Crosswalk Rules

Today I ran for the crosswalk, which is not an overly extraordinary occurrence- but after taking a few steps at a jogging pace, I quickly realized today was not a day for running.

I never would have run for a green crosswalk sign when I lived in America.  Or white?  Little crosswalk men are white, aren’t they?  Regardless of white and orange or green and red, I wouldn’t be caught dead running.  I want to appear laid back and easy going.  I don’t want onlookers to think I’m in a hurry.  I don’t want anyone to see me running without my athletic wear and headphones.

However, I wouldn’t really want to stand on the corner and wait for the green light either.  I would continue walking around the corner, keeping an eye out until traffic let up enough to make it across the street, jaywalking without a second thought.  Disclaimer: In Montana, there’s hardly a street you can’t cross mid-traffic if you continue walking half a block.

In Seoul, waiting on the corner for the crosswalk sign to light up is part of every trip out of the house, or you’ll never get across the street!  I remember fidgeting at first, but I quickly got used to it.  I remember looking both ways at first, but now I continue reading my text messages while I cross.  I remember getting out of the way for oncoming foot traffic.  Now, I slap my RBF on and stride confidently and directly toward the opposing traffic while carefully avoiding eye contact. I remember telling other newcomers: “Never be the first one or the last one in the intersection.”  At least that’s still a good rule.

And I’ve gotten used to looking ahead and deciding wether or not I could make it across the street if I run, factoring in my laziness or considering if I’m wearing the wrong shoes.

This morning I was looking ahead and realized I’d have awkward timing.  If I continued walking at my present speed, I would arrive at the curb while the crosswalk was still hot, BUT I wouldn’t have enough time to make it across.  The worst situation is waiting at the side while people fresh from crossing arrive on your side of the sidewalk.  Then, you have to wait for a full cycle of the stoplight- which could actually take 5 minutes, no thank you.

I started running.  Which to be honest was not really a run in my dress and flimsy flats but damned if I bow to misogyny and say a girl can’t run in a dress and flimsy flats.  I only had to run about 1/3 of the way across- I made it safely (not the last one) just as the crosswalk man disappeared.  But that’s not really why I stopped running.

You see, this morning, my stomach was just upset enough that I had to use the bathroom 3 times. So naturally, I put on some old underwear because just in case.  Also it’s comfy- there’s almost no elasticity left.

As soon as I started out, my underwear gave a sigh and slipped a bit.  Before I could comprehend that as a problem, my shoulder bag rubbing against my dress caught my underwear just right and caused more slippage.  By that time I had left the curb, and was thinking “Oh god, it’s too late.  I’m in the street now and I can’t turn back!”. I discreetly (I hope) adjusted my bag by pulling it up, trying to bring my underwear with it.  That’s when I started walking.

There is a time and place for running across streets in the middle of the block.  There is a time and a place for running in crosswalks, but there is no time or place for losing your clothing in one.

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Freedom

I’m 13, on a long extended vacation with my family: mom, dad, and two brothers.  I’m the middle child which means I can usually call a good seat in the family minivan, which is important when you’re on a road trip for 30 days.  We drive everywhere because flying 5 people up and down the east coast is expensive.  We get lost in every major city.  We read hundreds of books and listen to thousands of songs.  We compromise because nobody wants to fight in the car, but there are some long days.  We don’t stop at every historic site but we hit all the historic battlegrounds and rest areas.  We eat one-pot meals made in our hotel rooms, in front of 300 cable tv channels.   Sandwiches out of the car.  Sometimes, we meet some of our relatives for the first time we- the kids- can remember, and turn their homes into our base of operations to see several places over the course of a few days.  For the whole month of October, we make our way from Montana to Vermont to Virginia and back home again.

Midway through this adventure, we hit Boston, a treasure trove of Independence era sites, home of the Freedom trail. We see the liberty bell, Independence Hall, Paul Revere’s house, Betsy Ross’s house, a church who’s history I can’t remember, and an old ship named “Ol’ Ironsides” left over from the War of 1812, and many regular city streets.  It was in one of the modern, non-famous areas where my revelation took place.

Mom said everyone could tell we were tourists by the way we kept looking up at everything.  She noticed that locals kept their eyes front, never looking up, just getting where they’re going.  Montana children are not used to skyscrapers of course, especially a whole bunch of them in one place, and we couldn’t help but stare up to try and see the tops.  Mom said it in a way to get us to move along and pay attention to where we were walking, but not as a means to scold our curiosity.

