Intrepid Girl Reporter


in which…part 2

A series of stories.

A

Halloween

I didn’t intend to see a horror movie simply because it was close to Halloween. Things just worked out that way. It was my sweet, gentle Oma who chose the movie (more on Oma’s likes and dislikes in a minute). It was entirely in Korean, of course, but you know the old adage: sadistic torture knows no language. There was something about an ugly necklace, some sort of supernatural hand that appeared periodically, and some women in court clothes who kept pulling all sorts of medieval/Guantanamo-style treatments on each other (or maybe just on one woman. I don’t really know). I fell asleep for part of it. Oma kept her hands over her face the entire time. Fun night!

Saturday Albuquerque had organized this festival for some little kids at a program at this church that one of her students attended, and most of us had signed on to help, so I found myself hauling thirty small prizes* and a 24-pack of toilet paper across the island.  Oma and Apa were headed to Seogwipo anyway to help with a wedding the next day, so I caught a ride and ate lunch with them and the wedding party, where I received a gift bag containing detergent and brown sugar. I met up with my friends and headed over to the festival site, where we were confronted with an immediate problem: Scooter, in a rare burst of enthusiasm, had invited some of his students, all of whom were at least five years older than our target audience. So we had to make some activities up, most of which consisted of us encouraging them to tell the goriest ghost stories possible (in English, natch). For the little kids, there were mask making, face painting (with poster paint and WATERCOLORS – thanks for not having party supplies, Korea), and various relay race activities. Then we all ate fried chicken and were very happy. Except that, during the haunted house, some of the students spat in Scooter’s face. Oops.

Somehow Hallim (or G) and I ended up back in Jeju-si, running through e-Mart at 9:00 on a frantic search for tofu and bananas and other barbecue supplies, in large part because I am pathologically unable to let anyone do anything for me. After some help from a kindly Anglophone meat clerk (who nonetheless alerted the entire first floor that there were two eccentric foreigners floundering through the groceries), we made it back to my apartment, where we dressed to represent the fair state of Kentucky (I was a cigarette, she was barefoot and pregnant). In retrospect, I should have donned a fat suit and a Philip Morris nametag so I could have been Big Tobacco, but there’s always next year.

We made it out to the pension in Hamdok Beach around 10:00. Here’s where things get – and will stay, for your purposes – a bit blurry. There was fun, and there were adventures; we ate grilled chocolate-stuffed bananas, made friends with a Korean family, watched Africa cook chicken adobo (as Scooter said, “After eating this, I’m gonna wife her”). Oregon had brought a college friend whose name was – and I am not making this up – Ricky Martin. And then there was a campfire, and grass seeds that stuck to our clothes, and an accidental but somehow inevitable discussion with a certain person in my life, one fueled by throwaway comments and cheap Hite beer and weeks and weeks of the unspoken. It happens. We’ll be stronger after this, but it’s going to take a while. To imagine that here I would learn how to depend on others, and at the same time so well how to be alone…well. I didn’t. But now I can, and I count my happiness and my sadness on each hand, and I keep the transcripts to myself.

The next day I woke up on the floor next to Hallim, still wearing a cigarette costume (having forgotten to bring pajamas), still with pampas grass in my hair, and we headed home.

B

feats of strength

If you have never been to a Korean wedding, let me just say this: Imagine the part in the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” where the synthesizer kicks in. Now, instead of recollecting that as music, try to picture that as flashing plastic chandeliers. Add a fog machine. Welcome to the wedding hall.

After we arrived, HS and HB in tow (they had to wake us up, as we’d fallen asleep on the bus), we were immediately escorted to the nook where the bride waited, where we – not my family, just Hallim and me – had our picture taken with her. On the bride’s camera, not ours. Then we were escorted back to our seats, where I was immediately summoned by some of Apa’s many ajushi cousins to sit with them; despite the fact that none of them spoke English, they all managed to ask me to call them “opa” (older brother; yeah okay). They called me by my host fam’s last name, which was cute, and they kept speaking to me in rapid Korean, which was not. Then we saw the wedding, which involved, in addition to the aforementioned elements, bubbles that shot out at random intervals, a troupe of toddlers dressed like Cupid who performed an interpretive dance, and a push-up demonstration by the groom, who was cheered on by an announcer and his bride. I should mention at this point that none of this appeared to have been rehearsed. At all. Then it was picture time; first the bride and the groom were photographed, and then the bride and the groom and their families, and then the bride and the groom and their mothers, and then the bride and the groom and their friends, and then the bride and the groom and everyone on one half of the room. Hallim and I fell into the last category. We were shoved to the front of the wedding pictures. I felt a little like a trophy wife. Trophy foreigner?

