Letters from China (Queen’s Village 2007)

In October of 2007 I was invited to visit a small village near the university where I was teaching. This remains on of the most unique experiences I’ve had while living and traveling abroad. I was able to see parts of China that foreigners simply don’t visit. I was welcomed into their homes, and allowed not only to observe their way of life, but live it myself for a couple of days. I don’t where Queen is right now, and I don’t even know the name of her hometown, but I hope that she and they are doing well and can understand the impact they had on my life as an early traveler.


Oct 26, 2007 at 3:36pm

This weekend (Oct. 19-21) I went to a small farming village at the invitation of one of my students. Her English name is Queen. She is a sophomore (second year at university). She is 20 years old, and she is one of only 4 people in her generation from her village to go to college. She is also the first person in her family to pursue higher education. Her older brother didn’t even go to high school, and is now the only veterinarian for the whole area. Her family farm grows mainly corn which brings in about 1000$ USD per year. Her family grows its own vegetables and fruits in their yards, things like potatoes, turnips, cabbage, apples, pears, grapes and a kind of date called a jujube, mostly foods that can be stored, dried, pickled etc. There is only one store in the village to buy other goods, and most people simply eat what they produce or buy from each other what they need. They also have their own goats for milk and chickens for eggs, and one of her grandmothers even has bees for honey (they sent me home with coke bottle full).

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The Plumbing

The village does not have indoor plumbing, and while this may seem entertaining in an outhouse kind of way, they also don’t have running water indoors. There is a spigot in the yard that only works for one hour a day, since the government is restricting the water in the name of conservation. The northeast of China is very dry. So her family has to collect all the water they will use for the day during that hour. They collect it in a large basin and several buckets, and if they run out there is no way to get more. This means any cooking, washing or drinking they want to do requires them to get a measured amount of water from the daily store to use, heat it over a wood stove (more on that later), use for whatever purpose and then carry it out (no drains in the house either) to dump in the yard (don’t waste water that can help the crops).

In the summer they have a building in the yard they can take showers in (see picture below, its the building next to the doghouse), but since there is no way to heat the water for the shower, they don’t take showers in the winter, but rather heat up some water and use a basin to wash their hands, face and feet. There is a hotel in the village (apparently owned by one of her cousins, it specializes in offering city folk a real rural experience: Dude Ranch Chinese style), and every so often they go there to use the hot water showers in the winter, but it’s a special occasion.

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The lack of indoor plumbing extends to toilets as well, in the northwest corner of the yard (the least auspicious area in accordance with feng shui, I kid you not, and so the best place for a toilet). The building is brick (left), and the toilet is a rectangular hole in the ground (right), no porcelain here, that drains into a hole beside the building where the waste is collected for use as fertilizer. We stayed in two different houses the two nights I was there, and the first (her mother’s) had a nice clean toilet area, which I have a picture of, and the second (one of her grandmother’s) was pretty gross, covered in fecal matter and obviously not regularly cleaned (I have spared the world this image and have no photos of it).

The Electricity

There is some, but like the water it is limited. There is power for the lights, and they have TVs, satellite dishes, DVD players etc that they can run. Some of them also have a few electric cooking devices, like a rice cooker or hot plate. However, there are no stoves and no electric heating. The houses have large glass windows that collect and focus sunlight during the winter. People live on the sunny side of the house in the winter and move to the shady side in the summer, so the houses are built in mirror images. The main beds are made of brick. They run from one wall to the other and basically act as a horizontal chimney carrying heat from the wood stove to the real chimney in the outer wall. The bed stays very warm this way, and the whole family gathers in this room in the evening to eat dinner, watch TV, play cards etc where its warm. I was given this room to sleep in as the honored guest, and the family all slept together in another room. The stoves are fire, the fuel is whatever they can find, sticks and twigs from the orchard trees, dried chaff and stalks from the corn or other crops, etc.

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The climate in the northeast of China is very dry and very cold. It’s not the Gobi desert or anything, but it is very dry. The natural vegetation and the rock formations are very similar to the scrub-lands of southwest America, but its not as warm. If you could take a small rural town from the poorest part of Mississippi or Louisiana and move it out of the wetlands into the arid high plateaus of Arizona you might have an idea of what this place was like.

The Journey

We left Yanjiao about 1030 am. We took the 930 bus to the main terminal at Dawanglu, which is in the southeast corner of Beijing, out around the 3rd ring road¹. This is my normal route into Beijing and it takes about 40 minutes. We picked up some breakfast there, something a little like an egg mcmuffin, but fried. Then we got on the subway to go to Jishuitan, which is on the northwest corner of the second line (also the second ring road). This took about 30 minutes. Then we walked over to the bus station, passing one of the many old city gates, and got on the 919 to go to Yan Qiao. The mountains are apparently called the Yan Mountains, so many of the small towns start with “Yan”.

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We passed by many sites of the Great Wall, including Badaling, which is the most famous, and we paused for a brief rest stop and I think to change drivers, and I took some more photos of the wall.

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After about an hour and a half we arrived at the town, we took a little ride around the town square and went to the park.

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Then we flagged down a private cab (a guy with a van who doesn’t work for any taxi company) and my student negotiated a price for him to drive us to her village. The driver initially offered to take us for 13 Yuan, but later changed his mind, charging us only 3 and telling Queen to “take good care of the foreigner”. It took us about another 20-30 minutes to get to her village gate. As long as we remained in the Beijing zone, the roads were good, but as soon as we crossed the border into Hebei province, the roads became a mess of potholes and bad roadwork.

¹Beijing is an autonomous zone, a city without a province, like Washington D.C. is a city without a state. The city is zoned by the “ring roads“, which are just what they sound like. I only knew 5 at the time, apparently there are 7 now. It basically tells you how far from the city center you are.

Queen’s Family Home

We were dropped off at the gate and walked from there to her mother’s home. The streets within the village were more like dirt alleys, filled with rubble and trash. The homes were fairly old, most having an outer wall, a large yard used as a vegetable garden and a reasonably large home, which often housed 3 generations.

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Queen was very eager to show off the brick bed I described earlier, which was in the main bedroom.

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There were bright posters in many rooms which I was told are renewed at the spring festival and symbolize good fortune and fertility. I also took a look at the kitchens (both) to see the wood stoves that fed heat into the beds.

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Her mother was quite gracious. I was offered grapes and jujubes (the fruit not the candy, it’s a little like a date, but drier) from their garden as well as tea to drink. After a while, Queen wanted to wander over to her Grandmother’s house (for the sake of argument, since I honestly lost track of relatives, we’l just call this one Grandmother 1). It was a short walk, during which I was stared at by everyone we passed. Her grandmother, grandfather, aunt and uncle greeted us and I was plied with apples and haw fruit from their garden. Haw is a small red fruit with soft tart flesh; you might be able to find some candy or tea of that flavor in an Asian import store.

The people in Queen’s village don’t speak “putonghua” the common standard Mandarin Chinese, but rather a local dialect that I couldn’t understand at all. However, she’s a good student and was able to act as a translator for her family and me.

After a visit there, we headed back to her mother’s, stopping at the general store on the way back to pick up some snacks and packaged meat (kind of like Spam, but not in a can). Her mother prepared a nice dinner for us. We had sweet potato and rice porridge, a dish of potatoes and turnips, some candied almonds, and some mild pickled peppers her grandmother had sent back with us. Everything we ate except the meat was grown in her family’s gardens. Oh, and there was fresh goat’s milk from the goats in the back yard as well as a kind of strong clear alcohol that her mother soaked fruit in to make a tasty drink. I swear I ate until I was stuffed and her mother complained that I didn’t eat anything!

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Two of her young cousins came over after dinner and we all sat on the brick bed chatting and watching TV. Queen made her cousins speak slowly in putonghua to see if I could translate for myself. This seemed to amuse them for a while. I saw a beautiful show on TV of a troupe of dancers, all deaf and mute, doing a tribute to Guan Yin. They lined up behind one another and made elaborate patterns with their arms to imitate the multi armed statues of the goddess.

When it was time for bed, they set me up with plenty of blankets, made sure I had food and water in case I got hungry or thirsty in the middle of the night, and left a bucket so I wouldn’t have to brave the freezing outdoors to get to the outhouse.

Despite the bitter cold outside, the bed stayed warm, if terribly hard. I slept fairly well, though I woke up a little stiff. Breakfast was more fresh goats milk, some steamed eggs (which by the way had green shells, a nice pale sea-foam green, which I can only attribute to the breed of chicken, since I know the eggs were fresh since the chickens were also in the backyard)…anyway, this means I ate green eggs and spam for breakfast, I told Queen about Dr. Seuss and recited what I could remember of the poem which she seemed very interested in. There was also a nice pickled cabbage dish, almonds leftover from dinner and possibly some other things, it kind of blurs together.

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Local Schools

After breakfast we took a walk to the local schools. Queen told me that very few of the students finish middle school. The classes are too crowded and all the good teachers have left for better jobs. Many of the boys wander the streets during the day rather than going to school. Their parents don’t want them to get outside jobs at that age, but don’t make them go to class. When they grow up they will be manual laborers, working in the fields or building roads, earning only a few hundred Yuan a month.

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The children in the school were excited to see me, I may not have mentioned, but I was the first foreigner to ever visit this village. Queen herself was bursting with pride to be walking beside me and translating for me. The head of the kindergarten wanted to take pictures of me in his school, I hesitate to imagine that soon there will be pictures of me proudly displayed there, although I did nothing more than walk through it.

It was so strange to see all those bright and curious faces and know that most of them would never leave the 50 mile radius of their increasingly poor and dry county; would never see the world; would never even finish a basic education, and that for many of them, the few minutes that I was in their school was the only time they might ever see someone from another country not on TV.

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We returned to her mother’s house where an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I will continue the story in another post, since there’s a character limit here. Tune in next time for the continuation of the Village Excusion!

Oct 26, 2007 at 3:57pm

When we left off, an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I do believe that the truck had no shocks at all, the roads were bumpy beyond belief, and sometimes there wasn’t a road, at least not what we would call one. There were certainly no traffic laws, and people simply drove wherever they could.

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This turned out to be quite a distance. On the way we drove past an interstate under construction, where I was informed that the government had taken up farmland to build a highway for the Olympics. We also passed a large metal statue of a hand holding a wine bottle, seemingly in triumph, a tribute to the wine of the region, which I have still never tried.

The Other Grandparents

Grandmother 2 lived in an older and less orderly village. The amenities were a good deal dirtier. The number of times I silently thanked my mother for teaching me how to be a gracious guest were countless. The yard was sort of a garden, and of course there were goats, fruit trees and even some beehives, well boxes of bees anyway.

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We walked around the village a bit, saw the main streets and the aqueduct which also doubles as a washing machine.

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Then her cousin came to pick us up and take us to some of the “sights”. There was a stage that the Beijing (Peiking) Opera apparently performs on during the spring festival.

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Is That a Town or a Film Set?

We went next to an old ruined village near the lake that has become a popular site for film directors. Apparently about half the ruin is authentic and the other half has been built over time by various film crews. I walked over a very rickety bridge, and was reassured that in the film, soldiers had run over it, but given what I know about film, this is not actually reassuring.

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Hostessing: Chinese Grandmother Style

We returned to her grandmother 2’s house, and the family picked up a chicken to serve with dinner, another nod to the guest of honor, as meat does not usually feature in their diet very much. A small swarm of relatives joined us, and I was ushered in to eat, at first alone, but I expressed they should join me; Queen said they were too shy to, but got them in anyway. They were also constantly pressing food on me, since both before and after dinner they made sure there were always snacks of fruit and bread nearby, and at dinner they constantly urged me to eat more.

They were also constantly worried I was too cold. They were amazed that I could use chopsticks. They were worried that Queen wouldn’t think of things I might need. They were generally very kind if somewhat fussy hosts.

After dinner, we gathered again on the brick bed, the kids worked on homework, I got a chance to look at some of their books. A few more people came and went, including her brother. As I became sleepy, they decided to evacuate to let me sleep. Queen told me that her family thought it might be rude to leave me to sleep alone, since the custom there is for the family to sleep together for warmth, but thankfully she was able to assure them that I would not be offended.

Again, they made sure I had food, tea, blankets and a bucket before leaving, and I headed into a fitful night’s sleep, punctuated by a nocturnal goat and a lonely puppy. I had no idea up until this point that goats were the least bit nocturnal, nor was I aware that any animal not in some kind of serious distress could make noise that constantly for that long.

A Sunday Morning Stroll

I gave up on sleeping around 7am, got dressed and found a corner of the garden to brush my teeth in (remember, no sinks), had a cup of tea and headed out for a pre-breakfast stroll thru the village. On the way we passed a sign, which I was told was put there by the government to entreat people not to follow Falun Gong, and those of you who have talked to me at all in the last 3 years know that this has been a bit of an interest of mine¹, so I was unable to resist the temptation to engage in conversation when I discovered that all the tales I had read of Chinese propaganda were true.

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They were told that FLG followers committed suicide and killed people. She was angry that the US wouldn’t turn over Li Hongzhi (the leader) to the Chinese government, and simply seemed to have a block on the idea that the facts might have been distorted. I tried to explain the concept of independent studies, and that thus far the Chinese had not allowed us to conduct one. I told her that FLG practitioners in other countries were peaceful (if a little noisy), and she was amazed there were practitioners in other countries, which just goes to highlight the lack of information available, since in America, one only has to do a google search to find thousands of mentions in the news².

She also told me that prior to the ban, her mother had been a member, though they had renounced it when the government turned against it. All in all, it was illuminating. It took me a long time to convince her that I didn’t like or agree with Li or FLG, but that I respected their right to believe as they wanted. She argued that China had plenty of religious choices; I said 5 is not plenty. She said more religions cause more conflict, I said, no, pluralism decreases violence. It was interesting.

Anywho. There was a lovely breakfast, egg fried rice, more veggies and a kind of spicy mutton stew. Afterward we set out to climb the small mountain behind the house. There was a ladder going partway up the wall in the back, from which you could reach the road at the base of the mountain, and I was much mocked for not wanting to climb the wall, steep and without secure footing as it was, so we walked around.

The mountain had some goat trails, but for the main part, we picked our way upwards thru steep shifting gravel and spiky scrub plants. The view from the top, however, was expansive. It’s hard to tell from the photos, but you could make out the main mountain range, the lake and the railroad. Queen told me that when she was a little girl she could often see the Great Wall on those mountains clearly, but the pollution has now become such that you can only occasionally see the mountains at all.

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¹When this was written, I had only just finished my MA and my thesis was on the Falun Gong. The upshot is that any of my friends who held still for more than a minute over the last 18 months had been regaled with my research findings. Short version: it’s a cult based in Qi Gong practice (like Tai Chi) started in China in the 90’s, first embraced by the government, but banned in ’99. The leader lives in New York and directs his followers from there. Most people around the world who practice it are only aware of the exercise aspect, not too many people read far enough to get to the aliens with bone noses, the demons who want our bodies, and the leader’s determined efforts to take down the Communist government of China. It’s a major controversy in China. Followers are imprisoned, allegedly tortured and possibly even used as unwilling organ donors for transplant tourism. It’s a mess. You can start with Wikipedia, but the rabbit hole is deep.

²Still. I just looked and there are news articles as recent as a few days old. It looks like the controversy is still on.