But then I had to go and say, “I’m going to live in a big city some day.”  My words, exactly.  If I went back to Boston today, I could even find the exact building I was staring up at, if it’s still there.  I loved it.  The energy of people speed-walking to work, the way nobody paid attention to anyone else, and the quickness of transactions.  The infinite height of buildings and amount of people seemed like equally limitess opportunities.   I took the city in with excitement while my mom took it in and converted the energy to anxiety, tension, and stress.  Her response was “Yeah, right.  You’d hate it.”

To be fair, we also took in our first case of road rage witnessed in person that day.  From our vantage point in another lane, we saw a man yelling out his car window (fingers, er finger waving), but by the time we drove away, one man was making motions to get out of his car.  I thought that was all very exciting and new too, so that shows my perspective was perhaps a little skewed.  Over the years, I forgot the road rage and the exchange with my mother.  

10 years later, on an airplane across the pacific with two new friends, almost delirious from lack of sleep caused by 30 hours of traveling, that memory replayed in my mind like a reel of slides.  I laughed out loud.  Our airplane touched down in Seoul and I thought I was about to prove my mother wrong.  But would I prove myself wrong instead?  Would I like it?  

After 4 1/2 years of metropolis life, I will finally have visitors.  You see, my family knows they would hate to live here, but my brother and none other than my supportive mother, are coming.  Perhaps I can look back on that trip long ago- and many others to go camping, visit relatives, and travel to and from college- and lay the blame for my travel bug.  Perhaps it comes from my mom, who is braver than she knows.

I wonder, does she remember that moment in Boston?  On the Freedom Trail?  Maybe she won’t find her freedom while she’s here, but it’s okay.  I’ve found mine.

Stranger Danger

I stared at her.  I was lost in thought about a completely different subject and my eyes unthinkingly followed every person who walked by the Dunkin Donut’s window.  But she was different.  She stared back.  It took a few snaps for my mind to register that she was retuning my gaze.  A few more snaps to register confusion on her face.  A few more for her mouth to turn up, just slightly.  A few more for her idea to ignite a glow in her eyes that my mind could detect but not decipher, and a few more for her idea to be carried out- a noticeable head nod/ half bow.  

It was one of those moments described as an eternity, but none of my three companions noticed the exchange or caught my next few snaps of awkwardness after being caught staring and being acknowledged in such a polite way.  
My reaction was to spend an “eternity” letting my mouth drop open slightly, sensing my cheeks rounding and my eye muscles pulling back, showing delighted surprise without smiling, and sending an emotional reaction message meant only for her.  

It was magic.  I saw her sequence of emotions and I know she saw mine.  A stare turned into a bond through the cafe window. 

I spent the next 10 minutes robotically participating in the conversation with my companions and dissecting all that didn’t need to be dissected.  Do/should I know her?    

Did she think I was rude, and shouldn’t I find her and apologize?

C

O

M

E

B

A

C

K

wouldn’t we be best friends?
W

A

I

T

am I sure that just happened?

How do you measure a Gram?  Memories.  

My grandmother taught me how to knit. She must have been doing a project in the living room, and I must have been watching. Raptly. “Can you teach me?” I might have said. After all, I had a brand new pair of plastic knitting needles- one yellow and one red, with little animals on top- that had come in a craft kit. In no time at all, I was set up with my own yarn and 10 stitches at the ready. It was good that it didn’t take long to learn because my Gram was only able to visit once a year, for about a whole month.
Soon, my brothers were sitting, watching, raptly. “Can you teach me too?” Although they were missing colorful needles adorned with animals, my gram set their 10 stitches up on pencils, and my brothers and I labored away for a week, silent in our chairs, stretching our fingers and gaining muscle memory.

Teaching was nothing new to her. She handled classrooms of middle school students in her professional life. She loved it, and they loved her. But when it came to us mirroring her hands, she suddenly got confused. My Gram is left-handed, and dyslexic. My brothers and I are right handed. She did her best to teach us, and we ended up doing everything exactly like her hands.

Before she left, we took a trip to the local Ben Franklin store, where we stocked up on yarn and she bought me a pair of aluminum needles that were much sleeker that my plastic pair. I wandered around the store for a while, and when I returned to her side, she introduced me to a woman with the signature red apron of all the store’s personnel. Although Ben Franklin isn’t in business any more, I still remember the woman’s name. “This is Naomi,” she introduced me. “If you have a problem, just bring your project over and Naomi will help you after I leave to go home.”

Throughout my teenage years, I knit while watching tv. I got so good I didn’t have to look at what I was doing. Scarves, blankets for my stuffed animals, bags, anything squarish and longish rolled off my needles, by this time aluminum and matching in color, size 7’s. I made projects for the state fair and wash cloths by the dozens.

