Originally posted August 25, 2011
I write from Shanghai Pudong Airport, safely arrived at the gate to the final leg of my journey to China. Within the hour I will board a plane to Hong Kong and tomorrow I will be in Zhuhai, where I am to teach for the next year at United International College (UIC). Happy as I am to leap into all that, I have to admit that most of my enthusiasm and nearly all my thoughts right now are focused on the past week, which I spent with my best friend and greatest ally, my brother Sean, in South Korea, where he has lived for over a year now.
Last Friday, at 5:30 Korean time, I arrived in Seoul. I was twenty-five hours travelling from Minneapolis and Sean greeted me with a hug, a quick picture to send to the parents, and a command to hurry: we had a train to catch. An hour and a half later we were still in Seoul and I still had not taken a single breath of outside air. Given my experience of the city from airport down to subway and onto train then, finally on the city’s outskirts, catching the last rain to Yecheon (Sean’s home), Seoul had the effect on me of being a sort of enormous glistering compound. A city-sized airport. The dystopian surreality of thsi effect was only heightened by the fact that I have only known the city in shades of teal-green, all the windows on the train being tinted just so. I have no idea whether this is directly related, but this very same color palette has shown up in many of the Asian films I’ve seen – several Korean – to induce a subtle mellowing effect, a sort of vivid sedation. This, combined with the pristine clarity of the train windows, gave the simultaneously unsettling yet calming impression that I was viewing the city of a series of giant HD screens.
On the train and busrides in, and throughout the week, I tried to keep my eyes open and observe the nuances of this new setting as I flashed past them. As was the case when I’ve travelled abroad before, no matter how far abroad or abreast of my comfort zone, there were many familiar details to be found: my brother’s laugh, the sky overhead, the grace of running water, the the precise angle of disapproving mouthslope I get from elderly folk when I play on playgrounds. Riding on the same token though, it is often in the small details that I most realize I’m somewhere new, radically far away from my past: like cranes walking in the fields and flying over the town; or that when you go to the barber he shaves between your eyebrows; or canyons of individually-wrapped industrial food product; or that when you go to the barber he gives you a vigorous scalp massage; or buying a handle of rolled sushi at the convenience store, for a dollar, then walking home and having the fisrt distinct feeling of enjoying a delicacy on the run; or that when a barber finishes with you he buffs your head like a vintage car; or the sight of sproingy handles swaying from train’s ceiling; or that going to the barber makes you feel like a mound of calm marble under the hands of an old master sculptor; or an inexplicable frequency of plastic cels shaped like the top pyramid of a big top tent, a couple meters each, in grids on the ground; or that when you go to the barber he slathers cream on your forehead and shaves your hairline, making you feel like your sporting the platonic ideal of scalp; or that mountains lie nonchalantly in far ranges, the very inspiration for the Asian brushstroke paintings that have made me want to see this continent my entire life.
Yesterday I went to the barber to get my hair cut before going to China. It was neat. I don’t really know if I have anything much to say about it.
The most common question I was asked by Koreans was whether I had tried the food, followed by whether I had liked it. I have not the time nor you the patience to go into all the details but suffice it to say that I tried everything I could and the worst of it was merely borderline fantastic – I can still feel all the kimchi working its way through me. I will, however, single out my brother’s co-teacher, Mr. Do, for inviting us over for a terrific barbecue of pork cheek and sow belly along with his wife’s wonderful side dishes (including their own homemade sour kimchi!). Indeed, for all the sights and tastes I indulged in this past week, what I am tremendously most thankful for is the company I had the opportunity to keep. The difficulty of not being with my brother for the past year was alleviated in full by being able to see what great and bountiful company he keeps in Korea. Zack, Dave, Paul, Kyle, Mr. Do and Ms. Jang, Mei and Hani and Gucchi and Lindy and everyone else whose names I don’t know how to spell: thank you all for taking me so quickly and warmly into your society and giving me the opportunity to feel at home so far away from Minneapolis. Without the goodness you’ve shown me this past week I’d be much more of a fearful wreck leaving for a year in China. I’ve experienced hospitality in my life: I’ve never been welcomed the way I was to South Korea. In particular, my visit coincided with the departure of Sean’s close friend Thwani, who must be just settling back into South Africa right now. I am very grateful to have made it to Korea in time to meet her. It is difficult to figure what she means to me or why I was so sad to see her leave, having just met her. The only other person I’ve felt so close to after so little contact was my dear friend Dan Kocabek (who I’ve just learned is going abroad to Leeds just as I leave for Zhuhai!). Her going-away party on Monday was a blast, with Paul – a brilliant Korean blues guitarist and cook – closing down his restaurant in order to host the feast, after which we got a private norebang (Korean karaoke) room, where I sang, cried, danced, nodded to ununderstandable friendly conversations under gyrating neon, and made a fabulous fool of myself singing a Romanian pop song I didn’t realize I knew so many words to.
