Monday, September 01, 2008

Time to Say Goodbye

It is time to say goodbye to Korea.

God, how I've learned! It has been an incredible journey. Rife with pleasure, confusion and pain. And I am so utterly grateful for the experiences I've had. I have discovered parts of the country that have uplifted me and brought me to a higher plane of understanding about humanity, life, culture, food, language...

With each country I immerse myself in, I feel uplifted. It has been a hard journey, traveling around so much, having to start over time after time. But it has been worth it. Because the greatest joy in my life, the most constant joy, has been discovery.

You see, I do not have a home. Sometimes, I feel like I have never had one. I am grateful to have come from a multi-cultural background. My mother, Italian, my father, Haitian. I wouldn't trade it for anything. But with such diversity, comes difficulty. Where do I belong? Who am I? Will I find a place which speaks to me enough to compel me to stay put? Or do I have the bug? Am I destined to travel for the rest of my days?

I do not know the answer. All I can say is that I'm going to keep looking. Perhaps one day I will find that one place. Perhaps one day, I will also find the person who completes the puzzle. Someone who will understand me, or will at least have the patience to try.

There is one thing I can always count on in this world and that is the joy and peace I feel when I travel. That feeling of discovery, that split second of pure agape, that will never let me down. Perhaps I truly am a global warrior, as a stranger once called me.

I have to hope that I can find that place, in my heart, where I can be at peace with this lifestyle, but until then, I must thank those people who have made my life here worth living.

To the many students I've had at YBM. You have taught me so much about Korea. You have patiently and open-mindedly shown me what family really means. The difficulties and duties involved, the precious link to one's family that can never be erased. You have shown me your conservative sides, yes, but also that inner part of you that wants to fly away for a day and do what it is your heart truly desires. Thank you for showing me that.

And so with that, I thank those who have opened their hearts to me more than the average Korean would. Thank you to Soo Hyong, who gave me my first gift: a bookmark to thank me for teaching; thank you to Mi Hwa who helped me discover Gyongbokgung palace and see how people once lived; thank you to K Young, who wrote me an adorable note thanking me for teaching him; thank you to Jae Woo who gave me a New year's card and another one apologizing to me for asking (cheekily) why I wore heels when I was already tall (I responded by telling him that it was vanity); to David for giving me flowers to thank me for teaching him (it lifted my spirits and he'll never know how much); to BongHwan with whom I share an uncertainty about the future, I loved our conversations on what would become of us in the future. I hope you follow the dream that comes to you; thank you to PaulKim who bought me an electronic dictionary so that I could communicate better in Korean; thank you to Harry who's words, gifts and spirit uplifted me; thank you to Kerry, who in his infinite good humor and confusion, alsways brought a smile to my face; to Jude and Bill, willing to accompany me on strange outings on the town to show me more of Korean culture (you guys rock!);to Drago, with a name that befits his dragon-like roar of a voice, always present and heard and seen with a wit to accompany his strength (congratulations on your nuptials).
And to the multitude of other students who gave me gifts along the way: vitamin C to help me get over my fatigue, drinks and sweets to thank me for just being me. And for all the others who told me that I was the best teacher they had ever had, a boost for the morale that I will never forget.

Bill and Jude

And among those students are Neo and Peter, two really cool cats who took a risk on a foreigner and agreed to accompany me on a weekend trip to Andong, not knowing how things would pan out. They helped distract me from the personal stresses I've been dealing with, and brought forth an energy and eagerness for discovery that I found I enjoyed just as much as if I had been alone. Most times I don't like to travel with others because I feel restricted by compromise, but not with them. They were awesome and I will hold that weekend close to my heart. They gave without expecting anything in return. As a result, I too, gave and it was well worth it. I laughed all weekend. Thanks guys for that.

Neo and Peter

And to MinJong aka Skitsch, who started off as my student and bloomed into a friend. An artist in her own right who can express herself, perfectly, in three languages: Korean, English and through the art of drawing. She will always hold a space in my heart. She who is pure and real and pushes forth regardless of the obstacles she is faced with.


