Hiking in Jindo


I’d hoped for the next post I wrote to introduce a new, semi-regular feature to my blog. Unfortunately, I climbed a mountain on Saturday.

“May,” you’re thinking, deadpan, “It’s your blog. No one is making you write about the bloody mountain.”

Actually, they are. When I initially got the “request,” I thought my hiking companions were just being fun; that maybe they wanted to see our shared adventure on my blog, so they could practice their English/feel special because this really awesome American woman wrote about them. So I in turn didn’t think much of it, indulged the group photographer who insisted on taking travel magazine-style photos of me at every opportunity, and then went home and forgot all about it.

Until about two hours ago, when I got this text: “Miss May, how are you today? Did you write an essay about mt. climbing? They want to get essay by today.”

At which point I stared at the phone in a mix of confusion and disbelief, realized they actually wanted something publishable, texted back something along the lines of “WTF?!&$X*#” and immediately went into panicked writer mode.

And here is the result.

*****

Jindo is South Korea’s third largest island, known mainly for two things: a special breed of dog that is native to there, and an annual event in which, for about one hour each year, the tides ebb enough to reveal a narrow land bridge. The latter attracts innumerable tourists who want to walk across from Jindo to Modo.

Other than these things, however, Jindo seems to be a quiet, rural place with a wealth of natural beauty. From my experience hiking in Korea, it is difficult to find a mountain not already inundated with casual hikers, where one can simply feel secluded in nature. The Jindo mountain trail allows for this. Though my group was fairly large, we ran into few others during the four-hour trek up, down, and around the mountain. At times I would find myself a little separated from the others; in those moments I heard nothing but wind-rustled leaves, the crash of waves down on the shore, and the occasional birdcall.

Visual charm, too, was not found lacking. Our trail took us first through a vibrant green wood dotted with orange flowers on long, free-standing stems. From almost every vantage point, be it a sunny peak or just a break in the trees, a bright blue ocean reached out toward the horizon. Later, the path took us right down to the water’s edge, allowing us to traverse the tide-carved rock and stare up from the base of the mountain’s impressive cliffs. A natural cave here allowed us to hide from the hot sun while we lunched.

As we delved back into the woods for the final leg of our journey, we found the difficulty level increasing. The dry dirt and rock that had stabilized our footsteps on the other side of the mountain were now wet leaves, mud, and slippery wooden steps. Going upward, I hoisted myself with the guide rope to take some weight off my weary feet. On downward courses I often found my momentum building out of control, and so grabbed hold of every tree small enough to fit in my hands for the sake of balance. Once I slid several feet across the slick detritus, right to the edge of a sheer drop. Fortunately I remained on my feet and was able to stop on time; but this became the most memorable point of the hike for me.

In the city, we can meet with injury in a million different ways: car accidents, bicycle accidents, falling down the stairs, burning ourselves on the stove. Doing any one of countless little tasks. Really, a mountain presents no more danger than we already face every day. And yet the risk, I feel, is more worthwhile for the good that hiking does to your soul.

I would hike in Jindo again. Despite the danger, which really was mild compared to what I experienced climbing Mount Fuji; and despite the sunburn, which I suffer, ironically, only in those places where I swathed on sunblock. In fact, I think that overall my experience was such that this hike, out of all my hikes in Korea, was my favorite.

A Cultural Ambassador Story


Today, students in two separate classes stole entire bags of potato chips from me. In another class, some Trolli gummy hamburgers that I’d bought specially (and for a pretty penny) in Itaewon also disappeared before I’d even opened the snack bag. I was so angry and disappointed, I almost cried.

After class, a quiet/shy first grade girl came to my desk. She comes by often, but until now had always been dragged by her more talkative and outgoing friend. This time she came alone. “Teacher,” she said, “I heard you have American snacks. Can I try?”

I gave her a Combo from a pack that I’d bought in Itaewon. The saltiness was such a shock that her face transfigured, and for a moment I thought she was going to spit it out. When we’d finished laughing, she asked for another one — to give to a friend and get a reaction from her, as well. I gave her the saltiest one in the bag.

It was a short exchange and easily could have been buried under a landslide of other experiences I’ve had in Korea. But it was so, so important, because it’s the perfect example of why I came to this country: to make kids actually want to speak English and try new things.

This story is quite possibly the best reminder of something I’ve been telling myself through all the trials and tribulations my students put me through:

It’s worth it. It’s worth it even on the bad days.

My New Perspective on Transience


The trouble with having a blog that focuses largely on one’s wild adventures abroad is that the novelty wears off. All those things that were strange and exciting when you first arrived become mundane. You find yourself taking for granted just how different things actually are from home. And because nothing seems worth writing about, you stop writing.

Even though you still feel like an outsider.

I have now been living in Korea for almost one full year, in which time I’ve tried to be a high school teacher, a writer, and a decent human being, at varying levels of success. I’ve traveled to big cities and rural islands, climbed mountains, gone spelunking, toured the DMZ, survived snow and half a year of winter. I’ve eaten octopus bits that were still moving, and taught my kids about Doctor Who, and been severely disappointed in Korean coffee. I’ve lost both parents. I’ve looked out my office window, seen sunlight on green mountains, and felt so lucky to be here. I’ve fought to hold on to someone I love, and wished desperately that I was with them instead.

