Happy Children’s Day! Part One

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The weather is absolutely perfect for Children’s Day. It’s sunny and warm and the sky is a deep blue. It’s the kind of weather that lets a person be caught off-guard at crucial moments.

I look awesome. Two months ago, I saw the most amazing boots in a shop window. They’re black Doc Martens with tiny flowers on them. I wanted them so much, but was put off by the 200,000 won ($200) price tag. That’s a lot of galbi dinners to give up all at once.

“But what would I wear them with?” I asked my friend Shauna somewhere around the tenth time I made her stop and gaze at them with me.

“Sabrina,” she said, quite seriously, “you’ll wear them with everything.”

So, I finally gave in and handed over my won to ABC Mart in exchange for the coolest boots I’m ever likely to own. And on this beautiful day, I decide to wear them because the flowers seem spring-like and cheerful.

We take the subway to the Chungyecheon to see the festivities. We walk down by the river, attracted by multi-coloured streamers fluttering in the breeze. Families are everywhere, out enjoying the day together. There are so many people to look at, it would be fair to say that I’m not watching where I’m going.

I see Shauna’s face first: her eyes widening, her mouth open in surprise.

Then, I feel something under my thick-soled boots as I step down. In the middle of a stride, I can’t even seem to stop myself as the child starts screaming.

Looking down, I see a very small Korean child under my left boot. I jump back and the child pulls itself up, screaming for it’s mother.

“Omma!”

A young mother rushes to her child and I stand with my weight still pulled off my left foot. My eyes follow them and my mouth hangs open. I can’t move.

“I-I’m sorry, ” I say, lamely. “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

I want to get down on my knees and rub my hands together the way my students do when they break the rules, chanting sorry over and over again. Only, I intend to be completely sincere.

The mother is holding the crying toddler, but she nods and smiles at me, “Ok, ok.”

I nod back slowly, wanting to do something more. She moves away from me and I wonder if I’ve given this child a new fear of Westerners.

I turn to Shauna and I can see that her shoulders are shaking. As we walk away, she laughs harder. She turns to me finally and says, “Happy Children’s Day.”

Read More: Alex Gould, Legend

Or Read Happy Children’s Day Part Two

And follow me on Twitter: @SabrinaNemis

The Art of Getting Lost: Jeju-Style

We get a phone call around dinnertime from Robert’s dad. They want to know where we are. Actually, they want to know where they are, but they’ll settle for knowing our location and having something to work toward.

We’ve been expecting a call all day. Paul and Bob took off on rented scooters to the other side of Jeju Island, Korea, mid-morning, without taking down the name of our hotel or the city we’re staying in. They know we’re on the South coast, on the other side of the volcano, but that’s about it.

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Robert and I wandered around all day. It’s October, but it still feels like summer. There aren’t many tourists around and we are free to walk without jostling old men or tripping over children. It’s been sunny all day and my skin is warm with a light sunburn.

It’s been the calmest day of our trip so far. Three days ago, we took the train – standing room only – from Seoul to Busan. Our two days there involved riding down the street on an office chair and a terrifying taxi ride backward down a freeway. Yesterday, we flew to Jeju hungover and tired.

* * *

At the Jeju airport, we get on a bus that drives around for half an hour before the driver makes us get off in the middle of a deserted residential area. Despite being on a street lined with homes and silver KIAs, there isn’t a sound to be heard.

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It’s Chuseok, possibly the biggest holiday in Korea, and families gather from across the country to tend family graves and honour their ancestors. No one seems to have gathered in this neighbourhood. The only time we see anyone is when we find an open supermarket tucked back from the road. We buy ramen noodles and water and sit at a deserted playground to discuss what to do next.

We can see the sea shimmering down the road, just past the peaked roofs of the residential area. We decide to walk to the sea.

Two hours later, we’ve walked past the residential area, through some orange
groves and across a highway to finally get to what may be the ugliest beach in Korea. Jellyfish resembling globs of phlegm spot the beach and seaweed clogs the water. We wonder why we left Busan.

