Sunday, January 20, 2013

A trip around Korea

I'm back to Mokpo after a week and some of traveling around Korea. I went from Mokpo to Seoul to Hwacheon (and nearby) to Seoul to Cheongju to Muju to Busan to Gyeongju and back to Mokpo.

Two Thursdays ago, in the morning, I left for Seoul. I had a dentist appointment to get to and I wanted to grab lunch with Tracey and her mom, who had flown in the night before. I got in a little before noon so I picked up Tracey's mom from her hotel and set off to meet Tracey and Andrew, who was also joining us. Tracey is taking Korean language classes so we were meeting her near Seoul National University. After lunch, Andrew and I headed to my dentist appointment, which was set up by Sara through her uncle, who is also a dentist in Korea. The office was incredible, a very classy environment. There were cookies and coffee around too. It felt more like a spa than a dentist clinic. While sitting, we realized it was also a dermatology center where you can get plastic surgery done, which explains the interior design. I went in because I thought I needed to get the rest of my root canal done but apparently it looks good so I'm not really sure what the deal is. There was a girl at the clinic was excellent English who is actually Korean American but there for the year working to gain experience. She translated everything for me. After setting my next appointment to get a crown, Andrew and I set out for Yuchon (near Hwacheon), which is where Maggie lives. Andrew, Katelyn, Adam, and I were planning on staying at the attached "guesthouse" Maggie's host family has and going to the Hwacheon Ice Festival the next day on Friday. We had to do a few transfers and a bit of running but we eventually got there. She really does live in the middle of nowhere. It's more rural than Goesan, and that's saying quite a bit. We got in a bit after 7pm and Maggie's host family was out of town but her host mom ordered some dinner for us. We just lounged about and enjoyed each other's company for the night. It was nice seeing them and just being around them.

On Friday morning, the four of us ventured out to Hwacheon to get a head start on the ice festival. Maggie was going to join us later after her winter camp was done for the day. So the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival is apparently the fourth largest ice festival in the world so it was pretty big and cool; there were a lot of things to do too. There was a huge ice tunnel with Snow White and the Dwarves faces carved on the outside. We also went down an ice slide for kicks and giggles. Since it wasn't a weekend, it wasn't that busy either. There were a lot of people, don't get me wrong, but Maggie said it was a lot less because it was a Friday and not a Saturday or Sunday. The main attractions of the day started with ice fishing though. There was a tent labeled "Ice Fishing for Foreigners"--no lie. There was even a separate area sectioned off for foreigners to ice fish. We got our "poles", which looked more like fly swatters with fishing string attached and started fishing. The first catch was really exciting. I ended up catching two fish, which wasn't bad considering that we were only allowed to catch a maximum of three fish.
Maggie had met up with us by then. We all signed up to go barehand fishing, which is exactly what it sounds like. There's a huge pool of water where they dump fish and paying volunteers get a t-shirt and shorts to wear while they get into that pool to catch fish with their bare hands. When you catch a fish, you need to stuff it into your shirt because there's no where else to put it. It was SO cold. I can honestly say it is the coldest I have ever been in my life, thus far. I can't explain it other than it was paralyzing. The minute my feet hit the water, I knew it was going to be extremely painful...and it was. I'm not even quite sure how I did it but I ended up catching a fish. There were so many people in the water but I looked down and saw the fish moving around. I looked for something moving, I stuck in my hands and grabbed it. Behold, I caught a fish with my barehands. In the fourth picture, you can see me showing everyone my victory fish. I was really excited about that. I wouldn't do it again but I'm glad I at least did it once.
When we got out of the water, I couldn't feel my feet, literally. I was trying to put on the slippers I had worn to the pool but I could not control where my feet were going. Luckily, there was a tent all the volunteers go in afterwards with hot tubs to put our legs in to warm up. It took a while but I finally got circulation back in my feet. There is no way that experience was good for my health in any way; in fact, it is probably the opposite. Still, it needed to be done. After our insanity experience, we decided to get lunch. We could take our fish and grill it or get it done sashimi (raw) style. Andrew and Adam got one of their fish made into sashimi so I got my three fish grilled. They were pretty tasty. Lunch in itself was an interesting experience too. There was a drunk ajusshi who randomly walked over to our table and grabbed Andrew. He wanted him to take soju shots with him at his table. Sometime after this, I went to pick up one of my grilled fish and when I came back, the same ajusshi was at our table. he was feeding everyone raw minnow.
When I sat back down, of course he had to feed me one too. He picked up one by the tail and hand fed me a live minnow. That was...quite the experience, both the being hand fed by a ajusshi and eating a live minnow, that is. Apparently you're supposed to take the head in first. I don't remember much of it other than chomping down and swallowing haha. He gave us his business card and kept saying "Blue House", which is the equivalent of the White House in the US. We thought he was legit. We found out later, when Maggie showed the card to her homestay mom that he worked at a restaurant called the Blue House. Facepalm moment. After lunch, we decided which events we wanted to do since there was so much more we could have done. We decided on driving ATVs on the ice; yes, that's an actual event. Maggie and I got on the same ATV and Katelyn and Andrew got on the other. Adam took pictures for us. I drove around first a few times and then Maggie took the reins after me. No way this would fly in America. There were kids under 10 on these vehicles driving around without an adult. There was a sticker on the ATV that said "Under 16 not allowed" but looking around, I could see ATVs with two kids on them, whose combined age was under 16. Oh Korea.
After the ATV experience, Maggie, Katelyn, and I wanted to go ziplining. You get a pretty good view of the entire festival and you zipline over the frozen river where people are ice fishing.
We spent pretty much the entire day at the festival and we still didn't get to do everything. They weren't joking about it being the 4th largest ice festival in the world. We did want to check out the ice sculptures before we left though. It wasn't in the main part of the festival so we had to walk through town to get to it. The ice sculptures were incredible. There were ice replicas of famous statues and buildings around the world as well as funny figurines and whatnot.
I had a lot of fun; it's probably one of my favorite festivals so far. I will have to revisit Hwacheon in the spring too since I hear it's supposed to be beautiful when everything is growing again.

