Winter Wonderland 2018

This winter was full of cold and confusion. My hunt for a new job has been incredibly time consuming, and the uncertainty about my future led me to forgo an out of country winter holiday. Instead I decided to head north (not across the border or anything) to visit the Hwacheon Ice Festival and other snow filled winter activities in case it was my last chance to play in the snow in Korea. It looks like things are working out, and I will be staying in Korea next year after all, but I’ll tell that story after all the details are wrapped up. For now, walk with me into a winter wonderland weekend.


I like going on tour trips with the group Enjoy Korea. They’re by far my favorite organized tour group in Korea: polite, well-organized, helpful, responsive, and fun (without being a total party bus). I highly recommend traveling with them if you’re looking for more things to see in Korea while you’re here. No, they aren’t paying me to say that, or even giving me a discount, I just think they’re cool and deserve more business.

When I realized I wasn’t leaving Korea for the winter holidays, I turned to the upcoming events page of their website and looked for something fun that didn’t involve skiing. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to learn how to ski, but stress and health concerns over the fall just made it seem like this winter was not going to be the one. Instead, I found the Winter Wonderland Weekender.

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Naminara Republic

While we were on the multi-hour drive up from Busan, our guide handed out pamphlets about our 3 weekend destinations, and being me, I actually read them. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the tiny river island of Nami was it’s own country! Nami is a small island within the North Han River. Not that long ago, it was only an island for part of the year when the waters ran high. However, when the Cheongpyeong Dam was built in the 1940s, the river level became higher permanently, and Nami was cut off from the mainland year round.

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It was said to be the grave-site of General Nami, and the grave was gradually built up and around, turning the island into a nature reserve and kind of amusement park/garden. In 2006 they declared their independence from Korea to become a “fairy-tale nation”. I’m not making that up, it’s in their declaration of independence. They have an immigration office. I didn’t bring my passport because I didn’t know this ahead of time, but apparently they will stamp your passport if you like. Because of their friendly relations with Korea, it’s not required for visitors to do so.

I cannot help but look at this and think of Nami as a precocious 5 year old who really wants to be a grown up. Nami: “We’re independent and we’re gonna have our own country made of fairy tales!” Korea: “Ok, honey, you have fun and make sure to be home in time for dinner.”

It’s cute.

There are 2 ways onto the island of Nami: the ferry and the zipline. I wanted to try the zipline since our guide said it was actually rather slow and more of a scenic experience than an adrenaline rush, but the wait time was over an hour and we only had a few hours to explore that afternoon.

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The ferry is not disappointing. It’s small, and mostly standing room, but it’s only about 6 minutes from shore to shore and gives beautiful views of the river on the way over. The water wasn’t frozen solid, but there were floating chunks of ice like green glass floating along the shore where the water was shallower. As we approached the island, we were first greeted with a giant ice formation overshadowing the maid of Nami.

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The maid of Nami is a famous statue of a woman standing in the water, but she was nearly obscured and entirely overshadowed by the mountain of ice that had formed from the freezing spray of the nearby fountain. Instead of turning the fountains off for the winter, the Naminarians decided to let their fountains run and turn into fairy-tale castles of long white and blue ice stalactites. Although at first the beautiful structure was overrun with ferry passengers queuing up to take photos, it didn’t take long before they all moved on and I had a chance to get a few of my own.

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The island has a multitude of walking trails as well as a “train” (think kiddie ride). I spotted the post office on my way in where a telephone allowed visitors to make international calls or send post cards from the micronation.

At first, I was feeling a little disappointed by the lack of snow. After all, it had snowed in Busan just a few days before, a place that sees snow every 2-3 years, surely Nami which is famous for it’s snow clad beauty would be white from edge to edge. The main entrance and pathways were simply brown, perhaps from lack of snowfall but more likely from an excess of foot traffic. I determined to seek out more frozen fountains and whatever patches of snow I could nonetheless, and soon found a frozen pond which remained snowcovered and I began to feel more in the mood.20180113_140124.jpg

My spirits were lifted completely when I encountered the sledding hill. Snow from all over had been piled together in a large hill that was decorated with ice-men (like snowmen, but made of ice). There was a line to borrow a sled but it wasn’t long and within a few moments I was lugging my luge up the snowy slope. I think it hadn’t snowed in a few days at least because the snow was quite packed and hard. Many sledders fell over sideways the first time their sled hit a bump. I watched as the line grew shorter, determining my best strategy for not suffering a wipe out and when it was my turn, I tried to center myself as much as possible and took a firm hold of the rope that formed the handle at the front of the sled.

When the countdown ended and the whistle blew, 3 of us took off at once. The slope wasn’t too high, but I soon picked up speed and when I hit the first bump my sled and I were launched into the air. I managed to land without falling over and kept my seat all the way down, whooping in a very American way at the thrill of speed and snow and winter wind whipping my skin.

Next to the snow hill was an ice village. There were sculptures of animals and fish, but also houses and castles built from carved ice blocks where visitors could climb around and take silly photos. I was impressed by the size and scope of these ice constructions, but oh wait until tomorrow.

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While I was finishing up my photos of the ice sculptures at a particularly large ice shark, I looked up and noticed there were ostriches running around in a field across the road. Nami island is very proud of it’s animal population, but apparently the ostriches are the stars of the show. It was a bit surprising to me how curious of visitors the birds were, spending most of their time right up at the fences despite having plenty of roaming room. I bet there’s food involved somewhere. Still it was odd to see these African savanna birds in the snow.

After the arctic ostrich experience, I meandered to the far bank of the island where the river was completely frozen over and dusted white with snow. It was quiet and serene. The emptiness was a stark contrast to the crowds I had left behind only 5 minutes before. It is a function of Korea that will never cease to amaze me, but no matter how crowded it is at an event, all you have to do is walk away for 5-10 minutes to be totally alone.

20180113_144230.jpgNext I headed back towards the center of the island to the arts and crafts village where handmade goods can be viewed, created, and purchased. My favorite was a metal tree dripping glass globes that caught the winter afternoon sunlight. There were also plenty of places to grab a hot drink, a snack or a meal.

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I went on a search for the glass blowing studio because I’d read in the pamphlet that there was an activity where visitors could make a small ornament, but alas it was only for groups of 8 or more who had booked in advance. My foray into molten glass will have to wait for another time.

While I was meandering around the statues and shops, I found a pottery shop with two peacocks perched on the rooftop, and I found a lone snow bunny hopping around on one of the frozen ponds. Great place for him since humans were kept back by the fear of falling in the ice. Great spot for me since I got to take photos of him against the snow. He was pretty fearless though and didn’t seem to mind when even more visitors noticed him and rushed over to take photos.

The weather was so cold that my phone battery was struggling more than normal and my phone actually shut down right in the middle of this bunny photo shoot, but it was still special. I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for bunnies after having one of my own as a furbaby.

I found that while many of the restaurants were quite expensive (surprise, we’re on an island) there was a place called the Asian Family Restaurant that had decent prices and a wide range of foods. I ended up with a giant bowl of hot and spicy soup in a Chinese style, and by the time I was full, I was warm enough to head back into the snow.

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I decided to walk around the other side of the island on my way back toward the ferries to see what I hadn’t seen, I found more frozen ponds, sculptures, trees covered in a light snow, and the further I went, the fewer people I had to share it with. Coming out of a small birch grove, I spotted the oddest piece of art adorning an unused picnic area. Alone with this, the sounds of distant tourists muffled to silence by the blanket of snow around me, it felt more than a little creepy.

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Heading back to the riverside path, I found some other members of the Enjoy Korea group who were skipping stones on the frozen water to hear the odd laser blaster sound that it makes. I tried it myself, there’s literally no technique involved, just toss a rock on a frozen body of water and pew pew pew! Lot’s of people saw that guy on YouTube be very dude-bro about it, but here’s another guy who actually explains it.

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Finally, the short winter day began to wind down and my last bit of trail gave the ice, river and sky some beautiful twilight colors. I got back to the bus just a few minutes early and discovered that someone had participated in the ice carving craft. She made a hefty stein from ice, and since it couldn’t possibly last in the heat of the bus, she was offering to let anyone who liked have a shot of Korean soju from the frozen chalice. I think it was probably the best soju I’ve ever had, even though it was the same stuff that’s in every convenience store. Bonus, I can safely say in retrospect that either I got in on it early enough or the combo of ice and alcohol did the trick, but I didn’t get anyone else’s cold!

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Go check out the rest of the photos on Facebook.

Garden of the Morning Calm

After dark, we headed over to view a special winter lights show at a nearby botanical garden. The Koreans are, as always, just spectacular at light displays. This large garden usually makes it’s living showing off plants and flowers, but in the dead of winter when everything is brown and brittle, it opens up at night for a whole other color spectacle.

My first few months in Korea, I saw the biggest and most amazing light show when I went to the Taean Tulip Festival, and while I enjoyed every other light show I’ve been to since then, none have been able to take the title from Tulips until now. I did not realize what I was getting myself into. The entry way had trees and bushes wrapped in lights and the almost obligatory tunnel of lights (still not tired of those). I expected it to be similar to the one at Boseong, and I was happy with that idea.

I especially liked the lights glowing on the snow and ice, creating fun reflections and pastel color splashes. I dawdled far more than I should have, but the maps in Korean parks are notoriously bad for scale, and I just did not understand how BIG this place really is. I got to the (also obligatory) suspension bridge and noticed it led back to the entrance, so I turned to head down another path, even though it appeared to lead into darkness. Just to check.

I found another tunnel of light. I found a frozen pond that had been covered entirely in blue lights with a glowing sailboat and dolphins frolicking in the blue. I found a path covered in umbrellas made of tiny lights. I found giant vines and leaves of light that made me feel like Alice when she shrank small and talked to the flowers.

Then I turned a corner and saw the stars.

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Not really the stars, but huge balls made from clusters of tiny lights high in the tall trees looking like the night stars in the blackness. Fiber-optic cables flowed down from the branches like willow trees and waterfalls. Giant leaves wrapped around the trunks of trees climbing to meet the falling fronds of light above. Silhouettes of animals were picked out in life size golden glowing sculptures: reindeer which made sense, and a giraffe I suppose because why not? At the far end of this wonderland was a neon pink church that the King would have been pleased to see in his Vegas days, fronted by two pure white glowing angels. I could have probably done without the extra religion, but as I headed down the hill toward the next display, the church shrank into the background and I was left with a final stunning view of the immersive forest of light.

The theme of over sized plants continued a bit with giant mushrooms and trees wrapped in lights to an almost fractal level of detail. Faced with another fork in the road to go on into darkness or return to the glow of lights at the entrance, I checked the time and decided to forge ahead. I pondered what could be left after that wonderful wood. I took some photos of creative path lanterns and more trees draped in shifting colors, casting a glow on the snow beneath them, content and not expecting very much more when…

A viewing platform is always a good sign. Korean tourism departments everywhere have thoughtfully created a viewing platform at the optimum viewing place. They are hardly ever wrong, and everyone knows the etiquette, so you might have to wait a few moments, but you will get your turn. And when I did…

Usually, I like to describe things I see and experience, but in this instance, it might just be better to shut up and show you. You can see the whole roll on the Facebook album.

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Stay tuned for part 2 when I get to spend Sunday at the Hwacheon Seoncheoneo Ice Fishing Festival… I know, a festival for ice fishing? but it turns out the city of Hwacheon, and really Korea in general, knows how to turn anything into a great time. They can even do up an anchovy festival right, so something as exotic as ice fishing should be no problem! And if for some reason the prospect of catching trout through a hole in the ice isn’t your cup of soju, it’s also the home to the world’s largest indoor ice sculpture, so there’s more photos of beautiful lights to come as well. Thanks for reading!

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.

Gaya Kingdom: Myth and History

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go on a school field trip to the Gaya Theme Park in Gimhae (near the Busan airport). I had never been on a school field trip before, and while some of you may be thinking, ugh a day of corralling screaming kids outside, my unenviable position as foreigner gave me a bit of a pass on kid wrangling and a lot more freedom to indulge my sightseeing urges.

The Gaya Theme Park is a strange combination of history, mythology and recreation. Let’s start with the history part.

What is the Gaya Confederacy?

Korea has not always been a single unified nation. I was not taught Korean history beyond the US involvement in the Korean war at any point during my education, which is vastly disappointing since I studied East Asia at University. I’ve been trying to fill in the gaps since arriving here. There’s not much history in any part of the BCE. There’s some fossils and pottery and a legend about a kingdom that dates back to more than 2000 BCE. The first records seem to be from a Chinese encounter in the 7th century CE, but the seat of that Kingdom and most of it’s stuff was in what is now North Korea, so we may never know any more than what we find in the Chinese records.

china mapSkipping ahead to the first century CE, we get what is known as the Three Kingdoms Period. The three kingdoms were Goguryeo (purple) controlled huge swaths of the north including what is now North Korea and parts of China (it is also where we get the English word “Korea” from, since their word for their own country is hanguk) The south was divided between Baekje (yellow) on the west, and Silla (blue) on the east. Except, there were more than three. The Gaya confederacy wedged it’s way between Baekje and Silla for almost 500 years. And let’s not forget the Tamna, who were a whole other Kingdom until the 1400’s! But, sure, it’s the Three Kingdoms Period.

UntitledBetween it’s mythic founding 42 CE and it’s surrender to Silla in 562 CE, the Gaya confederate existed in the south central area of the Korean peninsula, just barely missing Busan (where I live) but keeping it’s capital in the nearby Gimhae (where our airport lives). They did some fishing and agriculture, but were most famous for their ironwork. It was a rough confederation of 6-12 different Gayas. When they Japanese invaded Korea in 1910, they claimed that Gaya had been a Japanese military outpost from 300-710 to justify their “return”, but no scholars take this claim seriously today.

Ok. History part done. Let’s get colorful.

6 Golden Eggs

The theme park is located in Gimhae because that is thought to be the historical capital of the biggest baddest Gaya of the confederacy, the Geumgwan Gaya. I was worried about the weather since the heat had been bad a couple of days during the week, but between happy weather gods and the fact that the theme park was up at a higher elevation, it was a stunningly sunny day with blue skies, fluffy clouds and cool breezes.

20170526_140450As we entered the park, the first statue was of a giant golden egg with 5 smaller eggs around it’s base. I was taking pictures of absolutely everything, hoping to figure it out later, so I snapped a shot and kept walking with the group. My co-teacher saw me take the picture and told me that the egg was there because the founding king of Gaya was hatched from an egg that fell from the sky. She also referred to this as “history” although I’m hopeful the last part was just a linguistics flub and that no one here seriously thinks that kings really hatched from sky eggs in the good old days. I could not figure out how to ask this without sounding rude, tho, so I let it go.

The Palace & The Indian Princess

20170526_100351.jpgWe made our way deeper into the park heading directly for the palace. It’s a replica palace. Very little archaeological evidence of Gaya has been found, although the tomb of Suro (first king of Gaya) is maintained in Gimhae as well. The palace grounds are reminiscent of Chinese palace architecture with familiar canted roofs and wide open courtyards between buildings. The colors and designs are quite unique to Korea, being less the scarlet and gold of China and more earth toned versions of dusty rose, pink, taupe yellow and pea green.

The kids ran eagerly around the courtyards and explored the buildings inside and out. Within each open building were some museum like decorations showing the furniture, art, history and stories of the Gaya king and his Indian queen.

What? Yes, that’s right. His queen was said to be from India. While the king’s building was full of pottery, iron work, carvings and paintings, the queen’s building was a more wistful romance story including a wall where visitors could tie wishes written on paper, a love throne for two, a hall of stars (using mirrors and LED lights to create the illusion of a blue star filled eternity), and the “pasa stone pagoda”. The pasa stones, the sign said in broken English, were red stones from India used to appease the sea gods during her voyage, and later erected in the palace. I have no idea if these stones are actually from an archaeological dig, or from India, or if it’s just a collection of rocks from the area stacked up to look like the ritual rock stacks common all over Asia.

20170526_101605One room had a huge map along a wall showing the queen’s “romance road of Asia”, paths from India to Korea picked out in red and blue. Another sign seemed to imply that the queen had brought Buddhism into Korea, however that is highly unlikely. I suppose she may have brought hers to Gaya (assuming that she was actually Indian) but the northern Kingdom of Goguryeo got it from their Chinese neighbors. I question her Indian origin story because the myth (written originally in the Samguk Yusa in the 13th century, it’s a kind of history/mythology mashup of the Three Kingdoms period) refers to her as being from Ayuta, a “distant kingdom across the sea”, but the name doesn’t correspond to the name of any country or city from that time period in India or any other country.

However, in the 21st century a gaggle of historians and diplomats (including the North Korean ambassador to India) went and did a statue of the queen in Ayodhya, India, believing it to be the “Ayuta” refered to in the Samguk Yusa account of the tale. Although the statue was accepted, the Indian government says there is no evidence of any such person in their historical records or mythology. (citation BBC)

EDIT: Thank you Varuna for sending me more information about Heo Hwang Ok, also called Seembavalam in Tamil. Present day Kanyakumari was called Ayuta in the past. Although there is still no academic consensus, so wonderful to keep learning about this legendary Queen from people around the world. Check out this Quora for more details on her Tamil Nadu origins!

The Story of Miracle Love

20170526_100403We took our time around the palace complex, letting the kids run off some of their excitement after the long bus ride. There were plenty of historical things of interest, but no teachers tried to make the kids focus on learning, nor was there a guided tour where kids were shuffled from one room to another while someone explained things. They did separate out the grades so that no one building became too full, but on the whole, the kids were on their own to enjoy the space.

20170526_103748After a while, we headed out of the palace complex and back toward the main entrance to the theater. Turtle imagery was everywhere. A large mountain with an artificial waterfall towered over the theater building. A gray stone turtle lurked in the pond below and another golden one perched precariously on an outcropping halfway up the mountain! I asked about the turtles, but my co-teacher didn’t know (don’t worry, there’s an answer later).

The theater offered a showing of a musical rendition of the love story of King Suro and Queen Heo (alternatively Hur) called “Miracle Love”. I was a bit nervous of going to see a musical in Korean. I didn’t want to pester my co-teacher to translate while we were watching, so I figured I’d just enjoy the music, costumes and dancing. However, the theater thoughtfully had installed some large screens on either side of the stage where English translations were displayed. It was immensely helpful, if still a little grammatically imprecise.

20170526_110511The story began with two archaeologists stumbling onto a large cache of relics from the Gaya period. Their song explained with some lament how little was known of Gaya before this discovery. Then a cave in knocked our archaeologists unconscious and a hazy dream fantasy of the mythstory of King Suro began in earnest. Dancers dressed as the zodiac animals performed intricate dances on stage as some kind of high priest or shaman character sang of the strife, war and drought in the land, praying to the heavens for deliverance which arrived in the form of 6 eggs. (although all 6 eggs hatched out kings, 5 of them were elsewhere being kings of other parts of Gaya, so aren’t in this story)

20170526_110923The glowing egg hatched to reveal the full grown form of Suro who is proclaimed king on the spot and is expected to wield the power to heal the land. Yay! But it’s not easy being king. The drought continues and his people begin to resent him for not living up to the promise of his celestial birth.

20170526_111433Meanwhile in Ayuta (India?), the princess Heo has a dream that her destined love is in a land far away, and that she must set sail to reach him and fulfill her destiny (lots of destiny). The dancers costumes were reminiscent of saris and there were certainly hints of Indian Bollywood style music and dance moves that were obviously meant to place the princess and her handmaidens in India.

20170526_112151But OH! The villain! Satal, a god of war and a gleefully over the top villain dressed in a skull mask and rough furs and accompanied by evil temptresses dressed in black and red gauzy costumes came on to sing his number about how he would defeat Suro and become the king of Gaya, keeping the kingdom forever in a state of greed, hate, and famine. His musical style was that of classic hard rock and the stage was lit by enormous flames as he and his minions sang and danced.

