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Tag: South Korea

The Forgotten War

Korean War photos.

Korean War photos. Photo Credit: By All photographs are works of the United States federal government. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nicknamed the Forgotten War, the Canadian participation in the Korean War is overshadowed by our efforts in the First and Second World Wars. I barely knew about the Korean War when I was in secondary school. My only connection to it was the names of the men who fought in that conflict being called out at every Remembrance Day ceremony in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. When I moved to South Korea after graduating university in 1997, this all changed.

I was an English teacher for half a year in South Korea. My first post was in Puyo (Bueyo), a rural town about three hours south of Seoul. When I wanted a taste of the big city, I took a bus to Taejon (Daejong), about an hour northeast of my Korean home. In the middle of the trip, the bus passed a war memorial. Huge bronze soldiers hoisted guns into the air on a gravel patch beside the highway. No one on the bus or in Puyo could ever tell me what the monument was for but it brought the Korean War to the forefront of my mind.

Twenty years ago it wasn’t hard to remember a war had been fought all over the peninsula. Sure, South Korea was a bustling place with lots of trade and tourism and great food. But there were signs that it was still on alert, ready for action in case the North decided to attack. There were armed soldiers at train stations, bus stations and sentry points on beaches.

The war between South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK) and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) started on June, 25 1950 when the DPRK invaded South Korea. In February of the next year, Canada, as part of a United Nations (UN) force, entered the war. Around 26,791 Canadian military personnel took part in combat as well as observer roles after an armistice was signed in July, 27 1953. The two Korean countries have been in an uneasy ceasefire ever since.

During my teaching stint, I hopped on a bus and took it to Inchon (now Incheon) to visit a fellow English teacher, Niki. In 1997 Inchon was a growing city. In 1950, it was an important port for Seoul, South Korea’s capital, and within striking distance of North Korea. It was also the scene of the Inchon Landings in September 1950 where the UN forces recaptured Seoul and delivered a tremendous wallop to the North Korean Peoples Army (KPA). It was a strategic and crucial victory for South Korea. (UN forces began hitting the KPA from the sea. The Royal Canadian Navy was a part of this attack.)

When this Canadian got off the bus in Inchon forty years later, I didn’t have to contend with shells going off or bullets whizzing by me. There were ROK military all over the place, an obvious sign of lingering tension, but I left that all behind once I left the station. I met up with my friend and we went for a hike in the hills of Inchon. It was New Year’s Day and sunny and bright. The temperature hovered just around zero and it was perfect for a jaunt outside. We walked up and up through a patch of fir trees tree and then waded through tall golden grass. We could see the ocean, the blue Yellow Sea, as we ascended higher into the hills. Soon we were walking along a ridge strewn with broken barbed wire. Along the way were worn concrete bunkers and broken down sentry posts. Were these remnants from the Korean War? Had we stumbled upon history? I’ll never know.

That’s the problem with being a traveller sometimes. With no one around to tell us what we were looking at or signs to guide us, we had no idea if these ramparts were from the war or just part of everyday life on the south side of Korea. I later asked my Korean friends about the military ruins but they didn’t have any answers. Neither did the internet, then and today.

Modern-day Incheon (the spelling was changed in 2000) is the site of an international airport. My husband and I landed there when we went to Korea this past May. The city has exploded in size, both population and square footage, and is the third most populated place in South Korea. I wonder if the remnants of what I had seen so many years ago still exist. The war certainly does although you wouldn’t know it. Seoul is a cosmopolitan city and no different from any other city in the world even though it’s just over 56 km (35 miles) from its enemy. There are no longer soldiers patrolling the train and bus stations because technology (CCTV) can be everywhere at once. That all changed when I went to the DMZ.

View of downtown Seoul, May 2016.

View of downtown Seoul, May 2016.

North and South Korea are separated by the demilitarized zone (the DMZ), that’s only about an hour’s drive from Seoul. The DMZ acts as a buffer between South and North Korea and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. My husband Jason and I signed up for a DMZ tour and left on a bus one morning to get a glimpse of the other side.

As we headed out to the demilitarized zone, we began to see the markings of a country on guard. The highway skirting the river leading to the Yellow Sea had barbed wire wrapped around the guardrails and every few metres there were covered platforms with soldiers stationed in them. In some of these little houses, I saw the soldiers hunched over their guns pointed out to the water, ready to fire at any moment.

Guard post.

At the DMZ, the tension is high. We’re told when to take photos and not to make any gestures or faces towards the North Korean side. In one of the buildings on the South Korea side, there’s a plaque honouring the Canadians who fought in the Korean War. The bronze marker is one among 15 other United Nations countries that fought alongside South Korea and Canada. Five hundred and sixteen Canadians died in the Korea War, far less than the First and Second Wars. But they still sacrificed their lives for peace.

Plaque at the DMZ.

Plaque at the DMZ.

