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This week's new video is a "Korean Phrases" episode. This series is for learning quick idioms and phrases in Korean. This week we'll be learning about an idiom that originally comes from China and the Chinese language. But it's still useful to know in Korean. And this week we'll learn about the idiom 백문불여일견.
Even if you don't use any of these idioms in this series when speaking, you might find them written in books, or hear someone use them when speaking.
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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest this month. The TNI editors gave it the very helpful title, “The True Danger of the North Korea Crisis: It Could Cost American Its Allies.” That is exactly right. If the US strikes North Korea without getting the consent of South Korea and Japan, they will exit the alliance. Why stay when your ally jeopardizes potentially millions of your citizens and doesn’t even get your permission? And this would have a huge demonstration effect on other US allies too. Now you know that Trump thinks you’re expendable. Why would you stay?
So to me, that is the big question going forward: Will Trump even bother to call the South Koreans and Japanese before he strikes? He couldn’t be bothered to appoint an ambassador to South Korea, and presidenting is pretty hard. So hey, why bother? Fox and Friends is on…
The full essay is below the jump:
Tough North Korea rhetoric from the US administration continues. Major South Korean media increasingly talk as if US airstrikes are likely, and the expert community seems increasingly resigned to them as well. Despite constant criticism of his incendiary language, US President Donald Trump continues to suggest that major action against North Korea is imminent – most recently by suggesting that we are now in a period of ‘calm before the storm.’
I have argued in these pages that such strikes would be an enormous risk. We do not know what the North’s redlines for retaliation against such a strike are. We do not know if the strikes would so unnerve the North’s elites that war was next, that they would respond with enormous force, possibly including nuclear weapons. An expert study of this scenario suggests appalling casualty numbers. We also do not know what China’s thresholds are for intervention. China is treaty-bound to help North Korea if it is attacked. It may not, but if a US airstrike against North Korea spirals into a major conflict, then the likelihood of Chinese intervention rises.
It is also worth noting that even if the Chinese and North Koreans do not respond to airstrikes, North Korea will almost certainly deploy human shields as soon as the bombs start to fall. And the North has so many targets that the US would like to hit, that any ‘airstrike’ would look a lot more like a major air campaign and not a quick ‘surgical strike,’ as in Syria earlier this year. An air campaign against sites with human shields means a high civilian death toll. The North Koreans will not make this easy for us at all.
White House officials, including most importantly Secretary of Defense James Mattis, continue to suggest that diplomacy is the preferred outcome. And there are options to continue to buy us time against the North Korean nuclear and missile programs: missile defense, sanctions, continuing to cajole China to push North Korea harder, and so on. Nevertheless, the pressure to something dramatic regarding North Korea is rising. If war is inevitable – it is not, but for the sake of the argument – it is better to fight now, before they have more weapons, and before those weapons can more evidently strike the continental United States. Even Kim Young-Sam, South Korea’s president at the time of the 1994 nuclear crisis, has apparently retrospectively regretted his decision not to strike then.
President Kim’s veto of the strike at the time blocked US action. This question is now returning as Trump raises the rhetorical heat on Pyongyang. And this time, it involves Japan too, as it is now in range in range of North Korean missiles, and likely nuclear missiles. Japan has already practiced civil defense drills. But if the US were today, as in 1994, to extend an, albeit unspoken, veto to South Korea, and now Japan too, war is unlikely. They do not want it.
Americans may feel incensed at having to get ‘permission’ from others to act. Trump particularly is unlikely to feel such commitments. And hawks may suggest that because North Korea can range the US, we are threatened too and therefore no longer require allied permission. Nevertheless there are strong national interest reasons, if not moral ones, to once again solicit allied approval.
First, it is South Koreans and Japanese who will bear the brunt of any North Korean retaliation for a US strike. Yes, North Korea can, perhaps, now strike the US homeland, but the North’s ability to devastate the US is significantly lower than its ability to damage South Korea and Japan. If we are going to drag South Korea and Japan, unwantedly, into a war that could result in hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of their casualties, plus irradiated blast zones, refugees, and the possibility of state collapse, we should at least get their permission. It would be staggeringly immoral, an astonishing act of callousness in American history, if US action led to nuclear use against South Korea and/or Japan without their permission. The British referred to this problem in the early Cold War as ‘annihilation without representation’ – the Americans might go to war with the Soviets over the heads of NATO, but the NATO states would be destroyed in the cross-fire.
