Sunday, December 12, 2010

Our Wall Is Greater Than Yours

Through Korea's turbulent and sometimes violent history, many of its ancient relics were destroyed, which is perhaps the reason why national pride for their surviving landmarks is so great. Take, for instance, Hwaseong Fortress, which encloses the old part of the city of Suwon. It was built in 1794 and has been kept in excellent condition for the past couple centuries. In 1997, it was designated a UNESCO world heritage site.

The fortress's origins stem from a rather seedy history, a real-life K-drama. King Jeongjo built the fortress both with the intentions to move Korea's capital from Seoul to Suwon, and also to honor his father, Prince Sado. Prince Sado, despite the filial affection he inspired, was what would most likely be diagnosed nowadays as "pyschotic" and went on the occasional murderous rampage against his servants and royal staff. As a result, Prince Sado was eventually murdered by his father, King Yeongjo, by being locked inside a rice chest for 8 days until he eventually suffocated or, ironically, starved. This is only tangential to the building of the fortress, but nonetheless is far more interesting material than you find in most history books.

One of my expat friends lived in Suwon during her first year in Korea, her apartment and school being just a stone's throw from Hwaseong Fortress. One day, as she and her Korean co-teachers were passing it, they asked for her impressions.

"Oh, I think it's lovely," she answered honestly.

"Do you think it's better than the Great Wall of China?" they pressed. "We know the Great Wall is supposed to be special, but some people say that our wall is quite nicer; it's better preserved than the wall in China. What do you think?"

"Ummm, well, yes?" my friend answered, or something equally dubious and polite.

While it certainly can't boast the colossal size or venerable age of China's Great Wall, the lovely Hwaseong Fortress, even with the purple prose overtones of its origins, remains a point of pride among the Korean people.

Monday, December 6, 2010

"Behind the Eight Ball" and Other Synonyms for Unlucky

"I love you," said the Korean woman solemnly, but while swaying slightly, as she tipped her green glass bottle of soju above an empty plastic bowl. When presented with the offering, I smiled, bowed, and attempted to drink the soju quickly enough to preserve what few of my tastebuds remained after a year in Korea of consuming red-chili-based spices and alcohol strong enough to remove varnish. Soju is certainly not my favourite beverage of choice, but I take pretty much any food or drink that's offered to me, which in the past has included kimchi, gimbap, tteok, odeng, candy, hot chestnuts, a raw chestnut with a live worm in it, and probably other stuff I can't remember. I don't always like what I'm given, but I am always appreciative of the kindness that prompted the gift.

The woman filled the bowl with more soju and handed it next to Josh.

"I love you," Josh told her, dutifully echoing her proclamation. Alice silently gulped down the painfully raw alcohol when her turn came and made a face. None of us was quite certain about the social protocol for such a situation.

(lanterns floating on the Namgang River)

We were at Jinju, at the Lantern Festival, which was packed with Korean revelers. Our tiny group consisted of three Americans living in various areas of the country (me = Seoul, Alice = Busan, Josh = country village nearish Gwangju) and after we had assembled in Jinju we went to an outdoor booth to get food. Foreigners apparently being a somewhat unique phenomenon in Jinju, our table had a rotating variety of Koreans pull up a chair and join us briefly to speak the few mutual words we could share (simple English, simple Korean), offer some of their food and drink, or -- for at least one man -- just to stare in a not unfriendly manner.

Josh and I had arrived in Jinju, located at the southern tip of South Korea, at roughly the same time, and had decided beforehand to wait for each other in the bus terminal. This predestined meet-up had been -- I pause a moment in writing this to find the appropriate word in the online thesaurus -- calamitous, cursed, dire, disastrous, hapless, ill-fated, ill-starred, inauspicious, and unsuccessful. In short, we could not find each other when we first arrived.

I jumped off the bus and looked around the station. It was small. Tiny. Looking around both the outside and inside of station, I knew that Josh was not there. I still did not have a working phone, but I found a payphone booth just outside the station. "Where are you?" I asked Josh. "I'm just outside the bus station." "I'm standing just outside the bus station, too." Small pause. "Does Jinju have two bus stations?"

It did, and we had ended up at opposite ends of town.

I quickly tried to think of a way we could meet. "There are festival ladies in front of the bus station here. They can't speak English, but they have maps of the town."

"Yeah, they're at my station, too," Josh replied.

"Great," I said. "Get the map with the photo of bibimbap on the cover. That's the map I have. We'll just have to open it and figure out a new meeting place."

I opened my map to study the locations listed therein. I tilted my head. I squinted my eyes. I crinkled my nose. No, none of those thing better enabled me to read Hangul. But wait! There were numbers by many of the mysterious places listed. We just needed to settle on a number.

"What about site 156?" I asked. "It's near the festival and not too far from my bus stop. I still don't see your bus stop on the map. Or maybe site 166 since that one looks big?"

"How will we know what the site actually is?" Josh asked.

"Well, we'll have to ask people and figure it out on the way." I said, talking quickly since the payphone was beginning to make gurgling noises and I was running out of change to feed it. "Site 156 sounds good to me."

"Ok," Josh replied. "I'll meet you at site 166."

"See you soon," I replied, an optimistic lie.

Reading over the dialogue, it's obvious what went wrong. At the time, however, we both marched away from our respective bus stops in complete faith that we would soon meet.

For the first order of business, we both needed to locate our current positions on the map. (I did this by going up to some Korean women and asking "yogeyo [here]?" and pointing to different probable locations on my map. Josh later reported that he asked some Korean women, "Where am I? Where am I?," to which they justifiably looked confused.) Although I managed to discover my general location on the map, I still wasn't sure which direction I was facing, so I approached a college-aged man (college-age = most likely to speak English) who was waiting in line to buy tickets and asked him for directions. He promptly left the line and walked me most of the way to the site. "Um, don't you need to buy your bus ticket?" I asked. "Yes," he said and continued to walk with me. That's the thing about Korea. When people here show kindness to strangers, they are so kind. Shortly before reaching the site, it began raining, so my new friend popped me into a taxi and then returned to the bus station.

