Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hike at Sognisan

Munjangdae at Sognisan
Today, I had the day off from school while my students were taking national exams...ALL DAY.  I was seriously considering sleeping in and watching How I Met Your Mother online, but I decided to put my day to better use by going to Sognisan, a mountain in my province of Chungcheongbuk-do.  I'd just returned from Seoul after having Thanksgiving dinner at the U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens' residence, and I felt the pumpkin pie pounds tacking on.  Not only did I need to exercise, I desperately needed a reprieve from the noisiness and sensory overload of urban life.  I haven't been on a hike in five months because of my knee, and I'm so excited to report that I made it to the top of the mountain! 

At times, the solo hike was peaceful but passing the many groups of middle-aged hikers gave me an insight of hiking culture in Korea.  First off, hikers are almost always over the age of 40 here.  Hiking is very much a social activity, and what you wear is almost as important as who you're with.  Both men and women alike outfit themselves in very flashy, expensive gear and are decked out in top-of-the-line day packs, trekking poles, down jackets, hiking boots, dry-fit layers, etc.  The women, or ajummas, just love the fluorescent jackets.  While they look impressive, that amount of gear is not necessary for a 15 km intermediate day hike.  

  I was shocked that some people brought all of their electronics with them on the trail.  People were talking on their cellphones, conducting business, while another pair were listening to their MP3 player.  An elderly couple had brought a radio with them, and they were singing songs all the way down the mountain.  Music is wonderful to hear, but it's pretty inconsiderate to blast the music so that other hikers on the trail HAVE to hear everything.  I did find the bottle of soju in the side pocket of their backpack amusing.  Just as some people eat to live or live to eat, it seems that hikers also hike to eat.  Along the trail, I spotted three restaurants that served traditional rice wine and anju (foods eaten with alcohol).

Located in the Sognisan mountains are several different Buddhist temples.  Beopjusa is the largest temple located closest to the park entrance. I've been wanting to do an overnight temple stay where I can meditate and learn about Buddhist culture, and I think I'll be going back to Beopjusa in early December.  
Speaking of hikes, my school teachers and I went to Jeollado Province earlier this month to see the beautiful colors of the leaves changing color.  In Korean, there is one word 단풍 (dan-pung) to describe this transformation. I wouldn't call it a hiking trip if one spends 4/5 hours in a bus and the remaining hour walking along an asphalt road, but, hey, that's how my school advertised the trip to me. Here are some pictures I took.
Temple Architecture
Faculty of Jeungan Elementary School   

This is what I get for blogging so infrequently.  I have two more pictures to post.  This is from the visit to the Sangdang Sanseong Fortress in Cheongju that I went to with my host family.  I didn't take any pictures of the actual fortress, but I was mesmerized by the reflections in the water.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

To Grandmother's House We Go

November has come, marking my fourth month in Korea.  Simply looking at the calendar, a lot of time has passed, and the amber-shaded leaves of trees lining the boulevards attest that autumn is here. I’m astounded by how beautiful the colors of the leaves are.  This past week, I walked three times to and from the bus terminal, which takes about thirty minutes on foot and five minutes by car, just so that I could watch and hear the tree branches rustle from the gust of wind blowing down the main road. 

I’ve taken my cold weather clothing out of my suitcase, and they’re hanging on my portable closet.  When I showed my host mom my winter coat, she scoffed and said, “That won’t do here in Cheongju.  Don’t you know you’re in one of the coldest parts of the country?”  I’m worried about the snow but not nearly as much as another fellow Angeleno ETA, who didn’t bring anything warmer than a sweatshirt to Korea.  We’re going to have to buy him the most plush down coat and ear muffs to keep him warm.  Lucky for me, I won’t be in Korea during the coldest months of winter.  I’m returning to LA on December 20 (mark your calendars!) for ACL surgery and staying two months to start the arduous physical therapy, which I will continue in Cheongju once I fly back to Korea in late February.

“What have I been up to these past months,” you may be wondering. Flip the calendar back to September, shall we?  

My grandmothe
During the third week of September, I celebrated Chuseok, Korea’s equivalent of Thanksgiving, in Daegu with my paternal relatives. Daegu is located in North Gyeongsang province in the southeastern corner of South Korea.  I barely found bus and train tickets to/from Daegu three weeks prior to Chuseok day.  Apparently, one has to book tickets months in advance. 

After having celebrated both the US and Korean Thanksgiving, I’d reason that Chuseok is an even bigger deal.  Albeit there is no pumpkin pie involved, but the entire country takes a break from its work-centric schedule as Koreans travel to their hometowns to celebrate Chuseok.  Not only does one visit his/her grandparents, he/she must also visit all the ancestral homes and graves to pay respect to his/her ancestors. In each home, songpyeon (traditional rice cakes) and other prepared food is set on a large table as offering to ancestors. 
    I hate to rely on Wikipedia as a source, but click here to find out more. Chuseok - Korean Thanksgiving

Koreans say that Daegu remains a conservative corner of the country, and they weren’t joking.  My dad instructed me to visit the Big House (the Suh family’s ancestral compound) and make the rounds, but my grandma and aunts told me that that’s a man’s job. No female above the age of five ever goes to these events, so don’t bother is what they told me.  During Chuseok, the women of the family will traditionally spend days cooking all the food that will be served to the ancestors and eaten by the family.  On the day of Chuseok, when men visit homes and gravesites, women stand on the sidelines quietly.  Important to note is that my family still observes the most traditional practices of Korea, and that my aunts and uncles come from a different generation of Koreans.  I don't even know if I could call them a typical Korean family. 

It is interesting to me how Confucian ideals are rooted even deeper in Korea than Confucius’s home country. Instead of getting all worked up about the inequalities of patriarchal societies and why men and women eat at different tables in my paternal family, I’ll just accept it.  I'm not here to change Korean culture nor to extract the causes of why things are the way they are.  Most definitely, I will not impose my Western values upon my relatives.  It would be so biased of me to state whether these practices are good, bad, unfair, or discriminatory.  Who am I to judge?  I'm hear to learn and to observe.  

I came to Korea with the desire of experiencing contemporary, secular Korean culture, but in seeking only that, I may be missing out on experiencing the many subcultures and strains of Korean culture that make life in this country seem so dynamic and puzzling to me.