In many ways, my life in Korea was always going to be a transient thing. One year ago, even before I arrived, I knew this was not going to be the country I settled down in. That knowledge led me to give up on learning Korean. It led me to brush off those little cultural tensions with my host mom. (I’m just a visitor here; she can’t expect me to know this little thing, and it’s okay if she doesn’t bother to explain it because I won’t be here long.)

It led me to feel, sometimes, that I wasn’t really living.

It’s only now that I feel I might have gotten the hang of this whole 우리나라 thing. Now I can tell host mom what time I’ll be home without mixing up the numbers. Now she knows not to feed me fish for any meal. Now I can intuit what clothes I can wear to school without giving my first graders “culture shock,” and when to pursue conversation with my kids versus when to stop at hello, and what flavor of candy they want from my reward box.

Now, when I’m only two weeks away from never seeing them again.

This is a reminder to myself, and a word of advice for anyone about to embark on an extended journey abroad; for anyone who’s already living a life in a foreign country, and who didn’t expect it to pan out quite how it is; for anyone, anywhere in the world, who feels like they’re just passing through, and that it doesn’t matter:

STOP. Look up from the screen. Look at the knick knacks you’ve collected on your desk, or on your shelves, and remember where they came from. Look at the people around you and remember their small gestures of kindness. Look out the nearest window and put yourself in the shoes of a random person on the street.

Everything is transient, but we shouldn’t go through life alienating ourselves, or letting ourselves feel alienated by our environments. The world is strange, and people are strange, and everyone is a stranger to someone else. Don’t let the little things discourage you from living your life where you’ve chosen, at least for a while, to live it. Don’t even let the big things discourage you.

This is your LIFE, that thing you only get one shot at. Stop thinking “it’s just one year, I can get through it” and start thinking “this is a whole year of my life, and I don’t have time for blah attitudes.”

“What is your life sometimes?”


So. Here’s an anecdote from a few months back.

One night in Naju, I went to bed excited that I’d spend the next day at my school’s annual festival, watching my students perform musical numbers and skits and various other things. Despite a semester in Japan, I’d never had the opportunity to experience such a thing and so wanted to go even though my presence was not in any way required.

At 2:00am exactly, I woke to my phone ringing. It was a Korean cell phone number, so I assumed the caller had just made a mistake. I let them call back twice before finally picking up.

“Hullo…?”

There was a pause, then a click.

A moment later, the same number called. I answered in Korean, and a woman’s voice responded likewise. “Hello?” I said again, clawing through sleep-veiled layers of my brain for the translation of what I wanted to say. After an awkward pause, I gave up. “Um, wrong number.”

*click*

She didn’t call back. Unfortunately, I was now wide awake. I twisted beneath the covers for a while, sticking my feet out when they felt too warm and pulling them back in when they iced up. Finally I pulled my phone back over and started reading World War Z. Surely I’d feel tired again soon.

5:00 hit before sleep decided to humor me.

8:00 hit and my host mom came in with breakfast. At 8:30 I woke up long enough to pull the try onto my bed and eat it. Some time around mid-morning, I sleep-texted my Korean friend.

I awoke for real just after 11:30, when my host mom exploded through my bedroom door, screeched “오메!” and then rushed out again, shouting to someone else that I was still home.

I still have no idea why she did that.

I was already late, but remembered seeing that the festival would go until 6:30, so I wasn’t worried. I faffed around, checking Facebook and email, taking a long time to decide just how warmly I should dress. By pure accident I found the festival pamphlet my school had given me and saw that I hadn’t seen 6:30 — I’d seen 16:30.

After having a friend translate the schedule for me (via text) I decided that it would still be worth it to go, if only for the last part. All my students’ performances were scheduled between 2:00 and 4:30.

1:00 — I go to take a quick shower. The shower head is broken.

Host mom, I think, weren’t you at the store buying a replacement when your son called you about it three days ago?!

All I had at my disposal now was a spigot and a small plastic basin. I’d taken numerous so-called “spit baths” before, when camping and when hurricanes did away with the hot water at home, so I decided to just suck it up.

The water was almost ice.

Sure, I spent my childhood trolling snake-infested forests (and back yards) and sharing murky swimming holes with gators — but that was just Florida. Such a childhood paled in comparison to a cold bath in Korean winter. By the time I had finished wringing the (metaphorical) icicles from my hair I was shivering so badly that Survival Mode Brain made an executive decision: Forget going outside. We’re turning on the mattress heater and getting right back in bed.

And that is how this wimp missed school festival day.

A Floridian’s First Snowfall


Many people (Koreans especially) tend not to believe me when I tell them that I’d never seen snow before coming to Korea. The concept seems just as foreign to them as that of stepping foot outside in anything less than 50 degree weather once was to me.

And to be fair, the above is something I’m still fighting to get over. “What is winter like in Naju?” I used to ask people. They would always release the same heavy sigh.

“Ah. So much snow.”

