Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The bright moon is like our heart, undivided and true

With the six year anniversary of the first time I went to South Korea coming up in just 4 days, I've been thinking about my time there a lot in the last couple of weeks, and wishing my memories of it weren't fading as the years pass.

In the two years that I spent living in Korea, I complained a lot, and never, in a million years, would have convinced my 19-20 year old self that I would one day miss nearly everything about it.  My complaints weren't out of left field - there truly was a lot to complain about.

If you've never been to South Korea, then I could probably ramble for twenty minutes about the smell of the country, and still - you would be unable to truly grasp the pungent odor that radiates throughout the country.  Rice paddies are prevalent throughout the countryside in Korea, and farmers use manure - horse, cow, and yes, even human - to fertilize their crops.  Combine that with kimchi season, and you have a potent mixture that is truly unforgettable (and most certainly not in a good way).

I lived in the Nam-Gu district of Daegu, which is in the Gyeongsangbuk-do province.  It's pretty centrally located on the eastern side of the peninsula, not too far of a drive from the coast.  Of course, in South Korea, there's pretty much nothing that's too far of a drive.  Even North Korea's border was only about a six hour drive from our front door, which was as terrifying as it was fascinating.  Do you remember in 2009 when North Korea conducted a nuclear test?   I bet you don't, but I do.  It defined my life for several months, keeping me on my toes, and wondering constantly if I was going to be uprooted from my home and sent back to the states.  I was almost 6 months pregnant at the time, and I was ordered to pack my bags immediately, and to ensure that I packed enough food and water to last me for at least 72 hours.  A map from the military post nearby to the front door of my villa was turned into my ex husband's chain of command in case shit went down, so to speak, and they had to come find me to send me back overseas, out of danger.  It was unnerving to think about the very real possibilities that came with living in South Korea as a non-combatant and an American citizen.   And then there was the time in 2010 when a South Korean navy ship was sunk near the border between the North and the South.  There were the constant protests just outside of my house.  We were warned of them by the garrison commander almost daily, and told where they would be taking place.  Our orders were always to avoid the areas at all costs.  They protested tons of things from South Korean law to the president to things that hit very close to home, like the Anti-US protesters, who spewed their bitter anger at the Americans for bringing their bases to South Korea and invading their cities.  I'll probably never forget the time when my friend, Terri, and I were out shopping downtown one day either.  That day, we were followed and watched by two men in turbans and robes.  They were the men we all had been warned about when we first got to Korea.  These men were associated with Al-Qaeda, and their purpose was not to harm us or even speak to us, only to intimidate us, to silently let us know that they were around, and that their presence was alive and well.  Living overseas kept me on my toes, absolutely.

But it wasn't all scary either.  It was about a twelve minute walk from my front door to the metal gates that separated the little America that was Camp Walker from the rest of Daegu.  Almost daily, when I made those walks, I always happened to pass the boys and girls in their school uniforms, knapsacks cinched up high on their backs.  And always, always, they would run to my daughter in her stroller, gooing and gaaing at her, completely enamored with the "small white baby".  Then, they'd look at me and say "Hello, hello, how are you?" and whenever I'd answer back "fine" or "doing good, how are you?", they would dissolve in a fit of giggles and run away, totally amused that they were able to practice their broken English on an American woman.

I remember waking up just about every morning at dawn to the sound of loudspeaker fruit trucks.  Imagine it - a farmer's market on wheels with a megaphone for the driver to declare, very loudly, the day's specials.  I hardly knew the exact things they were saying since I was far from fluent in Korean, but being woken at the crack of dawn from the sounds of a loudspeaker is annoying, regardless of if you have any idea what is going on.  I remember my first experience with the loudspeaker trucks scared the hell out of me - as I was sure that they were announcing the fall of the president or the invasion of North Koreans.  I soon realized their apples and watermelons and potatoes and smelly, freshly caught fish were hardly something to be unnerved by.

The cicadas.  Oh good god, the cicadas.  The chirping, and the clicking.  This is something else that I will never forget about South Korea.  They are large bugs that live in the trees, and are actually pretty hard to see.  Their chirps, though, are about 75 decibels of loudness, and when you compare that to a cell phone ringer being somewhere around 70 decibels, you can probably imagine why hundreds of them are hard to forget.  Maybe you've heard them here in America, but believe me, I just don't think its possible to understand their true range of annoyance until you've stepped foot in Korea.

Sunsets in this country are another thing that I hope I can always remember.  They will knock your breath away with their beauty.  My favorite part of my home was the unbelievable view that it gave me to watch the sun go down every night.  The pastels of purples and oranges and reds blended together like they were painted perfectly above the mountain ranges.  Their allure was something I loved most, and miss truly, about Korea.

I find it truly awesome that my daughter will forever bear South Korea as her birth country, and where she spent the first eleven and a half months of her life.   It is here where I became a mother, and where she and I learned to face the world, mostly on our own.  You see, it seemed like my ex husband was hardly home.  His job kept him away until all hours of the night, and then there were the times when he was gone for weeks, playing army (or as they called it, "training" :-P) further up north.  I felt secluded from real life sometimes, as I sort of lived like a hermit when he was away.  We were always warned not to go out alone, so I was afraid to, afraid that I would somehow find myself in danger.  Aside from the warnings though, I was crippled by how young I was, and how little confidence I had in myself. I grew up in Korea, and I learned a lot.  One day, I hope that I can take my children back there, to show my daughter the hospital where she was born, and the 11th floor apartment where she took her first steps.  I want to show her the park she first rode on the swings at and the river that runs through the center of the city, the one that we used to walk past in her stroller.  I want her to experience the sights and the smells and the people, and to appreciate that at one time, this was home. 

"Welcome to Colorful Daegu"

남산 위에 저 소나무 철갑을 두른 듯
바람서리 불변함은 우리 기상일세
가을 하늘 공활한데 높고 구름 없이
밝은 달은 우리 가슴 일편단심일세

"As the pine atop Namsan Peak stands firm, unchanged through wind and frost,
as if wrapped in armour, so shall our resilient spirit.
The Autumn skies are void and vast, high and cloudless;
the bright moon is like our heart, undivided and true."

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