Sunday, January 23, 2011

In the bleak midwinter the title of an apparently traditional English song I'd never heard till Katherine Jenkins, an incredibly beautiful, incredibly Welsh opera singer with an incredible voice, sang it to a CGI shark that was lying on a sidewalk in the Doctor Who Christmas episode.

If you have to ask why a gorgeous opera singer was singing this song to a shark on a sidewalk, you clearly lack the proper appreciation for Doctor Who.

At any rate, this winter has been the coldest in Seoul in thirty years, with wind chills down around 0 Fahrenheit overnight. The winter climate here is much like Upstate New York's, cold and windy, but with a bit more sun and a lot less snow. I've been reduced to, too often, going from nine hours in school to fifteen hours at home (with occasional bouts of tedium on the health club's treadmills), with not nearly enough outdoors time.

On days when the wind hasn't been too punishing, I've bundled up a few times and taken walks, and I never skip hashing on Saturdays. There, dressing in enough layers makes the cold bearable, so long as I keep moving. Fortunately, recently the group's gotten smart and sometimes the after-run socials have been held at the Bless U bar in Itaewon rather than having us all shivering outside like the Poor Little Matchgirl. Sometimes.


...this entry is going to take a 180-degree turn here, one I hadn't planned when I started (I meant to write pretty words about the snow on my run along the Yangjae Cheon today). But this keeps nudging at me:


Seoul, as Daegu did, has a class of beggars called "seal men". They have withered or useless legs (from polio or other causes) and propel themselves, belly-down, on little wooden carts, their faces inches from the sidewalk. Their legs are wrapped in inner-tube-like rubber, so they look like half-man, half-seal creatures. Apparently they get a tiny stipend from the government but have to beg to try to get enough money for food and housing. And times are hard; the economy here is in much better shape than in much of the world, but there is a recession going on, and their income has shrunk.

They invariably have a tinny sound system playing music and little plastic trays like drive-in French-fry containers on their carts. The trays usually have a few coins on them. Meanwhile, their faces are at the level of people's shins and car exhausts, down by the cigarette butts. They really can't look up. I've read, though this could be wrong, that the rubber wrapping is because they can't take bathroom breaks all day.

Two years ago, I read on an expat's blog that the police say that these poor men are generally mentally handicapped and are essentially slaves for organized crime, getting dropped off from a bus that goes all over the city each day, then picked up at night. So I've turned my head, feeling vile, and just walked by, even though I almost always give to beggars at subway stations; I can use my money more than the Korean Mafia can. But I just read a newspaper profile of one of these men, who (it said) may lose his meager apartment because the donations have dried up. It mentioned nothing about crime or human trafficking.

So now I don't know what to do: throw my money away to line the pockets of criminals? Or forget everything I say I believe about compassion and walk away from the lowest, most helpless people I've ever come into contact with? the bleak midwinter, which exists not only due to the weather.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

O Seoul mio

I was coming back from yet another icy hash run yesterday when, just as the train crossed over the Han River, I felt a change in my consciousness. I've been in Korea for 28 months, in Seoul for 16, and I've always felt very much a stranger in a (very) strange land. But somehow at that moment something shifted in my mind.

I think it started when I got my bicycle. I'd had individual routes in my mental atlas... home to Itaewon, home to the COEX Mall, home to the ballpark... but biking from place to place started these imaginary dotted lines to coalesce into something resembling a map. Then again, doing the marathon training, even though it was almost all along the Yangjae Cheon (the stream), opened up the world from Gwacheon City in the southwest all the way to the Han and along the waterfront.

But it was the hashing that really did it, taking buses and subways to areas I'd never have otherwise gone to and then running the streets and alleyways, the mountains and bridges, seeing the people far from my neighborhood and far from the tourist areas, taking in the sights and sounds and smells of so many different parts of this huge city.
In that moment in the train on the bridge over the river, I realized something: though I'll never belong to Seoul, it belongs to me, in some totally illogical way that St. Augustine, in my 13 years there, never quite did. I've biked it and run it and bused it and trained it.

Now it's mine. And I'll have it with me always.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

"There is no way to peace. Peace is the way."

I woke this morning, the last of my vacation, intent on nothing more than getting the coffee going and finding the Seahawks-Saints game on my computer. The first thing I saw online was the headline about Representative Giffords' shooting.

My first impulse was to wonder what's happened to my country since I left it. Then I remembered the Kennedys, and King, and Wallace, and Reagan, and Lennon. The mad impulse to murder is nothing new.

