Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Winterize Your Mind

We had a White Christmas in Gunsan and it was really exciting. For about 2 days.

Then the clean snow melted and left us with brown slush, icy roads, and a lingering chill. And the novelty started to wear off. Being from the Pacific Northwest, and never doing snow sports, I'm not used to being in freezing temperatures for more than a few days at a time. The fate of this unflinching winter cold is finally settling in, and I already wish that it would get warmer, back to a mild 50 degrees and raining like a sensible Seattle winter. Or I just wish I could take a trip to the southern hemisphere and be in instant summer.

My friend Will gave me an awesome book last year for Christmas called "When Wanderers Cease to Roam" by Vivian Swift. She is a middle-aged woman who spent the decades of her adult life traveling all over the world, and now lives a stationary existence on Long Island. The book is part journal, part seasonal reflections, part travel memoir, and part watercolor art. It is a really original and lovely book. There is a part called "How to Winterize your Mind" for January, which I would like to share here.

"ONE: See the sun rise and set every day. The average night is 13.5 hours long. We spend most of January in the dark. Don't miss a minute of daylight.
TWO: Learn how to draw a tree. Now is the best time to see what a tree really looks like. Draw one a day.
THREE: Put something beautiful in your room so that it's the first thing you see when you wake up.

an aqua-colored princess phone* an antique perfume bottle* a glass wind chime* a Spode tea cup, a tin of Assam tea* a blue jay feather* the words to your favorite song* a puddle of summer rain"

Last night I woke to a loud rumble, which sounded just like F-16's flying overhead. Since the nearby Airbase doesn't usually do practice flights at 4am, I thought there must be an attack by North Korea. I don't live in fear of this, but it's always a possibility. I then realized that the sound was not fighter planes, but just really loud howling wind. I didn't know until morning that with the wind came a downpour of snow, about 4 fresh inches by the time I was leaving for work. And still coming.
I'd rather have this new snow than the old slush, and in a way I feel renewed for a few days. Like it or not, a definite Korean winter is here to stay, and I just have to get used to it, and plow forward into the New Year with a winterized mind and spirit. So friends, do what you need to do to warm and comfort yourself, to make your heart cozy.

And let's all keep a sense of humor for 2011. Yesterday I went to the gym and after working out went into the locker room to change. An older woman was staring at me in mild shock while she BLOW DRIED her bum-hole. Yes, cheeks spread apart, toward the whole locker room, using a hair-drier I was hoping to use later on my HAIR, while SHE stared at ME for oddly enough being from one of the 200 other countries on the planet that is NOT South Korea, and then working out at the SAME gym as her. Pretty ridiculous moment. Laugh, and winterize, and I think it will be a good start to the year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Merry 크리스마스!

This was only my 2nd Christmas away from home, the first being in Mexico in 2005. I couldn't complain spending that holiday on a beach in Baja, though here in Korea things were actually fairly traditional. With the solid handful of foreigners in Gunsan, we had each other to celebrate with, all excited to stave off that lonely, away-from-home holiday feeling and be together.

It ended up being a 4-day celebration, starting on the 23rd. We traded our usual plastic jugs of Hite beer for a more elegant cocktail party. There were suits and ties and party dresses and various cocktails. It was so nice to have a different kind of party in Gunsan and see our friends get dressed up.
Christmas Eve day was mellow. I slept in, went downtown, had tea with a friend, and rode my bike in the very lightly falling snow. Then Aaron and I went out to dinner at a duck place on the outskirts of town that I've been wanting to go to for a long time. We had dish called 오리주물럭 which is duck stir-fried with carrot, onion, and leeks in a spicy red sauce. It was really delicious, and the side-dishes were good too- sweet and spicy bean spouts, shrimp broth tofu soup, and an interesting firm cabbage kimchi. Then I went home and watched It's a Wonderful Life and drank hot chocolate.
Christmas morning was clear and beautiful. There were patchy remnants of snow, but it wasn't a White Christmas. I Skyped with my dad in Florida which was really nice. Thank goodness for Skype.
My mom and sisters sent a package with gifts for Christmas and before. My sister was so thoughtful to put things that would make it feel like the holiday season- lights, candy canes, festive socks, scented candles. I opened the rest of the gifts in this awesome package, including things I can't get in Gunsan like Seattle tea and organic dark chocolate, and even my own stuffed stocking! So wonderful to still have a stocking, and a big thank you to them for thinking of me all the way over here.