20170526_112450The princess’s ship is caught in a deadly storm and she is washed ashore in the wreck. It seems the moon itself has saved her just in time to be found by king Suro and they sing a touching love duet in the style of popular Korean ballads. But their happiness cannot last. Satal and his minions kidnap the princess and beat Suro nearly to death in battle. He wants to give up. He didn’t expect this to be so difficult. Where are the heavenly powers he’s supposed to have, after all? But his loyal servant reminds him of the plight of his people and the love of his princess and his resolve is bolstered.

20170526_113408During a rallying all cast dance number, new armor is forged for the king, turning him from a dandy to a warrior. He is told he can receive the remainder of his heavenly powers upon the mountaintop and so newly armored he ascends to greet the powers of heaven, represented on stage as a white dragon flying around Suro to strengthen him. However Suro fights, Satal holds his own and the soaring duet of hero and villain waxes lyrical about the evils of greed, selfishness and divisiveness being defeated by the power of love. In the end, it is not the armor or the power of heaven that gives Suro the strength to defeat Satal, it is the love of Heo, her voice joining the song to call back to their duet and the fact that their love was made in heaven.

Strengthened by love, the king defeats Satal and restores peace, harmony and prosperity to Gaya. Everyone celebrates with this all cast finale that I managed to get a video of. There’s no direct translation, but it’s basically yay we won, isn’t love awesome? Love, love, love.

I haven’t read the Samguk Yusa, but synopses online seem to indicate that the creators of the musical may have taken a few romantic liberties with the story. I also could not help but look at this story of a man who arrives on earth in a giant egg, is nearly defeated by his enemy (another godlike being), retires to his fortress in disgrace before being reminded he has to rescue his true love and re-emerging stronger than ever to defeat General Zod… I mean Satal… and wonder if maybe he’s related to Kal’el?

What’s Up With the Turtles?

20170526_123913After the musical, we escorted the kids back over to the palace where they unpacked tiny picnic blankets and box lunches under the watchful eye of the staff while we enjoyed the cool, fresh mountain air. When the kids were all done eating, they were turned loose in the playground section of the park while the grownups had a lazy lunch of fried chicken next to the lake surrounded by heaps of purple pansies.

20170526_140416On our way out of the park, I spotted a turtle garden with empty shells that kids could climb in and around, as well as a happy, smiling gray stone turtle overlooking the scene. The sign near the stone turtle informed us that the mountain where King Suro’s egg landed and hatched looked so much like a laying turtle that it was named Gujibong (gu meaning “turtle” in Korean). Which explained the mystery of why there were so many turtles around the park.

I also spotted the naked turtles who had apparently left their empty shells for kids to play in. These pink and white polka dotted creatures were caught in embarrassed poses of disrobing and we all got a pretty good chuckle about it on the way back to the buses.

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Serendipity

I had never heard of Gaya Theme Park and would not have even known to put it on my list of things to do if the school hadn’t taken me there. Looking at it now, public transit would still only get me to within 2km, though I suppose one could hire a taxi to get up the mountain, I’m not sure how the best way to get back down. My point is, it’s not a hotspot for foreign tourists.

On top of that, Gaya’s history isn’t well known even by Koreans, perhaps because so much of the archaeological evidence was lost until recently. It’s things like this that truly highlight the differences in experience between living and working in a foreign country and merely visiting one. It’s so easy for us to take for granted that our history and culture are spread across the world (first by colonialism and now by commerce and entertainment) that we can forget that every country has a rich historical and mythological tradition of it’s own. I’m grateful to have had this chance to learn about Gaya, and I hope you enjoyed learning about it with me. Please enjoy the rest of the photos of this beautiful day on the Facebook page. Thanks!

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In the Merry Month of May

As the fine spring weather draws to a close, and the deeply oppressive heat and humidity of Korean summer loom on the horizon,  I tried to make the most of my final outdoor shenanigans before I’m consigned to the AC or at least the after dark until October. This May, I visited 3 festivals and a historical theme park. The later truly deserves it’s own blog post, so I’ll come back to it another time. For now, let me share a few of the marvelous spring festivals I made it to this year.


May 13th: Gamcheon Culture Village and Festival

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Gamcheon is a famous little neighborhood in Busan that has been on my bucket list of things to visit while living here, and somehow I made it a whole year without going! Lucky for me they decided to hold a festival this spring, which I found out about a whopping 2 days before it was set to take place. It is referred to (by the Korean tourism industry) as the “Machu Pichu of Korea”, but actually dates back to the Korean war.

20170513_141043During the war, Busan was the only city in Korea that was not taken over at some point by the invading northern army. While elsewhere all over the peninsula, whole towns were being leveled to the ground, Busan was becoming a haven for refugees as well as US and other foreign aid troops. The population crisis caused the unique housing style of Busan, which involves building houses and apartments right up the side of the mountains that weave in and out of the city.

I’ve often found this blend of urban and natural to be beautiful and a great improvement over flat concrete, but nowhere is it more on display than in Gamcheon. According to the sign, “The virtue of building a house so that it does not block the view of the house behind it demonstrates how this village preserves traditions of national culture in which people care about one another and live together in close proximity and intimacy.”

20170513_135839The houses are painted a cheerful array of bright colors that make for a stunning view from the ridge above. However, once you descend into the neighborhood, there is no end of quaint surprises in the form of beautiful murals, surprising statues, and wandering flower planters. The neighborhood is not only adorable, it’s become a hot spot for bohemian culture, local artists, musicians and other experimental creations.

As we walked down the main road, we were surrounded at once by the festival tents and lanterns overhead. Soldiers in uniform were having a blast dancing along to a local live music performance while shops offered multicolored balloons and delicious iced treats. There were about a million places for kids to try their hand at various types of arts and crafts. A section of the festival showcased historical culture with backdrops, costumes and traditional games. At the top of the hill, the local school kids put on a talent show, and a wandering parade of traditional dancers could be heard wending around the twisting and narrow roads.

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There were famous photo op stops where we took turns waiting to get the best view, or take a picture with the famous landmark. My friend and I went into the mock up lighthouse, but decided the line to sit next to the statue of Little Prince was just too long for such a hot day. Instead we wandered around admiring the variety of murals and other decorations. My favorites included a flight of stairs painted to look like a stack of books, some old pants that had been turned into a walking flowerpot, and the very creepy baby faced birds that watched us from up on the rooftops.

I realized I put off visiting Gamcheon for so long because I thought it was just a bunch of colorful buildings on the mountainside. Everyone says it’s a must see, but not enough people talk about what’s inside those buildings. I found Gamcheon to be a wonderfully unique neighborhood, not only because of it’s architectural design, but also it’s dedication to art and freedom of expression. Certainly a must see for both long term residents and short term vacationers.

Follow this link for more photos from Gamcheon.

May 20th: Busan Global Gathering

This was another last minute arrival. As good as the tourism websites are in Korea, there is so much going on, I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s hard to create a single comprehensive list. Even my native Korean co-workers are astonished that I know about all these events they’ve never heard of. At least I know it’s not just a language barrier?

20160521_194154I went to this festival last year when it was held at the citizen’s park, which a beautiful grassy park with trees, a beach, and a big fountain. I had a great time visiting all the booths from other countries and sampling goodies they brought. There was a large space in the middle of all the tents where we could flop down in the grass when we needed a rest and I ran into lots of fun people (most of whom have since returned to their own countries) and sat on the lawn drinking the German beer and Spanish sangria until the sun went down.

Looking back, I realize I didn’t even write about this event last year because it was so small compared to the other things going on around me last spring. Despite my lack of blog-love, I did have fond memories of the event and was looking forward to going when I heard it was being put on again this year. For unknown reasons, the organizers decided to put the festival in a different location this year. A location of dirt. Gaze upon the contrasting images of last year and this. One looks like a great day out at the park, while the other looks like a flea market in an abandoned sandlot.

Appearances and lack of picnic space aside, the festival was still fun. There was a new twist this year of stamp collecting. We got our guide pamphlets when we arrived and were told that a few booths around the festival were offering stamps. If we collected 5, we could register for the raffle. The booths giving stamps require us to complete some mini-quest. At the first one, we put on mittens with Korean letters and lined up to make a sentence that we read out one syllable at a time. Israel’s booth implored us all to put on a yarmulke and have our photo taken. It seemed a bit odd, since I don’t think women usually wear those, but presumably someone in the booth was from the Israeli cultural delegation, soooo…. not offensive?

Another booth required us to take a try on a stationary bike to generate electricity used to power the blender making the smoothies. The Indonesian booth was giving out prizes for a plastic archery game. I managed to score the second ring from center. I went back to the Spanish booth for more sangria and got talked into adding on some amazing seafood paella. When I came back by to compliment the chef and take some photos, he came out to meet me. It turns out he’s a teacher at the the culinary department of Yonsan University, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it was so delicious.

After perusing all the booths, which seemed to be more numerous and more varied than the event last year, we wandered a ways away to find some grass to sit on while we waited for the raffle drawing. We’d been told the drawing was at 4, however around 3:30 they started calling numbers from the stage, and we didn’t even notice for ages because it was all in Korean and the grass was so far away. By the time we got back to the stage, there were only a few more numbers before the raffle ended and we decided to head back to the main road in search of some Sulbing. Then as we were leaving, we heard more numbers being called! The raffle was fairly strict about winners claiming their prize within only a few seconds of being called, so we knew there was no point in heading back, but it was still rough.

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On the whole, I think the Global Gathering is a wonderful event and I hope the city keeps doing it, but it would be more enjoyable with plenty of places to sit and enjoy the food on offer or just take a rest as well as a more reliable time table for advertised events like performances or raffles.

Follow this link for more photos from Global Gatherings 2016 & 2017.

Haeundae Sandsculpture Festival

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I don’t know if I’m feeling jaded because it’s my second year in Busan or if the festivals this spring really were not as awesome as last year. Expectations can ruin just about anything, and maybe it was a good thing I didn’t try to recreate my entire itinerary from last year. One of the things I did revisit was the Sandsculpture festival at Haeundae Beach. Not only is a day at the beach a nice way to greet the summer, the main attraction of the festival, the sandsculptures, would be all new works of art made fresh for this event.

I also wanted an excuse to go back to the fancy secret bar in Haeundae that I discovered at the sand festival last year. My friends and I agreed to meet in the late afternoon for a leisurely stroll up the beach to take in the sculptures before having dinner in one of Haeundae’s multitude of foreign cuisine restaurants, only to stroll back down the beach at night at take in the night-lit sculptures before changing shoes and heading back inland for craft cocktails.

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There’s no way to be disappointed by giant sand sculptures. The amount of effort and planning required to create this beautiful and transient artform is impressive no matter what the subject matter is. Last year the theme was nautical liturature, and sculptures from stories like the Odessey (above), Gulliver’s Travel’s, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader among others were scattered around the beach like very artsy mountains. Many of the sand mounds were covered in art all the way around, with hidden gems that made us want to explore every inch.

20170527_170816This year… I’m not really sure what the theme was. Each mound only had art on one side, yet despite the fact that there was a temporary walkway between the two rows of mounds (because walking in sand is hard), the art all faced the shorefront buildings, leaving only half facing the walkway and the other half showing their backs. The backs of the mounds remained smooth but for a single word that was presumably the inspiration for the art on the front.

In no way do I wish to denegrate the work of the artists. There were several very impressive sculptures. Merely that unlike last year, the art did not seem especially cohesive, and I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more of it. As I meandered in and out of the mountains of sand, trying to capture everything with my phone, I found one very special piece about travel. Amid the representations of world famous landmarks and the couple taking a selfie (of course I took a selfie with the statue taking a selfie, what kind of person do you take me for?), there was a giant postcard expressing greetings from Busan and sent to Seattle, WA (which, as the city I have spent more years in than any other this life is the one I tend to call “home”).

I also enjoyed the “couple” piece, which was of an elderly pair expressing the growing old together dream, as well as the “rest” piece which was simply a mosaic of sleeping and dreaming (some of my favorite things).

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There were far fewer works this year, since not only were there fewer sand mounds, but each one bore art on one side only. I still had a lovely time, but we finished much faster than expected and spent some time just chilling out with cool drinks before leaving the beach in search of dinner.

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Even though it didn’t offer the stunning art display I was hoping for, the day still managed to give a one-two punch for my brain. Part one was the shock and reminder that other white people exist in such large numbers. I’m the only foreigner at my job, and I can spend days not seeing another one while commuting between home and work and doing regular errands. Sometimes I go out and I’ll see a handful at whatever expat bar I go to, but since most 7627aab3b42cac8b205bb627a6521eaeof the festivals I go to are Korean, I’m still in the minority almost wherever I go. Almost. I don’t know what Haeundae looks like on a regular day because it’s so far from me that I usually go to Gwangan when I need a beach fix. On this day, it was like that scene from Lilo and Stitch where Lilo goes down to the beach to stare at pale tourists. Only most of them were fairly fit being recent college grads or military folks on leave. But so much white people!

The restaurants were full of us, too. Which brings me to part two of the brain punch: just because I’m suddenly in the minority here, doesn’t mean the struggle to stop my privileged thinking is over. The place with a menu that my whole group could agree on told us there was a 30 minute wait… not to be seated, just to order. We took up seats around a table and pontificated on what could lead to a restaurant having enough tables to seat but not serve everyone. At which point, my lifelong Americanness reared it’s head. We have some bizarre cultural assumptions about the service industry I’m still trying to break free of. They told 5745331-customer-service-memeus the wait ahead of time, and we agreed. That should be enough, but part of me was still, “how did they not staff more people on a festival day, the restaurant should be doing something to make up for this inconvenience”… Woah, ‘Murica brain. You didn’t have to come here. They did everything reasonable to make sure you knew what was going on. Check your entitlement! PS. There’s no tipping here, so when waitstaff are nice to you it’s just their job and not because they’re livelihood depends on the whims of customer satisfaction.

Living abroad is a non-stop self-evaluation and learning process.

20170527_214612After dinner, we headed over to The Back Room, a secret speakeasy style bar that I visited last year and loved. I had an old favorite (real whiskey sour), and tried a brand new concoction tried an Aviation, which is gin based cocktail with creme de violet, lemon and cherry. Fancy and delicious. We stayed out way too late drinking and chatting, which only served to remind me that every event can be made special with friends.

Check here to read about last year’s Sandsculpture festival and TBR visit, and to see the sand castle pics from last year and this year.


I had some hard times in the hot weather last summer, and again this year in the heat of SE Asia. It seems however much the heart is willing, the flesh is not down with heat+humidity. I’ll be putting up one more Korean spring adventure (for the Gaya Theme Park), and of course working to finish the stories from the Malay Peninsula. However, I plan to use the summer to work on a new project about teaching (the other part of my life). Even if you’re not an English teacher, I hope to give some insight into what it is we do out here for the curious and those considering the career. And don’t worry, I’ve already got a fall trip to the Philippines planned, so the travel stories aren’t stopping any time soon. As always, thanks for reading!

Golden Week: Jindo Miracle Sea Parting, Beoseong & Staycations?

The beginning of May where holidays like Labor Day, Buddha’s Day, and Children’s day come close is often referred to as Golden week because of all the days off work/school together. Last year, I got a long weekend and went to the Namhae Anchovy Festival and Taean Tulip Festival. Spring is the time of endless festivals in Korea, and last year I wasn’t able to catch them all. This has been a chance for me to go back and get the highlights I missed last time. Of course the Daegu Lanterns were a part of that, but I also finally made it to the “miraculous” sea parting at Jindo in time to walk across the narrow land bridge that leads to the island of Modo (jokingly now referred to as Mordor after the LOTR movies because the Korean pronunciation is so similar).


Busan to JindoWe set off from Busan (blue dot) in the morning to drive all the way across the southern end of the Korean peninsula to Jindo (red dot). Although Korea is small compared to, say, the US, it was still almost 5 hours of driving with the occasional pit stop. (By the way, in case you’re curious, you can see Daegu on this map as well).  Fortunately, I went with a tour group (my stand by Enjoy Korea) and the bus ride was comfortable. I even got mostly through a Vonnegut audiobook, which is the only way I can consume books on a bus.

The Festival & Traditions

We arrived at the tiny festival grounds in the early afternoon and had the chance to wander around, take in the sights and enjoy the beach. The weather was lovely, and we spent about an hour just sitting in the grass above the sea enjoying some 막걸리 (makgeoli). Although many Korean festivals now have a sameness about them to me, it’s become something to look forward to rather than to be curious about. Favorite festival foods that are hard to find elsewhere, like 동동주 (dong dong ju) or fresh 해물파전 (seafood pajeon). I couldn’t find anyone selling 동동주 in Jindo. Vendors there insisted it was the same as 막걸리, but I didn’t believe them, and did more research. If you’re curious, this blog does a great English language explanation of the two. Koreans also love to invite international vendors to even the smallest festival, and this was no exception. I saw booths selling food from at least 10 other countries, including one doing the cumin spiced mutton skewers from China that I love so much.

20170429_152224The Jindo festival had at least one feature I’ve never seen before: a traditional Korean wrestling ring. A pile of sand was placed in a large circle where two contestants could wrestle in the traditional style. 씨름 (ssireum) is Korea’s wrestling, just like sumo is Japan’s. Each wrestler had a sash of cloth wrapped in a specific pattern around their waist and one thigh. The wrestlers would kneel and lean in to each other for a moment before the bout started to give them a chance to get a good firm grip on the cloth. Then they would stand up together and the referee would call start, whereupon they attempted to dump their opponent in the sand. The holds never changed. Each wrestler maintained their grip on the sashes at the designated waist and thigh position. Working to topple the proponent meant pulling and pushing and moving the center of gravity around. It was different from any other style of wrestling I’ve ever seen. Both men and women participated, though not against each other.

Cultural appropriation or good old fun?

There was also a “festival of color”, similar to Holi Hai. Only, unlike the one at Haeundae beach which was held by the Indian expat community in honor of their holy day, this was a totally Korean run secular affair. I start getting really tangled up in cultural appropriation when two post-colonial cultures are involved. I suspect the Koreans had no real idea about the religious significance and just thought it would attract more tourists. In the end, the only people covered in colored powders were young, party-driven Westerners. As far as I can tell, a group of Koreans cottoned on to the fact that white kids like this dancing with colored powder thing and did it for the fun and the money.

20170429_172837Even more bizarrely, after the color throwing was over, the festival organizers gave each participant a “toga” to wear. The togas were long white robes with red sashes that could have evoked a Roman senate or Jesus. Considering we were about to “part the seas” it was hard not to see it with Judeo-Christian overtones, but the rather drunk person I asked about it just said “toga party!” The entire thing seemed like the festival organizers were trying to find a way to appeal to the expat crowd. I’m glad they had fun, but I would have preferred some more traditional activities, like someone to teach us about collecting clams and seaweed the way the locals were doing as the tide went out. It’s hard to go do local culture festivals when the locals are busy trying to white-wash everything for cash.

The Magic Math of Tides

20170429_175222Finally, the real “reason for the season” was upon us and we muddled our way down the road to the rainbow steps beneath the watchful eye of the grandmother and the tiger. We paused at a bench to don our thigh high rubber boots and got some advice from the locals on how to attach the rubber garters through belt loops to hold up the boots, or failing that, to wrap them tight around our thighs and snap them in place. Thus clad in bright orange and yellow wellies, we made our way down the steps and into the shallow tide pools to wait for the tide to recede.

ModoIf you look at the area on Google Maps you will simply see the beach and the islands, but on Korea’s own Naver Maps, there is a thin line connecting the rainbow steps to the island of Modo. Although this path is only usable twice a year (at most), the Korean map makers consider it important enough to draw in.

