Category Archives: Day to day life

Fifteen minutes of fame on Gapado

If Jeju-do is an island in the middle of nowhere, then Gapado is an island slightly to the south of the middle of nowhere. A 20 minute boat ride south to be exact.
Colleen, who always knows what’s going on where, suggested Gapado was the place to be last weekend, with an island-wide festival featuring barley field walks, kite flying and “catching sea animals.” Count me in! Along with our friend Kim, we set off bright and early Saturday morning to catch the 9 a.m. ferry. Hellishly early for a Saturday, but what the heck, it was something different.
We drove to the southwest corner of the island, to the town of Moseulpo to catch the ferry. The terminal was packed with Jeju-ites headed to the small island, seemingly just a stone’s throw away. The sea was very choppy with a brisk head wind, making at least one passenger cling to the rail, with a greenish tinge under her white pancake makeup.
The ferry pulled in on the leeward side of the island, out of the wind, and we debarked via a set of steep steps notched into the concrete pier. No sissy handrail here. Gapado is maybe 20 acres total, with almost no trees and constant wind. The 200-some villagers have traditionally subsisted on fishing, but we were surprised to find that there were substantial fields of barley covering the gentle sloping stretches of land. The island offers spectacular views of Jeju, including the impressive dome-shaped San… and Mt. Halla. The Barley Festival marked the debut of a substantial push to increase tourism on the island, which in the past has catered almost exclusively to fishermen.

Father and son kite flying, with Sanbangsan looming in the background.

Father and son kite flying, with Sanbangsan looming in the background.

The new tourism effort was immediately seen in the wonderful, detailed murals painted on the walls of modest huts lining the main roads through town. There were murals depicting fishing, farming, and of course the hanyeo, the women divers for whom Jeju is famous. There is a community of these hardy women on Gapado. Just outside of town, there were brand new paved, stone wall-lined walking trails criss-crossing the barley fields and meeting up with a paved road that circumnavigates the entire island.

Murals pay tribute to the legendary hanyeo women free divers.

Murals pay tribute to the legendary hanyeo women free divers.

Over the course of a few hours we walked the entire island, despite the wind and cold, and the Korean paparazzi. Did I mention we were the ONLY foreigners on the island?
A highlight was watching a shaman and a kite master set aloft a string of what must have been a hundred small paper kites, all strung together. It was really beautiful to watch them undulating across the blue sky. What a great job to have!

The fellow in the spiky hat, left is a shaman. I don't know why he was flying kites.

The fellow in the spiky hat, left is a shaman. I don't know why he was flying kites.

It was at this point however, that we were literally mobbed with photographers, shouting at us to slow down, stand here, look this way, stop! It was funny, but weird. One of the photos, where we were told to wave our hand along the barley as we walked slowly, appeared in today’s local Jeju paper, and online. Not once did anyone ask for our names, but I’m sure their line was “foreigners happy dream of Gapado festival!” Who needs a name when you’ve got a stereotype?

Waygooks in the barley, as featured in local media.

Waygooks in the barley, as featured in local media.

One of the many beautiful murals that enhance a visit to Gapado.

One of the many beautiful murals that enhance a visit to Gapado.

When we arrived at the main festival area, one photographer who had been particularly pushy insisted on buying us beers. He sat with us while, it seemed, making sure everyone saw he was squiring the foreigners. He even got us festival hats and made us pose for photos holding Korean flags, and introduced us to the mayor of Moseulpo. For the record, at one festival I linked arms and did soju shots with the mayor of Jeju, so I am not without friends in high places.

There was no shortage of seafood-serving restaurants on the island, but since Colleen is a vegetarian, and none of us read Korean well enough to order off a menu (pathetic, I know), we caught the 4 p.m. ferry back to the mainland, or what now felt like the mainland. I would recommend a trip to Gapado, but it would be nicer in warmer weather, and with a picnic lunch. It would also be very photogenic in the fall, when they harvest all that beautiful barley.

Life is good for toddlers on Gapado

Life is good for toddlers on Gapado

A taste of Japan

I am in Fukuoka (Foo-koo-OH-kah), Japan as I write this, sent here to get a new visa stamp. That’s a long, ugly story that I won’t go into here. I’m on what is fondly known among foreign teachers in Korea as a “visa run.” How it works: fly to Fukuoka, being the closest port from Jeju, drop off your passport and new visa application at the Korean embassy, shop and eat in lovely Fukuoka for a day, pick up your passport with the shiny new visa stamp the next day, fly back to Korea.

I got here Sunday afternoon and dropped off my application at 9 this morning (Monday), so I’ve had all day to look around. I gotta say, it’s pretty cool here. Compared to Jeju, the sidewalks are wider and in better repair, traffic is quieter, with almost no honking and I haven’t been nearly run over at all. On Jeju crossing the street is always a life-threatening experience. Also the people are prettier and trendier, with amazing clothes and hair. Korea is very conservative by comparison, and no one really looks “different.” That’s especially true in provincial Jeju. Japan even has gay people! (Korea denies their existence.)

Japanese version of a gargoyle atop one of Fukuoka's many temples.

Japanese version of a gargoyle atop one of Fukuoka's many temples.

I’m staying in Hakata, which has a lovely canal system running through it, that actually has water in it. Jeju has several large but dry canals, apparently reserved for storm runoff. I got here via a fast, clean and efficient subway system, right from the airport. Jeju, being one big volcanic rock, has no subway system, just crazy bus and taxi drivers. This area boasts some of the most impressive shrines in Fukuoka, including one a stone’s throw from my hotel, the JBB Hakata. Two blocks in the other direction is a shrine that houses the largest wooden Buddha in Japan. (see photo.) I managed to get one photo, sans flash, before I was told “no photo!” Oops. He is 16 meters tall, which is nearly 50 feet. For such an amazing statue he was in a very unamazing space, like a Buddha-in-a-box.

The largest wooden Buddha in Japan.

The largest wooden Buddha in Japan.

After dropping off my passport this morning I went exploring on foot. It was a beautiful spring day, with the cherry blossoms straining to burst into bloom. The massive Cherry Blossom Festival officially starts next weekend, so they’ve probably been put on notice not to bust out early. I first went to Ohori Park, a lovely green space surrounding a lake. There is a land bridge cutting across the middle of the lake, with quaint arched bridges, pagodas, weeping willows and sweeping views of the city skyline. At one million plus population, Fukuoka is a major city with amazing architecture. After crossing the lake I explored the adjacent “ruins of Fukuoka Castle” grounds. There is no castle at all, but some massive stone walls, topped by a viewing platform with a 360 degree view of the city and environs. Like so many things in Asia, the “great wall” was built to keep out the Mongol horde. While the vegetation in the park is pruned with manic Japanese precision, there were also many homeless encampments lodged under trees and against the stone fort walls. I’ve always wondered by Jeju doesn’t have a homeless population, but it is alive and well in Japan. OK, one point for Korea.