But politicians and pundits didn't use to talk about "Second Amendment remedies" and tell their followers, "Don't retreat; reload" and post gun sights over the districts of their political opponents.
I'm scared for my country, and today, though I know it's insane, somehow almost feel more secure to be here-- fifty miles from a wicked dictator's missiles pointed at my apartment-- than there.

The little girl killed in the Tucson assault was born on September 11, 2001.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Happi New Year

Our vacation's over; my friends and coworkers who've fled to more clement climes haven't returned yet, as school doesn't start back for another 60 hours, but it's Friday night and all that's left is the same weekend we always have.

But for once I don't feel as if the break went by too fast or that it didn't hold anything of value. I'm untanned, rested, and ready; the vacation has done me a world of good.

It's been just too darn cold (temperatures in the single digits Fahrenheit in the mornings, with a nice breeze to keep everything good and brisk) for me to want to sight-see at the palaces or tombs, and the thought of the DMZ right now isn't very appealing. (I should point out, though, that the US Embassy's monthly mailing-- unlike last month's-- didn't say a word about contingency plans for bugging out.)
It's not the heat, it's the humidity.

But I've kept busy, with hashing and having dinners with Bob and beverages with LesBalls and prepping my new journalism class and doing weight work and treadmill runs at the gym and stopping in to tend Faina's cat and taking long walks, bundled like an Inuit ("I can't put my arms down!") and reading the amazing Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and making visits for routine medical tests and trips to Itaewon to drop off my happi coat for embroidery and sewing and to pick it up.
Traditional apres-hash attire: the Japanese happi, a short kimono with one's hash name and patches, done up in the colors and logo of one's home kennel. Some of the hashers are emblazoned like NASCAR vehicles and have had to put extensions on their happis to hold all the patches.

Today, on my last nonworking "work" day, I made my way to St. Mary's Catholic Hospital next to the Express Bus Terminal. This is an astoundingly confusing subway station, actually three stations on three lines laid out like a giant block U. In addition to the largest terminal in Korea, there's the hospital, the giant Shinsigae department store, and a big upscale underground mall called Central City.

This is all confuzzling enough that, if one were to go out the wrong exit from the subway (:: koff ::), one might nearly lose one's nose to frostbite before reaching the hospital, hypothetically hypothermically. Though, on the brighter side, what better place than a hospital to reach while holding the tip of one's nose in one's coat pocket?

I've been going to see Dr. Choi at the hospital every three months for a renewal of my blood-pressure meds. This time she insisted I get an EKG, urine and blood tests, and chest x-ray first. I'd already had all but the EKG done last week at the clinic by Yangjae Station, and the EKG today was quick and easy. Once I got there.

First I went to the International Health office, as that's the only place in the hospital guaranteed to have staffers who speak English. Then I had to figure out whether their records spelled my name (in Korean characters) as Conemain Seuteeben Jone or Coremain Seuteeben Jone, wait for them to find me in the system, and then wait for a volunteer to conduct me to the correct office.

My volunteer was a very sweet Anglophone middle-aged lady who was positively the smallest person I have ever seen and, shockingly, possibly the first little person I've ever actually talked to. Hard to believe, but there it is. The top of her head literally came up to my elbow. We rode the escalators up to the third floor; I stood a couple of stairs below her so we could talk easily. I told her I was from New York, as I've found it much too tough to explain to Koreans where Ithaca is, and we chatted about her visits to the Metropolitan Museum and Soho. She was a very nice lady whom I liked a lot.

So now I have to go back in ten days for the actual prescription; meanwhile there's more prep to be done, hashes to run, tales to be spun, and maybe some fun. (Is "Happi New Year" a pun?)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Not looking back or forward, just around

In the spirit of curbing my procrastination, I'm doing my New Year's Eve Looking Backward post on January 2. I've never believed much in resolutions, but I've come to the point in my life where I'm thinking about this point in my life.

Something new has happened lately; I've been thinking about my mortality. I don't mean than in a lugubrious way; actually, I feel pretty good about it. But just recently I haven't felt as if I'm an ageless kid in a mysteriously graying, wrinkling shell; I feel like I'm the age I am. Does that mean I'm going to start acting "mature"? God, no.