The effect is caused by an extreme low tide. Tides are caused by the relative position of the Earth, Moon and Sun and are fairly regular and predictable because astronomy is math. Despite this, I heard no less than five people declare knowingly that “no one could predict” when the low tide would occur. I guess these are the same body of “no ones” that could have known health care is complicated? Science education is important, people. In fact, here’s some now. This cute little website does a basic introduction to tidal prediction methods, with pictures and everything.

laplaceThe history of tidal prediction starts with Kepler (total nobody) in 1609 to theorize that the moon’s gravity caused the ocean tides. He was followed by other such no-ones as Galileo and Newton. It was in 1776 that the first big complex equations came from a man called Laplace. Harmonic analysis was added in the 1860s and polished off by 1921 in the form that Navies all over the world still use today. Although the math hasn’t changed in almost a hundred years, computers make the math easier and the information more widespread so now instead of just ships in harbor– surfers, beachcombers, and clam hunters can go online to see the local low and high tides at their favorite beach.

Tidal harmonics are the reason why low tide gets extra low once or twice a year (if someone reading this is a scientist with a better way of explaining it, PLEASE chime in) All the different factors that affect tides are like a ‘lil wave pattern (think sound amplitude). When the ups and downs of different factors are opposite, they can cancel each other out, but when they align, they can magnify the effect. Because they’re all beating at different tempos, they interact differently over a cycle (year), but in a totally mathematically predictable way, line up all at once and create this “super tide”. Thus it is that the seas part, and we can walk over to the island. Sufficiently advanced math really is indistinguishable from magic.

The Legend of the Tigers

20170429_180517On a more mystical note, the local legend of the tigers explains why there’s a statue of a grandmother and a tiger overlooking the sea. Long long ago, the villagers who lived on Jindo were plagued by man-eating tigers. The whole village packed up and sailed over to the neighboring island of Modo to escape the threat, but one woman was left behind. The woman was Grandmother Bbyong, and she prayed to the Dragon King, the god of the sea, to help her. Finally the Dragon King came to her in a dream and told her he would build a rainbow brigde across the sea for her.  The next day when Bbyong went down to the sea, the waters parted to let her cross and her family came out from Modo to meet her. This also explains the rainbow stairs that lead down to the landbridge, but not why her family couldn’t have just sailed back for her in the first place.

Walk on the Ocean

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Finally, the event saftey team declared it was safe to head out into the water and we began to wade as a huge human conga-line through the shallow waves. I’m told that in some years, the bridge rises completely above the water, and indeed the most famous picture used in every promotional website in Korea is one of a wide and distinct stone pathway through the sea. My experience was a bit more damp.

20170429_183234While math can now easily tell us the time of the lowest tides, it does not yet advance to tell us what the actual lowest level of the water will be. Not that it couldn’t, but there are more variables involved, so it’s not a thing now. While we can say with certainty, the lowest tide of the year on this beach will occur at 18:38 on April 29 (or whatever), we can’t say for sure if that will expose the land bridge or simply be lower than every other tide around it.

20170429_185231We tromped along the path, watching parasailers overhead and rainbow colored lanterns being released in to the air from the beach behind us. It was clear the path was quite narrow because going too far from the group to one side or the other to get a picture resulted in a severe deepening of water level. At the time, my friends and I theorized it might be man-made, or at least man-maintained, however, I have since then found that the build up of rock and sand in this twisty line is a natural result of the currents around the islands.

20170429_184104Before long the golden light of the sunset combined with the swish-swishing of hundreds of feet through water to create a trance-like state. I could not judge how far the island was, nor tell which way the path twisted. The rocks below us rose and fell, bringing the waves treacherously close to the top of my boots and then back down to barely splash over my toes. The whole path is nearly 3km long. I suspect a determined person could make it out to the island and back in the hour or so the path is clear to walk, but I wasn’t racing, and soon we were greeted by the sounds of Korean drums and the distant flags waving as the procession from Modo came out to greet us.

Get Back

Tides are bonkers. When we went to Thor’s Well in Oregon, we had to check the tide charts to see the show, yet practically had to run to get back when the tide turned on us. In New Zealand, my lovely soak in the hot water beach went from peaceful to sea-soaked in minutes. Once the tide is returning, there is not a lot of time to get out of the way before the ocean reclaims what is hers. We had been told, when the big parade starts heading back to Jindo, go with them or you’ll be swimming back.

20170429_191328The walk outward had been slow, trepedatious, as though we were nervous the land could drop away at any moment, but the trip back was much more celebratory as well as much more damp. The parade of drum bangers, cymbal crashers, gong ringers and flag bearers danced merrily in their traditional garb, urging us all back to the larger island of Jindo. Our pace quickened and our legs swung to the rhythm causing much larger splashes. Waves came in from both sides of the path making us nervous, but excited. The water finally breached the top of my boots and sent an icy chill down my shins, but I found I did not mind.

By the time we returned to land, the sun was long gone and we picked our way up the tidal flats to the main road by the bright halogen lights of the festival. Desptite wet knees and sore legs, I felt elated. Participating in huge group rituals does interesting things to the human brain, but a big one is bonding. It raises hormones like oxytocin and dopamine which make you feel good about life and the people around you. I especially like doing them in huge anonymous groups because it fills me with the love and connectedness but there’s no social group to attach it to, so I get this big whole-world love.

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We doffed our boots and made our weary way back to the buses, pausing long enough to scrounge some dinner. Practically everyone fell asleep on the bus ride to our hotel, and I don’t think I stayed concious more than a few minutes after laying down on my little floor mat, content and sleepy and looking forward to the next day’s adventure.

Jimjilbang

Why every white-anglo blogger I’ve read is scared of these is a giant tragedy. I’d say mystery, but I think I understand it. They are terrified of nudity. Prudish Victorian and Puritanical values passed down from our anglo ancestors have made us associate all nudity with sex, which is itself an activity with much shame, blame and whispered scandal about it. But, oh my god, strangers (of the same gender) might see my naked body in a non-sexual context while they are equally naked… this is scary to the anglo-mind.

I too held this prohibition for part of my life. Theater and dance classes took some away, because you can only be so modest while changing in the dressing room. At some time, I fell in with a group of rabid exhibitionists in St. Louis who were often non-sexually naked around each other. I went to public hot springs in the mountains of Washington where total strangers stripped down to soak, but it was never awkward. Over many years of various levels of friendships, intimate relationships, and gym memberships in multi-cultural parts of town, I eventually unhooked my nakedness=sexuality link and can now comfortably enjoy the jimjilbang experience.

This particular morning, at 7am, I headed downstairs to get a bracing shower and some good soaking in after my muscle straining ocean walk and never-as-fun-as-it-looks sleeping on the floor. After washing up in the shower, I got into the mid-warm pool and enjoyed the hard water massages to pound out my stiff back. I graduated up in heat until I was able to get into the super hot pool which was made of an herbal infusion that turned the water a deep smokey topaz black. For the next hour, I bounced between the super hot and super cold, bringing all the inflammation in my unhappy muscles back down and getting me all set for the next adventure. Why anyone would let a little nudity interfere with such glorious bathing, I will never know.

Boseong and the Green Tea

I visited Boseong last winter for a midwinter lights festival. We spent some time in the green tea fields and I was surprised at the time how beautiful they were, even in the bleak austerity of winter. Now at the end of April, I had the chance to see the fields in their spring colors.

20170430_115224Before heading to the fields, we walked up a long road past the area of the light festival where a few wire frames from reindeer and dragons could still be seen. The road up the hill was painted with fun perspective illustrations of a stream, complete with little camera icons to show the best places to stand to see the visual effect. Optical illusions are fun.

20170430_105220At the top of the hill, far beyond the little pagoda that had marked the highest point of the lights, we finally came upon the green tea museum where we were treated to a special showing of the Korean green tea ceremony (complete with English translation by our awesome guide). The ceremony involves a process of several containers: a water pot, a cooling bowl, a tea pot, and the drinking cup. The hot water pot is filled with boiling water, which is then poured into the bowl, and from the bowl into the tea pot and finally into the cups. The instruments are warmed up in this way. Then more boiling water is poured into the cooling bowl. Tea leaves are scooped into the warm but empty tea pot and the ideal temperature water is poured from the bowl over the leaves. While the tea steeps, each cup is emptied of it’s hot water into another bowl on the floor and wiped dry on the outside. The tea is then poured into the pre-warmed cups by pouring only a half a portion into each and the other half in reverse order on the way back. The tea is then served, 4 cups to the guest and one to the host.

20170430_110142The hostess tried to tell us a bit about green tea, red tea and black tea but her translated explainations seemed off to me, since she said it had to do with the age of the leaf when it was picked from the plant. I don’t know if this was her or the translation, but the real story follows: In any country with Chinese roots in it’s culture and language, the three colors of tea are a bit different in meaning that in the West. Red tea is not Rooibos, in fact all three come from the same plant. And it’s not the age of the leaf at picking that determines the difference, but rather the post picking, pre-drying process. (although especially young and tender tea leaves are sometimes referred to as “monkey picked” and do make a delightful tea).

Green tea is picked, cut and dried. It doesn’t stay fresh long (no more than 2 years) so don’t let it sit around in your cupboard forever. 紅茶 Red tea is how Chinese and their linguistic relatives refer to what the British call “black tea” (confusing, yeah?). It is also picked from the same tea plant and cut, but then it is oxidized, which I am not going to try to explain the chemical process of, but you’ve all seen it because rust is what happens when iron oxidizes. Red tea is what happens when tea oxidizes. When the desired level of oxidation is achieved, the tea is dried and the oxidation stops in the absence of moisture. This is your standard English teatime tea and when stored properly stays good for a loooong time (making it ideal for trade and trans continental shipping in the days before FedEx). 黑茶 Black tea is fermented or post-fermented tea that is both oxidized and fermented over a period of months or even years. Pu-erh is the most widely known of these. There is a lot more about tea, but I’m stopping here.

20170430_130215After we conducted our own tea ceremonies, I drifted lazily back down the hill, examining the spring flowers and the grounds that had been lit up beautifully last December. When I finally got back to the tea fields, I took off on the same route I’d walked before and was happily greeted by many blooming apple trees and a small army of busy bees who were so focused on the brief blossoms that they paid no mind to all the humans fussing around. In fact, I think it was the only time I’ve seen Koreans in the presence of a bee not totally freaking out. I guess the selfie with the tree is worth it.

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The tea fields were much more crowded than in the winter, but people were still fairly polite about taking turns at the best view spots. One kind man noticed I had been framing up a photo of an especially stunning tree with the tea as a background when some more photo seekers stepped in front of me. I had been prepared to simply wait them out, but the gentleman spoke to them in Korean and pointed out they were in my way. 감사합니다!

20170430_131911In addition to the blooming fruit trees, there were cascades of purple flowers covering the rocks wherever tea was not growing. It made the whole place feel like a still frame of a rushing river in shades of pink, purple and green. Besides the tourists, there were also tea pickers at work. Each ajuma looking lady had her sun guards on, gloves and a mesh basket to place the leaves. They were not picking the bushes bare, but selecting only some growth. It seemed to me to be the newer, brighter green leaves that they were after, but I couldn’t tell for sure. In the age of automation it was strange to see people picking by hand. I know that it’s still the way for many crops in the world, but sometimes it gets driven home that there’s a human on the other end of my tea or strawberries or carrots, and then I’m carried off by sociological musings on how we came to value people who sit at desks manipulating imaginary money so much more than people who make our food.

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Speaking of food

green-tea-noodles

photo credit: honjatravel

Of course I had to go back to the everything green tea cafe. It was a warm day, and walking for hours in the sun (even with my sunbrella) meant that I was all set to try some cold green tea noodles. Cold noodle soup is one of the best ways to survive the summer in Korea because it’s served with chunks of ice floating in the broth along with the filling noodles and crisp pickled veggies. I managed to pick up a lunch companion from a whole other tour group, too. Boseong was a target of opportunity following the Jindo festival, so multiple tour agencies were out in force.

I pilfered the gift shop for more green tea latte packets that had gone over well as gifts then impulse purchased a bag of green tea caramels to share with my co-teachers too. I think they remind me more of green tea salt water taffy than caramel, but still delicious.

My last treat was over at the ice cream shop. No visit is complete without some green tea ice cream, but this time I opted for the green tea affogato. I have to admit, I did not know what an affogato was before I came to Korea. I guess it’s just not popular in the parts of the US I lived, and I’ve never been to Italy. But it is on the menu of nearly every cafe in Korea. In case you, like me, spent your life in an affogato black hole, it’s a scoop of vanilla gelato (or ice cream) topped with espresso. Yum!

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photo credit: Annemone

I somehow expected the green tea affogato to be vanilla or green tea ice cream topped with a shot of green tea. Makes sense? Not what happened. It was green tea ice cream topped with espresso. Don’t make an ick face. It was insanely delicious. Even one South African girl who hated green tea said that it was nice. I’ve had the tea/coffee blended drink that’s popular in Asia and enjoyed it, so it shouldn’t surprise me that this was delightful, too. Now I’m on the hunt to bring home some green tea ice cream and some espresso to reproduce the experience.

On the way back, I discovered my unintentional link to @shmaymee and her art, bringing the whole weekend around into one small world ride of awesome fun.

Golden Week

This beautiful conflagration of holidays that resulted in me only working 2 days out of 10 during the end of April/beginning of May was the first time in over a year that I spent any real time off just relaxing at home. Of course, some weekends I don’t make it out on an adventure, and some adventures are just going down to the beach for a market or karaoke night. I’m not a non-stop sightseeing extravaganza, but I realized I haven’t had more than one day in a row of slothing at home in over a year. I pounded thru the entire Magician’s trilogy, fixed my friend’s computer, celebrated another friend’s birthday, watched the new Guardians movie and finished Iron Fist. I can’t say I want to binge watch Netflix and read fantasy trilogies with all my free time, but it felt good. I love traveling, but if my latest trip to Thailand taught me anything it’s that rest is important too. Even when my job is easy, it’s not restful and even when my adventures are amazing (or perhaps especially when they are amazing), they are not restful.

Life can be full of wonder or dull as dirt almost no matter where you live (I admit it’s easier to be wonderful when you live in someplace like Busan as opposed to any small town where Wal-Mart is the most interesting store), but I’ve seen so many expats who go abroad and after a year or less they become blasé, falling into habits of the same bar, same hobbies, same expat friends, and no more magic about the experience of living abroad. I saw those people from the very first time I went out and I could NOT understand how it happens. I fought against it and fought hard. I didn’t join the expat gaming group or theater troupe, I spent at least one weekend a month but usually more going out and doing something unique. I sometimes wore myself out doing that. And while I still don’t want to become one of the blasé, I think I’ve come to peace with the idea of a middle ground. So, maybe once or twice a year, in addition to my big out of town adventures, I can have an around the house staycation, too.


Yesterday was the first instance of air conditioning on the bus this year. It heralds the end of so brief spring and the beginning of … the Hot. It will probably be ok for another month, but soon, too soon, the summer will be upon us. Hopefully I’ll get in a few more good adventures before the heat becomes unbearable, but I have at least finally purchased my tickets for the Philippines this October. Whatever else happens, I have that to look forward to. In the mean time, I’ll be pumping out some more of the Malay adventures as the emotional and experiential roller coaster gets revved for some serious ups and downs. Don’t forget to check out all the photos from Jindo and Boseong. Thanks for reading!

벚꽃! Cherry Blossoms in Korea

Coming back to work on a chilly and blustery Monday morning, I was greeted by the school’s flock of cherry trees, now mostly green with only a few pink petals hanging on. It’s hard to reconcile that only two days before I was basking in the warm, sunny weather of Jinhae under a veritable blizzard of blossoms. Yet, another all too brief cherry blossom season has come to an end. Let’s take a look at the haul.


Busan

20170403_075400My school is the first exposure I get to the flowers in spring since I pass by a stately line of a dozen or so trees every morning on my way in. I watched with growing anticipation in late March as the buds swelled on the branches and finally burst onto the scene on the particularly gray and chilly afternoon of March 27th.

For the next week, I tried a little photo collection of the progress while counting down until I could head out to the park on Saturday. Mother nature had other plans, and Saturday turned out to be even more cold and rainy. Paintings of cherry blossoms in the snow may be amazing, but hanging out in the park in the cold rain, not so much.

In the end, the only option was to take an after work walk in Samlak Park, a long and narrow strip of green (or in this case pink) along the riverside. Eager cherry blossom viewers can walk for kilometer after kilometer along a pathway so densely enclosed by cherry trees that it becomes a tunnel.

I went to this park last year with my school, but the day we went was after a heavy rain and late in the season so the trees were somewhat bedraggled. This time, the blossoms were still at peak snowosity, and my friend and I enjoyed a walk under the canopy and a sunset through the lace-like silhouettes of the branches. We found the posing platform that allows the hordes selfie-takers to get up to the level of the top branches for the best down angle on the background of blossoms, and we finished the whole thing off by getting some pho in a nearby Vietnamese neighborhood.

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The next two days were fraught with rain and thunderstorms, making me all the more grateful for that one 2016-04-15 15.45.30glorious afternoon in the park.

20170403_172853Food bonus: Last year I got to try the Starbucks Cherry Blossom Frapuccino, but this year I tried the McD’s cherry blossom soda and the Hoegaarden Cherry Blossom beer. I’m still not sure what cherry blossoms are supposed to taste like, but it’s fun to try all the seasonal attempts to capture such an ephemeral experience in flavor.

Jinhae by Night

20170407_213250.jpgJinhae is the country’s largest cherry blossom festival. I went last year, but was only able to stay about an hour after dark and missed several parts of the festival due to time/ distance constraints. This year I was determined to catch the bits I’d missed, including more time with the night lights. Not only are cherry blossoms naturally stunning against the backdrop of a black sky, but the Jinhae festival sets up beautiful light sculptures along the river bed.

20170407_195453We left on Friday April 7th. Knowing that the storms might have wrecked the blossoms, we still wanted to go to see the lights, shows, and food. It’s not a long bus ride from Busan and we found our Air B&B in easy walking distance of the bus terminal. After dropping off our overnight bags, we quickly headed out to catch the festivities. A military parade and marching band show was scheduled for that night and we followed a cluster of Koreans in traditional costumes into the stadium.

20160220_141948We were too late to get a seat in the stands, but we watched from the sidelines and enjoyed the music. I had spotted a group of dancers wearing the distinctive hat of my favorite style of Korean traditional dancing. I fell in love with the spinning ribbon hats the first time I watched them at my orientation and never miss a chance to watch. When they lined up on the sidelines, a lovely Korean lady in military dress began singing a slow and sad song. My Korean is not good enough to translate, but I got the emotion from her face and the melody. Then suddenly, the whole song changed, becoming upbeat and K-pop. The dancers came on to the field behind her, but it was not just the traditionally dressed dancers, there was another troupe of young men in a sort of K-pop version of punk outfits, and the two groups had a dance off as the song blended traditional Korean musical elements with modern ones. That dance number was easily one of the best I’ve seen here and I wish I’d been able to catch it on video, but alas, I was standing behind too many people.

20160401_153024Next, we headed off for dinner, where I got a repeat of my delicious meal from last year’s festival- whole pig BBQ and dong dong ju (delicious local boozy drink). Once our bellies were full, we moved on to our evening goal of night-time light displays along the river. Along the way, we found more amazing treats: fresh strawberry “latte” (made with homemade strawberry syrup and fresh strawberries in milk, it is what strawberry Nesquick becomes 17757156_10208580288885183_7244900065842656679_n (1)when it dies and goes to heaven), and “cherry blossom” fried ice cream. I think it was really vanilla ice cream, but it was shaped like a cherry blossom. When I ordered it, the man took one out of the freezer behind him and dropped it into the hot oil. A minute or so later I had the crispy desert in my hand. The outside was crunchy and a little bit salty, providing a wonderful compliment to the sweet, creamy ice cream inside.

20170407_221607.jpgThe most famous part of Jinhae is the narrow “river” that runs through town and is lined with cherry trees the same way the path at Samlak is. Mind you, just about every street in Jinhae is lined with cherry trees, and the mountains around it are dotted with fluffy pink clusters of them, but the river is famous for the density of the trees and the stunning beauty of the blossoms over the water. Plus the decorations. Last year my favorite were the beautiful red umbrellas, but this year’s decor was totally different.

