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Baegundae Stairs at BukhansanTod and I arrived back home in New Hampshire in the wee hours of June 23.  Turbulence over the pacific and thunderstorms over New England made for rough flights and various delays.  But we, and now our luggage, are safe at home, and we are re-adapting to life together in the USA.

As I expected, “culture shock” has me quite off-balance.  At the airport in Chicago, I automatically used Korean for the basic daily phrases like “Excuse me” and “Thank you”.  I also used the hand gestures that are standard politeness in Korea.  I was surprised how automatic these had become.  Also, many small things simply feel “wrong”.  Spoons are too short and narrow; in Korea there are only soup spoons and they have quite long handles.  Bathrooms sinks are too high; I had gotten used to them being just above my knees.  Today I drove a car for the first time in 10 months.  I found I was far more apprehensive than I expected.  All of these will pass.

View from BaegundaeSince I am home and safe, I will post only one more blog entry after this.  Thank you to all of you who have read these postings regularly or on occasion. Special thanks to those of you who sent thoughts and encouragement during my time away.  I have really appreciated having this space where I could process my experiences, share them with others, and feel part of a community of enthusiastic supporters.

Here is one short story from my last week in Korea.  Eight days before I left, Tod and I climbed Baegundae Peak on Mount Bukhansan.  I had climbed everything EXCEPT the peak in early October (see blog entry titled “Lessons Learned in Bukhansan National Park”).  The peak was too much for me - you pulled yourself up on steel cables, with nothing between you and the ground except a stunning view.  I had been, and still am, proud that I managed to get to the mountain and find the peak, with minimal Korean and no map, only one month after I arrived; that I could not climb the peak was not a big deal.  But this time, with Tod along to encourage and cajole me, I had the courage to actually scale the peak.  The view was spectacular and the sense of accomplishment was even better. 

As always, life is easier and better with help along the way. 

Add comment June 24, 2008

Overlooking the Obvious

View from Mount Manisan, GangwhadoThis past weekend the 15 year-old daughter of two Korean colleagues and I went to Gangwha and Seongmodo Islands. These are at the mouth of the Han River, an hour west of Seoul.  We had many adventures and learned a lot of American History (some of which will appear in the next blog entry).  This entry however could have happened anywhere - and according to my family, often does.

We were walking through a glorious patchwork of rice paddies and vegetable gardens, under a bright blue sky, along a swift flowing river.  We were talking and wondering how far we had to walk to get where we were going.  Over time we noticed thousands of black “beans” on the walkway, which smeared when scuffed by a shoe.  We agreed they looked like animal droppings.  Soon we saw hoofprints in the mud, and Hee-min tried to describe the animal that made them.

Hee-min on Gangwhado“It’s not this,” she said, miming a large animal with big attachments on its head.  “No, it is not a moose” I agreed, “more likely a deer.”  “Yes,” she affirmed, “we have deer here like the one in the movie by Disney.”  “Bambi?” I asked.  “Do you realize Bambi was a baby deer in the beginning? He got a lot bigger.”  “Oh,” she replied, “well these deer stay the size of Bambi, they are brown and soft, and they live….” 

At that moment we all but walked into a large black thing and we were so startled we were lucky not to fall into the river or the irrigation canal.

“Baaaaa,” it said, staunchly defending the three littler black things prancing about behind it.

“Or,” Hee-min said, “maybe they were made by a goat.”

We gave Billy Goat Gruff a wide berth and hustled by until we were beyond the length of his tether.  Then we laughed at our inept mystery-solving skills and continued on through the rice fields, until we met the next adventure.

Add comment June 3, 2008

Telling the Season by the Color of the Rice Field

Rice Furrows FloodingOne 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.

baby rice ready to transplantThe 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.

removing the plug to flood the fieldThe 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.  silver fieldsExcept 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.

