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Leaving!

So I am currently on my way to South Korea, and I feel barely here. I feel like a ghost, like I don't even really exist--here, in this space, in this time, I feel like I am already a memory. I felt the same before I left for Australia as well--I think it has to do with not being able to picture myself anywhere at all; I have no clue what my life will be in just a few hours, future me does not exist to present me. I kind of love this vibe though--the whole "nothing is real, is this even happening" feeling is freeing and also simply interesting to experience.

It is very gratifying, though, that this is finally happening,  because it is a lot of work moving to a new country--the CIEE TEFL course, the visa application, (the lost passport that I mailed to the consulate but never arrived), the interviews, not to mention the application to CIEE. There are so many hoops to jump through, and at times the actual end goal gets lost amid the bureaucratic minutia. But...this is happening, this is real! I feel vindicated, like I accomplished something. The more miles I travel away, the bigger it feels, so that the airplane  leaving the runway becomes almost metaphorical in its ability to defy gravity, to rail against the laws of nature and go soaring through the sky. In this moment I feel like a speck against the enormous blue, I feel like I have found a secret pocket and slipped out of time, and I'm just waiting for the universe to notice its carelessness and call me back... IMG_1557

Donald, I hardly knew ye

In light of my impending move to South Korea (T minus 11 days!), this election, for me, has been a very odd one. I have to say, at first I was speechless, shocked, flabbergasted. I simply could not believe that so many of my fellow Americans would look past all of the many (many) awful, racist, xenophobic, bigoted, sexist things that President Trump has said. When I listen to him speak, I am enraged, and so I could not comprehend why so many others were so willing to look the other way—or worse, seemed to agree. I am trying to understand this, because right now I am disappointed and ashamed of my country. One thing that has emerged loud and clear from the Trump supporters in this country is this sentiment: “Trump is not politically correct. He says what he means. We know where we stand.” And I want to unpack this sentiment, so that I can understand what these people are really saying. First, we all know that America is a profoundly racist nation; we always have been, and although we have tried to sweep it under the rug and pretend it is not there, we have never been able to completely eradicate it. And we have seen, in recent years, a greater urgency in the efforts to reveal and emolliate the institutional racism in this country, and we have seen considerable backlash from these efforts—white people (not all, but enough) are made deeply uncomfortable when confronted with these nasty truths about our country. We have had to face problems that we have previously been led to believe were not there anymore. This requires an uncomfortable self-assessment, and considerable effort to change if we admit that there is indeed a problem. So, it is not all that difficult to see how “I like Trump because he is not politically correct” becomes “I like Trump because he removes the onus of responsibility from my shoulders and places it on someone else”. Political analysts said that there was an unexpected amount of rural white voter turnout—it is not a stretch to imagine that these rural white voters turned out in a sad kind of self-preservation—a sort of plea for the status quo. Similarly, there was considerable talk about a culture gap. Voters over 65 turned out in support of Trump—these are the people who are not happy about marriage equality, they are not happy about abortion and reproductive rights, and they probably have a difficult time, consciously or unconsciously, voting a female into the White House. Again, this vote for Trump’s “honesty” seems to be, in reality, a vote for his backwardness, a vote for the "good ol' days of yore"--you know, back when gas cost 50 cents, you could beat your kids with impunity, and white males ruled everything.

A different aspect of the Trump presidency that can be understood from this vaunting of Trump’s “honesty” is the idea that Americans are so disgusted with politics en masse that they simply wanted to blow up the entire system, and the way they did so was by voting for Trump. The story goes that President Trump has no political experience, has no support from even his own political party, and since the system is flawed, and Trump is not of the system, that somehow makes him uniquely able to lead our country. Look, I understand that the system is flawed—broken, even—but to elect a bombastic narcissist in order to blow up the system seems to me a lot like a murder-suicide. If honesty without regard for content is the only standard to which we hold the president, then that is a very low standard, and it reflects very poorly on the American voter. A vote for Trump may indeed be a rebellion against the system, but so is the temper tantrum of a child; Trump’s economic policies simply do not pan out in the opinion of most of the world’s top economists, and his social and foreign policies are nothing short of terrifying.

Now, this election is particularly interesting to me in the context of my impending move out of the United States; I confess, when I first saw the signs that Trump was going to win this election, one of my first thoughts was, “Oh, thank god I’m leaving soon anyway!” But it’s not that simple, is it, because, first of all, the election results still affect me as an American citizen, and second of all, any country I may subsequently move to (including South Korea, where I will be moving in less than 2 weeks) will have its own political scandals and upheavals, its own inherently flawed system--it's not like I'm moving to a pristine nation with no corruption. It is interesting that I felt this relief, though, because I think that this sentiment of really wanting to move away from America reveals just how deeply our national ties run. Even though I knew I was imminently leaving the country, the results of this election still impacted me on a not only political level, but on a deeply emotional level. The fact that so very many of us want to leave our own mess, even though we would necessarily be running into someone else's, reveals that we never truly can leave—we carry America with us wherever we go. And because of this--because of my emotional ties to American politics--the politics of any nation I might choose to live in will never be as real, as visceral, as emotionally meaningful to me as “my” country’s politics. My moving to Korea does not make my innate American-ness go away, and I wonder what it really means to be a citizen when I would not exist without my country, when I can never extricate my core self from the concept of “American”, when a Trump presidency affects not only the policies and economies surrounding me, but who I am and how I think.

Thoughts on Leaving Korea

In between rambling paragraphs on this long-winded topic, I’ve included a collection of files from my video archive. It might be obvious from some of the posts, but I take a lot of short film clips of things that I see on my travels. Some of them don’t make the cut, but I think they’re worth sharing.

On my last full day in Korea, I woke up in my friend’s apartment in Donghae. We’d gotten together for one more movie night just like the old days. The last week of my time here has been like that: trying to do those last couple things that I love one more time before I go, walking the old routes that I knew, and saying goodbye.

