A. Chris Preperrato's Birthday Party
B. My daily commute to Maehwa
C. stop doing this why are you quizzing me
E. I need more time
You are all wrong. No one has any idea what's going on here.
The women in this video are known as "halmonis", a word loosely meaning "grandmother." It's very hard for me to ride the buses here, surrounded by these women, and not think of my late grandmother. Grammy was an amazing woman for a variety of reasons.
On Christmas morning a few years ago my family was waiting on Grammy to come to the table for breakfast. We waited and waited and finally she approached with her walker, telling my entire family "You all look like a bunch of pussies," before casually taking her seat like nothing happened. "Merry Christmas" might have been more appropriate, but it's easy to why there's a special place in my heart for halmonis.
I remain perpetually amazed on bus rides by a phenomenon called "halmoni stacking."
This term, which was just made up, refers to the strategic use of bus space by halmonis. A great example is my special 11:20 a.m. bus. If I told you there are usually at least 20-22 people sitting down on these buses and approximately 16 seats, you'd probably reply "Teah right Erik that's impossible you're lying that doesn't even make sense get real no way."
You all just had this exact reaction so let me explain. A lifetime of hard labor, poor posture, and possibly genetics has given many of these women a spinal disfigurement, hunching their backs into upside down "L's." I'm going to assume a lot of doctors are reading this, so the clinical term is "kyphosis." I hope you're proud Dr. Williams.
But do the halmonis complain about their condition? No, of course not. They innovate. They stack "L" after "L" on top of each other until all of their friends have a seat on the bus, even if the seat is human instead of leather. It kind of looks like this:
The most amazing part of this phenomena is that everyone involved has a perm. Once you start noticing something it's hard to stop, and since arriving in Korea I stare at every woman over 70 to figure out what kind of haircut she has. To this date, I have witnessed exactly one non-perm among this demographic. I asked one of my 6th graders about this and he replied, "I don't know. Maybe it's their passion."
In all seriousness many halmonis really do amaze me. They are so hard working and positive amidst what has been a difficult life for most members of their generation. Of course from time to time you get the cold shoulder, but as a whole I've felt a warm motherly vibe from these ladies. I realize there's a lot I can learn from halmonis, and a lot I can take from them too, like coffee at the bus stop every day.
I've started eating and brushing my teeth left handed. Slightly to improve dexterity, but mostly due to unusual amounts free time. Fortunately there are better ways to spend free time, like traveling. I haven't written too much about exploring Korea so I'll use this opportunity to summarize a couple weekend endeavors.
One such endeavor was a trip to the Yeongduk Crab Festival, where the earlier video was filmed. It pays to always have a camera because the daily absurdities encountered here are generally more interesting than planned trips.
Going to Yeongduk, a small town roughly an hour south of Uljin, meant my second consecutive crab festival, yes. But when there's something going on near Uljin, you just do it. Like the Adidas slogan.The festival ended up being a memorable day and a great decision. Thanks Adidas.
Obviously the dancing halmonis on the bus were excited for the crab festival, and although the four of us traveling together had lower expectations, it was hard not to latch onto their contagious enthusiasm about the event. Yeongduk's crab festival certainly trumped Uljin's version. There were scores of tents filled with fresh seafood, traditional Korean food, and the games characteristic of festivals in any country. The main avenue of tents came to an end at a large stage where constant entertainment kept guests occupied. A public dance off and an auction were
among the events. The prized crab auctioned for well over $200 USD.
After grabbing some tent food, we ventured off for a bit to explore the surrounding area. The walk landed us in a 6-8 story abandoned building with a panoramic view of the East Sea. Some of you may know this body of water as the Sea of Japan, but calling the East Sea by its alternative name in Korea is taboo and will at the very least raise a few eyebrows; one of many subtle reminders of the historical animosity between Korea and Japan.
A spontaneous trip to Yeongduk turned out to be one of my more enjoyable days in Korea thanks to good entertainment and great company, but most importantly I learned Koreans have a word for "kankles" which literally translates into "radish legs."
I use a website called weebly to produce this blog, and one of weebly's features notifies you if someone comes across your site through a search engine. A person came across this page by searching "Kristin Plaxa Ephrata." Someone out there is searching for Kristen Plaxa on google. Someone other than me. I hope those who can appreciate this are reading.
The Korean-Japanese relations previously discussed made me very anxious about meeting up with Jeffrey, a visiting ex-roommate currently living in Japan. Actually it wasn't an issue at all. He is from Wisconsin.
To find Jeffrey in Seoul I had to horizontally traverse Korea which took about 4.5 hours. The third member of our Wisconsin reunion, Nathan, greeted me at a subway stop in Gangnam. We embraced and started chanting "dads" for no apparent reason.
Our first night in Seoul was spent in Gangnam, an upscale neighborhood; and Itaewon, a foreigner district, where we rendezvoused with a few random contacts I'd never met before.
The meeting point in Itaewon was a dive bar with live music so bad it convinced me Crickleback could have made it. Crickleback is a Creed and Nickelback cover band I fantasized about creating. Thankfully it never came to fruition, for everone's sake. If you like Creed or Nickelback I'm sorry, not because you may be offended but because you have to listen to them regularly. The only person reading this that probably likes Creed or Nickelback is the person that searched "Kristin Plaxa Ephrata." Enough hate.
We left Itaewon at a decent hour by Seoul standards, but took an eternity to find a cab. Taxi after taxi would refuse to stop for foreigners. They would ignore us, turn their lights off, or lock the doors. Some would even obnoxiously pick up groups of locals a few steps ahead, immediately after not letting us enter their vehicle. Over an hour of standing in the street passed before we finagled our way into a taxi.
