Korea, Reactions

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Sick here. November 29, 2012

Filed under: Making Sense of It All — edjo @ 11:47 am

I’ve been sick for the past three days, which means I’ve been snuffling all around my aunt’s house, headachy and glum. Luckily, I am in a house with the three moms I want the most when I’m sick: my mom, my grandmother, and my aunt. All three have taken very good care of me when I’ve been sick in the past, and are taking good care of me now, generally leaving me alone until I need a dosage of fuss, which they give in just the right, warm quantity.

Still, today my mom nudged me into going for a walk with her in the sunshine. We went all around the village. It felt good to reconnect with the houses and roads and weather here. They’re trucking in the giant, plastic-wrapped bales of rice stalks from the fields, where they’ve been standing like five foot high marshmallows; they’ll be used to feed cattle all winter long. We also passed my eldest uncle’s best friend, who was peppy and full of smiles. Apparently, he regularly climbs the mountain behind the village, and I can believe it, seeing how lively he is.

Three days ago, right before I got sick, my mom and I went on a very long, early morning walk. It was windy and cold, and from where we were walking among the rice paddies, we could see the smoke from the village chimneys laying low over the village in a long, hazy stream. She described how the village is placed right up against the mountain so it gets wind protection from the North while still enjoying sun from the South. In the US we get our cold air from Canada, and in Korea they get their cold air from Siberia (which sounds infinitely more intimidating). Then she pointed out a mountain in the distance where they used to hear bombs and see fighting during the Korean War. But the fighting never reached this particular village.

And then we went inside and ate my aunt’s delicious stewed chicken. And I made crepe paper roses for my grandmother while she crocheted me a pair of slippers.


The Glee of the Younger Sibling November 26, 2012

Filed under: Making Sense of It All — edjo @ 1:05 am

I think there’s a particular glee exclusive to younger siblings, developed from a childhood in which your bigger, smarter, more capable (by DEFAULT of age) lords it over you until they are cut down by your parents over some dumb thing they did.

Yesterday, my uncle’s car broke down so he couldn’t drive my sister to the airport from my aunt and uncle’s condo in Seoul. Instead, my sister walked to the bus station (about four blocks from their condo) and took a bus directly to the airport. She’s strong and capable, so I know this was no problem for her, but my grandmother apparently spent the entire day knitting and grumbling and building up a store of wrath to unleash upon my aunt and uncle when she next sees them, including: my sister doesn’t know Korean, he could have fixed his car or used another car, it was the weekend and they had nothing else to do but take my sister to the airport, she went to Seoul just so they could drive her to the airport, and could have just spent another day in the village rather than taking a bus all the way to Seoul since there are direct-to-airport buses from here, and that she’s not going to do anything nice for them since they were so rude to my sister. My grandmother was unfailingly patient and gentle with my sister and I when we were small, so we are still startled by the strength of her will and wrath when she chooses to unleash it. I think that is also why I felt kind of gleeful when my mother translated my grandmother’s litany of angers for me, because someone else was going to really get it, and it wasn’t me.

I felt bad about this, because feeling gleeful when someone else gets in trouble seems kind of mean. But later this morning, while we were peeling chestnuts to eat, my aunt and grandmother were having a shouting match because my grandmother has been staying up late every evening to finish knitting projects for my sister and I. As a result, when she was sitting in the front row of church yesterday, she fell asleep during a very important sermon, nodding off right in front of the minister. My grandmother insists that she DIDN’T fall asleep, and my aunt insists that she DID, and as they argued, my younger sister of a mom sat between them – still peeling chestnuts – giggling gleefully.


Poets and Plumbers November 23, 2012

Filed under: Making Sense of It All — edjo @ 10:12 am

When my uncle and aunt built their house, they asked a friend’s son – a builder – to build it for them. He’d done a good job on his parents’ house, so they were disappointed when their house was poorly constructed. Also, my uncle had designed the house entirely without my aunt’s input, resulting in all kinds of basic flaws, like a tiny kitchen, and confusing bathroom. To fix their house, they braced it with a second structure, and built a second floor on top of that. As a result, it’s the only two story house in the village, and the view from the upstairs picture windows is beautiful at all hours of the day. You can see almost every corner of the village from up there, from the roofs filled with brown gochujang pots, to the misty rice fields beyond.

Unfortunately, almost nobody ever uses the second floor, so when the heat stopped working up there, nobody noticed. So when we arrived, the first floor was ridiculously warm, and the second floor was shiveringly cold. My uncle immediately set about fixing the ondol heating system, which consists of pipes full of hot water just under the floor. It turns out there was some kind of leak, and all the pipes were drained of water. For three days – occasionally with the help of a repairman – my uncle worked on the pipes and pumps for hours before he went to work, and for  hours after, stopping only to sleep. Last night, after several hours upstairs, he came downstairs and sat on the living room floor as he usually does in the evening, to watch TV.