To Son Mi, my former Korean teacher/friend/taekwondo partner/guide who invited me into her family's world. She showed me what Chuseok was really about and in her unique and quirky world and way, showed me that is was possible to blend tradition and modernity into one person. She will be remembered with fondness and perplexion (love, regardless!).

Son Mi

To my Sabomnim, my Taekwondo Master, DuYong , someone who accepted to teach me for free. He is a good man, sweet, patient and funny. It was a good year of work and though I didn't get to the black belt, I got to brown, two belts away. Perhaps one day I will complete that training and reach that coveted black. Thank you.

Me, DuYong and Latisha, another student.

To Seung Hyon, who adopted me after Jong In and Seung Ah left YBM Guro. I could count on her to help me out in times of need. Her quirky personality, brisk at times, relaxed and playful at others, constantly confused me, but I enjoyed every minute. Thanks for letting me get to know you!

Seung Hyon

To Todd, a former co-worker who coaxed me out on several nights on the town, who introduced me to the wine club and who always found something to love. He will be remembered with a smile and though he is gone from this world, he made a mark on our lives here at Guro and I'll never forget him.


To Hayden, the founder of the Gangnam wine club, an Aussie in all his glory, with the heart of a poet. He is the kind of man I would want to have. Honest, sometimes harsh in his perspectives, but always caring and someone who gave me his time and lent me his ear when I was in the throes of despair. I wish you all the luck in the world to achieve all you have worked towards.


And to Sewon, Hayden's significant other. I didn't get a chance to spend much time with her, but every time I did, I learned something: about peace, joy, innocence and the possibility that happiness is possible. Thank you for those lessons.


To John, a friend that I almost didn't get to know. I'm glad I let him into my life. He filled it with sarcasm, humor and the infinite gift for gab. He allowed me to enjoy my last couple months at YBM without slitting my throat. Instead, we did the Korean Times crossword puzzles and had morning coffee at Belita, smoking like two chimneys during Christmas time.


To Keith, a recent friend who impressed me with conversations that made my mind work again. A newcomer to Korea, I hope that he will enjoy it as much as I have. That he will take the good and remember those and leave this beautiful and perplexing country one day, all that much richer for the experience.


To Steve, the consummate jokester and the one friend I knew before arriving here. He, who could always diffuse a tense moment, bring laughter to the Korean classes and imbibe me with impressions of Korea that would have taken longer to figure out on my own. He, who found his place here and who has a reason to stay. Thank you for allowing this girl to partake of your favorite Seoul spots, experience things by your side, and thank you for listening to me bitch from time to time.


To Seung-Ah and Jong-In, my two closest girlfriends here. Women who have always had my back. True friends that I could never have asked more from.

Seung-Ah who risked her sanity and accompanied me on my trip to Jeju Island last year; a moment that solidified our relationship. I like to call her my twin because we are born on the same day. She is the more realistic and grounded side of me. We have shared moments of truth that I cannot and would not want to forget.


And Jong-In, one of the only people in this world who has the capability of being completely open. Someone who was able to listen to all my mistakes, all my shortcomings, all of my darkness and never judge. She who could allow me to say and do anything, and I knew that she would love me regardless. These are friendships that you must always hold close to your heart. It is not everyday that you can experience that kind of purity. That kind of love.


And to all those other people who cannot be named because there are too many to count and too many of you whose names I don't know. You have all helped me make it here and have brought kindness to a girl who needed it from time to time; from the strangers who lent me their umbrellas on rainy days, to those people who took the time to try to understand me speak in Korean and smiled the whole way through. Thank you.

A kitchy portrait of my friends from YBM! It was Seung Ah's idea. I swear!

Thank you to you all. You have made this trip worth taking. I will cherish the memories and hold them close to my heart. Perhaps one day, my wanderings will take me back to Seoul and we can recapture some of the joys we once experienced.

This draws to an end my Korea blog. I hope that it has been somewhat of a journey for you, too. I could have written so much more and yet I let laziness, difficulty and distraction get in the way. I hope to start a new blog in the not too distant future.

I am a global warrior, it's time to write about other places, other things, other food, other experiences. I hope you will take that journey with me too.

