Korea certainly keeps me busier than just about any other place. Before now, I intended to have one good adventure a month and be able to spend some time doing more local adjusting as well as reflecting on my most recent adventure and planning my next one. Since recovering from my arrival flu, I feel like I’ve been in a non-stop adventure here, catching only a day here or there for the more mundane purposes of laundry and catching up on my shows. Since the Jinhae festival, I’ve attended the Holi Hai Festival, visited the long cherry tree lined walk in Busan, tried Korean style raw fish for the first time, gone on a super windy sailing adventure, witnessed a (rare) Korean bar fight, tried out the norebang, visited the Busan Canola Flower Festival, and done some mini-car racing. I keep meaning to sit down and write, but most of the time, everything else seems more fun. Finally, here I am on a lazy Saturday afternoon hiding from the late spring chill and rain, in a desperate bid to record some of the adventures of my last two weeks.
Holi Hai (April 3)
In India, the Hindu people ring in the spring with a festival known as Holi. It is often called the festival of love or the festival of colors. The main activity is throwing colored powders at each other until we all look like crazy rainbows. There is a huge mythological background involving gods/goddesses and heroes, and it seems like various regions within India each attribute some slightly different details to the history, but you can Wikipedia it if you want to know more about that part as I did for myself before attending. I’m here to talk about how a bunch of foreigners from more than 20 different countries (Indian and other) celebrated Holi here in Busan.
A group of Indian expats organized the event to take place at Haeundae beach. They set up a stage, a DJ, and tents where we could collect our colors, store our bags, and enjoy some delicious samosas. They started setting up at 9am, but since it takes me about an hour to get to the beach from my place, I opted to join a little later on. It was supposed to rain that day, so we had a lot of clouds in the sky, but when I showed up the beach was still dry. To abide by the Indian tradition, we were all asked to wear white to the event, and most people complied. In India, everyone would be wearing all white versions of their traditional styles, but we had to make do with what we could find here. Some girls were wearing white sundresses, and lots of guys (ok and me too) were wearing cheap white men’s undershirts.
We all lined up to sign in and receive our color packets, and several folks found some liquid paint that we used to paint pretty and colorful designs on each other’s faces. This turned out to be almost entirely pointless once the festivities started in earnest. I ran into a bunch of people from Orientation, including some of the girls that had been sent to Daegu instead of Busan. It was really nice to see everyone and to realize that even if I go to a big foreigner’s event on my own, I won’t stay that way for long.
The organizers moved up the first color throw a little just to make sure that we got one in before the rain hit, so we all gathered up in the sand near the stage and proceeded to dance like crazy people to the Bollywood beats until the countdown began. When the announcer reached one, everyone threw handfuls of powder up in the air, creating a sandalwood scented rainbow haze above us that settled down on our hair and shoulders. After a few minutes of ecstatic throwing of colors, people got down to the more serious dancing. It seemed another major part of the ritual involved hand painting people with paint or powder as you wish them a Happy Holi, so my face and shoulders quickly started to acquire more colors. All of the revelers were very respectful of body space, so the most popular targets for strangers were cheeks and arms/shoulders to avoid any uncomfortableness.
I went through two such countdowns while staying in the core of the dancing area, I didn’t have my powder yet for the first one, so I made sure to be in the middle for the second one. Then I started wandering around the rest beach area to see what else people were up to. Some folks had built a sandcastle and decorated it with colors. Some had decided to take a dip in the ocean, causing their colors to take on the gentle fading effect of watercolor paintings. Lots of people had broken out bottles of beer and soju, and everyone was getting more and more colorful, happy, friendly and generally frenetic.
Religious rituals like this (and secular ones too, as it turns out) where people bond over a common experience, dance, drink or imbibe other substances (not at this one, but often throughout history and around the world), and generally lose themselves in the crowd and the experience have been a really major part of human culture for basically as long as we can tell. More recently, scientists have taken a look at some of the effects of crowds on our emotional state to explain what happens at political rallies and sporting events. The point is, participating in something like this isn’t just about what one person feels, it becomes more than that, and you feel like a part of something bigger and more amazing than just yourself or a collection of individuals. I’m not saying it’s a “religious experience” per se, but I think that the feelings celebrations like this engender help to bind a community together and could easily be a part of what keeps followers devotional.
