Tuesday, June 27, 2006

June 2006: A Trip to North Korea

North Korea just sent a half-dozen missiles into the ocean, which is about the international relations equivalent to a drunk breaking a bottle over his head to show the people around he's hella tough, and they'd better not mess with him. Because some of you may be worried about me, I'd just like to assure you that I have been firmly landlocked, not exploring in any areas of the sea where a missile might land on me.

I got a concerned e-mail from one of my university friends asking what it was like living in Korea, in the shadow of Kim Jong-il's unpredictable madness and how that affects the South Korean mind. This topic is particularly current to me, because I just came back from a weekend trip to North Korea.

Yes. That's what I said. I just made a weekend trip to North Korea. I came back the day before they launched the missiles. When I heard the news with my roomie (who'd also gone) he asked me, "was it something we said?"

There's only one place in North Korea where outsiders can visit. It's called Geumgang Mountain, or Geumgangsan. It's roundly considered the most beautiful mountain in either Korea -- Sorak Mountain, Jiri Mountain and (one other whose name I can't remember) are the prettiest in South Korea, but a lot of people who care about such things will tell you that Geumgang Mountain takes the prize. As a symbolic gesture to show the desire for the Koreas to work together, South Korea, North Korea, and China worked together to create this little resort town where people are allowed to visit Gumgang Mountain on special tours. There's a tour group called Adventure Korea that focusses on arranging tours for Westerners in Korea – they put together tours and trips to areas that are hard for westerners to go on their own, because of language or cultural or simple "I've never heard of that place" factors, giving westerners a chance to see parts of Korea that we otherwise wouldn't otherwise experience. You may remember my story about visiting a scenic island with the same tour group in April 2004, and dancing to ridiculous music on a tour boat with a bunch of middle-aged Korean women. (if you don't, you can read it here)

So we gathered on June 30th, late at night, after all classes were finished, and piled onto two buses, left at about midnight, just in time to watch the Germany-Argentina World Cup Soccer quarterfinal on the bus TV (more about that later) as the bus drove through the night, right to the far east coast of South Korea. There, at about 6AM, we had a rest stop break to change into our hiking clothes and switch buses (and leave our cellphones and communication devices behind). Then we headed off toward the customs offices -- both North and South had to check our visas and documents, and we were carefully briefed on how to avoid getting fined at North Korean customs for answering questions with anything except the exact words and information on our passports and trip ID cards. Then we drove directly to Geumgang Mountain, and started our hike at about 9:30 or 10:00 AM, after an all-night drive. Most of us had between two and four hours of sleep.

The North Korean tour authorities seemed to like having everyone taking the tour in the same places at the same times: fewer variables and worries, easier to watch, I suppose. This meant that everybody visiting Geumgang Mountain that weekend was on the same mountain at the same time. The trails were crowded, and, where the trails narrowed, any time somebody far ahead in line stopped to take a picture, the whole line backed up.

I certainly was not expecting to encounter traffic jams in North Korea.

However, the path was fantastic. It ran alongside a river that tumbled over monstrous boulders and rushed down long rock plains with awesome speed and power. Walking up a mountain, alongside a tumbling, boulder-littered river, between trees, with the sounds of rushing water all around, set me right back in British Columbia, wandering around the mountains and rivers near Chilliwack and Mission.

Most of the hiking was under a smattering of rain that weekend, but the raincoat I bought before I hiked Jiri Mountain with Matt has continued to prove itself worth the money. Unfortunately, the absolutely unreasonably huge waterfall was also nearly obscured by mist. There were Korean and Chinese characters carved into dozens of the rocks. We were warned not to lean on, or touch, any of them. They were mementoes and monuments praising the leaders, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung, and as such, were respected almost religiously. Some of the monuments were amazing in scale -- huge, two-storey high Korean characters carved into bald rock-faces on the North Korean mountainsides. As with many totalitarian regimes, one of the main ways they retain their power is by developing a cult of personality around the leader -- Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong-Il have all put monuments and signs and statues about themselves all around their countries, to hold the people in control through devotion to their leader. We were warned strongly not to say "Kim Jong-Il" or "Kim Il-Sung" while we were around North Koreans, because they would take great offense for saying their names without prefacing it with their title, "Dear Leader" or "Dear Father". There was a huge sign with a images of the two leaders, father and son, in front of one of the hotels, and you were not allowed to to take pictures of it unless one of the North Korean hotel employees held the camera, so that he could frame the picture in such a way that both men's full bodies were captured in the photo. Cutting off any part of their bodies was a form of disrespect and, of course, unacceptable.

