Thursday, January 24, 2013

Embrace the Suck (24 January 2013)

In the past two years, I’ve said goodbye more times than I care to remember. Some of those goodbyes have been in person with many tearful and emotional promises to stay in touch; some of them have simply been a result of life and growing up; some have happened alone in the darkened comfort of my bedroom while others have happened more publicly and with spectators. All of them have been people I’ve loved in one way or another; all of them have been people who have touched my life and my heart; all of them have been painful and sad goodbyes. Not once has it been a relief to end a relationship regardless of the situation or hurt that’s been experienced or unpleasantries exchanged.

I’ve said more goodbyes than I thought possible and, while many of them have ended in promises to remain friends always, I’m old enough, cynical enough, well-travelled enough and – dare I say it – wise enough to understand that the seemingly unbreakable ties that bind us to one another at that point in our lives become far more breakable with distance, the passing of days, weeks, months and years, and simply growing up.  In a foreign country such as Korea, those strong bonds are formed even more quickly creating an even stronger illusion of eternity – an illusion that can make the inevitable goodbyes seem that much more painful and the willingness to open one’s heart to newcomers decreases just a little more with each exiting figure. 

February is, without a doubt, the worst month of my years in Korea. Each year, as it draws nearer, you can almost hear the collective inhalations that signal how we all simply hold our breath and wait to see what life has in store for us.  It’s the time when co-teachers you’ve come to love and rely on may be transferred to another school, when the uncertainty of the new school year makes every day at work feel like you’re walking on nails without the appropriate mental or emotional preparation, when other foreign teachers may be moving on with their lives outside of Korea, when beloved students whom you’ve started to treat like younger siblings graduate and move on with their lives, when routines change and, every once in a while, when that extra special person who has managed to creep into your heart with breathless and expert navigation of all the high tech emotional security systems you’ve installed around it is told that it’s time to move on too “just because”. 

Saying goodbye to someone when things have gone horribly wrong is a little easier to bear than saying goodbye to something good for no reason other than that you’ve run out of time. It’s hard to accept that something so good for you is being taken away simply because the powers-that-be, who don’t know you, decide it’s necessary to make changes in other people’s lives. Death, personal choices, fights…all of these provide some logical end to a relationship despite the similarity of pain; they’re all escorted by some inevitable form of closure and conviction. Obligatory transfers for work are like children in a nasty divorce: at least one person always suffers from a separation in which they have no voice.  They carry no logical or rational end – they simply are.  And, while those seemingly unbreakable ties that have bound you so tightly to one another for any period of time may seem strong enough to weather any challenge the transfer guarantees by sheer distance, they do, sadly, weather and weaken as time takes its toll. In the end, some silently mourn the death of the relationship while others don’t even realise it may have already ended long before that.

John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” With each passing year of my life, I gain a slighter better understanding of just how accurate this is. As another February approaches, accompanied by the inevitable goodbyes that this season brings, all that can be done once more is to embrace the suck that is this annual period and remember to exhale as we all “wait-and-see” what the year ahead holds for us. I guess there’s a reason that in the northern hemisphere, March is the beginning of spring and brings with it renewed optimism, new opportunities, new relationships, and even acceptance and closure for the relationships with those we may never again see but who will always hold a very special place in our hearts.

Chuseok (9 – 12 September 2011)

Korea’s two biggest holidays are Seolnal (Lunar New Year) and Chuseok (Thanksgiving).  2011 is a fantastic year with public holidays since most of them fall on either a Friday or a Monday and therefore create a long weekend.  This means that it’s really feasible to go away for a couple of long weekends that would otherwise be too tightly scheduled.  This weekend is no exception and we’ve signed up for the Ullengdo/Dokdo trip with AK.

This trip is particularly exciting: Dokdo is a seriously controversial topic in Korea – one that most foreigners have never even heard of prior to coming to Korea.  To sum up, it is an island halfway between South Korea and Japan.  Both countries claim ownership of this little island and it is the source of much hostility, among other things, between Korea and Japan.  Korea has gone a step further and built a research facility on the island and there are reportedly around 2 000 people currently living there.  We’re excited to see what all of the fuss is about and my colleagues are quite envious that I will get to see Dokdo – something that many of them aspire to see in their lifetime. 

The Adventure Begins 

Catfish and I head to Seoul on the 20:00 bus to meet the AK group at the Express Bus Terminal pick up site at 23:00.  Once we’re on the bus, we have six hours of sleeping fitfully on the bus, which always seems just a little bit too cold overnight.  By 6am, we’ve arrived at Chuam Beach where we’d planned to watch the sunrise.  Apparently this is the beach from which the sunrise that is used on one of the famous television news stations was filmed.  The constant drizzle ruins any hopes we’d been harbouring about seeing the sunrise; instead, a few of us merely watch the sky lighten somewhat while standing huddled beneath umbrellas while the rest of the group sleep on the bus.

After a hidden sunrise at Chuam Beach, we make our way to the ferry terminal where we split into two groups since AK was not able to get ferry tickets for all of us on the same ferry.  However, the second ferry is one of the faster ones so we arrive on Ullengdo no long after the majority of the group and we’re soon trudging uphill, in wet flip-flops that are determined to fall off, in a constant light drizzle on our way to our hotel.  The rain doesn’t dampen our spirits though as we take in the magnificent aqua waters that surround the island of Ullengdo, which lies just about 100km off the East coast of South Korea. 