Another of our traditions is a Christmas brunch, and incidentally this is what the foreign crew had planned. I made a roasted eggplant frittata and headed back to James' and Jen's house in the late morning. They are the same couple who hosted the cocktail party 38 hours before, so we are all grateful for their willingness to open their house. They are among the few people who have a place big enough to fit more than 5 people!
It was one of the most amazing brunches I've ever had- biscuits with homemade sausage gravy, crepes with fresh fruit and Canadian maple syrup, smoked salmon with cream cheese, brie, bagels, and capers, pancakes, a fruit platter, yogurt, croissants and other pastries, bacon, fruit cake, mimosas, and coffee and baileys. Did I mention BACON? I think all the food was made more special by the fact that a lot of the ingredients are hard to find in Korea.

After we had all gone back for not seconds but thirds, we could sit back and focus on the gift exchange. We planned a White Elephant with a personal trivia quiz to rank the order of opening gifts. In the week prior, we all emailed Jen one little-know fact about ourselves, and she compiled them into a quiz. Of course, you try to match what you know of people's personalities to the facts, but it was harder than anticipated. It was also funnier than anticipated, with facts such as, "In high school, I was voted most likely to flirt at my own wedding" and "I've ridden an ostrich" and "I won $150 on an MTV game show then immediately lost it to a carnie in a double-or-nothing billiards game". We discovered friends who are musically inept, have almost died of hypothermia, are traumatized by headless chickens, lived in tents for months, and interviewed presidential candidates. I would love to do this again in the future with other groups of friends or family.
Then we graded and scored the quizzes, and the person with the lowest score got to pick a gift first. Then the next lowest score can either open another gift or steal a gift that is already open.... and so forth down the line. People had all gotten nice, interesting gifts, and in the end I got probably the most Korean one- a furry white hat with bear head and ears on it, with an attached scarf that ends in bear paw mittens. Before coming to Korea, I would have considered this gift only appropriate for some one under 10 years old, but now Korean style has slowly infiltrated my brain, and I really like my animal hat/scarf combo. As we gathered our dishes and gifts to head home, snow had started falling in flurries outside.

It kept coming down as I relaxed and drank tea in my apartment. A White Christmas! I was thinking back, trying to remember how many I've actually had. We've had more snow in Seattle in recent winters than from most of my childhood, and I'm thinking that all in all, maybe I've had 5? Do any other Seattle-area folks have an estimate for White Christmases over the last 28 years?
I was still a little full from brunch, so I figured walking to dinner and enjoying the snow was a must. There were women sweeping the snow, and a few people shoveling walkways. Cars were on the road but going slowly, and overall it was just so peaceful and quiet. A group of 14 of us had made reservations at a new Italian restaurant in town, right on Eunpa Lake overlooking the water. We had decided to go with a set menu and fixed price for our large group, and enjoyed caprice salad (OMG FRESH MOZZARELLA, how I've missed you!), and multiple pizzas and pastas with wine and good beer before a walnut cake dessert. The best was an olive oil chicken pasta with lemon, capers, and roasted garlic. The dish was simple, but really really really good. The service was bit slow, but normal for Korea. At ethnic restaurants here it's hard to know exactly what foreign aspects will be adopted and what will remain Korean. Overall it was a really nice meal in a lovely spot.
We tromped into the snow again over to Cherie's place... Christmas was not over yet! We squeezed into her apartment and played a hysterical game of boys vs. girls Charades and then a homemade version of Taboo.
Sunday was Boxing Day, Day 4 of festivities. A group of about 10 of us went to the neighboring city of Iksan to go Ice Skating. We rented skates that were by far the most ghetto ones I've ever seen. They were a hard plastic, so it was difficult to lace them up well, and the blades were completely dull. On the freshly flooded ice, the skates didn't cut into the ice at all, and you literally just slid sideways when you tried to skate! I asked the guy to sharpen the skates and he said no. I asked to exchange them and he said they were all the same. I cannot fathom that a country that is known for speed skating and figure skating, and won Olympic Medals, would subject its average citizen to such a mediocre skating experience. But once more people had skated and the ice started getting rough, we could actually skate a little bit, and had fun. We were the only foreigners, and there were cute couples and a kids speed-skating team. (Photo by Lindsay)

It was a full four days of plenty of activity, festivities, and good food. Hope every one had a Merry Christmas, wherever you are and in whatever ways you celebrate!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Civil Defense Drill

At 2pm on the 15th of every month, South Korea is supposed to conduct a "Civil Defense Drill". An announcement comes over the radio, and all work, school, transport, etc. must stop for 20 minutes and simulate what they would do in case of an attack by North Korea. Only, these drills never actually happen.

