Spring in my hometown

view from the window on the way to Chuncheon

I just watched Kwangmo Lee’s 1998 film, 아름다운 시절 “Spring in My Hometown,” and I’ve got a minute so I thought I’d share what little I have with you about springtime in the country.

This is a beuatiful film, btw, if you can find it.  Set during the war in a remote village far from the fighting, it follows the daily life of a primary school-aged boy as he deals with the war’s indirect effects on his life and that of his best friend.   A feast for the eyes, it takes some will to sustain one’s self for the pace, but that device parallels what the boy must also go through.  Explaining little, with the only context being silent movie-type insertions marking the date and giving a brief synopsis of the contemporary situation, the boys and the viewers must try and make sense out of the changes happening around them:  to their families, to their traditional values, and to their society.  It’s blissfully devoid of melodrama because its dramatization is loosely based upon the director’s own life and took 13 years to make.  It was especially captivating for me to have a glimpse of what life was like in Korea just over a decade before I was born, portrayed with such nuanced detail, thanks in no small part to the movie’s slow and studied pace, which insists on appreciating everything.

As I said before, winter seemed never-ending this year, and even worse here in the mountains as it’s about 5 degrees Celsius cooler up here and the heat was turned off as soon as we got above zero.  One day in May we were wearing coats, shivering, and the next day sweat was pouring down my back, overdressed and unable to handle the heat and humidity in the 20’s.  I asked people about the weather, and they told me there would be no spring this year, only summer.  But of course, they are just joking as we’re all dreading (me more than anyone) the 90+ degree heat with 80% humidity that will come when actual summer begins.

a few houses from my apartment – poor man’s bathroom roof fix

Despite the weird weather, the cherry blossoms were right on time. As in Japan, people are all about them and everyone was stopping to take photos and close-up shots of them, etc.  As beautiful as it was, it didn’t really lift my spirits much, because they didn’t seem to break the monotony of the neutral-colored landscape as much as hoped:  the sky and denuded trees and ground were all gray, and most of the cherry blossoms were white, so it looked more like snow and didn’t detract enough from the stark background.

But magically over-night while I was sleeping, the deciduous trees became fluffy and green and some purple azaleas and blue and yellow wildflowers started appearing and despite the weather going up and down, these mountains began to look comforting, in the way over-weight people are always so comforting to see when you’ve lost faith that times will ever improve.

Most days I forget my camera or leave it home to not be burdened by its weight, but here are a few shots I took during this period, as I was on my way to school or to Seoul.

Watching the Rice Grow

hardening off / ventilating the rice under the cold frames
finally safe to remove the cold frames and irrigate the whole field
soon this green carpet will be distributed evenly across this whole field
preparing the trays for planting
adding row cover and stakes

I always enjoy walking through the rice field on my home from the subway

Stream Engineering

Every day as I passed by the river on my way to school, someone who likes using a back-hoe was playing giant sandbox with the river.  Curious as to what they were doing, I started taking photos:

It began with the creation of some artificial sand bars

and then moving a few of the stepping stone slabs

Then this channel was created

and the water ran REALLY swiftly through its occluded opening

I thought they were finished, but then they moved to the other side and did the same thing.  I’m guessing it was for erosion control.  Glad they put it all back to look like it was.

Little Moments

This is the entry sequence to a tiny nondescript place Willie and I passed by that took my eye, even in the dead of winter.  I had to walk back one day with a camera, as I want to shoot it again when its grapevine is in full bloom.

This will probably be the coolest, loveliest place to be in all Korea come August.  I love humble places that are also well-cared for.  So much can be done with five feet, in the space between buildings.

To Market

So I was always confused about the date because the market was popping up inconsistently.  It turns out that this is one of the 5-day markets I had heard about, that has been a rural tradition for God-knows-how-long.

It pales in comparison to the traditional markets in Seoul, but it’s also very much alive and people here support it, as the Supermarket and the mom & pop stores are pretty expensive (in relative terms).  Plus there are tons of variety of pretty fresh seafood the market can’t possibly store.Dongja told me that all I need to remember is “2” and “7” and those will always be the days the market should appear.

two things you can never have enough of in Korea: garlic and shade

It’s a big operation for the stall owners, setting up and breaking down every day, but it’s also kind of a magic thing for me, as I walk through their industry on the way to school and am thankful for the canopy covering the street on the way home.

