Reflections on the Korean Condition

Busan Harbor ViewThe school year is drawing to a close. Books are being checked for completion, students are practicing dances to inappropriate American pop songs they will perform at graduation (Gimme gimme gimme a man after midnight), and the gray in everyone’s hair is starting to show. The students have none of the ‘school’s out for summer’ attitude popular in American high school movies, instead they know that they will leave Friday with one set of classes and Monday they will resume with another. How I just want to steal them away to an outdoor park for an hour. Teach them what ‘feeding the birds’ is like. They were confused by the idea when I mentioned it in class. I figure my dad will forgive me—he always said it trains them to expect food from people. Maybe they, like these kids, could use a little help.

The Korean condition. The more time I spend here, the more I discuss with colleagues and Korean acquaintances (and students), the more the culture shock becomes apparent. Surviving in a big city is a skill you acquire quickly—dodging old man loogies and standing your ground as the subway doors open become second nature pretty quickly. The little things take more time, and burrow in deeper. Granted, with two months under my belt I have barely scratched the surface and my opinions are primarily based on observation. As I make more Korean friends and push past the cultural boundaries, I’m faced with as many questions about my surroundings as answers.

Last weekend I spent time with two native Seoulites who did their best to appease my stored-up slew of inquiries. I met Hyunjoon at a dinner party and we immediately hit it off, talking about his time spent in the States and his interest in American culture. Often I find Korean interest in my culture as strong as mine in theirs, making for an excellent start of a friendship. He found it hilarious that he had visited more American landmarks. I admit that the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty are on the list, but I’ve always assumed that they’ll still be there when national adventure takes priority.

Hyunjoon is a graduate student in Economics and about to start at Korea University, one of the largest post-secondary schools in Seoul. His attitude is laid back but still very Korean, rigid social conformity showing around the edges of his converse and NorthFace jacket. When I saw his Facebook post re: contemplating eating live octopus again, I jumped at the chance to go back to the Noryangjin Fish Market with a native speaker. We never made it there, but our Saturday did consist of various local sightseeing. From walking through an extensive outdoor market (ginseng! Dog!) to exploring the Children’s Grand Park Zoo, it was a day filled with good conversation and interesting cultural discussion. He even stopped into a few mobile phone shops to help me figure out a phone plan. So much easier when you speak the language. We ended our time by meeting up with some American and Korean friends, having a rigorous debate over the meaningful classification of languages, and playing King’s Cup in a hof until the language barriers had completely dissolved. (Hyunjoon remarked at some point that King’s Cup is like all of the complicated Korean drinking games rolled into one).

On Sunday, I meet with Eun-mee. She is a 27 year-old graduate student studying Lifelong Learning (adult education), and a friend of a friend of a friend in Seattle. I really like her. Quiet and patient, we sit down over coffee and just talk, haltingly at first. Her English is good, but we both have our smartphones out on the table with translators ready. We discuss Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, and the cultural differences that are most apparent to me. The concept of Jeong immediately strikes me as the word for what I’ve been experiencing, the air of collectivism and conformity interlaced with support for your fellow man. While there doesn’t seem to be an English equivalent, the closest definition I’ve found online is “affection”, the “feeling or connection that you feel toward something or someone.” Broadly, “a culture-bound Korean concept of love.”

There are two kinds of jung, goeun-jeong and mieun-jeong. Goeun-jung is a love-love affection, like a husband and wife relation, or just simply, love. Mieun-jeong is a love-hate affection, like you’d have towards a best friend you’d give your life for, but occasionally want to punch in the face for being so annoying. You can also feel jeong  for things, for instance a ring that your grandmother wore at her wedding then gave to you. She dies, and you feel jeong for this ring like you would for a person. It’s complicated. Eun-mee also describes jeong as the communal commitment to one another, like the ‘ship’ in friendship or kinship. It makes people care for eachother, whether on the street or at home. And it’s very apparent here—never mind the elbowy old Korean woman pushing past you, there is another in the jjimjilbang who will come over and just start scrubbing your back (with painful vigor) if there is no one else there to do it for you. Based in Confucian principles, jeong is both a working concept seemingly not found in general Western society and what seems to hold Korean culture together. When you tap into it, it’s beautiful.

Hierarchy, and the acceptance of your role in society, is another Confucian principle predominantly displayed in Korean culture. Most westerners I’ve talked to have a problem with the concept of being born into a certain role in life. Our cultural history of ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘the pursuit of happiness’ make us want to know that there is no limit to our social ladder, that we can rise from rags to riches or flip burgers if that’s what our calling is. Koreans see hierarchy differently. You know your place, and you must work the system in order to move up. At work, you are completely subservient to those above you. Never contradict or criticize, what your boss says goes. What his boss says he does without question, and you support him. Both in the office and out, you are required to be present for every social function, to keep up with your boss’s drinking habits, to never leave before a supervisor does. To be sober when your boss was drunk would be shaming him. To leave early would be incredibly rude. Two examples:

A friend told me he was on his lunch break at work when a supervisor called, saying he needed some numbers crunched and rushed over in a hurry. In a flurry, he dove into the paperwork until a second supervisor showed up at his desk and asked him to come out for lunch. Unable to say ‘’no” to either, he went to lunch and came back to slew of demoralizing and angry emails from boss No.1. My immediate reaction was Well, why didn’t you tell boss No. 2 about the first request, crunch the numbers, and meet up with him? Seems legitimate. Impossible, was his answer. If a supervisor asks you to do anything, anything, you do it. Caught between two impossible situations, he chose the one that was standing in the door. His other boss now won’t speak to him at work, and makes snide comments when he walks by.

