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.

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...

Fall 2001

Hometown USA

As I said 2 posts ago, I got a job shortly after returning from Korea. I bought a house. I got engaged. From time to time I was able to catch up with the Master via the telephone. Typically I would get a call from him in the wee hours of my morning. He would be two or three sheets. But our phone conversations almost always went the same way. He would ask when I was coming back to Korea, then ask after my health, then end the call. Short and sweet. But I would wake in a panic thinking it must be bad news for the phone to be ringing at 3 a.m. And after the call my heart would be racing. I would replay any Korean I spoke to make sure it made sense. And I would lie awake for a while trying to figure out how to get back to Korea.

I got engaged in December of 2000 with a plan to get hitched in Spring of 2002. After one particular midnight call from the Master, I formulated a plan to cross the Pacific once again in the fall of 2001. I ran it past my lady. I think I positioned it as the last time I would get the chance to go. I'm not sure what kind of marriage hell I thought I might be entering that would keep me from ever going to Korea again, but there you go. She, not surprisingly, was OK with me heading over to see the Master again. Lord knows she had heard enough stories about him to know I was serious. Given the green light, I decided on late September through early October.

Now here's a thing. I don't recall every detail of that trip. I have some pictures and a lot of clear memories. But I have no journal or written log of it. I find that my memories of one trip blend into another. As such there are gaps at certain spots between September 22 and October 5 of 2001. So I've pulled together a spreadsheet to try my best to make sure I've got it all straight. And I am not even a spreadsheet guy...

And still, I just spent 15 minutes staring at my spreadsheet trying to force certain memories into one trip or another. I know what happened and what I did and what I thought. I just can't always tell certainly what year or what trip it happened on. Mind...getting...feeeeeble.

For now I'll start with what I know for sure about the 2001 trip...

Fall 2001: The Return

I promise to get back on course here and regale you with whales and tales from my Korea trip of 2001. Here is a teaser:
And if you can't wait for that bomb to drop, go to the post prior to this one and try to digest the comments that have become quite the sidebar your honor.


Here are some high level bullet points of what went on in my life after leaving the Korea in 1997.

1. Tried to patch things up with girlfriend I abandoned for 3 months to see the Korea again.

2. Succeeded at #1. Not as easy as I thought it would be.

3. Got a part time job copy editing technical support documentation. No skills or experience in the field, other than my M.A. in Literature.

4. Went full time as copy editor.

5. Took over management of the same copy edit team. Grew team to 12.

6. Bought my first house and moved out of my parents' basement.

7. Left the copy edit team for a different role at same company.

8. Got woken up occasionally in the middle of the night by phone calls from the Master. "Hello. When are you coming to Korea? How is your health? Good-bye."

9. Got engaged to #1 above.

10. Planned my next trip to the Korea.

Ping me separately for a full treatment of any of #1-9 above. Full coverage of #10 follows forthwith.

1980's Pen Pal Good Times Part 2

If you happen to see Hyonsook, tell her I said "핼로."

1980's Pen Pal Good Times

Cleaning out my home office I found a bagful of old cards and letters from the 80's. A few were from Hyonsook in Seoul. She called me Seongtae. It has probably been 20 years since I looked at these and I thought you might enjoy.

If you happen to see Hyonsook, tell her I said "핼로."
(click photo to enlarge and read)

Tie This On

I am not a hoarder like the freaks you see on the TV, but I do tend to hold on to trinkets and trash from my Korean Sojourns. Here is one of my more treasured items:
민철 handcarved this mini mask out of paulownia wood. The whole time I was at the master's, 민철 could be seen delicately carving this nugget. As you can see, it is about the size of a book of Denny's Korea matches, or a paper packet of Korean medicine. I expressed admiration more than once and he must have got it in his mind to gift it to me. For when it came time for me to depart Cheju in the Spring of 1997, he had fixed it on a lanyard of persimmon-juice-dyed cotton, and he gave it to me. It makes a unique bolo.

Such a good-hearted fellow. I never saw him again after the Spring of 1997.

April 20-22, 1997

The Poet and I parted ways at Kimpo and I made for Mokdong. I already told you I never saw JT again, but most of my stuff was still at his apartment. I needed to collect it and I didn't really want to run into him and have a dramatic scene. So I first went to Shinjeong and secured a small, cheap room at a motel.

Having settled in there I waited for the hour when I was pretty sure JT would be teaching and I went to collect my things. I let myself in with my key and was surprised to find JT's brother sitting in the kitchen. I told him I was only there to get my stuff and I would be out of there. He gave me a look that was kinda sympathetic and kinda confused at the same time. I didn't volunteer any other information like where I was staying or when I was headed back to the States. Humping my giant backpack, I left.

Back at my cheap motel room I called the airline office in Seoul and got my flight back to the States moved up a day. That would leave me 2 nights and one full day to tie up the loose ends of this trip. Shopping, packing, fare thee wells.
I stopped in at MeongSeok's traditional tea and cocktail house in Insadong. He was not there, but I noticed a poem by the Poet was decorating one wall. I asked the Arbeit girl about MeongSoek and she called him up. He told the girl to give me some liquor to take with me. I ended up with two bottles of Hongju to enjoy once I got home.

On my last day, I grabbed the 5 line back to Kimpo. Skylark met me there to say goodbye; I was a little surprised she was still speaking to me, but she was the only friend I had left in Seoul. At Passport control, Skylark asked me to write to her. I told her I would not. We said goodbye and I crossed over.

I bought some Ginseng to help use up my extra Korean cash. In my pocket I found 2 partly used phone cards. I had no further use for them so I gave them to the Ginseng sales girl. She was very gracious and gave me this:
And thus ended my 3-month affair with the Land of the Morning Calm.

