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Friday, May 30, 2014

Of Pergolas and Bruschetta: A Perfect Saturday

Sketching designs
What's fun for us to do on a Saturday, you might ask?  Ah, that's too easy. It's a husband-wife building project, of course!  I love the convenience of apartment living but I dearly miss doing design/construction projects with Nick (see previous complaints here). So, today, in honor of my upcoming birthday, we did a project together. Specifically, we made a pergola (pronounced PER-gola if you're from the US, or per-GO-la if you're from Down Under) for the ex-pat community garden. We've not made one of these before, and we suspected (ok, KNEW) that doing this project in Korea would be different than our various US projects; on the plus side, we don't need building permits or inspections here (well, I don't think so).

Step 1: Design & planning.  I sketched some ideas and Nick made them prettier.  We walked out some rough dimensions in the garden then finalized a list of needed lumber and hardware.  Oops: we're in Korea, so things like "12-foot 4x4s" all needed to be re-calculated into metric. *Sigh.*

Step 2: Lumber: We scavenged enough good 2x4s from discarded benches on campus (hooray!) so we could take those off the list of things to buy. We then drove to the lumberyard and wandered around a bit (even though we maybe kind of knew Korean store owners are not fans of that American behavior -- hey, remember Little House on the Prairie? The customer would give the clerk a list of desired supplies and then waited for the items to be fetched. Pretty much like that here, too.)  Before we got accosted (I mean, waited on), I took great pleasure in now being able to read some of the Korean signs (오크 -- pronounced oh-kuh-- means oak!).  When Lumber Guy saw my design sketch he said "나무" (nah-moo), which literally means "tree."  (I had secretly hoped he'd say "wood" because Koreans drop the initial "w" so it's pronounced "ood."  Which cracks me up every single time for no very good reason, but I think of the effect on that old tongue-twister:  "How much ood ood a oodchuck chuck if a oodchuck could chuck ood?"  See?  It's funny.  And it's the same with words like "woman" and "wool."  But it's not a Korean issue with "w" per se - the word "wow" is typically pronounced "wah!," which also cracks us up.  And while we're way, way off track, we noticed a restaurant today called "Sushi Wa" which means "Raw Fish Wow." Is that a great name or what?)

Secret pic of Lumber Guy; our lumberyard (across from Hanaro Mart); Nick reverse-engineering the ood tie-downs.
Ahem.  Back to the lumberyard.  We have unexpected mathematical joy because lumber here is mostly imported from North America so it's in ENGLISH measurements!  Even so, I took perverse delight in Lumber Guy saying things that sounded like "doo bah po" (2x4) and "po bah po" (4x4).  On the other hand,  I returned the language favor by using the wrong number system to describe how many boards we needed (I used the Sino-Korean system and asked for "sah gay" instead of the Korean system to ask for "nay gay") but Lumber Guy nicely smiled and told Counter Lady of our order.  She then used her computer to look up the prices, which she carefully recorded and totaled by hand on a paper invoice. While baffled by her approach to technology, I happily observed that prices weren't much higher than at home: our 4" x 4" x 12' pressure-treated boards cost us about $17 each (taxes included); at Lowe's, a 4" x 4" x 10' pressure-treated board is about $13 each (plus tax; and a nod to Google for its pricing assistance).

Awesome Torque Screw vs. what we can get in Korea.
Step 3: Hardware store.  Now, remember: we're in Korea.  Just because a place sells lumber doesn't mean it sells anything that might cut it or attach it to anything else.  Thus, a trip to the hardware store.  (Have I mentioned how much I enjoy it when our hardware guys see us? The son, whose English is quite good, usually says "OOH!" and throws down his cigarette, coming out to the curb to greet us.  I think he's secretly hoping for another Dumb American story to tell over dinner.)  Today we showed him our lumber and tried to describe the torque screws we wanted (Lowe's actually calls them "Grip-Rite Countersinking-Head Polymer-Coated Star-Drive Deck Screws."  Try translating that.).  Alas, even after drawing a picture, we had to settle for basic steel Phillips' heads -- our hardware guys didn't have the torques.  *Sigh.*

Step 4: Lunch.  No good project is complete without (a) regular refreshments.  Twenty years ago (ok, 5 years ago) I would have also said "no good project is complete without...(b) a trip to the hospital," but I'm now far wiser about announcing my pessimistic safety forecast and Nick is less accident-prone. (Ok, to be completely fair, WE are less accident-prone.  I showed my mangled index finger to a young neighbor girl today, who wondered if our circular saw was a toy. Ah, no. Stand back, child).

(photo source:
Back to topic (a): refreshments. Today, the Italian culinary planets were aligned: we had on hand, all at the same time, french bread (thanks to the new Eat Bread bakery by the lumberyard, where I correctly requested 2 baguettes: "doo gay bah-gay-tah"), feta cheese (thank you Susan for your Costco run!), fresh-plucked basil (thank you Grace for the i-herb order!), olive oil, garlic, and a deep red tomato. Ahhh.... Just pause with me for a minute to imagine an entire year gone by without an exquisite plate of bruschetta.  We were weepy with fond memories of many plates shared with friends and family in Chicago, Iowa, and Michigan. Funny how food brings your heart home so quickly (and can make one just a wee bit snappy at certain offspring who appear from nowhere to claim a right to share this heavenly refreshment).

