t know but I do think it could be possible) the problem is the pronunciation. sure you can remember the characters but if you can’t turn them into sound… aaaaaahhhh. it was quite frustrating.

so how did I manage? I didn’t exactly stay in Seoul where there are a ton of English speakers…I don’t have that much common sense. I’d get to a bus station, find a bilingual map. There was usually one per station or one per town. Sometimes I spent awhile looking but always found one. Then, I’d compare what was in my book—where the main towns were also writing in Korean script, or sound it out a little and try to match where I was going. the problem being that I couldn’t usually pronounce my destination let alone say anything other that ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me’ in Korean. So, in my trusty notebook I’d copy down the Korean, walk to the window, point to the destination (or at least that’s what I hoped I’d written down) and smile. They’d usually say something and I’d offer them my pen and notebook. They’d write down the price or type it into their calculator; I’d pay and be on my way. Repeat for a week and I was, as the British say, knackered.

sexual harassment, Korean style

The guide books describe Korea as a very safe place and while people may at first seem unfriendly because you don’t fall into the set Confucian recognizable relationships, they will be very helpful if you break the initial ice. but then again, Korea is a modern country and the guide books seemed to overlook that a little. The guidebooks seemed to either be out of date or simply overlook one fact that I found endlessly tiring and infuriating.

In recent years there has been an influx of Russian women into Korea, and guess how they make their living… and guess how this complicated my life. apparently I look just like one.

so in addition to the language barriers and other trials of traveling by oneself, I was also followed by sleazy men in bad suits, one who even offered me money. needless to say my plans to hike in some of the reputably beautiful national parks solo were soon scrapped for new plans that had as much anonymous company as possible. it was a shame, for many reasons, obviously, but in part because I really really wanted to spend my spring break free of crowds and swarms of tourists. but it was not to be. the beautiful craggy peaks and Indiana Jones style rope bridges of Wolschan Nat. Park were quickly eliminated from my plans.

(I did really want to go here)

so by the time I arrived in Kwongju on day 4, I was exhausted and eagerly checked into a hostel that sold itself as being a meeting place for foreign tourists.

Lonely Planet describes it like this:

people don’t stay here for the rooms; many are rather grotty. However, the kitchen, courtyard, meeting room and roof deck are great places to commune and plan forays with fellow travelers. The owner speaks English and Japanese, hands out free maps and is knowledgeable about local sights

This sounded great. I wanted friends. I wanted to bitch to people about the sleazy men in bad suits. I wanted comradery. and I almost found some…

rather that sympathy my complaints were met with, oh yeah, that happens to me all the time too. ha ha fucking ha. get over it. that’s just the way it is. you do kinda look like a prostitute (in my sneakers, dirty sweatshirt, lack of makeup and backpacker’s stench).

fine. I hate you too. I hate everyone in this goddamn country.

and as I left the next morning to explore the temples and UNESCO cultural heritage sights, Mr. Kwon kindly wished me off by trying to fix the twisted straps of my makeshift backpack.

He was a good guy. kind. in the way I imagine an incestuous uncle to be. on the bus ride up the mountain to the temples I amuse myself with violent fantasies with Alix Olson blaring on my iPod. For those who don’t know Alix Olson she is, in my words, an empowering lesbian slam poet and, in Kevin—my ex boyfriends words, a feminazi.

Mr. Kwon’s Top 4 reasons foriegn women love Korean men

After a day in the mountains—which was beautiful and awe inspiring—I headed back to the hostel where a bunch of us went to a traditional Korean dance, which was true to the Korean traditions of black lights and neon, apparently.

Afterwards, a few of us retired to the little patio/garden of the hostel (very cool set up). Those of us included myself, a vegetable seed salesman from Yokohama and two Americans who taught English in a Korean high school. oh, and mr. Kwon. Caroline (the American teacher)’s strategy toward the slimyness and borderline harassment from Mr. Kwon was to continue to egg him on while keeping a safe distance. In return he told her she needed to loose 20 kg and should sleep with him. she responded to the slam against her weight with a flirty pout and said that she’d sleep with him next time she was in town. fine.

not my style but fricken hilarious to watch. she poured out dead pan sarcasm until we were up to our knees. the scene was set and Mr. Kwon began his lecture. The air was warm on the patio and he lounged back on his chair. His pace was persistent but relaxed, like an actor in a midweek rehearsal. His rhythm was steady and while it acknowledged Caroline’s bone-dry comments (in italics) it was not perturbed.

