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.

Grandma's Kitchen

We took off our shoes and entered the Master's mother's kitchen/dining area. Grandma was preparing dinner. The Master's wife spelled her so she could come receive a bow from me. I had only met her once before--briefly in 1997--but she welcomed me and my awkward bow as if I were her own son. She presented with me with a small gift that I still have: I presented her with a box of Orion Choco Pies. Truth be told they were for me, but one can't show up empty handed when one returns home for Chuseok, now can one? Dinner was standard fare: a soup, some kimchi, and white rice with purple beans. The four of us sat on the floor of the kitchen around a small table. The kitchen was small; while seated at the table the refrigerator was in arm's reach, as was the rice cooker, the microwave, and the sink. A couple of feet away was the step up into Grandma's sleeping (and TV watching) area.

It wasn't the cleanest Korean kitchen I have ever seen. Certainly Grandma had not been down on her knees with a rag wiping up all the dirt in a while. Dust bunnies were common, and wherever there was not any socked-foot-traffic, dust was visible. [Now why do you even need to mention that? What's you point? I don't know. Why not just cover the top 3 bullet points about that kitchen and leave it at that?] OK, good advice.

Here are the top 3 bullets in no particular order:

1. 후라이 다운. For the hangeul-impaired that reads "Hoo-ra-ee Da-oon." Clearly from the name it should be obvious, but the context of being there and seeing it helps understand what it is. It is a sheet of super sticky fly attractant paper sitting on the kitchen floor by the rice cooker. It is covered with flies that had been duped into landed there. Some still struggled to free themselves back into flight, but many had long since given up the battle. Secretly Jeff Goldblum is turning over in his grave somewhere just thinking about it. Fly Down.

2. 쥐러브. For the hangeul-impaired that reads "Mouse Love." Again, if the name doesn't clearly say it all I am not sure how to help. But let me offer this: a super sticky mouse-inviting tunnel that opens wide and narrows down to nothing. Some tempting yummables await the unsuspecting mouse who enters and progresses inward. Alas it is but a tease. The poor creature gets completely mired before enjoying the treats and dies slowly unable to put it in reverse. Just thinking about dying like that gives me cold sweats and anxiety attacks that keep me up at night. Mouse Love.

3. Soju shelf. Three cheers for Soju shelf. Floor to ceiling Soju shelf. Maybe 1 meter wide by 2.5 meters high. Stocked with nothing but glass jars of all shapes and sizes. Each jar was filled with clear liquid. Each jar also had some variety of fruit in it. A massive selection of fruit-flavored Sojus certain to please even the most indifferent of palates. I wish I had a photo of that museum-like shelf, sadly I do not. The first night in Grandma's kitchen was spent sampling the different creations. My favorite ended up being the Maeshil--some kind of Korean plum I guess. Soju shelf.

To Grandmother's House We Go

Once in the cab, the Master and I sped away from Mokpo in an easterly direction. We were headed to his mother's house where he and his wife were living and running the family persimmon juice dyeing business. Clearly many things had changed since the '97 halcyon down on Jeju Island. Business was still the same, but Kimi was in NYC studying fashion in her mother's footsteps. Yong-i was doing his military duty. They no longer lived in the glory of the Jeju rock mansion with views of Halla Mountain. The Master's mom no longer lived in the sick ocean-view manor with the guest quarters where I slept one night (where the puppy ate my Nikes).

I suspect something happened down on Jeju to precipitate the move and change (downgrade) of housing standards but everyone was tightlipped about the reasons behind the move. Benefit of the doubt credits filial piety. I left it at that. I got the feeling that this new house was actually more like the family's original property. The village it was located in (can't remember the name) was tiny. No more than 30 or 40 houses. But it was a very short drive up to the family grave site where the Master's father was buried (more on that later). The house was pretty rundown but it sat on a fairly large lot. They had built a huge storage shed to one side and had paved out the whole other side yard area to do the dyeing on. The main building had 3 total bedrooms; one right off the kitchen where the Master's mom slept. The master and his wife slept next to that room, and I shared the other guest room with any young protege who happened to be helping out at the moment.

The "facilities" took the form of an outhouse. No shower or bath; just a faucet for the occasional Saesu. There was also another side building that would work great as another guest room as it had a small sink and kitchen area, but it was stuffed to the gills with boxes of books and other junk. So it was not ever really used by any humans. I'll post more pictures later, but here is one that gives my first impressions of the living conditions, crowded as they were by the need to do business. The sandals on the ground in the very center show the entry to the kitchen where we took rice and where the Master's mom slept. Hard to make out, but off to the right was one bedroom, off to the left was the one I slept in. All the bags and cloth and stuff are all part of doing the dyeing (more on that later).