I hadn’t actually had anything to drink at all at this point, but the atmosphere of excitement and the music combined to make me feel like I was floating through some kind of happy dream land. I met tons of new people, in addition to running into familiar faces, and I got more and more colorful as the afternoon wore on. Some folks had found the face paint and started making paint splatters and dribbles on one another, while others coated their hands and left hand-prints on their fellow revelers. Even as those hand-prints started drifting away from just shoulders and upper backs, I noticed that consent was always obtained. Lots of people of both genders turned up with hand-prints on butts and breasts, but every time I saw someone touch or get touched it was with respect, consent and Happy Holi. This was even more amazing, since such a party with free flowing booze and an excuse to touch people would have likely ended up with a good deal more unwanted groping in other places. And who knows, maybe someone here did experience that, but I tend to be aware of such things, so at least I can say the overall mood was of respect and not abuse.
People started conga lines, crowd surfing, or just lifting and tossing each other up in the air. I headed up to the grass line above and behind the stage to try to get some pictures of the crowd and hopefully to see the countdown color throw from outside, now that I’d seen and participated from in on the inside. While up on the sidewalk area, I noticed a fair number of locals out for a Sunday stroll who gave us a wide range of interesting looks from curious to downright horrified. Some stopped to take pictures, and I was even asked to pose a couple times. Plus, although we were several hours into the event, it had not rained even a little bit.
Pictures taken, I headed back down into the crowd to dance again. I got handed some more powder by a late-coming young reveler who’d gotten too many extra bags and I taught him how to toss and hand apply the colors before we parted ways. I ran into more friends. I took photos of and for others. It seemed that photobombing had become a favorite hobby of the festival. Any time anyone took a candid photo, this was barely noticed, but if a group was seen to be posing, they instantly attracted a huge number of extras who did everything from pop up in the back row to throw themselves into the air in front of the group. Again, this behavior was taken in good fun by everyone I saw, and even when a group wanted a photo-bomber free photo, they simply asked the bombers to wait their turn, and they did.
After the last countdown, we gradually started winding down. The music didn’t stop, but the announcers asked everyone to help clean up the beach, which had become littered with empty plastic bottles and empty color packets. At the risk of sounding like a jaded broken record, pretty much everyone still there at this time did as they were asked and began gathering the rubbish in to large piles where it could be picked up by staff more easily. I’m not sure when I stopped believing that masses of young partying people could be polite and respectful, but I am really glad to have been so pleasantly proven wrong. The event coordinators must have had a ton of food leftover, or they just brought extra because they were also giving away free delicious Indian food at the end of the event as well.
Some of my new friends and I lingered around the beach for a while, and it eventually did begin to rain and get colder, so we headed back inland to the Wolfhound, an infamous Irish Pub where we proceeded to drink some very large pitchers of ale and dance to some of the best top 40 hits from the 80s and 90s. I headed home only slightly after dark, and despite my best efforts (not drinking any booze while on the beach and going home at a reasonable hour) I still woke up the next day with a magnificent hangover. Inhaling lots of powdered colors, forgetting to drink enough water, and not eating enough did me in and I got a chance to try my very first Korean hangover cure (sold at convenience stores everywhere). And, although I washed everything else, my Holi shirt now hangs on my wall as souvenir art of the wonderful day.
Cherry Blossom Road & Hoe Restaurant (April 6)
Just as I was starting to recover from my weekend revelries, the school announced that the teachers would go on Wednesday after school to the nearby cherry blossom road, a famous walkway that is lined on both sides with cherries, creating a tunnel of blossoms. Due to the rains on Sunday, the blossoms were somewhat faded, but it was an incredible sight, nonetheless. What I didn’t know in advance, however, was that our fitness minded Principal had decided we would walk from the school, along the road to a restaurant several kilometers away. As it turns out, repetition even of beautiful things can get a little dull after about 2km. I believe it would have been a great way to spend an afternoon with some friends if we’d had more opportunities to stop and rest, take more photos, or even stop when we reached the end of the blooms, but it was a little rough to take at such a brisk pace carrying all my school bags (since we weren’t returning to the school that day).
