Monday, March 28, 2011

Kicking the Bucket

"Jennifer, can I talk to for a minute?" my new director Jackie asked me towards the end of last week. When I followed her out to the foyer and the receptionists's chair, she continued. "We need to talk about your last day, so we can renew your contract and submit it to the immigration office to extend your visa."

I was taken aback for a moment, surprised at the suddenness of my director's request. Her first official day on the job had been just three days prior--and already she was aggressively tackling a legal issue I had been waiting to resolve for three weeks. "Let's discuss that a moment," I paused. It wasn't that I was hesitant to leave Korea, just that I was amazed that the time had finally come.

The moment I started to ask, Teacher Chloe deftly pulled a calendar from her desk and we began pouring over it. I knew I'd be leaving for a friend's party in the States come the middle of August, but I didn't want to start a new month and a new semester just to have to leave one week later. The three of us studied the graphic a moment before settling on a date: July 31, 2011. At just over four months away, that wouldn't give me much time.

Since I'm unsure if I'll ever have a chance to come back to the Land of the Morning Calm, I've compiled a Korean Bucket List--what I call my ADHBF: Adventures to Have Before Flying Off. My goal is to spend what's left of spring and all of summer exploring. If I devote two weekends a month to the project until I leave, I just might accomplish it all!


Moham 모험: Adventure
Korean Bucket List

Attend one of Matt's bi-monthly game nights in Chungju.

Eat dog. At least once.

Experience a cat cafe (where they let you pet them, not EAT them).

Fly or ferry to one of Korea's subtropical islands for the weekend.

Have a conversation in Korean with someone other than in the market or a taxi.

Hike Bukhansan Mountain.

Step foot onto Dokdo, Korea's hotly contested island shard in the East Sea (Sea of Japan).

Take the Chungju Ferry to Danyang.

Tour the DMZ.

Watch the sunrise from Korea's East Coast.

Visit another of Korea's national parks.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Man from Samgakji

Just after moving to Hwaseong-si last March, I was excited to note that I'd be living on the Seoul subway line. That meant there'd be no more two-hour early morning bus rides from Chungju to get to church on Sunday mornings, trips which rarely happened due to the distance needed to traverse. All it took now was a three-minute hop on the bus to get to Line One's Byeongjeom Station, seven stops to Guemjoeng, then 15 more to Line Four's Samgakji, with one final stop at Noksapyeong on Line Number Six. SIBC rested just down the road in Habangcheong, a five-minute walk from there.

One pleasant Sunday morning at Samgakji Station in the middle of that month, I started a conversation with a slightly older black man from Nigeria (or another similar African state), who also happened to be waiting for the train for Line Six. He said he was on his way to church at Hangangjin three stops away; I told him I was headed to church at Noksapyeong. I was so excited about my upcoming trip home to Texas the following April that I told this stranger about my brother's wedding as we waited for our train to arrive. We entered the subway together when it came, chatted amiably as we rode, and then cheerily parted ways once I reached my station.

Having come to Korea just four months before this encounter--with nearly all of that time spent in Chungju, excluded from the country's most popular ex-pat hub--I was still wide-eyed whenever I glimpsed another foreigner, no matter his nationality. Naively I believed that each one of them should be my friend. So, too, was my attitude towards this man: While standing on the platform together on that day, I gave him my name and email address. Pleasantly, he reciprocated with his own. I stuffed his address in my pocket when I left him and continued on my way, intending to add it to my growing list of Korea-based contacts.

Several months later in the summertime, long after my safe return from Texas, I found that scrap of paper with the man's email address written on it as I was cleaning things in my apartment. I contemplated for a moment whether or not to keep it; after all, how were acquaintances to become friends if not for more than initial contact? The more I thought about it, however, the more I felt convicted that this wasn't a connection that I needed in my life. The LORD had given me a plethora of friends here and this man didn't need to be one of them. It was then that the fun began.

