Equinoctial Ensorcellments

I must admit that I had to look up the adjectival form of equinox. But now I’ve done it so you don’t have to. Now that that’s out of the way.

So the equinox is actually a moment, not a relative phenomenon. Unlike something like an eclipse that moves around as things move around, the equinox refers only to the equator and so only happens once each time. Which is a poor explanation for why I’m used to it being on the 22nd but this year it’s on the 23rd. Because I’m in Korea. And so it’s in the early morning of the 23rd while most of the world is still on the 22nd.

I don’t really care much about it, but it’s a bit of an interesting fact. (Also an interesting fact, the meaning of ‘factoid’ is an interesting fact that is actually false). Ancient peoples, I’m sure you know, often put great emphasis in the various celestial comings and goings and celebrated them in many ways. In Korea, more concerned with the moon than the sun historically, the primary autumn festival is coming quickly upon us in the next couple weeks. More on that as it comes.

The equinox itself is kind of a fun thing, the true beginning of fall (though I often feel like the equinoxes and solstices should mark the middle or like, one third of their respective seasons but whatever). I don’t really have anything mystical to say, but I wanted an alliterative title so I had to say something mysterious. Something evocative of druids or ritual sacrifice or ancient, harvest-helping dances. Anyway, I think that’s enough of that.

Nothing much is happening in my life. Except I feel like I’m having a really good week. My week itself hasn’t been anything particularly pleasant or good, but I’ve just been feeling it, you know? Most of the time, at least. I’ve gotten a couple errands done in the past week or two and so that’s nice. Bigger errands, the sort that have been hanging over my head for a while.

I’ve been reading some too, of course, and that’s been nice. But mostly things have been pretty humdrum here.

Thinking about the equinox, while I’m here, I might as well say a few words. Equal night and all that. My halfway point in Korea wasn’t actually that long ago and I guess I’ll take a moment to examine that.

When I tell people here that I’m planning on staying for a year, they typically say something about that’s how they started and here they are five years later. And I’m just like, no. Maybe it’s the mindset I came here with (though I’m not sure how exactly I’d define that) or maybe it’s just different strokes for different folks, you know? But I’m not cut out for Korea. My time here has not been bad. The food, as long as I avoid the spicy things (as difficult as that often is), is good. My coworkers are cool. Places I visit are cool. But it took essentially zero time for me to decide that I wasn’t going to stay for two years as had been my initial hope (because two years looks nicer on a résumé than one).

I think I’ve taken to teaching fairly well, especially since I don’t have to come up with a curriculum or anything.

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Doesn’t she just look like the epitome of cozy? It’s possible she’s trying to actually turn into a pillow, she moves about as often and she’s just about as squishy.

And with that incredibly sweet kitty, I’ll leave you for the week. The beginning of the end of the year is upon us. It will be November, methinks, before we know it.

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The Gift Shop at the Edge of the War

In an atmosphere maybe eight steps down from impending doom (as regards expected missile firings) and a feeling like it was any ordinary day, last Saturday I went to North Korea and lived to tell the tale. The day went sort of like this:

I got up early(ish) to get into the city center to meet up with the tour, made sure I was on the right bus, and drove about an hour to the edge of the civilian control line, a buffer zone created by the south to give the actual DMZ some extra breathing space. And yes, for your reference, all that follows took place really only an hour casual drive from the center of Seoul.

So let me explain a little of the political/military geography of the border area. The border itself is called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) because the war is not actually over, they just signed a ceasefire and the ‘border’ became the last point of hostile contact between the armies. A small buffer area on either side of the MDL was created to keep the armies apart for the ceasefire and this is the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. On the southern side, they added an additional barrier zone called the Civilian Control Line (CCL) within which the Korean military is basically in charge, though some normal people do live there. I don’t really understand all the complexities of it (and believe you me it is complex) but that’s the gist.

Anyway, we drove up to the CCL and got our passports cursorily checked by the South Korean army (colloquially known as ROK soldiers for the Republic of Korea–as opposed to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Once inside the CCL, we first went to a train station. This station, on the line from Seoul to Pyongyang, served briefly as a cargo holding area while the two countries were operating the Kaesong Industrial Complex. That was a set of factories financed by Southern companies and mostly worked by Northern employees in an effort at rapprochement. It was shut down after some continuing conflict between the two but may be opened again eventually. The South would really like the rail line to be totally open because it would connect the South by land to China, Russia, and even Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, among others. As it is, however, it’s an empty, though modern, station that serves as the last stop in the South.

