Click here to read a guest post I wrote for my friends and former university Writing Center co-workers, Megan and Maggierose. I discuss why writing is essential for my self-expression and communication. Their Tumblr blog is called Meg & Mag. Be sure to check them out!
Note: I wrote this literary journalistic piece in 2014, when I was trained in airbrush makeup for The Thorn. Some of the information included may be out of date as the production has only continued to evolve and expand its outreach.
A long, unwieldy string of costumed dancers begins in the airbrush room, snakes through the door, and ends somewhere down the hallway. A row of three girls, hair at their temples pulled back, dresses flowing in bright colors—yellow, pink, blue—sit in folding chairs and close their eyes as we spray golden yellow bands of paint from the corners of their eyes into their hair lines, like the tails of shooting stars.
When their makeup is finished, these dancers, ranging from children to women in their late twenties, will go back to stretching their legs and chatting about last minute stage directions before rushing through the mega church to backstage, where they’ll wait for their cue. Then, they’ll scamper downstage when music gushes from speakers blaring through the auditorium that seats 10,000 people, referred to by New Life Church regulars as “The Living Room.” This space, which usually holds church services, has been transformed into a theatrical heaven where rows and rows of overwhelmed and intrigued eyes view dancers and aerialists, martial artists and stage actors.
The Thorn is a dramatization of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The emotional performance starts with the creation story and the fall of man, ventures into the politics of the Roman Empire, and opens onto the story of Jesus with Mary rejoicing over her immaculate conception. The rest of the story unfolds in graphic detail, and it ends with a montage-like scene of the disciples sharing the Gospel throughout the world.
As youth pastors, John and Sarah Bolin created The Thorn in 1997 in order to share the Christian message with high school students in a new, relatable way. By 2014, the performances have grown to include hundreds of cast and crew members, performing not only in Colorado Springs at New Life Church, where The Thorn originated, but also in cities around the country, such as in Denver, Fort Worth, Dallas, Kansas City, Sacramento, and Nashville. The audiences have grown to include over 20,000 people per show.
The dancers, along with the rest of the cast and crew, have been training and rehearsing their parts since at least January, preparing for the Easter performances, where they usually spend entire days at the church or other venue, switching back and forth between stretching, rehearsing, performing, and taking breaks to pray and eat snacks. Sometimes the Dancing Angels return to the rehearsal room and their ballet slippers have stains from the artificial blood that flies from the Jesus actor’s body suit when he is lashed by a whip. The girls laugh it off—by now, their shoes are a mess with the stickiness of such a production.
The representation of angels brings an awe all its own to the play. When the meta-narrator, John the Beloved or Doubting Thomas (the roles alternate every year or so, just as the play itself evolves), finishes the introduction, the auditorium darkens until all attention is centered on the Globe Angel, who walks under a spotlight with a glass globe, representing Earth. As she walks, the haunting soundtrack plays and a woman’s voiceover speaks: “In the beginning was the Word.” The globe is lifted into the rafters by a pulley system, and a bell tolls twice, leading into the “heaven” music, a beautiful orchestration that matches the soaring of acrobats on silk cloth that spills from the ceiling to the floor. I have always gotten goosebumps at this point in the production, whether I was in the audience or dancing on stage as an Angel.
But there’s a darker side to this supernatural representation when spiritual warfare is enacted by the actors casted as Demons. They wear torn up black t-shirts and sweatpants, and the makeup artists airbrush every inch of their skin in white paint and shadow their muscles and bones to look gaunt. In the play, the demons are always crouched at the side of the actor who plays Satan; they are like his minions, always present to fight the angels. They descend from the rafters in nets, writhe down the aisles and make gutteral noises at the audience, or leap on the stage with spring-powered stilts. They look inhuman, as we imagine demons would.
A twenty-something girl with hair teased into a burst of frizz, next in line for airbrush, plops down in front of me and waits for instructions. I tell her, “Raise your chin up to the ceiling for me.”
She turns her head up, and I spray a “V” shape from her earlobes to her collarbone. I use a plastic board to cover part of her cheek as I airbrush a shadow across her jaw line. Then I paint a black ray into her hair, blend the darkness onto her eyelids and into the crooks of her nose. One Demon tells the artist beside me, “They won’t let us go up behind people and scare them anymore. It’s so stupid. That’s part of the fun!”
Representing spiritual warfare in The Thorn is undoubtedly part of its appeal. While it strikes the fear of God in some, for many it has the effect of a haunted house. After all, evil is thrilling—it’s sudden and mysterious. I once watched the auditions for the children’s version of The Thorn, called The Crown, which several years ago played alongside The Thorn so that a less mature audience had the opportunity to experience the story in a way that wouldn’t be too intense. The casting director had to warn the teenagers and children auditioning that it’d be better for them to show that they could perform well as an Angel; everyone wants to be a Demon. It’s more competitive because it’s more glamorous. Everyone wants to be intimidating; being the villain gets you more attention than being the hero sometimes. Additionally, though the whole Supernatural cast gets the coveted full-body makeup, the Demons don’t necessarily have to have martial artist, acrobatic, or dance skills to qualify for the role, so there are always more people trying out for the Demon cast.
When I was a Dancing Angel in high school, a fellow dancer told us, when asked what her atheist husband thought of the play, “Well, he liked the demons. He thought they were cool.” In many ways, The Thorn could be seen as an attraction for Christians and non-Christians alike. The play has even been compared to Cirque du Soleil, with the addition of a storyline that’s heart-wrenching to watch. S. Watkins, from Colorado, wrote a review, saying, “My life was changed at The Thorn. I couldn’t stop crying—not a weeping but a gut wrenching sobbing.” However, the struggle to downplay the theatrics of the Demon cast continues to be controversial within The Thorn community. It’s important to ask, Are we drawing in an audience by encouraging them to get excited about, even comfortable with, evil? Do we want to generate chants of “More demons! More demons!” from audience and cast alike?
