Thursday, October 16, 2008

linking circles, reunions, time-efficient matrimony

so ive decided to just start writing journal entries from this point, instead of trying to recap everything that's happened until now. if i remember something, i'll jot it down. but otherwise, im just gunna upload a ton of pics and let the comments come out on their own. no forced memory searching.

i will, however, give you an account of last weekend. it was full of unique experiences, to be sure. hopefully they will be recurring throughout my stay in korea. first of all, on friday night, i went out drinking with my class. on one occasion they had come to my apartment to drink some beer and play go stop, but that night seemed like a doll-tea-party compared to last friday night.

the party was to send off one of my students who will soon be leaving for america to work as a nanny for a year or so somewhere in north carolina. apparently there is an organization that gives this opportunity to young korean women - they live with a family and earn about 1000 bucks a month. well, it was kind of an interesting party for several reasons. first of all, my class and i thought the gathering would be relatively small: just the 5 of us and the other native english teacher from canada, jason, who taught their class before i came. as it turned out, jason had invited quite a few of his other friends - foreigners from his old school and some guys on his soccer team - and also some other workers at gukje academy. as i observed the confused and uncertain expressions on my students' faces, i realized that this seemingly innocuous action was a korean faux pax.

let me explain. in western culture, i think it is a generally common desire to bring together people from different realms of our social interaction. we see it as a kind gesture to introduce our friends to each other, so that they both can see another side of our life and know us better, not to mention getting the chance to meet a new, 'good person'. in korea, however, social circles are highly prized and very intimate. to most korean people, bringing in an outsider breaks the flow of intimacy within the group, making everyone uncomfortable. this person does not belong, they cant understand our circle's intimacy, etc.

well, we all went to a huge korean restaurant and eventually got seated in the upstairs room. i could have guessed the seating arrangement perfectly. there was a 'foreigner table', a table for my class, and a table for the other korean employees from gukje (with whom i had gone drinking before, but separately, of course, from my classes). since the foreigner table was comfortable and completely unaware of the discomfort of the two korean groups, i decided to sit in between those two tables, instead of with jason and his friends. this ended up working out perfectly. i was able to interact with everyone, and i think my calmness with being the 'middle man' of sorts made everyone else more at ease. i was happy to be able to do this, and yet, i noticed that i was the only person who was not really solidly a part of any social circle... it just seemed like a familiar sensation to me. do i do that a lot? i think i often feel that way in korea or interacting with koreans. i am ever ready to slip out of one 'social circle atmosphere' to chat with someone one-on-one, and i often find myself in 'floater' situations. but my hawaii friends have often done the same for me - whenever i visit them and they introduce me to their families, friends, or any other part of their lives. well, it will be a frequent feeling for me living in korea, no doubt.

i had to be careful too, since my position required me to make toasts at two tables. i kept hearing 'peter!' and turning to see someone holding a soju bottle or some other such korean alcohol. i kept myself under control, though, since i had a wedding to go to the next day (more about that in a sec). unfortunately, one guy from my class who is a few years younger than me was considerably less conservative than me, acquiescing to the 3 누나 ('nuna' - older sister - used by guys to describe any girl who is older than them) classmates whose shameless coaxing caused this poor guy to get thoroughly sloshed. after dinner we apprehensively sent him home in a taxi wondering if he would make it. those of us remaining after dinner proceeded to the only hookah bar in suwon which just happened to be very near the station. although grossly overpriced, the atmosphere of the place was pretty chill and authentic, despite being in korea. it was like stepping into another world, totally separate from the country that lay just outside the door. cushions strewn about a table enclosed behind a light curtain. very dim lighting. countless candles on ledges above our heads. rose favored hookah. a light buzz. first class. i went home at 3am, declining invitations to join the stragglers at a 노래방 ('noraebang' - singing room or karaoke).

the next day was the wedding day of a friend of mine, daniel, who i met in my first semester in hilo. he was kind of the 'older brother' of the exchange students, as he had been in hawaii for a while, was graduating that winter, and going to be starting work in korea at samsung (a very prestigious accomplishment). we played go stop with the other guys quite a few times. actually, i didnt actually know him all that well in hawaii, but wonchul told him i was in korea, so he invited me to his wedding, for which i was very thankful. many of my friends from that year in hawaii would be coming, so it was going to be kind of a reunion.

