I considered trying to go another week without posting, partly just to be lazy, partly to hit the 1-month mark, and partly to spite all you people that don’t read the site anyway. Unfortunately, the quasi-paradox inherent in the situation – those who don’t read the blog wouldn’t realize that they were being severely spited – combined with the heavy rains of the 장마 (“changma,” rainy season) have convinced me to catch up a little. Oh, and also, Laura (harwiginuganda)’s blog is still in its infancy but already totally kicks my blog’s butt. So I have to at least put up a fight. I know I won’t be able to match hers in depth or significance, but, as usual, I’ve got a fair amount of absurdity up my sleeve. I hope you have some free time, because I think this post is going to reach a monstrous length.
I’m at home now, still without internet, so I don’t exactly know when my last post was or what it was about. I don’t recall giving you the low-down on my May 27 trip to Mang-u kongwon (Mang-u park), so I’ll start there. An American fellow I know, Robert, who happens to be from Memphis and who happens to pronounce the word “UMbrella” in exactly the same bogus/annoying way as Jamal, was enjoying a peaceful meal amongst ice-cream-all-over-their face-youngsters at McDonald’s when some hapkido-garbed kiddies with flyers barraged him, or when some kiddies barraged him with flyers. The oldest kids were high schoolers and they spoke enough English to get Robert sort of interested in the event. Of course, even without being spoken to about it, anyone in his right mind would have been interested, because there was a dude slicing a piece of bamboo with a sword on the front. Who would want to miss that? Robert made use of my reading skills to find out where this thing was, and then mooched my speaking skills when I chatted up the pack of taxi drivers outside of the grocery store in an attempt to find out how far away the park was and what the cab fare might be. Some manwon (10 bucks or so) later, we showed up at the park.
Let me pause here to describe Korean taxi drivers. Usually, if I need to take a taxi, I just go to the grocery store 5 minutes from my house, since they’re always in a long line there waiting to take grocery-laden customers home. The drivers are mostly old men (though if you keep reading, and if I remember, I’ll have a story about an old lady taxi driver when I come to the June 17 section), and the grocery store is such a good customer-finding spot that at any time there are usually 10 or 15 taxis lined up, like at an airport. If business is slow and the weather is nice, the old dudes just sort of bum around outside, chatting, cleaning their cars, etc. The customer is always supposed to take the first taxi in line, and once they do, and once the first taxi is gone, all the dudes hop into their cars, put them in neutral, and push them up 3 meters or so. So far so good, even sort of endearing. Inside the taxis it’s generally pretty nice. The AC is on, the smell is good, and there’s a little horse on the price gauge that gallops when the car is going quickly and stands still when the taxi does, and with lots of levels in between. The drivers’ credentials are clean and prominently displayed. Some of the taxis are even decked out with sweet GPS navigation systems. But the drivers are sort of madmen. I’m very careful about making generalizations about Korean people, but I think I’m entirely justified here. Most taxi drivers cut people off, don’t yield to pedestrians, and make abrupt u-turns, and some blatantly run red lights in the middle of the day. Perhaps more disconcerting is that, probably due to the country’s total lack of street names, hardly anyone knows where anything is except by reference to landmarks. Taxi drivers therefore commonly swerve off to the side of the road, roll down my window, and shout past me to random middle school students on the street asking where so-and-so is. Or, at a stoplight, they’ll do a little Wayne’s World gesture to another taxi driver, and the two will roll down their windows and commence yelling at each other until the questioner has at least a somewhat less vague idea of where he’s supposed to be taking me.
But they usually get there, and all in all it’s pretty cheap, especially if you factor in the price of gas, which is probably 3x more expensive here than in the US.
Back to my story. At the park, there were lots of students of all ages, presumably from different martial arts academies form the area, and when we arrived, they had just received truckfuls of bulgogi, rice, and kimchi and were all eating. Robert and I walked around, and though we were hungry, we decided not to purchase any of the stinky stinky boiled silkworm pupas (“bondaegi”) which were for sale. We perambulated around a sweet castle thing, read some info in English off of some stones, and were puzzled by its bizarre history. Apparetly the whole thing was a replica which itself had been destroyed, rebuilt, and transferred several times. Oh yeah, and it had little holes up top to shoot arrows out of at invaders, or even at peasants for that matter.
