Thursday, December 9, 2010

Week 8: North Korea Attacks


SINCE ARRIVING in Korea, there has been an inner voice constantly chanting to me, needling me with its persuasive: "When is the next time you're going to be in this part of the world? You need to travel! Go! Go! Go!"

And that is how my friend and I ended up going to Busan in late November.

Let's just say we learned a lot about what to do next time. For starters, Busan is a lovely place. It's sometimes nicknamed "the San Fransisco of South Korea." It has the famous Haeundae Beach. The UN Cemetery. The Jalgachi Fish Market, where you pick out your seafood from vendors, and then take it upstairs to the restaurants where they cook it front of you. But in November? We'd missed the last of October's summer warmth, and a biting cold had swept the country. When we left Seoul in the morning, a white blanket of snow frosted the ground.

The express train could get us to Busan in 2 hours, but it cost 44,000 won. One way. The express bus was advertised as double the traveling time, but half the cost. So we hopped aboard your standard bus with standard leg room (but a nice TV) and drove. And drove. Fourish hours later, still driving. The express buses do make rest stops at these neat little pit stops filled with hot fish-on-a-stick, cream-filled doughnuts, and ddeokbokki. Finally, after five hours, we rolled into Busan.

We stayed at a blue hostel appropriately named Blue Backpackers. A nice, clean place. Breakfast included. However, there was a weird odor that permeated the place. Couldn't quite place it, and didn't want to.

On the subway, I got ambushed by a group of elderly Korean hikers. I had fought for a seat at the back of the subway, but for some reason, this pair kept clucking at me. Annoyed, I scooted over a seat so they could sit together. They still kept clucking. I didn't understand, and was trying to set up a meeting with a friend by phone, so I waved them off. At the next stop, a drunk old man got on the subway.

"I old man!" he announced to me.

"Okay...There's a seat right there." I didn't get why everyone seemed concerned that I was sitting at the back of the subway. I'd had a long journey, had been lugging around my luggage, and not under any circumstance was I going to stand.

When we finally met up with my Korean friend, we jumped onboard the subway again to go to Busan Tower. The seats in the back were open again. I headed over, but she stopped me.

"No! Those seats are for old people. Handicapped. Pregnant."

I looked at my other friend. "I should have just said I was pregnant then."

Peomeosa Temple

My favorite part of Busan was Peomeosa Temple. We hopped in a taxi  that plowed straight up the middle of a one-way road, through the barren trees, to an open courtyard. The parking lot was full. Mothers helped children slip out of their shoes as they entered the temple for worship. I caught a glimpse inside and saw many candles flickering, illuminated unfamiliar painted faces.

The temple was laid out in several tiers. Branching out in all directions were hiking trails, one, to a sacred spring, another to the crest of the peak. The air was sweet and light, and we enjoyed bounding up the temple's staircases like mountain goats. Scratch that, we were still burdened down by luggage. But lovely orange persimmons hung over the temple porches, upon which visitors yawned and stretched after their overnight temple stay, and wild cats darted through the bushes.

The most amazing sight to me was the roof of multi-colored lanterns, wishes sketched upon their hexagonal surfaces. Oranges, reds, greens, and pinks all swayed together like a canopy of flowers, causing their shadows to rustle upon the ground. I grinned up at them, feeling as delighted as a child.

Then I saw my first monk. An exciting sight! He was bald, wore gray wool, and clasped a staff in his hand. Maybe a walking stick, or perhaps a fighting staff- who knew? All I knew was that these monks were extremely difficult to get pictures of. They ducked their faces away at just the right times.

Suddenly I remembered the girls back at Gyeongbok Gung Palace, trying so hard to get a picture of us foreigners without our awareness. I smiled.

North Korea Attacks

The other day I was waiting by the subway tracks. A freight train rumbled past. I glanced up, frustrated that the subway was taking its sweet time. And I saw the tanks.

I've never seen tanks in real life. Smaller than I imagined, these ones at least. Yet train car after train car clattered by carrying their ivy-green cargo. Headed west towards Seoul. Towards the border.

I confess, watching the television footage of North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong Island was an eerie recall to 9-11. It's something you watch over and over again, praying for some definitive answer to come across that never does. What does the attack mean? Will there be an escalation in the conflict? The long-withstanding struggle between North and South is a sleeping war, which simmers and then cools down. But now it's boiling. Tempers run high. Citizens were killed, the first time since the Korean War. North Korea is at a tense leadership turnover, with Kim Jong Il's health teetering. When I returned to my school the next day, I expected public outrage.

Yet my English ears couldn't hear it. School ran normally, and at lunchtime, the teachers chatted about housewarming parties and skin wrinkles. What was there to talk about? We were all waiting.

My co-teacher and I left to go observe an open lesson at a different school. We chatted casually. How expensive coffee was. What was her little boy's favorite TV show. I asked if he'd seen "The Lion King," and she responded with, "What? That's so old!"

I was offended. "The Lion King can never get old! It's a classic!" It was so odd to think of a new generation of children growing up these days, without Simba and Aladdin. Things aren't the same now as they were before. It's a funny feeling.

Finally, I asked her point blank, what she thought about the North Korean attack. Sometimes my co-teacher takes a while to ease into answers, to dance carefully around the subject. Today there was none of that.

"I am so angry!" she exclaimed, and then stopped, abruptly. More flashed behind her eyes, but she lacked the words, in either Korean or English, to express it.

Disclaimer: The above information is presented as opinion, not fact.

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