busan international fireworks festival

i am the type of person that can get really concerned about things. though i go through my life mostly looking up i can experience moments of worry, moments that can keep me up at night watching action movies to stay distracted. i can settle into a life and start new very easily but fragments of doubt can shuffle up to me quickly and without notice. i was the kind of kid that was happy but also had the potential for unmatched levels of moroseness. despite my overall state of mental well being here in korea, i have spent a few nights wondering if i was doing all i could here. to offset creeping notions i spent this weekend in busan with friends for the international fireworks festival. sadly angela stayed in daegu due to a nasty sickness.

dongdaegu station
dongdaegu station

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the busan international fireworks is apparently a big deal in south korea. i hadn't really heard much about it and sort of assumed that when i did it was because i was just some westerner looking to appropriate some culture: with some "major" festival happening on a weekly basis around the country it can difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff: the onggi pottery show, for example, is coming up soon and is sure to be a hit. or not. but it sure is getting the shit advertised out of it. who knows? but when a foreigner hears of something like an International Fireworks Festival happening on the most popular beach in the country they sort of have to go. especially if they have awesome friends willing to put them up for free.

gwangalli beach, busan. before the crowds arrived in our area.

so ann, ryan, colin, kristen, sam, jesse and myself bought from a streetside vender a bunch of beach mats that look like the UV shields californians put in their parked cars: you know the type, foil on one side, vaguely padded, insulating. proud and feeling adventurous we took our newly acquired spacesuit material down to the beach. i was informed that there would be a lot of people there. what i wasn't ready for was the sheer amount of bodies. when i saw metallica many years ago i knew what i was signing up for. when i happily strolled into a crowd umpteen times larger and umpteen times more prone to exploding than that which was crammed into qwest field i was completely unprepared. we waded into the mob with another group of festival participants and got no further than 20 feet before we were utterly stuck in the quagmire. sam was up front and got thoroughly harassed and handled by a little old lady who seemed to have much more power than her hunched frame would have cared to admit. i was choking on my backpack and the five friends between us were beginning to lose their minds. the noise got louder and louder as those koreans behind us shouted to move forward and those in front of us shouted to move back. i cracked. screaming and panicked i turned around and tried to get back. more old ladies pushed me aside and i nearly fell over as the shoulder checks became increasingly violent. the last time i felt so enraged was 8 years ago when security guards didn't let me through the gates to see mudvayne. i thought those days were behind me but to my immediate horror they were staring me in the face, daring me to stand up straight and keep my knees from buckling.

eventually we all made it back out onto the street and were informed that down the beach a click we'd find a more open area. sure enough we found space to lay down our mats and then our bruised egos. it was 4:30pm. the fireworks wouldn't start for another three and a half hours.

full beach
close to show time, the space between individual mats becomes null

8:00. showtime.

from left: jesse, sam, kristen, colin, ann, ryan

so, am i doing all i can here? no. the answer is that simple. it will be impossible to do everything and get the sense of accomplishment that comes with living somewhere for years. i will never fully conquer south korea but as long as i make these efforts and spend time with friends and challenge myself there is no telling where the rewards end. maybe the notion of never being able to see everything is exactly what i need in my life, after all.And the rest of your post here

-e pics n' things!



i just ate three things i never would have imagined eating in one sitting:

quail eggs. they're exactly what they sound like - the hard shell has been picked off and the eggs hard-boiled.

mini sardines. these were the "dressing" for the quail eggs. in sesame oil and the size of a large sliver they were served in a big pot with the eggs.

black soup. the only other foodstuff that's as descriptive as this is hot ham water. soup. black as the devil's clogged toilet. viscous and chunky.