Bikes sans rack outside a subway station. Not a one wasa locked up.

Bikes sans rack outside a subway station. Not a one was locked up.

After basking in the sun at the top of the “fort,” I took the subway back to Hakata for lunch and shopping. I brought very little money with me, and was relying totally on cash – no credit cards!! – so I had to really watch my spending. Everyone says Japan is more expensive than Korea, but that depends on what you buy. I would have loved to check out some pricey Japanese restaurants, or bought lots of souvenirs, but I stuck to browsing and buying food at convenience stores and cafes. And Hakata has some amazing shopping ops!

I got out of the subway at the Nakasu-Kawabata stop, which is right at a huge designer label, multi-story shopping center called “Eeny Meeny Miny Mo.” Really. I don’t know why. As I stepped into the elevator I realized I didn’t have my leather jacket. I had shed it earlier, as it was very warm out. I figured I must have either left it at the first subway stop when I was waiting for the train, or on the train. Crap. I had a quick lunch first, then went back to the subway station. A very kind man at the ticket booth managed to piece together what I was saying, and made a few phone calls, but no luck. He gave me a number to call and said to check later. Darn.

Another random tourist in Japan.

Another random tourist in Japan.

I went back to my hotel, where I told the receptionist my problem. She, like the toll booth guy, apologized for not speaking English. I apologized for not speaking Japanese. Bows were exchanged all around. But hey, if I haven’t learned Korean in 6 months it’s unlikely I’m going to learn Japanese for a 2-day trip. She understood what I wanted though, and very kindly called the lost and found. Again, no luck. When I came back to the hotel several hours later, she immediately went into pouty face mode, shaking her head sadly. I think she was more upset than I was. I’m bummed, but what can you do? At least it wasn’t my passport, camera or wallet! Some homeless person is probably strutting the streets in it right now. Oh well.

Some things need no translation.

Some things need no translation.

But back to the shopping. From my hotel I strolled across the grounds of the Kushida Shrine and directly into the Kawabata arcade, a covered shopping area that stretches for several blocks. If one had money to spend, there is plenty to buy, from beautiful silk kimonos and pottery to incense and handmade Japanese folk dolls. But of course, as in Korea, none of the clothes or shoes would fit me anyway. The kawabata arcade is bookended by Eeny Meeny Miny Mo on one end and Canal City on the other. Canal City is a sprawling, multi-story covered mall, with a man-made canal running through it. I watched as the fountains in the middle of the canal spurted in time to Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” Nearby a balloon clown entertained the crowd overlooking his canal-side platform.

She could be just a student...

She could be just a student...

After browsing through Canal City, I came out in what can only be called the red light district: blocks upon blocks of nothing but “gentlemen’s clubs,” with advertisements that left little to the imagination. I am very curious though, about the business labeled only with a British flag and “Diana.” What the??
I saw a lot of very pretty, skimpily dressed women in spike heels, but then, you see them everywhere. While in Korea there is a modesty code that is skirted (so to speak) by wearing black tights with hotpants, or a tank top under a plunging neckline, in Japan they let it all hang out. Not that there’s much to hang out….
I’ve heard about Japan all my life, as my parents lived there for several years while my dad was in the navy, and my middle brother was born there. It was kind of odd to finally be there, the last member of the Miller clan to do so, but it well worth the wait. I definitely want to come back and spend more time here.

It will be interesting to see how I feel about Jeju after seeing “the other side.”

Venice? Paris? Dublin? No, Fukuoka, Japan. A lovely city.

Venice? Paris? Dublin? No, Fukuoka, Japan. A lovely city.

Changes

It’s not enough that I moved to a foreign country and started a totally new career. Now, six months later, I’m starting another new job and moving again. Same country, and same career, but I hope a totally better situation. I will say this now that I am out of the range of EPIK retribution, but that program…leaves a lot to be desired. If you found this blog while searching for information about teaching English in Korea, particularly on Jeju Island (Jeju-do), be warned. It’s a crap shoot. Some people are very happy with their teaching gigs, others, like me, not so much. I can’t speak for how the program (English Program In Korea) is administered in other provinces, as Jeju is a “Self-Governing Province,” which means, they really are an island unto themselves. Jeju is the maverick of South Korea.

But frankly, I’m tired of fretting over the ineptitude and incompetence that are the hallmarks of Jeju EPIK, so let’s move one, as I intend to do. I am moving from being a talking parrot, clown and bad cop for classes of 30-plus kids, to being an actual teacher at a hagwon (after school private academy) for classes of less than 10 kids. Right now it looks like my biggest class is 6 kids. Since housing came with the EPIK job, changing jobs also means changing housing. I am the first foreign teacher my new school has had to find housing for, and I was trying to think positively, and visualize a nice, spacious apartment with a lovely view of beautiful Jeju Harbor, or maybe snow-covered Mt. Halla. At the very least, I was praying for something not on an alley with a view of the garbage cans. It’s an odd system here in that since the school is paying for your housing, they choose it; you don’t get a say in approving or rejecting. My school director said I could look on my own, but without being able to read the classified ads, that’s kind of difficult. There is no Craigslist! I had to be out of my EPIK apartment by Feb. 28th, and as the date approached I got increasingly nervous. Finally, last week he announced he had found my apartment. Oh joy!
Well….there are no garbage cans, but yeah, I am on the first floor, next to the front door and the driveway, of a really crappy ‘60s vintage apartment building. In a studio, with possibly the worst decorating scheme ever. The kitchen cabinets are dark turquoise, adjacent to a large wall covered with large, red poppy wallpaper. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s pronouncement as he lay dying in a cheap Parisian hotel: “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.” I can so relate to his dark humor.

While that is pulling your eyeballs out of your head in one direction, the bathroom is vying for attention in the other direction. All the fixtures are dark maroon. But worst of all, the ONLY windows in the place are in an enclosed patio. They have bars on them and are all frosted glass. Poor Sammy. Not only forced to be an indoor cat, but now denied even a daily view of the outdoors. The only way to see daylight at all is to open the windows; which don’t have screens. In another month I might as well hang out a sign saying “mosquito bloodfest this way!” Wait, how do you say that in Korean? Basically, it’s like a basement apartment on Capitol Hill, without the Bohemian factor and good coffeeshops.