When I learned to drive, the first place my gram allowed me to take her was Michael’s craft store. After that, I’m sure we must have gotten ice cream. I grew up, learned to drive, and felt important, but my gram’s contagious love for ice cream reminded me of being a little girl again. But that’s tomorrow’s story.

Not until I was older did I attempt to use round needles for a project, and even then under the supervision of my gram and aunt; I knit a navy blue hat out of soft, thin yarn, during my junior year spring break.

These past few years, I finally experimented with switching colors mid-project. This technique I had to look up online, but my gram was one of the first to hear the news of my exciting progression.

These days, my Pinterest account features a collection of knitting projects on my Hooks and Needles board, one of my most project laden areas. Matching hats and scarves, blankets, stuffed toys for my niece and nephew. One thing I have no desire to try are socks, as my gram makes the best ones herself and gives them away readily at any hint of admiration. Many patterns I have planned for the future feature stitches and techniques that I have yet to master, and it makes me sad knowing my Gram will not always be there to show me how, but I will press on.

No one else can teach me the same way she did.

My grandmother taught me how to knit. As a left handed person.

I used to be bad at directions. 

There is still a little part of me that wants to prove I’m not bad a directions any more.  

I first noticed the taxi pull up and stop because it was driving abnormally slow.  It stopped in the crosswalk, directly in front of me, so I hoped the occupant would make a quick exit before the light changed.  I’m lazy enough to not want to walk extra steps around a vehicle at 11:00 after a long day.  However, the passenger- a woman- was leaning in close to the windshield in order to look up.  She was pointing and conversing with the driver.  I sighed.  Could I justify eating ice cream to make up for those extra steps?  
Wait.  That’s weird.  No one ever looks up.  You’d think in a city with businesses on every floor that looking up would be natural, but that’s how you spot tourists.  

The taxi’s light flicked on, signaling the paying of fare and the woman got out, making a beeline for me and other woman waiting to cross.  She was preoccupied with her phone, checking out the address, I guess, so when she spoke she didn’t know my foreign ears were her audience.  But after reading the whole address out loud, she looked up, and pointed at the apartment building across the street.  

She turned to the other woman just as quickly as all her predecessors, and repeated her question, although I’m sure the woman had already heard.  

“잘 모르겠어요,” she answered.  “I’m not sure.”

I didn’t waste a second.  “네, 맞아요.”  “That’s right.”  The building she was pointing at was, in fact, the correct building.  But what she didn’t know is that all four apartment buildings in a row have the same name.  She didn’t specify which one- so I asked.  

“1차?  2차?”  One or two?  You may be thinking, wait there are four apartment buildings with the same name.  I’m getting there.  

“2차.”  

“A동?  B동?”  You see… 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B… 4 buildings.  Is this a common numbering system?  I’ve always wondered.  

“B동.”

*insert correct cultural sound for surprise* “나도 가고 있어요.” I’m going there too.  

We walked the 50 feet in silence, parting at the elevator with proper bows, thank yous, and good byes.    

It’s happened four times: someone asks for directions before looking at my face. I open my mouth to reply but they’ve already moved on. They don’t even pause to apologize, say excuse me, or marvel at my beauty. They are just gone.  
All four times, I have known the way to get to the destination they seek.  
This woman had just asked me for directions to my very own apartment building, and she almost walked away with nothing.

Now, the question is: 

If you can give directions in another language, does it prove you are good at directions?  

Voting Season

In the midst of trying to decide whether the latest news from the American presidential race will enhance my life in any way, I’ve been watching the country of Korea prepare to elect all of the 300 representatives in their National Assembly.  Well, 253 of them. The remaining 47 spots are closed party decisions based on the percentage of other seats each party wins.

Campaigning seems a bit different, though I have to consider that I am viewing it from a foreigners surface perspective.  Candidates post people at major points of foot traffic- like subway stations or crosswalks- with giant posters and flyers, ready to shake hands.  It’s the only time I see strangers smile at strangers.  The candidates make celebrity-like appearances on their campaign cars, sometimes parked at busy intersections or even driving around slowly, candidate installed on the platform with a loudspeaker or microphone.  Occasionally, several ladies might get on the stage and do a dance- now that’s worth stopping to watch!

 

A campaign car from a previous election.

I live near Bucheon City Hall, which was a rally point for Bucheon candidates on recent weekends, and the location of several debates- the powerfully magnified sound floated through my window, open or closed made no difference.  The worst moment was when a candidate parked their trailer platform at the intersection, and proceeded to play the same 30 second sound bite for 4 hours over and over and over and over.

