Sunday, June 21, 2009

Korean Yodelers, and Indian Musicals: Life with a new family

I just moved into a new homestay last week. I know, it’s only a month before I leave, but the last family I was with had downgraded to a two bedroom apartment, and with all five of us living there it was a bit cramped. So my new homestay is a bit bigger, and consists of one 12 year old daughter and two proud, doting parents. One of my homestay father’s favorite pastimes is shaking my hand; an operation that he performs with clocklike regularity almost hourly. As he shakes my hand he smiles deeply and uses the only English phrase he knows, “nice to meet you!” It doesn’t matter that I met him four days ago, and it doesn’t matter that I’ve repeated this phrase four times already today, but I obediently smile, nod, and respond, “it’s nice to meet you too.”

Such peculiarities are common and usually highly comedic in this household. My homestay mother is a kind woman, short, with curly black hair and a perpetual smile, her chief concern seems to be making me happy. That, and talking almost incessantly. She has a decent understanding of English and makes the most of it. Around meal times she moves at a dizzying pace around the kitchen, chopping vegetables and talking about everything from her love of international music to how she met her husband to her love for watching Indian musicals. To be honest, she is so sincere and so kind that I really don’t mind, and as long as I smile and occasionally nod, I provide her with all the confirmation she requires to continue chattering happily. My homestay sister (Tammy is her English name) is a cute girl with a bit of a lisp, red-rimmed glasses and just enough missing teeth to make her look mischievous. Her first love is her fish. She has three bowls of fish in the living room and her favorite pastime is sitting hunched over them, trying to guess which fish are pregnant and which fish are in love with one another. Occasionally I will hear screaming coming from the living room. This is usually her signal that one of the fish has given birth and she has subsequently begun the chase to catch those fish and put them in a separate bowl before their inevitable consumption by less scrupulous older fish. Not surprisingly her excitement is not limited to fish; she is excited about almost everything, from completing a math problem to waving excitedly as I walk in the door every evening. On the second evening at my new homestay Tammy and I went to Baskin Robins to get some ice cream to take home. When we got home Tammy showed me that the people at Baskin had put dry ice around the ice cream to keep it cool, and then, with a twinkle in her eye, she said, “teacha, watch this!” She grabbed all the dry ice and threw it into our only toilet, causing a geyser of bubbling white smoke to burst upward. She threw her hands upward in wizard-like triumph as the bathroom filled with the smoke, fogging her glasses and causing her to reach blindly for the door.

It was the same night that my homestay mother had brought me to a local concert in a nearby park. A couple hundred people showed up to clap along with whomever entered the stage. The ground was littered with blankets upon which young kids and the elderly sprawled awkwardly, fanning themselves with complimentary fans that had been provided and occasionally eating from open containers of homemade kimchi. It seemed to be just another concert, one of the many that I had attended (or been forced to attend,) but suddenly a group came on stage that caught my attention. It was a group of Koreans singing literally the last form of music I would expect a Korean to sing: they Yodeled. Let me tell you, if you think that Koreans can’t Yodel let me tell you; they can. These people were talented. I stood in awe, jaw dropped, incapable of tearing my eyes or ears away from the harmonious melody that was being uttered from the mouths of those I least expected to do so. After several songs (some of which included audience participation, that’s right, I did some Yodeling,) we decided to go home where my homestay mother said she had something special planned.

When we got home my homestay mother sat me in a chair and turned on the computer. She had a smile on her face, as if she was tremendously pleased with herself and whatever she was doing, and she began to play a movie. The movie was on the computer, and was of her favorite genre: Indian Musical. So the movie itself was in another language, but it was ok she said because there were subtitles. Unfortunately for me those subtitles were in Korean. Our subsequent conversation, about ten minutes in, went like this:

Homestay Mom (HM): Jon, do you like this movie?

Me: Yes, only maybe it is hard to understand.

HM (shocked at what I’ve said): Really? Why hard to understand?

Me (equally shocked at her lack of understanding): Well, you know I don’t speak Korean, and since my Hindi is a little rusty I really can’t understand anything.

