Getting to the Danoje festival in Gangneung was a harrowing experience. My co-teacher decided it would be faster if I went to a local bus station instead of the Express Bus Terminal. So she looked it up and gave me instructions on how to get there.
Only the bus station turned out to be a parking lot with about four stalls and the ticket office was a kiosk and snack shop. The ticket kiosk had only a small aperture for pushing money through with some drilled holes to speak through. I stepped into the snack area and sure enough, the ticket vender was accessible over the snack counter. So I tried to ask him how to get to Gangneung, but he just seemed rude and shoo’d me away. So then I tried to show him what was written on the paper I had so he could read it, thinking he didn’t understand my pronunciation. But this time he started yelling at me. Other people were also in the snack shop by now, and I tried to show the man where I needed to go, but he got really really pissed off and was screaming at me and pushing me out of the shop and I swear he raised his hand to hit me, but I leaped out of the way and then I just started to cry and found myself doing this frustration jumping up and down and the people outside didn’t have any clue WHAT was going on. So I called the translation line for foreigners and had a bitch of a time explaining what was going on, and finally I shoved the phone into a passerby’s hands and asked them to please talk Korean with a translator.
The man spoke with her, handed me the phone, and she explained I was at the wrong bus stop and that he would lead me to another bus stop. So I followed the man a few block and he just pointed at another kiosk and went on his way. So I had to, once again, ask about getting to Gangneung, and once again I WAS AT THE WRONG BUS STOP. So I had to repeat the whole calling the translator again. And a second time a stranger was stopped by me and thankfully was willing (although not happy about it) to walk me to yet another bus stop. Yet, once again I WAS AT THE WRONG BUS STOP. The third time I called the translator, I asked her to please just tell me where a real bus terminal was, and she asked my location. “How am I supposed to know that? I’ve just been walked around many blocks three different times!” “Well, I can’t help you if you can’t tell me where you are!” “But I’m a foreigner – and there’s no street signs.” “is there a wedding parlor near you?” “No – I don’t know what a wedding parlor looks like – I’m a foreigner.” (irritated now) “I KNOW you’re a foreigner. But I can’t help you if you can’t tell me where you’re at.” “Look,” I say, “I can probably find my way back to the subway station eventually. Can you just tell me where the nearest REAL bus station is?” Frustrated, she has me hand the phone to yet another stranger. And finally, a half a block away, he leads me to another bus stop with a ticket kiosk. And he stays with me long enough to make sure I’ve purchased a ticket. I offer to buy him some coffee, but he just says. “bye.” and takes off.
I’m at the Danoje festival market. Whatever itinerary there was listed has fallen apart, and we foreigners are left to wander by ourselves for several hours. We don’t really know the schedule of events or have a map of the grounds, so any wandering we do is probably at the expense of missing something cool elsewhere. But there’s no choice BUT to walk. So that’s what I do. At one point I see a big crowd around some men hand stretching Chinese noodles and I start to film it. Only they start yelling for some reason. The man is yelling, “adjumoni. camera.” But I think he is talking to someone else. One, no one has ever called me adjumoni before, which is the polite way to say adjumma, which is the same as madame or m’am in English – but it’s typically only used to refer to the older women, and most everyone here has told me I look ten years younger than my age. Two, I am using a video camera and not a camera, so I think this confirms that he is talking about someone else. But then he looks straight at me and starts really screaming at me in Korean. The whole crowd is looking at me like I’m the biggest asshole in the entire planet and what the hell is wrong with me, am I deaf or something? God I love being an ethnic Korean foreigner in Korea…
Here’s the footage of the noodle guy before I realized he was talking to me…shortly after this he chews me out…
It is 9 pm and we are to meet our groups at 10 pm. I haven’t eaten and am starving, so I walk down a side street where there are a half dozen outdoor restaurants and try and order some food. Because my bag is stuffed with a change of clothing and my Korean textbooks, I don’t have my restaurant guide with me. So I finally decide on a restaurant where it looks the most possible for a single person to eat: no barbeque grill. photos of dishes that look like small enough to be single serving. I sit down and after an eternity I am finally noticed and I point to one of the photos. Then comes an entire litany of something negative in Korean. And then she points to a price and then comes another deluge of negative Korean something. So then I point to another couple sitting next to me and the pancakes they are eating. “Same please.” I say. She speaks with the couple and asks them for help talking with me, and they don’t know any English. Then she goes back to saying the same thing she said the first time. By this time, I am sooo hungry and sooo frustrated. I just stand up and express the universal look of dejection that can’t be mollified and I walk away.
Walking away from the restaurant, almost in tears again, I see my friend Willie’s friend Silus with another Korean. I beg them if I can join them, and they say sure. I tell them how starving I am, and they order a seafood pancake for me. I wolf down the pancake and the three of us share a soju. Turns out Jin is a gyopo and in the same group as I am, so I finally have a buddy to hang out with. It is interesting to learn what his experience is like being a gyopo and teaching English. Just like my name must be Leanne here, he is not allowed to speak Korean at school, even though he is conversant (not fluent, but definitely conversant) He doesn’t encounter as many horrific situations as I do because he knows enough Korean to avoid them or talk his way out of them.
In the evening, at the Hanouk, most of the teachers sit outside to talk for a while and share their tales of teaching. One of them is especially interested in me because his brother is an adoptee, and he came here sort of following his brother learning about the culture. Now his brother has gone, but he has stayed and is marrying a Korean girl soon. The teachers wind down and turn in fairly early.
Outside, Jin and the translator and I talk. Jin wants to get some more soju and she hooks us up with a man heading to a convenience store. She and I get to know each other while he is off getting soju. She is married to a foreigner who teaches in Indiana. She is home to care for her ailing mother, and so she volunteers to translate to keep her boredom at bay and because she likes to share her culture with foreigners. She’s a real sweetheart and we talk a lot about her experience with culture shock coming to America and her impressions of America.
Afterwards, Jin and another gyopo named Jim (hope I’m not confusing his name with someone else) and I sit up talking about the recent missile testing by North Korea, about shamanism, about nature, about where we draw the line between charletans and underlying belief systems, about religion in general, about what it means to be here in Korea. Jim is a fascinating guy – the kind of delicate sensitive uber intellectual that always manages to make every conversation a deep thought provoking one. Jin is super accessible and the near perfect opposite complement to Jim. We get yelled at once because the doors of the hanoaks are literally only paper thin. But, like the students in my class, our momentary compliance quickly goes back to its natural state. We talk until 3 a.m.
Once upon a time, I used to be most impressed with the environment around me, but lately I’ve become more like my friend Joe, where the backdrop isn’t half as important as the connections you make. I don’t make many of these, so talking until 3 a.m. under the moonlight (and searchlight regularly illuminated sky, due to the nearby military bases) with total strangers on the stoop of a perfectly preserved Chosun dynasty hanoak is pretty special indeed.
In typical fashion, I didn’t get anyone’s contact information. Maybe that makes it even more perfect.