On Saturday morning, January 12th, we all left in the morning to head back to Seoul. We met up with Liam and Jonathan at the hostel and Maggie and I went with them to a basketball game. Jonathan's birthday was Sunday so we were going to celebrate his birthday early. It was the Orions versus the Sakers. They're part of the Korean professional league but I felt like I was watching high school basketball again. I'm not trying to speak little of them but the level compared to the NBA is incomparable.
We still made the most of it and enjoyed ourselves. There wasn't much of a crowd, honestly. Most of the stadium was empty and we actually got there around halftime. I got a kick out of random things, like the fact that they use a video of the Lion King on the screen when telling the home team fans to scream.
It was a fun experience nonetheless.
Afterwards, we headed to Itaewon where we were going to meet Andrew and Adam for dinner. The four of us got a drink at an American style bar to kill some time. While in the bar, it felt like I was in America. There were almost no Koreans around and everyone was speaking English. It was like I walked out of Korea into America; it was odd. For dinner, Jonathan wanted Nigerian food so we went to a restaurant called Mama Africa (really, that's the name). Low and behold, the owner gave us his card and his name was John Nwosu. He's pretty much Jonathan's twin. At night, we went out in Hongade, per usual. We started at Bar Zen, then hit up Ho Bar, and ended the night earlier than usual (around 3am) at Taco Bell.
The next day, Andrew and I went to Jubilee church for service and then met up with Jonathan, Liam, and Maggie for American brunch afterwards at Suji's. It was a final farewell to each other and a celebration of Jonathan's birthday too. After brunch, Andrew and I headed to Cheongju to meet up with Anna.

Andrew, Katelyn, Anna, and I were planning on going skiing/snowboarding on Monday/Tuesday so Andrew and I were meeting Anna and spending the night in Cheonju with her at her grandparents so we could all head out together on Monday morning to the ski resort. We got in late afternoon on Sunday and got picked up by Anna and her uncle (who is really nice). Her grandparents are really sweet too. Her grandpa attempts to speak English but his vocabulary is limited so it was really endearing. After dinner, the three of us went to see Les Miserables again in theaters (since Anna hadn't watched it yet).

The ski resort:
The three of us headed out to Daejeon to then transfer and get to Muju around 9am. The plan was to get to the ski resort by noon, meet up with Katelyn, and do a day lift. We got in a little later than expected and had to check in so we actually decided on doing a night lift instead. We spent some time in our room until 2pm when we got our rentals, lift tickets, late lunch, etc. It was the first time Katelyn went snowboarding/skiing so she picked snowboarding to try. The three girls went boarding while Andrew went skiing. The three girls all rented clothing so we all looked like twins. It was pretty funny.
The night lift was actually really enjoyable. The powder was fresh and there weren't that many people. At first, it was hard for me to get used to snowboarding again and I kept falling. I picked it back up after the second run or so though. The next day was more of a struggle bus for all of us. Andrew got sick sometime during the night so was throwing up and having stomach problems. He only did one or two runs but sat out the rest of the day. I was less sore than I expected but the sun was out so the snow was melting and refreezing as ice. Every time I fell, it was extremely painful and my knees were taking a hit. When you watched people fall, no powder would fly out so you knew the powder wasn't very good. It was like falling on ice pretty much. Anna was teaching me to carve left and right so I kept falling on my knees and it sucked. At the end of the day, my knees were black and purple.
I also sprained my wrist from a hard fell on the icy mountain. That sucked. After lunch, we realized there were buses out of the resort to different cities so we all got our tickets and had to plan accordingly. There was only one bus time to Busan (4:30pm) so I had to peace out pretty early in the day. I passed out the entire bus ride. I was supposed to meet with Ben L and one of his students at the subway station to get dinner. I was going to spend the night at his student's house too.