Add comment May 5, 2008

Globalization One Bus Trip At A Time

Arched Bridge at South Sorak MountainWhen I imagined life in Korea, I never imagined a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade with  6,000 people, green rice cakes, Irish bands, step dancing, and Guinness on tap.  I missed out on attending the parade this past weekend, but just knowing it happened gave me a very different sense of Korea!

Foreigners make up 2% of Korea’s population, doubling in number since last year.  Chinese, Southeast Asians and South Asians made up the largest groups, with majorities in unskilled and agricultural labor.  The next biggest group is Americans, with about 30,000 U.S. soldiers and 30,000 U.S. citizens in non-military roles.   While English speaking “expats” (expatriates, or people living outside their country) make up far less than 1% of the population in Korea, they dominate my weekends three or four days a month.  This is due to my travel through the Royal Asiatic Society - Korea Branch (RAS-KB) which organizes English-language trips all over Korea.  The pictures in this blog are from my latest trip to the Inner and South Sorak Mountain areas.  You can see two dozen more by clicking on any of the images and checking out the ”set” they belong to on Flickr.  (The slide show is worth it!). 

Here is a brief list of the types of people I have met on recent trips:Path along the edge of the mountainA woman from Germany who works in an agricultural NGO in North Korea; a protocol officer at the German embassy; the Ambassador from Colombia and his wife; a tour guide from Yemen;  a reporter from Japan learning Korean; an insurance claims adjuster from Australia on his fourth one year tour in Korea; a couple from England teaching elementary school English; a U.S. army captain;  a New Zealander dealing with divorce by teaching English in rural Korea; an adjunct professor of English literature teaching seven year olds English; a Thai woman currently living in Korea after two decades in Singapore, and her mom; an American twenty something giving private English lessons until George Bush leaves office. There are many, many more - each person has a story.  But there are three things about white, western “expats” (the people here most like me) that I find particularly fascinating.

First, the vast majority of them are “migrant labor” (although here in Korea that term always implies a non-white person).  Whether from the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, Canada or the U.S.A., people come to Korea to make money that they can take back home.  Huge numbers come to teach English, since until this year Korea did not require any credentials other than native-speaking ability.  The adjunct professor of English mentioned above had taught in America for three years and could not make enough money to cover her rent.  Here she teaches 6 hours a day to elementary and middle school students, makes 3 times her previous salary, and has sent her first novel off to a publisher.  Many young people are paying off their student loans; a few couples are paying down their mortgages.  There is a whole economic world here I never imagined when I finished college! 

Snow capped mountainsSecond, the Korean language level of most expats is pretty terrible.  I was amazed to discover my seriously limited Korean is better than 80% of the people I have traveled with, despite their sometimes far longer residence.  I had not realized how much of a gift living outside Seoul can be.  In Seoul, a foreigner can find just about everything in English and can live within a foreign enclave that requires little interaction with Koreans.  When you spend all day teaching English and all night with English teachers, when would you speak Korean?

Third, every expat knows a different Korea.  One U.S. army soldier is an unwilling expert on the drug and prostitution culture of northern South Korea due to his required policing of his platoon’s weekend activities.  English teachers who have seriously dated Koreans have learned family hierarchies, dating customs, and the perils of cross-cultural communication.  I’ve met a few scholars of ancient Korea and many students of modern Korean bar culture.  Once again living outside Seoul makes a huge difference - those within Seoul often seem completely unaware of basic customs I have come to take for granted, while those from rural areas tell me customs I thought outdated are still alive near them.

Footbridge to the TempleI did not expect to travel the world while living in Korea.  But long bus rides have turned into explorations of Colombian cities, tours of South Africa’s coasts, descriptions of Pyeongyang now and 10 years ago, comparisons of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, and introductions to Japanese culture.   I’ve heard about little gardens in Berlin, and seen pictures of sand-scrubbed cities in Yemen.

