Its the Little Things

This is something I have been meaning to do for a long time now; I find that my days are filled with bizarre and strangely benevolent interactions. These events are so small that they rarely warrant a second thought, much less a blog post. I intend for this to be an ongoing project in which I update frequently (hopefully) with the little things that make life delightful and fresh.

8/3/15 – The mid-third of my 5k commute to school is dominated by a large drawn out hill. There is no residential area or much of anything really on the northern slope thus, I rarely see other pedestrians on my morning ascent. If I do come across someone, they are usually blurred out by the sweat dripping into my eyes. At some point early in the spring, I came upon a woman walking downhill. I payed no attention to her until we passed and she yelled out “Hwaiting”! or ‘fighting’ which means “good work!” “you can do it!”. This became a recurring theme every couple of weeks if not weekly with the most recent interaction being today; appreciated encouragement on the grueling climb.

8/4/15 – Despite the feel of my previous post, I should say that interactions while out-and-about between strangers are fairly uncommon here in Korea (unless alcohol is involved(quite often the case)). My hellos and friendly gestures usually fall flat or just cause confusion. Nevertheless, while biking home I came across a man waiting at a crosswalk. In contempt of the heat, he had on a red and white long sleeve biking jersey, long black hiking pants, a matching red do-rag and sporty shades. He looked ready for Halloween.  As I peddled by, he raised a ‘thumbs up’ as he glanced at me. The upraised thumb lingered even as he turned his attention back to the street. Taken by surprise, I muttered a “gomabseubnida” ‘thank you’ as I sped past. In reflection, I couldn’t help but to smile at the queer looking exchange.

8/6/15 – Last week my parents sold my beloved 82′ Kawasaki. This week in a serendipitous move, I purchased a Daelim (popular Korean brand) scooter. Today; the first day that I took it to school, the vice principle decided to let me go almost an hour early. Sunny with clear blue skies, what better than to take a cruise up the coast! Just as I was coming up on the popular “black” sand beach, two motorcycles with leather laden riders passed each giving me a “your one of us” nods – seemingly in approval. It reminded me of how fast I had been indoctrinated into the “bike culture” 7 years ago. A hand-me-down leather jacket, my moms old black moped helmet and a Japanese bike resurrected from a Wisconsin barn  – all of a sudden I was part of something much bigger than myself. Apparently all it takes here is a purple 100cc scooter and a white with twin red stripes-helmet scrawled with the text “forever four wheels”.

8/16/15 – I had the weekend between my summer holiday in Japan and the beginning of a new school year to recuperate. With a tall-ship festival in town, little resting occurred. I was standing in the shadow of the 100+m, 3 masted Russian Nadezhda when an older Japanese looking fella approached me. He was wearing tan high-tops, starch white pants, a light blue shirt atop at while and blue striped T. His hair, shaggy, wispy and gray matching the scraggle of facial hair adorning his weathered, knowing face. Atop his head sat a white sailing beret. He looked liked he had circumnavigated the 7 seas. Thrice. I would have put his age in the ballpark of 73-85. Without preempt he came up to me and said; “you have good fashion”. Now apart from my students flattery, this is not something I hear very often, especially from the coolest cat in high-tops. I immediately decided that I wanted to be him when I grew up. We got a few photos together before parting ways, saying that we hoped our paths would cross again in the future. I cant help but speculate, that if he were living as Benjamin Button did; aging backwards, then maybe he would aspire to devolve into me, as I aspire to evolve into him.

8/25/15 –Tonight we had one of those seemingly impromptu staff dinners (I am always the last to know of events or gatherings). At one point in the lull between courses of raw fish and wiggling sea-life, I found inspiration for a blog post.  I have made allusions, but I do not think I have ever explained the complexities of a Korean eating experience. Especially one framed in the rigid hierarchy of a staff dinner.

But that inspiration melted away into the scalding waters of the hot tub in which I decided to indulge in – post-dinner. From the steam of the sauna, rose inspiration for a new project: The Korean Bath House Scavenger Hunt. Now I imagine I have said it here before, I verbally say it often: Korean spas or jimjilbangs are my absolute favorite aspect of Korea. They are rejuvenating, inspirational and quite inexpensive (about $6-10). It also seems that naked time is the best time for meeting new friends. This time his name is Poly and him and his buddies are treating me to a weekend of fishing and raw fish, in exchange for my charming English conversation.

8/26/15 – Back to back teachers dinners. Unprecedented. Tonight it was a feast of BBQ pork, congealed pigs blood soup and some top shelf-aged kimchee. Conversation on my end of the table revolved around trying to find me a girlfriend, annd that was pretty much it. After declining any alcohol, I have to say I was really taken aback when asked how often I drunk drive on my scooter. The question wasn’t fielded in a chiding or incriminating way but matter of factually. Like its an inevitability. A necessity. Unfortunate cultural differences. 60,000 drunk drivers were caught on their way to work over the past 4 years. Scary.

8/28/15 – The teachers room has the gelid, sterile smell of a clinic. I don’t like it.

9/2/15 – I am a bit embarrassed to admit that this morning was the first I rode my bike to school in almost a month (my bikes have seen little use since I purchased a scooter). Not 5 minutes into my ride and I nearly ran over an adjumma (older Korean woman), just a few minutes after that and I near smeared a rat. Apart from arriving to school drenched in sweat, the rest of the commute was uneventful.

9/6/15 – On a whim, I stopped by the beach. I was walking down the boardwalk when I heard excited exclamations and “jiu jitsu”(Brazillian martial art that I studied here for a few months). I turned back to find it was one of my classmates and his buddies. We chatted and the conversation turned to how strong and handsome I am.  Never knowing what to do with this unfounded Korean flattery; I said farewell, and moved on but in a darkened mood. Its like a bad joke. Continual unnecessary aesthetic praise (mostly from my students, coworkers, and new found friends at the gym), but the complete inability to make any headway with the opposite gender (unmarried) of the aforementioned ethnicity.  Damn you Korea.

