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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.

Hanna update

Forgive me for not posting this sooner, especially since it is good news.

The week after Christmas I was in the office at Hanna’s school when suddenly Hanna appeared – with her grandmother. Fortunately my co-teacher was there to translate. She explained that Hanna had been selected (for real this time) to receive a scholarship to attend after school academy classes. They were there to accept the funding and sign her up!

My co-teacher introduced us, and I was very polite and deferential to granny, as is proper Korean custom with elders. Of course part of me wanted to grab a broom and beat her — see how she likes it — but I decided charm was the better weapon. I made her a cup of coffee, then sat on the couch with Hanna, who looked very glad to see me. Then the biggest shock of all, granny went into a long speech, which my co-teacher summarized by saying granny was very grateful to me for the gifts, and for taking care of Hanna at school!  When we parted I took both her hands in mine and bent in a low bow. I am hoping that this may have thawed the cold war, and she will agree to let me see Hanna on weekends. I noticed that Hanna’s clothes were dirty and she was not wearing any of the things I got her.  But it was obvious that she loved her grandmother and was happy that we met.

The next day, even though she was not in the special winter camp classes, Hanna was at school. I was walking down the hall when I heard a high-pitched “MEEEELLERRR!!” and turned to see her running down the hall toward me. This time she was wearing the pink polka-dot sweater. I knelt down and she gave me a big, heart-melting hug. It seemed like having granny’s approval made it easier for her to open up to me.

I haven’t seen her since then, but I am looking forward to school starting in February, and continuing Project Hanna.

Cold has a new definition, and it’s in Korean

Technically the Korean word for “cold” is ch’an. Realistically, they don’ t know the meaning of the word. How else can the indoor temperatures of the school be explained. Sub Zero is a refrigerator brand, not a suitable classroom temperature!

Jeju is rigorously promoted by the tourism department as the “Hawaii of South Korea.” They should be sued for false advertising. It’s freezing here!!! But frigid outdoor temperatures I can live with. What is getting me down is the fact that indoor heating is viewed as an obscene luxury, a decadent desire of the weak, lazy and stupid, aka foreigners. REAL Koreans suck it up and shiver in solidarity. Like somehow, if we are ALL cold it’s alright.

Winter came quickly to this island in the middle of the Sea of Japan. Unfortunately the temperatures plummeted in mid-November, but the schools are not scheduled to turn on any heat until December, weather whims be damned. OK, so no heat, plummeting temperatures, insane enough, right? No. They, and by they I mean all Koreans, can’t live without fresh air. So no matter what the weather, they open doors and windows. Snow literally blows into the school building and scuds across the bare floors. In my apartment building the windows at either end of the hall are left open, creating a wind tunnel.

Oh yes – I forget to mention the wind, and commensurate wind chill factor. Between the cold coming down from Mt. Hallasan and the wind coming off the water, Jeju-si is one chilly place.

But back to the indoor situation. The teachers cope by huddling around propane- or kerosene-fired heaters (really safe), and using electric seat pads on their chairs. Everyone wears their coats and hats indoors. The schools recently installed ceiling-mounted (um,ever heard of heat rising?) heaters, but they are loathe to use them. “Too expensive.”

As I write this I am in the English lab, where I have cranked up the ceiling heater and am basking in the 68 degree room temperature. My co-teacher isn’t here today or I’m sure she would have made me turn it off and opened a window. I asked her why Koreans put up with the cold, and even open windows, but the question was so far beyond her ken that she couldn’t formulate a response. Like I said, cold is not in their vocabulary.

The schools are all built with a long hallway running the length of the building, with sliding windows on one side and classrooms on the other. All the classrooms have two sliding doors, one at the front of the room, one at the back. My students learned a new English phrase this morning: “Shut the door!” I finally had to lock one door – the one that blew frigid air onto my desk – so they all had to come in the back door. I assigned one kid to be the door monitor. Boy was he popular. I could use it as a punishment…

To make matters worse, it’s winter break so there is even less heat than usual. Korean students don’t go to school from September to June, then take a three month break. They start in March, go non-stop till mid-July, then break till September 1. Then they go till mid-December, and break for five weeks of Winter Break. Then they come back Feb. 1 for TWO WEEKS, and then it’s two weeks off for Spring Break. Yes, in February. March 1 is the start of the new school year. Still with me?