After ditching our bags in our rooms, we all head out on a rather wet walk around the island.  The views are breathtaking though as we skirt along the slick path around the base of the rocks while the weather-angered oceans beats the rocks below us.  The constant drizzle does little to quell our contentment of a weekend away and it seems to encourage many people to try bridge jumping on the way back to the hotel. 

Standing on the edge of the bridge, looking down into the tourmaline-coloured waters, I can see several rocks on both sides of me but I can’t see how deep the water really is.  Several people have already jumped ahead of me so I decide to take the plunge into the salty but surprisingly warm waters below.  What was initially supposed to be a 10-minute stop turns into nearly an hour of jumping and taking posed photos mid-jump.  The result is that we get back to our hotel just in time for dinner and a tour of the Dokdo Museum before Catfish and I decide to turn in for a very early night after a rather eventful day.

You See These Rocks... 

Sunday morning brings even more drizzle so we start our day with a three-hour bus tour around the island. One of the first things that is pointed out to us is “Turtle Rock,” a giant rock just off the first beach we pass.  Considering the event of the previous week that made national news – where a foreigner assaulted a Korean man on a public bus the previous Sunday – it seems inevitable that someone repeats the idiot’s catchphrase of “You see these rocks” followed by, “My rocks are bigger than yours.  This continues all through the tour and it soon becomes clear that we’re on the party bus of the three tour buses; we’re also on the bus that copes the best with the slick and steep mountain roads as we notice the one in front of us smoking a little more than desired as it strains its way up the rocky paths. 

By the time we finish our tour, the rain has cleared up enough for a more pleasant hike – which Catfish and I opt out of in order to hang out with other foreigners down at the harbour where drinking games ensue.  The Korean guides are exhausted when they get back from the hike in time for dinner and drinking with Seokjin.  We head to a different part of town where we’re shown a giant, ice-dispensing penguin and take a photo before heading back to the hotel to eat chicken and drink more soju.  This is also the moment that Seokjin chooses to tell us that we can staff on the next trip, which thrills us. 

Ferry Ride From Hell 

Monday morning is another early start as we board a ferry for Dokdo at 7:00am.  The constant rain over the weekend had make it uncertain as to whether or not the ferry would run that weekend at all so we’re excited that the sea is deemed sufficiently calm for the ferry road to Korea’s most controversial island.  We board the ferry excitedly and settle into seats near the back of the boat that looks like it can carry approximately 300 people.  We’ve barely left the dock when I realise that this trip is not going to be smooth sailing – and many people seem to be feeling it judging from the number of people around me who are reaching for their barf bags.  Catfish also moves out of her seat and people start lying down in passageways in a desperate attempt to beat the rising nausea that is quickly spreading amongst the passengers.  I have a very sensitive gage-reflex and the sound of people puking all around me is enough to turn my stomach inside-out, stomp on it repeatedly and swallow the unpleasantness of the experience over and over unless I can tune it out somehow.  I turn my ipod up to its maximum volume, apologise to my ears, close my eyes and try to breath only through my nose as I attempt to block out the wretchedness that now surrounds me. 

Approximately an hour into the trip, Catfish comes to tell me that the doors have been opened to allow passengers onto the deck since so many people are sick.  She also warns me not to go into the bathrooms that have recently been re-decorated.  As we make our way carefully over the bodies of rather ashen-looking people who have more than succumbed to seasickness, I try hard not to breathe while taking in the sight of hundreds of people feeling the effects of the battering of the ocean as it flings the boat around.  The movie scenes of people projectile vomiting that I’ve seen in bad action and horror movies are nothing compared to the sight of roughly 280 of the 300 people around me who have given up even trying to find barf bags.  Outside on the deck, the air is a bit fresher although the smell still lingers as people around us continue their descent on what has rapidly become a ferry ride to hell. 


By the time we reach Dokdo three hours later, the ferry reeks of the contents of the stomachs of the majority of the passengers.  We’re all grateful to finally be at Dokdo, which, in all honesty, is just two large rocks, one of which has a large research facility built atop it.  We’re allowed to get off the ferry at Dokdo for just 10 minutes due to the number of people who have been sick.  It doesn’t take long to take a few photos but many people are simply happy to be back on firm ground while others are curled into tight fetal positions and begging not to be forced to get back on the ferry from hell.  Unfortunately, staying on Dokdo permanently is not an option and we’re all reluctantly herded back onto the ferry for the return trip to Ullengdo.  Mercifully, the return trip is much smoother and we’re back on terra firma two and a half hours later where ambulances are waiting for several of the more severe cases of seasickness.

Sadly, we have only another hour before boarding the next ferry that will take us from Ullengdo back to mainland Korea – something that many of us are painfully aware of and dreading.  Fortunately, the second ferry is larger, more comfortable and, thanks to insufficient seating, some of us get bumped up to first class seats for the smooth trip home.  At Pohang, we’re happy to be off the ferry and boarding the bus back to Seoul – grateful that we won’t be going anywhere near a ferry in the foreseeable future – as our Chuseok weekend winds down.