Saturday, June 26, 2010

Soccer... Reggae... Dance

Four a.m. I'm home. Finally, a night of dancing. Sweating. Twirling. Laughter. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We started on the subway, my friend and I discussing life, living in Asia as a single woman of a certain age, men (of course), work (of course), friendships (of course). We meet with some 20-something friends of hers, people I'm getting to know and chat and eventually make our way to a Middle Eastern restaurant for falafel, hummus, pita... where I was mistaken for the mother of one of my companions. Oh the food was good. Being singled out as an older woman - not so much.

On the way to the next place, we grab a cab - pouring rain keeps us from walking - and find ourselves in an alcove on a street in the trendy, hip part of town. College students walk about with red FIFA shirts and blinking red devil horns. The bar is a reggae club, but like so many places here, the chairs are pillows on the floor, each table in its own little alcove. Bob Marley is de riguer as is the Jamacain flag and the dredlocks. I'd never seen Koreans with dreds before. Very laid back. A couple of drinks and the soccer game took over. The match trumped dance music, and we watched from our cubby, 4 feet off the ground. My friend and I drifted off to disco-nap heaven and back to watching the game. In the end, Uruguay triumphed (2-1), and we moved on to the next place. The atmosphere was still one of a party on the street, and a certain politeness is generally the norm here.

We arrive. Following what seems a labyrinthian cave, we follow the cave like entrance into a room surrounded by drums, long picnic tables, the smell of candles in the air. Techno music that just couldn't find its way into the rhythm of my body had me watching from the sidelines, while the rest of the group danced. Our own cubby cradling me as I lounged inside its dark earth tones. The room decor reminded me of the abandoned city in the southwest US desert. Everything was earth tones. Sheets were the dance floor for the most part, our shoes in shoe bags from the moment we came in.

At about 1, the d.j. put on Abba and I too was laughing and dancing and shaking my money makers and at last, feeling the ecstasy that only dance brings for me. It sure was exuberant. Pouring ourselves into a cab, we ride along the Han River, wind in our hair, cooling our overheated skin, and find our way back to our homes, back to the quiet, smiles still stretched across our lips.

*photo from the internet

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

dé·jà vu

I met a woman this weekend who recently married a Korean man after knowing him a short time. His English isn't great, she speaks no Korean, and they have chosen a path together of exploration. They will tell all those stories of history ever so slowly, dictionaries at the ready, expectations put away, and surprises jumping out at them. Their stories will unravel to one another step by step, organically.

How do we connect with people without language? How do we know how? Do you ever have the feeling, the absolute awareness of another person? Someone you don't know? Do you experience it? I do. Just yesterday, first day of class. In a room of 30 some students, one man glowed. I don't know who he is, and he doesn't seem to glow for others, but it's like he is brighter in the room than the other folks. Who is he? What's so special about him? And maybe more importantly, why him? Why do *I* see the glow but others don't? Does he see me? Do I glow *for him*? Do I glow for other people? Do they (you?), too, recognize me before ever knowing me?

This thing happens to me on occasion. A man, a woman, a child even will just glow. One of my favoriates is a woman in her 70's, radiating peace and love, and glowing in my presence when I was in my 20's just out of university. She was a good woman, full of love and simplicity. She glowed. I didn't have a word for it then. Now, yes, "glow".

A painting ... no two! in the Louvre glowed for me causing me to sob right there in the Italian Renaissance wing. Immediately upon seeing the second painting I knew it was the work of the same artist - someone I had never heard of until that day. Now I look for that artist's work and have even gone to Italy just to see one of his portraits. A piece of music gets me, too - The Flower Duet just stops me in my tracks. I know not the first thing about art or opera, but I know that these things pull at my soul.

I've come to believe that past life wisps of memory are the mischief makers in these cases. I can't seem to let go. It's like a thought just on the edge of my mind. If I look too closely, it disappears. So I just sit quietly and listen or watch with my peripheral vision.

Today I look at my student, the one in class who glows, and I wonder if we were friends, was he my mother, were we enemies, did he save me in a past life? I will never know the answers to this, but I certainly have to be careful not to look at him too much, not to try figuring it out in class. While people will not look askance at that in front of a priceless painting, they will when you stare at one person long enough.