Nick measures; salvaged benches; Nick's students recruited to
put said benches in the van; tools at the ready.
Step 5: Back to work. Duly refreshed, we set up shop in our building's parking garage because (a) the elevator lobby has the building's only external outlet and (b) the shade felt good and (c) the breeze seemed pleased to sweep the garage of sawdust for us and I am fundamentally a very lazy person. (That's really why I grow perennials instead of annuals or veggies, you know. Transplant, water, one more water, and that's it: live or die, because I'm done coddling.  Which could also be maybe why my college roommate dashed my goal to become a counselor: no patience for more than 3 sessions).  Where was I? Oh, yes, we borrowed a few tools (thanks, Mundys!), measured and cut all the boards (ok, honestly, I just sat on the boards while Nick measured and cut), pulled nails from the salvaged boards (I did a LOT of this, so don't get all judgmental, dear reader, about any uneven labor distribution thus far--and thanks for Kurt for your help!).  And then we drove the cut lumber up to the community garden (yes, we drove.  With the van. Stop judging--I already admitted I was lazy) where David and two of his friends had obediently, if not altogether joyfully, dug the holes for the corner posts (thank you Daniel and Gunnar!).

Step 6:  Friendly Advice.  What I did not mention yet was the significant amount of neighborly commentary, advice, warnings and dire prophecies offered by folks passing through our project.  I love my neighbors (especially the Korean who saw me working and sent her husband straightaway to help), but this scenario was not quite the private Husband-Wife Project Day I had initially envisioned. We're not in Kansas anymore - why do I keep forgetting that?

Step 7: Where were we?  Oh yes, back to the garden. We put in the posts, made supports and did lots of measuring and leveling, then Elisabeth and I filled the 3' deep holes with rocks and beach sand, using plenty of water to cement it all in there.  Tracey and Alex wandered by and got seduced into helping with measuring, leveling, and general encouragement via stories of various Australian characters (besides themselves).
Elisabeth packing the ground around the corner posts; a documented family project;
Tracey & Alex Banks lending their assorted assistance
Ah.... The project is not quite done, but it was a wonderful, perfect, Korean day.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Silkworm Doom: I had no idea.

On my birthday, Nick flew to the US for his brother's wedding. Ah, well; on my birthday last year I was flying to Korea. I did get to see David and Elisabeth in a skit about a traditional Korean folk story (see a separate blog); have lunch and visit a new pottery shop with Korean-American friend Grace, where we admired many traditional forms of plates, bowls, platters, etc.; and had coffee and visited Jukdo Market with Australian friend Tracey. This last visit prompts today's blog.

I have been to Jukdo's enormous open-air market several times before (see here and here, for examples), so I was not surprised by the tanks of creeping crabs or writhing eels; the elderly lady vigorously chopping off fish heads on her mid-aisle push-cart, flinging droplets from her giant knife onto nearby merchandise (thanks to CSI for the concept of "castoff"); the neatly-stacked piles of produce; the men on scooters flying down the crowded aisles. Nope - generally not surprised. But then we found something new, which later research showed to be rather horrifying.

Now, Tracey had decided this would be an EXCELLENT opportunity to make me practice my Korean. "Alma yay yo?" I was forced to ask to learn the price of items. Asking wasn't as bad as having them answer, because it takes me so long to figure out what they're saying. Tracey stood by, poking me along with her grin and comments to the shopowner (in Korean) like "She is studying Korean." They laughed. She's a horrible woman, really. 
After getting some potatoes, onions, and t-something-root (the edible root of the bellflower - campanella), we noticed a new shop/stand with caterpillars. Hundreds of pale white creatures about 3 inches long crawled over one another in a wooden box as they happily munched on leaves. Tracey suspected these were silkworms. Ooh! Silkworms! I felt a a wave of nostalgia for pleasant afternoons spent reading "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" to my kids; I vaguely recalled the care needed for these helpless creatures who thoughtfully provide us with astonishingly strong and beautiful silk. Ah, silkworm caterpillars! I have truly arrived in the Far East!

Upon inspection, however, we saw no sign of silk anywhere on, in, or near the crawling horde, and no colorful clothes or soft fabrics to indicate a silk business. Hmm. We began doubting our silkworm hypothesis and thus tried questioning the vendor, a middle-aged man who knew less English than your average bear. He waved toward some small bags of dark brown liquid, a cart with bowls of sticks and spices (?), and then to the small kitchen-like room behind him with shiny gadgets and clay kimchi pots (for traditional fermentation). Together, these suggested that the friendly caterpillars were intended for, ah, processing. Perhaps even for human consumption. Eew. My imagination, which really, really should have been stopped here, quickly connected the squirmy critters with the brown bagged liquid, and then jumped to the horrible vision of tomato hornworms being squashed underfoot like ketchup packets (I think I read that in a book - I hope, hope, hope I didn't actually see/hear someone do this) and then my imagination moved to the vile possibility of people scarfing down the resulting goo.

Great. Now I was looking at the wormy pile with a whole lot less romantic admiration and a whole lot more revulsion and a strong desire for Not Knowing More. Tracey, who apparently had not had any such vivid visions, thought we should take a picture of this unique shop's display. I reluctantly asked the man for permission, pointing first to my camera then to him and the caterpillars. He countered with a request for "mahn won" -- about $10. I laughed and said no, but he asked for a counter offer. Ah, bargaining. The only Korean money-word I could think of was "oh-bek won" (a 500-won coin I usually use for the dryer, worth about $0.50). He smiled and shook his head, but said "service!" and with one finger pointed to the box of squirming goo packets. Ah - we could take 1 picture for free! Tracey grabbed my camera, had me pose by the caterpillars, and snapped not 1 but 2 pictures. The man's mood thus shifted so we bowed and slipped away, still pondering the purpose of these voracious little creatures.