In some scenes, especially at the end of the play, the demons run, or rather slither and crawl, away whenever the power of God overcomes them. However, the demons are not simply there to be foils for the angels. They have a more complex role in developing the characteristics of evil. In the scene where Judas betrays Jesus, it grows intense with the screams and writhing of Tortured Souls and the demons flit about the aisles making creepy, guttural sounds. This, along with blinding pyros, unsettles the audience, but it’s undeniably a fascinating scene in the way it highlights the chaos of hellishness. However, it can arguably distract viewers from confronting the significance of this evil: Judas hanging himself from the guilt of his betrayal. The music shrieks to a hault, the lights go out, and the audience looks for the Demon who is running on all fours up the aisle, making animalistic sounds.
One girl returns to the airbrush room twenty minutes before the show. “Hey, can I get some more makeup? I saw my friend with lines on her neck. Can you give me that? And can you paint the skin showing through the holes in my costume?”
Jessie, who was a Demon last year, raises the girl’s sleeves and sprays her arms. She turns her around and highlights the spinal cords on her neck in thick, black curves. “Awesome,” the Demon says and then scoots out of the room before the first VIP tour comes by.
The Thorn might seem like a circus when you’re not whispering the Salvation Prayer in your seat during the sermon-filled intermission that follows the scene where Jesus is nailed to the cross, spilling the blood that gets on the dancers’ shoes. There are scenes reminiscent of a haunted house, tours, real tigers (some years back), stuntmen, acrobatics, everyone covered head to toe in costumes and makeup. There are merchandise tables in the lobby, like any business-savvy Christian concert, conference, author visit etc. would include before and after the shows. If the muscular, martial artist Angel and skulking Demons appeal to you, then you can pose with them for a picture. You can also leave with a Thorn t-shirt, water bottle, or bumper sticker. You can buy a DVD of the production to watch on a Friday night. You can get a selfie with Jesus.
“AMAZING! WOW! By far the Best Live Theatre we have ever seen,” remarks Dawn Christiansen, from Washington. With a budget of $175,000, The Thorn creates an experience unlike your average church Easter play. The production is worth seeing whether you are moved by the story or not—the theatrics are impressive and so much professionalism goes into the end product. It’s interactive in a bold way; when you’re finding your seat pre-show, centurions might harass you or little girls might try to sell you flowers. When John and Sarah Bolin set out to create The Thorn, their mission was to allow believers and non-believers to experience God in a powerful way, and this is still the mission of the majority involved. But does the high-quality production persuade the audience of the truth of Christianity, or does it only prove to the audience that even Christians can put on a good show?
John Bolin said in an interview, “The story of God should be done with excellence.” With tickets selling from $20 to $50, the Bolins, with the hundreds of cast and crew members who dedicate their time and energy year-round in preparation for this production, have built what was once a small performance into a major theatrical ministry…and spectacle. If you find yourself in the position of not being able to afford the pricey tickets, The Thorn does offer scholarships to go see the show. However, no longer are there free performances during the final dress rehearsals, where New Life Church members could invite their friends and family or anyone who might have otherwise not attended, who may have especially needed to experience this message of love and grace. Now if you want to invite your atheist coworker, you’ll have to be ready to shell out some cash or really play up the Cirque du Soleil comparison.
Now a tour of children, their parents, and their grandparents are walking by, tugging on their VIP badges and gawking at us as we pretend to paint the demons before the show, as if we hadn’t already finished a half an hour ago, right on schedule. “See? We’re not scary,” a Demon tells a child. The child returns a smile.
Costumes are on, makeup is perfect—everyone playing a role. It’s show time.
My eyes are round and two different colors; one is blue and one is greenish-brown, depending on the lighting in the room. The students notice this a lot and point and ooh and ahh over it. They tell me my eyes are beautiful. I know compliments always seem less sincere when they’re immediately returned, but when I tell these girls that their eyes are beautiful, too, they are firm when they tell me “no.” They shake their heads and pull their eyelids down, forcing the delicate ovals into the coin-shape they are told is more valuable.
I don’t spend much time looking at my eyes. I’ve had them for almost 23 years, so they’re just a part of my body. What I do notice when I look in the mirror, or when I notice other women’s faces, is my blotchy skin sprinkled with big pores. I notice my eyebrows, which I have carefully constructed to avoid looking like those of the men in my family. I notice my big, Italian nose, my fat layers, my unmanageable hair, and the way my natural, relaxed facial expression makes me look either manically depressed or super pissed off.
So when these young girls sherk my compliments, I start to resent the both of us for wanting what we don’t have. Koreans are so freaking gorgeous in ways that I fear they don’t realize, just like any person of any ethnicity doesn’t realize about themselves when they’ve been picked apart by their culture, or other cultures, for as long as they can remember. What if I complimented these Korean girls on their honey-brown eyes or their glowing skin or their dainty noses or their soft brown hair or the fact that the vast majority of them are slim and fit into any clothes they choose? Would this build self-esteem and send a message of “don’t change a thing”? Because sometimes Korean women have achieved what is called beautiful only because they changed and changed their bodies until they could fit themselves into the puzzle of social acceptability, where every piece has the same shape and each molds together to create one mindset, one concept of perfection, lacking creativity and complexity.
And Koreans are complex people, just like everyone else. There are short Koreans. There are very tall Koreans. There are skinny Koreans, tubby Koreans, hot Koreans, not-as-hot Koreans. Koreans with flawless skin, Koreans with acne. By no means are all Koreans the perfect, petite, doll-like creatures that culture tries to make them represent. Here in Korea, there are a lot of beautiful men and women, sure, but few actually look like that. But there is undoubtedly a significant pressure for Koreans to look a certain way, so there are inevitably going to be many people who just look so…clean. And put together. And well-dressed.
