First Impressions of Busan, South Korea

CIMG9592The day is August 9th, and I am sitting in my hotel room to avoid the sweltering heat in Busan. A heat that I am not accustomed to as of yet. I’m not certain one truly acclimates fully to heat and humidity, but people do live in it.

My first days in Busan began with angst. I had flown from Portland to San Francisco on Virgin America, and then from SFO to Beijing to Busan on Air China. Two transfers, two airlines, three security checks (China’s was the toughest) and because of the time difference it seemed like it took me two days. I had left on the 4th and I arrived on the 6th. What happened to the 5th? But, more importantly, what happened to my luggage? Somewhere in all of that transferring my luggage was lost. I wasn’t calm about it, but also there isn’t much I can do. It felt like a big loss, and not the best way to arrive in my new foreign city.

I’ve moved to Busan; for at least a year, and I was feeling apprehensive about the move. I can’t say why I felt or feel apprehensive. This will be my third time moving out of the U.S. on some crazy adventure that I don’t plan well. It’s the fifth foreign country I’ve moved to, and my second Asian city to live in. One would think that by now I would feel more comfortable with the whole affair, but apparently I don’t. Apparently, I have a hard time doing it, but by the time I return to the states, I no longer remember my trepidations, and I do the damn thing all over again. I’ve never lost luggage before though so it is an added challenge. I tell myself, as my friends also tell me, “I have to believe things will work out. It will come back to me.” I try to put my faith in this thinking, but it didn’t stop me from crying my eyes out thinking about certain things I had in the case. That awesome jacket. My shoes; the one’s I loved. My brand new external hard drive that I had meant to put in my carry on, but forgot to. Then of course, my travel journal that is filled with pictures of my mom and home- it is something that gives me peace. That’s what really hurts. That can’t be replaced. So, I cried my first evening in Busan. I cried because my luggage was lost, and I cried because as per-usual, I don’t know what I’m doing nor do I know why I decided to go this route, and I’m afraid. That’s all normal for me. The thing is, I do know what I’m doing. I know more now this time then ever, but it doesn’t stop me from doubting myself or my choices. That too seems to be normal.

A friend met me at the airport. I was very grateful. I had felt uneasy on my arrival, what, with exhaustion, loss of stuff, and second-guessing my life choices. It was good to have a familiar face greet me in an unfamiliar place. Nikki, who I had met at Angloville in Poland a little over a year ago, guided me onto the subway and into the city where I am am being put up in a hotel near Nampo district. I’m to be in this hotel during my training period for my school. It’s about two weeks. I am not officially hired until I successfully complete the training. So who knows, maybe I will be back in the U.S. in two weeks more broke and in debt than ever, and with no clothes. Let’s hope not.

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Nikki and I wander a bit in the heat till we found a little restaurant where we ate cold noodle soup and kimchi and other delightful Korean snacks. As we walked around in the district of my new Asian city, I couldn’t help but compare Busan to Zhengzhou. Asian cities are so different from European cities as they are different from American or New World cities. The smells are different. The architecture, and the urban planning is all different. I don’t know a lot about Busan yet, but I believe a lot of it was destroyed in the Korean War so much of the urban planning is post- 1960’s. Also the land scape is hilly so that creates a different type of planning. There are some similarities to Zhengzhou in one particular smell and in the people, but they are only subtle similarities, and there were differences in what seemed familiar. Immediately, I noticed that it isn’t nearly as crowded here. In fact, the side streets were often empty. When it comes to the hustle and bustle of the subway people seem to be more polite here. There is some pushing, but nothing compared to China. If someone pushes past you they seem to be from the older generation and not to aggressive about it. In China, I found it to be very aggressive and all ages. I felt a bit like there was a sense of panic in Zhengzhou like a person needed to push everyone out of the way or they’d be left behind. Plus, in China there was the whole cutting in line (which really annoyed me) which I haven’t encountered here at least not in my one day. There was a similar smell. It wasn’t all over or as potent as in Zhengzhou, but it was the same smell. It is a terrible sewer smell that is sharp and pungent. It was very prominent in Zhengzhou, but I would only occasionally catch a whiff of the smell in some alleyways in Busan. Sewage actually smells different in China and Korea (in the two places I’ve been) then in American cities. It all smells like shit and bad, but it also has a different kind of bad. A sour kind of bad. Oddly, I find that fascinating. I imagine it is what we eat and how we live.

