I’ve been writing and rewriting and mulling over this post for a while, but here it is at last! In the future I am going to try to post shorter stories once a week, but here are some longer ones, to get all caught up.
Here we go:
From my journal, October 7th, 2016
Sorry if my writing is illegible… I am writing this on the bus to 부산 (Busan) to meet some friends for the film festival this weekend. Man I am happy to be alive. And sitting down. Alive and not moving any part of my body except my hand.
I had school off Wednesday through Friday this week, so I decided to do a three-day climb of 지리산 Jirisan, the largest and tallest mountain range in the southernmost provinces of South Korea. There is a whole canon of ancient myths about the mountain, which is considered a sacred and magical place.
I left Mokpo Tuesday night and stayed at a 찜질방 sauna house in 광주 Gwangju, planning to leave early Wednesday morning. Nervous, over-prepared, excited… I had never done an overnight hike before, much less a three-day, two-night mountain trek alone in a foreign country… I spent some time at the sauna that night thinking about what I wanted this trip to be for me. How would I spend the time with myself in my mind with no music, books, people–nothing but my own thoughts? I felt an impulse to deem this trip a pilgrimage with some sort of decided purpose, only because the idea of being nowhere alone with nothing in my mind is pretty terrifying, like staring into an approaching, consuming fog. But to impose a pilgrimage narrative onto the trip would be to rob the experience of any power to scare or surprise me. Mental static. A break from the constant of screaming students. Time for thoughts that need to rise to rise, be they what they are. I didn’t want a pilgrimage, just a chance for buried impressions to breathe.
Well, my initial plan was foiled because of a typhoon. I got up in the morning and took the bus to the town of 구례 Gurye at the base of Jirisan, planning on just sucking it up and climbing through the rain to not lose any time, but the mountain was closed. I took the next bus back and spent the day at an art museum in Gwangju instead.
On Thursday I called again with more success. I took the 6:35 am bus from Gwangju to Gurye, then another bus from Gurye to the base of the mountain, starting my hike at 9 am. At first it was foggy, but by mid-morning the bright sun pierced through and the sky became totally clear. It was one of those incredible bright fall mornings like a photo with the saturation turned almost obnoxiously high.
The incline was mild, and for a while I was the only one on the trail. Trying to breathe and let my mind slow down, I still felt like a bee just let loose from a mason jar–all energy and impulse to move. Embracing this state, I moved fast, only stopping to rest two or three times and never for longer than 15 minutes.
After an hour I was almost to the first peak, 노고단 Nogodan, when I passed two 아저씨 older men. In English, they asked my where I was from. A little creeped out, I replied in polite Korean that I was from Chicago, and turned to walk away. But one of the 아저씨 told me he was from Elgin! We talked about Chicago for a while, and the interaction gave me a lot of energy. After that I moved even faster.
At Nogodan I repacked my backpack and ate an apple to make some more space. The 아저씨 pair showed up again, and this time we spoke Korean when the Elgin man’s friend complained that he didn’t understand our English. I asked them how far they were going, and the Elgin man said they weren’t going any further than Nogodan. Elgin man laughed and said his friend was a 바보 fool who would get lost if they went any further. As we parted ways, he stretched out his arms and yelled to himself but loud enough for everyone on the peak to hear,
“아—- 피곤해—– ahhhhhh I’m tired………”
like a true 아저씨. I liked him.
After Nogodan, the trail was flat for a while along the mountain ridge. Small orange butterflies flew past, and some of the smaller trees were starting to turn red. The higher in altitude I moved, the more red they became. Sometimes the incline would increase suddenly and become quite steep, but every time it got tough I would get to the top before I knew it.
At around noon I stopped at an overlook to eat a roll of tuna 김밥 kimbap and half sleeve of cookies. I wanted to give the rest of the cookies away (to make a friend… and also so I would not have to carry the weight..) and so I awkwardly handed it to a random hiking 아줌마 woman, who really didn’t understand what was going on. I gave a super fast bow and ran–actually ran–away… laughing at how awkward I was… but this episode would come back to help me later.