Gentle reminders of life and continuity, and the mystery... oh yes, the mystery.


*internet photo

Friday, June 11, 2010

Hot Diggety ... Dog Diggety...

Anyone who spends some time with me in a city knows that I love street food! Roasted chestnuts in Rome, pretzels with mustard in Philadelphia, choclo (a kind of big kerneled corn you eat with cheese) in Cusco, and here in Korea I found a hot dog vendor! New York hot dogs, they ain't!

Now, I know that sometimes I'm taking my life into my hands - dreadful food poisoning in Peru comes to mind - but it is so worth it. Not only do you usually get a pretty decent and inexpensive dinner, but you also get to support a small business. I like the honest exchange of money for a service. I like the simplicity of it. I like knowing that my money is helping Joe Q. Public and his family rather than some bureaucrat who doesn't know people from numbers. Yeah, people will have shoes because I chose chestnuts or pretzels, choclo or hot dogs for my dinner.

Tonight a couple got into the elevator, munching down on their dogs. Please understand. This is not socially acceptable behavior. People don't move about eating (or drinking coffee) here. It is against the norms. Must be some slamming good dogs, I'm thinking, and then I realize HEY, that's the place near MY place. Every day I pass Sso Ja Hot Dog stand. I first noticed it because the sign was made by my art teacher, and I recognize her style. Heck, why not?

Dropping my books and research papers off, grabbing my wallet and my outdoor shoes, I scoot on down to the little red outdoor hut and take a gander. I pass on the bulgogi barbecue (beef barbecue) and choose instead the SSo Ja Dog, a delight to eat as much as it is a delight to watch being made. He's the guy on the left, his friend is the guy on the right he tells me of the picture. His black spiky hair and 1940's type glasses so popular with the younger set here frame his smiling face as he cooks the dogs (sausage actually), cutting it into four pieces at a slant. The smell of the grilled meat fills my little corner of the concrete plaza, and I hear the sounds of laughter and people hawking their wares. He takes absolute care and makes precise cuts to the meat with special scissors after placing it in a steamed bun. The bamboo mats used for rolling sushi are the steamer, and the bun is soft, but not gooey. A clump or two or three of cabbage and onions beside the steaming sausage, and then the sauces. He flips the ketchup and mustard bottles like a bartender with a bottle of Cuervo and dances the red and yellow in wavy lines, perfectly proportioned to the very edge. I ask for hot sauce, and he says, no ... for Koreans. I tell him I live in Korea, I tell him about the goshiwon and the university and pepper my speech with enough Korean that I pass his meager test, and hot sauce flits down the inside of the warm, not gooey bun.

Wrapped in paper, he hands it to me with a smile and a flourish, and tells me to come back another time. In the sanctuary of my room, four floors up, I bite into possibly the best sausage sandwich I've ever had. It was hot, I will tell you. Yep. It was hot, and it was spicy, and it burnt my tongue. And I loved it.

He had asked if I wanted two or one. I decided one since maybe I wouldn't like it. Smarter that way, you know. Now, I wish I'd asked for two but don't have the gumption to run back down and ask for another. I bite into an apple from my fridge, and the cold takes away the heat in my mouth. And I ponder. How often can I go for a sausage sandwich without being obnoxious? I mean seriously - two fifty. That's how much a Korean hot dog costs on the street. Five bucks for two. All you have to do is give your money to the nice man with the spiky hair, and you have a party in your mouth! Next time I'm taking the five bucks with me. Life should always be so rocking!

Photo from internet. I gotta get a camera.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Wherever you go, there you are...

:: Warning :: Self pity to follow ::

I'm not good at relationships. It's the truth. I have lived my life from one place to the next, not really getting close to people. I'm always surprised when someone tells me they love me. I don't quite trust their confession anyway. I've lived separate from my family most of my life. The ones I did live with have passed. In many ways, I'm alone in the world. It's not a terrible thing. It's just... a thing.

