A Korean Mouthful (Part 2)

As we passed through the elaborate wooden entrance gate to Borim Temple in Jangheung, our guide explained the two dragon statues we saw overhead. Both menacing in their gaze in hopes of scaring off evil spirits, the one with an open mouth symbolized the entering worshipper's need to be empty of distraction and receptive of knowledge. The other, with a large orb clamped between its sharpened teeth, represented the wisdom one would hopefully leave with as they made their way back home. "Maybe each of you will leave with a mouthful of knowledge too," she said. That was terribly unlikely, given that Mr. Jang only allotted a brief fifteen minutes in this Buddhist sanctuary. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but relate the symbolism in those dragon statues to the greater exchange student experience. We opened our minds as well as our home in volunteering to host Kim Hyeon-Ju, but it wasn't until coming here, to her country, and staying a night in her home, with her wonderful family, that we finally gained our own morsel of understanding.  And I was hungry for more...

Our scheduled meeting with the rest of our delegation at Gimpo Airport for a 7pm flight to Gwangju, in the southern Jeollanam-do province, didn't go as scheduled. The plans were muddled at best and suffered from several last-minute changes that left me in a foul mood before we even arrived. It was nearly 7pm when a Korean man with a sign bearing our names walked up in jeans and a khaki sport jacket. He was in his thirties, with a broad smile, and though Mr. Jang would be our guide for the next few days things didn't get off to a good start. Our mayor's flight was delayed and we could no longer fly to Gwangju. We had to drive with him back to Incheon to meet the other host family and wait for the mayor to arrive. We'd then pile into a private tour bus for the nearly 6-hour drive to Gangjin. If we were lucky, we'd arrive in Gangjin by two o'clock in the morning. I wanted to grab my bag and sprint back down the stairs to the subway and disappear into the night. I wanted to put into words just how asinine I thought this plan was. I wanted to tell him to bugger off and that we'd take a train down in the morning. But I couldn't. I was a guest in their country at the invitation of Gangjin's mayor, the affable Hwang Ju-Hong, and non-compliance would be the height of rudeness. Also, I had little to complain about. The other host family on the trip, Angela and Bob, had gotten to Incheon at 2pm from Shanghai, where they were visiting family, and have been held captive by Mr. Jang for the better part of the day. Then there was Mayor Matt and Tina, a board member of the Sister Cities Association, who would be stepping off a trans-Pacific flight and stepping right onto the unfortunate 6-hour bus ride. In comparison, Kristin and I had it pretty easy.

We woke in the morning with a stiff neck from the bus ride and a sore back from a bed that was little more than a boxspring wrapped in a sheet, but the annoyance of the previous night vanished as I pulled back the curtain. It's a strange feeling to go to sleep without any concept of your surroundings and I was too tired when we finally arrived (to a smiling Mayor Hwang and his staff armed with massive fruit baskets and bouquets) to look around or ask any questions. But after my eyes adjusted to the sunlight flooding the room, I saw that our room overlooked a grassy field with tasteful statuary and that we were nestled between a low-lying range of mountains to the west and a misty bay to the east. Between the statues and mountains lay numerous fields of leafy greens and rice. We were staying at the Dasan Center, a newly-built YMCA of sorts complete with hotel-like lodging for out of town guests. The bed made me long for a futon on the floor, but I very much appreciated the surroundings. It was great to be out of the city.

Gangjin, located on Doam Bay at the southern edge of the peninsula, is a town with a heavy reliance on agriculture and feels every bit the lengthy bus ride from Seoul. Gangjin has suffered a massive population exodus over the past few decades with numbers dropping from roughly 100,000 in the 1980's to just 40,000 today and Mayor Hwang is working diligently, along with the mayors of neighboring towns, to reverse this trend by reshaping these towns in a new light. The problems of Gangjin are universal to small towns and agricultural communities around the globe -- the young grow up, attend college, and move to the cities in pursuit of bigger paychecks and faster living. Gentrification sets in, the population drops off, and towns die. Part of the reason for our trip, or at least for our mayor being there, was that South Korea is very interested in the development practices on display in our little town of Snoqualmie. They have an official from Seoul living in our town for 18 months and Mayor Matt as we call him was asked to give a presentation on the "Live, Work, Play" design ethos at work in Snoqualmie Ridge, the community we live in. The presentation was to a crowd of 100 bureaucrats at work in city and county government and that if I didn't already live there, I'd be jealous of anyone who did. I'm sure many were. 