9/6/15 (II) – Not 3 minutes after the enamored student, 2 collage age gals approached me with small crustaceans they had caught on the beach.  We chatted, we took photos. Seconds after parting ways a young teen and her much older sister came around looking for photos. As always I obliged. Soon 2 sisters was 3, both a father and a mother emerged. One thing led to another and I was eating fried chicken on the beach with this family of 5 from Suncheon (the next city up) while answering dating show type questions. Turns out I am welcome anytime in Suncheon, English conversation for the youngest, drinks with the two eldest (WHO ARE BOTH NURSES! *Bonus*) and maybe cribbage for the rents?

Be careful for what you wish for?

9/7/15 – Whilst getting swept down the profusion of tail lights and exhaust pipes on my scooter jaunt home, I was distracted by music. Music is in most every facet of city life here in Korea. Cell phone stores blast music. Cafes let their jams slip into the streets. Adjussis (older Korean men) rock their favorite trot tunes as they hike the hills, or saunter to the supermarket. What caught my attention was that this music was not only loud but it was mobile. Risking submersion by the flood or merging traffic, I hazarded a wild look about. Turns out the culprit was a mixing table strapped to the roof of a new Mini Cooper, manned by a DJ standing through the moon roof. The rear “barn door” trunk was wide open exposing a wall of amps and subs, blasting the fresh beats as the Cooper sped away… And people were shocked I would choose to move to such a rural country ‘town’…

9/10/15 – When worlds collide. Almost 2 months ago, I started using the gym at the community center down the road. Right off the bat I made a new friend. Mr. Lee is a slender Korean man in his mid 30’s with a smart haircut and a small gold stud in his left ear. Mr. Lee does triathlons and runs about 20 km a day. About a month later, I made another significant friend. Mr. Chay is also a Korean man in his mid 30’s. He has a short haircut big guns and disarming dimples, always smiling while he talks. Mr. Chay is usually there when I first arrive and helps me with my form while lifting. After he leaves, Mr. Lee comes in and motivates me on my cardio. For weeks, I had imagined what would happen if the two met? Surely a fight for who can hang with the foreigner would ensue? A gladiator battle between these two top-form human specimens. Tonight was the night of that meeting… They just ignored one another, separately giving me pointers and tips.

9/11/15 – I could not help but to notice how slow and quiet the world was on my morning bike ride to school. I had to wait for traffic at the regular hot-spots, but the drivers didn’t seem to be in their normal frenzy. Despite being a beautiful autumn morning, pedestrian traffic was at winter levels. I arrived at the school gate at a respectable 8:30 AM (classes begin at 9), yet the students normally standing sentry were gone. When I finally arrived in the teachers room, only a few were at their desks. I took a seat, checked Facebook quick; new babies, new homes, the new World Trade Center with a natural rainbow behind it. My brief trance was over when the Vice Principle came up to me “class started at 8:30” “We go to Gwangju today”. Uhh… Off I ran to begin my class. 10 minutes late. Well that explains the school atmosphere, but why the melancholy Friday morning?  Does Korea remember the US tragedies 14 years gone? Doubtful, but strangely coincidental.

9/16/15 – I had the visor down on my helmet to deflect the slight drizzle as I whizzed up the big hill on my way home. As I reached max speed, my ears started to ring with mach 1 sounds. Alarmed that I was on the verge of taking flight, I let off on the throttle only just then to see an F16 hurtling at low altitude from east-west over the crest of the hilltop. As soon as its tail disappeared behind the tree line, a second followed with matched speed but at a trajectory just offset from the leader. I had a momentary fear that this may finally be the end of the peninsula, but that was immediately replaced by a swell of awe and veneration that I get when seeing precision military aircraft at its finest. Like I need anymore reason to kick myself for losing my GoPro in the sea, but this would be a moment to relive in HD!

9/25/15 – I was sitting at a red light, eating a fat roll of festive 떡 (Korean rice cake), contemplating the amenities of tonight’s 찜질방 (Korean bath house), all from the back of my Daelim (popular Korean brand) scooter, and thought to myself “I wonder if I smell like 김치 (fermented cabbage)”. Its the eve of the forthcoming 추석 (Korean Thanksgiving) holiday week, and I am anticipating a relaxing weekend in 강원도 (Korea’s northernmost province) despite it being my first major holiday spent in-country in nearly 2 years. Nevertheless, it will be with friends and should be a good time. The real point of this though is that I think I have reached peak assimilation status. If only I were to learn the language; but then, I would never leave…

9/25/15 (II) – Yesterday I had been reassured by my co-teacher that next week in addition to the two “red days” I would have the remaining 3 days free from school. This morning while seated around a table of grapes, candies and rice cakes, my old co-teacher casually asked if I was aware of next weeks holiday. I replied that I was ecstatic to have the whole 5 days to myself. “oh but didn’t Ms. Lee tell you that you need to be here Wed. Thur. Friday?” Uhh…? Not long after this interaction, Ms. Lee (my new Co-T.) came around and ushered me down to an emergency meeting with the Principle (whose office I have only been to 2 times prior(with the last time being for the same purpose as this visit)). After some intense proposing on her part, head-in-hands muttering on his part, we were free to go. Once in the hall, I was informed that I would not in fact need to “desk warm” for those three days next week. I just needed to make good decisions and not drink too much alcohol (a fair request but completely ironic given my general disinterest in drinking and Korea’s infatuation with it). 9 Day Chuseok here I come!! 

9/30/15 – Yesterday evening I arrived via coastal train to the touristy little beach town of Jeongdongjin. After a long series of sunset photos (mostly of a large ship-shaped hotel) and a chat with a young TV producer from Seoul, it was time to find food and a place to eat. I stopped into the police station to confirm there were in fact no jimjilbangs in the area. Communication was rough. Soon enough a young man (a volunteer, substituting his obligatory military service) was escorting me to a guesthouse out in the country. From there he walked me to his favorite restaurant, recommending the tofu. Before retiring for the night I asked the lady at the guest house what I should do in the morning.  She suggested the 6AM sunrise. Sunrises don’t really happen for me; but there I was at 5:50, clad in two t-shirts – 56F, breezy and with a dozen other sorry seouls on the beach. Things looked promising with a band of crimson lining the horizon. Soon there were 20 admirers. By the time the numbers reached 50 (not counting the dozen soldiers sweeping the beach) a patch of sky was glowing orange with the forthcoming sun. I waited – camera ready – with anticipation for that burning orb to show itself. Colors faded and people drifted away. It soon became apparent that the sun had rose into the clouds, and I wouldn’t be getting the photos I had so anticipated. On my walk back to the guesthouse, I ran into the young man who had found me my accommodations and dinner – he was on his way to breakfast. Here is to a hopefully warmer day by the sea!