Globalization has taken on new meaning for me here.  We ignore the world to our political peril in the United States.  But we also ignore it to our cultural peril.  What a different person I might have been if I’d known that one could bounce from country to country, teaching English, learning about the best of each culture and bringing back such richness to inform my life.  What a different country we would be if many of our citizens did that, or if we openly welcomed other citizens to bring what they have to us.

Add comment March 22, 2008

The first hike of spring

Seoul Fortress Wall up BugaksanAh, the fresh, sweet scent of arnica gel, sure sign of spring and sore muscles.

It was supposed to be an easy hike - less than three hours with no metal stairways or ladders.  Mount Bugak (Bugaksan) is a small mountain behind the Korean Presidential Residence (called the Blue House) and Gyeongbokgung Palace.  The mountain was crucial to the decision to make Seoul the capital of Korea, since it provided a good buttress against enemies coming from the North, had neighboring mountains to the South and West, and a huge big brother mountain behind it to the North.  (Remember, Korea is a peninsula - land enemies come from the North).  The lack of a good mountain in the East led to centuries of debate over whether to move the capital; the debates continue today for reasons unrelated to mountains. 

Bugaksan was off-limits to all hikers for almost 35 years due to a major attack by North Korean commandos in the early 1970s.  15 North Koreans managed to sneak into South Korea, camp on a nearby mountain for three weeks,  observe the Presidential Residence, and eventually attack the President during an outdoor ceremony.  The President escaped, but the First Lady was killed.   The army was given sole control over Bugaksan thereafter, filling it with barracks and look-out posts, but also allowing a rich diversity of wildlife to develop.   The area was reopened to the public two years ago, with a formal system for signing in and limits on how long and how late you can hike.

Seoul against Bugaksan RangeI had not counted on three things.  First, as promised there were no metal stairways.  Instead there were lots and lots of stone and wooden steps.  The trail followed the old fortress wall of Seoul, passing the Northern Gate (equivalent to the now burned South Gate, Namdemun).  Up, down, up, down.  Second, I had not realized how little verticality there has been in my winter life.  Rice fields are pretty flat, my walk anywhere in town is pretty flat, and since I wasn’t in my office for 2 months, I wasn’t doing 3 flights of stairs 4-5 times a day.  After lots of flatness, your calves notice every up, your knees every down. 

The third factor was putting too much leg work in one weekend.  But, really, the square dance had only lasted a couple of hours.  And it was supposed to be a very short parade!  More on those in future entries.

Add comment March 9, 2008

Winter is Jealous of Spring

Winter View from my Apartment WindowWinter’s hold is finally loosening, though he is mighty reluctant to give up for the year.

Winter in Korea varies dramatically by geography as it does in the United States.  The northern province of Kangwondo has world-class skiing facilities; the city of Pyeongchang was a contender for the 2012 winter Olympics. On the other hand, Jeju Island in the south is semi-tropical, like a slightly chilly Hawaii.  Pyeongtaek is known for getting the least snow of anywhere in this province.  This is partly why Pyeongtaek is famous for pears and Anseong for grapes - the blossoms are rarely killed by a late frost or snow.

Apparently this winter has been harsher than most.  We have had bitter winds, but as promised, minimal snow.  I actually saw the most snow when I traveled all the way to the south of the country to Yeosu, a city made up of dozens of islands.  We got almost 3 inches on the way down, though there was none when we arrived.

Winter at the ZooLast week the temperatures began to sneak into the high forties.  Then Wednesday we suddenly had a freak inch of snow.  When I expressed surprise about this, I was told there is a name for this season “Winter is jealous of spring”.  I shared this with my husband, who agreed it was a good name for those “return to winter” days.  His name for the current season in New Hampshire?  “Winter is abusive of spring and keeps it chained in a closet.”

The lack of snow means winter has been very brown.  The cut rice straw litters the fields and the irrigation canals are dry or frozen over.  What were vibrant corner gardens have straggly, dead plants, blown litter, and mounds of rock hard dirt.  Snow was a blessing for covering everything in white and making it all shiny and clean for a day or two. 

