How to Have Fun With Explosive Chemicals

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It’s so much fun to come home from work and find a package waiting for you on the front porch. Unless, however, the package contains dangerous chemicals that explode on contact with water, and the carton they were shipped in is soaking wet because it sat out in the rain all afternoon.

I approached with caution. There was no hissing, twitching or smoking, so I gently picked up the box and carried it dripping into the kitchen. I opened it and saw that everything was fine — the chemicals were inside sealed plastic bottles, which were also wrapped in a plastic bag.

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What dangerous chemicals could I possibly need? You may well ask. I have a new hobby as of two months ago — I like to make homemade soap.

My first batch was avocado oil soap with lemon. I made another batch last week, honey oatmeal with olive oil and cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is amazing! It smells just like rich chocolate, and you can bet I’ll be using it a lot!

Our grandparents had soaps like this, but I have never used a bar of real soap in my life. During WWII, there were so many shortages of so many things that soap began to be formulated with detergents, and that’s the way it is still made today. I wanted to know how to make real soap.

It’s really not difficult to make a batch of soap. I had everything I needed, except sodium hydroxide (lye), and avocado oil. I also bought some silicone molds in bar shapes. There are lots of tutorials online. The hardest part turned out to be leaving the soap to cure for a month before I could use it!

My new grandniece, Joanie, turns one in October. I wanted to make her some baby soap and shampoo, so I found some great recipes. The only ingredients in a bar of baby soap, at least the one I’m going to make, are olive oil (for soft skin), a little bit of castor oil (for bubbles), and lye, assembled with a cold process. For the baby shampoo I’ll have to try my hand at hot process soap making, which seems to be a little more time consuming and complicated. Liquid soaps use potassium hydroxide (potash), instead of sodium hydroxide (lye). The chemistry of soap making is fascinating. It’s a detailed process, weighing ingredients and calculating the amount of chemicals and water needed according to the kinds of oils you are using.

I love shopping on the Internet, but I’m still waiting for my castor oil to arrive. Maybe it will come tomorrow — I don’t think there’s any rain in the forecast.

 

Hello, How Are You?

I think it’s time to start blogging again.

But this time, it won’t be such a production. Just a little bit of a diary, maybe a photo. Memories of what happened, something someone said to me, chance encounters. And no more time spent editing, which is why, I think, I stopped in the first place.

Today at church the pastor talked about belonging to a community. His point, of course, is that the church should be a place where you feel you belong. Of course it is. But I think there are other places you can feel the same. Work, clubs, activities…I am blessed to have a job where I feel that my coworkers and I are more like sisters; best friends.

A long time ago, I had a friend named Eleanor. She was an elderly lady who loved her online friends back before Facebook even existed. I didn’t believe her when she said she had a lot of friends online she liked to communicate with. I was wary. “Be careful, Eleanor,” I told her, never believing for a moment that you could be friends with someone you didn’t know personally.

I know differently now. Not only can you keep in touch online with people you know and have met, but you can also meet new friends. Some of them become people with whom you feel you belong, and with whom you would miss if you stopped communicating. I can think of at least two people I met online that I have not Skyped with in a long time, and I miss them.

Today I made a new friend online, through an Italian/English conversation exchange. We spoke for about an hour, mostly in English because I was too insecure to try speaking Italian. Maybe I should check into more Benny Lewis. Anyway, I’m hopeful we will speak again soon, since he is a very nice person and he seems to want to help me improve my Italian. Ciao, Davide!

The world is a tiny place when you think about it. Borders are being crossed at a speed unthinkable even fifty years ago. Be wary, sure, but we need to try to embrace our differences and learn from each other.

We all belong to each other, and we are all more alike than we think.

 

Internationally Speaking

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My gosh, it’s been nearly a year since I posted last. I’m not sure why I stopped blogging, but it’s not like I haven’t been thinking about posts I would like to write if I had more time.

Lots has happened in a year, way too much to be contained in a single post. When we got back from Korea and our visit with Megan’s host family, we got ready to be a host family ourselves to a girl from Italy. Sara arrived near the end of August, and stayed with us in Erin’s old room until she went to her second host family just after New Year’s. The photo above is Sara with her prom date, Jameison.