As you might suspect, I later asked my home-bound research assistant (perhaps you've met "Google"?) to explain what we'd seen. And I asked a Korean friend to translate the sign next to the shop (our 3rd picture, which I snuck in as we dashed away). She said she would do more research. Hmm. A few days later I asked my Korean tutor about the sign. After squirming and consulting her smart phone's dictionary, her face turned red as she said "Ah... it's about men... it's for sexual excitement. And there are dried frog legs in that basket behind the sign. I think they're good for your health." Of course they are.
And so, here is the education part of today's blog (sort of like CSI shows always have a "musical interlude" section in the lab). I shall keep it short but have thoughtfully included an Appendix for those dear readers who desire further distraction, extra credit, or homeschooling activities for restless children. We indeed had seen silkworms (the points Tracey gained for correct identification hardly made up for forcing me to speak Korean). Of the actual silk-making process, more later, as these particular critters were destined for another purpose altogether: to be transformed into "herbal remedies" (synonyms: traditional/Chinese/Korean; medicine/supplements/treatments). These remedies appear have three kinds of desirable effects on humans:
(a) reduce phlegm (perhaps necessary in a culture where men smoke so much?),

(b) reduce gas (my favorite description was "dispels wind and settles down fright"), and

(c) enhance male virility. Oh boy. Silkworms are Korean Viagra. More eew.

Momentarily forgetting my earlier vision of squirting ketchup packets, I wanted to know HOW these hungry caterpillars became, well, fart medicine, among other things. From what I can tell, there are two methods. (Warning: both of these make livestock slaughter in Iowa seem almost reverential). Some sites suggest a "liquid extract" process but are silent about exactly how a living creature's liquids get extracted. Other sites describe a fungus/fermenting process. First, your silkworm guy injects/infects the creatures with a disease called white muscardine. As it turns out, this is an "entomopathogenic fungus" that slowly kills its insect or spider host while developing its "fruit" - a mushroomy thing that grows out of the body (perhaps you've heard of the mushroom/supplement Cordyceps? Yup--same thing. See more in the Appendix, below). This disease is a nightmare. I found pictures online. Here they are. I'm sorry.
Evil fungus growing out of a bee, a now-headless-fly, and a tarantula.  Truly horrible.

Cross-section of a silkworm with its deadly
parasitic fungus (source).
Ok, deep breath. These poor hungry caterpillars were doomed to become liquid or fungal remedies for human farts, phlegm, and male insecurity. Eric Carle didn't give me a clue about this possible ending to his beloved children's book.

So, what about silk production? Could I have valiently set these critters free to become happy butterflies? As any child knows, the once-hungry caterpillar spins itself a cocoon from whence it begins that marvelous miracle of turning into a beautiful...STOP. Unhappily, Google destoyed my innocence and over-informed me yet again. These caterpillars, on the very cusp of butterfly adulthood in their homemade, silky-soft bungalows, are unceremoniously dumped into boiling water (ok, maybe there's a ceremony. What do I know?). I learned that people don't just "unwind" the cocoons or wait until the butterflies emerge to harvest the silk (FYI: my ignorance isn't completely my fault. Many educational sites skip right over the ugly bits of silk production: see here and here and here). Oh, no, the boiling cocoon treatment definitely kills the proto-butterfly but does provide a side benefit of snacktime fun for Asians (see below) in addition to loosening the silk for mechanical unwinding and spinning. If you waited until a butterfly left the cocoon, it would break the silk (which doesn't suit people's needs), so it's killed before it emerges. Thus, silk collection is more like mink fur harvesting than chicken egg collection or alpaca wool harvesting. It's butterfly murder it what it is.
Can you imagine these signs at an anti-silk rally?  Yeah, me neither.

Ok, ok, dear reader. It's surely not the same as plunging a cute furry creature into boiling water, but it's still a creature for which I admittedly have (had!) all-too-romantic notions. And I can't imagine any resulting social outrage against silk as there has been against the wearing of fur, but still. I had no idea. I'm so sorry. I'm a gardener and bird-watcher and butterfly-lover. This was distressing news. 
Butterfly murder. Quite a memorable birthday.

Appendix (a.k.a. info for readers actually interested in learning more about silkworms):

(a) Now, boiled silkworms as snackfood? Indeed. Boiled silkworms are common among Korean street vendors and are attractively packaged at the grocery store and the ubiquitous 7-11 stores. We got a sidedish of them at a traditional Korean dinner a couple of weeks ago. I could not - NOT - bear to eat it, so I stabbed one with my chopstick, waved it around out of eyesight while talking about some banal subject, and popped it into my mouth before I could think about it. The closest I can come to describing it is a boiled hazelnut. Kind of chewy and nutty. And then my imagination turned back on and I knew that I could not trick myself into eating any more. Ever. (If you want to know more about the silkworm as healthy snack from a British perspective, see this article.)

(b) Maybe you've seen or bought Cordyceps as an herbal supplement? White muscardine is the disease inflicted on silkworms that creates the cordyceps fungus; clearly, the clever marketers only depict part of the mushroom story on the packages.

Cordyceps History and Cultivation
Where the cordyceps fungus really comes from.  Eew.

We're missing about half of the "activated mushrooms" in these pictures.

(c) References:

Click here for more about White Muscardine

For more on the process of infecting silkworms,check out this academic article from the National Institute of Health. 

 If you'd like more about silkworm-based-medicine, here are 3 useful-ish sites:

(a) Silkworm Extract Benefits

(b) ActiveHerb™ Jiang Can Product Details

(c) Jiang Can (Silkworm): Chinese Herbal Medicine

Monday, May 19, 2014

Finding a Tragedy (Cheng Lu 15)

Nick and I went looking for sea glass today, but instead we found a salvaged sunken ship.  Seriously. We later learned that this Chinese cargo vessel sank at Pohang's northern port--just minutes from us!-- in fall 2013--while we were here!  Very exciting--like a close call with a world event!  But more research revealed where I was and what I was doing during the ship's sinking, and that hit way too close to home.

