Extreme River Crossing

Early in the summer I went on an “extreme hiking” trip with a cool group of coworkers. Well, it was supposed to be extreme hiking. The only extreme thing about it was the extremely bad judgment of our tour guide, and the drinking later on that night.

After work on a muggy Friday night, eleven of us (all foreign teachers) take the KTX  to Busan. We arrive in Busan close to 1 am. The bus is leaving for the hiking expedition the next morning at 9 am, so we decide to try to find a place to stay near the bus station to play it safe.

Standing outside of the bus station weighing which direction might lead to suitable accommodations for the evening, an affable Korean guy approaches and is quick to make conversation. Many English-speaking Koreans have an English name. I have a Korean name that I almost never use. After answering five multiple-choice questions Facebook crowned me with the Korean name Lee Dong Yeol, meaning “eastern passion.”  I never truly appreciated the prevalence of the English language until actually going to another part of the world.  With that said, I prefer to learn someone’s real name, even if I butcher the pronunciation. Maybe they feel differently. At any rate, he is called Johnny.

Johnny is ostensibly inebriated, yet composed. He wants to help us find decent, affordable lodging because when he was studying abroad many Aussies helped him along the way. We go from one hotel to another as Johnny negotiates for the eleven of us. Things heat up when Johnny  is talking to the owner of a motel. Johnny feels we are getting a raw deal and expresses his discontent with the middle-aged owner. Eventually we find a place that costs $10 per person which Johnny is okay with. Our room doesn’t have any beds. It is a traditional room with floor mats, an AC and a bathroom –  its ten dollars. We go to a chicken & beer restaurant until 4 am.

In Korea I find many people to be helpful, especially the younger crowd. The most sound explanation is that they are more comfortable communicating, speaking English. Or, it may be more rooted in having a different worldview, being more open-minded than the older generation. I feel most older folks are either thrilled to see a mayonnaise face like myself or put off by it, without much middle ground.  Either way I usually have been able to find someone to aid me when needed.

We wake up at 8:30 and drag ourselves to the bus station. It is raining heavily. Four hours of sleep on the floor with a stomach full of beer has got me primed and ready to do this extreme hike. Woo! We take off at 9:15 – a bus load of foreigners and a Korean tour guide, Charles. Charles is thinly built with parted hair, glasses and a permanently wide grin.

Despite the rain everyone is in good spirits. Over a microphone Charles introduces himself and explains the itinerary. He then passes on the mic to the rest of us to introduce ourselves and say a quick something. My brain searches for something witty. Not many synapses firing. I say something lame about being happy that one of my coworkers made it on the trip. Instantly I regret not saying I was a recovering heroine addict or something along those lines. Oh well.  There will always be another time to pretend to be a junkie.

The time passes. When I look out the window I see one green mountain after another. Korea is about 70 % mountainous making the roughly 50 million inhabitants much more mind-blowing. It seems that any relatively flat land is either farmland or a city. The bus ride is filled with chatter and faint music coming from an array of headphones.  Sensing uneasiness about the heavy rain Charles takes the microphone: “Um as you see, it’s berry rainy… we have to cross riber … but I don’t know what it’s like … maybe it is berry strong … we will try. It’s kind cold so I think maybe we should drink soju now.” Soju is a popular clear liquor that is cheap as hell and will knock you on your ass before you know it. He passes the bottle around.

We finally arrive. It’s close to 1pm. The rain hasn’t let up, but it hasn’t deterred anyone’s spirits. We’re ready to do this hike, except for two girls. One says that she is staying on the bus because she is still recovering from a torn ACL, the other doesn’t want her to be alone. The rest of us get off the bus and we stand in the rain for 20 minutes. Then we go down a small walkway to the river. I envisioned hiking a few hours and trekking across a river at some point. I am wrong. The river is the first challenge. Due to all the rain the past two days the river is deep and flowing at a good pace. The ankle-deep water quickly swirls to waist-level and presumably eye-level for a little person. There are no little people on the trip. In fact, I didn’t see one little person the entire year I was in Korea. Something to think about…

The river was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to send soup back in a deli.

Charles asks for a volunteer to wade across the river first. Apparently, on a normal day, without torrential downpour, crossing the river is not a sizable challenge in any respect. The next day I would see a brochure of this spot on a clear summer day and it was filled with children and their families playing in the water.  Today there was nobody by the river … except for 40 foreigners, and Charles.

 “I’ll do it”, voiced a well-built product of Texas.

 I’m not sure if he had too much to drink, wanted to impress his girlfriend in attendance, or if he was normally this cocksure, but he started across. About five guys hold one end of a rope and the Texan carries the other end with him. The water climbs to his waist. Holding the rope he steps gingerly in order not to lose his balance. After about 10 long minutes the Texan makes it across unscathed. The rain continues to fall.

 The apprehension manifests itself now, written on faces of most in the group. Math has never come easy to me but I do a quick calculation in my head:  bus load of people + heavy rain + river crossing = NO FUCKING WAY.

 After working out the numbers in my head I turn around to find about 20 Koreans standing under umbrellas up on the side of the road watching what is going on down by the river like they are watching a band of monkeys at a zoo exhibition. Some point, some laugh, others look genuinely concerned.

 “This is not going to happen,” exclaimed a woman grasping the hand of another woman. “Where did Charles go?”

 I look around and I don’t see our tour guide.

 Next I hear police sirens, followed by a voice on a mega phone.

 He is speaking in Korean but you get the sense that they want us out of here.

 A Korean man comes down the bank speaking in Hangul. He says we have to go.  I said I understand and tried to explain in piecemeal Korean that our “leader” (I don’t know how to say tour guide in Hangul) has left.

  The bus that parked on the side of the road is no longer there.

“Did Charles leave on the bus?!” cried an Englishman with a cigarette tucked behind each ear.

A few people motion to the Texan that he has to cross back to where we are all standing on the other side of the river. Now the water is even higher and the current has gained strength. Without much deliberation he ties the rope around his waist and slowly descends into the agitated river.

The Texan labors to the midway point of the river and is then knocked off his feet. Everyone gasps – including the Korean spectators by the road. He starts drifting down with the current. More guys quickly take the rope to haul him before he is swept further down the river.  As I see this unfolding I run toward the rope and grab ahold of the rope with the others (you can call me a hero). Later the Texan would explain that every tug of the rope dragged his body and head under the water making it impossible to get a full breath of air. In little time, the Texan is pulled across. Upon reaching the dry rocks that border the river his girlfriend runs to where he lay gasping for air. Later that night when the rain finally took a  break we all went to  the beach that was close to the pension house where we stayed and we had a good laugh about the whole thing as the Texan showed off the severe rope burn across his torso.  

You’re probably wondering where Charles disappeared to. At some point during the Texan’s struggle to make it to shore he reappeared.  Apparently he was on a mission to get more rope so that we could all cross the river faster. Charles was not in the least fazed by the whole ordeal and actually had the idea to relocate and try to cross the river at a different spot before his idea was shot down by a crowd of uneasy, cold, wet foreigners.

We spent a lot of time on the bus that weekend navigating through the rain (it was monsoon season) but we did have some nice meals together, partied on the beach and went to a beautiful wind power plant on the way home. Overall it was a fun adventure, albeit a much different kind than what we had anticipated.

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Coming (back) to America

Recently, I came (back) to America after completing a one-year teaching arrangement in Daegu, South Korea. I had a great time in the peninsula known for its spicy food, loud diners, and myriad singing rooms. There are many stories I plan on sharing now that I have some free time (yeah, I’m unemployed).  I also spent a week in Japan, close to a month in India, and a whopping 18 hours in Egypt, so I will fill you in on some of those adventures as well.

My boy Chris and I paying homage to Buddha at Mt. Seoraksan National park in the northeast part of South Korea.

A lot has changed since I last had American soil under my feet:

My Grandpop got remarried to his former high school football coach’s daughter. Well played.

Revolutions have occurred and persist in the Arab world…

…Hell, even Americans have joined in with the Occupy Movements. If I don’t land a job in the next month I might join the party … if only for the free food.

I now practice yoga.

Osama bin Laden no longer haunts the American psyche.

The NBA is not in business (dejected sigh).

My bro moved to New York City.

Another friend tied the knot. Congratulations BD and Cynthia.

Harley, the family German shepherd, is now hobbling around due to pain in his hind quarters.  Eventually all of our biological clocks submit to the force of time. Poor guy.

And this is all just at the surface!

When I was in Korea I didn’t really get homesick at all except for the holidays. It was only the last month when the finish line was in sight did I really begin to yearn for chicken parmigiana. I thought about teaching for another year, not at the same hagwon (academy) but at a different school. I learned that work life can really improve after your first year of teaching because you know the lay of the land. You get a better idea of what academies are top drawer, what area is nicest and, of course, you are more comfortable with the culture.  Plus, you establish a social network of people. I met some great people during my time in Korea.  

Pretending to grade papers on my last day of work.

About a month before I left Korea, I had a meeting with the manager of the academy where I worked. His English name is Kenny. His user login name at work is Brad Pitt. What Kenny lacks in mental stability he makes up for in emotional immaturity. In the one year that I knew Kenny I think I accumulated enough material to write an entire book series based on all of his idiosyncrasies.

First day back from summer vacation Kenny and a female foreign teacher have an exchange.

“Hey, Kenny.”

“Hey, how was vacation?”

“It was brilliant.”

 [motioning to his face] “Did you get the plastic surgery?”
“Uhh, no.”

In the meeting, right off the bat, Kenny made it perfectly clear the reason why he wanted me to resign for another year.

“Daniel I can’t find a replacement for you.”

“Sorry to hear that, Kenny.”

“You know, I got to find a replacement because your leaving and [sucking his teeth] right now it’s not easy to find a teacher in a month.”

“Yeah, I can imagine.”

An uncomfortably long silence follows in which Kenny leans back in his chair and gazes at the ceiling.

“You’re not coming back to Korea, are you?”

“No. It’s not my plan.”

Another long uncomfortable silence ensues.

“So, what will you do?”

“I’m going to look for work in New York.”

“You know Daniel, I’m from New York.”

At every conceivable opportunity he slips in that he is from New York. Nobody is sure how many years he actually spent in NY because the number changes so frequently, but apparently he spent some time living in NYC. He is from South Korea.

“You’ve said that.”

“My dream is to go back and be a sushi chef (I have also heard this many times) …you know I understand American culture … I know Americans don’t like working hard.”

“That isn’t true.”

“You know, you’ve done a good job here.”

“Thanks.”

“So what do you think?”

“About what, extending my contract?”

“Yeah.”

“I told you, I’m going back to New York.”

This is more or less how the conversation ended. Even if I thought about extending my contract before the meeting the manner in which he asked me would have changed my mind.  Not surprisingly I was forced to make a threat that I was going to file a complaint with the labor board in order to get paid on time before I left.

After leaving Korea I spent almost a month in India. It was quite the experience. A real jolt to your senses.

I’ve been back in the US for two weeks now catching up with family and friends and getting re-acclimated with American culture. Being separated from the life that I knew really has allowed me to appreciate everything I have, especially my family.  Also, eating NY pizza again was a glorious moment.

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The Korean Wedding

I went to my first Korean wedding over 3 weeks ago.

When Mijin asked me if I wanted to join her for her friend’s wedding my response was an emphatic “obvi”.   During my stay, I have experienced many parts of Korean life and I figured this would be a good opportunity to bolster my cultural traditions resume. Plus, Mijin is good company. And, who doesn’t like a wedding? My favorite wedding moment came when my mom was getting remarried during the time when I had my first signs of armpit hair (an exciting time in my life). My brother Dave, who is one year older, was 16 then.  Dave isn’t a big dancer now, and was much less likely to bust a move during this pubescent stage. I forget what relative was feeding him drinks the whole night but before anyone could even do the chicken dance he was out on the dance floor grinding  with my mom’s boss’s daughter like they were at a club in Cancun. Great moment. She got grounded as a result. The next afternoon, I stood laughing outside of the bedroom door as he delivered an apology over the phone. I think I was bitter I didn’t get a dance.

