Monday, December 29, 2008

christmas eve 2008 - empty train stations, unfamiliar streets, midnight bath house oasis

well it is officially Christmas day. 12:39am. I can’t say ive ever spent christmas quite like this before. but it isn’t without its own unique charm.

I missed the last train to incheon, where I was planning on spending the night (in the airport) waiting for hiuyan’s plane to arrive. as her plane will be arriving at 5 in the morning, I was left with few choices: it was either go to the airport the night before, or not meet her at the airport at all. my students made it clear that this was unacceptable and that it was my duty to see her arrive at the airport, no matter the cost, and eventually their reasoning had enough effect on me to make me acquiesce.

unfortunately, friendly christmas spirit ended up being my undoing. there were next to no students present for the last 10pm class on christmas eve, so all the teachers combined classes and I led a game of christmas charades. the game had the added effect of making all of us teachers real chummy, and as we closed up the school, the suggestion of a round of beers was non-refusable. I knew I didn’t have much time before the trains closed for the night, but that couldn’t dissuade me from making a ‘quick stop’. I shouldn’t have played that last song on jason’s guitar. I knew I was running short on time. when I finally did leave, it was nearly eleven and my bulging bladder seemed to bounce threateningly as I power-walked to the station.

I would have to change trains at guro station in order to get to incheon. I was anxious the whole way, the incessant urge to pee not helping to calm me down. I got to guro at about ten to twelve and as I got off the train, my heart swelled with hope (although not as much as my bladder) because there were loads of people waiting on the platform for the train to incheon. soon after I got into the queue, however, an announcement came on the loudspeaker informing everyone that there were no more trains for the night. people looked around at each other with confused and worried looks, and eventually everyone made their way up the stairs. i was at a loss. I asked several passerbyers if I had heard the announcement correctly. I had. eventually I took my consolation prize and relieved myself in the station restroom and exited to the street.

as the crowds dispersed, attacking taxi drivers split the streams of people like rocks in a flowing river, shouting out offers of rides to incheon. I ignored them, knowing the price would astronomical. just out of curiosity, however, I asked one guy who was pestering me, no doubt thinking me a potential sucker, what the price would be. he said $80. I said, how about thirty. he said, it’s christmas so how about fifty. I said no and kept walking. I wasn’t sure where I was going. I just heading kept down the same street, following a medium-sized crowd of people who had also just left guro station, and eventually we came to a dimly-lit bus stop. I tried to scan the posted schedules for any buses that might be going somewhere helpful to me; nothing. I was thinking about the possibility of sleeping in a PC-방 (computer ‘bang’ – room; you pay by the hour to use a computer), and when I called my buddy wonchul, he suggested this course of action. thinking that this would be an undesirable yet doable fallback way to spend christmas eve (although not any worse than sleeping at the airport, I suppose), I decided to walk around a bit more to see what I could see. if possible, I was considering staying up all night in a coffee shop or a bar (I did bring along my computer after all) since by now I had to wait only 4 hours or so until the station opened again.

the streets were pretty empty at 12:30. most businesses were closed; only a few places showed any lights glowing like islands among the silent skyscrapers towering in darkness. after wandering around for a while, I decided to pop in at solitary coffee shop that was still open for business. I ordered an americano and flipped on my computer to begin writing this entry. I made it as far as about a paragraph ago (now im finishing the rest at home) when the manager of the place came up to me to tell me the shop was closing. he looked apologetic. I hastily packed up my things, noticing that all the other patrons had indeed left already. it was starting to feel more like a lonely night as I pushed through the door out onto the cold, empty streets.

I walked on a little more, keeping my eyes peeled. I didn’t want to stay in a pc bang if I could help it. I passed a cheesy-looking bar whose only positive attribute was a sign saying it was open until 4am on christmas eve. I kept it in the back of my mind as I walked, looking for another potential refuge from the cold.

after a while I noticed a colorful glow in the sidewalk and looked up. there the bright green letters of a 24-hour 찜질방 (‘jjimjil-bang’ – bath/sauna house) shone down on me. as soon as I saw it, I knew that would be the perfect place to camp out until morning, and I wondered why I hadn’t thought to look for one earlier. it’s sort of hard to imagine such a large public bath on the 8th floor of a building, but once you get inside, it’s like an isolated world. trying to act as casual as everyone else (i.e. not like a foreigner) I put my clothes in a locker, washed myself at the deserted bathing stations, and soaked in the baths for an hour. going back and forth between hot and cold water really put the life back into me, while also refreshing me from the cold, windy outside and soothing my aching body. at around 2:30 I meandered down to the common area and scoped out a likely spot to close my eyes for a couple hours. I hadn’t expected the place to be so packed and noisy (although maybe I should have) on christmas eve (the bath had been virtually deserted, after all). it took me a few failed attempts choosing a place and laying down to finally be able to doze for a little bit. there were tons of young people in gender-segregated groups likely of single people, as christmas is a ‘couples’ day’ in korea. I drifted in and out of sleep in a creative position on a tiny sofa until I got up, groggy, at 4:30 and tiptoed through the maze of people sleeping everywhere to get back to my locker and head back onto the cold streets. when the ‘morning’ air hit me, it was more than a little hard not to go back inside to the cozy, moist bath house.