As for the people and their gathering, there were some competitions where kids wielding wooden swords chopped special graph paper, the winners being the ones with the straightest slice. Then there were the men who went postal on bamboo rods. And then there were the choreographed demos. Some were really boring and just involved people spinning, shouting in unison, and sheathing and unsheathing their swords. But some were pretty cool and involved a little more movement and even music and staged fights with staves and sickles and other cool weapons. Mayhaps I’ll put up some videos of the best ones.
That’s all for May 27. On May 28, I went with my Canadian buddy Eric, who pronounces “umbrella” as one should, to Palgongsan (palgong mountain) (“san”, frustratingly, can, as a noun, mean mountain or temple, and can also be a past participle for the verbs for buy and live, and also sounds a lot like the adjective for cheap), where we meandered and then went to a duck-meat restaurant. It was set up almost like a little village, and we had our own private hut, which got quite smoky while we were doing our barbecuing. The charcoal was burning at a normal color, but for some reason my camera turned it a sweet purple. Maybe Jeff will enlighten us about that in a comment. Anyway, have a look at the good pictures, because what you’ll see is pretty typical of a Korean barbecue meal. You get meat, which you grill yourself, and then rice, leaves of lettuce to wrap it in, garlic, onions, potatoes, a salad, some kimchi, and some other vegetables we westerners usually avoid. It’s very crude (in the sense of being unprocessed) and is a nice change of pace from having a fully-prepared meal laid (lain?) out in front of you. Plus, you’ve got to work as you eat your meal, so you can’t stuff yourself too quickly, which means you don’t feel ridiculously stuffed at the end, even if you eat 2/3 of a pound of origogi (duck meat) with all the fixings. I’m not exactly sure why, but eating that way feels really soothing and even a little more friendly.
The following weekend, June 4th or so, I went to a place called Taejongdae (once I get a computer with googleearth on it I’ll try to find all these places for you), which is kind of a peninsula or outcropping a little south of Busan, the third biggest city in Korea. Busan’s a port city on the Eastern coast, which means it sits on the Sea of Japan. I went with one of my adult students, Sally, whose Korean name I don’t know, and with her daughter, Yenna, who’s probably 7 or 8 in American years or 8 or 10 in Korean. We basically just hiked around, enjoyed the views, enjoyed listening to her chatty daughter blab incessantly, checked out some temples, took a ferry populated with about 30 grandmas (no kidding, I was the only male on the lower deck and one of the 4 people under 30 and one of the 5 under 60). The ferry music, presumably directed at the grandmas, was really atrocious, but the little trip up and down the coast was nice. After a couple hours and several leg cramps, we got back in the car and headed back to the ritzy beach area of Busan, which is called Haeyundae (no relation to Hyundai), where there was some sort of international sandcastle competition. We arrived too late to see some of the other games, but we got to see what I assume were the champion sandscupltures. Apparently the secret is to used lots of wet sand. We also got to see some sort of girls’ traditional drum corps. Then, because I had been struck by a pizza craving, we went to a rather expensive Italian restaurant, where I purchased a 20 dollar calzone and a 13 dollar platter of prosciutto e melone. The little girl didn’t like the prosciutto, so I got to eat more.
I’m not sure what I did the next week, but it couldn’t have been too thrilling, since I didn’t take pictures or feel the need to write about it.
Now the big one: the weekend of June 15thish. I went to Jeonju to visit my friend Min, whom some of you might remember. He was my racquetball partner at WU between sophomore and senior years. He was working at a lab at the med school for a while and whenever I told him I wanted to visit Italy, he told me I ought to check out Asia instead. Neither of us thought it would actually happen, but, alas, somehow I wound up here. Anyway he finally published enough papers in the US to get a job at a university here, and so he’s now come home.
On Saturday morning I awoke at 5, cleaned myself, snacked, chased down a taxi, and made my way to the west Daegu bus terminal. This taxi ride was pretty uneventful, although the driver kept calling me “sir” (in English), except with a weird twist that I can’t really relate too well. It’s like he was a 1940s African-American movie bellhop saying “yesssssah” to his patron. Quite strange. At the terminal, I managed to claim my bus ticket, which my boss had reserved on the internet for me during the week, and then I managed to find the right bus and arrive Jeonju on time.