 

Some trot (what I like to call Korean disco) on the walking path behind my apartment in Donghae (February ’14).

I stayed a couple days after my contract ended at school, and I’m glad I did; it takes a little time to send money home, mail that last box of things that don’t fit in the suitcase, and close a bank account. Things were pretty hectic when I was trying to get everything cleaned and cleared out of the apartment before I was supposed to move. Since then, I keep forcing myself to stop thinking about the next step and just look around at where I am.

I suppose I’ve lived in Korea for so long that I take it for granted these days. I have changed so much since I arrived at Incheon three years ago, but it’s been such a long process that I hardly seemed aware of it. 

For starters, I’ve realized—now that I’m living out of a very pared-down suitcase—that I dress with much more consideration than I used to. In university, I would just throw on whatever was clean, brush my hair, and go. Koreans take a lot of care with their appearances, and they’ll comment on yours if they notice something un-Korean about it. (Like, um, everything?) I still don’t much care if other people approve of my attire or not, but I care whether I actually like what I am wearing. We’ve had a couple seriously hot days—32º C!—and it’s been too hot for me to cover my upper arms for the sake of the children and offended old ladies.

(On another note, I am now well-versed in Celsius and the metric system. Dear USA: Get with the program!)

Many people in Korea seems to dress in similar ways and do similar things. I’ve seen my students change their answers in class because they were different from what the other kids were saying. Living here as long as I have has really impressed on me the need for diversity—especially in the media. In a country as uniform as Korea, TV and films are some of the only ways that locals can be exposed to other cultures and ways of thinking, which bring new ideas. Sometimes stereotypes are all that Koreans have to go off of, and this can be really hurtful. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had some gross old man leer at me because women who look at me (in that they are blond-haired and Caucasian) are “easy” in the movies they’ve watched. But this is nothing to the way people of color get treated. I didn’t understand the true meaning of white privilege until I moved to a country where I was a racial minority.

 

A rogue octopus at the Bukpyeong Five-Day Market in Donghae. A surprisingly accurate metaphor for my feelings as a perpetually-observed foreigner in Korea (January ’14).

In some ways, I’ve become more reserved, and in others I’m more open. When someone I don’t know approaches me in the street, I get suspicious. Usually, strangers don’t strike up a conversation unless they want something: an English conversation partner, a hookup, a picture... (In many cases, people haven’t asked for this third item.) On the other hand, when you’re getting to know new teachers, it’s more effective to be forthright. I used to feel like I had to guard myself with people I met through work or social events before I could let them get to know me. These days I’m less concerned with what people think of me, so it’s easier to socialize. When I chat with other travelers in a guesthouse on vacation, being myself allows me to make stronger connections more quickly. I’ve made some pretty good friends on vacation—some of whom I’ve even visited again while traveling around Asia.

 

Toy dragons at a store in Hong Kong (February ’15).

This brings me to my next item: being able to travel alone. Planning a trip to Taiwan when you speak no Mandarin and have no plans to meet anyone while there is certainly a good way to boost in your anxiety—and your subsequent confidence when things turn out fine in the end. I’m so comfortable with booking flights and accommodations that I sometimes don’t think too much about it. (Citation: That weekend I spent in Jeonju, for which I booked a hotel room for the night after I planned to arrive. Oops. Thankfully, this is the only time I’ve done this.)

I’ve become a bit of a procrastinator since I started working here. This is a side-effect of living in a society where schedule changes often occur at the last minute. Twice this last semester, I sat at my desk on a Wednesday morning with a cup of coffee, ready to leisurely get to work before my first class third period—only to have a co-teacher rush into the office and tell me we were supposed to have class right now, and could I come upstairs because the students were waiting outside the English classroom?

On the other hand, I’m much more flexible, resourceful, and resilient for these reasons. There’s nothing that destroys your self-esteem like being a soft-hearted young woman teaching in a high school setting. I still look like a high school student, and I probably will until my wrinkles get too deep to ignore. Teenagers, with their usual unwillingness to obey figures of authority, have had a field day trying to test their boundaries with me. At first their rudeness really stung, but after a while I realized that the opinions of a bunch of unhappy kids didn’t much matter to me. That said, I really enjoyed teaching high school; I loved the conversations I would get into with my higher-level students.

 

I’m like these little guys at the Robot Museum in Chuncheon—I get knocked down, but I get up again (April ’14).

Speaking of wrinkles, I feel like teaching has aged me horribly. Where did all my energy go?

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From Buzzfeed.

I’ll say one more negative change, and then a big positive.

The negative: I have almost no faith in institutions anymore. After having my job cut here (twice), I have a lot of difficulty believing that something will line up until it is a physical reality. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why it’s taken me so long to acknowledge that I’m actually leaving Korea, without any job or apartment to return to. It definitely has something to do with the reason why I work so independently and take on a lot of responsibility.

At the same time, it means I’m that much more grateful when things pan out, or I find kindness in unexpected places. Sometimes your colleagues come through for you big time, like my main co-teacher this last week. Sometimes a stranger wishes you good luck on your next step. Sometimes a friend offers to let you stay at her home while you’re in her town, and will show you around when you hadn’t expected it. 

And I am lucky to have many friends, from all around the world. People come and go a lot in Korea, and I’ve said goodbye so many times. It’s my turn now. But knowing that my friends here are all travelers like me, I always say how confident I am that we’ll see each other again. I’ve already had invitations to come back and visit for the Winter Olympics. Hey, why not?

 

Catching the tail end of the bell at Waseda University, Haruki Murakami’s alma mater in Tokyo (January ’15).

As for me, my next stop is graduate school, where I’ll be studying creative writing. I’m grateful for my teaching job in Korea, and it’s changed me a lot (mostly for the better), but being here has proved to me more strongly than ever that being a writer is what I most want to do. It’s a little scary to chase after your dreams, but I’ve got the incentive to do it. Three years in Korea went by like lightning. I’m not willing to wait any longer to do what I need to do.