The last part of our walk left the trees almost entirely behind and became increasingly industrial, and we finally paused for a rest in a small park that was still mostly brown. But our efforts were finally rewarded when we arrived at the restaurant where I got my first taste of the Korean style raw fish dish called “Hoe”. Hoe is similar to Japanese sashimi, raw fish served with sauces, but no rice. Like all big Korean meals, it also came with a huge number of side dishes that included a raw fish and vegetable salad, some cooked whole fish, candied sweet potatoes that were almost like my favorite Chinese treat basidigua, egg dishes, roasted corn, and of course kimchi. The hoe itself was quite different from sashimi. Sashimi is served in slices that are rectangular, similar to the slices you see atop rice for sushi, but hoe was cut in long thin strips that looked more like noodles. We dipped them in the sauces or mixed and matched them with the other sides, especially the white kimchi. It was quite a unique experience, and I enjoyed the meal immensely.
Sunday Sailing (April 10)
I must either be the wimpiest adventurer or the most adventurous wimp because the exertion of these three events left me wiped out and I spent the next few days resting up to get my strength back so I could properly enjoy the sailing trip I’d booked a couple weeks earlier. Fortunately, the sailors weren’t morning people, so I didn’t have to start my Sunday too early either. I discovered early on in my stay here that Google Maps doesn’t work that well in Korea, thus quickly installed and learned how to use the Korean map app called Naver Maps, which allows me to choose a wide array of bus and subway routes to get anywhere as long as I know the Korean name for the place I want to go, which turns out to be good language practice too.
Armed with Naver, I headed down to the marina at Gwangalli to meet up with the sailing group. It was a good mix of the more experienced sailors (the crew) and first time sailors. Everyone was friendly and happy to be there, and once the whole group arrived, we got a short safety lecture and headed to the slip where our boat awaited. We were in for a great sailing day with clear skies and winds up to 17 knots. There were some issues getting the sails up, so we motored around the bay and under the bridge, getting some fantastic views before we finally got under way.
Our crew were kind and skilled, and also quite adventurous. They took advantage of the winds to treat us to a roller-coaster style ride, tipping the boat nearly 90 degrees to the side. The passengers clung to the side of the boat high up in the air, and we all got splashed regularly by the waves. We sailed out past the small islands nearby before tacking for our return trip. Because of the strong winds, it was important for us to sit on the side of the boat that would be in the air, and we all had to change sides before the tack, while avoiding the boom. I let some of the first time sailors go ahead of me, figuring they would have a more difficult time, but this meant I was still on the port side when the boat tacked, and I got half dunked when the boat tipped up the other way before I could clamber up into the middle.The trip out had left most of us soaked, and several people started shivering in the high winds. We brought out some blankets from the hold, but in the end a some had to go below decks to get warm. I was chilly, but wasn’t about to miss a minute of the great weather and views.
I didn’t get very many pictures that day, because I could only bring out my camera when we were calm enough for me not to worry about holding on with both hands, or dropping it in the water. The few I did get were quite nice, and I had an absolute blast. I talked to some of the crew, and it turns out they go almost every week. They even do night cruises in the summer. I have to admit, I got colder than I would have liked that day, so I’m really looking forward to going out with them when the weather is warmer and a dunking is more refreshing than bracing. It took several days for my shoes to dry out, and I think next time I might have to learn how to use the dryer function on my washing machine. One crew member told me that in the summer, they often sail out and take a swim before returning, so I definitely see this as a repeat activity!
Out on the Town (April 12)
The following Wednesday was election day in Korea, and the schools would be closed. Take a brief moment to appreciate the fact that government employees get the day off to vote, even though early voting is available here. However, since we expats can’t vote here, it just meant a free day off, so I made some plans to go out Tuesday night with some of my newly acquired friends. Because I get up at 6:30am to work, I don’t get to go out much during the week, and this was a perfect opportunity to sample Busan nightlife. A bunch of people were getting together for a birthday party, and even though I didn’t know the birthday boy, I was invited to come along anyway.