That first day in Gangjin was largely spent on official business with a few stops at local in-town historic sites mixed in. The Dasan Center we were staying at was named after a famous writer and thinker named Jeong Yak-Yong (Dasan was his pen-name) who was banished to Gangjin in the early 19th century for contrarian thoughts. Though he was largely known for authoring nearly 600 books, he also invented a number of devices such as the floating pontoon bridge and a crane for lifting heavy rocks. The people of Gangjin, his home-in-exile, consider him their own private Da Vinci. We'd later pile into a rustic room (crossed legs, shoes off) at Dasan Chodang, where he lived for 12 years upon arrival in Gangjin, and drink a milky rice wine called makkoli while a midday shower sprinkled down on the thatch roof. It was a relaxing break in the midst of a day filled with pomp, speeches, and more group photos than I care to admit. "Everybody say kimchi! One, two, kimchi!"

Following an exquisite lunch of grilled beef from regionally-produced shitake cattle (high quality beef is hard to find and very costly in this land of pork, seafood, and bulgogi), we moved to the county chief's offices for tea then back to City Hall for a lengthy exchanging of gifts with the city council and signing of an agreement that would further cement the ties between the two towns -- they'll be sending an official from Gangjin to Snoqualmie to study our culture and development practices for 6 months . I was asked to read the english version of the contract aloud which, I suppose, gives me the unique experience of having "had the floor" at a special meeting of a foreign nation's city council.

The highlight of our time not only in Gangjin, but of the whole trip, came later that night. Hyeon-Ju and her parents and brothers were waiting back at the Dasan Center to join us for a welcoming buffet that was arranged by the town. It was great to see her again and though her parents speak very little english, we were able to piece together enough to communicate well. Hyeon-Ju's mother (I am positively awful with names and must admit that I don't remember it) was much prettier than either Kristin or I expected. Though we didn't dare say so aloud, her mother had a similar impression of me and commented that I was much more fit than I had looked in the photo she had seen -- damn that wooly Scottish sweater! If this comment didn't make me feel at ease with her parents, then her father's first question certainly did. He asked us if Hyeon-Ju talked much with us in America or if she showed any emotion. He said Hyeon-Ju is a quiet girl who hides her feelings and that he was afraid we might perceive her reserved nature as a slight. Hyeon-Ju smiled and nodded along with her father's fragmented sentences as if she had read our minds and knew that we were a bit disappointed with the ease at which she said goodbye to us in February. It was upsetting to be the only host parents whose student wasn't crying their eyes out, but this set it right. We were unsure how welcome we'd be and suddenly had our answer.

We were two-thirds through our first plates of food at the buffet and starting to feel the effects of the day's near-constant feasting when Hyeon-Ju warned us not to eat too much, that her mom was planning a big dinner. Naturally, as a guest and especially when traveling, I always try to eat what's put in front of me and try a little bit of everything. I had even that next day eaten a very large piece of raw, fermented skate called hongeo hoe that tasted of pure ammonia (next time, I'll just urinate in a bowl and save the chef the hassle). I had never thought that being a gracious guest could lead to a dangerous metabolic situation, but I was fast approaching that point (and let's face it, the quality of the toilets in South Korea are something of a crapshoot... pun fully intended). Kristin and I simultaneously dropped our stainless steel chopsticks, intentionally this time, slippery that they are, and barely concealed our gasps. We each tried to muster an excited, flattered smile but on the inside we were pleading for a reprieve. The meal at Hyeon-Ju's would be our fifth of the day and these people weren't kidding around.

We quickly consolidated clothes into a single suitcase and piled into the Kim family minivan, a Kia Carnival, for the drive to their home on the edge of town. It's a modest three bedroom, one bath, single-story brick home at the end of a quiet lane surrounded by rice paddies. The living area consisted of three desks along the wall, a small table in the center, an exercise bicycle, and a state-of-the-art kimchi refrigerator by LG. The massive burgundy-colored chest was a technological marvel and clearly the wife's prized possession. Having a kimchi refrigerator may sound odd, but kimchi is eaten three times a day in Korea and an entire year's worth is made just once each winter -- satisfactory refrigeration is not an option, especially given its powerful odor. The other item in the living area, the one that really made us feel special, was a simple calendar hanging on the wall. The 15th of April, that day we were there with them in their home, was circled repeatedly. Someone had even drawn little stars next to it. It was the only day of the month that had any notation.