10/5/15 – A retired police officer guards the driveway to my school. Unless I am late, there is also a sentry of grade 3 students posted both as a welcoming party but also to take the names of tardy students. All greet me with a low bow each morning. For almost a year now I have been struggling with how to return the bow. Today being the first day back after a long holiday, the P.E. teacher also joined the ranks of security personnel. While zipping by on my scooter, I felt extra compelled to reciprocate, and smashed my face right into the dashboard. I honestly thought I broke my glasses. I guess I should stick to a simple nod.

10/5/15 (II) – I have been skipping lunch for a bit more than a month and a half now. This affords me some solace and downtime in the English room – though short lived. There is a small group of second year students that come in to chat with me. One is particularly vocal, albeit a bit hard to follow. I don’t know how we got there during today’s discussion, but he mentioned that his grandfather passed away in the Pentagon during the attacks on 9/11. With the topic locked on disasters, we moved on to the Sewol Tragedy. It turns out one of is cousins was a students trapped on the ill fated ferry.Tragic yet astonishing family connections for a middle school boy in rural, south – South Korea.

10/15/15 – My day started around 3AM with a series of unpleasant trips to the restroom. The ante had just been upped, I had been plagued with “the trots” since my spicy seafood dinner Tuesday night. My sleepless – porcelain accompanied night resulted in a late morning (like me waking up at a time where Im usually headed out the door). The day didn’t improve from there. In between rambunctious pre-teen classes, Id hang out in the faculty restroom. Despite having skipped school lunch for the past 2 months, I decided I needed to make decisive moves to rectify my wilting insides. My co-teacher was shocked to see me in the lunchroom, so I explained my plight: “Ahh 설사 (seolsa – I heard salsa)” “maybe you should visit the school nurse (ironic she would say that as that’s the target dialogue in my grade 2 classes)”.

There I was queued up in the nurses office behind boys with sprained ankles and chatty women looking for… pill refills? Once it was my turn, I whispered that I had a case of the ‘salsa’. The nurses face lit up. “Ahh 설사 (seolsa)”. She laughed. The boys laughed, the clucking female teachers laughed. “yeah. Salsa”. Soon I was on my way with a gooey remedial elixir in-hand. Post; school-day-from-hell, I headed to the supermarket to buy bananas, white rice, peppermint tea and  yogurt (all necessary items in fixing the “unfixed” if you know what I mean). I then headed over to my favorite Jjigae (Korean stew) restaurant to pickup the closest thing to chicken soup I could find. My last stop was the pharmacy to see what kind of remedies they could offer for Montezuma’s revenge. Apparently about a hundred pharmacists work on Thursdays. I tried to single one out, but as soon as I approached the counter they flocked over. I whispered that I had a case of the ‘salsa’. Two immediately scurried away to grab the drugs, one who stuck around exclaimed “Ahh diarrhea!”.  “Yeah. Salsa”. Soon my panel of personal pharmacists were reassembled, and explaining my prescription with twinkles in their eyes. Needless to say, I was pretty relieved when I finally made it home to the solace of my abode, chicken-ginseng-jjigae in-hand and Netflix on cue.

10/22/15 – Where as my bicycles were once my lifeblood in the city, I am embarassed to say today was the first that I had ridden to school all month. There to cheer me up the great climb and to perhaps encourage me to ride more often, was my personal adjumma (older, married Korean woman) cheerleader, with the familiar – ‘hwighting!’

10/22/15 (II) – I just came back to my desk to find a small bag of apples with my name on it and a ‘sorry note’. I would have been touched if it weren’t that all teacher had the same token of student remorse on their desks. Apparently today (technically its Sunday the 24th) is Apple Day in Korea. The Korean word for apple is sa-kwa which also holds the double meaning of apology. So by giving me a few apples the students are literally and figuratively giving me their apologies. Fruit can be fairly expensive in Korea, I will eat these apologies with repletion.

10/27/15 – While the cats are away, the mice will play. My co-teacher (an older gentleman) just approached me in the quite building where his office and the English Lab (where I teach all my classes and spent a fair bit of my downtime) are located. He informed me that both the principle and vice principle were away for the afternoon and that I should take his lead and leave early. He has given me these insider tips in the past and every time I have wondered how he gets his information. He is the most reclusive teacher there is at the school and the only teacher as far as I know to have an office all to himself (apart from the principle). Not only that but he doesn’t seem to share any camaraderie with the other faculty where as most teachers have their own little clicks. Its a mystery. Anyway. I appreciate the sentiment but its not quite as easy for me to slip away early. I am also trying to maintain my diligent professional persona a year later. Lastly I’m a procrastinator and actually have things I should do before the day is done (blogging not necessarily one of em).

11/2/15 – As if the flipped page in my calendar prompted a flip in the weather; this morning was considerably cooler than the past few October weeks have been. Last night was the first that I had turned on my Korean style (ondol) floor heating this season. Anticipating a cold commute to work I even put on my long-johns. The balmy autumn temps are but a distant memory. Winter is coming.

11/3/15 –  How to cause a commotion. Get a semi dramatic haircut.