I’ve spent a total of four or five months in Korea at this point, and I’ve probably heard my uncle speak a total of 100 words in all that time. So unlike me, when he’d finished fixing the heating system, he just quietly went about his business. It was up to the rest of us (even his wife!) to discover that the floor was warm, that we no longer had to wrap in blankets every time we went upstairs. If I’d fixed that floor, I would have insisted that everyone come upstairs and ooo and ahh over the warm floor while I told them every difficult moment that occurred when I was fixing the pipes, and I probably would have expected a high five, too. (And ice cream.)

But my uncle isn’t like that. He chooses his words as carefully as a poet. And as it turns out, he is.


Around and Around and Up and Down November 22, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — edjo @ 11:18 pm

This morning, before breakfast, Mom and I went for a walk around the villages and rice paddies. The sun was a big orange ball at one side of the sky, and it was hazy enough that I could look straight at it for a long time. There was white frost on all the leaves, as if articulating them. I was wearing my big down coat but my legs were still very cold. We passed several dog farms, and the racket the dogs made was unreal.

Later, my sister and I went for a run, heading up past a cluster of tombs we couldn’t pass the day before because their families were paying their respects. But as soon as we passed the tombs, the dirt path went almost straight up, and we stopped jogging. The trail took us under some huge electrical towers, and then up onto a ridge that followed the mountain. I was sweating all over the place, and breathing harder than I do when I run. We could see Eunhengjeong from the top of the mountain, but the trail started to take us down over the other side so we headed back. On our way, I noticed a snake slithering across the path. It stopped when we stopped, neither of us wanting to be dinner. My sister wanted to throw a stick at it, I wanted to take a wide path around it… which I suppose is a nice distillation of our personalities. Eventually we went around it and THEN she threw a stick at it, but by then I couldn’t see it among the leaves and had to take her word for it that it slithered away from us and wasn’t chasing us down the mountain.

It was nice to see the other side of the mountain. The side the village is on is now busy with factories where the rice paddies used to be, and while we were hiking we could hear the heavy sounds of construction as they built more blue-roofed buildings for factory work. The other side of the mountain, though, was completely wild, the blue mountains ridging off into the distance before dropping off in the haze. My mom was sad to come here and see how the peacefulness of the village has been wrecked by the factories, but it’s comforting to see that some parts of Korea are still wild.

My mom said that she used to run all over that mountain, and how it used to be overrun with snakes (she hated snakes). She said that she assumed that the mountain was too covered with rocks for trees to grow there, but it turns out that it was rocky because people needed to cut the trees for fuel. Now the mountain is covered with trees, something she’d never seen before.

When my sister and I returned from our hike, we went on another walk with my mom (long walks take up the bulk of my days here). We followed her past my aunt’s fields, around the fishing pond my uncle owns, past a stinking cow farm, through some rice paddies and pepper fields, past a stinking pig farm, and finally into a muddy field we were hoping to cross. As it turns out, the muddy field is elevated like a plateau, so there was no way off of it. But we didn’t know that until later. We circled the entire field and finally were headed back the way we came when my sister got stuck in the mud. She was laughing and laughing, which only got her stuck further, and then my mother went to rescue her and SHE got stuck in the mud. I was still laughing on my safe, dry ridge when my mother fell over.

She’s fine, but neither of them are still laughing, and both of them had muddy shoes and muddy socks where their feet had pulled out of their shoes. My sister said, ‘I should have stopped laughing and concentrated harder on getting my feet out of the mud’ but I’m glad she was laughing. I say it’s always better to laugh, but then again, I got to walk home in clean, dry sneakers while they squelched home in pebble-filled socks.

Also, I established myself as ‘the family member least likely to help’ and ‘the sister most likely to laugh at you while you suffer in the mud’ so I have some repenting to do.


Back in Korea, back with Grandma November 21, 2012

Filed under: Another Tongue,Making Sense of It All — edjo @ 9:37 am

I’m back in Korea, at my aunt’s house, where my grandmother now lives. This is the first time my sister and I have visited here with my mom, which means that we get to finally ask her all kinds of questions about the village and Korean life that we couldn’t quite translate before. This also means that my mom’s head is close to exploding from the effort of keeping up with everyone around her, translating for everyone, and trying to speak in each language. Earlier today, she got a very serious look on her face as she tried to compose the right words to ask my uncle something, and all her words came out in English, so she had to laugh and start all over in Korean.

It’s already winter here, so the leaves were lined with frost our first morning as we waited at the bus stop to go to the market. Once there, I bought a Yakult probiotic drink from a streetside vendor, which was sweeter than I remembered, and a glutinous rice donut from Paris Baguette, which was chewier and oilier than the ones I used to get at Ewha. Small disappointments. But the market was just as bustling as I remembered, bundled vendors selling hundreds of socks, or a dozen different kinds of rice cake, or shining heaps of fish. My aunt bought a huge quantity of green onions, enough that my sister and I had to trade off carrying them, and had to sort of shift them to the side to see over their spiky green tops.