Hyeon-Ju and her parents must have sensed our sighs at the Dasan Center and understood how full we were because the big dinner never appeared. Fortunately, they instead laid out several bowls of snacks, and just a few banchan. I'm sure the massive spread put before us the following morning was the dinner they had planned for that night. So we nibbled politely at the snacks, drank a beer with her father, and tried our best to talk. Just when we were starting to really feel at home, they brought out the gifts. Hyeon-Ju's miniature 12 year old brother who spoke very good english (he's hell-bent on getting the grades to be an exchange student and says he only wants us as his host parents), and was forever running around the house doing curls with a pair of 3-pound dumbbells, brought us a box of cactus chocolate from Jejudo Island, an island off the coast of the Korean Peninsula that is the honeymoon capital of eastern Asia. Mom and dad went to Jejudo Island to celebrate their 20th anniversary the previous weekend and not only brought back the chocolate, but also a pair of dol hareubang carved out of a very porous basalt. They come in pairs and are considered to be gods that offer protection from demons and, hopefully to a lesser extent, increased fertility. They placed their half of the set in their garden outside and instructed us to take ours home and place it in our house; they will bond the families and protect us. "And now that you rubbed it, you'll have a baby boy," Hyeon-Ju's mom said as Kristin handled the idol. Hyeon-Ju must have told her parents that we don't wish to have any children because she was clearly teasing Kristin and laughing when she said this.

We brought gifts of our own, though unfortunately nothing as meaningful as the basalt idol. We had brought several one-pound bags of Hershey's miniatures, as big a hit in Korea as The Beatles in 60's America, for Hyeon-Ju and her two brothers and a bottle of wine from the Snoqualmie Winery for her parents. The mother disappeared as her father and I were opening our second bottle of Cafri, a very light-tasting beer that tasted surprisingly similar to Corona. We didn't see her leave, and she was only gone for about 30 minutes, but when she arrived back she had armloads of KFC fried chicken and sweet n' spicy boneless chicken wings. Trailing behind her were her two sisters, their husbands, and two of Hyeon-Ju's young cousins. And for the next two hours we sat and talked and drank and ate and got to know our new family, our extended Korean family. They sent their daughter to live with us, total strangers, and only by the generosity of their mayor did we get to meet, but the bond we felt with them was real. And as if to prove that it wasn't the Cafri playing tricks with our minds, the walk we took in the morning after the kids went to school, and the way Hyeon-Ju's mom held Kristin's hand and thanked us, made it all the more real. The language barrier was real, but you could read her eyes clearly. We returned her daughter home safe and sound, and took pretty damn good care of her while she was with us and gave her an opportunity no student in their town had previously had. We were family now.

Our delegation spent much of the next day feeling what it might be like to be rockstars. Gangjin doesn't see many westerners and when we walked through the halls of Gangjin and St. Joseph's high schools, the latter an all-girls Catholic school, we were greeted with a chorus of cheers and screaming and all-around hysteria. It was fantastic. High school in South Korea is the most important time in a child's life as their studies and placement tests dictate which university they can attend and, in some respects, what their future will hold. School runs from 7:30 am till 10:30 pm five days a week and for class again on every other Saturday. They wear uniforms, most students don't have hobbies, and few see each other socially. There is no time for that now, childhood all but ends at the start of high school for these kids. And knowing all this made it all the sweeter when the kids from a half-dozen classrooms threw up the windows and shouted down at us as we left. They waved and yelled and proclaimed their love, all the while their teachers tried fruitlessly to get them back to their seats. One young stud shouted down to Kristin an invitation to meet him in his dreams that night. I couldn't help but smile; at least he's got good taste. 

We'd see our students one final time before leaving Gangjin. Much to our surprise, all 12 exchange students were waiting in a receiving line for us back at the Dasan Center that night for dinner. The speeches and introductions seemed to drag on forever, but there was plenty of soju and a wealth of food and Kristin and I got to enjoy one final meal with Hyeon-Ju and some of the exchange students who just two months ago we'd never thought we'd see again. Conversation was funny and spirited and a couple of the boys we were sitting with couldn't believe that I had eaten the dreaded hongeo hoe earlier that day and began daring one another to eat it -- right up until one of them ran to the bathroom to vomit. Boys will be boys, all around the world. As fun as the night was, it had to end with a goodbye; this time for an indeterminate amount of time. I hate goodbyes.