When Megan returned from Korea last summer, she got a job waitressing at a restaurant downtown. Jamieson already worked there, and they became friends. Megan told him about her year in Korea, and Jamieson (who is half Korean) decided to apply to be a Rotary exchange student, too. His first choice of going to Korea was denied for some reason I don’t know. Through Megan, he also met Sara when school started, and he decided to go to Italy next year for his Rotary exchange.

This fall we also became a host family to an international student who is here at the college in town. Her name is Michelle, which isn’t her real name but it’s the name she prefers. She is Korean, but her family has lived in Shanghai since she was five, and she attended an international high school where she learned English, and unless you knew English wasn’t her native language, you wouldn’t be able to tell! Since she lives in China, she also learned Chinese. She said she startled some of the Chinese students by being able to talk with them in Chinese.

She doesn’t live with us, like Sara did, but we invite her over every now and then. We loaned her a floor fan for her dorm room in August, and she came over to have Thanksgiving and Easter dinners with us. We’ve taken her shopping for winter clothes, and to a Korean barbeque restaurant in Iowa City when she was desperate for food from home. She is so adorable and friendly, and as smart as can be. She loves languages (obviously) and signed up for a Spanish class fall semester, along with all her chemistry and math classes. Unfortunately, Spanish ended up being the class that did her in, and she dropped it.

Of course she met Sara along the way, so this Saturday Michelle, Sara, Megan and I are going to the international grocery in Des Moines, out to lunch and do a little shopping. It was Michelle’s idea, because it will probably be the last time she will get to see Sara, since she’ll be leaving for Shanghai when her finals are over, and Sara will be back in Italy when Michelle returns in the fall. It makes me think this is all worth it, when I realize they wouldn’t even have met if we hadn’t opened our home to them both.

It’s so easy to just exist in your own little corner of the world, going to work, coming home to eat and sit on the couch all night, and I am just as guilty of that as the next person. For me, it’s an effort to reach out and be sociable, but as I look back, it really didn’t take much time or work at all, and it provides me with a wealth of happy memories and hopes for the future. I talked to Sara’s current host dad, Lowell, last night at the promenade. Lowell is a Rotary member, and I made sure he knew we would host another student any time. We’ll also host another college student this fall, so Michelle will have a “host sister” (or brother), and we’ll do things with both of them.

There are so many more things to blog about, and I will. I’m starting a square foot garden this spring. I’m trying to learn how to cook in a Sun Oven (if it will stop raining and be sunny on days I’m home…) I’m learning how to make paper flowers, because a second shop in town is consigning my cards now, and this new shop also does event and wedding planning. She was excited about the handmade books I showed her, and asked if I also made guest books for weddings and graduations. Of course I do, umm, or I will, soon… Erin is transferring to the University of Iowa this fall, and Megan will be graduating in a few weeks, so we have all that planning to do. Still trying to study Italian so I can visit Sara and her family in Italy someday (every time I talk to Sara’s mom on Facebook she repeats her invitation for us to come visit!), and working on my online TEFL certification just in case I find myself living overseas and in need of a job…it could happen.

It’s all good.

Hopefully my next post won’t be so long.

 

 

Silla Kings and Korean Barbeque

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Yangdong Traditional Village

We’re home now, but I wanted to keep blogging about our trip. At dinner on Wednesday evening with Megan’s host family, her father asked me what kinds of things I wanted to see in Korea. I remain fascinated how a country that is smaller than Iowa could feed a population sixteen times bigger. I told him I thought it would be fun to see the countryside, just to see how it compared to the Iowa countryside. He asked if I would like to see history, and I said yes. He nodded and said, “History, yes.”

The next day Megan told us that her host family wanted to take us on a drive Saturday. I was amazed at their generosity, and we were up and at the subway by 8:00 am. We had to leave Erin at the apartment, because her body clock is is set to only be conscious at night, even on the other side of the world. It was too bad, but I do think Erin got a little bit of enjoyment out of the trip, even if she didn’t participate much.

The Go family, Yu Seok, Yung Bae, and Minji, picked us up at the subway station near their apartment in a black SUV, don’t ask me what the make and model was. We drove about an hour north to a place called Yangdong Folk Village. Yangdong is a traditional clan village from the Joseon Dynasty. I won’t take time to describe it when you can read about it online, only to say it was founded in the fifteenth century and clan members still live there.