This is the end of the blog, but not the end of my writing about Korea. I’ve drafted some short stories inspired by my time here, and there are more that have yet to take form. Someday, when I’ve processed all of this, I’ll probably write a book. For now, I have to make the long flight across the Pacific once more.

Thanks for sticking with me. I hope to see you again sometime, too.

 

'Round Gangneung

If there’s a positive side to growing up in a stifling town, it’s appreciating the place where you live as an adult. I’ve become one of those cheery staycationers who wakes up on a Saturday and asks herself where she wants to go in her own city. There’s been a lot happening around Gangneung this month.

From June 5th to 12th, we saw the triumphant return of the Dano Festival. One of my co-teachers, who grew up in Gangneung, explained that the festival is held every year in summer as a ceremony to invite a good harvest in the fall. It’s like one big prayer for prosperity, which was considered important enough to be held even during the Korean War. Last year it was canceled due to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome

Fireworks

On the first night of the festival, some friends and I went to watch the opening fireworks. Because I lived in town for the festival this time around, I could avoid the insane crowds that swarm the streets with their cars and tour buses. This didn’t stop the vendors from treating me like a tourist, though.

Foreign Tent

Above: “Interpretation: English, Chinese, Japanese.”

That said, they’re taking big steps to make the festival more internationally inviting.

On the last Sunday of the festival, I went to watch the ssireum tournament. A lot of foreigners gathered to cheer for the expats who were wrestling.

It would be simplistic to compare ssireum to sumo wrestling, but it’s probably the most common comparison. Like sumo, ssireum takes place in a circular, sandy wrestling ring. Unlike sumo, the purpose of ssireum isn’t to push your opponent out of the ring, but to knock them over. Both ssireum fighters wear a belt—one red, and one blue—and you hold the other person’s belt as you try to trip them over. You can’t otherwise push or pull your opponent, but you can kick at their legs. The first person to hit the ground loses. The matches were decided by the best two out of three rounds, and most of them went quickly. Although it sounds violent, this was mostly amateur-level wrestling. No one sustained injuries. 

Ssireum

None of the foreigners had much experience wrestling and were competing for fun. Because the pool of contestants was so small, our lone female contestant was set against a bunch of guys. She was matched against someone who had some experience wrestling, and it didn’t take long for him to knock her down in the first round. Then the announcer suggested, in Korean and in front of the whole audience, that perhaps he might like to let the lady win one.

Not understanding the announcer’s instructions, and expecting resistance in the second round, my friend slammed into the other wrestler and knocked him over. He looked pretty peeved. (Hey, buddy—if you thought that hurt, you should try experiencing sexism for a little while.) My friend lost the match in round three, but she plans to practice ssireum so that she can return to the festival next year and kick some shins.

On the next weekend, the expat group in Gangneung hosted a photo scavenger hunt. That Friday night, the two hunt organizers posted a list of 100 photo prompts, such as: “Take a picture with a foreigner who has lived in Korea for more than eight years.” In a 24-hour period, the contestants travel around Gangneung and search for opportunities to fill all the prompts. Extra prizes are given for categories such as most creative interpretation of a prompt, most artistic photo, or best prank played on another team.

While it’s a lot of fun, I didn’t much feel like racing around Gangneung like a headless chicken for a weekend. Instead, I sat with the scavenger hunt organizers on the beach and drank iced coffee.

Beeeeeach

This picture is actually from a trip I took to the beach the weekend after the scavenger hunt. Ho-hum. I love living on the coast. 

That night, there was a market held in downtown Gangneung at the historic Imgyeonggwan Guesthouse, a 19th century complex (rebuilt around 2006) that was used to host visiting diplomats. The market was a small community-oriented affair with lots of crafts and food items. Most of the scavengers met up to look around the market once they were finished with their hunt.

Market 1

There wasn’t anything monumental about the market, but it was nice to go there with friends and spend an evening out. There will be another market next month, so I would imagine this one was pretty successful for all those involved. 

Market 2

Then, this past weekend, we had our monthly open mic at Café Sopoong downtown. Open mic is a pretty mixed bag, and we ran most of the gamut in our lineup that night, with people playing guitar, starting group sing-alongs, and reading poetry. Sometimes people tell jokes or play clarinet. I’ve only gone to open mic a couple times in the past, and then only to listen, but this time I read an excerpt from my current writing project. It seemed appropriate, given that it was my last chance to partake in open mic.

You read that right. I’m leaving Korea in a month. Right now I’m in the midst of cleaning out my apartment, getting my departure organized, and spending time with friends before our paths split for the foreseeable future. 

The day after open mic, I took the scenic route home while running some errands and stopped at Seongyojang, one of Gangneung’s historic houses. I’d been there as an out-of-town tourist two years ago during a trip to the windy cherry blossom festival. Unlike my previous visit, the weather was sunny, and with so many people at the beach, the area was fairly quiet. As I strolled around the complex, I reflected on my experience in Gangneung and Korea. 

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Seongyo2

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I might be leaving soon, but this isn’t quite the end of the blog. Stay tuned!

Theater Review: The Seoul Shakespeare Company

In case my previous posts haven’t tipped you off, I’m a bit of a fan of the Bard, and this year’s significant anniversary has got me pretty excited. In addition to taking an online Shakspeare course and catching up on the plays I haven’t read yet, I was on the lookout for this year’s performance by the Seoul Shakespeare Company.

Much Ado About Nothing Poster

From the Seoul Shakespeare Company website.

This is the third play they’ve put on since I arrived in Korea. I was determined to make it out to this one regardless of the title, but this year they put on Much Ado About Nothing, which—in my thoroughly unbiased opinion—is basically Shakespeare’s best comedy. Knowing that my friend and cohort Jaquie would be in town on the weekend of opening night, I suggested we check it out together. The show was performed in English, with Korean supertitles.