Getting Back

Her cousin came back to get us, and drove us to a place where we could catch a ride back to the bus stop. This ride included driving on the still under construction highway, battling non-paved roads and trying to get around construction crews. We stuffed into a van with 8 other people and wended our way on the back roads to avoid the traffic jam caused by the fact that due to some visiting dignitaries in Beijing, trucks were not allowed into the city (makes a motorcade block seem like nothing).

The rest of the trip back was uneventful. I would like to add, however, that throughout the whole weekend, Queen and I had a number of very deep discussions on the differences between China and America. I not only learned a great deal, as she was pleased to tell me the history and conditions of the many places and people we saw, but I was deeply impressed with her mind. It was obvious that even though she had been taught how to feel about certain things by the message of the party, that did not stop her from thinking about other things once they were presented to her.

*(please take a moment to go and look at the photo album, as this is an environment most people will never see in person or even in a National Geographic. My photos may not be travel magazine quality, but this village is off the map, and only seems only to be known to the families who live there. I store my albums on Facebook because the free storage space is limited on WordPress.)

Reflections *(2007)

All in all, the trip had a profound affect on me. What I saw, what I learned, there is nothing to compare with it in all my other experiences and I hope I will never forget it. I know its impossible to relay the depth of the experience, there is nothing you can read or even see in a photograph that compares to being there, but I hope that in some way this sharing of my experience has impacted some of you as well.

That I am living in a country where less than 100 miles from a city that rivals New York there is such amazing poverty, devastatingly poor education and tragically low standards of living is so mind blowing I still don’t think I get it, and this wasn’t anywhere NEAR the poorest part of China. And yet, despite these conditions, the people are kind to foreigners, proud of their achievements and their nation, and hopeful for the future of their children and it was able to produce this girl I met, who is brilliant and motivated. And not only does this girl have the desire and ability to go to college, to get a master’s degree and even to study overseas, her greatest ambition is not to flee to a big city and a high salary job, but to return to her village after all that and help the next generation to produce more people like her.

There is so much I could not include here, and already its 6 pages long, so I’m stopping, but I’ll be putting up the pen pal lists soon, and all I can say is that I encourage you to meet one of these students, not just to enrich their lives, but to enrich your own, because they are amazing.


Reflections 2017

It was and still is one of the best experiences. It opened my eyes to things going on not only in China, but around the world and in my own country too. It’s so easy for people in the cities (or in moderately well-off rural areas) to forget that millions or even billions of people on Earth still live in these conditions or worse. I have seen people around the world struggling to make a living, struggling to get an education, struggling to make a better life for the generation after them. And yet, most of those people have been the kindest and most generous. 

As much as I love gaping at the wonders of nature, or history, or even of the modern world, nothing in my travels can ever compare to the simple experience of sharing time with another person, whether it is an hour, a day, or a year. I never want to give up seeking out the wonders of the world, but I never want to forget that one of those wonders is human beings themselves.

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Letters From China (Playing Tourist 2007)

In October, I’d gotten into the swing of my teaching schedule, and the oppressive heat of the summer began fading into autumn coolness, affording me the chance to spend more time exploring Beijing and other nearby sights. I took some trips on my own, and others under the supervision of the school which made arrangements to take the English teachers to the Great Wall. In the original letters, I put thumbnail links of every photo, but in this re-posting, the majority of the pictures are in the Fabcebook albums. Enjoy!


Oct 4, 2007 at 8:04pm

Another round of pictures.

The first place we went was the Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing, and home of the world’s largest standing wooden Buddha statue. Last time I was here (2005), I was running low on memory space, so I only got about 6 pics, but yesterday I got tons, so hopefully you’ll enjoy.

First we have the main gate, the guardian lions and a couple of monks grabbing a snack.

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Next there is a secondary gate, a detailed map and history of the temple (you can actually read it if you zoom in), a nice bell, me next to another lion and one of the many buildings around, this one houses the statue that follows.

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And now we see the Turtle and carvings that are in building just above.

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Next is me with a prayer wheel, a kite trapped in a tree, a little girl throwing a coin for luck, a temple replica, and me with some more statuary.

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Some nice trees, roof spirits, and a giant lotus statue thingy.

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More lovely architecture, and in the last two you can see part of the city in the background. It amuses me to see the incongruity.

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This next line is one you need to read and look at to appreciate. These six statues are large, they go in order from smallest up, and each one is further into the temple complex. The first is about 5 or 6 feet high. You can see the roof in the next two, and its a vaulted ceiling, so these are 10-12 feet or so. The fourth is over 15 feet high, the fifth is at least 2 stories high, and the last, being the largest wooden buddha in the world stands about 4 stories high. There’s not much in each photo to present scale, the flowers and other decorations are to scale with the statues so they are ginourmous too.

And some parting shots on our way out.

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After a hour or so of wandering around the temple, we headed over to the lake district, flopped on the first soft seat I’ve been on since I got here at Club Obiwan and enjoyed some tasty fresh fruit smoothies. After the rest, we headed off for a walk around the lake, punctuated by the occasional pit stop for lunch and a happy hour mojito.

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On our way back to the bus station we spotted what we think was a gate house left over from when the old city wall was there.

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And after a long day in the city, we took a bus with standing room only back to our home in Yanjiao to be greeted by the evening piles of garbage left behind by passing citizens and collected by duly employed street sweepers.

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*(See the full day’s photos in the Facebook album)

Oct 15, 2007 at 10:20pm

The school took us on a little field trip to Huangyaguan, which is a section of the Great Wall near Tianjin. It was initially built in Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 C.E.) and later renovated and lengthened in Sui Dynasty (581-618 C.E.) and again during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644C.E.) The Great Wall is not actually one continous wall, its built in several sections, and over time those sections have been repaired or lost so its seriously broken up nowadays, this section is about 26 miles long here.

It is regarded as an ‘Impregnable Pass’ in Tianjin. This section is the longest restored section of the Great Wall with a length of about 3337 yards. The city at the base also contains some gardens and a museum which will be in the second post.

We went up the shorter of the two sides, and it was still quite a climb. You can see the other side in the background of many pictures, and I urge you to realize that it went all the way over the mountain and down the other side.

Anywho. We left at 9am, preparing for the 2 hr drive, and it turned out to be three, since we were stalled by a police blockade which was stopping overloaded trucks. The traffic backed up to the point that there were 5 lanes of driving on a two lane road. We passed thru many very rural spots which I almost regret not taking pictures of, but its a little scary.

When we arrived at the wall, we had lunch before beginning out climb, fairly plain local food, including what appeared to be a whole chicken chopped up in a bowl, anyway I found feet.

We started our climb in the rain, and the school cordinators rented umbrellas for us.

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The beginning of the climb was easy enough, mild stairs and long flats. A nice view of the gardens below, one of which you see here, other’s you’ll see in the second post. We made it to the first watchtower with little trouble.

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Leaving the watchtower, the climb started getting more steep. There was a pretty harsh incline and some pretty scary stairs. And of course, endless gift stands. Some of the views are looking forward, some are looking back to give perspective on how far we’ve come and how far we have still to go. I’m pretty sure you still can’t see our final destination in these pics.

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I continue to impress upon you the steepness of these stairs, we’re going up a mountain here, and the Chinese take a very direct route to the top of a mountain, straight up. In this series, we made it to the second tower, or really I should say I made it, as I was rather slower than the rest of the group and paused often to take pictures.

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On the way to the last tower of this section, the construction of the wall changes a bit, becoming much less even and alot more multicolored. The sun finally started coming out and I captured a fantastic example of a tourist leaving thier mark on the wall… I felt only slightly mollified that they were Spanish.

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There was more up, but it got considerably rockier and there were no more towers, so most of the group settled for stopping here. I went up a bit more for some more photo ops from the top.

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We then began our descent, and since the sun came out, I took a bunch more pictures, I tried not to include duplicates.

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I hope you enjoyed, and again, I encourage you to take the time to look at the full size pics by clicking on them, as there are sooo many lovely details that can’t be seen in the thumbnails.

Coming soon: Great Wall Part II, in which there will be pictures and descriptions of the unique gardens at the base.

(full album on Facebook)

Oct 16, 2007 at 2:47pm

Guancheng (Pass City) is the center of the Huangyaguan section. Guancheng was itself a perfect defensive project and it is also where Bagua Village (The Eight Diagrams Village) is situated. Bagua Village was built in the Ming Dynasty according to the Eight Diagrams created by Fuxi (an ancient tribal leader).

In the reparation during the 1980s, more tourist sites were built at the foot of the Huangyaguan Great Wall in Bagua Village, including Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum and the Stele Forest. Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum is the first Great Wall museum in China.

We went thru the maze at Bagua, the Museum, as well as the stele garden (yes that’s how its spelled), saw a lovely miniature wall garden and the longevity garden.

The first pictures are of the bagua maze, there’s a lovely yinyang on the floor at the center, and later on in the museum section, you can see a model of it as well.

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Next is the Stele Garden and the miniature Wall. I didn’t take pictures of the poetry on the walls, since none of you can read it, I figured we’d all rather see the wall.

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Next we have the museum itself, not terribly impressive, but i’ve noticed that Chinese museums tend to lack the flair we’re used to in the states. I mostly took landscape photos, since the displays were not to interesting, but I did take a couple of the model of the city so you can see the basic layout. And a neat door knocker.

32museum6.jpgLastly is the Longevity Garden, which you can see in the second layout model above. It has a nice waterfall, and a reflecting pool in the shape of what may appear to be a swastika, but it really a sacred symbol of Buddhism. And while I’ve seen this figure in a statue before, I’m still not sure who it is, other than it seems to be someone important in Buddhist history.

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Hope you enjoyed! I think my next major trip will be to the home village of one of my students this coming weekend, which should be a real adventure.

(full album on Facebook)


The Lama Temple was a revisit for me, but the Wall at Huangyaguan was a new experience. In both cases, the art, architecture and history of China were still new to me. This is not to say that I do not still enjoy them, but I find that once I’ve gotten past the big tourist bucket list, there is so much left to see. When I compare this to my trip in 2012, or even my explorations more recently, I can see the seeds of my tourism habit forming in this place: a blend of bucket list and local flavor. A good reminder as I head off to explore a new land for the Chuseok holiday this year.

Marching Forward in Busan

Last weekend, the city of Busan, South Korea had it’s very first Pride march. Although the capital city of Seoul has been having LGBTQIA+ events since 2000, it’s been a little slow to spread beyond the dense urban hub of Korean counter culture. Korea did not get a second city to participate in this part of the civil rights movement until Daegu joined in 2009. And after another 8 years, Busan has become the third Korean city to host a Queer Pride event.

Of course, since Busan has been my home for the last 18 months, I had to go. I knew it was going to be much smaller than the events I attended in Seoul over the last 2 summers, but it was still exciting to imagine being part of a historical first. 


The Run Up

21458019_1738461163115256_947757470217525866_o.pngIn the weeks leading up to the event, Facebook groups circulated ads, support, rumors and questions as it became murky as to whether the festival’s organizers were in fact granted the required permits to host vendors, performers and the ever important march through the crowded streets of Haeundae. There was some fear that the vendors would be denied a permit and a rallying cry for them to show up anyway and risk arrest for the cause. (Thankfully, that didn’t seem to be necessary).

And as news of the event spread, the inevitable groups of Christian fundamentalists tried to demand the government to deny permission, and worked to organize a mass counter-protest movement. Police released a statement to the media advising that plenty of officers would be on site to make sure that no violence ensued.

I think it’s important to note that these Christians really are counter-protesters, because here in Korea, there are no gay rights, and so the queer community are actually doing the original protest against the current government and social policies that exclude and endanger them. The Christian groups just want to maintain the status quo (or even it roll back to make homosexuality illegal again.)

Solidarity on the Subway

It’s about a 45 minute subway ride from my house to the beach where the festival was to be held, and while I was killing time scrolling through Facebook, I happened to look up and notice a very genderfluid individual standing nearby with a “LGBTQIA Rights Are Human Rights” bag. I caught their eye and smiled, pointing to the bag and giving a big thumbs up before tapping my own rainbow pin. Their eyes lit up as they asked in thick Korean phonemes, “pride?” (pu-rai-du). I nodded, still smiling and we had a high five.

I can only imagine the courage it took to get on the subway sporting such a mix of gender role presentation. They were a little chubby (which is already almost a sin in Korea), wearing just black shorts and a hoodie with white trainers. They had short hair and glasses, but beautifully done makeup. Gender roles are enforced hardcore in Korea, so it must have been a little scary to leave the house and know that you still might be harassed on your way to the only event in town where you can be yourself.

Although we both went back to scrolling our phones after the high five, we did happen to look up at the same time once or twice more on the long ride and shared big grins every time we made eye contact. Although I saw many more flamboyantly dressed Koreans at the event, I am fairly sure they didn’t ride a subway in their Pride outfits.

The Vendors

Haeundae is the most famous beach in Busan and while the festival didn’t get to set up right on the beach, the main stage was just inland of the waterfront road. We arrived a little early with plans to get some brunch before checking the booths, but ended up walking through the tent area anyway. It was significantly smaller than Seoul’s event, and I’d venture to say that at least half of the booths were dedicated folks who came down from Seoul to support the Busan march, but hey, you gotta start somewhere.

20170923_132553We passed booths promoting awareness, selling pride pins, flags, t-shirts, art and books. We bought a few small things, more to support the vendors than anything else. One booth was just for birth control awareness, which is a major issue in Korea since it is still very stigmatized and difficult for women to use it regularly without facing harsh judgement from friends, family and even medical professionals.

One booth was allowing people to make their own buttons and taking pictures of the results. The majority of the volunteers there were middle aged people who didn’t quite know all the colors and symbols, but every time they saw something new they would ask about it and try to learn. It was heartwarming to see the older generation not only involved in promoting LGBTQIA rights in Korea, but genuinely interested in learning all the jargon and labeling that can seem so foreign to allies, but is so vital to people struggling with identity.

The Protesters

20170923_131018.jpgWhile the booth selection was not as big as the Seoul event, the protesters weren’t as bad as their Seoul counterparts. There were far fewer of them, and they didn’t have any giant trailers with loudspeakers or competing musical performances. Most of them simply held their signs quietly. A few shouted slogans, but the only one shouted at me was “Jesus is love” which is not bad as protest slogans go… I mean, really it’s the same reason why enlightened Christians think marriage equality is right… love is love, man.

On the other hand, I’m slightly perverse from time to time, and so I chanted back to her “Buddha is love”… because I’ve had just about all the conversion talks I need for the next few lifetimes.

20170923_131053.jpgWhen the sign wavers got too close, the police gently moved them back. There was no force or violence, but the police would form a blockade and firmly move the problem folks back out of range. One man was so transported by his prayer, he knelt as close to the event as he could get, clutching his sign and praying feverishly, eyes screwed shut and knuckles white.

Many of the Christian counter-protesters hid their faces, although it’s unclear if this was some kind of copying of Antifa, or an actual desire to hide their identity for fear of … I’m really not sure what, or if they’re just that breed of middle aged Korean person that wears a face mask and sunglasses and big hat any time they go outside when it’s even a little sunny. Because that happens too.

The March

It hardly took us any time at all to finish exploring the booths, and we had a couple hours to kill before the march was scheduled to begin, so we hopped over a block or two to have a rest in a friend’s apartment. We came back around parade start time, expecting it to be a little late, honestly, and we couldn’t find it anywhere!