Finally, Election Day came yesterday!  In addition to the promise of peace and quiet returning, Election Day was a public holiday, to ensure that anyone who wanted to vote wouldn’t be stuck at work all day.  I took further advantage of the day off by claiming my boyfriend for a date after he did his civic duty, and getting him to explain some of the different complexities of South Korean politics and voting systems that helps bring order to no less than 15 parties, including 4 parties that received a substantial amount of votes. His hope that Korea will improve is infectious- a breath of fresh air to my weary presidential contemplations.

I also have another new perspective this election: I have the pleasure of teaching several refugees through the Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) program.  One of them is not new to South Korea, and this is not his first election, but talking about politics with him reminded me of my first voting experience.

I am helping him perfect his past and future tense expressions, so during our lessons we frequently utilize questions such as “What did/will you do yesterday/last weekend/this morning/tomorrow,” etc.  I used the upcoming special day for a topic of conversation, asking him what he planned to do, and if he planned to vote.

As sometimes happens, he heard the word vote in my sentence and got so excited to talk about elections that he forgot to directly answer my question.  Instead, he wanted to know who I was going to vote for!  And, he was dropping names.  Hillary, Bernie, Trump, who did I like?  His eyes lit up with interest.

There are some things tutors must avoid talking about with North Korean refugee students, but sometimes you accidentally stumble into a subject that could turn the wrong way if you’re not careful.  I had previously avoided politics, but given the expression on his face, I couldn’t deny him a genuine answer and a few details.

How do you describe the candidates in simple English?  I said Trump was scary.  I like Bernie, but he will split people too much, effectively causing pain and divisions in addition to being rendered useless in policy changes.  (Using hand motions helped get that point communicated.)  And Hillary is somewhere in the middle.  I’m not sure that was clear, but at the mention of Mrs. Clinton, his excitement reached it’s peak.  “I like Hillary!”  He smiled, and struggled to say more.

I brought the conversation back around to the Korean election, but it sounded like he wasn’t going to- or couldn’t -vote.  Keep in mind, folks, that I’m trying to comprehend a complex situation with limited English.  What stuck with me was his excitement for elections.  Voting, a concept that doesn’t exist the same way in the North.

I don’t want to put words in my student’s mouth, but my own mind went crazy at the thought of putting myself in his shoes and imagining such an election.  If you look up elections in North Korea, you might read about how they elect the Supreme People’s Assembly every 5 years, the majority party represents 97% of those elected, and voter turnout is 100%.  Imagine having more than one option on a ballot, let alone two individuals who represent differing opinions!

Although I have been eligible to vote for less than 10 years, the excitement of voting is gone.  In fact, I remember having a carefully mediated debate in 1st grade about who we would vote for between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in 1996.  But now, voting is only a duty.  The name calling, finger pointing, and scandals that last for more than a year have clouded elections.  Not only between candidates, let’s face it- Facebook is like a walking political ad, and even amongst my family we avoid hot topics because we know we don’t agree.  The complaining that follows after an election no matter who is elected is something I could live without.  I’m just grateful that by living abroad, I’m not subjected to the endless television commercials!

Now I have something to look forward to when the election rolls around.  The joy I witnessed during that ordinary lesson, on my adult student’s face, just thinking about voting, is a picture I will remember every election.  Besides the obvious result of reminding me to be grateful for the ability to vote, I can also aspire to be excited for choosing a candidate I believe in.  In addition, learning something about another political system’s inner workings, believing in the system, and maintaining my boyfriend’s hope that people will not choose the scary candidate.

The boyfriend likes to eat everything.  I have not found anything that he absolutely doesn’t like.  Well, I was close with cinnamon but when I began sharing this information with others, suddenly he didn’t mind cinnamon so much.  There are a few things that I know he favors, however, so since I can’t avoid the bad I tend to ensure he gets his favorites.  One of those is grapefruit.  

While shopping for our next cooking adventure, we came across these citrus hybrids- crosses between grapefruit and pomeloes.  The point was to get a sweeter grapefruit and a smaller pomelo.  We weren’t exactly sure what we were buying but they were only 1,500₩ each.  We sacrificed for science and decided to try two- the Melogold, and the Sweetie (some call it an Oroblanco).  That’s the first and last in the picture, with the pink grapefruit in the middle.  