* * *

Today we are trying to give Bob and Paul directions to the hotel over the phone. Both of them arrived in Korea within the past seven days and neither one can read or speak Korean. Not as many people speak English on Jeju as they do in Seoul, and while there is English on street signs, it’s naturally less prominent than the Korean. They’re having a hard time finding the turn-off we suggested, and asking for directions seems impossibly complicated.

Robert and I sit on the hotel steps because the last sign they could read suggests that they aren’t far. We watch the sun set and the sky darkens. We’re waiting so we can all eat dinner together. We talk and try not to look at our watches. When Bob calls back, they’ve driven three cities past us. Robert and I decide to go to the 7-11 for some beer.

* * *

We sit on the ugly beach for an hour before hunger demands that we figure out what we’re doing for our next meal. We see an open convenience store and head toward it looking for water, food, and a taxi.

“Sabrina!”

I’m fully focused on Family Mart and barely notice at first.

“Sabrina?”

Two well-tanned foreign girls are sitting on blankets at the beach. And I know one of them.

Naomi’s hair is golden from living an island life that includes frequent afternoons of suntanning. We worked together in Canada and she’s been here a year already, teaching at a private school. She smiles wide and looks breathtakingly relaxed and happy.

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We sit with the girls and sip beer as the late afternoon sun drops lower. Naomi recommends a bar and a pension on the South side of the island. While we’re making evening plans, an elderly Korean man comes up to offer us makgeoli, a Korean alcoholic rice drink.

The deserted neighbourhood around the beach comes alive as men, women and children gather for a Chuseok celebration. There are races, tug-of-wars, wrestling and soccer games. Paul loses a bottle race to some elderly Korean women, but wins a family pack of ramen as a consolation prize. He claims they cheated, but seems happy with his ramen.

By the time the sun sets, we have dinner plans and a great beer glow. As the families trickle back to their homes, we prepare to find a taxi to take us across the island to food and working showers.

* * *

After Bob hits Paul with his scooter, a Korean family with a pickup truck takes pity on them. The family leads them to a waterfall near our hotel.

It’s damp and dark when we all meet up again and you can hear the waterfall rushing nearby. It’s supposedly a site marked by a famous Chinese explorer.

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We eat tuna sushi for dinner and listen to the saga of Bob and Paul crossing Halla Mountain and coming back again. Robert and I tell them about following a couple in hiking gear to a second, prettier waterfall this afternoon.

After dinner, we buy some beer and head to that waterfall. On the other side of a low fence, we find a spot to sit on the cliffs and watch the tide break against the rocky coast. Boats are out on the water, just barely visible in the darkness.

“Sabrina,” Paul says, turning to me, “Did I ever tell you I’m a geographer?”

Read more in Of Kittens and Hagwons

Follow me on Twitter: @SabrinaNemis

Alex Gould, Legend

“Stairs can’t stop me.”

I have never heard anything said with such indignant conviction. And I really wasn’t questioning the stairs’ motives. They weren’t acting against Alex in any way. No more than gravity was, a moment later.

If I have to lay blame, I’ll go with the half-finished mojito he was holding when we walked into N’s Pub that night. And although I didn’t personally see it, I’m told the two bottles of wine he drank earlier that evening may have had a hand in it as well.

If you’re going to nitpick, I suppose that Alex willingly consumed every bit of it himself. But it seems unfair to blame him.

Flying squirrels are not capable of powered flight like birds or bats. [Source: Wikipedia]

The flying squirrel costume added a sense of theatrics. The Korean passersby may even have believed it was part of a performance. He certainly stayed true to character.

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He flew fully laid out, like a gymnast. He displayed extraordinary confidence by not raising either an arm or a hand to brace the landing. And he stuck the dismount without a wobble or a broken nose. Not many have caught falls with their faces so elegantly or with such style.

Miraculously, no bones were broken, no scratches raked across his face, and the costume was free from tears or stains. After a few minutes, grunts of consciousness kept us from undue worry. He stood by himself, if not happily, then triumphantly.

Alex had been right, after all. The stairs had not stopped him. If anything, they propelled him. Propelled him from “Alex Gould, The Man in the Costume” to “Alex Gould, Legend.”

Read more Alex Gould ridiculousness in Teddy Bears vs Dinosaurs

Follow me on Twitter: @SabrinaNemis