Moving to a new country where there is a specific, demanding standard of beauty can play tricks with your mind. My insecurities stem from many years of wishing I was skinnier or wore better clothes; the U.S. is not exempt from these standards of beauty. We all want to be skinny and in shape and have pretty faces, but the concept of “pretty faces” is more general than in Korea, because America has a social makeup of so many different ethnicities that it’s impossible to demand each girl have similar facial qualities. Yes, we all want good, healthy, probably tan skin, and tiny, toned bodies. However, when I left the U.S., it seemed like many of us were rocking out to “All About That Bass” and were starting to greet ourselves in the mirror with a “Hey, there, beautiful” instead of looking at our reflections like they were an unwanted love child.
So in Korea, there have been times where I’m like, wow. I should probably wear more makeup. My skin is disgusting because I don’t have an hour-long daily routine to take care of it. I need to lose 50 pounds so I can fit into the one-size-fits-all clothing in so many Korean stores. I need to smear on some lipstick so I can look successful and put-together. I need to wear skirts so people don’t think I’m a lesbian (?).
These thoughts have crossed my mind when I see girls primping in the bathroom mirrors, or hear my male co-workers talk about how pretty Korean women are, talk about white women and their comparative frumpiness and hairiness.
In the end, I’ve had to ask myself the following questions: Do I want to attract the type of men who think women are better if they spend hours on their bodies? (Ew. No.) Do I want to sacrifice precious time on this earth taking extra care of and altering a body that’s just going to die in the end? (No. I have too many people to meet, places to see, and things to write about to waste that time.) Do I want to feel healthy and happy with my body? (Yes. Maybe I’ll step it up a little. Continue my jiu-jitsu training. Buy a quality face scrub. Shave my legs a little more often, when I feel like it.) Do I want to kick some ass and take some names? (Yes and yes.)
No matter how long your eyelash extensions are, no matter how many meals you skip, no matter how much a surgeon tweaks your face, you are always going to be you. It only matters how you feel about yourself, inside and out, heart and mind and face and thighs.
So I’m going to appreciate when people compliment my eyes, but I hope that if they do so, they’re not doing it at the expense of their own self-perception, their own beautiful body, fearfully and wonderfully made.
One of my favorite things about Korea is the immense variety of cafes, each competing to offer unique experiences for customers. Until I lived in Daegu, I didn’t know petting zoos could also be places to sit and drink coffee. To me, coffee shops were either Starbucks or a local cafe where you were supposed to sit back and knit sweaters or write poetry. Although there are some pet cafes in the United States, featuring cats or dogs, they are rare and novel, so exploring animal-themed cafes in Daegu has been both entertaining and therapeutic (for the times when you just need a dog to cuddle).
Below are four animal cafes I have experienced so far in Korea. Please forgive the picture quality; I’m not a photographer and I don’t think I’ll ever be one.
The Cat Cafe
I’m not what you would call a “cat” person, but I was curious about visiting this cafe, especially as it’s the first animal one I had been to. There was a large number of cats roaming the cafe, napping on people’s coats, or hiding in those carpet towers cats enjoy. If you buy fish treats for the cats, they’ll come up to you and try to claw your face off for a taste. Otherwise, they were kind of indifferent to customers. Sometimes they wouldn’t mind if you petted them–just not on their right shoulder, the center of their chin, their whiskers, their belly, or any region remotely near their tail.
In all seriousness, though, this cafe was fun to visit. It was pretty clean and the cats were well-groomed and, sometimes, well-dressed. Of all the cats I petted, only a few of them were plotting against me.
I had been warned by my cat-loving co-worker that the dog cafes were nasty because dogs pee and poo on everything, and cats don’t. This, unfortunately, was confirmed for me in the Pet Cafe, which had dogs on one level and cats on another. However, this cafe was mainly just disappointing because we seemed to have gone at a time where there were few dogs, most of which were tiny and aggressive–the two qualities that I dislike in cats.
Racoona Matata is probably the most unique animal cafe in Daegu. When I was growing up, racoons were the rodents that tore the lids off my family’s garbage cans and feasted on our trash. My dad would try to come up with methods of keeping them away, like fastening bungie cords around the trash can lids, but they always found their way in and made huge messes.
The racoons in the cafe, you can tell, are just as smart and conniving, but it was fun to get up close to them and pet their heads in the cage they were contained in, or watch them on the ceiling ramp where they would crawl out and try to reach for our food. They were cute, but also a little creepy with their grabby hands and the way they stood on two feet.
Cat Dog Cafe
My favorite animal cafe is the Cat Dog Cafe. This one has a lot of dogs who are all really sweet and cuddly, and there are more than just the tiny, yappy dogs. In this cafe, there is one floor for the cats and an upper floor for dogs. Before we went up to the dog floor, we put on skirts that the cafe provided, which encourages dogs to curl up on your lap because they are familiar with the sight and material of the skirts and have been, in a way, trained to trust them. The skirts also help keep off the dog hair and drool from your clothes.
I stayed here for a couple of hours with my friends, petting the dogs as they fell asleep in our laps. The dogs were so relaxed that one of my friends started to lose feeling in his legs because a huge dog was curled up on him like a puppy. He dragged himself backwards all the way across the cafe to fetch his coffee and the dog didn’t even stir.
So, as far as I know, these are all the animal cafes in Daegu. But with such a quickly-changing city, maybe there will be a cafe with monkeys soon.
The gym is a few flights up a stairwell that smells like cigarettes. It isn’t very large, so by the time the fifteen to twenty students arrive, it will be crowded. It’s winter, so it’s cold inside until we warm up and begin sparring. The windows and mirror fog over from the body heat.
The gym is like a small apartment; Teacher instructs classes until midnight and then sleeps until the late afternoon in his office tucked into the corner of the room. It’s like we’re learning jiu jitsu in his living room, except there’s nothing but a fridge and couch in his office to make it a home. The gym has waist-high padded walls and a floor covered with thick, gray mat material. There are two punching bags and a watercooler. Outside, Daegu boasts its most ramshackle view: buildings that look unplanned, the Daegu Health College more like a shady warehouse disguised as a school.