Far along the river, so far we were starting to wonder if we’d missed it, the lights started with arches of white lights, followed by a stretch of glowing roses and lilies of every color. There were romantic heart shaped arches, folded paper crane shapes, and a giant “I

We took photos of the lit blooms in every color light, posed against the antique looking streetlamps or framing the full moon in the sky. It was after 11pm by the time we made it back to the room and fell gratefully into the surprisingly soft bunk-beds.

Jinhae: Trains, Planes and Turtle Boats

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The next morning we woke up early and (after breakfast) headed off in search of the famous Korail train that makes its way into nearly every photo album of Jinhae. I hadn’t been able to find it the previous year, and neither had my companions. It turns out the train is not as easy to get to as many other aspects of the festival. Nearly everything radiates out from a sort of wagon-wheel spoke at the center of town, and visitors can easily walk from the bus terminal around the festival grounds. However, a visit to the famous train requires a bus-ride.

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It wasn’t hard to tell which stop to get off. The green and white festival tents and huge crowds told us right away where to go. Here on a disused section of railway, a retired train sits in a tunnel of cherry trees. The unique landscape creates a kind of wind tunnel and petals here fly in a way that is rarely seen elsewhere. Even with a breeze, most cherry petal rains are light. Last year, I experienced only one strong gust of wind that transported us into pink snow fantasy land. At the train however, the winds were stronger than the rest of the town and more frequent. Sometimes it felt as though we were in a warm pink blizzard and I won’t recount the number of petals I found in my decolletage later that evening.

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We joined the queue to pose in front of the train and found some more treats to enjoy like cherry soda made with Monin Cherry Blossom Syrup and some fresh cut oranges. One older man selling candles and aroma therapy did not let the language barrier be an obstacle to his sales pitch; he simply switched to miming. Like a classically trained clown, he mimicked passing gas and the unpleasant smell, then the sudden delight that his aromas would refresh any room from such stenches. He was hilarious.

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After our poses, we wandered down the tracks a ways to take more photos and then came back along the other side to see the handmade crafts on offer. One little girl of kindergarten age said “hello” to us, her only English word, and was so entranced by the fact that we said “hello” back that she became our shadow. She ran back and forth from her mother to us, saying “hello” and bringing us gifts of fallen petals.

In the Navy

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After the train, we made our way over to the Naval Academy. The museum is on the military base and is only open to the public during the festival. We took the crammed shuttle bus from the base entrance down to the waterfront to have our chance to see the 400+ year old turtle boat that turned back the Japanese invasion.

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Before heading to the boat, we stepped inside the museum for a little historical perspective. The Naval Museum is small, but informative. We saw several historical weapons, including some swords actually wielded by the famous Admiral Yi. They looked like Japanese katana, but were close to 6 feet long! There was also an actual battle plan from the Korean War’s Battle of Incheon with the combined Korean and US military forces.

20170408_125822.jpgThe turtle ships were famous for their ability to deflect the arrows and flaming arrows shot by the Japanese that so easily destroyed wooden boats. The shell of the “turtle” is a spiked metal carapace at a gentle sloping angle that was fireproof and arrow shedding. Yi’s most famous battle involved the use of only 12 such ships against a fleet of 120 Japanese ships. And he won. The 2014 feature film The Admiral: Roaring Currents was about that battle. It is the most watched film in Korea. In his final battle, he was killed, but as he lay dying he told his aides not to announce his death, but to beat the drums and urge the troops to go on to win. Needless to say, the Koreans revere him and his achievements.

The ship on display in Jinhae is a restored antique. We weren’t quite sure at first because the condition is so good, but we asked one of the soldiers on duty and were told that’s not just a replica. I don’t know how much of the original is left, but it’s quite an opportunity that we got to see the real thing and not just a movie prop.

20170408_130100.jpgGuests were invited aboard to explore the ship. Inside it was warm, golden wood. The main deck, which would have been open to the sky on a regular ship, was well lit by a series of cannon ports and arrow slits that allowed the crew to point weapons out while minimizing exposure. There were two small state rooms on the main floor as well, but the captain’s quarters were clearly utilitarian and not anything like the luxury we see in replicas of British ships.  The head (toilet) was a series of holes at the aft (back) which opened over the sea for swift disposal.

20170408_131130.jpgThrough narrow openings in the deck floor we could see below to the crew quarters and galley. There was a ladder leading up to a small space storage above. Decorative spears and battle drums were dotted around the deck. Cannons pointed outward and oars the length of 2 grown men or more were shipped in racks along the ceiling.

Just as we finished our tour of the ship, we heard the loud sound of jets overhead and stepped out onto the pier in time to catch a skilled air show, reminiscent of America’s Blue Angels. The jets flew in tight formations, changing shape and leaving artistic contrails across the clear blue sky as they passed. It was a perfect ending to our military base excursion.

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What a whirlwind! in less than two weeks, the cherry trees went from rosy buds, through pink popcorn, and on to spring green leaves. There’s no time to blink if you want to get the most out of the season, but it’s worth it. This year, I saw far to many fun-shamers online poo-pooing the notion of celebrating trees, but I will look forward to the experience every spring and I hope that my photos and stories inspire some of you to hie to a cherry tree infested town next spring. Check out all the photos on the Facebook page  (Busan 2017, Jinhae Night 2017, Jinhae Day 2017, Jinhae 2016) and thanks for reading!

Good Bye 2016

As the year drew to an end (finally), I found myself in the land of festivals (Korea) for some super holiday times. While nothing on Earth is likely to oust the Dubai December for birthday/Christmas spectaculars, I have to say that I had a pretty good December here in Busan. Commence countdown to 2017: T minus 2 weeks.


Two Weeks Till 2017: Boseong Tea Fields

Starting with my birthday (also known as Saturnalia), we decided to take a day trip down to the Boseong Tea Feilds. I personally didn’t put tea fields high on my to do list but there was a big ol’ light festival going on and that sounded like fun. So we piled onto the bus around noon for a three hour drive. It’s not as agonizing as it sounds. I had good company and the seats are comfy. When we arrived, it was still light and although we could see the framework of part of the light show, it wasn’t quite time yet, so we headed into the tea field area first. This area is a small farm that was about half shut down for the winter (the fountains were drained and many of the shops were closed), but once we got past the tourist buildings and onto the path, it was far more beautiful than I ever could have expected.

20161217_150819Green tea looks like very well kept English hedge,.
and because Korea is 70% mountains, the tea bushes are grown up the side of steep hills, creating a beautiful terraced landscape. As we wandered up one side of the hill, I had the chance to munch a tea leaf right off the branch. It was a robust flavor and while different from the drink that it makes, still pleasant. I even found one lone tea flower to admire in the winter greenery.


We found a small waterfall on the way up, but the winter dry season meant it was barely a trickle. The best part turned out to be that since we’d gone up the opposite side from nearly everyone else we had the shaded little path to ourselves. A rare treat in Korea!

When we emerged onto the main path across the hill, I was totally swept away by the view of the tea around us. I admit that from the bottom looking up, it had been.. well ok, but not spectacular, and even from the high points looking down it was only so-so, but right there in the middle of the hill, with the winding, whirling rows of green tea hedges making patterns all around us, the sun barely above the line of trees and mountains to the west casting long golden rays into the valley, it was breathtaking.

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Of course we took our turn to stand on the picture spot (which did have an amazing view), but it wasn’t too crowded. We had plenty of time to admire the scenery and take lots of silly selfies. We passed a wide variety of blossoming fruit trees (that is to say, fruit trees with beautiful blossoms in the spring), so I can only imagine how beautiful the scene is when both the trees and the tea are in bloom. In addition, we were surrounded by tall evergreens similar to the cedars of the PNW makingj us feel a little more like we were in the Cascades and a little more Christmassy, since pines and firs are scarce in Busan.

We stopped in at the local Green Tea restaurant, where every dish is made with green tea in some way. I had a bowl of jajangmyeon with green tea noodles, and a friend got some bibimbap with green tea rice, but my other poor companion is allergic to caffeine and couldn’t eat anything there! (don’t worry, she didn’t starve).Even though it was cold, and even though I’ve had it more times than I could count, I still got myself some green tea ice cream, cause why not?

20161217_171556.jpgOn our way back to the main entrance we took a quick side detour to the bamboo forest. After a short walk through some more evergreens, we emerged into an open space facing a dark and mysterious bamboo forest. The sun was low and the shadows were long so we couldn’t see far into the mass of stalks. Once we entered, it was as though a twilight had encompassed us, the lush leaves cutting out nearly all the late afternoon sunlight. The birds went bananas, screaming like jabber jays, making us feel as though we were in an arena from the Hunger Games or at very least in an ominous Korean horror movie. I wasn’t sure if we should expect kung fu masters or monsters. (click for more pictures of Boseong tea fields and lights)

A Beam of Hope

20161217_175826We left the tea fields behind and headed back down to the main parking lot that would lead to the lights. There were plenty of stalls with a wide variety of food (green tea added and regular) so my allergic friend was able to find something tasty, too. The light show wasn’t quite as spectacular as Taean (seriously that light show), but it was loads of fun. There were animal shapes, dragons and dinosaurs. There were scenes depicted on the hillside. There was a cupid’s arrow that when “fired” by guests shot a beam of light up the wires to the distant target. There was a beautiful rainbow display of that year’s theme, “A Beam of Hope”, and my favorite was the tunnel of lights that went from the bottom to the top of the whole shebang.

We wandered up through the smaller displays, posing with 20161217_174926.jpgdragons and hatching out of giant glowing eggs along the way. Like most lantern displays here, everything was meant to be posed with and interacted with, so it was easy to walk up to any set and play around. It’s a small and childlike pleasure, but after so long in the US being forced to stay behind the railing, it is fun to get a little more hands on. On the way back down, we took the tunnel of lights, pausing every time the colors shifted to take more pictures and pose in the rainbow glows. We didn’t feel rushed at all, and got back to the bottom in time to grab a hot drink and warm up by the fire before hopping on the bus to our third location.

A word on keeping warm in Korea in the winter. It gets cold, not Canada cold, but often around freezing temperatures. The buses and subways are super warm, but office buildings and of course outdoor festivals don’t get so much heat. Koreans rely on the “hot-pak” to solve this problem. This is a chemical warmer that last for about 15 hours once activated. There are small ones you can tuck in a pocket (I like to slip one in a glove or under a sleeve just over my wrist where all the blood flowing to my fingers gets warm), and there are ones you can put in your shoes, or stick to your inner layer of clothing. I bought a 6 pack for about 5$, it was an absolute life saver for enjoying the wintry outdoors after dark.

20161217_191948.jpgOur third and final location was near the beach where another tunnel of lights and light decorations had been put up. One large tree had been colored in white and green to make it look like it still had leaves. There were reindeer and Christmas trees, but also a giant chicken floating just off shore. I’m not sure why a chicken, but I saw another similar giant chicken in the sea back in Busan the next day.

(Eventually I realized that the next animal on the zodiac is Rooster, so it’s less a Christmas Chicken and more a New Year’s Cock.)

We oohed and aaaahed some more, posing with giant glowing horses, and peeking out from between light wrapped branches. There was a light maze, but it was only about a foot off the ground, so we didn’t get lost. Finally we popped back into the food tents one last time before calling it a night and heading back.

One Week Till 2017: Christmas Eve

20161212_185531The next Saturday was Christmas Eve, and we decided we needed to do a blending of American and Korean activities. We spent the afternoon inside making eggnog and gingerbread houses. I have never made eggnog before. I thought about it a lot, especially when I wasn’t doing dairy. I thought there had to be a better tasting nog than Silknog. But somehow, I never got around to it. This year, although I seem to have no health issues with milk here, there was a complete absence of nog… everywhere… Koreans either have never heard of it, or they are all in the hate eggnog camp.

I turned to Alton Brown, my culinary hero, who provided me with a super simple recipe. It took me about 15 minutes to make, and I added a leeetle bit more brandy, but it was quite possibly the best nog I have ever put in my face. The secret is separating the eggs and beating the yolks and whites separately, then adding the whites at the very end to a cold mixture.

Btw, 20161224_152318.jpgbased on past non-dairy culinary experiments, I’d say if you’re a dairy free nog fan go with unsweetened almond milk and coconut milk– the stuff in the can that is dense and creamy, not the stuff that is a regular milk sub.– Use 2c almond milk to 1 c coconut milk, otherwise just follow Alton’s instructions. If you’re a vegan who wants eggnog… well, one of us is confused about what those words mean. May I suggest a Brandy Alexander made with non-dairy milk or some vegan Irish Cream? (I have some recipes for those if you ask).

Anyway, eggnog which is fresh, creamy, rich and frothy is my new best thing about Christmas Eve.

20161224_173459While we imbibed our culinary delight, we worked on assembling a gingerbread house. Every month here in Busan there is a foreigner’s market where expats sell things they make (or sometimes import) to give us all a taste of “home”. During November and December, one lovely lass was selling her homemade gingerbread cookies and gingerbread house kits. That’s right, no factory made house kit for us, but a local small business! #supportlocal #smallbusinesssaturdays The kit was originally meant to be just a house, but my friend decided to turn the foil wrapped base into a frozen lake and make some green corn-flake treat trees to decorate the grounds, so our house turned into a cabin by the lake before we knew it. Who says you need kids to do fun Christmas crafts?

Christmas Dinner

After our crafting, we headed out to find the French restaurant we’d made dinner plans for. Both of us looooove French food (still trying to figure out how to live there!), and decided that we were ok bypassing “traditional” Christmas dinner (which was exactly the same as Thanksgiving dinner) in favor of a nice restaurant. We opted for Le Jardin which is a small French place near KSU. They had some extra set menus for the holiday and were very accommodating about my friend’s allergies. They were quick to respond to emails and both the service and the food were excellent. We also splurged on a bottle of Viognier since there were 3 of us. I got to try this nice little white for the first time in a French restaurant in NZ this summer and fell in love. I’m not a sommelier or anything. I’m not going to try to describe it, but it’s distinctive and delicious. I recommend if you have a chance to try it.

20161224_191643.jpgIn addition to our delightful wine, I enjoyed pumpkin soup, a goat cheese/bacon/honey pastry for entree, a superbly well cooked slice of salmon with a light lemon flavor and a unique mushroom risotto which had been made into a breaded patty and lightly fried, and finally a chocolate pear cake that tasted more like it was a ganache or very dense ice cream rather than a cake, too decadent! Nothing will compare to the food in France, but Le Jardin made an admirable effort and gave us all a taste of Western flavors with just a hint of haute cuisine that was perfect for a holiday feast.

More Lights!
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Although we lingered perhaps too long over the meal, we made it out in time to get to our final Holiday outing: the Busan Christmas Tree Festival. This year’s theme was the Three Wise Men, and many in Korea felt it turned the holiday tradition “too religious”, which is a marked contrast from the US’s annual war on the Starbuck’s holiday cup not being religious enough. The highlight of the tree festival is a tiered wedding cake looking tree made of thousands of LED lights changing to different colors and patterns as we watched. The main streets were overhung with a veritable river of lights and fun Christmas themed decorations adorned the street waiting for passersby to pose for photos or tie paper wishes for the coming year on them. 

20161224_233656.jpgToward one end of the festival, I found an old man with a traditional candy game called ppopgi. It’s a simple candy made from sugar and baking soda, but a shape is pressed into the candy. Kids (and a few adults) can use a little pin to try to break the candy around the shape without shattering the brittle sugar. If they succeed, they win a prize (often more candy). The vendor was using a tiny copper pot to melt sugar over an open flame, adeptly pouring out the steaming satiny brown concoction, pressing it flat onto a popsicle stick and letting his fares choose their shape before pressing a cookie cutter down on the hot surface. I noticed that while adults had to be perfect to win, the little kids were often awarded a prize for a good effort.

After a few hours of glowing fun, we made our way home and fell asleep to the less spectacular but still very holidayesque glow of my own modest 2d Christmas tree. (click here for more pictures of the Busan Christmas Tree Festival)

Christmas day abroad is always an interesting challenge. Traditions that hinge around friends and family must be abandoned or at least altered, but this year I was fortunate to have one friend from home here with me and our Christmas adventures enabled us to both enjoy some of the traditions our host country had to offer while still enjoying our own cultural holiday.

One Day to 2017: New Year’s Eve

20161231_141930.jpgA mere week later, the New Year celebrations were upon us. I had done some research and found that here in Busan there is a bell ringing ceremony in Yongdusan Park at the large bell at the foot of the Busan Tower. It’s a big event with musical performers and guest speakers that is televised much the way that the New York Time’s Square ball drop is. Yongdusan park is nowhere near as big as Time’s Square, and the majority of people don’t ascend the multiple flights of stairs until 11pm. Knowing we had plenty of time, we spent the day reveling in some seasonal sulbing, a screening of Rogue One, and a totally accidental Japanese dinner. 

20161231_225932.jpgNonetheless, it was a wonderful day and at 5 minutes before 11, we found ourselves in a long line of people patiently trudging up the stairs to the peak of Yongdu Mountain. Normally, this pathway has a series of escalators going up so that anyone can access the park, but tonight the escalator had been closed down and reserved as a dedicated emergency access stairwell. When we arrived at the top, we saw many TV vans and we shuffled with the crowd into the standing space behind the VIP seating. To my surprise, through crowd motion, we soon found ourselves close enough to the bell to get a decent view of the proceedings, and there was a jumbo-tron screen off to one side that allowed us to view the performances.

Despite the bitter cold of the night air, the press of bodies meant that I was soon warm enough to take off my jacket, and we joined in the crowd enjoyment of the music. Koreans are a very reserved people and it was strange to be in such a large crowd that greeted each song with polite applause rather than raucus cheering, but as the musical numbers progressed from Annie’s “Tomorrow” through some Korean favorites and the ever popular “Uptown Funk”, more of the people around us began dancing in place and singing along while holding up phones to snap pictures of the bell and of course lots of selfies.

As the minutes drew to a close, the announcer came back to guide the crowd in the traditional countdown (which I almost managed in Korean, it’s hard to count backwards in a foreign language). At the stroke of midnight, the crowd erupted in cheers and hundreds of golden balloons with wishes written on them were released into the night sky. The bell began it’s 33 tolls, 11 strikes for each of the 3 blessings. As we quite literally rang in the new year, confetti cannons blasted the crowd with fluttering white squares, reminiscent at once of snow and cherry blossoms. My compatriots popped a bottle of bubbly (the benefits of an open container country) and we toasted the New Year with pink ‘champagne’, the cheers of the crowd ringing in our ears even louder than the blessing bell. When the tolling finally fell silent, the MC directed our attention behind us where we were treated to a stunning fireworks display.

Welcome to 2017

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The final Korean tradition we decided to indulge in was to head down to the beach to watch the first sunrise of the new year over the eastern sea. After a few hours of sleep, we woke in the pre-dawn dark and walked down to the shore where tents and stages had been set up for the sunrise celebrations. Although the beach was crowded, we managed to get down to the water line where we could sit in the chilly sand and watch the sky redden behind the beautiful Gwangan Bridge. Many in the crowd were holding colorful balloons in anticipation of the first sign of the sun, and several floating lanterns already drifted through the blue and pink sky out over the ocean.

( I know that releasing balloons results in an unfortunate amount of damage to animals and birds as well as litter in the environment. I myself did not partake in the release and I hope that one day soon Korea will find a way to celebrate these events with less environmental impact)

 

All eyes were on the horizon when I heard a series of ooohs and gasps ripple through the crowd. The first deep red sliver of light had crested the sea and as we watched the rising orb, the sky was flooded with the colorful array of wishes for the new year floating on hundreds of multi-colored orbs. We scampered along the shoreline following the arcing rise of the sun as it bloomed into a full sphere and soon laced through the steel cables of the gracefully arching bridge. A drum performance welcomed the new day and the crowd surged from the sea to long and twisting lines to partake of the traditional Korean new year soup. (click here for more pictures of the first sunrise)


My first year in Korea has been full of adventure, lights, festivals and new experiences. Although I didn’t expect it, and despite the country’s recent political upheaval, I am not ready leave. With the signing of my new contract, I look forward to another year of adventure in “Creative Korea”. Happy New Year, and may your 2017 be full of hope, peace and joy.