I kept on my way, day dreaming and singing an occasional disney song to myself. At one point I ran out of water, but found an unopened 2000ml bottle sitting on a fence, left by some benevolent stranger. About 1 kilometer shy of 연하천 shelter where I would spend this night, I ran into a group of three wrinkled old 아저씨 men in brightly colored hiking garb, squatting on a giant boulder resting. Like before, my first instinct was to avoid them, but they spoke to me first in Korean, so I replied. They were staying at the same shelter as I, and said they had carried up some soju. One of them made a clicking sound as he mimed throwing back a shot. At first I felt a little honored about being invited to MY FIRST EVER 아저씨 DRINKING PARTY, and curious about what exactly they talk about– those clumps of old guys smoking in the street outside movie theaters on Friday afternoons, or reclining in pockets of red plastic chairs outside the 711. But then I promptly realized that I can easily imagine what they talk about and that is the last kind of party I want to go to… so I smiled politely and ran off on my way. I didn’t see these three guys at the shelter, and I imagine them spending the night crouching on that boulder.
I arrived at the shelter at 3 pm, much earlier than I was expecting. As I was making myself a dinner of a bagel and peanut butter, a man came up to me and asked me if I spoke Korean. “A little,” I said, and after asking the standard questions about where I am from and am I married and how old am I, he invited me to eat 김치찌개 kimchi stew with him and his group. He was with four ladies, one of whom was the woman to whom I had so awkwardly given the cookies earlier. They were all so kind, spoke to me really slowly, and called me affectionately “우리 아가씨” (our young woman), talking about me in the third person like I wasn’t there. “와우… 우리 아가씨 김치를 먹을 수 있네….! Wow… our young lady can eat kimchi!” What they did was really sweet though, and they invited me to share meals with them for the duration of the trip.
That night I slept on a mat in a large, single-room with 25 or 30 other hikers. It was 40 degrees outside that night, but inside the shelter was so steamy from body heat I could barely sleep. I tossed and turned and dreamed about a line of people in neon hiking clothes holding hands, a procession stretching the length of the mountain trail from the base to the peak. Before 6 am I woke and started off again.
The staff person at the shelter had given us all a hint that it was going to start raining at 4pm, so if we wanted to make it to the peak, we needed to really rush and get to the Jangteomok shelter below the Cheonwangbong summit by 3 pm. According to my map, it would be 12 hours straight to the peak, and I only had 10 hours until 4 pm. But based on how fast I had hiked the day before, I thought I could make it and decided to try. I was the only one at the shelter that morning who did.
From 6 am until I got to the peak at 2:45, I only stopped twice for 15 minutes to eat. It was challenging, but in the end worth it to summit Cheonwangbong that day. Because I came from so far, I was the last person on the peak. Grey-white rain clouds were rushing past right above my head, so close I felt I could reach up and touch them like I was standing in a room with an 8 foot ceiling. The loud wind was shoving and reshaping these clouds violently so the sky looked like rippling silver fabric, patches of white light appearing and disappearing through rips. When the rain started piercing at a sharp angle from the south, if you tried to look in that direction you couldn’t open your eyes. To the west lower peaks covered in grey/green and red/orange trees stretched all the way to the horizon. There was no shelter, so I curled up under an information stand to watch for a while.
It was an hour hike back down to Jangteomok Shelter from Cheonwangbong. I had made reservations to sleep there that night. But when I arrived, mentally and physically exhausted, another hiker told me that tomorrow they were planning on closing the path down to a town at the base of the mountain, so if I didn’t want to get stuck on the mountain for two days I needed to go down the mountain right now.
Sitting in the shelter, I weighed what I should do. My phone was long dead, so I had no way to let my friends waiting for me in Busan know that I was alive and okay if I stayed another day. Also, spending over 36 hours cooped up in a tiny shelter with 50 other smelly people I didn’t know sounded pretty terrible. But the path down the mountain was three hours according to my map, and it would be dark in two. I had no flashlight. I was alone, and exhausted after having already hiked 10 hours nonstop. And it was cold. And the rain was picking up. I decided to do it.