We packed our bags and left the Dasan Center the next morning and drove to Jangheung, a vibrant city an hour east of Gangjin. Though I pride myself on seeing through high-gloss promotional videos with a cutting glare, I couldn't help but want to inquire about teaching english in this fascinating town shortly after the mayor's video ended. A small city keenly aware of what they have to offer and what they stand to lose if they don't hold onto their youth, Jangheung is a place I wish we had more time for. It's a place with festivals, parks, a sculpted pedestrian-friendly downtown, natural seaside beauty, and an up-and-coming tech sector, surrounded by farmland and a short drive from national parks. If only Mr. Jang wasn't cracking the whip and driving us onward towards Suncheon just two hours after arriving. But so is the case when dealing with tour guides; always at the mercy of the itinerary they create, a one-size-fits-none schedule assembled in a vacuum with higher importance placed on available bus parking than the traveler's interests.

The one benefit to leaving Jangheung and continuing our trip eastward along the southern coast of the peninsula was that we had finally run out of officials to glad-hand. We left the Jeollanam-do province and headed inland to a folk village that saved itself from being a complete tourist trap of Epcot-proportions by instituting a set of rules that allowed for workers to live in the village, provided they maintained a traditional way of life. Set on the sight of an ancient castle, with some of the fortress wall still in tact (and open for walks), I found the Suncheon Folk Village to be a rather dull locale, albeit with a couple of very photogenic villagers. Sadly, the most memorable aspect of the stop was watching Kristin eat a beondegi.

Our final night with the delegation (whom, if not for the schedule that was out of our hands was a really pleasant group to travel with) was spent at a wild tea house, a retreat of sorts located a mile down a dirt road from the thousand year old Seonamsa Temple. We hiked up to the temple in the late afternoon and wandered amongst the countless brightly-colored lanterns strung up in celebration of Buddha's upcoming birthday and listened to the chanting, drumming, and bell-tolling of the Buddhist monks. Despite their being an entire cottage-industry of restaurants and shops set up near the parking lot, the two mile hike to the temple provided ample buffer and ensured all visitors were adequately reverent by the time they arrived. With a night at the smartly-appointed, yet utterly traditional and simple tea house costing the equivalent of $8 US, I couldn't help but dream about retreating here to while away the days and weeks reading, writing, and making daily trips up the path to Seonamsa or to the far more remote temple 6 miles up a steep trail into the mountain.

I woke that next morning before sunrise and took a stroll in the chill air outside and gawked at the meadows of camellia in the distance, and studied the glow of the sun glancing off the sides of the tea house buildings. On a hill just above the retreat was a group of older Korean men doing their morning tai chi. Though my hands ached with a cold that only an early morning in the mountains can bring, I wrote page after page in my journal and promised myself that I would return to this place one day if I ever needed time to heal.

Prior to the trip, whenever Kristin and I mentioned that we were headed to South Korea, those who know us best commonly replied by saying that we'd be able to remove the country from the list of places to visit in the round-the-world trip we're planning. Truth is, visiting South Korea never occurred to us and wasn't on any list. And up until that moment, sitting alone in the sun, in the total calm of my surroundings, returning to this country didn't really interest us either. Sure, we had the same moments of weakness and passing fancy that people feel when they say they never want to leave that all-inclusive beachside resort they honeymooned in, but that was it.  Yet, there on that hillside, at that traditionally-styled tea hall with the ancient temple up the hill and the monks in their robes and a mountain of trails all around me, I realized I just might return.

When Kristin woke, I told her about my walk and told her that if something ever happened to her and I ended up alone, that this would be where I'd come. That I'd come here to write and to think, and to mourn. That I'd hike up the mountain and listen to the bells and the drums and follow the stream back down as my thoughts flowed out onto the paper. And though nobody on this planet would know where I was, she would know. And that if there really is a way to watch our loved ones from the afterlife, that she would know where to find me. 

And there wouldn't be a tour guide hurrying me onto a bus to Busan...

No comments: