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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Lotus Lantern Festival Parade (Seoul)

Festival program with historical notes and a (rather Buddhist) acknowledgement of the Sewol ferry disaster.
We visited friends Jessica and Andre Kok in Seoul this weekend, and they reserved "foreigner seats" for the annual Lotus Lantern Festival Parade.   The festival itself is a several-day event that celebrates the birth of Buddha. Now I have been to a whole lot of parades: I participated as part of the marching band throughout middle and high school; observed a few Chicago parades; brought my lawn chair to watch the annual Sioux Center Summer Celebration parade, where kids gobbled up the tossed candy from the passing tractors, cars, and floats; attended the annual Tulip Festival when my kids marched in the band.  So, as an experienced parader, I pretty much knew what to expect.

Except, as usual in Korea, I was mostly wrong.

First was the free, reserved, street-side seating for foreigners, which is a wonderful perk.  Friendly Koreans in bright pink silk clothes (yes, both men and women) cleaned off our plastic lawn chairs, distributed English (!) festival programs, gave out do-it-yourself lanterns and votive candles, and even came around with lighters as dusk fell.

I love, love that no colors are off-limits for men in Korea.

Jessica successfully put together her lantern.





























The parade was at least two hours long but without a single horse, car, truck, tractor, or bike; and no promotional floats (besides a couple of Buddhist schools). This was indeed a parade like I had never seen. It consisted of hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of people of every age walking past in groups while holding aloft a great variety of softly-lit paper and silk lanterns that had symbolic meaning. Without the entertaining music and dancers (canceled in light of the Sewol ferry disaster), the parade was relatively quiet--perhaps even solemn--which seemed rather fitting for a religious festival.   The ubiquitous yellow ribbons on wrists and lanterns were a constant reminder of the ferry disaster.


Many groups passed of different ages and genders; even a group of people in wheelchairs were pushed past.  My favorite part? The women's swishing hanboks (traditional silk gowns) and their soft chanting were mesmerizing; the closest comparison I have is the sound of the Orange City marching band's wooden clogs in the Tulip Festival parade.  If you've been there, you know what I mean by that almost-haunting sound.


A few human-propelled floats punctuated the walking groups, featuring enormous paper lanterns that symbolized aspects of Buddhism. Most of these large floats were led by ranks of brown-robed, bald Buddhists of every age and gender, who chanted together as they walked.



I can't easily describe the feeling of being there, watching so many people pass in the growing dark, lit only by their carried lanterns that symbolized their deeply-held beliefs.  So, here are a few pictures to give you a small sense of what we saw.

Giant, fire-breathing dragons; elephant mama and child (Buddhism began in India, but I don't know the specific connection to elephants).

The swastika is the traditional symbol of buddhism (centuries before the Nazis got hold of it);
many lions and dragons were features in the parade.

One of the Four Guardsmen (left); "lotus boy" on a lion and elephant.  Not sure what the specific significance is.



Groups included both devout ajummas in traditional gowns and giddy ajummas in regular clothes.

Children also carried an array of lanterns. 
It was not all seriousness, though.  Some inexplicable moments broke the reverie of the swishing, chanting buddhist river.  I was delighted that many monks wore sneakers under their austere robes, as did many ajummas under their expensive gowns. Some parade members took selfies as they marched along; others darted to the sidelines, waving at and photographing the foreign kids (one of the Kok's blondies got 1000 won from an admiring man).  A series of awful, pink "Lotus Boy" lanterns made the foreigners laugh, as did a cartoonish "mascot" buddha near the end of the parade.
Strangenesses even amidst the very foreign religious procession.
Walking back to the Kok's apartment after the long parade, carrying our free lanterns plus some others that the kids were given or we found along the way, I reflected on religion in Korea vs. the US.  About 25% of Koreans are Buddhist and about the same percentage are Christian.  In the US, 75% of adults self-identify as Christian, and Buddhism together with Judaism, Islam and Hinduism make up just 4%. But I don't see Christians in the US having these kinds of public celebrations, either somber or celebratory.  Instead, we seem to duck our heads, hiding behind church doors and Christmas trees, perhaps fearing to offend.  I felt strangely proud of Korean Buddhists, and perhaps more than a little envious of their modern commitment to a religious tradition that precedes Christ by hundreds of years.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Gardening in ajumma-land

Garden joys: clematis; columbine; gazania; anemone; tea tree.  
In last week's blog, I described a series of interactions with locals regarding free manure for my new garden.  Today I highlight some other interactions.