Lots of love,


The Korean Art of Apple Cracking

About a month ago, I went to one of three convenience stores where I have a good rapport with the owners, all women. One woman, after I had purchased a few things, took a Granny Smith apple and before my eyes, cracked it open with her own bare hands! I was in awe! She then offered me one of the halves and sent me on my way. I've been wanting to "crack" the mystery ever since.
Below is my first attempt at doing it. We all tried it on our way back from Busan a couple of weeks ago.

Here is my second attempt.

Finally, last Sunday I was with John and Keith and I wanted to show them this amazing woman. We asked her if she could demonstrate her amazing talent and she insisted I could do it too, ignoring my protests. Here we are attempting it together.
Oh my God! I can't believe it! I rock! The art and mystery of Korean apple cracking has been mastered.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Lamb skewers, Noraebang boogie, A night in Soondae Town, Wine Degustation

Chinese-Style Lamb Skewers in Hongdae; a popular hang out since lamb is not readily eaten in Korea.

Seung- Ah, who got married in February, is pregnant and misses her beer!

The old YBM gang, save John, enjoying our alcohol! Poor Seung- Ah! She's taking the picture because she can't drink!

These cool cats, former students of mine, Bill and Jude, took me out for Soondae as a going-away meal.

Here I am in my silly bib. Tired from this past month of packing and arranging for my departure.

Soondae and Kop Chang (blood sausage and Tripe with a spicy veggie accompaniment)

My favorite wine bar in the world: Grandmother, located in Sinsa-Dong.

Grandmother: the owner is an interior designer who has very eclectic tastes. I love her style!

Entrance to Grandmother with John, MinJong and Keith standing under the umbrellas.

A noraebang night in Sillim. It was awesome!

Afterwards we enjoyed Pineapple soju in a real pineapple! The white stuff is crushed ice. Pretty nice presentation, if you ask me!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Trippy Taste of Busan

Above is the morning sky after the storm had passed
A couple of weeks ago I persuaded John, Keith and MinJong to accompany me to Busan for a long weekend of fun. We headed down on the midnight bus Thursday night. When we arrived on Friday morning, at 5:30am, we were assaulted by a heavy downpour chockfull of wind. We hailed a cab, all of us in varying stages of fatigue (me being the grumpiest, I admit) and headed out to SeongJong beach. The cab driver was crazy! We hydroplaned all the way to the beach, a harrowing 15 minutes of pure terror. I would keep asking him to slow down, which he would do for about 30 seconds and then proceed to speed up just as the highway was drowned in several inches of water. I still can't believe we arrived there without being killed.

We stayed in this Minbak, a one-room apartment complete with kitchen for us to share.

After a two-hour nap, in the early afternoon, we headed off for some food. We found a quaint restaurant on the beach with tables set out beneath a pine tree, over-looking the bay. We had fantastic raw fish and enjoyed our soju-coke cocktails as well. Deee-lish!

After lunch we walked over to a beautiful oceanside temple called Yong Gung Sa. This Buddha's belly is black from all the rubbing!

Yong means dragon, so how fitting that there was one greeting us upon arrival!

That night we had a barbeque on the rooftop of the Minbak. We bought all the ingredients and here is MinJong posing for a glamorous shot of our dinner!

The next day, on Jong In's recommendation (she is from Busan), we went to a famous Mul Hwe restaurant. It's a spicy raw fish dish served cold.

This is how it looks after you've mixed in the spicy sauce. It was really good!

After our lunch we headed out to TaeJongDae, a cliff famous for its views. On the bus ride over, we spotted a shipbuilding yard. Korea has the most advanced and successful shipbuilding business in the world, and Busan is it's capital; appropriate because it's on the South-East coast of Korea.

On the way up, we spotted a tree with a "Caution" sign posted in red. I attempted to look as though I hit myself against it.

One perspective from the lookout at TaeJongDae

On our way back to the city, we stopped by a Bondeggi stand. Being a fairly curious person, I have seen this dish all over Korea and having been wanting to try it for two years. The problem is the smell! It's horrendous! Bondeggi is silkworm larvae, enjoyed by children, most particularly. I've been too chicken to eat it in the past and without any people around me to encourage. But time was running out on my stay in Korea, so I resolved to finally try it.