I made my way through the dark back to guro station and found I was early. a bit too early, in fact. on christmas day, the trains don’t start until about 5:30, so I had quite a bit of time to wait. with only a handful of people scattered across the whole station’s expanse, the numerous platforms looked like odd little islands in a sea of train tracks. it was cold, and with my body facing the direction of least exposure to the wind, I kept looking down the silent, dark tracks for the coming train to incheon. I listened to music (the first song randomly came up as a 15-minute long ambient trip and I just floated away) and waited as the platforms slowly began to attract more christmas-morning commuters. at 5:30 the train eventually came and I made my way to the incheon airport where my girl had likely already arrived and was waiting for me.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

elusive sleep-balance & ajumma psychoanalysis

it seems like ill never figure out a balanced daily schedule while im working at this academy... for the first 1 1/2 months in korea, i felt pretty much exhausted all the time, and i couldnt break the habit of taking a nap every afternoon in between my morning and evening classes. once i finally did stop taking naps, it was only due to the combined assistance of a daily coffee (which i rarely drink normally) and exercise and a shower in the afternoon. okay, that worked for a while, but i cant live like a robot doing the exact same thing everyday - i need variety and spontaneity. and yet, as soon as i change things up a little, my precarious grip on controlling sleep and energy unravels.

im not normally this out-of-control. this unbalanced lifestyle is entirely the fault of my unbalanced work schedule which has me teaching at 7:30am and finishing at 10pm. okay, i dont work all day by any means. actually, i only teach a total of 6 hours a day. my morning classes finish at noon and evening classes begin again at 7. i have to admit that sometimes this schedule is nice - i have more motivation to do something more productive during those seven hours of break than i would have if my free time followed a full day of work. and the evenings aren't ever lonely since im teaching. but you can imagine how difficult it would be to split your work up like that. the worst part is definitely finding a stable sleeping schedule, but it also really sucks to have that 'oh shit i have to work in one hour'-feeling TWICE a day.

well yesterday i fell asleep at my computer in the afternoon and snored 3 of my afternoon hours away. i woke up like a zombie 1 hour before class, and believe me, i was NOT AT ALL pleased with the situation. screaming out R Kelly's 'i believe i can fly' in the shower helped my mood a bit, but i still had to exercise control on my grumpiness. luckily my evening students are super.

yesterday i also tried an interesting activity with some of my students. at 10am i have a 'free talking' class which i always refer to as my 'ajumma class' since nearly all of them are 30-something to middle-aged house-wives. it's a pretty fun class. on tuesday we talked all about tattoos and body piercings which many of them referred to as 'injuring the body' and a sin. you could say that they have some conservative leanings, but ive also been surprised with some of the stories they've shared from their 'younger days'.

well, yesterday i decided to give them a psychological test.
i asked them to draw a person, and, refusing to give any other instruction, set them to work (i borrowed this from the 'house-tree-person test' which is used to assess children's personalities for presence of abuse or derangement). i'll explain the interpretation through some examples from my class, with, of course, whatever explanations on korean society i can think of.
i also want to make it clear that these interpretations are merely the untrained guesses of a non-korean and so they could completely off.