Class begins and we form a circle. Teacher gives instructions and commands in Korean, so I just try to follow what everyone else is doing. According to my foreigner friends who recently encouraged me to try out jiu jitsu, Teacher has learned a lot more English than he knew when they first joined this gym. He seems to know some basic conversational phrases and anatomical terminology related to jiu jitsu training (knee, head, arm, etc.) and directional terms (push, turn). Thankfully, though, the routine is almost always the same, so it’s easy to figure out what we’re supposed to do next. It also helps that there are some Koreans who are pretty fluent in English and they are quick to translate if the language barrier becomes too real.
After we form our circle, Teacher sets a timer and we do push ups, crunches, and squats, taking turns counting to ten for each exercise, the Korean hana, tul, set, etc. occasionally interrupted by an English one, two, three. There are about five of us from the English Village who attend jiu jitsu, but everyone else is Korean. We go through a few more exercises like this.
And then Teacher shows us two to three moves, always demonstrating on Harry, a high schooler whose English is strong and who takes a lot of falls for the class while Teacher flips him this way and that, locking his leg and pulling him down or knocking him forward. Then we get into pairs and practice on each other.
It took me a little while to not feel awkward crawling all over a person. During my first trip to the gym when it was open mat, I had to bite back my giggles as my friend Rachel and Timmy, her husband, instructed me to kneel between Rachel’s legs. And being comfortable with someone coming at you with the intention of pinning you down also took at least a few times before I began to build any sense of aggression within myself.
This is not something I ever imagined myself doing. I have the George Michael from Arrested Development syndrome where, if someone throws something at me or generally tries to get in my face, my instinct is to essentially curl up in the fetal position (which, for your information, is an effective strategy in jiu jitsu, on occasion). But my friend Timmy wore me down into coming with them and trying it out, because I also have a syndrome that makes me bad at saying no. In this case, though, I was persuaded because I like to try new things, even if physical exertion just seems like the worst way to spend my time. I can be persuaded to do most anything if I figure I’m spending time with friends. For instance, one time I went to a barbershop concert with a friend just to spend time with her (another event in which I had to stifle my giggles and be mature about things).
So we practice the moves with each other, usually stumbling about and pausing to say something like, “And then I do…that? My leg goes here, and I sweep yours back? Wait, I’m missing a step.”
And the best/worst part of this whole experience is the position game and sparring. Either way, your goal is to just go at it and try to get a dominate or fatal position (i.e. triangle choke hold, where their head is between your knees, or arm bar, in a position where you could break their arm but don’t). This part is fun because it’s all about technique and thinking your way out of difficult positions. It’s not about strength as much as knowing how to throw someone off balance and prevent them from getting control over you. Rachel described it as chess: everyone has their own style of approaching this “duel” and you have to consider your own strategies. Even though I’m terrible compared to everyone else, I can feel myself get a little bit faster each class and use more effective strategies against my opponent.
Sparring was really intimidating the first few classes I attended. I wasn’t expecting to have the teacher point at me and pair me up with a man, Korean and sweaty and non-English-speaking. I felt very stupid not knowing even how to attack. I was dragged by my feet a lot and put in choke holds where I wasn’t sure if I had lost or not, only because no one ever goes full force on choke-holds and they sometimes just tell you to “tap out” because they don’t want to actually hurt you. I spar with at least three or four people each class. The students are a mix of ages, mostly men and a couple women in their twenties, some middle-aged men, and a few young boys who play on their phones a lot because their parents are paying for these classes.
When I stood on the sidelines that first day and looked at Timmy in panic, saying “Is this optional?!” He asked me, “What are you paying for?” So I walked up to this Korean guy Teacher paired me with, slapped our hands together and then fist-bumped (as you do to start a “spar” or “battle” or “brawl” or whatever), and then I proceeded to get dragged around and put in a choke-hold.
People seem a lot stronger when you feel completely helpless in protecting yourself. But even after just a week, I feel a lot less helpless–still really inexperienced, and I get taken down really easily, like when another supposedly “new” guy grabbed the edges of my sleeves and made it almost impossible to defend myself–but still stronger and a little more capable.
And then there’s Shin-gu, or “Bully” as he’s referred to outside of class by my friends. His big build, very pale skin, and completely hairless head, usually with sweat dripping down his scalp, is an intimidating presence. He’s a blue belt, higher than most, and his favorite pasttime is laying his entire body weight on his opponents (newcomers are no exception) and crushing them while laughing. He did this to me the first time we sparred, and the next time he spun me in circles while I tried to choke-hold him with my arms.
Which is weirdly one of the beautiful things about jiu jitsu. Not this Korean man with no hair, but the fact that jiu jitsu is a lot like dancing, an art form I miss partaking in. The moves we learn are like choreography, however violent, and you have to learn to work with your opponent like a dance partner. There’s a certain amount of trust that you grow because you’re learning from each other and testing your own skills with someone else.
But Bully’s actually a pretty nice guy. He tries to get to know the foreigners with his limited English and you can tell he enjoys this sport. He calls me “Sarah Puma”, which might be endearing or might be an insult, I don’t know. I guess he just likes to, you know, prey on people’s weaknesses and stuff. Classic Shin-gu.
When we’re finished sparring, most of us are huffing and puffing on the ground, faces red and sweaty. The gis (gees) we wear as our uniform make everything so much hotter and sweatier. We begin the exercises we did for the warm-up all over again. This time I’m exhausted and sore. We usually have to hold a plank for a minute, meaning I usually hear Teacher yell, “Sah-dah!” once or twice because I’ve taken too long of a break and am basically just napping on the hair- and sweat-covered floor.
So this is me, trying new things in a foreign country.