11/6/15 – This week I have been administering individual speaking tests to my grade 2&3 students in the hallway outside of my classroom. In a lull between pre-memorized speeches, I was drawn into the class by a particular ruckus. I entered to find a crowd gathered, cheering on one of their own as he arm wrestled my co-teacher. This isn’t a new classroom event but it usually happens late in the class period, after studies are wrapped up, not at the start of class when students should be going over their speeches. 😮

11/9/15 – At some point in the past year, I have developed a keen taste for kimchi (mildly spicy fermented Korean cabbage). I crave the stuff, and am always considerate of how it can be incorporated into meals. Nevertheless, I don’t think I will ever be comfortable with the likeness in smells the men’s faculty restroom harbors…

11/11/15 – Make a wish! Mine would be that my students love me and bring me lots and lots of chocolate dipped breaded sticks. November 11th is Pepero Day in Korea. Its a corporately derived holiday similar to Valentines Day. Department stores promote the sales of all their chocolates leading up to this holiday, but its the Korean made Pepero sticks that are the main focus. I recently read that Lotte (a multinational conglomerate that produces Pepero) incurs 50% of their annual revenue on this day. I would presume that’s just the revenue from their confectionery division and not the cooperation as a whole. Just now looking into the history of Pepero Day; I read that originally students would give the snacks to one another in hopes of becoming tall and slender like the sticks themselves. The idea was you would eat 11 sticks on November 11th at 11:11 and 11 seconds. Ironically 11:11:11, 11/11/15 came and went in the time I was writing this post. I actually literally stopped typing to watch the ‘seconds’ hand tick its rotation. No sticks were consumed in that time by me or anyone else here in the office. I guess I will be resigned to another year of less than average height and not so slender proportions…

11/18/15 – Maybe I took a breathalyzer test in health class back in high school. Apart from that possibility, I had survived my youth without ever having had the pleasure to blow into one of these lawful devices. That changed tonight when I was on my scooter. While driving to a far flung edge of town, I encountered a two lane roadblock complete with flashing lights and orange baton wielding police officers. I was nervous. Not because I had consumed any alcohol, but because my scooter endeavors are all pretty ‘under the radar’. Scooter life is a bit of a matrix-style life. Its pretty unregulated and free. Still I can’t shake the bureaucratic guilt instilled in me. I came to a stop and exhaled a deep breath from the back of my throat (as if I wanted the officer to smell my alcohol free breath). ‘No-no’ the officer said as he demonstrated an exaggerated cheek filled gust. I wasn’t sure he even looked at the results as he waved me on. Free to scooter another day.

11/25/15 – Right in the middle of a session with my physiotherapist (I injured my back last weekend) a Korean patient from a few tables down, came over and introduced herself in a distinct Australia accent and with fluent English as Sarah. After formalities and some rudimentary introductions, she went on to say that she had a new business just down the way and wanted to know if I was interested in seeing it.  15 minutes later I found myself in my first Korean PC room (PC방). She introduced me to her teenage daughter Mary as well as an employee that came down from her academy (another business venture of hers) in Seoul. Sarah has traveled the world as a motivational speaker, as well as some work with the UN and other entrepreneurial pursuits. The recent opening of the PC room she explained, is an effort to reach out and encourage Korea’s lost youth. She explained that additionally, proceeds from the business would go to fund  specific families she has been in contact with through her work with the UN. All really cool and unexpected. I look forward to hearing more about it in the future!

11/26/15 – Thanksgiving. Despite my being surrounded by Koreans (and briefly my Belorussian friend) the entire day, it actually felt like a fairly festive Turkey Day. I took it upon myself to wear my Nordically inspired brown knit reindeer sweater both to honor the holiday but also because this day happened to be the coldest of the season thus far (a high of 3°C)! On top of that, my ‘warm’ coastal city was graced with on-and-off flurries from the early afternoon throughout the evening. A pretty exceptional event given that I have only seen ‘snow’ twice in the year-plus that I have lived in Yeosu now. Ironically the first such time was another significant holiday: January 1st, New Years Day. The flying white flecks were a beautiful contradiction against the clear high contrast sky. The long scooter commute to see my physiotherapist after work was particularly brutal  but softened by the beauty of the flakes fluttering around me. My nightly walk with Hayangyi (my cat) felt magical. The flurries evident in the light of the full moon-lit sky. Even those beautiful fluffy-contrasty clouds  stuck around for a showing in the Thanksgiving night sky. I of course have a lot to be thankful for, but this evening was a reminder of how beautiful the world can be. I am thankful I have the health, wealth and support to be out there experiencing it!

12/2/15 – While running up behind me, a student shouted ‘Mahk!’ ‘Yes?’ I said while looking over my shoulder. ‘I love you’ was his response as he veered down an upcoming set of stairs.

12/10/15 – Like a cold December rain.

12/22/15 – This morning was one of those brisk – cling to the exhaust plume of the nearest bus – kinda commutes.

12/28/15 – ‘D Day’ as one of my coworkers put it. For the past month,  a group of 15 of us teachers and students have been practicing for our choreographed ‘Kpop’ number for the school festival. Despite evening practice twice a week, I was a bit fuzzy on the routine coming into the day. Fortunately there was time for about two dozen run-throughs before we were up, late in the afternoon. 650 students freaked out. I freaked out, but only screwed up like 3 times. I feel good about the experience but dont see myself doing anything like it anytime soon…

1/6/16 – Happy Belated New Year and all that.

Thought for the day: becoming placate, living life with blase disposition. Its the convention. Change is the spice of life and moving is both the salt and the pepper.

2/1/16 – Back to school after two weeks in sunny Indonesia. Its damn cold but I honestly appreciate not sweating from every pore. Besides the chill is temporary, after this week (graduation week) I am off again till March. Thailand, Malaysia & Singapore await!

2/3/16 – Hump Day. Also the last classes with my favorite Grade 3 students (they graduate on Friday, then move up to high school in March). I am sad to see them go, and have fingers crossed that the new Grade 1 students aren’t as bad as the current batch…

2/5/16 – Graduation day. So long cool fellas. See the rest of you boys in March!

3/2/16 – First day of school. Downgraded to a lesser desk in the teachers room (all documents and files left behind on the cute new history teachers desktop) and required to shamefully move all my items to the other side of the office. Upside. Complete makeover of my English classroom. Downside. Complete lack of everything that belongs in there paired with dysfunctional electronics.

3/7/16 – The day I was dumped by my Korean girlfriend so that she could pursue rhinoplasty unhindered.

3/11/16 – *walking toward the front doors of school* “Mark-uh” I look up and spot one of the Grade 3 boys from the baseball team hanging out a second floor classroom window. “Ah, good-morning”. I continue to head for the doors.”Denmark-uh. Landmark-uh”. I glance back up toward the window, but the students shaved head has already retreated back into the classroom.

3/15/16 – Today I was scheduled to attend a training in Mokpo (a distant city in my province). The meeting isn’t until the afternoon, but I figured I was exempt from having to go to school at all. At 9:04 AM (a few minutes into my first class) I got a call from my co-teacher proving otherwise. A hectic start to a long day!