20170923_163214.jpgFrantically trying to IM another friend in the parade to figure out which way to go, we walked up and down the street lined with protesters holding signs about sin and Jesus and homosexuals out out out. When the marchers finally arrived, we found ourselves on the wrong side of the police line! We stood among the protesters who waved their fists and signs and chanted their message of opposition. From this vantage point we saw the giant rainbow flag at the head of the procession and we cheered as loud as we could to drown the voices of those around us and support the marchers we had been unable to join in time.

20170923_163257.jpgAs the parade moved closer to us, the police moved the line of protesters further and further back to prevent clashes. We pointed somewhat frantically at our own rainbow pins and flags as we asked the officers if we could cross the line and join the group inside. Finally, realizing we were not a threat, they let us through and we joined the group of hundreds (possibly thousands) dancing and singing along to the K-Pop blaring from the backs of the trucks that had lead them on the brief march around the block.

20170923_163316I’m not sure what the actual parade route was, but I know it must have been short for it was scheduled to start at 4, and was more or less over by 4:30. By 4:45 everyone had dissipated and the plaza was being swiftly converted for whatever event had reserved the space for the evening hours. I also cannot report on the turn out at this time, as there has not been any English language media follow-up reporting on the numbers of attendees, counter-protesters, or police. If I get some information later, I’ll update it here.

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The Sights

TBH, I fell off the photojournalism ladder that day. There was no “press booth” and I felt a bit uncomfortable running around snapping pics without credentials. I try to use my own photos when I can, but I highly recommend viewing the photo album on the Busan Pride Facebook page, because they had a wonderful professional photographer and it’s a great collection of images. These are a few more of my photos below.

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The Issues

In countries where gay rights are protected by law, Pride is more a celebration, or a victory march. However, in places where the people are still fighting for equality under the law, it’s more a mix of celebration and protest. Pride events in Korea are festive, no doubt. It’s one of the few times when queer folk can come out in the light of day and BE. There is art, and music, and hugs and laughter, and singing and dancing with K-Pop and sparkly costumes. But alongside this joy, there are some very serious issues that can affect the life and livelihood of the people impacted by them.

The Busan Pride festival coincided with international Bisexual Awareness Day (September 23), and it did not go unnoticed. Although flags and emblems for most if not all gender/sexual identities made an appearance at least once somewhere at the event, the pink, purple, and blue of the bisexual flag was clearly the dominant color scheme (competing even with the rainbow itself for top billing).

I don’t really know how bi-phobia and bi-erasure stack up as issues in South Korea. I know in many places, bi people suffer exclusion from both hetero and queer communities because they won’t “pick a side” (I cannot roll my eyes hard enough). I actually had a bisexual male friend of mine tell me the other day he doesn’t know that many women who like women, and I was like… uh, we’re friends with all these same people, right? Yes you do! But bi women have become hesitant to talk about it for fear of being “not queer enough” or of being fetishized by dudes who want threesomes (gak).

Look, really, the point is, if someone tells you that they identify as bi, or ace, or pan, or agender, or non-binary… or any one of the list of other sexual/gender identities that seem to be perceived as fictional… just believe them. It’s not hurting you to let them be themselves but it sure as heck hurts them when friends and family tell them they are wrong or worse, lying.

The other hot issue for LGBTQIA rights in Korea this year is the military shenanigans. I talked about this a bit in my post about Seoul Pride, but it’s still going on. Recap: Military participation is mandatory for all men in Korea (maybe barring serious illness/disability). Being gay while in the military is a criminal offense punishable by up to 2 years in prison. Some dingo’s kidney of a military leader decided to use Grindr and/or some other hookup apps to trap some young servicemen and they are now in jail. The UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Military Human Rights Centre for Korea are pissed off and calling this a human rights violation.

I found an article that says the Korean government may be looking into possibly maybe changing the policy in response to UN and international pressure, or they could just be preparing to double down on their anti-gay policy. To be clear, there is NO WAY for young gay men to avoid this. Service is not optional. However much I may disdain a ban on gays in a military (*cough*Trumpisanassholeforthetransban*cough*), at least in countries like the US, they can simply choose not to join. It’s still discriminatory, but not actually entrapping. Korean men do not have a choice on military service and we all know, sexuality is not a choice either.

I’m sure with Trump and Kim going at it like schoolyard bullies, most of the concerns of the world with respect to Korea are about nuclear annihilation, but if you could spare a moment to urge your representatives, to contact your favorite international human rights organization, to donate, to speak out, to put pressure on Moon and his government to protect gay Korean men from imprisonment merely for being who they are while serving their nation, that would be great.

Because when it comes to human rights, the slogan of this year’s Pride events in Korea got it spot on…20170923_181931


I know I got a little political there, but frankly, I’m just tired to my bones about having to read every day about how some human somewhere is being treated as less because of a trait they cannot choose, whether that is skin color, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, or sexuality. I’m weary to my soul that I keep seeing humans being physically attacked for this. And I am exhausted on a cellular level of seeing oppressors claiming victimhood as they smash the faces of those humans figuratively and literally. In some ways, I wish I was only talking about America, but it’s everywhere. It’s not going away if we ignore it or just “don’t get political”. And while I can’t go out on the streets and fight it every day, I am not that strong; I can act, do, and speak as much as my strength allows. I hope you will, too.

Letters From China (First Month 2007)

As September 2007 continued I began to find my feet in China, getting the swing of things in the classroom and learning to navigate Beijing on my own. These letters include my trips into town, my adventures in coffee, my first bout of homesickness (maybe ever), and some glimpses into the lives of my Chinese students.


Sep 13, 2007 at 10:08pm

Sooo, today was kinda interesting. It started off with early morning downpours, and me having no umbrella. By the time I got to class I was totally soaked. Not too bad tho, it cleaned out the air a bit and cooled down a lot.

The power went out this afternoon.

And… drumroll please… I found a place that serves COFFEE here in Yanjiao! It took me a while to get across that I just wanted black coffee, since it was like a dessert shop and they did mochas and cappuccinos and the like, but in the end, I did get a real cup of coffee… not great, but real. I still intend to try to get some beans in the city so I can make my own, but it is nice to know there’s somewhere I can go nearby.

Sep 14, 2007 at 7:34pm

I’m sitting here grading homework, and I want to share what one of my students wrote. The assignment was to describe a person.

“When I am happy, I like a person who is of medium build, a little chubby. I think she is very optimistic, stoic and conservative. She likes reading, listening to music and so on. Sometimes she would write a very good passage.

But when I am sad, very sad, I begin to hate her. I think she is very pessimistic, stingy and grumpy. She always does something wrong which made a lot of person even her friends misunderstood her and dislike her.

I eagerly hope she can do everything carefully and become excellent. Because that person is me.”

The English is a little rough, but I think the message is amazing, so I had to share.

Sep 15, 2007 at 11:25pm

Today I finally felt well enough to do some exploring. We decided to go into Beijing. The bus ride takes about 40 minutes, but its reasonably comfortable, and really cheap, about 5 yuan¹ as opposed to say a taxi which would cost over 100. This lets us out at Dawanglu. There we discovered a Super Walmart center and a guy in a penguin suit.

After Walmart, where I was able to find actual coffee, though its very finely ground and a little acidic for my tastes (I may however have over-brewed it, due to its completely wrong grind for a french press, and since I have a whole bunch, I’ll keep trying to get the timing right), we got on the subway (3 yuan) http://www.urbanrail.net/as/beij/beijing.htm and went on the red line (see the link for a map²) from Dawanglu to Xidan where we found a huge mall and some interesting architecture.

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This mall looks a little like an American mall, but of course there’s lots of room for bargaining. We also found a Starbucks where I was able to purchase the aforementioned french press. We didn’t stay long because one of the guys was looking for a winter coat and we didn’t see many clothing stores there, but I want to go back and explore more… one of the nicest things about it was that no one was trying to sell me stuff actively, and later I’ll explain why that’s so nice³.

We then took the subway back to Yong’anli and the infamous Silk Market. The silk market is a huge multistory shopping complex made up of hundreds of stalls selling goods.

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Its a heavy bargaining experience. Erwin found a jacket he liked and argued the price from 2300 to 450 (300usd to 60). While this market has plenty of nice stuff for cheap if you argue well, the sales girls are really grabby, literally, they kept grabbing my arm to stop me and try to drag me to look at their stuff. Not all were like this, but enough that it got on my nerves. I’m sure I’ll go shopping there myself when I need winter things, but its really a high impact shopping experience.

We stopped at a cafe to refresh ourselves before the long trek home. Kevin had a sort of duh experience today. His water supply† at home ran out like 2 days ago and for whatever reason a new jug never arrived, so he basically stopped drinking water, and of course today, he got pretty sick… he’s fine now, and its probably just as well we had to come home early, cause I am totally wiped out. In the end, we took the subway back to Dawanglu, then the bus back home. So I shall leave this post with the final picture from the window of our bus.

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¹ Chinese currency has a lot of names… I was not consistent in how I called it because the Chinese themselves are not. RMB, Yuan, and Kuai (remember back then it was 7.5 RMB to 1USD)

² That link doesn’t work. Try this one. TheBeijing subway has gotten SO much bigger since then. There were 4 active lines and they were building the 5th for the Olympics… today there are 15. But you can still see the red line on the map.

³ I did not ever explain that. In China (and oh so many places in the developing world) visiting (white) people are assumed to be richy richersons and someone always has a hand out or is trying to sell you something useless and overpriced. Often a simple “no thanks” in the local language is enough, but I’ve had people on the street grab my bags or even my arm before trying to get me to buy. It was very overwhelming before I learned how to deal with it.

†Do not drink the tap water. 

Sep 16, 2007 at 10:56pm

To paraphrase Rob, I finally hit the wall. It really hit me where I am and how long I’m going to be here, and the fact that I sat in my apartment today and couldn’t talk to any of you because you were all gone, just made it that much harder. Don’t get me wrong, I know it was Saturday night and all, but I went out to Beijing yesterday instead of chatting with ppl, and I’ve been kind of scarce on contact this last week anyway, and I keep looking at this board hoping someone will have put up something while I was asleep or away, and its happening less and less…

I realise you’re all going on with your lives and that I’m not as much a part of them as I was 3 weeks ago, and there’s a definite tendency for “out of sight out of mind” but when I was talking to you all, at least someone, every day, I wasn’t lonely, and I felt like I could DO this. But today, for the first time, I began to wonder if I really can.

So, I guess I’m just asking that you try not to let me be out of mind, just because I’m out of sight. I don’t think I can do this without your help, all of you. I’m gonna try to shift the Beijing outings to Sundays (your Saturdays), to make it easier. Google Talk has a free voice talk function that all you need is a cheap mic to use, and I can’t tell you how much it helps to hear your voices.

I’ve never really been “homesick” before, because having moved so much as a kid, I never really felt like I had a home, and when I left Memphis, I was only leaving a few people behind, and I could always just call them if I missed them. But I’m homesick now, for Seattle, and while I can’t be there, and you can’t be here, if we can meet out in Cyberspace its not as bad.

P.S. Its not really the city I’m homesick for, but the people who made it a home, the ability to walk down the street to hang out at Belinda’s or drive over the water to Toni’s or just hang out and shoot the breeze after game. The closest I can get to that here is talking online, and that I need more than coffee or pine scent or home-cooking. I think its important for me to be ok with the accommodations, food and entertainment that China has to offer, because trying to make my life here like Seattle not only defeats the purpose of being here, but just highlights the differences and reminds me how hard it is to bring that here. Things are just things, but people are irreplaceable.

Post by Ross on Sep 19, 2007 at 7:09am

Weeeeee’re off to see the Chairman, the most respectable Chairman of OZ!

We hear he has some wonderful Chi, if ever some Chi there waaaas!

If ever oh ever a respectable worker there was, the Chairman of OZ is one because. Because, because, because, because, becaaaaause!

Because of the glorious wealth and respect in common effort to the workers he does!(doo da da da dum da doom, da!)¹

¹Nearly everything here is something I wrote, but I just couldn’t leave this creative comment out.

Sep 19, 2007 at 6:11pm

As part of teaching conversational English, I give the kids¹ little activities to do. Today was a talk show, the topic of which was “teens and their parents”. While several of the skits were standard fare: “dad won’t let me date”, “mom treats me like a child” etc. One group had a fantastically Jerry Springer-like show.

It started out with the “mother” bursting into tears (real ham acting sobs) and relating the deep tragedy of her husband disappearing from their life when her daughter was only 6 and their mother/daughter relationship is now suffering.

The “daughter” then breaks in to tell her side, the relationship isn’t bad because the father left, its bad because she is a lesbian and her mother refuses to let her marry the woman she loves!

It further develops that, although she has become a lesbian because of her deep distrust and hatred for men (causing the male “host” to back up a bit), she truly loves the woman she is with.

The only un-Springer-like action is that after the psychologist has told the mother that her daughter’s sexual preference is a result of a combination of genetics and environment, and she must support her daughter (nice and liberal), the mother and daughter make up in another flood of hamitup tears.

The skit was funny and socially relevant and very creative. It really is amazing to watch these young people grow and change.

¹ “kids” = university students, ages 18-22

Sep 21, 2007 at 1:27pm

With my cold finally gone (well mostly) and the beautiful weather, I finally got off my butt and took some pictures of the campus. Be warned, there are a lot of them¹.

We begin our virtual tour today with an aerial view of campus in order to give you a big picture from which to put the details in perspective. I went to the ninth floor of a teaching building in the middle of campus and took pics starting from the south, moving west, north,  and east.

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Now you have the 180 aerial tour, lets move onto the ground. From the south view, you can see the zigzag looking bushes, the red potted flowers and the cactus garden.

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Next, we’ll take a look inside the class building from which I took the pics. First is the view of the building from the south, standing on the same road bordered by the zigzag bushes, then some classrooms and the stairwell.

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…a public toilet and some chalkboard art.

Next we shall move to the north, and see the basketball courts, the fantastic concrete pingpong tables and some more chalkboard art.

Now to the east, a sight not easily visible in the tall view because of trees, but nice nonetheless: A fountain (not currently flowing) and some student dorms.

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And as we move to the southeast, we find a lovey garden path and gazeebo.

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Interesting architecture, well sort of, I have no idea what this smokestack thing is for, but hey, its a feature.

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The main south gate into campus (the one I come in thru every day).

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this garden is near my apt. on south campus

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Now for the entertaining bits. I’ve mentioned to a few people the amazingly big and architecturally inclined spiders here, and while I can’t get a web to show up on my camera, I thought these pics might give you some idea of what I’m talking about. The spiders themselves are about 2 inches (including legs) and the webs are usually 3-4 feet in diameter. The webs are not as patterned as say an orb spider, but they tend to be three dimensional, being a few inches deep in addition to the many feet wide. Thankfully, there are enough regular cleaning staff that no webs ever wind up on the paths, but they can be seen from the road. The pictures below are of a spider perched in his web (not one dangling in midair). You can just see the edges of the trees he has built his web between, and these are TREES not bushes, the whole thing was about 8 feet in the air. The thumbnails do not do it justice, since the spider is a little black dot, so I suggest to those who really want the full effect to go get the full size pics.

73 freaky spider 3.jpgAnd last but not least, the army kids. Some of you may be aware that military participation is mandatory in China. So all the freshmen, rather than starting their classes, are participating in military training, which seems to consist mostly of learning how to march in formation. They have been shouting outside the classrooms all week, and I often have to yell to be heard over them in class. I took some pictures of their drilling practices, and tonight I’m going to some kind of show which is being held in the football field (apparently that they’ve been preparing for, hence the yelling), that thing that looks like a bunch of colored squared on the north west corner of campus is actually a football field that they’ve covered with a plastic tarp and chairs. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, the People’s Army…

Peace out!