Example two, same person. At six o’clock one evening, he started packing up to go home when his boss came in and told (not asked) him he needed to stay until nine. Unpack, sit back down. At nine, the same boss appeared and said there was a corporate dinner he was needed for. Off to dinner, then drinks, back home around two AM, to be up and at work again at six. The next night, the same thing happened. With less than nine hours of sleep in a 48-hour period, he was exhausted but uncomplaining. You just have to do it.

 

Capitalism has blurred some of the financial strata, but there is still the familial expectation to know your place. Those millions you make with your innovative business will more than likely go to your parents, to care for them, to repay them for when they cared for you. Expectations and hierarchy play an enormous role in the family dynamic. Most women live at home until they are married, which by that time is both a blessing and a curse. The subservient role you play towards your parents for the first third of your life is then transferred to your husband for the rest. Korean women are seemingly vicious creatures because of this, in my outsider opinion, yet some of the most beautiful women on the planet. The control they may lack in their destiny they make up for on the street, which is where I encounter them. Fierce, ruthless, determined, these women would be the last you’d want to meet at a free-for-all clothing sale. Yeeowch.

I’m reading a wonderful book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a story about raising children the Chinese way in America. In short, Chua discusses the differences between Chinese and Western parenting. While Western parents give their children the ability to choose for themselves, Chinese parents decide what is best for their children. What instrument to play, whether they can go to sleepovers, that they can never be in a school play… these all fall under the jurisdiction of the parent. The child’s desires are not part of the discussion. The child will grow up talented, skilled, ripe with knowledge, and will be expected to make his parents proud.

I do hope I have made my parents proud, but sadly I know it would be my strength of character rather than my achievements that would cause such an emotion. True to Western style, my parents have always been incredibly supportive. Allowed to make my own important decisions, be they class subjects or who to be friends with, I was given (comparatively) a lot of control over my young life. In my mid-twenties, when the really hard decisions begin to present themselves, my parents continue to be supportive and kind. Sometimes—only sometimes, mind you—I wish they had made more decisions for me. It would be great to be able to play the piano now, even though practicing made my mom and I scream at each other. It would be great to have a business degree instead of one in Art History. Instead, my parents relied on my ability to make my own choices, chose to support me instead of control me, and ultimately produced a soft-around-the-edges but generally well-read, well-mannered, capable and accepting human being. I can handle that.

My time in Korea is teaching me (schoolin’ me is probably more accurate) many things. My life has been easy so far. If you want the reward, do the work. Shut up and put on a sweater. The West Coast is where I’ll end up. I saved way too many things when I packed up my house; I can live on much less. My parents are wonderful, supportive, curious and remarkably individual people. Putting on make-up and heels to go to the corner store still feels like overkill, but how you present yourself does make a statement on your opinion of yourself and those around you. Teaching is a job I enjoy, but I’m not convinced it is what I want to do with my life. Cooking is a job I really enjoy, but I’m not convinced it’s what I want to do with the rest of my life. Loving and being loved by someone you respect, learn from and are supported by makes you capable of just about anything. Peet’s coffee and dark chocolate are amazing, and worth having imported. Being absent for the death of a family member is complicated. I’m really all I have when it comes right down to it. While I’m not convinced that everything happens for a reason, my life being what it is makes me confident in my decisions and my future. Despite a large part of my heart still residing on the West Coast, I know I’m where I need to be.

 

 

 

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Just Another Day in the Life

After what I consider to be way too long, Alec and I had a Skype session this morning. A Friday, I wake up an hour early and rush to make coffee as I sign in. I admit it has been a little rough lately. Definitely time for a chat with my BFFL. IMG_3804

That’s Best Friend For Life, if you don’t know.

She is baby- free for the moment, eight-month-old Soleile is napping, and we chit chat about life, homesickness, adaptation, care packages, my experiences as a teacher, various ways I kill small children in my dreams. Not exactly the best thing for a new mother to hear, but as my friend she makes it constructive and by the end of the call I know I will survive another day. She is very good at this. I am glad she is a mother.

To better my health, and my mood, Alec has me on a new exercise regimen. Together we position our computers and she leads us in a twenty minute workout. Ok, fine, it was fifteen minutes. Maybe ten. Soleile audibly wakes up and crawls into the room. Wondering what the heck is going on, she sees her mom talking to a computer with a face and adopts the confusion-to-acceptance face I know I’ll continue to love her for as she gets older. No big deal, Mom’s talking to Auntie Em on another continent and they are doing kickboxing kicks and lying on their backs making pedaling movements. Cool.  What’s for lunch? HEY! I said what’s for lunch?!

Psyched for the day by fresh endorphins, I head off for school. Did I mention it’s Friday? Working odd days in a kitchen where your weekend falls mid-week, you dont quite appreciate the communal nature of TGIF… But let me tell ya, the learning curve was quick. Thank friggen AthiestBuddhaGod it’s Friday.

