"Words have no wings, but they can travel a thousand miles" (Korean Proverb)

Welcome to Flying Words, Jon and Aileen's blog of our adventures in South Korea! We will be in South Korea for a year, starting in mid-July, teaching English in a private school. We just graduated from college this past May, and are looking forward to having some adventures before continuing our education. 
We started this blog to keep all our family and friends updated and to share our photos and stories. We hope this is entertaining for you! We will miss you all, and are very thankful to have the internet to keep us in touch. 

Monday, March 30, 2009

The land before time...

This weekend, again part of my attempt to see everything worth seeing in Korea before I leave, Jon and I ventured south to find some dinosaur footprints. This is something I'd been wanting to do ever since I heard it was possible. I mean, how cool is that, seeing where dinosaurs walked around? So, we did the usual intense navigation of the only semi-helpful Korean tourism websites, and deciphered how to get there. And, as preparation the night before, we watched "The Land Before Time." Such a good movie. :) 
It took a looong time to get there. We took a bus from Jeonju to Jinju (haha), which took 3 1/2 hours of winding through the mountains. Let me tell you, for a country the size of Indiana, it can sure take a while to get though. Stupid mountains. :) Just kidding, I love the mountains. 
Once in Jinju, a bus to Goseong took about an hour, then came the annoying part. We were so ready to get there, and we just needed to take a local bus to the Dinosaur museum/fossil site. So we get on the local bus, and it starts going but the guy takes at least one wrong turn, and then picks up old ladies on the side of the street and goes out of his way to bring them to their houses, or at least their streets. I guarantee this happened, because he would drop them off, then we would back-track and take a different turn. So it took an hour to get there.
FINALLY we were greeted by giant statues of dinosaurs on a hilltop overlooking a beautiful coastline dotted with mountainous islands. ( Sidenote: If I didn't dislike Korea, I would live on the coast here. It's gorgeous, and the mix of mountains and sea I'm looking for.) After kind of deciphering the returning bus schedule (we would have to go to a different city but we were assured we would get back), we ate our lunch of tuna sandwiches and then ventured inside. At that point, we were like "This had better be freakin' amazing for all the time it took to get here!"
The museum was pretty cool, your generic dinosaur museum with skeletons, fossils and a cool animatronics exhibit of fighting dinosaurs. The statues were a bit disturbing, since almost all of the big dinosaurs had little dinosaurs ripping their flesh off in stunning life-like fashion. We actually saw one kid start crying after looking at one of the statues. It was disturbing. 
But the actual footprints were AWESOME! They were on the stone on the coast, which was gorgeous anyway, with rock cliffs and caves along the water's edge. You could see the footprints in a line, so it was like the dino had just walked by. At one place, you could step in them. Which of course, I did, and said "Hey! Look! I'm Litte Foot!" Good thing no one but Jon around me spoke English. I hope. 
  There were also lots of fossils in the space between the rocks, of those...oh, what are they called...things that look like beetles. I dunno. Anyway, let's call them prehistoric beetles. And there was a guy catching sea slugs and selling them (live) to people to eat. Sketch. Yuck. 
Then we walked along the coastline, sometimes on the rocks, exploring tide pools (my fav. pasttime) but then we were forced to walk on a wooden pathway because the other fossil area was protected. There were fossilized ripple marks from the water on the rocks, and more footprints. There was even part where the rock was all strangely bumpy and pitted, that was apparently from a whole bunch of footprints in one place, kind of like when it's muddy and you play soccer. Heehee, dinosaurs playing soccer. :) 
After seeing all the fossils this place had to offer, we made it back to the museum to wait for the bus. We got there 20 minutes before the bus was supposed to come, but after we waited for an hour in the spot the guys at the info booth told us to wait at, there was still no bus. In the meantime, we had been laughing at some policemen up the road who were directing traffic and very bored, because they were dancing to the music from the loudspeakers, and then making faces at/ saluting us. Jon finally asked the people at the info booth what was up, and they were equally confused. They told us to go wait at another bus stop down the road, so we went there. Waited for a while. No bus. Finally, one of the guys from the info booth, who was on his way home, picked us up. He was really nice, and he drove us to the bus station and went inside and helped us buy tickets. 
Of course, once we got to Jinju through the rush hour traffic, we had missed the last bus to Jeonju. So, we got on a bus to Namwon, which is on the way to Jeonju, hoping there'd be a bus from there. Which, luckily, there was. It just took a little time and a lot of buses. But it was worth it. Cuz I found Little Foot. Well, at least, his footprints. But if I follow the footprints......

