Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival

The Hwacheon (trout) Ice Festival comes once a year in Korea, a time when the otherwise sleepy little town of Sancheoneo bursts into life, all its fences, posts, buildings, and scenery ablaze with brightly coloured paper trout which, rather spectacularly -- if oddly -- all light up as night encroaches.

Yonsei University, where I work as an editor and proofreader extraordinaire, holds a summer and winter English camp for children. As the American and Canadian teachers often buzz in and out of the offices where I work, I happened to hear some of them mention going to an ice festival that upcoming weekend. "Me, too," I said. (I had actually never heard of said festival up to this point, but living abroad tends to make you leap on opportunity.)

So that weekend, after several hours in a bus that bumped and gurgled its way up icy mountain roads, we arrived in the small town of Sancheoneo, nestled protectively in a hollow between the base of several mountains. The Bukhangang River originates in this area, and, in the heart of winter, it freezes solid. The local people depended on the Bukhangang River for their livelihood in years past. Now, the festival's activities center around the river and it serves largely as a tourist attraction for urban Koreans who want to spend their free time in the country. Sancheoneo has become so famous for icefishing that it apparently runs out of trout, and purportedly, town officials hire workers to sneak to the river's edge at night and replenish the fish.

(Are these people taking out some fish or sneaking some in?)

By the time we arrived, around noon, there were certainly enough people camping out on the ice to make the rumors of stocking the river seem plausible, if not definite. The icy river had more holes cut through it than swiss cheese, but the ice was strong and thick and the air tangy with chill, so there was little danger of falling through.

Though there were nearly 100 people perched hopefully by little holes in the ice, some of the more experienced fishers told us it was too late to catch anything at this time of day. One raucous, exuberantly-friendly Korean man, Peter, invited us to share the fish he'd caught earlier that day. We were hesitant to take too much of his food -- he had his wife and children with him -- but the scent of the fresh-caught fish rolled off it in steamy little waves as it roasted over the grill and we took tiny white flakes of it with our chopsticks and delicately nibbled at those morsels.

After finishing eating and drinking with Peter (we, at least, managed to contribute the drinks), we entered the gaping, fanged mouth of a white tiger. The tiger was, of course, made of snow. Inside the tiger's belly was a long tunnel and several small rooms made entirely of ice and backlit in blue and green lights so that it had the outlandish atmosphere of a night club, albeit the world's chilliest night club.

Following this, our group separated somewhat, scattering on the ice as we found the section of the river that had been portioned off for ice sledding. Several members of our group played on a large, multi-person sled. As for myself, I rented one of the tiny ice sleds. It was just a small, square wooden board with a set of blades on the bottom, such as you might find on ice skates. Following the example of countless children and adults around me, I sat crosslegged on my new vehicle and used the two icepicks I'd been given to dash into the ice and then propel myself forward.

From my vantage point of the ice sled, I discovered many things to see at the festival, including the results of a creative sled-building contest, which had resulted in sleds made to look like tigers, tomatoes, and sea gulls.

I also noticed a trail where children could rent teddy bear rickshaws. It entertained me greatly to see the little mechanical bears jerk their rickshaws up and down the road, often abruptly halting, their tiny feet impotently moving in place, as they found no traction on the iced trail.

In the evening, our small group reunited, perhaps called out by Jonathan, who somehow convinced the man in charge of the loudspeakers (which reached almost the entire festival) to let him perform a brief karaoke dedicated to English teachers. And then, just when we thought the trip couldn't get any better, we discovered human bowling.

Finally, it was time to go home, with an odd constellation of paper fish lighting our way.

Cat in the Hat That Looks Like a Cat

I push back my white kitten hood, which has slumped over my forehead, momentarily obscuring my short blonde bangs, tell-tale sign of a waygook, and emit a low hiss. Forever being crushed in the crowd of Seoulites, pushed and prodded by both people and their suitcase-sized bags, I have little means to protest my treatment, certainly not language, so in an ill-mannered intent to express discontent, I have adopted a cat’s hiss when the people around me are too rough.

My strange behavior began when I first arrived in Korea, months before acquiring the cat hat, following the suit of one of my beloved cats back home in America. She is a dainty little golden-red princess of a cat. Generally docile and amiable, her sweetness dissolves when something threatens her wellbeing – such as a vacuum cleaner or bubbles – and overcome by the threat, her mouth draws back into a feline grimace as she emits a prissy little hiss in protest. That has become me – also dainty, generally sweet tempered, but sometimes pushed too far by things that are beyond my comprehension, and probably that to the rest of Korea seem as harmless as soap bubbles or vacuum cleaners.

Crafted of white velour, and including the features of pointed ears and a red, heart-shaped nose, my kitten hat is something that only a child under the age of five would wear in the Western world; however, certain gender and age-appropriate rules that are inherent in Western society don’t seem to exist in Korea. While it’s true that small children here wear animal hats, this is a more common fashion item among the adults. On a fairly regular basis, I’ll watch a Korean man strolling down the street, with the cool swagger that only college guys in their 20s seem to possess, and also with a grinning polar bear perched atop his head, the fuzzy pink pom poms dangling loosely beneath his chin.

At times, the kitten hat provides me partial anonymity, especially if I comb back my bangs and tuck my blonde ponytail into the back of my coat. People need to actually look at my face to determine that I’m a foreigner, and since commuters don’t always watch the faces of those around them, I’m given a brief respite from the continual stares and my continual status as different. That’s the worst thing about being a foreigner – the thing that grates after months: I’m always treated as different. The majority of the time I’m treated with extra consideration, which is nice, but means a barrier of politeness has been erected between me and the other person. On other, somewhat rare occasions, I’m treated with rudeness. Never am I treated as just an ordinary person. As an artist and as someone who grew up in a small town where conformity was rigidly demanded, I’ve always quietly rebelled against being the same as everyone else. Now that I’m at a place where I so clearly stand out, I just want to blend in.

Perhaps in part because of this desire to belong, I, myself, have begun to adopt Korean viewpoints in some unexpected ways. Praise, a Korean American office mate, and I were recently riding to Sillim, a district in southern Seoul.

“Do you know,” said Praise, using a tone of voice that is generally reserved for conspiratorial gossip, “that Sillim is full of white people? I saw three white people just last night.”

“Really?” I responded with surprise and genuine concern at such a large number of whites overtaking a city of 10 million.

“Hey!” I said, as a second realization suddenly struck me, “I’m white. And you ran into me in Sillim yesterday.”