Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Reunion with Day-ee-buh

There's something magical about meeting up with a close friend overseas. Despite having spent over five years of my life outside of the U.S., this rare type of meeting has only occurred a handful of times (all of which I can remember lucidly). And I can now add another to the list with my recent meeting with Dave Whitsett this past weekend. Dave's been living in Southeast Korea where he teaches English at an all boys high school. He's had a wonderful experience so far - a Korean co-teacher who has travelled the world, a well-furnished apartment, plenty of people to help with his Korean language study, and an enjoyable job. Still, since this is his first time outside of North America, it's quite a large change to be isolated from his first 26 years of life all of a sudden. So we were both delighted when it worked out for him to come visit me in Gangneung.

I think my mother-in-law was a bit nervous at first, in part because Dave is a vegetarian (pretty much unheard of in Korea other than for monks). As it turns out, even some of the staple dishes like kim-chi have some form of meat in them and so it made for some creative cooking. Despite badgering Dave repeatedly that it just wasn't right to go without meat (especially for a man), my in-laws all seemed to respect Dave's reasoning that he didn't want animals to suffer. I mean how can you argue with this reasoning when cute little Kong is running around?

As this was the first time I've had a friend visit me in Gangneung, I had to put my cultural wits to the test to navigate some interesting situations. Ever since high school, and through all my external world view changes, I have always treasured a heart-to-heart conversation as one of the most valuable things in life. Which is great, except that I have also long realized that these almost never occur when more than two people are present. In my mind, I had planned this past weekend as Dave and I just kind of sneaking out and doing our own thing for his visit. Unfortunately, I had underestimated how utterly rude that would be in Korean culture (much more taboo than kissing Joo in public). So, the trilemma of this past weekend:

1. Having rarely seen Dave in the past 8 years, my number one goal was to spend as much of our two days together alone in conversation.

2. Having never met one of my friends in home territory, my family wanted to spend as much time as possible around Dave and me.

3. Kiwi's best friend SangSu and Joo's cousin Gyu - both of whom I greatly respect and love being around - had made an effort to travel out to Gangneung to spend time with me this past weekend.

In the end, things worked out all right- I didn't get as much time with Dave as I would have liked and I think I stepped on a few cultural toes by the time I did intentionally block off for Dave, but we did engage in some riveting conversations as well as some meaningful family time.

Sangsu, who is in the Korean Navy and spends his days watching a large screen for any strange activity occurring near North Korean waters, had brought us a ddeok cake as a gift. It was a mountainous sculpture that included strawberry coconut rice balls, green herbal rice balls, and black bean/green pea rice cakes.

Afterwards, Dave and I used some nearby melons to teach the gang how to play chubby bunny (people take turns stuffing food in their mouths and saying "chubby bunny" and the person who can do the most without swallowing wins).

We also played ring toss with the ribbon from the ddeok cake, the knife that came with the cake (although I'm not sure exactly why you would need a knife with the little rice balls), and Kiwi's willing mouth.

By the time we got up the next morning, Changmonim had prepared a large vegetarian breakfast spread, thereby foiling my plans to sneak out early so as not to burden her with an extra meal.
One of the best parts about the weekend was how much I learned through everyone explaining things to Dave. I guess my extended family, understandably, assumes that I know most of the basics about Korean culture after being with Joo for the past five years, but there are lots of things I'm still unaware of. One example is the soup - sun dubu - that Changmonim made for the breakfast. I had always thought that sun dubu was a very spicy hot red pepper tofu soup, but it turns out that the original sun dubu is more plain and eloquently seasoned.

Since Dave had never set foot in the Pacific Ocean, we decided to hit the beach for a couple hours. Apparently, the two towels I had grabbed when leaving the hotel that morning were not both beach towels. Luckily, Dave is very adaptive.

One of the main differences between the Korean beach and the beaches I had been at in the U.S. and other countries, was that there was almost no one in the water here. The beach itself was packed, but no one (except us) was actually getting in aside from running down to the edge of the water and then screaming and running back up to the sand when each wave came. The restrictions were tighter too - there were buoys set up about 10 meters into the water and no one was allowed to go past them. This rule was enforced by teams of four lifeguards each, police tents with a pair of police in each tent, a police boat cruising back and forth repeatedly behind the buoys, a water patrol vehicle driving around the sand, and a loudspeaker that urged everyone to be safe. At one point, Dave was about 8 meters out and the lifeguards started shouting at him - "Hey boy!!!" I went over and asked in Korean if he was out too far and they just laughed and said, "No, we were bored. We just wanted to shout at him."

After our swim, Dave and I took a 5-kilometer walk around a nearby lake. Here's Dave smelling a Rose of Sharon, the Korean national plant.
All around the lake were statues depicting stories of Hong Gildong (you can read about him HERE), the Korean version of Robin Hood. I've never read the novel, but after seeing all the interesting statues, I'm intrigued now.

Imonim invited Dave and I over for a meal at her house on Saturday evening where we enjoyed another huge delicious vegetarian meal (I'm beginning to think I should become vegetarian again). The central food (if such a thing exists in a Korean meal) was a sweet potato casserole with black raspberry sauce drizzled over it.

The next morning, Changmonim prepared a meal of sweet potato stems, spring onion pancakes, shredded potatoes with sesame oil, and some yummy vegetable that I have no idea of the Korean or English name.

Dave amazed everyone, including myself, with how much Korean he had already learned within just five months of staying here in Korea. The boys were eager to help him add key words and phrases to his iPhone study list.

Speaking of mental battles (like figuring out how much to press for time alone with Dave), I spent a half hour trying to decide if it was okay to start this blog entry off with the picture of Dave and me meditating on the beach. I wondered if the fundamental Christians among my family and friends would be offended by the show of open-mindedness. On the other hand, my more liberal family and friends would be shocked that I would even consider "compromising my values" by censoring the picture. In the end, as meditation has played a major role in my spiritual journey over the last several years, and having just watched a video promoting trial-and-error, I decided to leave it in.

Sometimes I wonder if I waste too much time and energy deliberating over ways to appease the people in my life who hold strong views (on anything), but when I consider the relationships with some amazing people this has allowed me to preserve, I think it's worth it.


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