The Master

During a break from pinning dyed fabric in 2001, I snapped this moseup of the Master against an Autumn sky. You can tell from his face that he loves me right?
I might've mentioned the recent email I got from him. In it he told me to view KBS 인간극장 95~99회 (꽃반지 끼고 은희네집). Since I am not currently in the Korea, I have to jump through a number of red-tape hoops before I am allowed to see it. Feel free to check it out if you want to see The Master, his famous wife, and kids. Then tell me how much you loved it. I'll be jealous until KBS decides I am a worthy enough foreigner to see it.

Earning My Room and Board

Persimmon Dyeing in 2001 Cont'd

The almost daily work of dyeing the cleaned cotton fabric rolls continued. The Master's mom (pictured standing) and other neighborhood ajummas folded the rolls through the persimmon juice, carefully soaking every inch.

My contribution was to walk around and reload their tubs by pouring more persimmon juice in. I also entertained them by terribly singing 1980's K-Pop (그러나 그 시절에 너를 또 만나서 사랑할 수 있을까).
When the fabric was thoroughly steeped in the dye juice, I would run each one through the spin cycle on a lidless washing machine. Then we would load the massive moist piles into the van and drive them about 200 meters up behind the house to an open field. There were long drying stands covered with a black plastic mesh. Using sharp pins shaped like the numeral 2, we would pin the fabric out to dry. The sun and the salty coastal air was supposed to be good for getting the proper color from the dyeing process. Witness:
After a few times through the whole cycle (dyeing, spinning, pinning, drying, unpinning, repeat) the fabric would take on the rich brown color seen here.
The ajummas had to follow behind me at first because my pinning technique was not great. They yelled at me, then giggled and flirted. I learned. Eventually. But my fingers were raw and my jeans were covered in dye spots.

Skate on Thin Ice--2001 Cont'd

After taking rice, the women cleaned up while the Master, his protege, and I stayed seated on the kitchen floor. The Master was itching for some Soju and with a huge library of options within arm's reach, we were soon pouring each other's cups full. There was a problem however: we had no side dishes to eat while drinking. To solve this problem the Master went to the freezer and pulled out a large cube-shaped block of frozen food. He unwrapped the plastic, placed it on a plate, and put it in the microwave.

I had no idea what he was cooking or defrosting so I waited silently savoring my fruit-steeped Soju. When the microwave dinged he put the food down in front of us. He asked me if I had ever tried it before. I asked what it was and he told me but I didn't recognize the name. He clarified that it was a type of seafood. I still had no clue but mental noted to look it up later.

The Master got a small cup and filled it with red pepper paste for dipping the barely defrosted seafood bites in before eating. He warned me I might not like it. I was not sure if he said I wouldn't like it because it was spoiled, or because it tasted like it was spoiled. The only thing I was sure of was that he had used the word "spoiled" in describing the seafood.

I took a bite. Terrible. I took another bite but dipped it in the yummy red sauce first. Still terrible and only doable if caked in ample pepper paste and chased with Soju. As we finished eating the thawed bits around the edges, the frozen fare would go back into the microwave for more defrosting, then we would pick at the edges some more and eat. Dip and eat. Thaw, pick, dip, eat, drink. Repeat.

When we'd had enough, the seafood was re-wrapped and placed back into the freezer. We repaired to bed. Me to share the mosquito net room with the protege.

I forgot to look up the name of the rotten-tasting seafood. I even forgot the name. And it wasn't until a few days later when we drove into Mokpo and passed a fish market that the subject finally came up again. The Master pointed out the window at some sea fresh creatures propped on display.

"Hong-eo," he said. "That is what we ate the other night. Hong-eo."
There's a reason ZenKimchi calls it "The hardest thing in Korea to swallow..."

Gettin' Busy

Lest ye fear I spent the whole 2001 trip virtually alone and stranded in the middle of nowhere, stay tuned.

Eventually the Master and his wife did return from Seoul and things returned mostly to normal around Grandma's house. That is to say the rain stopped and the labor of natural dyeing resumed. Plus I was able to have actual conversations; not just ones with myself in my own head.