3/20/16 – Arriving back to my local intercity bus terminal after a St. Patties weekend in Mokpo, I stopped in to use the restroom. I wasn’t there a moment before I hear my name. It ended up being on old neighbor of mine; Moon. As we walked to our respected means of transit we caught up on the little we knew of one another. I (in admittedly poor form) asked about his ex-girlfriend, he asked about my cat. At the end of the exchange, we swapped numbers. Moon offered his company if I ever find myself bored or in jail (well, trouble as he put it). An unexpected feel good moment indeed.

3/23/16 – That morning where I was moving particularly slow and skipped breakfast (2 raw eggs) only to get to school, and have 2 eggs (steamed Korean style) served to me. Thanks universe. Thanks Korea.

3/28/16 – Today my fourth period class came rushing into the classroom shouting ‘fire fire fire’. I dismissed it as my boys are particularly excitable. Calmly, one of the boys opened the window near my desk. From the culvert below I could see smoke billowing out and a few students gathered around. I asked ‘who started the fire?’ thinking it may be some sort of trash burning ritual  or prescribed burn. No response. Together a gaggle of grade 2 boys and I walked out. On the way, one of my students grabbed a fire extinguisher sitting in the hallway. As we walk down the hill toward the flames I see there isn’t another adult in sight. Things are beginning to feel a bit more serious… The student with the extinguisher goes right up to the flames and looks back toward me. I give him a nod, and he expertly pulls the pin and extinguishes the flame with a few sweeping motions of the hose. Seeing that my job was done, I go back into class smelling of bonfire, as the boys gather around and cheer their new classroom hero.

3/30/16 – ‘The day students started saluting me during passing periods’

4/6/16 – April showers wash away April flowers.

4/10/16 – I crossed paths with an old gentleman while biking home on a narrow back road. A dated plaid jacket and matching bowlers cap, he was dressed in his Sunday finest. From about 20 yards out, he flashed the biggest smile and as I peddled closer he gave me an energetic HEYLO! I was still smiling a few blocks later when two elementary age girls greeted me with an eager HI! I was wondering if it was my dress or the pleasant warm weather when a passing-by middle school boy amoungst his group of friends gave a wave. Weather changes moods?

4/14/16 – Black Day: the inverse of White Day which is the semi-inverse of Valentines Day. On V-Day I believe its the girls who buy sweets for the boys. On White Day its swapped, and the boys are buying treats for the gals. Here on Black Day, single individuals are buying themselves Chinese style black noodles (Jajangmyeon (자장면)) and eating it in sorry solitude ‘celebrating’ their loneliness… It seems a bit counter productive to me. I think Ill go out for a hike, surely the cute single girls are on the mountain! It is 70 and sunny after-all.

4/15/16 – The beautiful Friday morning where you wake up with a headache (likely makgeolli 막걸리hangover) and have to teach 3 consecutive morning classes followed by your worst class of the week in the afternoon. Weekend anticipation is high.

4/19/16 – Next week I will start teaching at a girls middle school twice a week. Thus, today is my last Tuesday at Yeosu Middle School.

4/20/16 – This morning was the second time I rode my bicycle to school this year. Without fail, my ajumma friend was there on the hill with an enthusiastic **hwighting!!!**. Also: today is my last day of obligatory staff volleyball (they dont play volleyball on Wed. at my new travel school)!!

4/21/16 – While walking dripping wet into school, one of the school administrators says: ” Mark-uh, raining drops falling on head, take bus”. Funny enough this morning was likely the last that I’ll ride me scooter (or bike) to school in the rain, as yesterday I acquired a nice little Hyundai sedan. Ill take over the keys this weekend!

4/22/16 – Its a beautiful Earth Day in Yeosu, South Korea! Doubly deserving of the bike commute to school.

4/25/16 – Just for kicks, I will sometimes hide behind the door frame and wait to scare kids as they come into class. Today I heard the shuffling of a single student coming down the hall. A prime un-distracted victim. As the footsteps entered the classroom, I popped out with a loud *GAH!!*  Both myself and the 65 year old administrator nearly jumped out of our skins. After a moment of shock, I mumbled a mian haeyo (I’m sorry) and ran off to hide the bathroom.

4/26/16 – Day 1 at my new girls travel school. #loveit.

4/28/16 – That time I accidentally visited the oldest shrine to Yi Sun Shin (World’s Most Successful Naval Commander) in Korea, and it just happened to be his birthday. I missed the celebration though as it had apparently been earlier in the day. #coolcoincidence

4/29/16 – Earning my keep today with 4 consecutive morning classes followed by another in the afternoon. #tiredface

5/1/16 – Thirty-eight hours of no sleep. A birthday well spent.

5/2/16 – Midterms. One of the cherished few quiet days at the boys middle school.

5/2/16 (II) – Tomorrow will be the beginning of one of Yeosu’s largest annual festivals: Yeosu Jinnam Geobukseon Ship Festival (Turtle Ship Festival). It was a total shock seeing a Russian tall ship sail into port last year on my birthday. This year I was ready and anticipatory. The windows of the teachers room overlook the Yeosu 2012 EXPO harbor. Despite keeping me eyes peeled, I missed the tall ship as it slipped into the foggy bay sometime around 10AM. Nevertheless I’m anticipating the sister ship, and hope to see her in motion. No-class-test-days are the best!

5/3/16 – Mini typhoon. That other side of spring…

5/4/16 – That time my middle aged female co-teacher said she could not find the word ‘shawty’ in the dictionary and wondered what it meant?

5/9/16 – First Monday back after mid-terms, feeling a  bit sick. The day felt like the old academy teaching days, with 7 consecutive classes (there are 7 class periods a day) following an 8:30AM teachers meeting. I couldn’t think of a worse way to come out of a NyQuil induced morning daze, but it made my evening hike all the sweeter. The foliage absolutely lushed out, the air pungent with blossoms of all varieties. The air cool yet a bit humid from the morning rain. My cat Hayangyi could feel the idealisticness as much as I.  I wont miss these upcoming Mondays, but Korean spring is certainly something Ill always pine for.

5/13/16 – That time I unintentionally talked the ticketing woman into selling me a seat on the sold-out Friday Seoul-bound train. #foreignercard

5/14/16 – My first paid event (apart from wedding) photography gig – 2nd Annual Craft Beer Fest. Gapyeong, South Korea.