I’ll admit I wasn’t sure what to expect when we sat down. In a country where a lump of bread with whipped cream on top counts as a dessert and many people refer to this outfit a “training,” I wasn’t sure how a Korean-based company would tackle something so quintessentially English. Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move, but never doubt: I erred.

SSC0

From the left: Charles Jeong, Jamie Horan, S. Vollie Osborn, and Lorne Oliver. Image from the Seoul Shakespeare Company website. Photo by Laura Jasi. 

With a spare set, minimal props, and modest costumes, the play was almost entirely reliant on its ensemble talent. Opening night brought a touch of nervous hesitation at the start of the first song—I counted four in the show, all well done—but once Act I began, the performance took off.

Benedick (Jamie Horan) and Beatrice (Lauren Ash-Morgan) were charismatic on their own, and they crackled when they were together. Sparks flew in their verbal repartee, and they were also wonderfully tender at the end of Act IV, Scene I. Make sure you arrive early to claim seats near the front; you won’t want to miss their expressions when Ash-Morgan says: “I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.” 

SSC2

Lauren Ash-Morgan and Jamie Horan. Image from the Seoul Shakespeare Company website. Photo by Laura Jasi. 

Heather Moore, who played Hero, added a great deal of humanity to a character who often comes off a little flat. Her response to Claudio’s accusations in the wedding scene was heart wrenching, and her playfulness in Beatrice’s baiting endearing.

When he first stepped on stage, I wasn’t so sure about Charles Jeong’s naïve take on Claudio. His delivery proved me wrong. Jeong’s physical comedy is excellent, and he took in some of the biggest laughs of the night.

SSC1

Image from the Seoul Shakespeare Company website. Photo by Laura Jasi. 

With a case of strong individual players, there were plenty of smaller roles to enjoy. Leonato (Lorne Oliver) made a warm patriarch, and swapping genders in the role of Conrade (Angie Ahn) allowed a bit of clever flirtation with Don John (Christopher Zaczek, who clearly relishes villainous scenery-eating).

SSC3

From the left: Jason Cutler, Christopher Zaczek, and Angie Ahn. Image from the Seoul Shakespeare Company website. Photo by Laura Jasi. 

The crowd scenes are dynamic, and the stage is used to its full potential in every segment. Special credit must be given to the scene in which Hero and Ursula bait Beatrice while practicing archery on stage. Brilliant!

SSC4

Molly Stewart (far left), Heather Moore (center) and Lauren Ash-Morgan. Image from the Seoul Shakespeare Company website. Photo by Laura Jasi. .

Overall, this year’s Seoul Shakespeare Company performance of Much Ado About Nothing is a delight, and well worth the journey to Hyehwa. Visit their website or find them on Facebook to keep up with their future performances.

A Traditional Korean Wedding

On a plane to Japan in 2014, I got into a conversation with a fellow English teacher who lived in Korea. She’d worked in Japan with JET—basically the Japanese equivalent of EPIK—and was currently teaching in an area outside of Seoul. We compared life in the countryside to that in the city, and the amount of national pride that went along with them. In rural Japan, her colleagues had invited her to events that would allow her to experience traditional Japanese culture. In Seoul, she and her co-teachers mostly hung out in Gangnam, eating Western food and shopping. 

My experience has been similar. Living in Donghae, my co-teachers invited me out to hike with their clubs or join their families on vacation so that I could better get to know Korea and its culture. In Gangneung, my co-teachers are busier. When we get together, we go to a trendy coffee shop or eat Italian food for our department dinners. There’s a different meaning for younger generations when it comes to defining Korean culture.

Then there’s Mr. Shin, one of the senior teachers at my school. Earlier this month, he invited me to the wedding of his friend’s daughter, and—just like two years ago—my tangential connection to the bride allowed me to attend her big day.

1 - Parade

The ceremony was held at the Gangneung Confucian School, which is right next to Myeongryun High School in the center of town. The first part of the wedding ceremony happened in the parking lot outside of the complex, where a traditional Korean marching band (for lack of a better term) led the bride’s procession. The bride was carried in a gama, a kind of wheel-less carriage, to the entrance, where she met her husband and the band played around her. I was almost struck breathless as I saw the bride go past. The guests were pretty impressed with it, too, and crowded around the couple with their phones and cameras. 

2 - Crowd

(The bride is in red hanbok with the black headdress, next to the tall man in the blue-green robe at the center of this picture. Out of respect for the privacy of the guests, I’ve tried to avoid showing people’s faces.)

After that we went into the courtyard at the center of the complex, where the bride and groom met and performed the ceremony. The bride’s parents sat on one side while the groom’s parents sat on the other. In the middle was a table filled with common offerings—dried persimmons, dates, and rice cakes. Two people held the ceremony. One, the man in the white robe, announced the steps of the ceremony in the an Korean language, which is based on Chinese characters, while the woman next to him explained it in modern Korean. I suppose it’s kind of like a priest giving a ceremony in Latin and having someone speak the translation in English. Note the very traditional plastic tarp to fend off the possible rain. 

3 - Ceremony

The table in the middle was half-red, and half-blue. The red symbolized the bride—also marked by her red robe—while the blue represented the groom. Mr. Shin explained during the ceremony that the red and blue motifs express a balance or harmony that should be attained from the union, rather like the concept of yin and yang. 

I tried to keep track of the steps of the ceremony so that I could properly explain it, but I might have mixed up some of the details. The gist of it went like this:

First, the bride and groom wash their hands in a small bowl, to symbolize how they are washing off their old lives. Each of them lights a candle on their side of the table. The bride’s candle is red, while the groom’s is blue.