That’s all for today. More tomorrow. There is more, of course. In the meantime, I’m going to take a bath, revel in my newly purchased Time magazines, and try to forget the fact that I have mosquito bites on my hands.



in the realm of the library king
October 9, 2007, 3:05 pm
Filed under: host dad, Korean classifications, life on Jeju, okay seriously Korea

In case you were wondering what a Stone Club meeting is like, it’s old Korean dudes sitting around drinking soju and arguing about rocks. Unless you’re wondering about tonight’s meeting, which was old Korean dudes and me, just sort of sitting there, admiring the slenderness of the cigarettes these men were going through. We’re talking fifties-starlet, smoking-was-cool slender. And some pretty old ajushi. I met: a former English teacher, a man Apa introduced me to as “jjimjilbang captain,” and one who introduced himself to me as “the library king.” He was wearing a mauve shirt. Apa went to great pains to assure me that these were not his friends, they were old men, which I did not quite understand until I got there and saw that he actually was the youngest (at 45) by a good ten years. I’m pretty sure he’s the lowest in seniority. They kept making him collect money and write things down.

I’m not entirely sure why my presence was requested tonight; they thought it was cute that I tried to speak Korean, and they kept foisting fried meat and naengmyun on me, but really, that could have been any meal with anybody. Maybe they wanted to meet the foreigner? Or maybe Apa thought it would be a good cultural experience, or that I would learn something about rocks? (I didn’t. The only word I could understand, throughout the lengthy debate, was 중국, and all that means is “China.”) One of them, inexplicably, told me that I looked like I had been to Hawai’i. After we left, I told Apa that they were very nice, and he looked at me and said, in English, “Why?”

The stone exhibition is in a few weeks, and will presumably feature rocks that look like things, since that’s what Apa has been collecting for the past fourteen years.



here we go round

I have no winter job, I might not have a job next year either, I have a helmet haircut, I live with a fucking card sharp, and I’m through with men for at least a year. How are you?

Things are not quite that bad – I did, after all, get to attend HB’s Sports Day today, where I ate chicken on a stick and that candy we bought at Dollywood years ago, fool’s gold, except this candy was made on a skillet out of the back of a truck in the rain. I also got the chance to watch:  mass hula-hooping, mass choreographed techno dancing, and this event where these people wearing masks that looked like the Clintons had balloons in their pants and the kids had to compete to see who could pop them first. HB did samulnori, and he ran what they called the Marathon, which was actually just a race. Not 26.2 miles, no siree. HB and his best friend were in the same heat. HB kept on trucking. He’s pretty fast. HBBF is not, but his effort was valiant.

Today was also Apa’s birthday. After we got back from Sports Day, I made lunch for my family (fettucine with chicken and the pesto my American momma sent over; inexplicably, the pesto was much more popular than last dinner’s homemade roasted tomato sauce), and then Oma offered to take me for a haircut. Having been opsoyo last weekend, I was (am) in need of some family brownie points; besides, I’ve gotten to see the Jeju Crew a lot lately. Also, my host brother and sister have great hair, so I assumed it would be all right. She took me to her hair place, which turned out to be in E-Mart – and not the nice one in Sin Jeju, the ghetto one down by Tapdong. Good Deal. I really loved my haircut last time; this time, however, I look like a member of the Brady Bunch. And not in a good way. My bangs are a) too short and b) sticking up and c) I look like an idiot and I’m kind of mad about it. And, in retrospect, Oma’s hair is nowhere near as cool as that of HB and HS. But what could I say? “I don’t really trust you?” I don’t even have the vocabulary for that.

Sometimes, however, I don’t think that vocabulary is the problem. Oma asked me, yet again, exactly why I was single – and if I had a good answer for that, I imagine a lot of things would be very different. And on the way home, after omija cha and ice cream at a cafe in Chungangro, she asked me my American parents’ hometowns, which is an innocuous enough question (as well as an impressive one for her to ask in English). But hometowns are a more complex issue for us than they should be; I don’t really have one, my mother never really had one, and my father…the workbooks we were given in class didn’t have any sample sentences like “His family escaped because they were wealthy and well-connected” or “My grandfather was an idealist trying to reform a corrupt government from the inside out” or “I still struggle with the fact that all American history curricula suggest that my family’s role within the colonizing French government was essentially that of a collaborator.” I still can’t say, “I took a taxi.” Really, I don’t know how to say what I want to say in English, just like no one here seems to be able to explain why on Earth children are trained to dance King Tut-style to techno, regardless of how fluent they are.

