Saturday, September 25, 2010

Arboretum and pictures (finally!!)

So, I finally got all my Korea pictures uploaded to the computer! I went back and added some pictures that were relevant to my blog posts, and posted several new albums on my Picasa account, so go check them out!

On Thursday we went to the Hanbat Arboretum on the north side of town. Well, not right away. First we got on the bus and missed our stop . . . by a lot, thanks to our minimal Korean ability. By the time we figured out our mistake, we were at the end of the line, so we walked back towards our destination, mostly along the river (and sweated off a few pounds in the process). When we got there, we found that it was a very beautiful place, although very different from the arboretum I know (the Connecticut College one).

The beauty of nature was on display there, but in a very orderly and tidy way. Someone worked hard to carve out a green place in the middle of a busy city. The lawns are all perfectly trimmed, the trees and flowers evenly spaced. Although it was hot and humid (still! at the end of September!), quite a lot of people were there walking, and children were riding their bikes on the track around the central lawn.

I'd love to write more, really, but at this point, I've been up half the night sorting and uploading photos...I'm exhausted. Well, a picture is worth a thousand words, right?

Links for my Korea albums to date:

City of Daejeon
Daejeon National Cemetery
Hanbat Arboretum

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Happy Chuseok!

That's right, it's the holidays here in Korea! This week is Chuseok, the thanksgiving festival. Chuseok is a holiday of the lunar calendar and corresponds to the full moon, which means it is a date that shifts from year to year. This year it falls on Wednesday, but Tuesday and Thursday are also national holidays so that people can travel to be with their families. From what I've heard, Chuseok is all about giving thanks for a bountiful harvest, enjoying time with your family, and also honoring your ancestors and deceased relatives. I asked some of the Korean students here what they do for Chuseok. They said that back in the day, Koreans dressed up in the hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) and danced in a circle. They were very quick to reassure me that they didn't do that anymore, though. In modern times, it really is pretty similar to American Thanksgiving in the sense that people get together with their families and have a huge meal.

Speaking of which, Haejung-imo invited us over to her house today to have another cooking lesson and to share in the feast. She taught us to make chapche, which is a very tasty and colorful dish. You cook sweet potato noodles in boiling water, while meanwhile preparing onions, peppers, carrots, mushrooms, beef, and egg. Then you add all of those things together and season with salt, soy sauce, and sesame oil. We also had sukju namul and kong namul, which are vegetable dishes consisting of different kinds of sprouts. Then there was a dish made with silverfish (I forgot the Korean name), and pickles seasoned with sesame, and pork and kimchi stir-fried together. For dessert we ate hotteok, cakes with red bean filling, dried persimmons (they taste kind of like apricots, I think), and we drank red tea. I stuffed myself, and it was probably the most healthful holiday meal I've ever had, too. (Haejung-imo promises that if we keep eating Korean cooking, we will be a lot slimmer by the time we go home.) Another traditional Chuseok food that we had earlier in the week is seongpyon (I think that's right -- I still haven't figured out how to romanize Korean words), which is a small rice cake with filling inside (I like the kind with honey).

In other news, yesterday we took advantage of our time off from classes to visit the Daejeon National Cemetery. It's an enormous graveyard that also serves as a worship site, a war memorial, and a beautiful and peaceful natural preserve. Heads of state, soldiers, police, and other people who have made contributions to the country are buried there. Special ceremonies are held throughout the year to mark important dates, such as Memorial Day and the anniversary of the Korean War. They also have service projects where elementary school children come and tend the graves, cleaning them and leaving flowers, in order to teach them patriotism and respect for the country's fallen heroes.

We started our visit by driving down a road lined with many Korean flags -- only appropriate for a patriotic place. The cemetery grounds proper, i.e. the sites that are considered holy, are accessed by entering through the Red Gate. Past the Red Gate is the Fountain for National Defense (which for some reason was not fountaining!). This fountain is topped with a bronze statue of Koreans holding up the globe. The center of the fountain is a beautiful relief carving that, according to our guidebooks, features symbols of longevity.

Behind the fountain is the Memorial Tower, which commemorates the past, present, and future of the country, as well as being a monument to those patriots who have died and their achievements. The middle of the tower reaches up skyward, intricately decorated with bronze carvings, while at the base carved stone wings stretch out left and right. At the bottom of the tower a poem is engraved (I wish I could read it), and there is an elaborate incense burner for use during ceremonies. Inside the tower, there are memorial plaques for those soldiers MIA or KIA who were never retrieved, as well as a sepulcher for unidentified bodies. The tower also contains some very beautiful art, with guardian statues to watch over the dead. (Or so the guidebook tells me. We couldn't actually go in.) Even without anything going on there (it was a quiet day with very few visitors), the feel of the place, standing at the base of the tower, was overwhelming. It was, for me, a little like attending a Holy Week service, where breaking the reverent silence feels like sacrilege.