I got to site 156 and found it to be a seafood restaurant. The rain, which had started out as a glimmering drizzle, had at this point reached a build-your-ark-now level of heaviness. I did not want to eat in the restaurant since I knew Josh would be there soon, but at the same time, I wasn't a huge fan of standing in a deluge. I ducked under the awnings at the front of the restaurant, hoping to take shelter unnoticed there, but the restaurant owners saw me and waved me in. Even though I wasn't a customer, they were delighted to see me.

I was settled on a little wooden bench and someone handed me a steaming cup of hazlenut coffee. A small crowd perched around me. The women took multiple photos of me and repeatedly told me I was pretty. So much attention might lead to vanity, except that by pretty they really just mean "different." Still, it made me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside (though maybe that was just the coffee) and I basked in their praise. A woman rolled open the lattice-work doors to a private room and beckoned one of the customers dining there. He was one of their regular customers and the only one who had visited the U.S.! So he gamely left his meal and chatted with me, acting also as an interpreter for the curious crowd.

I was asked my name, country of origin, age, job, marital status (good news: the only English-speaking Korean in Jinju is also single!), and blood type. After questioning why I was there and who I was waiting for, the crowd then became very concerned with helping me locate my friend. Someone handed me a phone and I used it to call Josh, after which two of the men posted themselves by the door. When Josh finally did arrive, they called out to him by name.

(This is not Josh. This is just a gratuitous lantern photo.)

After finally finding each other, Josh and I easily found the festival, squelched our way through muddy paths lined with food stalls and cartoon sock vendors, and took photos of the hundred or so lanterns lit upon the river. Alice found us in a makeshift teashop along the river, where we were sipping jujube tea and waiting for Josh to dry out. Later that night, we ate and drank in the good company mentioned at the beginning of this story.

(This is Josh. And tea.)

Everything went smoothly until it was time for us to sleep. Every place was full, even the seediest love hotels. After wandering the dark backstreets for an hour or so, we gave up on finding proper bedding and crashed on a jimjilbang (bath house) floor. Alice and I had a restless night’s sleep, due to the fact that we were sleeping head to toe with about a kerbillion Koreans in the jimjilbang’s special heated pine room. (The pine effectively blocked all nasal passages.) Josh also had a restless night’s sleep, due to a rather cuddly man lying next to him and Josh’s inclination to not be cuddled by a strange man. (They hadn’t even exchanged business cards beforehand!) In the morning when we woke, we saw that every inch of floor space in the jimjilbang was full of Jinju lantern revelers; even the stairwell and elevator hummed faintly with the snore of heavy sleep.

I feel like there should be some sort of moral to this story, but there isn’t really, except . . . solid travel plans make for a comfortable experience but a dull story; you, too, should travel haphazardly in a land where you can barely communicate. And as a vintage tribute to the writer I used to be, this is the way I signed off my papers in 2nd grade:

The Very, Very, Very, Very, Very, Very End.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Having My Sushi and Eating Spaghetti, Too

It's hard to flirt with a waiter while dining alone at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Cute Waiter: You're pretty.
Me (coyly): Thank you. Umm, I don't really know how to say this, but . . . can you bring me another plate?
Cute Waiter: Another plate?
Me (looking fixedly at the floor): Thanks.
[The Cute Waiter begins to leave.]
Me: Oh, wait. I forgot to tell you something.
Waiter: Yes?
Me: I might also need a bowl for dessert.*

Really, I should never be allowed in buffet-style restaurants for the same reason that I should never be allowed to play putt-putt golf or become involved in a game of musical chairs. Those situations trigger my usually latent competitive streak and at such times I really, really want to win. You can't even imagine the amount of "reallys" I would have to pile into that sentence to modify how intent I become on winning. To me, the phrase "all you can eat" is a challenge, the words dyslexically transforming into a taunting "How much can you eat?" The diner stacking up the largest pile of empty plates wins.

(Last time I played musical chairs. . .)

The Cute Waiter, noticing the big gulps with which I consume my meal (or maybe he just has a prediliction for girls with a hearty appetite), brings over a plate of something. Just for me. Special. I didn't order it.

"Spaghetti!" he proclaims. "It is very delicious."

"Mmmm, yeah," I return with as much possible fake happiness as I can muster. Tomatoes are my least favorite food in the world and spaghetti, covered in their blood red sauce, seems just like a first cousin to them. Out of the food I dislike most in the world, spaghetti has to hit the top ten list. But my personal rule for eating anything given to me trumps my dislike. Besides that, it's free, and I do love the free.

(I also become competitive during events involving dancing, drinking, and/or Omar.)

After the Cute Waiter leaves, I poke the pile of spaghetti tentatively with my chopsticks. It is delicately coated in thin fish flakes, the type that visibly quiver while resting atop hot food items, leading me to believe, the first time I saw them, that the food was still alive. It's not. But a certain "Fear Factor" stigmata remains attached, in my mind at least, to the fish flakes.

I begin awkwardly gathering the spahetti strands into my chopsticks. They're thicker than normal spahetti pasta -- udon! I quickly verify as I take a bite. The bright red sauce that I was dreading turns out to be a type of hot sauce. There's probably tomato in there, too, but what with the intensity of the hot sauce and the little specks of chili freckling the strands, my taste buds have been bequeathed with a certain amount of numbness and can process little more than HOT. What's more is that the quivering fish flakes, which I still taste faintly, add a subtle tang to the whole thing. Tiny, surprise octopus tentacles make their way into my chopsticks as I continue to eat my spaghetti. The Cute Waiter was right: This is delicious spaghetti! Or delicious something. It definitely looks like spaghetti, especially if you take off your glasses and kinda squint your eyes at it.

