Monday, June 23, 2008

The first fortnight

So I have been in Jin-ju for 2 weeks now. The transition between cultures has been less shocking thanks to having my family here, but nonetheless I still stumble around in amazement at times. The sights transfix me; neon lights of the narrow alleys packed with people and cars and things for sale, rugged cliffs and flat rice fields, temples and architecture from fairy tales. The smells are a dazzle of newness; salty foods from the ocean, flowers that smell of banana and coconut, soil of strange compositions from a different geography. And the sounds inspire me; new bird calls that persist through a downpour, the quiet sharpness of Korean tongues, and the innocent giggles of children when they see my adorable niece, with her uniquely recessive characteristics.

Trying to speak Korean has been challenging. When in a foreign place I am usually most concerned with learning my 3 basics - Hello, Thank-You and I'm Sorry. In Korean, the word for hello is AHN-NYUNG HA-SEH-YO. Seriously. It took me 5 days to say this in public. The word for thank-you is GAM-SAH HAM-NEE-DA. I'm am not joking. I haven't even tackled I'm sorry yet. I just smile and sometimes bow my head slightly and swallow my pride. I have accepted my foreignness in a new way.

I have begun tutoring English lessons through the school where my sister, and now my mom, teach at. Mostly I work with individual students who have requested extra practice lessons in reading and writing. I work with 2 young women who will be attending a Canadian school next year on an exchange program.

Last week I experienced one of many firsts, and promised not be my last, Noraebang. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure in Asia or elsewhere, Noraebang is Korean for "Singing Room". A private, personal karaoke bar in a 5 x 5 meter below-ground living room. Imagine excessively loud 80's rock (mainly Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen), 6 television screens, flashy tambourines and neon disco balls. Add beer, snacks, 3 foreigners who can't sing and 3 Koreans who can, and you have my night at the Noraebang. Am I the only person who didn't realize the origin of the word 'karaoke' is Japanese?

Another adventure ensued this past weekend when we made a day-trip to the ocean. We travelled just over an hour by bus to reach the ruggedly island-studded coast of the Korea Straight between Japan and South Korea. It was truly breathtaking.

Highlights, exciting things that have caught my attention, and funny experiences since arriving here include, but are not limited to the following: the reflexology zen foot park, assorted baked goods made from rice flour (tripple yummmm), ringing my bell while cruising around the neighbourhood on my new red bike, experimenting with different Korean candies and delicacies, listening to my niece's fist real baby-belly-laugh and watching my sister's adoring face while it happened, meeting and spending time with Jonathan's mother and sister who are here visiting from Australia, and giggling into the wee hours with my mom in our dorm room apartment above the pajama store, across from the GS Mart.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

My 16-hour trans-Pacific voyage

I left Vancouver at 12:45 on a direct flight to Incheon, just outside of Seoul. The flight was great. Entertainment-on-demand is a real bonus (I watched 4 movies!). I was surprised as we left Vancouver to see coast line out the window for about 2.5 hours. I had expected the plane to set off directly across the Pacific Ocean, but instead we seemed to be travelling north. I checked out our route, and was amazed to see our flight path took us up all the way to Alaska and across the Bearing Straight.

We landed in Incheon almost an hour late, which meant I was pretty sure I wouldn't make the connecting flight. I needed to get my luggage (which is always the very last off the plane), clear customs, buy a ticket for and find a bus to Gimpo airport, check in at Gimpo and find my new departure gate. I had exactly 95 minutes to accomplish all these things. I knew that the airports were about 30 minutes apart travelling by bus. It seemed likely that I would be sleeping in a hotel in Seoul.