Next up was a stop at Tunnel #3. This is a small tunnel fairly deep underground dug by the North under the DMZ in order to support a supposed invasion. It is the third such tunnel found, of four, and who knows how many others there may be, if any. Once discovered, the North obviously collapsed their end and the South put in place cameras and a great deal of dynamite. And then opened it to tourists–but more on that later.

Driving around the CCL, one encounters a great deal of dynamite. It’s typically in big towers next to the road, or else unmarked overpass-type things. These are meant to be exploded in the event of an invasion so as to bloc the road and prevent tanks from taking the highway to Seoul which, you’ll recall, is only an hour away.

The last stop in the morning was an observation post atop a small mountain/hill. From here, you could see the DMZ, the Industrial Park, and the nearest North Korean city. Unfortunately for us, we had some pretty terrible haze that day so our vision was considerably obscured. We could sort of make some things out and I guess that’s going to have to be good enough for me.

After lunch, we made a quick stop at a park just outside the CCL commemorating the bridge across which prisoners of war were exchanged after the ceasefire. Here were an abundance of prayer ribbons and mementos, tokens of families divided and a country of hopefuls wishing for reunification. Obviously, there was a quasi-fair-theme park vibe going on next door, and there were several restaurants (including a Popeye’s) and a convenience store. You could climb up to the roof and look out over the river past the CCL and, in decent weather, perhaps into the DMZ itself.

After a change of bus, we headed back across the CCL and straight on into the DMZ for a brief stop at Camp Boniface, he headquarters of the UN-administered mission along the border. There, we received a little presentation about the history of the zone, events that had occurred at the Joint Security Area (JSA), and what they do there. The JSA is a small complex of buildings that housed negotiations for the ceasefire and a number of talks since. There is a large building for each side and a few small ones in the middle. There is also the set of buildings administered by neutral country observers–the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission or NNSC– since the end of the Soviet bloc Sweden, Switzerland, and sometimes Poland (previously Czechoslovakia was also a member).

Then we hopped on a base bus which took us to the JSA, walked quietly in double file through the ROK building and over to the building in which we could actually cross the MDL and enter the North (in a technical and, let me tell you, very real sense). We took a moment back at Camp Boniface to look through the gift shop and then we were finished. We drove back to Seoul. That was it.

Just before leaving, I was talking with one of the other tourists on my bus, a German chemistry teacher, about how strange it all was. Surreal. Not only the experience itself, crossing into North Korea, but also the whole feeling of the tour. The fact that there was a tour. It somehow (not somehow, very clearly) felt wrong to commodify tragedy and what is literally a war without a peace treaty. And yet, there we both were, participating in said commodification. I even bought a small souvenir, I’m a little ashamed to admit, because I simply couldn’t not.

As much as I’m generally against capitalism (you know what, scratch that ‘generally’) and harbor moderate distaste for democracy, the tour and the numerous gift shops epitomize South Korea. The whole point of the war was Capitalism and Democracy. So it’s fitting that overpriced souvenirs are on sale less than a mile from one of the most dangerous/undangerous places in the world. It makes me uncomfortable but it also makes me marvel at the tenacity of humans who have decided what they believe.

Anyway, it was early evening when I returned, just outside Seoul Plaza. Walking to the metro station there, I saw a great deal of something which, upon investigation, turned out to be a book festival. In the stunning goldish yellow of the last couple hours of daylight, I searched for and found an English-language table of used books and walked away with the Wal-Mart copy of Robinson Crusoe which I’ve never read but think I’ll enjoy when I finally get around to it.

The end of a surreal day, crowned with an impulsive book buy. I’m still not really sure how I feel about everything. In particular, I’m not sure how I feel about the gift shop that’s practically in the middle of a frozen war, but I can’t say it’s disrespectful. It knows exactly what it’s doing.

북한산

Bukhansan is the highest mountain in Seoul at 836 meters, or a little over 2,700 feet. Not monstrous but respectable, especially because it’s the heart of a national park on the fringes of one of the largest cities in the world. If you give it a second, you could probably divine what shapes make the ‘a’ and ‘n’ sounds–and therefore the others too. Maybe.