When I was coming up (that's growing up for those of you who don't speak "Philly-ese"), I remember silence. Days and days of silence. I figured out early on that speaking could be my downfall. Seeing the truth and speaking it was not acceptable. My father used to tell me that I was so fat that the grates in the street would collapse under me if I walked on them. "But cars weigh more than I do, and they go over them all the time," I told him. My realization cost me. I didn't see his hand coming, but I sure did see the stars after. In school, a teacher was tired of my silences and gave me an assignment. I was a good student, and I always completed my work. My new task? Read a story to the class. She was a smart lady. In first grade, we were told to write about something we hate to do. I wrote "I hate to talk. It always gets me in trouble." Some things never change.

And so, this week, in vino veritas. Except it was soju and cervezas. I was told that I say X about someone and it angers him. I didn't know I did that! It was an ugly thing, and I say it in jest, not knowing it was upsetting. I'm so glad he told me. I want to watch my words. I know I will bite my tongue and weigh my words when we are together. We drink to that. And the alcohol sets in. Again, between the two of us there is a misunderstanding, and I wonder if he is right... and then.

And then I yelled back. I said the quiet, niggling little things that my "diplomacy" and my "humor" never allowed me to say. It was not pretty. I stand behind what I remember saying (not that it is accurate, but what I think I said). It could have been said in a more kind way. I didn't have to be a jerk. There is no excuse. I chose to throw back those drinks. I know I'm not a happy, silly drunk. Usually, I'm a sad drunk. Not this time. Evidently I'm also a bitch drunk.

The guilt I feel, the turning in my gut, the self-loathing are getting to me a bit. I'm embarrassed that I angered my friend. *Is he still my friend? I don't know*.

So, here I am. Still crap at relationships. I suppose now I remember why I don't believe people when they say they love me. Who would love someone who was such a jerk? And now my tummy hurts knowing I have to face him in a day and a half. I will. I won't hide. But still I will hear all the things in my head that I say, that I've heard others say to me. And I will avoid the street grates. Who knows? Maybe my fathead self really will break them.

*photo is from the internet.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Comfort Women

I can hear it before I see it. Loudspeakers. A woman's voice. Greenery all around me, the indignation and anger of women breaking the serenity of the garden I am walking through. On the other side, main street, the whirr of bus wheels going by, an occasional car horn, and the discussions of passersby don't interrupt the protest outside the Japanese Embassy in the Insa-dong section of town. Every Wednesday, 12 noon, there is a protest for the comfort women.

It is not often you see a Korean woman taking charge. For sure they do behind closed doors, but not in public. Women here are an enigma. They appear soft and flowing, like the organza skirts and blouses they wear for their office jobs. They are quiet, they seem serene and move with elegance and grace.

Not so, here. Here, in front of the Japanese Embassy, about 150-200 people gather to hear a tiny woman. Young women begin. They are passionate, full of power; they rev the masses up, chants and shouts, banners and home made posters wave in the spring breeze. Haksang (students) and adjummas (middle aged women) are united to call out their rage of the atrocities poured onto this tiny woman, and others like her. She moves slowly, a pale pink blouse and straw cap protecting her from the sun. Her voice is strong. She is one of the few surviving comfort women, girls really, who were kidnapped and forced to serve Japanese soldiers in sexual slavery during World War II.

The woman next to me holds a sign urging the Japanese government to take responsibility for its role in the abuse of these stolen women. It is written in Korean. Around me though, I see similar signs in Japanese and English. A man sells a book - or is t a DVD? I can't get close enough to tell. The picture on the front looks quite a lot like the woman in the pale pink shirt and the straw hat. She takes the podium, her words full of fire. She is hearty and hale. While I can not understand the language, the message is clear. "Ilbon" (Japan) is a word often spoken during her diatribe. Each time it is spoken, it comes out with disgust.

There are so many things that separate us, this little woman and I. Age, race, culture. But there is one that brings us together. We are both women. We are both women who know the atrocities one person can throw upon another, disregarding humanity. How often do we have the opportunity to be in the presence of someone who has survived such horror? I owe it to her, to women everywhere, perhaps to history itself, to bear witness to the message.

*There are estimated to be between 100-200 comfort women still alive.*

Here is a short documentary regarding this:

A personal story about comfort women can be found here:

(photo from internet)