It was kind of awakening to be blatantly stereotyped as a foreigner, but the associated anger subsided when I thought about the situation. Itaewon is notorious for sloppiness, and every weekend certain foreigners flock here, giving us all a bad name in the process. Each cab driver who blew us off has probably cleaned vomit out of their car or dealt with overwhelming belligerence, so you can't completely expect them to eagerly pick up a few "way-gook-ins." Still no excuse for discrimination, but at least comprehensible. The driver who did finally pick us up was a pro, running red lights and taking back-alley shortcuts that allowed us to get back to Nathan's apartment in time for a few hours of sleep. We would need it before an early morning trip to the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
The last time I'd seen Jeff and Nathan was at the border of James Madison Park in Wisconsin, now we were headed to the border of North and South Korea. They are basically the same thing.
DEMILITARIZED ZONE VS. JAMES MADISON PARK
1. Divides North and South Korea.
2. If you attempt to cross you will be captured, prosecuted, or killed.
3.The most heavily fortified and guarded border in the world.
4. Location of deadly clashes between armed forces.
5. Recently in the news when African-American President of the United States Barack Obama visited with US military.
1. Divides Hanah J. Taylor's house from a park.
2. If you attempt to cross you will play volleyball, swim, or have fun.
3. Guarded by an 11 year old German Shepard named Rockwell.
4. One time this guy like got punched there.
5. Not in the news at all when African-American Madison Jazz legend Hanah J. Taylor visited with dog Rockwell.
This is where North Korea becomes visible, and although the Korean peninsula is one land mass there is a noticeable geographical difference between each country. This isn't due to nature.
In South Korea, floor heating systems known as "on-dol" enable most buildings to stay warm, and gas drives the other devices necessary for modern living. Due to North Korea's lack of resources they are forced to deforest their mountains in order to acquire the firewood used for heating and cooking, leaving barren mountain tops where trees should stand.
There aren't many organizations that run tours to the DMZ, the U.S. military being one of the few. Our tour wasn't through the military, but I imagine most trips follow a similar course. You must pass through a minimum of two checkpoints where armed soldiers board the bus and check passports. Along the way tour guides brief you do's and don'ts, with a final briefing in a lecture hall after the last checkpoint. They informed us that pointing and certain gestures are strictly prohibited, and there are only a few specified areas where pictures are permitted. You cannot wear sandals and aren't allowed to have bags, because with these items "you can't run fast enough." Our tour guide explained that visitors are filmed and a pointing gesture can be used as propaganda; an example of "your country's inability to follow rules" or respect regulations.
When you get very close to the border there are two villages directly across from each other. One, is South Korean, with a flag flying high. People live in this village, and are protected by the military at night.
The other, is North Korean. No real people live there at all. It's known as "propaganda village" because the buildings are meant to look prosperous but serve no function in their vacancy. There's a North Korean flag flying in this village too. It was modified to fly slightly higher than South Korea's version across the way.
We entered the mitigation room for a few minutes, and had the opportunity to physically cross the border into North Korea inside this room. The MAC is lined with microphones allowing North Korean soldiers to hear all conversations. We talked about peanuts.
It's hard to smile when you are on this tour. Everyone is very serious, inevitably putting you in an intense mood.
I guess it makes sense, there isn't anything comical about the place.
In 1976 American soldiers were given permission to trim a tree that obstructed the view of both North and South watchtowers at the border. When they attempted to trim it on this designated day, two were attacked by North Korean soldiers and axed to death.
The memorial is a stone's throw away from the "Bridge of No Return," which quite literally describes itself. When the 38th parallel was established Koreans could cross this bridge into the North or South, they just couldn't go back.
Today's DMZ isn't the perfectly horizontal 38th parallel it once was, but rather a windy 155-mile fortified zone. After staring at North Korea for 4 hours, entering North Korea, and buying North Korean Cognac, I was ready to go south. The initial surreal feeling had slipped away, but it's an experience that will stick with me for a long time.
I'd recommend the trip to anyone. VICE has an interesting 3 part documentary about NK if you care to learn more. And if you really want your mind blown, watch their guide to Liberia.
The next 9 hours of my life were filled with a trip to a Beatles-themed music bar, a standard Hongdae club, and a garage turned DJ venue which was my personal favorite. Hongdae is my neighborhood of choice in Seoul, and by the time we left the sun was trying to come up and there was a kid standing on top of a slide thrusting his hips towards the sky.
Staying out late means you sleep late, pretty standard logic. Not wise, given I didn't know the bus schedule the next day. I consumed my twelfth glazed donut of the weekend and headed for the bus station shortly after 3 p.m..
Oh yeah there are a lot of bus stations in Seoul, should have looked into that. Riding the subway for an hour and changing lines many times landed me at Express Station, which I wrongly assumed was the proper terminal. It was getting late, and buses don't exactly run to rural Uljin all day long. I started making a back up plan in my head to take any bus east, stay the night at a "jim-jil-bang" (24 hour public bath house), and try to make it to school in the morning. I opted to roll the dice and search for a different station quite far away.
Obviously this means if you let a 3 year-old loose in the world's second largest city they will find their way home. I should do a bit more planning next time but probably won't. After all, planning isn't the Korean way.
Now I've been missing Will Smith a lot lately and this basketball hoop made me think of him, so here is a nostalgic clip for you Fresh Prince fans out there.
If you have any questions you can email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.