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Chuseok in Jeju: Part I

Just two weeks after returning from the southern hemisphere and still trying frantically to write all my adventures in New Zealand, I had the opportunity to visit one of my South Korea bucket list destinations: Jeju Island. Even though October is nearly over as I publish this, the story itself takes place back in early September. Korea is just so darn full of adventure that I often don’t have the time to sit down to write, polish, and publish between each one. Don’t be jealous, just come to Korea for your next holiday and enjoy it all for yourself!


Chuseok 추석

Chuseok is a Korean holiday. Some people say it is like Thanksgiving, and I thought that seemed inaccurate. I always thought Thanksgiving arose in the US out of our near starvation in the New World because we couldn’t grow anything there. The Natives saved our butts and we later repaid them by nearly wiping them all out and confining the survivors to the worst land in the continent. Then I read the Wikipedia article and learned about the strange Puritan fasting holidays, Guy Fawkes, and Martin Frobisher. Let’s just say we’re better off removing the comparison between Chuseok and Thanksgiving altogether.
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It is a harvest festival, however, so there’s lots food around. It’s also a time when Korean families honor their ancestors and clean the graves. For weeks before Chuseok, the stores were filled with gift boxes. Common items were apples, fish and SPAM. I saw boxes of 9 apples sell for 130,000 krw (that’s $113 US) and one box of fish for 1,500,000 krw (just over $1,300 US)! I asked my co-teachers why these boxes were so expensive and they told me that it was important to offer the very best of the harvest to the ancestors during the ritual. In addition, certain foods, like the special fish, were not common anymore but could not be replaced or substituted if one wanted to perform the ritual correctly. It seemed exploitative to me, but at least it made some sense. What about the expensive boxes of SPAM? 20160902_173151They told me that’s the normal price for SPAM, it was just in gift boxes this time of year. This led to a whole side discussion about the cultural dissemination of SPAM, it’s various levels of value from trailer trash food on up to gift box delicacy, the etymology of the current spam email concept, and my discovery that South Korea out consumes everyone else except the US in SPAM purchasing (which is staggering considering the population difference). And if you’re not singing the Monty Python SPAM song in your head by now, it’s only because you’ve never seen it.

Getting There

Needless to say, this very important holiday entails several days off work. Since I and most of the other expats here have no family or ancestors in Korea, we are free to take this time to travel and relax. With 5 days out of the classroom, it seemed like the perfect chance to explore Jeju. All summer long, any time I mentioned I was going to Jeju for Chuseok, Korean people would go wide eyed with worry and ask, as though inquiring the health of a sick pet, “did you make all your bookings yet?”. In this way, and perhaps this way alone, it is like Thanksgiving: the dreaded Travel Blackout. Lucky for me, Enjoy Korea made all their arrangements well in advance, and I snatched up the last two seats on the Busan bus way back in June. The price tag seemed unbeatable. The trip included all our transportation, not just to and from Jeju, but around the island to various sightseeing highlights, our accommodation (breakfast buffet included), and the entrance fee to the various attractions we were scheduled to see for around $370USD.

20160914_073107.jpgThe only real hitch was that we were taking the ferry from Mokpo instead of a plane. This meant a 4+ hour bus ride and a 4+ hour ferry ride, plus all the time in the ferry terminal on either end… we had close to 12 hours from when we left Busan at 3am Wednesday morning to when we arrived at the hotel in Jeju Wednesday afternoon. I dozed on the bus and slept better on the ferry where we could actually lay down. After checking in, the tour bus drove us up to nearby  Hyupjae beach. I’m not sure if everything was closed because it was Chuseok or because it was 4 in the afternoon, but we were greeted with lots of interesting looking restaurants that were shuttered and dark. Finally we found a Tonkatsu place where I confused the heck out of the staff by ordering in Korean instead of English. We had a little view of the sea from our table and the food was tasty enough for me, since I hadn’t eaten anything but cookies and a latte all day.

hyeopjae-beachAfter we ate, we headed down to the water to frolic! The weather was gray, but warm. At first the water seemed chilly, but as I waded in further, I quickly adjusted. This beach was wide and shallow. We walked out for ages from the shore but the water didn’t even come to our hips. There were some Koreans playing in the water as well, but it seemed that only the Westerners wore swimsuits, everyone else went in the water in clothes. I’ve seen this at the beaches in Busan as well, and I’m still not sure what the cultural aversion to swimwear in the ocean is.

When we noticed all the expats leaving the beach, we came inland and rushed back to the buses. It became obvious we were the only ones to have taken a dip and our bus driver gave us an enthusiastic double thumbs up when he saw us come in dripping with our towels wrapped around us and our bare feet caked with sand.

After a quick rinse off in the room, we got down to the poolside in time for a beautifully colored sunset. We finished off our first night in Jeju with a pitcher and some nice conversation by the pool before collapsing into actual beds (instead of the floor mats I had anticipated).

Waterfalls with a Side of Disappointment

Breakfast was served starting at 7:30 each morning for 2 hours. I was fearing/expecting a sad continential breakfast of weak coffee and dry pastries, but it turned out to be a long buffet table with Korean and Western foods both hot and cold. The coffee was still weak, but there was a tiny cafe in the lobby, so I figured I could buy a cup after eating. I got in line for the coffee well before bus departure time, but sadly, never made it to the front, so my very full day of waterfalls and museums would have to be done sans caffeine.

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Our first stop that day was Cheonjiyeon where we would walk through the woods and see the most beautiful waterfall on Jeju. Heavens help me, I’m writing the segment about waterfalls from New Zealand elsewhere at this moment and it’s just not a fair comparison. One must take one’s waterfalls each as special and unique without trying to measure any one up. My decision to visit Jeju in September was motivated by the Chuseok special, but also by the idea that September temperatures should be back in the tolerable range. Two small problems with that. One, this was the hottest summer anyone remembers in Korea for a long while, temperatures in Busan regularly went over 30 and reached 35 several days while I was away in the wintery southern hemisphere. This is compared to the highs in previous weather data being something like 28. Second, I failed entirely to account for exactly how much worse humidity makes everything. Weather that says 24 on the thermometer, suddenly feels like 29. Everything in your body swells with fluid retention and it seriously feels like someone’s sucked all the oxygen out of the air. For a while, I was worried this was just me. I knew from my recent trip to New Zealand that I wasn’t just “out of shape”, and that my exhaustion and fatigue in Korea had to be something else. During this holiday, I heard from many other expats (several in as good or better shape than me) how tired they were, how hard the hikes were and other physical complaints. The combination of heat, humidity and low pressure (typhoons a comin’) made many of us feel uncharacteristically bad.

When we arrived at the park, we had limited information on what there was to see along the trails, and I didn’t want to miss this “best waterfall”. We decided to walk straight to the farthest point and then work our way back in so we didn’t end up far away from the parking lot without time to get back to the bus. We chose this because the maps made it look like there was only one access to the parking lot, at the main entrance… this turns out not to be true.. I also failed in doing my pre-research because I was just relying on the tour group to fill me in on what I needed to know. Ooops.

The retrospective research shows that there are 3 “stages” of this waterfall at three points along the river. The first is not usually falling unless there is heavy rain. It is also not clearly marked, but it IS a beautiful blue pool that is seriously worth spending some time at. We walked past it thinking we’d come back, but only had a few minutes when we did return. Path onward to the second waterfall is beautiful. There are many unique trees which have informative signs in Korean and English in case you’re into botany. There are some slopes and stairs, but they aren’t onerous. The second waterfall is the most visible. The viewing platform is in a good place and it’s not too hard to slip past the ropes and onto the rocks for a photo op or even to dip your toes in the water. Sadly, we didn’t have time for these things either and only managed to snap a few pictures around the one white guy who decided to go swimming and be in everyone’s vacation photos that day.

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On the way to the 3rd waterfall is a BRIDGE. I use all caps because this thing is massive. It’s beautiful and very much worth going to see, waiting in the line for the photo op spot, and schlepping across. Because of our go-far-first plan, we got to the bridge while it was still largely unoccupied and the line for the best photo spot was short. There were some people setting up vending stands and what seemed like a camp site nearby. There was also another short path to the parking lot.(facepalm) From here, hikers can go across the bridge or continue straight toward waterfall 3. The bridge arches high above the river below, offering some stunning views even in the misty weather. In a small courtyard on the other side is a wishing fountain with 5 animals, each representing a blessing. You stand in front of the one you wish to recieve blessings from and throw your coin. If it lands in the jar in the middle, you get your wish. There was also a pagoda and a viewing platform that provided a long distance view of the falls.

Feeling a bit rushed, we didn’t have time to explore the other trails that led away from this side of the bridge and headed back to the waterfall 3 trail. This trail is all stairs. I’m not unwilling to hike some stairs. I’ve done some stair-a-thons in my time, but never in such soul-sucking humidity. You know how when you get the flu, just getting from your bedroom to the kitchen to make a cup of tea seems like a Hurculean task? It’s like that, but without the other flu symptoms and sauna levels of sweat. I think if I’d gone in the spring or fall these stairs would not have phased me, but being limited on time and trying to hike in the late summer weather made this the most unpleasant section of the walk. Nevertheless, I persevered because I love waterfalls. The final set of stairs passed under an arch of vines and flowers and I was just starting to feel like it was all worth it when we emerged onto the viewing platform.

I keep saying viewing platform. This is because Koreans don’t like getting involved with their nature too close. While in New Zealand I had been able to climb all over the waterfalls that were right off the main roads, and even in WA I was able to climb off the path and explore the falls that were hiking distance from the road, here in Korea the waterfalls are for looking only. Not in a Niagara Falls, you could die if you get caught in this water kind of way either. These waterfalls and pools were not a safety hazard by NZ or US waterfall standards, so it was more than a little disappointing when we trudged down all those stairs (knowing we would have to climb them again) to get to a viewing platform from which the waterfall was not wholly visible. 20160915_115317.jpgThe best view of the falls was obscured by the trees and vines growing around us and was from quite a great distance. I felt cheated. I think it may have been a beautiful waterfall, but the fact that we weren’t able to find out after so many stairs just felt like a bad con. And unlike waterfall 2 which was relatively easy to hop the fence and get closer to, this platform was high above the pool with a very steep and overgrown hillside, making navigation any closer dangerous and difficult.

On top of this, we were running out of time so we felt like we had to push back up all the stairs as quickly as possible. We made it back to the trailhead for waterfall two and decided to go for it. The walk down to the platform was much shorter and easier than three had been and when we arrived on the platform, we breathed a sigh of relief to see a truly stunning waterfall. There was a dude-bro swimming in the pool. I don’t really blame him, the day was hot and the water looked cool and inviting. If we’d had time, I might have gone down to at least wade in the pool with my shoes and socks off. The only real problem was that everyone (Koreans and expats alike) who was following the rules was stuck taking our postcard photos with this guy in them, and again (I won’t say it enough) we were pressed for time so we couldn’t just wait around for him to get out. I ended up snapping a couple picks when he went behind a large rock.  

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I don’t feel like I had this kind of problem in NZ even when lots of people were around because we could all move around the falls at will and get different angles as needed. Maybe I’d feel different if I’d gone in summer and the water was full of people, I can’t say for sure. I also have to admit, I’m not the strongest advocate for always following rules just because they are rules, but there is an issue of courtesy when someplace is popular and crowded. If you need to go illicit swimming, come back on a day or during a time when there aren’t so many people hoping to take nice pictures.

We had a breif debate about whether it would be faster to go to the parking lot via the direction of falls 1 or the bridge, but we hadn’t seen falls 1 so we scurried back up the path we’d first come down. With less than 10 minutes before our scheduled bus departure, I only went partway down the path to the pool. The falls were not falling, but the pool itself was a stunning deep clear blue and it seemed that unlike the other stops, there was very little barrier to visitors walking right up to the waters edge, and maybe even swimming legally. I saw some signs warning that swimming could cause a heart attack, but there wasn’t much English on how or why.. Perhaps it was in reference to the water being cold enough to cause a cold-shock response, at least that’s the best explaination my Korean friends have for it. Either way, a warning about the consequences of swimming seems more promising than a “no swimming” sign. My heart was once more crushed by our lack of time and the poor representation of the map provided resulting in only the briefest of glimpses of this serene azure expanse.

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In summary, I recommend visiting this place, but leave at least half your day to do it. Bring swim gear or at least wading gear and comfortable walking shoes. Spend your time at falls 1 & 2 and the bridge, but really don’t bother with 3 unless you just feel like extra stairs that day. I personally plan to go back to Jeju at some point while I’m living here in better weather and I will be returning to Cheonjiyeon to follow my own advice.

Museums: Believe It or Not

Our next stop was Jungmun Beach. This is a famous surfing beach and also has many museums just inland. I’ve been trying to find a comprehensive list of the museums on Jeju, but it’s not so easy. Despite the fact that these unique niche museums are a cornerstone of Jeju tourism, there isn’t a comprehensive list or a map (in English) showing where they are in relation to one another and other main points of interest. Maybe some day, someone will offer to pay me to make one, but it’s just too much research to do for free. Our tour group told us about 4 near Jungmun: Chocolate Land, the Teddy Bear Museum, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and “an African Safari themed museum”. I saw one about K-Pop while there, but I didn’t go in, so I have no idea what it was like. We thought about taking a taxi to the Hello Kitty Island museum or to the Mini Land which is full of tiny scale models of famous architecture from around the world, but my old enemy TIME kept getting in the way.

20160915_124525.jpgWe went first to Chocolate Land because, well, chocolate. For some reason there was a giant statue of the Incredible Hulk outside. I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe giant chocolate sculptures or the world’s biggest M&M, possibly a history of chocolate exhibit, or a making of chocolate section. What the ‘museum’ turned out to be was a room (just one) sparsely populated with display cases showing off packaged candy from various countries. Even this could have been cool if they’d said something about it, why is the Arabian chocolate this way and the British chocolate this way… I tried the Kazakhstan chocolate my friend brought me from her visit home after all and was fascinated to learn the pride that the country takes in it’s national brand. But no, these cases just held boxes of chocolates. Some cases made an attempt at silly displays, like a taxidermied chicken with Cadbury eggs or a Nativity Scene made with chocolate coins, but it was incredibly grandma’s yardsale chincy.

20160915_132851.jpgHalf the room was filled with what seemed like Christmas themed facades that were, I assume, photo ops as well as a cafe where one could get some coffee, soft drinks, ice cream or candy and relax from the arduous walk through the musem. There was a chocolate making “class”, where for 12,000W you could pour some melted chocolate into molds. Outside there was a statue of Willy Wonka, but the Depp version, not the Wilder one. The final room was divided between more odd displays that seemed to have even less to do with chocolate than the ones before and the gift shop where one could redeem the 3000W entrance ticket toward the price of a sovenier. It turns out Jeju chocolate is quite tasty. They make it in fruit flavors that are unique to the island like Hallabang, Jeju Mandarin and Jeju cactus. The same boxes of chocolates are on sale all over, so it was basically like getting a 3000W discount on some chocolate I would have bought anyway for walking through a weird display room.

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We bypassed the Teddy Bear Museum and headed next to Ripley’s. I watched the show as a kid and it might be one of the reasons I love travel and weird stuff and also fact checking. I think I went to a Ripley’s museum in California eons ago, but it still seemed like a fun thing to do. It was a much better museum than Chocolate Land. It was stuffed full of interesting things to see and informative blurbs about each item. The walls contained copies of the Ripley’s newsprint in 4 languages. Where original artifacts were unavailable, models and photographs were supplied. Perhaps my favorite thing was outside. 20160915_155951.jpgThe trunk of a California redwood had been taken apart, transported and reassembled there so that the Koreans could see the stunning size of the redwood trees and experience walking inside the hollow trunk. It struck me that this was as close as most of them would ever get to a redwood and reminded me that museums aren’t just for history, but for the exchange of personal experiences. The most ridiculous thing there was the map of all the places in the world that Ripley had travelled. The map was covered in numbered blue dots with a key below. As we started to try to identify some of the places in the US, we realized that the geography was woefully inaccurate since Siam, Yugoslavia and Burma were all listed as being in the continental 48. Yugo-Slavia [sic] is in Florida.

Roaches and Riptide: the Beach is Closed

After lunch we finally headed down to the beach. There were plenty more types of entertainment on the waterfront including (sadly) a dolphin show, and more happily some boat tours, diving experiences and submarine rides. Unfortunately, either because of the weather (stormy) or the holiday, everything looked non-operational. As we made our way closer to the water, more and more attractions and restaurants were obviously closed, but we were there for the water and sand, so that wasn’t too discouraging. The waves were coming in heavily and it was obvious from a distance that we were dealing with riptide conditions and would not be able to swim safely. We decided to go down to the beach anyway and dabble our toes in the surf. There was a sign on the way down the hill that advised us the beach had closed at the end of August. I know our beaches in Busan technically “close” for much of the year also, but it usually just means don’t go too far out. 20160915_180010On our way past the beach restrooms we reached a point where the floor and walls seemed to move and I realized with horror that the whole path and retaining walls were COVERED in cockroaches. Horror movie levels of roaches. I am not afraid of most bugs. I can be startled by unexpected bug and I have a healthy respect for things that can hurt me, but there is something deeply lizard brain *ACK* about realizing that a good portion of your surrounding landscape is made of bugs. Fortunately, they didn’t want anything to do with us and moved clear of the path as we approached.

The beach wasn’t clean, and not just from the flotsam of a high wind, there was a lot of litter and broken beach furniture. The cliffs surrounding the cove were nice and I could imagine if it were cared for, the beach would have been quite pretty, but between the cockroaches and the garbage I was seriously confused as to why our tour group had chosen this location for “chilling at the beach all day”. We found a leaning canopy to hide our bags under so they didn’t get rained on and headed down to the water.
The ocean is a good remedy for a lot of things and as I watched the stupendous waves breaking just beyond the shore, and felt the salty foam on my toes I just wasn’t worried about the state of the beach anymore. There was plenty of seaweed catching on our legs and the powerful tide buried our feet in the sand it dragged back in.

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At one point an especially large wave knocked me over, which while a little scary, was probably a good thing because having my center of gravity lower and more in contact with the ground prevented the current from pulling me out to sea. I know better than to go far into a rip tide, and most of the waves didn’t come even to my knees, this one was just that big. I heard later from some of the group who had hit the beach earlier that a couple of guys had gone out too far and gotten stuck and had to be rescued by the surfers. My own fall had resulted in a swimsuit full of sand, but it was impossible to rinse it out in the ocean, since each wave just carried more swirling sand. As the tide got higher, it became obvious that the path up to the road could wind up underwater soon, so we gathered our things and headed back.

The public bathrooms had showers, but since the beach was “closed” the doors to the shower rooms were locked and we had to walk sand covered all the way back up the hill to the parking lot restroom where we found a cold water only place to rinse off. It took me a loooong time to get all the sand off, but finally I got clean and mostly dry. We found the only open restaurant which was serving an overpriced buffet style dinner. Finally around 9pm the bus came to take us all back to the hotel. Our best intentions were to enjoy a couple beers at the pool, but by the time we got back, the walking, the heat and the ‘swimming’ had all caught up with us and we crashed out right away.


It does look like I’m complaining a lot here. Not every adventure is perfect or amazing. It was a challenging day and not part of a typical island getaway vacation, there were parts of the day where I was upset, disappointed and even angry, but I had a good friend with me and we were able to help each other remember to take a deep breath, release our expectations and enjoy what was in front of us. I didn’t do any research going into this trip so I didn’t know what was available at each tour stop beyond what our guides told us. I was prepared for rainy weather. I understand a bunch of people got so put out by the rain they went back earlier in the afternoon. Certainly the chocolate museum and the beach weren’t what I might have expected but I don’t feel like it was a waste of time to have seen them. Even the swarm of cockroaches makes a cool story, after all. 