As it turns out, the cab driver lives in the same village and knows the family well. He drove right to the front gate and we went in to greet Grandmother...

September 2001 Cont'd

I said I don't remember where I stayed in Seoul when I landed in 2001. And then I came across this photo nugget. At some point, the wife organized all our photos into boxes with labels. This picture was in the same pile as the others from my 2001 adventure. I don't recall staying at this lovely Gold Star Yeogwan. But I don't know that I would take this shot for any other reason. It's not like I need a photo to show people where I did NOT stay. I'm gonna guess I stayed here at least one night. It's not like my highly paid fact checker is going to hammer me for being wrong about this...

OK then, where was I? Right, off to Mokpo.

I don't remember anything else specific about my time in Seoul in 2001. What I do know is that I took a train to Mokpo. I know this because my spreadsheet says so. I also know because I remember that train ride very well. I took a window seat so I could enjoy the view and I hunkered. The aisle seat next to me sat empty right up until the train started to move. Then, at the last possible moment, my ridemate took his throne. I feel like I probably smelt him before he fully arrived, but that is not totally fair. I guess.

Drunk? Hammered.

Over the course of the next several hours I tried faking asleep, fake snoring sounds, fake couldn't speak English, fake couldn't speak Korean, I looked for an open seat elsewhere. I took like 10 trips to the loo. I looked around for a friendly Korean to intervene on my behalf. Nothing. You've all been there, you know what I'm talking about. But my ridemate was persistent. He kept talking talking talking and breathing his sourness into my face. He racked his muddled brain for more English, occasionally letting Korean fly as if it were English.

Right about the time I was fixing to lose it, he busts out a black plastic bag that could have come from any ol' market. Out comes a couple trays of those green rice balls (it was the week before Chuseok after all...). He wants to share his bounty with the foreigner. I decline. No thanks. I have never tried them, believe it or not, but I am convinced I hate them. He persists. I decline. He persists. I wave my hand at them, I cross my arms in front of my body. Persistence wears resistance (thank you Kirby vacuum sales training). I relent. Delicious. I am not kidding. I was pleasantly surprised. I yummed down a few 'cuz they were good, but also because neither of us could talk while chewing up that rice and sesame goodness. Lesson learned again: you might like balls of green rice, you might like them try them and be nice, you might like them stubborn punk, you might like them with a drunk.

But even that shared joy only bought me a brief spell of peace. At last a nice gentleman behind the drunk asked him to leave me alone and then turned to me in English: "I am sorry." The drunk did not take too kindly to that advice and tempers flared. They exchanged a few heated barbs and it looked as if fists would fly. More fellow travelers got involved and managed to calm the scene. The kind gentleman traded seats with me and I felt like an a-hole.

We arrived in Mokpo without further incident. The Master was waiting for me next to a cab. As I walked toward him, the drunk caught up to me and asked where I was going. I ignored him and made for the Master. I hastened into the haven of the waiting cab and as we sped away I memorized the sad face of the abandoned and mistreated drunken rice cake ambassador.

September 2001

Having made up my mind to return to Korea--and obtained permission from the future wife--I booked my ticket straightaway. Then the unthinkable happened. If I have to spell out what the unthinkable was, you're obviously not from Gander, Newfoundland. Neither am I, but I do know what went on up there...

I have to be honest and admit that I was angry about it. I was anxious and upset my trip might be cancelled. I also had moments of nervousness, even fear, about getting on a plane right then, but I rationalized it away. My rationalization skills are quite decent. In hindsight, I had nothing to worry about--even only 10 days after the attacks.

The first memory I have of the trip is landing for my first time at the Hub of Asia (Incheon Airport). It was nice and new and clean and all the workers were so welcoming with their bows and friendly greetings. I collected my luggage, changed some money and headed outside. I don't really recall catching a bus, or riding to Seoul, but I do recall very clearly getting off the bus in the Gwanghwamun area. It feels like it was late afternoon and I was giddy. I went into the nearest convenience store and bought a 10,000 Won Phone Card. At the nearest bank of phones I called my soon-to-be-betrothed. She wasn't excited as I, understandably, but she told me to have a good time.

I had no place to stay in Seoul. I don't remember where I stayed in Seoul. I don't recall how long I stayed in Seoul. 2 days tops. The real plan was to get down to the Master's. Since I last saw the Master he had moved his family off beautiful Jeju Island. They were living in a tiny village near Mokpo where they took care of his widowed mother.

Off to Mokpo I went...