Today I kind of ‘wing it’. I have a long break around lunch and I have to head to the bank to open an account. Banks in the United States are often intimidating, at least for me, a poor person with no money. I always feel like I am underdressed, or that I should have brushed my hair. Wells Fargo is not the kind grandfather institution who wants to hold my money gratefully and give me interest, no, he is the evil uncle trying to swindle my poor self out of my last dime with overdraft fees, checking account costs and, what’s this? I transferred from my savings account one too many times in a time of need? Well, here’s another $35 for you. Anything else I can get you? Coffee? Footrub? Firstborn? IMG_3860

Korean banks are intimidating, but in a different way. It makes me a little nervous just walking in without knowing if they speak English, or how to say what I want in Korean. Like the rest of the day, though, I wing it. Winging it gets me pretty far.  Luckily Korean banks, surprise!, treat you like the customer you are. You walk in, there is a friendly desk agent who you can ask where to go or what the protocol is, and then you take a number and sit on comfy benches until it is called. No waiting in line, no high-eyebrowed glances at the tag on your jacket to see if you are actually worth helping. As a foreigner, I waited for someone who spoke English, was taken into another room, and have two people helping me. Nice.

From what I can tell, Korean bank accounts are more similar to American savings accounts. You do have a check card, which works like debit and at an ATM; it can also serve as your loadable subway card if you choose. Singular, fast, efficient. And rainbow colored! I get to choose my maximum withdrawal limit per transaction and per day, unlike Uncle Wells who decides everything for me. I leave the bank with my new card in hand, a bank book, and an account with zero dollars in it. I get paid in eleven days.

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On the way back to work I realized I have missed the lunch service so I pop into a convenience store for some gimbap (think Korean sushi roll). I eat hurriedly at my desk before the next class period starts, and then we all head up to the Playroom (not that Korean children ever actually get to play) where there will be an assembly to award prizes and talk about the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.

Cate, the head foreign teacher, has prepared a PowerPoint presentation and somehow I find myself volunteering to demonstrate a traditional Korean game without quite knowing what it is. When I’m up in front of the class I’m handed a stick with ribbon tied around it, and instructed to try and throw it into a bucket across the room. It reminds me of horseshoes. I realize that in this moment I could go down in ECC history: if I make this shot I will be applauded by halfpints for days! Do I? No, silly, Laura would readily tell you that naturally my aim makes the stick land about two feet wide of the bucket, and I try to play it cool. There goes my opportunity to gain the admiration of a roomful of children. Alas.

After the assembly, I whiz through my last classes, eager for the freedom of Friday afternoon. At 5:55pm the bell rings and that’s it! I’m a free woman.

The weekend is always so full of possibilities. For the past three I have been lying low after the stress of the workweek, hanging out most of the day Saturday at a jimjilbang (Korean spa/bath house) and spending Sunday doing pretty much nothing. It’s strange… Making this huge leap and moving to a foreign country feels like it should be an entirely new experience. What will I encounter daily that I’ve never done before? What will I see and smell and hear and do? The promises of an exotic lifestyle make the harsh reality that much more sobering. In truth, my day to day life hasn’t changed that much. I go to work five days a week, and work much longer hours than I did in Seattle. I’m in earlier, out later, and unlike working in a kitchen my work now often comes home with me. Papers to grade, lessons to prepare… About 80 percent of my weekdays revolve around education. When I’m finally off work, all I want to do is relax and rest, watch downloaded TV shows, read a book, go to bed early. It’s lame, but the paycheck (so I’ve heard) and lack of rent makes up for it. I’m paying my dues. And learning a lot about myself in the process:

1. I need sleep. I’m not someone who can get six hours and be totally normal the next day.

2. Getting up early is great. Alec and I have been ‘Skypersizing’ in the mornings and it is fantastic. Mostly just to start my day by seeing one of my favorite people.

3. The best moments here are ones when I do something completely new. I climbed a mountain on Saturday! Amazing. Restored my faith in this decision.

4. I have nightmares about small children. I wake up frustrated, and instead of going to work and taking it out on a pile of uncut vegetables or a thirty-pound halibut with a knife I grind to a razor finish, I get to work and PTNSD (Post Traumatic Nightmare Disorder) kicks in. Keep your cool, woman. Just keep it cool. That kid isn’t out to get you.

5. As it has always been, my sense of homesickness is primarily for people, not places. I do desperately miss the Northwest, however. Strange that my sense of belonging is tied there; I wasn’t sure a few months ago.

6. Every time I try a new Korean dish this wave of euphoria overwhelms me. I still really want to cook. Markets have been some of my favorite places I’ve visited.

7. Speaking of which, I have been cooking for myself almost every night. If you know me well, this is unheard of. It’s nice, to know exactly what I’m eating. Hopefully more vegetables will become available come springtime.

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For now, that’s basically my weekday. Get up, work, go home, cook dinner, read/ relax/ zone out, fall asleep. Seattle minus intoxicants and plus more work. I guess I’m glad I didn’t realize this reality until I was about a month in. Still waiting for the culture shock. Of course, what makes every day worthwhile is actually the kids, as much as they drive me crazy. No polite hand-covering-mouth cute Asian giggle for me, this stuff gets a full on belly laugh. Hey, I’m around kids all day. My sense of humor isn’t exactly getting more sophisticated.

Planning a temple stay for the first weekend in March. Let the Wow Moments live on.

Fresh Looks at Old Favorites

A month into ‘The Great Korean Adventure’, I’m realizing that this experience is less adventure and more ‘new spin on old life’. Don’t get me wrong, much of my life here in Seoul is different than it was in Seattle, but the formula is still the same: long work week + winter daylight hours = definite routine. As much as I try to break it up with Wow Moments (those heart-expanding do-it-for-the-first-time awesome experiences), routine and monotony kind of cling to winter like Ramen noodles and cheap beer do to college freshmen–it’s not your first choice, but hey, sometimes you do what you have to to survive.