Monday, March 23, 2009

Pagodas for Peace

This past Sunday, Jon and I ventured into the mist. It was a cloudy, rainy day, but we decided to go ahead with our plans to visit nearby Maisan. Maisan is a mountain, and a provincial park. It's actually one mountain with two very separate peaks. Either way, it was too cloudy to see them.
After about an hour bus ride, we ended up in Jinan, a small town across some mountains from Jeonju. We had driven through clouds to get there, but when we did, the rain had let up. Since it was an hour until the bus to the mountain, we wandered around the town. It was basically one street, full of mostly stores and hawkers selling ginseng, old women crouching over bags of dirt-crusted roots. Some roots were huge, some were small, some were strangely misshapen. But all were fresh ginseng, dug up from fields on the surrounding mountains. 
Other than ginseng, there were a few shabby restaurants, a small stream that wound through the town, and a dumpling shop. As Jon loves dumplings, we stopped in the latter for a snack. It was more or less someone's kitchen, with a big dining table in the middle and an old, dusty cooler with drinks inside. The couple working were kind, and the woman served us freshly-steamed kimchi dumplings (well, served Jon. I don't like kimchi dumplings). It was a nice, cozy snack stop, but after 15 minutes we were on our way.
Once I was warmed up by an instant cocoa from a convenience store, we went back to the bus terminal to wait. We sat on old, orange vinyl chairs surrounded by senior citizens, watching a baseball game between Korea and Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. A long, long way from home, I was back in familiar surroundings, sitting inside on a rainy day watching a baseball game.
Well, the game ended and about 10 minutes later, our bus came. It was a rickety old local bus, empty but for one man who sat talking with the driver, but it got us to the mountain in about 15 minutes. From there, we started walking. There were surprisingly many people there, not too crowded but it wasn't empty. The rain was still holding off, and the mist that surrounded the mountains gave a mystical feeling to the day. 
The road up to the park was surrounded by quaint restaurants selling ribs. Grilled ribs, smoked ribs, cooked covered in pine needles. Chefs cooked on grills lining the walkway, trying to entice customers. Wooden smokehouse, smoke billowing out. Somehow, we made it past all of that without giving in to temptation. 
It was a simple walk, paved the whole way and only up rolling hills. This is how Korean trails usually start out, until it gets to the main temple, when more wooded trails branch off. This time, our only goal was the main temple, since the weather was bad and we Jon's ankle was bothering him from soccer the day before.
The main temple, in this case, was special. It was tucked in between rock cliffs, tiny and cozy. Around it were 80 stone pagodas. In the early 1900s, a Buddhist hermit lived at the temple, and built about 120 pagodas of varying sizes as a meditation and prayer for peace. The pagodas are the stuff of legend in Korea, since there is nothing holding the pagodas together but balance and gravity, and they have made it through 100 years of windstorms, rain and ice. There is also the legend that if you place a bowl of pure, clean spring water by the temple in the winter, and pray with a pure heart, an icicle will form in the center of the bowl, going up like the pagodas. 

Whatever the legend, whatever the reason that the pagodas remain (the ones that have fallen are mostly the result of human interference), they are breath-taking. There is a pair behind the temple, called the Heaven and Earth Pagodas, that are about 2 stories tall. All the pillars look precarious, but one can see the work that went into them through the careful balance and the smaller stones surround the joints of larger stones. It reminds me that peace is a painstaking process, a never-ending process, and the working for peace requires balance, care and support, just like these pagodas. But also that sometimes, when all these elements are present, things can stabilize and withstand seemingly unsurrmountible pressures. 
Surrounded by mountains and mist, these spires seemed more mystical. It really was beautiful, especially with the echoing chanting and the eerie clinking of the wooden bells used in Buddhist meditation. Interrupted only at intervals by loud Korean hikers. 
The day got chillier, and it was started to get dark, so we headed back to wait for the bus. This time, the old, delapitated local bus took us all the way to Jeonju, through curvy mountain roads we could see this time around, and I'm not sure this increased vision was to my benefit. 
Arriving back in Jeonju, we met some friends for a dinner of dak galbi, wonderfully cheesy chicken, ramen noodles, rice cake and veggie skillet cooked right in front of you, of course smothered in hot sauce, and eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves. A nice, cozy end to a chilly, damp but inspiring day. 