Anyway. Meanwhile, I’m still looking for a winter internship – ideally, I’d love to work with an NGO or a newspaper or UNESCO, but what that requires is me getting in touch with those people, which, you know, I still need to do. I also got an email from TFA, and it looks like unless I can talk my school into letting me out reallllllllly early, I’m only going to be (barely) eligible for New York or California (or, God forbid, Las Vegas), which were not my first choices. And even then, I have to talk wherever I go into letting me either skip Initiation or make it up over…Christmas? Which is coming soon. ADULT WORLD STOP IT I just want to get a job with Sesame Workshop. Really. At this point, I’d even consider applying for grad school for next year, but I still need to take macro and micro to go to school for IR, and I’m still working on a bigger portfolio for J-school.

After we went out for a raw fish dinner with Apa (where I made the same mistake I always do – I ate what they told me to, assuming that no more food was coming out, when in fact there were three more, and better, courses still to come) HB and I played Uno, where he managed to shuffle his cards multiple times while still keeping his loaded hand on top. Twice. Then he made up the following song about me, to the tune of “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”:

(IGR) is mischief, mischief, mischief

(IGR) is mischief, oh I’m sorry

And now we are watching Muhan Dojeon.



like water for Chuseok

The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth…among the sounds of night.

– James Agee, “Knoxville: Summer, 1915”

“Your name is Giant Super Deluxe Piggy.”

– Host Brother

In America, my father cooks the turkey.

I just want to clarify that. There are enlightened households, and mine is one of them, more or less, even though the turkey is only one of the many food items offered at Thanksgiving and (hello, 2005) occasionally it is not ready until after the rest of the meal is over, because deep-frying a giant bird is a lot more complicated than anyone anticipates.

But mine, I recognize, is in the minority, which is what made my first Chuseok much like an American holiday:  the womenfolk were in the kitchen, while the men sat around on the floor and watched television and made fun of each other, as best I could tell. I only caught snippets – I wanted to cook, so I found myself crouched on the floor next to some women who were probably somehow related to my Apa, scooping panchan (side dishes) into little bowls. Near me, a pot of that classic holiday food, seaweed soup, kept a rollicking boil. While we scooped and snacked on this sort of sunflower-seed brittle, the men were in the next room, doing something that wasn’t cooking. I’m not sure what it was. I think it involved sitting around and smoking.

My host family celebrated the holiday in what appeared to be an adapted manner:  we ate the food, but if an ancestral tribute was made, I missed it. Also, my host sister stayed home to study, or maybe to look at pictures of her favorite boy band, which has a name that sounds sort of like Tongbangshingee. The meal was bigger than usual, which is saying something; there was soup, fatty meat, pajeon (fritters), and a lot of variants on kimchi. Despite the holiday, Koreans still seem to eschew both napkins and drinks with their meals (unless that drink has at least 5% alcohol by volume), and my family was no different. I know this is going to sound ethnocentric, but really, Korea, a glass of water would do wonders for culinary appreciation around here. So would a dash of soy sauce on plain rice. For that matter.

Chuseok was actually the first extended time I’d spent with my family all weekend, which proved to be a source of tension. Saturday: City Hall wandering, Korean movie watching (“My Sassy Girl”? Highly overrated), noraebang-ing, further visits to the good people at Bagdad Cafe. Sunday: jjimjilbang, celebration with my friend G’s host fam for her host brother’s birthday. On Monday, from G’s house, I called home to check in and asked my Apa how he was; the short answer was, “Not happy.” Actually, our conversation went something like this:

IGR Apa! How are you?

APA (Korean Korean Korean)

IGR …Happy?

APA No. Not happy!

IGR Why?

APA Hillary (Korean Korean Korean)

IGR What?

APA (Korean Korean Korean)

IGR Because of Hillary?

APA Yes, because Hillary (Korean Korean Korean)

IGR I’m sorry?

APA (Korean Korean Korean)

Welcome to my life. So I came home, asked for permission to go to see my friend E (whose family had taken off for Seoul for Chuseok without her), and went to talk to my Apa at his business, which he was so busy cleaning that he refused to talk to me. So from Monday morning to Tuesday afternoon, all I knew was that he was mad at me, but not why. And either no one else knew, or they didn’t want to tell me.

So after the family deal we sat down yesterday and hashed it out, and it turns out that spending the night outside your home is bad manners, maybe for the family? Or maybe for the people with whom you’re staying. Also, you can sleep in DVD rooms, but you shouldn’t, because that puts you at high risk for mugging, apparently. He wants me to come home at midnight every night, but he’s offered to talk to my American parents and see what they think. Meanwhile, I’m totally sixteen again.