Then the two of them bow to each other three times to show their respect. At every step in the process, the bride, who was wearing an elaborate headpiece, was assisted in the bowing process by two older women who stood to either side of her. The groom, who was a foreigner, didn’t bow as deeply, but that might have been because his traditional hat kept falling off.

The last section of the ceremony that I can remember is, ironically, the part with the alcohol. As part of a traditional ceremony, the bride drinks makgeolli, a kind of Korean rice wine, from two cups. One is her own, covered with a red braid, and the other is the groom’s, covered with a blue braid. Then the groom drinks from his cup and the bride’s. Mr. Shin said that alcohol is typically served at major ceremonies like weddings or funerals.

He also told me that the spoon typically used to serve makgeolli was originally made out of a gourd that had been cut in half and hollowed. The significance of the makgeolli ladles at a Korean wedding ceremony is that the two halves of the gourd will again be united in the couple’s marriage.

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A bowl of makgeolli with a typical serving spoon. Image source here.  

Once the makgeolli has been consumed, the bride and groom stand together and bow before both the bride’s and groom’s parents. Then they turn and bow to the guests, and the ceremony concludes. The whole thing took about 30 or 40 minutes. Mr. Shin and I delayed our trip to the dining room to chat with some of the other guests, and the courtyard cleared almost immediately. The guests were already piling into the hall for lunch by that point.

4 - Dining Hall

5 - Food 1

We had pretty traditional Korean food for lunch, all of which was delicious. The only oddities were the bell peppers, broccoli, and grapes, which probably wouldn’t have been available in ancient Korea at the time. (Not that you see me complaining.) The main course was noodle soup, which was also symbolic. At the end of a person’s birthday in Korea, it’s traditional to eat noodle soup, because noodles are long and imply a long life. And apparently, if you eat noodles at a Korean wedding, it means you’ll get married, too. 

6 - Food 2

By the time we’d finished eating, most of the guests had left and the cars had disappeared from the parking lot outside the complex. We took a moment to look around the school, since I had never seen it before. Apparently this is one of the best-preserved Confucian schools in Korea, and many Confucian scholars from China come to Gangneung to visit this place. After Mao Zedong brought the Communist Party to power in China, he erased most traces of Confucianism from the country. As a result, Korea, which had taken on Confucianism as a result of its long relationship with China, is now more Confucian than China, where Confucius was born.

Before we left, I had a chance to meet the bride and groom and congratulate them. They looked a little tired, but very happy. Although I don’t know them well, I wish them happiness and a bright future together. Thanks for letting me crash your wedding, you two. 

7 - Carriage

The bride’s carriage, set aside after the start of the ceremony. 

Gangneung's Cherry Blossoms

I had a friend in Donghae who said the nice thing about living in Korea is marking the seasons by the flowers in bloom. Early April kicks off the flowering season, which debuts with Korea’s most impressive specimen: the cherry blossom.

Every year Gangneung hosts the Gyeongpo Cherry Blossom Festival, and almost every year, the blossoms at Gyeongpo come either too late or too early for the celebrations. Cherry blossoms are fragile; many people have tried to pick off a souvenir branch only to watch it wilt before the end of the day. To compliment things, the festival’s location, Gyeongpo Lake, is not the most reliable place to see blossoms because of its prominent rainfall and high winds during the turbulent month of April. 

This year was different.

1

On the Saturday of the festival, the weather was sunny with a slight breeze. The crowds were insane. When I rode my bicycle the festival grounds, I had to get off and walk.

2

While I’m grateful for the business that the cherry blossom and coffee festivals brings to Gyeongpo, the thing I love about the neighborhood is how quiet it normally is. We’ll see how it looks during the Olympics

3

There isn’t much in terms of food or merchandise available at the festival grounds. Most of it resembles what you’d find at the Dano Festival in the summer. The obvious draw, of course, is the blossoms, though I’d advise drivers to park a fair walking distance from the grounds and make their way to the festivities on foot. The blossoms spread all the way around the edge of the lake, so if you park somewhere along the beach, you’ll enjoy a nice walk to the fair and back.

If you arrive in Gangneung when the blossoms haven’t yet flourished at Gyeongpo, you can find plenty more in other parts of town. I’ve marked them (loosely) on the map below. Don’t forget your camera!

Gangneung Map

I’ve arranged the routes here so that a drive through Gangneung could take you through most of them. A bike would easily take you to most of these, with the exception of C and D, which are hilly. If you’re up for it, you can walk most of it in a couple hours. Gyeongpo is a longer trek, but more than worth it when the weather cooperates.

Here’s a breakdown of the routes:

A. Sorol-Ro in Taekji

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Sorol-Ro isn’t the only street in Taekji with blossoms, but it’s a prominent one and easy to find. To really appreciate the blossoms in Taekji, it’s best to park somewhere and meander the side streets on foot for a while.

B. Gyeongpo-Ro between Ojukheon and Gyeongpo Lake

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Take Gyeongpo-Ro out of Taekji headed north toward Gyeongpo Lake. This road zigzags, and it’s meant to be taken slowly. Bicycling on the street or the sidewalk can be difficult, so a walk would be the better option.

C. Surigol-Gil behind the Sports Complex

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This is a long road, and my photos from here don’t do it justice. Surigol-Gil might not be as well-known as some of the other streets, which makes traffic a little clearer, but it’s a difficult route if you’re planning to ride a bicycle. There is one big hill that sits in the middle of Gangneung, and, unfortunately, this street is on it.

D. Yulgok-Ro between the Moroo Library and HomePlus

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(I don’t have a picture of this street in bloom! This is another one of Gyeongpo-Ro from last year.)

This road, which moves from the Sports Complex area toward downtown, acts as a bit of a bridge between neighborhoods, but it also has a nice line of cherry blossom trees along the way if you need a little more pink and white on your tour.