This is the continuation of my first trip to Seoul. Read Seoul: Part One here.
There can be a fair amount of confusion when two people whose native languages are not the same converse. Even though Yongseok’s English is really strong, there were still times where we were not on the same page.
When we Skype-called our friend, Kate, on Sunday morning, she said, “Yongseok, sometimes when you laugh I think it’s because you don’t understand what I’m saying.” Kate tends to talk even faster than I do. Yongseok responded with a laugh.
All of this to say that, when we passed the statues on the street that led to Gyeongbukgung Palace, and Yongseok told me that Yi Sun-Sin’s ship was a “cuttle” ship, I just smiled and nodded, and when I went to look up this guy’s name later on the internet, I realized Yongseok had been saying “turtle.” Turtle ship. Ooooooooh. Got it.
We also saw the statue of King Sejong, who created Hangul so that Koreans could express themselves beyond the limits of Chinese. He was an advocate for education and technological advancement and sponsored inventions like the rain gauge, sundial, water clock, celestial globes, and astronomical maps.
Throughout the day, we had stormed Gyeongbokgung Palace and Deoksu Palace, so it was late in the evening by the time we visited modern parts of Seoul. We ventured through Insadong, one of the shopping districts. There’s always so much to take in when shopping in Korea. Layers and layers of stores clustered together sell things you never thought you would need, but feel compelled to buy since it’s adorable and reasonably priced. The shops are not like those in Colorado, where everything is one level and spread miles apart. In Seoul, and Daegu for that matter, cafes are stacked on top of shops stacked on top of other shops. This first time in Seoul, I didn’t buy too much, but I did pick up a few souvenirs for my people back home (i.e. socks with Big Bang on them, because adorable and reasonably priced).
Insadong was also where I ate poop bread for the first time, or rather dong bang. Koreans have a fascination with poop that is lost to my Western mind, but the fried bread and chocolate, however unfortunately shaped, was quite delicious.
Taking pictures in a hanbok was probably the most unexpected thing I did during this trip. It took me a hot second to understand what was happening: What are we doing? We’re renting hanboks? Like, leaving the store with them? What? Oh, we’re taking pictures in them. That makes more sense. Do I put this on myself–okay, kamsamnida, I’m just a dumb foreigner who doesn’t know how to wear this thing. How many pictures do we take? What poses should we do? Um, obviously Charlie’s Angels pose??? Sure, also the double Korean peace-signs, of course. Wait, now we decorate the pictures on this computer? How does this work? Sure, I can put some flowers in the background. Make this as colorful as possible? Okay. Nice.
Lastly, we visited Seoul N(amsan) Tower. It loomed above us in glowing green light. There was a platform with a fence surrounding it that had thousands of locks all knotted together, symbolizing the love of visitors that came before us. Beyond this platform was a fantastic view of Seoul.
We arrived around 11:00 pm to Yongseok’s grandmother’s house in Gangnam.
She greeted me at the door and took my hand in hers, rubbing it gently. This is a welcoming Korean gesture. His mother was there, too, and she hugged me hello. They were very beautiful and sweet, these two women. Neither spoke English.
We sat at the dining room table and his mother fed us chocolate bread, a pretzel, and warm lemon tea. Yongseok translated back and forth. “She wants to hear more,” he told me after I had practiced a few words and phrases I had learned in Korean. I stumbled over a few more phrases I could think of to try to impress her.
We sat in the living room a while before bed. The big TV, exercise bike, and pictures of grandchildren that decorated the room reminded me of my own grandmother’s living room, and it made me think that all grandmother’s had similar taste in living room necessities. Yongseok’s grandmother made sure I had a toothbrush; Koreans are very dental hygiene-conscience. I soon went to bed, though, and somewhere in a neighboring apartment, an older, male Korean actor who’s name I can’t remember, also slept.
The last stop, before dinner and my return to Seoul Station to take the KTX to Daegu, was at a Korean Folk Village, where we spent most of the day. It reminded me of the colonial museums in the U.S. that I’d been to when I was a kid, where people dressed up and reenacted the lifestyle of that time period, washing clothes on a washboard, milking cows, shooting cannons in the town square. Except this was a Korean version.
There were huts and small buildings scattered beside dirt paths and had low ceilings and a variety of traditional Korean roofing styles. The ancient, rural feeling of the set-up was a stark contrast to the modern, energetic Korea that we know now. It was quiet with just a few people exploring the village, the rain soaking into the dirt path and our coats.
We stood under our umbrellas and watched the reenactment of a traditional wedding, the man clad in a blue handbok, the woman in a red one, bowing to each other. I wondered how many times this man and woman had pretended to marry each other, and whether they were actually married in real life, to each other or to other people.
This folk village has provided the setting for some historical dramas. It was the film location for Korean movies like The King and I (2007) and Jewel in the Palace (2003). I haven’t seen either of these, but it was interesting to see this aspect of Korean culture preserved. Even though the weather prevented us from seeing some of the other performances and events, we were able to see the village in quiet, a river flowing through with purple leaves covering the ground.
We left when it got dark, a hundred new pictures on my phone.
I went to a jjimjilbang, called Lavender, in Daegu with four of my foreigner co-workers. Two of them had been to a jjimjilbang before, so, thankfully, my first experience wasn’t by myself. Even though seeing your friends naked is a strange way to bond, I was glad I wasn’t going alone since it’s always better to gape in confusion with someone else when you don’t understand why an ajumma is handing you a pile of used soap, or to be peer-pressured if you start to doubt whether or not you have the courage to strip off your underwear.
And so we burst through the door of the building that had the jjimjilbang on a higher floor, the cold air rushing in with us. We were bundled up in coats, scarves, and hats. We took an elevator up, and then put our shoes in tiny lockers, because Koreans don’t seem to like shoes near places they want to feel clean and cozy. So we went inside, shoeless, me feeling like this was all happening too fast, and we quickly saw that everyone was clothesless. Naked women everywhere. The next thing I know, I’m naked, too. We’re all naked. Old naked ajummas. Middle-aged naked women. Young naked women. Naked children. Naked me.
