Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Land of the Morning Calm.

How time seems to fly, and yet, America seems some distant memory to me, and still she is my home. I am hours away from leaving Yeosu. I will take a bus to Seoul, and in the morning will fly out of this country, perhaps never returning. This has been a journey and an adventure, and in the morning a new journey begins, and hopefully many adventures. How do I feel as I approach the hour to leaving? As is often the case, I do not feel anything yet. When it hits me, I will be sad to leave. I do not think this is where I am meant to stay, or even where I most want to be, but still, Yeosu has been my home and treated me kindly.
I must rush to write a few things of Korea and of my past year living on the hard soil of her southern shore.
The food. Will I be sad to leave the food? Korean food often seems to be a love it or hate it relationship. Many of the foreigners hate much of Korean food, though quite enjoy some of it, while other foreigners seem to love nearly all of it. Koreans are deeply proud of their food, particularly in the province I am in. It is known for the best food in the country, and the food is deeply tied in to the culture. Certain days of the year according to the lunar calendar require certain meals, and food is sometimes eaten for a specific purpose. Koreans believe much of the food or drink has some type of health benefit, often for the male libido, such as rattlesnakes fermenting in a soju bottle for a long time. Soju is the alcohol of Korea, and alcohol plays a huge role here. It is sad that it often plays the only role. Koreans do not have many hobbies in general, and most people you ask what they like to do, they'll answer drink with friends, or play video games. It is such a beautiful country for outdoor sports and activities, scarcely utilized. The older people do hike a lot here, but mostly only the older people, and the hikes are very easy. Koreans do not like to do anything alone. It is always about the group. Unfortunately this often also includes how they think. This is certainly a culture where everyone wants to fit in with the crowd and do their best not to stand out.
In Korea, everyone is born already one year old, and the every person in the country ages another year each lunar new year. This mean if you are born the day before lunar new year, you turn two the day after you are born. On lunar new year, the whole country eats rice cake soup and they say they have eaten a year. Eating the soup on lunar new year is what makes you grow older. Anyone in your age group is automatically your friend, and vice versa, people not in your age group are rarely your friends.
Koreans do still eat dog here, though only a small minority, and even fewer eat cat. Because cats always land on their feet when falling from great heights, it means they have strong bones, so when you are older and your bones get weak, if you eat cat it will help your bones get stronger. I have eaten dog here, but missed out on the cat. I have eaten oodles of squid and octopus tentacles and even an octopus head, brain and all. I have also eaten live octopus, feeling the tentacles suction on the inside of your mouth and throat trying to crawl back up. It is popular here in Korea, and people have died from not chewing the octopus well enough and having it suck on too tight and suffocate. I have eaten other live sea creatures that looked like they should be crawling around in the mud, dried fish that they leave out on their porches for days or weeks and then eat bones and all, blood sausage, intestine, and so much more. I don't like a lot of the seafood here. They often serve the fish whole and you have to use your chopsticks to try to pick around all the bones, and often just eat some of the bones. Some of the seafood taste a lot like the water it was swimming around in, or taste like you would expect it to smell, though some is good. Korean bbq can be very good, and they'll often wrap the meat up in lettuce with red pepper sauce, white radish or other vegetables. I do like that. Kim chi and rice are eaten with every meal, and you can't really distinguish between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At a restaurant the servers bring out a ton of different side dishes, usually picked or fermented vegetables and various types of kim chi. There are a ton of restaurants here, some of them tiny and I dont' know how they stay in business, but Koreans love to eat out. They love their food in general.
The mountains here are gorgeous. The sea is beautiful. The cities are usually ugly. I have heard foreigners say it is a shame Koreans settled the peninsula. It is a beautiful country, but the buildings and cities are ugly, dirty, and run down.
There seem to be seasons here for doing things. For example, their is a beach season, and many people in the country don't visit the beach even a single day outside of beach season, no matter how nice the weather is. The women wear their bathing suits underneath their clothes, but never take their clothes off at the beach, even when they decide to go swim in the sea. They swim in their shorts, or often even jeans and long sleeve shirts. Koreans do not like the sun. They want their skin to be as white as possible, and some even bleach their skin or wear lots of make up, which makes them look a bit like a corpse. Few women look like that though. The women here do have thick, dark hair, and sexy legs. The people here are overly dramatic, super sensitve, extremely shy, and stress about everything. They point, they stare, they criticize, they make demands, but they also are very hospitable and generous. In ways they are some of the nicest people I have ever met. In ways, they are some of the rudest. Every country is like this, and all in all, this has been a great experience, and while things about this country do drive me crazy, I am only going to take with me the good memories and the funny stories. For example, electric fan death. Many Koreans believe that if you sleep with an electric fan on in your house, it will kill you. This is not just what country bumpkins believe, but doctors write about it in medical journals and news stations report on people being killed by electric fan death. All foreigners seem amazed at Korean logic, or rather lack of logic and their reasoning for doing things. It makes no sense, often they know it makes no sense, but they will always do it that way.
Teaching in the school has been fun. The kids are cute, and the younger they are, the cuter they are. The education system is horrible, and the teaching style is much of the problem. High school kids in Korea are often in school from 9:00 a.m. to midnight, plus some Saturdays and Sundays. You would expect them to be the smartest people in the world, but not at all. They have a hard time thinking for themselves. They are trained that way. Teachers will give them the answers to everything, so they just get accustom to not having to work out a problem on their own. They work a lot, but they don't work hard.
Where I live is considered the country. While my city itself is not small, people here sure act like they are small town country folk. Shopping here is hard. There are no department stores, and things are hard to come by. Unless you want rice or kim chi, the selection and variety of items is limited as well. There are lots of farms around, and even more small garden plots that they put in any empty plot of land. They are often dirty and overrun with garbage, but in the summer they clean up nice. The mountains around are beautiful and driving out in to the country where the real farms are is lovely. I loved taking my motorcycle for rides out on Dolson Island or out to some of the more remote beaches, particularly in spring and fall or early summer when the weather is a perfect calm made for motorcycles.
The foreigner community is very tight knit here in Yeosu. Most people seem to know everyone else, and you always feel like you have a friend. In the bigger cities, the foreigners aren't as friendly with each other, but here, everyone is automatically in the group and willing to help out anyone else, and their are foreigner get togethers frequently. Often the Koreans go extremely out of their way to help you and can be the most gracious and giving people you'll ever meet. Sometimes old women will come and touch my hair and laugh and give me hugs or hand me fruit or rice cake or other various treats. Walking down the street school kids giggle and laugh, the younger ones often screaming out "hello" or "nice to meet you" and then run away laughing triumphantly.
The nature is beautiful, the culture is fascinating, the people are unique, and the experience has been memorable. I wish I could write more. I am leaving so much out. All in all, I really have loved it here, and as different as it sometimes seems, that is sometimes what I like most about it, and I will hold tight to the memories and always be grateful for the experiences here, the people I have met, and for the warmth that Korea and little Yeosu have shown me this past year. Goodbye Yeosu, goodbye. I shall miss your mountains, spring blossoms, and the islands of the yellow sea. I shall miss your people. I shall miss you.