At 4 pm I put on all the warmest clothes I had brought, ate a sleeve of crackers, drank a half a bottle of 복분자 Korean traditional raspberry wine. And started down the mountain. Picture Jurassic Park in the rain, and your legs feel like jelly but at the same time you can’t bend your knees. I started singing old Mennonite hymns to pass the time and rally my mind. “For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies…” except when the skies are dumping rain needles all over your face. “It is well with my soul…” except not so much with my poor worn out body. I was trying to move slowly so I wouldn’t slip, but after an hour or so I realized that if I didn’t pick it up I wouldn’t make it to the bottom before dark. The trail markers were playing tricks on me: I would pass one that said I had 2.4 kilometers left, and then climb for 15 more minutes, and pass another that said I had 2.4 kilometers left. By the last kilometer, there was only a little grey light left, and I began to run. I made it to the park entrance at 6 pm and crashed on a park bench. 15 minutes later it was pitch black outside.
After writing all this, I realize it was probably one of the stupider things I have done in my life–rushing through a 2-day hike in just 12 hours. At the tiny town at the bottom of Jirisan, I told the 아줌마 lady who worked at the 711 how far I had come that day, and she mumbled to herself… “미친겠지… that’s crazy…” I ended up rushing so much one could hardly call the trip a spiritual retreat. But I suppose the fact I survived was its own small miracle.
1-4 is the worst class in the school, so the teachers say. They are all boys in the ship design major, rowdy, swearing, self-described “crazy boys.” But sometimes they surprise me. Last week I was showing them music videos for the last 10 minutes of class (having given up on my lesson), and looked out across the sea of swinging punches to find one student slowly, tenderly stroking one of the artificial sunflowers I tape to my pens to keep students from stealing them. With screams of pain and Coldplay’s “Yellow” as background noise, his chewed nails gently brushed the starchy fabric of a petal. I’m glad he can find some solace in that class. I hope I can get there.
우리 아저씨 coteacher
I call 이정근선생님 (Lee Jungkeun Teacher) my 아저씨 (ajeoshi, old man) coteacher; but he isn’t your usual sort of thin-limbed, beer-bellied 아저씨 you see sitting outside a convenience store drunk on soju in the afternoon, with mean eyes and a drooping scowl resulting from living through the cruel Korean War. No, 이정근님 is a gentleman 아저씨 if there ever was one. He’s an attractive man–tall and lanky with a strong, tan face, short salt-and-pepper hair, and a deep man-teacher voice that can command a classroom. He wears navy or deep green or light blue plaid shirts like I remember my own grandpa wearing in the early 2000’s. But his best feature is his eye wrinkles. That small space in the corner of one’s eyes is usually one of the first things I look at in people; you can tell a lot about the quality and quantity of one’s laughter by the way that blank of skin is filled. The tips of 이정근님’s eyes ripple and crease like an old-fashioned fan when he smiles. He really does smile a lot.
Even though 이정근님 is an English teacher, he does not actually speak much English. This semester he and I have been teaching several classes a week half-and half, and we plan and communicate primarily in Korean. Sometimes he makes mistakes in class, which puts me in a bit of an awkward position. For example, at one point he wrote two words on the whiteboard: “week,” and “weak,” and proceeded to explain to the class how their pronunciation is different. I sat in the back of the classroom, quietly smiling to myself until suddenly he called on me to read each word and demonstrate how they sound different. I slowly stood up, trying to figure out how to not embarrass him, but at the same time not teach the students something wrong… I think I ended up reading them with the correct, identical pronunciation, but I said “weak,” a little louder than “week,” so that they sounded a tiny bit different.
“You see, English vowel pronunciation is really hard. They sound almost the same!” he told the students. I sat down again.