1.the foreign woman knows the Korean soap opera. now it is very famous and so the foreign woman knows the handsome Korean man. she sees that the Korean man is tender. oh yes, handsome and tender in the TV.

in the TV he is tender but in real life?

no, no. he is always tender. the foreign woman want the tender Korean man

2.but, the Korean man is also powerful. he can suck the woman.

oh, he can suck her?

yes, the foreign woman must be tamed like a wild the horse so the Korean man will suck her and make the decisions. women don’t want to make decisions so they want the Korean man

I don’t want to make decisions do I? tell me more

3.the foreign woman knows the Korea because of washing machines. you see almost all washing machines are made in Korea now. and she knows about Sony and Kia so she understand the Korean man

does this have to do with sucking?

4.and the Korean man, he is healthy, you see. the Korean man eats lots of Kimchee. very good for you, you know. because he loves the kim chee he has good (heh heh) stamina.

(pause for dramatic effect and to register that, in fact, he will not be getting any from the foreign ladies in his audience)

so, you should raise your sons in Korea so that the women love them

... and so the adventures continued.

Monday, May 22, 2006

blah blah

sorry, I haven't been in a writing mood lately. the job search is going well but it exhausting while still working full time. sometimes its an interview at 9 in the morning and then off to work and then classes till 9 at night but I have some good prospects so it'll get better soon. it's still quiet secret, which I hate, but I don't think I have a choice. The new teacher is totally pro Ye Ol' Eikaiwa, which is all and good for him but it's starting to get on my nerves. he has a 20 min commute and could bike to work and has a secure job. and an easier schedule. so I've been feeling like sucker punching him when he grins cheekily and tells me that things could be worse. yeah, they'll be worse for him when HE looses one more student and head office decideds to close MY job. which everyone is just holding their breath waiting for. but just all rumors, no solid information....

plus he keeps saying that my English is wrong because its not British, which is no longer funny. it implies that I'm stupid, and I'm loosing patience with this joke. ha ha. kori's a hick.

I suppose if I lost my temper and punched him it would prove his point... damn. can't take the country out of the girl I guess... buck a bail into his face.

in other news, I devoured two books recently. "Neither Here or There" Bill Bryson and "River Town" Peter Hessler. Both are autobiographical clips of life. In the first Bill, now solidly middle aged, retraces his journey through Europe, seeing how it's changed since his backpacking summers in college. In the second, Peter goes to a small town in central China with the Peace Corps to teach literature at a teachers college for two years. I identify with Hessler's culture shock and attempts to understand and assimilate something so very foriegn and the contrast is not flattering to Bryson. in comparison Bryson seemed kinda wimpy. I started Bryson when I was in Korea and as he tries to find a hotel in Italy, I'm relieved taht I think I got on the right bus since nothing is written in even the same alphabet.

I guess it just feels like the backpacker of my parents generation seems rich and sheltered to the backpacker of my generation. Europe now has a reputation for being too expensive--compared to SE Asia--for the young and carefree. and kind of too easy, or not mind openign enough. like it isn't THAT different...

I don't know, my thoughts aren't coallessing, but I'd read parts of Bryson's book and wonder if he could manage Tokyo or Seoul or Bangkok or Beijing. Maybe it's just that the world has become much smaller in 40 years and we young people aren't as intimidated.

I have a new friend who I met through the couchsurfing site, another tokyoite who is saving 20grand to spend a year+ travelling the silk road from Eastern China to Europe. she's inspired me to believe taht I can get to all the places I want to see. and not just see them but really get there and be there. for instance, there are CELTA/TESL certificate programs offered in Buenos Aries that may be a possibility in the future. the tango hall have been calling recently...

Monday, May 15, 2006

a moment of clarity

Tokyo is a noisy place, both in a normal, physical sense, and in an intellectual sense. It’s noisy in my head, here in Tokyo. But last week a simple and small moment of clarity that I had been waiting for a long time, unpretentiously without fanfare or warning, found me.