April 19-20, 1997

Time to move on. All remaining guests, myself, and the Master made for the northern side of the island. Instead of heading for the airport or the ferry terminal, we pulled into a quiet neighborhood to the west of Jeju City. We entered the master's mother's house. The property gates were made of rocks piled high just like the Master's house. It was a large two-story home with huge picture windows that looked out towards the sea. A yard that was large by Korean standards, and a smaller dwelling off to the side built into the side of a hillock. We were to sleep in the side house and leave for the mainland in the morning.

In the night, the dog ate my Nikes. When I woke up I was upset about it and remarked that the dog (개) ate my shoes. The Master quickly corrected me that the puppy (강아지) ate my shoes. Think about that.

That morning we all set out for the ferry terminal to catch a boat to Wando. Some of the crew in the car with me included (left to right) the Producer, the Professor, and the Poet.
The ferry approaches Wando.
In Wando city we ate our final meal together and went many separate ways. The Master went off to Jiri Mountain. The Poet and I needed to get up to Seoul so the Master sent us to Kwangju to catch a plane. Without any flight reservations, the Poet and I went straight to the airport. I was convinced we would never make it onto a plane that day. We waited for an hour or so until our names were called, boarded for Seoul and took off. The Poet paid for the tickets (or maybe it was the Master's money...I don't know).

We parted ways when we landed at Kimpo. I never saw the Poet again. Or the Professor. Or the Producer. Or the Potter or his wife.

The Master? More on that later...

April 18, 1997. Gone Fishin'

All of the guests who were still at the Master's house piled in cars and headed to the ocean front. We took all manner of fishing gear and tackle, worms, rice, kimchi, Ramen, Soju, and a travel burner. The weather was gorgeous. Here are some of the 갈옷 - clad fellas getting their angling on. From far left to right: CheongJeon, MeongSeok, MinCheol, the Master. Not pictured but also present on this excursion: The Potter of Euijeongbu, The Potter's wife, The Poet (one of his poems decorates the walls of MeongSeok's traditional tea house in Insa-dong), and a Korea Hollywood director who would later offer me pot out of the trunk of his car (odd how there is so much fuss these days about the foreigners and their drugs, when the only time I had weed offered me was from a Korean dude).

Each fishing pole had several hooks, each hook had some kind of worm I had never seen before--kinda looked like a huge green millipede. We caught quite a few fishies that looked like bluegill but were orange in color. While the manfolk fished, the Potter's wife made rice and put the Ramen on to boil. When the first couple orange bluegill came out of the ocean, they went straight into the pot. They next few were filleted and enjoyed raw. It doesn't get much fresher than that.

Here is MeongSeok, the Potter's wife, and two others I don't remember. All are enjoying the ramen and fresh seafood over rice concoction. Oh, and soju.
Here the Potter's Wife is explaining something to me about MinCheol (the goatee is new from the last time we saw him).
Here is CheongJeon playing the Daegeum* with his long hair flowing in the ocean breeze.
Here is me pretending to play the Daegeum. They put me up to it. Something about the beautiful backdrop and the carefree mood of the day made us all a bit romantic.

*Daegeum (large transverse flute): The daegeum is one of three bamboo wind instruments of the Unified Silla period.

April 16-17, 1997

Cheju, South Korea

April 16 was spent mostly recuperating from the backyard BBQ party the night before. Many guests spent the night. Together we lounged the day away with lots of instant coffee and sitting on the floor.

April 17. The Master took me in to Seogwipo city area to meet an older Korean gentleman that he had quite some respect for. This guy ran a 귤 orchard. Immaculate, well maintained. We walked around and had a look, mostly for my benefit as neither of them directed much conversation my way. After the tour we went inside.

Our host flipped on the television to some Sumo tournament in Japan. The Master referred to the wrestlers as "그 놈들." He talked about how "those 놈s" do all those pre-bout rituals like throwing the salt and raising one leg and then squatting, and they don't even know why they do them. He said the reason for the one leg raise and squat was to get their testicles to hang down lower. I didn't follow up on that to learn why they need more dangly manspheres, but I'm sure the Master would've had the answer.

The Master and the host pulled out the Paduk board and started an extended series. I am not sure who won their epic battle because I fell asleep sitting upright in a chair. I woke up to an unfamiliar aroma. The Master was performing Moxibustion on the host's hands. He lit little incense-like nubs that had an adhesive backing and placed them strategically on the crucial spots. Somehow the Master knew all the acupoints to treat whatever ails and he would point them out and describe the treatment. He said you wanted them to get hot, but not burn. Pretty soon I had a few piles burning on my hands. When it was all over, both the host and myself had brown burn circles all over our hands and wrists.

That was a first. And a last.

We returned to the Master's house for an evening of soju and song with the remaining guests.

April 15, 1997

Cheju, South Korea

I wasn't able to meet up with the Master until after the fashion show. He took my hand and marched me backstage as it were, and we watched as reporters and photographers circled his wife. She held bouquets of flowers and smiled graciously--befitting her celebrity.

The Master then put me into one of the many cars that were heading back to his stone manor in the sticks. Before we pulled out he told me that JT had been calling for me; left me several messages asking for me to call him back. And so it was that the long drive from Cheju city out to the Moseulpo area was spent thinking about how my next conversation with JT might go.

I didn't think there was any way JT could know that Skylark was not with me any longer. But I was pretty sure he had spent the past few days obsessing about what she and I might be doing. I thought it might be bothering him, but I never expected it to drive him mad. So while I waited for the rest of the Master's family and guests to arrive, I called up JT in Seoul. He wasted no time ripping into me. The conversation was long and difficult, but there are two things he said that I will never forget.

First he told me he had given Skylark his heart. He kept saying that phrase: "I gave her my heart." And he blamed me for stealing her from him. That's odd for three reasons: she wasn't interested in him, I wasn't interested in her in that way, and he had only known her for about 6 weeks when he "gave her his heart." So sad.