Second, if this normative argument is unpersuasive, then consider the impact on US national interest if allies around the world saw the US sacrifice, or risk sacrificing, South Korea and Japan without even soliciting their approval. This would end pretensions that US hegemony is liberal or benign. It would destroy allied trust that the US considers their interests too. It would appear as if the US were using allies instrumentally as shields or buffers to absorb enemy fire. That is akin to why the Soviet Union did not leave eastern Europe in the late 1940s – to serve as a buffer against the West and a locus for the next war, rather than inside the USSR itself. This was yet one more reason for the Warsaw Pact states to exit the alliance as soon as they could. It is similarly likely that America’s alliance system would collapse if the US risks major, perhaps nuclear, conflict without allied consent but fought on their soil. Trump’s advisors likely realize this; does the president?
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English Speaking Tip: Learn How to Keep the Conversation Going
I’m sure you’ve had this experience before. You’re at a party, at school, or at a family event. You’re talking to someone and then you start to have nothing to talk about. It can be a bad feeling, and I know that it most definitely makes me nervous. I’m sure it’s the same for you. Here are some English speaking tips to help you keep the conversation going. Learn how to be an excellent conversational partner and avoid that awkward silence!
Are you ready for some conversation awesome? Let’s go!
Go Back to an Earlier Topic
If your conversation is dying, you can keep the conversation going by returning to an earlier topic. You can say, “Earlier, you said _____. Tell me more about that.” This lets the listener know that you are a good listener yourself and interested in what they have to say.
Give Some Details
Expand what you say by giving details, rather than just a short, direct answer to a question. For example, if someone asks you about your vacation, don’t say, “It was great!” and leave it at that. Tell them a few highlights. “It was great! I hadn’t seen my family in a year, so I spent most of my time catching up with everyone.” This isn’t so long that someone who isn’t interested will get bored, and it opens up new areas for questions if the listener wants to know more.
Offer Some Examples
Support what you say with details and examples. Just as in writing, you sometimes need to “prove” what you say. You can use phrases in speaking that you use in writing. Some examples include:
“In my opinion, . . .”
“I think . . .”
“For example/ instance . . .”
“To elaborate, . . .”
Summarize the Main Points
Summarizing what you hear is a great way to confirm your understanding of the conversation. This is something native speakers do, especially at work or if some type of commitment is being made. To summarize a conversation, state any important facts or information as well as any agreements that have been made. For example, “I’ll email the report to you by 5:00 this Friday.” This short sentence checks several details: the report will be emailed, not printed; the due date this Friday, not next Friday; and you have until the end of the day to complete it. If anything in your summary is incorrect, the listener should correct you, “Oh, don’t rush; you have until Monday to finish it.”
If you’re not sure that you heard something correctly, you can say,
“If I understand correctly, you. . .”
“So, what you’re saying is. . .”
The person you’re talking to will confirm or deny what you say.
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I like to play armchair dream interpreter from time to time when my dreams are full of layers. I often tell myself after a particularly interesting dream that I should be writing these down for future reference. Partially because it would be interesting to look back on them and reflect. Perhaps also some of them could be reimagined as stories to write about. Or, by writing them down I can look back on them and recognize that, to no one but myself, they weren’t very interesting.
Last night’s dream could end up being of the latter quality if only because it features several recurring themes that are more interesting to me than to you because of their history and for their recurrence.
The dream begins in the kitchen of my grandmother (we called her “Nanny”) and grandfather (“Poppy”). This is the first recurrence as many of my dreams tend to occur in places of my youth. Most prominently, those places are the house I grew up in in suburban central New Jersey and my grandparent’s house about 15 minutes away by car.
But, neither grandparent ever appears in this particular dream. Instead, one of my brothers and I are in there and we each smoke a cigarette, a habit I quit over five years ago but which seems to pop up from time to time in my dreams to this day. I have smoked with my dead mother, I have smoked alone. I have smoked and felt guilty about it, I have started to smoke and then thought against it.
We finish our cigarettes and, soon, my father comes into the kitchen. In the dream, I am conscious of how I shouldn’t be smoking, and of how noticeable the smell of smoke will be since we had just finished. But, that I smoked or whether my father notices it or not goes unspoken in the dream. Instead, I noticed something on, I think, his eyebrow. It could be a cut, it could be a bandage covering a cut, it could be a piece of tape. It was much clearer in the dream than it is in my memory but that is where we are as I recall a dream I had around 5 a.m. at 8 a.m.