¹ So many more pictures. If you want to see more, check out the album on Facebook (where picture storage is free).

Sep 28, 2007 at 2:40pm

I’m a little behind in posts this week, but I finally got the pics off my camera, so here we go. I moved my weekly exploration outing to Sunday (rather than Sat) to better coincide with chatting and game times in Seattle.

After my last trip into Beijing being so hectic, I was planning a nice relaxing day of browsing through one of the quieter shopping centers, however, this did not turn out to be the case. Adam, the anime fanboy foreign teacher here, heard of my planned outing and asked to come along. I agreed and expressed my desires for a quiet shopping trip, alas, it was not to be. After only a few minutes at the shopping center I scouted out last time (the one under the big glass cone in the previous pics), Adam wanted to show me a nearby center he’d been to before… OK… so we hit the streets. Where I saw some interesting signs, and a few examples of native wildlife.

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When we finally found his shopping center, he decided he was hungry, and asked if I’d rather go to MacDonald’s or KFC. Grrr. After waiting for him to get American junk food, I finally found a street vendor and got some REALLY tasty squid in a sauce that tasted a bit like bbq and cocktail sauce mixed together, and some grilled mutton with what tasted like cumin and cinnamon for spices.

We went into the shopping center. I found a nice Tiffany knock off chain for the pendant Miriam gave me (BTW I get compliments on that pendant, and one of the other teachers wants to know if that company has a website). I captured an interesting example of Chinese fashion, and spent a lot of time waiting around the geek area of the mall while Adam perused the entire anime toys/keepsakes collection.

Finally nearing the end of my energy and my patience, we sojourned to Starbucks and had a short break before getting back on the subway to head to a bar where one of Adam’s “friends” was DJing. The bar is called Club Obiwan, and I didn’t get any pics of the interior, cause I was tired and grumpy when we showed up, in no small part because the directions were vague and we got a little lost looking for it. But it turned out to be a really neat place, most of the clientele were ex-pats, westerners living in Beijing. I had a Mojito which was very refreshing and had a basil undertone to it, and there was free BBQ. The theme of the evening being reggae; it was not Chinese bbq. I think it was supposed to be Jamaican, but it was very mild, and oh so tasty. The music was also very nice, being that breed of reggae that is more chill out than rock out. Here is the view from the rooftop dining area.

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We totally cheated and took a taxi back to the bus stop, but it was worth it not to have to face the subway at the end of such a long day.

On Tuesday, all the teachers had to go back into Beijing to file for our residence permits, which ordinarily would not bear a place in a post, but on the way home we passed a mule drawn cart, and I had to share.

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Reflections?

I can see how much my approach to photos and descriptions has changed in 10 years. Clearly, I used to rely on the photos to tell the story, only explaining enough for context. These days I find I really enjoy describing what I see, as so often my experiences simply can’t be captured on camera, but are a blend of all the senses and of my feelings. Subsequently, I write much longer posts, but then the photos can support my story rather than the other way around.

I can also see how what I look for first in a new country hasn’t changed too much: coffee, a good place to shop for the necessities, and the best places to get local food. I haven’t focused as much on my school here in Korea, but I think that has more to do with the fact that it’s not ok to put other people’s children online without permission and I’m teaching actual kids instead of young adult “kids”. But, if it’s something you’d like to hear about, I could certainly work on a school/work post for Korea, too.

Finally, I’ve become much more self conscious about taking photos of people, no matter what age. I suspect that living in Saudi and travelling in the Middle East made me this way, since there is is at best rude and at worst illegal to take or post pictures with faces in them without permission. I don’t know if that’s something I want to change or not, yet, but it’s interesting to think about. As always, thanks for reading! 🙂

Letters from China (Getting Settled 2007)

I arrived in China about a week before the job started because I wanted time to get settled into my apartment and do things like find the grocery store. Barring a summer camp gig 2 years previous, this was my first real job abroad and although I didn’t pack quite as many unnecessary things in my luggage, I was still far from being the veteran hit the ground running traveler that I am today. After discovering my LiveJournal account was blocked by the Great Firewall of China, my friends help me set up a message board where I could write home with the harrowing tales of my life in China. The footnotes are a recent addition for the republication.


Aug 29, 2007 at 11:40am

I braved the streets. Well, the alleys anyway. I thought I was going to be on my own, but I ran into the only other teacher who’s arrived. He’s totally American, but is of Taiwanese descent, so he gets treated pretty bad here. Everyone expects him to speak Chinese fluently, and he can’t. But we wandered down to the local supermarket, which is situated in a “walk street” where no cars are allowed, nestled among the shops and vendors, including the Famous California Noodle King. Don’t ask, cause I have no idea.

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I found a vendor selling some kind of melon¹ on a stick which turned out to taste like cantaloupe while looking nothing like it. So I had a tasty fresh fruit breakfast. (for about 13 cents)

The supermarket is 3 stories tall, but the third story was a separate store, a bit more like a department store, with shoes and clothes and stuff.

I picked up a variety of goods, some trash bags and cleaning stuff, some dried and frozen food, some really fascinating chocolate (Dove orange and hazelnut), but as of yet no Icy Mint Sprite²… tho I have not given up hope. This fantastic trip cost about 10$.

I’m sure I’ll be going back soonish, as I figure out what I need, but its not far away, about 2 blocks, and its a good excuse to get out. I got to see the other teacher’s schedule (tho I haven’t gotten mine yet) and it looks like we really do have fairly light loads. I’ll let you all know when I have a schedule what it is.

TTFN

¹It’s the Asian Melon. No really, that’s it’s name. They have it in Korea, too.

²Icy Mint Sprite was a beverage I discovered on my first visit to China in 2005 that tasted like non-alcoholic mojitos. I have never found it again.

Aug 29, 2007 at 8:11pm

We went into actual Beijing today. I live in a subcity (like a suburb, but more urban) called Yanjiao (pronounced yen-jaow). We took the bus to the main terminal, a 5 kuai trip (less than 1$)¹ and about 30-40 minutes. Then we took the subway a little further. The subway is actually fairly nice, and it goes both in a line through and a circle around the heart of Beijing. (A 3 kuai trip, less than 50c). We came out under a shopping mall, and when we went out onto the street it was apparently a main shopping drag, and full of shops for everything. I took some notes on how to get there, and I should be able to get back on my own. Even if I don’t want to go back to the same shopping center, there is a stop for Tienanmen, that might be nice to explore, and of course, once downtown, I can also take taxis around if I really need to. I won’t get paid till mid September, so I probably won’t do much shopping beyond basic needs till then, but its still nice to know how to get around.

The only other teacher here yet is rather nice, but totally out of place. I mentioned before that he’s Chinese descent, but American raised. He’s also an I.T. guy and apparently doesn’t really like exploring. He said he’s going to look at this year like a year in prison, and use it to keep a perspective on how great life in America really is. I find this a little depressing, since I look at this whole thing as a great adventure, but it does really put some perspective on this for me to know that so few ppl really want adventure.

Still, he’s a sci-fi geek and a Joss Whedon fan, and he wants to work for the feds too², so at least we have stuff to talk about. I hope some of the other teachers will want to explore more, since I prefer to explore in company… not that I won’t go off on my own if there’s none available, but its nice not to have to.

Finding ppl online at all hours has also been really nice. It means I have a little piece of home whenever I need it, and it makes me feel like i’m not so far away. I hope you all won’t get tired of talking, IMing, posting etc.

loves, Me

¹The Chinese currency is the Renminbi (RMB), also called the Yuan, and colloquially called “kuai”. At the time I was living there, 1USD was about 7.5RMB (kuai). 

²I had this strange notion that I would take my degree in International Studies and work for the US government to uphold democracy, international security, and diplomatic relations. Still, dodged a bullet there, eh?

Aug 30, 2007 at 12:54pm

I met my TA this morning, who had the dubious task of explaining my schedule and responsibilites to me. At least she spoke pretty good English.

The schedule is bizarre all by itself. To start, it is a 20 week semester. Simple enough. The 5th week is a holiday week. OK. All the class times AFTER the holiday move half an hour earlier….uh huh. SOME of my classes don’t start until after the holiday; some end on the 15, 17 or 19th weeks. I have a paper schedule, but I’m thinking of redoing it all so I can understand it.

Monday I’m teaching 2 classes until after the holiday, then 3. one from 1005-1150, another from 230-415 and the third, although written from 430-615 is presumably from 4-545 since that will not start until after the holiday, when the other classes change to 925-1120 and 2-345…I think.

Tuesday its just 2 classes back to back in the morning, from 8am-1150, with the same loverly time shift.

Wed is only one class from 230-415

Thurs theres one at 8 and another at 430, 2 hrs each

Fri just one at 8am

Now, the fun starts:

I have 5 CLASSES, and only 3 COURSES

Course 1 has classes a, b, and c, each of which meet only once a week, and while they will all have different students, they all use the same book and lesson plan.

Courses 2 and 3 have only one class but they meet 2x a week.

There’s also the late starting class, but I’m not sure what that is yet, since I’ve been told they’ll explain it later.

100_0094

Then there is the PAPERWORK:

For each class meeting I have an attendance sheet, which the class monitor will write each students name in Chinese and English according to a numerical assignment, and I will track attendance and homework (a combined 30% of the grade I might add)

There is also the course schedule which has a sort of overview of the entire semester’s lesson plan for each class, meaning I have to fill out 5, and they need 4 copies of each.

Then there are the “preface to the lesson” forms which must be filled out for every single class meeting and stapled to my lesson notes.

There are also forms for the final assessment (70% of the grade) but my TA took mercy on me and said we could go over them later in the semester.

I’ll be getting some electric copies of these forms which I shall endeavor to transmit to you all so you can share my pain.

Oh!, and I have to give a lecture in the 9th week, 2 hrs, and i’m thinking of giving it on RPing and the Sci-fi fantasy community, since I can’t think of anything else I can talk about for 2 hrs without getting in trouble here.

Note: I am so jealous of past me’s schedule…12-15 hours a week of teaching time? To put it in perspective, in KSA I taught 27.5 hours of class a week, in Japan I taught 35 hours of class a week, and in Korea I teach 22 hours of class a week. In case you’re curious, never take a job with more than 25, aim for less than 20.

Aug 31, 2007 at 8:01pm

By request, I shall talk about all the interesting food I have experienced so far.

My first meal here was Tuesday’s lunch in the restaurant adjoining the hotel here on campus, where we were taken by the coordinator. It was a buffet and I could not begin to name the dishes, but they were all tasty. My favorite appeared to be eggplant and some kind of root vegetable (I won’t swear to potato). I think I could have eaten a mountain of it.

The next day I went to the store and got the melon onna stick spoken about in earlier posts. From the store, food-wise, I got some chocolate (of course) but of an unusual flavor: orange and hazelnut, which turned out to be bits of candied orange and bits of hazelnuts in Dove milk chocolate (its the most popular chocolate brand here, and comes in MANY more flavors than Dove makes in America). I bought some black rice crackers that I became fond of the last time I was here. They are light and crispy with a little bit of sugar frosting on top. I also got some oatmeal, because, as boring as it is, its good for upset tummies. I experimented a little by picking out a bag from the frozen food section. It had a picture of (raw) meat on skewers on the front, as well as of cows in a meadow, though I’m reasonably sure from the characters that its actually sheep, I keep meaning to look it up but haven’t¹. (more on this later, as I didn’t actually eat it on Wed). I discovered that there was a fresh soy product center in the store and bought some marinated tofu and fresh soy milk, which tastes nothing like the soy milk in the states, but it nonetheless tasty. The marinated tofu was ok, but a little bland, marinated tofu usually has more taste. And lastly I bought some apples, which were reminiscent of fuji or braeburns, crisp, fresh and lightly sweet.

Thursday I went back to the store in quest of more supplies (not wanting to carry too much all at once, I’m taking my time), but found that the store was not yet open, so I partook of some rice dumplings from a nearby vendor. These are sticky rice squished around a filling of some kind and wrapped in bamboo leaves then boiled or steamed. Not knowing the difference between the two types she offered, I got one of each (at a kuai a pop). One was definitely filled with red bean paste, a kind of sweet mush of a distinctive yet mild flavor, and the other I could not identify… it was fruit of some kind, reminiscent of dates², but very strong in flavor with an almost caramelized (almost burnt sugar) aftertaste. I think it would have been better if there were less of it, but I found it too strong.

For lunch I decided to cook up some of those mystery meats, and it turned out they were cooked and spiced and only needed heating up. Once warm, they revealed a mostly tender meat with a few bits of stringiness, but in small chunks so not unpleasant, very moist and spiced predominantly with garlic and cumin (again lending credence to the sheep theory as cumin and mutton are a common combination). They were quite surprisingly tasty.

Later in the evening, past the midday HOT, I returned to the store, got more chocolate (surprise) and experimented more. I found a packet of cookie/cake things with English ingredients which revealed it to be made of mung bean and pea flours with floral essences and a bit of sugar. They are very dry, but not crispy, they’re soft, almost powdery, and go very well with tea (hot or iced) and I’d bet coffee as well. I found some rice cookies with chocolate filling, and I am a bit underwhelmed. They are crispy, but a little oily and the chocolate is barely tasteable. I will not be buying those again. I broke down and got some Nescafe, at least until I get back into Beijing downtown to a Starbucks for some ground coffee and a machine of some kind. I will not discuss Nescafe.

I got some more mystery meat skewers (same kind as before, its good to have something at home I know I can eat³), some fried tofu puffs which were nice, but need a sauce of some kind, which I will look for next time. I also got a coffee cola (not Coke Black but something else) but I haven’t opened it yet, so I don’t know how it tastes. And finally, fantastic peaches (omg). The fruit here is so fresh and so good. They were that perfect peach texture, not too hard, but not mushy, lightly sweet with a thin skin that was only lightly tart and not at all bitter. Juicy enough to make you slurp, but not so juicy you need a napkin. Perfect.

On the way out, I stopped to buy a roasted chicken from another street vendor and I think he teased me about not going to KFC next door, but I couldn’t really tell… regardless, the chicken was fantastic! A light sweet and spicy sauce had been used in the roasting and coated the chicken with its baked on goodness. It was a little small by American standards, but soooo much better and not injected or anything, just chicken. The meat, even the white, was quite moist and tender, and lead me to think I will risk more KFC jokes to get more†.

Today (Friday) I quested out to a restaurant on my own for dinner. (Currently all my ventures have told me that I have forgotten a lot about Chinese language, and really need practice, so I’ve been reticent to dine alone). Not being cognizant enough to try to decipher the menu, I ordered xi hong shi chao ji dan (that egg and tomato dish‡). It was a little saltier in the egg than I would have liked, and used green onions instead of cilantro, changing rather seriously the overall taste of the dish. I don’t know as of yet if this is regional or merely restaurant specific, but I’m sure i’ll find out eventually. There was easily 2 servings on my plate (no rice) and the meal was still less than 1$….ah I love the economy of food here.

So I think that’s it on food for now, hope you food fans enjoyed the descriptions, I’m sure there will be more to follow.

¹ I studied Mandarin Chinese in university for two years and a bit, but hadn’t had any classes during my final year, so I was a bit rusty.

² These are jujubes, also known as Asian dates, or Chinese dates. Hence the date flavor.

³ I was gluten and dairy free when I moved to China and didn’t discover my ability to tolerate the wheat and milk there for several months.

