One Fish, Two Fish, Dr. Seuss Would Love Thish

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Sometimes it takes a trip to a fish market for you to realize, Toto, we’re not even remotely in the States anymore. Such was the case on Saturday when, after spending the morning at work, I received a Facebook message from Rob asking if I wanted to go out exploring. Despite the fact that I was already back in bed, despite the bags under my eyes, despite the precious nap I planned to enjoy… Of course I said Hell to the yes! Where are we going?

To the largest fish market in Seoul, he replied in text.

Curiosity piqued, clothes back on, Cool! I’ll meet you at the corner in ten minutes. It’s gorgeous outside! I’m glad I won’t feel guilty about this wasted day tomorrow, and I’m craving a chance to use my camera.

Don’t wear flip flops, he cautions. Lydia found that out the hard way. 

P1060966.1We meet on the corner as planned and head to the subway station. I’m starting to get the hang of this, I think as we head through the turnstiles and both naturally turn the same direction at the bottom of the stairs. (Often I’m stuck staring at my phone every time I’m faced with two options. Tell me, oh SmartDevice, which direction do I want to go? What should I do with my life? What shoes should I wear today? I’m glad Siri isn’t available (i4) or this could get out of control. Has anyone made a crystal ball app?) To my frustration, once we’re on the car I’m lost again, having to check every other stop to make sure we haven’t missed our transfer. Good thing Rob knows where we are going.

Ready for a small world moment? Last June, Laura’s British friend Ayesha came to visit us in Seattle. They taught together in Seoul the year before, and at the end of her contract Ayesha decided to do an American tour. Over the weekend we took the BOLT bus down to Portland and then drove to eastern Oregon for the annual Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally. Laura’s father, Eric Folkestad, is the main organizer for the rally every year, and it was the perfect ‘American!’ event to show our visitor. The weekend in Baker City was so much fun—beer and bikes and country music—and of course after about ten hours in the car together plus a weekend of hanging out with bikers, Ayesha (fondly referred to as A-Bomb) and I became friends. Ok, small world moment. Not only does Ayesha now teach at the same school as me in Seoul (no prior planning), but our co-teacher and friend Rob is from Baker City, OR. He knows all the restaurants and bars we went to, and tells us stories about the town when it’s not filled with an influx of biker dudes. He has also lived in Portland for a few years, and it’s nice to have someone from your same part of the world to share region-specific jokes with.

em at noryanjin

Rob and I take the subway over the Han, the big river that runs through the heart of Seoul. It’s wonderful to come up from the depths and be traveling above ground. I can even see out the window over the head of the Korean girl in front of me. It is a beautiful day. Cold and crisp; the sun reflecting off buildings tricks your mind into thinking it might be warm. We get off at our stop, climb the stairs to the walking bridge, and stare over the tracks at the city. We’re still a bit away, but you can tell that thousands of pounds of fish are nearby. Not in a nose-scrunching way, more like your brain is telling you the sea is nearby even though it’s not in sight.

Across the walking bridge, we start the descent into the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market. After a flight of wide steps we come out on the second floor balcony. At eye level with ceiling lights and beams, the expanse of the place takes a moment to sink in. Literally as far as the eye can see are stalls, each similar to the last, vendors hawking the day’s catch to hundreds of passerby. I’m glad of the way we came in; with an initial bird’s eye view I am able to take in the scene, assess the dimensions of the place. It’s the kind of market you want to at least see on a map before you dive in head first. I collect my bearings, sling my camera around my neck, and we’re off! P1060969.1

At the main floor I immediately regret my choice of shoes. I had opted for some tennies over my hiking boots, letting my newfound sense of Korean fashion dictate my wardrobe. Mi-stake. Too late I feel the damp and roll up the hem of my jeans, fish juice from the ground having already seeped in. I suck it up (the feeling, not the fish juice), just tell myself I’ll wash my clothes as soon as I get home and on the subway just blame the smell on the old guy next to me. Thank you Merrell for making machine-washable shoes!