I’m a Floridian with poor blood circulation and the apt title of Miss Tropical. Getting this as a consistent response terrified me. December loomed closer and every day the sun shone weaker. The warmth around me dwindled, pulling closer and closer like light around a dying candle flame even as I wrapped myself in more and more layers. Meanwhile, my friends from Maine, Michigan, and the other freezing M state laughed. #Floridianproblems became the new hashtag trend.

Then, on Wednesday, I stepped into the chilly corridor outside my office at school, and white diamonds were glistening in the sunshine as they drifted past the window. My friend and I watched. She explained that people tend to feel warmer when it snows, even though the temperature might be the same as a snowless day. I thought about how easily things can be taken for granted; for all that my fingers were turning blue, I felt it a fair tradeoff for the serenity I took with me afterward. I was experiencing snow for the first time in my life, and my friend’s amazement made it all the more potent that life has so much to offer.

I was later to be told that this first encounter “barely counted as snow.” The thunderstorm I walked home in afterwards, with its confusion of pouring rain and gentle snowflakes, didn’t seem to count either. But overnight that storm became a true snowfall. Thursday morning I awoke to a world of white.

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This is the pedestrian bridge I cross in order to get to school. I fear it on a typical rainy day because it’s made of metal. Add ice to that, and it becomes a promise for a bruised tailbone.

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And this is Geumseong Mountain. My school sits at the base of this.

So now that I have experienced “real” snow for the first time, as my Maine friend has finally conceded, I feel it may be worth sharing my thoughts on it as a Floridian.

1) Falling snow is beautiful.

2) Iced-up snow on hills and pedestrian bridges is not.

3) Flowers can live through snow. WHAT. I can barely do that!

4) Wow, real snow looks just like the fake stuff they put in the shop windows!

5) Fresh snow is SOFT. I was not expecting to put my finger through it and immediately compare it to a cloud, but I did. I also took the opportunity to write “English rocks” on the hill outside my school.

6) The lifecycle of snow would seem to be: fall, compact, melt, refreeze into ice, melt, evaporate, and fall again. This should have been obvious considering we all learned about precipitation in first grade, but being Floridian I’ve never had cause to appreciate it before. This stuff spends a lot of time on the ground.

7) I wonder if snow ever piles up on telephone lines, then melts into icicles and spears people through the head.

My northerner friends find my naiveté endearing. But I feel I’ve come a long way since asking whether one could bicycle in the snow.

Suneung: The Korean Student’s Nightmare


I’m updating twice today because I didn’t feel I should mix Suneung with more pleasant things (like writing synopses).

Today is 수능, the day Korean students spend their entire high school lives dreading.

If you’re a fan of Japanese culture, as I was long before I ever thought of stepping foot into the Land of the Morning Calm, you might know that instead of looking at transcripts, Japanese colleges look at test scores. The same is true in Korea as well, to the extent that on the day of College Entrance Exams, the entire nation goes all-out to cheer on the poor high school seniors who have to take them.

This, but outside every high school in the country.

Imagine if colleges in the States threw out all the other parts of your application and looked solely at your SAT scores. “That’s fine,” some of you might think, “I did pretty well on the SATs.”

Now imagine that instead of looking at your score, what they’re actually looking at is your percentile — your rank out of every single person who took that test.

So you want to go to Seoul University (or Harvard) and you got a 1500/1600. By most standards, that’s amazing! But the problem is that you live in a country full of students who believe that test scores are everything, so there’s a good few hundred who scored higher than you. They fill up the entry slots for the country’s most prestigious university.

And you’re bumped right off the list.

So it’s not just about taking home a high score; it’s literally about being better than everyone else. This is why I don’t teach the seniors at my school: the younger grades already stay on campus until 10pm and then study at home until 2am. My seniors do all this AND prepare for Suneung.

And I just get the day off…

헐.

Korean Homestay #2


Due to some added stress with her job, my old host mom decided it would be better for me to change home stays so I could be properly taken care of. I trusted her decision, and her choice of my new host family, and so yesterday evening I finally moved into my new home.

And wow, I lucked out again.

Location-wise, the new place is even more convenient than my old one, though the city noises are pretty pervasive. My host mom runs a restaurant downtown, and the flat is on the second floor of that. I can walk to my school — and pretty much everywhere else — in just ten minutes now, rather than taking the bus. Finally, consistent exercise! Though it’s a bit less than I was getting in Miami. (For perspective, my apartment to my job at FIU was close to a twenty-minute walk, and I only lived across the street!) My room is large and comfy, and my new (real) bed has a heater.

It is the Best Bed Ever.

My host mom, Yeong-suk, speaks very little English, but so far we’ve been able to communicate pretty well thanks to receptive skills and gestures. She also calls upon my new 12-year-old host brother to translate sometimes. I have yet to meet my host dad, though I know he exists; a sinus headache got the better of me today so I’ve been in my room pretty much the whole time. Yeong-suk brought me food, including ye good ole Korean “hamburger,” which was actually not bad. Her son, Tae-hyeong, brought me water. They’re both sweet, caring people. : )

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll definitely get some photos once my phone is charged up, but the wifi here comes and goes so I don’t know when I can post them.

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