full moon


As I was waiting for the subway Thursday morning, the friendliest man in Korea (maybe twenty years my senior, quite pungent, wearing two hats, one on top of the other, with a soiled coat and pants, the hem bound up with striped leg-warmers – similar looking to the striped elastic half gator/half garters that laborers wear here [that harken back to the look of the way traditional men’s hanbok pants were fastened] but not as nice, yet too misshaped to be socks) started chatting me up.

When he found out I was a foreigner, instead of asking why I didn’t speak Korean like I always get, he instead started chatting to me more!  Hello!  Hello!  Hello!  He opened up his backpack and pulled out a bag, and from that bag he pulled out another bag, and then he started crushing peanuts in his hands and pushing them towards me.  I politely declined because I wasn’t feeling myself, but that didn’t put him off.

He would rummage around in his bag where he had a folder full of different photo-copied articles in Korean and read them as if he were on a mission, and then he cajoled/harassed/encouraged a bunch of middle-school-aged kids to take the opportunity to speak English to the foreigner, who all gave each other side-ways glances or shyly looked at the ground.  Then he started talking about someone in Florida and pulled out some pocket ledgers and started flipping through them. He pointed to a name on one of the pages, Odette, and had me repeat the name several times while he tried to pronounce it.

Before I knew it, his phone was shoved in my face and I was talking to Odette.  I asked her if she was his daughter in Florida and she laughed.  “Oh my god no!  He’s just some crazy old guy I met at a subway station!  He’s got an amazing memory, though!”  “So are you in Florida?”  “NO!!! I’m in Maseok!”  “And you’re not his daughter…”  “No no no!  I’m just teaching English here…”  And so we started to have a conversation, when suddenly he was tugging on his phone and I said, “I’m sorry, Odette, he seems to want his phone back!”

He got on the kids’ case to talk to me again, and so one of them asked me how old I was, and we played the age guessing game.  At which point he sat down to study his photocopies.  The kids moved on to another train door and I took their spot, keeping an eye on what crazy thing my new friend would do next.

He saw me looking his direction and, fishing into his backpack again this time he pulled out some cologne.  And he did a little jig while spraying himself at strategic locations with the cologne.  And then he got this bright idea and his face beamed and he started coming my way, finger depressed on the nozzle…

I think I let out a little scream as the cologne hit me, but I managed to side-step most of it, and tried to play it off as good-naturedly as I could.  “no, no, no, that’s okay! thanks!”

He sat next to me, reeking of cologne-covered b.o., fished into his bag with his grimy hands, pulled out a walnut, cracked it, and insisted that I take some of the nut-meats, to which I protested again when the train came.

Turns out he transferred the same time I did, and he insisted on being my guide the entire way.  While waiting for the next train I went ahead and bought him some coffee, to atone for turning down all his overtures.  And then, when I was surveying the route I would take on my subway map, he asked me where I was going, and proceeded to DRAW on my map his chosen route for me!   And then he told me he was stopping at Cheongyangri and eating some good food.  And he was so disappointed when I didn’t get off at his stop and go eat with him.   It was so sweet, as he was leaving, he said “hello, hello.”  Because he didn’t know the word for goodbye.

Why can’t typical Koreans be so friendly?  If I hadn’t had an appointment, I would have loved to have hung out with the old guy, even if he was a little crazy and stinky.  I mean, a friendly Korean is a gem, a rarity.  Maybe not to most white foreigners, but it is to me.  I should have given him a big hug, grime and all.

Later that day my friend Joyce called and told me there was a festival I should see, the Daeboreum festival for the first full moon of the year, and that they did cool things with fire at night.

bbc photo of children twirling cans of burning charcoal
click on the image of the folk dancing to access this website, where there's also a video of Ganggang's festival

But I already had plans to go visit my friend Miwha and her two daughters.   Maybe next year.  I see there’s a big one in Jeju…

I told them about my subway friend, and it turns out that walnuts and peanuts are a tradition on Daeboreum, and that the sound of shaking them in a bag wards of evil spirits and ghosts, which are called dokkaebi (도깨비)  Now I feel even worse that I turned down his offering to me!  (but his hands were so grimy!)  Suwan drew some for me, and while they varied in the amount of horns they had, they always had a magic bat.  The bat could be used to protect people or hurt them, depending on how good you were.

This one is similar to the one Suwan drew for me:

They’re always depicted kind of like cave-men

Miwha said they also eat 5 grain rice for 5 days in a row.

But perhaps the coolest thing is that I learned there’s a rabbit in the moon.  Looks more like a bunny than a man’s face.  I’ll always see bunnies from now on.  Korea changes a person’s views forever…

After that I was full-blown sick and basically stayed in the same position on Jane’s floor the entire time, aching or sleeping.  Some company.  I also missed getting to immigration to renew my alien registration card and will now have to pay a $100 fine…but I have somehow turned into a weenie when it comes to being sick – don’t know when that happened, but it did.  But I still really enjoy being a little delirious and especially not caring about anything, especially eating.

The following day we went to the hogwan and sat back as the students created posters of entirely their own direction after only being given images of adoption.   It’s so great what kids can come up with on their own!