But, over these “breaks” the schools offer special classes they call “camps,” such as winter English camp. We Native English Speakers are still on the clock, and are expected to show up at school every day, whether we have English camp or not, and we are expected to stay for the full day even if our classes only run a few hours. The Korean teachers get the time off.
So, since it’s not “real” school, there seems to be no need to use “real” heat. I’ll leave the bathroom situation to your imagination. Let’s just say the schools do not offer heated toilet seats.

Later the same day
OK, I have to confess, after writing the above, I snuck out of school and went home. On the way out I strolled past the downstairs office to see if the Vice Principal was in (she wasn’t), and this one woman started excitedly gesturing at the ceiling heater, which, surprisingly, was on. I gestured that I had been in the English room (pointing to the ceiling, as it is on the 4th floor). She pointed at the heater again. I nodded, “yes, heat was on.” I don’t know if she was trying to tell me I could have turned the heat on, or was excited that I may have left it on, or was suggesting I join them in their heated space. I just smiled, nodded and left. I am now sitting in bed with the floor heat cranked up and a sleeping cat vying for lap space. And I don’t have the window open!

New and improved!

Hi All — I did the unthinkable (at least in Korean terms) and called in sick today. Since I’ve been here the colds have rolled in faster than the breakers at Samyeong beach. My immune system just can’t cope with all the germs coming at it. Combine that with the lack of hot running water or sanitary soap at school, more than 600 snot-nosed (literally) kids and constantly sick teachers, and it’s pretty much a prescription for illness.

But the Confucian value system says one must endure — be it bad drivers, frigid classrooms, raging fevers or pneumonia. Teachers here never call in sick! It’s written into our contracts that we get paid sick leave, “with prior approval,” but no one ever does it. I say screw enduring, I want to stay in bed today! I also want Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, but I’m realistic. That ain’t gonna happen.

Anyway, in my free time today I remodeled my blog. I’m not happy with the narrow photo band at the top, but it’s all I could find. Who takes photos that fit that shape??  The one I used is a small strip from the Chonja-am Buddhist temple on Mt. Halla. Buddha wouldn’t fit.

Thanks for reading, and for your comments. It helps to know you’re thinking of me!

Holiday greeting from Jeju!

Thursday, Nov. 28. Thanksgiving. Or, as they say in Korea, “Thursday, Nov. 28.” Of course they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here. No turkey. No stuffing. No pumpkin pie. Sniff sniff.

Oddly, today’s sixth grade class started a chapter on giving and accepting invitations, with “Thanksgiving Day” as an example. I would have done a culture lesson, with requisite props (hand turkeys!) but we had to cram four hours worth of lessons into one hour because the class is behind schedule. Hmm, how could that have happened?

But the teacher asked me to talk about the uniquely American tradition, and the kids were really curious. So, with the smell of cow bone soup (really) drifting into the classroom from the cafeteria, and a cold, driving rain outside, I regaled them with tales of juicy roast turkey, freshly baked pumpkin pie and all the trimmings. I skipped the watching football part, because I don’t like football.

They were amazed to learn that students got two days off from school, and that we all went shopping the day after Thanksgiving. Kind of reinforced the stereotype of America, the land of excess, but oh well. That really is what Thanksgiving is all about, right? Oh yeah, and the giving thanks part.

So what is there to be thankful for this year? The U.S. is at the vortex of a worldwide downward spiral, with no bottom in sight. My earnings have dropped 40 percent since I get here just three months ago, again with no bottom in sight. If this continues, by next month I won’t be able to meet minimum payments on my credit cards, which I ran up just by trying to live in Seattle with no job, and will have to decide which credit card to default on. But that will cause all of them to go into default mode, and bankruptcy is just around the corner from there. Join the crowd. On the bright side, once that happens I will be able to start saving again, and perhaps rise from the ashes.