While examining whatever happens to be on my father’s eyebrow, he comments that I should go into the dining room, adjacent to the kitchen in my grandparent’s house (it should be noted, in these dreams recalling places of my childhood, layouts just as often as not are different than what they are in real life. Yet, more often than not, when I have dreamed about my grandparent’s house, the layout is actually pretty faithful to reality. That could be a fun one for any armchair interpreters to interpret. Have at it). This, actually, I cannot confirm. He might have told me to go to the dining room, or I might have just found myself heading out there after examining my father’s eyebrow. In either case, when I do go there, I see that someone (possibly my other brother, but I cannot be sure) is finishing up dancing with someone who in my dream I accept as an old family friend who is considerably older in the dream than I remember and that I need to be careful of her frailty when I inevitably take over the dancing, which I do. In my memory of the dream now, I feel the closest connection to reality could be with a friend of my other grandmother who I would occasionally drive to the supermarket in the late 2000’s, along with that grandmother, and who sadly died at 87 in her retirement home and who was not found until a couple days later on the floor because she lived alone. It had been believed at the time she was trying to do something like change a lightbulb, had a heart attack and then collapsed. She had had a rough time of things years before, as she had become estranged from her only daughter, who at that point was her sole living family member. She might not have always been perfect in how she went about things in her life, but she didn’t deserve to go the way she did, alone.
Anyway, when I do take over for who I assume is my brother, the person that seemed a moment ago extremely frail seems to speak with a clarity that belies her advanced age. She talks about something or another, small talk that I cannot now recall and then we conclude or simple dance.
I move into the living room, where I see my other grandmother (which, we called “grandma,” to help differentiate her from the grandmother we called “Nanny,” the one which actually lived in the house in my dream. To make it even more confusing, they were sisters. Just go with it), who is noticeably frail in her old age, sitting on the couch, waiting for me to dance with her. She, like her friend I danced with in the dining room a moment ago, has been dead for a number of years. But, this is not something that occurs to me in the dream. It usually doesn’t.
I lift her up and she is mostly dead weight. She is able to stabilize herself somewhat under her shuffling feet and we slowly move toward the entryway between the living room and dining room, which she places her hand on the side as to further stabilize herself, and we begin to dance. It is a very slow dance, one that feels like something a five-year-old might perform with an old relative. What it lacks in rhythm it makes up for in sweetness.
This goes on for a few moments until several people pass through the dining room, into the living room and out the front door. Without much explanation in the dream I am aware these are some relatives whom I have lost connection with over the years, whom have come for a visit after a long time, and whom I seem to be familiar enough with to not be surprised by their presence. One of them, a girl in her early 20s, announces herself to me as “Jane,” a person in my dream I recall as having been very, very young the last time I saw her and whom I am surprised to see has all grown up. Of course, as you might guess, I have no relatives named Jane. But, there have been a number of relatives whom I lost touch with over the years, and whom I was surprised to see all grown up, either in pictures or in person. Over the years, my immediate family seemed to lose connection with a lot of family members, extended family, etc. for reasons too personal to go into on a public forum that can be seen around the world. I am sure my story is far from unique.
And that is where the dream ends. Slowly dancing with my mostly-incapacitated grandmother who has been dead since 2012 after dancing with presumably a friend of hers who has been dead even longer, while relatives from another reality pass through the house and make themselves, after sneaking a cheeky cigarette with my brother in the kitchen and checking on a curious smudge of some sort on my father’s face.
To me, because of my connections to the people and places in the dream, many which have continued to pop back up time and time and time again after years and years away from them, there is more emotional connection than for anyone reading this that has no idea who these people are, who I am, has no visual cues or history to connect anything to. Which means, it’s perfect for people to put their spins on what it all means, and whether or not it means anything or is simply a mishmash of memories that all happens to smack into each other in my mind in the middle of the night. Have fun with it.
JPDdoesROK is a former news editor/writer in New Jersey, USA, who served a one-year tour of duty in Dadaepo/Jangnim, Saha-gu, Busan from February 2013 to February 2014. He is now a teacher in Gimhae.
The post Genderfluid in Korea–Anonymous in an Uncertain World appeared first on the3WM.
Editor’s note: The writer requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. Any responses can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
A Twitter post on my wall by a past admirer: “Guess this is why you ignored my advances!” A shared link to an article about the confessions of a genderfluid Korean teenager. An influx of tweets into my inbox. Tweets of disgust and hate and disappointment.
I wake up drenched in sweat. The dampness sends chills down my spine.
Then I remember that I don’t even have a Twitter account. Us digital kids and our digital nightmares.