† The best chicken, the Chicken of Tasty. It is still spoken about with awe and reverence. I went there once a week at least the entire time I lived there, and it became a point of pride for the owner that the American girl liked his food better than KFC.

‡ Probably still my favorite Chinese food. It’s made of eggs and tomatoes stir-fried in garlic, ginger, cilantro and probably some soy sauce. I ate it as often as possible and miss it like crazy.

Sep 10, 2007 at 6:12pm

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while, I’ve been sick, as many of you know. I think (knock on wood) its getting better.

In any case, my first week of school was ok. My students are reasonably bright, but pretty shy. The textbooks are fairly easy to use. The schedule is not to stressful, as most days I only have one class and never more than 2 in a a day¹.

The three classes I’m teaching are:

1) a basic Sophomore required English conversation class, we start out by discussing vocabulary and new concepts and move into listening and speaking exercises. I think they’re having fun.

2) a Junior level advanced conversation class, that I’m still trying to wrap my brain around how to teach because the book is strangely organized. Last week I tried to teach blind, having not gotten the book in advance and borrowing one of the student’s books to teach from. I hope it gets better.

3) a reading comprehension class, which was a little tough last week because I don’t think the students really prepared, but I told them they had to read ahead and look up new words on their own if they didn’t know them in order to be prepared to discuss the readings in class. We’ll see.

As for the rest of my life last week, well, sickness ate a lot of it. I’ve been a couch potato. Watched “Heroes” and started “Lost”, omg what a messed up island… there’s a pretty reliable source of cheap but bad dvds around here.

I met more of the other teachers.

70b kevin and a guard

Kevin (right) is from Wisconsin. He arrived last Sat. with no Chinese money or language skills, and not even an ATM card to get Chinese money. Poor guy. So I bought him dinner, and we’ve been hanging out, usually having at least one meal a day together, cause its nice to have company, and he has at least a passing chance of knowing what he’s about to eat if I order. He’s a bit of a frat boy type, beer, pizza, ultimate Frisbee, but he was never in a frat, and was also a drama nerd occasionally. He’s super excited to be here and he’s pretty good company.

Adam (not pictured) is also from Wisconsin, tho they didn’t know each other. He’s an anime geek and brought like 400 dvds with him, cause he’s afraid he won’t be able to get anime here… or at least not in English. He talks more than anyone I’ve ever met (including me), even I had trouble getting a word in edgeways. He says he studied Chinese, but I’ve never heard him speak it, he either points to what he wants on the menu or lets me order. He’s also a really picky eater, but I guess that’s his loss. He seems like he means well tho, I mean, he’s not an asshole, he just lacks some social polish, but hey, we all know how gamer/anime geeks can be about that. I’m hoping some of its nervousness about being here and meeting new ppl and will wear off soon.

Erwin (not pictured) came out of his hole to have diner with us yesterday and was actually smiling. (this was the guy who was all depressed about being here, and said he was comparing this year to a year in prison, so yay for smiling). I think maybe his initial yicks are wearing off.

Not much excitement, mostly resting, teaching and going to dinner with the other teachers. I hope that my cold will be gone soon, I really want to go exploring more, and I just don’t have the energy for it right now.

We’re going into Beijing on Wed. I have to get a medical exam, and I’m going to try to open a bank account², but I won’t have time to explore, cause I’ve got class Wed afternoon. I suppose that the upside is that if I’m late that day it won’t be my fault since the department scheduled the Dr. appt. Oh, and don’t panic, its a routine exam required by the gov’t to make sure i’m not going to infect the country. I’m not THAT sick…

my love and hugs, k

¹ So. Jealous.

² I never did open a bank account in China. It turned out to be nearly impossible for a foreigner to do so, since we had to undergo a waiting period and keep the equivalent of 500 USD in the account at all times. That was nearly a whole month’s salary, and I sent half my salary back to the US every month to pay bills, so I could never save enough to open the account.


It’s almost painful for me to leave these letters minimally edited (some punctuation and spelling got fixed). I know I was writing causally to friends but it’s not unlike reading high school poetry… really? I wrote that? I took a lot of pictures in the early days, but didn’t actually post them until later. Sorry for the wall of text.

Reflections? I really miss university teaching, and am glad I’ve decided to go back to that next school year! I miss having English speaking co-workers. EPIK teachers in Korea are fairly isolated. We can make friends and attend group events outside of work, but it’s hit or miss if we have anyone in the same neighborhood, and we’ll never have someone at the same school. I miss real Chinese food so much. The Korean idea of Chinese food is limited to sweet and sour pork and a noodle dish I’ve actually only encountered in Korea called Jajangmyeon (they insist it is Chinese food). Taiwan is seriously looking good for the next country.

 

Letters From China (Introduction)

No, I haven’t moved to China (and probably won’t because of the pollution), but I used to live there ten years ago. I’ve been meaning to move the stories over to this blog for a few years, and since the second semester looks like it’s going to be more dental work than exploring, it seemed like a good time to go for it. 


The very first time I went to teach abroad was a 7 week program in the summer of 2005, and I did zero online storytelling that time. However, upon graduating from the UW, I embarked on my first long term ESL contract in China in August of 2007 teaching at a technical college near but not actually in Beijing. I wasn’t keeping a blog, yet. Actually, in 2007 Facebook was still a baby, so it was my plan to have a LiveJournal to update friends and family on my adventures, but when I got to China, it turned out LJ was blocked, so we made a cute little message board instead.

These are not really stories in the way that I have evolved to tell stories in this blog. They’re more like letters home. I thought that the 10 year mark was a good time to dust them off and bring them back into the light to see where my adventures began and how my storytelling has evolved.

The letters are reproduced through this series in roughly chronological order with some regrouping by topic and a little editing for clarity. The 13 posts will be released as I am able to proofread and reinsert the original photos, but here’s a draft list for reference. (Hint: if it doesn’t work as a link, it’s probably not posted yet)

Letters From China:

Getting Settled 2007: My arrival in China, the beginning of the message board, my first impressions of my town, meeting the other teachers and learning about my job, my first visit to Beijing (not counting that week in 2005), and a bonus letter about Chinese food.

First Month 2007: Stories about my school, my students, shopping, and other experiences as I found my feet and started to learn how to be an expat. Also, finding coffee.

Playing Tourist 2007: Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing; the lake district; and the Great Wall at Huangyaguan.

Queen’s Village 2007: I got invited by one of my students to come to her village and visit her family over a weekend. I got this a lot actually, but only Queen lived close enough for us to actually do it. I was the first foreigner to ever set foot in her village, despite the fact that it was less than 2 hours by bus away from the Beijing city center. It remains one of the most unique and treasured experiences of my adventures to this day.

The Bunny 2007-8: I got a bunny. He was adorable. He was frustrating. He saved me from depression and made me threaten to turn him into gloves several times. These are his stories.

Fall 2007: This is where I hit my first major clash with the monster of culture shock. The letters are fairly emotional and show what I have now come to affectionately dub the “culture shock roller coaster” very effectively. Way before I had any idea what hit me.

Holidays 2007: Thanksgiving Dinner with friends, Christmas without Christ in China, New Year’s Eve, decorating and celebrating my first set of holidays away from home.

Winter 2007-8: Snowmen, Chinese home remedies (aka the ginger coke story), my long weekend in the old capital city of Xi’an, where the Terracotta Warriors are from, although I didn’t write anything about them. Plus some letters about surviving the bitter cold and isolation of a north China winter, Dostoevsky style.

About Tibet 2008: In the spring of 2008 there were riots in Tibet that were reported in the Chinese news. Since I was teaching a journalism class at the time, I hoped to open a discussion, but was quickly shut down by the students, and the school, and the government. It’s not a long letter, but I felt it deserved it’s own post.

Holidays 2008: Saint Patrick’s Day with the Irish and the first open parade in Beijing since 1989, Easter Brunch, and April Fool’s pranks at school.

Spring in the City 2008: After my return from winter break, I needed western surroundings and more reliable internet than I could get in my small town, so I started weekly forays into Beijing in pursuit of these and other necessities/comforts. And cherry blossoms.

Bunny Bureaucracy 2008: The intrepid and daring tale of how we fought the bureaucracy of two countries to bring the Bunny back to the US. So worth it.

The End 2008: The beginning and progression of the illness that forced me to leave China and nearly ended my adventures forever.


I learned some interesting things looking back on these letters too.

I have grown a lot. And have become much more adept at navigating the challenges of living abroad, culture shock, and other unfamiliar life challenges. It feels good. My life is by no means challenge free, but I feel like I’ve leveled up… a couple times. And it’s not just the challenges of bureaucracy or different ways of doing things or even dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of culture shock. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself and about the world around me, broadening and deepening my understanding and my compassion.

I miss noticing new things. I don’t know if it’s because this is my second year in Korea or because it’s my 4th country to work in, but I feel like there were way more “oh, how does this work” or “wow, this is different” observations in these old letters than in my recent posts. I’m not sure how to get that back or even if I can for Korea, but I’ll try to keep it in mind the next time I move.

I really miss teaching at university level. This elementary thing has been fun, but I miss being able to talk to my students about real things. So many stories from China (and from Saudi) came from being able to communicate with my students about their lives and their culture. However sweet, adorable and full of unconditional love my elementary students are, they are not full of complex thoughts that they can share with me.

But most of all, I miss the level of support and involvement I used to get from readers. I mean, back then, my only readers were friends and family, but these days I feel like I interact more with readers I don’t know personally than readers I do. And even then, we don’t interact much. I value every comment. I yearn to see discussions and shared stories appear in my comments section. I hope my messenger blows up and my instagram is full of words. I need people, not just likes. Hope to hear from you soon. ❤

North American Summer

What with the total media explosion, I was more than a little apprehensive about my plan to return to American for nearly 3 weeks this summer. I think if it had merely been a trip for my own enjoyment, I would have gone to Iceland or Patagonia or nearly anywhere else in the world. However, there were some practical considerations that dragged me not quite kicking and screaming into Trump’s America in 2017. Mostly, my fears were unmet and I had a lovely time reconnecting with friends and family, but I didn’t feel completely at ease until I passed through Canadian customs and was an international traveler once more.


A Little Bit Political

Back when Obama was president and the country still looked mostly sane (at least from my newsfeed), I had this glorious plan to spend every other year overseas teaching English, and to return to Seattle in between times where I have a standing offer for employment from a lovely French lady, and some decent prospects of joining the thrilling world of project management (no, I don’t know if that’s sarcasm either).

In 2014 when I started this blog, I packed my stuff up for storage thinking it would be nice to have my clothes, dishes, bedding etc. for those years I was in the US and that it was worth the cost of a storage unit to not have to buy them new again every time I came back.

When I left for Korea in February of 2016, early in the primary election process, my friends asked me, “how long are you going to be gone this time?” and I replied, “depends on who wins the election”. Everyone thought I was joking.

To be fair, I can’t lay all this on one man. There is a seriously disturbing trend in the US that I’ve commented on a few times in the last year. I try not to wax political often because this isn’t a political blog, but some things affect me so much I can’t leave it out. I see the election of Trump as a symptom, not a cause, and I see America taking a turn for the I-don’t-want-to-be-near-that-when-it-explodes.

Maybe that’s selfish… well, not maybe, it is. I have a better job, better pay, better vacation, better vacation opportunities, better health care, and an over all better quality of life out here than I have ever had as adult in the US. I haven’t been un-poor long enough to be willing to go back to that life. Add on going to rallies, protest marches, calling congresspeople, and risking my job and freedom to do so? No thanks.

My hat is off to all those who are staying to fight, and even more to those who are returning from life abroad to get involved. You are brave, and I respect that. I wish you luck, and I will be cheering for you. I will also bake you cookies, or offer moral support whenever I can.

So Why Go Back At All?

That storage unit was costing me about $1,200 US annually and I can do much cooler things than store stuff for that much money. I tried to get some friends to go and get things they wanted for free out of it last year, but only one person did (and even then I had to remind her several times). I don’t know what it says about my Seattle people that they can’t make time to go get free stuff they want. Thus it became that I was forced to return to Seattle to empty the darn thing myself.

And then there’s the niblings. I neither have nor want children of my own (I never have and no, I’m not changing my mind, and yes we’ve already established I’m selfish). I don’t hate children. I teach children. I love hanging out with my friends’ children (assuming they don’t drool too much). My sister has two beautiful little ones that are and always will be a precious part of my life. They are as yet too young to join me abroad on their holidays, so I try to get by there about once a year (or two) so they can see my face and form some kind of mental image of their Auntie.

Anxiety

I was so terrified of going back.

I was terrified that the Arabic stamps in my passport would get me flagged at immigration. Even though I’m a citizen, it turns out our constitutional rights to privacy (like cops needing a warrant) don’t apply at the border.

I was terrified that some kind of medical issue would crop up while I was in the US and financially ruin me (travel insurance only covers so much). Or worse, that it would prevent me from returning to Korea. Being trapped in the US has become one of my worst irrational fears.

I was terrified that I would witness some horrific act of racism or xyz-phobia… because if I saw it and didn’t get involved, I would be somehow less for watching passively, but if I saw it and did get involved, I could end up arrested, in the hospital or even dead like that poor guy in Portland. And if it could happen in Portland, it could happen in Seattle.

I was terrified that my growth and self discovery would be disregarded by my friends. It’s not like they’ve been able to see me going through all of this except in sporadic Facebook posts.

I was terrified that toxic people I had cut from my life in the last 3 years would try once more to insert themselves into my attempt to enjoy the company of those I do still cherish, bringing drama and spite to what should be a nice time.

Various versions of these scenarios were the topic of restless nights and nailbiting free-time in the weeks before I went. Perhaps the only bonus to my horrible root canal misadventure was that I was in too much pain and anxiety about my tooth to worry as much about what would happen to me in America.

The Actual Experience

At the border: Customs at LAX was very smooth, all machine operated. I used one of the little kiosks to enter all my data and it printed a sort of receipt I gave to the customs officer who welcomed me with a nice smile.

Healthcare: I did get a little sick, I had a mysteriously swollen lymph node, but it never got hospital worthy and was gone in about 10 days. Mostly, I was just juggling the tooth pain and being totally sleep deprived from trying to do all the things.

Violence: I didn’t see any horrific behavior, although this is more than likely because I spent nearly all my time in someone’s house or being escorted through the nicest parts of town for our errands. I did see a dead body on the highway. It was a suicide. The man had jumped from an overpass and landed on a car below. When I drove past, the EMS had not arrived, but there were more than enough bystanders parked on the shoulder that I decided the best thing I could do was get out of the way. It was a bit strange how blase my American friends were about this story, like oh, yeah, dead body… next.

My Friends: I was able to make a schedule ahead of time so that the people I wanted to see most were already planning something with me, and there were a few “free for all” spots. No one I didn’t want to see showed up, and I got to see everyone important to me. This was a resounding success and resulted in one of the more epic sailing days I’ve ever had, a wild midsummer night’s fairy party in the woods, and my traditional group sing of Bohemian Rhapsody at karaoke (don’t judge me), as well as several days of pleasant company and catching up.

A benefit of selecting only those most important to me for hangouts was that they were all pretty much on board with my growth and happy for my self discovery. It’s a good sign since that’s how friends should be, but I spent too long around people who kept me down or resented my self improvement to take the good folks for granted now.

Bonus: I got the whole storage unit cleared out and managed to only have a half a trash bag to throw away. Everything else I didn’t keep was given to a person who would use it or donated to Value Village.