5/17/16 – The classic cat owner experience: just as your drifting into a NyQuil induced sleep, you hear frantic scampering about and intermittent squeaks. Dragging my drugged body out of bed, I was able to confirm my suspicions.  Cornered behind my vacuum was a large brown mouse with my cat Hayangyi just adjacent; diligently on guard. After snapping a few photos of this archival moment, the two headed out the slightly cracked front door – and I back to bed, relieved my cat isn’t as dysfunctional as I thought her to be, and a bit abashed as to how a mouse ended up on the second floor.

5/18/16 – After closing up my classroom at the end of the day, I walked past one of the grade three homerooms. The lights were off and the desks were pushed up against the walls. A few of the girls were seated on the floor while the majority of the students walked around the classroom in a slow clockwise circle. As the girls passed me at the door they whispered “very very no jam (slang: not fun)” or “teacher help me”. I asked one of the students what was happening and she mentioned “calming our minds” and “learning to relax”. Contrasted against the post-school-day-beautiful-spring-afternoon-chaos that I had witnessed 20 minutes prior, I can understand where the homeroom teachers mind was.God bless her Buddhist heart.

5/19/16 – 

5/20/16 – With perfect weather, I decided on eating Friday dinner on the roof of my apartment. Part way through my bowl of homemade pineapple-pad thai, I noticed a flash of light in the west. I watch as a relatively slow bright yellow arc reputed (silently) in a white flash. From out of the flash was a new faster streak of light headed in a northern trajectory. I watched as this light banked to the east (and in my direction) eventually loosing its glow. The now dark object produced two alternating red blinks of light and traveled at a consistent speed across my plane of view. After maybe a minute or less the blinking red lights were gone – obstructed by the small apartment on the roof of my building. 10 minutes later I was sitting there still trying to digest what I saw, when the whole scene replayed itself but this time considerably north (though the eastward trajection was the same). Rocket launched drones? Full-sized manned military aircraft? A more exciting dinner than I had anticipated nonetheless.

5/21/16 – Nearly had my foot crushed by a horse. Later, rode said horse. Then I got fed watermelon.

5/22/16 – On a whim I decided to check out a ‘Medical Festival’ in the next city up (Suncheon). It ended up consisting of free entrance to the Suncheon Bay Gardens, free lunch, a free raffle ticket (didn’t win anything) and a series of free medical tests (including the most painful acupuncture I have had to date). After the festival finished, a kindly local physiotherapist with the English name; Jimmy, showed me around. He had been a volunteer during the 2013 expo that was hosted at the gardens, and was quite a knowledgeable and informative guide to myself and another westerner. When the park closed at 8PM, he helped us to rent bicycles and showed us a path we could ride along the river. It was an excellent evening made extra special by the reddest full moon I had ever seen!

5/24/16 – Last week I had posted a photo to my Instagram. The photo was of an older man cutting a massive field of grass with a weedwhip. The field is at my travel school and maybe 3/4 the size of a professional football field  – a daunting challenge for a lone man and his weed eater. Coming in to work this morning (a week later), I saw the man out there again. Despite the rain he was out raking up the cut grass into neat piles. That was 8:40 AM… now at 4:40 PM he is only just barely finished with scooping the wet piles into a handcart and relocating them to the perimeter of the field. As I had captioned on my initial photo: I like a monotonous labor intensive job, but what this fella has to endure is just torture. It certainly makes me appreciate my current lot.

5/25/16 – That time that rapaciously sexy Korean rapper and singer did a free show in my sleepy city. Turns out Jessi was born in NYC. Being the only Westerner in the crowd, I likely would have had a good chance for a ‘selfie’. Opportunity lost..

5/29/16 – My second experience trekking around the local island of Dolsan with a hoard of Yeosu’s brightest middle school students. This time it was a turf battle between my longstanding boys school and my new travel girls middle school, as to who could stake claim to me. The girls were considerably more hard-fought.

5/30~31/16 – Finally after over 2.6 years – my first Buddhist temple-stay experience; complete with mystic tea-time readings, lotus lantern making, a mindful walk in the rainy forest, archery, and an uncomfortable amount of prostrations.

6/03/16 – Having seen banners across the city advertising the grand opening of the new yacht marina, I knew I just had to be there. In the end I got to meet a famous old Korean rocker and the cute local news personality.

6/05/16 – An impromptu trip to two of Yeosu’s outlying islands with my old friend Hyeona and my troupe of hiking adjossi friends. More food than I would consume over the course of three days in addition to more magkolli (fermented Korean rice wine) than my head could handle.

6/09/16 – The dreaded ‘English Speaking Tests’ begin…

6/10/16 – Each of my lessons end with me individually ‘high fiving’ or ‘fist bumping’ students as I offer some sort of well-wish. Today one of my quite students; wordless, and expressionlessly kissed his clenched hand just prior to our fist bump. I appreciate the gesture – bruh.

6/11/16 – The smell of singed hair and burning flesh. On a whim I decided to get a few moles removed by laser. After the procedure, I was told not to shower for a few days. Nevertheless, within an hour I was out in the bay sailing a Hobie Cat albeit quite careful not to capsize. After a few runs around the bay, I was asked if I would want to windsurf. Knowing I would likely end up wet, I had to decline. Next time…

6/12/16 – I finally took a road-trip up to the rolling green terraces that are characteristic of Boseong. Boseong is the green tea capital of Korea and located in a rainy mountainous region just a hour northwest of where I stay. The overcast drizzle really added to the peaceful climate of the region while potentially keeping away other tourists. All-in-all it was a really pleasant day.

6/13/16 – Recently I have been feeling impossibly tired despite all the healthy consistences in my life. After work I hunted down an oriental clinic that had been suggested to me. Without much preamble, the doctor had me on a table where I was poked, prodded and shook around a bit. After the rather voodoo feeling  checkup, I was lead to a curtained table where I was riddled with needles. Running the length of my chest was a line of particularly long looking spikes and in the middle of which was placed a slow burning incense cone. I was told this was to ‘warm my body’ but I could not shake the feeling that a séance was being conducted. In the end I came away with a few packets of herbal powder and a lingering languor.

