pssssst! brainfag is retired! i'm now at


long, blathering post from s. korea

posted in Home Jabber on October 18, 2006

I've decided to just dump my journal so far -- I haven't written much at all in the last week, which is sad. I've started drawing a comic instead of writing, which isn't getting nearly as many details, and I'm sure I'm missing a lot. But enough excuses, for those brave and/or bored, read on for the ubiquitous, overly-verbose travel journal. Oh, and I finally found an internet connection to upload some of my 1200 photos to my flickr account.


Thursday, October 5, 2006

first time we found some internets. min suk took us to a "peesheebang" -- pc room -- where it's a thousand wan an hour to either surf the internet or get your game on. min suk did both. soon bok wrote lilli. i of course read about how microcosm is having problems, spitting out some sql error on an order trying to copy cart items to cart_ordered. ugh. but i couldn't figure out the wifi so i couldn't fix it.. feels good to not have to work on computer stuff 24/7.

after the peesheebang, soon bok wanted to shop, so we wandered around jeongeup's sleepy neighborhood by her parent's apartment. the shops are tiny and crammed full of all sorts of interesting stuff -- stationary, candy, pens, toys, random items like fingernail clippers, erasers. jeongeup is amazing, tho. i would love to live here. everywhere you turn is a complicated little environment chock full of detail and history. korea seems to be a mashup of old and new, both in culture and in architecture. most of the country was ravaged in the korean war, and has been rebuilt rapidly since the mid-'50s, and it looks to have been built upon a completely haphazard and organic mindset.

soon bok got her hair cut at a tiny shop with an ubiquitous tv blaring on the wall and cockroaches scuttling across the floor. a helpful shop owner emerged from a tiny doorway and produced a magazine with "hair formulas" to choose from. soon bok wanted her bangs cut straight across but to keep her hair long, and we went through all sorts of travails of communication with the help of min suk, posters, magazines, hair formulas and my own attempts at illustrating her future do. finally assured that she understood, soon bok was coaxed onto the chair, and i set out to photograph the jumbled entropy and hope that is jeongeup.

much like europe, there are tiny alleyways at nearly every half-block, which twist and angle and elevate in spider-web like tangents behind the busy streets. also like europe, cars which look like half-grown american offshoots, of stunted growth and askew shapes, are abound, crammed into every nook and cranny, leaving inches for another half-car to squeeze through the maze of backstreets. large apartment complexes with varying levels of cleanliness and sophistication loom above, rising 10 stories. closer to the shops, there are very dense neighborhoods of one-story houses, often with giant ceramic urns of kimchi and bundles of drying garlic and peppers and seashells on the roofs. gardens are crammed into any available dirt patches, and pumpkin vines spread across many rooftops.

breakfast has been very consistent and delicious: ubiquitous kimchi, small bowl of rice with a few beans and barley grains, toasted nori sheets (kim), a savory cold mushroom stew, eggplant with garlic, sesame and pumpkin leaves, steamed with vinegar and some other seasoning i can't quite pinpoint but tastes like dill, roasted whole fish, a dried pepper and anchovy dish (these peppers being incredibly hot, the family having a look of horror when i scooped one into my mouth with chopsticks at the first meal), a cold soup of sesame and bean sprouts and dried fish, a few dishes of stringy greens i can't identify (bracken, apparently) but are very tasty, raw peanuts in a tangy pepper sauce (danku), a very salty dish of peppers and green onions (pa), and a few other rotating dishes.

in the afternoon soon bok and i went exploring jeongeup, and ended in a very busy part of town, apparently the center. there are underground markets under buildings with various shoe shops, food vendors, and people making things such as puffed rice and rice cakes. i stopped to take a picture of the ancient and well-used iron urn for puffing rice, and the shop owner and his son called us back to give us a free bag of his goods. incredibly different eating fresh puffed rice than the stale cereal you find at the store. he was very friendly and wouldn't accept payment. i tried on a few pairs of obviously korean-made shoes, imitating the steve madden look, and realized i have absolutely no korean communication skills. soon bok has some very useful remnants from her previous visit, including "how much is this", "no thank you", "i'm full" and "good bye". although her "good bye" is apparently to someone leaving the room besides her, so it is greeted with first confusion, humor, then explanation as they return the "good bye" for her leaving.