Bondeggi in all its glory

Here is an image of myself, after the taste had permeated my mouth.

 Intrigued? You want to see the video? Scroll down.

Beware, this image may disturb you!

After this experience, I had everyone smell it to try to assess how to describe it to you. I usually think I'm pretty good with describing things, but this time I was at a loss for words. The best I can say is it is salty and bitter. It's quite juicy and I could feel the legs as I was crunching down on the one worm I had. A foul-tasting delicacy? Who knows. I just know it wasn't for me.

John described the smell as funky socks.

Keith did pretty well and said it smelled like mushrooms growing in rotten wood as well as wet dog.

MinJong, the only one who likes Bondeggi
(and incidentally ate the rest of it for me) probably hit the nail on the head with the description of cat pee.

Try this at your own risk ladies and gentlemen!

Whale meat food stands
Later on that evening we headed to Jagalchi Fish Market, a gorgeous modern building full of every kind of seafood you can imagine. Out front, we spotted all of these stands selling whale meat. I hesitated, interested in what it could possibly taste like, but reason set in. I've made a promise to myself that I would not eat endangered species.

John and I had four king prawns (the man is holding it in his arm) and they were so awesome! Grilled to perfection and dipped in a sweet and spicy sauce. Heaven!

That night we headed off to Gwangalli beach, a place my friend Steve had recommended. The pictures didn't come out great but it was beautiful. Tons of restaurants and bars were right on the boardwalk and they had blocked off the street and put tables and chairs out. We could see the ocean from our seats. In the distance, a large bridge was lit and changed into the colors of the rainbow every few seconds.

Unfortunately, the picture was not a success, but I hope you will go there one day. It was wonderful!

We stayed out both nights, testing out some night clubs and bars, the guys proving to be much more the party animals than us girls, who left earlier. All in all, though, it was a great trip. Relaxing, flavorful and exciting.

Goodbye Busan! Til next time!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Lotus Lantern International Meditation Center

In keeping with my need to experience as much of Korea before leaving it, I decided to partake in a Templestay, an element of Korean culture that is thriving. People of all backgrounds, religions and cultures go to temples across the country and spend a weekend among monks learning about Buddhism, meditation and quietude.

I didn't want to go to a temple in Seoul, wanting to head out of the city for some fresh air. I didn't want to go too far either. Some temples provide English instruction so I decided to go to GangHwa Island, about 1 1/2 hours by bus outside of Seoul on the west coast.

Lotus Lantern International Meditation Center is located in the countryside, removed from the road so that no cars, horns or other unnatural sounds can be heard. I arrived a day early, on my own, wanting an extra night of rest, exhausted by my job, the grueling and unnatural schedules and the difficulties of life in general.

Main Temple

I was shown to my room and, there, spent the rest of the night reading and sleeping. The next day, other people arrived and there were a good 40 people ready to partake in the adventure to come. I was lucky enough to get my own room (the three adjumas who were initially supposed to share my room aware of my fatigue and letting me have the room only to bunk in the library). I felt slightly guilty, but grateful for their senstitivity. Saturday afternoon was pretty relaxed. It was a weekend of torrential rains so we didn't venture out too much.

Apart from me, the other foreigners included one British/Australian man and two American GIs from a nearby base. They were nice enough, though I hadn't gone there to meet new people. We were shown the vicinities, an old temple and fairly new buildings amongst a gorgeously manicured garden. Two small ponds housed coi fish and small green frogs and the trees were chockfull of cicadas singing their hearts out. It was just what I needed.

Our "English" speaker was a Russian monk who, with very broken English, informed us that he had come to Korea 8 years earlier to immerse himself in the world of Buddhism. He was very nervous but I had tons of questions and it was nice to get some direct answers.

We attempted meditation that evening, a feat I have still not been able to master or even perform correctly. I can sit still, pain radiating through my back and legs, for 15 minutes, but during the process I'm just trying to get through the time hoping the gong will ring indicating the end of the meditation period. We were informed to count our breathing as that would help us clear our minds of other distractions. But I'm a multi-tasker, capable of counting, cursing the pain and thinking of other thoughts, all the while waiting for it all to end.