(Photo of Sushi and Delicious Something)

Now divested of spaghetti obligations (I ate half and arranged the rest into a smallish-looking pile on my plate), it is time to take a new plate to the buffet and select my main course of sushi. There is a wide variety of sushi and thankfully the large number of patrons eating here ensure that it is fresh, not like the less popular sushi restaurant down the street where the chefs use spray bottles to squirt water on the dry, wilting sushi being presented in order to make it look more palatable, or maybe just to clean off the dust that has accumulated there.

I get orangey-pink salmon, eel in a sweet brown glaze, salty yellow fish roe that crunches when my teeth bite into it, fake crab which is rosy and bland except for the bitter mote of green wasabi used to adhere it to the rice ball, and several other fish I can't identify. I also get two pieces of egg sushi, which is a way of cheating at sushi, but it also tastes like the best omelet in the world which makes the cheating seem not so bad. And fries. They have thick-cut, seasoned fries in a hotplate, which make a satisfying, if unconventional, accompaniment to the sushi. Side soups include miso, mushroom, and soba noodles. I only get the first type of soup. Even a girl with high eating ambitions can't manage everything. Besides, I notice a dessert bar which offers, among other treats, patbingsu (red beans and ice), pastel balls of tteok filled with red bean sauce, and a sugar-coated dry ramen and chocolate mix. Who's up for thirds? Oh, waiter . . .

*Dialogue may be exaggerated, ala A Million Little Pieces memoir style.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Worst Movie Review Ever: Eat, Pray, Love

This is the worst movie review you will ever read of Eat Pray Love. Let me clarify: It is definitely not the worst movie you will ever see (unless your viewing selection is dedicated entirely to Masterpiece Theatre and PBS marathons, in which case you are probably too smart to be reading my blog anyways. Seriously. If you're one of those people, stop reading my blog and invest the next 10 minutes in doing something more worthy of your talents, such as learning how to play the cello or mastering a fifth language. Thank you. Now, back to the normal people, the plebeians, or "pleebs" as I like to call us.); however, this actual review of the movie will likely be the worst you'll ever read, since I'm not even going to pretend to stay focused on the actual plot or the acting, and if the convoluted syntax of this sentence hasn't already convinced you how rambling this review aspires to be, then nothing will.

Eat Pray Love features a divorced American woman in search of herself as she travels the beautiful and exotic locales of Italy, India, and Indonesia to indulge in both the sensual pleasures of the body and the spiritual release of the mind. I went to see the movie with two of my girlfriends since I figured we could all identify with the main character, though as it turned out none of us had been divorced, or even the first step -- married, or practiced spiritual meditations, unless occasionally falling asleep in church counts. Nor had any of us been to India or Indonesia, though I had been to Italy twice and Ashley had once been to Iraq, and that also starts with an "I."

(As you can see by the two photos above, Julia Roberts and I do, however, bear a striking resemblance in regards to our physical appearances.)

Ok, so down to the nitty gritty. The movie's plot can be summarized through the following abridged and somewhat altered dialogue. You should imagine the following being said in a high-pitched, squealy voice (not that Julia Roberts actually uses such a voice; it's just more fun to imagine it that way). “Ohhh, I've found a handsome man who's madly in love with me! Whatever shall I do? I think I'll dump him.” And repeat. In fact, this is the entire action sequence of the movie, just Elizabeth Gilbert -- via Julia Roberts -- dumping men and then professing guilt for breaking their hearts. Her soulful whines about how to get rid of her latest handsome man acquisition kinda made me want to slap her, even though, as my friend Katie pointed out, the men were very likely not as handsome in real life.

Movie Theatre Snack ~ Winning Combo
"Hey, you've got your squid in my peanut butter!"
"Your peanut butter is on my squid!"

The real interesting twist in the movie, from my viewpoint, was when it ended. My friends Katie and Ashley, as well as myself, were ushered out a side door of the viewing room and into a bare steel stairwell, which had a very different atmosphere from the clean, well-lit movie postered elevator we had ascended to reach the appropriate viewing room. Since we were now at the top floor of the movie house, we naturally began to descend the stairs. Down, down, down we went until we reached the basement doors, which were locked and bolted shut by a steel bar. Up, up, up we backtracked, trying to find a way out of the movie house. We glanced out of an overlook onto the vending area where we'd bought our popcorn and squid snacks just a few hours earlier. The place was void of people and lights, eerie in its shadowy desertion. By this point, we had picked up about three or four disoriented Koreans who had also become lost in the movie theatre and then all of us began wandering up and down the stairs. Finally, one guy decided to go into an unlit viewing room. Like little lemmings, we all followed. The room was cast in velvety black, except for a few pinpricks of emergency lights from the floor, and it would have been dead silent were it not for my voiced suggestions that this was now the perfect setting for a horror movie. After going through the empty viewing room and out another hallway, we finally reached an outside door. This one, too, was locked, but in a more simple manner, and one of the Korean theatre-goers just reached up to the top of the door and released the spring lock. We all passed through and back onto the street, successful at last in leaving the Hotel California of movie theatres.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lost Girl of the Week

Several years ago, while I was still in the states daydreaming about my future, I followed a small number of narrative travel blogs, including the Lost Girls World. At the time I started reading it, the blog focused solely on the adventures of three New York women and their world travels. It feels strange, but good, to now be profiled on their website. It's like looking out from the opposite side of the mirror.

(You know the drill. Copy and paste the URL since I can't hyperlink.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Almost Famous

Old English majors never die; they just ramble on.