It’s only writing this blog piece that I learned that the first Canadian infantry unit to take part in the Korean War, the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), was trained in Calgary. Another connection to the Forgotten War, this one in Canada. Lest we forget, the Forgotten War.

Then to now

View of North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK).

North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK).

I recently returned from a vacation that took me to Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. It was my first time landing in Malaysia and Singapore but not South Korea. I had been an English teacher in Korea almost 20 years ago. When I was there, I wrote a bi-weekly column for a Nova Scotia newspaper about my experiences. I’m doing that again except this time, the columns are for my own blog.

South Korea

Part V of Singapore ‘16

I had been to Seoul twice when I lived in South Korea 20 years ago. I had gone with friends, both Korean and Canadian, to explore the markets and go salsa dancing at a Cuban bar. Seoul was huge at the time and I remembered walls of people coming towards me like an ancient Greek phalanx. Not so 2016. The never-ending flow of people coming at me from all angles didn’t seem to exist like it once did.

View of Seoul.

Seoul.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still a lot of people, over 10 million, in Seoul. I think I didn’t see the crowds because Jason and I used the metro (subway) to move around the city. We weren’t out and about when students were going to and from school. There were other differences I noticed about Korea from then to now. Where were all the soldiers patrolling the train and bus stations? Twenty years ago, the military was everywhere. Today I still saw soldiers in uniform but they weren’t on active duty. They were sitting on the bus going home on leave or eating in a restaurant. They weren’t on patrol.

Young women used to cover their mouths when they laughed. That isn’t happening anymore. Girls weren’t walking arm-in-arm either. The vendors who used to sell dried squid to bus passengers didn’t board the vehicle and walk up and down the aisles, hoping to grip your taste buds. Things have changed. But despite the things I found different, one thing has stayed the same: the threat of North Korea.

South Korea and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK)  have been in a ceasefire since the Korean War in the 1950s. The two countries are separated by the demilitarized zone (the DMZ), that’s only about an hour’s drive from Seoul. The DMZ acts as a buffer between South and North Korea and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Tourists can visit the DMZ but beware; you can also be shot while seeing the sights. Jason and I decided to live on the edge and signed up for a DMZ tour.

I think it’s kind of strange to travel to a border for a peek into another country’s way of life. But North Korea is fascinating in a dark and twisted way. Nowadays you can travel to North Korea and visit places handpicked by the government but Jason and I didn’t want to give Kim Jong-un’s regime any of our money. Instead, we settled for a glimpse from the South Korean side. We went to the DMZ with Koridoor, a tour company in Seoul affiliated with the USO (United Service Organizations), an organization for U. S. military personnel. Our DMZ tour left from Camp Kim, a U.S. military base.

The tour left early in the morning and the bus was filled with tourists of all nationalities but mainly Americans from the Rotary convention. As we headed out to the demilitarized zone, we began to see the markings of a country on guard. The highway skirting the river leading to the Yellow Sea had barbed wire wrapped around the guardrails and every few metres there were covered platforms with soldiers stationed in them. In some of these little houses, I saw the soldiers hunched over their guns pointed out to the water, ready to fire at any moment.

Guard post.Seoul is so close to the DMZ, just over 56 km (35 miles). The South Korean capital is always hopping with people going to and from work and school and living life: business as usual. The people here know their world hangs in the balance. But what can you do when your neighbour is hostile and doesn’t care about human rights?

We started our tour at Camp Bonifas, a United Nations Command military post, where a U.S. army private gave us some history about the DMZ. (I thought I had a good grasp on the background but there’s a lot I didn’t know. Google it.) Going from cosmopolitan Seoul, to the strict rules of the DMZ was a big change. Private Chun (a Korean-American raised in California) told us not to point or make gestures of any kind. This is so the North Koreans can’t use it as propaganda. (Pointing is rude in Korean culture.) He also told us not to take photographs until he gave us the word. (Although this didn’t stop some people.) Then we continued on to the Joint Security Area (JSA).

Joint Security Area (JSA) sign.It’s at the JSA where the two sides face each other: South Korea on one side. North Korea on the other. We went into a building where the sides meet and I stood, technically, in North Korea for five minutes. Private Chun said sometimes North Korean soldiers will make comments and laugh at the tourists but no one bothered us that day. We could see one North Korean solider posted at a building on the other side. There was a second man who we couldn’t see because he has his gun trained on the first man in case he decides to defect and bolts for the South. Then the second man will kill him.

The JSA is surreal and fascinating. It was a solemn occasion too. There was nothing to be smiling about when the people on the North side are being governed by megalomaniacs. Many South Koreans have family in North Korea and it must be heartbreaking to be apart from them. From the JSA, we stopped at a view point of the Bridge of No Return. It was used as a prisoner exchange point but is now just a landmark. Off in the distance there looks to be a North Korean city. Except it’s just the façade of buildings. It’s the fake city of Kijong-dong and the only thing active there are loudspeakers blaring music and propaganda messages. There’s also a gargantuan flagpole erected in response to one built on the South Korean side.