Speaking of Ramen, and survival, to break it up and keep the creativity flowing I’ve been experimenting with food. On a minimal budget and able to read about a quarter of the labels in the grocery store, my shopping list is pretty mundane. I’m embarrassed to say that I still haven’t figured out which dark bottle is soy sauce, although whatever it is I purchased is quite delicious. Cooking for myself has also been a challenge. In Seattle, cooking when I got home (from cooking) was like asking a garbage man to take out the trash. Er, not. I think I’ll sit on the couch, thanks. Now, with a full day of teaching, cooking dinner is a creative release and the time of my day when I get to focus on something that I love. True, the menu rarely changes given budget and fridge contents, but with a paycheck later this week that is sure to change. In the meantime, surrounded by the amazing culinary profile that is Korean food, I’ve been attempting to change old favorites into new flavors.  Tonight’s menu? An egg salad sandwich.

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If I was back cooking in the states, I’d give this some ridiculously fancy write-up to make it sound complicated and exotic. Think, “Free-range quail and king oyster mushroom salad with fresh chilies, sweet mustard and toasted sesame seeds on freshly baked whole-seed bread.” In reality, it’s egg salad with a bunch of stuff in it on the only wheat bread I can find. We tend to experience food long before it hits our taste buds, often using all of our senses to enjoy a good meal, and a good write-up can make anything more delicious. Try it next time you serve a basic dish. It can be fun, at least to see how pretentious you can sound.

You’ll need:

Quail eggs  (a lot of them) or regular chicken eggs if you’re too lazy to peel a dozen bite-sized delicious cholesterol balls. Also, please ignore the foodie blasphemy surrounding the use of quail eggs in an egg salad. I’m not sure how to describe the difference in taste, but quail eggs are delicious. Also, they’re not as expensive as you’d think. You can probably find an 18-case in a produce vendor or good grocery store for around $3. Granted, that will probably make about 3 sandwiches. My favorite way to hard boil eggs is to put them into the pot with cold water, turn the burner on high, and once the water is boiling turn off the burner and set a timer for about 6 minutes. With quail eggs, you can set the timer for 3. They’re tiny. The shells should peel off rather easily. I’ve found that when peeling quail eggs, it’s important to get that inner membrane going otherwise the shell will just shatter.

Some kind of fresh chili, be it a jalapeno or something less spicy. If you’re not in the mood for chilies, green onions will do the trick. And then this will just be a normal egg salad sandwich. Depending on the spice level you can handle, remove the pith and seeds carefully. Be sure to wear gloves or wash your hands well.

The Korean mustard I happen to have in my fridge is yellow, but on the sweet side. Think yellow mustard with some honey in it. Since you have access to it in the States, and are going through the trouble of buying quail eggs anyway, I’d recommend some kind of whole-seed mustard or a sweet Dijon. (Pretentious theme continued). In my book, any egg salad isn’t really worth going out to buy ingredients for, so on second thought, use what you got, buddy. Make it your own. Lately I’ve steered away from mayonnaise, so mustard is really the only addition I use and it helps to keep it healthy and fresh.

I like egg salad with a bit of texture, but I’m not a pickle relish egg salad fan. Things like cucumber, celery or shredded carrot can be delicious, but today I chose mushrooms. I thought the texture would mimic the egg white, and fluff it up without having to use more eggs. It worked! Clean the mushrooms by rubbing the tops with a paper towel (water will make them soggy), then cut the mushrooms into small cubes. Use whichever variety you prefer, but a denser mushroom will more accurately mimic the egg white’s texture. White or crimini mushrooms work well, and king oyster mushrooms are so prevalent here in Asia that it was the logical choice for this recipe. they have a similar dense texture (like the cap of a white mushroom), and a delicious delicate earthy flavor. Goes quite well with the quail eggs.

Lastly, toast some sesame seeds in a dry pan. Coat the bottom of the skillet (no oil!) with seeds, turn the burner on medium, and basically just wait. Once they start to toast, begin  mixing them so all the sides get a nice toasty color. A delicious smell should develop, which lets you know they’re almost ready.

Feel free to add other ingredients, (obviously, I won’t be there to stop you, not that I would), and mix everything together. Be sure to add a dash of salt and pepper!  I like to mix in some of the sesame seeds and put more on top. They’re tasty! Save some on the side to mix into rice, or put on salad. Yum.

Be sure to toast your bread and add lettuce, etc. for some extra crunch. Enjoy!

P.S.- As a side dish alternative that you’d be more likely to serve on real plates than paper ones, try using all the same ingredients, but cut them into long strips. (Mushrooms, chilies, maybe add some thinly sliced carrots) Pan fry them slightly until browned in sparse canola oil. Add salt and pepper while they are cooking, and toss in the sesame seeds at the end once you’ve turned off the flame. Instead of mashing the quail eggs, peel them and quarter them lengthwise with a sharp knife to make them pretty and bite-sized. Serve on lettuce, with a thin drizzle of mustard and topped with more sesame seeds. Yum!

 

 

Budgeting for food, and art supplies

P1060675Leaving work today, it was an art night. I could feel it. Even during my stay in California art had failed to surface as an outlet, and I could feel the lack of creativity in my life suddenly reach an immediate and painful boiling point.

Tight budget, and tonight it’s going towards art supplies. Some nights I feed my belly, tonight I feed my peace of mind. It’s a fair trade, and a healthy one in the long run.  I headed to Alpha, the art store around the corner from my house. Thinking it was just full of the usual nauseatingly cute Korean stationery that is everywhere, I stumbled in a few days ago and was surprised to find a fairly decent collection of art materials, supplies, handmade paper and, of course, cuteness. The back half of the store is basically Emmy paradise. I got lost in the shelves the first time I was there and had to literally make myself stop and walk out the door. Dangerous. But at least I know where to go if I want to do a project.

