Posts filed under 'Apartment'
One of the best parts of my life here in Korea has been walking the rice fields and neighborhoods near my apartment at least three times a week. I love being able to mark the change of seasons by what has been planted, how it is growing, or whether it has been harvested.
This part of South Korea has Washington D.C. weather, so gardeners are already putting out their tomato, pepper and basil seedlings. (New Hampshirites cannot do this until mid June unless they provide frost protection!). Every evening, people drive, walk or bicycle to their fields, where they plant, water, hoe, or weed. I am clearly in Korea when people water their plants with the large copper pots used to heat water for tea in restaurants, and when they plant 80-100 hot pepper plants for the hot pepper flakes and paste that turn up in many Korean dishes.
The rice fields have undergone a dramatic change over the past month. What were dry, brown, stubbly fields first turned muddy and black as water began to seep into them from irrigation canals that line every field. Some farmers started before others, so the land turned into a patchwork of dry and damp, black and brown. Now the landscape is brown and silver as the light reflects off blue grey water in the middle of otherwise landlocked fields. Long, thin, bright green stretches divide the fields. I thought these were weeds, but sometimes they are wild herbs, allowed to grow rampant and then picked for soup. Baby rice plants have been growing in plastic tunnels, odd white or black humps in flooded fields. The shocking vibrant green of the baby plants tells me what color the fields will turn next, when the rice is transplanted.
The irrigation systems here are pretty amazing and they must be created, maintained and used cooperatively. Farmers remove plugs from the holes in the ditches, or use pumps to flood their fields. They have to be careful not to flood their neighbors’ fields, nor to siphon off so much water that their neighbor cannot flood his own field. As the fields flood, the water birds have returned. Each evening I can see four or five large white egrets and at least one blue heron. Frogs must be quaking in fear.
At the edges of the fields, apartment buildings creep slowly forward, an enemy far more deadly to the peeping and croaking frogs. Farms and farmers are an endangered species in Korea, as in the U.S. Hard work dependent on the weather bringing little monetary return is not appealing to younger people and they head for the cities as quickly as apartment buildings head for the fields. Except when I am waxing nostalgic, I would not want to be a farmer. But we lose something precious when we cannot walk a neighborhood and smile at our neighbors, ask about their gardens and farms, and buy fresh greenery at the farmers’ market knowing exactly where it came from. We lose something precious when we cannot tell the changing of the seasons in the colors of the field.
May 5, 2008
Lost and Found
In a few days I will post a blog about the amazing trip I took this weekend. I intended to stay one night, which turned into two. Benedictine monks are very hospitable. But after two days in the same clothes, a three hour train trip, and a smoky taxi, I really just wanted to be at home. So when I reached my door and could not find my keys, I had to take a deep, deep breath to keep from losing it.
Living in a foreign country gives you few chances to just lose it (but many chances to lose things). So when a thorough search of everything I had with me turned up no keys, I had to figure out what to do next. Go to the apartment office? Closed on Sunday. Call the University? Closed on Sunday. OK….now what? Figuring I had nothing to lose (and nothing else to try), I entered the little room near the apartment office that was full of pople. How does one explain this situation without the words for “key” “lost” or “locked-out”? I used a little Korean, a lot of English, some full-body acting and a pleading look - which would have been much harder if I had reached anyone by phone.
By sheer luck I had run into a group of apartment building staff cooking for a large picnic on Monday. They had no access to keys, but they knew all the right people to call. Within 15 minutes, they had tried the owner of my apartment (not home), the University (nobody there), and a locksmith; the last arrived within the hour. Thank goodness I had not locked the security lock, which would have been a $150 charge. For $10, the locksmith basically picked my lock (which was depressingly easy - guess I’ll be locking that security lock in the future!). I paid him, entered the apartment, and in the safety of anonymity, sat down and cried.
But I knew I was not done yet. I pulled myself together, went to the nearby market and bought three kinds of fruit (cherry tomatoes count as fruit here). I walked back to that gathering with my thank you gifts and was warmly welcomed. “You are home, now?” they asked in Korean. They cleared me a spot on the floor, made me tea, and offered me food. Then I began to understand what they had been telling me earlier, but I could not hear through my worry and frustration. Almost all of them had seen me before, and all knew me. I am one of the only white foreigners in my building - I’m hard to miss. But according to them I am the only foreigner who smiles, who tries to speak Korean, who bows when meeting elderly men - I am the “good American”. While they probably would have helped any one who looked as bedraggled and frustrated as I did, they were particularly glad to help me. When I finished my tea, I thanked them again and headed back to my apartment. Then I cried some more, but for a different reason.
One could probably learn many lessons from the day’s events (other than the most obvious: get some spare keys made and put one in my wallet!). I was reminded how hard, how frustrating and how confusing it is to live far from home, where I do not know who to call or even the words I need, and where I only understand half of what I am told. Yet, I am also struck by how easy it is sometimes, how good people are, and how little they want from a “good American”. This whole day will be pretty darn funny in retrospect - it began at 4 am with an overflowing toilet, which should have warned me right there. But at the moment I am simply grateful for a big problem made small by good people, smiles, and bows.