If you can read Korean, you can see the heading of the poster is for the World Citrus Fruit Festival.   Glad we could take part in discovering!  Korea grows the most delicious tangerines I’ve ever tasted- time to branch out to other countries.   
We were a little surprised at the amount of rind and pith each one had.  They resemble a pomelo in this regard.  The fruit was orange sized or smaller, but the whole fruit was larger than most grapefruit.  I wonder what the peel would taste like candied?  

  
The fruit was sweet, but a hint of the grapefruit bitterness remained.  The Melogold and the Sweetie tasted different, but both tasted like grapefruit.  The boyfriend and I agreed that we both liked the Melogold better, but when testing such a small sample, perhaps the Sweetie we picked simply wasn’t ripe?   If they’re trying to breed the bitterness all out, I would sat they still have some work to do- but neither required adding sugar.  They were juicy, but the membranes seemed extra thick.  I don’t know if I would recommend peeling and eating in segments, since we weren’t able to eat the membranes with the fruit.  The plasticky thick texture ruined the juicy interior, since after the sweetness was gone, you were still chewing the skin.  We began spitting it out or eating around it as best we could.  

I probably wouldn’t buy either of these to eat plain regularly, but I would say they have a promising juice market, since they are already sweet but still taste bitter at the end- for diehard grapefruit lovers.  I bet they would also be delicious in cake, like this one the boyfriend and I tried recently.  Would you believe it’s called Denmark Diet Cake?  I’ve been dieting wrong all this time!  

 
We had just eaten a fancy dinner- it was his idea and his expense!  고마워!  While waiting to be seated, I had admired the cake in the shop across the mall isle.  As sometimes happens with fancy dinners, you pay more and don’t get quite as much food as you might like, so we had a few corners left in our stomachs.  I returned the favor of dinner by walking directly across to the cake cafe.  As I said, when I see grapefruit as an option, I have a higher chance of choosing it, since I know he likes it.  He would want me to say he would be happy with anything, but of course I want him the happiest!

If I could make this cake with Melogold, however, I would first need to discover the secret of how they kept the cream from absorbing the fruit’s juice!  Anyone have any tips?  

Taste Test Tuesday- Scientifically Bred Fruit

Beautiful Tears

I sat on the cold stone step outside, and listened for the applause that would signal the end of the first song.  My heart was beating quickly from my speed walking and the adrenaline of being late.  “I should blow my nose before I go in there,” I thought.  “It’s too cold out here, and my cold isn’t totally gone yet.”  I shoved my hand into my backpack to feel for the small tissue pack that I had been usually liberally lately.  My fingers closed on the slick plastic and the applause sounded at the same time.  My brain was still in ‘hurry you’re late’ mode, and it propelled me up the remaining stairs before I had time for another thought about my nose.  

It was a small living room- too small to contain the two couches.  One sofa looked like it belonged, and indeed I had sat on it before in that very same location.  The other was juxtaposed in front of two doors, each opening to a different room.  No matter, the side rooms were not important.  The main room held the home’s 11 guests.  Somehow, they all fit comfortably.  Somehow, they all had their own space.  Somehow, they were all in perfect position to stare at me as I opened the door, 5 minutes late.

I fumbled to remove my shoes as quickly as possible, without messing up the other 11 pairs already neatly lined up in the small doorway.  Muttering sorry into the silence,  I kept my head down in embarrassment while the host (one of my duo of employers) took my jacket and bag, and motioned toward a seat obviously saved for me.  In the front.  In the center of that oddly placed sofa.  And in the center of the room.  Of course.  I took my place as quickly as I could and finally looked up to see… Where was she?  

I looked toward the piano- the upright that also magically fit into the room- expecting to see the performer.  The piano bench was empty.  She started to say something, and my eyes followed the sound of the microphone up, and there on the stairs I found Siwa (pronounced she-wah), kindly smiling down.

She was speaking and I forced myself to get rid of the remaining adrenaline and embarrassment, so my brain could concentrate on listening to the foreign language.  As she spoke to each person in the room, they introduced themselves and how they came to be there.  All too soon, it was my turn.  “And the person who just arrived?”  “케이티,” I answered with the obligatory head nod of hello/sorry for being late/respectfully introducing myself.  To my surprise, she continued to introduce me by herself, saying that I was one of the tutors on staff of Spoon English, our current location.  She finished by directing a statement to me, the only foreigner in the room, excusing all the language.  It’s okay, I said, as I didn’t expect any English solely for my benefit.  

The introducing didn’t take long, and the concert continued.  I settled in and was soon unconsciously breathing in time to the music.  Although I didn’t understand all the speaking in between- or all the song lyrics- I took note of Siwa’s authentic stage presence and how she made her small audience feel enormously important.  