these two drawings were made by 50-ish student named soon.
the students are supposed to draw one person and then draw another person of the opposite gender. the first picture is typically of the same gender as the artist and reflects a more direct personal perspective on personality. the opposite gender represents also parts of the artist's personality, but aspects that are not directly acknowledged. soon drew a woman sitting down first, then a man standing.
the legs and feet represent the security, strength, and power of the artist, like the trunk and roots of trees, so really weak legs and small feet suggest insecurity (and so do really large feet).
we use our arms to engage the world and our hands to affect it. arms reaching out from the body suggest a willingness to interact with the world and open hands, confidence with such actions. closed arms and hidden or gloved hands could mean defensiveness, a lack of confidence, insecurity. so soon's woman sitting down in profile with one arm outstretched and one held in close gives a sort of mixed message. especially when compared to the man standing with more open arms and facing forward. it seems like soon sees herself as being more reserved with repressed feelings of wanting to engage the world more.
facial expressions suggest what they do on a real person's face. these drawings, and those of most of the other students, feature well-dressed and proper-looking men and women.
the next two drawings were done by a student whose english name is laura.
interestingly, the woman and the man both look nearly identical. i told laura that this might mean that she has fewer repressed feelings. this certainly would fit her personality in class - she often very openly describes her emotions, fears, even insecurities with us. for some people, listening to her talk about how she 'feels depressed today because she doesn't know how to be a mother to her boys who have different perspectives from her - whether she should badger them to study (as most parents are compelled to do in korea) or let them have some fun even though there is a constant stream of test and examinations (more on korean education system later)', they consider laura a confused and worrisome woman. i think this is a healthy way of facing the insecurities that trouble many housewives and it gives laura a unique strength. both of her drawings feature people with their arms open and fingered (a trait absent in all other students' drawings). they are also simple looking and well-dressed with pleasant expressions.
the next student's name is suhee.
despite being in her late twenties, her drawing style is like that of a adolescent girl. i have found this to be typical of most teenage - unmarried-20 year-olds. as details in these drawings are sparse, there's not much to interpret. the neck connects the body (needs and drives) with the head (thoughts - cognitive). no neck would mean no separation, and a really long neck might mean desire for disconnection. everyone drew pretty average-looking necks, and i would say in my opinion, women in korea have more of a balance between those two processes than men.
this last student's english name is grace; she is also 50-ish and quite nervously talkative.
her drawings deviated a little from the norm in some quite interesting ways. first of all, her woman appears by traditional perspectives more masculine and the male more feminine. her woman holds her arms in close and somewhat protectively. the feet are cut off (this could suggest a lack of security or merely that the drawing's size was not correctly anticipated). the woman appears quite formal and reserved. the man, on the other hand, has long hair, casual clothing, and is holding a guitar. i told grace that this perhaps means that she has some latent desire to express more creativity, but it is hard to say why she chose this image.

there's a lot more that i could say about this class, but i'll save that for another day (mostly because im hungry and it's dinnertime). i do want to mention, however, the strong sense of camaraderie that has developed in this class between the students. they often hang around and talk or get lunch together afterwards. i have a fun time playing along with them and i have to say ive made a pretty cool connection with them. maybe it's because of their higher english level, or maybe it's their personalities, but i think i've been able to share more of myself with them than most other students. they're great!

9:30 am - morning break

these days im working a slightly different class schedule with a break after my morning class at 7:30. thus far, ive been squandering the time with one or more of the following activities: cooking and chowing some break, mindless entertainment, reading, even studying some biology from an evolution textbook i bought a couple weeks ago. well, i finally got the bright idea to jump on my blog for few minutes to use this time to write a little something. i hope it carries over to subsequent days.
yesterday was a good day. i stayed at home and was therefore able to receive several calls on skype from my sister, mom, ginny, and even LUCAS SOKOL-OXMAN who i havent seen in months resulting in serious withdrawl symptoms. i was also able to finally write a blog entry on my experience last week with eunsoo's accidental passing away, and i was very glad to do that.
all of these things took my entire afternoon, however, and only after i started cooking a big pot of mashed potatoes (my comfort food), i noticed it was almost time for evening class. the potatoes went on the back burner (pun INTENDED) and i jogged to school with a grumbly tummy.
fortunately (or not?) i managed to grab a quick burger at a nearby KFC in between class to hold me over. the spuds became my after-work treat and my this-morning-bellyache. ug!
well, gotta run to class now!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


last tuesday night i got a late phone call from my friend wonchul. it was about an hour or so after i finished my last evening class, and i was still awake reading some of brothers karamazov before going to bed. after my enthusiastic 'heeeeello!', it didnt take long for me to figure out something was wrong.
'there's some bad news,' he said. 'you remember eunsoo from hilo? he's passed away.'
like suddenly muting all the noise from the world, everything in my mind dropped. what could i say? i never in a million years expected anything like this to happen. 'what happened?' i breathed out the words, and even those barely managed to shake themselves loose of grip around my voice. my words sounded grating in my ears nonetheless.
'it was a car accident,' wonchul said. 'we dont know anything else.'
he told me that there had been a memorial service that day and that he had been trying to get a hold of me. i felt like an idiot for not receiving his call, even though there was nothing i could do about my phone dying earlier that afternoon. he explained that korean memorial services last for two days and that i could go the next day with a couple other friends of ours who had also been unable to go that day.