The second thing he said that I will never forget: he said "maybe we never were friends." Maybe we never were friends? We knew each other 9 years. We roomed at college for 2 years, and spent one summer selling Kirby vacuums together. We road tripped to San Diego and Tijuana together. I went to his first wedding (in Vegas ~1992 where I won $3275 playing poker well before the poker boom). Not friends? Never were friends? Over a girl he hardly knew? Hmmmph.

That revelation really threw me. I avoided the party outside for quite some time until the Master came indoors and found me alone with my thoughts. I explained what happened. He told me to come outside and join the party. And so I did.

The party was 50 or so likeminded Korean revelers, lots of Soju, and several open fires with meat grilling all around the backyard. Despite my melancholy, the party was unsurpassed. Kind of old school, a tad third world, primal, and me as out of place as can be. Yummy meat everywhere. Models. Good times. And soon enough the singing started. The Master and several of the partiers knew I had some Korean songs in me at the ready and they pressed me into service. I resisted for a moment, then gave in. However, instead of falling back on JuJu Club, I busted out a heartfelt song in English by a band that JT and I both loved and had seen in concert together more than once. It was a kind of final tribute to a friendship that never was:

Talking fast couldn't tell me something
I would shed my skin for you
Talking fast on the edge of nothing
I would break my back for you
Don't know why, don't know why
Things vaporize and rise to the sky

I continued singing, feeling it, bringing it like I do, until I finished. At that point I realized my eyes had been closed for the whole song. I opened them to see a bunch of Koreans staring at me like I was from outer space. Awkward silence. And then came the pressure to break off some K-pop.

And so I did.

April 14-15, 1997

Pusan --> Cheju, South Korea
With my ticket in my hot little hand, I filed my backpack in a pay locker and headed to Nampo-dong to kill the last couple hours before ferrying to Cheju. That place had changed a lot, but still had the great energy that I originally fell in love with. Sadly, there was a triple-decker McDonalds where my favorite record store once stood. I went ahead and ate a Big Mac since I knew it would be rice 3 times a day once I got to the Master's house.

After my brief walk down a distorted memory lane, I made my way back to the ferry terminal. Quite a large crowd had grown outside the terminal, most of them were college-aged girls. It seems a field trip was happening. An all girls university was sending hundreds of their co-eds down to lovely Cheju island for a spell. And we would share the ferry.

The overnight ferry ride passed quickly as one-by-one the students offered up their kimpap to me (not a euphemism), exchanged email addresses with me, and tried out their freshest English skills on me. None of us slept a wink.

We parted on arrival and I found myself alone with all morning and most of the afternoon to pass before the fashion show was scheduled to begin. I sat by myself in a coffee shop for hours, reading my Lonely Planet guide. I shopped a bit and bought some wooden Buddha bead bracelets that I still have. I bought a postcard and mailed it home to my parents. I was a real tourist.
By late afternoon I made my way over to the big outdoor theater where the fashion show was to be held. It was a pleasant April day, and I was in my shirt sleeves. The first familiar face I saw was Kimi's. She was busy busy but stopped to talk it over. Her mom was in a frenzy dealing with models and outfits and whatnot, and The Master had not arrived yet. I went inside and greeted Kimi's mom and looked at some models wearing their persimmon-dyed 갈옷. That was downright decent.

The seats were starting to fill up and I just milled around. I spotted a couple whiteys and before I could avoid them totally they came over and chatted me up. They were young American missionaries. They had a lot more questions about me than I had about them. I've said it before somewhere, but somebody really needs to document some rules of engagement or behavior protocols for expats when they see another expat. Is a greeting required? Or must one avoid even the vaguest acknowledgement? The road cyclists have universal protocols requiring a nod or wave to any other cyclist they see, Taxi drivers from the same company are required to nod or salute each other. Bus drivers too. When are the expats gonna get their act together and agree on what to do?

Soon enough, Yong-i (the Dragon) came up and whisked me off to our seats in the crowd.

April 14, 1997 Cont'd

Pusan, South Korea

Skylark did not take it very well when I told her that I would not be taking her with me to Cheju. She pouted, she argued, she cried. Among the many things she said was that she was afraid she would never see Cheju Island in her lifetime if she didn't go with me now. I told her she needed to get out more. She didn't need a foreigner to come over and show her around her own country like a pro bono tour guide. We spent over an hour in the subway station hashing out what to do next. What an international spectacle we must have appeared. It was not fun.

In the end I convinced her that our little excursion together was over. We left the subway station and caught a taxi to the train station. In her current emotional state, I was pretty sure she could not manage to get on a train to Seoul by herself so I went with and bought the ticket. I saw her onto the train and watched it depart.
On my own once again, I made for the ferry terminal and booked as follows:

April 14, 1997

Pusan, South Korea

Skylark and I headed up to check out PNU and see some of my old haunts. We stopped in Oncheonjang and walked around a bit. Secretly I must have known I would not run into anyone I knew from 10 years before, but my mind raced with the possibilities of seeing Spa Shopping Young-sook. How weird would that be? Walking around Oncheon with Skylark Young-sook and running into Spa Young-sook? No way. But the mere thought of it did funny things in my mind.

We jumped a bus up to Pusan National University main gate. Things in the area had really changed more than I had expected and I didn't recognize my surroundings. I got a little disoriented. Plus, I wanted to stay at least a block away from KHI Institute lest I should happen across Mr. Shin. That would make for an awkward reunion.

Skylark and I continued walking around for a spell, still not recognizing much. I couldn't find my favorite video bistro where I killed countless hours back in 1987. I stopped to look around and gather my bearings on several occasions. At one such moment I was blankly staring at the building in front of me. I was standing in the doorway to a stairwell that went up a few flights. Suddenly, the words written on a sign next to the entrance registered in my brain; it was KHI Institute.