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Minji and Megan found a little platform leading out into the lotus pond. Little did I know at the time that Asians eat almost every part of the lotus — it’s a miracle plant. The flowers, seeds, stems, young leaves, and “roots” (rhizomes) are all edible. Petals are sometimes used for garnish, while the large leaves are used as a wrap for food, not frequently eaten. In Korea, the leaves and petals are used as a tisane.

IMG_2910After an hour of walking, they asked if we were hungry. There were a couple small restaurants in the village, and we followed Yu Seok around while she tried to find one that served lotus rice. We finally walked into one of the houses, where they had turned the courtyard into a “greenhouse,” selling water plants and other flowers and bushes. We climbed a steep step, took off our shoes, and stepped into a room of the house set aside as a restaurant. If it was possible, it was even more amazing than the dinner Yu Seok made for us at her house. We had bulgogi, green onion “pancakes,” and a lot of the traditional side dishes: kimchee, fried baby anchovies, pickled daikon radish, noodle dishes, and more.

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They brought the lotus rice, two servings that we shared among the six of us. It consisted of the sticky rice with beans, steamed inside a lotus leaf wrapper. It was delicious and totally amazing, something we would never have even known about had it not been for our wonderful host family. Yu Seok even tried to give me a lesson in the proper way to hold chopsticks, but sadly, I was unteachable.

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The rest of the day was packed full of activity too. After Yangdong, we drove back to Gyeong Ju and visited the Bulguksa Temple. Gyeong Ju was the capital of the thousand-year Silla dynasty from 57 BC–935 AD, and the Bulguksa Temple is one of only a few remaining examples of Silla architecture. Like Yangdong Village, the temple is built into the mountainside, so we did a lot of walking to see it. If we took off our shoes, by now a familiar ritual for me here in Korea, we were allowed into the main hall to see some of the temple’s treasures, while local Buddhists (including Yu Seok) paid their respects to the Buddha inside.

It was getting late in the afternoon, but Yung Bae still had things for us to see. Not too far from the temple was the Gyeongju National Museum, mostly devoted to the relics of the Silla Dynasty — Gyeong Ju was its capital. Silla in its later years was known as the Golden Kingdom, and to see the golden relics and crowns, you have to visit the website since we couldn’t take pictures.

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Yung Bae had one more stop for us, and it was getting close to dinnertime. We stopped at an Angel-in-us coffeeshop, like a Starbucks in a Korean strip mall, and had drinks. Yu Seok disappeared to a bakery and brought back some Gyeong Ju bread, pastries filled with red bean paste, which she said were a specialty you could only get in Gyeong Ju. Minji made a face and said she didn’t like them.

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Yung Bae took our picture in Tumuli Park

We walked from the coffeeshop to the Tumuli Park, where many of the later Silla kings are buried. The only Korean tomb you can enter, the Heavenly Horse Tomb, is here, and it was carefully curated and made into a small museum to show how the mounds were constructed and the way the Silla kings were entombed.

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It was getting dark, and we got back into the car. I hoped we were headed back to Busan, an hour drive, but Yung Bae had other plans. We drove into town, through streets that got smaller and smaller as we went, until we ended up in a dead end alley at a wonderful Korean barbeque restaurant. It was late, and the restaurant was busy, and the food was absolutely delicious. A waiter brought a hot pot with glowing coals to set in the grill area of our table, with a copper smoke vent positioned above it. The waitress brought a platter of several kinds of raw meat and Yung Bae grilled them at our table. Even though I just wanted to get home, I am totally glad we stopped here to eat.

After an hour drive back to Busan (where Yung Bae made me wonder if there were speed limits in Korea), I was ready to sleep in with Erin the next day. On the drive we did see the Korean countryside, mostly pancake-flat rice fields between highways and tree-covered mountains. I got to see more of Korea than just the city between subway stops, thanks to our amazing and generous host family.

Minji and Dinosaurs

It’s colder here than I expected. Yesterday, I was thinking about that umbrella I almost but not quite put in my suitcase, and today I’m thinking about that jacket that’s still hanging in the closet at home. The rain is done, but the wind is blowing. A good day for shopping, I’d say.

We had to wait again for Erin, who I’m starting to wonder if she is enjoying being here or not. We finally made it onto the subway around noon, headed for Nampyeong. 