Another time I was teaching a short lesson on syllables to try and get my students to stop “hangeulizing” words (pronouncing English words as though they were written in the Korean alphabet). I wrote one of our vocab words “diligent,” on the board and clapped out the three syllables so they could hear: “di – li – gent.” 이정근님 thought this was a good idea for getting students to remember vocab, so he started doing it too…. but with the 한글 (hangeul, Korean alphabet) spellings rather than the real English syllables. He had them clap four times: “디 리 젠 트,” “dih – lih – jen – tuh”… soooo my lesson was sort of in vain haha.
And then there are times when 이정근님 will be lecturing away in Korean and I will daze off until he turns and shoots me a question in rapid fire Korean. Not understanding, I look up and make a noise like “응?” “yeah?”, which he takes for an assent of whatever he has just said. So I have absolutely no idea all of the things I have inadvertently affirmed in our classes.
Even if 이정근님’s English is questionable, he is a really a fantastic teacher. The students adore him. He uses an exceptional balance of compassionate leniency and corrective discipline with them. I don’t know about teachers in other countries, but in Korea it is pretty rare for a teacher to sympathize with his or her students and make concessions for them based on an understanding of where they are coming from. 이정근님 is really good about recognizing the students who are really having a rough time, and letting them rest if they need to. He pushes them as far as they can go and no farther. He makes fun of them and laughs with them. And he is incredibly supportive of me as well–giving me freedom to plan my lessons as I like, and only interfering to explain concepts he sees the students don’t understand. I’ll never forget the many times he has stood in the back of class, yelling in his deep teacher voice,
“오늘은 진짜 재미있는 수업인데
“Today’s class is fun, so make it fun guys!!! Make it fun!!!”
I’m not sure if you can actually make kids have fun by yelling at them to do so… but the gesture makes me laugh at least.
이정근님 always takes care of me at 회식s (hwai-shik, school dinners) like a kindly uncle. Last week at our school dinner he told me what each kind of fish we were eating was, and translated everything that was going on for me. The one way he is like your typical Korean 아저씨 is that he likes to drink. His whole strong face turns bright red, he becomes much more affectionate, and, surprisingly, his English improves tremendously. He shows me pictures of his beautiful wife, and his son and his family. I can tell he loves them very much.
이정근님: we can’t communicate too well, and I have to confess that a lot of times when I nod along and seem to be understanding what you are saying to me, I am only pretending. If I could say anything to you, I would say how thankful I am, because out of everyone in this school you have been the kindest to me. You take care of me. You tell me about your weekends and holidays and family–you talk to me, when few other teachers acknowledge my existence at all. You make me feel less like a token foreign puppy in my school, and more like a person and friend to someone. I am really thankful for that. I hope I can tell you that someday.
There is this painfully endearing Korean show called “Roommate” which only lasted a couple seasons, but has recently found a place in our hearts. The idea behind it is something like this: most Korean young people in Seoul work ridiculously hard and live on their own, which gets pretty lonely. So this show takes a variety of celebrities–kpop stars, a mixed-martial artist, actors, models, a comedian–and and puts them all together in a massive beautiful apartment as roommates. It sounds like it could be a sort of crazy dramatic Jersey Shore situation, except that these are Korean people, and so they are all incredibly polite, sincere, 애교 있는 charming and a little awkward all the time. The draw of the show isn’t the intrigue of drama, but the heartwarming effect of a group of good-natured people who are happy to just not be alone.
During 추석, Korean Thanksgiving, me, Maddie ad Al went to stay with our friend Liz in Seoul. Just like we would have done with our families at home during Thanksgiving, we spent the whole break eating and sleeping and laying down watching tv. Watching hours and hours of “Roommate” over 배달 food ordered for delivery, we barely left the apartment at all….and it was perfect. When I think of the memory now, it feels like the comfy, waxy warmth of the inside of a creamy vanilla candle.
Korean people often ask about my “생활,” “lifestyle,” or “living situation” in Korea. Is it comfortable? Is it difficult? I reply honestly that my situation–having truly great friends like Maddie and Al and our beautiful bungalow–is just really, really good. I never realized just how much the place you come home to affects a your happiness until I stumbled into such a great “life situation” as this.