HM: Oh, you don’t understand, it’s ok. I explain movie to you…

Me: You really don’t have to…(wishing I could just go to bed and avoid this, but seeing how important watching this musical is to her)…well, how long is this movie?

HM: Hmmm, maybe three hours.

At that point I wished I could have said, “maybe I would rather light myself on fire and jump out the window right now.” But instead I begrudgingly submitted to this new authority and allowed her to explain to me what was happening every two minutes for the next three hours. It was a long night, but I have to say, there were some great song and dance numbers in that movie. I guess I see why she loves those movies so much.

So this is how my first week has gone with a new family. It’s been great, and I am really happy to be here, and to finish my time in Korea at a home with a family that is so kind and generous, even if they are a bit strange.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Mourning a Hero – and Defying Another.

Two weeks ago a tragic thing happened; the former Korean President killed himself. The sadness generated by this act was an interesting thing to witness, the Korean people united in mourning for this man who was, no doubt, a great leader in his day, but whose career was marred with scandal and charges of corruption. I am not qualified enough to say whether or not he was guilty of these things, but a great many people thought he was. Either way what happened was tragic. His rise to power was inspiring, making this end seem all the more unfitting. Across the country candlelight vigils were held to commemorate his life, and in Cheongju I attended an outdoor service where speakers, poets, and musicians, along with hundreds of the faithful paid their respects. There was a line of hundreds of people that stretched around the block, each person waiting to take off their shoes and bow in front of a picture of the president. Although I couldn’t understand much of what was being said, it was moving to see so many people paying tribute to a man they obviously felt great affection for.

Apart from this happening I have continued to take pictures of and around Cheongju, trying to gain a more accurate picture of what life here is like. Here are a few of the most recent:
This is Mr. Jo on his way to catch clams at Daechon Beach.

Taking the bus in Cheongju.


Last weekend I went to Seoul to work with the NGO I am apart of, and I happened to be near City Hall when a big protest was taking place against the current president, Lee Myung Bak. Such things have always fascinated me, and, against the strong advice of a few of my friends, I tried to get around the crowds of riot police engulfing the City Hall area and into the middle of the protest. After several minutes of well-timed maneuvering I made it to the center of the protest, surrounded by hundreds of passionate people chanting for the removal of the president. The atmosphere was electric. The protesters were surrounded on all sides by riot police, but this only seemed to encourage them, and they altered their chant from “out with the dictator,” to “down with the police.” It was great. The circle of police tightened, and the group grew more frenzied – frenzied, but not violent. I looked around me. There were all types of people among the protesters, old, zen looking Korean men with beards, mothers, fathers, even a few kids, and at the front of the protest were the students.
My respect for students has only grown as of late, as they are often so unrestrained and passionate (albeit often misguided) and eager to make they change that they profess. Like it or not, they are the ones who often spur change, who often give a voice to pressing issues, and who are idealistic and ignorant enough to attempt to do the great things that can, and often cannot, be done. Please don’t get me wrong, I know very little about the current administration and I certainly don’t know enough to actually give an opinion, let alone be a part of a protest, but to be among those protesters was a remarkable experience. Although it was chaotic, I had a strange sense of comfort, as if whatever brought together all those people was something genuine.
I spent about an hour standing in the middle of the group, and I met a lot of interesting people. One of my favorite people was an older Korean man who had taken it upon himself to slap an “MB Out” poster to every Police bus he could find.
Watching him one could easily see the relish with which he performed his duty. He was only stopped a few times, and each time he would continue immediately after.

I left only when a large group of “red police” showed up. They were riot police but meaner, with red tape on their helmets, body armor, shields and batons. Yes, I concluded, things were about to get ugly, and being beaten in an anti-government rally wasn’t how I had envisioned my day going, so I slipped out quietly. A few pictures:

The front lines.

The face of the other side.
A job well done.
Trouble brewing.

Just over a month left in Korea. Still uncertain about my future. Still excited at the prospects. Excited about new adventures, frightened about new challenges. Living expectantly.