At this point maybe that’s what we can all be thankful for: second chances. This is not the apocalypse, but it is a time of great change; a time to take stock of what matters to us; what we need vs. what we want. What can we not live without, and what do we cling to and covet simply for material comfort?

Living in a foreign country forces you to confront this on a daily basis. Do I need real butter, even if it’s $10 pound? Yes. Do I need to own a car? I would like to, but no, it’s not essential. Do I need to eat kimchi every day? Most definitely no. Do I need to be around people who speak my language and share my culture? Yes.

This point was brought home last weekend when a group of us, eight English speakers and one Korean, visited a Buddhist hermitage on the snow-covered slopes of Mt. Halla. In the waning afternoon light we hiked half an hour over a snow-covered trail, and were rewarded by the tranquil view of the hermitage suddenly appearing through the trees. A small boy labored to roll a huge ball of wet snow, and the lone monk, dressed all in gray, nodded approvingly as he passed. The main temple and auxilliary building followed the standard temple template: ornate and huge multi-tiered “pagoda” style roof atop a building featuring large wood beams and latticework doors. The eaves were brightly painted in primary colors: red, green and blue, with yellow, orange, white and black accents. Dragon heads peeked from every corner.

Worshippers removed their shoes on the frozen stone entryway before slipping inside to bow before the golden Buddha. The smell of incense filled the air. Snow fell in plops from the steep tile roofs. Crows gathered in the bare trees surrounding the clearing.


The monk in residence is in the middle of a three-year stay. Three years in which he will not leave the mountain, but spend his time meditating and moving along the path to enlightenment. Aside from a cook, he is alone. Well, and except for visitors.

On this day he was delighted to invite us all to partake in afternoon tea him. We all crowded around a low wooden table made from a single slab of wood, knees touching. It was chilly in the room, apparently there was a problem with the floor heating, but the simple monk was not without his creature comforts. The hot water for tea was at his fingertips, thanks to an electric water boiler. With the push of a button he poured steaming water over the tea leaves in a small pot. He explained that it was a special kind of black tea. (It actually tasted like mud.) After the leaves settled to the bottom he poured the tea into a small bowl with a lip. This is the traditional way of serving tea, as we had seen at the other temple a few weeks ago. He then poured the tea into small, handmade pottery cups.

He indicated that he wanted each of us to say our name, where we were from, and our age. He was 52 in Korean years, which is 50 in western counting. He was of course shocked when first K, then I gave our ages. He thought we looked much younger. Hey, would a monk lie?

As we talked and bonded over many cups of tea, he invited us to have dinner with him. We all looked nervously at the sky, thinking about the prospect of hiking down the slippery, snow-covered trail in the dark. Our Korean friend relayed our concerns to him, and he graciously moved up dinner time to accommodate us. We were grateful, as it would have been very bad manners to turn down his invitation.

Any preconception of Buddhist monks being solemn and taciturn was shattered at dinner when the monk happily plopped himself down next to, and almost on top of, one young man in our group, while giving him a hearty hug. J was taken aback, but was a good sport about it. Oddly, the monk did not actually dine with us, but hovered around the table making sure we were taken care of.

We felt a bit sorry for his cook, who didn’t know until 15 minutes before dinner that she would be serving not one but 10 meals! After a simple meal the monk loaded us up with organic tangerines (which they call oranges) and we headed down the trail. I was thankful that we made it out before dark.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Eat a huge piece of pumpkin pie with real whipped cream for me.


The good, the bad and the just plain weird

Not to sound like a total cultural rube, but they do things differently here in Korea. Some things seem incredibly backward, while others are surprisingly “forward thinking,” as they like to say here. So here is a list of the good, the bad and the just plain weird, which straddles both categories.

Good: Heated toilet seats that have the ability to blow hot air on your backside.

Bad: The fact that you are not supposed to flush toilet paper, so every bathroom – and I mean every – has a basket for used toilet paper. Ewww.

Also bad: School and other public bathroom sinks use only cold water and communal bar soap. And there is often no toilet paper or paper towels. Probably because people use the toilet paper AS paper towels.