We had no sooner stepped out of the glass doors of the subway when straight ahead we saw the lower level of Lotte department store. It’s a huge, upscale store with name brands from all over the world, like Gucci and Columbia. I notice that people here tend to wear whatever they want with not much regard for what the current styles are. Not to say that Koreans are not stylish, but it’s more an attitude of “laissez faire” — whatever you need or want to do, you just do it. I notice that in other ways, too. It’s not really necessary to say excuse me if you bump into someone, you just regroup and continue on your way. If Samchon needs to pull up and drop us off at our apartment, he just does a u-turn in the middle of the street and pulls over, still blocking traffic a bit, and other cars will simply wait till he is done so they can get through. Bikes and motorbikes share the sidewalks. Cars don’t wait for pedestrians unless they would actually hit someone, and pedestrians walk down narrow alleys with cars passing them with not much room to spare. I haven’t noticed any speed limit signs either, or traffic behaving like there are any. The main roads, though, like the main thoroughfare along the beaches in Haeundae, is pretty well controlled, with stoplights and crosswalks that people obey without complaint.

Megan announced that she had called Minji, who was done with her testing and out of school early. Minji was going to join us at the theater on the tenth floor of Lotte, and the girls had decided to see Jurassic World, in English with Korean subtitles. I asked Megan why they didn’t just dub it into Korean, and she said it was a new release and couldn’t be dubbed yet. Apparently Koreans are used to watching American movies with subtitles.

We ate lunch in the food hall at Lotte, at a Japanese sushi bar. Erin didn’t eat anything but the complimentary miso soup, insisting that she would just wait to have nachos at the movie. I had a salad with raw tuna and raw salmon, and I actually enjoyed it with the wasabi and soy sauce that Megan mixed together for us.

Of course the movie was great. Megan had seen it twice already, and Minji once. We took the subway home, and Minji came with us. Megan, Minji and I walked down to the beach where the girls waded into the water and proceeded to splash each other until Minji’s school uniform was a little wet, and she was shrieking and flapping her skirt to see if it would dry. But it wasn’t long before they were splashing each other again.

Megan and Minji could have been twins, in another time and place. This is the first time Minji’s parents have hosted a Rotary student. Megan said that when they heard a girl from the USA needed a host family, they volunteered mostly so Minji could have someone to help her learn English. Like Samchon and Cousin, Minji wants to come to America for college, and her parents are fine with that if she can prove she is ready and can pass her TOEFL test. Cousin did, but she said it was harder than any other college entrance test she had to take.

We found the Haeundae street market and bought some fish cakes, fried squid and kimbap (rice wrapped with seaweed) to bring home for David and starving-to-death Erin, who is missing baked potatoes and sour cream very much. Minji’s uniform was finally dry, so she thought it would be safe to go home. We walked her to the subway. We’ll see her again tomorrow, because Father is home for the weekend and Minji’s family wants to take us on a drive north to Gyeong-Ju, where there are amazing and historical things to see, along with the beautiful Korean mountains. 

I Miss My Water Bottle

Groceries, groceries. What do you do with an empty refrigerator other than fill it up?

Thursday morning David, Megan and I walked along the same route we took the day before, only this time we were headed to Home Plus, which reminded me of Ikea, with at least four huge floors of anything you could ever need, from underwear to pianos. We browsed in the book section for a bit, then filled a cart with groceries. 

After we paid, we took the groceries to an area where we taped up flattened boxes, put our groceries in, and carried them back home. We bought some fried chicken in a mild chili sauce, a deep fried squid, and drinks…soda and a couple bottles of soju. We also bought some cute little soju glasses, kind of like shot glasses but rounder, with a think glass base.

We stashed the stuff in the fridge and wanted for Erin to get up, shower, and fix her hair. Then it was off to Samyeong shopping district, another subway ride.

The subways in Busan are extremely easy to use, clean and very accessible, especially if you can read Korean. The trains run behind glass doors, and orchestra music plays to signal the train’s imminent arrival. Quite amazing and not at all what I expected from a subway!

Samyeong is like a normal down town shopping area, tall buildings with small shops lining the streets and down basement stairs, little “holes in the wall.” It’s kind of a young hang-out area as well, lots of karaoke restaurants and night life.  Jennifer, a Rotary exchange student from Sweden, met us and we all shopped together. 