I panicked.

I expect the feelings that came over me at that moment were not unlike those experienced by Chekov when he realized that the ship he and Captain Terrell were on was none other than the SS Botany Bay.

Nothing but three floors separated me from Mr. Shin and certain awkwardness. Wasting no time I successfully ushered us out of there (Chekov and Terrell were not so lucky) and made straightaway for the subway. If I had it to do over again, I might consider going up there to have a look around. That might've made for an interesting chapter. Secretly I had no way of knowing if Shin was still running KHI, or even alive for that matter. But the physical reaction in my gut was enough to tell me to get outta there.

Skylark and I walked silently all the way to the subway station. I remember hearing a song that sampled Madonna's "Holiday" and I thought that was weird. Inside the subway station I sat down against a wall and put my head in my hands. Skylark asked what was the matter. I spoke Korean to her then because I wanted to make sure she understood, and because I could more easily hide behind the words. I told her she could not go with me to Cheju.

April 13, 1997 Cont'd

I like walking around fish markets marvelling at the myriad sea creatures. We missed the early morning hours of peak activity, but there is always plenty to see at 자갈치. Here are some photos I chose to take:I enlarged these 2 into 8 x 10 and framed them up. They hang in my house.After wandering and smelling the ocean for a while, we went back toward the motel. We grabbed some 낙지 볶음 nearby and called it a night. The owner had replaced the TV with a working model and order had been restored.

Next stop: Pusan National University.

Pusan. Or is it Busan?

South Korea: April 13, 1997

We jumped a bus from Chinhae to Pusan the next day. I wasn't sure how I would feel upon entering those environs; it had been 10 years since I set foot there. And Pusan and I had parted on uneasy terms back then.

Skylark and I secured 여관 lodgings near the bus terminal. It was raining.

She wanted to chill in the room and watch TV. The TV didn't work. I went downstairs and asked the owner to go up and see to it. Secretly I knew that would force Skylark to expose her Koreanness and speak her mother tongue to a Korean who also knew she was traveling with a whitey. Instead of returning to the room with the owner, I went out to sneak a couple Choco Pies. (I only eat the Orion brand. It used to be easier to spot because their were packaged in a blue box. But now the box is red.)

When I went back to the room, Skylark was pouting because the TV was beyond repair and the owner had taken it, promising to replace it later. I told Skylark we should go see some sights. After all, the rain had stopped and it was Pusan just outside the motel doors. How often does that happen to a person? Seriously.

Like the opening shot of a TV drama, we established our place in the city by heading up to the Pusan Tower.

After a look around up top, we decided to go down and check out 자갈치 fish market.

From Chinju to Chinhae

South Korea, 1997

I spent a fitful night sharing a small motel room with Skylark. I never sleep well the first night in unfamiliar sleeping arrangements, but we awoke to a gorgeous spring morning in Chinju. After a bite of breakfast and some instant Coffee Milks from a vending machine, we checked out the fortress, looked out over the river, and toured through the museum at the fortress. I could have spent several days there without tiring of it, but I needed to keep this express tourism train rolling if I was going to make it to Cheju in time for the fashion show.

Next stop, scenic Chinhae. We were not able to time it right for the Cherry Blossoms, but coming through the tunnel and over the mountain provided a spectacular view of the oceanscape and the city of Chinhae. Lovely.

The area around the bus terminal was packed with street vendors and shoppers alike; some kind of fair or festival was afoot. After a few failed attempts at getting a room for the night, finally we found a cheap place with vacancies. Again I did all the talking and Skylark, instead of acting Japanese, simply stayed silent. Weird. I was already regretting bringing her along.

I unlocked the door and walked into the room we were assigned. As I flipped on the light switch I saw a few cockroaches scurry out of sight down the side of the bed that was snugged up against the wall. Before I even took off my backpack I went over and pulled the bed away from the wall. Countless cockroaches scattered from out of a soiled towel that had been hiding back there and serving as their colonial headquarters for what must have been months. I freaked. I lost my marbles. I yelled for the Ajumma as loud as I could and she came a running all wig afire.

I agitatedly pointed out the nasty spectacle. Skylark silently watched while I helped the Ajumma understand that I needed another room. Now. She complied. I only saw a couple cockroaches in the new room so we stayed.

That cockroached nastiness persists in my memory like a piece of popcorn shell that gets stuck between your teeth and you can't get out. Other than that unfortunate episode, I found Chinhae to be a lovely city, with its Turtle Boat Rotary, rows of Cherry trees, ocean front views, and some of the best 탕수육 I ever tasted. And that, my friends, is not a euphemism.

Some Bus Tickets

South Korea, 1997

How about that?

Some Play Acting and a Flower Ring

South Korea, 1997

It was just getting dark when our bus arrived in Chinju. I knew that the area around Chinju Fortress had plenty of cheap accommodations so we grabbed a short cab over there. Skylark was traveling with 2 bags so we needed to first obtain lodging before traipsing around to get our sightsee on.

Neither of us had a ton of extra cash so we made the risky decision to share a cheap room at a cheap motel. I had no intention of hanky panky and I was pretty sure Skylark had no designs on my bones. And, as if we were not stared at enough for being a traveling international duo of American man and Korean woman, Skylark came up with a "bright" idea for our cover story when checking in to the motel.

For some reason she thought she could pass for a Japanese girl. She wanted me to speak only English to her and she would stammer English back. There were so many holes in her plan that I was dumbfounded as to where to begin shooting it down. I went along with it hoping to show how lame it was. An object lesson if you will.

We went up to the front desk of a cheap motel. It was wo-manned by two ladies one might call older, except there were probably the age that I am now, and I ain't "older." But they were clearly well aware of the primary reason that clients sought out their establishment, and they looked at us as if they knew what we were after.