American Money

This trip was the most expensive I’ve taken by over 1000$, and I didn’t spend a single night in a hotel. Friends and family found me spare rooms the whole way. Yes, the trip was also longer than previous holidays, but I only rented a car for 9 of the days and was not having to pay for every meal of the day, or things like park entrances and tour fees. America is expensive.

Airfare: Getting to America is bad enough what with that giant ocean in the way, but I flew round trip to New Zealand (which is also an ocean away and on another hemisphere) for less than the cheapest round trip to the nearest coast of the USA. And if you want to go anywhere other than the coast, you’re stuck paying inflated airline prices that include no meals or luggage (which basically everywhere else in the world does include). I can fly from Korea to Norway for less than it costs to fly from Seattle to Memphis, and I’ll get fed and my bags will be included.

Hotels: I could not have afforded this trip if I had to rent accommodation in addition to a car. If you want a room in America in a part of town where you are unlikely to hear gunfire, you will pay 80-120$ a night minimum. (booking.com only lists 4 in Seattle for under 100$ and all of those are over 90$) Everywhere else I’ve gone, I can get a bed for between 10-30$ a night in a safe place.

Car Rental: I paid almost 200$ less because I am a legal resident of Korea than US residents would have paid to rent the same car. I tried searching for smaller rental companies, but I couldn’t find one that didn’t have an online reputation as a scam. This in and of itself is crazy, because in other countries I usually rent from small companies because they have better rates. In America, I had to go with one of the big names to avoid being ripped off. When I was reserving the car with Budget online, I discovered that the rate was significantly different depending on what country I listed as my legal residence (not citizenship), and I was instantly outraged about every other time I’ve rented a car while living in America.

Taxes Not Included: I was born and raised in that country and now that I’ve had a glimpse of the promised land of menu clarity I never want to go back. I got the worst case of sticker shock when I went out for dinner with two friends at Azteca. They had treated me the previous 2 meals we’d had during my trip, so I wanted to pick up the tab and thought I had a rough idea of the price… oh no. Because American menus (and coffee shop signs and grocery stores and everything else) don’t list the real price of things. Between tax and tip, it ended up being about 25$ more than I had thought and while I am so grateful I have a job where that’s not bank breaking, I can remember there was a time in my life it would have been.

Tips: I’m all for food service workers being paid well, but I have a hate on for tip culture in the US because it backfires and causes customers to feel entitled to mistreat workers for anything less than 5 star service/food even at Denny’s, and it allows employers in most states to pay them less than minimum wage while taxing them on a presumption of tip earnings. I’d rather just see the price of the food include the tax and whatever markup the restaurant needs to put in there to pay it’s employees well. Then I can decide if it’s in my budget without doing calculus and everyone goes home happy.

The Highlights

Somewhere, one of my bffs* is reading this and going, but wasn’t I a highlight? Yes. Literally everything I got on this trip (except that lymph node thing) was a highlight of my summer, but “I spent all day chatting with my dearest friends in Seattle and then we got Mexican food” does not make a good blog post, so these are the stories I think strangers will find most endearing.

*bff: literally, best friend forever. I employ this as a plural occupancy category.

Fairy Party: My friend throws the most elaborate parties. She’s going to pharmacy school, but really, I think she could make a mint as a custom party planner. My favorite one to talk about was the time she did a Neverland theme for her birthday. Each room in the house and the yard were set up like a different part of Neverland, and each guest was asked to come in costume. I built a tepee for the Indian area (Peter Pan was not great about First Nations representation, I know). There was a kiddie pool for the mermaid lagoon where wet t-shirt contests were held. Tinkerbell’s fairyland was a glowing tree, the basement was Captain Hook’s quarters… it just went on and on.

This year, she did a Midsummernight’s Dream, but instead of using the house, she used the backyard and the entire greenbelt behind the house. Because it’s public land, they can use it whenever without a permit, and she decorated the entire woods in fairy lights and magical bowers with clues and quests and geas hidden everywhere.

In many ways, I felt as though I had walked into a new world, not only because of the extreme decorations, but because of the 120 people who came that night, I only recognized about 10%. Although I’ve only been away 18 months, it seems that my friends have also been making changes in their lives and perhaps replacing the same toxic people I was worried about with new faces.

Sailing Day: I started off this particular Saturday by visiting the home of some excellent friends who accompanied me on the Thor’s Well Adventure years ago. They cooked corned beef hash and I taught them how to poach eggs. From there we headed over to Shilshole Marina, where another dear friend (who let me live in his attic when I was homeless) had finally fulfilled his dream of selling his house and moving on to a boat with his family. Plus my friend who I met in Dubai (even though we lived a couple blocks apart in Seattle!) and her husband and we had a perfect sailing crew.

The wind was mild, the sun was shining and the mountain was out. We puttered aimlessly around the Sound while enjoying a selection of Korean wines I’d brought back for the occasion and one bottle the captain of the day had brought back from Greece years ago I’d found in the storage unit the day before.

These are people I’ve been trying to get in the same room for years. I was convinced they’d enjoy each other’s company and while I’d gotten them to meet one or two at a time in the past (with good results), this was the first time I got them all together. It was absolutely wonderful to see what a good time they all had.

After we examined our crab hunting results and determining that we would not be having crustaceans for dinner, we migrated back to the abode of the morning where we had a simple grocery store meal and got down to some jazz improv.

Karaoke and Beyond: I stopped by some of my past haunts and reconnected with some old friends, but my favorite part of this trip to Seattle was seeing my friends reconnect with each other. People who had barely seen one another since I left came together at one or another of the events I planned and (re)discovered that they enjoyed each other’s company.

This was nowhere more obvious than my resurrection of the Tuesday Night Karaoke Tradition. For as long as I can remember, while I lived in Seattle, we did this. The group changed over the years. Some nights were packed, other times only 2-3 people would show up. One year, the place burned down and we had to find another bar until they rebuilt. It is an institution of my time in Seattle, and I do it if I’m there on a Tuesday.

It turned out that since I left, it had all but completely stopped, yet everyone who came out was happy to walk down memory lane with me, sing their old favorites and catch up on 18 months of missed time with all the other people there they hadn’t seen even though they live in the same city.

Niblings! How can that not be a highlight? Ok, you don’t get a million kiddo pics because my sister doesn’t want her kids faces on the internet, but I got this one of my niece in her Korean hanbok where you can’t see her face, so that’s safe.

The kids were 4 and 6 on this trip, but it’s been 18 months since I’ve seen them. My niece, the 6 year old, remembered my last visit fairly well, and was happy to see me again. My nephew (4) is basically willing to trust anyone his sister trusts, and was also happy to see me (so many kisses), but asked me at one point if this was the first time I visited their house. You can only imagine how much fun it was to try and explain to them that a loooooong time ago (2001-2003ish), it was my house, too.

I really love blowing their minds with weird facts like, yes your mom is my baby sister, yes your grandma is my mom, and yes it’s tomorrow in Korea.

I brought back a spoiling number of gifts including the beautiful hanbok (Korean thriftstore ftw!), spare change from every country I’ve visited since the last time I saw them, and magical Kinder Eggs, which are dangerous contraband in the US for some reason. At least I know one gift that will always be popular next time I go back?

Additionally, my niece made me a picture with invisible ink, which is basically a white piece of paper with some suspiciously greasy smudges on it and her and her brother’s names in one corner. It is a testament to how much little people can fill your heart that this came back in my suitcase to Korea and now adorns my apartment.

Being There for Milestones

One of my besties who I have dragged into the life of globe trotting glory finally got her chance to go to pastry school this year, and it just so happened that I made it to Vancouver in time to attend her graduation. It’s amazing to me how the friends who live abroad keep popping up in my life. My burlesque dancing magical Vixen Valentine is one I met in Seattle but I see once every year or so somewhere. And Jane (formerly JaneMeetsWorld and now PastryJane) has been with me in the US, in Europe, in Korea and this time in Canada.

It was just one more in a line of seeming coincidences that make our world small and cozy that I could join her and her family to celebrate such a milestone and to have a slice of her final exam cake! Moments like this one fill me with gratitude that I have friends as crazy as me, who will travel around the world, use apps to gossip late into the night with me, and while we may never know what city we’ll be in together next, we know we will meet again for sure.

Also, although my sister might kill me if I put her picture in here, I have to mention her. She only grudgingly let me take selfies with her, in and out of uniform, but it just so happened that we got to hang out on the very day of her 10 year mark as a police officer. I know that’s a hot button topic in America right now, but she is and always will be my baby sister, and I couldn’t be more proud of her accomplishments as a person, an officer, and a mother. I am grateful that I could spend that day with her.

Wrap Up

I spent three weeks in North America covering Seattle, Memphis, and Vancouver. I got to reduce my material possessions (and bills). I got to solidify my theory of meaningful friendship in Seattle. I got to make my sister smile, hug my mom, and play with my niblings. I got to see my sister reach her 10 year mark and get vested, and my best international girl graduate from her dream of pastry school. It was good.

If you’re reading my blog from America and you think, “man, how does she have the money to take all these extravagant trips?” I don’t. It doesn’t cost as much as you think, and it costs even less if you start from outside the US. What I also don’t have is the money to come back to the US very often. This was probably my last visit to the ol’ U.S. of A for a couple years minimum (assuming Civil War II doesn’t start by then). In the mean time, I’ll take 2-3 international vacations for the price of one US trip and I’ll consider myself well off.


Back in Korea, I’ve just finished off summer camp and am undergoing as much healthcare as I can tolerate before the school year starts again (yay! root canal, LASIK, biannual health checkup, I love living in a country with affordable health care!). Hopefully the oppressive summer heat and high humidity will ease up soon and I’ll be able to frolik outdoors. Failing that, I am planning a trip to the Philippines for October.

As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll check out the Instagram for some day to day pictures around Korea and my life as a teacher between vacations.

Malay Peninsula, Post Script: Airports, Visas & Life Lessons

Although the adventure in the Malay Peninsula was finished, I had one more obstacle to overcome before I could return home. Vietnam. In this tragic comedy of errors, I learned about the only airport in the world that doesn’t have a fly through policy, and I managed to check one more item off my bucket list. Never underestimate the stopping power of Communist bureaucracy or the healing power of pho. Don’t want to read about airports? Check out the end for some heartwarming life lessons about challenge and gratitude.


The Airports

Normally, I would not write about an airport, but it seemed that Thailand just could not let me go without a fight. Surat Thani was no trouble. A giant double decker plush AC bus (the kind I wish I’d been in on every other occasion in Thailand) pulled up to the hotel at 11am to whisk me off to the airport for a small fee. The airport was miniscule, but the staff were helpful. Nothing was labeled, but it was small enough that didn’t matter. Instead of posting about delays, they just told us.

I met a fun person in the airport, because I magnetize them to me. After our introductions, she gave me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten: “You’re way more interesting than looking at my phone!” So we pocketed our devices and talked until the late plane arrived to take us to Bangkok. And so it was, in this pleasant lackadaisical mood that I arrived in Bangkok with a several hour layover and plans to do some last minute shopping and get a nice meal.

I wandered out of domestic and over to the international terminal with only a mild case of being lost twice, and finally found my check in counter amid the totally not at all labeled rows of counters by the simple expedient of going up to a person and asking. However, here’s where the regular international airport challenges start to level up. While going through the check in process, I was informed that I cannot be issued my boarding pass without a visa. I don’t need a visa, I tell her, I have a residence card, showing my Korean ID. No, she says, for Vietnam.

You Need A Visa to Get In

Now, my flight, which I booked on the amazing and cheap website kiwi.com, took me from Surat Thani, through Bangkok, through Hanoi, and finally to Busan (where I live). In normal reality, catching a connecting flight in a country does not require a visa unless  you plan to leave the airport for some layover sightseeing. This is standard operating procedure around the world. China (which up until recently had a monstrously complicated tourist visa application with huge fees and wait times) has lots of people fly through without visas. Even Saudi Arabia which does not issue tourist visas will let people catch connecting flights in Jeddah on their way to some more touristy section of the Gulf. You don’t need visas to catch connecting flights. It’s like an immutable law of reality.

“I’m not going to Vietnam, I’m just catching a connecting flight.”, I say. “I don’t need a visa because I’m not leaving the airport.”

“No,” she says. “You need a visa. I can’t give you a boarding pass without a visa.”

Call Your Embassy

I search the internet frantically looking for supporting documentation, and while it is true that every single web search I get back tells me this immutable fact over and over, they do not care. They will not issue me a boarding pass without a visa. I’m having nightmare flashes of being stranded in Thailand, of missing work, of non-refundable tickets I’ve paid for… Unable to find anything on the US State Department travel site OR the Vietnam Embassy sight about airport transit, I finally called the US Embassy to see if they could confirm or deny this situation and maybe point me at some official document that supported my not needing a visa. The on call staffer at the Embassy agreed, this is bizarre, and he’s never heard of an airport where you need a visa to change planes, but they are also unable to find any official statements anywhere online. Then I run out of minutes and the call is disconnected.

I try to talk to the airline to see if I can get the flight changed, but that’s going to take a day or more because there are no flights that day with room. The Vietnam Embassy website has an online visa application, but it takes 5 days. Expidited forms won’t load on my phone, I need a real computer. I’m losing my mind. The check in counter staff show me a website that’s a private business (vietnam e-visa) who I can pay to get my visa quickly, but my flight is in less than 2 hours now. 30 minutes, they promise. The fee for the visa was only 19$ US, BUT, since I needed it in 30 minutes, and it was a Sunday, AND it was Tet (the very famous Vietnamese holiday that is in literally every Vietnam war movie), it was going to cost me an extra 190$ in processing fees. Before plunking down 200$ on a visa, I wanted to vet the website, and found that there are apparently a large number of fraudulent websites that advertise Vietnamese visas and don’t deliver. Finally, I found a traveler who had used the site I was on and had reported success, but advised us all to spring for the “airport fast check in” option for an extra 25$. Her story of waiting around the airport for hours to get approval was convincing, and so it came to pass that I paid 234 American dollars to buy a visa into Vietnam for the privilege of changing planes in the Hanoi airport also known as “the Story of the Most Expensive Bowl of Pho Ever”.

Getting to Hanoi

I didn’t have time to eat or shop. I managed to buy an overpriced sandwich from a cafe by the gate before boarding because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast at my hotel and it was now after 6pm. Between the delayed flight in Surat Thani and the visa ordeal, I had used up all my layover hours. I got several emails from the visa service with instructions, very dire and specific instructions, as well as a pdf of a letter of visa application (not even a real visa yet).

When I got to Hanoi, the staff from the visa company was thankfully waiting for me with a sign. She ushered me into a waiting area and took my letter and passport away for processing. I was expecting to have to take some passport sized photos there for the paperwork, but I guess somehow they copied the photo from my actual passport instead and used that. Less than 15 minutes later she came back and handed me my passport with Vietnamese visa inside, while other people were still standing in line at the visa counter. At least that “fast check in” option paid off.

From there, I was able to go through immigration. For reasons unknown to any but the arcane inner circle of the Vietnamese bureaucracy, there is not an international waiting area. I’m told that if you’re travelling through Hanoi with both flights on the same airline, that it is possible to bypass the visa and customs rigamarole, but since many ticket sellers and even airlines use partners to get you from one leg of your journey to the next, buying your ticket from one place, doesn’t guarantee all your flights are on the same airline.