After having not seen this man for months upon months, later that summer I bumped into him again at Samgakji. Not only did he remember me, but he also remembered where I had been and asked me about my brother's wedding. If memory serves, he even asked what I had brought him from the States. Red flag number one. He then recited everything I had said to him that first meeting verbatim--my name and email address, that is. Red flag number two.

He asked if I would go to church with him that morning, which I politely declined. And then he asked for my phone number. After I refused to give it to him, he became belligerent. "I thought you were nice," he kept saying. "You were such a nice girl. What changed you?"

I continued refusing him, reminding him that I was already late for church, but he wouldn't take the hint. "I am too," he said as he followed me out of the subway car at Noksapyeong, up two flights of stairs, then up two more escalators. "You were so nice," he repeated. "I thought you were nice."

"You're not gonna be nice?" he asked as we reached the last escalator and the exit to fresh air. "I thought you were a nice girl."

"I'm sorry," I told him as he followed me off the escalator. "I really have to go."

I didn't look back as I started my walk to church, though I prayed earnestly that he wouldn't follow me. He must have hailed a cab for Hangangjin, for I didn't see him again that day. But his persistence only worsened.

At this point, the man was merely a nuisance but not a threat. The next time I saw him about a month and a half later, we were standing in the same spot where we had met: just to the right of the stairs leading to Line Four, and just in front of the door to car number six. He had forgotten my email address, he said--magically--and needed me to refresh his memory. While I was at it, could I not toss him my phone number, too?

"You're strong," he hissed when I refused his request the second time. "Something happened when you were away. You're strong," he said again. And then he leaned in for the kill: "I break you."

Excuse me?

Mercifully at that moment our train chose to arrive; however, unmercifully, he was still headed in my direction. I walked onto the metro car and grabbed one of the thick vertical poles attached to the seats, which were sparsely populated by other riders. He advanced inside the train briskly and quickly found my left side, determined to continue his interrupted demands. "I break you," he repeated. He then grabbed the wrist that was holding onto the pole.

"Here, sit down," he whispered forcefully, nearly pulling me from my vertical position. I wriggled my arm free and remained standing, decisive silence filling the distance between us. After hearing the call for my stop, I abruptly shifted my weight towards the door and grabbed a cold handlebar to its right.

An older Korean woman stood next to me as Noksapyeong came into view. "Anieyo," she leaned over and whispered to me. Her hands were shaped into an over-sized X, Korea's universal sign for no. "Anieyo," she told me again, stringing unfamiliar sounds together as a form of advice.

"Comsahamnida," I thanked her as we heard the doors slide open. Even a monolingual ajumma could see through this man's actions, I reasoned.

There to greet my view as the train slid to a stop was the one who had witnessed half the encounter, my church friend, Holly Schoep. I threw my arms around her, never more thankful to see a friendly, aggression-less face, and confessed the scenario to her as we hiked up the stairs. "The LORD has made you into a strong woman," she proclaimed. "I'm proud of you for standing up to him."

Another month or two lapsed before my next encounter, this one just as eerie as the ones previous to it. I noticed him standing at the base of Samgakji's stairs as I breathlessly jogged down them. Avoiding him, I rapidly turned right when I reached the bottom and headed several rail car doors further on. I must have caught his attention, for as soon as the train arrived and I stepped onto it, there he was behind me.

I quickly crossed the width of the car to its right side and lowered my head toward my book. Following me, he tried conversing pleasantly at my elbow, but I didn't take my eyes from the page. He then followed me back across the train as I turned to face its left doors.

While I was still trying to read my book, he bent toward my right ear. "Next time I get your phone number, okay..."

This time I did look up. "Excuse me," I curtly declared and walked off the train.