eunsoo was a friend of ours from hawaii. although i can not say that we were very close, eunsoo and i shared many good times in hilo together, playing baseball together, weekend barbecues, and many late-night go stop binges. we also met a couple of times in seoul two years ago when i visited korea for the first time. myself and other friends joked often about eunsoo's apparent lack of success with girlfriends and his constant stream of overly-melodramatic screen names on instant messenger such as 'what the hell am i doing with my life' and so on. these jokes were never an expression of looking down on the guy, meerly expressions of affection.
i asked wonchul how he felt. 'confused,' was all he said. after i hung up and sent a message to another friend telling her that id call her in the morning to figure out when we could meet to visit eunsoo's family, i laid back in my bed and tried to understand how i felt myself. confused was the only word that seemed to fit me as well. staring restlessly off into space, sleep eluded me.
during my morning classes i managed to get a phone call off to my friend hyunsook who i would be meeting to visit eunsoo's family. we would have to go to the hospital which was located in 의정부 ('uijeongbu'), a town more than 2 hours from suwon where i live. since we'd be meeting in the evening, i would have no chance of being able to teach my evening classes. i braced myself for confronting my boss with this situation, but i was resolved to go, and i wouldn't take no for an answer, no matter the cost. surprisingly, in a breach of character, my boss yielded without much resistance. even so it would be an exhausting day, and hiuyan was flying into incheon international airport that night to visit me for a few days, so the timing would be tight.
i headed out in mid-afternoon for uijeongbu and managed to rendezvous with hyunsook along the way without much difficulty. there wasn't much we could say to each other for a while, but the reassurance of someone else's company was enough. with marginal success we chit-chatted in the train, asking idly about recent dealings in our lives and eventually broaching the issue of eunsoo's death. neither of us, it turned out, knew much about what happened, being certain only of our own determination to make this journey to see eunsoo's family and perhaps find some answers to the questions and uncertainties bouncing around in our own troubled hearts.
when we got out of the station, it already felt like night, and the air was cold and unfamiliar. neither of us had ever been this far north out of the city. we grabbed a cab to the hospital and eventually found the place where funerals were being held.
the atmosphere was quite different from what i expected. what had at first appeared to be a waiting room or cafeteria to me quickly materialized into the funeral hall itself, as realization dawned on me. along one wall were enclosures separated from one another, each housing a personal shrine for someone recently deceased. each displayed a large framed picture of someone, most of whom were elderly people. there was also a incense rack. next to these shrines stood pairs or groups of people adorned in solemn clothes and expressions patiently waiting or greeting arriving visitors. along the other side of this long, hallway-like room were low tables spread with a rich, many-coursed meal in the korean tradition. at many of these tables sat numerous visitors or family members, and their hushed chit-chat and occasional laughter permeated the otherwise sound-barren air.
i cautiously glanced at the pictures on my left, searching for the one familiar face i knew i would find in that place, still wondering if perhaps i had gotten things wrong, misheard somehow or something. we walked to the far end of the room and removed our shoes before greeting eunsoo's parents. and there his picture was. although i was uncertain about my every action in the unfamiliar setting, i allowed my eyes to linger on his face. hyunsook left my side to light a stick of incense and upon her return, hyunsook and i sank into the customary 5-point bow and prostrated ourselves before the shrine. turning our attention back toward eunsoo's parents who were standing patiently aside, hyunsook introduced us and explained our acquaintance to eunsoo. i shook his fathers hand and smiled and his mother. we signed the guest book and left our envelopes of money, a custom also practiced at weddings such as the one i had attended weeks before.
hyunsook and i decided to stay and partake of the meal offered us. i was glad we did. i needed to experience the comfort of the social atmosphere that was also around us. i immediately noticed with appreciation and wonder the balance and harmony of the korean funeral ceremony. there was the solemnity of respect for the deceased and their family and friends and an unmistakable mourning in the attitudes of everyone present. but there was also this undeniable life taking place all around - the sounds of living people, eating and talking. i could not help but feel peace from this balance and hope for the life still present everywhere, for my own, for hyunsook's, and for all the people around me and in my life. later i talked about this with lucas, listening to some of the similarities to malian funerals, and we agreed that western funerals are generally pretty skewed emotionally and screwed up in comparison.
before we left, eunsoo's father stopped me. 'thank you for your coming,' he said, and i could see it in his eyes.
making our way back to the station, hyunsook and i talked about what we had experienced, both this evening and over the last couple of days. i still felt confused, but i was much more comfortable with that. i realized how much the funeral was for me and everyone, how important coming had been to me, how much i couldn't help thinking of myself, and how much i had needed to not feel shame for that, but to listen to myself and my feelings. i told hyunsook how thankful i was that she had come with me, that i couldnt have come by myself (logistically and emotionally), and how much experiencing this had meant to me. 'that's just what i wanted to say!' she told me, and i went home on subway satisfied and waiting to greet my girl...