1 comment April 13, 2008
This morning I woke up to find this sight out of my seventh story window - a large metal “ladder” but without anywhere to put feet. After staring at it a few moments, a flat platform went up past my view. A few moments later the platform came back down, bearing a kitchen table! OK, now I’m willing to brave the cold on the porch to see what is going on. I open the sliding glass doors and screen, lean over the bust high metal railing, and look down.
There below, is a blue truck to which the long metal structure is attached. Next to it is a moving van. The men stop the platform at exactly the height of the moving van, move the kitchen table from the platform into the van, and send the platform back up. Over the course of two hours, it moves an 8 foot tall clothing cabinet, old wooden Chinese chests, boxes and boxes and boxes, and an amazingly large television. I assume six or seven floors above me men are cleaning out an apartment, loading the platform via the same large sliding glass doors I just opened in my apartment.
So after spending a couple of months wondering how dozens of people manage to move in and out of my apartment building without ever carrying a single piece of furniture down the stairs or elevator, or always doing it while I’m somewhere else, now I know - they move it out the windows while I am someplace else! What an amazing labor saving device!
While staring out the window I solve another mystery - why we had such a spectacular lightning storm last night without any thunder or rain. Turns out workers are arc welding on the roof of the church next door and the light bounces spectacularly off all the glass on my building.
The mysteries of the Christmas season are not so easily explained and perhaps that is one reason why they appeal to millions of people. Christmas is a “new” holiday in Korea, with Catholicism about 200 years old here and Protestantism about 125. (For comparison, Buddhism, the other major religion, is at least 2500 years old in Korea). Christians make up about 40% of the Korean population and that number is growing rapidly. However, Christmas remains a church-based holiday; only about ½ the subway stations in Seoul had Christmas trees last week and stores began their Christmas sales a full week after Thanksgiving. Even in the second week of December the Pyeongtaek market had very few signs of Christmas. Pyeongtaek University is a Christian college, however, so it has been lit up with wreaths since before Thanksgiving.
After the holidays I will post a few blog entries on religion in Korea. In early January I plan to stay overnight at a Buddhist Temple in the southeastern mountains and visit a Catholic monastery with connections to Saint Anselm College. I have also found an active Quaker meeting in central Seoul and I want to attend First Day meeting. In the meantime, I will enjoy a long-awaited visit from my husband! Showing him “my Korea” will likely mean I won’t post any blog entries for a couple of weeks.
Whatever your religion, I wish you joy in the lengthening of the days marked by the winter solstice, the promise of peace and forgiveness brought by Christmas, and the celebration of a fresh new year. I will spend six months of that new year here in Korea and I look forward to sharing it with you.
December 17, 2007
Food, Community and Living Lightly
Picture yourself walking home from work on a Friday night. You pass eight or nine restaurants but it is 9 pm and you are not quite that hungry. You decide maybe you will stop at the local market instead. You pick up broccoli, chicken, bok choi, carrots and onions for tomorrow’s stir fry lunch, and find little “hair peppers” (dried red pepper strips thin as hair) which will make a perfect, spicy topping. Having tried a number of the local potato chips, you decide to try “kelp chips” this time for something different. [They taste like crunchy seawater with sugar.]
You wander across the street to get croissants for breakfast and then down five stores to the other French bakery for a walnut baguette (it will be perfect with butter and jam, an omelette and milk tea for breakfast). The woman who owns your favorite neighborhood restaurant sees you through the window and waves hi. Two students see you and wave hi. You decide you need something more than kelp chips this evening and stop by the fruit stand for a basket of persimmons. They have one basket left and the owner throws in a few apples because she knows you.
Then you see the “spicy chicken on a stick” (takkogi) vendor and realize that is exactly what you want. You debate - pickle and pineapple sauce? No, just spicy this time. You pass by the sweet cinnamon fried dough vendor with deep regret - your hands are completely full! Maybe tomorrow. He waves and you head back to your apartment. Total time, 25 minutes from leaving campus.
In New Hampshire I live in a rural community where each house sits on two acres. I have a large garden and lots of trees. We’ve seen bears, moose and deer on the property. But the nearest shop (a small general store) is an eight minute drive. In the summer I do my food shopping at the local farmers’ markets - I can get vegetables, chicken, lamb, bread, eggs, jam, friendly conversation and even a music concert all on the Town Green in Weare, NH. But the rest of the year, it is a 60 minute round trip drive to the supermarket where I rarely meet anyone I know.
My Korean neighborhood is the best of “urban” living with a dry cleaners, a pharmacy, a hardware store, three food markets, a fruit stand, two bakeries, two dozen restaurants, a dessert shop, a bank, a copy center, four bars, three hair salons, a DVD rental place, a florist, and a sauna all within a 10 minute walk. That list only includes the places whose English or Korean signs I can read - there are at least two dozen other shops I have not explored yet.