we almost got lost, and almost got in a small fight, but soon found our way out of the insanely busy and crowded streets. it was apparently rush hour as we were leaving, as many blue-uniformed traffic police came out of the woodwork to blow whistles and wave cars every which way. i took snapshots while walking, trying to be as polite as possible, which is quite difficult when all you know is "hello" and "thank you". i said to soon bok how polite everyone was, with only one group of rambunctious children having called me out as the sole white ghost roaming the streets, clodding around with my doofy grin and giant camera -- and they were friendly at that, yelling "megook! HELLO!"

chongul, his wife, and ohma (mother) cooked all afternoon when we got back, preparing for the Chuseok feast tomorrow. they were frying on a large skillet on the middle of the floor, and produced a giant basket of various fried cakes made of egg, vegetables and squid. we watched bad movies on the tv with min suk and talked about relations between koreans and chinese and japanese. apparently many koreans hate china because they have crafted lies about the ancient heritage of korea. i didn't quite understand but it sounded like they were claiming to have descended from something that koreans believe they did. something i'll have to look up.

aboji (father) showed up incredibly drunk with two incredibly drunk friends. you could tell that ohma was not pleased, but she kept to her own affairs the whole night anyway. aboji's friends were very interested in whether we were getting married, and kept relaying how beautiful soon bok was. one of them was very intent on her speaking more korean and chided us for not studying more before visiting. soon bok's father was hilarious and in very good spirits, taking to slapping everyone very strongly on the back, knocking the wind out. he was even very affectionate with me, which was a bit awkward but endearing. even my own father is not so affectionate.

bong wan and two highschool buddies showed up just as father's friends were stumbling out the door, barely able to stand after consuming a giant teapot of homemade japanese apricot wine. father proceeded to wrestle with one of bong won's friends, and laugh and joke with them as mother brought fresh fruit and some of the freshly fried cakes and a bowl of korean grapes. a bottle of traditional korean rice wine (called mokkoli, not soju, much weaker) was opened, and poured around. father was very concerned with me drinking too much, which was funny. i wonder why, if he realizes it might make me sick, or if he just didn't want me to go overboard with korean drink. i'm not sure which, but the wine was delicious, flavored with ginseng (actually wasn't ginseng, but is a korean root very similar to ginseng, yet cheaper).

soon bok and i soon retired, after botching up an attempt at a korean good night (sarangi jumeseyo?), which gave everyone a good laugh.

Friday, October 6, 2006

today was Chuseok, which is the equivalent Korean thanksgiving. however, their thanksgiving makes a lot more sense and is more directly understandable as such. we started the day with the usual boobtube and delicious breakfast, adding a spicy pork-tofu-tomato-cabbage stew to the usual amazing selection of kimchi, rice (w/ a few red beans and barley i believe), anchovy+peppers, bean sprouts+sesame, vinegary-dill sesame leaves, eggplant+garlic, mushroom+broth, raw peanut+sauce, seaweed, spinach, green onions and a few others.

min suk jokes about how i use the metal chopsticks better than soon bok and how i am more adventurous with eating the food, and that i am korean with a white face. soon bok hates this. her mom is slowly warming up, being more talkative and laughing, even bringing father wine for breakfast which is odd as she usually hates him drinking. min suk says she gives him alcohol to thin his blood, but does not like it when he drinks too much. (which has been a bit too often in the past apparently, say, nightly.)

there is a lot of waiting around in the morning and soon bok gets antsy. she wants to go for a walk and explore, but is unsure if we're leaving soon. this turns into a bit of a bit of a fight, but we soon leave in a frantic parade of cars jerking and winding through narrow streets to the outskirts of jeongeup. aboji is a frightening driver. we joke about how he would be pulled over immediately in the states, for either drunken or wreckless driving. apparently it's just fine in korea to drive stream-of-consciousness, swerving into lanes at a whim, or just halfway if you're not sure, and going 130-140 km/hr when the posted speed is 80 (~50mph). stoplights are randomly optional, and he'll just creep out into cross traffic and slip his way through, then jerk into the other lane, floor it, slam on the breaks at the next stop after squeezing between the car ahead in the single lane, and a parked car to the right.