I couldn't think of what to do other than follow the plan I originally had. What else was I going to do? Getting off the plane and simply getting to the customs area took 21 minutes. "Perfect," I thought to myself sarcastically. Luckily, customs was easy. The customs man and I didn't even speak. I handed him my passport, he smiled, scanned it, typed a couple quick things on his keyboard, nodded and that was that. Exactly 30 minutes later, my luggage barrelled down the conveyor belt, second from last. I looked at the digital clock. 44 minutes till my next plane was scheduled to leave. I found the bus, loaded all my baggage and snagged a seat in the front row. Yesssss! I planned to spring from the bus once it stopped and run madly through Gimpo airport. I spent the 30-minute bus ride rehearsing how I would plead with the check-in personnel to let me on the plane, seeing that I would be arriving at Gimpo within about 14 minutes of take-off. I also soaked up the scenery and relished in amazement of my surroundings. "I am in Asia," I kept telling my brain, "Asia!"

Gimpo airport, domestic terminal, 9 minutes till take off. The bus let us off directly in front of the Air Korea check in counter, but on the wrong level. I dashed for a cart, loaded up my bags and pushed my way into a crowed elevator. "Come on, come on, come on...". The doors open, and there's nobody in line. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? "Am I too late?" I panted, out of breath, as I handed the woman my passport. She looked at me a little sideways, and told me she didn't speak much English. She then carried on to check me in as casually as if I was the normal 2 hours early. She pointed me towards the gate, which was 50 feet away, took my bags and said with a smile, "Have a good trip."

And that was that. No problem. Easy. Perfect.

As I walked calmly towards my departure gate with 3 minutes to spare, I wanted to yell really loudly, "I love Korea! I LOVE Korea. I LOVE Gimpo!" The impulse probably came from having not spoken to people very much over the past 16 hours. Or maybe the idea that I was surrounded by people who would probably not understand me, and not think of me as any less or more crazy because of an English outburst. Who knows. Maybe it was the fact that it was sunny and beautiful, I hadn't slept a wink in the last 21 hours and I had made it. I was just 55 minutes away from seeing my family. As I boarded the flight, I felt like I was on top of the world. A new and exciting world.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The adventure begins

The indulgent month of May wrapped up with a convocation ceremony, warm celebrations and teary goodbyes in Ontario. Amazing experiences and memories had been forged over the past 10 months in Kingston, Ontario and although it was a tough departure, I set off with keen energy for a new adventure in Asia. I made one important stop along the way.

I left Toronto at 8:30pm on a plane bound for Vancouver. We took off in a dusky twilight, and as the plane tucked its wheels into its chest cavity, I caught a glimpse of an ember-red sun slipping beneath the horizon line. As the plane ascended skywards, to my surprise and splendor, I witnessed a reverse sunset. An evening dawn. My face pressed against the window, corners of my mouth curled up in delight, I could hardly believe the spectacle before me. The glowing, red sun resurfaced slowly, inch by inch until it hovered above the cloudless Toronto horizon. It stayed afloat long enough to slightly illuminate the Bruce Peninsula below us as the plane chartered it's course westward. We were chasing the sun.

The colours of the sunset spread out in thick layers. First a fiery orange, lifting up into a dusty yellow, and then fading into a hundred smoky shades of blue. The landscape below was a dark mixture of silvery greys, just out of reach of the sun's light. I sunk into my chair and rested the back of my head on the seat. I exhaled deeply and closed my eyes. The perpetual sunset lasted 4.5 hours, almost the entire way to British Columbia.

10 days in Vancouver

My dad, Bruce, his girlfriend, Barb and I went on many small adventures in and around Vancouver. We checked out marshes and gardens, and spied on birds with binoculars and zoom lenses. Barb and I took in a few yoga classes, including one on the grass at Kitsilano Beach. It was refreshing and energizing to stretch and balance under the trees, looking out over the ocean with healthy spring grass below our mats.

We went on a road trip to White Rock and then crossed the boarder for a day in Bellingham, Washington. We also took in some art; galleries, openings and shows of inspiring printmakers from all over the world. We walked Wreck Beach and admired the Vancouver skyline from the Jericho Sailing Club. We explored VanDusen Botanical Gardens on a sunny afternoon. And we ate countless portions of good grub at fun Vancouver eateries (Naam, The Red Burrito, Capers, Go Fish Ocean Emporium, and The Noodle Box, to name a few). My dad and I explored the touristy venues of Vancouver, like Stanley Park, Granville Island and Kitsilano Beach.