Ice Graffiti at SongwongsaBut there are definite signs of spring.  I have seen farmers and gardeners out cleaning up their property.  One nearby farmers’ cooperative covered their fields in big white bags for two days.  Then they opened the bags and spread the contents.  My entire neighborhood has smelled distinctly of  ripe pig manure ever since!  The dry, spindly flower stalks in one corner garden have tiny green shoots at the base of every plant.  In larger gardens, scallions and garlic, which overwintered, are starting to come up, and some beds of spinach, left covered with tight reed mats all winter, are now putting out new leaves for spring’s freshest vegetable. 

Full spring will come when the pear and cherry blossoms explode into color - probably another month.  For now, the signs are smaller, less colorful, harder to see.  But perhaps for all that, they are more welcome.  They mean spring really will come. 

(For more pictures of winter, click any image in this entry, and then the little words that say “Korean winter set”.) 

1 comment March 8, 2008

The Western Coast

Birds on SticksI am not sure what news about Korea makes it into American newspapers.  Right now Korea is dealing with a terrible oil spill on its west coast.  10,500 tons of oil have leaked and are landing on some of the most pristine beaches in the country.  Abalone and oyster farms, raw seafood restaurants, little maritime communities and large tourist enclaves have all been equally damaged.  Thousands of people have already applied for economic relief since their livelihoods have been utterly destroyed.

After seeing pictures of blackened shores, birds dripping oil, and rafts of belly-up crabs, I realized I have actually been to that coast.  Of course I had no idea then that it would be my only chance to see one of the most beautiful parts of Korea.  Here is a description of my trip, with sights, tastes and smells.

Eunsook Lee Zeilfelder and meThree friends and I drove west and south from Pyeongtaek through miles and miles of rice fields.  After about 2 hours we reached the coast and began driving south.  In this area the road often becomes a very long bridge between peninsulas or even onto and off islands and the entire area is what I think of as a “beach town”.  There are lots of motels close to the shore and acres and acres of oyster “shacks” (inexpensive restaurants serving fresh oysters in a half dozen simple ways).

I am not sure at which beach we finally stopped, though I think we were on Anmyeondo Island.  This is the southern part of the Taean Haean National Marine Park which is the epicenter of the oil damage.  We were greeted by wooden and metal birds on sticks lining the shore, an art form I have seen in many places in Korea.  We arrived right around sunset and the islands off the shore already had a touch of red and gold behind them.  It was very windy!

Eating on the BeachAs we walked along the beach we passed dozens of older women with large bowls.  Peeking in I saw live baby octopi, fresh oysters, and a half dozen types of sea life I could not identify.  My companions stopped near a set of tables protected by umbrellas and ordered -  raw shelled oysters, sea “ginseng” (sea cucumber or sea slug), and a red, pulsing thing that looked like a human heart but was clearly some kind of sea urchin.

The oysters were great, the red thing was hard and salty, but the slug was slimy and cartilaginous at the same time and is the first food I have had I will definitely not repeat.  It is hard to believe it was a staple of the medieval East Asian trade routes!   It was clear why beer and soju (pine-needle vodka, with half the alcohol) were necessary accompaniments, along with hot peppers, hot pepper sauce and garlic.

fresh raw fishWe then drove briefly to a fresh fish warehouse, chose our dinner from the tanks, and walked it next door.  Butchers killed, cleaned and sliced our fish in front of us. (Koreans like to watch this process since it ensures that the fish they chose is the fish they actually eat, without substitution of lower quality fish).  Then we walked next door one more time to a restaurant, which gave us a place to eat our huge pile of fresh, raw fish.  The restaurant also cooked the heads, skin and bones into a rich stew with vegetables and spices (this is called maemultang).  The raw fish was just like sashimi, except in amazing quantity.