First, we ate. Jeonju is famous for “bibimbap” (mixed rice), which means rice with a variety of veggies thrown together in a bowl. It doesn’t seem all that special, or at least all that ingenious, to me, but the people of Jeonju and of Korea in general are fairly proud of it. I don’t know what all the ingredients are, but an egg yolk, red pepper sauce, bean sprouts, carrots, spinach, and sometimes a little ground beef play their part. I ordered a version called “dolsotbibimbap” (stone oven mixed rice), which is essentially standard bibimbap served in an extremely hot stone bowl. You throw in a little sesame oil and stir it up and you have some delicious and health friend rice sort of stuff. It was so good that I’ve started ordering it here in Daegu too, but it all pales in comparison to the Jeonju stuff – probably just because in Jeonju it was 8 bucks and here it’s 4.
Then Min showed me his lab, which looked pretty much like the labs at NASA and at WashU. He is just in the process of getting set up, so he doesn’t have any apprentices/lackeys yet, and no experiments going on. Apparently he has to win some grants first or something. So we didn’t stick around there too long. Instead we hiked through a random forest until we wound up at the danoyesulje (some kind of special art festival), which was the reason I had chosen that particular date to go to Jeonju. It was supposed to showcase a lot of Korean crafts and stuff, but it was mostly just people trying to sell stuff that you could find in any old gift shop, so we didn’t stick around too long. Though I did try some traditional but terrible root juice. People say it’s healthy, but I can think of lots of other healthy things to eat which don’t bear quite such a strong resemblance to mud.
After that, we went to his lab, snacked a bit, made plans with his coworkers, and then he showed me his place, which was pretty nice, if tiny. We rested a bit until the others finished working, then we met up and headed to Moaksan (if you are paying attention, you’ll recall that that means Moak mountain/temple/cheap/bought/lived). The other two people were also scientists, stem cell researchers in particular, who had lived in Indianapolis for a couple years a few years back. They spoke a bit of English, so we chatted and climbed up to a temple at the mountain. One of Min’s colleagues was a rather sarcastic guy, so we had a bit of fun at Buddha’s expense. I also noticed that hidden behind one of the buildings at the temple site was a weight bench, where I suppose monks tried to get buff. I don’t think that’s quite in line with general Buddhist practice, but then again, what do I know?
On the way back down, we passed a spot where, according to legend, some goddesses (sunyo) used to bathe. We did a little joking about that, but mostly I’m telling you because it will come up again later. Oh, also, on the way down, a random old man started talking to me, and I managed both to chat a little and to use the proper honorific-imperative (different from the honorific propositive, the honorific indicative, the polite imperative, the plain imperative, etc…….) when I told him to enjoy his walk. Baller.
We were all hungry by this point, and, having joked about eating a stray mutt wandering around the temple, I decided to let them take me out to a gaegogi (dog meat) restaurant. They were surprised that I was willing to go for it, and I was a little surprised at myself too, but then again, not having tried dog meat, I couldn’t think of any good reason not to give it a shot. Having now tried it, I can think of several reasons not to. First, it’s dang expensive; second, it’s tasteless; and third, there’s only one traditionally acceptable way to cook it: by boiling it for an excessively long period of time until it attains a jelly-like consistency. I might be willing to eat it again if it were barbecued or grilled, but meat so tender that it squishes apart between your chopsticks is not exactly appetizing. Unless you’re an old Korean man, I mean.
We decided to have a sleepover at Min’s colleagues’ house (I neglected to mention that they were husband and wife), on account of Min’s house being rather tiny, so we sent the woman home to make our beds and clean some fruit, while we went off to collect clothes and toiletries. We stopped at a pool hall on the way, and I won all three games of cutthroat 8-ball. Hurrah. Then we drove around to find a watermelon, and on the way, the man asked me if I wanted to see a real sunyo (see above). I didn’t quite know what he meant, so I said sure, and he made a couple of turns, told me not to tell his wife (hopefully she’s not reading…though anyone who speaks English as a foreign language will probably have abandoned this post by now), and took us to some sort of prostitute-strip. No pun intended. It was just an otherwise ordinary street, except that where there would usually various shops, there were lots of little prostitute stalls, each one containing heavily made-up and scantily-clad women, beckoning at us. Probably because we’re such handsome guys.
We got out of there and grabbed a watermelon and went back to the dude’s apartment, which he claimed was the most expensive in Jeonju. I’m not sure if I believe him, but regardless, it was gigantic. His kitchen was the size of my apartment; so was his guest bedroom; the living room was easily twice the size; and there were other rooms I didn’t really see. Plus, there was hardly any furniture at all. The living room just had a plasma TV on the wall and a mat on the floor; as a result the apartment seemed even bigger. It was quite stunning. So we chatted and ate lots of Korean melons (different, but, I suppose coincidentally, also named with the words honey-dew-melon), watermelons, apples, and pears. Tasty.