One of the Master's young proteges arrived in a van packed with supplies. We unloaded loads and loads of cotton fabric rolls and stacked them any ol' where.
Before introducing any persimmon juice onto the cotton it all had to be rinse-washed several times. This was done to remove any chemicals on the cloth that might interfere with the coloring. Under the black mesh canopy that shaded the pavemented side yard, we rinsed countless rolls of cotton. From bin to bin, several rinses for each, then into the spin cycle of a lidless industrial-sized washing machine. After the spin cycle, we haphazardly hung the wet rolls over lines strewn across the front "yard."
The sun would do the drying work, and we would shift the fabric around as it dried. It didn't seem to matter that the cloth dragged in the mud from the previous rainy days. Chemicals, bad. Mud, good. It added character. Plus it would probably wash off during the repeated dyeing phases.
In the background of the above shot you can see a large shed. It was a newer addition to the property and it was filled with cotton; both dyed and un-dyed (er, not yet dyed). In the back left of the photo is a fig tree. We ate the figs that had fallen to the ground.
Tired, sore, hungry, but not bored or alone, I sat down to take rice with Grandma, the Master, his wife, and the young helper who drove the van.

Day 2 With Grandma

Bored stiff, I walked back up the one street in Grandma's tiny village. People were starting to trickle in for the upcoming Chuseok holiday. A few of them were out and about. That made for more than a couple steady stares at me. Along the walk I snapped a few pics of some of the local urchins. Some already dressed in their holiday garb.
Once word got around that there was a whitey lurking, a group of kids started to gather and follow. Soon I was surrounded by 10-12 elementary age children. They shot questions at me like a firing squad. And with my 3rd grade level Korean skills, we hit it right off. It was the first human interaction--besides Grandma--that I had in 2 days. So it was welcome. At first.

Once they got comfortable that I was not a ghost or a monster, one obnoxious little boy decided it was time to initiate me into the local game of gochu grab. He would stand right in front of me and then reach out and smack me in the manbits. I was not a fan so I told him not to do that anymore. I trusted he got the memo and let my guard down. Smack, he junkpunched me again.

No matter how I chided, he kept after me until one time he missed and hit the pink coin purse in my pocket. He asked me what was in my pocket. Me, hoping it would distract him from his punch fetish, I pulled the coin purse out. Upon seeing it, the jaw of one girl in the crowd just dropped. Then, when I opened it and pulled out her photo ID, those kids lost their marbles. They jumped up and down and ran in circles and squealed and yammered. How could a foreigner end up with her coin purse and her picture? They couldn't wrap their heads around the fact that I had found it on the side of the road in their very own village. I handed it back to her and the kids all ran off screaming.

I walked back to Grandma's by myself.

Mokpo area 2001. Grandma's house visit continued...

By the time I got back down to Grandma's house it was starting to rain in earnest. I hustled into the guest room and sat down. It was mid-morning and I was already starting to feel trapped. No internet, no phone, only a few local TV channels, no where to go or any way to get there. I was just stuck in this tiny guest room--at least until the rain stopped or the Master returned from Seoul.

I spent nearly the entire day cooped in that room with only a few short trips out. I went out twice to take rice with Grandma. I went out to go potty. I sat on the wood deck and watched the rain.

Dying with not a Choco-Pie or a Coke in sight, I finally got so bored that I investigated the small side building that could serve as guest quarters if it weren't chock full of boxes and books and junk. I poked through the boxes looking for anything interesting. There were several books in Korean on natural dyeing. I stiffly flipped through the pages. I also found a coffee table book on the Korean climbing adventure to the K-2(?) in the 70's(?). Lots of pictures of raccoon-tanned-face Koreans in extreme cold-weather gear in gorgeous backdrops.

There were lots of spiders in that building, and around the property in general. And there was not anything in there to hold my attention for very long. I was really getting antsy and bored. The rain would not let up, the courtyard was turning to a mud bog, and ni-nighttime could not come soon enough for me...

Flashback: 1980's Photo ID Collage

All the way to 1987 and the "No Smiles Club."

Some Rice And A Walk

I ate rice in silence with Grandma. Afterwards she started to clean up and I felt awkward. Do I help? Do I leave? Do I have another instant coffee with Prima? After some hesitation I got up, thanked Grandma for the rice, and went back to my room. There was nothing to do in there really. Nothing on TV captivated me, no internet, no mobile (hand phone); I shoulda brought a book.

With nothing much to do I decided to go for a walk and recon the neighborhood. Out the squeaky metal front gate I took a right. The road ended about 50 meters down in a circle turnaround (cul de sac?). Beyond that as far as I could see was just land. Some farmed, some wild, flat, endless. Not like Kansas, but you get the picture.

I turned around and walked back toward the house. Nobody around. Just this lone white 도깨비 pacing the street of a sleepy hamlet in the morning pre-rain mist.

Grandma's house was on my left and I continued upward as the road had a slight upgrade. Off to the right were rice paddies and other veggie fields. On the left the last few houses faded away as I approached some smaller highway. Only the infrequent truck passed by and I got some sweet geeks from the drivers. I looked up and down the highway. I looked again. As far as I could see in any direction there was no bus stop. And certainly no food store. And no food store in Grandma's tiny village. At least there were a few delicious Orion Choco Pies left.