Giving myself the 8,000 won I would have spent on food today was a great exercise in self control, but it stretched. Origami paper, a length of ribbon, some craft wire, two big pieces of handmade printed paper and a calligraphy pen accompanied me out of the shop. Score.

At home, determined to not spoil my creative evening by just eating ramen, I cooked up a sweet potato and scarfed some white rice mixed with cheap packaged curry powder. Sort of a fried rice stir-fry, and it did the trick. A few moments to eat and practice Hangeul (the Korean alphabet). To work! To work!

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Although completely incorrect, I’ve been playing with Hangeul  initials drawings. Mine, ESH, for example, looks remarkably like a winking face. I love it. Thanks calligraphy pen and my mediocre knowledge of Korean! I can’t wait to explore this further. Too bad it is grammatically incorrect for most combinations. Still looks pretty cool.

All I knew I wanted to do with the art paper was decorate my walls; they are painfully bare. Luckily, I brought along some watercolor pencils and a watercolor pen. We’ll see what the painting turns into over the next few days.

In all, dinner rations well spent. It’s a whole different kind of satisfaction.

 

 

 

 

A New Year

Homemade kimchee jjigae in hand, Jen, John Stephen and I discuss plans for New Years. Being the new kid on the block, I’m pretty much down to do anything. There has been talk of a boozy club night in Hongdae, a neighborhood of Seoul known for its club and bar scene, and I smile and nod without much enthusiasm. Something about going out to spend a bunch of money for an evening I likely won’t remember much of the next day seems a little depressing when I’ve only just arrived here. Really, I could have just stayed in the States for that.

So when Jen mentions something about a bell ceremony at midnight, I jump at the idea. She has been doing research into what the Koreans do for New Years, and is also feeling as strapped for cash as I am. We make plans to meet up around 8pm, get some dinner, stuff some soju in our purses and head to the Jongno district for the ceremony. In the morning, she informs me, Koreans traditionally hike to the summit of a mountain to watch the first sunrise of the new year. You mean to tell me that I will literally ring in this year with a bell ceremony and a mountain summit sunrise?! Yes, please. Count the new girl in.

The idea, no surprise, catches on fast with our coworkers. Soon a group of eight is looking forward to the late night events, the attempt to stay up all night, to catching the first subway on New Year’s Day.  I’m actually giddy with the prospect. We meet at a Hof (beer bar) around eight in the evening, pre-funk with some cheap beer and soju, eat a plate of garlic chicken goodness (which I’m pretty sure was actually pork) and head to the subway.

The Bosingak Watch-Night bell ceremony takes place every year in Jongno on New Year’s Eve. Since 1953, prominent figures and celebrities have attended the ceremony, and there was rumor that the new conservative female president of Korea would be there to take part in the ceremony. She wasn’t. The mayor of Seoul was, however, as was the Superintendent of Education.

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(photo courtesy of visitseoul.com)

In the subway, the car begins to fill. First a few get on, then streams of people are flowing in and all around us, taking up every available inch of space. All sense of personal bubbles fly out the door, along with valuable oxygen and any hope of escape. If you want to get off next, you better start elbowing. Tonight, however, everyone is going to the same place. When we finally reach the Jongno station, the dam breaks and the train must look like a punctured vein from above, people like cells flowing out at all angles, trying to revive their arms and legs, take deep breaths, stretch their necks. After a brief moment, we are back in the flow, traveling to the next destination, just a cluster of American, English and Canadian faces like huge white cells among all the Korean blood. We hold hands so as not to lose each other. Without a phone or internet, being lost in this throng would be tragic. Cut to: still image of me standing a head taller than everyone around, facing the camera as Koreans stream past and around me. I call it: American Island.

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We make it to street level, together and in one eight-piece unit. What we find there is a whole new adventure. If we thought the subway was packed, the tens of thousands of people in the street soon put it in perspective. There are bodies absolutely everywhere, and surprisingly I see more English faces than I have in my entire time in Korea so far. It’s amazing to feel this sense of camaraderie, and difficult not to just smile at everyone I see. There is certainly a sense of freedom being in such a large crowd. You become just one of the mass.  The soju helps.

We push forward to try to see something, anything, but there are too many people. It’s minutes to midnight, and Rob points out that we are the among the first in the world to celebrate the new year. Our families back home won’t celebrate for hours. I close my eyes in the crowd, imagine the world turning, internalize the physicality of the time zones. My ‘present’ is both accurate and bizarre when compared to those of my friends and family back home. They will celebrate the new year tomorrow, once I have already spent an entire day of 2013. I feel like a trailblazer. A woman of the future.

Suddenly, I hear shouting… and what can only be counting, even though I don’t understand the numbers. The excitement makes it plain: this is the moment! The countdown! 3,2,1….. Happy New Year! It hits me: I am in Korea. This year, this entire year, will be spent in a new country, with new people, new food, a new job… and by the end of the year it won’t be new anymore, and a new year will begin again. Time. Yet another new path, a new chapter of my life beginning.