I moved in last Saturday, and on my second day I had a visit from my upstairs neighbor, who apparently has some mental issues. When I answered the door I noted her blouse was held together with one large, jaunty safety pin. She barged in and gestured “sleep” and pointed at the ceiling. I took this to mean she lived upstairs. She prattled on, while I tried to convey that I don’t speak Korean. Undeterred, she then began inspecting the place. I grabbed my phone to call my director, to see if he could tell what she wanted. When she opened my closet doors my limited Korean kicked in and I yelled “ANYEO!!ANYEO!!” which means “NO!” I got her out without further incident. Nice welcoming committee.

It was supposed to be a 5-10 minute walk to my new school, but I tried walking it the first day and could not find a route that was less than 20 minutes, half of that steeply uphill. There is no direct route or shortcut, as the neighborhood runs helter skelter across the hillside. That may not sound like much, but the summers here are intensely hot and humid. And I already know how bitterly cold the winters are.

So, it’s not the apartment of my dreams, but I am doing what I can to make it “mine.” I bought an area rug to cover the hideous beige linoleum, and am putting up posters to cover the poppies. I’m going to send home for curtains, as Korean draperies would only add to the gaudiness. My director agreed to buy a double bed, so Sammy and I are enjoying that, after 6 months in a single bed. I do have internet, although it’s not always reliable. And maybe it’s a good thing to not get too comfortable here. Korea is not my home and it never will be. This is just another stop on my road of life. I signed a one year contract which I will do my best to honor. After that, who knows. I have a craving lately for baklava…

Of schools, home and cheese

Yes, my blog entries are getting farther and farther apart. I guess that’s because as I settle in there aren’t as many “unusual” things to ponder. I mean, I’m used to nearly getting run over every day, eating unidentifiable objects perched between slender metal rods (aka chopsticks), bus radios blasting “n word” rap songs, and navigating the treacherous halls of public schools.

But, since I last wrote, I have quit my public school job, signed a contract with a private school (hagwon), went home for two weeks, started an online TESL course and enjoyed the first warm day of “spring” today – Feb. 12.

About school. I had been thinking of quitting for months, as the situation was not improving, and in fact could not. It’s just the nature of the public school system to be inept and inefficient. Some foreign teachers are able to cope with this because they have good co-teachers who support them and actually teach with them. Co-teachers are assigned to be just that, but in reality they are more like handlers or babysitters. Mine wasn’t even that. My original co-teacher was 8 months pregnant when I started in September, and she left after three weeks. I was then assigned to a teacher that I didn’t even teach with, and who spoke very little English. She would get so nervous talking to me that her neck would break out in red blotches. Poor thing. She was ill-equipped to deal with my demands of, oh, a real co-teacher, or cooperation from the other teachers. My original co-teacher finally returned the day before winter break, but it didn’t take long to see nothing was going to change, and I decided it was time to cut my losses and move on.

I found an after school academy that was looking to hire a second foreign English teacher, so the last day of winter camp I paid them another visit. I signed a contract for the same pay, with less work hours, 33/week versus 40, and far, far less students. I will be teaching classes of 6 to 8 (!) kids every day, up to six classes a day. And it is the same kids every day, so I can actually get to know them. That’s one of the worst things about the public school system – it’s just too many kids! My two schools were relatively small, but I still “saw” nearly 600 students a week. I learned the names of less than half a dozen.
I start that job the first of March. I have to complete six months with the EPIK program or pay back the $900 airfare they “loaned” me to get here. Feb. 28 is six months exactly.

Of course EPIK isn’t making it easy. They are giving me grief about my visa – it’s a long story. I’m sure it will work out. I also have to move, as EPIK is paying for my current housing. My new director is looking for a new place for me. Housing is also included with the new job. The only downside to teaching at a hagwon versus EPIK is less vacation time. I only get 10 days a year, five of which are on school closure days, and they really don’t want me to take the other five all at once, since there are only two teachers!

With that in mind, I used the two weeks worth of vacation I had accrued and went home. I have to mention I feel so fortunate to have a friend who did not hesitate when I asked her if she could watch Sammy for me. She immediately welcomed him into her home and spoiled him rotten. He never had it so good!
The flight was long, but it was great to see everyone again and be back in familiar territory! It’s hard to convey how isolating it is to not be able to converse with people, read store signs, or pick up a newspaper or book. Especially for a writer, it’s like being Helen Keller.
Food here is also a very foreign undertaking. Even if I could speak or read enough Korean to order, most of it I don’t want to eat anyway!

I visited family and friends, ate at my favorite fast food restaurant (Dick’s rocks!), drank buckets of really, really good coffee and gorged on homemade pumpkin pie, crab louie, grilled steak, burgers and microbrews. Thanks, Mom, Dad, Nancy and Six Arms. I also did a lot of clothes shopping, as I can’t buy clothes my size here, and I bought a lot of food items to bring back, like good coffee beans, a wide variety of spices, and pure gold – Tillamook cheddar cheese. Mmmm cheese. I had to buy another suitcase to haul my loot home in.

Surprisingly, I feel pretty good about being back. I have a really good group of friends here, more than I ever had back home. Being an ex-pat gives you an automatic community, one that understands what you are going through. At home I had to keep trying to explain what it was like “over there,” but here, they just know. It was nice to be welcomed back warmly, and I feel ready to take on whatever Korea dishes out. Bring it on. I’m sure I’ll retract that statement in my next blog post.

Also wanted to mention I have been doing some writing for Jeju Life, a fine, fine online publication run by one of my favorite people, Jim Saunders. There’s a link to it right over there – on the right side of this page.
And yes, today it was suddenly warm! Like shirtsleeves weather. I hiked to the top of a wooded hill near my house and soaked up the welcome sun – before it gets unbearably hot and sticky!

And so this is Christmas…

I first noticed Hanna when the first grade teacher made her stand in the back of the classroom for the entire 40 minute English lesson. It’s frustrating when they do that, as it is the only English class they get all week, and their only chance to speak a few words with me. Making students stand in the back, usually with their backs to the class, is a popular punishment.
The next class, there she was again. I noticed she was wearing the same ugly brown pants and brown shirt, and her hair was lank and uncombed; unusual, as most Korean children seem very well cared for, and the girls love their Hello Kitty gear.
But Hanna had none of those accoutrements of a girly childhood. After she had been standing for nearly half the class I asked the teacher how long she was supposed to stand there, and the teacher replied, “Only one minute.” I pointed out it had already been 20, and the teacher relented and told her to sit down. Her “crime” was probably fidgeting, or talking, in other words, acting like the 7-year-old child that she is.
That day the teacher let Hanna sit with us at lunch, and that’s when everything changed for me. This tiny child matter-of-factly pulled up her sleeve to reveal a series of five large bruises running from her wrist to her elbow. It was then I noticed that what I thought were smudges on her face were bruises. She chattered at the teacher for a few minutes, while the teacher just listened and nodded. I asked the teacher what she had said, and she related that Hanna lived with her grandmother, who was “very sick,” and that her grandmother sometimes got very angry and beat Hanna with a stick – but that afterwards she was always sorry. I was stunned.