It’s been nearly two years since I came out as genderfluid on this site. For the first few days after my story went up, I got high on the adrenaline from my first real rebellion, though I did request my anonymity. Later, as the views ticked up, I admit having felt a bit paranoid about the possibility of an accidental reveal.
Twenty-two months passed, and my life went on without anyone I know giving a darn. Guess that went better than I expected.
One impeached president and three nuke tests later, I can’t say things have changed for the better. Gay marriage is still illegal. Women’s Rights? LGBTQ awareness? Meh. At this point, I’m just hoping nothing’s deteriorating.
In a more personal sense, however, I suppose some aspects about me have changed — hairstyle, favorite movies, etc. — as it is for any other teen.
Some moments of stupidity, like that time when I, on one particularly depressed evening, tried to come out to my mother over the phone. I rambled on as if I were inebriated, struggling to put together proper sentences to describe how I consider my gender identity. “I… am not so sure… if I consider myself a…”
You would’ve thought I said, “Mama, I killed a man,” from her tone of disapproval. Her barrage of words prevented me from explaining further: You were born in an academic household without many hyper-feminine relatives. I myself don’t wear makeup, nor have I taught you to. I know you like boys, and you need to have very strong attraction towards girls to define yourself as a transgender. Thus, you’re simply a confused tomboy, and…
Along with that connection to family came a phase of self-doubt about whether the fruit I bit into was of knowledge or deception. Was I really genderfluid or was it merely a series of acquired traditionally-masculine traits? Was I simply struggling to climb the social ladder by proving myself worthy in activities traditionally associated with both genders? Did I fundamentally seek to receive validation from the cutthroat patriarchal family members and to make up for my mother not having any sons?
With such questions in mind, I took time off from my own concerns to tune in to what the others have to say on the topic, observing society’s views while trying to dismiss my own personal experiences and feelings as a member of the LGBTQ community.
“LGBTQ is one of the roots of evil in society. To prevent confusion and inefficiency, they need to be educated in order to turn them back to the natural state,” one classmate claimed during a group discussion in sociology class. A few others said that they were “against” gay people. Thankfully, such strong antipathy is starting to be considered as extreme even in Korea, as I saw the jaws of some students drop incredulously. There were also generous opinions that showed unconditional support, though not from our Korean classroom:
“I can’t believe gay marriage is illegal in Korea,” a German teen said in disbelief when the matter was brought up for discussion among a group of international students participating in a templestay. Her enthusiastic support gave me a bit more hope for the future. “My goodness, are we not all equal beings deserving of the same rights?,” she continued. Oh, my dear friend, if only the future was as bright as you are.
However, I found that most students, especially in Korea, were somewhere in between–having doubt about the repressive old values, yet still afraid to look into themselves. Back in my high school classroom: “Perhaps the ‘girl crush’ that we talk about is an indicator of how most people are on the polar ends of the gender/sexuality spectrum,” another classmate boldly claim. Hearing that, I felt the shame of having generalized my peers as narrow-minded and conservative; my preconceptions might’ve caused my sense of isolation in terms of gender issues. But then, I still didn’t know anyone around me having the same identit…
“To tell you the truth, I don’t consider myself a girl,” a friend declares during a private chat.
Life’s funny like that. Just as I was trying to stop focusing solely on my own gender identity, a friend reveals her experiences and the hardships she is going through (or zirs and ze, though the friend doesn’t care for pronouns). And through the confession, I see my own self still not telling anyone in real life, still filled with self-doubt that I’m try to bury under thoughts about anything other than myself.
“How do you see yourself, then?” I ask.
“And you don’t see yourself at all as a girl?”
I wanted to ask why not. But the words of my mother, resonated in my head: “Why can’t you see yourself as a tomboy?” Nor could I bring myself to say, “Me neither.” All that came out of my mouth were the words I wanted to hear, if I were to ever reveal the fluidity of my gender to someone I know in real life.
“Okay. It must’ve taken you some guts to tell me. Thanks for sharing. I hope you’re not hard on yourself because of what others define you as.”
Confession time. Even after talking with the friend, I still don’t plan on revealing my own gender to anyone in real life. The chances of my bringing up the topic during a family meal is almost nonexistent now. I have, however, learned to fear not the nightmares that had stemmed from paranoia and self-doubt because, after all the different opinions I’ve encountered, I’m sure some people would be on my side. Most importantly, I did nothing wrong. Yet I am reluctant when it comes to letting others know.
Such is life. Such is my life. No need for pity; I do show myself in every aspect. I try to get my voice heard. I break some traditional gender roles. Still, it will take much more time and stronger motivations to get me to proudly present the fluidity of my gender.