Soon after the countdown, I hear the sound of an enormous bell ring. Once, twice.. I begin to count but soon lose track amongst the noise and activity. It is an amazing feeling, being surrounded by people, staring up into a sky lit by fireworks and bright lights on tall buildings—and to my right over the top of some trees I can see the Bosingak Belfry, its traditional architecture in stark contrast with the modernism all around. An urban blend of new and old, traditional and innovative. In harmony. The history is audible.


When my alarm goes off at 5:40am I struggle to remember why, dear god why, I agreed to this insane plot. Legs go over, and body follows. By the time I’m standing, I’m awake and excited again. This morning, before it is light, I will climb a mountain.Back at Rob’s apartment, we sit in a circle on his floor eating 7-Eleven snacks and passing a bottle. Our eyes are sore from the hour but our hearts are swollen with the evening’s excitement. A new year! In a circle like this, anything is possible. I agree to come back to Rob’s at six to make some coffee, and I head to bed to catch a few hours of sleep.

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Achasan is one of the easier mountains in Seoul to climb. In winter, when the earth is icy, it seems an ideal choice for a climb in the darkness and a co-worker has confirmed that the trail is mostly stairs and will be ascendable. I pull on my boots, silk long underwear, a down jacket, gloves, a JL wool base-layer, my handmade Alec Hat and, still half asleep, head over to Rob’s. It is snowing outside. The world is quiet before dawn.

Rob is also grumbling about waking up, but when he sees my face he pulls it together. Somehow grumbling+grumbling=Let’s Go Climb a Mountain! About half of last night’s group meets us outside and we head to the corner store for supplies. It is 6:15 am.

P1060586A few stops from Achasan, the subway begins to fill with fellow hikers. Appearance in Korea is everything, and these early risers have not come to disappoint. Decked out in high tech gear, crampons, hiking poles and packs, these guys mean business! Even with my Goretex boots on I feel ill-prepared. By the time we exit the subway, we are flanked on all sides by summit-hungry Koreans. Whereas the night before I had seen many Western faces scattered in the crowd, today we are alone. I notice a few glances our way but they seem friendly; maybe our early presence is scoring us bonus points. There’s a sense of community as we watch sleepy children having their coats zipped up under their chins, men testing each other’s crampons, packs being zipped up by friends. Everyone is ready.

We have directions to the trailhead, but there are enough people here in the darkness that we just follow. Up a hill, around a corner, through a sleepy neighborhood. Stairs appear on our right between apartment buildings and we start to climb. The trail is busy. Once again we are in a line of people, only now it is to walk up a mountain instead of onto the next subway. It is still snowing, and soon my hair is covered. When I reach up to brush the snow away, I realize it has frozen. My hair is frozen! Yet another new experience. I tuck it up under my hat, and continue uphill.P1060602

Near the top, we reach a flat area topped by a magnificent temple. Intricate architecture is further ornamented by colorful paintings, and there are people everywhere. Let me just say this again, we are hiking up a mountain before dawn, and we are hiking in line, only to reach the top and have to fight for room to stand. On top of a mountain. I’m confounded. Some have brought small backpacking stoves with them to make tea, others are slurping up ramen, some, like us, are just standing around taking pictures. It is a powerful moment for us, here on top of a mountain at dawn, surrounded by the people of this land who are so better prepared than we are. Respect flows from me for these people who have maintained such a beautiful custom, and as I stare down at Seoul I realize yet again that this is truly a new beginning for me. It helps to feel a sense of community at this moment. As always I am surrounded by people, and I allow myself for a moment to feel that I am one of them. We continue on to the top and experience the snow fall stop and the sun peek through the clouds. The ground is covered in fine powder and we have a view for miles. Everything feels new. I send silent thoughts to friends and family back home, feeling concurrently the distance and the presence of them in my thoughts. It is beautiful, this feeling. Powerful and charged. Full of the unknown. Part of an international community of people I love, trust and can share this moment and these thoughts with.

P1060642The camaraderie continues once we are back down the mountain. Everyone and their mother (this is Korea, so, literally) is out trying to get some hot soup after the long, cold climb. Most restaurants are empty and the few with people inside are completely packed, with lines out the door. We find one with an empty table and manage to slide in before there is a line. Apparently we have chosen the place well. There is a man walking around just giving toasts, raising his glass and yelling. Everyone laughs, raises their mug and shouts back at him. Even without understanding the words, the meaning is clear.

Happy New Year.

 

 

Bosingak Belfry
“From the early Joseon era dating back to the 5th year of King Taejo (1396), the bell at Bonsingak was tolled twice a day in order to open and close all the four major gates (Sungnyemun, Heunginjimun, Sukjeongmun, Donhuimun) as well as the four smaller gates (Hyehwamun, Sodeokmun, Gwanghuimun, Changuimun) of the city.  
The bell was tolled 33 times every morning (“paru”) at about 4 a.m. to signal the end of the night curfew and the start of a new day, and the city gates were opened. It is tolled 33 times because the Goddess of Mercy in Buddhist religions manifests herself in 33 different forms in order to save mankind.
※ The bell was originally called Jonggak, but it was re-named as in 1895 when King Gojong granted it a votive plaque with the name “Bosingak” engraved on it. Unfortunately, due to the turbulent history of late Joseon Dynasty, the bell suffered a lot of damage, and can now only be seen on display at the National Museum of Korea.The bell that is currently standing at Bosingak was newly cast with contributions from the public. It was hung in the belfry on August 14, 1985, and was first rung the following day in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the 1945 liberation.” *courtesy of http://www.visitseoul.com

Chuck Close, Up Close

This morning at my uncle’s house in Marina, just north of Monterey, I woke to the smell of coffee. This must be a common Harris thing: wake early, brew a strong pot, catch up on what’s happening in the world. A family morning ritual I can stand behind. This particular morning, Rabobank mug in hand, I watched footage of a major tunnel collapse in Japan, political stirrings in Egypt, heat-mapped weather projections of the storm raging outside. Good to know what’s going on over the horizon. It starts to make sense towards the end of the first mugful.