North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) soldier.

North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) soldier.

Meeting room in "Truce Village" at the JSA.

Meeting room in “Truce Village” at the JSA.

South Korean (Republic of Korea or ROK) soldier.

South Korean (Republic of Korea or ROK) soldier.

Divide between south and north. I'm standing on the North Korea side.

Divide between south and north. I’m standing on the North Korea side.

Bridge of No Return.

Bridge of No Return.

There’s a lot of background and events that I’m glazing over. My story is about my experiences, not the minutiae of the history. The North Korean propaganda directed at South Koreans would be laughable if it all wasn’t so terrible. There are no limits on what the North Korean leaders have done or are doing to their people. Efforts for unification are under

way by some South Koreans. A train is ready to roll into North Korea at any time although only sightseers visit the eerie stop to nowhere today.

JSA. Looking towards North Korea side.

JSA. Looking towards North Korea side.

Over a lunch of bebimbap (rice and egg), Jason and I sat with an off-duty American soldier. He had been stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq and was in Korea for his second time. Growing up he had adopted Korean siblings and so Korea wasn’t a new experience for him. However, he had never been to the DMZ. We chatted about what we saw and his time as a solider. I asked him why I wasn’t seeing Korean soldiers posted around the country.

 

“They used to be all over the place,” I said, “even on the beach.”

“With today’s surveillance technology like CCTV (closed-circuit television), you don’t need people anymore,” replied the American solider. “You can monitor far more now with cameras and other systems.”

Train station. One of our last stops on the DMZ tour was to a tunnel known as the Third Tunnel of Aggression. North Korea dug 1,600 metres into South Korea in the late 70s. There are three other tunnels around the DMZ. Jason and I walked about 10 minutes down a sloping passageway into the darkness. There was not much to see but it was pretty terrifying to see how far the North Koreans got. It’s said the shaft’s wide enough for about 2,000 soldiers to pass into South Korea in an hour.

The tour was exhausting not because I was walking around all day. It was tiring because I was on guard all the time. I was reminding myself not to point (I also had to remind Jason. He’s a hand-talker and kept pointing to everything.) I had to remind myself not to take photos. These days with mobile phones and always having a camera for every moment, it was tough to remember not everything is a photo opp. Especially when heavily-armed soldiers are the subject.

The bus ride back to Camp Kim wasn’t as silent as I would have liked. The Rotarians were making their evening plans. Loudly. Jason and I already knew what we were doing: meeting a university friend of mine for supper. Dean and I lived in Seminary House at the same time at Acadia University. He had moved to South Korea around the same time I had. While I left after six months, he had stayed, got married and had a son.

Jason and I met Dean and his family and over fantastic Korean barbecue and grapefruit soju, we talked about life and our different paths. When I told them about the things that I noticed that were different, Dean’s wife said like every country, things change. New generations have different outlooks. They want different things. Just like in Canada.

Korean bbq.

Korean bbq – grill at your own table.

Later that evening, Dean, Jason and me headed to Itaewon, an area of Seoul. For me, it holds memories of cramped food stalls and narrow streets full of boxes of fruits, vegetables and Korean slippers. It used to have a seedy side too as it was a red light district. It was also an area known for ex-pats and that still rings true — and now it’s most known for its lively nightlife. We went to the Wolfhound, an Irish pub, and Dean was immediately surrounded by friends from all different countries. That hadn’t changed.

Jason and I got back to our hotel room after our enjoyable evening on the town. We had two and a half more days to go in the city. Over the next couple days, we saw a baseball game (Doosan Bears versus LG Twins), visited some palaces, went shopping, ate at a North Korean food stall during a Unification event and I had a business meeting at the Canadian Embassy. We packed in as many things possible while having pockets of time to relax and let the memories soak in.

Doosan Bears vs LG Twins. The teams share Jamsil Baseball Stadium so it was a home game for both teams.

Doosan Bears vs LG Twins. The teams share Jamsil Baseball Stadium so it was a home game for both teams.

Jamsil Baseball Stadium. Great atmosphere with the fans cheering and singing songs.

Jamsil Baseball Stadium. Great atmosphere with the fans cheering and singing songs.

Deoksugung Palace.

Deoksugung Palace.

Deoksugung Palace.

Deoksugung Palace.

Our first day in Malaysia seemed so far away on our last night in Korea. We had lots of photos and experiences and stories to take back to Calgary with us. While this was the end of our Singapore ’16, the trip we had been planning for a while, it signalled the beginning of something else: a life in Edmonton. Jason has a new job there. It’ll be a hard transition as Calgary has been our home for several years. We have amazing friends here and I don’t want to leave them. However, after visits with old friends, new friends, former homes and new sights, I know home is where you make it.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Off the beaten track

 

Moko, city street.