After that, we walked around the cemetery grounds to enjoy the natural beauty around us. Most of the cemetery is surrounded by mountains, so it is in its own peaceful little valley. The day was overcast (and sometimes rainy), but at points the sun emerged to light up the mountains. We hiked up a little ways into the hills to enjoy the view, strolled through the cemetery's bamboo forest, and stopped to admire the wildflower garden and the ponds.

We also visited the "future-oriented" Patriotism Hall. This building serves as a museum for teaching today's generation about the past, with a major focus on the Korean War. Unfortunately it was all in Korean, so I can't say that I learned much. Also unfortunately, we couldn't get into the Memorial Hall and Enshrinement Hall, where burials and religious rituals are held. We think maybe people are only allowed in there on official business.

I took many pictures of this very beautiful and awe-inspiring place. I hope to upload them soon and share them with all of you!

Next week, once the holidays are over, we move from this transitional period into actual work at our volunteer sites. Stay tuned to hear all about it!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Getting some fresh air

Yesterday, after classes and after meeting with Haejung-imo and Uncle Simon to discuss our plans for the upcoming week, Jenny, Katie, and I decided to go out and explore the city a little. (We'd wanted to before, but, not knowing where anything was, we hadn't gotten very far -- until someone was kind enough to give us maps and tour guides.) Since we don't know how to use the bus system yet, we decided to splurge on a taxi to take us to the Daejeon station, where the "old downtown" is. After crossing over an enormous curvy white bridge and stopping for a few minutes to watch the synchronized fountains shooting off in patterns in the river below (it was a seriously awesome spot, just wait for the pictures), we found it. There's a certain broad street that's walled off to traffic so people can just take their time and stroll around without worrying about crossing the street and getting run over by the crazy drivers. You can find a ton of cafes and norebangs (singing rooms, where you go to do karaoke) there, as well as some sizable crowds.

Afterwards we explored the underground mall. At first I was confused. I thought those stairs in the sidewalk went down to a subway. Well, it turned out to be this underground mall and arcade. It was pretty much like any mall -- lots of teeny tiny shops where you can buy clothes, shoes, cell phones, and overpriced snacks. We also ended up discovering an open-air market, where we walked for quite a while. Jenny bought some hotteok from a street vendor to share with Katie and me. This small snack is just genius. It's a little cake, and when you bite in it has a sweetness to it. It was fresh off the griddle, melt-in-your-mouth warm and chewy. Best of all, it was extremely cheap -- 5 for 1,000 won. That's less than a dollar people. We may have to go back for more of those.

Then today we had another field trip! We went to Jeonju, which is a bit more than an hour from Daejeon, to do some sightseeing. Our first stop was at a church built around the turn of the century, in 1908. It was interesting because of its shape: the church is L-shaped so that men sit in one wing, women sit in the other, and the pastor stands in the pulpit where the two wings meet. This was a concession the Christian missionaries made to Korean traditional values, where men and women are not of equal status.

Next we visited the Jesus Hospital Museum. This is a brand-new museum commemorating the hundred-year-old history of Jeonju's Jesus Hospital (which is actually the Presbyterian Medical Mission, but that's a mouthful, especially for people who don't speak English). Jesus Hospital was founded by Presbyterian missionaries, and brought a lot of important medical innovations to the region, such as setting up Korea's first center for cancer treatment and initiating a program to get rid of parasites. At the museum you can see lots of the medical equipment they had back in the day. Some things, like the stethoscope, haven't changed much -- same simple principle applies. Other things I saw made me glad that I live in 2010. (Although someday people will probably look back and think the same thing about our times!) There were also many photos of the patients and the hardships they suffered -- malnutrition, tumors, leprosy, and much more. One particularly disturbing picture had to do with the hospital's campaign to reduce parasites in the area. Apparently, the program started because one day, a young girl collapsed in front of the hospital. When the doctors took her in to be examined, they found she had over 1,000 parasites in her body! The photo was of a pile of all those parasites that the doctors took out of her. (Fortunately this was not right before eating.)