Anyway, on Saturday I was invited along with a couple friends to hike up the highest peak of Bukansan, Baegundae. The trail started out ‘moderate’ for about an hour, then was ‘advanced’ for about the same, and the final twenty minutes or so were ‘expert’. In this case, moderate referred to a pretty normal trail on a mountain. Advanced meant rough piles of rocks tumbled together in a steep, vaguely stair-like fashion. Expert, which certainly no one there was, consisted primarily of large bare rock faces at extraordinary angles with a rope handrail along one side. I’m probably exaggerating a little because of my relative inexperience, but it was quite a slog.

My goodness, though, the view. I may have mentioned this before, but Seoul is a ginormous city and standing on the summit (a tiny rock surface crowded by a memorial, flagpole, and selfie-takers) was an experience. It was a remarkably clear day and we could see well past the river, something the haze normally bars even from much closer vantage points. That meant the whole park lay like a rumpled green gown beneath us and the city itself showed its off-white endlessness as its claws dug into the small islands of treed hills scattered across the horizon.

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It was a beautiful view, and the mountain was absolutely gorgeous. But it was also kind of hideous to see this human behemoth blanketing what once was certainly an incredible and natural vista. Even the summit itself sported signs of humanity, from the fortress (which seemed silly, no army was going to climb directly over the top of the tallest mountain in the area) to the radio antenna to the power lines that followed much of the trail up. Even the noise–we ate lunch just under the peak facing into the park and when we went back up to go down we suddenly realized the dull roar we had hitherto been tuning out.

But I digress. Yes, it was beautiful. I would recommend it and I would return. There was an amazingly clear stream that followed our rocky trail. We even encountered a pair of mountain kittens on our way back down–we happened to be carrying some tuna leftover from lunch so we watched delightedly as they deigned to come a few steps closer to devour it.

IMG_20170902_132453849 Like I said, it was wonderful. The mountain kittens might be one of my favorite experiences in Korea. But it also just made me sad. You couldn’t escape the city in any direction, on any peak, in any park. Obviously there is plenty of land in Korea outside of cities–it’s maybe even better than in the US since more Koreans live in cities and they generally lack the urban/suburban sprawl that so afflicts North America.

I don’t know, I think I have some oddly complicated feelings about nature. I don’t need to go into them here, it’s whatever.

Anyway, the rest of the week held very little for me. Some more reading, dipping a couple toes back into Netflix but at a more reasonable rate, and not much else. Last week we had Wednesday off, the first in ages, and this week I had phone classes. This time, though, it was the early class and we only had a half day so we finished as seven. And I would ten times out of ten choose phone classes over a one-on-one. But this term is different insofar as I don’t know that Wednesdays will be regular like they were first term. So who knows what I’ll do next week. But they have been promised to be half days except for make-up tests.

Other than that, just settling nicely into the term. Here’s hoping it stays nice.

In Which My Love Affair with Books Continues Unabated

Can I just start this post by mentioning that time, a number of years ago now, that I learned adults can get zits too. Like, you’ll never truly be rid of them unless you’re very lucky. I don’t have acne or anything, but even occasional zits are just beyond the pale.

The first week of autumn term is nearly finished. I’m back to teaching the same courses as my first term, but I’m teaching higher levels and one of them is substantially different. However, I’m only teaching two levels! A major improvement over last term, and I’m still very grateful for it. I like my classes, generally. I’ve taught nearly half of them before which means I guess I’m practically an old hand (at least in terms of foreign teachers here). They made me move classrooms, which is a shame as I’d been in 102 for the entire six months. But now I’m in 207, the last room at the end of the poorly-lit hall upstairs. It has its perks but I’m still getting used to it.

Not much else to report. I had Wednesday off, the first in a long time, and I made good use of it. I went to brunch with some friends and then wandered around. We visited a new cat café since the one we normally go to has been closed recently (hopefully not forever). There were no games to be had, but there were many more cats and of many varieties. It wasn’t long before we had given many of them names: Foxy Grey and Foxy Tan, Bedraggle, Cloud Baby and Cloud Baby 2, Big Face, Friend, and Tuxy. We passed a very enjoyable hour or two among the cats before heading briefly to an arcade and then home.

It felt like a long day but I got home at 6:30 and it was amazing. Plenty of time to read.