we pull into aboji's favorite gas station, where he is well-known by the station owner who stands like a director of an oil sympthony behind a small podium-cash register amid three busy pumps, wringing his white-gloved hands and looking bored and commanding simultaneously. each time we pull up an attendant shoves a gas nozzle into the car before it even stops. aboji gets out and the station owner bows slightly and they chat it up.

bong wan is already at the station when we pull up and he comes up to aboji's door as we're pulling away from the pump. it's hard to tell what's going on, but it looks like he's trying to get in the car. aboji pulls away and around and the two other cars in our cavalcade are blocking the entrance. bong wan finally gets the door open and ohma gets out of the car and moves to another. bong wan gets in the driver seat and aboji sits in passenger seat -- apparently we're not the only ones scared to death to drive with aboji, mother is afraid as hell too.

we drive about an hour into the beautiful countryside, passing field after field of stepped rice pastures, black-hooded rows of ginseng and flowing green hills of short, stubby pine trees (sul?). our first stop is aboji's father's burial grounds, which is amid a family farmland. there are a young girl and boy dressed in bright, goofy-yet-fashionable clothes, age 13 and 15. the younger, a tomboy in a yellow and black flannel shirt, is fascinated by us and tries to talk to us in korean to no avail. as with many children in foreign countries, this turns to friendly harassing, as they find it hilarious a grown person can't even speak the most basic of their native language.

the Chuseok ritual is to bring offerings of food and drink to the deceased, which all are buried below a large mound covered with bright green, sparse planted grass. the family pours a glass of soju, peels a bit of pear, and bows a few times before the relative. then they toss the soju on the mound, continue peeling the pear and eat it as they walk back to the car. it's solemn but light-hearted, the family joking and taking pictures before and after bowing.

comparing this to the football and turkey dinner nonsense back home, with the idea of giving thanks to god and the great honkey conquerers, i'm struck with one more thing that makes more sense in this ancient culture. earlier we talked with min suk about how much korea is changing to be more like america, much like all developing nations, and how young schoolchildren are less respectful with each generation to the teachers (who were previously highly regarded). it's so sad how our young punk-ass country and it's consumer culture is spreading it's ridiculous and vapid goo all over the ancient cultures of the world. we have no history, no tradition, and no respect for anything beyond what little structures each individual family concocts.

next we visit ohma's father's burial which is at another farm, this time with a field of black goats and chickens, peppers, ginseng, pumpkins, persimmon trees, soybeans and sesame. it's hot and sunny out, perfect weather for early october. we visit two burial mounds on the property, and retire to a strange metal platform with a large canopy and an iced coffee vending machine off to the side. two rectangular white cakes of rice are set on a platter of grapes and what looks like omelets-on-a-stick (ham, mushroom, pork, and peppers coated in egg and deep-fried with a toothpick holding it all together.. delicious!) A whole boiled chicken (killed on the farm and quite tough) is brought out later, along with the common platter of peeled giant apple-pears and apples. bong won climbs a persimmon tree and shakes it; min suk yells out, "monkey man!"

one of the relatives takes it upon himself to single out harass the megooks. he asks if we are married, or lovers, and makes a hand gesture towards me pinching the forefinger and thumb. i return the gesture and all the family busts out laughing. min suk points out that traditionally one brings their lover to family gatherings only when they plan on getting married. therefore, to those outside the closer members, we most likely appear engaged. one of the women across the platform says in Korean to soon bok "you are more beautiful than he his." this also gets a round of laughter from the others, especially when i agree with gestures and mock sadness.

bong won drives considerably more reckless on the way home, and seems to be racing chong ul in his sporty yellow tricked out hyundai. ninety percent of all the cars on the road are hyundai, followed by samsung-renault, kia, and daiwoo. i've seen no hondas or toyotas. all the trucks are tiny and efficient, 99% of them Hyundai Bongos or Porters (i've a picture of one on my flickr account), so different from the gigantic beasts in the states.