Good: Korean fashions. The endless fashion parade here is fascinating. It’s been interesting to see the fashions move from slinky long T-shirt tunics, leggings and spike heeled shoes to bulky, oversized sweater tunics — and leggings and spike heeled boots.

Bad: How Korean fashions look on my very un-Korean body. Went sweater shopping Monday and the shop clerk piled on the layers till I looked like Yeti’s fatter, older sister. All the while she kept proclaiming “beautiful,” and “luxury.”

Weird: Most clothing shop are very small, veritable hole-in-the-walls. As such, there is no room for a separate dressing room. Often the clerks will just start peeling off your clothes right in the shop. In the awesome underground shopping mall, I was interested in trying on a dress, so the clerk just rolled a rack of clothes across the entrance and gestured for me to take off my clothes. O…K…. It was fine though, and I ended up buying the dress – it was an extra large and very stretchy.

Good: “Kkul cha,” (honey tea) a nectar-of-the-gods combination of honey and slivers of fruit such as pears or orange rinds. A heaping spoonful in a cup of hot water is the best thing ever for soothing sore throats. I am the only teacher who carries a mug of it around the school, but I don’t care.

Bad: As a foreigner surrounded by germy kids, every passing cold bug latches on to me. They really should tell incoming teachers to get their DPT shots updated.

Also bad: They like to give shots for everything. One teacher recently was so sick she went to the hospital, where they diagnosed bronchitis — and gave her a shot in the ass. Who knew — Korea has a cold vaccine!

Good: The streets here are amazingly neat and clean. There is, for the most part, no trash blowing down the streets or garbage cans overflowing. Order is the order of the day. It is kept this way by an army of old women, covered head to toe to keep off the damaging sun rays, who move along the streets and bus stops stooped over, sweeping with short brooms and a dustpan on a stick. Meticulously they sweep up every cigarette butt and candy wrapper.

Bad: Although it guarantees employment for this battalion of grannies, people do litter freely. I think it comes from knowing that someone will pick up after them.

Weird: Konglish; that odd and ever perplexing blend of wildly translated English and random use of letters and numbers. This week I saw a hoodie, probably meant for the teen girl market, boldly printed like a football jersey with “69.”  Um. I really hope they don’t take that one to college in America.

Great: Floor heating. It’s awesome. It’s designed for a culture that lives on the floor, doing everything from cooking to sleeping within six inches of the ground. It heats up quickly and makes the whole room cozy. Sammy loves it.

Really bad: The temperature plunged this week, down to near zero with a fierce wind whipping up off the water. Snow fell on Mt. Halla, unseasonably early they said. But, the schools don’t like to turn on the heat this early, so both my schools were freezing!! The teachers suffered even worse than I did, maybe because they have no body fat. Hah. But the Korean motto is “endure,” which they did by shivering in their coats and sitting on heated seat pad – a great invention.

The standard school design is to have a long hallway running the length of the building along one wall of windows, with the classrooms off of that. With no heat the halls were literally freezing, while the classrooms were a few degrees warmer, mostly due to body heat. Maybe next week’s lesson will be “How cold is it?” Or maybe, “Can you feel your toes?”
Today at my little school, where the teachers are kind and the kids are cute, I was handed a cup of hot tea. When I looked at the cup I was enchanted to see this verse of tea cup wisdom scrolling down the side:

I wish to be big enough to hold the world in me.

It’s a wonder how much a small cup like this can hold.

I saw my face looking back at me, the moon in it when I was drinking at night by the window, the sky and the trees in it when I had tea under the alamo.

Alamo?? Yes, alamo. It was a beautiful, zen-like sentiment up until that typically bizarre, typically Korean, moment.

Down a rabbit hole, up a mountain

Life here on Jeju may be maddening, frustrating, confusing, exhausting and challenging, but it is rarely dull. Not a day goes by that I don’t shake my head and laugh at the latest “Alice in Wonderland” antics, both at school and on the street. Just yesterday at the bus stop I saw this adorable toddler wearing a huge red UCLA sweatshirt, over a fluffy pink ballerina skirt.