I’ve fantasized about my family replying to my “I’m genderfluid,” with benign nonchalance, as if what I said was of no more importance than my preference for strawberry ice cream over chocolate. Now I’m just living on a prayer that there will be a day when being a gender and/or sexual minority wouldn’t overpower other innumerable qualities people see in a human entity.
I also hope for more basic acceptance, not only for the LGBTQ but for all human identity, conditions and characteristics that are currently being misunderstood and blindly criticized. Until then, being the coward I am, the best I can do is to let my agony out through these written pieces and sometimes submit them under the cloak of anonymity.
Seeing many girls around me delve into the intricate world of cosmetics and replace meals with weight loss smoothies (which is an entirely different problem on its own) and, most notably, start dating adoring boys, I feel even more left out than before. While I am content being single for now, I worry about my future. What if the ones I’m attracted to see me as a mere pal than a partner? Would I get friendzoned because I don’t wear cosmetics in a nation where the “all-natural” look wouldn’t take an average-looking person very far? I take fair care of myself, but I do an awful job at coming across as “feminine.” And for many, my desire to wear the pants (though I am willing to share them) in the relationship would be a turn-off.
While finding love is hard for anyone, the potential of perpetual loneliness does scare me. And I’m more concerned that I would start denying or blaming my gender identity for problems in relationships, or the lack thereof.
In terms of other parts of my life, however, I’m fairly content. I can’t say fluidity is a blessing but it certainly isn’t a curse either. Plus, my rational self tells me that whether it be work or romance, it will be up to my own efforts to determine the course of events. With that in mind, I’ll continue my journey forward, uncertain about the effects my fluidity will have on my life and others.
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The post Genderfluid in Korea–Anonymous in an Uncertain World appeared first on the3WM.
I had gotten on the wrong boat.
I purchased a ticket to Binjindo—the most famous of the islands of Korea’s Hangryeo Marine National Park–but instead boarded a kind of a multi-island sea bus transporting the venerable inhabitants to the villages dotting a handful of the other islands, where they scratched out a living from farming, the odd bit of tourism, or whatever the sea managed to provide. And as it was the last boat of the day, there would be no getting to Bijindo.
Instead I took in a deep lungful of the clean, salty air and reminded myself that many of my best travels have been the result of mishaps, happy mistakes that forced me to veer off the path. Surely Bijindo wasn’t the only island worth visiting. The hand of the universe seemed to be nudging me in another direction. Who was I to push back?
I reminded myself that many of my best travels have been the result of mishaps, happy mistakes that forced me to veer off the path.
After several stops we arrived at our boat’s final island, Yongchondo, where I was told that I could find some accommodation. I strode off the pier and into the village of Hodu (“walnut”), a cluster of small structures huddled together on an isthmus between two main landmasses. The houses were squat and sturdy—uber-quaint hanok and more homely, modern abodes–clumped together and hunkered down against the relentless island elements. Narrow footpaths acted as the village’s streets, and aside from one van parked at the harbor side, there wasn’t a car in sight,. This probably had to do with the fact that, save a single shore road heading out of the village, there was really nowhere to drive.
Soon I found Hodu’s one place of commerce, a house with a hand-drawn sign reading: “Convenience Store. Minbak.” I roused the owner–a woman who sported the tight perm ubiquitous to the Korean ajumma. Even in her late 50’s, she was surely one of the youngest residents of the village. Korean islands, it seemed, were a very geriatric affair.
The woman led me out the door and escorted me to my minbak (a kind of no-frills homestay). She peppered me with the usual questions as we walked (“Where are you from?” “Are you married?”), and I politely lobbed back my well-rehearsed answers. She was surprised to have a customer in late February. I got the impression that Hodu managed to escape the tourist footprint even at the height of the summer season. In fact, other than my accommodation, I only saw one other minbak in the whole village.
“Do foreigners ever come here?” I asked.
“No. Never,” she said, laughing. “You’re the first I’ve seen.”
After unloading my bag into my minbak, I set off, winding my way through the narrow alleys of Hodu. The little homes were nearly all painted white, though the wind and saltwater air had done their best to strip away the coating, revealing scrapes and splotches of grey concrete underneath. The more prosperous places had tiled roofs of blood red or bright blue, while the simpler huts had to settle for corrugated metal.