Enjoy the remaining photos on my Facebook page and stay tuned for Part II where things stay rainy but looking up gets better. Plus, the kinkiest theme park in Korea and my first Jimjilbang experience.

Boryeong Mud Festival 2016

After a month of a bad news fueled fug, I finally got back out. All due respect to the horrors, the death, the downward spiral of the election cycle, but nobody can stay in that headspace for long without going crazy. We all need a balance. It’s also important to remember why we are going through all the hardship, and why we have to keep fighting for what’s right. So I headed over to Boryeong for the big famous Mud Festival. This post is about 30% a report on the festival and the rest is focused on the great things that happened to me there to help me recharge all my joy batteries.


One of the tour groups here (Enjoy Korea) which had taken me to the Namhae Anchovy Festival decided to offer a trip to this muddy event and after some research I decided that it would be overall better to take their chartered bus and let them deal with the pension than to try to do it myself. I saw amazing pictures like this one mud1all over their website, Facebook and the internet in general. It’s on the beach as well, which is always a winning proposition. So I got all packed up, bathing suit, all the sunscreen, extra clothes and of course my towel, and set off for an adventure.

It’s becoming stunningly clear to me that Korea has a subtle disconnect between expectation and reality. Historically, reality has shown me that if you read a great description, but show up and it’s not true that you’re in for a disappointing time. In Korea, however, I’ll read a great description, show up to find it isn’t true, expect to be disappointed, then actually have a great time and walk away wondering why they didn’t just describe the real awesomeness in the first place. This trip was no exception.

The Expectation vs The Reality

korea_mapBoryeong is on the opposite side of the country, a little south on the coast of Taean, where we went to see the tulips. It took us about 5 hours to get there, but it was nice because we were on one bus the whole time and didn’t have to think about anything. We got there around 2pm, and quickly went to drop our stuff off in the room and change. We also had to go hunt down booze and waterproof pouches for our phones and wallets. So, it was probably after 3pm by the time we got TO the festival. This may be the only real complaint that I have about the tour trip. The main festival attractions closed down at 6pm, so we didn’t have a lot of time to try all the activities before they were done.

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Our group (right) expectations were all pretty much the same. We had been led to believe that there would be a giant mud pit on the beach where people went crazy with mud wrestling and mud chicken, and mud races, and that off to the side there would be some pools and water slides. When we arrived, we kept looking past all the inflatable slides, trying to find the mud pit without success. Finally, I stopped a couple of caucasian dudes who were reasonably muddy and asked where it was. I was informed to my shock and dismay that people were basically getting muddy by going over to one of the large pots of mud and splashing it on each other. … Wut.

mapIt turns out that the main festival is on Daecheon Beach, which is a beautiful sandy beach, and the mud has to be trucked in for the array of water slides and inflatable games. No wonder it was watered down. Several of the photos I’d seen online were not actually from Daecheon at all, but from the actual mud flats themselves in Namgok-dong, where smaller events, including a 5k mud run, are held. The mud festival lasts about 2 weeks and we were just arriving in town for the last weekend. I didn’t even learn about the mud flats until after we got back, but we wouldn’t have had enough time to visit them that day anyway. Don’t take this map as gospel, because all I could find was the name of the mud flats, so this is just a rough idea of how far the mud beaches are from where the big party is. And while the mud beach looks totally like everything I was promised, the Mud festival itself looks like this.

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At Daecheon Beach, the only way to access the mud was to go inside the fenced in area, which also meant abandoning our booze and shoes. So we chugged our soju and headed in to see what there was to see. What there was to see were lines (or queues depending on where you’re from). Queues forever. As we selected a line to stand in, we looked around with a great deal of skepticism. The mud wasn’t mud, it was more like pottery slip (grayish brown water with some clay dissolved in it). All the activities were filled with this muddy water and people are mostly clean (if wet) because going into an activity means you wash off any of the thicker “mud” you may have acquired being splashed while in line.

20160717_123352The line we were in was for the football (soccer) arena. It was an inflated pool with inflated goals on either end. The muddy water was about mid-calf depth and the ball was an inflatable beach ball. It did look fun, but after the first 30 minutes of standing in line, we were seriously questioning our life decisions . We took turns holding the group place in the queue so people could get out and go pee, and finally it was our turn to get in the arena. We lined up against a group of Koreans and began to chase the beach ball around the pool.

So. Much. Fun.

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Something magical happened in the moment we began to play. All of my adult cares suddenly drifted away and the whole world was splooshing through the slippery not-quite-mud with a bunch of other grown ups who were all busily engaged in reviving their inner children. I don’t know how many times I fell down, trying to take a kick at the ball and loosing my footing, but I couldn’t stop smiling. I don’t know what the rules were supposed to be, or how many points were scored, but eventually, a referee came by to stop the game and pronounced the Korean team the winner. We lined up across from each other and we bowed to them and promptly got splashed to oblivion by the winning team.

My jaw hurt from laughing and smiling so hard. I felt like the Joker (pre-Heath Ledger), a permanent huge grin stuck in place. All I wanted to do was get in line for every other game available, 13728502_10101483396628871_1233761723_obut my top goal was the giant slide. My friend described it later as “a dirty inflatable playground for drunk adults. It was all my dreams come true.” And the best part is that there was a dirty inflatable playground for kids in a separate area, so we didn’t have to worry about any rugrats underfoot!

The line for the tall slide wasn’t too bad, but we lost a few people to the short slide and to the bathroom line. Korea has figured out that women need more bathrooms than men, so there’s been a standard 3:1 portapotty ratio at nearly every festival I’ve been to. This has usually been successful, but for some reason, the lines for the men’s bathrooms here were awful.

The weather was also being (at least for me) amazing. I was expecting to spend a day blistering under the sun and worrying about my sunscreen washing off, while using mud like an African elephant to cool my head and shoulders. Instead it was cloudy and barely warm with a lovely breeze. I don’t think it could have been more than 24 C, and I was blissing out on the total absence of heat and humidity, but some people were cold. North Americans formed heat barriers around South Africans while standing in line in an attempt to keep them warm.

20160717_122025I was surprised to find that the giant slide dumped me outside the fenced in area, especially since my shoes were back on the other side at the entrance where I’d been asked to leave them. I reconnected with some of the group and managed to get back inside right before they closed down. We got in one more line for the floating hamster wheel (which is a serious upper body work out, by the way, especially when it’s slippery!) but alas when we got out, the other attractions were closing down.

This is not to say the festivities were over, just that the inflatable pools and slides were no longer open and we had to rely on the simple pleasures of booze, beach and interesting people. The cool weather was also accompanied by some rough seas, so the “no swimming” signs were up and we were limited to wading in the fierce waves. The sea water was surprisingly warm, however, and we lingered around the surf for quite a while.

Your Moment of (Femini)Zen

The girl I was hanging out with is quite pretty and was approached several times by very flirty guys. One very determined guy came over to us in the waves and started chatting. His body language was very much “hey baby” and she was clearly interested in return. It looked like they were off to a good start, but then it got neggy. For those of you who don’t know, “negging” is the tactic of using subtle insults to break down a woman’s self esteem and raise a man’s own social value by comparison, thus making her feel vulnerable and perceive him as desirable. It is widely advocated by pick up artists.

First, he started talking about his sister. How can this possibly go well? Because “you remind me of my sister” is already not a sexy pickup line and he decided to go with “My sister is hotter than you” instead. She was  staring at him like, did you really just say that? But she was also doing the thing we’ve been trained to do as women, and not making a big deal about it. She did point out how weird it was, but in a kind of lighthearted “ha-ha” way. I flat up called him Jamie Lannister, but it didn’t even make a dent. He tried to deny saying it, but never actually retracted it even when we both insisted he had said it more than once.

At this point I was not happy about the situation, but I didn’t want to make her more uncomfortable, so I leaned over and whispered to her that if she wanted help ditching this guy to let me know. She was still into him, I guess because she wasn’t looking for a long term relationship here, she was willing to overlook some drunken weirdness. Then he busts out telling her she looks old! Now, I don’t think old people are necessarily unattractive, but in the patois of courtship, telling a woman she looks old is a crazy insult. I can tell she’s still trying to keep it all fun and funny even though it’s bothering her. Finally, she asked me what I thought about going back to this guy’s room. You don’t really want me to say, I told her. (because I’m going to drop a feminism bomb and generally people at parties don’t groove on that) But she insisted.

So, I let it go in the kindest way possible. I point out that he’s using these destructive techniques of insulting her to break down her self esteem and make her a more vulnerable target for the hook up. I also point out how crazy and unnecessary it was because she was into him before he started doing it. I even tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and told him he probably wasn’t even aware he was doing it, but had just been trained to treat women that way in order to fulfill the equally toxic version of masculinity he’d been taught he had to live up to. (the alternative being to accuse him of actively engaging in pick up chicanery) I told him I didn’t think it was his fault, but that he could start changing by being nice to the girls he wanted to be with instead of breaking them down.

I’m not telling this story to toot my own femism horn. I was really nervous to say these things out loud. I was scared the guy would get hostile. Worse, I was scared the girl I was trying to help would reject me, tell me I was overreacting or reading too much into it, or that it was “just a joke”. I’m telling this story because it was scary and hard. So if you think these things and are scared to say them out loud, know you aren’t alone, but also know this:

I watched her face as I was talking and it was like this gargantuan wave of relief that someone else was saying what she was thinking. She instantly agreed with me and after the guy gave up and wandered off (yay no agro), she thanked me for saying those things. And the nice part is, later in the evening, when she eventually found the guy she wanted to hook up with, I felt confident wishing her well because I believe that she’d been reminded of her own self worth and had found a guy that would make her feel good.

Oppan Gangnam Style

20160717_123546Returning from the beach to find the eerily abandoned mud park, it didn’t take me long to get to my other favorite travel activity: talking to new people! I ran into someone I’d met briefly in one of the lines who had also ended up separated from his group. We wandered around the waterfront chatting, and ended up having a great conversation about our lives and travels which was totally unmarred by any awkward flirting. Why I love A-spectrum folks: you can dive straight into a deep and meaningful conversation without  all that useless weather-sports-job chit chat.

psy-daddy-notesWhile we were talking, I found out that the K-pop sensation Psy was scheduled to perform on the beach. Which, again, just goes to highlight how bizzaro Korea is about promoting events, because there had been no mention in anything I read about this. In case you’ve been living under a box, Psy is the singer of the international sensation “Gangnam Style”, so he’s not just famous here in Korea, but nearly everywhere. I mean, imagine if you went to a festival and then halfway through someone was like oh yeah, Beyonce is gonna perform, too.

My newfound conversation buddy had a bus out that night, so was anxious about getting to see the show, and of course, whether or not the number one hit would be performed before he had to take off. When the music started, we were up on the street. The whole bluff overlooking the sea was packed with people, most of them holding up phones to see the stage. Maybe they were recording, but generally they were using the phone screen as a kind of remote lens so they could see over the heads of the crowd.

It was impossible to get close to the railing and get a view, but I noticed through the throng that the beach near the water was almost completely empty. The stage was set up on the beach as close to the bluffs as possible, but it’s not a deep beach and the performance area was less than 30 meters from the ocean. We started walking away from the stage to find a place to break through the crowds and get down onto the sand, and by following the shoreline back up, we got very close to the stage indeed.

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I don’t get star-struck too much, but I have to say that it was a highly surreal and awesome experience to be standing in the sand with the waves crashing a few meters to my left and Psy performing a few meters to my right. There’s something intoxicating and fulfilling about a huge crowd of happy people, and I will never get tired of looking around and going, “This is really my life! Wow!” And, in case you were wondering, my conversation companion did get to see Gangnam Style and we danced like idiots in the sand.

Serendipity

After the music, I drifted back to the sea to do some more wading. It didn’t occur to me to take my shoes off since they were waterproof sandals. Unfortunately, the tide was dangerously strong, and in addition to taking the sand out from under my feet, one particularly intense wave took the shoe right off of my foot! After a few minutes of feeling around in the sand with my toes to see if it was buried there, I gave up on the shoe and headed inland where I promptly met some more friendly people who chatted with me and shared their beer, while I looked for a cheap pair of beach sandals to replace the ones I’d lost to the sea.

When they set off, i found myself alone once again with zero idea where any of my original group had gotten to, but I was entirely sanguine about it. As I walked up to the bathrooms before beginning a quest for food, I looked over and spotted my Busan Bestie standing in front of the convenience store chatting with a group of blondes. I can’t even tell you how many thousands of people were there that night, but we found each other without the aid of any social media. My bestie and went down to sit in the sand and one more of our starting troupe wandered up to join us. With our core group reassembled, we chatted about our experiences from the day and generally enjoyed ourselves. After a while of holding still on the waterfront, I finally started to feel the chill everyone was talking about and we got up to try to find food.

It’s not that food is absent from Korean festivals, but they don’t have food stalls the way we might see in the West which are full of food that’s meant to be eaten while walking. Korean food is a very social event, so even at festivals, they serve food alongside a place to sit down with big group and eat it. As a consequence, the mud festival did not have much food on offer because there was nowhere to sit and eat it. Most of us hadn’t eaten since before leaving Busan and had a hefty appetite by midnight.

We found a chicken and pizza shop on the main road, but then because there were no tables, we joined a couple more military guys at their booth and they promptly shared their chicken and beer with us. We had ordered the cheese chicken, which is not like chicken Parmesan, and is instead a sort of fried chicken coated in the kind of cheese powder more often associated with cheese flavored popcorn. It’s actually not bad, and when you’re starving from a long day of drinking and playing on the beach it’s practically food of the gods. Of course we shared back with the Army guys, and they left us most of a pitcher of beer when it was time for them to take off.

The chicken was really filling and the pizza took foreeeever. Just as I was starting to think it might be worth taking the loss just to get out of there, they finally brought it to us in a box. I figured I’d eat it for breakfast, but then we became the bearers of serendipity rather than the receivers. On the way back to our pension, I ran into some more revelers who were super eager to find out where we got the pizza. Since it was still hot and untouched, I offered to sell it to them for what I bought it for (no pizza profiteering). I think the Korean girlfriend was going to cry she was so happy, and just couldn’t believe that a pizza fell into their laps. It makes me happy to know that somewhere, someone is telling the story of how they were drunk and starving at the Mud Festival when this white chick came outta nowhere with a hot pizza for them.

Ondol Again, Off Again

Sleeping arrangements were sparse but adequate. At least this time, I knew I was going to be sleeping on the floor, so it wasn’t a shock. To cut down on costs, the tour group had assigned us all roomies, and we stumbled in sometime after 1am, waking ours up with many apologies. The Korean Ondol is the magical heated floor that I was so grateful for in February and March. However, this has led to adoption of a sleeping “mat” that is quickly becoming one of the great cultural mysteries to me. When I lived in China, I was struck by how hard the mattresses were, and one of my Chinese coworkers even complained about how the mattresses in American hotels were too soft for her to sleep on. In Japan, I had a futon on a tatami frame. The futon was thin, maybe 6-7cm, but it was cushy enough to take the edge off, and the tatami underneath was also a little springy. So, both of these Asian cultures certainly liked harder sleeping surfaces than we do in the West. Fair enough. But the Ondol mat is really just a blanket on the floor. Not even a thick blanket. You could almost imagine that being ok with like a squishy fluffy comforter, but no. It’s a thin quilt. In the winter I can understand not putting much between you and the heated floor, but in the summer all it does is protect you from sticking to the hardwood.

20160717_123909I like the notion of the pension, but the number of nights per year I’m willing to sleep on the floor is shrinking as I age. Just one more reason I really need a TARDIS. Anyway, thanks to alcohol and exhaustion, I did manage to sleep. And woke up the next day with only a mild hangover and several more hours to explore the festival grounds. I hadn’t known that we would still be at the festival for so long, and only had one set of clean clothes. It turned out that the water attractions were closed anyway, so while there were still people getting muddy, it was limited to the mud water jars placed around the plaza.

20160717_124405We managed to stay clean and took the time to better explore the area. As it turns out, the Boryeong mud is famous for it’s mineral composition and use in cosmetic products. The festival was once an advertising campaign for the cosmetics and has since become an epic party. There were several things that seemed to be permanent beachfront statues that were all about the mud, but since the mud itself is a major commercial export for the town, it wasn’t so surprising that they had statues devoted to it.

20160717_124420We also found the performing native Americans again. I feel like it’s starting to become some kind of David Lynch-esque running gag for my time in Korea that there are always guys dressed in intense and often highly mixed Native American garb playing flutes and pan pipes and selling dream catchers. One of them had bright neon fringe this time. And I saw more of them playing at a rest stop on our drive home! What is the deal Korea, seriously?

The Verdict?20160717_123521

Overall, the Mud Festival was a stunning success for me. I still think it could more accurately be called the muddy waters festival, but once I got over the initial shock of how different it was from my expectations, I had an amazing, endorphin fueled, oxytocin generating, dopamine flooding time. (Which is big brain chemistry talk for “AMAZEBALLZ!”) If I go back next year, I’ll make an effort to arrive Friday night or at very least earlier on Saturday so that I have some more time to play on the mud toys before they close down, and I’ll try to find a group that is hitting up the mud flats proper as well. I might also recommend getting a camel pack for water in addition to the waterproof pack for your phone and money. There were convenience stores everywhere, but most of us didn’t drink enough water, and it took me a couple days to fully re-hydrate. As far as fun things to do in Korea, I wouldn’t make a special trip to the country just for this one, but it was definitely a great reminder of love, friendliness, and joy that I really needed. And since there’s no bad time for love friendliness and joy, I absolutely recommend the festival to anyone who happens to be in Korea in July.

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As the first semester draws to a close, I find that I’m still completely enjoying myself in Korea and at this job. I’m looking forward to some more fun adventures this summer including a vacation to New Zealand! I’m being joined soon by a dear friend and fellow globetrotter Jane Meets World, who is finally moving to Asia for the first time, so I get to use her arrival as an excuse to do even more fun things in Busan. And I’m already planning our “Korean Thanksgiving” holiday weekend trip in September. As much as I hope that things in the US make a turnaround for the sane, and as hard as it is to watch my friends and family to live there endure the hatred and vitriol that is being propagated, it’s important for us.. for me to remember that most of the things in life have the potential to be great, and that most of the world (including large parts of the US where the cameras aren’t always pointing) is a beautiful place filled with amazing people who can be your friend for a minute or a lifetime if you just open your eyes and your heart. Love is quieter than gunshots, but there is more of it.

Queer in Korea: A review of Pride and Pulse 2016

It’s taken me a long time to put this post together. The events I’m talking about happened 3 weeks ago which is a lifetime in social media terms. And yet, I feel like for once, it’s good that it took so long. I feel like it gave me and others time to absorb and process, but I don’t think any amount of time will cause this to stop being relevant until civil rights and gun-violence are solved. In the first week after the events, I was riding the emotional roller-coaster and nothing I wrote was worth reading. In the second week, I settled down to some serious writing, but before I could publish, the third week brought me low with that child-borne plague — the common cold. It’s finally done, however. It’s much longer than my usual posts because I just couldn’t bring myself to break this experience up into smaller pieces. I do hope you’ll give it the extra time and read all the way to the end. There’s a love “crust” down there waiting for you… like with pie.


20160611_153315When I first found out about the festival in March, I was excited to see it. When I found out it was the 17th annual one, I was blown away. Try as I might to keep up with real news and world events, I still had a solid perception that LGBTQ+ rights platforms were the domain of the West (and that America might actually be the farthest behind in that race) while the rest of the world lagged far behind in tackling this important civil rights issue. I saw things like Russia banning LGBTQ+ at the Olympics and China striking down gay marriage as signs that the East just wasn’t doing that much.