Mokpo, a southern port city in South Korea. Twenty years ago, I was supposed to teach English here. Instead, I went to Puyo and Taejon.

I recently returned from a vacation that took me to Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. It was my first time landing in Malaysia and Singapore but not South Korea. I had been an English teacher in Korea almost 20 years ago. When I was there, I wrote a bi-weekly column for a Nova Scotia newspaper about my experiences. I’m doing that again except this time, the columns are for my own blog.

South Korea

Part IV of Singapore ‘16

Revisiting Taejon put a part of me at rest. I had left bits and pieces of my DNA there 20 years ago, remnants that had been twisted in uncertainty and pain. Back then, I was either looking into the past or at the future, I hadn’t really been present. This time I was in Taejon in the here and now.

I saw what I needed to see there and did what I needed to do and it was time to move on. After less than 24 hours in Taejon, Jason and I got on a train heading south. We were going to Jindo, South Korea’s third largest island. I had never been there but had seen it on the news. It was close to where the MV Sewol sank in 2014, killing more than 300 passengers, many students. Before the tragedy, Jindo was full of tourists enjoying the ocean air and seafood restaurants. Today, there are still some visitors but not like before.

Train to Mokpo.

Train to Mokpo.

We were going to Jindo because it was off the beaten path for international travellers. Lots of people like to go to Chejudo, another island. (“Do” means island in Korean.) Cheju is a party place and Jason and I wanted to avoid that. I had read that Jindo had some of the highest tides in the world, just like where I grew up near the Bay of Fundy. Our plans were further solidified when we found a place on Airbnb offering a traditional Korean home, a hanok, for the evening. Why not spend a night the old-fashioned way?

Getting to Jindo was going to take some time. We would spend more hours going to and from the island then actually being there. (I don’t know why I didn’t figure this out until we got there.) Edward, our Airbnb host, gave us directions but they were a bit off. After arriving by train from Taejon to Mokpo, a southern port city, we had to transfer to a city bus to get to the regional bus station. We didn’t know how to get there but a few friendly Koreans showed us how to get from Point A to Point B.  One man asked where we were from, and when we said we were Canadian, he proudly exclaimed to us, “Montreal!” I guess he had been there several years ago.

Mokpo train.

All aboard!

We got the first bus and then transferred to a second bus and rode it for an hour to Jindo. At the bus station on the island, we were supposed to take a third bus to our accommodation for the night. Edward’s directions said take the green bus to the village of Oh-il-see.

All the buses were green.

Green buses were coming and going. Going and coming. One pulled in. One pulled out. Which one did we take? We asked the bus drivers but it seemed no bus was going where we wanted to go. A senior waiting on a sunny bench outside the station said something and motioned for us to sit beside her. But without knowing Korean, I didn’t know what she was getting at. There was a man taking tickets and he looked at our tickets and then pointed to the bench the woman was on. That was where the bus would pull up. Ah. We got it.

We were sure we wouldn’t have to wait long for our green bus since there were many green buses buzzing around. But an hour and a half later we boarded our green bus. A 10 minute jaunt and we were dropped off in the middle of Oh-Il-See. Our next move was based on Edward’s description on how to find his house: when you arrive Oh-il-see, there are two super markets, and my place is about 10 min from there on foot.

The village was a maze of narrow quiet streets. Surely someone would know where Edward lived in this tiny place. We asked a shopkeeper and she pointed down the road. That way.

We had told our host we would be at his place between noon and 2 p.m. It was now 2:30. Jason and I started walking in the hazy afternoon and moved off the street when a man with a toddler strapped to the back of his bicycle rode towards us.

“Lea? Jason?” he asked.

It was Edward, concerned his guests were lost since they hadn’t shown up yet. He introduced himself and his daughter Danbi. It was the start of a new friendship and a great time in Jindo.

Jindo dog: a type of dog from Jindo.

Jindo dog: a type of dog from Jindo.

At Edward’s home, he showed us into the hanok. It was basic, rustic, but that was fine. It was all we needed for one night. The small wooden home had enough room for a mat on the floor for sleeping, two pillows filled with hay and our two backpacks. There was a pit toilet outside. Jason and I had wanted to do something different while we were in Korea. We didn’t just want to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants. We had wanted to meet people and experience some of the culture. Here was our chance.

Edward and Danbi on the porch.

Edward and Danbi.

While we were getting our stuff organized, Edward brought us out some lunch. We sat at his outdoor kitchen table and ate kimchi and rice. Danbi brought out books and then musical toys and so we had an impromptu concert with our meal. Then we went for a hike into the surrounding hills where we passed rice fields and a lake. While Danbi played in a trickling stream, Edward told us some of the history of the island and why he and his wife Han were on Jindo.

Hanok bed - complete with hay pillows.

Hanok bed – complete with hay pillows.