We shuffled, very naked, past women who were blow-drying their hair in the mirrors and through a door that led us into the jjimjilbang itself. The room was heavy with steam, every inch of the floor wet. We strode past women sitting on little plastic seats, like booster chairs, scrubbing their bodies with cloth, basins full of cloudy water. Red lights beamed down in the middle of the room, where women were lying face-up, snoozing with towels over their junk, while other women enjoyed the pools behind them.
The first pool we entered was a perfect hot-tub temperature. It was nice to finally be submerged and hide my body while I tried to process how naked we all were. Eventually we felt overheated, so we tiptoed out and into another pool that was ice-cold. Getting waist deep was as difficult as descending into a vat of needles. Overhead, the ceiling was designed like a cave and a stream of water poured out of it like a serious roofing problem. Every drop that splashed us stung our skin. We grimaced at each other, nakedly.
Then we proceeded into a lukewarm, dark-blue pool off to the side of the room, enveloped by a translucent wall. We never found out what was happening with this water. Some kind of sea salt? Food coloring? Kool-Aid?
And then an imitation waterfall where high pressure faucets beat/massaged our skin. I stood there, under the stream, like an old dog getting its head rubbed real nice.
After almost passing out from the heat of a different pool, I ventured into another that might have been camomile- or cucumber-infused? At this point, I’d decided two things: (1) If America had jjimjilbangs, they would fill them with fruit, probably, and just be like, “Enjoy our infusion hot tubs!” and then you would float in a tub of mushy strawberries or orange slices for $200. (By the way, it was only about $6 to get into this jjimjilbang.) And (2), jjimjilbang’s are half relaxing and half uncomfortable to me, because some things, like the massage waterfalls or the blue pool, are perfect, but other features, like the extreme hotness or coldness of some of the pools and sauna rooms made me feel kind of bad about life while I was in them.
Those sauna rooms were not really my cup of tea. One was like sitting inside an oven (I think I could see the air glistening with sweat?), which is never a thing I would recommend a person do, and one was freezing cold, with an ice wall spanning the perimeter of the room and a cold floor that just made me want slippers.
But the best and worst part of this adventure was getting scrubbed. First, we used bars of soap and scratchy cloths to scrub ourselves down, while we witnessed a girl cake a carton of Yoplait onto her face. Later, we were shown to the scrubbing tables in a private corner of the facility. Like Conan O’Brien says in his trip to a jjimjilbang with Steven Yeun, the tables do, in fact, look like they could have been used for dolphin autopsies. So I layed down, very naked, on a slippery table and pretended like this was all perfectly normal for me, and the scrubbing woman, clad in nothing but granny-panties, scrubbed every surface of my body three times with a cloth that felt like sandpaper, although it was painless. I’m pretty sure the words, “Um, woah there,” came out of my mouth more than once. And I almost gagged when I saw rolls of dead skin coming off my body, splashing to the floor when she chucked warm water from a large bowl at me, and my dead skin joined that of whoever else came before me, pooling into a dead skin sea. *gag* But my skin has never been so smooth.
Wow, what a strange dream, you might be thinking to yourself. I know. I never would have expected to find myself so physically vulnerable to a bunch of other women. But this experience is real life and, after awhile, it’s easy to relax. Korean culture doesn’t sexualize this aspect of their culture. It’s a normal and healthy way for them to spend time and take care of their bodies. Once I had the confidence to join them in nudity, I became comfortable in accepting that we’re all, in a way, the same, and there should never be any shame in vulnerability and self-care.
After we were showered and dressed again, swaddled in layers of clothes to face winter outside the jjimjilbang, I had never felt so cozy and clean in my entire life. Like a baby who’d had its first bath.
In Palawan, the province in the southwest of the Philippines, a small town called El Nido rests on the coast of the South China sea. The ramshackle buildings crouch in the sun, surrounded by a dense jungle of palm trees and lowland evergreens. The ocean spends all day gathering the strength to kiss the sand at the feet of restaurants, bars, and guest houses facing the shore.
Tourists–French, Danish, Dutch, American–shuffle through the streets, taking in the sights through sunglasses. Their skin is sunscreen, sea water, and sweat.
The local Filipinos stand on the sides of the narrow streets and call out destinations to tourists, advertising their transportation services. They drive tricycles: a motorbike attached to a carriage, which whole Filipino families will cram themselves inside or a tourist or two will sit in cautiously. The tricycle drivers compete for the road with motorbikes, people, and dogs.
The roads are paved, but rough and frayed. On the right and left, restaurants serve fresh fruit shakes, stores sell brightly-colored clothing, dive shops promise an introduction to a hidden world, and boat tour offices offer island-hopping adventures, and if you walk far enough out of the town to the east, when the road turns into dirt, you can see children pretending to be monkeys in the palm trees and dogs trotting like they have business of their own and homes behind fences shaded by sky-soaring palm trees. Behind the fences, the Filipinos know they’re on display, but they watch you, too, like the strange, sunburnt creature that you are.
El Nido swarms with tourists, but if you walk far enough away from the town, you’re bound to find a beach where the water stretches out with a soft, sandy floor and the waves toss gently and there is maybe no one else around. If you’re lucky, you can find fresh coconuts and a Filipino man with a machete who will slice open its deep green shell. And you can sip the coconut juice and gnaw it into sweet, white shavings with your teeth, like the strange, out-of-place foreigner you are.
Eventually you’ll make your way back into town, and you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with other foreigners on a boat tour. The boats for island hopping are called bangkas, or pump-boats. Long and narrow, they have bamboo outriggers on each side for balance. They tote you from island to island, the motor humming through your skin. When the boat stops, there is snorkeling in crystal-clear water, fish flitting back and forth. Nemo hides in his anemone, a Surgeon nips calves and ankles to protect her nest, a pastel rainbow fish swims carefree.
