Reading. Again.

Once more, this week has been chock full of intrigues, adventures, double-crosses, and unexpected (and all-too-expected) love. Except not at all. Except actually. My life, of course, is incredibly boring. But I’ve been reading distinctly more than my dose of adventure.

A small highlight from the week: for my upper class on Wednesday and Thursday (which is whatever, I’m also working Saturday but it’s a whole thing and I don’t want to go into it at this juncture) we learn a literary device each week and so we covered anadiplosis. Not a term I was familiar with but a technique that is relatively common. The thing where the end of the sentence is the beginning of the next.

This enabled us to watch a couple fun clips in class. First we had the emblematic “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Iconic. Yoda. I didn’t even try to explain the literary device of his speech patterns (which is called anastrophe). But it was fun. Even better was when we watched part of Galadriel’s intro to Fellowship of the Ring (“History became legend. Legend became myth.”) and the students wanted to watch more. That was a major plus.

Really not much else going on in my life. Next week is a holiday week for Chuseok, which is why this week’s schedule is strange and annoying. I will talk about Chuseok next week, though you’re welcome to look it up yourself too. We get pretty much no holidays off at my branch so having like three days is really something.

Anyway. I know I probably spend almost as much time thinking of bad metaphors for reading as actual time spent reading but whatever, I’m over it. My latest is this: some books twist the harp of my heartstrings into a cat’s cradle so taut it doesn’t even need to be plucked to sing.

So my heart has been singing of late.

I sometimes like to think of myself as a bit of a cold customer, not really icy but someone mysterious and aloof and imposing. Serene and self-sufficient and devil-may-care. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always sort of been enamored with that general vibe. People who know me know, obviously, that I rarely (except actually never) pull that off. I have all the emotions. So many emotions, sometimes, that I want to vomit to expel them all. Literal emotion vomit. The strange thing is, though, that I’m at my most vomity when I’m reading. Like, books are way more likely than people to threaten to pull my stomach out of my mouth. I’m not sure why books do this so often when life does it so rarely, but I guess I’ll take what I’m given and be grateful.

That may have gotten more strangely graphic than I intended but what can you do. Somehow we went from a beautiful metaphor about singing (you’ve gotta admit it’s a pretty good one) to vomiting emotions. Which is less beautiful.

Anyway. Books.

I know I talk about them all the time but what can I say. If the vomit metaphor doesn’t convey how they make me feel, then I don’t know what to tell you. Stories. Just, stories.

Gah. I’m descending into inane babbling because I simply cannot, like, ugh. Books, okay? Wow.

There’s something inexorable about it; it’s totally out of my control but I don’t think I would stop it if I could. Were it in my power to do so, I think I would refrain. As much as emotion-vomit makes for tightly wound living, I would not exchange it for vomit-free living. This, more than anything else, makes me grateful for my own literacy. What a gift it is that collections of small lines and curves can make me weep.

I haven’t even been reading anything particularly powerful recently, though I’ve been reading plenty. This is just a series of thoughts that have occurred to me over the past several weeks in which books have been playing pretty seriously with my emotions.

Best of luck to you all this week. Some weeks need more luck than others and maybe this is one of them for you. You can do it.

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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.

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.