Jeez this is long. I’ll count it as punishment for having waited so long before entries.
It was getting late by then, and I had woken up quite early, and I was tired from walking around so much, from kicking butt at pool, and from speaking so much Korean – not to mention the psychological strain that came from eating the nasty dog meat and dog meant soup – so I was ready for bed.
The following morning, Min and the guy and I (I don’t know why his wife didn’t come) went out to a bean sprout soup restaurant. Owing to its fame, the place was swarming. But it only serves one dish, so service is quick and uncomplicated. The soup was interesting – just loads of bean sprouts in a spicy broth – but was not exactly what my stomach needed after the dog meat the previous night. Bean sprout soup is just not something I’m prepared to eat for breakfast, yet.
After that we went to a hanok (traditional Korean housing) village, saw some exhibit about special Korean paper, had expensive green tea at a tea house, and then split up. The scientist fellow went on his way, while Min and I headed to some villa that belonged to a dynasty of epochs past. The villa was called Gyeonggijeon and had lots of small buildings where peasants and officials did stuff for the kings. Cool, but nothing special – that is, until we came to a certain statue under which were enshrined the placenta of the various kings. Apparently the Koreans used to believe that each part of the king’s body was sacred and that the placenta counted as a piece of his body, so they were all saved or something, and then buried beneath a big turtle. Turtles mean long life, pigs mean riches.
After that, we had a little lunch, bought some souvenirs, and then grabbed a cab to the bus stop. The taxi driver was a 50-something lady whom I couldn’t understand. Min told me once we got out of the cab, though, that she (without provocation) had been telling him her life story and about how she had tried to commit suicide several times, and about all the reasons why she tried and why it didn’t work, and such. Quite strange.
We said our goodbyes, I got on the bus, came back to Daegu, and had a pizza for dinner, because I really needed some comfort food after so many exotic meals in a row.
Man, that trip was still 3 weeks ago. What have I done since then? For one, I finally used the subway downtown. It’s really nice, quite clean, quite bright, quite comfortable, well-marked, easy to use. Allegedly in 5 years or so the line will extend all the way to Chilgok, the suburb I live in, but unfortunately I’ll probably be long gone by then.
I saw the movie transformers with a middle school student. It was atrocious, even more atrocious than I had expected. But we saw a bargain show for 4 bucks, so no big deal.
Robert and I went dumpster-diving around the various apartment high-rises looking for furniture, and, lo and behold, I found a sweet wicker pagoda sort of thing that’s entirely too big for my room but which I took anyway. I’ll post a picture soon. I’m going to deck it out with some plants, whose pots I hopefully won’t kick over in my sleep.
Aaaaaaaand, to end on a happy note, Sunday night I went downtown to meet a former co-teacher. This is out of order, but after dinner, we went to a game room, where you pay by the hour to rend board and card games. There were several groups of people, and it’s pretty fun, because generally when you win a game you get to make the loser go embarrass him or herself at another person’s table. One girl who lost was forced by her friends to come speak to me in English and ask for my email address. Another boy was made to wear a wig and come over to my table to be smacked on the head by a big toy hammer. My friend and I first played a card came called lobo 77, which has some odd rules and requires counting. I tried to do it in Korean, but lost on account of some grammatical mistakes, and so I too had to go get a bopping at another table. I was a little bitter after that, so I made her play set with me. Of course, as I had predicted, I utterly walloped her and got my revenge by making her both receive a bopping and pay the 3 dollar game fee.
Lastly: the upcoming joke won’t be quite as funny, because I’ll have to elaborate about the Korean and because I’ve already said it’s not funny, but you’re going to read it regardless, so there. While planning our trip downtown, I sent her a text message that said, among other things, 가레를 같이 먹을까요? (ga-re-rul kach’i mogulkkayo, shall we have some curry together?) She corrected my spelling and told me that curry is 카레 (k’a-re), but I felt like being funny and stubborn, so I kept on saying that I wanted to eat 가레 (ga-re) and not카레 (k’a-re). When we got to the restaurant, she told me that she and her friends had laughed at my message, since my typo 가레 (ga-re) sounds exactly and looks mostly like the word 가래 (ga-rae), which means “phlegm.”