I spoke to them in Korean, they looked past me and spoke to Skylark in Korean, she looked at me in a phony confused way, I spoke English to her really fast as if to sell she had strong skills, she said something basic in Korean-accented English, I spoke Korean to the two "older" ladies. Quite the ridiculous charade. I don't think anyone bought it, not for a second.

After much back and forth, we were able to get a room.

We dumped Skylark's luggage in the room and went out for some food. After food, we sightsaw. After sightseeing, we repaired to bed. I forgot a toothbrush. I went out to the front desk to ask if they had any on hand. I was directed to a vending machine at the top of the stairs. It had toothbrushes alright. It also had cigarettes and condoms. I noticed the brand name of the condoms and laughed out loud. The motel owners must have thought me the strangest of tourists as they watched my every move.

It might not be funny to anyone else but me. Maybe not even funny haha as much as funny weird. But the condom brand name was "꽃반지" (Flower Ring). That made me think of an old Korean pop song about putting on the Flower Ring you gave me (당신이준 꽃반지 끼고). Everyone knows that song. I don't know if everyone thinks of it euphemistically as I have from that moment in the lobby of a cheap motel in Chinju. I certainly don't think the young female pop star who originally sang it many years ago ever thought of it that way. That young girl who became so popular from that song that she disappeared to the States for 10 years, returned to Cheju Island, married The Master, and spent two weeks in early 1997 entertaining me by singing that song.

Think about that.

Chinju Revisited

South Korea, 1997 (with a flashback to the 80's)

I love the city of Chinju. I have loved it since first I went there. I love how you come up over the hill before entering town and the sides of the highway are so beautifully and colorfully landscaped. I love how you cross the river and see the Chinju Fortress. I love 촉석루 too--even though it is a difficult Korean thing to pronounce. I love the spoken accent, I love the rotaries, and I love my memories of my visit there in 1987 for the 개천예술제.

I have fond memories of going ringside to watch the great 이 준희 dominate at 씨름. I was intrigued by the cow fighting. The thing that sticks most in my memory from the first time I attended that festival is the traveling snake oil salesman. There was a large group gathered around as he spoke to them excitedly through a microphone. I couldn't really understand what he was saying, but I could understand what I saw. He brought a random child up from the audience. He forced a pill down the child's throat. He talked for a few minutes while I waited for I knew not what. He grabbed a clear glass and filled it with water. He pulled the child's pants down and scooped out a white ball from the child's crease and dropped the bolus in the glass. He stirred it up and walked around to show the shocked crowd all of the little worms that the magic pill had freed from their colonic domicile.

He brought two more children up and gave them each a pill. The kids were visibly uncomfortable having just seen what happened to the other kid. After a few minutes, the salesman pulled out a long tapeworm from each young boy. He quickly laid them out on a board and smashed them dead. He walked the board around to show us all. Quite an awesome display of on-demand de-worming. I'll never forget that scene from my first 개천예술제.

All those thoughts rushed back to me as Skylark and I entered Chinju city on our direct bus from Seoul...

Another Adventure Begins

Seoul, South Korea. Spring 1997

Skylark was hanging out with me and JT at our apartment one night. We were just talking and whatnot in bizarro "3's Company" style. I started talking about how I was going to go back to the Master's house pretty soon because they were having a Spring fashion show. I was looking forward to being one of the family again and seeing the beautiful island in warmer weather, and also seeing up close the models and good times that would be the fashion show. Skylark made mention of how she had never been to Cheju Island and would love to go someday. I, rather casually, suggested she go down with me on my next trip. You know how you invite someone expecting them to decline? With her working 2 jobs and being quite conservative, I never thought she would accept. But accept she did. On the spot. And with alacrity. JT went silent, got up, went in his room, and shut the door.

A few minutes later he came out, but instead of talking to us, he left the apartment. We heard his scooter buzz off down the street. Awkwardness. Skylark and I decided we should leave too and went to Shinjeong to a 24-hour Beer Land. We talked, drank beer, talked about Cheju, and I tried to figure out a graceful way to uninvite her. She told me she thought JT might be in love with her. Hmmm, I knew he would if he could, but I didn't think it had gotten as far as "love."

When I returned to the apartment JT was still up waiting for me. He was upset I had invited Skylark to Cheju with me. I told him I never thought she would accept and the invite was totally innocent. He told me he was convinced that if I got her down to the "Hawaii of Korea" she would let me sleep with her. Truthfully, I had no intention of doing any such thing with her--not so much because of JT, but because of her and because of my girlfriend back home in the States. But he was inconsolable.

Things were awkward between me and JT for the next few days, and finally it was time for me to depart for Cheju once again. Skylark showed up for the trip with two large bags, and dressed in stilettos and jeans--not exactly what the family Von Trapp would consider travel clothes. For some reason her outfit really annoyed me. Perhaps it was mostly because I didn't want her tagging along. Slip of the lip sinks the ship I guess...

We subwayed it to the express bus terminal. Skylark had never been on an express bus so she was uncomfortable buying tickets. I cut directly to the front of the queue, showed her a thing or two about her country, and bought us two seats on a direct bus to Kyoungnam's Chinju city.

I never saw JT again.

The Post-Referee Love Life

Seoul, South Korea. Spring 1997

I could fill a couple posts here with some of the fun things JT and I did in late March and early April of 1997 (Eating Dog Soup, Propositions in Myoung-Dong, Fact Finding in a Room Salon, etc...). But secretly I know you all are just wishing I would fast forward to the part where JT and I unbecame friends. I know I haven't written yet about that fact, but some of you are probably expecting it solely based on my history of losing friends as documented here. Well, not so fast dear reader; I'm not prepared to recount that whole drama in one go.