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After Nikki left I returned to my room, and cried a little. Then stared out at my view. I do have a nice view of the port from my window. I am far from the popular beaches but I can see the bridge that lights up like a rainbow bridge at night and connects the Yeongdo-gu island to the mainland. I can also see Mt. Bongnaesan and all the lights from whatever and whomever is living over there. Looking out the window calmed me some, and my exhaustion overwhelmed me. I tried to read a bit before going to sleep, but I was out before 9 p.m.

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In the morning after struggling to contact Virgin America, and not getting much help via chat (I have no phone right now so it adds more to the difficulty) I had another cry, and then told myself, I needed to get it together. I’m here. There’s not much I can do but hope. I can cry all I want, but it isn’t making anything better. Although, it did feel pretty good to cry. I ate the complementary breakfast offered in the hotel. It was kimchi, and rice, and some quail eggs. There was also some cakes that I think may have been fish, and a finely grated white cabbage salad. It wasn’t amazing, but it was fine. I am already a big fan of kimchi. After eating, I was determined to try and explore. I wandered a bit through some streets until I found my way to Yongdusan park.

Immediately upon stepping under the trees of the park I was surround by a cacophony of buzzing and caterwauling. I can only guess that it was insects. For a moment, I had thought the caterwaul was coming from strange birds, but the consistency and pattern of repetition and tone matched with the other buzzing which I knew to be beetles. So I’ve concluded, that indeed, there are some monstrous bugs living in the trees above us. There were subtle things that captured me as I wandered melting in the humidity that was already high by 10 am. The insects that I could hear, but not see. The bark of some of the trees that seemed to look as if it was melting, and the soft shapely pinecones that sat delicately side by side in a tree as if they were siblings. They are siblings. I enjoyed the Busan tower, and the various Korean design of some of the buildings, but really it was the nature in the park that was the most interesting part. I took some photos, and as I did a man offered to take my picture. I’m sure he wanted money for it, because he was trying to pose me. I’ve never been all that comfortable with strangers taking my picture- especially when they offer it. I don’t think I photograph all that well so I’m pretty awkward about the whole affair. Still, he took them and I walked away. I began to feel damaged by the heat and I gave up my exploration. I felt a little better, and I was glad I got myself away from myself.

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As I wandered back to the hotel I discovered art and murals in various alleyways and I saw a numerous amount of coffee houses. I had thought I would be giving up coffee for a year, but it appears like Busan has more coffee places in just this neighborhood than all of the city of Portland. It is good coffee too.

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Returning to Asia

After waiting for nearly four months, my criminal background check finally arrived last week, and with it came my permission slip to look for a new job overseas. I had originally intended on leaving in February, but sometimes things don’t go as intended. I’ve decided to look at these extra months as a time for me to get healthy and to really focus on what I need in my life to give me happiness.

It had taken about 3 months to get on the Oregon Health Care plan, but thankfully it exists because I have been able to go to the dentist, and to the doctors, and get myself back on track for a healthy mind and body. As the saying goes, “if you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” I hadn’t been feeling very good for awhile. I’m pretty certain I can guess the cause, but the point is that I’m back on a mission to feel strong again, and just in time too because I will be returning to the proverbial road.

I have been vacillating between applying to work in China and working in South Korea for a few months now. Many of my friends have been saying that Korea is the way to go, and have wondered why I would even consider China.

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“You hated China.”
“You were miserable there.”

It’s true, I did hate much of my time in China, but aside from China there were other factors to my hating it; my mother dying, conflict with the director of the program, and culture shock all contributed to my hating much of my time in China. It is not easy to live in China. I do believe some people may thrive there, but in truth, I think it can be a tough adjustment for a multitude of reasons. I do believe all of those reasons can eventually be overcome if you want to stick it out in China, and that you can learn to accept things, and even grow to enjoy them; all but one that is.