-e pics n' things!


bathroom etiquette and personal space and how the two are very closely related

though only a month and a half have passed since i began my fledgling teaching career i have already run full steam into several awkward moments with my students. dynamic korea is a place with infinitely different notions regarding personal space than most countries i've been to; i.e. there isn't much to be had.

the first came not long after i started at seopyeong. the one that caught me on my walk home after school as i was stalled in an intersection looking for a hotspot to download a podcast insisted on touching my arms. he was prattling on about something or other and due to my lame korean at the time (not to insinuate my korean has since magically turned conversational) i could not tell him that i didn't understand what on earth he was on about. i gestured to him with my arms folded in an X across my chest, universal hangul for "No." he kept smiling and chatting and brushing my arm hair and seemed pleased to finally be able to talk without being interrupted. this carried on for a minute or two before the old folks in the neighbor hood began looking. nay, staring. i felt sharp darts in my back: every time i pulled away from the young boy he clung on tighter, touching my arms and pulling my non-iPod hand down to hold. after feeling the snare of stares from surrounding koreans i finally had to be rude and walk away from the kid as he was in mid sentence. i can only imagine the headlines in the local hofs and restaurants, did you see that giant white man? did you see how close he was with that child? well, i never...

about two weeks ago i was caught in the bathroom between classes. classic rookie mistake. the equivalent in the marines is volunteering when Gunny asks for a private to check out what's up over that there hill. that private, everybody knows, never comes back. so i was caught at the urinal when a few 2nd and 3rd grade boys came running in. they all started shouting hello at me presumably because they all have amnesia and forgot they had already done so every other time they saw me that day. it's cute when you're not in the middle of a transaction that requires more quiet space than stage time. i made the second mistake of replying to them and out came a half-cocked hello. if Gunny had heard it he would've made me a stretcher bearer thinking i'd lost all my nerve and gone all gutless on him. they started screaming and when i waved at them to go away they all came and gathered round. what i'd forgotten is that in korea, and most asian countries, what i know in western cultures as the "GO AWAY" hand gesture is actually "COME HERE." if this were a movie an adult would have walked by just as i was waving them all to go away and i would have comically lost my job. eventually i actually shooed them away, though and all was right with the world.

and then there was last week in one of my after school classes. as i was handing out worksheets to be completed two young boys got in a scuffle which ended with boy A laying boy B out, cold cocking him once and then giving him a right hook before i had the chance to get in between. once he regained his composure boy B reached out his hand to shake on it to settle matter. boy A's refusal to meet halfway seemed only to strengthen the initial physical wounds by bruising B's dignity: kid gets beat up then wants to shake hands on forgiveness and is shut down. a sad sight indeed.

but today was perhaps the strangest thing to happen between me and a the kids. i found myself bursting for a trip to the squatters (if you don't know, they're exactly what they sound like) around 12:15. lunch time is 12:20. thinking i could fit it in like the invincible bank robber feels like he can get in just that one last perfect heist i made a dash for it. but lo, disaster struck. a few boys were already in the bathroom and they were, both tragically and hilariously, the same motley crew as the urinal incident just two weeks prior. enter: shouting hello. knowing better this time i only nodded at them and kept moving briskly across the always-wet bathroom tile-floor to the opposite wall to gather my hurried wad of toilet paper from the wall dispenser before seeking the haven of a stall. one boy's voice stood out and he was no longer saying hello but actually talking at me in hangul. the rest of the boys had gone silent. i resisted for as long as i could until, at the very last moment before entering the safe womb of the squatter i turned to see what he was saying.

what spread before me was a scene more majestic than the last supper. more powerful than turandot. more suggestive than a PG-13 rated teen sex romp. the boys, five in total, had constructed a scene of what they presumed my next few minutes to include. two were on either side of the one in the middle, the one that was trying to get my attention, wildly pointing at him while giving me giant little kid cheek-to-cheek smiles. the one in the middle was in the squat position pointing at me and squeezing out what little vocabulary was in his english arsenal: teacher! son sang nim! teacher dookie?!

not knowing what else to do (i wasn't going to tell him no! teacher no dookie! because that's a lie) i just turned and locked the door as quickly as i could. not moments later, just as my afternoon's events began to unfold, there was a rushed knocking at the stall door. it shook and little boys laughed. i forcefully told them to go away. but why would they? they have no idea what "go away" means. all they heard was the panicked cry of a rookie teacher at his most vulnerable. a stupendous feat of psychological warfare the boys had raged. but they weren't done.