E. Jebang-Gil by the Namdaecheon Stream

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Downtown Gangneung is mostly concrete slabs and fast food joints, so there’s not much to see in terms of natural beauty. Pass through downtown toward the river, however, and you’ll find another nice road with cherry trees. There’s a bit of an uneven pedestrian trail on the side of the road. Sadly, the bike path beside the stream is a little too far from the car road to view the blossoms up close. 

F. Gyeongpo Lake

This doesn’t need much of an introduction at this point, does it? 

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G. Heo Nanseolheon / Heo Gyun Birth Home

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It might not be immediately obvious, but off the south side of the lake is the birth home of Heo Nanseolheon and Heo Gyun. When all the blossoms are out, it looks like the trees are covered in snow.

I’ve mentioned Heo Nanseolheon and her brother before, but since that post I’ve learned that most people in Gangneung are skeptical as to whether this was their proper birth home, or something that was constructed later to draw tourists. I have to agree with the suspicion; a wooden 16th-century house is hardly durable. We are, however, certain that the two of them were from Gangneung, and their home might have been somewhere in the area.

There’s a popular song by the Korean band Busker Busker called Cherry Blossom Ending (벚꽃 엔딩), which is set during this time of year. Although the music video is upbeat, I’ve always thought that the melody and lyrics had a kind of sad, nostalgic tone to them. People play this song a lot around this time of year. 

 

The wonder of the cherry blossom lies in how ephemeral it is. Fragile, changeable, and painfully beautiful, they act as a reminder of life’s mutability. Don’t blink—you might miss it.

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Cherry Blossoms in Yeouido

Spring in Korea means cherry blossom season! These small, pink flowers are all the crazy. Groups of trees can be found anywhere but to see rows of them, you’ll have to go to special places. Last Saturday I went down to Seoul to see them. I also wanted to see the drama-famous Han River so I went to Yeouido. I took the subway to Yeouinaru station and went through exit 3. From there, the river is 2-3 minutes away.

DSC04225

Street vendors were lines by the cherry blossom trees. People were selling chicken skewers, ddeokbokki, cotton candy and stands alcohol.

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The day I went, the weather was foggy but I could still see the Han river. What was surprising to me was that the area smelled like the ocean. haven't visited any big rivers before but I expected them to smell like freshwater areas.  DSC04245

There are paves areas to walk or ride your bike by the river. A lot of people that day were on tandem bikes! It looked like fun but I had to pass--my coordination wouldn't let me try something that adventurous so soon~

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There were also food trucks, and little shops with handmade goods. A lot of vendors were selling similar things but if you walk around the river, you'll find something new. 

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Overall, I would definitely recommend coming to the Han river more than once. Depending on which part of the river you go to, you'll always find something to do or a nice place to relax. 

(Some) Great Cafés in Gangneung

If you like slow-roasted, hand-drip coffee, Gangneung is the place to be. I’m quite a fan of the coffee shop culture here, so I spend a lot of my free time checking out new places to write and enjoy a cuppa. 

Though I can hardly say that this is a comprehensive collection of great cafés in the city, these ones are special to me. I attempted to cover a fair geographic range in this guide, but also tried to focus on places that are easily accessible via public transportation.

I’ve included the price of an Americano at every place in order to give an idea of general cost. Some cafés offer only coffee and tea, while some have food items; I’ve attempted to distinguish which is which. 

 

1. Terarosa Forest Café

 

TF_Outside

Terarosa is a luxury coffee shop chain that, as far as I know, originated in Gangneung. It also has branches in other parts of Korea; their website lists locations in Seoul, Gyeonggi Province, Jeju and Busan. Of the branches in Gangneung, their Forest Café across from Sacheon Beach is the most lauded.

TF_Inside again

Although it might seem like an expensive purchase, Terarosa does offer a nice ambience. It’s a great place to go alone or with a friend. 

What they serve: Coffee, tea, juice, lemonade, milk, dessert items like cheesecake and muffins 

English menu: Yes

Price of an Americano (hot): 4,500 won

Hours: 10 AM to 11 PM Mon.-Sun.

Stamp card: Being discontinued on 31 March 2016.

TF_Drink

Pictured: Earl grey tea with lemon cheesecake. 

Address: 강원도 강릉시 사천면 산대월리 158-4

Directions: Take bus 312 or 313 to the stop Sandaewolri / Soonpo (산대월리 / 순포). Walk across the street to the café.

 

If you can’t make it to Sacheon, there’s a Terarosa branch in downtown Gangneung:

TD_Outside

TD_Counter

What they serve: Coffee, tea, bread, dessert items

English menu: Yes

Price of an Americano (hot): 4,500 won

Hours: 9 AM to 10 PM Mon.-Sun.

Stamp card: Being discontinued on 31 March 2016.

Address: 강원도 강릉시 임당동 74-4

Directions: In downtown Gangneung, walk down the Culture Street (문화의길) from the main road, Gyeonggang-ro (경강로), northeast of the post office but southwest of the McDonald’s. The nearest bus stops are Hana Dae-too Securities (하나대투증권, southbound) and Shin-young Market (신영극장, northbound). Most buses ride through these stops.

 

2. Coffee Sun 

S-outside

Image1

Located in Taekji, the university neighborhood, Coffee Sun is a popular place for college students to hang out. It has a laid-back atmosphere, quality menu items, and notebooks on every table that exist for customers to doodle in. Some people come here to study or read, but others come to catch up with a friend. 

What they serve: Espresso beverages, tea, sandwiches, homemade gelato, and dessert items such as cheesecake, cookies and scones

English menu: Only for some items. However, staff generally speak English well.

Price of an Americano (hot): There is hand drip coffee, which is 5,000 won. Other espresso-based items (such as lattes) are around the 4,500 won mark.

Hours: 9 AM – 3 AM Mon.-Sun. 

Stamp card: Yes

S_Drink

Pictured: Latté. 