I looked down at my feet like I often do when thinking. People always interpret it as hanging my head or being depressed. It's not. It's just how I think. A few steps off from my feet I saw a small, pink, girl's coin purse. I stooped and picked it up. There was no money in it, no cash or coin. But there was small black and white photo like you see on all citizen ID cards. The photo was a young child making the straight face required in all ID photos. It reminded me of the collection of ID photos I have that I started in the '80s (I promise to go find it and collage it up for you).

I put the pink coin purse in my jeans pocket and slowly headed back down the hill toward Grandmother's house...

The Morning Calm

It was getting light out when I woke up snug in my mosquito net canopy. There was no gong sound calling me to breakfast like there had been back in ’97. I didn’t hear anyone up and about. I crawled to the paper door and tried to slide it open as quietly as possible. I poked my head out. I couldn’t see or hear anyone up. The sky was overcast and it appeared and smelled like rain was imminent. I put on my shoes and sat on the edge of the deck. I let my legs dangle down for a moment. It would have been a perfect opportunity to meditate if I were so inclined (I am not).

I figured if I walked over to the bathroom then people would know I was awake and somebody might come out and talk to me. I walked across the dirt courtyard to the outhouse. I snuck a peak into Grandma’s kitchen but not a creature was stirring. I tried to make a little noise as I entered the outhouse, and again as I exited. Still nobody appeared to be up just yet so I went back to my room to have a look around.

The guestroom had a small rabbit-eared TV. I turned it on. Only a couple channels came in clearly enough to see and both were broadcasting regional news. I monkeyed with the antenna and tried some other channels without much luck. I looked around. There was a bookcase piled high with books. A stack of clean clothes stood in one corner. An abalone shell armoire/wardrobe covered nearly one entire wall but I felt odd about opening it. I put my head back down on the pillow and stared blankly at the TV. At least I wasn’t hunkered in the cubesicle at the j o b.

Soon enough Grandma came to the door and yelled for me to come eat rice.

I paused outside the kitchen to wash my hands and hit a mini Saesu--a Korean institution I am 100% on board with. Grandma sat alone on the floor at the little table. I kicked off my shoes, went in and had a seat on the floor. I moved around a bit trying to find a warm spot and finally settled. On the table was served already the standard fare with the same white rice with purple beans from the same batch that was in the rice cooker the night before. I guess that works.

I asked after the Master and she gave me a look like I was supposed to know. She told me they had received a call in the night informing them that a teacher (선생) of the Master's Wife's had been in a car accident and had died. So they packed up on the spot and went up to pay respects. Knowing that the Master's wife is a famous former pop star, I thought this person perhaps was a mentor or singing coach or somebody like that. Plus the fact they left in the middle of the night indicated on its own that the deceased was a significant person in their lives.

Grandma let the news sink for a moment and then let me know they would return in a couple of days and that the Master had said I should remain. Indeed, remain I would.

The Phone, It Rings

I bid a fond good night to Grandma and the Soju shelf, and the Master showed me to the guest room. He lingered for a few minutes to make sure I was situated before he went off to bed himself. I believe he was truly pleased to see me again.

In the room there was a thin pad to sleep on, a thick blanket, a dirty pillow, and a mosquito net hanging down from the ceiling. That’s right, a mosquito net. Certainly a first for me. This was well before I started experiencing my nighttime anxiety attacks that I elsewhere referred to as “Adult Onset Fear of Waking Up dead,” but sleep did not come easy that first night at Grandma’s house.

Around 2 a.m. the phone started ringing. From my time spent at The Master’s previously, I knew that daytime and nighttime were very loose guidelines for when to sleep and when to be awake. So I was not surprised someone might call regardless of the hour. But at Grandma’s house, there were only two phones; one in her room, and one in the guestroom (my room). There was no voice message machine so the phone rang and rang and rang as it seemed Grandma had no interest in answering it. Finally it rang off after what seemed like 30 rings. A few minutes later it started ringing again. This time after quite a few rings Grandma picked it up. She yelled for the Master’s wife. I heard the wood-framed paper door of the Master’s room slide open and shut. Slippers shuffled across the concrete to the kitchen. Then I heard the muffled sounds of the Master’s wife talking on the phone. Then quiet.

Slippers shuffled back and their door slid open and shut again. Then quiet. Then the door open and shut again. Then some activity, not really a commotion, but movement and activity in the yard area outside Grandma’s kitchen. I heard a car pull up in front of Grandma’s house, the front metal gate open and close, car doors open and shut, and the sounds of the car driving off.

The quiet of the countryside night soon settled back over the pitch dark of countryside night.