I started trying to hide my identity at Samgakji as soon as the weather began to cool. Just before Line Four arrived at the station, I would quickly pull my hair into my hat, zip my jacket all the way up to my nose, and pull my circular scarf as far up my face as would permit me to see. It was impossible to fully disguise my hair, skin, or eyes in a land of monochromatic body tones, I knew--but perhaps my techniques would throw him off enough not to notice me.

As I repeated this stunt each Sunday, I would think about the things I couldn't hide: I always brought the same turquoise-blue travel bag to church, which never seemed to blend in. Plus, I was still reading the same book he had caught me with the last time. In the end, I thought perhaps disguising myself wouldn't do much good. Since it had been months since I had seen him last, maybe my Samgakji troubles were finally over.

This past Sunday proved a different story. As I stood at the side handlebar of the rail car's left doors, I caught a glimpse of a black man seated one section from me on the car's opposite side. That's him, I panicked. So he does ride the same train as me! Carefully I extricated myself from my post and slid through the double door leading to the next car. I looked down at the book I had forgotten to read just as a familiar voice reached my right elbow.

"Jenny," he called to me--with a name so intimate I let only my closet friends use. "I've been doing some traveling, too. It's such a long time. How are you?"

I had intended this to be a one-sided conversation and didn't glance up from my book. After several seconds' awkward pause, I finally thin-lipped, "I'm fine."

"Are you meditating?" he smoothly inquired.

Again, I was curt. "No, I'm reading."

As I said this, the train coasted to a jerky stop and opened onto Samgakji's platform. "Excuse me," I announced as I took my leave. He refused to take his.

I bolted for the arched opening from the platform to the corridor, feeling the weight of his steps as his shoes nipped at my heels. I half-walked, half ran to the other side of the passage, willing myself to calm down. Deliberately, I crossed to the right side of the vast hall, hoping I'd escape his pursuit if I hid myself inside a moving walkway. Yet Sunday was the one day these were turned off. I heard his heels click the metal slats of the non-moving horizontal escalator as we continued.

Bounding down the stairs at the end of the hall, his footfalls matched mine in intensity and speed. Clearly, this was a chase. I rounded the corner at the bottom, thinking I had time enough to hide, and stopped behind a large structural column a few meters past the stairwell. Through the glass reflection, I could clearly see him approaching my position from the front side.

"I recover your email," he smiled confidently at me as I tried slowing my breath. "I email you tonight. Is that okay?"

"No, it's not," I grimaced.

"May I see your book?"

"No!" I barked, surprising myself at my intensity. And then I looked him square in the eye. "You may not."

Though he was still smiling, inside I knew he felt defeated. Without another word, he shrugged half-heartedly and skulked away.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"You Might Be a Redneck"

Nearly anything on wheels goes for street traffic in South Korea. Two-wheeled motorbikes transform into fast-food delivery trucks as they weave in an out of lanes, careening toward their next paying customers. Buses, too, crowd the streets with populations nearly as numerous as the cars, steering toward pockets of humanity patiently awaiting their arrival. These have become almost indispensable parts of local surroundings, as expected in a Korean cityscape as the stone walls of a historic palace. Yet the vehicles populating the country’s roadways these days still have the power to surprise from time to time—just like the one I witnessed last November.

At 12:15 that Saturday afternoon, I checked my watch to monitor my progress. I had been walking for ten minutes and was still two blocks from the station. I quickly brushed past two Korean girls engrossed in animated conversation at a bus stop, then passed a parka-clad woman vending bunches of fresh spinach on the sidewalk. I glanced up to read the traffic sign suspended above the thoroughfare: Highway One, it read. The arrow pointing south indicated Cheonan; the arrow north, Suwon and, eventually, teeming Seoul. Ahead of me lay one of the busiest intersections in Byeongjeom.

As I crossed a grocer’s entryway and stepped onto the red-asphalt sidewalk that propelled me toward the station, I noticed to my left an ajossi with a baby blue down jacket in a black scooter chair six inches below my height. He was sitting in the middle of the street directly behind bus number 12, poised near the exhaust pipes. Opting for a fresher air source, he gingerly crept from his hideout and maneuvered his “four-wheeler” into the sliver of space between the bus and the sidewalk’s concrete bumper.