But aside from all that – aside from any program drama, any fatigue, the five million things I’ve put off for too long – last night I went to the playground with Oma and HB and HS and we all tried to climb the wall by running up it as fast as we could. Sometimes I wonder: can something be your best memory if you know, even as it happens, that it will become precious? But then I stop thinking about it and remember how it felt to scream on the swings under the full moon.



we’ll make our homes on the water

Considering the typhoon, it was a surprisingly wonderful Sunday.

Full disclosure, as always:  We brought the storm on ourselves. My friend G’s host sister, J, told her cheerfully that a typhoon was coming Sunday, but given the fact that no one seemed to be evacuating, we all laughed it off as typical Korean hyperbole.* Also, the two weather words all my students seem to know on their own are “fine” and “typhoon.” I thought this was funny.

I was wrong.

It’s been a rough week anyway for pretty much everyone I know – my friend A said that atmospheric changes were afoot, which explained my desire on Friday to personally throttle every single student in my second grade class**, but I don’t know anyone on this island who made it through the week without at least once casting a longing glance back towards American shores. So ending with a Category 4 hurricane isn’t really surprising, I guess. Yesterday was cloudy, a little rainy, but about 75% of the island crew ended up seeing The Bourne Supremacy and/or wandering around looking for entertainment and/or eating Red Mango (finally), eating Indian food, receiving a free coffee mug from the only GNC in the province, and visiting the English bookstore and buying copies of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Paul Auster’s New York trilogy. (Okay, the last part was just me.) Then G and my friend E and I went to the jjimjilbang with my host fam, where we all fell asleep on the floor and didn’t leave until 2 AM. At this point: no evacuations, no alarms, no warnings from the Big Brother-style speaker on my wall from which the superintendent declaims. I hope you don’t think I’m joking on that last part.

We woke up this morning with a promise hanging over our heads: pudding, or “ding-pu,” as Host Brother has taken to calling it. (The first time I made it – out of boredom, on another rainy night – he called the ingredients pudding, but after witnessing its metamorphosis into dessert, decided that the name needed a change as well.) Because it was HB’s birthday party day, E and G and I ventured out into the rain to the supermarket down the street and to Paris Baguette for breakfast. It was a walk that would cost us four umbrellas. I had trouble standing upright. By the time we realized how bad it was, however, we were on a mission. Also so wet that it didn’t really matter if we got any wetter.

So we got our chocolate and our sugar and our croissants and sticky buns and green-tea-cream-cheese-pancakey-thing, and headed home, where the power appeared to be flickering, to no one’s consternation but ours. We made pudding by candlelight. We ate pudding and fried chicken with Host Family and HB’s friends by candlelight. At this point, trees were falling. Then we sat around and talked and read our books, in English, and took a nap, listening to the winds batter the window. When we woke up, the buses weren’t running, so we played Uno with Host Sister.

When we finally made it to the bus station, the streets were flooded, windows were broken, and branches littered the streets. We got E on a bus to Seogwipo and G in her taxi to Hallim, and made it home, where Host Dad, HB, HS and I ate ramen and, because I am forever behind every trend, I read more of the last Harry Potter, again by candlelight. (Side note: I can’t put it down. I wouldn’t call myself a Potter fanatic, but what I love about Rowling is her ability to create a propulsive story – i.e., I always always always want to keep reading.) Then the lights came back on, and I was able to discover that what had actually occurred was Typhoon Nari, with winds somewhere between 131 and 155 miles per hour. Oh.

This is so typical, for us to be here and have no idea that we’re surviving a massive storm.  It’s the grand-scale edition of getting on a bus and hoping it goes our way. Welcome to life in a foreign country. My American mother asked me today if people don’t evacuate, and HS said no; I’m not sure if this was the first typhoon to hit the island, or if it was just the first typhoon in a while, based on what she said (see? SEE?), and I don’t know if people are blase or if they’re actually freaking out and they’re just doing it in Korean. You know? I never imagined that I could experience a storm in this way. But then I never imagined a lot of things.

*There is no typical Korean hyperbole. Mistake Number One.

**Explanation: In Korea, elementary school goes to sixth grade. Once students hit middle school, the grades are started over, so seventh grade = first grade, eighth grade = second grade, ninth grade = third grade. Then the whole thing is started again in high school. Any rhetorical confusion is usually alleviated with the explanation “(grade) (school),” as in “first grade high school,” but since I teach middle school, I think you all can figure it out for yourselves.