6/14/16 – Oriental clinic – acupuncture take II. Last autumn while hiking I had re-injured an old lower-back snowboarding injury. Upon suggestion, the first place I had gone was an oriental clinic on the other side of town. The doctor had studied in Australia and spoke English quite well. He was full of confidence and quite certain that I would experience immediate relief from my pain. Well I didn’t. He had insisted that I return daily. Nah…

The next day I went to more contemporary clinic and with time I was all sorted out. With this recent nagging bout of lethargy and no relief from the previous days treatment, I felt my back was against the wall. I decided I give Dr. Aus. a second chance. It was about as awkward as I worried it may be. Also as fruitless…

6/17/16 – As I rode my bicycle into the school yard this morning, one of the administrators called out from a shaded bench: “Mak teacha gentleman”. I get this from time to time but not nearly as often as the straight ‘handsome’ bit. I take ‘gentleman’ to mean that I am looking decent, and I can appreciate that.

I fear that as soon as I board that plane out of here, so too will my status as a gentleman depart (as superficial as that status may be).

6/18/16 – An early morning at the bus terminal jimjilbang (Korean sauna) made earlier by a poor nights sleep – followed by a 2 hour bus ride. All this to experience my first bout at paintball, followed by an eventful whitewater rafting trip – capped off by yet another fresh experience: bunjee jumping at Korea’s highest jump (63m).

6/19/16 – A productive day of eating (and drinking) my way across Seoul. Starting with a youth hostel breakfast, a stop for macaroons & fresh fruit-mochi from an acquaintance I met last summer in Hongdae. From there it was off to Itaewon for Danish craft beers and the infamous ‘Monster Pizza’. The last stop was a cafe in “HBC” that serves kombucha (a non-alcoholic fermented beverage). They were at a turnover point so I had to settle for a mimosa. Nevertheless, knowing we had traveled a long way, the owner brought us some fresh kombucha (part way through its fermentation process). Lacking for time, we then taxied from Itaewon to the express bus terminal in Gangnam. Halfway through the bus ride home, I was poked from behind. It turned out my buddy Sean was on the same bus headed home and was good enough to offer a Hene’ ‘tall boy’ bus beer to effectively cap off the trip.

6/21/16 – A few weeks back, while walking my cat at the park, I had been confronted by a man who introduced himself as ‘Tommy Lee’ from Vancouver. He is a middle aged Korean man who had spent many years in N. America. Despite his family being split between Canada and Australia he is back in Korea tending to the family business and caring for his aging in-laws.

With my 3 visits to 2 different oriental clinics and a negative blood work sample at the modern clinic, and STILL feeling exhausted-  I dug out Tommy Lee’s business card and sent him a message asking for medical advice (knowing he runs a pharmacy). He told me his brother-in-law is a famous doctor in Yeosu and arranged a visit for the following day.

6/22/16 – Leaving work a bit early I arrived at Miso Pharmacy just after 5PM where I rendezvoused with Mr. Lee. After showing me around a bit, he took me upstairs to meet the doctor. As the brother-in-laws English ability was lacking, Mr. Lee played translator. After a thorough examination I was told that I would be getting some sort of examination (I couldn’t understand what the doctor had said), Mr. Lee pipped in saying  it would be free of charge! So Mr. Lee and I waited in the lobby for the mystery exam. Eventually a nurse called me in, laid me on a table and had me undo my shirt and trousers. Shortly after the doctor came in and off went the lights. It wasnt until there was petroleum jelly  on my neck that I realized I was getting an ultrasound! And an extensive ultrasound it was with the doctor snapping ultrasonic-photos from my neck to chest to abdomen. The resounding consensus is that I am healthy and just need to “take a rest”. Good news!

Following the checkup, Mr. Lee was good enough to treat me to one of my favorite Korean dishes: Samgyetang (Korean chicken soup). Following dinner he took me to the doctors house to meet his nephew. The doctors son is in elementary school and unable to walk (Cerebral palsy!?). The Dr’s. wife provided tea and fruit as the young fella and I talked over English cartoons on his iPad. After meeting the older sister (a university student near Seoul) Mr. Lee took me back to the pharmacy and my car, but not before making plans for a return visit next week with the allure of home cooked dinner. Just minutes later I was stopped at a light when the car next to me rolled down its window “Mark! How are you!?”. It was Mr. Kim (my first friend at the gym – the marathon runner) and his family. Ironically I had just been to the gym the evening before and wondered towards what he and his wife were up to… As the light turned green we went our separate ways.

6/24/16 – I listened to the infrequent rain drips outside my window and made the conscious decision that today I would take me scooter to school despite more rain forecasted for the AM.

6/26/16 – Yeosu holds many surprising aspects. One of which is an incredibly modern performing arts center and gallery with a cascading view of the island speckled sea. For a while I have been meaning to attend their 3 month gallery showing of Korea’s hyper-realism painters but just couldn’t get around to it. Knowing that today was the last day and that the gallery closed at 6PM I begrudgingly got up from my nap and  hopped on my scooter around a quarter to 5. The showing was all that it promised to be. Huge canvases of oil and acrylic with detail so intense they looked like photographs. Despite the ‘no photo’ policy, I could not help but snap a few pics documenting the incredible realism. I took satisfaction in leaving at 5:55PM, knowing that I was the last to leave – essentially closing out the exhibit.

6/27/16 – That time I had too much fiber the night before, in coming to class I realize my students had swiped my t.p. stash (the only such stash in the entire building) so I had to resort to wiping with English homework sorted out of the recycling bin… #allboysmiddleschool

6/28/16 – That time I ran into a whole mob of my students (both from my girls and boys schools) while walking my cat at the library. Only the imminent pressure of final exams could gather such numbers. Hayangyi and I were lucky to make the narrow escape that we did!

6/30/16 – That time I went to the grand opening of the new Starbucks in town and the barista asked if I was Mark? That barista ended up being Hannah – a friend of friends that live in the next city north: Suncheon.

7/01/16 – The beginning of my students final testing period. Also Canada Day eh? Being a rainy day, I had driven my car to school. As I was leaving I saw one of the support staff heading home with his umbrella. Knowing he lives just 7 blocks in the relative direction I was headed, I offered a ride. He confided that he had been a disc jockey in his youth and ended up having a really good voice. He sang a handful of older western pop songs (none of which I was familiar with).