One of the tiny "beaches" by Jukcheon1-ri;
you can see Pohang's city lights in the background.
Here's the story. Yesterday was a lazy Sunday afternoon, kids were playing with friends, and Nick and I decided to take a beach stroll. I was in the mood for sea glass, so we drove to the closest seaside village (Jukcheon1-ri), whose many small "beaches" (skinny slits of sand and rock between road/seawall and sea - mentioned before) normally boast buckets of glass. It appears that the villagers and their fishing friends consume vast quantities of soju (think Korean vodka) then dash the bottles overboard or against the fishing piers, where ocean waves tumble smooth the glass and carry it to shore. (Mind you, I am not judging these bottle-smashing soju drinkers: breaking glass makes a decidedly lovely sound, reminding me of glorious hours spent at the Chicago and Sioux Center city recycling bins, relieving much stress.  However, I do find it odd that they'd so willingly pollute their own fishing waters, but that's for another day).

Today, though, the beaches only offered a tremendous amount of seaweed, which (a) covers up any sea glass, (b) smells pretty bad, (c) is very slippery, and (d) is itself covered with ajummas seeking the best bits to fling up on the road to dry in the sun for later snacking.  The seaweed, that it, not the ajummas.

Our route from Handong, through Jukcheon-ri, to Youngilman port where we found the ship.
The rectangular port proper is about 1 x 2 kilometers in size.  
So, we drove down the precarious sea-side road, fruitlessly seeking a seaweed-free zone.  Alas, poor Yorick, the seaglass hunt was not to be. Heading home the long way, we drove past the new-ish Youngilman Port (opened in 2009).  The area has many enormous steel and ship-related warehouses, and it's not unusual to see huge ship-bits scattered alongside the road, waiting for welding or painting or other shippery things, I suppose. But today, as we neared the port, we noticed a very unusual shape, like a ship, but in the shipping terminal area rather than back in the industrial park.

Our first sighting of this strange ship-bit.
Being curious, and having plenty of time on our hands, we briefly weighed the wisdom of sneaking a closer look given the risk of arrest by angry Korean-speaking port authorities.  But when two cars zoomed through the slightly-open barrier and past the empty guard shack, we did too.  The ship's hulk was terribly rusty; a fishing net was snagged on its deck. The hull looked viciously smashed, the metal curled like an alien had exploded out of the bilge tanks. We concluded it was certainly not a newly manufactured ship, but probably an old boat the local steel industry folks brought up to salvage for its metal.

We continued driving in the prohibited area, feeling slightly naughty, and at the very end we found the other half of the ship, rusting badly and steadily leaking oil onto the cement.  We walked around it, noticing dozens of "Oil Sorbent" boxes, piles of towels, platoons of acetylene tanks, and a crumpled heap of oily plastic floats (for a brief oil containment education, check here).  Aha - maybe this old boat was salvaged because of an oil spillage problem?  We tip-toed through the kitty-litter-like absorbent stuff, and eventually came across a badly torn, muddy mattress, apparently pulled from the ship; a large kitchen ladle and a beat-up fire extinguisher were further signs of humanity.  We re-adjusted our conclusion once again, realizing this wasn't merely a rusty, leaking hulk destined for recycling, but possibly the remains of a tragedy at sea.

Remnants from Cheng Lu 15's stern, taken at Youngilman Port, Pohang.
Back at home, my trusty research assistant (Google) was surprisingly peckish about giving us more information on this ship. But what I finally pieced together astonished us. The Cheng Lu 15 is (was) a cargo ship from China, sailing under the Panama flag (for what bureaucratic/political purpose I don't understand).  Just 7 months ago, it had unloaded its cargo at the Pohang port and, because of the afternoon's storm, the captain decided to spend the night anchored near the port's breakwater before heading to Japan.  The ship had 130 tons of oil and diesel still on board, plus 19 crewmen.

The raging storm repeatedly slammed the Cheng Lu against the concrete wall, tearing a hole in its side. As the ship quickly sank beneath the towering waves, the captain ordered all hands to abandon ship. They quickly donned life jackets, then some rapidly climbed the mast and others jumped for the seawall or boarded a life raft. Hundreds of rescuers arrived but were helpless in the wild wind and waves. Hours later, the 8 men clinging to the tip of the sunken boat's mast were finally saved; the other 11 crewmen died at sea.  (For the best articles, photos, and videos, see these three sites: herehere, and here).
The Cheng Lu 15 before and during rescue operations (photos from sites linked above).

In reflecting on how this ship had sunk just a few minutes' drive away, and without me ever hearing about it, I wondered what I was doing at the time. I looked through my pictures for October 15, 2013, and found... oh.  Oh no. This was the very storm, the very afternoon when Nick's parents, Sam, and I went to Pine Resort Beach (often called Chilpo Beach) to see the stormy waves, and we marveled at the hugely strong winds that lifted us at each step and at the sand that exfoliated any exposed skin.

Pine Resort Beach (Chilpo) two hours before the Cheng Lu 15 crashed at Youngilman Port;
you can just see the port's cranes over Ray's shoulder (upper right).
Within 2 hours of our beach jaunt, at the port just a mile or so away, the Cheng Lu 15 sank and many men died. And we didn't even know about it.  (For readers familiar with Sioux Center, IA, it's like you're happily flying kites in Children's Park and then a big plane crashes in Sandy Hollow and you had no clue about this until you stumbled across the plane when you went camping a few months later.)

I couldn't get past the sharp contrast between the storm I had associated with joyous playfulness and the mortal tragedy for this wrecked ship and the lives of many families. Maybe my problem was the realization that my blithe attitude toward the ocean's power (and lots of other things outside my control) needs adjustment. Or maybe it's twisted guilt for having giddy fun on the beach when folks nearby would die in that same storm.  Or that bad things can happen, nearby, and I have no clue about them in my little ex-pat bubble.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Being the Immigrant

Learning the language when living in a foreign country is certainly a useful (if frustrating) enterprise, but along with helping me move beyond embarrassing pantomimes, I have also discovered a deep, retroactive sympathy for immigrants in our Iowa town.  Of course, I knew that folks moving from Mexico and other central American countries faced some challenges, but I had no idea how difficult and lonely and exhausting it is to be an immigrant. 