Afterwards we took a trip to the Korean cultural village, which is apparently a pretty big tourist attraction for Jeonju. We had a lunch of bibimbap, a dish the city is famous for. For those of you who don't know bibimbap, well, you can make it with lots of different things. But the basic idea is that you put vegetables and seaweed (or meat, or tofu, or whatever you prefer) on top of rice, and then a fried egg on top of that. Then you add spicy gochujang sauce (made from red peppers) and mix it all together before eating. With the bibimbap we had a delicious pancake (I forget the Korean name!) containing green onions and pieces of squid. It was soooo good, hot and flaky and savory. Then we took our time walking around the village. One of the main things to do there is to watch them make hanji, a special paper made from the bark of mulberry trees. And of course to buy hanji products. It seems that if you're sufficiently resourceful, you can make just about anything from it. There were many beautiful decorative boxes and fans made with hanji, plus much more. We even saw hanji socks! I wonder if they would fall apart if they got wet, like regular paper does? If so, they would not have been good socks for today. It was pouring more or less nonstop all day long, and our shoes got pretty soaked and muddy at times.

Thanks to everyone who commented last time! I love hearing from you, so please keep telling me what you think!

Monday, September 6, 2010

First days

So, hey there, everybody. I'm in South Korea!

The travel out there was pretty much as you would expect -- very long and tiring. We had a 14-hour flight from JFK to Narita, Japan, and then, after a brief layover, another three hours to Seoul. From Seoul it was about a three-hour drive to Daejeon, a drive that took place late at night. As we were driving through the Seoul area, high-rise apartment buildings surrounded us, each with myriad windows shining different colors of yellow, orange, pink, even pale green and blue. In the dark, the steel and concrete of the buildings were invisible, and instead we were inside a gigantic stained-glass cathedral formed by the city itself. In that moment, I just had a feeling that God had brought me to the exact place where I needed to be.

Eventually we got to Daejeon, and the place that will be our home for the next year. The house we're staying in, which is on the campus of Hannam University, is amazing, almost too nice for poor missionaries! We have everything we need and more. Originally, the house was meant for guests of the university -- visiting dignitaries and so on. Simon and Haejung-imo ("imo" means mother's side aunt. We call her that because in Korea, it is considered rude to call older people by their first name only) live very close and we see them often. The first few days, we visited the chaplains' office and got introduced, and generally just got accustomed to the area.

On Sunday, the three of us attended the university church. The worship service was all in Korean, yet had familiar elements. It was a really weird experience to hear the organ start up with the tune "Holy, Holy, Holy", a song that is so familiar to me, and then hear the congregation chime in in words that I don't understand. We also got to say the Apostles' Creed in English while everyone else was saying it in Korean. Partway through we left the service to meet with the youth group. As I understand it, we will be giving a lesson and talking with them every week. They are mostly high schoolers, and their English is very good. They seem eager to get to know us.

After the service, there was a coffee hour featuring gimbap (which is a common snack or picnic food, and looks like what Americans think of as sushi -- seaweed wrapped around rice and vegetables) and tteok (rice cake). Then some of our new Korean acquaintances dragged us away to the Bible study for the college students. It was very well attended, probably around 50 or so youth. Every Sunday after church, the students gather together in one place, sing and pray and eat, and then break into small groups of eight or nine to talk about the scripture passage for the week. Each of us Americans was put into a different small group so that we could get to make friends with the Korean students. The people in my group are great (a little more on them later). And all of them were very interested in the question of whether the pizza we were eating was like American pizza or not. (It was, pretty much. I think takeout pizza is pretty similar anywhere you go, although I've heard that there are kimchi, bulgogi, and octo-squid pizzas out there.)

This week, Jenny, Katie, and I are visiting some of the potential sites we can work at. Both today and yesterday, we went to inner city centers that have various programs designed to meet the needs of Daejeon's poor and socially disadvantaged groups. There are after-school programs for children from broken families; a fellowship and exercise program for the elderly; a program to support the poor migrant workers living in Korea; and much more. They are very exciting sites with many opportunities to interact with the community, and we're really looking forward to getting involved. For now, though, we're concentrating on our language classes and making connections in the immediate community. In a few weeks, around the end of September (after the Chuseok holidays), we'll begin our field work. Hopefully, when we begin, we'll have partners from Hannam volunteering alongside us. Having one of the Korean students would be great, and would help bridge the communication and culture gap.

Speaking of communication gaps, today was also my second day of Korean language classes. The classes are very necessary because, while the Korean educational system currently has mandatory English education from a fairly young age, the average person that you meet in a shop, a bank, or a restaurant still doesn't speak it fluently or even competently. The classes are in reading, writing, and speaking, and run Monday through Friday, from 9 am to 1 pm. In other words, it's pretty intensive! Right now, there's a lot of reading practice and repetition of basic words and phrases. I have three different sonsengnim (teachers), and all three are really amazing people who know how to encourage while still working you hard. Most of the students are Chinese, but there are a few from other countries like the U.S., Taiwain, Japan, India, etc.