Now I certainly know that children are abused, beaten, neglected and worse every day, all over the world, but somehow I felt this one was personal. Perhaps it was the fact that she was so stoic about it that broke my heart, but I felt a strong desire to protect this child. And so, I tried to find out what was being done for her, and what could be done. What I found was not heartening. After school I went to talk with the teacher, whose English skills fade in and out like a bad radio, and she told me that Hanna’s parents had divorced when Hanna was two, left her with her mother’s mother, and hadn’t seen her since. So number one, she is abandoned by her parents. And number two, granny’s “illness” is a mental disorder. So this little girl is living with her crazy granny, who is so poor the village built her a house last year, ala Habitat for Humanity.

The teacher said the school and authorities were aware of the situation and were “monitoring” it, but that Hanna did not want to leave her grandmother, and that “it wasn’t as bad as last year.” And so I learned the ugly truth about the Korean child welfare system. Under Confucian principles, the family is paramount. Keeping Hanna with her grandmother was the number one choice, as long as she was clinging to life. Basically the only way they can be parted is if Granny dies, or is committed to a mental hospital.

Even if Hanna were taken away, the alternatives are not great. There is no foster family structure in Korea. In the rare instance when children are taken away from the family, they are put in an institution, like an orphanage. In some cases it is an orphanage. So which is the better of the bad choices – leaving her to live with the only family she has, and loves, although it means being neglected and beaten, or living with strangers in a cold institution?

So that’s where we left it for several weeks. I decided to make friends with her and watch for signs of abuse, and make sure they were reported. Every week she sat by me in the lunchroom, and I gave her and her friends cookies at the end of their meal. Every time, she would hold the cookie carefully in one hand while she finished eating, then carry it back to class with her. She waved it in her hand while she skipped down the hall. I imagined she was enjoying the envy of her classmates – for once.

Then three weeks ago when I made my classroom appearance, I nearly cried. She had a large bruise across her little nose, with black creeping under one eye. A large scratch on her neck showed above the flowered kerchief she often wore. Now I knew why she wore it. She had been beaten again. At lunch she pulled up her sleeve again to show another march of bruises inflicted on her thin arms. I imagined the stick hitting her arms as she tried to ward off the blows and protect her head. The teacher said Hanna had been late getting home from a birthday party on Saturday, and Granny, in her concern, beat her.

Corporal punishment has only recently been banned in schools in Korea, and parents are free to beat their children – and wives – as they feel is necessary for discipline, but beating a 7-year-old for coming home late from a birthday party? That’s just abuse.

This time I flipped out and started emailing and calling anyone that I thought could help. In the end a social worker came to the school and talked with Hanna and the teacher, and took pictures of the abuse. She also told the school that the foreign teacher was very concerned and was thinking of calling the police. Apparently this got their attention and that’s why the social worker was called in. I was informed of this later, but the person just repeated what I had heard before: they were monitoring the situation. I pointed out that they were not going to be monitoring when Granny hits her too hard and kills her. I’m sorry, I know this is not easy reading, so thank you for reading this far.

To her credit, the teacher sat down with me last week to tell me everything they had been doing for Hanna, including giving her baths at school and providing free lunches. The teacher has even bought her clothes, most of which Granny refused to let her keep. She asked me what I thought should be done, and I told her Hanna needed to be taken out of that house. I suggested that she could live in the group home but still visit her grandmother on weekends, but that didn’t even seem to sink in.

Then I asked if I could take Hanna out on the weekends, to give Granny a break and let Hanna have some fun. It would also give me a chance to take her clothes shopping! The teacher thought that was a great idea, and said she would ask granny. I was so excited I even asked a bright 5th grader girl at my other school is she could join us to act as translator. She was thrilled to be asked.

Unfortunately, the next Monday I was told that Granny not only said no to the outing idea, she said “never.” Or however you say it in Korean, but “never” is what the teacher related. Hanna was to go to school and come straight home. Period. My heart sank. Plan B, I asked if I could buy Hanna some warm clothes and things that she could keep at school. Remember, Korean classrooms are COLD. It can be below freezing outside and the teachers will open the windows for “fresh air.” The kids cope by wearing full outdoor clothing – hats, scarves and bulky coats – in class. Except for Hanna, who wore only long-sleeved t-shirts and plastic shoes, often with no socks.

So, last weekend, with Christmas approaching, I went shopping for Hanna. I ran into one friend in a local department store, and when I told her about my mission she opened her wallet and insisted on contributing to the “Help Hanna” fund. In the end I got her a stocking cap and muffler set, a pair of pink, fluffy Hello Kitty slippers for school, a quilted pink sweater with a rabbit fur collar and big white polka dots, a new pencil case, crayons and a coloring book. Before I gave her the bag of goodies, I ceremoniously presented her with a card that said she  had been chosen as the “Christmas Child of 2008” by the “Waygook English Teachers Association (WETA) of Jeju.” There is of course no such group, but if there was she would definitely have been chosen. My plan was that the designation would make it not seem like “charity” in case Granny found out.

When I gave her the gifts last Monday after school it was bitterly cold and snowing. We put the hat and scarf on her, then the sweater. Her smile just kept getting bigger and bigger as she saw more things in the bag. The teacher said she really liked the coloring book. Although she can hardly speak English, she gave out a very clear “thank you.” My eyes were not dry. The teacher barely got the sweater zipped up before she was running out the door to show her friends. You have probably looked at the photo by now, so you can see how adorable she is. Even without being a special case, she is just an exceptionally beautiful child.

An hour later the teacher emailed me the photo and said she had called Granny to tell her about Hanna being “selected” by the foreign teachers’ association, and that Granny had been “thankful.” While I was hoping Hanna could avoid any potential conflict by leaving the gifts at school — the last thing I wanted was for her to be punished for my actions – I doubt if she was willing to leave her warm and colorful new clothes at school after all.

