Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Sounds of Seongbuk

Of all the things I'll miss about Korea after we leave, I think one of the things I'll miss the most are the sounds of our neighborhood. Almost every morning I've woken up to the sounds of birds -- which I think is rare in about 90% of the rest of Seoul. There are powerful caws from the big, black-billed magpies that like to perch on the railings of our porch. And there is the light chirping of sparrows. There are even some birds that sounds like small owls, with these short, bright hoots... though I'm not sure what those are.

Then there's the Korean flute player. He's somewhere behind our house, I think (and I imagine it's an old man), tucked somewhere between the forest and the cluster of old, plaster and brick buildings, playing these ancient-sounding melodies that wander through our windows every morning like a breeze. I've always wanted to seek him out and meet him, but never have.

Then there are the rhythmic broom strokes of the retirees who come through to sweep up the neighborhood. The endless chatter of schoolchildren in the schoolyard, and the now familiar electronic melody that signals the beginning of every period. There is the junk collector who drives through and blasts the same message on his megaphone every day, imploring people to offer up their used air conditioners, refrigerators, and TV's for him to resell. The sound of utensils clattering in a house nearby.

And in the distance, no matter what time, you can hear the hum of Seoul's roads, which never sleep.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Mike accompanying Andrew on "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."

Nissa waiting for the bride and groom after the wedding.

An elevator full of flowers.

We went to our friends Andrew and Yeonhee's wedding yesterday. It was our third wedding in Korea, but it felt really different since we actually helped out with the ceremony. Mike played guitar while the groom sang to his bride and we both helped carry flowers back to the newlywed's hotel room.

The wedding was yet another reminder of the things we'll leave behind in just over a week. While we're moving on to greener pastures, I hope that we'll be able to keep in touch with all the friends we've made in Seoul.

Night music in Hongdae

Rapercussion drum band in Hongdae.

Silent disco party in Hongdae.

Head to Seoul's Hongdae neighborhood on Saturday night and you're bound to see college kids lining up for blocks to get into northern Seoul's most popular -- and pricey -- dance clubs. For people on a budget, though, the entertainment's on the streets. In the alleyways and on the sidewalks bands set up a few chairs and play through the night, turning up their amps to compete over the din.

The most well-established buskers head to the more spacious children's playground across the street from Hongik University. This is where the art fair Free Market is held during the summer and where Mike has frequently played acoustic sets during daylight hours.

We went there on a recent Saturday night when we were trying to kill some time before an indoor concert. Beside the usual cover band and rap groups fighting for attention, we were surprised to see a crowd of people in headphones dancing by themselves. They were participating in a "silent disco party" sponsored by the World DJ Festival. Music was being transmitted to wireless headphones so that only the dancers could hear the DJ performance.

The silent dance party didn't last for long, however. A Brazilian percussion band marched into the park and almost immediately everyone's headphones came off. No matter how gimmicky technology gets, nothing beats live music.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Leaving Home (Again)

In exactly one month, Nissa and I will be moving out of Seoul. I can already feel my mind shifting into a different mode -- worrying about what lies ahead, thinking about everything I'll miss about this country, calculating all the different things we need to take care of before leaving. It's a strange feeling. I still surprise myself when I tell people I've been living here for more than two years. In some ways it really has felt that long. In other ways I wonder where all the days went.

I put together a photo album this week of our time here and it's really amazing to look back and see all the things we've done and the places we've been to -- especially when it's summarized in a breezy 50 some-odd pages. So much has happened since we quit our jobs and moved here that I never, EVER expected or could have anticipated. I hosted a radio show for three months. I met and interviewed Mayor Daley right before he retired. I lived out one of my dreams to do international correspondence and got stories on American radio. I taught English to a bunch of children and adults (and surprisingly, liked it a little). I saw more of Korea than my parents ever did, and then some.