Fellow blogger and Female Nomad and Friends contributor, Maria Altobelli, conducted an interview of me in her blog, Mexico in Small Bytes.

My story in Female Nomads was about 4 pages. My original interview was about 6 pages, but it's been trimmed neatly down to size.

You can go to this interview by clicking the title ("Almost Famous") of this post.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Never Gonna Give You Up

Within the past six weeks, I’ve been stranded a week in Japan with no money (or rather, I had money, just no way to access it, which was even more frustrating); lost electricity in my apartment for almost a week following a lightning storm; was cornered by a would-be attacker; lost phone service for over a month because of ARC reasons; started a new job; lost a tooth; moved apartments twice; survived a typhoon (Ok, so I slept through the typhoon but it passed right through my area, smashing plate glass windows and uprooting large trees. I could have been crushed by one of those trees were I not such a sloth); and was kicked out of a restaurant for the sole offense of . . . drum roll . . . being white (the woman kicking me out actually called up someone on the phone to translate it for me). Do you know what all that means? It means I have the best diary ever!

I have to think back to my diary just a year or so ago. It was full of mundane observations, such as the time I saw the homeless man using his cardboard “Feed me” sign to shield his cell phone from public view as he texted on it.

Also, my previous diary contained more than one entry that related my daily commute from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti as I rode my $10 mountain bike – “The Nevermind”— through all sorts of foul Michigan weather. Dripping down the hallway after one particularly bad rainstorm I simply told anyone who inquired about my sopping state that I’d jumped off the Titanic and swum there.

My diary from one year ago also chronicled interesting executive-type experiences, such as the time an overseas VIP was scheduled to visit our offices. Apparently, the VIP was a stickler for “tidiness” in the workplace, rumors claiming he’d fired people for sins such as keeping a disorderly supply closet. I was told to hide all my paperwork, folders, books, pens, pencils, stapler, calculator, calendar, and office phone (phone!?) deep within the confines of my desk drawers. I truly hoped the phone would not ring while hidden in the drawer, as that would have been embarrassing. As the arrival time for the sovereign VIP grew imminent, my boss and I discovered (to our horror!) that the company coat closet was full, so we crawled under our respective desks to hide our coats under our wastepaper baskets. So inspiring was the office-wide terror about the VIP's impending visit that had the wastepaper basket been large enough, I would have crawled under it myself.

Ok, so those diary events have a certain amount of retrospective amusement about them, but most of the entries inbetween them formed what can be loosely described as a foodie log focusing on the various types of chocolate I consumed on any given day and my reactions to it. (“Cinnamon chocolate. Mmm.” “Curry chocolate. Bleck!”) And more often than not, there weren’t even any written words, just greedy little fingerprints in cocoa smudging the pages, providing proof that I was still alive and also making it very easy to track me should I engage in any future criminal activity, such as, say, holding up a Godiva factory or hijacking a Little Debbie Truck.

A year and some weeks later, I now sit proudly at a brand-new cubicle! One where the phone is allowed on the desk, though my new workplace has kindly requested I not plug it in less it disturb people by ringing. Now is the time I was originally slated to leave for my RTW trip. I’ve worked in Korea and successfully finished my original one-year contract with “ivy league” Yonsei University, receiving the generous year-end bonus all Korean companies provide to their foreign employees. Now is the time when I should be loading up my rucksack and moving forward into the world.

After a series of unfortunate events, such as listed in the first paragraph, the average person would probably call quits on Korea and move forward as planned. Know what I call those people? Smart. They are smart, smart people who know when to give up. These people also probably understand that living more than one year in the world’s most precarious nuclear hotspot is, in fact, not smart. But that’s where I come in. These people have smart as their primary strength. Me, I have stubborn. Sure, the world may be filled with people who are smarter, stronger, and own more powerful weapons of mass destruction than me, but I have Olympic-level ability in stubbornness. And sure, the aforementioned series of unfortunate events may have driven me to the sort of desperate edge wherein a person in a position such as myself might shout, while on a public sidewalk, “You think you can beat me down, world? You think you can make me cry? Go on, try it!” (Such a public outburst worked to create a nice bit of space between me and everyone else nearby, which made for a refreshing change since Seoul is possibly the world’s most populated city and, generally speaking, there are at least three strangers in close bodily contact with me at all times – an intimacy which can double in number during subway rush hour!) Err, theoretically, I mean. All this is theoretical, except for the question asking the world if it thinks it can make me cry. That is a rhetorical question, by which I mean I would prefer the world not to answer.

Sure, I'm having a rough time right now, but this, too, will pass. And what’s more, in spite of everything, I still like Korea and I like my new job as a full-time editor. So, it’s one more year in Korea for me. One more year of doing the editing I enjoy all day and doing the dancing I love all night. One more year with the friends to whom I grow closer every time I see them. One more year eating fresh, delicious, cheap restaurant food. One more year replacing all the necessities of life with their cute counterparts. (Are the slots on your slotted spoon in the shape of a winky face? Is your toothbrush holder in the shape of a little piggy? Is your winter hat adorned with kitten ears?)

This has been a disasterous couple of months for me, true, but I'm not going to let it defeat me. I will rise up, every time.

(Exulting in Korea's adventures or readying myself to leap off the edge? Either way, wish me luck in exploring the infinite abyss.)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Swing Out in Seoul

Swing Out in Seoul
by Melanie Ehler

As an expat in Seoul, part of what drew me to this city was its exciting social aspect, its dizzying array of clubs and bars, the ability to dance all night and hang out with large groups of people. You too? Well, I'm willing to wager: my Seoul nightlife is nothing like yours.

“BK, how many days has it been?” I ask the Korean guy standing across from me. He grins widely at me, like always. BK has about a thousand teeth and he shows all of them in his smile.