Edward’s a musician as well as a fairy tale writer and philosopher. He liked the slower pace of life on the island, an island where a lot of artists live too. He asked why we were spending only one night in Jindo and we told him it was all the time we had. He asked why we had chosen Jindo and I told him the tides were a main drawn. That was when he decided to put us in his car and take us to the beach.

Dani peeking over her dad's shoulder.

So cute. Danbi peeks at me while we walk down the mountain and into the village.

The sun had stayed in Taejon. Rain started to fall in big heavy drops while we drove to the water. Edward let us out of the car with an umbrella and he went to visit a friend with Danbi. The tide was out and there was a familiarity with the scene: the mud flats stretching into the horizon, rope strewn on the beach and the smell of the sea. If I looked hard enough into the fog, maybe I’d see Parrsboro.

Jindo tide.

Jindo tide.

I shivered. The rain was cooling. This was the first time in a couple of weeks that I was cold outside. About 20 minutes into our beach foray, Edward pulled up. It was suppertime and so we tried out a few restaurants. The first one was for kimbap (Korean sushi) and mando (Korean dumplings). The second for duk bo gi (spicy rice cakes) and the third for sweet fried chicken. Everything was delicious and the way I remembered it.

IMG_1747

After supper, Edward was going to take us back to the hanok before picking up his wife at a potluck. Jason and I knew this would add hours onto his evening so we said we could all squeeze into the car. That was how we ended up being invited into the party when we arrived to pick up Han — and being serenaded by a talented musician. It was a completely random moment that made Jason and I feel like we had friends in Jindo.

A party in Jindo.

Party time.

Back at our hanok, we had no trouble drifting off to sleep on the floor. I did wake up a few times because the hay pillow was hard as a rock. Who knew straw could be molded into a brick? We woke up to the sounds of birds and the Jindo dogs barking instead of chugging motors and busy people starting their hectic day. It was a good break for my spirit. Seoul was the next and final stop on our journey and it would be filled to the brim with activities.

Hanok ceiling.

Hanok ceiling.

Breakfast was served to us: an apple and a piece of chocolate cake, and then Edward and Danbi dropped us off at the bus station. They stuck around while we boarded the bus and then waved goodbye as we drove away.

Edward and Danbi wave goodbye at the bus station in Jindo.

Edward and Danbi wave goodbye at the bus station in Jindo.

We had left Jindo too soon but we had certainly felt its magic. It has a different kind of energy: the type that’s used to being in the shadows of other, more popular places, but knows it’s special. The people are genuine and that doesn’t mean they’re all friendly. They can be grouchy too but they’ll be grouchy to everyone, not just the tourists. In Jindo, people came up to us and asked us where we were from. Then they would ask why we came to Jindo. We would tell them because we wanted to go somewhere different. Because we wanted fuller memories and stories rather than just photos taken in museums or conversations had only with other travellers.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Moments of the past and the present and the future

Rice field.

Rice field in Jindo.

I recently returned from a vacation that took me to Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. It was my first time landing in Malaysia and Singapore but not South Korea. I had been an English teacher in Korea almost 20 years ago. When I was there, I wrote a bi-weekly column for a Nova Scotia newspaper about my experiences. I’m doing that again except this time, the columns are for my own blog.

South Korea
Part III of Singapore ‘16

While planning our trip, my husband Jason and I tried to figure out how to get to South Korea from Singapore. Flights from Changi Airport were expensive. Flights from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) were cheap. We decided the best way to get to Korea was to flying back to KLIA from Singapore and then go on from there. So that’s what we did.

South Korea was my home for six months in 1997. I went after graduating from journalism school in Toronto and not being able to find a job as a reporter. (I had a job at The Gap.) As well, the guy I had been dating broke up with me and broke my heart and I decided the best way to mend it was to go far, far away. Where I knew no one and no one knew me.

I spent a lot of time on my own my first two months as an English teacher in Korea. I couldn’t speak or read Korean. I was illiterate and didn’t even understand street signs. However, my experiences forced me to grow up. Now, almost 20 years later, I was going back to Taejon, where I had once taught.

teach er and students.

My teen students twenty years ago. Photo credit: 이광림.

Jason and I landed at KLIA, an airport well-known to us by now. We planned our incoming and outgoing flights with many hours in between in case anything happened. Jason whiled away the eight hours by reading and I went from shop to shop trying to spend all our Malaysian ringgit, currency we wouldn’t be needing anymore. (I bought postcards, a Singaporean cookbook, tea and cookies. We still have a few ringgit left.)

Finally, it was check in time for our overnight flight to Korea on Vietnam Airlines. We went to the counter where the agents scared us by telling us we may be turned away at customs in Korea if we didn’t have a return trip booked. We had tickets home — albeit on a different airline — and when we showed them our itinerary, they checked us in and we were good to go.