My thoughts wandered a little and I suddenly felt myself tearing up.  I shut off my thoughts and tried to tune into the music to stop the tears, only to realize that the music itself was a major contributing factor.  

Then I had a sobering thought.  What if this is not a sad song- what if it’s actually happy?  Or a love song?  Oh god, I better stop before anyone sees.  This thought had adverse effects: I was afraid of being embarrassed of crying for nothing.  I was also tuning in to the song more to discern a clue about it’s intention.  Consequently, my teary eyes were confused and remained the same.  Besides, when I am congested, my tears take longer to clear anyway.  

Finally, I caught a single word.  The word stood out to me in the lyrics and validated my feelings.  The word “sad.”  How could a happy song contain that word?

I was feeling so musically validated that I understood the meaning without understanding the words that I forgot the implications of crying while getting over a cold.  The damage had been done and my nose that had previously been only sniffles was no longer plugged.  The congestion was beginning to run, due to the excess water in my eyes.  In a second, I would have all faucets on.  I took a deep breath, hoping my couch neighbors wouldn’t hear the catches in my inhale.  That and a quick swipe to the nose with my hand did the trick.  I finished out the song- still feeling the deep sadness of the lyrics but focusing on figuring out the meaning kept my brain engaged enough to prevent falling apart again.  

But the runny nose that had been external changed to internal, and a few songs later, the urge to cough rose from my chest.  I made the mistake of letting a few feeble coughs out.  But the feeling was not satiated.  I decided if letting it out didn’t help, I would hold it in, and soon the urge to cough debilitated my whole body.  (How many times have I applied the exact same to cough or not to cough logic?  Try try again.) I tried concentrating on the happy tune.  The guitar’s beat coincided perfectly with the rhythm inside my throat, desperately trying to escape.  I let a few more out before resolving to holding my breath.  At least they were in time to the music.

At the song’s end, I exited to one of those rooms that was being blocked by my current seating arrangement.  It wasn’t easy or inconspicuous but I had to let it out.  By this time, my eyes were watering again- but for a totally different reason.  

One of my employers was in the room and I requested some tissues, to which she handed me a fistful of napkins.  I tried to blow my nose quietly, therefore ineffectively.  She noticed my watery eyes and mistook them for tears.  I might have been ok in a normal concert venue but this was a small house concert where the artist had asked everyone to introduce themselves.  Before I was done composing myself, I heard Siwa’s voice from the other room.  “Katie, come out.  Don’t cry!”  

Being a quiet, struggling listener who can’t understand the language but can feel the music is one thing.  Trying to explain my inappropriately timed emotions in any language is another.  Let the record be set straight that Katie knows the correct emotions!   Maybe it would be okay to let those emotions out honestly, with sincere timing.

Taste Test Tuesday: Potato Skillet Pizza

Today I had an accident. It came about because I was feeling sorry for myself. I have no money. I have no oven. And I wanted pizza so badly.

Korea has their own version of the hot-n-ready $5 poisonous plastic pizza that is available in the States.  I have indulged… on more than one occasion. Pizza School is too close to my apartment. But yesterday I went to the open-air traditional market and spent my grocery budget.  I remember grocery shopping with my mom, getting home and unloading everything, then deciding to go out to eat instead. What a rich feeling! When I am rich again, I will relish the ability to eat at a restaurant while my refrigerator is also full. But that’s not a luxury people in their 20’s need to have.

The luxuries of the 20’s include insane kitchen experiments because what you crave isn’t tooooo far out of reach, if you are hungry enough.

A few days ago I saw a video tutorial for skillet pizza.  It may or may not have been Buzzfeed.  But I wasn’t sure a gas stove would have a low enough temperature when dealing with actual bread dough.  Plus I don’t keep yeast on hand.  So I decided to use those market purchases.

I sliced up a potato so thin, you could see different colors through it. Then, I sliced the slices to get the toothpickiest French fries I’ve ever seen. I sprinkled on some flour and salt, and then mixed in an egg. This is Poor Potato Pizza dough.

I went through my fridge and threw pizza-like toppings onto my counter: yellow bell pepper, tomatoes, ground beef, onions, and garlic. I sliced everything and ended up putting the onions in with the potato crust. The rest I fried. I threw some dried oregano and parsley into the mix, hoping to make it taste more Italian.

When the meat was cooked, I transferred the toppings to a plate, added oil to the frying pan, and made my potatoes into a circle using a spatula. While they were cooking, I trimmed my basil plant and cut up the last of my cheese.