For me, the biggest challenge is this: outside of one's own language/culture circles, an ex-pat constantly feels stupid.  I often want to wear a sign or even shout "I am not dumb--in my own country, at least!" because here, I appear to be an utter fool.  Here's an example--a mere snippet--from a hardware store venture last week, when I went in hopes of finding L-brackets for some shelves I wanted to make (ok, ok, shelves I wanted Nick to make).

Our beloved hardware store.
Hardware owner guy (who knows us from many visits): dives into (yet another) box (on yet another crowded shelf) and holds up a possible bracket to see if it matched my on-going pantomime and insistence on "big!"

Me, responding with great relief: "Yes! Nay!" Then I offer much smiling and nodding and hand-clapping (I am happy about the bracket success and thrilled that I've finally remembered that "nay" in Korean means "yes."  But, clearly, I am acting like a toddler receiving candy).

Guy: smiles and nods, breaking eye contact and making moves toward the register with my bracket.

Me: "Um, eight?"  He turns with a questioning look. Oh!  I must quickly remember my Korean counting numbers learned just 2 weeks ago (vs. the Sino-Korean numbers used for money that I've also just learned)  and I stammer out, "Um, daw-sawt (5), yaw-sawt (6), um..." (try to think of my mnemonic for 7, Oh! sick fish!) "ill-gope, um," (what's the mnemonic for 8?...Alabama woman giving me a doll!) "Yaw-dawl!  Yaw-dawl jew-say-oh!" (which roughly means "please give me eight").

Guy: patiently smiles.  Then he says, with an even bigger smile, "Eight?" as he reaches into the box to count out the brackets. In English.


Cho, SuBin: my outstanding Korean 1 teacher
Regarding language learning.  My Korean class is really challenging (I'm sure I'm the dumbest student in there) and my teacher is fantastic.  If I were still a college dean, I would hire her on the spot. (Further tangent: A few weeks ago Tracey and I asked Professor Cho about our horse manure venture (described here) and in the next class, when teaching us how to ask if someone (e.g., a shopowner) had various things, she asked the class whether we had "mahl tong" and drew a steaming picture of horse poo on the board.  The class was mystified but Tracey and I got the giggles.)  Anyway.  My ability to read and write Korean are passable now, though spelling is still a bit tricky; my ability to understand Korean is still very poor; my pronunciation sounds great to me, but Koreans apparently can't understand my accent. (On another trip to the hardware store, I gestured to Tracey and said "cheen-goo!" to the owner to indicate that she's my friend.  Owner guy stared blankly, shifting his gaze from me to her, then he suddenly brightened, saying "cheen-goo!" in understanding.  Ah, well).

But it's not just language challenges.  When our family is off campus, we tend to get very excited about seeing non-Koreans.  If we're driving, we have an informal "gringo contest" to see who can spot the most foreigners (on grocery runs, for example, the average hovers between 0 and 1).  If we are in the store or walking in town and see a rare "gringo," it's an occasion to smile and make introductions and ask if they know where to get cheese or when the local ex-pat bar is having burrito night or where to find size 13 soccer cleats or the place that supposedly sells used furniture. Talking to native English speakers is so much less exhausting than interacting with Koreans in terms of language, yes, but also a million unwritten rules about personal space and eye contact and respect cues.  Now I finally understand why all the Korean students hung out together on campus or why the Mexicans in town had their own church and grocery store and bar. It makes a whole lot more sense now that I'm the foreigner.  

Finally, what would a Korean blog be without ajummas?  As I have worked to clean up some old ex-pat gardens on campus, ajummas have come by to observe, nod, and pull out the occasional perennial (!).  Last week I got a visit with a thumbs-up from one of them.  This morning, I saw a couple of ajummas in their university grounds-keeping uniforms working in their own (illicit) vegetable garden by the laundry room shed.  Resisting the impulse to mind my own business, I decided to act like an ajumma myself.  I stood a few feet away (WAY too close for my own comfort), watching as they picked some leaf lettuce and fussed over the peppers and tomatoes.  I smiled, gave my own thumbs-up, and pointed to the peppers.  "Go-choo?" I asked. "Nay," they nodded happily, then held up their lettuce leaves, saying "sahng-choo" to indicate their Korean name, and then, oh joyous day, they gave me a heaping, sandy double-handful as a gift. attitude toward ajummas as a group has been diversifying as such incidents wear down my assumptions.

I'm still not sure what in the world I'm doing here in Korea, but what is very clear is my strong sense of how ignorant and judgmental I've been of other people.  God's turning the tables like this, making me the outsider now, has been a neat (if painful) opportunity to grow up a little more each day.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Haesindang Park: Or, Fertility Central

It's been about 6 weeks since Sam and I visited Haesindang Park, and I believe I have recovered enough now to write with mature analysis and wise insights rather than just hoots and giggles.  (Then again, we'll see how that goes. No promises.)

First, some back story to explain how in the world we ended up at a place informally known as penis park. Last summer, getting restless with our tiny temporary apartment space, Nick and I required our poor children to do some online research and create powerpoints (not-more-efficiently called "PPTs" in Korea) about city/locations we could visit in Korea. They did so and gave truly informative family presentations on Pohang (where we live), Daegu (1 hour west, also known as Land of Costco), Busan (2 hours south), Gyeongju (ancient capital, 30 minutes south), and Jeju Island (the Korean version of Hawaii, about 5 hours southwest, now infamous as the destination for the ill-fated Sewol ferry).