the wedding was at a hotel near 여의도 ('yeouido' - a pretty important financial center in seoul, located on an island on the han river which runs through the city). i had been there quite a few times before, two years ago. wonchul told me that a friend of ours, mikyoung, was living and working around there these days and suggested i try to meet up with her before the wedding. this i did. we bought some sandwiches and fruit smoothies and walked around the yeouido park. it was a beautiful day and i was happy to get outside and away from suwon. there was some kind of festival going on that day and there were many kids and young families running around. mikyoung told me about her job, working for a company that plans and organizes exhibitions. she said her coworkers were really great, but there were too few women, as is often the case. i hadnt really talked to her since we met two years ago when we went to seoul grand park and visited its art museum, so it was a nice chance to catch up.

i then met up with my friend alison and we headed off in search of daniel's wedding together. we first had to stop at a bank to withdraw cash. it is customary in korea to fork over a chunk of cash to your friend in a white envelope when they get hitched (usually about $30-50). it seemed impersonal to me, but wishing to respect korean custom, i followed suit. along the way to the supposed location of the wedding, alison described to me the general wedding procedure in korea. although some koreans get married in a church or some such religious establishment, most prefer to go to wedding halls (often located in large hotels, as was the case with daniels). at these wedding halls, the scheduling is strictly kept. on busy days, the bride and groom are hitched in no time flat and quickly scooted off to a reception to make way for the next happy couple. these 'ceremonies' often take less than 15 min and the switcheroo is done in 20.

as it turned out, that day was a slow day, and everyone was able to linger a bit longer in the wedding hall to take pictures. there were at least a couple hundred people there. koreans invite everyone they have ever known and quite a few people they haven't. thus, wedding expenses fall heaviest on reception costs. i got the general impression that most people present at the wedding didnt know each other. korean social circles are generally kept tight and separate. alison and i got early and were thus able to find pretty good seats. we saw the bride and groom take turns walking down the isle. they bowed to each other and stood side by side as some guy behind a podium (not a priest - i think he was daniel's father's buddy from the marines, in which daniel also served his military service) droned on for about 10 minutes describing what i took to be the accomplishments and life stories of the betrothed. then the couple bowed to their parents and it was over. i may have missed something. i certain felt like i had. there was no exchange of rings (but i do know that engagement rings have strong significance in korea - you should spend several weeks pay on them). there was no kiss. daniel did surprise everyone, however, with a song for his new wife. he turned out (to most people's obvious amazement) to be a pretty good singer. then the pictures. at this point i was pretty distracted what with finding my other friends who had arrived during (or after) the ceremony. many of them i had not seen for 2 years and i was delighted. my friend younghoon (who came from daegu) admitted that he had come late and missed the entire ceremony, but was 'on picture time', a phrase koreans use to mean that it is only important to make it for the picture so that you can say you were there.

the following reception was impressively lavish. it was like renting out a private buffet. there were dozens of dishes, a salad bar, soups, sashimi, deserts, and of course beer and soju. we postponed imbibing, however, until the 'after party-party'. the chance for a private reunion of old friends is not a thing to miss. i tried some very interesting and curious buffet foods. there was this one clam shell that was filled with an unrecognizable paste that no one could identify. and of course i helped myself to a steamy bowl of 미역국 ('miyeok guk' - seaweed soup) - a traditional celebratory dish. yum! after that, we paid our respects to daniel and his new wife one last time and headed off for the bar!

it was just like old times. i was able to catch up with a lot of people (some of them i was able to see two weeks previous when we met to receive the wedding invitations from daniel). unfortunately my korean has not progressed to the point where i can participate in conversations between koreans, but my friends kindly spoke to me in english too. being surrounded by an unfathomable sea of korean is not unfamiliar to me anyway. we hung out there for a while, then decided to relocate to gangnam - a popular hub in seoul - from which everyone would be able to catch buses to their respective homes. actually, we didnt drink all that much, largely because our time was cut short due to the difficulty we had in finding a place that was not already full and could fit all of us.

afterwards, younghoon came back to suwon with me. i was really happy to spend some one on one time with him. we went to a quiet bar near my apartment and just hung out sipping our beers and chatting. it was really nice to do something like that. lifted a little of the oppressive feeling of suwon. the next morning, after catching a couple of burgers for breakfast (korean hamburgers are sweeter, less salty, and include sweet pickles), i saw younghoon off to the train station. i hope i'll get a chance to visit deagu soon.

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