Between the rattling trains zooming by my apartment and the memorization of their endless schedules, between the giggling of the uniformed school girls and the unsettled memories of when that was me, between the endless announcements seeking the capitalize on Mother’s Day and my resentment toward every reminder, between the blaring children’s songs and the thousand Japanese characters that I’m trying to form in to a language, for one moment everything went quiet and I could hear myself. My life came into focus.

and it was obvious to me that it was finally time to quit my job. It’s time to change my life so I can stay sane and healthy. it’s time to do it now.

there are lots of little reasons and they all just added up and now I’m on the job hunt. so far doing well.

I’m not quitting till I find another job and I’m going about it slowly and carefully. Basically I want a job that pays the same or better.
A job that doesn’t require me to work later than 6 (or 7 at a stretch) so that I can take martial arts and Japanese lessons at night. This is my chance to become fluent in Japanese, but I can’t do it at this job. Also, I realized that most satisfying times in my life corresponded with either martial arts and/or dance lessons at night. learning something physical will go really far towards keeping me sane.

the complete lack of job security has destroyed my loyalty to the company. it feels like I’ll have to leave eventually anyway. the question is if it’ll be on my terms or the whim of head office.

I also really resent that it is in my best interest to lie constantly about how much I work so that the company doesn’t have to pay into the national social insurance scheme. It’s one thing to work hard and have someone give you kudos for it. It’s completely different for the company to act like you are just stupid for needing more than 10 min to prepare, set-up and clean up each class. If I’m working hard for someone I want it recognized and at least verbally rewarded. the system is crap and, quiet simply, doesn’t work for me.

there are other things like the commute and my particular trainer blah blah, but it’s mainly the schedule and the insecurity. so it’s time to change my life.

and the dust has settled in all the turmoil and noise of Tokyo so that for the first time I feel like I have the courage to do it. wish me luck.

I’m sorry I haven’t felt like writing much lately. one reason is that I’ve recently made more friends and so I’m talking to friends more, which leads to less writing. I’ll try and keep posting as exciting things happen though. and as get through resizing my picture of Korea.

wish me luck on the hunt!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Korea in a nutshell

I have returned. I'm tired but satisfied. I wish I didn't have to teach tomorrow, but what's a girl supposed to do? I hope to have time to write exhaustively about all this but until then here is a small selection of pictures and an outline of my trip.

Day 1 (May 1st, Monday)

I fly into Seoul (pronounced in the same way as I lost my "soul" to the devil), which is the easiest international flight I have ever taken. Comparable to flying from Eugene to San Jose... plus massive imigration and passport checking. I get out of the airport and to lovely "Kim's Guesthouse" by 5pm. This gives me enough time to soak up the new foriegnness and wander around before meeting Mark Freeman, my long lost exchanger friend, at 7:30. The reunion was far from dramatic and felt like we have triple fat pork BBQ every Monday night in the Hongik University neighborhood in trendy youthful Seoul.

Day2 (white line): I head south from Seoul to Gwangju by express bus.

While Seoul was smoggy and that was to be expected, I was quite shocked and disappointed that the sky got smoggier and smoggier as I headed south. I considered turning around and heading north immediately but after a 4 hour bus ride I wanted to stretch my legs and decided to give the place a chance. I visited a small temple called Wonhyosa and walked around in the mountains for hours.

after my mountain retreat I found my way back with a city bus and then a subway ride where I had an encounter with a creepy guy who thought I was a Russian prostitute (aparently a common problem for all slightly blond foriegn girls who are even slightly blond) and wrote off all future wandering around in the mountains by myself.

Day 3 (Boseong and Yeosu)

After getting throughly frusterated with the bus terminal (remember, I can't read or pronounce anything. I function by writing the Korean for where I want to go and then smiling and gesturing at someone until they point me in some direction to get rid of me. repeat.) I get on a bus to Boseong, the largest tea plantation in Korea. I was on the bus and it was going to be mellow and great. and after an even smaller and more frusterating bus terminal filled with more sleazy men in bad suits who wanted to help me... I did finally get there. and from there the trip began seriously looking up.

