Friday, April 17, 2009

What I did on the island

I am back in Seoul. Coming back to the city always kind of sucks, but at least it was sunny and I treated myself to a cab ride home so that I'd have the energy to do my laundry, run tons of errands, and deal with the aftermath of a week away.

I had a pretty laid-back trip. Even though I was on an island, I touched NO sea water. Usually, this would upset me. But this was a work / research / seeing everyday life trip. Work: the conference. I was locked in a hotel and so busy that I didn't even get to shoot the gorgeous scenery from a window. But everyone did a great job presenting. Esther helped me realize that buffets are truly evil inventions. There were lots of babies and small children. I got no sleep b/c our hotel room was inexplicably HEATED. Actually, now that I think about this, my other hotel room also felt heated.

Research: I met Kim Hae Gon, who is working on making hanji mixed with different plants of Jeju. We had met in Seoul a while back but I wanted to see his studio. He referred me to Park Hyun-Young, an artist and professor at Cheju University, and Yang Soon Ja, a designer, master persimmon dyer, and founder of Mongsengee.

This was the highlight of the trip. Soon Ja is AMAZING. She is now in her early 60s, and one of the few older Korean women I have met who does not dye or perm her hair. I went to her on Monday night, and she dropped me off at an animal care store on Wednesday afternoon. In between, she took me under her wing, housed me, fed me, told me stories, and gave me free rein in her studio. I even modeled for her latest dress design. She bought a local school that had shut down due to a lack of students, and is located on the west end of the island, way north, where she grew up. She studied fashion design at FIT in NYC and stayed for years, working and running her own business in the garment district. When she hit 40, she recognized that she was living a crazy life, and in her mid-40s decided to return to the island to give back. She feels now that it's time for her to pass on her "know how" before she passes away, which is why she feels so rushed.

She has a life philosophy and views quite different from people I've met. I find this to be the case for many people who spend significant periods of time abroad, or shorter periods of time abroad but during formative years of their lives. She told me to write to my bf immediately to tell him that I love him and that we need to make babies b/c women need to have children, though marriage is unnecessary. For the two mornings when I woke up in her home studio (she lives in the Jeoji Artist Village in a home she designed, right near the contemporary art museum, which we visited), she took me at 7am to hike an oreum. They're volcanic cones and they cover the island. The first day was misty, so I couldn't see any views. It was like hiking in a dream, in a beautiful forest. The next day was gorgeous, and I saw everything that was hidden from view the day before. Once we began our descent, I realized that nature was keeping me from seeing things, just as my own nature keeps me from seeing things. It's all the same.

The second day, a father and son who run a business in Japan involved with persimmon dyeing came to visit with their dyestuff, and we went to dinner together at an amazing local place right on the water. All seafood, raw and cooked. Yu-um. With a view of the water. I realized the first morning waking up that there were no car sounds. All I heard were birds, mostly pheasants. It was all green, all lush, everywhere. Made my heart ache, the time out there in the countryside. The place is bursting with fertility and the air is sweet. The second night was clear, and I could see stars. It's sad that seeing stars is such a rare occurrence in my life.

The third day with Soon Ja was her teaching day. B/c it was so sunny, she took everyone from the local library to her studio to dye (persimmon dye requires abundant sunlight). A local TV crew was there as well as a French team shooting a documentary on Jeju culture. Their translator, An HyeKyoung, was from Art Space C, a local arts organization. I realized that in Korea, I have an irresistible urge whenever seeing English-speaking foreigners to make sure they know that I speak English. For someone who has dealt with being the "other" forever, it's like I can't handle NOT being something other. Or maybe it's the other way around. Or maybe I have to be a certain kind of other. The director asked me to do a short interview (while apron-clad, my hands covered in dyestuff). He asked about the uncanny strength of women in Jeju, which was echoed everywhere I went, learning about how this island is plentiful in three things: wind, women, and rocks.

Two of the Mongsongee employees sew. The main tailor, Mr. Park, was hilarious and made wood fires to keep us warm, and Mrs. Kang was super sweet and knows the ins and outs of that place really well. She noticed me using a tiny scrap of hanji as a bookmark, so she quickly assembled a persimmon-dyed bookmark as a gift. It's ridiculous how lucky I've been in meeting such kind, generous strangers everywhere I go.

I rode a TON of cabs for long distances through windy roads. One let me sleep. Another was chatty and tour-guide-y (he even took me to a "mysterious road" where cars roll uphill instead of down), telling me that either you love the mountains or the shore. Another treated the ride like a video game and went as fast as possible in the wrong lanes in the dark. This is when I curse the Korean cabs b/c too often the buckle slots for the seat belts are taken out of the car. So you just brace yrself and pray. He could have used new brake pads, too.

Seeing everyday life: My dad's friend's friends helped me find a hotel for my last two nights, and they run a shop for animal-related things, so I got to hang out with two 1-month-old puppies. Simple pleasures! Like having a creature completely absorbed with my finger. We went to have another amazing Jeju dinner, and then I watched "Spiderman 3" while sprawled out on the hotel bed.

My last full day was gloomy, so I talked to Ben for four hours and then got myself together to meet the professor and then Boram, which was SO nice. She's at a year-long residency on the island and arrived at the bus stop to pick me up on a scooter!! It was such a surprise, but a wonderful one, to see her in her helmet and then to get her instructions on how to ride in back ("don't move!"). We had dinner and then walked down to the water for tea. She amazes me by how much she thinks and considers things. I'm also struck by how similar our struggles are, though Soon Ja said the same thing - that our obstacles are nearly identical.

I am back to my workaholic ways, but started bleeding right after landing in Seoul, so I've been home the rest of the day. I have to take that Korean language exam on Sunday and have not studied at all for the last two weeks. It's a shame, b/c if I was at my test-taking prime just a couple weeks ago. I have no intention of studying any more. Even if I wanted to cram, I have too much research to continue tomorrow on another site visit. I was observing a lot how close I am to scaling this wall I've run up against, language-wise. I'm right on that edge of more meaningful understanding, being able to piece together words, proverbs, sayings, cultural keys, but knowing that this is fleeting, too, and that it will disappear again. I think this is what I need to understand: it's all fleeting.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is one of my favorite posts. You made me want to be in the lushness of the island, playing with puppies.

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