Although, my time was difficult there, I had also gained a strange love for China. It’s difficult to explain, and maybe if it hadn’t of been a year it may not have gotten under my skin, but it did. It took about seven months of being away, but I slowly began to miss it. I missed certain things like food, and the crazy traffic, and riding my bike in that crazy traffic. The insane rides on e-bikes, babies in pants with bottoms, old ladies dancing in parks, kites everywhere, are among the few things I’ve missed. There were things there that mattered to me, and left an impression on me that I will carry for the remainder of my life. My kids mattered to me, they mattered a lot, and they were such a huge part of my experience in China. I spent more time with 15 to 18 year old Chinese kids than any other group of people, and the experiences with those kids which included a special trip to Kaifeng, really shaped my view of the country. The Chinese people I became friends with mattered to me. In China it can be difficult to know if Chinese people are really your friends if they actually like you as a person. There are so many people that want you to be around because you are western, and it is about status to call a westerner a friend. You will not ever be Chinese, and you will never be truly accepted into the culture, and because of this it can be hard to ever find that bond that we all crave in our friendships. Perhaps I am delusional, but I feel blessed in my belief that I was able to move beyond this barrier with very little effort with some of the Chinese friends I had made while there. I felt a real kinship with the people I called friends, even when we came up against massive cultural differences. There are Chinese people I do consider to be genuine friends, and I feel that they look on me as the same, not as a “western” friend, but as real friend the kind of friend that accept the whole cultural and enigmatic package that makes up each and everyone of us.

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Xiang Kai and Sho Boa (Shawn) hiking up Mt. Hua 

I have been fascinated with Chinese history since I was a little girl. I remember stacks of National Geographic magazines with images of China. I remember watching the student protests in Tiananmen Square live on television. I had taken a course in the history of Eastern Civilization in college and I had become immersed in the ancient history of the dynasties. When I was a girl there were only three things in the world I had wanted to see: The Pyramids of Egypt, the Acropolis of Athens, and the Terra Cotta Warriors of China (I can mark one off my list). Chinese films are among some of my favorite, and the dissidents of China are some of the bravest people in the world. There is much to be fascinated with in China, and there is a lot to grab your heart and keep you there, but for every amazing thing Chinese there is also something insidious. A drive for cultural success that is so strong that corruption and lies are an accepted part of the society norm creating at times a dog-eat-dog world. The repressive regimes from the cult of Mao to the current CCP that smothers the real strength of what is hidden in China. The annoying and ridiculous firewall put in place to control and suppress the people, and the denial of terrible events by erasing them from history. The horrific pollution that had for too long been acceptable in China, and ignored in the majority of the world. These are things that are difficult to live in, and I believe it is difficult for many Chinese too (judging by various conversations). China is a land of great contradictions and it is these contradictions which constantly push and pull at you. At me.

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Some of my kids rehearsing for “The Outsiders”.

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So, what are the deciding factors, what did it come down to when choosing between China and South Korea? The main motivation for China was a school. A drama school where I would be a theatre teacher, and where as part of my work I would be required to direct my own children’s plays. I contemplated this school for nearly a year. It would be a job that combined my theatre, my literature and my teaching skills. I would finally be working in a creative environment and for that I was willing to move to the polluted city of Beijing. Yet, it was during a bike ride in Portland that finally solidified my final decision.

It is now spring, and the sun is out and the sky is a clear blue that bends over the city with only a smattering of cumulus clouds dotting the sky like paint on a palette. The days have been beautiful and easy going. My moods have been hum-drum and dark, and sometimes this happens even when things are going well in my life, I need these beautiful days to help lift me from my internal darkness. I knew at that moment under the blue sky in the face of mount Tabor, the small extinct volcano covered in the rich green of white-cedar and poplars, that I needed to live in a beautiful place. As much as I had wanted the theatre school and as much as I was willing to return to China, I knew in my heart that returning to an over-populated, dirty, and congested city with air so bad that there were red alert days not allowing us to go outside, was not a good idea for me. I knew, no matter how great the school, my sadness would overcome me, and I can’t live like that.

I have started the interview process for jobs in South Korea, and I’ve focused my attention on applying to schools in places where the sky is blue and the ocean is near-by. The job matters, but the environment matters more.

As I had mentioned before I believe that most of the challenges of being a foreigner in China a person can overcome, but one. That one for me is the pollution. China is a geological diamond and a natural wonder of nature, but the coal and the money made on cheap labor and unregulated businesses that damage the country is more important then the jewel. I will one day return to China, but maybe as a visitor. Till then I will be in South Korea.

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