The wedding was in Busan so we left Daegu on a rainy Sunday (it’s monsoon season) at 10 am. Mijin messages me that her friend will pick me up at a bank near my apartment before picking her up. I stood underneath the roof awning outside of the bank when I hear a beep from a black SUV. I run toward the car and jump in the back seat. Her friend knows very little English so we basically greet each other, exchange some words,  and  ride in silence until Mijin hops aboard. Goeun and I get to know each other as Mijin interprets. The roads are slick. We have several close calls with other cars on the road, resulting in Goeun proclaiming, “I am best driver!” I find solace in the green rice patties and rolling mountains.

We arrive at Paradise Hotel in Busan at 12:30, just in time for the start of the ceremony. Paradise Hotel is large, upscale hotel across the street from the beach. Mijin greets her friend, the bride who is sitting in a secluded room.  She looks very bride-like: white gown, hair did, the works.  The bride, who doesn’t speak English, is talking to her two long-time friends.   I look  on with a smile. The photographer motions for a photograph. I quickly move out-of-the-way when the photographer signals for me to join the picture. I refuse. She insists. I stand behind the three seated friends. Later Mijin shows me the picture that was taken with her IPhone. I look like a random guy photo-bombing the picture. I regret not giving the peace sign.

The wedding ceremony is in a spacious banquet hall. Because we don’t arrive early and the tables are not specifically designated for the guests, we have to stand along the back wall.   I survey the room, estimating about 250 people (Mijin later tells me about 400 people came and went). I am the only westerner. I don’t really feel out-of-place except that I’m wearing brown shoes with black pants. I was always told this is a cardinal sin in fashion, but Mijin assures me that it is in style now. Mijin’s outfit goes together seamlessly.

Apparently, the groom is loaded  (rich not drunk).

Up to this point, this wedding doesn’t look or feel any different from a large, upscale wedding in the States except that everyone is speaking Korean and it was a little earlier in the day. The groom walks down the aisle and the bride and her father make the stroll next.  A  man appearing in his early 30’s  with a microphone says some words that were probably much different from what I was imagining in my head unless he was indeed analyzing the looming NBA lockout. Mijin said he was giving something akin to a best man toast.  After that, an older guy (ajoshi) has some things to say. I’m not sure if he announced them husband and wife. Next, the microphone is given to a young guy seated at a table. He stands up and serenades the new couple with a song. I recognize some Korean words such as “love”, but my mind is on other things.

 I hope filet mignon is being served.

Luckily, some guests leave before lunch is doled out which means we get to sit down. Mijin and Goeun go to the stage to take part in some group photos. I watch with a glass of red wine and a bowl of mushroom soup. I am ecstatic to discover steak on the menu. Haven’t had much steak in Korea. Hard to come by.Later in the meal, the new married couple enter the room each wearing  traditional Korean garb.

They go around the room and greet each table in their flashy hanbeoks. Apparently, the couple had a short, private traditional Korean ceremony moments before. Mijin asked if I wanted to go see it. I asked if it would be more exciting than the steak and we stayed put.

At the end of the meal they served Korean wedding soup. It consisted of noodles and kimchi. Tasty.

I well understood beforehand that the wedding would only be for a couple of hours and that there would not be a long drawn out reception ceremony filled with dancing, drinks, and mingling, but as lunch was winding down  a melancholy feeling hit me. There will be no dancing. 

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Riding in style

About a month ago

On a Saturday morning, a couple coworkers and I take the 45 minute KTX  ride to Busan with the intention of lounging on the beach for a couple of days. My skin hasn’t seen much sun this year so I kind of look like a vampire. No, I don’t watch True Blood.

Busan, the second largest city in South Korea, is a two-hour car ride south of Daegu. It’s on the southern tip of the peninsula and it is the fifth largest  port in the world. There’s more to do there than in Daegu, like going to the beach,  so it doesn’t suck. My first time there, back in April, I went to Shinsegae, the world’s largest department store. Shinsegae makes a typical Macy’s look like a  kiosk. There is an ice rink, so I went ice skating, nearly killing several young Korean children (stopping on skates isn’t my thing). We make it to Busan Station go outside and immediately look for a cab. A taxi driver who looks to be in his mid 50’s  with leathery skin sees us and recruits us into his car. I notice that his car is all black and that it says ‘Deluxe’ on the side, spurring me to voice my concern to my friends. We reason that it can’t be too much more expensive and hop in.