I know I talk kind of a lot about books. But it’s kind of how I live my life and I’m not sorry about it. I’ve been into several in the past couple weeks; not the same fervor from a while ago, but I’ve made my way through a number of them. One, that I started on Sunday night and finished less than twelve hours later, got me all sorts of feeling.

Some books are like that. They reach into you and start dancing around in your skin, singing songs you didn’t think you knew and stretching muscles you could’ve sworn you didn’t have. It doesn’t much matter whether the book is any good, or if you’re interested in the plot, or if you like the characters. Sometimes all it takes is a couple pages and wham bam it’s all over you have the book sickness.

I had that, a little, this week, and I’m grateful for it.

 

Actual, Literal Thumbnails

Cat update from my sister, Béégashii is a jungle hunter and a model.

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In other news, I almost cut my thumb making soup the other day. I was slicing greens. My first reaction was a little gasp, the kind you make when a glass is falling off the table. Seeing that I wasn’t bleeding and instead had a little gash on my thumbnail I said to myself, “I’m so grateful for thumbnails.” That is my story for the week.

As an aside, I get where the term thumbnail in photography comes from, pictures the size of your thumbnail, but like, strange yeah? Interestingly, the figurative sense of the word actually originates like in the 18th or 19th century, referring to any picture that was very small even before photography. So there you have it.

But actually. I’m trying to be more grateful in general. I’ve started a little practice of writing down things every day. It’s not really a journal, three sentences a day, but I’ve kept it up for a bit and I like it. I write 1) something I’m grateful for (from thumbnails to cookies to having a job) 2) something I’m praying for for myself 3) something I’m praying for outside of myself 4) something I enjoyed (this one is usually food). I haven’t noticed a discernible change in my life or anything but it does make me feel like I’m at least trying to be more content and less complaint-focused.

I’ve also spent a good deal of time this week reading. Not as much as I did a few weeks ago, but I finished up a short little trilogy and and almost done with book two of a much thicker and longer series. I haven’t watched any Netflix this week. As much as I am a Netflix-obsessed TV lover, reading is definitely my preferred medium, I think I may have mentioned my appreciation for it before. Also, random grammatical factoid that some may know, media and data are plural.

Also, tomorrow is the last day of term and it’s just a little frustrating that there’s no break, no marker of anything different. I’ll just have to jump into a new classroom Monday afternoon and start all over. Next week I’ll tell you what levels and stuff I’m teaching but I’m too focused on the end of this term to think too far ahead. Suffice to say that I’m generally positive and hopeful but we’ll just have to see how things pan out.

Last little comment for the day: the phrase ‘pan out’ comes from gold panning. Like, you wouldn’t know if a stream had gold in it or not, you’d just have to see how it panned out. I feel like that’s pretty common knowledge but you never know.

Apostasy and Un-postasy

The heat, I think, has finally broken. It’s not cool by any means, but being outside no longer feels like death. It’s also still pretty humid, but definitely livable. I’m excited for it to actually be autumn so I can go around and do things again.

That was really the highlight this week–that and the fact that intensives are over, the last day was Tuesday. So that’s a major relief. There’s also only one more week in this term, which is crazy. It also marks my halfway point on my contract, so there’s that. But I’d like to take the bulk of this post to talk about other things, as feeble as my attempt to discuss them may be.

Once again, I find myself in the untenable position where I cannot say nothing but can’t say anything adequate. Others have written much more fully on issues like the Confederate cause (here), Confederate statues (here and here), reactions and likely reactions in government (here and here), and just generally race in the US (here). And loads of others besides. It seems like recent events are almost literally an armed rebellion. A rebellion against the religious and civic foundation of the country that, simultaneously, is perfectly in line with its religious and civic foundation. And that’s really the issue.

A writer for the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb, put it succinctly when he said, “The biggest indictment of the way we teach American history is that people can look at Charlottesville and say ‘This is not who we are.'”

When we say, “This is not us,” we’re lying.

That’s why I said it’s an apostasy and not at all. Actions like that are so against the story we typically tell about ourselves, but there are perfectly in line with the reality that so many people have faced across time and geography. The great American civil religion is Freedom, Equality, and Justice and the rituals of that religion are and have been Slavery, Inequality, and Injustice. Hate is both an apostasy and an un-postasy.