Three years ago when I first arrived in Korea, I couldn’t find more than one kind of real cheese in the grocery store. Now, there are three! Alas, still expensive, but prices are dropping as cheese is becoming more popular. I mean, a country who’s staples are rice and spicy red pepper flakes? I thought cheese was a no brainer all along.

I flipped the potatoes and quickly laid out my cheese, basil, and toppings on top- making sure to be artistic so I could take a picture later.  I placed the lid on the frying pan to help the cheese melt before the bottom burned.

I left it in the pan past my comfort zone, but it turned out to be perfectly crispy on one side, melty and cheesy on the other.  I sliced it into quarters, picked it up and ate it in 5 minutes flat.  It was a lot messier than bread crust pizza.  Also I probably ate it faster than I could have consumed the same amount of bread.  Next time, I’ll use chopsticks and the deliciousness will last longer.

Being poor and oven-less isn’t always so bad.


RECIPE:

DOUGH: 1 medium potato, 1/2 small onion, ~1 T flour, sprinkle of salt, 1 egg

TOPPINGS: Ground beef, tomatoes, bell pepper, garlic, basil, oregano, parsley, mozzarella cheese

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The Cemetery Guard

“I have 5 hours between the end of my lesson and the start of that office party that I don’t really want to go to, but should.  If I go home, I know I’ll never go to the party.  I guess I’ll go to that new National Hangul Museum!”

I have pretty good ideas when I’m reasoning with myself.  Except I never made it to the Hangul Museum.

“Today is a beautiful day.  Suppose I just get off one subway stop early, and spend a few minutes by the Han River?  What stop is this anyway, National Cemetery?”

By then I was following the signs leading away from the river, towards a brick wall that I couldn’t see anything behind, hoping that it was in fact the cemetery and I wasn’t already lost.  I was encouraged by a traffic sign, posted to tell motorists to be silent, since they were driving by a somber place.  I was grateful for the sign to help me find my way, but struck by the noise of quickly approaching rush-hour traffic.  A taxi satirically laid on his horn right in front of the sign, as if exaggerating his willful disobedience.

I took a picture of the pagoda-covered information at the front, and began using this  cemetery map photo by viewing it on my tiny phone screen.  iPhone 5.  I see why the 6’s got bigger.

I walked slowly, those 5 hours to kill looming over my head.  As there were no cars, I walked in the middle of the road.  I cleared the initial entry drive and got my first good view of anything cemetery-like… and realized my feet had stopped moving… and I had stopped breathing… and I had stopped hearing… Thank goodness for that wall blocking out the taxi horns.

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The orderly rows of stones and their shadows, alternated with pink and white flowers, went on for literally as far as I could see.

I suddenly remembered being a very small child, seeing one of the Great Lakes for the first time, and not being able to see the end.  That feeling of awe mixed with a little bit of terror.  In the famous words of David After Dentist- Is this going to be forever?

My feet started moving again.  Maybe it was the car coming and me realizing I was still in the middle of the street that got me going.

I slowly continued down the road.  I began to feel self-concious.  I was dressed pretty professionally, because of my lesson and the upcoming office party.  Black pants, red and black frilly shirt.  I guess no one would think I was dressed disrespectfully.  OH NO.  What if they think I’m here for a funeral!  I began to seek out paths where I was alone.

IMG_3592Eventually, after climbing the mountain of stairs in the center and getting a view of the river, I made it within sight of the far end of the cemetery.  Bathroom!  Yay.  It had been an hour since I left the subway station.

I came out of the bathroom, determined to walk to the very end, instead of just seeing it.  There were a few people walking around, enjoying the silence.  I think a few of them were just there to exercise in a peaceful place that wasn’t crowded.

But a voice broke into the silence.  It was a cemetery guard, saying 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo, hello) to the person in front of me.  We both continued walking, and soon it was time to say 안녕하세요 to me.  Since people are sometimes shy with me, I like to encourage people who I already know to be friendly.  So I said it first.  “안녕하세요,” with a slight head nod that I don’t even think about doing anymore.  He greeted me also, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see him turning around as I passed.  Teacher!  He called me.  Wait a minute!  선생님!  잠시만요!

I knew he was talking to me (foreigner and teacher are my other names) so I paused a second for him to catch up, and he began to ask the usual where are you from how old are you are you a teacher questions.  I fielded all these in Korean, and so he decided to try some harder material.  Follow me, follow me, he said, trying out his first English.  He led me over to a box, and pulled out a brochure.  It was a cemetery guide, with a large map, and information about the famous people buried there.  Namely 3 past presidents and their wives.  Then, he half pulled/ half pushed me to the start of the path up the hill to see my first presidential grave.