Megan parked David and me in a very nice Angel-in-us Coffee shop so David could sit down while the girls shopped. When they were done, we had a blueberry ice dessert at another little chain restaurant — one huge bowl big enough for five people to share. Soon, I’ll look up all the correct names and spelling for the places we went and the food we ate.

It was starting to rain a little, so Jennifer and Megan asked us what we wanted to eat for dinner. I told her to choose, because she obviously had favorite foods and restaurants, and I wanted her to be able to enjoy them one more time before we went home. The place she chose made me wonder if they had restaurant inspection laws here, but the food was delicious — black bean paste over noodles with steamed pork dumplings. I’ve usually been perpetually thirsty here. Apparently, Koreans don’t usually drink with their meals, but before and after. And when we have water, it’s usually cold, but without ice and in tiny metal cups. You don’t ever see Koreans toting water bottles around wherever they go, but you can buy a bottle of water at a corner convenience store if you want. Which we do, because Megan also told us not to drink the tap water.

We made our soggy way back home with Jennifer in tow, and the girls swooned over the K-pop boy bands on TV for a while until we had to walk Jennifer back to the subway station. K-pop is a whole ‘nother post, but I have to say that even though I don’t understand the words it’s very entertaining to watch. 

I looked at the soju in the fridge, but decided I was tired enough. More shopping tomorrow– the famous Lotte department store in Nampeong, and a mall they say has the largest indoor fountain in the world. And again, I think I’ll wait to add photos until I get home, because they are all on my phone. 

Birthday Soup

Our first day in Korea dawned sunny and warm, perfect weather! We ventured out in search of breakfast, following behind my youngest daughter like a string of ducklings. 

We headed off toward the beach, and it became lunchtime before we knew it. Still determined to find us a bakery, Megan brought us to a beautiful bakery along Haeundae’s main road. David and Megan each had a little onion pie, I had a flaky pastry with salami and cheese, and Erin chose a small pink macaroon, saying that she prefered to wait for ice cream. Every pastry and cake in the shop was beautiful, like they had come right off the pages of a foodie magazine.

Still looking for the beach. We kept walking close to the shore, and ended up on the street where they hold the yearly Busan International Film Festival. The theater complex was huge, and in a little seating area along the sidewalk there were bronze plaques with handprints and photos of popular Korean film stars. 

“See over there? That’s Gonju Beach,” Megan said. 

“I thought the Aquarium was at Haeundae Beach,” I said.

Megan looked around. “Oh yeah,” she said.

Back we went, and finally found the beach. We went through the Aquarium, too, where a young woman weaving a breathing mask took our temperatures with a scanner to make sure we weren’t sick. People here are cautious about catching MIRS, which has made its way from Seoul to Busan. Though we didn’t see a lot of people in masks, it wasn’t an uncommon sight.

The Aquarium was nice, as aquariums go, and we went back to the apartment. Megan’s host family had invited us over that evening for dinner, so we ventured out again to the subway for a long ride across town to Hwamyeong.

Dinner was amazing, and I felt so honored to be fussed over and welcomed. Yu Seok went to a lot of trouble to make a special meal with foods mostly reserved for holidays. They live in a tall apartment complex in Hwamyeong, and the apartment was gorgeous, a mix of contemporary and heavy, dark wood with traditionally elegant Korean furniture. Big kitchen and living room, three bedrooms, and long balconies on each side of their unit. 

Samchon was there as well, and a cousin who had just returned from finishing her bachelor’s degree in violin at a school in Cincinnati. Megan’s host sister, Minji, was still at school and wouldn’t be able to come, and Megan’s host dad surprised us by coming home just before dinner. He works at KAI, Korean Aerospace International, as a designer. He usually leaves for work an hour away from home on Monday morning and doesn’t return until Friday evening, but he drove back especially to meet us for dinner.

Dinner was amazing. We sat on the floor in the middle of the living room and ate around two square black tables pushed together. The tables were loaded with small dishes of food, and we each had a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup. Megan told us to use our chopsticks to take bits of food from the serving bowls and put it in our bowl of rice, where we could eat it from there. We could also put rice into the soup. 