I started out by heading over to a friend’s house about an hour away from mine. I’ve noticed that although my neighborhood is quite awesome itself, because it’s basically in the middle of Busan, it takes me 45min to an hour to get most places I want to go. We hung out at his place for a while, chatting, drinking, watching YouTube videos and singing Disney songs. I don’t know about other people, but this is one of my top ideas of a good time. Then, we got some burgers for dinner and then headed out to the bar to meet up with the group.
When we came up to the front of the bar, I was surprised to see several faces I recognized from the sailing trip, and we quickly reconnected. Inside, I saw more people I’d met at Holi and even one I’d met at orientation. Busan may be a big city, but the expat community seems to be pretty tight. After my experience of isolation in Saudi, it’s a huge relief to live in a place that not only has so many activities, but also has a friendly community of people I’m likely to run into again even without planning to. Inside the bar, however, it quickly became apparent that something was amiss.
I may have oversold this slightly as a bar fight. There wasn’t any physical violence. What there was was a Korean girl who was very drunk and very belligerent. I missed the beginning, but apparently she’d beaten on the bathroom door when one of the expat girls was in it, then burst out with a spate of anti-foreigner epithets, threw a bunch of stuff around in the bathroom when she finally got in, and generally yelled at everyone in a massively hostile way. Even though many of the expats there were long time regulars of the bar, it was still culturally difficult for the staff to treat her too harshly. Eventually I guess she called the police and we all headed out to avoid further confrontation. I’ve been reassured by basically everyone (foreigner and Korean alike) that this is really rare behavior here, and even the long time foreign residents seemed shocked.
Having lost the bar, we decided instead to head over to a local norebang joint. Norebang is the Korean word for Karaoke, and it’s set up very similar to the Japanese style where you get a room for you and your friends and pay an hourly rate to sing. The norebang we went to was significantly cheaper than the karaoke bar I went to in Japan, but also not quite as nice. No phone to order your food and drinks to your room, no soft drinks dispensers and no soft serve ice cream. You’re not supposed to bring in outside liquor, but they also don’t check to closely or make a big deal about it if an employee happens to see some in your room, so we had quite a bit to go around, and settled into some crazy singing fun. Norebang rooms also come with multiple microphones, and you just enter songs you want using the remote panel, so there’s no real rotation or solo singing the way there is in America. Most of the time, this is really not an issue, everyone just shares and has a good time singing and dancing, but every so often you get a mic hog (usually too drunk to notice). I do my darndest not to hold on to a mic for more than 2 songs in a row so I’m never that person.
Since we all had the next day off, we stayed out until about 3am. Private room style karaoke/norebang has the distinct advantage over the public American style in that you’re with people you choose, and everyone is more relaxed and comfortable, so it feels more like a house party than a public spectacle and time just flies. The subways and buses had all stopped running by this time, so I also got my first ride in a Korean taxi. Fortunately, I live really close to a landmark hotel, so it’s very easy to give directions and it’s a short walk to my apartment from there. I was pleasantly surprised at the taxi rates too. Even though I was clear at the end of the subway line, it still only cost about 10$ to get home. Not something I want to do daily, but it’s good to know if I stay out past subway time, it’s not going to cost me an arm and leg.
Canola Flower Festival & Mini-car Racing (April 15)
The Nakdonggang Yuchae Festival is held near the Nakdong river in a huge field of canola flowers. These bright yellow blossoms used to be called by the unfortunate name of “rape flower” due to some cross linguistic issues. The Latin name for the plant is brassica rapa, so you can see how that happened in some non-English speaking countries. It is also the source of canola oil, and now more often called the canola flower once people figured out why English speakers were looking so horrified. Interestingly, the brassica rapa family also has lots of edible plants which is why you sometimes see ‘rape leaves’ on Chinese menus. It’s also the root of the name Rapunzel, who was named after the plant her mother so craved from the witch’s garden (non-Disney).