At the top, I opened the flier, and made sure to read about this president and first lady, hidden under a giant stone box that had grass growing on top.  I didn’t take a picture because there was another guard there, and I was still a bit self-concious about being respectful.  Park Chung-Hee and Yuk Young-Soo, parents of current president Park Geun-Hye.

I spent what I thought was a respectful amount of time looking at the grass, and as I turned around, I saw my little guard friend hurrying up the path.  I should wait, I thought.  Sure enough, he wanted to tell me all about Korea’s short-term dictator err i mean, 5th to 9th President, as the brochure stated. (He was president from 1963-1979, I guess they counted it as 4 terms.) Politics aside, I think the guard was just proud of his job and the importance of the person he guarded.  He walked me back down the hill, chatting the whole time, putting sentences together with both English and Korean words.  “Are you married?”  He wanted to know.  When he found out that I was dating a Korean, he wanted to know where my boyfriend was!  Come back with your boyfriend in the fall, he said.  The trees are beautiful.

He paused his constant jabber, and I initiated my first sentence since he started my interview.  I said, “Here is the middle of the city, but so quiet.  I like it.”  Low level Korean.  🙂 He looked at me, and said, in English, “I saw you first time, good feeling.  I have gooooood feeling.”  He repeated himself in Korean, to make sure I had understood.  He used the words 눈치 (noon chi) and 분위기(boon ee gi).  눈치 is difficult to translate exactly, but in this situation I think we could call it a 6th sense.  분위기 is feeling from the atmosphere, so he had a good 6th sense from the atmosphere that I was a good person.  All I could do was smile, give a half-bow, and say thank you.  What is the protocol for when the atmosphere is giving out compliments?

At the bottom of the hill, my guide pointed me in the direction of the next president, so I would be sure not to miss it.  I saw him eyeing a group of walkers, and when they paused, gazing up in the direction of the grave, he beelined over to make his sale to the next customers.   How great to be so proud of something, so good at your job!

It was at this point in my adventure that my office party got cancelled, but I wasn’t done yet.  I saw the other two presidents, Rhee Syng-Man, (leader of the independence campaign against Japan and 1st President), his wife, Austrian Franziska Donner, and Kim Dae-Jung (15th President, long time National Assembly seat holder, and Nobel Peace Prize winner).  Their guards were also friendly and made sure I knew where I was going, but not quite as jovial as my first friend.

I was really glad for his care.  I wouldn’t have gotten a map, or information about the presidents buried there.  I knew there were presidential graves, but with my tiny map I was having trouble finding them.  His smile and his insistence to talk with me made me feel less like a face in the crowd. Someone who didn’t give up when my words weren’t in perfect order.  Someone who was generous with his time, his knowledge, and his kind soul.

고맙습니다, 국립서울현충원 경비 아저씨.

To return to the subway station, I had to walk past all the individual graves once more.  As I later researched, the cemetery reached capacity in the early 1970’s.  The cemetery was reserved for veterans, including those who fought the Japanese before the Korean War.  The Korean War, of course, though there is also the United Nations Cemetery in Busan- the only UN maintained cemetery in the world- where there are 2,300 graves, specifically from the Korean War, since Busan was the only city not captured by the North.  In Seoul’s National Cemetery, there are also some graves from conflicts elsewhere, including the Vietnam War.  Monuments also abound, remembering anyone from unidentified and missing soliders to artillerymen and military officers.

As I was walking, I saw some fresh flowers of different colors.  Not the standard white and pink.  These new colors disrupted the pattern, but I was glad to see them.  Chuseok, the major Korean holiday set to give thanks to your ancestors, was a few short months ago.  On this day, traditions include visiting graves, cleaning them, leaving flowers.  I thought about the soldiers who don’t have anybody.  Maybe their families ended up in the North, or maybe their families didn’t make it.

War is always a terrible thing.  If you’re like me and haven’t lived through a major war, visit the past by going to the cemetery and stretching your memory beyond your birth.

I don’t think they see a lot of foreigners at the cemetery, but it’s a great place to hear the quiet in the middle of Seoul.  I think I’ll be returning soon with my boyfriend to check out the fall colors!  And if you go, look up my friend, who is one of two guards next to Park Chung-Hee’s grave, and ask him for some information.  He’s good at it.

Take subway line 9 to DongJak (동작), exit #2 or #4.  It’s free, and open from 6:00-6:00.  Look for special events on Memorial Day, June 6th, or volunteer to do cleanup work in the summer.

Find out more: National Tourism Organization