Monday, March 16, 2009

Socialogical musings on the "foreigner community" in Korea

         So, this is a topic I've been musing on lately, especially when I find myself in Seoul, which is much more full of foreigners, and in different capacities.
When I got to Korea, I got really excited when we would see another foreigner, which, in Jeonju, means another English teacher for the most part, usually Anglo. So I would smile and nod at every foreigner I saw, and they returned the gesture. I soon found out that the ex-pat community here is an interesting organism in itself. There are two categories of expats in Jeonju-- the (mostly) young crowd who goes out at night, to varying degrees, and socializes with other expats. Then there's the (mostly) older crowd. They stick to themselves, don't really go out to bars and we don't really ever see them, we just know they're here. As for the 'social circle,' they all know each other, even though usually not very well. But we all greet each other on the street, and make small-talk. We are acquaintances based solely on the fact that we see each other often and are expats. People are much more friendly than they would be at home, I guess because there are less people to socialize with, and we all have this experience in common. So although we might do the customary "where are you from? how long have you been here? where do you work?" thing, it's not for the purpose of putting each other into categories, or finding out if you'll be friends or if you're part of a different group. It's all one group. 
Then, you encounter the occasional case that doesn't fit this generalization. The most frequent are the people of the less-social group I mentioned. It's not that there's an agism here-- there are many older people who I know and hang out with here. But there is a divide, naturally, between those who seek to socialize with other expats and those who keep to themselves. So you can once in a while, at the grocery store maybe, run into a foreigner you've never seen before. Usually they have families here, and they're almost always at least a couple. 
Then there are the missionaries. They're hard to spot, and since everyone is more friendly than usual, it's not strange for someone to come up to you in the street to introduce themselves if they're new in the neighborhood, or to ask a question, etc. So when someone approaches you and starts a conversation, there's no warning and all of a sudden you're stuck in the ramen section of E-Mart with someone trying to save your soul. It's happened to be more than a few times. Instead of politely excusing myself from the conversation early on, as I might in the States where it's not as  normal for strangers to strike up a conversation on the street, I make small talk, about life in Korea, where I'm from, etc; then once they're started talking about 'spreading the word' and I feel that I've led them on to believe I'm more interested than I am, and that I'm wasting their time. So I listen, and take their fliers, then continue my shopping, walking, etc.
The part that fascinates me, though, is when there is this feeling of something automatically in common with people you would never feel that with. A shared look of understanding with someone you would feel worlds removed from at home.
For example, I went to the spa the other day, and walked up to the counter of a food booth to order a beer. The young man working behind the counter was not Korean. He was, I later found out, from Nepal. Either way, I could tell he was South Asian, I thought maybe from Bangladesh. Not that I think I have nothing in common with a Nepalese cook, but it's not someone I would usually feel nicely surprised to run into. Someone I could feel more comfortable dealing with than the person I was expecting to find. I'm sure our life experiences are very different.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact the Korean society is very homogenous, and creates a strong line between 'Korean' and 'foreign.' Even children who have one Korean parent and one 'foreign' parent are not seen as Korean. Even if they live in Korea, were born here, and speak Korean. Korea can be very racist in this and other ways. So maybe since we've all been lumped into one category, foreigners feel like a member of one group. 
Whatever it was, I was pleasantly surprised to find a foreigner behind the counter. But, when I came to order, I felt unsure. What language do I speak? I asked myself. Clearly, since he worked in Korea, he spoke Korean. But my Korean's not great, and though I am confident in my beer-ordering abilities, it's always more comfortable in my native language. Plus, who would think that the common language between me and a young man from Nepal would ever be Korean? I chose to order in Korean, and it wasn't really much of a difficult choice, but it felt a little strange. Then, he answered in English. So clearly, he speaks both. So I finished the transaction in English. Later on, Jon told me he had talked to this man the last time we were at the spa, that he was living here with his family and was a university student. He also told me that his name was Raj. Raj later turned out to be a great help, translating between Tara and I and the Korean women cooking at the next booth when we tried to get Tara something vegetarian and not spicy. 
This was the first time I had met a foreigner in Jeonju who was not an English teacher or here living with one. But in Seoul, it happens much more often, especially in the area around the US military base. This neighborhood is called Itaewon, and it's a multicultural-food heaven, but other than that, mostly a very dirty, sketchy place with a reputation for a vibrant if disreputable nightlife. 
We go to Itaewon to eat. A lot. There is essentially any ethnic food you could ever want-- Morroccan, Indian, Iranian, Thai, Japanese, German, Austrian, Irish, Mexican...the list goes on. Plus, there's an American-style diner with great brunch food. This past weekend, after dropping Joe, Tara and Nate off at the airport, Jon and I went to an Indian buffet we had been to before. Besides the usual slight awkwardness of talking to the waiter in a mix of Korean and English (he'd speak English to us, but I still felt I should order in Korean...but then I'd order something else in English...), I witness a scene that really made the think about this language thing. And allowed me to witness Korean actually trying ethnic food.
An Indian family came in with a Korean family, and the Indian man, who was obviously the one who had organized this meal, spoke to the waiter in English, but seemed a little unsure about how to interact with the staff. In Korea, there are certain hierarchies and ways to interact with waiters at restaurants, and many social customs of politeness. But it seemed that with these men, the Korean customs mixed with the Indian customs they would have followed in India had they met in the same situation. The Indian customer was a doctor (I know because someone addressed him as such), and he played the host to his party-- generous, helpful, but in charge. Even in that situation, I'm sure, the mix of Indian and Korean custom was present. 
At one point in the afternoon, as Jon and I were finishing our meals, the Indian customer called the waiter over to order drinks, but stumbled noticably, trying to decide which language to speak. He had been in conversation with his guests in a mix of English and Korean, but also with his family in their native language. When he went to order a drink, he started with a word in one language, stopped himself, started in another, stopped himself, was flustered for a second, then said the universal "Coke." 
I've been thinking about languages a lot, and about feeling a part of a community with people from all over the world, with completely different life experiences. About having completely random languages in common. For example, on New Years Eve in Seoul, some friends of ours had met a woman from Hong Kong in the hostel. She spoke very little English, but she agreed to come out with us that night after she learned a few others and I spoke Spanish. It turns out, she went to college in Paraguay and was now living there, working as a school nurse. So, I spent the evening in Seoul, South Korea speaking Spanish to a woman from Hong Kong about our respective travels in South America. Oh, and we ate Thai food. :) 
But then again, I guess we foreigners in Korea don't have completely different life experiences. We all live in Korea, experience the same stares on the street, the same inability to get familiar foods and cultural goods, and the same need to form a community based on shared experience. The other day I shared perspectives on the Korean education system with a former English teacher from Vietnam. In the process, I learned a little about teaching English in Vietnam. She was very glad to talk to us- -said she didn't like working with Koreans, made us coffee from her personal stash. So maybe we all feel relieved to be interacting with someone who has gone through a similar experience. 
Meanwhile, I'll keep on wondering what language to speak when I run into foreigners, but whatever language I speak, hopefully I'll have an interesting conversation. At least I'll feel a little more connected to the world. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Don't Point at the North Koreans...They're Watching Your Every Move