Monday, October 9, 2006

yesterday we went for a hike up 1.8km up the mountain across the street from the apartment complex. both of soon bok's parents are spry and tireless, shooting up the precarious clay and rock in front of us, while we wheeze and lag behind. the plant life is very similar to the northwest, but most of the hills are covered with low pine trees. if i'm not mistaken (which is quite possible considering my paltry flora knowledge), this indicates a much older, untouched forest. in the states i've only seen pine forests in the desert and on the coast. which kind of annuls this theory.

at the peak aboji mounts one of the many exercise benches mounted about and continues with a considerable number of situps. soon bok and rest our jelly-like american flab on some hard benches.

the overcast weather is perfect for hiking; it feels about 75ยบ. people were correct in recommending this as the best time to visit Korea as far as weather.

we continue another .08 km along the trail, which i quickly translate to 80m, or 240f. my mind wonders off to curse the US for yet another stubborn stupidity: never converting to metric. a small but perfect little example of how ridiculous our country is. our collective consciousness is muddied with a sea of red-states at the heart, a corn-fed bumbling stiff-brained bumpkin with a giant hunk of chaw wedged in the lower lip, leering at the inconceivable "out there" with racist suspicion, afraid of some giant communist plot to steal their Ford F250 and replace it with an efficient Hyundai Bongo.

at the final stop on the trail, aboji again mounts a bench and rigorously pumps out a good 50 pushups. soon bok and i alternate from awe to giggles. she takes a video of his antics. amoji pulls out the ubiquitous fruit snack of giant applepears and apples and proceeds to peel and slice a delicious and very welcome banquet.

there are some other hikers lounging about and i get yet more stares and questions to soon bok's parents. i wonder if they are embarrassed to be seen with a migook. they do seem to like me genuinely, and are very open and affectionate with both soon bok and me (well, aboji is, soon bok's mother is quiet and reserved and often distant), but i know they are not fond of the states (who can blame them?) and are very traditional Koreans.

on the way down soon bok and i have some problems with our legs going completely wobbly and numb and useless. we barely make it, while again her parents are not even tiring. when we get to the apartment aboji immediately asks if i want to take a shower, which entertains soon bok to no end. "apparently i stink," i say and sulk off to try and wash the american stench off my bony white body.

after lunch (the usual rounds of side dishes, this time with some pork rib stew, all still delicious), we drive out to Gwangju to see bong won's wife mee suk and their daughter sol at the hospital. apparently sol had a lung infection but seems to be doing better. the hospital is full of kids running around with IV drip-stands wheeling behind them, leashed by a long tube that is taped to their wrist wrapped in dirty bandages. it's surreal and disconcerting. the hospital is very clean and huge, and the room that mee suk's been in with sol for the last week is nice enough, equipped with a small refrigerator, television, bathroom, and bed. sol doesn't know what to think of the giant honky who attaches an equally giant camera to his thick-spectacled mug and starts clicking and clacking and autofocus-whirring at her. i probably sent her recovery back a good few days.

mee suk is very sweet and has a bit more english than bong won (which still isn't very much), and seems very happy to see us. we all sit around and listen to the family banter back in forth in Korean, and ooh and ahh at their adorable daughter, sol.

3 comments on this entry

Sounds like you are having an amazing time. Thank you so much for posting this! (and all your incredible photos). It sounds like an incredible trip so far!

Alec 10/19/06

hey! someone made it through my blathering! thanks alec... i posted quite a few more photos to flickr, also.

yeah, we're having a blast. tho i have to say gwangju is my least favorite place we've been, and we're kind of stuck here for a few days. next time we visit i think we'll do a bit more exploring on our own.

Nate 10/19/06

wow, you make it feel like I'm right there, and I sure wish I were. It all sounds so exotic yet natural. You describe it well, hope to read more. Miss you--enjoy the rest!

judi 10/20/06

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