Afterward we went out for norebang and then back to the car, looking out over the ocean under the stars.  I wish I had inhaled deeply of the salty air, which is now thick with nausea- producing oil fumes. 

IslandsKnowing my time here is limited, I have tried to do as many things as I can, while at the same time remembering I am on sabbatical and sheer exhaustion defeats the point!  I had the tail end of a terrible cold when my friends decided to go to the coast, and I agreed to come reluctantly and a bit resentfully - I really just wanted to sleep.  Now I am, as I often am here in Korea, grateful I went and tried something new.  Sometimes events like the oil spill highlight how much can change in an instant and how precious time and place can be.  As the New Year approaches that seems like a good reminder for all of us.

1 comment December 12, 2007

Visiting North Korea

Manmulsang Ocean ViewRecently I hiked the Geumgan Mountains, which are just *north* of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea.  It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.  Even though I was limited in where I could visit, I could see why Buddhist monks, Confucian scholars, and Korean poets have written about the mountains for centuries.  I have uploaded 24 pictures to flickr.com and you can see them by clicking on any photo in this blog entry and looking for the North Korea ”set”.

But beautiful as the mountains were, this blog entry is about visiting North Korea more generally.  I crossed what is still technically a war zone and entered what the United States considers a terrorist state.  I did not do it lightly and I learned a huge amount from doing it.  But I have few pictures of the North Korea I will write about, because taking them would have meant at a minimum having my camera confiscated.Fenced Beach

To get to the mountains, I took a bus to the South Korean city of Gosong and stayed overnight.  In the morning, I looked out over a beautiful beach.  Between me and the beach was an 8 foot tall iron fence.  South Korean soldiers patrolled the beach with machine guns to deter North Korean infiltrators.  Apparently South Korea suffered many of these incursions up through the 1960s, including an attack on the South Korean Presidential Residence (called the Blue House).  By 1998 the entire inter-Korean border and much of the northern coastline had been fenced off.

After going through South Korean emigration procedures, we drove through a green, rolling landscape.  There were tree-covered hills, with scattered farms, vineyards, and farmers.  There were also fences, barbed wire, and military observation posts.  Yet even after we passed the last South Korean soldier waving to us there continued to be farms and vineyards - on the very edge of the Demilitarized Zone!  There were also hundreds of white egrets on pristine lakes and other wildlife thriving in the deserted area (except for those which step on landmines, I assume). 

When we entered North Korea, the difference was stark.  There were no trees on the hillsides.  The land was much browner.  Farmers in the field plowed with oxen and pulled wooden carts by hand.  The entire road had electric fencing on both sides and the few openings in the fence were staffed with armed soldiers.  The soldiers did not wave.  We were warned not to speak to, speak about, or make eye contact with the soldiers, who were armed and serious.

North Korean Flag and Patriotic WritingAt the immigration processing office, my bag fell off the inspection conveyer belt. A North Korean soldier picked it up.  I automatically said, “Kamsa hamnida” (thank you) to the guard.  He barked something at me, which I realized was “You speak Korean?!”  I quietly muttered “Hangukmal chogum haeyo” (I have a little Korean) and he reached for my identification tag (we wore these around our necks the entire time we were in North Korea, with our nationality, profession, names and photos).  “You are an American?” he asked in Korean.  “Yes, I am an American person.  I arrived in August,” I replied in Korean.  Two other soldiers had walked over now and I thought, “Boy I’m in trouble.”  All three put their hands together in a brief moment of applause and dismissed me.  I hustled away, dumbfounded.