The approaching intersection’s stoplights are on and fully functional during other days; however, its signals turn to flashing yellow caution lights on the weekends. As crosswalk signs are not lit up at this time, this leaves foot traffic fighting for the right to cross just like other kinds. Horns blare and tempers mount as vehicles and pedestrians alike push toward an opportune time to jut into the chaos and cross back over to safety. As I waited for my cautious turn, I glanced back over my left shoulder to see what might happen with the man on the scooter.

Incredulous, I watched the man pull out from his position next to the bus and float into oncoming traffic. In a matter of moments he had crossed the intersection like a car, this time with a second scooter and the bus trailing behind him. I quickened my pace to follow him, curious at his destination. Confidently he held his course in the center of the road, blocking traffic flow, while I walked along the sidewalk. We parted ways only when he turned left, rounded the corner, and winked out of sight.

I glanced to my left again as I approached the same corner and crossed the adjacent street, curious if I could still find him. The last I saw of the man with the baby blue coat, he was still in his scooter in the middle of the road, slowly leading a trail of cars down a moderate side street towards Home Plus. South Korea, let’s just say, “You might be a redneck.”

Catching the 27

"Be anxious for nothing, but by prayer and supplication, let your requests be known to God." Phil. 4:6

When I first started working for Apple Tree, then a franchise of the language institute ILS, our director had arranged for the hagwon bus to pick up the other two foreigners and myself in front of our apartment building each morning. Four weeks later, we teachers having moved closer to the main street of Jinan-dong, he still came to get us; only this time, it was just James and myself who awaited him, since Jack was now located much closer to school in Dongtan. Financial situations at the hagwon were changing fast, however, and by the start of summer, our faithful driver had been replaced by bus number 27.

It was impossible to miss, this 27: Its roof and sides were a deep, sunny yellow, the windshield a pair of unblinking, bright eyes. Its denomination rested at the top left corner in a solid red circle with green numbers outlined in white. The schedule was to the left of the denomination, looking like a wide, rectangular uni-brow, solid white with alternating blue and red vertical lettering. Displayed at the windshield's bottom left corner was a thin yellow strip separating this bus from all others. "E-mat-uh Hang," it read in distinctive Greek-like print. It was the only bus that ran from Byeongjeom Station to Dongtan's E-Mart. Lucky for me, it cut right through the center of Jinan-dong.

Since beginning to ride this bus regularly, I have noticed other buses impersonating the uniqueness of the 27. The 35-2, for example, identical but for its smaller stature and blue denomination, often disguises itself in the bleary distance of the busy main street. My heart nearly skips a beat each time I pace towards the crosswalk and watch as a numbered yellow bus streams past half a block in front of me. Most of the time I recognize it as an impostor, but on occasion I have lifted my eyes to note with horror the distinctive red-green numbers speeding just out of reach.

As I arrive at the intersection every morning, I anxiously turn my head up and down the lane, scanning passing vehicles for that shiny sunny-yellow. If I spy it approaching, I quickly exhale a breathless, plaintive prayer: "Lord, it says in Your Word to be anxious for nothing, but by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. Father, STOP THAT BUS!" And then, with a deep breath, I start to run!

This morning I exited my house just minutes after my 10:30 ETD, silently worried that I might not catch the 10:40 bus to Dongtan on time. I checked my cell phone while passing the GS25, still more than two blocks from the main street and more than three from the bus stop. 10:40, read the time clock. I was late. I kept my eye on the traffic crossing the distance in front of me, reasoned that I might have to spend 15 minutes awaiting transportation, and continued onward.