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My camera is out and it’s all I can do to not just live behind the lens. The colors, the smell, the sounds of a thousand voices buying and selling fish, the textures of dozens of species of sea life all scream to be recorded. For the first time in Korea I play the unabashed tourist. I can’t help it. This place is amazing! Rob informs me that Anthony Bourdain came here in his South Korea episode, and I see why. While potentially overwhelming, it is a foodie’s paradise. I make Rob stop at the stall selling tuna, literally grabbing the back of his shirt to halt him before he loses me in the crowd. I’ve never seen anything like this, except in my dreams. Old woman vendor, cross-sections of tuna the size of your torso, women yelling to have their order taken, piles of tuna steaks being trimmed to order and size. I gluttonously picture myself sinking my face into a mound of tuna sashimi. It kind of reminds me of the last scene in Scarface when he just lowers his face to the white mountain. That’s what I want. But with tuna. Unfortunately, I still have a few days until my first payday, so no tuna-coke dreams will be fulfilled today. That’s okay, though. I add it to my list

Once through the first line of stalls, we come out into the open at the entrance to a produce market. Looking for a bit of a break, we wander out into the sun. Rob mentions there is a strange alleyway market off to the left, and he stays in the open to smoke while I descend into what looks like a hobo tunnel market. Don’t take pictures, he warns me. A man chased us down last time.

P1070010.1The dark shapes crouched along the tunnel wall are indeed people, and in fact mostly old women. You see many elderly women running the small food stalls here, both in markets and in street food carts. In a society where the elderly are cared for by the young, if you don’t have offspring you simply continue to work, or if your family struggles to make ends meet, there really is no such thing as retirement. The women crouch along the wall, covered in hats and blankets, scrubbing vegetables or shucking beans into plastic pots. Their knuckles are swollen with rheumatoid arthritis, but their movements have the surety that comes from a lifetime of perfecting a skill. In awe, I walk among them and try not to stare. When I do gather the courage to ask for a picture, the woman frowns and shakes her head. For some reason, I feel a sense of superstition in her answer, although I can’t quite explain it. Less curt than wary.

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I was filled with an immediate sense of respect… for her, for her way of life, for her beliefs. While incredibly different from me, our shared humanity was tangible in a brief interaction. And I suppose we are both doing what we need to in order to survive.

She may have denied a photo, but her pickles didn’t.

 

 

How to Survive the Subway, and other Seoulful Tales

It was fifteen degrees in Seoul today. 15. I’m not quite sure if you West-Coasters can fathom this temperature.  Yes, I’m talking Fahrenheit.

The air outside is so cold that your face hurts. You pull your scarf up over your nose and your hat down to your eyebrows, and still your eyeballs hurt and every breath in is painful as it saps all the warmth from around your face. It’s too cold to snow, too cold to think, your brain cells serve one purpose: to keep your legs moving until you find the next available indoor heated space. Pray you don’t have to carry anything, as that would mean your hands are out of your pockets. Wear two pairs of socks. On your hands if you have to.

Koreans care a lot about how they look; it is a display of respect to others, and a sign that you respect yourself. I’m violently resisting the urge to just put on every article of clothing I own every time I walk outside. Instead, I layer up, bare my stocking-clad knees to the weather, hurry from one place to the next. Screw my hair. I’m wearing two hats.

Today is Boxing Day, I’m informed by Canadians and Brits, a day that never held much (read any) meaning for me in the U.S. Today is the day you eat leftovers, take out all the wrapping paper to the rubbish bins, and watch Junior League hockey. It’s “Recover from Christmas” day. Good one.

No recoup for me, though—today I made my first appearance on the Seoul subway and went to day one of New Teacher Orientation. Located across Seoul, I ventured out two hours early to ensure I was there on time and was introduced to Seoul commuter traffic.