Line Up ManmulsangThis was the first sign that the Cold War is thawing on the inter-Korean border.  The second and third came at the end of my two hikes.  Because we had a bus accident on the way across the border (I’m fine, just a bruised knee), we arrived at the mountain late.  Since I was one of the last people up the mountain and a slow hiker, twice I found myself followed up by a South Korean guide and then followed down by North Korean officials.  The South Korean was making sure no stragglers missed the bus.  The North Koreans were likely making sure no stragglers intentionally missed the bus.  Both were willing to talk with me, and the North Koreans were very nice.  One gave me a Snickers bar as a reward for being the last one to the summit!  Others asked the standard Korean introduction questions - how old are you?  Are you married?  Do you have children?  Where are you from?  We did not discuss politics, and I did not ask about the bright red pins with pictures of the North Korean leader on their brown official jackets.  We were all cautious and civil and tentative, not really friendly, but not enemies either.  We were all curious, which overcomes many barriers.

The rest of the trip was like being in South Korea.  This is not surprising since all the tourist amenities (from restaurants to souvenir shops to the amazing outdoor hotspring spa) are all run by South Koreans and staffed by ethnic Koreans from China brought in to work for low wages.  In a sense, I was on North Korean land being rented by a South Korean company.  The few North Koreans in fields, on bicycles, or walking along the fence must have thought we had arrived from another planet - rich, well-fed, and thoroughly corrupted by capitalism.  I was sorry we were their only vision of the south and west.  But I was grateful to see them, to have a chance, however small, to put a face to people I usually only read about.  Everyone I saw looked old.

Those people could be the wives or brothers or children of people in South Korea.  The war is not yet over and neither is the grief.  Reunions between North and South Koreans happen more frequently than they used to, but thousands of people do not know what happened to their relatives after they separated, frightened but hopeful, on a night during or after the war. 

Two BrothersAm I sorry that some of the money I paid went to support the North Korean dictator?  Yes, of course.  But I saw it as an investment.  A few North Koreans met an American who speaks some Korean.  That briefly put Americans in a different light for them.  And one American now understands a little more about North Korea.  If the DMZ is a sign of failure - the failure of either side to win the war, the failure of politicians to find a way to reunite the divided nation - my bus ride across the border was a sign of hope.   

The South Korean War Museum has a statue called “Two Brothers”.  It shows a true story in which a South Korean soldier met his younger brother on a Korean War battlefield.  The younger brother was fighting for the North.  The two embraced, battle forgotten.  Perhaps one day all Koreans will be able to embrace their loved ones.  I have stood on the rubble that was the Berlin Wall.  I hope I have a chance some day to stand on the iron fencing that now bounds the DMZ. 

2 comments November 7, 2007

Fall in Pyeongtaek

Harvested Rice FieldFall has arrived here, and as in the U.S., I feel like it snuck up on me.  The days were long, hot, sticky and humid, and now there is a sharp crispness in the air and the nights are cold.  The rice fields which were bright green when I arrived are now brown and gold, and the rice stems are heavy with brown grains.  Harvesting machines and hand threshers are both in use here.  Slowly the fields are being transformed into mud flats full of rice straw.

On Soraksan the trees had already begun to turn, with bright red maples shimmering amid dark green pines.  Here in Pyeongtaek the change is just beginning.  The mornings are full of fog over the rice fields, so the colors in the trees slowly seep through the greyness until the sun comes out and turns everything golden.Rice Grains Ready to Harvest

The changing seasons are marked by changing foods.  The nearby town of Anseong is famous for grapes and during early October they were everywhere.  The little ones tasted like Concord grapes, but the bigger ones had a rich, complex taste.  I have also bought persimmons which I don’t think I’d ever seen before - at first I thought they were underripe tomatoes.  They are flattened on the top and bottom, and orange red when ripe.  Their flesh is incredibly soft and unlike anything else I have had - sweet but not too sweet, slightly spiced.  Chestnuts are also everywhere, at first in the size we get in the United States, and now smaller and smaller.  The “fall spring onions” are all harvested and women sit in large groups stripping off the browned outer layers so they can make vats of onion kimchee to last all year.  Just this week the Mandarin oranges ripened on Jeju Island, the southernmost part of Korea, and boxes of them have appeared in markets - local sweet versions of tangerines or Clementines.