Normally, a meter will start at 2200 won (close to $2), this particular cab is 4600 won out of the gate.  It’s clear we are going to pay more for leather seats. I communicate in piece-meal Korean to the driver that this is expensive. The driver replies in a sandpaper voice that its alright, he says something else that I don’t understand, and then he chuckles. At this point I don’t trust him, I don’t necessarily dislike him, but I don’t trust him.  My two coworkers are laid back (one reason they are good company) and they aren’t overly concerned with the price.  We decide that if the fare seems out of control early on we will get out and hail a new cab.

About 5 minutes pass when we reach a part of the city littered with oil refineries (I think).  There is nothing like a steady whiff of oil. My gaze out the window is interrupted by a quick glance at the meter. It reads 17000 won. We aren’t near Haeundae Beach yet and we aren’t in an area to find another cab. A cab ride from the station to Haeundae is normally 15000 won.  While this cab is higher in price because there is a decal on the side that boasts that it is deluxe, I think we also fell victim to the take-advantage-of-the-foreigners-traveling-in-a-new-city scheme that some unscrupulous taxi drivers employ.  I become irritated and again mumble that it’s too expensive.  Our only option is to bite the bullet, continue, and hope the price isn’t too high. At this moment, I regret settling for the deluxe cab and save the experience into my enormous lesson learned file.

When we finally reach an area where we are able to find a more reasonable cab, the meter has jumped to 25700 won. We decide to get out where we are rather than pay this guy over 30000 won.  We all throw in our money and I begrudgingly pay the driver. He pops the trunk and gets out of the car to hand us our bags  (which must be part of the deluxe experience). I snatch my bag out of the cab drivers hand and we look at one another for a while. I study his face. He studies mine. His eyes narrow and he mutters something to me as he is getting into the driver’s seat. I notice that my friend forgot to shut the backseat passenger door. The three of us look at each other thinking the same thing: should we shut it?  Before we know it the driver pulls off with the backdoor still ajar. We watch frozen with our mouths open. The car moves close to the side of the road. So close that the open door is in danger of hitting a pole, tree, or pedestrian. He doesn’t drive more than 10 feet before the door clips a street light on the edge of the sidewalk, slamming the door shut. The cab screeches to a complete stop. We catch a glimpse of the driver looking around frantically not knowing exactly what happened. The three of us erupt in laughter while we search for another taxi.

We jump  into a new cab and two minutes later arrive at the beach.

The highlight of the trip came about an hour later at an Indian restaurant called Namaste. Delicious.

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The art of naming

Some days are more interesting than others; today was neither dull nor particularly colorful; but that doesn’t mean I didn’t come  away with a few indelible sound-bites.

The start of my day was not especially promising. First, I overslept, not by much, but enough to be forced into eating a granola bar on the way out the door in lieu of a proper breakfast. When I arrived at the fitness center I had 50 minutes to workout and shower instead of the usual hour and 20 minutes. Again, not a huge deal. I weighed my two options: 1) alter my regimen, omitting several exercises, or 2) speed things up and squeeze in my normal routine in 30 less minutes. I went with the latter option, jumping from one thing to another without any recovery time. Halfway through  and I was still feeling good, albeit  eventually I had to reduce the weight on some exercises due to a build up of lactic acid.  The gym that I belong (is belong to strong of a word?) to is better than adequate, and even though they lack some exercise machines and free weights that I am accustomed to back home, the spas, saunas, and steam rooms make up for it.  After finishing my last set of dips I rushed to the locker room to shower before heading to work. I don’t always feel comfortable showering, especially when a guy who scrubs people down (apparently he is employed to do this) is lurking, but after 7 months I have gotten used to being a nude foreigner among a sea of Koreans. A coworker told me a story of a former coworker of his that went to the sauna to relax. Apparently, this guy kept his shorts on because he wasn’t keen on the idea of going in naked. When the infamous back scrubber caught sight of this he rushed over, pull down the guys shorts, and waved his finger back and forth while saying, “No, no, no.”  After showering I felt absolutely exhausted from the intense workout and a wave of nasuea and dizziness struck.  To make matters worse (for the people around me) I forgot my deodorant and cologne at home. Leaving, I felt horrible, and instead of taking the fifteen minute stroll to work I took a cab.