Address: 강원도 강릉시 교동 1843-6

Directions: Go to the Kyodong / Taekji neighborhood and head toward WA Bar. Coffee Sun is just behind it. The nearest bus stop is Gureumdari (구름다리). The 206, 207, 227, 230, 230-1, 302, 308-1, 312, and 315 buses all ride in this direction. 

 

3. Café Dalli

D_Outside

D_4

Café Dalli is has the menu of a dessert café and the interior design of an art museum. It’s popular and offers a lot of seating, but I’ve never been there at a time when it’s crowded. You can chat or read, but it’s hard to do either when you see what’s available on the dessert counter. All the cakes are incredible, but the banana chocolate cake comes highly recommended.

What they serve: Espresso beverages, tea, juice, macarons, caramel apples, cake

English menu: No

Price of an Americano (hot): 3,500 won

Hours: 8 AM to 11 PM all week

Stamp card: No

D_Food

Pictured: Chamomile tea (brewing) and carrot cake. 

Address: 강원도 강릉시 율곡로 2836

Directions: From the large intersection outside the HomePlus complex, take the road going north (in the opposite direction of the river). Café Dalli is about a block away, across the street from the bowling alley. The nearest bus stops are Kyobo Life Insurance (교보생면, southbound) or Shin-young Market (신영극장, northbound). Most of the local buses ride through here. 

 

4. Kikrus 

K_Outside

Anmok beach has so many coffee shops that you could walk into whichever suits your fancy and be pleasantly surprised. If your exploration time is limited and want to enjoy one all-encompassing coffee shop, though, I’d go for Kikrus.

What they serve: Coffee, non-espresso beverages (e.g. smoothies, shakes), breads, sandwiches, salads, and desserts.

English menu: Yes, but only for drinks (not desserts)

Price of an Americano (hot): 3,000 won 

Hours: 9 AM to midnight on weekdays; 8 AM to 1 AM on weekends

Stamp card: Yes

K_Desserts

Pictured: Coffee flatccino (sic—a kind of shake), chocolate ganache cake, and fig torte. I swear I did not eat this alone.

Address: 강원도 강릉시 창해로14번길 48-1 (견소동 1)

Directions: From Gangneung Harbor (강릉항), go north along the shore past the public restroom (on your right) and the white, blue-roofed café called Santorini (on your left; also recommended if it’s not crowded). Kikrus is a large gray building almost directly across from the southernmost edge of the beach. The nearest bus stop is Anmok Jongjeom (안목종점), but the best stop is Anmok (안목), which is also the name of the beach. Many bus lines end at this stop.

 

 5Café Kyodong 899 (교동899)

Outside1

Inside5

What they serve: Coffee, non-espresso beverages (teas, fruit juice drinks), yogurt, muffins, cake, cookies

English menu: Not displayed, though it might be available if you ask

Price of an Americano (hot): 4,000 won

Hours: 10:30 AM – 10 PM (summer)

             10:30 AM – 7 PM (winter; closes slightly earlier on Sundays)

Food

Picture: Latté. 

Address: 강원도 강릉시 임영로 223

Directions: The nearest landmark is the Moru Library. Walk south from the library on the street farthest to your right and continue about a block down. Before the next intersection, you should see a small fenced-in courtyard with a coffee shop (past the café with the black façade just a little farther up the street). The nearest bus stop is Gangneung Jay-eel High School (강릉제일고). You will walk uphill to the café from this stop, on the left side of the street.

 

Honorable Mentions:

A. Ffuntoday (sic) Underground Comic Café (뻔뻔지하만화다방)

Manhwa

This was a tip from a friend who loves books. Seeing as I can’t read much Korean beyond the survival level, I wouldn’t typically go to a café where you pay to read comics, but I do like finding a nice quiet place where I can read or write outside of the apartment. The first time I came here was in the middle of a sunny summer day, and there weren’t many people. The second time I went on a rainy evening after school hour, and it was stuffed. Your results might vary, but it’s worth checking out.

What they serve: Coffee, non-espresso beverages, soda, chips, snacks, instant ramen

English menu: No

Price of an Americano (hot): 3,800 won (N.B.: prices of menu items are different from their listing)

Hours: 10 AM – 1 AM all week

Address: 강원도 강릉시 경강로 2106 경일플라자

Directions: In the building where the downtown Lotteria is, head to the basement level. The café is clearly marked. Make sure you switch out your outside shoes for indoor slippers in the lockers out front. There are separate lockers for women (여성) and men (남성).

The nearest bus stop is Kyobo Life Insurance (교보생명, southbound) or Shin-young Market (신영극장, northbound). Most of the local buses ride through there. 

 

B. Café Andromeda 

Andromeda

Not only does Café Andromeda have this awesome space theme, but it also offers items that I haven’t seen in other cafés. The beverage servings are small, but of high quality, and the atmosphere and comfy chairs are perfect for a quiet read or a long chat.

What they serve: Coffee, non-espresso beverages (the chai tea latté is great), wine, paninis, bagels, honey bread 

English menu: Yes, for the names of products (but not their descriptions)

Price of an Americano (hot): 3,500 won. Most other drink items are around the 5,000 won mark.

Hours: noon to midnight Mon-Sat; 1 PM to midnight Sun. (Closed on the first and third Sundays of the month)

Address: 강원도 강릉시 교동 1860-5

Directions: In Taekji, on the north side of Gyodonggwangjang-ro (교동광장로), go behind the first row of shops and walk toward the easternmost part of the street. Look for the blue-gray sign. Café Andromeda is next to a small parking lot. The nearest bus stops are Hyundai Ee-cha Apartments (현대2차아파트) and Ju-gong Sam-cha “A” (주공3차A). The 206, 207, 227, 230, 230-1, 302, 308-1, 312, and 315 buses all ride in this direction.

May 2016 Update: Café Andromeda is no longer at this location; the shop owner hopes to relocate near the bus terminal in the future. Keep your eyes peeled!