And the Konglish signage never fails to make me laugh. There was an abundance of such signage last weekend, when C., K and I hiked up Mt. Halla, the distinct volcano that is the epicenter of the island. Here are some prime sign examples, plus a few photos taken along the way. The “trail” was several miles of steep rocks and steps, jam packed the length and breadth with Koreans out enjoying one of the last days of the fall foliage season. The top of the mountain was not accessible via the trail we took, which ended at a hut serving ramen noodles and snacks. Oh well, it was a beautiful walk.

Follow the line of hikers down the trail...

Follow the line of hikers down the trail...

One section of the trail crosses a lava boulder field.

One section of the trail crosses a lava boulder field.

Back in the city, why, why, why would you put a picture of a bald Nicole Kidman on the side of your hair salon? You can't make this stuff up.

Back in the city, why, why, why would you put a picture of a bald Nicole Kidman on the side of your hair salon? You can't make this stuff up.

If you thought Koreans were conservative…

Then a visit to the Museum of Sex and Health will certainly change your mind. Or at least confuse the heck out of you. It’s the “Mecca of Sex Health, Sex Education and Sex Culture,” according to the brochure. “The first, and largest Sex Museum in the world (79,080 sq.).”

The name of this museum caught my eye the first time I perused the map of my new home-to-be, and finally this weekend I had a chance to visit. It did not disappoint in its weirdness.

My friend K, a Canadian of my same vintage, and I took the bus to the south end of the island, on an impromptu tour, and it ended up being our main stop. We had a taxi driver take us there from a small fishing village, and it was more than a bit embarrassing to explain to him where we, two middle-aged women, wanted to go. He had a good laugh, before overcharging us for the short ride.

The museum is set up to be a major stop for tour buses, and the grounds were immaculately groomed, with palm trees (not native to Jeju), neatly trimmed shrubs, and huge statues of male and female genitalia. I’m not talking coy, abstract representations, I’m talking 10-feet tall marble, vein-covered erect penises, complete with pubic hair. Naked torsos celebrated all types of positions, and bare naked ladies were everywhere. Pornography or art? In the eye of the beholder, apparently. And there was plenty to behold, even before entering the stately glass and marble building.

Once inside, the orgy, so to speak, of erotic imagery continued, from somewhat educational displays to downright hardcore porn. Without the benefit of English text, it was often hard to tell the difference. The Konglish brochure offered these helpful pointers: “What is sex for us? Sex can be beautiful, healthy and enjoyable, but it can also be scary, taboo and shameful.” It went on to say, in red letters: “There is a difference between adults’ genders and teenagers’ genders!!” Yes, double exclamation points. Allow me to add my own: WTF?!?  Neither the brochure nor the exhibit actually illuminated what this difference between adult and teenage “genders” might be. Koreans claim homosexuality doesn’t exist here, yet the most popular male pop stars are extremely effeminate. Many men wear quite girly looking clothes, and no one bats an eye. Maybe homosexuality “doesn’t exist” here because there is already such a blurred line between the sexes. I have several students in my 5th and 6th grade classes that I still can’t tell whether to call he or she.

The brochure also promised: “Enjoyment!! Straightforwardness!! Variety!!  Not sure if they were talking about the museum, or sex. Exhibits included a full-sized photo of a naked reclining woman with a metal rod surrounding her cutout form. The game was to run a round, metal wand around her form without touching it to the rod. It was accompanied by a soundtrack of the woman moaning loudly, as if approaching orgasm, I assume. As the wand got closer to her pubic area the moaning, which you could hear throughout the museum, got louder. If the wand touched the metal rod, the electrical connection would be broken and the recorded moaning stopped. K and I both tried it, but it was impossible to keep steady while trying to hold back from laughing.

There were also phone booths were you could listen to phone sex (free!), a display of rather grungy, well-fondled sex toys, porn videos looping over and over, hundreds of renditions of the Kama Sutra positions, and – my personal favorite – a chaste white gown made entirely of sanitary napkins.