It’s so awful. And it’s so exacerbated by the reality that nothing is changing, or not much. I exulted a little hearing that Baltimore, in one night, surprised the city by removing all Confederate monuments. But the President, his administration, and Republicans in Congress will do nothing. The general public will do nothing. The majority of individuals (myself included?) will do nothing.

I cannot express how fully I condemn and abhor the violence in Charlottesville. Unfortunately, there is so much more to it than one weekend, one moment of revulsion. There is a system of violence supported by literal millions through actions and words both passive and active. A system that benefits me because I’m a cis white male.

I feel powerless. Guilt doesn’t help anybody, and I’m not sure what I can do. Donate to organizations like the ACLU, attend marches, speak forcefully to my own detriment when people deny the existence or depravity of the pernicious construct of racism that saturates our country.

It feels sort of hollow to preach ‘love’ in a time like this, when so much of me wants to violently tear into something. For all my words, it’s hard to believe that love has, does, and will win. But it’s true nonetheless.

My number one class rule is English Only because that’s a company policy. My number two rule is Be Kind. I say it all the time. So much so that many of my students make fun of me for it, which only makes me say it more, and so on, no one wins. Except I win. Because if I accomplish nothing else, I will have asked, commanded, cajoled, and begged kindness from a few score Korean kids who, perhaps, will be kind when they don’t want to be. And perhaps the scale of the world will tilt one grain or two toward love.

My post from a year ago definitely says what I want much better than the preceding rambles. But I had to say it again because here we are again.

Love only seems weak to people who don’t have enough. And hoping in love is about all I feel empowered to do just now. Hope and love.

Schnitzel with Noodles

Very little has happened this week, as is often the case in my life. But there is one small adventure that I would like to share with you. Adventure is perhaps a strong word because it was actually just dinner but whatever, let me have this win.

Anyway. Wednesday. We all finished at seven (because our Wednesday schedules are highly variable and generally incomprehensible). And I (yes I!) took the initiative to ask a couple coworkers if they had dinner plans. And so it happened that we decided to go to a special restaurant that they had pointed out to me before but which I had not yet eaten at. It was called Castle Praha.

If you’re in the know, then you would of course expect Czech food, as Praha is Prague in Czech. And you would be 100% correct. The building is actually designed a bit like a castle and the inside is close and stone and lovely, festooned with banners and shields and traditional, if a trifle creepy, puppet-doll things. The atmosphere was absolutely fabulous, I loved it the moment I entered. Part of it, I’m sure, was just feeling a bit of European which I have been so lacking for so long. But also it was just great.

There were four of us, later joined by a fifth, and so we ordered a few things to share amongst us. A sausage plate, pasta, and Wiener schnitzel (and so it came to pass that I consumed schnitzel with noodles even though the schnitzel was served with potato). It was really good. Nothing super crazy outstanding, but definitely quality and very much satisfying, but my appetite and an urge for classic European cuisine which I didn’t really know I’d been harboring.

I wanted to get the goulash but the others weren’t keen. It was kind of a let down, but I’ll be the first to admit that Hungarian goulash is much better than its Czech counterpart, a position with which my companions agreed. And what we got was more than adequate.

After dinner settled, we went for a very Korean passtime by visiting an arcade. And by arcade, I kind of mean what Americans would typically think of, but also a little different. The screen shooting or driving or whatever games, but also an entire floor dedicated to those crane pick-up-a-prize things and a variety of other things too. It’s a really major thing here for young people (like middle school through like twenty-somethings and even older). They’re pretty common. I wasn’t wild into it but was successfully coerced into a couple rounds of Mario Kart.

After that, all that remained was to go across the street for some soft serve ice cream and a leisurely walk home through an intermittent sprinkle. The evening was reasonably cool and, since we set off at seven, I got home with still an hour to spare before bed (because I generally take my bedtime very seriously). I had a lovely time.

On another note, today was the second to last day of my awful nine hour schedule so I’m pumped about that. Tuesday will be the last. And then the term is so close to being over! We have no break in between terms, but I’m ready for new classes and just to start over. I do prefer this term’s material to last/next but it is what it is.

That’s all for this week. One of my students today used Lenin as an example of character vs. society conflict, and I was so happy that he was paying attention for once that I made no comment on his choice of example (he tried Stalin first and I wasn’t buying it). So I hope you’re all fighting the good fight, eating Hungarian goulash, and bagging that plush Squirtle. In other words, hope you’re having a great week. Until next time.