the door in the stall behind me shut and this made me nervous. not two nights previous i was out with a couple guys and one had brought a story of elementary boys hellbent on keeping him company in the bathroom. i had to believe it was a myth and that my worst nightmare was not about to come true. i braced myself with the kind of fortitude one reserves for life's most trying moments and looked up and behind me. a boy was climbing over the stall and looking down into mine laughing and waving and shouting hello. with very few options available i began yelling at them. i rushed. i got out of the stall and the kid was still on top of the dividing wall laughing. i very strongly told him to get down and this he seemed to understand. his friends were laughing and they all crowded around the sink because it was right next to the door and it was my next stop. they watched me wash my hands as though it seemed strange that a white man would wash his hands in their sink.

i turned to them, hands dripping wet and not necessarily clean for lack of soap. they shouted hello and all ran off down the hall cheering about their victory, their conquering of a fragile giant. a foreigner in a strange land.

-e pics n' things!


the myriad difference between hospitals and clinics

well, it finally happened. today i went to a korean hospital for the first time. this, i guarantee you, is far less dramatic than it appears. here hospitals are called hospitals and clinics and walk-ins are called hospitals: there is zero differentiation between the two in discussion with koreans. you sort of realize you're not going to a hospital-proper when you're walking up a flight of stairs and a couple 13 year old girls in school uniforms are walking down, leaving their hagwon for the day.

after a lovely trip to neighboring gwangju, i managed to finally contract the epidemic that exists only in elementary schools. starting sunday morning i have felt like a dozen mice are running around inside my head. my nose won't stop running and it feels like my lungs are filled with soot. it doesn't matter if you teach at an isolated little town in the pacific northwest or a dingy metropolis on the other side of the world, you will get sick. this is why flu season starts. this is why doctors are rich and hated.

a note on the former. actually, a complete digression on the former: medicine here is cheap. and not cheap like insurance-cheap. i mean really cheap. i was resisting my co-teacher's attempts to get me in for a check up because i was afraid of the bill. i had seen angela go to the clinic and get treated for strep and she ended up paying about $80 USD for a pretty slick medicine drip (more on my costs later). as per usual, and being the cheap bastard that i am, it was difficult to get me to pay to pay for something i knew would just go away on its own in another few days. also i hate needles. they can just go sod off, thank you.

my co-teacher, mun su-eun (that's sue to you, by the by), finally got tired of watching me blow my sorry chapped nose and took me to a "hospital" today for a check-up. she asked if i had brought my insurance card and i told her that no, i wasn't planning on making a trip to the hospital today so i hadn't packed it with my lunchbag. "okay, no problem. just bring your ARC." from the time i entered the waiting room of the clinic, on the 2nd floor of a non-descript building on a non-descript street very close to where i live, to the time i was walking back out with a prescription notice in hand was less than the time it took for the battle scene on the bridge in mission impossible 3 to run. i was in and out in less than ten minutes and was informed that i wasn't as sick as everyone thought i was. it's tough to say i told you so sometimes. the doctor lady told me to take three and call her in the morning (actually quite literally), handed sue a bill and showed us the door. at the front counter i paid 3600won (just about $3.19 USD) and was out the door. there were no extended forms and liability waivers to fill out. there was no waiting for 20 minutes. dynamic korea comes through in a positive way here.

downstairs was the pharmacy. not across town like in the united states. apparently clinics and pharmacies work together in a federally-run health care system so that the crippled, or merely coughing, patient doesn't have to go on a vision quest halfway across the state to get their damned pills before collapsing in a heap on the side of the road due to exhaustion because they've run out of gas money and can't hitchhike because if they stuck out their thumb their crutches would fall out. i found this convenient. someone of more dire circumstance than myself might find this downright helpful. it took the people behind the counter less than 3 minutes to fill my prescription and for 9 doses of 3 pills each i paid 1700won ($1.50 USD). once again, no forms, no request of address, phone number, social security number, second piece of identification and the serial number of your first mountain bike. just in and out. later in the evening i would buy a pack of halls throat drops that cost more than my entire prescription.

as david sedaris so elequently put described his own habits while living in france, "now i can finally afford to be a hypochondriac."

...or maybe it's the air here?