Yu Seok made an amazing variety of food. She had deep fried squid, cod, and shrimp arranged on a plate with dipping sauce. There was kimchee and a milder version that was served in a milky sauce. Megan said her favorite was a little dish of crunchy baby anchovies. There were dishes of bulgogi, bowls of a noodle and vegetable dish, and plates of small radish and vegetable rolls, with a dish of creamy sauce for dipping. The seaweed soup we all had in front of us was a soup specially made for birthdays, with bits of pork in it.

The entire meal was delicious, and the experience of being welcomed and honored by a Korean family was precious and humbling. Even Erin, my Kraft macaroni and cheese daughter, said she enjoyed the meal, even though she was having a little trouble with the chopsticks and didn’t eat much.

When we finished eating, Megan’s host dad offered shot glasses of soju for us to try, explaining that it is a traditional Korean rice liquor, and apparently is also the most popular drink in the world. We also tried a milky white liquor which I prefered to the soju, though it was also good. Megan and Erin also had some, since in Korea, you are already a year old when you are born, and everyone turns a year older together on the first day of the year. So Megan, who is 18 at home, is twenty here and totally legal, as is Erin.

After dinner, we sat in the living room and talked some more, the three of us on the couch and Megan and everyone else on the floor around the coffe table. Cousin brought out plates of fresh plums and clementines, and Yu Soek offered us glasses of white wine. I really don’t know anyone’s names, because we were never really introduced, except that at dinner Yu Seok shyly told us her name when asked, apologizing that it was hard to pronounce. Cousin spelled it for us, that’s the only reason I can tell you what it is. 

Yu Seok is a nurse at a convalescent hospital, and Father, as I’ve already said, designs light aircraft at KAI. Cousin is going back to the US in a few weeks to begin graduate school in violin at Michigan State. I think Samchon teaches business math here in Busan, but he got a PhD in the US and studied and taught at the University at Champagne-Urbana in Illinois. He’s actually been to Iowa several times. Minji did come home a little before the end of the meal to join us. She goes to a performing arts high school, and is studying dance. At one point she showed us her most recent costume, a version of a traditional Korean gown.

We had a little trouble with language, but not much. Megan said Yu Seok has been trying to learn English, and I could tell she was frustrated at times, but she did really well, much better than my Korean. Samchon gave us a ride home, since he lives near us in Haeundae. I could hardly keep my eyes open during the trip and nodded off several times, which was embarassing, but a little wine and soju and jet lag finally just did me in.

I have pictures, but they are on my phone, and before I try to add them I’m going to save and publish this so I don’t lose it. I’ll also corre t my spellino and the names of the Korean things. I can already tell you that this evening with Megan’s host family will be the highlight of our trip. It was very special, and I feel honored to be welcomed and included like that. But I’m learning that’s what the Korean people are like — very friendly and accepting and kind. 

David thinks he would like to live here, especially when Samchon told us there are no taxes. Speaking of money, tomorrow is a shopping day– looking forward to that, too!

Bento and Beaches

If I had to use one word to describe Korea it would be “happy.” The people are friendly, courteous and cheerful, the city is clean and busy, and the weather so far is perfect for a June day, partly sunny with a breeze either blowing down from the mountains or in from the ocean, I am not sure which, but either one works.

We arrived in Busan late on Tuesday evening after a thunderstorm delayed our flight out of Tokyo. Otherwise, the flight was very boring and uneventful, which is just the way airplane flights are supposed to be. They stuffed us full of food on the 13-hour flight from Dallas to Tokyo, and they fed us again on the two-hour Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo to Busan. I had my first bento box on the plane — sticky rice with snapper and Japanese ginger, pulled pork with miso, a boiled egg, deep-simmered kelp, and what they called a Japanese sweet, a figgy kind of filling wrapped with dough. It’s hard to describe. Served with chopsticks and very delicious.

 

It was so wonderful to see Megan again after 11 months! I didn’t think I would cry, but I did, and I am again right now. She came to the airport with her host mother, Yoo Soek, her host sister Minji, and her host uncle, whom she  calls Samchon, which just means uncle. Megan told us that we were invited to Yoo Soek’s house for dinner the next evening, which I thought was so amazing of them. I even hugged Yoo Soek, which I’m not sure I was supposed to do but she didn’t seem to mind. It might have been mutual, but I was too emotional to know the difference. Samchon loaded our bags in his car and drove us to Haeundae district, not far from where he lives, and helped us find our apartment. 