I’m still too ignorant to know what to purchase there, but I’ll try to support it when I can.  I bought a plastic colander’s worth of mountain greens for 3,000 won and am eating fresh halmoni-hand-picked salads.

Less hungry in Korea

I explained my eating problems (being denied most menus because I’m single and not being able to read the menus if I find someone to serve me) to Dongja, and she took me to two places where a single person can eat.

The one place she took me to I wasn’t very excited about:  a typical kimbop place that serves a lot of basic Korean dishes with mediocre quality ingredients for about 4 bucks.  There are two of these in my town, and to be frank, after a year of being relegated to only these kinds of restaurants I never want to eat at them again. (but do out of sheer desperation)  I’m sure I’ll feel differently when I leave Korea and miss the food, as these dishes are hard to get in America, since most of the American restaurants only serve the pricey BBQ or chopchae…The other place I can’t get enough of.  I’d written about it earlier, but today I have photos:

This amazing spread costs about 7 bucks.

6 of some of the best side-dishes I’ve ever had, (one of them is a bitter root that I love but many don’t like) a home-made bean paste (with snails) to spread on your lettuce wraps, a relish tray with marinated vegetables to add to your lettuce wraps, steamed pork, and five kinds of lettuce leaves: sweet red leaf, the perfumey perilla leaf, the spicey mustard leaf, green leaf and kale.  Plus a seafood tofu soup.

I get a little annoyed when people try and compare the spiciness of Korean food to Mexican food.  Serrano chilis are not used here, so it doesn’t get as hot as that, but Korean chilis are on par with the hottest jalapenos.  So technically they are right, but I also think that the spiciness of Korean cuisine is also a different kind of spiciness than Mexican.  For example, eat a lot of raw garlic and your mouth will burn, but so will your stomach.  So the combinations can do equal damage but It’s only as spicy as you want it to be, depending on the dish.  Because you can choose to leave out the raw garlic and hot pepper if you want, which most westerners do, they don’t experience it the same way a Korean would.  This dish, for example, can blow your head off – if you want that.  For this dish you can add raw garlic and raw jalapenos.  It’s like Mexican with a deeper burn.

It’s not just amazing in quantity, but it’s just a gourmet feast for the senses.  And I call this a gourmet treat because the way in which you choose to assemble your steamed pork lettuce wraps can result in a myriad of flavor combinations: a mustard leaf with a sweet side and garlic will taste entirely different than a perilla leaf with garlic and jalapeno, and red leaf lettuce with a salty side and a sweet side will be totally different and you can play around with your own preferences of bitter, sweet, salty, and hot.

I’d eat there every night if I could afford it, but I’m eating dinner at school for 2.5 bucks, so I make a point to go at least once a week.  The owner is very kind and I think she makes me dishes that normally would be denied a single person so that’s just awesome, plus she always gives me enough side dish portions for two and lets me take the leftovers home if I want.

School Spirit

Now that winter is over, the entire school is on a high supporting the school’s soccer team.  Their past successes have brought the school an astro-turf sports field and a new gymnasium is being built.  Which might not impress you, but in Korea it’s rare.  Most of the schools have dirt assembly yards and not many have gymnasiums and the students are forced to do all physical activities in the elements. The soccer field here is like a big giant romper room for the whole community here, and the students sit on it in groups, like you would at the park.  And it’s such a relief to look out at mountains and green (even a fake green) field than it is to look out at a sea of concrete buildings and a dirt yard…

Two weeks ago we had a sports day, where the different grades competed in soccer games against one another, so classes were canceled that day and each of the classes dressed up to support their team.  It was really exciting!

some of the female teachers, avoiding the already merciless spring sun
my students looking on – excited to be out of uniform
I think this photo shows the wide range of personalities that exist in this collective country and also how lovable the students here are

The days are flying by.  I kind of freak out because I’m always scrambling for the best content for my lessons but falling a little short.  I often end up giving the 3rd year students the same thing as the 2nd year students, because the 3rd year students will be leaving and not have to cycle through it again.  That also buys me time to come up with something new for the 2nd year students the following year.  The first year students are the biggest headache, though.  Because the school is changing to an academic high school beginning with them, there are  more girls, larger class sizes, and higher English levels also more attitude.  So it’s not as bad as Baekyoung, but that is the future here.

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