I spied the tell-tell red circle while I was in the middle of the last block, just before reaching the main street. Meters from the intersection, I picked up my pace and sprinted across the striped pedestrian lane, the crosswalk signal hysterically blinking its warning. As I reached the other side and turned parallel to the street, I noticed the 27 lingered seconds longer than normal at my bus stop. Another lady was desperately run-walking to catch up with itperhaps I still had a chance!

The woman reached the bus stop nanoseconds after the 27 had left it. Her stamina or willpower, or both, must not have thought the race worth the fight, for she gave up and turned in toward the three-sided structure to await another bus. I thought of joining her as I jogged toward the scene, then noticed up ahead that the 27 had slowed and almost stopped less than a block away. It was unusual behavior for any bus to stop if it weren't on their route--indeed most of them don't even stop for traffic signals! On another day, it might have kept driving to the light two more blocks further down.

My feet kept pounding the pavement as I ate away the distance, sweet victory within reach. Four inches shorter than I might have been on the sidewalk, I knocked on the closed yellow doors to petition the driver to let me in. Compassionately, generously, he agreed. And I breathed a long sigh of relief.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Egg Droop Soup

For some time now I have quietly marveled at the profusion of eggs in this country: routinely sold by the three dozen in industrial-sized square blocks with egg-shaped plastic coverings and twine tying it all up like a present, for ease of carriage. Not only are they so abundant on grocery store shelves, they are just as numberless in Korean cuisine. They appear in anything from the topping on bokumpap, to a hard-boiled side dish for famous Korean noodles. You even find them resting on the side of the road to be used for a street stand's frying batter.

Sometimes the eggs you are served come with runny yolks, as is regularly the case with bibimpap. The agassi brings out your steel bowl filled with slices of carrots and cucumber, crumbles of meat and kim, and usually a heaping pile of steamed bean sprouts, all strategically balanced atop a generous helping of piping hot rice. And there in the middle of the vegetation is a freshly fried egg, smiling sunny-side-up just for you. Sometimes they come as a side dish to your som-gup-sal--a half-scrambled, half poached watery quiche that you devour as you wait for your barbecued pork to finish crisping. Yet despite their various forms of stage presence in the Land of the Morning Calm, I have never seen eggs served raw. That is, until yesterday.

Since graduating our last class of kindergarten students two weeks ago, Teacher Grace and I have become accustomed to going out to lunch; yesterday we decided on a restaurant on the first floor that our cook had recommended for its excellent bean-sprout-and-rice soup. "Kongnamul-guk-pap dugae chuseyo," Grace asked the waitress as we sat down. I noticed the Korean news was on, blaring from a T.V. mounted on the far wall just past Grace's head, and we chatted about recent international events until our food arrived.

The waitress came back minutes later and set two stone bowls of steaming rice stew in front of us, along with four small plates of side dishes, a stay-fresh glass container of dried kim, and two small steel bowls that held one egg each. The pudgy, yellow yolks still swam unbroken in their protein juice, uncooked but for the thin opaque layer delicately coating the bottom of the dish. I wondered if she had simply cracked the eggs into the bowls while the bowls were still hot.

In an overflow of Korean, the waitress began to explain her method: spoon some steamy broth into the egg-bowl while adding generous helpings of kim shreds, stir, and jjajan! You now have egg soup. She proceeded to stir mine herself while Grace copied her lead, certain that I wouldn't know what I should do when served such a bowl of viscous creatine. I watched, partly awed and partly mortified, as the guk magically transformed the soupy substance into creamy flakes of egg-white.

By no means was it fully cooked, however. As I tentatively stuck my spoon into the concoction to sample its effects, I noticed unattractive, droopy chunks of sticky, still-raw protein swimming in the yellowy pool. The mixture tasted good: rich and creamy from the runny yolks, salty-tangy from the seaweed. Yet I couldn't help but note the reason for its being called soup in the first place--the liquefied state of an egg just cracked. The imagery was too much for me; I set the metal bowl aside to concentrate on my gukpap.