It was at lunch with a group of female coworkers that I began to feel better. While eating a bagel and cream cheese the conversation turned to the “c” word. Some people adamantly refuse to even utter the “c” word. Personally, I don’t have any real qualms about saying it.   The “c” word is widely considered  one of the raunchiest, most distasteful words in the English language, and everyone at the table held this opinion … or so I thought.  Out of nowhere, a very nice, sweet young teacher announced that she calls her dad a cunt all the time. Directly to his face? Sure, just joking around. “My dad calls me a cunt too,” she explained nonchalantly. From this moment on my day began shaping up nicely.

During our daily foreign teacher meeting the manager of the hagwon came in to make a few announcements.  He stressed how important listening is to learning a new language and how our students needed more practice doing this. Up to this point, I was nodding my head in agreement. He went on to explain that young children learn language by listening and mimicking what they hear. Still nodding. Then came the curve ball, the Michael Scott moment: “You guys know Helen Keller right? Yeah, that’s how she did it. She listened.” I  didn’t nod, and kept it to myself that Helen Keller was deaf and blind.

When I walked into my first class I realized that I had a new student. Nothing gets me more excited in the classroom than seeing a new student because it means that it’s time to choose an English name. Sometimes, much to my chagrin, a student will come to the academy already with an English name; most of the time though the student picks  a name in the first class. I’ve learned that I have a tremendously powerful influence during the selection process and I’m not ashamed to admit that I utilize this power. I figure I am doing the student a favor, bestowing them with a cool name. Selfishly, this is really great practice for when it’s time to officially name a child.  The little guy immediately took a liking to the name Tupac.

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‘Skinny Bitch’

The sultry weather has fed my desire to do some traveling. With roughly four months left on my contract, a weeks worth of vacation days, and two three-day holidays, I will have almost two weeks (paid) to see some of Asia. China is first on the list with Cambodia and Thailand in a dead heat for the number two spot. Jeju Island, off of the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, is in the cards for a three-day weekend trip. One thing is for sure,  I am determined to trek the Great Wall, something that we all read and learned about in school at a relatively young age, a creation that, to me, always seemed  more mythical than real.

A few weeks ago, the landlady had a new air conditioner installed into my room. How nice it is to shut the windows and keep the bugs out (the screens don’t do the job) and stay fresh like a cut of tenderloin in a meat locker. I fancy (a word I  borrowed from my UK counterparts) cranking the ac up full blast until it gets to the point where I am cold and then letting myself thaw, a routine I do repeatedly when I am home for any extended period.  The ac has made sleeping so much more comfortable.  There is something obstinately difficult about sleeping without a cover and now I can slumber with a thin blanket without waking up perspiring.

The summer semester is just three days old. From what I can tell, I like all of my classes. My schedule is decent in that I teach most of the upper-level classes, making communicating and unsurprisingly, teaching, so much more pleasant. It also makes joking around and having fun with the students less challenging because they can pick up on more things, especially sarcasm.  Recently in a low-level class, I reverted to juggling board erasers in a lame attempt to captivate the students. Some students laughed, a few clapped uninspired, others rolled their eyes; performing like a circus entertainer in front of a class of tired, disinterested Korean children. I’ve found my calling.

I teach a total of 22 classes per week. The foreigners in the elementary department  were asked to design a book for a special course that is offered to the students every Wednesday at no additional cost. Wednesdays are designed to give special attention to students who are not comfortable speaking, which means that origami and marshmallow spaghetti towers are featured in unit 2.

A young student who chooses to go by the English name, Mindy, is in my class for a third straight semester. Because she has better speaking ability than most in her class, she is by default the unofficial interpreter when a) I have absolutely no idea what a student is trying to communicate to me, or when b) a student and or the rest of the class has absolutely no idea what I am trying to communicate to them. Mindy is small and friendly with a pleasant smile, but this doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have an edge, she can get pretty feisty. Of late, she spends increasingly more time complaining and when she feels it necessary chewing out some of the rowdy boys in the class. The other day, I had the students take turns writing sentences on the board. When it was Mindy’s turn, my jaw dropped when I noticed  her t-shirt read,  ‘Skinny Bitch’.  When I discovered that she had absolutely no idea what it meant I gently advised her that she probably shouldn’t wear the shirt any more. At the tail end of class I saw Mindy using her electronic dictionary, when suddenly her face grew crimsoned, and she looked at me with a tentative smile.

