Sunday, it was not raining. In fact, it was quite warm. We decided to check out a nearby hysterical (I mean, historical) site: a traditional thatch-roofed house that was just recently discovered. We didn't really get to check out the house, but the views from the hill where it's located are great. You can see so much of the city.
From there, we continued to wander through neighborhoods of traditional houses until we came out on the main road near the beach. Liam and I played in the water a bit, then we walked back to the main road to catch a bus home. On the way, we made an interesting discovery: a restaurant that apparently serves rabbit soup (ttoki-tang). Matthew is anxious to try it.
On Saturday, it looked like our entire week of vacation was going to be rainy. (This has turned out not to be the case, but weather forecasts aren't always correct.) We had spent some time downtown in the morning, but decided to take a walk in the country, with a fruit orchard and the accompanying roadside stand as our destination.
Liam rode on Matthew's shoulders most of the way there, just enjoying the scenery. We passed a construction site with building machines (just like on Bob the Builder!) that prompted a chorus of "Wow! Wuzdat?" for the next five minutes. After meandering through neighborhoods of traditional houses, we broke into open country. The rice fields are a brilliant shade of green this time of year. Fruit orchards, with apple, pear and peach trees, alternate with vegetable gardens. There was even a small herd of cows, hiding from the rain in their stalls, and several families of dogs in their kennels. Ducks and geese wandered through the fruit orchard. We bought a huge bag of peaches for W5,000 (about $5) which, although they aren't as ripe as ones we'd buy in the States, make good peach crisp.
Liam walked back, splashing in the water that streamed down hills and swirled into the drains. We decided to stop at a cafe on the way back. We had seen signs advertising (in Korean) "Cafe 900 Meters", "Cafe 700 Meters," etc. From a gravel parking lot, we passed through a small entry way surrounded by interesting wooden faces. We walked up the narrow path through the lush woods, passing several water features, pottery arrangements, and an interesting variety of wood and metal statues, including the Blues Brothers and a random non-Korean-looking soldier. As we got closer to the main building, we noticed small cabin-like buildings in the surrounding trees. When we reached the main building, the waiter who came out to greet us explained that besides the main building, there were "bungalows." He led us to one of the bungalows, a small wooden building with full windows on three walls, two of which opened. Inside the only furnishings were a shoe rack, a low wooden table, a fan, and a stack of floor cushions. We ordered coffee and kiwi juice (more of a smoothie) which came with a small assortment of packaged cookies. What a find! We had our own little retreat in the woods. We'll definitely bring people here in the future.
Pron: urinunmichinmigukseuramieyo Trans: We are crazy American people.
Why are we crazy?, you ask.
We are the crazy Americans who walk to the park in the rain, when no one else is outside.
We are the crazy Americans who don't even carry umbrellas if it's only sprinkling.
We are the crazy Americans who let our son play in puddles, knowing that we can take him home and throw him in the bathtub.
We are the crazy Americans who are having a lot more fun than everyone else.
(The pictures are from a previous day when it wasn't raining at all. This Sunday it was sprinkling just enough to interfere with picture-taking. Today it is full-on pouring. Oh, and the rain boots, while cute, are highly ineffective when he splashes water up over the tops. We've reverted to sandals.)
One of the lovely expat traditions in Sokcho is the "giving away party," at which one liquidates ones assets accumulated while here. In this respect, there are basically two types of expats in Korea: those who settle in, and those who just camp out for a while. The "campers" are usually young, single, and most likely just here for a year. The "settlers" are either older (mid-twenties and up), married, and/or here for several years. Only "settlers" usually host GAPs when they depart for home or a new locale, since they're the ones who have accumulated enough "stuff."
Our friend Ara, who is returning to the States this weekend, was definitely a settler. He has two of the three settler traits: he's older than I am (and we'll leave it at that) and just finished his second year at AP. His stay overlapped ours during his first month and last three months. He hosted a GAP this past Sunday.
Large items (cars, bikes, larger appliances, stereos, etc.) are usually sold, rather than given away. For example, Ara sold his car and oven (for a token fee) to other expat teachers. This still left a lot of food items, books, movies, etc. that he simply auctioned off to the quickest hand-raiser. Since he had previously taught for a year in Pohang (a slightly larger steel town further south down the coast), he had the foresight to mail himself boxes of food items that aren't available here. In addition, his mom sent him frequent care packages.
I wasn't able to stay for the entire party, as Liam was suffered from T&T (tired & teething), but Matthew was able to bring home a pretty good selection for us: tapioca pudding mix, various spices, graham crackers, arborio rice, a Yanni CD (Me: Yanni? Matthew: No one else wanted it. Me: Uh-huh.), a genuine Minnesota loon call whistle (which Liam has claimed), dental floss, neosporin, and five garbanzo beans. Someone else "won" the garbanzo beans, but she gave Matthew five so that he can try to grow some on our balcony. I dream of hummus. I'm also next in line for a boxed set of 100 cookie cutters, which currently belong to another AP teacher (Babbie) who leaves in another month.