“I dunno,” he replies. “I lost count a couple weeks ago.”

By my own estimation, based on the number he presented to me last month, BK must have been dancing over 100 days at this point. More than 100 days of dancing in a row. While my remark about the number of BK's teeth is hyperbole, my calculation of his dancing days is closer to exact. (I recently e-mailed BK about this. With the ultimate goal of dancing 200 days straight, he eventually had to stop at day 155, after a cold – and most likely exhaustion – claimed him.)

Personally, I am not quite as intense as BK, but I still go out dancing about five or six nights a week, alternating bars depending on my mood, location, and the crowd I can predict will be there. Only these are not the typical hoist-a-bottle-of-Cass-over-your-head-while-you're-gyrating type bars. These are swing bars. The patrons here do the lindy hop, the jitterbug, the Charleston, the east coast, the west coast, the balboa, the blues, old-fashioned dances with old-fashioned names that emerged primarily from the 1930s and 40s. But swing dancing contains a vitality that has not lessened over the years. Unlike ballroom, with its upright formality and sometimes strict regulations, lindy hop is a partnered street dance, brought to the general public’s attention by the fabulously talented ghetto kids of New York as they performed their moves in the Savoy ballroom. Creativity remains a highly prized element of the dance: lindy hop can extend beyond just the basic steps, as innovative dancers are constantly adding new styling and creating new moves to add to the basic forms.

Me, I've been swing dancing for over a decade, ever since Jump, Jive, n’ Wail played on a Gap commercial in 1998, an advertisement that was pivotal, if not in selling khakis, then in reintroducing swing dancing to the American scene. I have traveled throughout North America just for the chance to dance swing in different cities, states, and provinces: San Francisco for playful groove; St. Louis for sultry blues; Cleveland for smooth bal, Asheville for flying lindy; Toronto for Sunday morning gospel sessions; Ann Arbor and Detroit for Motown; Honolulu for, well, dancing on the beach; and so on.


No other single city I have encountered offers the sheer number of venues (15), the overwhelming turnout of dancers, or even the consistently high level of dancing as does Seoul. Even though the swing scene in Seoul did not receive widespread popularity until about 3 years, most Korean dancers are so intent on improvement and so dedicated to practicing that their skill levels advance with astonishing rapidity. Before moving to Seoul, I’d heard rumors that is was “lindy hop heaven.” These rumors acted as a big incentive in my decision to move to Korea, and the truth behind them is what keeps me here a second year.

That is not to say the swing dance scene is altogether perfect. Quite frankly, I had difficulty fitting in at first. Many of the clubs were – and possibly still are – unused to foreigners. For many months, I was the only foreigner to frequent the Boogie Woogie Club in Sillim. Then suddenly, an Irish girl named Eimir began swing dancing and showed up at the same club. A Korean girl – whose nickname is something like Bam Bam Cheeks – saw the two of us standing together one night and observed, “You know, we didn’t use to get any foreigners at all in Boogie Woogie. Now we’re just packing them in here.”

Eimir and I looked at each other in bemused silence. After Bam Bam Cheeks had left, I told Eimir, “Well, in all fairness, the foreigners have doubled in number since your arrival.”

The obvious upside to this situation is that through dancing, I have been able to meet, and eventually become friends with, a number of Korean dancers. I’ve shared sensitive and complex dances, full of personal expression, with men with whom I cannot otherwise communicate. I danced with one guy several times a week for 6 months or so in complete silence, under the assumption we couldn’t speak the same language, when suddenly he burst into casual conversation in a tone that implied we’ve been friends for ages. It turns out his English speaking skills are just fine; shyness was the problem. I’ve gone to a retreat in the mountains with one group of my new dance friends and a retreat on an island with another group. I’ve danced around campfires, played games without understanding any of the rules, been invited out to eat, and out to drink. When it comes down to it, swing dancing in Korea is an amazing social opportunity.

What I’m trying to say is that if you want to learn a new hobby or even if your motivation is simply to escape the mini-America of Itaewon, swing dancing in Korea is perfect. Check out these websites for more specific information about the days and locations. If you’re based anywhere in Seoul, there’s bound to be a swing bar somewhere nearby. Just remember to go early! Except for the case of special events, dances typically run between 8:00 pm and midnight.

And here’s a final tip: If standing out as the sole waygook is too intimidating, I suggest you start your dancing experience by checking out the Big Apple Club on any Monday night. Of the 100 or so dancers in attendance, there should be between 3 to 7 expats. Trust me, this is the largest contingency of foreigners you will probably ever find in Korea’s swing scene. And eventually, of course, if you visit enough swing bars, you’re bound to run into me.


Melanie pretends to be part of the literati, but, in truth, just reads refrigerator magnets and quotes them at appropriate intervals. To read her personal, Seoul-based blog with updates that can best be described as “lackadaisical,” check out

Originally published in:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Trouble with Wishes

"True love and adventure," I think while watching a falling star arc in a platinum streak across the sky. "True love and adventure," I think as I blow the angelic white puff of dandelion seed. "True love and adventure," I mumble while closing my eyes and blowing out birthday candles. These have been my wishes for at least the past the dozen years, which is really the only natural outcome of a childish belief that The Princess Bride was based on a true story.

I am dropping one of my wishes.

Huddled against a pile of futon cushions under the stairs, I glance up warily as a new girl entered the room.

"Hello!" she chirps at me. "Are you an escort lady, too?"

My trip to Japan is not what I had expected.