And, to a certain extent, the East still has a long way to go. These are cultures that haven’t had to deal with the different and the other that often in their history. Or, when they have, they’ve dealt with it by employing the classical Asian two-level system: above-what is acknowledged, seen and talked about; below- what everyone knows is really going on but never vocalizes. It’s a kind of national “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on all kinds of things from gambling and drugs, to porn and alternate sexuality. The Japanese actually have words for this (“honne” and “tatemae”), but I’ve witnessed it in other Asian cultures as well.

SKOREA-SOCIETY-HOMOSEXUALITYKorea just recently had, for the first time, two (famous) men petition the courts for legal marriage. The case was rejected, but there was some room in the language for future laws to be added to the books that would allow it. Considering it was the very first time that anyone in Korea tried, it’s not really a surprise that it was struck down. But it’s definitely becoming more and more of a public issue, thanks in no small part to a 17 year tradition of publicly celebrating LGBTQ+ pride in the nation’s capital every summer.

cd3e37ae-b9b1-4636-be4a-2ad4c07750b0_mw1024_s_nPrevious years’ festivals have seen large groups of protesters who have screamed at, spat at, taken pictures of, and occasionally engaged in greater displays of violence and harassment toward the festival goers. They’ve reportedly lay in the street to block the march, and even engaged in physical violence against the police to try to get at the Pride participants. Protesters have tried to shut out Pride by booking up the space, nearby spaces, and hotels to keep people out. This year, the conservative anti-gay Christians tried to petition the courts to shut down the festival on the basis of public indecency, but they were denied. However the Korean culture may feel about LGBTQ+ currently, at least the government respects everyone’s right to peaceful assembly, which is awesome. More than merely respecting it, the government issued stern warnings to the protesters to refrain from violence, because violent protests are illegal.

I’m from Seattle, where being LGBTQ+ is more often the assumed state than being straight. Where it’s so normal for people to see gay couples in public that my BFF was often mistaken for my GF, and *not* in the “you’re going to hell” way that happened to me in Memphis. Pride in places like Seattle is no longer a civil rights issue (plenty of places in the US it is, keep marching guys). In Seattle, Pride is one big party with corporate sponsorship. It’s a fun party, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a civil rights movement, it’s a victory celebration. And worse, because of the division within the LGBTQ+ community, the G (and to a lesser extent the L) tend to drown out the BTQ+. The people who still need protection and help even in a culture like Seattle are the ones being most ignored by their own supposed community.

Because of all of this and more, I was very excited to see what a Pride festival would look like in a country where LGBTQ+ is legal but not common or (to most people here) socially acceptable. I knew it could get ugly because I’d read about the protesters in previous years. I knew it might be small and underfunded because it doesn’t get a lot of support here. I knew it might be full of foreigners who just wanted to bring their own culture into Korea. I knew it might just be a marketplace full of cheap souvenirs and magkoli stands because it was a festival in Korea. But I didn’t care, I wanted to see it. And I’m so glad I did because it was none of those things.

(Ok, one magkoli stand.)

Getting There

subway_mapMy Busan Bestie and I headed to Seoul Friday after work, arriving after midnight and experiencing the very beginning of the Seoul public transportation headache. We managed to find the right bus, but missed our stop and got stuck on the wrong side of the bridge, which I guess technically people walk across, but it was the middle of the night and we had luggage, so we thought, oh hey, we’ll just take a taxi… nope. Scarcely any to be had and none for us. We finally found another bus and got back on the right side of the bridge but didn’t make it to our hotel for almost 2 hours after our train arrived. Why didn’t we take a taxi from the train station? Well, the line for real taxis was 30 people deep and no taxis were coming, the bus ride was only supposed to be 30 minutes, and as we found out later, there are plenty of fake-out taxis waiting to charge you an arm and a leg for a 15 minute drive.

The hostel was nice. I’d sent them a note after the Taean pension disaster to let them know we would be arriving quite late, so they left me a note on the whiteboard telling my my room, and they left the key in the door as well so we didn’t have any trouble getting into the room. I’m torn about this hostel, because they did nice stuff like that, and they helped drive another patron to a place he could catch the airport bus, but they had some advertising issues that could have been handled better, like “air conditioning” which was only central and kept at an uncomfortably warm temperature, and “continental breakfast” which was cook your own eggs and toast in the rooftop kitchen. I think I could have been ok with these things had I not been expecting something else, so it’s hard to say.

Due to the lack of AC, I didn’t sleep especially well, but my excitement woke me up well enough and after a leisurely breakfast that I cooked myself, we headed back out into the city to find City Hall and Seoul Plaza, the site of the Festival.

I have been entirely spoiled by Busan public transportation. I was a little frustrated when I first arrived in Korea that Google Maps didn’t really work here, but I learned how to use the local version (Naver Maps) and have had an easy time getting to most places. For some reason, I thought that the transportation in Seoul would be better than it is in Busan. I’m not sure why. I’ve used the Beijing and Tokyo subway/train systems and so I’m not a novice at complex rail maps. I looked up the plaza on my app and saw it was a short two trains away and we were right next to the station. Lies.

We managed to get on our first train with minimal fuss, our national transportation cards work everywhere (which is so nice). But in trying to transfer to the second train, we somehow wound up going the wrong way. Then waiting at a platform where no train was coming (no signs about this either), then waiting at a platform where trains only arrived to, but didn’t depart from, then finally getting on a train heading the right way, only to find out we had to get off it and move to another train to continue going the right way. I wanted to take the train instead of a bus because train stops are usually well announced in advance while the buses tend to be a mystery and you might not know it was your stop until it’s too late. Buses are great if you know where you want to get off, but subway/train things tend to be easier for the first time traveler. Plus, the directions on the festival website explicitly said to use the metro exit 6 to get into the festival because access was being controlled to keep out the protesters.

Maybe it’s a great train system once you get to learn its idiosyncrasies. But considering the dearth of taxis and the intensely confusing blend of intra/inter city trains and subways, I’m going to say Seoul is definitely a bus town.

Safety First

20160611_154429When we finally emerged from the station, we were greeted by a huge wall of police. I saw the protesters well before I saw the festival. They were set up across the street with a giant stage where they were having speeches, performances, and blasting Christian music in an attempt to drown out the Pride music. The streets around Seoul Plaza were lined with police standing shoulder to shoulder. When the light changed, they parted to allow us access to the crosswalk by which we entered the park. I have to admit, I was becoming anxious, and not in a good way. My heart was aflutter and my adrenaline was definitely going. I’m in no way anti-police. My sister is a police officer, and I have a lot of respect for the men and women who do a necessary and often thankless job. In the US, if I get pulled over or approached by an officer in public, it does not make me nervous. But something about seeing thousands of officers creating a human wall made me more than a little twitchy.

Later, I realized that the police were there to protect us. They recognized the protesters as the threat, not the LGBTQ+ folks. They were keeping an eye on them, and were nothing but courteous to us. It was an amazing feeling. I expect many of the officers did not personally approve of the festival or the LGBTQ+ lifestyle, but they didn’t let it show in their faces that day. They stood around us through rain and scorching sun with no tents to shelter them. They stood facing the protesters so we didn’t have to. During the march, they ran ahead of us to maintain that protection at all times, which was good because protesters followed us too. By the end of the day, I just wanted to give them all hugs and say thank you, because they did so much to make the day possible, whether they agreed with it or not. This is what it means to do your job well and to respect the freedoms of others. Without them, the protesters surely would have entered and berated us up close, ruining what was otherwise a beautiful occasion. Because they were there, festival goers and marchers felt safe to be themselves in a city where that can often be so hard.

20160611_132528Speaking of being free to be themselves, the festival also went out of it’s way to make the space especially safe. In the past, protesters used pictures of festival goers to publicly shame them, or get them fired, or even disowned by family. It’s no laughing matter to be Out here. Homosexuality can’t get you arrested, but there are no laws protecting employment yet. Many families feel it’s shameful and will disown children who come out. LGBTQ+ Koreans mostly have to pretend to be cis-het to get by. A few have managed to make enough money that they aren’t afraid to come out, like the filmmaker who petitioned for a marriage to his lover, like the small community of drag queens that simply make their living as performers. But the average person is hiding. This festival is a chance to be among people who accept and understand, but the attendees probably have to go back to homes and offices where they have to pretend again, and thus, having their pictures plastered on the internet can be scary and damaging.

me and press passThe festival made it clear that anyone taking pictures for anything other than strictly personal use (eg, keep it on your phone and never show it to anyone) must get a press pass and sign the agreement. I like sharing my pictures, so my first stop upon entering the park was to the press booth. I read a multi page contract that stated the rules for taking and sharing photos. It was heavy on permission. (yay consent!), and very strict about not posting anyone’s face you didn’t get permission from. I asked people all day, and handed out cards to the site so they really understood where the image was going. They also collected our IDs, so they can hold us accountable should someone take issue with my following the rules. I told my school where I was going that weekend because I don’t like lying, so I personally am not worried about it ‘getting back’ to my employer, but I know it’s a real issue for many Koreans and I’m glad the festival took such pains to protect them.

Maybe it’s just me (doubt it), but when I see the US paying lip service to equal rights then doing less than nothing to protect endangered minorities (people targeted for violence, discrimination, etc), it makes it really hard for me to accept that whole “land of the free” shtick. I sure as Sherlock wasn’t pleased about the protesters, but everyone there respected their right to peacefully speak their piece. Not everyone in the government involved in protecting the rights (assembly, speech) and safety of the LGBTQ+s like it as a lifestyle, but they respect us as people. It was more important to maintain the core values of respect, safety, and peaceful assembly than it was for them to express their personal opinions on the subject. America, please take notes.

The Festivities

Seoul Plaza is this big oval lawn in front of city hall. ec849cec9ab8eab491ec9ea5_eca084eab2bd

On the day we arrived, it did not look like that. It looked more like this.

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This photo is from 2015, however, so imagine it with 20,000 more people. The main stage is just off the lower right corner and the protesters are on both the left and right on the other side of the street.

20160611_171806After securing our press passes and verifying our reservations for the after party, we slowly started to explore the booths that lined the plaza. Unlike events in the US, there was very little corporate representation. And unlike events in Korea, there was a lot more than endlessly repetitive booths of food and trinkets. Most of the booths were operated by groups trying to raise awareness and understanding for some aspect of the LGBTQ+ community. There was a group called “Dignity for Soldiers”, another booth was from the first (and only) NPO that does outreach and support for at-risk LGBTQ+ youth in Korea. There were booths for just about every shade of the rainbow including Trans, Poly, Pan, Ace, Bi, BDSM… I think maybe the only sexual type not represented were Furries. But it’s ok, I found one in the parade later on.

There were also plenty of booths promoting general sexual awareness through sex toys, masturbation tools and positive attitudes. Koreans are often reticent to talk about sex, even when it’s cis-het, so getting out there to help people take some initiative in their own sexuality is still a big deal.

I was really on the verge of tears to see this. Many booths were selling things, pins or flags, erotic books and drawings, non-erotic books and drawings featuring LGBTQ+s, jewelry, booze, snacks, and so on. But making money wasn’t the point for anyone. For most of these booths, they were simply covering the cost of being there and making the materials that they were handing out for free to raise awareness. I have a stack of literature. Every booth was so full of friendly excited people. Any time we bought anything they cheered. Even just a little 50 cent postcard. Everything was a victory in their goals of increasing the awareness of their cause.

I kept getting distracted from the booths by people in fun costumes. Asking permission to take a picture is not as much a hardship after I got used to the Middle East photo culture. I can’t put all the pictures in the blog, but they are all in the Facebook album. You’ll probably notice that a lot of the people I snagged photos of are Westerners. This does not mean that the festival was all expats. Actually, of the 50,000 people who showed up (record breaking by the way), I’d say less than 10% were expats. However, the Koreans tended to be a bit more conservative in their costuming, and so there is a disproportionate photo representation.

I found this fun l20160611_133102ady in rainbows and feathers who, when I asked if I could take a photo, told me she was with the US Embassy. It turned out there was a whole row of Embassy booths there, each country sending official representatives to support LGBTQ+ rights (and promote tourism, let’s be honest). And for just a few hours, I was really proud of my country for making this public, overt, international, diplomatic, and above all enthusiastic statement of support for LGBTQ+ and gentle pressure for Korea to catch up. (Spoilers: This feeling does not get to live long.)

We wandered around the booths looking at the huge array of inclusiveness and outreach. We watched some of the shows on the stage- so very Korean, people doing K-pop dances and such. It rained on us a couple times, but it didn’t slow anything down; everyone just popped open umbrellas or put on raincoats. Even the performances didn’t stop in the20160611_134559 rain, they dancers just put on some plastic ponchos and kept right on dancing. I heard later that some of the protesters had apparently been praying for rain to ruin our day. I can only imagine their frustration when we didn’t let it dampen our spirits. If anything, it was a refreshing cool down during the summer heat!

Lest you think that all the churchy-folks were on the wrong side of the police line, we also found a couple of religious booths there embracing LGBTQ+ with signs and slogans about love, acceptance and Jesus. There was at least one Methodist group, and another group of Anglicans. Before you go on thinking that Archbishop Tutu is a crazy Drag Queen stage name, no. He’s a real Archbishop from South Africa whose daughter gave up the ministry to marry her girlfriend. He’s totally a real ally.

We got some mojitos in a bag, took silly pictures with the folks from Lush (maybe the only non-sex related corporate sponsor there, but I really like them as a company so I’m OK with them supporting the Festival to promote their stuff). They had this giant pink triangle people could hold and take selfies in. We took lots of other photos too. There was a girl with a beautiful bird who, when I tried to ask if I could take her picture, instead put her bird on my shoulder and took my phone to take a picture of me instead. There was a giant Kiwi at the New Zealand booth. And there were countless people in fun and adorable costumes.

Among the performers too numerous to count, I recognized one of the Queens from the show I went to here in Busan the weekend before. This time she had a set of 4 hunky dancers in fun costumes with her. I enjoyed the show, but I think even more impressive was the massive audience enthusiasm. The crowds on the lawn came hurtling toward the stage for her performances and fans were screaming and waving hands and signs in the air like a Beatles concert.

It took us over 2 hours to make a full circuit of the plaza and then we realized we’d missed some stuff! I cannot talk enough about how inclusive this festival was. So much representation, everyone sharing love and information. Smiles everywhere. There were also more disabled Koreans there in one day than I’ve seen in the 4 months I’ve lived here. Folks with mobility issues that left them in motorized wheelchairs, and not just old people, young people with a variety of disabilities. Everyone was welcome.

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Another big thing here was the sheer volume of Koreans. Yes, it’s Korea, there *should* be more Koreans, but a lot of people, both Korean and expat, seem to think that events like this are led by and dominated by expats. There’s a horrible myth among the anti-LGBTQ people here that Korean’s actually can’t be gay and that any Korean who thinks they are has been infected by outsiders. Many of the protester signs that weren’t telling us that Homosexuality is a sin were telling the gays to get out because they believe it’s a foreign infection and not a domestic issue. The more Koreans co-ordinate events like KQCF, the more who operate awareness booths and distribute information to their countrymen in Korean, the more who show up to support and learn, the better off LGBTQ+ is in Korea. Expats can show up, but we’re like allies here, we can’t change the country from the outside, we can only tell our Korean bros & sis’s that we support them and love them.

The March

20160611_181534The “parade” did have some “floats”, but it was not what we tend to think of as parades these days. There were a few trucks out in front with banners and people in costume on display in the truck beds, but the majority of the affair was much more akin to a political march than a celebratory parade. The walking area had us leaving the plaza, going up several blocks and around a big loop before returning to the plaza. It was around 3km, so not a huge hike, but definitely enough to attract attention, which was the point after all. The trucks out front 20160611_164622had a few decorations, mostly pink triangles and rainbows, and the people on the trucks were holding pro-love signs and dancing to encourage the crowd. There was nothing like a “parade float” in sight. Actually, that’s not totally true, the protesters had some pretty swanked up gear on the side of the road, but they didn’t march with us.

The majority of people in costumes (as I mentioned before) were foreigners who are more used to the out and proud attitude of Pride parades in the West. There were a few lovely Korean drag queens and a couple others in interesting get ups, but most were wearing fairly every day clothes. Some had on T-shirts with slogans for their cause, some wore various pride flags as capes, a few dressed in traditional Korean historical garb, lots had little signs or buttons, many people had rainbow umbrellas up to shield them from the sun, some waved giant flags high overhead and one couple even put some rainbow dusters in their packs to look like wings! Just because they weren’t going “all out” Western Pride style didn’t mean they hadn’t put thought and effort into their appearance that day.

I could have speculated that a percentage of those 50,000 in the plaza just turned up to stare and had little idea of what was going on, but nobody marches 3km in the June Seoul heat for a lookie loo. So, I’m sure that everyone marching that day was dedicated. I personally felt incredibly lucky to be involved because it felt more like a march than a parade. I felt like here was a thing that people still need to see. There are no “victory” signs at Pride in Korea yet.

The police continued to be amazing. They flanked the streets, blocking traffic as well as guarding us from the protesters along the route. The march was quite long and there weren’t enough police to line it all from start to finish, so as the tail end passed one group of police, they had to run ahead of us to take their place at the next phase of the route. Dedication!

20160611_164901There were plenty of protesters right at the start of the route near the plaza, but as we went on, their number dwindled and the amount of supportive bystanders increased. I’m so incredibly proud of the marchers that day.
The protesters constantly screamed at us, often with megaphones, words of hate and fear and rejection. However, not once did anyone in the festival or parade retaliate with anything other than words of love. As the protesters screamed “homosexuality is a sin” the 20160611_172542marchers yelled back “I love you”. We echoed their “hallelujah”s and smiled at them and blew them kisses. I’m personally a big fan of meeting hate with love, but it’s
hard and I’ve never before seen such a huge crowd so determinedly return love while receiving so much hate. I think Jesus would be proud.

20160611_165222As the protesters fell away, we began to notice people on the sidewalk holding signs of support or waving and smiling and giving us thumbs up signs. Restaurant owners leaned out of their second and third story windows to wave down at us. A group at Starbucks had clearly planned ahead, because not only had they gotten seats right by the window, but they all held up rainbow signs reading “support equality”.

I know it’s not up to me, as an outsider, to tell a country how it should be. I didn’t march because I thought my presence would change someone’s mind. I admit, I went to the festival to see what it would be like here, and it completely blew me away.

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The After Party

We sat around the plaza until things wound down because we were pooped after the march and we were more than slightly terrified of the public transport while the place was emptying out. The after party we chose to go to was the “official” Korea Queer Culture Festival one, although there were several around and I might choose a different one if I’m able to go again next year.

We bused back to the hostel for a shower and some dinner, but the location of the party was not conducive to public transport, so we had to try for another taxi (where are all the taxis, Seoul?). The nice young man in the convenience store called a taxi for us, but the driver refused to come because it wasn’t a big enough fare. It was pouring down rain and after 10pm, and the poor guy trying to help us is like, oh you can walk there in 20 minutes. No, thanks. Eventually we got a taxi to stop for us and made it to our goal.

13467613_10101445663321721_1849971968_oThe location for the party was stunning: a man-made island in the river. The buildings were huge and fun to look at with sweeping shapes and color changing windows. The party itself was a little lackluster for my tastes, but the one great thing about it was that it was about 98% Koreans. I sound like a broken record, but a lot of events I’ve gone to have had a large expat attendance and that’s fine for fun fun festivals, but this is more than that, it’s a civil rights movement with some party trappings and there can’t be a movement if the people of the country aren’t behind it, so it made me really happy to see so many Koreans there being openly gay in a way they can’t be in their day to day lives yet.