That is not to say all of this was a glee-filled joy-ride. I have complained. A lot. So much that Nissa has painstakingly created a life-size wax figure of herself for me to file grievances with (I have to admit, it listens well). Whether it's about work or editors or feeling stuck in a country where I don't totally belong, there have been plenty of moments when I wished I was anywhere but here. I've gotten extremely homesick at times, missed my family and friends terribly, wanted nothing more than an Arby's Super Roast Beef sandwich -- but as you may know: there are no Arby's in South Korea (which is also the title of my upcoming travelogue). There have been times when, out of frustration and spite, I completely retreated into my own shell, wanting nothing to do with the world around me and rejecting whatever it may have had to offer, good or bad. Not exactly the best mentality to have while living in a new country.

But even in my darkest moments, when everything seemed to be going wrong, I never once regretted going on this journey. There have been times when I wanted to leave, sure, but never once did I wish I hadn't left. There have just been too many great things that have happened to me in the past two years. I am thankful for every one of them.

I think the frustration comes more from the fact that in order to live this way, I've had to make sacrifices. You always hear that phrase in different contexts, "make sacrifices", but it's such a difficult thing to quantify. It's like that old cliche of the boss telling his employees they're all going to have to make sacrifices during a tough financial period. No one ever knows what that really means until there aren't any donuts in the break room on Friday morning (true story). I think when we first left Chicago, I was like a naive employee working in a bad economy. I figured we would occasionally run out of printer paper and maybe the light bulbs wouldn't get changed as quickly as usual. I could handle that. No big deal.

I had no idea how much I would really have to give up in order to move here. My friends are having kids, getting married, and going on adventures of their own; my brother's dating a girl I've never met and becoming a doctor; my parents... well, they got a new laptop (I just wish I had been home to troubleshoot). It kills me to miss all these things. I'm sure it's a lot better than it was during medieval times, when moving halfway around the world basically meant never seeing or hearing from your friends and family again (also, potentially dying of scurvy along the way). Now there are phones, e-mail, Skype -- tons of different ways to stay connected. And that's great. But I do sometimes wish teleportation was possible. It'd be nice to sit down and have a beer with an old friend every now and again. (That reminds me. Dear Stephen Hawking...)

Of course, the same will be true when we leave Seoul. There are people and things I know I'll miss. I've grown especially close to my cousins over the last two years, to the point where it's weird to think about how poorly I knew them before moving here. There are a handful of good friends that I feel completely at home with, despite how briefly I've known them. My taste buds have grown accustomed to certain flavor biases -- namely spicy and salty. I can't imagine life without the subway. But just like before, I probably have no idea of how I'll really feel until I've left.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this: traveling can be amazing. It does everything people say it does. It changes the way you look at the world and how you look at yourself. It broadens your perspective and tests your limits. It introduces you to a world that you never knew before, filled with possibilities and unexpected gifts.

At its best, it shows you what you're really made of and, sometimes, what you aren't.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sunset over Mt Bugak

The view from our porch tonight.

Bibimbap take 2

Yesterday I made bibimbap again and tried to apply some of the lessons I learned from the first time around. I'm not sure if the taste was any different from my first attempt, but it sure was more photogenic.

Tomorrow marks the start of our 1 month countdown to leaving Korea. While I'm excited to begin the next chapter of our life, it's also strange to leave a city to which I've grown so accustomed. The last two years have pushed us in ways we couldn't have imagined -- from the challenges of learning a new language from scratch to trying to navigate a workplace culture that favored age and gender (a win for old men) over the quality of one's work.

It certainly hasn't been easy, but it's helped that we've been able to lean on Mike's family in Seoul whenever the goings get tough. We've carved out a niche for ourselves here in Seongbukdong and have even learned to relish the few benefits of being a foreigner here. I take free Korean language classes four days a week at the local Seoul Global Village Center and we've been able to take French pastry classes for a pittance. Being the only foreign couple on our hill has also meant that our local shopkeepers know us well. We always get a hello from the owner of the Korean-style roast chicken restaurant when we walk by, and the ladies in the produce section of our small grocery store greet me with a smile.

To think, all of this nostalgia came from one bowl of bibimbap! But there will be plenty of time to reminisce (or reminissa, if you will) later. Now, we have one month left in Korea and we plan to fill every minute of it.