This has been my last week of teaching. I have two days left of being an English teacher in South Korea. Somehow I am getting this weird feeling, this sense of searching. Whenever I am being driven somewhere, or when I’m riding the bus home, I am looking at Gyeongju around me, as if I should be discovering something more concrete I can hold onto. I am looking at things that I have seen every day heading back and forth to school and never really thought of, and now I am asking myself if I will remember it. For instance, about twenty feet from the small road that leads to Seondoek is a bridge of train tracks that goes over the road. It is a track for KTX, which is the fastest train in Korea. When you walk below that bridge and a train is going on it, it sounds like an earthquake. And green plants spill over the side and hang down over the road, I guess a Korean version of Georgian ivy. I have passed under that bridge a thousand times. And this morning, as my host mom was taking me to school, I went under it, wondering how long it could be retained in my memories.
There are quite a few specific things I need to write about today, not just my sadness about leaving. I actually have a bit of back track to do because for the past few days I have been organizing my room, and finishing up things both at my school and my homestay. Not only am I providing closure for myself. I am also trying to leave things in a manner that will make the next ETAs’ transitions as easy as possible. In my school, I have cleaned and organized my cl;assroom and my desk, and I have written a letter explaining the need-to-know facts of Seondeok, just as the ETA before me did. I also did a similar thing in my homestay for the ETA who will be moving in with my host family. There are a small number of things I have acquired that I no longer need and/ or don’t want to lug back to America in my suit cases. I thought a lot of these items could be helpful for the ETA who will be moving in. When he/ or she does, he or she will get hangars, hand sanitizer, pocket tissues, band-aids, ear plugs, pepto bismal, and a few other items.
Anyway, now I am giving myself a break and I need to go back to last Saturday night. When my host family surprised me with a little excursion for the five of us. We drove three hours out of Gyeongju to a small city where we stayed at a hotel. We had left at around 11:00 PM, so by the time we made it to the hotel it was very late, and we were all exhausted. I was more ready for sleep than anyone. We walked into our hotel room and I saw no beds.
I should not have been surprised this. Before the west started influencing Korea, Koreans all slept on the floor, their only cushioning a thin mat. Today, most Korean people sleep in beds, but some Koreans opt for the traditional sleeping style. Hotels often offer two kinds of rooms: rooms with beds, and rooms with mats, like the one we were in. During my grant year, I have actually slept this way a few times. Never very comfortably, as I am the worlds lightest sleeper and any change to my sleep habits screws up a night for me. Until Saturday night. I was so exhausted that I fell right to sleep on the floor, no problem.
The next morning, we drove about another three hours to the coast, to go to the International Garden Festival. I spent the entire drive looking wistfully out the window. Korea is famous for its cherry blossoms in the spring. And yes, they are stunning. But I think the most beautiful time in Korea is monsoon season, when almost every morning, the mountains are veiled with a sheath of mist. It is the most ethereal thing I have ever seen. I am quite sure that in the future, when I think of Korea, that will be one of the first things I think of.
Monsoon season is quite beautiful, yet it is a very inconvenient, and at times, quite miserable time in Korea. For it rains almost everyday. Most of the time it is just a sick sprinkling, but every now and then, it pours. By the time we made it to the festival, it was pouring. And my tennis shoes were still slightly damp from my brief stint in the rain just two days prior. So I wasn’t exactly in the mood to go rushing into another storm.
But rush I did. During that whole trip, no matter what we were doing, I was a complete optimist with a winning attitude. Okay, let’s be honest, that does not sound like me at all, but that is what I was those two days, because my host parents were doing this for me as a good bye present, and I was not about to disrespect that kindness by getting bitter from the rain.
When we first got out of the car we squeezed under two large umbrellas. And quickly my host mom found a vendor selling pink plastic ponchos for me and my host sisters.
Unfortunately, I seemed to get the poncho with the defective snaps, and when I rarely was able to get them to snap together, any movement whatsoever pulled them apart again, so I ended up getting wet anyway. Oh well. It was just water. And thankfully, the festival had a very large indoor garden.