Here's an example of such a picture, as framed by the N.K. fella:

Back at the village, we saw more signs of Being In North Korea. You weren't allowed to take pictures of North Koreans without permission. You weren't allowed to take pictures of the North Korean guards. There were certain hillsides on one of the hikes where everybody was told to put away their cameras: there was an anti-aircraft gun concealed on the hillside. One of our co-travellers found a recording device in the bedside table of his hotel room. All the workers were thin. . . but not sickly thin. Best foot forward, you know. On a slightly less freak-out-paranoid note, a lot of the clerks and shopkeepers didn't speak a single word of English other than "Five dollars," while in South Korea, almost everyone speaks at least a few words of English to talk about their profession. I've heard, though I ought to fact-check this, that North Koreans haven't allowed any English words into their "pure" language -- instead of just saying "cheese" with Korean pronounciation,

they'll make up a new word for it that's totally North Korean. This led to the cute situation where a waitress at one of the restaurants asked me, with an endearingly shy tone, "what is this?" (in Korean) about one of the side dishes, to find out the English phrase for it. I said a few other words to her and she began to blush terribly. It was very sweet. . . but odd, because South Koreans her age have ALL studied at least enough English in high school and middle school to say "this is soup" and "here is salt" and "I learn some English high school."

So I asked her to take a picture with me.

But everything there was beautiful. The mountainsides, even in the drizzle, were cragged and beautiful -- ancient, worn rocks rounded by rain with cracks full of trees and green spurting out between rounded rock-faces.

I met a person who was really funny in North Korea, so I asked the old question: "How long will you be in Korea?" you know, to sound out whether I should invest anything at all in this person . . . "oh, about six more weeks" was the answer. Having Matt as my best friend, and having many Koreans among my friends, I'd almost forgotten just how transient most westerners living in Korea are. Sigh. It was like being back in my first year again.

As to the missile thing. . . Koreans didn't get too excited about it. Whether through denial, or from the sheer feeling that "oh, old Jong-Il's up to his old tricks again", South Koreans, even as close to the demilitarized zone as Seoul, are surprisingly blaze about the North Korean situation. It might just be that they/we have to keep on with their/our lives because what else can we do, really? Whether I sleep in my closet or in my bed won't change the aim of any of the long-range weapons pointed at Seoul. Koreans DO express that tension, I believe, in other ways. . . but to go into that would require making generalisations that wouldn't be fair to some of the Koreans on this e-mail list.

I have a new student named Cecilia in my youngest class. They're five year olds, and they're. . . well, they're five year olds. Sometimes really sweet, and sometimes. . . five year olds. (Recently, after seeing Harry Potter 2, where the character Dobby keeps beating himself when he feels like he's doing something wrong, Ryan started hitting himself in the head every time something happened that distressed him.) Anyway, my new student is named Cecilia, so, of course, I sing the Simon and Garfunkel song, "Cecilia" (at least the chorus, where it ISN'T singing about a woman cheating on her lover) as often as possible. The words go "Cecilia, you're breaking my heart, you're shaking my confidence daily. Oh Cecilia, I'm down on my knees, I'm begging you please to come home, come on home." My students have been trying to sing the song, too -- singing along, or singing it on their own, but, because they don't know the song's words exactly, they've been attaching words they know to the sounds they hear when I sing. Thus, I've been getting versions like this (with the tune totally correct):

"Cecilia, a look at my heart. A look at my heart and a
maybe. Oh Cecilia, a diamond my knee, a diamond my knee. . . "
"Cecilia, you're breaking my car"
"Cecilia, I'm breaking my stuff"

Some of my kids were talking about the Boogey Man – the monster hiding in closets and under beds -- but instead of Boogey Man, they were saying "Gogi Man" which is Korean for "Meat Man".

We were looking at shapes, and I showed them a flashcard of an oval. "What is this?"
"Teacher! It's offal!"

So yeah, lots of things have happened since I wrote another of these letters (how's 'gee, I sure don't write these letters often enough' for the most predictable running theme of my e-mail updates?)

But it's been mostly good. I think I"m in a much better place now than I was before -- January was rough, March was rough, April had its challenges, but things have slowly been improving since then, through a variety of small shifts and changes in my situations and attitudes. I'm writing a lot. And writing well.

Also, here's one of the coolest things I've seen in ages -- here in Korea, we have what they call "Fusion" culture -- restaruants, music styles, fashion styles, that fuse and combine disparate elements from east, west, past, present, and wherever else they find it. As you watch this one, think about the way that past, present, east and west combine. The musical instrument being played is called a Kayageum. Beatboxing and breakdancing both originated in the inner cities of America, but (especially breakdancing) have become really popular in Korea (team Korea's a regular contender in world breakdancing competitions). The musical piece, of course, is an ancient classical piece, with a hip-hop twist. . . yet it all works together to create a really neat impression.

Enjoy. Seriously, if your computer and internet connection are fast enough, this is REALLY cool. (and even better on a huge screen before a movie starts).

My Dad visited for two weeks at the end of May. That was lovely. My students still ask about "Opa". He came here with modest ambitions: a few weeks after returning to Canada, he needed a minor surgery, so we mostly took it easy, but it was good to be around Dad for a while, and it was good to supply him with a place where he could "get away from it all" for a while. We went to the church where he went with Mom and everybody was happy to see him there. We went to a sauna once or twice, and took some walks around Seokchon Lake and Olympic Park. We ate some fantastic foods while he was here, including a duck dish that was probably the most delicious food I've had since I came to Korea (and that's saying quite a lot). All in all, a very satisfying chance to see Dad again.