As for entertainment, we've had our fair share of that, too. Yesterday, Simon and Haejung-imo took us to Daejeon's traditional Korean market. In the fish market, we saw every kind of seafood under the sun, and even some things that I didn't know people ate, like stingray. There were also incredible specimens of common seafood, like the giant Russian crabs. One of those is probably about the size of my torso! Then in the fruit and vegetable market, there were mountains of fresh produce stacked up on display. We bought some Korean pears for our dessert -- they're like a cross between an American pear and an apple, both juicy and crisp. It was a wholesale market, so it isn't really a place to do our regular shopping, but it was definitely fun to see!

In Korean restaurants, things are done a little differently than in the U.S. There are some more modern kinds, but in a traditional sort of restaurant, you take off your shoes when you come in and sit on the floor around low wooden tables. On the table is a burner, and the food is brought out to cook on it, right in front of you. In fact, you actively participate in the cooking process by grilling your own meat to taste, adding ingredients to your own soup, and so forth. The servers also bring out bowls of rice, and lots of small dishes for you to eat with the main dish. There's kimchi, almost always, and sometimes a vegetable slaw or scrambled egg-type dish. Korean radish is also common because it's a great way to cool down your mouth after you eat something spicy. And since Koreans love to put red pepper in their food, there are a lot of spicy offerings. Koreans eat with chopsticks (METAL chopsticks. I practiced all spring and summer eating with wooden chopsticks and, if I do say so myself, got pretty darn good . . . and then I find out that the metal kind the Koreans use are a whole different ball game. They are MUCH more slippery), but they also use spoons for soup and rice. Overall, eating out is much cheaper in Korea than in the states. You can get a nice big meal for 4,000-5,000 won (about $3.50-$4.50 US).

Haejung-imo has also promised to teach us to cook Korean foods, and so far, we learned to make changjorim. This is where you cook a piece of meat until it is tender, then pull it apart into little strips and cook in with vegetables (usually carrots and onions and whatever else you want) in a sauce of soy, garlic, and sesame oil. Then you serve it over rice (which is very easy to make when you have a rice cooker, which we do).

We've been exploring the city in our free time, although until we learn enough Korean to use the bus system, we can't go very far. Although one afternoon, two Korean students were nice enough to take us on a drive around downtown, where all the posh department stores are. We also saw the two symbols of Daejeon -- a giant metal tower and a bridge with two gigantic arches, one red, one blue.

I also got taken out by my small group from Bible study. Besides meeting on Sundays to talk religion, they also meet during the week to share a meal and each other's company. We went out to eat bulgogi (grilled meat) cooked in gochujang (spicy red pepper sauce). My new friends taught me how to eat it Korean-style, wrapping some meat and rice and sauce in an edible leaf and eating the whole thing as a package. Besides that and numerous small dishes, we also had chige, which is a kind of soup. You can put all kinds of things in it, but it this case, we had ramyun (noodles), greens, and meat in a spicy broth. It was terrific, and very filling. When I tried to pay my share, I learned that when Koreans go out to eat together, they don't split the check. One person pays for everybody, and then next time, someone else treats.

Afterwards, we went to a cafe to hang out, and -- surprise -- the new girl and the foreigner, yours truly, was front and center. Everyone in my group has been studying English for a few years at least, but since they haven't been immersed in an English-speaking culture, none are fluent. They know this, and it makes many of them self-conscious about trying to speak in front of me. Add this to the fact that I have next to no Korean, and it means that we have to work hard to understand each other. But slowly and surely, we can do it. Over the two hours we spent together, the shyer members of the group got more comfortable talking to me, bit by bit. One of the ways we got to know each other and feel less shy was by helping each other with language. I helped them with their English, and they were excited to teach me Korean words. We had a long talk about the differences between Korean and American culture. They were all really interested in hearing my thoughts about living in the two different countries, and they were all eager to share their insights as well. All in all, I had an amazing time hanging out with them and bonding.

I would say that that's been my experience in general. Since I got here, everyone has been so ready and willing to open their heart to me and make me a part of their community. I feel so grateful and so blessed for all my new friends and new opportunities.

That's all for today. Chuseok, the Korean thanksgiving festival, is coming up later this month, so look forward to hearing all about that!