There are beaches with resorts where people paid more than you ever could to stay, only to have you stomp through the sand and hog their cozy, sun-warmed hammock for a half hour. And there are beaches where you would be happy to spend your life, eating fish you caught in a hut you built from dried palm leaves. And beaches where you can buy ice cream cones for 50 pesos and play with the sand between your toes and fingers. Feeling like flour or cookie dough, the sand molds together like crisp snow.
There are lagoons, where the water is turquoise and milky and still. When you break the surface, you can hear your own sighs of wonder echo off the walls of rock that rise up like a cathedral on either side.
Sometimes the ocean shows you everything, an open book of fish and coral reefs, and other times it covers everything in shadow, hiding the life it protects beneath you and your embarrassing life jacket.
When the sun begins to fall towards the edge of the sea, the water turns from teal to navy blue.
El Nido. Where the young Filipino men lay shirtless and barefoot at the helm of the boat, soaking sun into their dark skin as the boat takes them home. Where the older men sit in the shade with their shirts pulled up to their chests, stomachs relaxing toward the ground. Where the young FIlipino women sit behind counters and give smiles that reach their eyes when they greet you. Where the older women offer open cases of handmade jewelry and squint into the sun. Where children sing “Feliz Navidad” for a tip and climb and play on boats beached on the shore. Where dogs keep watch outside of businesses and lean into your hand when you pet their ears.
El Nido. A town whose people are like a big, extended family, and the tourists are tolerated and necessary house guests. “Nido” means “nest”, and you are blessed to be welcomed, as a traveler, to the place these Filipinos call home.
Traveling to Seoul was like leaving the U.S. for Korea, minus the dramatic goodbyes, 100 pounds of luggage, and about 20 less hours of travel time. So, basically, it was nothing like leaving the U.S. However, that feeling of sweet independence and anxiety returned as I navigated my way from Taejon Station, where the English Village shuttle dropped me off, to Dongdaegu Station, where I took the train for the first time to Seoul.
I like traveling on my own, but I don’t relax easily because it doesn’t happen very often. I set my backpack on the floor by my feet, plugged in my headphones, and tried to sleep while the train raced down the tracks, passing the city I was getting to know and rushing towards snow-sprinkled landscapes of cities I have yet to encounter.
I met my friend and Seoul tour guide/translator/photographer, Yongseok, at my graduation party a few months after I accepted the position to teach in Korea. He was a foreign exchange student at my best friend Kate’s university. They made me a chocolate cake, and Yongseok decorated it with words in Hangul. He also gave me a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge and wrote on the back: “See you in Korea.”
I think God puts people in our lives for a reason. I was both terrified and beyond excited to go on my own to South Korea for a year, but I felt more at ease when I knew I’d have a friend to visit when I got there. Someone who, you know, understood Korea. So meeting Yongseok before I left for Korea was one of those things God planned to reassure me that everything was going to be a-okay.
You know how sometimes when you go to an art museum, you’re like, “This stuff is pretty cool. What does it mean? Oh, crap, I’m going to have to use critical thinking to interpret the mind of the artist”? Well, try experiencing this in a museum of a foreign culture. I’m saying a lot, I’m sure, went over my head.
The first place we went after Yongseok helped me get a phone plan*** was an art exhibit in the old Seoul Station, which hasn’t been used for transportation since 2004. As we walked around the building, we typed words that were printed on the floor (like “crossing”, “technology”, and “shopping”) into an app on my phone, and it asked us survey questions that would, at the end of the exhibit, tell us about how we identify with the city we live in. It was an interesting concept, although we only answered about 20% of the questions while we explored, so the results, that I really, really love shopping, were not super accurate.
The exhibit displayed pieces from the physical structure of the original station, but mainly there were a variety of projects created by artists. It focused on typography, which was interesting given the knowledge I gained from a print design class I took in college. The exhibit had sections that explained the font styles that have been used on street signs and on businesses, displaying the unique personalities of different parts of Seoul. There were also books hanging from the ceiling on string and little sculptures one artist had created to represent each Hangul character.
***If you don’t speak Korean, you’re going to have a bad time attempting to get a phone plan. Tip: Find a Korean buddy and have them do the talking. Then you can just sit there with your dumb, foreign face and nod as if you totally understand what’s going on. You can nervously peel the rubber from your “LifeProof” case. You can hope when the guy behind the desk laughs, he’s not laughing at your dumbness. You can get excited because you’re finally going to be able to connect to wifi reliably and have data. Oh, technological-dependence, you fickle mistress.
“I think you like Korean food?” Yongseok told me as we ate mandoo, which was spicy dumplings, noodles, and mushrooms in a red broth. Based on our friend Kate’s previous reaction to Korean foods, I think he was expecting me to dislike the degree of spiciness in the food. However, the soups we had in Seoul were so good that I’m hoping to be able to find restaurants in Daegu with similar dishes.
So I tried a lot of traditional Korean soup, which was fitting for how cold the weather was.
So, yeah, Yongseok. Korean food is delicious.
The palaces are sites I’d like to see again the next time I’m in Seoul. They were really beautiful, but we didn’t get to see as much of them as we would have liked due to the timing of my visit. We walked a short distance from the old Seoul Station to Gyeongbokgung Palace, on the way grabbing some traditional Korean candy called yeot from a man who was chopping it into little bits on his cart. The candy is rock-hard at first, but it softens into a taffy-like consistency as you chew it.
Gyeongbukgung Palace is especially beautiful because the mountains loom in the background. It’s majestic, an iconic part of Korea standing its ground while a modern city grows up around it. Such a stark contrast between architectural styles and hundreds of years of progress.