Our first flight landed in Ho Chi Minh City at night. The airplane taxied past Air Force One on the apron. Turns out U.S. President Barack Obama was in Vietnam. But he wasn’t hanging out in the terminal, where we parked ourselves amidst noisy French tourists. For some reason, they had to congregate right by us even though there were rows of empty seats a couple of steps away. They chitter-chatted loudly, interrupting my thoughts and sleep, until their plane to Paris left an hour before our connecting flight.

Our second flight to Incheon International Airport was late leaving but that was fine. We didn’t have another plane to catch, only a train, and they ran numerous times a day. We were going to Taejon (also known as Daejeon) first, where I had lived for most of my time in South Korea. In my head Taejon, a city 140 km south of Seoul, hadn’t changed at all. But of course I knew it would be different. How different, I wondered.

After an almost seven-hour flight, we had outrun the heat and arrived in a cooler Incheon at 6:30 a.m. among what seemed to be a billion Rotarians from all over the world. (There was a Rotary International Convention going on in Seoul the last week of May.) Jason and I got our bags (both of them) and went downstairs to the Korea Train Express (KTX) station. We had missed the first train to Taejon but another one was coming along at 9 a.m.

I don’t think there was an express train to Taejon when I lived there. I took the bus everywhere then. But the train is certainly a faster way to travel – speeding up to 300 km an hour at some points. I was excited to go to Taejon. Excited to be back in a place I once knew as home. But entering the outskirts of Taejon, nothing looked familiar. Sky high apartment buildings, new to me, sprouted out of what used to be rural rice fields. I didn’t know where I was.

Street in Taejon.

Street in Taejon.

At the train station, Jason and I stowed our backpacks in a locker and found a tourist information booth. I wanted to find out just exactly we were. I don’t remember this station in 1997 and I thought if I could figure out where in the city we were, I could get us to my old neighbourhood.

When I told the tourist information officer where I wanted to go, she had no idea what I was talking about. Taejon had grown, grown, grown and was huge. There were many new communities, too many to know. I did remember that I had lived near a large department store, Say, and asked where it was. She pointed it out on a map.
IMG_1696
Jason and I went outside into the sunny afternoon and I was pulled left by an invisible force. I knew we had to go left. Checking the map, that was the way we were supposed to go. We walked and walked. Walked some more. Walked by Say and the park where I had played with the toddlers enrolled in my school. Jason and I walked by markets and shops that I must have visited a long time ago. Except it didn’t seem like a long time ago.

As I’ve said before, my experiences in Korea made me grow up. Yet being back in Taejon I felt like I was the same person. I didn’t feel any older or wiser or mature. How could twenty years have passed? They had. The grey in my hair told me I was no longer a young adult. The streets that had multiplied in Taejon said it wasn’t the same place. Then we got to a place that hadn’t changed at all: the river.

I stood on the bridge and looked down at the water. It still moved in the same direction. It still rippled when the wind hit it. It still offered herons a place to fish. People still walked along the pathway beside the Geum River. I used to run alongside it. I used to mull over what I was going to do next with my life. I was lonely and mourning a Toronto boyfriend when I was here the last time. I had no clue what I was going to do next. I had been lost. Now here I was, with my husband, no longer wandering and wondering. I knew my future was secure. This river was a conduit to a different time. Moments of the past and the present and the future chained together.

Geum River.

Geum River.

We walked on and found my old neighbourhood but couldn’t find my Taejon home or where I had worked, Kwak’s English Country School. We had already been walking for over four hours and had to turn around. A former student of mine, Suzan, was meeting us at our hotel room and Jason and I had to boot it back to the station to pick up our bags before we checked in.

We were sunburned and our feet hurt by the time we made it to our room. Tired too. Suzan came by at 6 p.m. and took us out for a drink. She was 13 when I last saw her. Now she was over 30. She had been one of my favourite students because she was spunky and said what was on her mind. We had stayed in touch via letters, e-mail and Facebook through the years.
IMG_1683Over grapefruit Soju (a distilled rice drink), I reminded Suzan that she once said she was never going to get married. She laughed and told me her parents were trying hard to match her up. Maybe if she visited Canada we could find her someone? Suzan’s friend Sun-Mi joined our little party and suggested we go to a traditional Korean restaurant in a village about 30 minutes away. Jason and I had been sleepy but the conversation (and drinks) gave us a boost of energy and we said sure to the offer. I’m glad we did.

Sun-Mi and Suzan drinking rice wine.

Sun-Mi and Suzan.

The place was truly magical. The sun was setting behind some large pottery kimchi jars (jars used to make a fermented spicy cabbage dish) and the air glowed blue behind them, profiling the mountains in the distance. I had seen this before. Not this exact scene but this setting. It was a perfect Korea moment. One made richer by the presence of old friends and new memories.

