Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Writer's Journey to Pohang

On January 31 I arrived in Pohang, South Korea, to teach at an intensive English language "camp" at Sunlin University. On day two, I took a look around.

Fresh catch at the Jukdo Market

The partly open-air Jukdo Market near the center of the city goes on and on. My American-in-residence colleagues, one of whom speaks fluent Korean after teaching here for three years, started me off by stopping at an outdoor vendor who was frying up a sweet. The flat, cinnamon-filled, lefsa-like pastry came hot off the grill. Its scent was soon overtaken by that of fish as we turned the corner into the main hall. The clean fishy smell came from countless varieties that, at four in the afternoon, looked like they had just been caught. Maybe the catches keep coming in throughout the day, but I doubt it. A few tables at the edges of one wing were already cleared out. No one in our group knew how the women--nearly all the vendors were women--kept their items so fresh in the open air hour after hour.

Chestnuts by the box and bucketful

Everything at the market looked fresh, but not necessarily appetizing. Several days later, I'm still haunted by how close I came to chomping down on some dried silkworm larvae. They looked like striped, oval nuts, but thankfully I asked my bilingual friend what they were before having a taste. Later that night I was introduced to typical Korean bar food, a bowl of crunchy dried anchovies, which I also passed on.

Buyer beware! Nutty looking silkworm larvae

Don't get me wrong, Korean food is good. Hot, but good. Really hot. Even our sizzling breakfast bowls contain red broth oozing with hot pepper. The generous dollop of caviar on top of the rice helps.

Seeing red: one vendor's pepper-infused dishes

I couldn't begin to pronounce the names of the foods I saw at the market, even after my colleague repeated them to me several times, and after three days of teaching I'm disappointed in myself for not being able to pronounce my students' names very well. I thought I had a knack at this, but Korean is a few wide steps removed from the romantic and scandinavian languages. I've vowed to work on it because I want to show as much respect for Korean as my students do for English. They approach the language as a crucial step in making any type of success in the world, and I'm convinced many of them will achieve great things. A few of them floor me with their unabashed self-confidence. In one lesson I asked them to tell me, in a complete English sentence, whom they consider their hero. "I am my hero!" blurted out one young man without a second thought. If only I had believed in myself to that extent when I was twenty . . . Each of these students is eager, sharp and extremely polite, and I am grateful to make this brief intersection in their lives.

An impossibly perfect array of men's shirts at the upscale Lotte department store

Politeness is big in Pohang, as I imagine it is everywhere else in the country. The "parking lady" at the entrance of the underground ramp at the Lotte department store came to our car window and apologetically yet cheerfully explained that we would be able to drive through as soon as the next car left. She wore a bright pink wool coat and, as soon as a car sped out of the exit side, gestured us in with white gloves and a smile. Down in the bowels of the parking area, uniformed male attendants--also gloved--herded us to the appropriate level with quick, sweeping gestures that looked like some kind of urban underground performance art.
Harbor view from the Lotte rooftop

Winter pine-needle carpet on the path up the hill

Late one afternoon I took my first walk up the forest-covered hill next to campus. The old lane that winds upward is covered in rusty colored pine needles and at that time of day everything seemed equally soft--the light, the chilled breeze, the drone of the distant road. The path ended in a clearing at the very top of the hill. When I walked into the open area I was awestruck to find a series of burial mounds that swelled up from the ground like giant knuckles. Lying flat on a short pedestal in front of each was a polished granite slab with Korean characters carved into the front edge. I wondered how long it took the grass to cover the iron-red soil on each fresh mound and what sort of flowers first touched the cold stone.

A walk to the top of the hill on a cloudy day led to a burial ground

On the trip back down, I noticed small chunks of the same steel-colored granite and imagined them falling off the sides of a cart that someone lugged up the path. I love this hill.

Stay tuned--more coming soon . . .

The Buddhist Television Network (BTN) on cable TV

1 comment:

  1. Your photographs are starting to rival your writing!
    You paint us a canvas of experience with your words and images,I am such a fan!