I got into Busan, met with Ben and Suhyung, one of his university students and got some dinner. Suh (pronounced Sue) was really cool and she's really well traveled. She spent two years in France and a year in Japan. After we left Ben and got to her home, we ended up chatting until 1:30am. Her mom was really welcoming too and oddly, looks a bit like my mom. I realized it when her mom was trying to feed me fruit when I got to her home. I showed her a picture of my mom and even they agreed they had similar facial features. The next morning, we headed out to Ben's class at Busan National University, where I was going to guest teach his university class. There were only about 5 students in the class on time but Ben said most of his students usually showed up late. Based on the interest of the class, we talked about the gender norms in Korea and how the new female Korean president might or might not change any gender norms and stereotypes in Korea. For the second hour, we spent a lot of time talking about Korean dating expectations and how they differ from American dating culture. It was really interesting getting their perspectives because they are essentially our age and have good enough English skills to talk about complex issues. I learned a few things from them and I enjoyed meeting them. The students who were free got lunch with Ben and me before I headed out to Gyeongju.

Gyeongju/Golgulsa Temple
Temple stay:
I had to get to the temple to check in by 5pm so I left Busan around 2pm to give myself some buffer time for transfers and whatnot. After arriving in Gyeongju, I had to take a local bus about 45 minutes and walk about 10 minutes to get to the temple. I purposely picked this temple for my templestay experience because they practice sunmundo, a type of martial arts and I didn't want to just be cleaning and meditating all day. I figured I might as well do something cool. The templestay experience was...interesting. I can't say I liked it for sure because it was just so different from my normal life. There were aspects that you would expect: no technology, meditation, bowing, a simple diet, waking up early, etc. but there was much more than that. I stayed at the temple three days and two nights, which I think was enough for me. It actually felt like much longer. The facilities were really nice and seemed updated. There was heating in all the buildings so that wasn't a concern. My room had its own bathroom and it seemed like it was newly built or renovated. We woke up at 4am to make it to the 4:30am chanting/meditation daily ceremony. Afterwards, we would do more meditation (walking and stretching and whatnot) and then we would get breakfast. After breakfast, there was sunmundo training (but it felt more like yoga in the mornings) followed by 108 bows/tea time. Then we would get lunch and there would be archery or meditation (depending on the day of the week) and community work (aka cleaning) and then dinner. After dinner, there would be evening chanting followed by sunmundo training (more legit than the mornings) and then we would head back to our rooms to get ready for bed. I also got to see a sunmundo demonstration by the masters. There was usually some free time between these activities ranging from ten minutes to an hour. The things that stuck out the most were the 108 bows, the meditation, and the sunmundo training. I actually bowed 108 times. It was... repetitive. I was having a hard time because my knees were still banged up from snowboarding but I did it anyway. According to the website, there is a reason for 108 bows: "Why 108 bows? The 108 prostrations represent our basic mental sufferings. These sufferings arise through the meeting of the six sense organs. The eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind and the six sense objects; namely corresponding color, sound, smell, taste, touch and concept." The meditation was pretty hard actually. I mean, I definitely had some thoughts while I was doing it, but the hardest part was dealing with sitting with my legs crossed for so long. They were falling asleep and it hurt so much when I was trying to change positions. The sunmundo training was pretty cool. It was like Taekwondo in some ways but also differed a lot. I was impressed by how flexible the sunmundo masters were though. I did my templestay during an interesting time because there is a summer camp going on and there was also a visiting kids group so there were kids doing these things with me too. They were not taking it as serious as me and the other templestayers but it was kinda amusing having them around.
So all in all, it was a good experience and I'm glad I did it. There were three foreigners who live at the temple and one additional one who has been there the past month as an English teacher for their camp. The three foreigners were all there to practice sunmundo since apparently it's THE sunmundo headquarters (in the world potentially). One had been there for 9 months and is planning on at least 2 years and another has been there for over a year. It was interesting talking to them and seeing how they wound up there. Both of the waygoooks I talked to started out with a two-day templestay and were really impressed by their experiences and decided that it was a life calling to do this. I was kinda shocked a bit when I was listening to them talk about it.
While it was... peaceful in the sense that there wasn't much craziness around me, it also felt surreal. One might argue the point is to feel uncomfortable and to come to peace with that discomfort but the daily routine just didn't sit quite right with me. To be clear, I didn't do a templestay because I'm doubting my Christian faith. I did a zen Buddhist templestay because I was curious and I wanted to see what it was like. I didn't come out more enlightened or at peace with myself. I came out just simply shocked at the contrast in lifestyle they have chosen to live. I'm not even talking about the monks at the temple but even thinking about the foreigners who live at the temple and practice sunmundo everyday. The moment I left the templestay and got to the bus station to take me back to downtown Gyeongju, I noticed the contrast. There were ajusshis smoking around me, traffic coming up and down the road, people on their phones, etc. The world was moving a heck of a lot faster than it was in the temple. Everything was really... zen (I didn't mean to use that word but I can't think of another way to put it). Yet, I felt like I was kind of just wasting time and my life away. I know it's not fair to say that because it is a lifestyle they choose to live and they are living their life the way they want but I just knew it wasn't for me. I felt like I knew the first day in. Before I went, I was a bit nervous about doing it by myself and worried that I would be lonely because of how quiet I expected it to be and so on. When I checked in, I found out I had a roommate who was staying the same days as me. She was really nice but spoke next to zero English. We ended up doing everything together since the schedule is the same for us. I'm really glad she was there. In a way, I got to be by myself because of the fact that she spoke no English but in another way, I had a companion to go through all these new experiences with and to do together.
So while I was doing the 108 bows, I thought about how sad it is that as a Christian, I claim I know the real truth yet it's a struggle for me to pray everyday and read the Bible and even share the gospel with others. Meanwhile, the way these monks live or even Muslims (in the way that they bow multiple times during the day) live their lives, they live our their faith. If nothing else, the templestay helped me examine my relationship with Christ all the more so.