That was our tour guide's advice on Saturday. Maybe I'd better back up. 

Our friends Joe, Tara and Nate are here visiting us this week. They came on Friday night, when I picked them up at the airport after an excruciating bus ride spent in traffic. It was great to see them, and that night we stayed up late talking and being generally silly in the hostel. It was great fun, but it didn't make the 6 am wake-up any easier. 

Saturday morning we had reservations for a DMZ tour. We got up at 6 am and stumbled our way to the USO office by 7. We were loaded onto a bus, full mostly of US military personnel, and driven up to the DMZ. The tour guide was a very enthusiastic Korean man who was under the impression that he spoke much better English than he actually did. So, he babbled on and on, and all the people on the tour came to the joint conclusion that we could understand maybe 40% of what he was saying. 
The JSA-- inside the DMZ. The blue buildings are UN Conference rooms where talks are held. The white building is North Korea's "Welcome Center"...from back when they tried to get people to defect by walking across the border. Not possible anymore. 

The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is a buffer area of about 2.5 miles between North and South Korea . The actual border is within the DMZ, and it's called the Military Demarkation Line. It's actually not technically the border, since there is still technically a war since there was never a truce signed, just a ceasefire agreement. There is one place, the JSA (Joint Security Area) where any crossing takes place, and it is where talks are held, humanitarian aid is sent across the border, etc. The JSA is administered by North Korea and the UN Command for the DMZ (mostly South Korean and American forces...in 2004, control was handed over to the South Koreans while American forces remain in support positions). 
Another view of the JSA at the border.

Since we went on a USO (United Service Organizations- a non-profit that supports the troops with programs and goods overseas) tour, we were able to enter the DMZ and the JSA. We went to Camp Bonifas, the base closest to North Korea. It's inside the JSA, on the South Korean side. It was fascinating. I've never been on a base before to begin with, but this was surreal. There were barbed wire fencing surrounding it, we drove by fields of land mines, but inside the camp were basketball courts and a temple. The most iconic thing we saw was what Sports Illustrated dubbed "The World's Most Dangerous Golf Course." It's one hole, and is surrounded my landmine fields. Our tour guide pointed out, "It's not a good idea to go get your ball out of the woods."