I had planned this weekend to take some ‘me time’—perhaps a jaunt in the Freedom camper into the redwoods, or a night camped by the beach. California had other plans in store for me. The storm that raged up the coast was enough to make outdoor activities less than desirable. Luckily, the Saturday I spent touring Monterey with my Uncle was relatively clear, and what fun we had!

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I learned about Chuck Close during my studies at University of Washington. It’s difficult to learn about twentieth-century artists without his name popping up, and for good reason. His large and dynamic portraits, specifically the ones made up of hundreds of colorful tiny abstract squares, have always appealed to me with the sheer depth of creativity taken to produce them. Yes, yes, he has a huge team assembled to help him. Yes, yes, the inspiration for leveling a face into a two-dimensional image may come from a learning disability preventing him from recognizing faces. No matter. Even if you’re not ‘into portraiture’, it’s easy to see why these works are genius.

In contrast with his contemporary Andy Warhol’s famous stylized images of celebrities (e.g. Elvis, Marilyn Monroe), Close chooses subjects unknown to the general public (at least at the time of the portrait) and breaks the images down into grids of abstract color. In my eyes, the true talent of Close’s work becomes apparent when the viewer examines the image up close, noting the grid-like systemization of color, then falls back to a distance and is surprised to see that as a whole these many abstractions combine into something like photorealism. It’s amazing. A video played on a projector in art school does them absolutely zero justice.

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The exhibit included more than Close’s large paintings. Huge wall sized portraits of men and women done entirely by thumbprint were scattered through the exhibit. By thumbprint, you ask? Yes, by thumbprint.

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There were also some amazing pieces involving a mirrored cylinder surrounded by a drawn-out image. This process completely blew me away. The angle of the cylinder to the paper produced a reflected face that was completely indistinguishable on the surrounding paper. Amazing.

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SO, you can understand my excitement when Uncle Greg mentioned the Chuck Close: Works on Paper 1975-2012 exhibit at the Monterey Museum of Art. A day to visit with my Uncle AND see Close’s work up close? (buh dun chhhh) Yes, please.

The Monterey museum has two locations: one in downtown Monterey on Pacific Street, and the other, La Mirada, in the surrounding hills. I love the separation of spaces allowing for a more intimate viewing experience, but I had no idea what a gem the La Mirada location was. An old Spanish-style building surrounded by gardens, rough-hewn beams sprouting from ceilings, whitewashed walls catching the sun and echoing sounds… even if it wasn’t filled with fantastic contemporary art I would feel at home here. The intimate, elegant space flowed easily from one room to another, and the deep colors of the polished hardwood floors brought out the rich hues in the artwork. It is definitely a place I will be visiting again.

More photos from our day of fun:

Follow Through

This morning I signed the contract offered to me by YBM Sungbuk ECC. As I slipped the documents into the FedEx International Priority envelope, my chest swelled with a sense of completion, even though there are still many steps to take before I leave. Once the documents are received, I will be issued an E2 Visa number that I can give to the Korean embassy in San Francisco. They will take my passport, my picture, and give me approval to enter their country to work for the Sungbuk school.

Completion. Approval. I followed through on a decision I made last February, left my home, my friends, my Seattle family. I followed through. If you don’t know me well, this may not come as a shock. For those who have patiently listened to my years of dreamy, idealistic inaction, I hope you can share the pride that I feel. No, I did not go back to school to be a graphic designer, nor attend culinary school. I did not get a high-paying job in order to afford medical insurance by the time I turned 26. I did not blaze a trail across Seattle with my success and motivation.

Instead I am a survivor and opportunist.  An opportunistic survivor, if you will. A lazy one. When I was laid off last October, I spent over a month idling on “funemployment”, doing art projects, creating this website, enjoying the break, running the numbers. I burned through all of my savings, freaked, and dug in my heels. By mid-November I was working two jobs, had moved out of my studio apartment and in with Alec and Jeremy, saving every penny so that I could find a place with Laura when she came back from Korea. I worked a lot, exercised more than I ever have, and was happy when I looked in the mirror, both for what I was accomplishing and for actually doing it. Desperation is certainly a driving force. Amidst the stress of change, I found my strength.

My initial decision to go to South Korea was fueled by a similar desperation. I had just left one job and been promoted at the other, but despite my love for what I was doing every day it was hardly making ends meet. I was, I am, sick of living paycheck to paycheck, worrying about money constantly. And yet… cooking is the most creative job I’ve ever had and I can honestly say that I love it. I’m good at it. It makes me feel empowered. If only what I love could empower my bank account! When Laura suggested a year in Korea to save up, I was intrigued. Her experience sounded so wonderful, and while I wasn’t ready to go with her the year before, something inside me had changed. I felt stronger, more capable. Ready for an adventure. I wasn’t running from anything, instead I was running towards what I wanted my life to be. Ultimately, the thought of waking up at thirty in the same boat scared me more than the prospect of moving overseas for a year. So I told myself I was going.

Telling yourself and actually taking the steps to make it happen are two very different things. I’m great at the former. A real pro, actually. I have self-delusion down pat. Tomorrow will be chores day. Yeah, right. This week I’m going to eat well and exercise. Sure. Uh huh. I think I’ll go to graduate school. My inner self just smiles and nods.