-e pics n' things!


one of the best days/nights here: pt. I

to be in a country where everything is new and unusual it would be pretty special to have a day/night combo that would stand out. this is especially the case for me, a chronic optimist stuck in 5th gear because everything new seems to be, to quote a very special mexican friend, "really amazing. really, really amazing." jump for more...


so let's start with the andong mask festival. angela and i met up with good friends ann, ryan and kristan to take the 100km bus ride from here in daegu to andong. we started successfully enough by walking 15 minutes south to the subway, heading east for 20 minutes on the red line and then finally taking a 20 minute taxi ride north and west, effectively making a really nice looking circle around the busy part of the city. we found these directions and took them as read without doing any sort of research thus were led to spend 950won on the subway and 9000won for the cab. we ended up at the bukbu (literally "north area". buk: north. bu: area) terminal, a place only 10 minutes, and 3000won, north of my apartment by taxi.

the bus stations here seem to be easy to deal with. after being ruthlessly queue barged and cut-off a few times by citizens of dynamic korea i was able to walk up to the ticket counter and get two tickets to andong with relative ease. there are a lot of places in korea that look like they should not accept bank cards that do, the bukbu terminal being one of them. the tickets there were 6900won with buses leaving every 40 minutes. on a sidenote, there is something to be noted here about the architecture in south korea: while the city centers develop and become notably glassier, suburbs and outskirts become more and more derelict. many buildings here are eerily reminiscent of a time when this area, daegu specifically, sat on the precipice of the PROK war line. daegu was within the pusan perimeter so was never actually breeched by the communist forces in the korean war but was definitely under threat of siege or bombardment. the older buildings of the region reflect military architecture. most are grey tiled or concrete slab constructions, squat and void of any character.

angela enjoying some of the more edible snackyfairefoodz. can't go wrong with fried dough and sugar.

it seems the mask festival itself serves as a massive boon to the area's local market economy. as we approached the festival's center we had to walk through a huge row of vendors that were slinging wares and goods not often associated with traditional cultural events and celebrations. next to the fried dough/elephant ear/churro vendor was a booth selling tools and household hardware. a few booths down from them was a sale on cheaply constructed leather shoes. strings, electric wires and tattered canopies were strung every which way. pungent smells of wildly differing levels of appeal wafted in and out like listening to seven different versions of puccini's nessun dorma by a norwegian death metal band, sigur ros, 2PM, et. al: some were good, some were very, very bad. beware the fool that keeps walking while taking in a brainful of sweet dough smell because the boiling silkworms will sneak up on your blissfully unsuspecting olfactory receptors. it's like getting hit in the face by a 2x4. on fire. with a nail on one end. the end that his you, to be more exact.


a vendor selling bibimbap, a classic korean rice dish.


but there was a mask festival behind the thick curtain of strange korea fair food. a traditional mask festival that had a free beer wagon and a massive stage and a pop music concert replete with pyros and smoke. the grounds the festival was being held at appears to be a permanent installation. the shape of a stadium but about 10 times the size and without the bleacher seating, the andong mask festival was massive. there was a mask dance stage, vendors and mask making booths. the latter was probably the best part about the whole day for me. ann, ryan, kristan, ang and i bought a blank paper mache/cardstock mask for 3000won. with this we got a 5-color pack of floam, that stuff you had as a kid and always wanted to eat but if you had you would've died because the shit's probably more toxic than the columbia river near hanford.

raw materials.

the five of us were crowded around a small little workbench under an awning. the day was plesant and we spent an hour and a half on mask making and talking. i can't say i would have had a better time doing something else.

finished product.

playing in the bubbles area.


perhaps one of the strangest things we bore witness to over the course of the fantastic day was on the stage. the barbecued squid, the strange fair food, the green spiders the size of my palm, all of this was more or less expected. the day took a turn for the surreal, however, when we were in the main plaza area with our backs to the stage. i was procuring a cup of disgusting coffee while the other four stood in a circle contemplating our next move when we heard something, to understate the point, unexpected. not traditional korean chanting or pansori...

...but something totally different and, dare i say, perhaps not exactly the most true expression of the rich culture the land of choson has to offer. no, what we turned to see were korean elementary schoolers yodeling. i can't really offer any more explanation or vitriolic remarks to make that clever or, at a long shot, humorous. there was an oompa band consisting of a tuba, stand up bass and guitar, all played by the kids the same age.

stunned, i wandered away nursing my cup of wretched coffee.

more to come.

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