"She said to eat the egg first and then the soup," Grace commented as I returned to my main dish. "But I'm gonna put it in here." My co-worker then proceeded to pour the substance into her still-hot stone bowl, thereby cooking any remaining raw protein. Though it would have solved my egg dilemma, I myself couldn't follow her lead because the act would have violated my private food-law of never mixing dishes together. Instead, I happily savored my gukpap and left the colorfully-invented "egg droop soup" to await the dishwater alone.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Full Circle

I was listening to KLove last night as I sat working on a blog post in my apartment. I had been tuned into the American radio station off and on throughout the day while doing chores, home due to Korea's Independence Day, Samil.

Around eight that night--five a.m., Central Standard Time--the morning show hosts took the air and issued a challenge to their listeners: As it was bright and early on the first day of March 2011, there must be some people out there having anxiously anticipated this day for a long time--some, perhaps, their whole lives. They referenced a young man in Tennessee (Kentucky?) named Tyler who would soon be taking the entrance exam for med school, and later this week marrying the love of his life. What, the co-hosts wondered, have you been waiting for?

After it was said, I thought nothing of the question and went back to blogging. This morning, however, was another matter. You see, I have been waiting: waiting to finish what began on August 1, 2009. That was the day the LORD put the word "challenge" on my heart, and effectively started this journey to South Korea. Six months later, after a devastating loss less than half-way through my first job offer, something else was started. And today marks its end.

One year ago today, I wore brown stockings just like I am now. I had a freshly cut 'do styled similar to the one I had done last week. I was also wearing blue long sleeves--belonging to my denim dress rather than the turtleneck I currently have on. I quietly cried through our school-wide tour, overwhelmed at yet another change in my life in just a few short months. One year ago today, I began my second year-long contract.

Much has changed in the Land of the Morning Calm in the time the Earth took to make its annual circuit around the sun. I've seen a total of three directors assume the role of headmaster, the final one taking control only as of January. I've also witnessed six full-time teachers quit, finish contracts, or be let go due to downsizing and economic loss. Standing with them at the ever-revolving elevator door of our fifth floor hagwon, have been four office staff members and half a dozen bus drivers--to let alone the growing number of students to leave our school.

I've also seen my share of financial ups and downs this year. Frustrated with the run-around I was getting from management several months ago, I wrote to my former colleagues, Andy and Brandon, about the problem. "I don't really know what's going on," I told them through Facebook. "The more I think about how matters stand, the more I don't want to sign up for another round."

Yet even in my frustration, it was clear I would stay to the end. Come what may, I had given my word--and a promise is a promise, no matter the circumstance. But above honor, I knew it was right in the eyes of the LORD to suffer for doing good (ref. I Pet. 2:20). "I have enough saved for a ticket home were it to come to that," I told the guys, "but I would really like to finish one of the two contracts I signed this year."

Others were also witness to my persistence. "I have to finish what James and I started ten months ago," I told Grace Teacher rigidly, as we faced yet more adjustments to schedules and policies earlier in January. I couldn't give up when I was so close!

Slowly, steadily, this day has crept into view, furthered along by two national holidays, yet more students leaving, and--the crowning joy--K-2's energetic, timely graduation last Friday morning. At the close of the day, nothing more is certain for the future of the hagwon but my continued presence in it, for as long as Jesus would have me stay there.

"What day is today?" I asked James tonight over the phone.

"Today is Wednesday."

No, no. He was thinking about the question wrong. "What date is it today?"

Contemplating the inquiry more deeply, he ventured another guess. "Today is Wednesday, March second."

I just knew he would piece it together this time. "So what day is it?" I asked expectantly. The voice in my head screamed out the date, even as recognition of its significance escaped my teacher-friend.

After a pause devoid of the answer I sought, I kept going. "We finished, James. We made it to contract!"

Yes, indeed, James Teacher, we have.