I left Golgulsa around noon on Friday the 18th, after lunch to head back to Mokpo. I had to travel a bit over 7 hours because there are only buses to Seoul, Busan, and Daegu from Gyeongju. There is a bus to Gwangju but they only run two times a day and I wasn't willing to wait a few hours for that bus. I first went to Daegu and then went to Gwangju and then back to Mokpo. I got back to my homestay around 8pm. It felt really nice to get back, unpack, shower, and lay in my bed. It felt refreshing. Granted, the reason I came back was for a wedding, but I think I would've had the urge to come back at least for a few days, had that not been the case. On Saturday, I went with a bunch of teachers from my school to the school nurse's wedding. The school nurse likes to practice her English with me and she's pretty good at it so I go to her office and hang out with her every few days during the last semester. She was getting married in Gwangju so we headed out about an hour and a half beforehand. A lot of teachers were there and I even ran into the school chairman, my old vice principal, and my new principal. Three of my third year girls were invited to the wedding too so it was nice to see them. Unfortunately, one of the girls looked different when I saw it and I had the instant realization that she got double eyelid surgery sometime since I last saw her at the school festival. It was a bit unnerving for me for a few minutes when I first saw her. So much for my beauty lesson.
I don't think I'll ever really get Korean weddings. It was held in a wedding convention hall and though I've been to a Korean wedding already once, it still surprises me. There are multiple floors with different rooms so there are a few weddings going on at the same time. Each wedding takes an hour. The ceremony itself is only 30 minutes and then it's 30 minutes of pictures. Then immediately, they usher in the next wedding party. It's insane. The wedding convention center hosts maybe 20 weddings in a day at least (assuming there's 5 floors and they do weddings during the day for 4 hours). People don't even go to the ceremony; they go straight to the buffet reception on the other floor. There's this huge buffet of food in this huge reception hall and you get a meal ticket and go eat. I would say about 95% of the teachers didn't actually go to the wedding ceremony (or at least I didn't see them inside); they got there, saw the bride, said their hellos, and then headed to the reception buffet hall to eat. It's INSANE. What happened to weddings being parties? I definitely get that it's an American concept but Korean wedding culture is just so bizarre to me.

To go to the wedding, Mr. Lee (my coteacher) picked me up in front of my homestay apartment to go to the school to meet up with the other teachers heading to Gwangju. In the car ride, he told me that the English teachers had all met the day before and they wanted me to teach all the classes--that is, grades 1-3. That means I'd have 23 classes in total. I wasn't sure how to respond to that. All I know is that next semester will be an interesting one.

Since the wedding on Saturday, I've been bumming around my homestay today and probably tomorrow. I went on a run outside today since the weather was pretty nice (only 48 degrees Fahrenheit). The plan was to visit Amy T in Hwacheon this week since she's back from Taiwan but that's not a plan set in stone. My parents are coming to Korea on the 24th and we are headed out to Japan together on the 31st before heading to Hong Kong on February 4th. I might do a hanok stay sometime between now and when my parents get in but that's also up in the air. It's been a fun and somewhat eventful break thus far. I'm excited to see what else happens next.

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