That was last Monday, and now we are on winter break for six weeks. I hope and pray that lovely little Hanna will be safe during that time. That’s all I want for Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all my family and friends back home. I wish I were there with you.

hana

Country Mouse goes to the city

There’s a version of a classic children’s story in one of our textbooks, maybe you’ve heard of it – “Country Mouse, Seoul Mouse.” I am not making this up.
Jeju Island may seem like the middle of nowhere sometimes, and it’s definitely “the country,” but just an hour away by air is the world’s fifth largest city; Seoul. Population 10.3 million. After three months on this rock I was ready for a weekend in the big, bad city. So when I had the opportunity to join some friends there last weekend, I took it. I know, I know, I’ve been complaining about money, but this is when the weak won is a good thing! The round trip 147,000 won airfare on Jeju Air worked out to just $97. Three months ago it would have been $150. Of course first I had to navigate the all-Korean phone reservation system. I pushed 1 when I thought it was time, and got a real person, still speaking Korean. When I asked if they spoke English she said, “Oh yes, how may I help you?” perfectly clearly. Whew.

A weekend was just long to see that it was far too short a time to spend in such a diverse city. Well, as diverse as a Korean city could be. Most of the diversity, meaning multi-cultural aspect, comes from the fact that there is a large U.S. Army command base, Yungsan, smack in the middle of the city, courtesy of the Korean War. It was weird to be somewhere where foreigners were so commonplace no one looked at you twice, and the shopkeepers spoke good English. So that’s where the English speakers go!

On Jeju there are so few of us “waygooks” that you just about know everyone at least by sight. If not better…

In fact as I was leaving my building for the airport, dressed up and wheeling my suitcase, six of the foreign teachers living in my building were standing outside the elevator! There are no secrets here. At least I don’t think there are.

First stop – the Starbucks in the airport. True Seattleites eschew Starbucks, favoring instead the small neighborhood coffee shops, but since it’s not likely Zeitgeist is going to set up shop in Korea anytime soon, Starbucks was as close to real coffee as I could get. Plus, with its corporate efficiency, the pastries were exactly the same as at home — not a rice cake or bean paste filling in the bunch.

Seoul has a great subway system, but it still took nearly an hour to get from Gimpo airport to Itaewon, the western shopping mecca adjacent to the base.

The wide sidewalks in this shopping district were probably designed for ease of pedestrian traffic, but that precious real estate has been usurped by street vendors selling antidotes to the high-priced goods in the shops facing them. A sliver of sidewalk divides the two worlds of commerce. It’s Levi Strauss against Lee Seung-ju; Calvin Klein versus Kim Dae-young. The name brands may bring in the foot traffic, but the vendors assure they don’t pass unimpeded.

A much more interesting part of town was Insa-dong (dong means village), sort of the Greenwich village of Seoul. Its main, willow tree-lined thoroughfare is flanked with antique shops and art galleries, offering everything from gorgeous celadon vases to gaudy plastic souvenirs. On weekends the street is mercifully closed to vehicles, and becomes a wide strolling path for shoppers. This is the place to come to find quality Korean art objects for decorating your cracker box apartment or sending home for the holidays. I finally purchased one thing I had been wanting, but not finding on Jeju, a celadon vase with a traditional stork motif. Standing about 10 inches tall, it was 30,000 won, or about $20.

In addition to the established shops, street vendors also compete for attention and commerce. Some of it looked tasty, like the little flower shaped waffles filled with red bean paste, but some of it was definitely a Korean thing, like the simmering woks of larvae. Mmmm. I passed on those, although samples were always offered. I think they just like to do that to terrorize the westerners.

We took a taxi back to Itaewon for an early dinner before heading home. MMM- so many choices! We settled on Thai, and I had a delicious chicken curry and Thai iced tea. There is not a single Thai restaurant on Jeju. I’m sure I would have heard of it if there was!

We came across this parade in Insadong. Don't know what it was for.

We came across this parade in Insadong. Don't know what it was for.

The parade route was only four blocks long so I got them coming and going.

The parade route was only four blocks long so I got them coming and going.

Insadong street vendor wares. Note the bronze girl reading in the background.

Insadong street vendor wares. Note the bronze girl reading in the background.

A day like no other

On the bus ride to school Wednesday I saw a dog doing a handstand.  But that wasn’t the most unlikely thing that happened.

That was also the *day Barack Obama defied the odds, silenced the cynics and made me, and millions  of others, proud to be an American.
Congratulations,  President-elect Barack Hussein Obama. Or as I called him in numerous emails and posts that day, OBAMA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Barack Obama. After eight years of chewing on ground glass,  it’s a name that rolls around in the mouth like a sweet marble of… marbley sweetness.

*Korea is currently 15 hours ahead of Pacific Daylight Time.

When I arrived at school my co-teacher was waiting for me on the front steps, hopping up and down and apologizing for not telling  me Tuesday that there were no English classes,  as all the students were testing.  Ha. I actually found that out by accident. I’ve learned that without being able to converse with the teachers or read the message board, I have to look for subtle clues that something is up. Tuesday I noticed that the desks in one sixth grade class had been rearranged into neat, single file rows, instead of the usual communal clumps.
When I asked the teacher about it, as we were about to begin our lesson, she said it was because all the students were testing tomorrow. Then it dawned on her that that meant there were no English classes.
So, while my co-teacher looked like she was afraid I was going to be upset about having my classes canceled, I was anything but. A day without facing nearly 200 blank faces and gawping mouths is never a bad thing, but I knew I would have had trouble concentrating anyway, as it was the long-anticipated day of the U.S. presidential election.
With the time difference, when the polls started closing Tuesday night on the east coast it was 10 a.m. Wednesday,  Nov. 5 in Korea. I was so nervous I left my computer on all night,  in case I needed to jump to check if anything catastrophic had happened while I was sleeping. Or not sleeping,  as was the case.

I was grateful for the high speed internet and big screen TV in the English room, as I was glued to the computer for most of the day, watching history unfold,  hopefully in the right direction. At one point a swarm of sixth graders from the class next door came to see that I was doing. They were as welcome as snakes on a plane. Korean children have no sense of personal boundaries,  and think nothing of getting right up in your face to see what you are doing. I had to slap their hands away from the keyboard and keep them from playing with the microphone, while trying to explain the U.S. election process to them. I finally said the electoral votes were like points, and the person with the most points is the winner. They understood that, natural born gamblers that they are. If they ran the country elections would be decided by bingo. Or, beeeengo!!! as they call it.

I alternated between watching MSNBC and the New York Times (CNN required a special download that I couldn’t do), posting comments on facebook and emailing people back home. Thank goodness I didn’t have to be interrupted by teaching! One of my main goals on facebook was to try to arrange, or hook up with, a celebration party of fellow expats. Alas, those efforts fizzled. It was deeply disappointing to see the celebrations going on around the world and not be able to join in.