This palace was closed for tours, unfortunately, but we were able to see inside the National Palace Museum of Korea. There was a lot to take in at the museum. Even though most of the explanatory text on each exhibit label was in Korean, most had English titles and Yongseok was able to interpret the rest for me. Some of my favorite parts of the museum were…
This screen was always positioned behind the throne of the Joseon king (see final picture). Fun fact: “Joseon” was actually what Korea was called during this dynasty, instead of the current name, Hanguk. The nature imagery symbolizes the universe and the cycle of life.
This is a restored version of the original water clock created by King Sejong. Based on the flow of water through a basin and pipe system, the clock will chime at certain intervals to note the time of day or night. We were lucky to be looking at this part of the exhibit just a few minutes before it was supposed to chime, so were able to see one of the figures at the top beat a drum, sort of like a cuckoo clock.
I saw Deoksu Palace at night. It was built during the 16th century, and it’s the place where King Seonjo lived after returning to the capital in 1593. The Japanese forces had just withdrawn, leaving all the main palace compounds burnt to the ground.
Imagine entering through the front gate, heavy with the end of a war. You spent a year and a half in hiding in Uiju (long before it belonged to North Korea, of course), all the while knowing that your enemies are destroying your city. Peace finally comes, and so you arrive at your relatives’ home to live there temporarily.
Deoksu means “virtue and long life.”
We walked the palace grounds in the dark with layers of leaves beneath our feet, the trees creating a canopy above us. We peered inside a silent, shadowed throne room, and a dining room exposed to the outdoors. Many of the tourists were already gone, so the palace grounds were still and peaceful, despite the loudness of life that bursts through the city which has rebuilt itself over hundreds of years, taking on modernity like a warrior.
I’ve been teaching for five weeks at the English Village, and I’m adapting to the differences between Korean protocol and American protocol. When I first started teaching here, there were a few things that caught me off guard: the absence of fear when it comes to blood and guns.
The very first class I taught at this school was the Orientation class, where the kids pick their English nicknames and we review classroom rules. These are all the same as classroom rules in the U.S. (be nice to each other, no eating food in class, no running in the classroom, etc.) As I was working one-on-one with a student to help her choose an English name, the kids started motioning to me, “Teacher! Teacher!”
I walked over to a small group of boys and they all pointed at the drops of blood on the ground. One of the boys was clutching his nose as it dripped down his fingers. If one of the kids needs medical attention, you can get a Village Guide for help, I remembered from the week of training before. So, I went outside my classroom and said to one of the college students who herds the kids from class to class, “Um, one of the kids in my class has a bloody nose. Could you take care of him, and is there, like, someone who can clean the blood off the floor?”
Partly this was me being dumb, but from the two years I worked at a daycare center in the U.S., I remembered that touching blood is a no-no. And the kids were currently attempting to mop up the blood themselves with tissues, each coming into contact with someone else’s bodily fluid. So I thought to myself, They need to wash their hands, and we need to get somebody with gloves and bleach STAT! AIDS and stuff! So as the village guide left to help take care of the problem, I returned to the classroom and sent the kid to the bathroom to clean himself up. The Village Guide then came into the classroom and wiped up the blood with her bare hands and a wad of paper towels. She probably thought, Wow, this new teacher thinks she’s too good to wipe up a little blood. What a diva. But, really, all I was thinking was 23-19! We have a 23-19! RED ALERT. RED ALERT. RED ALERT.
Dear Village Guide (whose name is forever lost to me. Sorry about that, too.), I’m so sorry that I inadvertently treated you like a peasant and had you wipe up blood when I had two perfectly functioning hands.
So, yeah, blood is just not that big a deal in Korea, as additionally evidenced by the nurse who took our blood in the hospital with nary a glove.
But the difference that caught me off guard the most hit me as I entered one of the many classrooms (actually, just about all of the classrooms) that face the outside hallway with floor to ceiling glass. We sometimes joke about how it feels like we’re in a zoo enclosure, and the kids are all pounding on the glass, trying to get us to look at them while they wait to be let in at the start of class. Hello, teacher! Teacher, hello! Come out from under that desk, teacher! We’ll toss you cracker! Dance for us, monkey!
All joking aside, though, I stood in that classroom, writing on the board and preparing for the next group of students, and I thought Oh, man. Where are we supposed to hide the students if a shooter comes in the building? With the floor to ceiling glass, there would be no faking that the classroom was empty, that no scared kids are hiding against the wall, their knees pulled up to their chins, silent, the lights off.
I think all of us from the U.S. have experienced this tension, whether or not we were so unfortunate enough to actually have a shooting happen at our schools. We had drills in my middle school and high school. We’d get a call from the office or the speaker system would issue an alert, and the teacher would hustle to the door, lock it, tape black paper to the window, turn off the lights, shush us. Maybe for Americans there have been bigger scares, too, like when everyone in my high school had to sit in the gym because of a bomb threat, the administration thinking a big open space would somehow save us.
And then other times, like when I was in 3rd grade, we didn’t lock doors, but everything got very still when we heard the news about the twin towers. Students went home early with their parents. We watched the news broadcasts and prayed. We continued class despite the heavy tension that weighed us down so that we wondered, Does this even matter right now? Why are we learning about how to divide fractions when cities are splitting in two?
But vulnerable classrooms? Koreans just don’t seem to worry about it. Precautions aren’t taken because there aren’t guns to worry about. There’s violence in school, yes, but you can’t ban children’s fists and you can’t ban students from suicidal thoughts, though you can instill values in their minds so that they see each other’s lives as precious. And that’s something we’re still working on in every culture, in every country everywhere.
So I’m noticing these differences. It struck me that if I was going to worry about the glass rooms, the only concern I need to have is that tours of parents and potential investors are going to pass by and the Korean staff is going to frown at me for showing a YouTube video for five minutes instead of molding minds through active learning. And I view that as a privilege–one that I hope and pray every student and teacher will be able to experience.