With Korea, I knew things had to be different. Maybe that’s why I actually followed through: I came to the decision with a list of past failures and was unwilling to accept another. I waited awhile before telling my friends. I knew it would be difficult to say I was leaving for at least a year, and I wasn’t sure I could take the shame of another “I’ve got my life figured out now; I’m going to__________!” only to later tell them with averted eyes that that plan had flopped. When I told my dad, he asked questions and I could tell he didn’t quite believe it. When I told my mom, she said in a very I know you voice, “You better follow through with this, Em.” That’s probably another reason my signed contract is in the mail. Damn it, I’d rather just floss than get the lecture from the dentist! Sometimes it sucks having people who know you so well. In the end, though, it always saves me from myself.

So the year went by, and Surprise! I procrastinated. I sent in the fingerprints for my FBI background check later than I should have. I got my sealed transcripts from University of Washington literally the day before I left Seattle. In every case the actual process was simple and straightforward; I was the only one making the process difficult.

Even more hindering was the job offer I received a month before leaving Seattle. The restaurant I was laid off from wanted me back, at a high salary and with benefits. It was tempting, being able to stay in Seattle and make over twice as much as I currently was. I could still save. I could buy a car. I could continue dating that tall, handsome redhead I’d met a year before. I could see my friends daily. But when I was really honest with myself, I knew it wasn’t the right decision. And luckily, I made that choice before the offer fell apart. (Long story short, they wanted to hire me back to save the business. When I tried to have them put the offer on paper, they said they had found buyers. As far as I know, the business is now closed and still for sale.)

So, onward! I got my paperwork in order, confirmed the date I would leave Seattle, and gave notice to my job and my landlord. Once you make those moves, it all gets real. And now, a month later, I’m sitting at Cole Coffee in Rockridge, right on the border of Oakland and Berkeley, celebrating with myself the fact that my contract is in the mail. I have my laptop on an outside table, am drinking a cup of fresh-brewed Sumatra, and reveling in the familiar smell of rain in the air. Mentally patting myself on the back for completing something, and telling myself Life is what you make it.

I’m definitely starting to believe it.

 

a poor (wo)man’s printing alternative…

Contrary to my usual opinion of forced creativity, I often find that holing myself up and waiting for inspiration to strike has its benefits.  Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes before I know it, I’ve been in the studio for twelve hours and have a prolific amount of work to show for it.

As is the case with this image. While unemployed a few years ago I got into a printing phase. At a local art store I found some foam printing sheets (a smooth, dense white foam with adhesive backing) that provided a cheap, easy alternative to the laborious wood blocks I seemed always to start and never finish. It was cheap enough (about $2.50 per 8.5″x11″ sheet) that I could experiment without breaking my budget (aka the change in my drawer), but also so versatile that I soon began using it to print on fabric and other materials.

Best of all, the only tools required are the foam sheet, a piece of cardboard (or wood for durability) and some sort of writing instrument to draw on the foam. A ball-point pen works fine; depending on the thickness of the line you desire. Because the foam is so pliable, it is easy to create multi-layered/ colored images by just cutting out the part you want to change (the feather, below) and using that as your new print block.

In this image, On the Wind, I was inspired by a feather that kept catching the wind so it looked like it was floating upwards.

Title: On the Wind
Inspiration: nature; wind currents
Medium: Foam block print on paper
Dimensions: 4″x6″
Price: $20; multiple available. 

ICON

ICON is one of my largest works of art to date. Inspired by… those who inspire.

Top row, left to right: Prince, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, Mic Jagger, Jimi Hendrix

Bottom row: Jackie O., Georgia O’Keefe, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela

Billie Holiday

Bottom right: Bob Marley

 

Title: ICON
Inspiration: those who inspire others
Medium: Acrylic paint, paper on composite board
Dimensions: approx. 2’x3′ unframed. 
Price: original has been gifted; reproductions available $100, 20×30″. Smaller reproductions available. 

Concentric Life Equation… none of this linear mumbojumbo

As a self-proclaimed ‘child of nature’, I am drawn again and again to the image of concentric circles as a delineation of time. For some reason, this visual approach makes much more sense to me than a standard linear illustration, especially when used to portray the development of a specific individual. In one concise image you can see the beginning and the end and, in every artist’s dream, it also fuses the subject directly into the message.

I’ve often thought about tree rings as a visual metaphor for the phases of my life. Thinking back, certain years, phases, influences, relationships, interests, living situations, etc., fall into groups and make comprehending my own passage through time a visual affair.

What would you put in the empty boxes to represent your own life?

… His way of coping with the days was to think of activities as units of time, each unit consisting of about thirty minutes. …” –About a Boy, Nick Hornby.

Full hours can be a little bit intimidating and most activities take about half an hour. Taking a bath: one unit, watching countdown: one unit, web-based research: two units, exercising: three units, having my hair carefully disheveled: four units. It’s amazing how the day fills up, and I often wonder, to be absolutely honest, if I’d ever have time for a job; how do people cram them in?” – Hugh Grant as Will, in About a Boy the movie.

Title: In Tree Years

Inspiration: a late-night talk with my mom; nature; Nick Hornby’s idea of life as a series of units of time 

Medium: Foam-block print on paper

Dimensions: 6″x9″

Price: $40; seven (7) varied prints available. 

This item is available on Etsy! http://www.etsy.com/listing/83813118/in-tree-years-foamblock-print