 

C. Brick and Brown

Lego

A Lego-themed café. You can sit and enjoy the models on display or play with sets (kept in separate plastic boxes) at your table. Go here for the novelty or the inexpensive food. This place is pretty busy on a weekend, but takeout is available.

What they serve: Coffee, tea, fruit smoothies, personal pizzas, desserts (brownies, muffins, ice cream, cake)

English menu: No

Price of an Americano (hot): 2,500 won

Hours: 9 AM – 10 PM (all week?)

Address: 강원도 강릉시 신대학길 42 1층

Directions: Turn left around the corner from the Lotteria in downtown Gangneung and walk along the wide side-street. You’ll see the three-story Café Teddy (a teddy bear-themed café). Turn right here, and Brick and Brown will be on your right.

The nearest bus stop is Kyobo Life Insurance (교보생명, southbound) or Shin-young Market (신영극장, northbound). Most of the local buses ride through there. 

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

March marks the start of the Korean school year, which brings with it a whole ream of alterations.

Teachers come and go with regular frequency in the public school system. There’s a 4-year cap on the number of years they can stay at a specific school, and another limit to how long they can remain in one school district. I suppose part of it is to keep teachers on their toes instead of letting them get stuck in a routine, but I think it’s also to ensure that one school can’t hoard all the highest-performing teachers (or get trapped with all the lowest-performing ones). Needless to say, the bigger cities in a province have a shorter allowance of teaching years, whereas more rural areas are open for longer periods of time. Gangneung’s cap is set at 8 years, though you’re free to transfer to a nearby district and return later.

And, just as with EPIK teachers, most Korean teachers don’t receive word of their placement until about a week before they’re supposed to start teaching there. This means that there’s usually a mad scramble to get in and out of apartments as everyone changes schools. My predecessor at my previous school left EPIK to start searching for a university job. His description for the experience was fitting. “It’s like a big game of musical chairs,” he said. “Once the contracts are up, everyone jumps to try and find a new place.”

I’m not sure why all of this gets done at the last minute (unless I want to blame Korea’s culture of procrastination), but that’s the way that it goes. As the new students come in, so do new teachers, and some of the other teachers switch—or are switched—out. One of my co-teachers had a baby last month, so she’s out of school for the year on maternity leave. Another co-teacher was transferred to the local arts high school, where he’s teaching English to musicians, actors, and painters. I’m sad to see them go, but it’s part of the experience at a public school. It’s only my previous school, which was privately-owned, that was the exception.

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Pay no attention to the Iron Man figure atop the shelf... 

With a new school year underway, I also have a new desk. Until this semester, I’ve always been stationed in a school’s main office, with easy access to the IT assistants, unlimited boxes of copy paper, and a women’s bathroom almost right out the door in an all-boys’ school. I’ll be honest—I was sad to see it go. My colleagues explained that I was relocated to the smaller second teachers’ office so that I was closer to my classroom, which is on the third floor of the next building.

I’ve soon found a lot to like about my new setup. It’s much smaller than the second office, and therefore better-controlled by the air conditioning unit. (Not that it mattered much toward the end of the winter break, when my desk-warming sentence was lightened to a couple hours in the morning before lunch.)

I’ve also been positioned next to two of my English-speaking co-teachers, so it’s easy for me to ask them a question about whatever special event is planned for the day. With new office-mates and incoming teachers, we had three school dinners in my first week so that everyone could get to know everybody.

I’ve even started coming to terms with my new schedule:

 

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

1: 8:40 – 9:30

Class

Class

 

Class

 

2: 9:40 – 10:30

Class

Class

 

Class

Class

3: 10:40 – 11:30

 

Class

Class

   

4: 11:40 – 12:30

   

Class

Class

 

Lunch

         

5: 13:30 – 14:20

Class

 

Club Activity

 

Class

6: 14:30 – 15:20

     

Class

Class

15:20-15:40 Cleaning

         

7: 15:40 – 16:30

 

Class

Class

 

Class

After school

   

Extracurricular

Conversation

Class

   

First- and last-period classes are some of the most difficult to teach. In the morning the students are all exhausted—be it from studying late at cram school or playing video games until 3 AM—and at the end of the day they just want to get the heck out of school. After-school classes have started up already, so the mass exodus at 4:30 on the first day has become a bit of a sad drizzle. I only teach my extracurricular class once a week, for which I’m paid overtime, but my colleagues usually have classes four days a week after hours.

The break between 6th and 7th period is for the students to clean the school. I think it’s one of those character-building activities left over from the old Japanese educational system, but I’m not sure how well it works. Usually the students just sort of mop dust in circles and run away early for an extra five minutes of free time. This year, the students who clean my classroom are really sweet and work hard.

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Speaking of my classroom, I’ve been put in charge of the English-language books from the school library. They’ve been removed from the catalog, so the students are free to borrow them whenever they like and for however long they please. When I first arrived at the school, I was impressed with the variety and quality of the reading material available. Some of it is probably too difficult for most of the students, but whoever put it together clearly knew what he or she was doing.

The weather has been appropriate for March. When classes began, we’d hit a bit of a warm spell. I started washing my winter clothes and hanging my big, thick comforters up to dry. Then I left the classroom at lunchtime one day to see this:

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Being as close to the sea as we are, this kind of sudden, wet snowfall is common around this time of year. Almost all of it disappeared after a day, but it’s happened at least once more since then. We seem to have come to the end of it now—knock on wood—and the blossoms have already started to open up.

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So the seasons turn, and the time keeps moving forward. My quietest first-year classes become the most raucous as they get to know each other. My lessons never plan themselves. My friends complete their contracts and leave Korea for other adventures. Meanwhile, I, too, start tightening my belt in preparation for things to come.

As the expression goes, “It is both a blessing and a curse to feel everything so very deeply.” But I think it’s mostly a blessing. 

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