Grace, a Korean-American expat friend, took me to her favorite plant-lady (the roundabout in Heunghae) and to her favorite nursery (south of Heunghae on 7). The lady had a small sidewalk display and we admired the array of plants and flowers. I fear that in my joy of seeing old flowery friends (and being introduced to new ones), I squealed and clapped like a joyous four-year-old on Easter morning.  After awhile, the plant lady herself appeared (where was she?  I have no idea) and began watering the plants and chatting with Grace (in Korean), leaving me to just smile and nod, confirming the stereotype of Americans as witless wonders. 

Heunghae plant lady.  Friendliest ajumma ever. 
A man approached--standing WAY too close--and spoke loudly as he smoked (a recent survey showed that 45% of Korean men smoke-compare to 20% in the US.). The lady shoved him away, talking loudly to him in rapid-fire Korean, then continued watering as he wandered across the street. Grace believed the man was probably the plant-lady's son and that the woman reported he was quite drunk--at 11am on a weekday. Ouch. Before we left, I asked Grace if I could take the plant lady's picture and to my great surprise, she paused and then agreed. I happily bought two japanese anenomes (larger, more colorful cousins to my Iowa snowdrop anenomes) and two peonies for only $11, and we managed to get away before the returning son reached us.

Odd pot; orchid (dozens of varieties, all cheap); tiny decor; statues entertaining the greenhouse residents.
Across town at the nursery, we happily surveyed hundreds of houseplants, pots, and flowers in the greenhouse and edging the parking lot. Some of the pots had odd English sayings; some plant arrangements included tiny picket fences and shepherd hooks with teeny bird cages.  We suspect this nursery specializes in what I think of as "Grand Open" pots: when a new business opens, its neighbors and sponsors/supporters send large flower arrangements with supportive messages.
Some "grand open" floral arrangements

Grace chats plants with nursery guy; part of a sea of dog heads in odd English pots; a lady prunes flowers.
Grace chatted with a young man (the owner's son?) about prices and plant names; he clearly loved each plant. We returned two days later with Australian friend Tracey, and I bought loads of old and new flowery friends: gazania, columbines (what Tracey calls "Grandma's Blooomers"), tea tree (officially called leptospermum, which name provoked my inner adolescent), lavender, and clematis. The kind man offered us each a "service," which is Korean for "this is a free gift because you shopped here today and I appreciate your loyalty now and hopefully in the future," and we each received a heliotrope (reminding me of the Pixar short).  After I handed over my debit card, a smiling ajumma boxed up the plants and carried them to the back of my van.  I admired her spirit as she jumped up to (unsuccessfully) grab the hatch's handle to close the back.  I tried not to let on that I thought she was adorable, which is high praise indeed for an ajumma.

In addition to my new garden, I have also rediscovered a small space that had been created in years past by expats but were gradually neglected as folks moved away.  So, I spent many hours there this week weeding, pruning, and removing a year or two of leaves from a dozen small plots, where I found a huge variety of perennials and shrubs.  Sort of like dumpster diving, I suppose, as I mentally reviewed which items could be moved to my sunny new garden.  A few times some ajummas would wander by, stand too close as they watched me work, then walk away. 

On Saturday morning, a pair of ajummas greeted me (a first), with their visors and masks in place. They stood too close as I pulled out weeds and trimmed dead hydrangea branches.  One then pointed at a perennial I'd carefully worked around (a coreopsis I planned to move), announced "POOL!" (translation: pull!), then yanked it out and tossed it over the wooded cliff before walking away, satisfied that she'd taught the white lady something about proper gardening. Ouch. When they were out of sight, I rescued it from the precipice and stuck it in some water for later transplant.  It's been a good week for ajummas overall, but it sure ended on a strange note.

P.S.  In addition to ajumma interactions this week, I have had some wildlife interactions.  I saw a 26ish-inch snake, which Google later told me was a tiger keelback (also called floral snake).  Although it rarely attacks people (it prefers toad-sized targets), it is quite venomous and causes death via hemorrhage.  Nice.  Happily I had decided to watch from a distance rather than pursue my usual practice of picking it up to admire more closely.  Finally, many great tits were in the trees this week; in the US, we'd call them chickadees, but the rest of the English-speaking world calls them tits. In researching them on wikipedia, I laughed so hard my stomach cramped.  (It's not my fault: a certain Joe Walsh song was popular in my formative years, and "tit" therefore has only one meaning which does not refer to birds.)  Take this sentence, for example:  "The Great Tit is generally not migratory. Pairs will usually remain near or in their territory year round, even in northern parts of their range." That's just funny, I don't care who you are.  :)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Gardening, Stage 2: The Big Poo Hunt

Garden dreaming.
In the last week, a whirlwind of joyous gardening has taken place. The university has cleared and tilled a large area for an expat garden (roughly a 140 x 30 feet rectangle about 75 steps up the mountain from our building). Here I must thank Professor Ka (psychology professor and international relations office administrator) for his garden advocacy ("why not thank him in person?" the astute reader might wonder. Well, because I still have trouble distinguishing among Korean men beyond "relatively short, dark hair, and glasses."  So I wouldn't know him if he came to the door. Or the garden.).

Anyway.  Wasting no time, interested ex-pats met to outline our goals and to design our first-year community garden.  We also noted some significant potential challenges to the site.  Namely: (a) it has no ready water source; (b) the soil is of questionable quality; (c) certain parties may be interested in the literal fruits of our labor (e.g., rats, deer) and/or a private little getaway spot for spring love (we are on a college campus, after all). Today's blog, however, is primarily about limitation (b). That would be Soil Quality, in case your mind wandered after the spring love comment.

So, the very next morning we paced out and marked paths and plots with pine branches and scavenged yarn and ribbon.  I made a spreadsheet to (sort of) show the garden's dimensions and to make this whole project seem more of a winning opportunity for those who'd not yet seen the garden.  Many expats, trusting the persuasive grids and colors of Excel, thereby chose their plots site unseen (grammarians: that's not a typo).

The careful reader will note that Lantingas have 2 sites.  Why?  Greedy buggers, you might think.  Perhaps.  But I want flowers and he wants veggies and ne'er the twain shall meet except over a well-maintained path between us.
Now on to the questionable soil.  My friend Google taught me all about do-it-yourself soil assessment, so we dug two representative holes, gathered representative soil from each, and put representative samples into separate jars that contained spaghetti sauce in their former lives (google recommended Mason jars, but I like to live on the edge.  Besides, I'm in Korea - who's got Mason jars?).  Next steps: fill jars with with water, shake vigorously, and wait 24 hours for the dust to settle.

My little piggies in the soil; photos from each end of the marked community garden; our soil assessment.
Apparently, good soil (which I now recognize is pretty much synonymous with "Iowa") is about 45% sand, 25% silt, 25% clay, and 5% organic matter.  Our sample was rather different: 90% sand, 7% silt, and 3% clay. Do you see any organic matter?  Neither did we.  Grade on this test?  F.

But, of course, there are other measures of soil quality, like a careful body count (insects, of course, not people - what were you thinking??).  Google said good earth should have about 5 earthworms per shovelful of soil, plus a decent assortment of ants, beetles, centi- and milli-pedes, etc. (sorry - Google refuses to tell me where we found that). So, happy to be guilt-free gardening at last (see previous blog), I turned over the soil in my garden (about 10 x 12'), and then in Nick's garden (same size) as well as raked all the paths around our two gardens.  I watched carefully for lifeforms as I pulled out roots (pine, wild roses, grasses) and clay clumps.  In that 4 hours, I found this result:
     0 earthworms
     1 ant
     1 small beetle
     Plus: 1 gnat, 1 housefly, and a tiny blue moth.
Grade on this soil test? Another F.

For my last soil quality test, I gripped and then unclenched a handful of soil to assess its "tilth": good soil should hold its shape but crumble when poked.  Mine completely refused to hold together, like a family reunion that has gone on far too long.  So, to summarize, the soil had failed the course. We could just as well garden at the beach, though there we'd have the advantage of seaweed compost complete with beachy bugs.

What to do?  Composting would create good organic matter, but that takes time (far longer than I'm willing to wait to get some darn flowers in the ground NOW).  We located some large bags of pig poo (possibly mixed with compost?) at a local nursery, but at 9,000 won (about $8.50) per bag, proper soil amendment would get pricey fast. And I like cheap, in case case you missed my earlier hints. So, we bought one bag of pig poo for each of our gardens, but I wanted more--for free, if possible.  I was willing to shovel.

Now, we knew of a horse corral directly down the hill/mountain from our building, and we'd hiked there through the piney woods before, but we'd never figured out how to drive there.  And I may be cheap, but I wasn't willing to carry shovels and bags of free poo up a mountain.

This morning, friend Tracey and I set out to find the poo source by car.  The corral is easily visible from the highway that runs past campus, but no one knew how to get there. So we took a secondary road that wanders past campus, near the highway and under it and back again. The first promising turn-off was a little lane that quickly ended in a small orchard. The next turn-off was a cement lane that ducked under the highway along some mucky rice fields before it, too, ended abruptly. The next turn-off (we were no longer sure which side of the highway we were on, and about here, Tracey--a 9-year resident of this place--said, "Have I mentioned that I have a poor sense of direction?") was a dirt two-track path rising steeply up a mountain.  Near the top, we eventually found a small orchard, large bundles of hay, and four huge silent-but-menacing guard dogs trotting around. (One dog was so large that from a distance Tracey though it might be a horse, and then we downsized it to a sheep as we approached).  As we parked behind a shiny white car, we saw an older man (I can't discern Korean age: he could have been 40 or 75) who seemed curious about the two middle-aged white women leaving their mini-van and walking toward him.

"An-nyong-ha-say-yo!" we greeted him in Korean, bowing our heads respectfully.  He walked away from us (was it something we said?) to chain up one of the horse-dogs, then returned.  We proudly knew the Korean word for "horse" and asked "mahl?" with helpless expressions. He did not understand. "Horse?" I tried. "Horses? Mawl? Mohl? Mool?"  Nope - nothing. Tracey bent to scratch out a drawing in the dusty track until our new farmer friend exclaimed, "Hore-suh!!" Yes!  (I was pretty impressed - I knew what Tracey was drawing and still couldn't make head nor tail out of it; I want Farmer Friend on my next Pictionary team).  He pointed over the mountain and gestured and spoke (in Korean, dear reader, not English - that would be way too easy) and after more drawings and a few common words like "highway" (ok, that was the only common word) and a couple of local place names, we thought we mostly had our directions.  "Ok," I recapped, "on highway; not Youngilman Port or Handong, but Namsong-ri."  He nodded.  But then he kept gesturing and adding something about Jong-Leong-ri, which is a small village several miles away.

Finally giving up on our stupidness, he finally gestured for us to follow him into the woods along a barely-discernible trail.  He stopped at one point, wrote 500 on the ground while saying "oh-bek meet-aw," and kept walking. Ah: 500 meters further.  Over his shoulder he asked "America?" and I skillfully responded "mee-gook salaam" (America person) and Tracey announced "ho-joo salaam" (Australian person).  He laughed, perhaps because he knew his family would never believe he led two unsuspecting foreign ladies into the woods. We arrived at the top of the mountain on the wrong side of the highway. And, as it happens, exactly across from us--only 1/2 mile as the magpie flies--was my campus apartment building.  Which I pointed out.  He again pantomimed and appeared to be saying we could just walk to the corral from our building instead of driving all over like crazy way-gooks (white people).  Well, yes. But we were in search of (free) poo, not just a friendly horseback ride, and we had no easy way to explain our poo mission (probably just as ludicrous in Korean as in English) so we just stuck with driving language (which, for me, consisted solely of the Korean word for "car").  So, with yet more smiling gestures and dusty drawings, we got the gist of his directions and returned back down the mountain. He pointed out some horse patties on the trail, noting that horses were apparently nearby, and I could neither contain nor explain my giggles.

He stopped to admire a blooming fruit tree (not apple, not orange, not pear, not pomegranate and then our Korean fruit words ran out).  He mentioned "moon!" and "night!" and made exploding sounds and gestures toward the tree.  Finally we understood: these white flowers appeared to glow under the moon's soft light.  I realize that most of you are concerned about our sanity in following a strange man through the woods, but I dearly loved seeing his blossoming joy.

Back to the poo pursuit.  We found our way to the highway, exited at Namsong-ri, drove a few kilometers to the next u-turn lane (now THAT is a standard road feature the US should adopt) and easily found the horse stable!  Oh, wait; this was not the one we were looking for.  Well, we're here, so why not?  We found a man and Tracey tried to request "mahl" and "tawng" (what we believed to be the Korean word for "poop"). He did not understand.  We got a shovel and gloves from the van and pointed to the barn.  Aha!  He got another shovel and two large bags, then helped us shovel the old poo and even carried the bags to the van.  While asking about rates for riding the horses (a one-hour "lesson" is about $28 and something else - perhaps a set of lessons? is about $300), I noticed that the nearby horses refused to meet our gaze, rather like unprepared students who desperately wish to avoid being called on.  With two bags full, we could have returned home, but we still hadn't found "our" corral and the day was yet young.

We continued on our way and found another tiny village with its requisite dead-end lanes and rice tractors, but then we noticed a cow barn (picture a large shed or warehouse, not a picturesque red wood barn).  And cow barns have cows and cows make poo, too.  Well, why not, Tracey said; we're here already.  So, out we hopped and after admiring some calves and a lot of brown bulls (steers?  I didn't check closely) standing knee-deep in fresh poo, we found an ajumma pitching hay into the mangers.  Tracey was our designated speaker, asking this time about "so" (cow) "tawng" (poo??) while pointing to the boy-bulls' messy milieu.  The ajumma understood (hooray!  no drawings in bullcrap), then gave us shovels and four large bags and pointed out some relatively dry poo on the floor. She then left us to it.

A few shovelfuls into the job, it struck us that a radio was playing in the barn.  And, the song was in English.  Tracey recognized the singer first: Doris Day. Once I started giggling, it was hard to stop and it was nigh impossible to shovel poo.  Here we stood - middle-aged American and Australian women in a nameless village in rural Korea shoveling some lady's cow poo while listening to American big band music popular when our parents were young.

We never did find "our" horse corral.  But the poo adventure was itself worthy of the pursuit.  We surely helped create stories for some Korean dinner tables tonight, and our gardens, covered now in dark, organic clumps, shall thank us for a long time to come.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Gardening for Ex-pats (or, Korean Landscaping)

When Nick and I lived in Grand Rapids (before the Berlin wall came down, for those wanting historical context) during our first fragile years of our marriage, we had a few houseplants (thanks, Beth!).  At our first Chicago apartment we eventually took over the courtyard mud-pit with a flourish of impatiens and some sun-deprived veggies and herbs. Our next Chicago landlord let us help pass many happy evenings hauling Tennessee river rock around to frame the raised beds.  Both our homes in Iowa saw shrinking yards and increasing perennial gardens; beyond enjoying the flowers, pulling weeds and pruning were wonderful stress-relievers. (Some might call it a control issue.  But not in my hearing.)

And now we're in Korea, where even life-bent ajummas have at least balcony gardens if not little growing spaces in the abandoned lots and alleys of mountains and town.  I, too, yearned for a spot to dig and put down roots and encourage life.
Ajummas garden in empty lots, on the roof, even at the beach.
So this is the story of the land around our building and the unspoken battles of ownership and sharing. It's my perspective; if others have more info, they can let me know where I'm wrong or they can write their own blog. (Either way is fine with me.)

Let's see.  Once (well, ok, maybe 30 years ago; who knows what mega-beavers roamed this land back in the day?), this was a pine-covered mountain. And by mountain, I mean something akin to the Appalachians or the Porcupines of northern Michigan rather than the Rockies. And on this piney-mountain lays (lies? I never did learn that grammatical rule) a thin layer of topsoil created by slow-rotting pine needles, pine trees, and little else.  Beneath that lays (lies?) a seriously nasty combo of clay and crumble. Not a speck of self-respecting soil to be found.  In my 10.5 months of hiking and digging and poking around Korea, I have never seen a centipede, grub, pillbug, or even a worm in the earth (sometimes worms sneak onto rainy roads, but even that's rare).  Just a couple of weird-looking stink-bugs (of intimidating sizes), some dumb flies (unlike the busy poo-flies of Iowa or the voracious black flies of mid-summer Porcupines), a couple of spiders, some dragonflies, praying mantises, and grasshoppers at the height of summer.  Nearly no mammals, either (my total Korean squirrel count = six; 1 blurry micro-deer; 2 chipmunks; 4 dumpster rats). (Note to newer readers: see earlier blogs on Korean Wildlife.)  This is a pretty barren land, and I don't know how much to attribute to imperialist invaders and war-related factors (e.g., wholesale forest removal), to abject poverty (50 years ago, this was the poorest country in the world, so folks eating dogs or squirrels or bugs makes some sense), or to construction (a local mountain was removed recently to create a flat space where new factories and warehouses sprout up every few weeks).

Back to our campus, in case you thought I had lost my thread and was going down the path of Asian ecology or economics or similar academic horrors. Handong Global University was founded only 20 years ago and has grown extremely fast.  In its first year, HGU received 4000 student applications for only 400 (government-capped) spots.  And despite some nasty financial struggles along the way, Handong's campus now has dozens of buildings and about 3500 students (Dordt College fans: HGU has about the same-sized campus but far fewer parking lots).  Rapid growth at a university means temporary buildings that need mold abatement faster than your average bear. (Bear, building. Whatever.) Happily, we live in a brand-new, permanent building atop the campus mountain, overlooking miles of land and even a bit of ocean. (You Iowa folks should definitely be envying my visual domain.)

But the surrounding dirt suggests the temporary building that once stood here was broken into bits, then the larger chunks were hauled away and the smaller bits were smooshed into the sad clay by subsequent construction equipment.

Just in case you've lost the plot so far, we have a garden-starved American woman in a new Korean campus building that's surrounded by glass/wire/tile-filled, compacted clay that can't even host a lowly worm.

For those of us with ears to hear, rumors of areas to be allowed for ex-pat gardening were briefly whispered, but died away with no formal announcement or action.  Not one to have much fear of authority (especially when they and I can't speak the same language and I REALLY want a garden), I asked Nick and Sam to build me a tiny garden space from three dead pallets; they kindly did so and put it on the sun-drenched hillside below our balcony.  I bought a strong shovel from our beloved little hardware store, turned the "soil" (really, we must use air quotes here), and added some dried horse poo that I'd found along trails in the woods.  Over the weeks I slowly gathered some cosmos and black-eyed susans from along wild roadsides and transplanted them into my cozy space.  I had no idea if they would grow, or if my garden would be arrested for trespassing, but it calmed my dirt-loving soul.
Standard "soil" plus old poo.

My actions did not go unseen, and they begat some excitement among other garden-eager ex-pats. Some had the distinct advantage of speaking (and looking) Korean and were thereby able to do some digging (ha! a pun!) into campus permissions regarding communal gardening.

Alas. Where we had planted pallets was certainly NOT permitted garden space.  Instead, the ex-pats would be allowed to garden in small plots on the building's shadier (and dirtier) north side.  Elisabeth and I spent hours digging out rocks and picking construction debris out of the ground; friend Grace measured the space, publicized the garden opportunity, and assigned spots by lottery.  We spray- painted lines to mark pathways; some of us began turning the dirt, optimistically imagining life among the greasy clay clods.

More whispers spread.  Oh, wait, what was that?  Ex-pats can't use the north side as garden space after all?  They're going to plant trees there instead?  Oh... Maybe we can have the dark-as-death armpit of the building's driveway turn-around for a little space?  Maybe? No?  ... And thus my dreams of spring drained away as my pallets and lumpy plot of land-clay lapsed into winter silence.  Some women, of more realistic bent, staged ceramic and plastic pots along the edges of the parking lot, waiting for the day when some small seeds and store-bought soil would spring forth life.  I resisted the pots, petulantly refusing to give up the land battle, and one day last week I had had enough moping. I got my shovel and went down to inspect Pallet Garden more closely. One plant had come back, returning to me through the long fall drought and winter snows.  I gently fluffed the soil around it, surrounded this mighty plant with protective sticks, and stood my shovel in the dirt to guard this tiny harbinger and re-stake my claim on gardens to come.

Within two days, a pair of ajummas moved across the hillside, ripping out the thorns and weeds and rolling them into piles.  I watched carefully from my balcony as they gently brushed away some stray leaves from my petite pallet garden, and my heart glowed with gratitude.  Perhaps these were sympathetic hearts; perhaps my small claim would be a permitted lapse in the university's hazy plans.

Ajummas removing winter-dead weeds just downhill from my pallet garden.  And, yes, that is a strap-on butt cushion.
Then Thursday came with a rumble of a Doosan diesel engine and sounds of loud hammering.  A front-loader was dumping piles of blond dirt (sand?) onto the (my!) gentle hillside; two men were breaking apart my pallet; ajummas were removing the pieces. Over the day, a small group of workers raked the ground, spread the sandy "soil," then marked out five spaces which they packed tight with full-sized azaleas (did you know azaleas, rhododendrons, blueberries, cranberries, and heather are cousins?).  I was a little sad, but chose to see this as a victory; my rebellion had perhaps sparked some much-needed, big-picture landscaping.  I even smiled gently when my shovel got included in the work, happy to contribute a bit to the beautifying of the space. (I was less smiley when the day ended without my shovel being returned, search for it though I did).

Front loader + shovels (last sighting of my own shovel) + twig broom = hillside land sculpting.
This morning (Sunday), two ajummas were plunking down... what?  tiny hay bales encircled with white plastic twine?  Not quite. These were packets of what I can only call "sod patties."  About 10" square, these sad flat patties were arranged like a tile floor and then...buried in the sandy topsoil. Which means, dear reader, that long day of sodding ending up with the hillside looking pretty much as it did 12 hours earlier.  I have no idea how this stuff will grow, but perhaps Korean grass is as hardy as the people who live here, the folks who so recently ate dogs and tulip bulbs and dandelions just to survive.
Azalea planting and sod-patty burying. 
So what's become of my own garden dreams?  I don't know yet. My rebellious spirit has been tempered, and perhaps I, too, will have to resort to store-bought soil and seedlings ordered on-line to plant in pots that vie for my driveway space. Then again, a walk in the woods yesterday showed a lovely sunny spot just off the trail where some coneflowers and cosmos and basil could quietly pass the time with me as we again turn the soil and look for life.