Lessons from the Subway:

  1. If you want on the train, get your ass on that train.  The little Korean woman in front of you is sure as hell gonna elbow her way on. Follow her.
  2. Don’t bring coffee, and hold on to something. Luckily, I didn’t learn this the hard way. During rush hour it is super unlikely that you will have a seat, or even something to hold on to. If it’s busy enough the other bodies will hold you up. If not, learn how to surf.
  3. There is an area reserved for the elderly, pregnant women, etc. If you are a foreigner and don’t see the sign, you will get dirty looks until you get the hell with it and look around.
  4. Subway stations are incredibly well organized and labeled. Color coded, even. Run little mouse, run through the maze to make your connection.
  5. Wanna buy a dress in the subway? No problem. Coffee? No problem. Dried fish? No problem.
  6. Everyone EVERYONE wears black. Tomorrow I’m going to wear my magenta down jacket, stand in the middle of the car and let everyone play ‘Let’s spot the foreigner’. Heehee. Just kidding. I’m going to take up three seats because I’ll be wearing every article of clothing I own.
  7. Subway seats are heated. Things like this just make my day.

 

After arriving a half hour early at my station, I walk the two blocks to the training school and there on the corner is a Starbucks. A mother <beep>ing Green Mermaid Queen of the U.S. Starbucks. I felt my body go into this kind of confused-disgust-panic-relief mode, and found myself walking across the street towards it before I really knew what was happening. It was like some West Coast honing device suddenly switched on, my arms went up in front of me in zombie mode, and my eyes glazed over knowing exactly how it would look inside. Now THAT is marketing power. About two steps from the door I woke up, noticed a Coffine coffee shop two doors down (I’m assuming they were going for a clever ‘coffee/caffeine’ wordplay, but the similarity to ‘coffin’ didn’t escape me) and broke the magnetic pull only to walk in and find that a latte is 4,500 won, roughly $4.50 USD. Damn you, coffine addiction. Seriously world, let me keep my last—cough cough—vice! I’m really not asking for much, just coffee for under $3 in a land where you can get a whole pizza for $6. C’mon.

Orientation starts and I’m not only the first person there, I’m the only person there. The teacher gets a text on his phone and pulls one of the remaining two desks to the back of the room, continuing to make small talk while he repeatedly looks at the clock on his phone. Matthew: Orientation Teacher, five foot eight, big smile, definitely gay. Like, the gay where you just leave your gaydar gun in your pocket because his nametag says, “Hello, I’m Gay Matthew”.

Eventually the other teacher comes in, nose red with the cold, carrying a small suitcase. He’s travelled from Daegu, and managed to only be fifteen minutes late. He is definitely not spiking the Gaydar meter, and his shoes confirm it. Straighty straight straight. Matthew, however, looks like it is Christmas morning all over again and his present just arrived. I just sit back, happy to be done with my end of small talk and pleasantly surprised that I get my own live Korean drama to watch. Actors: Nicolas and Matthew. Set: Korean elementary school classroom. Plot: Gawkwardness (that’s my new term for when a gay man gawks at a straight man and it’s awkward). It’s hilarious. At least I think so.

What’s NOT funny is that our heater seems to be broken. Did I mention it was fifteen degrees outside? Nick and I both huddle in our student desks still fully bundled in our outdoor gear, passing furtive “What the heck? How am I supposed to learn like this?” glances at each other.  I start making jokes about burning our workbooks in the middle of the floor for warmth, and a new friend is made. Sometimes it’s that simple. Common problems, survival, comic relief.

It makes me wonder about the people in North Korea, and if they have heat.

Lessons from Day One Orientation:

  1. Korean superstitions include: If you leave a fan on at night and have all your windows closed, you will die. If someone writes your name in red ink, you will die.
  2. Almost 50% of Koreans ‘don’t have a religion.’ I’m not sure if they are atheist, agnostic or just don’t practice one, but I still found the number interesting. A personal Plus One for Korea. The remaining percentage is divided between Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, etc.
  3. If you wrap your scarf around your legs and sit on your hands you may save them from frostbite.

 

If I remember any of the actual lessons, I’ll let you know. It was pretty basic. I led a 20 questions mock game. With two people. Woo.

Insert: subway travel, reverse order. Once back to the apartment, I turned up the heat and lay down on the floor to defrost my bones. The temperature outside is twelve degrees. Holy sweet baby Atheist-Buddha-Jesus. Some cold sweet potato curry pizza (you heard me, and yes, it’s amazing), a cup of tea, and it’s time for this old girl to hit the hay.

Merry Boxing Day.