Paradoxically, hanging around all my running friends makes me feel older while the activity keeps me younger. But both the Flyers and the hashers are welcoming and inclusive and I feel right at home. The same is true with my work friends, who are almost all 25 to 35 years younger, though sometimes I don't get out with them because they like going to red-in-tooth-and-claw meat restaurants and staying out late-- till the subways run again at 6 a.m. late-- at clubs.

But I've gone on too long about age, and now I'm older yet than when I started. This entry really isn't about age; it's about life, or my life at least.

Am I better today than I was a year ago? A decade ago? Financially, not really. I've got a little apartment with a big cat in a strange, strange land. I don't know when I'll ever move back home, or where that is.

But I honestly think I've attained some wisdom and some perspective. It took a while for me to realize that the cosmos doesn't revolve around the United States, or Ithaca, or me. It amazes me that I never wanted to live in a town bigger than 20 thousand and I'm comfortable in a town of 20 million.

Today it was about 15 degrees Fahrenheit and halfway down into the subway was a man sitting on the landing, his head down, with his cap upside-down in front of his crossed legs. I know people think that beggars are bums, or faking it, but nobody sits there on a day like today by choice. I put money in his cap, but it doesn't make me feel better.

I think about people like him. I think about my cat Tiki, spending his second horrible winter on the streets of Daegu (if he's still alive). I think about the people I've hurt, but not the people who've hurt me. I know this all may sound sanctimonious, but it's true.

I've been a vegetarian for 19 years and talked the good talk, but I guess it's only recently that I've really internalized how compassion is all we have.

I wish us all a hopeful and healing 2011.


I'm halfway through our school's winter break, and so far it's been the best staycation I've had in Korea. I usually sit around and mope about how everyone else is off on a Southeast Asian beach...
This is a Northeast Asian beach, along the Han River in downtown Seoul.

...or in Europe or back home in the US of A while I freeze my Niblets off in the Land of the Morning C-c-c-calm. But I've watched good movies on the computer, read an extraordinary YA book (The Hunger Games) and am about to start reading the sequel, gotten about town, spent time with Hasher friends, and done some great retail therapy.

Usually just spending money doesn't make me happy (unless it's on books; my shameful English-teacher secret is that buying books elates me a lot more than reading them.) But a couple of days ago I bought a terrific tiger-head winter hat. I was only going to wear it on the hash, to fit in with the silly hats and socks and such that are popular among the hashnoscenti, but  it makes me happy, so I'm wearing it around the 'hood (in lieu of a hood) too. And the locals don't seem to be laughing at me any more than usual.
It looks something like this.

New Year's Eve was a party in Itaewon with "my" Yongsan Kimchi group and the Osan Bulgogi group; New Year's Day was a walking-trail hash in the same place, where I also bought my "happy coat": a satiny short kimono-like robe with one's home hash group's logo on the back, on which one sews all the patches (which serve as sort of demerit badges) from the various runs. Yongsan Kimchi's happy coat is my favorite color combo, the Michigan Wolverines' midnight blue with maize trim. I'll go back to Itaewon in the next couple of days to get the ajumma (middle-aged lady) who embroiders them to embroider "Corndog Millionaire" on the lapels and sew on my patches. Psyched for that.

And then today, Sunday, the Southside hashers hosted a great run through the streets and over a snowy, slippery mountain...
It looked something like this.
, and then, since the hash was on the right subway line anyway, I went to Home Plus. Home Plus is much like E-Mart, but better, with a wider selection of groceries and some clothing that actually fits me. I don't go there often, as it's a bit of a journey, but today I hit the mother lode.

It's so hard for a veghead to find a variety of food here; 'most everything has meat or fish in it and you can't be sure what doesn't, because those dang Koreans insist on listing the ingredients in Korean. I end up eating the same few things, and not necessarily healthful things, over and over. And a lot of eggs, ova and ova.

But at Home Plus today I found vegetarian ramen (I bought a dozen packets), Italian-style diced tomatoes, vegetarian chili, and cheap but delicious pomegranite juice. I'm trying hard to eat better and more varied food. I had veggie burgers at both hash events in Itaewon this weekend, too!

Unless you're a vegetarian in a non-Western-alphabetted land (hint: you're not), you can't imagine how rare these items are and how stoked I am to have this cornucopia of good eats.

To paraphrase the mortal words of the Ohio Express, "Yummy yummy yummy, I got grub in my tummy."

Oh, and I registered for my first half-marathon, in April. And I expect to do another full marathon in the fall.

So, as the young'uns say, it's all good.