But today, December 15th, on the first Drill Day since the November 23rd shelling of the South Korean island, the country actually took the exercise seriously. When North Korea fired on this small border-water island a few weeks ago, it was said to be the most aggressive attack in decades, and the first assault on a civilian area since the end of the Korean war in 1953. We were told about the drill the day before, that we would have to bring all our students to the school gym at 2pm. You are supposed to seek an underground shelter, but our school doesn't have one, so the gym was the best we could do. For 20 minutes we listened to the voice on the radio, explaining this was only a drill, and what every one should be doing.

The students didn't seem to take it too seriously. Compared to the orderly fire and earthquake drills I had to do in school, this seemed pretty laid-back. But apparently nation-wide, it was the biggest drill since they began in the 1970's. For more details, here's an article from Yahoo News called "Korea Stages Mass Evacuation Drill Amid Tension". The average South Korean doesn't seem too worried that the North will attack, so I try to take my cue from them. But about an hour after the drill, when I heard the F-16's from the nearby Air Base flying overhead, I felt a little jumpy.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Daedunsan Hiking

Today is my 9 month anniversary in Korea. Now that I'm 3/4 of the way done with my contract, I'm feeling like the rest of my time here will go really fast. Time is slipping away and there are still a few key things I want to do before I go. One of those things was to hike in Daedunsan Provincial Park, a day hike from Gunsan, before it closed from a big snowfall.

Weekends have been busy, but I finally had a free weekend, and Saturday was a surprisingly warm and beautiful day for December. I took a bus with 2 of my main hiking buddies (though one friend I always hike with is in Thailand-missed you Greg!) and was happy that the bus went directly to the trail head. Most hiking I've done here requires at least one if not two bus changes to get to the park. We were instantly met with stunning views of craggy rocks coming out of the mountainside, along with a suspension bridge and cable cars in the distance. Like all Korean hiking trails, there were NO switchbacks- just stone and metal staircases straight up the mountain. So it was a great workout even though the park is not that large.

To get to the highest peak, you have to go up this insanely steep cable staircase. I don't have a fear of heights, but being on this thing swaying in the wind was a bit disconcerting. Toward the very top we got into a little snow, luckily with railings and ropes on the side of the trail.
We made it to the top, where you can see the surrounding hills as well as the other outcroppings on the mountain. It's a really cool hike, with many viewpoints and different perspectives. We sat to rest for a moment, and a nice group of middle-aged Koreans took us under their wing. Though they spoke almost no English, they were quite convivial and offered us Korean rice wine, tangerines, and dried squid. Some of my best experiences I've had with Korean strangers have been while hiking, when people seem genuinely gleeful to see foreigners outside enjoying the mountains. And they can't fathom us only snacking on granola bars and apples when we should be drinking soju and eating squid. (Photo by Cherie)
Then we wandered on to another outcropping and found our own serene spot in the sun overlooking the layers upon layers of distant mountains. It was the clearest view I've had in Korea, and the quietest. It was a little side trail, and such a treat to have the rock to ourselves. We watched birds swoop and people far below cross the cable bridge. Then we descended partway down to check out the cable bridge for ourselves.
From there you could either continue walking down the stone stairs another hour to the bottom, or you could take the cable car! Many parks in Korea have cable cars, and I've been wanting to take one, so today was my day. While we waited in the long line, I tried some traditional tea of boiled jujube called Daechucha. It has a good fruity taste at the beginning which leaps into a bitter, medicinal finish. Overall I like it, and it's supposed to be good for muscle aches. Finally they packed us into the cable car in a fit so tight I'm sure it was over-capacity, but sped down the hillside without incident.At the bottom we ate hot noodles, dried persimmons, and a really delicious seafood pajeon (savory green onion rice-flour pancake). Then we did some stretches and drank sweet Korean coffee before catching the bus back to Gunsan. It was an awesome day and I'm really happy I was able to get one more hike in.