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Part 1 One and a half days in KL

Part 11  Who we used to be, who we are     

 

One and a half days in KL

I recently returned from a vacation that took me to Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea this past May. It was my first time landing in Malaysia and Singapore but not South Korea. I had been an English teacher in Korea almost 20 years ago. When I was there, I wrote a bi-weekly column for a Nova Scotia newspaper about my experiences. I’ve decided to share my experiences this time around — only this time, on my own blog.

One and a half days in KL

Part I of Singapore ’16

Batu_Caves_oneStepping off the train in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia, the heat grabbed me in a bear hug. It was only 7 a.m. but the warmth of the early morning wasn’t going to let me go. It was only going to squeeze me tighter and tighter until my clothes were saturated with sweat and I was dizzy. There was too much to see, too much to do though, and I tried to settle into the May temperatures of a place several thousand kilometres — and several degrees — removed from home.

I had thought maybe KL might spark some kind of recognition in my veins. Some sort of ancient feeling deep in my bones. Ancestors used to live in Malaysia. I talked to my grandmother about it before coming here. She told me she used to get letters with the return address stamped Kuala Lumpur. Our relatives either owned or ran rubber and tea plantations outside of the city and in Singapore as well. The resistance to the heat that had been built up in their blood had dissipated by the time it trickled down to me.

Since there were no traces of old memories or ghosts to chase, KL was mine to explore. After arriving at from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) at 1 a.m. and trying to find out why my husband’s backpack had missed the plane, we laid down on a long bench in the arrival’s lounge and tried to find sleep amongst the other tired travellers. When rest refused to come, we boarded a train to visit Batumalai Sri Muruga Perumal Kovil, otherwise known as the Batu Caves. The caves are massive limestone hollows that were once used as shelter and now are part of a Hindu shrine. They also open at 6 a.m.

A stormed had rolled through about half an hour earlier and did nothing to lower the temperature. It just made the grounds of the religious site wet and the air sticky with humidity. Grey clouds still languished in the sky creating a perfect backdrop for giant golden statues. I had never seen such things before. Seven or eight skinny dogs stretched out amongst the puddles in the parking lot. They looked hungry but never wandered over to us looking for food.

At odds with the poor dogs, was the smell of rich incense in the air. Everywhere I went in KL, there was the smell of spices, a warm aroma of seasonings that I’ve never learned the names of since I don’t know how to cook. The spices coloured the scenes around me, making everything that much more exotic, even a stair climb in the damp heat.

My husband and I went up 272 concrete steps with the other tourists, chickens and monkeys to the largest of the caves, the Temple Cave. Once at the top, music from two musicians blessed a ritual being performed by a man who washed a pure white sheet in clear water flowing from a hidden tap. The darkness of the cave held in the warmth. Sweat made my grasp on the camera slippery. I took a few photos of the beige walls marbled with black and then went back down the stairs, stopping on every one. I was being hypnotized by each step and felt I was going to fall if I went at any other speed other than slow. At the bottom, my husband and I got back on the train and headed into the central train station and breakfast.

After our meal of laksa, a spicy noodle soup, and a milk tea (it came with a lot of milk, duh, and tons of sugar already added) we tried to walk around KL. Not the best idea. Sidewalks ended abruptly in the middle of intersections and crosswalks are almost non-existent. Cars and trucks and motorcycles whiz and scream and buzz by so closely that their side mirrors almost touch me. Oh yes, the sun had come out.

If I had thought it was hot before, now it was excruciating. It smothered me with its softness and overtook my brain. All I could think of was escaping the brightness. The brilliance of the heat that bored into my pores. We had to stop but found a cool drink of water near shaded botanical gardens and listened to crickets sing and watched butterflies and giant moths fly overhead.

On the other side of KL are the Petronas Twin Towers,

Petronas Towers

Petronas Towers

buildings that were once the tallest buildings in the world until 2004. (Now it’s Taipei 101.) We took the subway to the office towers and looked up, way up. There are 88 floors and the Skybridge, a walkway connecting the towers, is supposed to be incredible. We really wanted to go on a tour and one left in 15 minutes. We were almost at the front of the line with a couple ahead of us.

The lanky stringbean Westerners used up the whole 15 minutes to ask the tour clerk questions. We missed that tour and had to move on. Our Airbnb host was meeting us at 3 p.m. and we didn’t want to be late. We were anyway.

Navigating the train and metro system wasn’t the problem. Finding the tall apartment building where we were staying for the night wasn’t either. We could see the white concrete structure sticking out amongst the other skyscraper residences from the train. We were late because we couldn’t find the front door. Then someone told us we had to go down some crumbling stairs cut into the side of a steep but short hill, and then round a corner. There it was. Home for the night.

There was a pool in the building and so I went for a swim. That’s when the heat loosened its hot grip on me, slid off my sweat-slicked arms and withered away. It wouldn’t be gone for good on this trip. It would find me again. For now, it was banished by the apartment’s air conditioning.