My grandmother knit the second half of a green sweater since we arrived, and is already about halfway through another. She’s wearing a purple cardigan my mom brought for her. We brought her lots of gifts, and have had to be a little careful about what we give her based on how excited she is about them, because she has a serious tendency to regift. My mom bought her a beautiful quilted jacket once, then spent the year happily imagining my grandmother wearing that jacket to church every Sunday, only to discover that my grandmother had given it away so long ago that she didn’t even remember that she’d been given a jacket in the first place. Still, we brought her as much as we could cram into our suitcases: polartec jackets, veggie straws, playing cards, hair gel, barrettes, chocolate candies, soft fleece blankets, photobooks, and an entire suitcase full of yarn.

Much of what we’re eating here – rice, persimmons, onions, garlic, cabbage, peppers – came directly from my aunt’s fields and garden. Every spare inch of earth in the village is used to grow something useful: chestnut trees, mulberry bushes, pepper plants. Even my aunt’s front yard has a strawberry patch, persimmon tree, and pine logs in the corner which she’s seeded with mushrooms. While we walked today with our mom, aunt, and uncle, they pointed out the fat ginkgo berries that had fallen all over the ground, that my aunt wanted to return for. And then, on a mostly empty field, my aunt left us to pick bitter roots that she spotted between the furrows.

My Aunt Mija’s granddaughters grew up in the house where we’re staying. She spent all day with them while their father worked in Seoul and their mother worked in town. Their parents were determined to give them an American education, so they left just over three years ago, and haven’t been back since. There are pictures of them all over the house, and their old toys, pencils, and clothes still fill all the drawers and cabinets. But I can’t help feeling that at this point, they’ve outgrown the kids they were, and if they were to return, all these toys would be artifacts of who they were. Back in September, the little one mailed me a ‘Flat Stanley’, a paper doll she’d colored in that I was supposed to take on adventures. I went back and forth over whether I should bring Flat Stanley to Korea, wondering if it would be painful for her to see Stanley in all the places she loved, but I finally just brought him along. I decided, finally, that she might like seeing her Stanley with her grandmother, in her yard. I could be wrong, but I hope not.

As always, my mother and sister and I have fallen into a comfortable place whenever we’re around my grandmother. We eat the delicious foods my aunt whips up for every meal, we cut and eat fruit to share, we read and knit and watch TV. My sister and I can’t talk to my grandmother because we’ve still never learned enough of Korean to speak more than hello and delicious. Instead, we just sit in the same room as her, and that’s a kind of warm home that exists only with my grandmother, wherever she is in the world.


Tess of Hemet, California November 24, 2010

Filed under: Making Sense of It All — edjo @ 5:50 pm

While we’ve been staying in California, my mom and I spend every afternoon walking around my aunt and uncle’s retirement development. It’s a sprawling development, set up against some steep and rocky hills that are so dry and barren there aren’t any trees on them. It’s a stark contrast to where the properties begin, since the whole development is nicely watered, sprawling golf course included. From the topmost part of the course, you can see the low, wide valley covered in lights and houses, and the bare hills, and far off in the distance some incredibly high, snowy mountains. It’s been cold and rainy during our stay, so the mountains are often cut off by clouds, but that late in the day, light that misses us often cuts through and hits those mountains and hills and slices them up with orange.

My mom describes herself as ‘more analytical’, so it makes sense that when I see her read, she’s always poring through scientific papers for her work. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her read a book for pleasure. But during one of these walks, when we were up high and enjoying the view of the mountains and valley, she told me about a book she read in high school, ‘Tess’ by Thomas Hardy, and how she liked it so much she read it twice. She said that she went up the mountain right by their village to see if she could imagine what it was like in the book, but that the scene she saw in Korea wasn’t anywhere near as beautiful as she imagined it in her head. Then when she watched the movie version of ‘Tess’ (it took me awhile to figure out that she was talking about ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’), she wanted to stop watching because it messed with the version she’d imagined in her head. She said that the scene we saw in Hemet, of an impossibly wide valley, far away mountains, huge sky above, was more like what she imagined.

And what was nicest about all this was that I’ve read and loved books my whole life, and spend a lot of time dreaming around, imagining scenes in books. I’d never thought of my mom as the sort of person to read a book twice, to climb a mountain to imagine what it might be like in the book, and then there she was.


Notice Me!! November 21, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — edjo @ 9:56 pm

The floor in my uncle’s house is super slippery, and I really, REALLY like sliding across it in my socks. My mom was standing at one end of the room watching the TV, so I ran and slid as fast as I can towards her, but she didn’t seem to notice.

“Mom, you missed it!”

“I saw it, I saw it. You don’t need to repeat. You were quite successful.”