Next to the indoor garden was an indoor market with vendors from all over the world. Okay, mainly they were Korean or Indian. And actually the Indian ones flirted with me a lot. One guy even asked me for my phone number. My host sisters thought that was funny. But the memorable thing that happened here was my host family found a booth that took family photos and instead of printing them on paper, they printed the photo on small slabs of wood. My host father had two made of all of us sitting together, and when they were finished, he handed me one and said very simply, “Gift.”
My hands trembled slightly as I received the gift. I said nothing, biting my lip, blinking rapidly.
My host father said something very fast in Korean to Heejoo, the older host sister. She said in English, “He asked if you like it.”
I looked at the photo. Four Koreans, pale skin, dark, sleek hair, gleaming, dark eyes, and sitting amidst them, an even paler-skinned, blond-haired, green-eyed woman. They were all smiling, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders as if it was nothing out of the ordinary.
“It is the nicest gift I could have asked for. Thank you,” I said.
By the time we left the market, most of the rain had stopped. It was just sprinkling. The remaining grey clouds blocking the sun kept the day relatively cool, so for a while the day was very pleasant.
The gardens outside were beautiful. But honestly, I don’t remember them very much. What I remember is having a great time with my host family. A perfect way to end our year together.
So that gets us up to this week. One other thing that has been keeping me busy over the past few days is I have been reading. Which is obvious, because I am always reading something, but I want to talk about the two books I read. The first is called Escape From Camp 14, by journalist Blaine Harden. This book is the true story of the first known man to escape from a prison labor camp in North Korea. My ETA friend, Alanna Hoffman recommended it to me. Over winter break, when everyone was traveling to Japan and South East Asia, the United States, Alanna went to North Korea. Don’t worry, she got back fine. She wanted to go because she has spent a large portion of her grant year working with North Korean defectors. She told me about this book at the Jeju Conference, and I finally started reading it a couple of weeks ago. I’m sure it is no shocker to say it is not a happy read. It is quite disturbing. There were multiple times I had to shut the book and wait a while before I could continue. However, it was worth it. The book is extremely enlightening, and very powerful.
At one point in his book, Harden mentions the memoirs of the American soldier Charles Robert Jenkins. Jenkins was stationed at the DMZ in the 1960’s. After becoming severely depressed, he stepped over the border and surrendered to North Korean soldiers. I found those memoirs, called The Reluctant Communist, and read that too.
First off, let me just say this book is much less disturbing than Escape From Camp 14. It is also not a happy read exactly, it is just a little less disturbing. Relatively speaking. However, it was still powerful and riveting. And it allows you to see North Korea in a very different way. Escape From Camp 14 is from a North Korean point of view. The Reluctant Communist is from the point of view of an American. The man who escaped from the camp in Escape From Camp 14 experienced life in North Korea as the lowest of the low. As an American prisoner, Jenkins was treated as the elite. In North Korean terms, which is nowhere near as luxurious of the elite in America or even some undeveloped countries other tha North Korea.
Anyway, my point with all of this is I would totally recommend both of these books if you are interested at all in learning more about North Korea.
Which brings us up to today. Yesterday, just before I was about to leave school, Mrs. Go told me that this morning I could go on a field trip with the first year students to experience a traditional Korean wedding. I didn’t have any morning classes, so I told her I thought that would be great. And, just like most things in Korea, I had no idea what I was in for.
I came to school this morning, and Mrs. Go drove me to what looked like a Buddhist temple near the school. All the first year students were standing on a large open-air pavilion as a woman in a hanbok was introducing what they would be doing. Actually I’m just guessing that because I have no idea what was being said. But a few minutes later, another Hanboked woman grabbed me, pushed me towards a room, and put me in a Hanbok. Oh, just in case, a hanbok is traditional Korean clothing for females. It consists of a thick skirt or dress that you wear under your breasts, and it goes straight down. On top of that you wear a loose shirt with flaps you can slide your hands under. A hanbok is extremely hot, and shows no figure whatsoever.
As this woman was putting me in a hanbok, I kind of felt like Mulan when she was being all made up for the match maker. She kept turning me this way and that, poking and prodding me, raising my arms, etc.