When the election was finally called for Obama, I was at another computer that didn’t have Adobe Flash, so no video. I saw the news in the New York Times headline.  I let out a cheer, which startled the Korean teacher sitting across from me. “Obama won!” I explained. She just smiled and nodded. When the athletic director came in I attempted a high five, which he lamely returned. Not exactly a champagne shower or dancing in the streets. Everyone went back to work and I was left to try to keep from sobbing with joy while I emailed people in silence,  giving the exclamation point key a good workout. Everyone here is happy that Obama won though, saying he is very popular in Korea. His worldwide popularity is one of the things I like about him. Finally, a president we can be proud of!

I had hoped there would be an impromptu celebration at the local expat bar, but when I checked at 5:30 it was dead. I ended up having a hamburger and Heinken with C, then calling it a night.

One sour note of the day was when a person whom I considered a friend posted a message saying she didn’t think Obama was going to change anything, that he was just another politician,  and other very negative opinions.  I was sad because anyone who thinks like that just doesn’t get it. They miss the magic, yes magic, that is Barack Obama. I’m as cynical as they come. I’ve lived through the heart-breaking assassinations  of JFK, RFK, MLK,  the Viet Nam war, Nixon, Reaganomics, and the current eight-year-long  nightmare, not to mention my own personal disappointments  and disillusionments.   But when I saw Barack Obama speak at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, I was smitten. Yes, smitten, as corny as that sounds. He was articulate, intelligent and passionate. I said then that I would vote for him for president in a heartbeat. It’s been four long years and many, many heartbeats, but I finally had that chance.

As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said about the election, “”That whole dark cloud of the Bush administration has all the sudden been lifted.” Exactly!

So what’s the big deal about Obama? What can I say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times in this endless campaign?  Aside from the obvious intelligence,  youthful vigor and gifted rhetorical skills,  he has given us all a chance to believe in America again; to believe that we can make a difference in the world, and in our own lives; that we are not passive passengers on a runaway political bus,  but drivers of our destiny.


Barack Obama, center, Rep. Rick Adams, left, and Gov. Gregoire, right; April rally in Seattle. I had a front row seat!

Barack Obama, center, Rep. Rick Adams, left, and Gov. Gregoire, right; April rally in Seattle. I had a front row seat!

I had the chance to see him in Seattle in April, and it was the most moving experience of my life. Along with 18,000 others, I shed the last remnants of my cynicism and joined the chant, “Yes we can!” The millions  of, truly, my fellow Americans who voted for him and his vision share that sentiment. It was a huge leap of faith to cast our lot with this unproven senator from Illinois,  but we have made that leap and it paid off. I feel sorry for those left standing on the other shore. But he can say it better than I can. Just listen to his acceptance speech. I dare you to not be moved.

Dancing as fast as I can

NOTE: THIS WAS WRITTEN OCT. 9. SINCE THEN I HAVE ANOTHER WEEKEND’S ADVENTURES TO RELATE, SO HANG ON ANOTHER DAY OR TWO.

Another week down, and I finally feel like I’ve turned a corner – I moved into my new apartment and school is going smoother. I am, with fingers crossed, thinking maybe I can do this. I still don’t believe I am making an impact on the children in terms of learning English, but at least I am a constant source of amusement for them. It’s weird to walk down the hall, or even sit at my desk and be constantly greeted with giggles and a musical “hello-o!” And the kids are even worse.

The weekend was again chockful of activities, starting with a parade on Thursday evening. The first weekend of October was the Tamna Festival, marking something like the 1000th anniversary of Korea. I don’t have any pictures of the parade because I didn’t know about it until Thursday afternoon, when my Aussie friend emailed that it was happening.

The parade was composed of various elements of Korean traditions, from Shamans and haenyo, women shellfish divers, to a rainbow of fantastically costumed musicians and dancers (can’t you just picture it?). The best part was the complete absence of commercialism – not a single waving politician or thinly veiled advertisement.

Saturday was the day my schools have been working toward for a month – the all consuming Sports Day. English classes at both my schools were randomly cancelled all week because the students needed to practice their games. If they put a fraction of that effort and enthusiasm into “playing English,” as they call it, they would be orating at the U.N. by 6th grade.

On Sports Day all the parents are invited to come and watch the all-day races, contests, dancing and music exhibitions. It’s basically an open house, but they don’t go into the school. Koreans are crazy about fitness, certainly something Americans students could stand to emulate. Teachers in Korea are expected to put in lots of free hours, all in the name of the common good. Sports Day was no exception, and when I rolled in around 11 a.m. (exhibiting my American work ethic), the Korean teachers had been at it for hours. Everyone was dressed in their best sporty attire, from track suits to golf clothes. Korean women believe in avoiding the sun, not for fear of skin cancer, but for the antebellum notion of keeping their skin as white as possible. Here, tanned skin is still associated with the working peasants, laboring in the fields. To protect their faces they were these enormous visors, sometimes with extra flaps on the sides to protect against rays from all possible angles. Tres attractive. They also wear white gloves, which make them look like traffic cops. Or Minnie Mouse.
As I walked up the long sidewalk to the school the students greeted me with their usual enthusiasm, pointing me out to their parents, who shyly avoided me. Families had picnic blankets spread out along the walk, covered with the usual assortment of Korean food: 16 kinds of kimchi, 10 kinds of dried fish and rice in various shapes and colors.

At this school, the vice principal, my buddy, is always dragging me into the staff room to sample the latest delicious cuisine. This week it was yet another form of gelatinous rice, called doh, colored deeply green, which was apparently a plant derivative.

Anyway, after being greeted by my VP, and ignored as usual by the principal, who speaks NO English, I mingled and took photos. Things were going well until after a large group of mothers took to the field to do a hip hop routine that I swear was based on “The Time Warp” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. When they were finished one of the teachers grabbed my arm and said “Now the teachers dance!” Oh god, no. Oh god, yes. Oh well. I trotted out to the middle where I hoped to blend in (ha ha!) and shuffled along in my Birkenstocks as well as I could while the camera-wielding parents clicked away. Afterward the VP said the students thought I was a good dancer, and they got it on video. All week teachers kept saying I was a good dancer. It was embarrassing, but I think it helped to make me at least not quite the outsider. This week one of the teachers asked if I wanted to come along next Friday on a teacher hike. They do them quite regularly, but this is the first time I’ve been invited. It’s a huge big deal, really.