Of all the culture shock that I’ve had to weather in the past six weeks, this had to be some of the weirdest. This is a culture in which it is considered “unseemly” for women to wear sleeveless tops – even in the heat of summer – or tops that reveal any hint of cleavage. To get around the sleeveless ban, women wear sheer mesh cardigans or blouses over the sleeveless tops. Yet, it’s perfectly acceptable to wear hot pants or mini skirts and high, high heels, or short tunics, leggings and stilettos. And don’t even get me started on the fetish wear passing as actual school girl “uniforms!”

The Museum of Sex and Health offered a different look at Korean culture, one that I’m sure many Koreans haven’t seen as well. Or at least, not without blushing.

You can check out the museum online at

A few of the less X-rated sculptures:

And the just plain bizarre:

Zen and the art of blog maintenance

I wish I could blame my tardiness in blogging on a zen-like calm that has descended upon me in the past week, but no. I’m just lazy.
Speaking of zen though, last weekend my friend C treated several of us to a day at a Buddhist temple, located about half an hour east of Jeju-si in a small seaside village. She has a friend who is the unofficial cultural officer for the temple. Seems the chief monk wants to bring in more “foreigners” to check out what it’s all about. I had to suppress a childish giggle every time she said “chief monk,” because it sounded like “cheepmunk/chipmunk.” See, told you it was childish.

Anyway, we were privileged to get a chance to observe a special ceremony to honor the village’s ancestors. The site holds two temples, one an older, traditional one, and a more modern which is essentially two stories tall inside, but with the first floor below ground. Participants enter the temple via a ramp, while spectators enter at the ground level, ending up on a mezzanine that surrounds the temple. We were eye to eye with the huge and impressive gilded statue of Buddha. The Lord Buddha sat serenely (as always) in the lotus position while acolytes piled food on the alter in front of him.  The plumpest grapes,  roundest Asian pears and freshest rice cakes; only the best for Buddha. Explains the belly.

The village participants were all women, as were two of the monks. Our hostess explained that this temple was run by women monks. And they were called monks, not nuns. The lone, senior male monk was a special guest just for this occasion. The three monks took turns chanting from scriptures and keeping rhythm on drums, while the attendees bowed repeatedly. With the deep, droning chants and the steady drumming, it was quite hypnotic. Koreans practice a type of Buddism which is a close cousin to Zen, but that’s about all I can explain about it. The ceremony lasted about an hour, then we were invited to eat lunch with one of the young women monks.

I’m not sure about the protocol, but after we ate a quite delicious vegetarian meal, the rest of the attendees then entered the dining hall to take their lunch. Had they been waiting for us to eat first, and leave? It reminded me of my Chuseok experience, when only I ate with the elders, while the rest of the family apparently ate later. After lunch we retired to the “culture center,” a modest building with lava rock-covered outer walls. Inside we gathered in a circle on the floor (with no pillows – ouch) and the young monk joined us. She proceeded to brew up a special young green tea, which she then served in an elaborate tea ceremony. We talked for several hours, and she never stopped making tea. There were also piles of fresh fruit and boxes of rice sweets. They said it was common for monks to drink tea non-stop all day.

With her shaven head and loose grey garments, it was hard to tell her age. I would guess she was under 30. She was “on loan” from a temple in the mountains of the mainland. She invited us to join her there in the winter. While that sounds beautiful, something tells me it might be a little austere. With windows open for fresh air, the room was abuzz with mosquitoes. One of the visitors asked the monk if Buddhists killed mosquitoes, and she just sort of smiled. By the end or our visit I noticed her unprotected head had fed several fat mosquitoes. She didn’t swat at a single one.

I wish I could report that I quizzed her about Zen, Buddhism and the meaning of life, but I was woefully lax. Everything had to be said through the interpreter, and with four other English speakers vying for her attention, I faded into the background. Oh well, being a fly on the wall is not without its rewards. Oftentimes you can learn more by listening than by talking.  Did Buddha say that?

This was an experience where words don’t do it justice, so I will let these pictures tell the rest of the story. Enjoy.

You can get an idea of scale by the fruit on the altar.

Our monk host, making the first of many pots of tea.

Our monk host, making the first of many pots of tea.