And so it was that in late March and early April of 1997, JT and I were still continuing our 9-year friendship. We were hanging with Skylark on a regular basis. Her English was not getting much better (as far as I could tell), but JT was apparently falling hard for her. Truthfully, I can easily understand that happening to him. She was a real cutie. Educated, employed with a day job and Arbeit (아르바이트), but perhaps a bit naive (I'm not sure if I already wrote about the story she told me of getting duped out of her whole paycheck? Some guy stopped her in the street and asked her to deliver an envelope of cash up the the 3rd floor of an office building; he was on crutches and couldn't climb the stairs. She agreed, but he asked for some collateral from her in case she decided to make off with his cash. She handed over the envelope that contained her monthly salary in cash--the Korean paycheck. She never looked inside the guy's envelope. If she had looked she would have realized it was filled only with valueless paper. Up to the 3rd floor she climbed feeling good about herself, only to return down and find the crutched man long gone with her cash. Bummer dude.) But she was really cute and just as sweet.

Anyway, JT had a long history of easily falling in and out of love. I never took it that seriously. Even in college when he got dumped and sulked by himself in our shared room for 2 days and blared The Smiths tune "How Soon Is Now." It seemed too staged to be truly sad, and before too long he was moving on to another.

Besides, I was still trying to help him connect with Ji-Su. I never figured him for the capacity to fall in love with more than one fair Korean at a time. I would soon find out how wrong I was...

The Ref

Seoul, South Korea. Spring 1997.

It took some doing, but JT and I finally got around to exploring the basement bar called "Green" near Omokkkyo Station. At one point before I arrived in Korea JT had followed a young hotty down there but was turned away at the door. Ever since he had been bugging me to take him there. And that is what I did.

Inside was pretty standard for a drinking establishment. Some tables in the center, some booths on one side, a sick Karaoke setup in the center, and some private rooms with frosted windows in the back. Semi-sexy videos played on the Karaoke screen, the clientele primarily male. We took up a booth that provided a nice view of the whole place and ordered some beers. An older hostess brought our drinks and a little dish of shelled peanuts. We could see no other working females.

After a couple lagers, I decided to get some buzz and energy up up in there. I got my Karaoke on like I do and the crowd responded. As soon as I took my seat again, 2 Korean gentlemen approached and asked permission to join us. One was a handsome, tall, slender guy who introduced himself as the owner. His mother was the primary hostess. And he owned a Japanese restaurant around the corner. In addition, he was a referee in the Korean National Basketball Association. He got it going on.

He invited us back into a private room where we could talk and enjoy some harder liquors. Four dudes in a private room with a bottle of whiskey and it didn't take long for the conversation to turn to ladies. A couple "one shot" cheers later and JT was prodding me to ask how he could get the Korean love he yearned for. That resulted in a long discussion (dissertation?) on the many flavors that were available. The Ref was very knowledgeable. In the end he mentioned that there was a place right next door that just might suit JT's more immediate needs. "One shot" again and off the four of us went.

Next door was a massage (안마) place that we walked past almost everyday on the way to Omokkyo Station. The Ref walked us in and up to the counter on the second floor. He told the girl why we were there. She picked up a phone and summoned the talent. Out from behind a curtain came 3 gals all wearing matching striped sweaters and black skirts. The Ref turned to me and simply said: "골라봐." I turned to JT and told him to choose. He chose. The Ref told me how much it was, I told JT, he pulled out all his cash and it was almost enough to cover the 145,000 Won fee (~$125 in today's money). The Ref pitched in to cover the rest.

The girl from the counter came around and took JT behind the curtain. The 3 of us that remained looked at each for a moment, then we left. Outside, I said goodbye to the Ref and his friend and went back to JT's apartment and passed out.

A couple hours later, JT returned all a twitter. I was a bit surprised he was back so soon; I thought maybe he'd put in an effort to get his money's worth. Giddy and giggly, he spared no detail. I will spare you though. Cliff's Notes: hot shower, robe, blind masseuse, striped sweater, junk scrub, double coverage, full service, out.

I never saw the Ref again.

Hippocrates and Hoops

Seoul, South Korea. Spring 1997

Back in Seoul after 2 weeks at The Master's house. Our apartment was tight with all four of us there (JT's brother and new wife had returned by now). But it was only for a few days until I began substitute duties once again. I moved in just down the street to house sit and sub for a young couple who were headed to Kiwi land for a Visa jump and a honeymoon.

Teaching their classes was just more of the same; nothing spectacular to make mention of. Outside of classes, however, some notable things did happen during those 10 days.

1. I got sick. I shrivved alone in a stranger's apartment on the toilet. I had the vomits and the squirts. It was not good. I was pretty sure it was something I ate. One can never be certain but there was a sunny-side-up egg that made me nervous when I ate it. Later that day...down with the grippe. And I don't even like the flavor or consistency of a semi-cooked egg yolk in the first place. That's why I prefer the stone bowl 비빔밥 over the metal bowl variety.

Luckily, I was in Korea and a pharmacy is always as close as the nearest corner. So I heaved up on over there and presented myself in all my foul glory. I told the pharmacist I had vomiting and diarrhea. The pharmacist asked me if I ate something spicy. That's basic, first year med school learning there. But the answer can be tricky for the non-Korean. If I say I ate something spicy (because of course I had, being in Korean and all), they might treat that even though I knew that was not the problem; I've eaten stuff that would make a billy goat puke. Even if I tell the pharmacist that I eat spicy food well, they might still treat me for "foreigner with spicy food ingestionitis." And one doesn't like being a foreigner who eats spicy food well and is perceived as one who doesn't. Does one?

So I lied and said no I hadn't, but I normally eat spicy food well. Rather I think it was something rotten or uncooked that did me in. That's what I told the growing audience of pharmacists that was gathering to hear my tale of woe. That seemed to set all kinds of Hippocratic wheels in motion and before long I left with several paper packets, each filled with a variety of pills and something that looked like sawdust. Needles, I hate. Pills, I adore. So there you go.