As quaint is it may have appeared, Hodu was still a working village, with implements of marine labor piled and stacked up in any available space. This usually took the form of thick grey ropes, coiled like gnarled worms, or giant, clunky styrofoam floats. In between some of the houses were small plots of cultivated land, home to sprouting green even in late winter. These little fields were fenced in by low walls made up of stacked stones, lending the village a rugged, almost medieval look. For a moment I felt like I could be on the coast of Normandy, New England, or even Greece. It seems that old sea villages share some of the same characteristics world over. They’re often stony and tough, obstinate places standing in defiance of the punishing elements that surround them.
Like their Japanese neighbors, Koreans have a taste for seaweed of all kinds. February must be prime harvest time for miyeok, the darkish kelp served up in birthday soups across the peninsula, since all around the village the locals were gathering, washing, and drying the stuff on the ground or on racks. It was a miyeok explosion, with the skin of the sea plant hanging from rope lines everywhere, blowing in the ocean wind like ragged clumps of hair. As I made my way to the harbor, I spied an old man hanging up huge strands of the stuff. As I approached, he stopped his work and met my eyes.
I offered a shallow bow, as well as a formal greeting, but he just cocked his head and stared, taking me in with an inscrutable gaze. It would be a stretch to call these islanders friendly, but they weren’t exactly hostile, either. They just had no idea what to make of me.
I left the village behind me, strolling up the tiny coast road, whose surface was in disrepair, cracking and crumbling from erosion and disuse. On one side was a wall of rock topped with trees; on the other, the sea.
As I made my way up the road I came upon an abandoned school in a clearing below. The dirt lot in front of the empty building was littered with piles of rubbish, making for a thoroughly ugly scene. I was suddenly saddened by this school. It had been made useless by time, abandoned by the students themselves, who grew up and sensibly emigrated off the island in pursuit of a modern life. Now there were no young people left. The building had outlived its usefulness and now just sat as a neglected, hollowed-out museum of trash.
The young people left long ago. Who will be around after the old are gone? Is it possible that much of this country’s rural heart will just be abandoned, left for nature to reclaim?
I’ve traveled extensively in the Korean countryside, and it is shocking to consider just how aged the rural population really is. Children only appear as visitors, while the local residents are deep elderly–all hunched backs and lined faces. The young people left long ago. Who will be around after the old are gone? Is it possible that much of this country’s rural heart will just be abandoned, left for nature to reclaim?
As I approached the island’s second village–a larger settlement lacking the cozy splendor of Hodu–I noticed another, even smaller road, leading up inland to my left. A sign reading “POW Camp” pointed up that way, so I turned off the main track and hiked up the rise, passing through fields of high grass home to a family of bleating black goats. At the top was a clearing with another sign, indicating the physical location of the camp. During the Korean War POW, camps were set up on many of these southern islands, as water makes for the best guarantee against escape. As I scanned the clearing around me, I could make out little remaining infrastructure of the camp itself, other than a half collapsed wall and a round depression in front of me that had served as the foundation of a building of sorts. These ruins looked much older than sixty years old and did little to impress, since there was so little of them to take in. Still, they got my imagination rolling. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been the first foreigner on this island since the last American soldier left in 1953.
I made my way back to my minbak in Hodu, but this time over the spine of the island. I followed the road, which was now a dirt track, up toward the main peak of the island, into Yongchodo’s deep pine woods. As I pressed on, I heard the sudden snapping of branches to my right, catching a glimpse of a deer bounding off into the underbrush. I had seen deer on a couple of other occasions on the peninsula, but still felt my heart stop.
Taking in larger wildlife is a rare thing in Korea; any time it happens the moment must be savored. That’s exactly what I did, and it paid off, for just five minutes later I scared up another, this one a buck, and pretty massive by Korean standards. He blazed down the side of the mountain in a frenzied crackle, crushing any brush in his path. By the end of my little ascent I had stumbled across two more – more deer in one hour than I had seen in more than a decade in the country. And the best part was, since climbing up from the second village, I hadn’t come across a single human being. I’m sure they would have just gawked at me anyway.
The road soon dissolved into a hiking path, which itself disappeared under the cover of the forest. The only thing marking the ascent was a series of orange tape pieces tied to the tree branches and shrubs, stubbornly visible in the dissolving light. I pressed on, sweating hard under my thick winter jacket and fleece, almost running up the mountain in a race with the sinking sun.
Soon I found myself at the top, where I gasped to catch my breath and took in a partial view through the trees. I bundled up against the piercing winds and looked out to sea, where I noticed a squall some miles out, a black cloud streaking into the churning waves. The storm obscured the sun, whose final rays arced through the fringes of the dark mass in incandescent blasts. Beyond that I could see Tongyeong, with its fat mountain and string of cable cars, and in the other direction, right there across across the water, the twin rises of Bijindo, which would just have to wait until next time.