It’s a cute little apartment we found on airbnb, about two blocks from Haeundae Beach. The main floor is about the size of a motel room, with two beds, a nice kitchen with everything but an oven, and a set of steep stairs leading to a loft where there are two more beds, like a little bedroom. The main room has a high ceiling with a window that almost covers the entire exterior wall. Out the window, I can see the Haeundae Grand Hotel a block away, and quite a few other hotels. Our own building is 22 stories, a small one. 

 
We can also see the sea if I look the other direction! Being from Iowa, the sea is a big deal.

  
That’s it, peeking out from between the Haeundae GT Hotel and the apartment building that’s under construction. 

Yoo Soek told Megan that she needed to stay here with us, so she packed a bag and came with us. I feel kind of bad about that, because I didn’t want to interrupt her last week in Korea, but she had it all planned out anyway. Tomorrow she is going to take us to the beach and the Aquarium, then on an hour-long subway ride to her host parents’ house in Hwamyeong, which is a district in north Busan. 

Tired. I tried to stay awake for most of the flight, thinking I could easily fall asleep when we arrived, wake up in the morning and have a mostly awake day. For the most part it worked, except for the soju, which I’ll tell you more about tomorrow.  

 

Hana Hana Hangul

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Thanks to my amazing and supportive co-worker, Monique, who suggested that she would like to read about our trip to Korea, I will try to do what I did when we went to Italy and blog here at the end of each day, sharing pictures of what we saw. (Except for the day we spend on the airplane because that would be boring.) It should be easy enough, since jet lag will probably keep me up most nights until it’s time to return home.

The photo above is from exploringkorea.com, and is a picture of Haeundae Market in Busan. This is close to where we will be staying. I can’t think of anything I would like to do more that just wander around through markets and beaches and just see Korea and smile at people. Maybe buy stuff. If I can figure out how to spend money. I bet I’ll get the hang of it very fast.

If I am going to buy stuff, I should probably learn how to count. Megan has been trying to help me, but Korean is a little more difficult for me to wrap my brain around than Italian. In Korean, you can count in Korean (for numbers of items or age) or you can count in Sino-Korean for all other uses, like money, addresses and dates. They usually use western numbers, but there is a Korean numeric script called Hanja, which is occasionally used for prices. However, I have ten fingers, and I think I will be a successful shopper anyway.

I can say “hello” and “thank you,” but not confidently, because there are many ways to say “hello” and “thank you” depending on who you are talking to. My Korean book shows four levels of familiarity to use when you are speaking to someone (technically there are seven.) That’s twice as many as Italian, and four times as many as English.

Sentence construction is different, too. In English, of course, we use subject-verb-object for a basic sentence. In Korean, they use subject-object-verb. The verb always goes at the end of the sentence. They tag words with endings called “particles” to mark which word is the subject and which is the object. Particles are also used as prepositions, conjunctions, and to show possession, among other things. Most of them can mean more than one thing, for example, the particle “-e” can mean at, to or in. Verbs are tagged with endings to signify which level of familiarity you are using. I think once I become somewhat familiar with particles, that will be half the battle. Then it’s just a matter of vocabulary and reading Hangul. That’s my theory, anyway.

Hangul is not like trying to read Chinese or Japanese. It’s a phonetic alphabet, just like English, with 24 letters. Reading Hangul is way easier than trying to read romanizations of the Korean words. Vowels get romanized into long, unpronounceable strings of a, e, i, o and u, and it is way simpler to learn the sound the Korean letter makes and just say it. It’s like translating things twice, once from Hangul into the romanization, then from that to English. Let’s just skip the middle step. Hangul is an extremely logical alphabet, and honestly, you can “learn it in an hour,” like the book says. Practice would take a little longer, I think. I still read Hangul like a kindergartner learning her ABCs. Megan and her host sister, Minji, laugh at my pronunciation, bless their hearts. The website koreanclass101.com is fantastic, and their free video series “Hana Hana Hangul” is the best. In the very first lesson, we find out that “hana hana” means “shortcut,” even though the series is very thorough and practical as well.