7/02/16 – That time I was put in charge of a bus full of ‘Independence Day Cruise’ party revelers. A wild evening of doppelgangers, VIP tables and top-deck fireworks ensued. As the event photographer I did my best to document the chaos. Post cruise and back in Seoul, while walking to my guesthouse in Itaewon (the most ‘Western’ sliver of Korea) – I ran into the English teacher at my main schools sister school. Being so far from ‘home’ it was quite the coincidence especially after we both admitted that we never really go to Itaewon. Later in the night I was reunited with a group of friends I had not seen in years – separated and then again united in the saunas of ‘Itaweon Land’.

7/03/16 – Guac, nachos and sangria at Mexican restaurant followed by an impressive eggs Benedict at The Flying Pan. After feasting my friends and I made for the hills of Itaewon to burn some calories before parting ways at the subway. After some fruitless solo clothes shopping in Sinsa-dong (a suburb or Gangnam)

7/04/16 – A rainy and humid Independence Day and that is OK.  I feel that I got my fill of ‘The Fourth’ over the weekend. In other news, 2 years ago today I finished my first teaching contract in Korea and headed home – arriving just in time for the fireworks (first 4th back home in 4 years).

7/05/16 – Yesterday I booked a one-way flight to Japan for the Korean Thanksgiving holiday (Chuseok). I had found cheap ferry tickets and intended on an aquatic return. When I went to book the return ticket a bit later, it was sold out. Later in the evening I found an England based travel agent that still had tickets available. Upon completing the reservation I was taken to a Korean page linked with my Korean bank card. Flustered and having a dinner date, I had to run off. Post dinner, come to find not only had the reservation not been complete but all those tickets were ALSO sold. This morning it came to a head. Do I take an ferry back a few days earlier or do I book an expensive flight for the date I had in mind? In a moment of desperation I scoured the web, coming up with a Japanese ferry company. A series of educated guesses and with the aid of Google translate – I am now pretty sure I have a ferry ticket booked from Fukuoka JP to Busan KR for Sunday Sept. 18th. We will find out in two months I guess…

7/06/16 – Today was one of those mornings where I regretted not slipping my GoPro into its mount on the front of my scooter. The morning rains brought the clouds down from the hills – forming a low fluid ceiling over the roadway. As I ripped up the hill, the distraction of the clouds nearly caused me to miss my adjumma friend who was waving wildly. I gave her a low nod as I tried to recall the last time we had seen one another?

7/09/16 – Impromptu beach camping with a group of friends visiting from another city.

7/13/16 – How is it that as the school day wears on, my energy levels decrease while my students energy is the inverse!?

7/14/16 – That time I taught 8 consecutive classes (when there is only 7 class periods in a day). In other news it Silver Day. Apparently a day where South Korean couples give one another silver rings while talking of plans for marriage.

7/18/16 – While stopped at an intersection on my frantic Monday morning scooter-dash to get to school in time for the weekly teachers meeting, I was confronted. It was the car behind me. I was worried that he was going to yell at me for my erratic scoot’n. Turned out it was the old special education teacher from my school and he just wanted to say ‘hey’ and complement me on my rad bike (not his words).

7/20/16 – Last day of classes for the semester.


7/24/16 – Took a fun little road trip over to Namhae Island with my new Couchsurfing friend Jamie. Little did we know that it would turn out to be the hottest day of the summer to this point. Nevertheless we checked out some beautiful terraced rice patties just along the coast. We cooled down with slushies before having an authentic German lunch. The owners figured that I was German and possibly critical of their cooking, so when everyone had left they provided us with any drink of our choosing. I went with an iced red wine and Jamie did a lemonade. Honestly it was probably the first German meal that I had had since actually being in Germany 7 summers ago… Our last destination was Sangju Beach or ‘Silver Sand Beach’ (상주 은모래비치). I had actually been here 2 years ago on a trip toward the end of my first year in Korea. Neither Jamie nor I wanted to swim so we walked around a bit before heading off – eventually parting ways at a temple near the ‘Namhae Grand Bridge’.

7/26/16 – For the first time in the year now that I have been going to my gym, the air conditioning was on. Ten minutes into my workout, and the older woman who oversees the gym came in followed by a loud series of curt Korean phrases to no one in-particular. She made a b-line for the air-conditioning unit and shut it right down. Disinterested in letting the 10 of us enjoy the cold air that remained, she immediately opened every window to the thick humid night. Honestly though I was terribly bothered. I take sick satisfaction in sweating out every expendable liquid from my body.

7/27/16 – The ‘air con’ (air conditioning) was on at the gym again. This time around no authorities were in-sight and the handful of us enjoyed an uncharacteristically cold workout session.

7/29/16 –  That awkward moment when the guy on the passing scooter has the same helmet as you. Here I had thought “forever two wheels” was one of a kind for this past year..

7/31/16 – My first ‘nude forest’ experience at the only such facility available here in Korea. Just as it sounds, I walked around naked in a specially designated portion of a hillside retreat. Despite the sweltering heat, the ambient surroundings were pleasant under the canopy of tall cypress trees. Benches, hammocks and huts scattered amongst the trees made for a relaxing afternoon excursion.

8/01/16 – Rendezvousing with the family at the train station here in Yeosu, South Korea this evening. It will be our first reunion in 23 months!


7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Barb Baumgartner on August 8, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    You are getting quite prolific in your writings. I enjoy every one of them!


  2. Thanks mum! I had a fair bit of time on my hands over the summer holiday, now its back to school…


  3. Posted by jhon on August 21, 2015 at 12:27 am

    a very nice mark thank for evrey thing you are so kind at all


  4. Posted by Kai on October 16, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Mark, you blog is amazing! It makes me want to go back to Korea so hard – keep up the good work and enlight me with weird suff from Korea. Loved every day in that amazing country and I am like crazy jealous you are still there living the good, and akward, live 😀


    • Kai, I am really sorry for my tardy response! It appears that I am not so good at site management… I really appreciate your interest in my writing as well as the kind words! Korea sure is a strange little place, but it grows on you doesn’t it…


  5. I. Love. This. So. Much.


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