That was Monday. On Saturday Sean took me to Daegu city, where he most often goes for weekends away. The city, like its phone-line dred-tangles, seems overrun but kept neat. The whole scene was overwhelming but inoffensive, perhaps in large part because I could not understand the meanings of what all I wa surrounded by. I can only compare it to the internet, bits condensed to neon gas and all fit into a physical marketplace.
One tangential question – where do I have to go in this world that Bon Jovi won’t follow?
Earlier on Monday, before Thwani’s going-away party, Sean took me to visit the ancient mountain paths of Mungyeong Saejae. I had seen pictures he posted from a trip there last year and have been entranced ever since. The view from the busride there is a sharp and pleasant contrast to the closed-in train-view green-tint of Seoul, and a small testament to the continued existence and beauty of rural Korea. For over an hour I saw nothing but mountains, farms, forests, beat Hyundai mini-trucks, and old architecture (or at least all in an old style) with interruptions of military barbwire wallmiles and regular rows of greenhouses plugged into large vats of something or another. I’m a bit too exhausted to try and describe Mungyeong Saejae and I fear I’ve already overwritten my fair share. I shot quite a bit of video there which I hope to edit down and post at some point, which will speak much better than words here and show off the expanses of sharp black cloud shadows over mould and texture of green mountain fur that so enthralled me.
It was also at Mungyeong Saejae that I ate silk worms. While my mom fears, I grow hopeful that they may be spinning inside me. I could use some interior decorators – I’m thinking something bawdy but elegant, silk curtains flowing from ceiling billow to floormat, like Inara’s room in Firefly.
On Tuesday, Sean finally had to go back to work, which left me free to wander around the sometimes labyrinthine and everywhere lovely town of Yecheon. As it turns out, after all the partying and planning, two of the best experiences I had all week entailed nothing more than walking.
In honor of Steve Thimmel and lily Morris, I played on a playground while wandering in Yecheon and it was delicious: the slides were slick and had black markered graffiti running all their length down.
One last reason to be thankful in Korea: I’d never seen green in a sunset before.
As a sort of postscript: I’ve been reading John Steinbeck’s A Russian Journal, which is the record of a trip he and photographer Robert Capa took through the Soviet Union in 1948. Without too naively equating his Russia to my China, I have nevertheless taken to heart the attitude and approach to travel and writing that he sets down in the first chapter and would like to share it here. He writes, “Together we decided on several things: We should not go in with chips on our shoulders and we should try to be neither critical nor favorable. We would try to do honest reporting, to set down what we saw and heard without editorial comment, without drawing conclusions about things we didn’t know sufficiently, and without becoming angry at the delays of bureaucracy. We knew there would be many things we couldn’t understand, many things we wouldn’t like, many things that would make us uncomfortable. This is always true of a foreign country. But we determined that if there should be criticism, it would be criticism of the thing after seeing it, not before…This is just what happened to us. It is not the Russian story, but simply a Russian story.”
Signing off inside a Chinese cloud,
P.S. What time is it?
P.P.S. Adventure Time!
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Originally posted August 25, 2011
Thursday, August 4, 2011
While the DMZ has been a flashpoint of intense violence in the past, it is open to tourists visting either country. Often, tourists from Western countries visit the DMZ on the side of South Korea while tourists from China, the East and Western Asia visit the landmark from the North. It is impossible to visit the DMZ aside from one particular area, known as Panmunjom (as heard in Billy Joel's classic "We Didn't Start the Fire"), wherein the United Nations' Joint Security Area is established and outlines the only meeting point between the two Koreas. This area was definately the highlight of my visit to the DMZ, which also included a visit to Fort Boniface, the 3rd tunnel, a lookout point over North Korea and a train station which will eventually connect Seoul and Pyongyang, pending reunification.
The JSA was my favorite part of the tour. Located within the JSA is the famous conference room wherein heads of State of each country confer and meet. Standing in South Korea, I saw, for the first time, North Korea and North Korean guards.
|A view of the conference room between the two Koreas. North Korea is opposite where I'm standing.|
|United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Building|
|Me and North Korea. We're tight like that.|
|There are four guards (two pictured) who watch the North 24/7.|
|The microphones on the table represent the line of demarcation. I do, in fact, have one foot in North Korea and one in the south.|
|Me and a soldier of the Republic of Korea, defending freedom and looking good doing it. Ray Bans are standard issue, not even kidding.|
|A real-life North Korean guard|
|This concrete divider represents the literal dividing line between the Koreas. And yes, I am standing in North Korea.|
|A candid shot from a vantage point where photography was strictly prohibited. Many Bothans died to bring us this picture.|
|"Not the last station from the South, But the first station toward the North."|