This whole language learning thing makes me feel so very blessed to be a native English speaker. For some odd reason, English is the language that so many people want to learn. People have assured us that most Koreans speak a little English, I suppose in the same way that some Americans have learned a little Spanish. A few weeks ago, a man came into the hardware store while I was working. He either didn’t know English, or didn’t feel comfortable trying to speak to me in English. He wrote down a few words on a piece of paper, and gestured a little with his hands. I couldn’t dig deep enough into my semester of college Spanish to remember the word for “clean,” but the word “manos” came right to my brain. I rubbed my hands together and said “Manos?” His expression lit up, and he shook his head, pulled at his jacket, and said “Ropas.” Success. He left happy, with some laundry soap and batteries.

I have to admit that spending a week in Korea makes me a little anxious. I’ll be going somewhere very unfamiliar to what I know. But with the world shrinking so quickly, I think we would be able to defuse at least a little of the fear we have if we could just meet others halfway by learning a few words of their language. I believe with all my heart that it breaks down barriers and provides proof that you are engaged and interested in others’ lives and their culture. Even in our small college town we have students and permanent residents from all over the world. At the library, I hear English spoken in many different accents.

I’ll keep trying. I still want to be able to say “pleased to meet you” to Megan’s host family.

Airborne

andy's airborne pin

Andy called me Saturday morning. He was driving back to Camp Lejeune from Fort Benning in Georgia. He usually calls me when he is bored, and apparently the drive across Georgia is amazingly boring. He had been at Fort Benning for three weeks in Airborne school, part of his Special Forces training.

“I graduated,” he told me.

“Congratulations!” I said. “I saw your pictures on Facebook.”

“I don’t know if you want to hear this,” he went on, “but I amost died.”

There is not much you can say when your son tells you that. “NO, I DON’T WANT TO HEAR THAT!” is the first thing that comes to mind. But it seemed like he really wanted to tell me, so I let him tell me the story.

To make a long story a little more entertaining, you might want to watch the above YouTube video of the last week of Airborne training. The students do five jumps from a lower altitude before they can graduate. Andy told me they all have two parachutes, one on their back and one on their front. The back chute will open automatically after four seconds. If they count to six seconds and their chute does not open, they must manually open their front chute, like a failsafe. From the moment they jump (or are pushed out the door), they have twenty seconds before they hit the ground.

Andy got to six seconds and realized his back chute did open, but for some reason it didn’t open completely. It was just streaming, closed, in the air above him. He opened his front chute, but he said that because of the little bit of drag created by having his main chute flapping above him, the front chute didn’t do what it was supposed to do and instead just wrapped around his face so he couldn’t see.  He heard his instructors yelling around him, and like an answer to prayer, the main chute finally caught the wind and opened. Then boom, he was on the ground. Everyone came running up to him and told him he’d scared the #$@ out of them.

He said there’s no time to be scared, it all happens so fast you just do what you have to do. He seemed totally fine with the whole thing, as you might expect from a young man who wants adventure and to see the world. At one point during our conversation, he said, “You only get one life. I wish I believed in reincarnation so I could do it all again.”

He went on to talk about what he wants to do in the future. Three more years in the Marines, and while he is still active duty he plans to earn most or all of his bachelor’s degree in some kind of science. When he gets out, he wants to go to graduate school with his GI Bill, then teach for a while while he works on his Doctorate. THEN, he wants to submit his application to NASA to be an astronaut. “How can they refuse me?” he said in all sincerity. I felt a tad bit faint.

I miss him being away, but I am so proud of all his accomplishments. He knows, like he said, that he only gets one shot at life, one chance to be 24 and getting paid to jump out of airplanes. He knows what he wants, and he is living his dream.

I think about my life, going to work, coming home, housework, and a little TV. Every day. My kids are gone, so for the most part I do what I want. But what do I want? I know I don’t want to jump out of airplanes, but surely there is something more out there. I may not be able to go where the action is, but I can create my own action. I can make each day count by investing in other people’s lives, by just being a friend. Instead of putzing around the house on a Saturday off, I can help my friend move, or go visit my dad and take him a casserole. I can go out to eat with my daughter, and have a good chat. I can make a nice meal for my husband, and listen to him tell me about his day.

You only have one life. And what do you have at the end of it unless you have spent your time doing things that truly matter? I guess, when you hit the second half of your life and the clock is ticking down instead of up, you start to think more about these things. Andy’s clock is still ticking up, and he’s already figured it out.

I may tell him, though, that I don’t want to hear bad stories about the second phase of his airborne training – high altitude jumps. I’m pretty sure that would be the end of me.