And that little summer homework is where we learned that Jeju features an outdoor sculpture museum/park (which, showing great wisdom in recognition of more tender readers, I shall neither name nor link here).  Said park/museum embraces (exposes? exaggerates unto fearsome proportions?) all the wondrous (and heretofore unimagined) facets of human lovemaking.  We were stunned (and not least because a child had stumbled across this in an innocent research project). Beyond that, we were baffled.  How could this sort of place exist in a culture where public affection is nearly taboo, sexual innuendo doesn't appear to exist, and sexuality is relatively rare in the media (see previous blog)? Inexplicable.  And, to the dismay of our ever-curious minds, no one would talk to us about it (pretty understandable, in hindsight, as we're new to this Christian campus and asking about Korean sex museums could possibly strike folks as a bit strange).

The boys admire a replica of a traditional totem that's found at Jeju.
I'm not sure what Elisabeth is doing or to whom.
But, as if to tease our unsatisfied curiosity, we've since seen internet whisperings of several such museums/parks around the country. Also, in our travels so far, Korea, being wonderfully fond of public, traditional art, has revealed to us a number of totem-pole-like sculptures frankly depicting, ah, maleness.  And even this: late last summer, outside a rather famous nearby temple, sidewalk ajummas were selling bottles of oil (?) with a very distinct male shape. I passed by quickly, not believing my eyes; I definitely didn't take photos. David and Elisabeth didn't notice at all; Nick and Sam snorted for weeks.

Now you have the back story.  In March, son Sam, 18 years old and nearing his date to return to the US, was quite interested in checking items off his Korea Bucket List.  We had learned of Haesindang Park, just 2 hours north, rumored to be populated by many totem-pole-like sculptures depicting penises of immense proportions and features.  This ranked high on the man-cub's bucket list, and I had some purely academic curiosity about this unusual aspect of Korean culture.

So, yes, when it comes right down to it, I took Sam to a  penis park,. Which puts me either in the Coolest Mom Ever Club or the Let's-Take-the-Crazy-Lady-Away Club.  Anyway, we drove north toward Samcheok to find this park.  We boldly eschewed smartphones and GPS, having studied google maps before our departure, and thus we eventually found our winding way to Haesindang. On the way, we enjoyed some baffling yet wondrous sights.

Road Trip (clockwise from top left): We happily entered crab restaurant territory's creative ad zone;
despite the spring weather, the mountaintops still showed off a lovely dusting of snow;
a squid restaurant ad rather boldly foreshadowed our visit to the totems of Haesindang;
some clever ajummas turned a semi-trailer into a portable fabric/quilt shop for road-side sales;
the pickup-truck-cattle-transportation method looked rather fun for the cows.

Getting closer: The coastal road acquired a new name in not-too-bad English;  a lovely harbor and town near the park; a gigantic golden Buddha looms over the highway; a small temple's elaborately-painted entrance gate.
Finally, we found Haesindong Park's small parking lot and got out to stretch, taking in our surroundings and locating the bathrooms (we are so smart now that we bring our own toilet paper, courtesy of gas stations' free gift packages when you get a fill-up).  Or perhaps we were just stalling, putting off the awkward moments when mother and barely-adult son would venture into the land of very tall totems.

Many Korean cities have cartoon-ish mascots and English slogans (e.g., Powerful Pohang, Dynamic Busan, Beautiful Gyeongju) and Samcheok now wishes it had used spellcheck; the area map showed a nearby "Fork Museum" that intrigued us in a country of chopsticks; the park's entrance arch; a boarded-up restaurant's less-than-helpful description.
Ok, it's time.  We entered through the arched entry, each paid 3000 won (about $2.80), then wandered down the winding brick mountain path, wondering what exactly we might find.  But before we get to the parts and pictures you're most curious about, I must relate the legend that supposedly explains this park. And I got this from a brochure, so don't go accusing me of making this stuff up.

As a sinful human being, my favorite part of this brochure was the carefully-corrected typos, covered with stickers.  Disappointingly, the "fork" museum got a completely new makeover as a "folk" museum; the plural "phalluses" was incorrectly corrected as a singular"phallus."   And for the careful viewer, you can see two of the totems.

Here goes the legend:

(1) Boy from fishing village drops lovely girlfriend at a nearby rocky island so she can pick seaweed (perhaps for a romantic dinner).

(2) Big storm comes up; boy can't get back to girl; she drowns.

(3) Girl's spirit is embittered and as a result, there are no longer any fish for the villagers to catch.

(4) Village decides to try appeasing the dead girl's spirit by erecting very large, wooden phalluses that face the rocky island where she died.

(5) Girl's spirit was apparently appeased and fish became plentiful again.

Now, I can't decide if it's harder to understand the belief that a dead girl's spirit would ruin the fishing industry (the big storm seems far more reasonable) or that planting 10-feet-tall phalluses would make the dead girl happy enough to return the fish.  Sam and I had a good deal of fun pondering that for awhile.  At some point, we realized that Christians believe things that non-believers just can't swallow, so it's interesting to be on the other side of that religious coin.
Sam nobly sympathizes with the sad plight of the grieving boy and his about-to-be-drowned girl.
{Note: In later consultation, Nick insightfully suggested (from a religio-social-cultural-historical worldview perspective) that we need but read between the lines to fully derive this legend's meaning. Thus: If girl = ocean goddess, and ocean = infertile, an offering of some mighty powerful fertility options (with requisite rituals and sacrifices) may indeed restore the proper relationship between the divine and the human.  Whatever the explanation, the legend continues to be celebrated to this day (!) with annual spring festivities, and we've already witnessed a ritual for the sea god's blessing (see previous post), so I'm trying to remain open-minded.}

Ok, let's go.  So we stroll down the winding, bricked mountain trail, noting the spring buds and greening grass, hearing the birds...WHAT?  We turned a corner and saw our very first sculptures, standing hugely but quietly amongst shrubs and flowers and benches.  There was nothing subtle about the phallic forms, even when women's figures were clearly carved onto the pole.  I'm not sure why we were so surprised, but we were.  And laughed and pointed and wondered and took a million pictures, most of which shall not be seen until long after I, for one, am dead.