It is, in fact –

The route that has led me to camp out nearly a week on the floor of a Japanese escort is too convoluted to easily relate. Suffice it to say that circumstances with my visa (credit/debit card) left me virtually without money and circumstances with my visa (working papers for Korea) left me stuck in Japan until my new workplace actually got the paperwork right. In the meantime, my workplace refused to give me a hotel voucher beyond one night, stating that it “would be unfair to the other employees.” HR’s concern was nonexistent. And her incompetence only compounded the problem. I learned that the one night's hotel voucher was actually good for the night before I arrived in Japan; also, HR had sent me out of Korea without the confirmation number that was necessary for my return, which made my stay in Japan indefinite; the plane ticket she gave me did not have a return flight on the same day as she had told me; the maps she e-mailed me were to the wrong embassy; and after I finally did receive a confirmation number from her, it was impossible to change my flight and go back to Korea without purchasing a new plane ticket. At this point, I’d like to once again point out the whole “no money” issue. The only way I got through this was by: 1. The kindness of a Japanese escort I’ll call Mameha and 2. My ability to make the impossible possible. (This only sounds like bragging because I’m bragging.) Oh, and not to forget, 3. The wish.

(No, I said wish.)

My time in Osaka is not entirely bad. Mameha’s apartment is just a 10 minute walk from Osaka castle, so I often walk the castle grounds during my stay there. Also, one night, Mameha and I dress in yukatas and roam the streets of the Osaka district nicknamed “Amerika Town.” This area has a mini Statue of Liberty, a surplus of jean stores, and Japanese youth who dress like Americans. I stare at them in their jeans and tight, heavy metal t-shirts. They stare at me in my yukata. Each of us is a little lost in the fantasy of otherness.

So, like I said, it is not entirely bad. But it is also not entirely good. I can not do much touring because I always need to be near an Internet café, so that I can check my e-mail several times a day, in hopes that my confirmation number will arrive. I am always just a little bit hungry, though I do manage to eat sushi for my one meal nearly every day I was there. Living like a queen for one meal a day is better than multiple bowls of ramen, in my opinion.

(Yes, I am nearly entirely broke, but this is the sort of wardrobe I packed.)

But most taxing of all, I feel under constant pressure. It is one thing to put yourself under a strict budget for a certain number of days. The locus of my stress is that the number of days is X, an unknown quantity. What if after all my budgeting I end up running out of money completely? What if Mameha gets tired of having me underfoot?

(At least two of these people also find it difficult to understand the customs when traveling abroad.)

The unknown is a weight I carry with me every day, until one day I realize that I need to go on holiday from myself. I put on my prettiest dress, the one that's the bright yellow of sunshine and daffodils, and board the train for Kyoto.

When I first arrive in Kyoto, I simply wander the streets in one of the old quarters.

I go to an ancient wooden pagoda that had enchanted me on my previous visit to Kyoto in the spring, and the nearby colourful, quirky monkey shrine. The main altar of the monkey shrine features three chipped and cheeky monkey statues in the classic “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” poses.

And from the shrine just before the temple, as well as in the backdrop of the temple itself, there dangle row upon row of what look like triads of balls. These colourful cloth balls actually represent even more monkeys. People write their bad habits on the monkeys – habits they wish to rid themselves of – and then hang the monkeys on the shrine. Then whenever they indulge in their bad habits, monkeys will come and plague them, thus an incentive to stop the bad habits. Nifty, huh?

My only real objective for this trip is revisiting the Kiyomizudera Temple, the temple in the clouds. This is another place I had visited in the spring, but it was during a special night show for the cherry blossoms, and the impressive height was hidden by the darkness. When I saw photos of Kiyomizudera Temple in the daytime, I determined to return there.

And Kiyomizudera, originally built in 798 and listed as one of the 21 contenders for the world's "new" seven wonders, is certainly worth a second look, being perched above Kyoto proper, with several of the temple’s largest buildings held above the hilltop and surrounding trees by a crisscross of massive wooden beams. Impressively, not a single nail is used in this structure.

I discover a small side path from the main temples. Entering the area of the Jishu Shrine, I am immediately accosted by the bronze statues of a man with a raised mallet and a rabbit standing on its hind legs, much in Alice in Wonderland style.

(Um, I wish not to get hit in the head by a mallet?)

Nearby is a dragon fountain, with water to wash away your bad luck, or possibly just to wash away your dirt. The heat is blistering, so I splash water against my hands to cool them, and then drip the cold water so that it trickles down the back of my neck.

Then, most interestingly, I notice a set of two stones, 20 feet apart, with a placard before the first one that is translated to read something like “Pass between these two stones while closing your eyes and coming to no harm, and your heart’s desire will be granted.”

I look at the stones and then look at the people swarming around me. “This is stupid,” I tell myself. “People are going to think I’m crazy. And if walking blindly between two stones doesn’t suggest insanity, talking out loud to myself should do the trick,” I murmur.

I position myself in front of the first stone, the back of my heels pressed against it. I close my eyes and hold out my hands to either side. Back in the day, it may not have been so hard to walk from one stone to the other, but now there is an ever shifting mass of tourists and devotees passing through the area.

My self-consciousness eases considerably after closing my eyes. Like a child, I almost feel as though the other people now cannot see me. I take one tiny step forward, pretending that I am walking on a tightrope. After all, how hard can it be to walk a straight line?

But I find a number of distractions. With my sight shut off, my other sense immediately expand. The white noise of people speaking in other languages, a sound which I’d come to tune out during my past year in Asia, suddenly strikes my hearing with a confusion of sounds. I can also hear music in the distance, most likely emanating from one of the nearby temples, playing from an instrument I can not recognize. Incense is thick in the air, with scent as heavy as a cloud, nearly palpable as rain.

I walk forward slowly, almost solemnly. At one point, the skin from another woman’s arm flutters beneath my fingertips. An another point, I reach out my hand and lay it against the smooth surface of a counter. I have gone off course, somewhere to the left of the stones, and am apparently at the booth that sells prayer charms and paper fortunes. It is then I hear a voice.