I very quickly started getting a feeling that I have not really had since October. The feeling that you don’t quite know what is going on, or what to do, or how to behave. I felt that way a lot at the beginning of my grant year, but over time it grew less and less. I got use to my school. To Gyeongju.
But to this place, to this situation, it was completely new again. And it was weird feeling that way again considering I am going home in less than a week.
But despite that feeling, I kept a smile on my face as she got me in my hanbok.
Then, as the ceremony started, I resorted to the tactic that I think every ETA resorted to when they had similar feelings: observe, and mimic. I followed a line of about ten students back into the pavillion where they were going up to a woman in a hanbok, and one by one were putting their hands in a bowl of water, and then drying them. I observed and mimicked. And we went back into the room we had just been in. And as I waited in a corner, the students all became adorned in hanboks like me, except in different colors.
We got in a line again and went back in the pavillion, this time going to small square mats. We stood behind them, then a woman read each name. As a name was called, the student would go down on her mat and sit on her heels. Again, I observed and mimicked. This time, I regretted it.
For whatever reason (I’m American, I’m not accustomed to this posture, I’m out of shape, what have you) sitting that way was extremely uncomfortable. After just a few minutes, my feet went numb. Pain was reaching up my back. My knees were shaking. I was trying my hardest to be respectful of the ceremony, but I’m sure I was squirming my entire way through it. I hate having to play the foreigner card after being in Korea over a year.
As I was shaking in pain and cussing in my head, the woman in front of us was singing in Korean. After that, about four women in hanboks brought out something on trays to me and each student. It wasn’t until they put a tray before me that I saw exactly what it was: what looked to be a very intricate and embellished pin cushion, and a twisted coil of black hair. This is going to look interesting, I thought.
The women pinned the coiled hair to the back of our heads, and placed the pin cushions (I’m sure they have an actual name, but I have no idea what it is) on the top of our heads. I really wish I could have gotten a picture of myself with this done, but when we went back to the room, a woman whipped it off of me before I could get my camera out. Argh!).
Once they finished with us, we stood. I tried, but I was as shaky as a new-born colt. My legs wobbled. I must have looked like a drunk grandmother. I’m laughing right now, writing this, but at the time, I was mortified.
I finally made it up. I was hopeful that we were done, and I could get the hot hanbok off and stretch my legs. It was not to be so. Instead we bowed and sat back down on our heels. And stood back up. And sat back down. And stood back up. And sat back down. The expletives in my head were getting more colorful by the second.
The woman was singing again, and each student was brought out trays of tea. I kept mimicking. We grasped the small ceramic cups of tea with both hands, and waited. Then we lifted our hands to our chests. Then waited. Then brought it to our lips. Then waited. Then we could take a drink (although I will admit, I took an early sip).
We finished the tea, and stood again. This time my legs could not support my weight. I had to grab a wooden beam beside me to hoist myself up. And once again, I prayed it was over, so my legs could get some relief.
I almost cried when once again, that turned out not to be so. For a second time we went back down. Then went back up. Then went back down. Then went back up. Then went back down. Koreans like rules of three.
There was more singing, and a lot of talking in Korean that seemed to last forever. I was getting to the point in which I thought I couldn’t take it anymore when we finally stood and went back to the room where we were relieved of our hanboks.
Since the students could only do this ten at a time, the ceremony was done three times. The students who had already gone waited in a room, while I watched the other two ceremonies. Thankfully, I got to sit cross-legged. Since I was just a spectator, I got a few photos.
Afterwards, we all walked back to Seondeok… in the heat. To explain how hot Korea is in the summer, think of how hot Dallas is in the summer, and add worse humidity than Houston (I’m sorry if you are reading this and you are not from Texas). But, I am actually glad we walked back. Buecause we walked through a lotus field that Seondeok is by.
I had gone to this field a few times in the fall and spring. I really wanted to see it in bloom, and thought the flowers would open when all the other flowers did in Korea in the spring. When I never saw it happen, however, I thought I missed it.
But as we walked through the field, I saw the biggest, most beautiful flowers I have ever seen. They were breathtaking.
Okay, I think I have spent three hours writing this post. I have other demands on my time. But I promise to write again before I return home.