We were still giggling at this stage of our journey, with only 20 totems down and 300+ to go....
After recovering from our initial shock, we continued eagerly down the path, encountering many, many more poles, each uniquely carved with faces, animals, or even multiple (and anatomically quite optimistic) depictions of well, you know.  Dead girl spirit appeasements.

Even better than the totems were Sam's mixed reactions of delight, horror, and confusion.

My favorite sculpture (with a plexi window showing a photo of a baby);  a child carved onto another totem pole;
an angry frog (why does this help with fertility?  I have no idea).
In addition to the totem poles (and benches, see-saw, and other creative places to depict enormous phalluses) we found a traditional-style Korean home on display.  Bending down to look through the open paper-and-bamboo doors, we saw life-size models of people going about their daily...wait a minute.  A partly-clothed couple were making love in one room while their son (?) peeked at them from the next room and a guy in the third room was puttering about his workshop.  Oh.  Awkward moment with son.  Continuing on.  On a hillside we came up behind three life-sized fishermen standing as if peeing (a pose I was actually not familiar with until I had sons); as we approached we noticed that their exposed anatomy was distinctly disproportionate to their height.  Suffice it to say that Sam enjoyed striking a similar stance alongside these hearty menfolk.  Further along, the 12 Chinese zodiac symbols were each carved into stones that were themselves in the shape of...well, it's probably obvious by now.

To sum up thus far: We had a good deal of fun, pointing and posing... but after 50, then 100, then perhaps 300 phalluses, we were weary. Sam declared, with characteristic directness and humor, "I am penised out."  His goal having thus been sufficiently accomplished despite the apparent miles of paths and poles yet undiscovered, we returned to visit the Village Fishing Fork (er, Folk) Museum. There we walked through displays about the history of local fishing and saw a few small aquariums.
The wonderous backside of the Fishing Village/Folk/Fork museum; skeleton of a minke whale;
a preserved (or papier-mache-with-googly-eyes) mola-mola, which creature our family inexplicably adores,
perhaps because it reveals God's enormous sense of humor;
Sam cuddles a preserved penguin (why is this here? penguins don't live in this hemisphere) which has been loved nearly to feather-less-death;  a sign's typo that a previous grammarian gently corrected.
My favorite part of this place was undoubtedly a mural that appeared to show proper ocean-going ship behaviors.  We couldn't understand a word of it, but the pictures were priceless.

This section of the mural seems to portray proper burial of a fellow (dead?) seaman; his Christian halo kind of threw me, but the smiling fish overseeing the whole thing set me off on a long giggle.
After happily touring the fishing museum's first floor we headed upstairs and entered--WAIT A MINUTE!  It seems that the "Fishing Village" part of the museum's tricky title refers strictly to the G-rated floor displays and the "Folk" (fork?) part of the title refers to the R- and X-rated displays located upstairs in the Sex Folklore Information Center.  Not ones to pass up a chance at free education, and having seen a life's-supply of phalluses in the last few hours, we ventured fearlessly forth.

And, the awkwardness was far greater than even we had expected.  Hundreds more statues, figurines, and painting depicted evidence of (or desire for) both male and female fertility in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and wind chime arrangements.  It seemed that nearly every country or world region (Indonesia, Greece, Africa) was represented here except, noticeably, North America.  Many of the displays had been fondly handled, leading to significant discoloration and other wear-and-tear.  Eew.
Approximately 98% of our Folklore photos shall not be shown in any public venue.  And at the end of the day, Sam concisely summarized his feelings in the museum's guest book.
We drove home, thoughtful and more than a bit overwhelmed with all that we had learned and the many questions that our experience had generated.  I'm still not sure if I got the Cool Mom award, but my curiosity about this particular aspect of Korean culture has been thoroughly quenched.

P.S.  The day before Sam was to leave Korea, we drove to Gyeongju to buy some souvenirs and gifts. Getting turned around and pulling into a parking lot to get re-oriented, we quite by accident discovered the Sex Museum and Love Castle.  We had no desire for a tour, but we did manage to find some fun in the parking lot:

Monday, May 5, 2014

Korean Culture & Sexuality

I've talked about a lot of topics in these pages, and have certainly hinted around about sexuality, but I haven't yet dedicated a blog to it.  So, here's a short post about some of the differences I've noticed between Korea and the US.  Why today? Because spring is well underway and "chopstick weather" is here.  

Um, ok, so what do I mean by "chopsticks" (besides those pointy things that Asians use for eating)?  In the Korean pop music scene (k-pop) and during the warmer months, Korean (young) women's fashions reveal a whole lot of leg, but not bosoms (even tank tops are uncommon).  In the winter, young women wear skinny jeans or tights, but spring brings out the very short skirts and long legs.  An ex-pat woman here, perhaps dealing with her middle-aged shape-changes, calls these lovely legs "chopsticks." It's an admittedly catching description (which Sam all-too-readily adopted, with shouts of "chopsticks!" becoming frequent in warm weather).  I once mentioned to a Korean student my observation about covered bosoms vs. exposed legs.  Quite matter-of-factly (and uncharacteristically blunt for a Korean), she said "we show off our good features [legs] and cover our small chests."

Chopsticks in Pohang and on campus.

Mannequins show off the latest in women's clothing (Seoul)
Living on a college campus leads me to the topic of dating, which, at least among these Christian students, is a bit different than in the US.  Public displays of affection for Korean couples appear to be limited to hand-holding, so how is a couple to demonstrate their true love commitment?  Well, they wear matching clothes, of course!  It's not uncommon to see couples wearing matching jackets, hats, shirts, or shoes, or riding matching bikes; I've even seen store displays for matching underwear (see some examples on this ex-pat's blog: I am not making this up; I recently saw this ad for couples watches on facebook:

I can't really imagine why guys agree to this.  Then again, it's very common for men here to carry purses for their wives/girlfriends, to wear (very) skinny jeans, to wear pink or lavender, and even to use floral or rainbowed umbrellas with no embarrassment.  I see far less male-female distinction here than in the US, which is kind of refreshing once you get past initial impressions of Korean men seeming rather effeminate.