As you may guess, we're settlers. We hosted our own GAP before leaving in 2006. Some of those items (books, movies, etc.) were regifted at Ara's. Now that he's leaving, the only other guest from our GAP still in Korea is our friend Kelsey.
On Thursday protesters in Seoul staged a bloody demonstration outside the Japanese embassy, slaughtering live pheasants – Japan's national bird – on the street.
Angry protesters battered, disembowelled and beheaded live pheasants, while dozens of war veterans in military fatigues shouted "Dokdo is our territory!" as they ate the birds' internal organs and dripped blood on Japanese flags and on pictures of present and former Japanese leaders.
Here's the story I've heard repeatedly from different women:
When I got married, I moved from my hometown to Sokcho, because my husband is from Sokcho. I didn't know anyone here except for my husband's family. My mother-in-law made my life miserable by criticizing everything I do.
One beautiful, educated woman, while recovering in the hospital from the birth of her first child, was told by her mother-in-law, "Next time, have a boy."
Another woman was told that she should have her 19-month-old son toilet trained. The same MIL wouldn't allow this pregnant daughter-in-law to order chicken at a restaurant because of AI (the avian influenza scare). Boiled chicken is safe, incidentally.
The whole situation seems to be a form of hazing. When a woman gets married, she leaves her family, her hometown, and essentially becomes part of her husband's family. Women who were treated horribly by their own mothers-in-law, in turn treat their daughters-in-law horribly, because that's just how it's done.
Matthew's Chinese co-worker says things are similar in China. She just has one daughter and has gotten a lot of grief from her mother-in-law because of that.
I feel a bit guilty when women ask me about my own mother-in-law. No, she doesn't criticize everything I do. After raising two sons, she's delighted to have two daughters-in-law. Some of my friends in the States have issues with their mothers-in-law, but those are individual personality differences, not a cultural institution.
A fantastic t-shirt we bought for about $3 at the traditional market. It says "Dokdo is OUR Land" with a silhouette of the entire Korean peninsula. In the second picture, one of Matthew's students is posing with Liam.
Hot topic #1: Dokdo
Basically, Dokdo (which the Japanese call Takeshima) is a bunch of rocks out in the middle of the East Sea (or the Sea of Japan if you're a liar or a thief), the ownership of which has been disputed since the end of WWII, but more fervently in recent years. The reason these rocks are so desirable is the fishing and mineral rights that accompany ownership, but if you ask any Korean child they get very adamant. It's quite obvious that the main issue is not letting those &$*% Japanese steal anything else! During a "who is this person and what do they do" lesson with 3rd and 4th graders, I was informed that the main job of Korean soldiers is to protect Dokdo. They were oblivious to the fact that North Korea, just 50 kilometers north of Sokcho, might be of some concern.
I don't know how much this news has reached the States, but it has been headline material here the past few months. American beef was big business in Korea until the mad cow scare in 2003. Since then only options have been Australian imports and expensive Hanu (Korean) beef. The new Korean president revoked the ban on American beef and his approval ratings plummeted. They're worse than Bush's. His cabinet has repeatedly offered to resign, but he refuses to accept their resignation.
From an American perspective, the Koreans are ridiculously emotional over this topic. The fact that the cow in question was actually Canadian doesn't seem to phase them. Tens of thousands protested in Seoul. Korean kids are afraid for their lives.
This is a fantastic article that might appear to be satire, but I assure you that it's all too true:
If you don't take the time to read it, you should at least get this quote: One story in the last few days, for example, said that cheap, poisonous American beef would be used for school lunches. A weeping 13-year-old was quoted lamenting that she had worked so hard to get good grades and now she was going to die.
I think in any society, the older people are the most eccentric, but this is definitely true in Korea. A lot of older people here really show their age. When you consider how far South Korea has come since the devastation of Japanese occupation and then civil war, this country really has been built on the backs of the older generation. This is literally evident in the stooped backs of some of the older women. I suppose I notice it particularly in the older women because there don't seem to be as many older men. I'm assuming that the average lifespan is longer for women than for men, as it is in most of the world. Soju (AKA "Korean vodka" probably helps those odds.)
Here are some of the more interesting encounters and observations I've had:
I often see a rather frail-looking older man getting his daily exercise. He is the slowest power-walked I have ever seen. It's as if someone shot a video of a normal person power-walking, arms pumping away, etc, and then slowed it waaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyy ddddddddddoooooooooowwwwwwwwwwnnnnnnnnnn. But the point is, he's out there. More power to him.
In the traditional market, there is one aisle with particularly crazy old women. The craziest of the crazies has on more than one occasion, grabbed (or tried to grab) Liam by the wrists. I'm not 100% sure what she wants to do with him, as it turns into a power-struggle between my 30 pound son and the old woman. Matthew has had to intervene with a respectful, but forceful "ani-yo" (no). Liam is learning to stick close to me when we go through that area.
Old people get suited up in full hiking gear to hit Mt. Seorak or Mt. Cheongdae: matching hiking vest and pants, with the legs tucked into Nordic-style hiking socks, which in turn are tucked into expensive hiking boots, with high-tech backpacks and hiking sticks at hand.
Matthew came home somewhat alarmed and somewhat amused the other day. As he had been waiting for the elevator, a grandmother who lives on the first floor had fallen. He asked if she was okay, but felt he should tell someone, as there were no other adults around. Our building ajashi (doorman or security guard, roughly) wasn't in his little room, so Matthew ran over to the next building, found their ajashi, and pantomimed to him that a halmoni had fallen. They ran back, where the ajashi attended to the woman. The adolescent that rode up the elevator with Matthew informed him that halmoni had been hitting the soju. Aaaaahhhh...
This revelation shed some light on another incident that happened the previous week.
MinJeong and I had been watching the boys play outside my building. The ajashis have recently put up fences made of wooden stakes and heavy ropes, presumably to keep foot traffic off future plantings. An old woman shuffled by and asked MinJeong a question. She translated for me that the woman asked if Liam and JunMin are twins. (See the photo below for evidence that this was a ridiculous question.) Before I could ask if the woman was joking, she stumbled and fell to her knees, catching herself on the new rope fence. MinJeong helped her to her feet and made sure she was okay. As the woman shuffled off, I asked for clarification. "No," MinJeong said, "I don't think she was joking." I quipped that if they are twins, Liam must be an albino. It puzzled me at the time, but the weird question and fall all make more sense when soju is at work.
Another (more sober) grandmother from our building takes her grandson (two months older than Liam) to the playground. Since most toddlers aren't taken to the playground, I give her full credit for that. However, the first time I encountered her, she felt the need to lecture me (in Korean, of course) about everything that I should be doing differently. Now, my Korean isn't very good, but between her pantomiming and a little translation from some kids, this is what I understood. I should not put shorts on Liam, since he will scrape his knees when he falls. (Then she pointed out that he already had a scab on one knee.) This was a warm day, but her grandson was dressed in long sleeves and long pants. When the boys collided, Liam fell down, scraped his knee again, and of course proved her point. She continued to lecture me as I comforted my crying son and put a bandage on his knee. Liam also should not be wearing sandals, but instead should wear sneakers like her grandson. (I'm not sure of the reason on this one...possibly a tripping hazard.) He shouldn't play in the dirt. He shouldn't climb playground equipment. Either I should make him sit down or I should stop chasing him around so much. After trying to be gracious, I began replying "conten-eyo" (it's okay) and walking away.
This encounter really rubbed me the wrong way, but I should mention that it's an exception, rather than the norm. Most grandparents (and parents) at the playground are content to greet me and that's about it.
One morning a few weeks ago, Matthew, Liam and I met MinJeong and her son, JunMin, at the playground. JunMin is one month older than Liam. As the boys were playing together, we adults conversed. MinJeong's English isn't perfect, but she's very willing to try. We made plans for her to come over for tea (basically, a play date) the next day, then realized that we are both pregnant with our second child, due in January.
Since then, we've gotten together at least a few times a week. With the help of the dictionary on her mobile phone (Korean "hand phones" come with accessories, to say the least), we're able to discuss all kinds of topics. If I ever actually study, she's willing to help me learn Korean. (I have a CD/book set, but just haven't found the time.) Mostly, it's great just to hang out with another mom and have a playmate for Liam. The boys have similar temperaments and get along pretty well.
One day, we went to a play date at her friend's house. She knows a group of moms that all have children around the same age. There were two little girls there, one a few weeks younger than Liam and another two months older. Strangely enough all four moms (including me, of course) are due with their second child in January. MinJeong's friends don't speak English as well as she does, but with her help in translating, we were able to commiserate about nausea, etc.
We usually get together in the afternoon, after Liam's nap, since JunMin is on the normal Korean toddler schedule of staying up until 11p.m. or midnight, and then sleeping in until nearly noon. (Also, we like to spend family time before Matthew goes to work after lunch.) The drawback for Matthew and everyone else at A.P. is that Liam doesn't always make his evening appearance at the school.