Our guide was a ROK (Republic of Korea-- South Korea) soldier who spoke excellent English. We drove around with him inside the DMZ on UN buses--bright blue and flying the UN flag. After talking to him a little, we found that he went to Cornell University for two years, and was on academic leave to do his compulsory 2 years of military service. All Korean males have to do 2 years, and he figured he should get it over with, instead of waiting until he graduated from Cornell and potentially have to turn down job offers. He studied political science and economics, and though a little quiet at first, turned out to be an entertaining and informative guide. 

   Our ROK Soldier Escort/Guide
We were perfectly safe throughout the whole tour-- there were armed soldiers all around and plenty of cameras watching for any sign of conflict or problem from the North. That said, tensions have been mounting a little lately between the Koreas. This is because the ROK and the US are set to start joint military exercises this week, which the North always condemns as 'invasion practice.' Actually, the day before we went, there were talks at Panmunjom (the JSA area where talks are always held) held about the treats from North Korea. Don't worry, this is routine sabre-rattling, but it was really cool to me that there had been talks there the day before we went.
Inside the UN Conference Room in the JSA...aka where it all goes down. 

Most talks are held in the UN Conference Room in Panmunjon that straddles the border between the Koreas. It's basically a blue trailer, with guards on either side. The ROK guards stood in a "modified taekwando stance," basically with clenched fists and at alert, the ones closest to the border half-hidden by the building in order to "present a smaller target."
          ROK Soldier on guard, half hidden. 
See the raised part on the ground just past the door? That's the border.

 They also all wear sunglasses for added intimidation. That seems a little silly...they're heavily armed and surrounded by guard towers and cameras and more artillery than I care to think about, but sunglasses are going to make the difference. But I must admit, they looked pretty hardcore. I wouldn't mess with them. 
A South Korean soldier looking intimidating

The conference room is small, with a table that sits 8 people-- 3 from each side and 2 interpreters on the ends-- with UN flags. There were ROK soldiers guarding it, but the border runs right through the middle. We were informed of this when half of us, myself included, were standing on the far side of the room. Our guard pointed out the border (which is set in concrete on either side of the building) and said "Those of you on that side of the room, you're in North Korea." It was crazy!! 

The tour was fascinating for me, because I'm an international relations dork, and because Korea is the only country in the world that's divided. It's eerie how they're technically at war, but still there's groups of tourists hanging out on the frontline. Only the USO tour can go into the DMZ, but when we went to the other sites, including an observatory still used by ROK guards, there were busloads of people. It's strange to see soldiers on high alert next to tourists joking around. We were informed that under no circumstances may we point, gesture or attempt to communicate with any North Koreans. And we did see some, in the JSA, standing guard on their side. I also saw a group walking on a hill to a guard tower, maybe 200-300 meters away. Even when we couldn't see them, we knew they were watching our every move. 


A North Korean soldier on the other side of the military demarcation line.

What we could see of North Korea consisted mostly of mountains and fields, though there were a few villages visible, one of which was the Propaganda Village. This was built by the North to blast propaganda at the South over an extremely strong loudspeaker 24/7, trying to convince them to desert to the North. This stopped in 2004, when the South Korean government got tired of it and started blasting their own propaganda and K-Pop 24/7. (K-Pop being Korean Pop music) Having heard enough K-Pop blasted from stores around here, I'm not surprised the North gave in. 
    Propaganda Village and huge North Korean flag...

 The North claims there are 200 farming families living in the village, and that there are functioning hospitals and schools, but the South claims to have seen very few people in the village. In fact, apparently you can see through telescopes that there is no glass in the windows and no rooms in the buildings. There is also a HUGE flag flying over the village. I mean huge. It weighs 600 pounds and is 160 meters tall. 

On the South side, there's also a propaganda village, though they call it a "Freedom Village." In it live a few hundred farmer families who live there for free, farm on tracts of land much larger than the average farmer elsewhere in the South, and don't pay taxes. They are heavily guarded, though, being in the DMZ. They even have armed guards standing with them while they farm. They have to be in their houses at sundown, and lights out at 12. It also has a huge flagpole and a huge flag, though not nearly as big as the neighbors to the North. 

Propaganda on both sides. The juxtaposition of high military alert and cheap souvenir shops. This trip was fascinating. Something to think about, especially to my politics and sociology-enthused mind.