The man featured in the photo below, left, is Hong Song-min, the school athletic director and resident hottie. Thirty-four, not married. He’s leading the school in a form of Japanese exercise to music. They have been practicing this at least once a week for who knows how long, but as you can see the kids are still just flopping all over the place. This is pretty much a visual of what English class is like every day. Me: “What. Do. You. Want. To. Do?” Student: “I play computer game!” Today I took special time to make them say “games,” plural, over and over, and they overstressed the S every time so it came out “gameZZZZuh.

Instructor Hong soars like an eagle while the kids, well...

These kids practice their drumming every day after school. Right outside my open office door...

These kids practice their drumming every day after school. Right outside my open office door...

And this is our school secretary, showing both her love of golf and Konglish. Speaks volumes.

Sunday I swapped apartments with a teacher who actually wanted to live in the Pig Pen. She got the bigger apartment, but I am very happy with my new place. It’s right on the bus line so I can step out my door and catch a bus that runs all the way to either of my schools, instead of walking a quarter mile to the rural bus stop while gagging on sewer and manure smells.

And it has high speed Internet and a HUGE HDTV monitor. I spent all day Sunday unpacking and gorging on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. It was killing me to not be able to watch them during the presidential campaign, the richest source of satirical material ever. Speaking of which, it was also great to be able to watch the presidential debate this week at home, instead of hunkering down in some coffee shop with bad Korean pop music assaulting my ears. I could yell at that insane McCain and not look crazy myself.

Sammy isn’t too happy with the move though, since it is so much smaller, and has no outdoor access – I’m on the 13th floor. Yes, 13th. He keeps looking for the “other” room. He also is not happy with the Korean cat food I had to buy when his U.S. food ran out last week. I hope he adjusts. I did make him a custom cardboard cat scratcher, which he enjoys.

One more anecdote: Thursday a boy in class was suddenly seized with stomach pains – he looked really miserable. But the teacher said he didn’t want to go to the school nurse because he was afraid of the, “what do you call it, needle?” Huh? She explained that for non food-related stomach pains the remedy was to poke a finger and squeeze out the bad blood. I guess I looked skeptical, because she insisted, “It’s not mystery (I think she meant myth), is traditional Korean medicine.” I suggested that maybe the pain of the bloodletting distracted the patient from the stomach pain and they were thus “cured,” but this didn’t get across to her. Some Koreans also believe in “fan death” — that if you sleep in a closed room with a fan, it will suck out all the air and you will die. So there you go. Open a window.

“If you lived here you’d be home already.”

Some of you may recognize that quote from the late great Firesign Theater. It was posted on a housing development beside a busy freeway, as I recall.

It comes to my mind every day, on the hour-long bus ride to school, and the hour-and-a-half commute home. I like my apartment alright once I get inside, but the commute is a nightmare.  Going in to town for the evening guarantees a $6 taxi ride home. There are thousands of apartments within walking distance of both my schools, and I think constantly of moving. Oh – and I found out the “manure” smell is not from fertilizer, but a pig farm down the road. I have dubbed our building the E”PIG” Ghetto.  But, while EPIK housing is not great, it is furnished. I can’t see putting out a lot of money to furnish a place when I really don’t want to stay that long.

Classes continue to vascillate between hell and just purgatory. But last week two fifth grade girls came up to me at lunch and said they wanted to talk English with me, so we went up to the English room. One goes to a private after-school English program for gifted kids, and the other lived in Ames, Iowa for a year.  One said the last teacher was much younger and was like a big sister, but that I was like a grandmother. She meant it in a nice way. The other agreed and said I was like her grandmother. She thought a minute then said, “benevolent and amiable.” I almost cracked up. So cute!  Then today as I was coming in to school this tiny girl held her arms out for a hug. Awwww.

The kids are so darned cute, it’s just too bad the school system is so messed up.

I came down with a cold last week and spent the weekend in bed. Not much more to report. I’ll try to be more exciting in the future, for all you armchair adventurers. 🙂

I really needed a vacation

Only two weeks into this gig and I was already looking forward to having three days off. This weekend marked one of the biggest Korean holidays, Chuseok (chew-sock), which has been described as “sort of like Thanksgiving.” Sure, if on Thanksgiving you eat fish soup and kim chee at 9 a.m., then bow to your ancestors in an elaborate ceremony and clear out by noon, it’s just like it.
I was invited to join my vice principal’s family for the holiday, and, judging from the reaction I got from my co-teacher, I got the impression that the invitation was an honor. I could hardly refuse, and besides, I was excited to partake in “real” Korean culture.

I had read that the holiday celebrates the harvest, like American Thanksgiving, and honors the ancestors of the family, unlike our holiday.  I envisioned a big family dinner followed by some sort of ritual, so I was surprised when she said she would pick me up at school at 9 a.m.. Not keen on catching the bus at 7:30 a.m., as I do nearly every day, but I agreed.  I thought the women would spend the morning in the kitchen, and I was looking forward to learning some Korean cooking.
My vice principal is a woman of approximately my age, maybe a little younger, whose name, near as I can tell, is Soo-sana Oh. Or as they say in Korean, with the family first, Oh Soo-sana. Yes, like the song.

Soo-sana picked me up and drove me to one of the thousands of non-descript apartment towers in Jeju City, where her sister was hosting the “dinner.” We were met by Soo-sana’s husband, who had just picked up her elderly parents. Grandpa (who looked a lot like Abe Simpson) was sitting in a wheelchair, and as they wheeled him into the building, I wondered if this building had an elevator. We foreigners have speculated that buildings don’t seem to get elevators unless they are over four floors, or a hospital. Sure enough, no elevator. Soo-sana and her husband (she never said his name) hoisted the old man out of the wheelchair and pushed and pulled him step by painful step up to the second floor.

Once inside they deposited him on the living room floor, which is not as inhumane as it sounds – Koreans do almost everything on the floor, from cooking and eating to sitting around playing games or watching TV.
Around the corner in the kitchen I met her sister, who had prepared a massive amount of food that was spread across the kitchen floor on various platters and in bowls. There were stacks of cooked beef and pork on skewers, octopi filleted with tentacles splayed, piles of dried fish, battered and fried vegetables, mountains of kim chee and bowl after bowl of unknown colorful side dishes. A room off the kitchen held a low table laden with fruit and food for the ancestors.
I presented the hostess with a bottle of Turning Leaf white zinfandel that I had purchased the day before at Emart. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bring a gift, but thought it was better to err on the side of generosity. Now I know to Americans Turning Leaf is not a high-class brand, but they didn’t know that. Besides, it was either that or Spam – very popular with Koreans. When I told them the wine was from “Cally-for-nia” they seemed impressed.