Traffic.

View from the apartment. Too bad my camera phone is terrible.

The view from the 15th floor apartment was amazing: traffic,

traffic, traffic. The one-room place had floor to ceiling windows that suspended me over the busy roads. I couldn’t stop watching the trucks and cars push and shove each other looking for free space. In-between them, motorcycles zipped along, lane-splitting in a way that’s illegal in Canada, but a highly effective way to get downtown quickly in KL.

It was only early evening, 7 p.m., but the travel, the 14-hour time difference with Calgary and the battle with the stifling heat invaded my brain. It shut down my body and I closed my eyes. Waking up 12 hours later.

A return

Child in Korea.

Hans.

The little guy in the photo on the left will now be 23. It’s crazy to think I took that picture of Hans almost 20 years ago in South Korea. It doesn’t feel like that much time has passed. Today I’m returning to the Land of the Morning Calm.

I’m stopping in a few other places before landing in Inchon International Airport. From there, I’ll visit Taejon (Daejong), where I worked as an English teacher for a few months. The photo of Hans was snapped in Puyo (Bueyo), the first place I taught English in 1998. I won’t be heading there.

To get to Puyo I’d have to crisscross the southern part of the country on different buses. The trip will gouge a large chunk of time from my already busy schedule seeing other parts of the country that I never got to visit long ago. I do feel a tug towards the rural town and wonder if it’s changed over the years.

I’ve changed. Even though I don’t want to admit it. I have lines around my eyes and memories that stretch over many years. Korea changed me first though. It was in Puyo that I grew up.  Where I became an adult. Without mom and dad nearby or just a telephone call away (the time difference was about 12 hours), I had to rely on me. I had to make my own money and spend it on groceries. I had to make my own decisions of where to go and what to do. I had to sort out my own problems.

So even though I’ll be bypassing Puyo soon and driving past the classrooms where I taught and the temple I ran by every morning, I’ll resist the pull of memories. Puyo will always be part of me. I don’t need to re-visit it. After almost 20 years, my time there has been absorbed into my bones. It has made me stronger. It made me: me.

I’ll be back at the beginning of June. See you then.

Christmas in South Korea

 A student of  my in Korea.

Hans, one of my students in Puyo, South Korea.

One of my first Christmases away from my family was when I was teaching English in South Korea. It was 1997 and the Korean currency, the won, had fallen. I wasn’t making any money, but I was getting rich in experiences.

I was living on my own in Puyo, a rural town. I didn’t know many people and had been only there just over a month and a half. It was a lonely time and one I wouldn’t wish to relive but glad I went through it.

The lead-up to Christmas in Puyo wasn’t too bad. They didn’t go all out with decorations and blasting carols in shops. There were a few festive baubles hanging from a supermarket window but that was it. I also had to work during the day on Christmas Eve, which was different from what I was used to in Canada. However, this made things easier: I didn’t miss my family so much when it didn’t feel like Christmas.

But on Christmas Eve there was no escaping it. I love December 24 because it’s low-key and family-centred. No opening gifts, no gorging on a lavish feast – yet early enough that no feelings of sadness that Christmas was coming to an end. Christmas Eve is special to me because it’s the day before the flurry of activities. The 24th is for taking in everything and relaxing with loved ones.

We always head to church for the Christmas Eve service. Dad always makes us go super early so we have seats together. Then we sing carols and afterwards eat perogies, cabbage rolls and chicken wings and play board games.

I was missing this in Korea. But I could at least go to church. I did and sang many of the same Christmas hymns we sing in Canada. (Except I have trouble remembering lyrics so I sang the same line over and over again.)

After church I went out for a drink with my fellow teacher and roommate, Sun-yee. We had the best octopus ever that night too. It was so spicy I could hardly eat it but I kept putting it into my burning mouth. I went to bed trying not to think when I woke up it would be Christmas.

Christmas dawned and I slowly got up. Korea is 12 hours ahead of Nova Scotia so I called my parents on their Christmas Eve. It made me sad I wasn’t at home but I knew they were missing me too.

I had the day off from school and not much to do. I chose to go exploring. That’s what I did most weekends in Korea. I walked and walked and walked and walked. Covering many kilometres, discovering back roads leading to beautiful temples, acres of rice fields and a bridge over a quiet stream with a black goat tied under it. (There were no trolls).

I took lots of photos that day. None of anyone opening presents or stockings. I was OK — until I went into a favourite shop to get a treat. The store was playing Christmas music and the song bore a hole into my heart. I was going to cry if I didn’t get out of there.

I paid for my treat (probably a sweet bean bun) and left. When I called my parents again that evening it was their Christmas morning. I think I cried this time.

This would be the Christmas that lasted three days for me. The next morning, Boxing Day, was Christmas night at home. I didn’t feel too terrible that morning since it was back to work for me. Phew. Finally, something to take my mind off Christmas.

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