The Most Expensive Bowl of Pho

I had to go through customs and immigration. There was no need for me to leave the airport, mind you, since once through immigration, I could simply turn around and re-enter the security screening and boarding areas. But, since I’d spent so much on a visa, I did step outside and breathe the external Vietnamese air, just to say I did. I also fulfilled one of my long time bucket list items, to eat pho in Vietnam.

If you don’t know pho, you are missing out. This magical Vietnamese noodle soup took Seattle by storm more than a decade ago and it’s a staple cheap and delicious food for all occasions. Sick? Eat pho. Celebrating? Eat pho. Too busy to cook? Eat pho. Having a first date? Than Brothers it is. I even had my grad school graduation dinner there. You can get a fairly large bowl of it for 5-6$ which is dirt cheap when you realize that it’s actually good homemade food and not the McProcessed value menu. I love pho. I idolize pho. And typically, when people ask me what food I miss from America the most, I answer pho, because even though it’s not “American” that’s often the only country I can find it in with regularity. So of course, being in Asia is a big opportunity to have pho in the land of it’s origin. Bucket list, check.

The moral of the story is, if you have a connecting flight in Vietnam, call the airlines, ask, and even if they say you don’t need a visa, it might be worth it to drop the 20$ a week before your flight and get that paperwork rolling. Otherwise you could end up with a very expensive bowl of pho, too.

The Lesson of the Malay Adventure

This vacation was very different from what I have experienced recently and from what I expected. In many ways, I am grateful that my boundaries were pushed and my comfort zone was challenged. It’s easy to fall into a “new normal” and for me that meant more travel, more maps and trekking and becoming comfortable with navigating new cities, new modes of transportation and multiple languages. Which used to be challenging and exciting and even a little scary, but has become normal. It never ceases to amaze me what the human mind can adapt to.

I learned some very practical lessons about the balance between knowing your limits and being confined by them. I spent so long learning how to say “yes, I can do that” that I kind of forgot how or when to say, “no, that’s too much”. Plus, those goalposts move throughout our lives. As a teenager, staying up for 3 days and sleeping in a car on a road trip was fine. And no matter how many people told me that my body would not let me do those things as I got older, it’s hard to accept being “older”. The list of things I have to do with modification is getting longer, and my ability to function on less than 8 solid hours of sleep is greatly diminished.

Part of me wishes for every holiday to be as perfect as the New Zealand holiday, but there are two reasons I am glad they aren’t. One, I don’t want perfect to ever be my “new normal”. I would stop appreciating it if there were nothing to contrast it with. I would no longer feel the same amount of joy and gratitude for amazing things if they were regular. And two, I think we need adversity to know ourselves and to grow. I never want to stop growing and learning, so I need obstacles and challenges to help me achieve that. I don’t want to live in a constant state of challenge, I like it when my day to day life is quiet and enjoyable, but I value being pushed beyond my “normal”. I value expanding my comfort zone. I even value learning there’s a place my comfort zone is never going be.

Finally, every time we overcome, we become more capable. With each obstacle conquered, we look at lesser challenges more serenely. In 2012, I climbed a huge mountain in China. We were fat, out of shape Americans, and even though we took the bus and gondola as high up as we could, we still climbed stairs for 7.5 hours to get to the top. I’m sure fit people do it faster, but it wasn’t a race or even a comparison. It was about us, in our state at that time conquering something that many people (probably even ourselves) would have considered too hard for us. We made it to the top, we slept up there overnight and we watched the sunrise because that’s what you do on this particular mountain. And for years afterward, when one of us was struggling with something in life, we said, ‘remember the mountain’.  

Something was harder than I thought, but I did it anyway. That’s what builds confidence, what encourages healthy risk taking, and ultimately those lead to a more interesting and more fulfilling life. So keep it up world. Bring me your stunning beaches and awe-inspiring caves. Bring me your mind-mindbogglingly beautiful flowers and butterflies. Bring me your humans full of welcoming and their delicious food. But don’t let me leave behind your scungy alleyways, or your hotel invading rats, or your foot scarring coral reefs. I’ll take the whole package deal and know that each new wonder or obstacle lives with me forever, shaping the person I will be tomorrow.

Malay Peninsula 16: Surat Thani- Floating Market & Fireflies

Given the events leading up to my final day in Thailand, it could easily have been a wash, however, the small non-tourist town of Surat Thani still had some surprises up it’s sleeve, and I managed to end this holiday on a beautiful high note. It’s my goal to publish all the stories from one holiday before I take another, and I’m barely achieving that by finishing off this post with three days to spare before I hop on a plane to visit the US for the first time in 18 months. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the journey as much as I enjoyed writing about it.


Adventure Hangover

Although the Wangtai had transport out to Khao Sok, I couldn’t bear the idea of waking again in only 6 hours and vowed to sleep until about an hour before breakfast ended, then eat and sleep some more. It was sad to give up on my elephant excursion, but when I woke up the next morning I realized how important that decision really was. I felt weak, as though I had just come through a severe illness or fever. My limbs shook as I walked and even as I held my phone. I had no strength and no speed, but found my way down to the breakfast buffet where I positively stuffed my face after days of light or missed meals.

Mentally, I felt clearer for the sleep and food and I began to realize based on the way my body felt that I had pushed myself a good deal farther than I had known. It was likely not any one thing, but a combination of poor sleep, poor diet, excessive heat, lack of water, physical exertion and the coral injury (which can be known to cause fatigue and other symptoms). I had hoped that I could make it just one more day, just one more activity and then sleep on the plane and of course back in my flat in Korea, but my body was just finished. If I’d tried to force myself to rise early and head to the elephant, I would likely not have had a pleasant day, but only another day of crammed vans, heat, dirt, hunger and dehydration, worried about what standing around in muddy water with an elephant was going to do to the probably already infected open wound on my foot.

Instead, I slept some more, watched some movies, ate lunch, admired the view of the river, took a nap, and read up more on Thai culture.

Spirit Houses

20170125_150240Since arriving in Thailand via Koh Lipe I had seen these tiny ornate houses on posts everywhere. I saw them on the remote islands around Lipe, near the caves of Bor Tor, in the cities, at gas stations, and in the front yard of homes we passed on the road. Some were simple, others like miniature mansions. Some had tiny model occupants while others were uninhabited. Nearly all of them had offerings of food, sweets, alcohol, or incense.

The houses are a throwback to Thai folk beliefs in spirits of nature and the land. The tiny houses are built to be homes for these spirits. They may be built near special trees, bodies of water, mountains or natural formations to house the spirits of the land. And they may be built by homes to attract spirits who will inhabit the house and aid the family in exchange for lodgings and gifts.

I have seen similar spirit houses in Japan, but at the time I completely failed to make the connection because the architecture is so different.

Night Market

The clerk who had checked me in the night before had mentioned the floating market was within walking distance, and I had also read online that one of the few cool things worth doing in Surat Thani was the firefly boat ride. Around 5pm, I set out on the short walk down to the river where the maps indicated I would find the market and the boat rides.

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The river front park is small, however there is a large island in the middle of the river called Ko Lamphu that does not allow cars past the carpark near the bridge. Under better circumstances, I would have loved to explore it, but I was still a bit woozy wobbly and didn’t want to push myself into illness or another breakdown, so I stayed on the near bank and enjoyed the small corniche.

I read some articles about the floating market that seemed to indicate it was only open on Sundays. Surat Thani is not a tourism hub, so there is a limited amount of information, but what I can gather is that there is a night market more often than a “floating market”. The floating part is supposed to be where some pontoons are set up on the quay side and vendors sell wares on these ersatz rafts. When I went, nothing was on the water, but there were plenty of stalls selling all kinds of tasty treats and some live music at the far end. If you’re in Surat Thani and Google says the floating market is closed, ask a local about it because there’s nice stuff in Si Tapi Park.

Street Food

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I first browsed the whole selection of stalls, checking out the food on offer. I passed a woman making fresh juice (very common in Thailand), and at first thought she was using limes because the peels were so green, but the juice was a bright almost neon orange! I don’t mean like a little tinge of green that you get on your organic oranges, seriously lime green. It turns out that this is what oranges look like in Thailand and Vietnam. And a glass of that fresh squeezed neon was a delicious treat. I passed some foods I was familiar with and others I was not. I was briefly tempted by a stall selling horseshoe crabs, but in the end I chickened out and got a serving of pad thai served up fresh on a banana leaf.

There were carpeted areas with low tables where people could doff their shoes and sit down on a clean patch of ground to eat. To westerners it’s a picnic style, but sitting on the floor is common all over Asia. I had a great view of the river and the large island park. And although the sunset was a little obscured, it was still a beautiful night.

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OK That’s Creepy

One especially strange thing that happened while I was wandering around: there was a PA system that had been piping out a low volume background music. This is not too weird because it’s nice for public gardens or parks to have a little ambient music and I hadn’t been paying too much attention to what was playing because it was in Thai and low key. Then suddenly as I was walking back toward the food stalls from the far end of the park, I noticed that everyone around me was standing up and not moving. Up until now, the park had been a bustling active place with people strolling along, taking selfies with the statues, kids running around and everyone munching on snacks. Now, it was like some kind of internal evil robot switch was activated and the whole human population stopped and stood straight, staring ahead, gazes fixed but not on anything. I drifted to a halt as I realized I was the only one moving, not wanting to cause offense but also deeply creeped out.

When the song came to an end, everyone began going about their business once again, resuming their casual chats and picnic dinners. I realize of course that robot overlords is not the real story, but it was very eerie. I’d been in Thailand for a few days and hadn’t seen anything like it before.

Language Barrier

I spend most of my time living, working and traveling in countries where English is not the native language. I’m used to working through a language barrier, but Thailand was the most challenging linguistic obstacle I have ever faced. (That includes Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, French, German, and Czech). The rest of the Malay Peninsula had been far easier for me to manage. In Singapore, everyone speaks English (national education tests are administered in English). In Malaysia, most people spoke English or Chinese (which I’m not fluent in, but can get around). Nearly everyone there is bi- or tri-lingual, speaking their native Malay and at least one of the other two. Plus, even though I can’t speak Malay, it’s written using the Roman alphabet (the one we use in English), so I could sound things out, and got good at recognizing the words for “bathroom” and “coffee” (priorities). However, Thai is written in it’s own special alphabet. It’s beautiful. It’s arcing graceful curves and swirls. But it has 6 different letters for the sound //, and I can’t read it.

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I imagined as I wandered around the less touristy parts of Thailand that this must be how my friends felt exploring China with me, or how the teachers here in Korea who can’t read Hangul must feel every day. It also makes me appreciate how much of a difference having even a tiny understanding of the language can make.

Firefly Boat

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As the sun went down, the sign I’d been looking for appeared. Near a tiny dock, a young lady set up a folding table and a cute sign advertising for the firefly boat tours. If you have read my blog up till now you will know that I am a sucker for glowing lifeforms, so the idea of taking a nice riverboat trip and watching the fireflies was enticing, especially at the bargain price of 50 Baht (less than 2$ US). The boats don’t leave on a schedule, they leave when they have enough people, so I did my best to express my desire to go to the ticket seller, and then pulled up a nearby bench to wait.

After a number of people wandered over to look at the sign and wandered away, a group in matching t-shirts expressed some interest and stood off to one side while a single member of the group approached the ticket seller. This looked hopeful to me, because they were obviously a group, and after some back and forth, they decided to go, at which point the ticket seller gestured to me and made sure that I could take my trip with them. One of the group, the designated talker, happened to speak excellent English, so we were able to chat along the way. She told me she was from Surat Thani, but now lived in Phuket and had come back to see her family (the other members of the group).

As the longtail boat pulled away from the dock, we sped down the river passing the buildings of the city and toward a forested area of the delta. Looking at a map of Surat Thani, you can see that the city is built along the main part of the Ta Pi river. Just east of the dock, there is a little fork in the river and while the main branch continues along the urban areas, the side branch goes off into a green and verdant delta.

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Local Knowledge

Along the way, as I was chatting with the English speaking girl who asked me to call her Monica, I ventured to explore the bizzare robot occurance I’d seen earlier in the evening. Trying my best to be tactful and circumspect, I described what I had seen without the cyberman elements, and she told me that it had been the national anthem playing. Is that something that happens often or is today some kind of holiday? (It was Lunar New Year, but I understand that’s not often celebrated in Thailand outside of Chinatowns). She told me that it happens every day, twice at day at 8am and 6pm.

I thought about the ostentatious displays of portraits of the recently deceased king that I had seen around town. In Koh Lipe and Krabi, I had seen these only in government buildings, like the immigration office and police stations. But in Surat Thani, they were everywhere. And more than just paintings, they were like shrines with ornate decoration, bunting, flowers and other accouterments of borderline worship. Even taking into account that the mourning period for his death will extend until October of 2017, there was a marked difference in the way that residents of Surat Thani were carrying out that mourning from how the more tourist oriented towns I had seen before were.

The King and I?

photo credit: BlossomFlowerGirl

Thailand was a military dictatorship with a figurehead monarch, but the late king was instrumental in moving the country into a constitutional monarchy (some say democracy, but … king, so I disagree). It’s been shaky, but he was enormously popular, and has apparently left in his wake a movement of “ultra-royalists” and there is some concern that populist nationalism / military dictatorship will return (which is funny cause you’d think the ultra-royalists would respect the king’s wishes to create a constitutionally run society, but hey). This political struggle will never be in the western news because Thailand is poor and can’t really impact life and economics in the West. *sigh.

My best guess is that tourist towns tone it down to protect the revenue stream, and that there is almost surely a regional difference in how much the population supports royalism or democracy. Surat Thani is clearly royalist. It probably also explains why in place of a Gideon Bible, my hotel had this book of Buddhist teachings in the night stand.

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Magic on the River

Once we turned away from the main river course, it didn’t take long for the lights of the city to fade behind us and for me to start feeling like I’d stepped into a ride at Disneyland. The river was wide and slow running. The night air was a perfect temperature that could not have been achieved better with climate control. We passed by some houses on stilts that was surely the Surat Thani version of the suburbs, but they were so picturesque with bright lanterns hanging from the porches and architectural flourishes on the rooftops, they looked like life-sized versions of the spirit houses. Don’t get me wrong, reality is often an amazing place and I will take the real thing to a theme park replica any day, but this boat ride was so perfect that it seemed like there must be a secret team of imaginieers behind the scenes making it work.

As we approached the first firefly spot, the guide slowed the boat down and directed our attention to a shadow just ahead. I did not know what to expect. I had read blogs that touted the tour as amazing, and seen about a hundred descriptions of the experience as being “like Christmas lights”. As a child, in Maryland, the fireflies came out on summer nights and let us chase them around the yard, and put them in jars for an hour or so before going on their merry way. My childhood may have been excessively Norman Rockwell from time to time. Nevertheless, my image of fireflies is a couple dozen in a field or meadow flying around and looking for a mate. I imagined something similar, but on the banks of the river amid the dark sillhouettes of the brush and trees. Nope.

I don’t know if it happens elsewhere, or to what degree, but in Surat Thani, the river fireflies occupy trees.

As we drew closer to the shadow our guide was pointing to, the shape of the tree became more distinct and just after, the glow from hundreds of fireflies reached my eyes. Although every bush and tree around it was dark, this one tree was home to a firefly colony of massive proportions. I didn’t even know fireflies lived in colonies. But I now know that the berembang (also known as the mangrove apple, or crabapple mangrove) is a big hit with the firefly population. Because the delta near Surat Thani is abundant in these trees, they get more than their fair share of firefly light shows.