Oh my god it was so beautiful.

and I met these three guys and they spoke some English and were really nice and kind of like body gaurds and wouldn't let me pay for lunch and I wanted to just follow them around and it was great and I was ready to head to another small town and believe that S.Korea is as safe and friendly as everyone says. so after green tea noodles and new lucky unlikely friendships, I got on a bus to the south coast and a town called Yeosu.

I wasn't sure if I was going to stay in Yeosu or try to get to Busan that night but I wanted to check it out. Unfortunately the map in the Lonley Planet book was crap but luckily the taxis are cheap. and all of a sudden I found myself at this festival, presumably for Buddah's Birthday.

there was all this loud energetic music and chanting and tons of colors and beautiful people dancing and beating drums in the street. I even have some short videos with sound that I'll try to figure out how to post soon. It was awesome. and beautiful. and I was really happy and lucked into a nice hotel room with a pretty view and I was happy to be in Korea and happy to be in Yeosu and felt lucky and good.

Day 4 (Yeosu and Gyeongju)
I had notions of getting up early because the sunrise is supposed to be fabulous but when my alarm went off at 6am, the city was already light and awake and I wasn't... so I slept another 2 and a half hours and headed back to the place of the festival.

it was gigantic and filled with lots of friendly school children shouting "hello!" and asking "where are you from?" (Canada, Vancouver BC)

and then I hiked up a really steap hill for a beautiful view and another temply and some goats and then felt inspired to head out to a smaller island connected by a causeway. here I found a cave where a dragon is supposed to live:

and I was so happy about the warm sun I layed on the rocks, despite the people coming and going and happily dozed in the sun. and earned a beautiful sunburn for it. after exploring the island I decided it was time to hop another bus and head to Gyeongju, skipping Pusan entirely.

I arrived in Gyeongju after dark and checked into a friendly hostel called Hanjin Hostel which Lonley Planet describes as:
people don't stay here from the rooms; many are rather grotty. However, the kitchen, courtyard, meeting room and roof deck are great places to commune an dplan forays with fellow travellers. The owner speaks English and Japanese, hands out free maps and is knowledgeable about local sights.

I'll write more about this later including Mr. Kwon's top 4 reasons foreign women love Korean men.

I got some dinner and walked around the town including these amazing huge Silla tumuli in little parks all over the town. the ones in town were maybe 3 stories tall. amazing.

Day 5 (Bulguksa, Seokguram Grotto, Namsan Mt. and a "traditional" performance)

First I headed to Bulguksa, which is on the Unesco World Cultural Heritage List any time of year but is particularly beautiful with thousands of paper lanterns hung for Buddah's Birthday. I took a million pictures but these are some of my favorites.

From here I took a bus up to Seokguram Grotto. I think this was the highlight of the trip and I'll go into more detail later but it's a gigantic granite Buddah who is considered the protector of the country up in the mountains with the wind blowing softly through the thousands of lanterns with people's wishes attached and earnest chanting from a monk and a constant stream of people showing their respect and making their prayers. everything about it was breathtaking.

I also did a little peaking around Mt. Namsan which I could have explored for a week and has literally thousands of little artifacts scattered all over the mountain that you can explore and find. Here are some small tombs.

Then back to the hostel where we all went up to the resort hotels and watched a blacklit "traditional" Korean folk performance that was way cool.

Day 6: Travel up to Seoul and hit the town with Mark and his friend. It was raining and in this country the rain is not the kind you should play outside in... The wind comes from China and picks up all the nastiness and the smog rains down... there may be no more monuments in 15 years. They will all have been eaten by toxic rain.

No pictures but there will be more stories for this later.

Day 7: Last Day (Palaces of Seoul)

There are a bunch and we only went two major ones. They were quiet impressive and gorgeous. Plus the rain of the previous day had cleared the sky and it was sunny and blue for the first time in my trip.

and now back to real life... a shame. I'll write more when I have a chance. topics I want to write about include:
"High fives for Jesus"
"Living in the sky scrapers of Seoul"
"old friends and crisscrossy paths in life"

or whatever. def the most exciting spring break ever.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

another blog

so when I get back I'll put all my entries in this blog with pictures. but until then travelpod has a nifty little map feature that I thought some folks would be interested in. I'm generally too exhausted to write much but if you are hungry for updates you can check below too