I was told to sit at the low table in the living room with grandma and grandpa, and Soo-san and her sister began carrying food in on trays, not stopping until the entire surface was filled (see photo).
I thought there would be more family members, at least her two university-aged sons I had heard so much about, but it was just Soo-san, sis, the oldsters and me. Her husband was milling about in the background, but she said something about him eating with other relatives later.

By 9:30 a.m. we were tucking into Chuseok grub with gusto. Or, as much gusto as I could muster for fish soup and rice at a time when I would have killed for a Cinnabon and coffee. We had no sooner finished eating (about 15 minutes later) when the horde of relatives I thought would eat with us, arrived. Apparently their arrival post-meal was part of the plan, but no one spoke any English so I couldn’t ask. All the men were dressed in suits of a shiny gray material that seems popular here. About a dozen mostly young men and women, with a few small children, filled the three-bedroom apartment.

Soo-san introduced her sons, simply calling them “my sons.” I never did get their names. I had to tell them my name as she knows me only as Mrs. Miller. They were very handsome boys, but one kept petting the hair behind his ear, much like young, insecure children do while sucking the thumb on the other hand. Nervous I guess. I had been hoping they would be able to translate for me, at least give me a clue what was going on, but they avoided me as much as was possible in the confined space.

After a few minutes the men rolled out a tatami mat in the entryway, and brought out the ancestors’ table. One middle-aged man got down on the mat and made a deep bow in front of the table, held it for maybe 10 seconds, then got up. The table was then returned to the back room and the milling about continued.

After a few more minutes all the men got down on their knees, facing the room with the ancestors’ table, and did a deep, collective bow. I couldn’t see what was going on in the other room, but I think it was some sort of ceremony. Sorry if you expected this to be an enlightening look into the cultural ways of the “Hidden Kingdom”  – I never said I was Bruce Chatwin. I pretty much didn’t know what was going on at any time during the event. A more extroverted person might have jumped in and asked lot of questions, somehow ferreting out information and winning friends in simple English and halting Korean, but it’s hard enough for me just being here, introvert that I am. If the definition of bravery is “feeling the fear and doing it anyway,” then I’m brave. I just sat quietly and observed. I also didn’t want to become the center of attention at their family gathering. I’m sure they were all keenly aware of my presence anyway.

Then, with the ancestors honored for another year, the men loosened up considerably. Every one took of their jackets and ties, carefully folding them identically and laying them across a chair back. A second low table was brought out to join the one we had eaten at, and the women brought out platters of fruit and my bottle of wine. After much discussion someone produced a Swiss army knife with a corkscrew for the wine. Two wine glasses were given to the grandparents, while the rest of those at the table got shot glasses. Nothing says Chuseok like a shot of white zin. Or three or four.

On to Sunrise Peak

After the party broke up, shortly after the wine sharing, Soo-san and her husband drove me back to my apartment. As the day was still young, I had time to pack up for the next adventure of my three-day weekend, an overnight trip to Seongsan Ilchulbong. Also known as Sunrise Peak, this is a peninsular land mass caused by an underwater volcanic eruption about 5,000 years ago. Rather than lifting the ocean floor, as some eruptions do, this one spewed forth magma until it reached an impressive mound, settling with a deep bowl in the middle.

While researching Jeju I noticed it listed repeatedly as a don’t-miss site. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and pretty impressive. There is a wide stone path that switchbacks to the lip of the caldera (crater), and affords amazing views to the west and back across Jeju to the east.

The trip included myself and three other teachers from this building: Karissa, Cindy and Julia; Mike, a teacher who lives in town, and John, who was assigned to teach on a tiny island off of Jeju. Karissa and Julie are 27 and 28, while the others are just out of college. The weather was not great, with rain clouds threatening, but we set off anyway. It’s only an hour and half away by bus, but it really felt like an adventure. We planned on finding a cheap hotel, called a minbok, although we had no idea how easy that would be, or if there would even be vacancies on a holiday weekend.

Fortunately we were “saved” at the bus stop by an old man who immediately struck up a conversation in halting English. And what a coincidence – he just happened to know of a minbok nearby and would be happy to lead us there. Now, anyone who has traveled outside of the U.S. or Canada knows this is the oldest trick in the book – find the unsuspecting tourists and lead them to your fleabag hotel that had been banned in all the guide books. Surprisingly the place he took us to was quite satisfactory – small and simple, but clean and ridiculously cheap. While the woman of the house showed us the rooms we mumbled amongst ourselves, trying to figure out how to tell her that we only wanted two rooms for six people. She apparently thought we were not happy with the price of 60,000 won (abut $60) for two rooms, so she dropped the price to 50,000. We were very pleased, and even more so when we found that the rooms were right at the base of the peak, with an amazing view straight up the face.

The town of Saensong is not much to write home about; a modest fishing village that looked worn out in the light rain that fell on the broken streets, piles of kelp and garbage-strewn beach. Walking along the waterfront I came across three large dogs held in small cages. They began barking ferociously as I stopped to look, from a safe distance. Poor things. I don’t know if they were guard dogs or if this was one of the areas in Korea where dog meat is still consumed. I need to find out how you say “dog meat” in Korean, in case I see it on a menu.

Our tour guide had also helpfully booked us a table at a seafood restaurant, although that severely limited the food choices for Karissa, who is a vegetarian with a seafood allergy. Good thing she loves kim chee. I ordered a dish I had been looking forward to trying since I read about it while researching Jeju – a porridge made from rice and abalone. It was good, and refreshingly simple. The others ordered a huge seafood stew, brimming and bubbling with every kind of creature you could pull from the sea locally: abalone, scallops, crab, clams, prawns, fish, snails and octopi, just to name the most obvious ones.

I went back to the room to watch TV while the kids bought fireworks from the local convenience store and went to frolic on the beach. The plan was to get up at 5 a.m. in order to hike up the hill and reach the top to greet the sunrise over the Pacific around 6 a.m. It’s only about a 20 minute hike for those in reasonably good shape, or 40 in my case. John and Mike had hiked up the night before, so decided they would try to get shots with the peak in front of the sunrise, as many travel photos show. My camera chose this moment to start flashing “low battery,” and of course I didn’t have the charger.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much to photograph. The clouds were too thick for the sun to penetrate, so the sky just lightened gradually and uneventfully. We girls had a good time at the top anyway, and they took enough photos to cover what I was not able to. The good thing is we will be able to come back! The peak itself is a fascinating lava sculpture full of caves and covered with rocky spires and dense jungle vegetation. I look forward to exploring it again, in sunnier weather.