There is no hope of a photo or a video. The light emitted by these little bugs is just too faint. But to the naked eye, far from the city lights, the twinkling of hundreds of little bodies against the lacy black outline of the tree is a sublime experience. I could understand why so many people described the flashing as Christmas lights, becuase in addition to their huge numbers and single tree occupation, the fireflies blinked in unison. Ok, not every single one, but I’d say 65-75% of a tree would blink on and off together in perfect synchonicity. I was able to find a few more examples of species that do that, but not a single explaination for the behavior. I had always been taught that the light show was a mating display, and it seems counterintuitive to blend in with the crowd when trying to get a potential mate to notice you. Whatever their evolutionary imperitive, the synchronized twinkling was amazing to watch.

And it was not just one tree. Our boat was out for around an hour, and close to 40 minutes of that was spent in the dark mangroves drifting along from apple to apple, each tree laden with it’s own colony and sparkling like a glitter bomb under a disco ball. We passed tree after tree of glowing glimmering lights, up one side of the river banks and back down the other and I will never get tired of looking at that. No one goes to Surat Thani except to go somewhere else, and I very much understand why, because the town is not a tourist easy place, but if you find yourself there, take a night out to do this tour.

Let the Good Things Happen

Despite the fact that the night before I had been at the lowest imaginable point in this trip, the fact is, I had a lovely and unique experience on Saturday. I rested, gave myself permission to “miss out” on the elephant, and found a small local activity that was suited to my tastes and my energy level. Bad things happen on holidays. People get sick or injured or run into culture shock mood swings, but it’s important not to let it ruin everything. I’ll say it over and over, the key to maximizing a good vacation is to do something great at the beginning and the end, and I’m glad that my final memory of Thailand was something so beautiful.

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And so ends my final day of this all too brief foray into the three countries of the Malay Peninsula. Will I go back? Well, it’s hard to resist the siren call of Koh Lipe, and I still have some ethically treated elephants to visit, so I’m sure I’ll go back one day. On top of that, I think Singapore will make a great destination to bring my niblings to get them adjusted to traveling abroad. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out the Instagram and Facebook for daily slices of the life of a Gallivantrix. ❤

Queer Up! Pride 2017

This week more than usual it is apparent to me how much I am not like journalists. I came back from Seoul feeling happy but tired and spent Sunday resting and doing laundry so I could go back to work Monday morning. I watched article after article come out online about the event while my own writing languished in rough draft state and my photos sat unedited. I sometimes wish I could be more timely, but then I remind myself that this is my hobby. No one pays me, and no one sets the deadlines but me. So, here it is, a week later: Queer Pride in Korea. Don’t forget to check out the full photo album on Facebook!


Late For a Very Important Date

20170715_134128I wasn’t sure I was going to make it this year. Some people weren’t sure there was even going to be a Pride this year. Of course, every single year since the first festival/march in Seoul in 2000 the conservative religious zealots have tried to stop the Korean Queen Culture Festival (KQCF aka Pride) from happening. They try to file legal objections. They try to file use of space applications for the same day. They throw temper tantrums and accuse foreigners of bringing homosexuality and AIDS into Korea (because there would of course never be any gay Koreans if we hadn’t infected them!). This year, the issue was with the grass.

During the impeachment of former president Park, a small but dedicated group of her supporters camped out illegally on the lawn at Seoul Plaza to protest the totally unanimous vote to oust her from office. They were mostly old people, so the government didn’t want to force them out. There is a serious cultural value of respecting the elderly here and no one in power wanted the optics of police forcing old folks to move along. Although they did eventually leave after 4 months, they ruined the grass on the plaza and it had to be replanted and allowed to grow before another group could use the area.

Thus KQCF was turned down for the usual June date. The community waited anxiously to see if a new date could be agreed upon or if the grass was going to be the final straw. So to speak. As you can guess by the existence of this post, they did secure July 15th as this years festival date, and I marked my calendar with mixed feelings.

Examine Your Feelings

Part of my feelings were of course excitement; however, I could not help but remember the rise and crash emotions of my first Seoul Pride last year when I woke up the next day to the news of the Pulse shooting in Florida. Additionally, the two people I had most looked forward to attending with left Korea in March. And finally, I was worried that the postponement and battle would dampen participation (boy, was I wrong about that one). Finally, I found a friend to invite who had never been to a Pride in any country, and her excitement reinvigorated me.

Demarcation

20170715_152825We woke up in our slightly fancy downtown hotel, lounged around, had a leisurely breakfast and finally headed over to the plaza a little after the 11am start time. We passed rows and rows of police buses parked along the side streets. Last year, I came up from the subway and the first sight that greeted me was a veritable army of uniformed officers lining the street and crosswalk. This year, we walked in from another direction and saw a little of the behind the scenes police preparation as well as walking through some of the protesters who were stationed next to the festival exit and a subway station. I knew what to expect going in from last year, but my friend said that walking past all the police and protesters made her feel anxious about the day. The reported police presence was about 6,000 officers.

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Booths For Everyone!

Once inside the temporary walls, we hit up the press booth first. Even though I don’t work for a press outlet, the sensitive nature of the KQCF means that everyone who wants to publish pictures has to register with the press booth and sign an agreement about respecting the sexual minorities present. Especially not taking pictures without permission and about not showing any faces that might out someone who isn’t ready. You might think that being at Pride is already outing, but many people here can’t come out to family or employers without being disowned and unemployed, so coming to Pride is one of the few times they can really be themselves without having to worry about the anti-queer culture ruining their lives. Many people even wore masks (fun and fancy masks, but still) to protect themselves while marching.

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The booths, much like last year, were marvelous. There is almost no corporate sponsorship for KQCF. Most of the booths were run by charities or other small organizations with some funding from small local businesses. The only big companies I saw there were Google and LUSH. There were several embassies representing their countries as well. Although last year the US had great representation, I wasn’t able to find them on “embassy row” this time around. I read another article that said they were there, but I visited every booth and never saw them. (I did see Australia, The Netherlands, Ireland, Canada, Germany, U.K., and “the Nordic countries” 4 together as a group).

The Issues

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In the absence of corporate sponsorship, each booth was run by a small organization raising money for LGBTQIA awareness and rights in Korea. And that umbrella was generously huge. In addition to lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual I also found a wealth of other issues: AIDS/HIV health, at risk youth, abortion rights, toxic masculinity, gender discrimination in the workplace, sexual awareness/pleasure/safety, children’s sex education, parents of sexual minority children, feminism, gender non-conformity, and even armpit hair. (this group of ladies spent the day holding up their posters to show their unshaven underarms, and when they prompted me to show my armpit too, they seemed a little sad it was bare. However, I apologized in Korean and they quickly burst into smiles and told me it was ok)

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This sign held by a smiling grey haired older man (who I cropped out to protect his identity) is calling for parents meetings for parents of sexual minority youth. Another sign holding group had one in Korean I was struggling to read, when a young man came to my rescue with an English translation. They told me to imagine that the sign was “mansplaining” and hit it with their huge toy hammer. I made such a face posing for their photos I think I scared the guy holding the sign! Later on I tried to read the poster and got the gist it was about workplace discrimination as well.

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Another woman had made a cut out sign simulating a newspaper headline, but since she didn’t speak English we had to wait until later on to find out what it said. Unsurprisingly, it was an issue we could get behind, that of improving sex education in school and to stop treating children so differently based on gender roles.

Literal Translation:

  • Education Hope (news.eduhope.net)
  • juvenile sex minority exclusion
  • “school sex education” finally discarded!
  • binary gender: students are not divided into boys and girls

The organization is a teachers group committed to a wide array of educational issue in Korea. The complaint is about sexual and gender minorities being excluded in school education programs. The headline calling for the elimination of school sex education does not mean they don’t want any, it’s a reference to the government policy that excludes education on sexual minorities and has been criticized by the UN and Human Right’s Watch. The issue of students being divided is that in Korean schools, kids are divided by gender for everything, which could be very painful for trans or genderqueer students, as well as reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes for cisgendered kids.

Come to Jesus

20170715_133630(1)The protesters outside are entirely Christian, but there are plenty of Korean Christian churches that came inside too, eager to point out their own perspective on the Bible and love (hint: it’s about inclusion, acceptance, and more love!). One group had even made a pamphlet that deconstructed the most common biblical arguments against homosexuality and explained the verses in historical context. But mostly they just wanted to show that the church can be accepting too. There was more than one Jesus costume at the event as well, and while the one making the rounds in the media seems to be a white guy (*sigh), I found this Korean one first. His sign is surprisingly excellent when you look closely at the comparison of Christianity hope.ver and armageddon.ver.

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Whypipo

Speaking of white people at Seoul Pride. I noticed that looking over the media in the days afterward, there are way more pics of white people than Koreans. Don’t be fooled into thinking this means there were more white people actually there. It’s just that foreigners tend to be more open about being in the Queer Community and are far less likely to lose friends, family or jobs for appearing in a news article supporting gay rights in Korea. Plus, they (we?) are way more exhibitionist and while there were plenty of Koreans in costumes, a larger percentage of the white people were dressed up in visually interesting (read photographer’s dream) clothing. These things combined mean that more pictures of white people get published. I probably had more foreigners in my photo roll last year than Koreans, and this year I tried to focus more on the Korean attendees and promoters. After all, this is their fight and I’m just an ally and supporter since I don’t get to vote here.

Buddhist Queer Dogma and the Dancing Monk

20170715_134723There was also spiritual representation from the Buddhists! I accepted a pamphlet from one nun, which after some time spent translating seems to give the following basic message: while Buddhism condemns sex in general as being one of the things that ties you to the material world (monks and nuns are supposed to refrain entirely, but lay people are expected to do it in moderation, like alcohol consumption or meat eating) that there is no specific teaching about who you have have sex with or what type of sex you have (they listed 3 choices: vaginal, anal, and oral). The takeaway for me was that Buddhists should not condemn queer sex because of it’s queerness. One should regard all types of sex equally (while still bearing in mind things like adultery and unchecked lust are bad for everyone, too). If you’re going to accept that regular folks get into loving relationships and have sex while straight, you have to accept the same for all other flavors too. This was the first year a representation from any Buddhist temple came to the festival. It was glorious.

One the one hand, it was heartwarming to see monks and nuns there smiling, dancing and sharing love, but one monk in particular completely stole the show. Dressed in gauzy flowing ivory robes, he danced ecstatically while the rock music was blasting from the stage during Kucia Diamant’s performance. Kucia is possibly the most famous Drag performer in Korea (Hurricane Kimchi gets love too but the art styles are very different). I’ve seen Kucia twice in Korea and enjoyed her shows, but I don’t mind at all that I missed her performance for this wonderful dancing Buddhist gay monk. Sometime during the second song, he was joined by a member of the press. The interloper tried to bow out after his aide had taken some video, but the monk wouldn’t let him leave and they danced wildly in a circle of cheering admirers.

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More On Stage

20170715_141013Later on, we spotted Wonder Woman and a jedi (maybe young Aniken?) facing off on the stage, but I only made it close enough for a couple pictures at the end. I’m still not sure what they were doing, because that’s a serious genre clash. Once I was up near the stage, surrounded by people with much nicer cameras than mine, I got lumped in with the more official press (since our press badges weren’t different) and was ushered right up to the edge of a small clearing where I got a front row seat to watch the LGBTQIA traditional Korean drum performance. This is the classic drum and cymbal parade that accompanies every event and festival in Korea and it’s great to see the traditional cultural arts merging into the new cultural milieu.

Get Your March On

Shortly after the performance ended, we took a break to get some lunch, missing out on the worst of the rain that the day had. Mostly, it had been cloudy with some occasional showers that caused every Korean to pop an umbrella at the first drop. More than once I was afraid of loosing an eye to an umbrella spike as the press of bodies and umbrellas became impassable. I often didn’t need to open my own umbrella since I could shelter under those around me! The lunchtime rains were a serious downpour and when we returned to the plaza, the grass that the festival had been postponed to regrow was a big muddy squish.

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We herded over to the far side where the march would soon begin. Like all events in Korea, nothing starts quite on time and we waited for a while watching the decorated trucks over the fence and speculating on how many people would try to squeeze past us while there was still nowhere to go. Between us and the main stage was a field of flags, ready to take to the streets. Outside the begining of the parade route was lined with protestors, signs in Korean and English to tell us off.

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Nonetheless, the rain seemed to have worn itself out and we marched the 4km around downtown Seoul in rainless if humid conditions. It was the first time I actually needed the little rechargeable hand fan I bought for the summer. I took lots of pictures of people at the parade. Korean drag queens, camping and vamping every time a lens was pointed at them. Floats from various organizations. Random sights around Seoul, and one really adorable international couple (US/Korean) with the sign “Seoul mate” because they met in Seoul.

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Military Entrapment

It was hot hot hot and I was starting to lose my drive toward the last km. We were walking slower than the procession as a whole and were gradually passed by more floats and people, but that was ok because it just meant I got to see more. At the finish, we found ourselves directly behind a truck displaying against the military ban. Military participation is not optional for young men in Korea, and yet it is illegal to be gay while in the military. A high ranking military officer started a sting operation recently to entrap soldiers with Grindr (popular gay dating app) and several were arrested. I am personally outraged by this situation because there is literally no way for the men to avoid breaking the law. Of course I want it to be ok to be openly gay, but I was a fairly socially aware teen when “don’t ask don’t tell” passed in the US and although eventually we found that to be not enough, it was a huge step at the time… and the US doesn’t have mandatory military service. So, I’m not expecting Korea to do it all in one giant leap, but the current situation boils my blood.

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Unlike the other floats we’d marched behind that were dancing and cheering, the young people on this float were wearing uniforms and speaking passionately about the political injustice. It looked like something out of a revolutionary film plot. Every so often the speaker would pause in his oration and do a call and response with the crowd where we would repeat his last word three times while hammering the air with our fists. It was very powerful and a strong reminder that Korea hasn’t reached a point where Pride can truly be a celebration, but instead must continue to be a protest.

Wrap Up

With the plaza in sight, we pulled off to one side and took shelter from the sweltering heat in the cool air conditioning of a Starbucks. Not usually my place of choice, but I promised a friend I’d pick her up a Starbucks mug in Seoul and it seemed like this would make a fun story.

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Last year the KQCF had 50,000 attendees and beat all previous records. This year there were an estimated 85,000. I read elsewhere that the Korean police estimated the attendance to only be 9,000 and had to go searching for an explanation of this discrepancy.  

“Police count heads at the festival by calculating the size of the land used and a density of eight people per 3.3 square-meters (35.5 square-feet). Organizers do the same, but also acknowledge the population density could rise up to 20 people per 3.3 square-meter space during peak hours.” (source)

I don’t know what event police were attending, but there were WAY more than 8 people per 3.3 m². That place was so packed at times we could hardly move. I didn’t need to open my umbrella because I was protected by the umbrellas of those around me. On the other hand, I saw a photo of the same location during a Psy concert with 80,000 attending and it looked more packed than the plaza felt. It’s hard to take an accurate head count when there are no tickets, no registration, people coming and going throughout the day, a 4km long march, and a strong political adgenda.

Regardless, it was obvious to me that the event was much more crowded than last year, even with the delays and heavy rains. Every year the attendance grows, the media coverage grows and the protesters voices are heard less. The new president, although a moderate, was cornered into denouncing homosexuality during the debates and no one knows if he’ll feel more pressured by the conservative voices or by keeping Korea’s international good standing. Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage and now we all wait to see if Korea will become a leader in human rights, or fall behind.

This year’s slogan?

There is no later. We demand change now.