The closest I've ever gotten to what people describe as a meditative state was while doing tai chi. The breathing in and out, in conjunction with the complex and slow movements, enabled me to focus on just that. The only other time that I approached that experience was when I used to go to the gym in Montreal. I would run on the treadmill with music in my ears, focusing on my breathing and forgetting about anything else besides the movements of my body, the feel of my heart beating in my chest and the rhythm of my breathing. This allowed me to run without looking at the time. But that was years ago. Over the past 5 years or so, I have been unable to reach that level, though I continue to seek it.

After our meditative session, we had dinner. As you may well know, devout Buddhists are vegetarian and I was afraid that the food would be bland. I was knocked off my feet. It was absolutely delicious! Roots, vegetables and rice all prepared with the perfect ingredients to bring out flavors that exploded in my mouth. What a truly decadant surprise.

We had a free evening with lights out at 9pm. The next morning the gong rang at 3:30am heralding the morning prayer and 108 prostrations. I readied myself and headed out to the big meditation center, a log cabin stretched long with an altar at the head and statues of Buddha in different positions.

30+ people assembled, rubbing sleep from their eyes. Now, prostrations are a complicated matter. First you kneel then bend over until your head touches the mat, your hands around your head, palms facing up. You cross your feet (the dorsal of one foot placed over the other) and then you return to your kneeling position, put your hands together in prayer and propel yourself onto your feet without the help of your hands. About 5 years ago, I broke my right toe and it has hurt ever since. The pressure exerted in this action strains every little toe you have on each foot. Not the most pleasant of sensations when your feet are not in top shape.

We did about 10 of these prostrations as a morning prayer and I managed to keep up, gritting through the shots of pain in my toe. This was just the beginning! After the morning prayer, we were to do 108 prostrations, the idea being that they would help up balance "the scales of our ongoing accumulated karma". It was hell! After about twenty, my thighs were screaming. Pushing yourself up without the help of your hands is really difficult! I looked around me and noticed that a lot of Koreans were using their hands to help them up. I felt no shame in following their example. That would have been the only way I could finish up the punishing rhythm that the monks performed with incredible ease.

When I later spoke to my students about this experience, they gawked at me, impressed that I had done it. None of them had even attempted it and the resounding question was "what went through your head as you were doing it?" In theory, the prostrations, as repetitive actions, are known to be a meditative action, clearing your mind and body of negativity etc... They all looked at me in anticipation of my answer. I said, " I was just thinking, don't give up! Don't give up! You can do this!!!" The room exploded in laughter and everytime I got up from my chair to write something on the board, I winced with pain, the lactid acid doing a number on my legs. Giggles would erupt as they watched me and I would smile too. It was pretty darn funny.

After the prostrations, we had breakfast which was to be followed by a walk which I forced myself to do. I was not in the mood! But the sky had cleared enough for us to have a nice walk and check out some really old buildings, and structures hundreds of years old.

We were then treated to a calligraphy lesson, albeit one where we only copied words written in Chinese, Korean and English as to the precepts of Buddhism. It was still fun. Free for another little while, I asked whether I could take some pictures of the location. As you can see, they were more than happy to oblige.

We were then invited to have tea with the head monk of the temple. He was an amazing man; calm, with pretty decent English, who I was surprised to find had a really great sense of humor. I was told by the English/Australian that Buddhism was full of humor. It was nice. I asked a few hundred more questions and we were then free to roam around again until the next activity. This man had entered Buddhism after university. He had encountered a lot of death in his youth and had at that time first been drawn to the quietude and study of Buddhism. After his mandatory military service and university studies, he decided to pursue Buddhism as his calling and has been with the Jogye order for over 20 years.

Me and the head monk
Around noon, we had another prayer and several more prostrations in the original temple, had lunch and were free to go. The templestay was over. I was offered a free ride back to the city on a bus but opted for the city bus back. I had come alone, I explained to them in Korean, I needed to leave alone.

Me and one of the American GIs with the temple's dog Yon Gun (Lotus Root)