It was a rather strange place to be practicing my fledgling Korean skills: atop a volcano on the southeastern coast of Iceland.
We were slowly making our way across the glacier covering Eyjafjallajökull, a subglacial volcano that made news in 2010 after an eruption that halted air traffic in Europe for over a week. My top priority as lead trip guide was ensuring the safety of the guests, followed closely by ensuring their happiness at all reasonable costs. One of my guests, a waifish woman nearing 60, realized she had left her sunglasses roughly a half mile back up the trail at our lunch spot. I was not entirely sure I could guarantee the safety of this particular hiker, considering her questionable physical state and less than ideal snow-hiking gear, but I figured I could at least make her happy. After assuring her it was no inconvenience, I set off back up the snowy incline to look for her glasses.
As I came upon our lunch spot, I saw a group of roughly 20 middle-aged Asian men and women, packs set off to their sides, casually munching on the pre-packaged sandwiches sold in all the Icelandic convenient stores, and I couldn’t help but notice a small Korean flag patch stitched onto the small pocket of one of the bright green packs. The scene struck me as a bit odd, as I had not encountered this many ajummas and ajeossis on a hiking trip since seeing the stone Buddha of Seokguram in Gyeongju several years before, but as Iceland has become a favorite destination for travelers from around the globe, I was not entirely surprised.
Their shock quickly became evident however, as I confidently stepped in front of them and offered the standard Korean greeting when meeting someone new. They nearly choked on the bland sandwiches they had been silently eating.
I whisked through the introduction and abruptly halted at the edge of my knowledge, not having sufficient vocabulary to explain what I was doing there. After a few back and forth hand gestures, they concluded I was looking for sunglasses and leapt up to help in the search. Despite the unexpected search party, it was clear the sunglasses were gone for good. At that point, I didn’t care so much about the glasses as the fact that I had spoken Korean and actually communicated a message beyond, “Hello, I’m from America,” in Iceland of all places.
As I had recently moved away from Korea, my thoughts often drifted back unprovoked.
Much has changed since that unexpected encounter in the wilds of Iceland, and despite living in Korea for nearly two years, I have come to think of it as my defining Korean travel experience. It combines in a bizarre yet revealing manner the way in which I am always attempting to hold on to where I have just left instead of being where I am. As I had recently moved away from Korea, my thoughts often drifted back unprovoked. Instead of attempting the utterly baffling but beautiful Icelandic language, I immersed myself in the Korean language via audiobooks as I completed a weekly six hour solo drive surrounded by the glaciers and volcanos of Iceland. Although it’s rather embarrassing to admit, my Korean language skills increased more in 3 months in Iceland than during all my time living on the peninsula. This phenomenon was a simple continuation of a trend: as when I lived in Korea, my now wife grew tired of my nostalgia-tinted yearning for the countryside of Ohio. I was once again attempting to go back to where I had just been.
I’m still not entirely sure how I found myself living in the Land of the Morning Calm. It’s a country about which I was comically ignorant. I landed with a suitcase full of teacher-appropriate clothes, several bags of coffee, and multiple tubes of toothpaste, as I had heard Korean toothpaste did not work and I didn’t think I would be able to find coffee there, both utterly false assumptions for which my wife still makes fun of me.
Beyond the common trifecta of many an ESL teacher: Travel, Student Loans, and Teaching Experience, all I’ve really been able to muster by way of explanation is the common affliction of wanderlust. As a child of the American Midwest Pastoral, my earliest memories are filled with the gently flowing creeks and jade-colored cornstalks of Ohio, memories that never felt more acute than while living in Korea. I was never quite satisfied to be there however, and I scratched my itchy feet with books, the only way I could until a more permanent retreat was possible.
Nowadays, I find myself from time to time disregarding my present situation in Southern California and thinking rather wistfully of Korea and Iceland both. My wife gently reminds me how good I have it when she scolds me for not wearing sunscreen in mid-February. Indeed, I’ve yet to master the subtle talent of contentment in being where I am.
Each of my moves has taken me farther away from Korea, yet simultaneously has brought me closer to it.