That was one thing that happened.

2. I watched the Arizona Wildcats win the NCAA hoops championship on AFKN. That happened too.

3. JT and I met a referee from the KNBA. But that's a much longer story...


모슬포 (Moseulpo), South Korea. 1997.

All told I spent 2 weeks at the Master's house in the Spring of 1997. I could have/would have stayed longer, but I was expected back in Seoul. Some friends of JT's (a young married couple) were fixing to do their Visa Jump/Honeymoon down to New Zealand and I had promised to cover their classes and house sit for them for 10 days.

And so it was, one morning after eating rice and an instant coffee the Master told me I was going to Seoul later that day. The Master's wife needed to go up to Seoul and I was to accompany her. It had all been arranged so I packed up my little backpack and readied for departure. I said my good-byes to the Master, Kimi, and 명룡 and piled into the Korando. 민철 drove us to the Cheju airport, paid cash for 2 tickets, and left.

Due to her celebrity, the Master's wife was frequently stared at. People randomly came up and greeted her. She was always gracious. Flight attendants were overly concerned for her comfort and travel needs. And there I sat. A grungy whitey in dirty clothes. We must have seemed an odd pair. Me in stinky jeans and a jacket that had not been washed in over a fortnight (I only had one shower during that span as well), and she in her conspicuous Jeju Brown Clothes and universally recognizable face.

When we landed in Seoul, I helped her load several boxes onto a luggage cart and we parted. I don't know where she was going or how she got there, but I beelined it to subway line #5 for Omokkkyo.

Consumption Beyond Capacity, Part 2

모슬포 (Moseulpo), South Korea. 1997.

I was feeling queasy from too much Soju and not enough food and I knew I needed to get outside. I don't remember how I extricated myself from facial fondlement, but I'm sure it was not graceful. I made my way out of the party and went around behind the building where I was sure nobody could see or hear me. I retched.

I have no idea how long I was back there. I don't recall how much I puked. But when I came back around to the front, 민철 was anxiously looking for me. He worriedly asked where I was. I think I told him I had a whiz. He said we were leaving and led me to the Korando. 명룡 asked me if I was drunk and I told him I was not. In some bizarre attempt at showing them I was fine, I started running in a circle. I kept going faster and faster until I could no longer maintain any form of uprightness. I tumbled in a heap into what would have been the center of my speed circle.

The boys helped me up and piled me into the Korando. I have no clue how long we drove or which direction we went, but we pulled up in front of some place I had never been. I got out and leaked a number 1 into the parking lot and then followed the guys inside. We were greeted by a long-haired Korean fellow and a very tired-looking older woman. Apparently she was the drum teacher and he was her pupil. I am sure there was more to the relationship.

The pupil treated us to a demonstration of his drum learning while his mastress (is that a word?) looked on approvingly. It had to be getting on about 3 a.m. and I was still touch and go. I went back into the bedroom, put myself down on my back, and put a pillow over my face. The room spun, the drumbeat pounded, I longed for a real bed and a glass of water. Neither were coming my way.

After gripping for a couple hours, 민철 came and lured me back into the Korando. Just the two of us began the drive back to the Master's house (no clue about 명룡 at this point in the night). The sun was creeping up and 민철 drove right down the middle straddling the center line. I thought he must have been still drunk too but I had lost any will to do much about it.

When we pulled in to the Master's house, 민철 dropped me off and drove away. I went and found the Master sitting at the breakfast table. He took one look and told me to go to bed. And so I did.

I got up again around noon and felt good enough to eat. The Master said I looked much better; some color had returned to my face.

민철 did not return until that evening. I have no idea where he went. The Master thought maybe he went to a lady's house, or maybe to the public bath. I told him I enjoyed the public bath and he promised to take me.

민철 later asked me if I threw up. Of course I said I did not.

Consumption Beyond Capacity

모슬포 (Moseulpo), South Korea. 1997.

My second week at the Master's place started out with a bang. Some of 명룡's friends in an acting troupe were scheduled to do their final performance of the season at a theatre in Seogwipo. 명룡 got us 3 tickets and 민철 drove us over. It was the first time I had left the Master's house for any reason in over a week, so I was eager for the opportunity. (Secretly I was jonesing hard for a dang Orion Choco Pie but had no means of getting anywhere without 민철. And it seemed like he had no reason to ever leave home.)

We attended the play performance. All of the dialog was in Jeju dialect so I understood very little. It was cool and worth seeing, and the fun did not end there. 명룡 told me we were invited to the [w]rap party. We drove over to the soiree (at some big empty room somewhere) and went in. Nearly 50 people were gathered there along with the cast and crew. We sat in a huge circle around the room. I expected a round robin of song to break out, but each just stood in turn and introduced themselves. Not surprisingly I was the only non-Korean there. When it was my turn, I stood and put out by best Korean with a little flair. I told them my name and that I was "eating and living" with 명룡 over at the Master's house.

Laughter and clapping ensued. Good for me.

It was getting on towards 10 pm by the time the introductions completed and I had not had anything to eat since lunch. Rumbly in my tumbly. And the party had not even started in earnest yet.

At the back of the room I spied a stack of crates of Soju. Lots of Soju. Next to that, food. The food? 회 (raw fish slices with lettuce). That's it. Needless to say, a few slices of fish and some rabbit food wasn't going to be substantial enough for me to build a solid food base for overdrinking Soju; a recipe for disaster.

It seemed like everybody in that place came over to me one-by-one to introduce themselves and pour me a shot of Soju. Things blurred quickly and before too long I found myself seated in the middle of the room drunkenly talking to a flirtylicious actress who had given me the eyeballs back at the performance. We poured each other some Soju (not a euphemism). She asked me if she could touch my hair, then my face. I was certainly loaded as she giggled and fondled my visage like a blind person might.