A couple weekends ago the three of us had a Sunday picnic at a shelter on a hill in Namak, the newest neighborhood in Mokpo. We bought hard boiled eggs, cheese, apples, imitation crab, cherry tomatoes, and more, and spent the afternoon lounging and laughing and enjoying the view. It’s one memory from this year I won’t forget.
- 정석: Jeongshik would be a third year now, but he dropped out of school last semester. I’m not really sure why, but it might have been because of fighting. Most of the time he slept through my class, head on the desk the whole 50 minutes so I couldn’t see his face. But several times when I could it was black and blue. Still, I was partial to him for some reason… I don’t even know why, but I learned his name and face fast and never forgot it. He was one I tried to go out of my way to talk to even though he never really reciprocated. And then he wasn’t at school anymore. I saw him last week at a concert at Peace Park in Mokpo, and I knew that he saw me too. I didn’t make eye contact though so as not to embarrass him. There aren’t many situations more awkward than being forced to talk to the young foreign lady teacher in English in front of your friends, especially for a tough kid like him… I realize that. But then a minute later he turned and walked back to me to say hi. That was it–he said hi and I said hi, and then he went back to his friends. But more than the music or the seaside smell or the perfect fall evening, that moment made my whole night.
- 원민: I told my students if they save up 30 stickers, I will make them lunch–their choice of grilled cheese, PB&J, spaghetti, or mac and cheese. I love being able to do this, because it gives me a chance to hang out and chat with some of my best students. A couple weeks ago I made grilled cheese for a couple of first year girls, and 원민 told me about how she recently acquired a boyfriend from Busan, who drives to Mokpo every weekend (4 hours one way) to see her. They asked me if I had a boyfriend, and when I said I didn’t they both told me, “you should go to Busan…”
- 강강빈: Kangkangbin is the only student who I call by his full name (first and family name), because I think they sound hilarious together…..Kang Kang Bin…. He is what you would call a bad boy. His class is the worst second year class, 2-3, and he is a spunky kid who I know smokes and drinks, a lot. But a couple weeks ago I had what turned out to be a pretty nice conversation with him. After talking about gay clubs in Chicago, about which he was very curious, he asked about my family. “그리워요?” “Do you miss them?” he asked me. I was sort of taken back by the sweet and honest question, and didn’t really know how to reply. It was one of those rare moments when one of my students considers me as a person. It was really nice.
- 승재: I played “Happy,” by Pharell Williams in class, and during the during the, “clap along if you feel..” 승재 joyfully slapped his friend sitting next to him to the beat of the song.
- 승민 민설 지빈: I had some second year girls I am close with over for a housewarming party a while ago! I made basil pesto pasta, bean salad, and fudge for ice cream topping and they brought some fruit to share. These girls are the best. They sometimes refer to each other by their food nicknames, which, so they say, describe their faces. “도토리,” (“acorn,” who is tiny with dark skin), “딸기” (“strawberry,” who has cute pink cheeks) and “돈가스” (“pork cutlet,” who has a round flat face like a pork chop, they say…). I think they are beautiful though… smart young ladies. In my mind I call them the “Food Babes Squad.”
So Then…. Is the Mother God the Queen of England…?
I wrote a long time ago about how several times I’ve gotten stopped by evangelists at bus stops. Well a couple nights ago was one of the more intense of these experiences. As I was walking past a stop, I could hear two women debting if they wanted to try and talk to me in English. One of them went for it and tapped my back, which was turned to them. I turned and asked, coldly,
“예, 무슬 일있습니까? What is the problem?”
They squealed in excitement that I could speak Korean. I did not smile. As I started to back away slowly, they asked what school I teach at, and I told them. This was my mistake. Of of the ladies said she was an 이모 auntie to one of my students, 민혜. So now I was socially obligated to talk to them. I forced on a smile. We exchanged some more small talk about my student, and they asked me to sit down at the bus stop bench.