From there I went to meet me new friend Kakki who’s moving away already for dinner in Suwon.  She just sold me her little 7-speed folding bike, which is super-cute, and which I plan to roam around the area a bit and see things that seemed too far to walk (that is, if I can hack the hills – most of the roads look fairly level and in the depressions, but we ARE in the mountains and looks can be deceiving)

After dinner I lit up a cigarette as they were walking to go meet more friends and I was heading back for the long commute home (way over 2.5 hours from Suwon), which is something I never do at home but often do in Seoul just because if I offend anyone, it’s minor and nobody I know.  But this time it wasn’t just a disapproving grimace.  This time heads were snapping in our direction, half a dozen people scowled.  And one woman looked like she was going to charge towards me and smack me.  Seriously.  She wasn’t just offended – she wanted to beat the crap out of me.  It was scary.  She looked like a rampaging gorilla, or a pit bull that can barely be contained by its leash.

So I was trying to figure out what was so different about this.  Was Suwon really that much different than Seoul?  Even the people I was with noticed (and believe me it’s rare when white foreigners ever notice when I’m treated differently)  I’ve no problem with a little disapproval, but outright hostility verging on violence is another thing.  And then I realized – I was walking down the street with half a dozen white people.  So not only was I a brazen hussy smoking in public, but also smoking while walking, but also cavorting with white people and ACTING JUST LIKE THEM, totally without shame. The whiteness was the active ingredient that made me so despicable, a white that no Korean harlot in fetish shoes, her buns hanging out of her micro mini and her false eyelashes hanging on by a thread of glue, being held up by some soldier, can match.  Because even in her whoredom she’s still looking and acting more Korean than I am.  Smoking is an act that may not be viewed favorably but is totally excusable performed by any white woman.  But to be (look) a Korean and act like that.  Well, might as well stone her.

I’ve already decided if I meet my family, then they gets what they gets.  I’m not hiding in shame for any reason.  That’s what happens when children get sent to other countries with different value priorities.  I’ll explain on the first meeting.  I won’t sugar-coat anything.  I’ll lower their expectations as much as humanly possible.  Would save a lot of the grief I hear my adoptee friends who’ve reunited go through every day.

Why don’t I just not smoke in public in metropolitan Seoul?  Because it’s the only place I can be even remotely free.  Because it’s full of foreigners and I’m a foreigner.  Because I don’t accept double standards imposed on me simply based upon the color of my skin.

I’m not Korean.  I’ll never be Korean.  I’ll never fully be anything anywhere in any country.  That’s just the way it is.  And when judgment like this take place, I don’t know why anyone would want to be.

I do know I wish I didn’t have so much fodder for writing in this blog.

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One thought on “full moon

  1. btw, while smoking by Korean women in public is not seen on the streets, it’s not unheard of indoors. Always inside bars, clubs, and noraebangs, of course, sometimes in restaurants, and even some chain coffee shops you will see women in the smoking areas. It’s definitely in the rebellious category, but again not unheard of, but it’s usually in the company of other Koreans.

    While watching Korean t.v. it’s kind of ridiculous to see all smoking has been smudged out with the proverbial jar of vaseline. It’s obvious what the actor has in their hands, but the placing of the butt to the lips is what gets obliterated. It’s really incongruous, since smoking is EVERYWHERE. It’s a lot more prevalent than America in the 60’s and 70’s even, and like that era, non-smoking restaurants are rare. So kids see smoking ALL THE TIME. Way more than American kids do. How ridiculous is it to deny reality to that extent? What mixed messages does that send to the kids? They should be asking themselves why there are SO MANY smokers in Korea…

    The reason I don’t smoke in public in my home town is simply because I’m a teacher and I accept that I’m supposed to set an example to students who know me. I accept that’s part of my role as teacher anywhere on the planet. But sheesh, where I’m not a teacher I should be able to do what anyone else can do.

    Also btw, the vaseline is also employed for genitals but not for breasts. Breasts are everywhere all over t.v. and a huge fetish object. So another incongruous thing is you’d think those would be obliterated too…

    And even though clavicle and cleavage and collarbone are too sexy for mortal eyes, it doesn’t stop all of Korea from adoring their barely clad pop stars.

    Drinking, however, doesn’t seem to have any stigma to it at all, and the subway is always reeking with the smell of soju coming from all walks of life and all ages. Thursday night as I was traveling to Jane’s I came across three people hurling street pizza. It’s as ubiquitous on the sidewalks as dog poop in Paris.

    Koreans always talk about how Korea is a conservative society. The existence of coffee shops, hostess clubs with pink doors, love motels, or sex shops with floor to ceiling display windows doesn’t seem to be a contradiction in their minds to calling themselves a conservative society. They’re a repressed society, a self-deluded society, denying they’re just as crass or vulgar or prone to foibles as any other people anywhere else on the planet.

    So yeah, I dig the traditional cultural heritage giving evidence of a time when these people were connected to something larger than themselves, but I don’t dig the hypocrites they’ve become. At all.

    And I’m glad to have my eye on the door and it makes my time here more bearable, but this place still makes me see red on a regular basis.

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