Peppers at MarketThe peppers I saw drying everywhere in August are now in 3 foot high plastic bags on every market corner.  People have finished harvesting sweet potatoes (which are purple on the outside and white in the center here).  Pears which were carefully wrapped on the trees to protect them in August are now in the markets, brown-skinned, bigger and rounder than apples, and crunchy-sweet.  Bright yellow and white-striped, fist-sized melons have appeared and taste like underripe honeydew melons.

Fall Colors at SoraksanFall is the season of reaping what we sow.  We gather what we will need for the long length of winter and savor that which we have and might not have later.  I wonder if we glory in fall partly because we know winter is coming.  We are not afraid of it, but we recognize it will be quieter, a little harder, a little darker, and long.  We want every bit of sun and taste and movement we can find before then. 

Korea and New England share this glorious fall of color and taste and freedom.  Wherever you are, enjoy fall before it passes.

Add comment October 25, 2007

The Korean Baths

Waterfall in Soraksan National Park  [Important note:  Taking pictures in a room full of naked women would be a quick way to get my cultural ambassador title - and probably my visa - revoked.  So the pictures attached to this blog are not of the Korean baths.  Instead they are images from my recent hike to Soraksan, South Korea’s northernmost mountain range.  More pictures from that trip can be seen in the Soraksan set on flickr - including the endless metal stairways and stunning mountain views.  However the two topics, Soraksan and Korean baths, are not unrelated.  Hiking the first required a long visit to the second to soothe some aching muscles!]

For the Korean baths, imagine a temple to cleanliness.  Showers line one wall.  Another section has individual cleaning stations with a small stool, washbasin and mobile shower nozzle.   A long, narrow stone water basin ringed with a stone bench is available for those who want to dip their washbasins, pour water over themselves and then sit and soap up.  Take your pick and get clean, or try all three.

Once you are thoroughly clean, you can move on, but I do mean thoroughly clean.  When was the last time you washed behind your left ankle bone?  How about between your toes?  Did you use a long scrubbly cloth or brush to scrub your own back?  Or did you ask someone else to do it?  If you are done in less than 20 minutes (not including the time you just stood around in the hot water!) you are not Korean-style clean.Piryong Falls 

Moving on means making choices.  You can soak in the warm, medium hot, or broiling stone whirlpools in the center of the room, or try the medium hot wooden hot tub.  Splash some water over the edge and have a seat to get used to the heat, or just slide in up to your chin.  If you tend to be in a hurry when you brush your teeth, feel free to bring your brush and indulge in a 5 or 10 minute tooth cleaning.  Just do not drip into the pool.

Or you can go try the saunas - hot and dry, hot and moist or sometimes hot with earthen/clay floor for its health properties.  After each, come out and rinse off by pouring water over yourself and then take a plunge in the cold pool to bring your body temperature back down.  Like Scandinavians, Koreans believe in both the health and cleanliness value of purging the body through steam and the stimulating value of cold water.  The opening and closing of the pores is also supposed to create more beautiful skin.

Another falls at SoraksanIf you have made an appointment, you can get a full body scrub from one of the on-site massage technicians.  They will be sure to get any dry skin you missed while also stimulating circulation in every part of your body.    At fancier spas you can also arrange a dip in green tea tubs, pine needle infused tubs, ginseng tubs and many others.

It would be all too easy to make simple cultural comparisons based on Korean and American shower habits.  Do Americans have a lackadaisical, “good enough” attitude compared to Koreans’ careful, focused, and detail-oriented approach?  Or are Koreans too focused on appearance while Americans are eager to get past the basics to the important parts of a day’s agenda?  What about years of American mothers yelling “Stop getting water on the floor!” versus the Korean approach of putting a drain in the floor and simply allowing people to get water absolutely everywhere?

I will be sure to give these topics more thought over the coming weeks, preferably in the medium hot stone whirlpool at my local sauna.  

1 comment October 22, 2007

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