The two women pulled out a newspaper, which had pictures of the Queen of England and Angela Merkel giving some sort of plaque to a Korean 아저씨 man. They explained that their church has gotten these awards for their volunteer service. The newspaper was scattered with other pictures of the royal family, which seemed to be just borrowed off an online search. I nodded along.
Next, they showed me a video the philosophy of which can only be summarized as the following: global warming is going to kill us all soon, and no life insurance policy will save you. So you need to get a new name and become a part of the passover (here, they showed a picture of “The Last Supper” Da Vinci painting… so I think by “passover” they actually meant “communion”…?). Then they showed me a video about the Mother God, complete with Animal Planet-esque shots of mother lions and monkeys and cranes caring for their young. After the videos had made their case, the two ladies explained that their church was having a festival now, and what was I doing that night? Did I want to come with them to be baptized and get me new name so that I would not die by global warming?
I told them politely I was meeting some friends. But they were persistent and asked me if I was free tomorrow, or the next day.
I tried to explain to them (in Korean) that I am a baptized Christian and belong to my family’s church in America. They said that was not enough and I had to be baptized through the passover. I told them that I wanted to remain faithful to my church and that it is unnecessary to be baptized twice. They said it is necessary because of disasters and global warming. I told them that I studied theology in college, and just did not agree with these theories. They just ignored that comment, and asked me if Friday at 5 was ok?
Giving up, I said sure, gave them my number, and ran away. When they messaged on Friday, I never replied…
Updates for mom:
- KBI had its first meeting of the semester a couple weeks ago! Read more about it on KBI’s website here. We were sort of scrambling to pull it all together the few days before, but it turned out really well! Everything went smoothly and students seemed to have fun doing the games and activities. Or they just enjoyed meeting high schoolers of the opposite gender. Who can tell?
- Fall conference was last weekend in 경주 Gyeongju, the city where there was that earthquake a while ago… we were fine though. It was good to hang out with the first-year ETA’s, most of whom I had never been able to meet. Running through the changing fall trees along the lake near our hotel in the morning was lovely…
- I did another episode of the 책읽는라디오 book podcast a couple weeks ago! You can listen to it here (although like before it is mostly in Korean). This was was so so much more comfortable than last time, when 주영 the Korean guy I record with was really nervous. This episode we talked about The House on Mango Street, which is one of my all time favorite books. I thought it went really well! We got to talk about story-making, language as empowerment and social criticism, innocence, and even Trump and his wall. It was fun.
- Speaking of Trump and his wall, I really really really cannot wait for this election to be over. When the debates are on during your evenings, I stream them on youtube between my morning classes. And watching them leaves me with a whole tub of emotions I have no way to express in Korean to anyone around me. I would categorize these emotions as “anger and terror hidden under layers of laughter at the preposterousness of it all.” I cannot cannot wait for this all to be over.
We thank you for your church, founded upon your Word, that challenges us to do more than sing and pray, but go out and work as though the very answer to our prayers depended on us and not upon you. Help us to realize that humanity was created to shine like the stars and live on through all eternity. Keep us, we pray, in perfect peace. Help us to walk together, pray together, sing together, and live together until that day when all God’s children — Black, White, Red, Brown and Yellow — will rejoice in one common band of humanity in the reign of our Lord and of our God, we pray. Amen.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Playlist: “지리산의 단풍, Changing Leaves on Jirisan”
- Higher Ground, Stevie Wonder
- Gondry, Primary
- 몸, 송민호
- Fade, Kanye West
- Blood, Sweat Tears, BTS
- Settled Down, Hyukoh
- Half Moon, Dean
- Rubylove, Cat Stevens
- Come Step by Step, Neon Bunny
- Yes I’m Changing, Tame Impala
- That’s Alright, Fleetwood Mac
- I Have a Name, Jim Croce
- Beautiful Rivers and Mountains, 신중현
- 16 Beat, Metronomy
- Place I Belong, by Michael Kiwanuka
- Summer Night You and I, Stanging Egg
- Rapt, Karen O