The girl I met on the bus back from Jinhae invited me to come with her to the festival and we decided to meet up Friday after work and head over. It was a long and winding subway ride, but we arrived with plenty of late afternoon sunshine to enjoy the flowers. The plants grow about 1-1.5 meters and there were little trails through the fields where visitors could walk among them, often chest high in yellow. Busan is a beautiful city, surrounded by mountains where it isn’t bordered by water, and as we crested the hill and the fields came into view, my breath was taken away by the expanse of brilliant yellow, bounded by the low mountains and a bright blue sky above.
During the weekends, and possibly earlier in the day, the festival has a variety of events and booths, but by the time we got there at 5pm on a Friday, there were only a few food vendors left. I didn’t mind this too much, since my primary goal was to see the flowers anyway. The fair food on offer wasn’t as interesting as what I encountered in Jinhae, but there were still some spiral potatoes and a tremendous amount of kebab vendors, as well as the sculpted candy floss. After a brief survey of the vendors, we headed into the flowers and were soon immersed in a fairy world. It reminded me of a sort of reverse horror scene. You know the movies where people are lost in a field of crops until the monster leaps out at them. But instead of monochrome crops by night, we were amidst the brightly colored blooms in glorious sunshine, and I felt that instead of a monster, we should expect a unicorn to leap out at us.
We sang songs to one another as we strolled around and paused often to take pictures. There were plenty of areas of interest to break up the sea of yellow including stone cairns, gazebos, a horse-riding area, platforms for posing, small irrigation ditches, giant pinwheels, and larger paths. We stayed until the last bit of the sun dipped below the mountain line, leaving the sky a beautiful orange and slowly draining the glow from the flowers around us.
I’d also been invited to a mini-car racing night with some of the folks I’d met at Holi/Sailing/Norebang. I had expressed that I’d already planned to do the festival with Jinju, but would be happy to join afterward if I could invite her along (I hate ditching people I’ve made plans with). They said sure, so after the sunset, we got back into the subway maze to make our way across town again. I had suggested we pick up some dinner on the way, and only once we were looking at restaurants did it become clear to me that she didn’t realize we weren’t doing “Korean style”, by which I don’t mean Korean food, but the fact that often if one person brings food, they should expect to bring enough for everyone and share. I had to explain that as Westerners (mostly US and Canada) we were very comfortable with a more fend-for-yourself style and that if anyone else had wanted us to pick up something for them, they would ask and would pay us back when we arrived. I could tell she was skeptical of this change in etiquette, but once we arrived and the others all backed me up, she got comfortable enough to enjoy her dinner (bacon and tomato pasta, yum!).
Korean apartments are tiny little studios, comfortable for one, cozy for two and not actually terribly well suited for a party. On top of this, our host had set up his racing track which took up nearly the entire floor in the sitting area. We had to carefully step around and between the loops of the track to move across the room and there were only 6 of us. We watched the guys race while we ate, and then we got a crash course in how to use the track. It was a little like Hot Wheels on steroids. The cars were about three times the size of the Hot Wheels, and the track was equally sized up, which is why it took up the whole floor. In addition, it was linked into a video game system that measured our laps as well as our “fuel” so we had to not only drive the mini-cars, but pull into a pit stop when our fuel was running low or risk losing the race by running out and getting stranded.
Once Jinju and I learned the basics, we tried for a 6 car race, but ended up with too many wrecks, and settled into 4. I don’t even know how many years it’s been since I raced toy cars, but it was just as fun as it was when I was a kid, only this time we were also drinking beers and complaining about politics. I still think Mario Cart is the best drinking and driving option, because we crashed those mini cars too many times and may have damaged a wing mirror, but we made it through a 100 lap race and I came in a respectable second place behind our host.
As you can see, Busan is treating me very well. I’ve also done some more totally practical things like finally getting my medical reimbursements and setting up my Korean phone, and of course teaching adorable munchkins! I know I’m still in the “honeymoon” phase of life in a new country, but so far I honestly feel like this is a place I’ll be content and even happy to call home for quite some time. There’s always something to do, the locals are helpful and kind, and the community of expats is fun and friendly. I’ll do my best to keep blogging because I genuinely enjoy writing about my experiences, not just to share them with you all, but as a record of my experiences I hope to enjoy in my dotage many years from now. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out all the rest of the pictures on my Facebook page!