“You’re doing good,” the voice encourages. “Step to the right now.”

I blindly follow the voice’s instructions. “Great!” the voice says, “Just take a few steps back to the left. That’s it. Keep walking.”

“Do I have much farther?” I ask. It feel as though I’d already spent 10 minutes covering the smallest possible portion of ground.

“Not too much further,” the voice replies. “Move towards my voice. Wait, stop a minute. Ok, you’re good now. Keep coming.”

I walk forward in faith, trusting this stranger I’d never seen to guide me.

“That’s perfect! Congratulations!” the voice enthuses.

A second later and my foot came into light contact with the second stone. My wish, whatever I choose to make it, will be granted.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Friday the 13th: The Real Story

Two days after my birthday is nearly my deathday. I do not recognize it as such that morning, of course, unrolling myself from the floor, stretching awake, and then bounding off to work. I do not realize it as I go to a blues dance at Swing Zoo that night, at the time my only concern being the brief, dark walk from the dance club to Sindaebang station, and I do not realize it as I walk though my neighborhood, by chance running into a friendly group of Happy Bar dancers who then invite me to go out drinking with them. My day is normal, joyful even. Then I return to my home.

As always, my neighbors have left the main door of the building not only unlocked, but swung wide open into the street. I climb my stairs without a second thought about it. This is Korea. It is always safe here.

I can not immediately fall asleep after a night out, too wound up, mind and body still active from the long day. I turn on all the lights in my tiny apartment, grab a book, and prop myself up against the kitchen wall. About 20 minutes into reading, I hear the noise of footsteps on the rooftop. Well, I think to myself, it's not just my rooftop. Maybe the neighbors just came up to get a bit of night air. The footsteps do not leave; instead, they seem pacing in front of my apartment. Or maybe, I think to myself uneasily, they just need to hang up some washing? The clothesline is just in front of my place. Laundry at 3:00 a.m.?

Then I see it, just slightly, the handle of my locked door quivers as someone tests its give. I take my fist and pound against my side of the door. Footsteps fall back loudly in surprise.

I stay next to my door, and tensely continue to read, waiting for I don't know what. About 20 minutes later, I hear the thin metallic ping of my door as the handle is moved once more. The light outside my door flickers on and off, triggered by movement.

Perhaps it was not meant to be my deathday. Perhaps that is an exaggeration. All I know is that the lights in my apartment are bright, and there are no curtains. The only things visible through the window of my apartment are my refrigerator and a pile of dirty clothes. I don't even have any furniture, besides the fridge. The only thing of value in the apartment is . . . me.

As difficult as it feels to immerse myself completely in darkness, I turn out all of my lights. Since I had spent so much time in the windowless kitchen, it is possible the intruder has not actually seen me. I do not want him to know I am a woman. I do not want him to know I am a foreigner. I do not want him to know I am alone. With all the lights out, he should be blind to me. I creep to the window in my living room, peer from the edge. I can't see anybody, just the motion light sensor as it again flickers on and then off.

I crawl over to the last "room" of my apartment, which in essence is an open closet. It is where I've stacked my piles of clothes and books, still unsorted after my recent move. The closet room has only a thin curtain -- a starry, magenta scarf, partioning it and the rest of the room. During the previous night's thunderstorm, I had dragged the foam mattress topper and pile of blankets that serve as my bed into the closet, in order to better avoid the lightning. I crawl to it now, my body slunk into the ground in an effort to escape the intruder's attention. As I blindly crawl, I put my hands out to either side of me, feeling the ground. My phone! Where's my phone? I can't find my phone.

Then I realize. I have not paid my phone bill this month. I cannot dial out. What's more, I don't even know my own address.

I reach the closet, grab my largest umbrella and lay it beside me. It is my only possible weapon.

About the same time, at what I guess to be two or three buildings away, a woman starts screaming. These do not sound like ordinary screams, but more like a keening wail that rises and falls in grief. The woman screams and screams. She does not stop screaming.

I hunker down into my pile of blankets. Willing my body to be smaller, unreachable, I curl into a tight little ball. I say a prayer. Amazingly, within minutes, I fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Unbeknownst to me, the outside screen of my window silently slides open.

It is Friday the 13th.

This is not fiction.

This is not a dream.

This is my life.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Boryeong: It's the Journey, Not the . . . You Know

Since Joseph had plans for soon selling his motorcycle and leaving the country, he was quite keen on taking his bike for a road trip to the Boryeong Mud Festival. I also wanted to go to Boryeong. I was not, however, so keen on the prospect of motorcycling there. I shovelled pho and crisp bean sprouts in my mouth over a late breakfast and worried aloud about falling off the bike and meeting an untimely demise.

Do you realize that my mother will kill me if I die on a motorcycle? I asked him. No, I amended, my mother will kill you if I die on the motorcycle.

Joseph didn't appear overly concerned about either of our imminent deaths and even seemed quite confident I would not fall off the bike, stating that it simply was not possible unless I physically pushed myself off it. I, however, more fully realizing the range to which my clumbsiness can extend, had visions of myself lying mangled on the side of the road and looking up at Joseph, using my last gasps of breath to form those four little words that everyone loves to say but hates to hear: I. Told. You. So.

Part of the journey to Boryeong, which lay on the southeast coast of Korea, was through crowded cities, where Joseph would weave the bike through gridlocks of cars before stoplights, like a game of vehicular tetrus. In between the cities were, inevitably, highways and freeways through the country. Flying down the long, empty stretches of freeway terrified me, and at those times, I clung to my poor friend.

I don't understand it, Joseph said. When we're going through the city streets and massive waves of cars are unpredictably changing lanes at the same time, you don't bat an eye, but when we go 90 km an hour down a clear country road, you cling to me.