On Sunday I was determined to be as lazy as possible. The weeks have been so busy, and usually on Saturday morning I do long runs and/or go out of town, so by Sunday I really need to decompress. I had a big brunch, read, then watched the latest Glee episode. It was Christmas-themed, and made me want to decorate. I was getting antsy being in the house, so even though it was FREEZING, I took a bike ride downtown to get some Christmas decorations. I now have a mini-tree that is trimmed, plus a poinsettia a friend gave me. All in all, a good weekend! I'm going to bed early, actually ready for Monday.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Racing Through Seoul

I like training for races because it keeps me motivated to exercise. I ran a half marathon along the Seawall here in Gunsan in May, on a warm day amidst a festive atmosphere of music, drums, costumed runners, chanting, and sparkling ocean water. By fall I was looking to do another one, and found one in Seoul in early December. I signed up with 4 other friends to do the half marathon, and one friend to do the 10K. We trained separately sometimes, together sometimes, often running in the dark and cold. Finally race day came last Saturday, so we all hopped an early bus to Seoul. Fortunately it started at 2pm, the warmest part of the day, but still chilly and grey. The course was along the Han River which cuts Seoul in half.

Here are the 6 of us before the race. Luckily we had a non-racing friend there as well to cheer us on and take pictures. We saw a handful of other foreigners, but of course, it was almost all Koreans. And the Koreans all looked over 40, while all the foreign runners looked under 40. It's the same with hiking- you don't see many young Korean adults out on trails, it's mostly the older generations.
There were less people than I thought there'd be, and it lacked the exuberant vibe of the Gunsan Seawall race, but maybe that is to be expected in December. It was still pleasant with a faint buzz of anticipation, music, a dance show, and group stretching exercises.
They started making announcements and people with our same color bib numbers started moving toward the start line. Often you don't have to speak the language to understand what's happening, but the MC still used some English, "Um, now is the half... you know, uh, half." Once we were all tightly lined up, the group massage began! We all massaged the shoulders of the person in front of us, then turned around and karate chopped the person behind us. Then we were off!

The course wasn't stunning, but it was nice to be on a foot-trail along the river, and run under bridges and pass towering buildings and the N. Seoul tower in the distance. It's always interesting to people-watch as well, like the guy in front of me with the Adidas shirt that said "Impossible is nothing." Or seeing a decent number of women runners, when I NEVER see any women out running (where do they train?!). Or just always having to pay attention to not get run over/run into/cut off in the total lack of trail etiquette. I often wish I had a video camera strapped to my head to record the weaving ways of moving Koreans, whether they are walking, running, cycling, or driving.

Anyway, I felt great for the first half of the course, and my half time was faster than in training, but then I got a killer side ache. I had to hobble for a few kilometers and my friends were all ahead of me, but I felt better toward the end and finished strong. My time was 6 minutes faster than the Seawall race, and I think actually the cooler weather was nice since you don't get as dehydrated from sweating. Besides tight quadriceps, I was perfectly warm. I crossed the finish line to cheering friends who also all had good races.

There were bottles of water for immediate consumption then over in the recovery area, there were booths giving away hot tea and hot tofu soup. There were also little cups of makgeolli, Korean unfiltered rice/wheat wine. We thought there'd be a warming tent, but no such luck. By the time we took our timing chips off our shoes and found where to drop them, we were all freezing. When you turn your chip in, you get a goodie bag with your finisher's medal, bananas, a bread roll, and a cookie.

We took taxis back the guesthouse, cold and tired but feeling good. It's a great guesthouse- right in Hongdae off the subway stop, a room for 8 people with a loft, and a nice view from the 19th floor. It took awhile to get all of us feeling warmed and normal, with hot showers and coffee and the heater and blankets and Gatorade and stretching. But we managed to head out for a Mexican dinner of nachos, burritos, and margaritas which we were all pretty excited about.
We wandered through the Christmas-lighted Hongdae area for some drinks. At one point I tried a beer from North Korea- not great with a watery and skunky flavor- but I couldn't pass it up. Sore muscles aside, we couldn't stop ourselves from dancing on a rare night out in the big city.

On Sunday morning we headed to Itaewon for a Western brunch- only my second one in Korea after Daegu 2 weeks ago! I've always really liked brunch, but after living here, brunch is exalted to a whole new level. I don't think I've ever been so excited for a cheesy omelet with mushrooms and peppers, toast, mixed baby greens, and coffee. Last stop was grocery shopping at the international food store before catching the bus back to Gunsan. A few of us went straight to the jimjilbang, or Korean spa, to soak in the hot tubs and sit in the saunas. It was the perfect ending to a full weekend of lots of exercise, lots of food, and time with some of my favorite people in Korea.