Enjoyable frustration

I am about 70 percent finished the painting I am working on in art class.  Along the way I have snapped some pictures. Here is the evolution of  the untitled painting:

The Sketch

First Layer

Second Layer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Detail

Detail (Continued)

 

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Spring Fever

The power of beauty

At some point over the last several weeks the increasingly strong, warm spring air triumphed over the last remnants of the cold winter, giving my students something other than homework or my appearance to complain about : the humid weather. The complaints may go from annoying to intolerable as we make our way into the summer heat. I’ll keep you posted.  I welcome the high temperatures because I’m not much for wool socks, dry hands and chapped lips. Plus, the cherry blossoms are nice on the eyes, especially when the cherry trees are closely clustered together. Apparently, the Japanese introduced Korea to cherry blossom festivals during their rule over the peninsula.   While cherry blossom festivals are popular in Korea today, after Japan surrendered in WWII many cherry trees were destroyed because they reminded some of the Japanese occupation.  Whether most know the origins of the tradition or not, everyone I’ve spoken to in Daegu about cherry blossoms only  mention their beauty.

Admiring the cherry blossoms on a grey afternoon.

Rebirth of the perfectionist

I’m taking a painting class in Lotte Department store with a Korean friend Mijin. You might be wondering why I am taking an art class in a department store, something I’ve asked myself. Lotte is like Macy’s on steroids,  featuring a nice food court and grocery store and offering all kinds of classes, like dance, piano, yoga, etc.  The class meets every Sunday. I find myself looking forward to going every week even though it has triggered some of my obsessive, self-critical qualities.  As a kid I had a knack for drawing and I would spend hours on a single sketch, trying to make every line, every mark perfect. Typically, it would end in me throwing away my work out of frustration. I have made it over a month without  snapping a single paint brush, tearing apart a canvass, or unleashing any real emotional outbursts. Can you say growth? Though sometimes it feels like the instructor and I are speaking two totally different languages (hint: we are). According to Mijin,  my defacto interpreter, the teacher has concern that I am devoting  too much attention and detail to the background. I think she applies to much makeup to her eyebrows. Mijin deserves an award for being the  middle(wo)man and bearing the brunt of my neuroticism.

Progress Report

With six months of experience living in Korean under my belt my perspective of the country is starting to take form, rounding like an inflating beach ball. I am proud to say that the unfamiliarity and separation from my culture  and traditions  has not led to me becoming a xenophobe. Contrarily,  the wider the difference, only the more interesting.  I’ve compiled a list of my  favorite and least favorite  things about Korea (so far).  In my opinion, the pros substantially outweigh the cons.

Pros

1.  Friendly people – most people I meet are  nice and welcoming. Unfortunately the men  are much quicker to strike up conversation with me than the women, which usually entails them saying something like, “Hi! You’re handsome! Where are you from?” Whatever confidence I collect from these kinds of exchanges evaporates when my students begin critiquing every asymmetry on my face.

2. Mountainous region – no shortage of beautiful mountains

3. BBQ restaurants – they supply you with a plate full of raw meat, as well as an array of side dishes, and you cook the meat on a grill at your table.

4. Noraebangs – karaoke room with friends are everywhere. Apparently some places offer “service” something that is missing from my Korean experience.

5.  Public transport – the subway and bus systems are top-notch and don’t get me started on the high-speed rail system … the KTX, which spans the entire country from top to bottom goes up to 190 mph (305 kmh). Enough said.

6. Women – I was never a guy with an  ‘Asian  fetish’ per se (like my good friend Mike professed that he had back  in 7th grade), but with every  day that I am here I am finding Korean women increasingly more attractive.

Cons

1. Lack of cheese

2. Lack of public garbage cans

3. Lack of respect for personal space-I’ve become accustomed to getting bumped, skipped, and on one occasion, massaged.

In the news

I don’t know what was more shocking Osama bin Laden’s death or the Lakers getting swept.

Prediction

Miami Heat win NBA title

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