My hold on the bike, or rather, its driver, depended entirely on my level of fear at any particular moment. If I was relaxed, my hands would rest loosely by his sides; if I was scared, they would be wrapped tightly around his waist. My riding style was less that of a Hell's Angel and more that of a barnacle.

We passed by lovely, but largely unchanging, scenery. Korea is filled with clusters of mountains, in rich, earthy shades of emerald and jade. The countryside is also full of rice paddies, where the plants are arranged into perfectly-formed rows inside neat squares. I watched the silky, bright green rice plants ripple in the wind as we flew past them.

At one point, our road ran parallel to a train track that had a train steaming down it. We went faster and faster, first gaining, and then beating the train's pace. Do not race the train, I told Joseph. But I did not tell him that until after we'd come to a stoplight, after we'd "won" the game as far as we could play it. Secretly, I liked racing the train. I was terrified, yes, but also exhilarated.

We took the motorcycle from Seoul to Boryeong with the vague idea that the trip would take us 2 or 3 hours. It took us 6 hours, but finally, we arrived. After locating the festival grounds, we parked the bike, passed under the cartoonish arches, and discovered -- that the mud was closed.

How is this possible? I wondered outloud. How can anyone possibly close mud? It's just . . . mud. It's inconceivable!

I do not think that word means what you think it means,* Joseph responded as we looked about at the dismal, now empty mud pits and the few dirty stragglers who had apparently made it to the festival in time but had not yet left.

What do we do? we asked each other, and quickly determined swimming was the penultimate option. The ocean was only a few feet from the festival grounds, and aside from a wash of mismatched flip-flops and empty soju bottles left by careless mudfest revelers, it looked like it would make for a nice swim.

Nobody else is swimming, Joseph observed. That's so lame.

We waded about 5 feet off the shore and then heard loud whistles and the orange-suited Boryeong policeman, who were patrolling the sands, sternly waved us back to shore.

The ocean was closed as well. It's a wonder they don't try to turn off the sun, I thought to myself.

Wandering around the festival area, we found a partially-deflated rubber pit that still had about 3 inches of mud in the bottom.

Well, said Joseph reflectively, I've always wanted to lie in a big pool of mud.

So we laid back in it, looking up at the bright blue sky streaked with wispy white clouds. It was surprisingly peaceful. And predictably gross.

I began laughing. When Joseph asked why, I tried to explain. This whole trip. Us. We could be an indie movie right now, having spent 6 hours on a motorcycle to miss the festival and end up laying in a deflated pit of mud.

You don't understand, Joseph replied. This is my life.

We left the pit with the grey clay mud painted across our legs and backs, indiscriminately streaked across our faces, and clumped into locks of our hair in true rastafarian style. We walked to the edge of the ocean and looked into its forbidden blue expanse, the curling white-tipped waves rushing toward us.

You know, said Joseph, I reckon it will take them at least 30 seconds to pull us out from the water. Are you ready to run? On the count of three: One, two, three . . .

*Lies: Our actual dialogue did not quote The Princess Bride, but a transcript of the entire 10 minute conversation pondering why/where/how all the mud had disappeared is just tedious. All other dialogue is more or less accurate.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Eumseong Pumba Festival

In mid-June, I decided that going to the Pumba ("Pretend Beggar") Festival in Eumseong would be just the ticket. What made me decide on this, out of all the festivals Korea has to offer? Absolutely no reason! I did, however, convince a small group of friends to come along, and they're what made the trip fun.

We started out the morning by meeting at the bus station 15-20 minutes later than we'd all previously agreed. Every one of us was late, so much so that I began to laugh out loud on the subway while getting a series of apologetic texts from my friends. We are all lindy hoppers, though, and had spent Friday night dancing at various different venues around Seoul. It was really unreasonable to expect any of us to be punctual the next morning.

Maybe this lack of sleep is how we agreed, after finally making it to the festival, that silkworm larvae would make the perfect breakfast. We yawned; we stretched; we ate larvae.

It did wake some of us.

Perfect for both foreigners and children, the play did not use any spoken language; it instead relied upon colourful costumes, music, and players who engaged in a lot of physical activity.

Well, the lion baby did yell "Omma!" when she kicked her legs and threw a tantrum, but we could all easily figure out this meant "Mama!"

The local public restrooms never had any toilet paper. We did, however, see this guy perform. Just where did he get his costume? Looks sus to me . . .

While at the festival, we saw a little open-air bus, which was actually more like a glorified golf cart. It stopped where we were standing, so we bounded onboard. It drove us around in a circle and deposited us back at the festival's entrance, all the while playing 70s era music.

("And it arrived out of nowhere, just like a gift from the disco gods." ~ Eimir)

There were three living statues near the festival's entrance. They wore robes in bright gold or green and had their faces painted to match. These performers posed while standing on wooden stools. Their long robes covered the stools and pooled onto the walkway beneath them, thus giving the statues the illusion of height.

While I was taking a photo of the statues, some random festival photographers decided it would be a swell idea to photograph me with the statue. Joseph offered to hold my bag, but the photographers saw this as a two-for-one foreigner deal, so he got placed in the photo, too. Blue eyes = B-list celebritydom in Asia.

(photo credit: Eimir)

To end our day, we took the bus back to Seoul and saw the very first World Cup game with Korea (Korea vs. Greece) on a giant TV outside the Coex Mall. Millions of Koreans were watching the game on giant TV screens embedded in skyscrapers throughout the city, though the crowds were slightly less than anticipated due to a steady drizzle.

Here are hundreds of excited World Cup Korea fans watching a screen filled with hundreds of other excited World Cup Korea fans. It's meta-spectatorship!

Joseph, Katie, and I assimilate to the local culture.

And for the perfect day's ending, Korea won the game.