13467513_10101445663341681_243537355_oThere were some vendors in the main hall selling snacks and t shirts. The VIP lounge was quite classy, but the line for the bar was insane. The mojitos were outstanding, however, and there was a classical quartet performance as well. The dance floor was roomy and the DJs were fun, but he dancing was very Korean. This meant that groups of people got up on the stage and danced the moves to K-pop songs while the audience/dance floor did their best to keep up with the same moves… that they all knew… to all the songs. This is an aspect of Korean culture I may just never get used to.

We danced a while (not the right moves, but it was fun anyway), had some drinks, chatted with the few other English speakers we found and finally headed back out sometime around 2am. The next day was all buses and trains again. I got home Sunday afternoon thanks to the speedy KTX train and went to bed that night with a head and heart full of love and hope.20160611_153650That lasted until Monday morning when I opened my Facebook.


This next part is going to be the sad part. It will be followed by the rant part, and finally the bottom layer in the love pie as previously promised. If you want to skip all or any of it, I won’t be offended. I thought a lot about what to say and while I don’t feel comfortable just ignoring it, I know many people have been over-saturated by the events in Orlando. That being said, I hope you read it.


Monday (the Sad Part)

I think everyone knows about the stages of grief, but I think there is one missing at the beginning: empty. I place it before denial because going “no no no, that’s not real” is a distinct and separate phase from “empty”. It’s happened to me only a few other times, typically when the news hits me first thing in the morning. I remember feeling it on September 11th, because I woke up to 14 messages on my answering machine from my mother making sure I was OK (no, I didn’t live anywhere near NY or DC at the time, but moms). She told me what happened and I was like … “what?” There were no feelings at all for a while. Same thing on November 30th (you can read that post if you want). It was several hours before it started to have an impact.

comfortinThis Monday was the same way. I read the news, several times. I even went to google to find an actual journalistic report or 20 and not just some Facebook posts. I got dressed, cooked breakfast, went to work. Explained to my co-teachers that I might be a bit emotional that day because there was a horrible mass shooting in my home country and proceeded to get ready to teach classes. I think I made it through 2 classes before I actually started crying. I didn’t know anyone involved. I’m somewhere beyond “colleagues” yet well inside of “lookie loos” on circle of tragedy in the ring theory. After experiencing the love and warmth of the Korean Pride Festival, it was devastating to me to see what my own country had been up to.

Over the next week I went through plenty of ups and downs. I had an upset stomach from the feelings, so I was nauseous even when I was hungry. I randomly started crying, or talking way too loudly as I try to avoid screaming. I tried to explain the situation to Koreans, but things I take as givens about American culture are so confusing to them, I had to back up and give mini-history lessons just to catch up to how f*d up things were before this shooting. Phrases like “so they buy a politician” send my Korean co-workers reeling. When they asked me why we don’t just vote against pro-gun legislators, I had to explain the NRA, lobbying and gerrymandering. But even with that said, I’m incredibly lucky to have co-workers who will listen, discuss and sympathize because I’ve read other teachers here are forced to avoid it entirely at work.

The next day, a gunman was arrested in my hometown before (thankfully) he could shoot up a mosque just 2 blocks from a dear friend’s home. The internet is covered from head to toe with stuff about this event, and yeah, we should be talking up a storm. We should be shocked, angry, hurt, outraged. Stuff like this should not be normal. I started and deleted about a million posts because I couldn’t focus on anything without swaying wildly all over the emotional spectrum and ending up with some all caps version of “wtfbbq stop killing ppl!!!”.

I’ve gotten some thoughts condensed now. There’s plenty of stuff that’s been hashed and rehashed about anti-discrimination laws, gun control laws, immigration, religion, and so on. I’m not going to do those again because so many people on the internet have already said things more eloquently than I ever will (such as John Oliver on the NRA: Part 1, Part 2)

Instead, I’m going to talk about connection, the “or” problem, can vs should as it applies to free speech, and the crab bucket.

The “Rant” in 4 Sets

It’s not a traditional rant, but I’m not soft-balling it either. I’m not going to curse and yell and insult people. That doesn’t help. But I’m not pulling punches and guarding every turn of phrase. I’m pretty sure if you’re reading this, you have an open mind (I don’t have a big enough following for trolls yet) so I’m hoping you’ll be open to some different perspectives on the issues this has brought up and won’t nitpick every detail or metaphor to death in an attempt to avoid the message.

Disclaimer: I have employed the word “you” here as a general term for “a person” or “a group of people” because it’s shorter and more convenient than those phrases, and because it sounds less awkward than “one”. If you (actually you) don’t feel like you fall into those thought patterns, please feel free to observe how other humans do. If you (personally) think it applies to you, then please do the awesome thing and admit your past errors and strive for personal improvement.

Connection

The problem of mass shootings in America has no quick fix. It’s not one type of problem. It’s a gun problem, and a mental health problem, and a male problem, and a sexual entitlement problem, and a loneliness problem, and a homophobia problem, and and and….

The fact that I can’t remember which shooting this came after is a horrible sign, but someone pointed out that socially well connected humans don’t go off and kill a bunch of fellow humans. I don’t mean socially acceptable people, by the way. Not the kind of person everyone says “he seemed so nice” about. I’m talking about connection. Genuine meaningful social connection is possibly the most important thing we can do for another human being.maslows_hierarchy_of_needs Love and belonging are the third tier of Maslow’s hierarchy, only overshadowed by the need for food and safety and integral to achieving esteem and self-actualization. They are NOT OPTIONAL for humans.

In order to make the connections that provide us with the sense of love and belonging we need so much, we have to feel safe (second tier) and have our physical needs met (first tier). This means things like jobs, minimum wage, enough to eat and no fear the power will be cut off soon are important not just for the person at risk of snapping and being violent, but for all the people around him (yes, him, they’ve all been men) who need to be in a safe place in their lives in order to be available for social connections. It’s not about handouts and food stamps for the lazy or entitled. It’s about creating an environment where people are capable of achieving love and belonging, because only then can they start investing back in that environment in a positive way.

To make social connections we need to be mentally and emotionally healthy too. Mental health care availability and removal of mental health care stigma are a big part of making that happen. Plus, it has the side benefit that people who are really struggling can get some extra help before they feel the need to lash out violently.

We need a social value of peer care. This whole “every man for himself”, “not my circus, not my monkeys” attitude is destructive. A society is dependent on co-operation and co-care for success. It’s supported by science and religion. But I don’t even know how to get this idea off the ground in the US. Rugged individualism (aka “selfishness”) is deeply ingrained in the American identity these days, but it hasn’t always been. Once upon a time, there was a horrible war against some evil men and our country banded together. I don’t know if it takes Nazis to make us help each other, but it does prove that we’re capable.

The “Or” Problem

tumblr_m02txbbmhq1qa1zvjAmerica is fascinated, hypnotized, enslaved to the idea that every issue has two and only two sides which are so opposed to one another that any form of compromise or middle ground is simply unthinkable. I don’t mean uncomfortable to think about, I mean, people’s brains are actually incapable of thinking the thought. Thought rejected. This is known as the “false dichotomy”.

Example: All the guns or none of the guns. If you are for gun rights, you must be in favor of all the guns. If you are for gun control, surely you want to destroy all the guns. Many of you say, no no, we don’t think that way. BUT, when you tell a die-hard NRA conservative you want gun legislation, all they hear is “‘Bama wants to take our guns” and the next thing you know we’re being moved at state owned gunpoint into UN appointed Orwellian style living blocs. Madness! (I’m not making this up, I wish I were.)

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Ugh. I said I didn’t want to have a conversation about guns. Sorry. You can look at many aspects of American life and see that you’ve been sold on an idea that something must be A or B and there simply is no alternative or middle ground. Political parties and candidates are another great example. Republican or Democrat… anyone heard of the Green Party? Many people seem to think that the alternative to hating LGBTQ+ is embracing it wholeheartedly. And, while I wish you would, I also know that it’s totally possible to disagree with a person’s life choices and still not hate them. I do it every day.

twilight-tumblr_ktux7xw1621qatyd2o1_500-breathtakingdottumblrdotcomEven in this way, Americans are dichotomous. You love it or you hate it. Well, you know what? I don’t love or hate pistachio ice cream. I bet there’s a lot of that stuff in your life and you don’t even think about it. But, when it comes to a hot button issue, you must choose a side. Team Tony, Team Cap. Team Edward, Team Jacob. Team Coke, Team Pepsi… really, that’s what you’re reducing complex social issues like religion and sexuality to when you do this.

guncontrol1And while we’re at it, a side note on false equivalencies. , such as this lovely comparison of Obama to Hitler. Both were in favor of a policy, therefore they are the same? No. Obama =/= Hitler.  I could spend the rest of the year finding examples of how this is used in all these polemical arguments, but the ones I want to bring up are: anger =/= hate, and dislike =/= hate.

I’m angry at my sister for staying in a crappy city, but I still love her. I’m angry with my friends when they are stubbornly stupid about writing in a vote that won’t count in their state, but I still love them. I’m angry with my students when they don’t do their homework, but … you get the idea.

I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t like the creepy homeless guy on the street corner who smells funny. I don’t like Kanye West. But, I still think they all deserve fundamental human rights and that old American goodie: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

But Kaine, that kind of anger/dislike isn’t the same as what I feel toward (insert group here… oh, let’s say Westboro Baptist, but pick your own if it helps). Yeah, it’s smaller maybe. WB makes me want to pull my hair out. Makes me want to scream. Makes me want to go to a junkyard and smash things. BUT, it doesn’t make me want to kill them. It doesn’t make me want to take away their right to free speech. It also kind of makes me want to make them some tea and say, hey do you need a hug cause you’re clearly very upset about something (though in the case of the homeless guy, maybe not a hug until he’s showered).

ojigt5fWe need to stop buying into A or B. We need to ask “why” about everything over and over until we discover the root issues. We need to remember it’s “liberty and justice for all” full stop, not “all white Christians” or “all men” or “all heterosexuals”. And then we need to take a long hard look at “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as it applies to everyone. We’ve already decided that taking someone else’s life (murder) or property (stealing) is not a liberty anyone is permitted no matter how happy it will make them. We’ve decided that absolute freedom to do whatever you want is not the path to a healthy society. We already curtail certain actions deemed destructive to the well-being of our nation and its people. Of course we must be careful about what we choose to curtail, but we cannot act like it is an anathema to do so.  Ben Franklin said that a person who would surrender freedom in exchange for security deserves neither, but that’s become another “or”: freedom or security. Why? Why can’t it be and?

Freedom and security.

Dislike and respect.

Disagreement and compassion.

Can v Should: As It Applies to Free Speech

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When I was living in the Middle East, I learned some very valuable lessons about free speech. I’ve been working on a separate post about that, but the core of it I think is important to this issue as well. But let me be clear: I am in NO WAY advocating for the government control of speech or expression. I am talking about social and civic responsibility that comes with having that freedom. Abraham Lincoln once said that “we should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.” There are some people out there who are just easily offended by things that are genuinely not damaging to others. There are things that need to be said that will be hard to hear. I will support the legal right to free speech forever. But, the second part of that quote is damn important.

63159187In America, when someone says something insulting (about your faith, your lifestyle, your weight, appearance, gender, orientation, skin color, etc) the result is all too often “You’re an adult, suck it up”. The expectation is that adults should just be able to deal with being insulted or having their feelings hurt (even though arguably many of these insults are signs of bigotry and oppression and not just about hurt feelings).

In the Middle East, when I had conversations about such insults, I explained that we didn’t want the government to police what we could say about religion or anything else for that matter. This is the core of our free speech amendment, that the government can’t punish you for the insult. People understood that part, but what they couldn’t wrap their heads around was why anyone would want to be so insulting in the first place.

Sometimes I get to explain about how important it is to be able to speak out against powerful institutions that may be corrupt or have a corrupting influence, that may be stealing or hurting people. That’s the reason we have the first amendment, after all, not simply to protect the Westboro Baptist Church screaming insults at a funeral, but to protect people like Edward Snowden who tell us when our government is breaking laws, or in a less controversial light, people like Neil Degrasse Tyson who speaks out about climate change and evolution despite how unpopular those things are in the US.

In other words, the right to free speech is protected so we can punch up at those in power who are ostensibly abusing it. Using your words to hurt, bully, intimidate, threaten, marginalize or oppress other people isn’t exercising your first amendment rights, it’s just being an asshole.

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When you tell the story of someone who is insulted for their race, religion, gender, orientation, etc and the reply is “You’re an adult” the follow up shouldn’t be “suck it up”, the comment isn’t directed at the victim, it’s directed at the attacker. “You’re an adult. You should know better”. Kids insult each other, bully each other, and call each other names because they are learning. As adults we tell them it’s wrong. We ask them to think of how they would feel if someone called them that name. You’re an adult, you should know better than to insult someone that way for no reason other than to prove you can. What are you 6? Like two kids in the backseat of the car, one sibling holding a finger just millimeters away from the other’s skin. “I’m not touching you! There’s no law against it. I have free speech.”

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Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to.

You’re an adult. You should know better.

The Crab Bucket

When I was learning how to be happy (another one of those things I keep meaning to write about in more detail), I read a lot of studies, and listened to a lot of psychiatrists, therapists, sociologists and neuroscientists. One day, I’ll make a comprehensive list with links and you can all take the shortcut to the searching I did, but until then, it gets doled out piecemeal.

Today’s piece: toxic relationships & crab bucket tribes. I had to learn about vulnerability from Brene Brown. I had been hurt so much that for part of my life it was easier not to feel. But Brene reminded me that is not a sustainable model for happiness, it’s only a barrier to pain and the absence of pain is not the same as the presence of joy.

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Being vulnerable is the only way to experience love, and love is key to happiness. Don’t just take my word for it, watch her TED talks, read her research. Being vulnerable means you open up to people and experiences. You let them in. That means people can hurt you. As a result, it’s really important to back away from the people who will hurt you often and badly. They may have the best intentions. They are certainly worthy of love, but that is not your job.

Additionally, I learned that our mental tracks, our personal narratives if you will, are greatly influenced by the people we spend time with. If we hang out with people who have no ambition, who are negative and critical all the time, who always find something to complain about or some reason not to try, then it becomes harder for us to break out of those thought patterns.kb2zocq

Even worse is the “crab bucket”. I learned this word from Sir Terry Pratchett, but I don’t think he made it up. Basically, there is no need to put a lid on a bucket of live crabs because as soon as one tries to climb out, it’s bucket-mates grab on and pull it back down. People do this too. People who are in bad situations for whatever reason, people who have had to learn to accept those situations (bad job, too many kids, crappy apartment, bad relationship, wrong career, etc), people who are unhappy but unwilling (or unable without great effort) to change it. They are comfortable in their discomfort. Seeing someone else get out, “make it”, improve their lives should be a cause for celebration, but too often it simply reminds them that their own lives are less than they want and it breeds resentment. They will attempt to keep those around them in the crab-bucket for all kinds of reasons besides flat up jealousy or resentment. It could be because they like you and want you around, they want to have things in common with you, or because they don’t want to be alone, but it’s still not good for you.

Whether someone is actively toxic in the sense of abuse and chronic negativity or passively crab-bucket in the best meaning friendly way, they are still an obstacle to your happiness and you can’t be vulnerable to them, you can’t invest your time in them without expecting them to have a commensurate impact on your life.

Excising toxic and crab-bucket people from my life was not easy. It was a deeply painful process. I admit, I didn’t confront many people. I let most of them quietly drift away. Moving out of country helped that a bit. Only the ones I truly deeply cared about did I try to talk to. Sometimes it worked and we improved our relationship. Sometimes it didn’t and it blew up in my face.

Now I’m getting better at making non-toxic friends up front, so hopefully I won’t have to do that again. But I’m encountering a new toxic, crab-bucket relationship in my life that I didn’t really see before: my country.

Your country is a lot like your family. You don’t get to choose where you’re born. I’ve often thought I was lucky to be born in the US. So much privilege and wealth. Such a wonderful history of freedom and innovation. Anything was possible… the American dream.

I learned the hard way that’s not real, but I was still hoping America was going to pull through. I admire people who work tirelessly to improve it, who don’t give up. I said before that even toxic people are worthy of love and I meant it. Just because I can’t be the person who gives it to them doesn’t make them unworthy. I guess I feel the same way about America. I’m starting to feel like hanging around crab-bucket-web1America is overly negative. I definitely feel like America is turning (has turned?) into one big crab bucket. People tell me all the time “every place has problems” as a way of minimizing the problems in America or somehow trying to equate them with problems in other places. People tell me all the time, “not everyone can just leave” as a way of reasoning out why they can’t.

Every place does have problems, just like every relationship has problems. You don’t stop talking to all humans because of it. You don’t give up on vulnerability or love. But you don’t stay in an abusive or toxic relationship either. Yes, in case it wasn’t clear, I’m comparing the US to an abusive or toxic friend/partner. I hear people in bad relationships say things like “no one’s perfect” and that’s what I hear when people say “every place has problems” in the wake of the Orlando shooting. Places that have problems like that are the national equivalent of abusive spouses. If you’re comparing yourself to central Africa to find something worse, it’s like saying yeah, he slaps me around sometimes, but at least he doesn’t cut me up or break any bones like Betty and Paul down the street. Neither one is ok!

And yes, it’s probably true that not everyone can leave the way I have. But more people could leave than are doing so. Countries like Germany are struggling with record low population growth and are desperate for immigrants who can contribute to their society as well as their population numbers. Places like Korea are giving away scholarships (transportation and living expenses included) to people who want to come here and commit to a multi-year study of Korean language. Furthermore, the people who are going to stay should be doing so because they want to fight for America, to work and toil and loose sleep and gain gray hairs to rebuild a place worth living in. That’s worth doing, oh gods yes.

Not every bullied LGBTQ+ leaves the bigoted southern towns they were raised in as soon as they turn 18. Some because they don’t know how, can’t afford it, think they have no place to go. But some because they want to stay to work to improve conditions for the next generation and that’s work worth doing. I met an amazingly bright young lady while I was teaching in China. She could have easily used her intelligence and education to get a job and move to a great city, or even leave China which is the dream of so many there. Instead, she told me her dream was to go back to her tiny village where people don’t even have indoor plumbing and teach at the local elementary school to give the next generation a better chance. Wow.

There are people in my life I thought were worth fighting for. I haven’t abandoned every relationship that was damaging. But I’ve made choices and worked for the ones I wanted in spite of the risk.

I’m looking really hard at America right now, because I don’t think I can passively live in the crab-bucket anymore. Right now, I’m taking a “break”, travelling around the world,  but before I go back for anything longer than a vacation, I have to decide if this is a toxic relationship I have to cut loose, or if it’s a painful relationship I want to work to fix.

Ghandi said we have to be the change we want to see in the world, but only you can decide what that means for you.

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The Bottom Layer of Love

Penny: “Sometimes people are layered like that. There’s something totally different underneath than what’s on the surface.”

Billy:  “And sometimes there’s a third… even deeper level… and that one is the same as the top surface one…Like with pie.”

-Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog

I promised in my preview that I would end the blog post on a positive note because it’s important to emotional health. I admit I’m not feeling super positive about the situation myself, but I’m going to do my best.

For me and others here in Korea, we experienced the love of the Pride festival before the shock of Orlando, but as the hours and days passed I began to see that in the US, they experienced news of the Korea Queer Culture Festival after learning about Orlando. So let’s start with a recap of the beautiful day. I found this great video on YouTube made by an English speaking Korean vlogger. Enjoy!

It’s the 1 year anniversary of legalized gay marriage in all 50 states.

The Pentagon has lifted the ban on transgenders serving in the military.

Kim Davis’ acts are now officially illegal and court clerks have to issue marriage licenses whether they like it or not.

Despite how dark it may seem in the wake of tragedies like this one, we need to remember the singular rallying cry “love conquers hate”. After the shooting, one friend still in the US sent a link to me of a news article about Korean parents who came to the festival to give out hugs and tell the festival goers that they were loved just as they were. She told me it gave her great hope after reading about the news in the US to see that love was still fighting around the world, so I’ll just leave you with this message of love.. like with pie.