Do I miss having a garden and green space all my own? A little, though I have not thought about mowing, weeding, tree-trimming or brush-hauling for almost three months! The rice paddies here are a saving grace - they provide green space, a sense of the seasons, and a place for long, rambling walks. Do I miss having a car? Once or twice a car would have been nice, when public transportation did not easily go where I wanted. But I have not actually needed one. Do I miss having my own home instead of an apartment? This is more troublesome - I am less fond of sharing my neighbors’ noise, wailing children and smoke. But I am in one of the cheapest apartment buildings and could buy a fair bit of peace and quiet by moving to another building.
With no car, no commute, and no need to drive to the supermarket or Walmart, I have probably never lived this lightly on the earth in my entire life. Importantly, I am doing it without even trying - it comes with the shape of my urban environment. While I do not know my immediate neighbors, I do know my neighborhood, a community of grocers, bakers, pharmacists and clerks. And I have never eaten this well this easily! As Americans think about “going green” and “building community,” we could learn a lot from a small neighborhood in Korea.
1 comment November 30, 2007
Apartment living in Pyeongtaek
It is my second morning in Pyeongtaek. As I did yesterday, I am sitting on my “porch”, a small room divided from the bedroom by sliding glass doors and from the outside by glass, screens, and a barred railing. The view out the window is a microcosm of Korea. To my far right are the tall buildings of the university and downtown Pyeongtaek. Closer to the right are neatly divided fields of rice and an irrigation canal spanned by a small white bridge (see photo).
Each morning one or two men in Wellingtons and overalls have come and picked something from the truck garden bordering the rice fields, but from seven stories up I cannot tell what they are harvesting.
Straight ahead of me is a Presbyterian Church. At night the three crosses on top glow with bright red neon, a common sight across Korea. It is too hazy today for a picture, but far behind the church are two small mountains which I think mark the border of the province.
At the far left is an apartment building exactly like mine. There are 21 stories in each building and there are 15 or 20 of the buildings in this complex. In the courtyards are arbor-covered picnic tables and playgrounds, little nooks of green that turn cramped quarters into friendly spaces.
There are 45 million people in South Korea, which is the size of the state of Indiana. That so many rice fields, truck farms and pear orchards continue to exist speaks both to how recently Korea has urbanized and how little physical space each person needs to live. My apartment is spacious by traditional Korean standards.
Three feet inside the front door there is a step which symbolizes the entry to the house. Everyone takes off their shoes before climbing this step (I of course completely forgot when I got here - I was carrying luggage - and I was politely reminded). From there one can turn left into a little “front room” which at the moment is mostly empty except for the microwave, toaster oven and rice cooker (I think the first two were provided specifically for the American).
If one heads straight from the door you walk through the galley kitchen. It includes a double sink, three burner stove and refrigerator, and plenty of storage space. A small alcove has a table and two chairs (again I think provided specifically for the American).
At this point you can turn left into a tiny divided room. The front half has a washing machine. Sliding frosted glass doors allow entry to the bathroom.
A brief explanation of the bathroom is necessary since it helps explain a great deal about Korea. Look at the pictures.
You will notice that the medicine cabinet has a glass front - there seem to be few secrets in a Korean bathroom. The sink is only about 5 inches above my knee, a reminder that until very recently average Koreans were far shorter than Americans. Note that the electrical outlet and toilet paper holder are covered.
When you combine these odd facts with the frosted doors and the thus far complete lack of mention of a shower, you will have the dawning awareness I did my first evening here - the bathroom IS the shower. There is a drain in the floor and a nozzle with cord on the wall and one learns VERY QUICKLY not to leave anything on the bathroom counter that cannot get wet.
Straight through from the kitchen is the bedroom, the largest room in the house. In a typical Korean home the beds would be rolled up every morning and the room used as workroom, playroom, and living room. In my case there are two western style beds and a low table.
The far bedroom “wall” is glass and leads to the porch, which contains two fascinating features. First a spigot and sprayer which I at first thought was the shower, but the large bank of windows suggested not. It turns out to be a version of the American utility sink, used for cleaning plants, kim chee pots, muddy shoes. The water simply swirls across the tiled floor and down the drain! Near the ceiling is a fascinating contraption which turns out to be the clothes drying rack. It can be lowered for use and raised up out of the way. The doors in the photo can be used to shut the bedroom off from the kitchen but I have not chosen to install them.
The apartment came furnished with sheets, pots, plates and bowls, Korean metal chopstick and spoon sets, and (for the American) two forks. There are no towels however so I am off today with dictionary in hand to see what I can manage. So far it is amazing what one can do with a little polite Korean, a little mangled English and a whole lot of pantomime and good will. The adventure continues….
2 comments August 22, 2007