I knew I had too much to drink and I started to feel ill...

One Week and Counting

모슬포 (Moseulpo), South Korea. 1997.

Four nights already passed with the Master and I had only intended to stay one night. Every time I suggested returning to Seoul, the Master calmly suggested I stay another day. And so I did.

Every day was something new. One day a guy shows up. He is a standard Korean dude in the standard Korean suit with the same exact belt they all wear. Only this guy is from 나주. He is a likeminded fellow in speech if not in fashion. But what he does bring to the table is something of interest to the Master and his wife (the former famous pop star). He brings fabric dyed a gorgeous shade of blue using the Indigo plant. He does it all right there in 나주. He pitches his wares to the Master and the Master is cordial but non-committal. They agree to put the business conversation aside and have some rice and Soju.

The hour grows late and the Master prevails upon the Indigo man to spend the night. He agrees. Kimi preps a sleep space for him. All in a day's work.

Another day brings a History professor from a University in 광주. He and the Master are old friends. Rice, Soju, yada yada yada and the professor spends a couple nights. Another day and 멍석 shows up. He, too, is a traditionally minded fellow who wears the Cheju Brown Clothes (갈옷) and a dapper hat. He is down from Seoul where he is the proprietor of a traditional tea house that bears his name in Insa-dong.

These fascinating characters all flit in and out of the scene around me in a seemingly random order. The common threads are their threads (clothes), the traditional mindset, and Soju with smokes of course. Meeting folks like these was truly a unique opportunity, and it was made very easy and comfortable by the Master. He explained my presence in such a way that they all instantly treated me like one of the family.

Before I knew it I had spent a full week at the Master's house.

Filling Some Gaps

모슬포 (Moseulpo), South Korea. 1997.

Another night at the Master's house. More rice, more smoking, more soju, and more singing. I had to dig deep in the recesses to pull out some Korean oldies. Surprising what's still left in the ol' bean.

아아 어쩌런 말이냐 흩어진 이마음을...Try singing that song. But I did bring it. Again with passion and whatnot. I did not know yet whom I was singing in front of. That helped. Had I known who the Master's wife was, I might have been crippled with stage fright. Ignorance can indeed be bliss.

I already mentioned how she spent 10 years in NYC. I came to find out that she was a huge pop star in Korea--that explains the singing voice and guitar skillz. She got so popular as a young woman that she couldn't go anywhere without people hounding her like crazy. She had at least one song that I daresay every living Korean knows by heart, even today. Eventually she got tired of it all; the stardom was too much. She bailed to the Big Apple to disappear from the Korean spotlight. She married a Korean fellow (who, I gather, was quite large in stature) and had 2 kids: Kimi and Yong.

She separated from her husband and returned to Korea where she met and married the Master. Together they started their own line of clothing using her Fashion design training and his traditional dyeing expertise.

At a certain point, my path crossed the Master's on a car ferry from Wando to Cheju. And here we are, me singing K-Pop oldies to a famous Korean Pop Singer.

Some Faces from '97

모슬포 (Moseulpo), South Korea. 1997.

Here are a few more faces. This first one is Kimi. She was a typical high school girl in 1997. Smart, talented, good cook, great singing voice (from her mother?). Turns out the Master is her step-father; her mother separated from the father. But one could could never tell by observing the relationship between Kimi and the Master. He definitely dotes on this one.
Here is 민철. He's the one who picked me up in front of the Moseulpo Post Office. 착해, this one. He told me Korean people often ask him if he's American Indian. Do you see it?
I called him 민철, he called me 형.
Here is 명룡. A simple, sweet fellow. Frequently expressed to me his gratitude for the Master. A few short years later he would be killed in a car accident. Or so I was told. Sad.

The Master

모슬포 (Moseulpo), South Korea. 1997.

I slept soundly my second night at Mr. Kim's museum-like home in the countryside of Cheju Island. In the morning, the gong again signalled my call to breakfast. I joined the others, we ate rice, had our instant coffee with powdered creamer, and some enjoyed smokes. Mr. Kim arose and motioned for me to follow. We headed out to the back "yard" again. But this time, instead of lighting a fire under the rice stalk boiling vat, he lit a fire under two 50-gallon drums. The drums were 3/4 full of water. When the water was bubbling real good, he added some different ingredients to each. He explained that he was experimenting with new ways to make additional colors. In addition to the persimmon juice, he used red earth to make different shades of brown, coal to make black, and much more. It didn't feel like work, but I guess that's the nature of the traditional dyeing business.

We stood around stirring the boiling colored water for a couple hours. I put a white T-Shirt of mine in to see how it might turn out (it came out kind of green except for the armpits where my body oils prevented the dye from taking hold). He smoked and fielded my questions with good humor. He liked talking about the process of dyeing fabric, and about things traditional. He liked watching fire burn. I was uncomfortable calling him Mr. Kim all the time so I asked him what I should call him. He told me to call him "사부" (I had to look it up). He has been "The Master" to me ever since.

He wasn't very forthcoming about his background, but I did manage to pry some high level history. His father was a ship captain in the Mokpo area, teaching at a Mokpo Maritime University; he was now passed on. His mom lived near Cheju City at that time. The Master was in Gwangju in 1980 and saw friends of his killed by the military. Like many others, he blamed the Americans for the massacre, and that shaped his worldview for many years. He once told me that if he had met me 10 years earlier he would have ended me on the spot.

After the Gwangju massacre, he was known to the government for his anti-Americanism and anti-government statements. So he "went to the mountain." He spent 10 years somewhere in the Jiri Mountain area reading, studying at the feet of a mentor, and living life in a more simple way. 10 years. And that is how one gets to become a Master.

The lunch gong pulled us away from the boiling drums and fascinating conversation. We ate and I suggested it was time for me to get back up to Seoul. The Master told me I should stay longer. And so I did.