Each of my moves has taken me farther away from Korea, yet simultaneously has brought me closer to it. I can now drive 20 minutes in any direction, except south because that way lies a beach, and enjoy the best Korean food outside of the peninsula. I regularly take my car down the street to a mechanic shop my wife and I simply call, “the ajeossis,” as it’s run by two brothers who left Korea some twenty years ago. These little reminders of my time in Korea have gently worn away the sharp edges of restlessness and my wanderlust has been pushed aside by the domesticating influence of having a wife, a development I’ve found to be surprisingly welcome.
I have also slowly grown more comfortable with the idea that I may not be moving anywhere exotic and unexplored for quite some time, if ever again. As more time passes since I left Korea and returned to my own familiar country, the more content I’ve become taking imaginary trips, fed by the memories I’ve collected throughout my global travels, and sometimes aided by a scalding hot bowl of kimchi jjigae.
If you’ve been in Korea for a stretch of five or 10 or 20 years, then you’ve grown familiar with the North Korean situation. Just traveling around the peninsula gives one a good sense of the status quo with military guard posts along the shorelines, uniformed soldiers often in public places, the heavily militarized DMZ, and the rather frequent news regarding all manner of North Korean activities. Recently, as any long-termer can tell you–if they even need to–things have ratcheted up, the sabers rattling a little louder, the brinkmanship going a little further, the foot to the floor in both trucks.
Undoubtedly, Kim Jong-un has been on a testing streak, seemingly bent on setting new records while dwarfing his father and grandfather. Both the number and magnitude of these tests has increased, drawing attention from far and near.
Moreover, the ever-increasing missile tests now seem to make the U.S. mainland a reachable target. This too has increased tensions near and far.
And, of course, there is President Donald Trump who has not refrained from engaging in bombast that might make North Korean propaganda experts envious if not amused. From saying that the U.S. might have to “totally destroy North Korea” and “rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime” to “they won’t be around much longer” and “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” Trump has gone all-in rhetorically. And on October 5, at a meeting with senior military leaders, Trump referred to a “calm before the storm,” prompting reporters to ask for elaboration. “You’ll find out,” the president said. Not exactly comforting language, especially for those on the peninsula. Days later on October 10, two U.S. B-1B bombers flew a nighttime training mission over the peninsula accompanied, first, by South Korean F-15k fighters and, later, by Japanese fighter jets in what was reported to be the first nighttime mission with both Korean and Japanese militaries involved.
Then, on October 16, U.S. and ROK forces commenced the large-scale Maritime Counter Special Operations Exercise (MCSOFEX) just as the USS Ronald Reagan strike group arrived and the nuclear-powered, cruise missile-armed USS Michigan submarine sat in the southern port of Busan with a “decapitation” team of Navy Seals allegedly aboard. The exercise runs until Friday. Days earlier, the U.S. Navy confirmed that the Los Angeles-attack class submarine USS Tucson had entered the port of Jinhae on Jeju Island but that it had also left for an unknown destination.
Meanwhile, things have been unusually quiet up North since its launch of a ballistic missile over Japan mid-September. Many watchers expected the North to conduct some sort of test–nuclear and/or missile–around the October 10 anniversary of the founding of its Workers Party. Nothing took place. It’s widely known that these U.S.-ROK military exercises (aka war games) antagonize the North with what could easily be interpreted as plans for an imminent invasion. Combined with Trump’s repeated confrontational rhetoric, Kim cannot be sitting idly by dining on Kobe steak, sipping champagne and smoking cigars, while exercises ramp up. On Saturday, the KCNA called MCSOFEX a “reckless act of war maniacs,” and the media has reported that North Korean vehicles transporting missiles have been moving. And some amusing propaganda fliers arrived in Seoul over the weekend depicting Trump as a crazy man and mad dog being terminated (torn open and apart in the case of the dog) by the North.
Further, over the past few days, a couple noteworthy statements have come out of the U.S. First, Secretary of State Tillerson said the U.S. would continue diplomatic efforts “until the first bomb drops.” Of course this must seen in the wake of earlier comments made by Trump while Tillerson was visiting China in which Trump tweeted, “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful secretary of state, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” Second, retired Army General Barry McCaffery asserted that Trump’s bluster has the U.S. “sliding toward war by next summer.”
Now, of course, some cooler heads over here contend it’s deja vu all over again. Keep on keeping on. And a slew of experts say it’s not in Kim’s interest to start a war that would very likely mean the end of the country and regime his grandfather and father sustained for more than 60 years.
Perhaps we can all take comfort in that. But with that comfort comes the knowledge that we have two capricious men–one young and one old–who are one mistake or miscalculation away from starting a catastrophic war.Note: There is a print link embedded within this post, please visit this post to print it.