Billboards and TV ads generally don't use sexuality to sell (though that is rapidly changing with K-Pop entertainment and increased openness to Western influences).  Still, to an American, many Korean ads seem innocent and almost childish in their use humor and corny situations.  Thus my surprise about the high number of "business clubs" and "love hotels" in town. The clubs are just for men and, given the silhouettes on the doors, presumably include female dancers and who knows what other amenities. The love hotels are designed for short stays (pay by the hour) and include privacy curtains over the parking garage entrances so no one can see who is driving in with whom.  Surely these kinds of places exist in the US (Vegas comes to mind), but here they're inexplicably blatant, in contrast to the cultural innocence I see elsewhere.

Snapshots of Seoul

Previous to our Lantern Festival trip to Seoul a couple of weeks ago, I had only been to the city once, where I spent a sick day in bed while my family and in-laws did cool touristy things.  So, here I describe some of the other things we experience in Seoul besides the Lantern Festival.

First,  you need to understand more about this city.  You undoubtedly know that Seoul is the capital of South Korea, but you might not know that is a politically-charged statement: some hold Seoul to be the capital of all of Korea, but for you, gentle reader, we shall leave the politics behind (feel free to take them up with Nick at your own peril).  Now I knew Seoul was "a big city," but I didn't realize until later just HOW big: no matter how you measure it, it's one of the very biggest cities in the world, vying for Biggest status with Tokyo, Jakarta, and Delhi.  Ten million people live in Seoul, which is at least 20% of South Koreans (some estimate as many as 50% of South Koreans live in Seoul, which seems to me like a darn huge margin of error).  Ok, so what does that really mean? If we apply the math to the US population, about 63 million Americans (20% of 313.9 million people) would live in a single city. That is FAR beyond the combined populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and the next 27 biggest US cities (when I got tired of the math).  In sum, Seoul is home to a whole lot of Koreans.

So what's Seoul like as a city?  In some ways, it's just like any other big, modern city: skyscraper apartment buildings, buses and taxis everywhere, street vendors and chain stores vying for your business. But this city is also 2000+ years old, and the Koreans have done a marvelous job of reflecting its ancient-ness alongside its modernity.  Perhaps what surprised me most was that Seoul doesn't create the fear I have felt in cities like Chicago, New York, Moscow, and Lagos.  Thus, gawking around the market or the historical sites doesn't require one hand on one's wallet (or camera) and another on one's children; we are free to look and point and roam. After many kilometers of walking, we had seen just a couple of beggars; the police (very visible with their fluorescent yellow vests) do not carry guns--just black sticks.  Amazing.

Pictures are better than words, so here are some collages just to give you a flavor of our 40 hours in one little corner of Seoul: The Very Big City.

As we drove across the country to Seoul (just 4 hours), we saw the sun set over the mountains;
the toll plaza toilet stalls included handy cell phone numbers (I assume my stall #21 wasn't the only one with this mysterious information); and we avoided the badly-named snack food. 

At the toll plaza restaurant,  the kids and I stuck with the pork cutlets (with a curry/corn sauce) with rice, salad. and pickled Korean radish; none of us needed the unusually-named ramen or the Baby Sanitary Zone (located just feet away from our table).

We stayed at the Lotte Castle, home of our friends Jessica and Andre Kok; our kids enjoyed breakfast together; we were astonished to see a fearless salesman on the highway.
 Seoul's 8 original city gates (destroyed and re-built several times) still stand. We walked to the south gate (Namdaemun) and admired the juxtapositions of the dark, original stones with the whiter new ones.  I couldn't pass up the shot of the Chevy building across the street from this 2000-year-old fortress.  :)

On the streets (clockwise from top left): a Korean woman who might not know what her hat means in English;
a pet clothing store specializing in silk hanbok (traditional Korean clothing for people);
a somewhat disturbed woman aggressively scattering bubbles;
a ceremonial changing of the guard (complete with modern earpieces);
hip young man in pink suitcoat and rolled-up skinny pants (probably not gay - clothes here have no apparent connection to sexual orientation); a salesman fitting ajumma pants onto a mannequin's legs.
Despite all the fun we had exploring Seoul, sobering signs of the recent Sewol ferry disaster were obvious.  Tables were set up for people to write messages on yellow ribbons; high school students held signs as a vivid reminder of the youth of most ferry passengers; a weeping woman helped her young son attach a ribbon to the fence.

Koks took us to a 2nd-story, closet of a restaurant that was utterly covered with customers' notes (reminding us of Gino's East in Chicago).  They serve 2 things: spicy ramen and insanely spicy ramen (along with kimbap: seaweed-covered rice).  Many of the notes warned future customers of the soup's heat hot nature of the soup.

Fun with the kids: Nick offers a scary shoulder ride to Pieter; Elisabeth loves the street vendor's hot waffle filled with whipped cream  and chocolate ice cream; David poses with a strange sign and plays war with Pieter in the apartment.

Signs of Seoul:  To be sure, Seoul has far fewer bad-English signs than we see elsewhere, probably because there are so many English speakers (and because the city offered money to folks who submitted pictures of "funny signs," which probably means they quickly got changed).  So: a flower shop's unusual range of offerings; incomprehensible rules for the Lotte Castle's 4th-floor park/garden; a tailor shop's proud award for...something; and David pondering the usefulness of information (not) available.

HOME-ish! If you've never lived abroad, this set might not make sense to you.  We visited the US Army base (where Andre works), and everything there is 100% American.  We were nearly hysterical with all the English signs, the white and black people (dressed in jeans!), American snacks and electrical outlets, and the fantastic food.   We took dozens and dozens of pictures of this "home" so far from  home.