Il Tae Oppa and Korean Funeral Customs

It’s like our school was being haunted by something horrible last week.  The second graders had torn the English room apart during weekend baduk classes for the second week in a row, including one of the students peeing in our fake toilet.  A rash of students lying and skipping classes was going around the school, and in a dramatic moment, one student was fed up with being outcast by others and announced he was going to kill himself, locked himself in the bathroom, and tried to jump out the window of our 2 story school.  And in the midst of all the drama, something so powerful made all those smaller dramas feel suspended and unmoving, like raspberries in Jello.  Everything became about Il Tae and the fire…

Il Tae and I were so close to each others’ hearts even though we had never had a real conversation in one language or the other.  From the moment I met him in January of my first year in Korea, we greeted each other with open arms, smiled warmly, and always kept each others’ glass full.  I spent more time in the administration office than any other room in the school back in Yeoryang, and he was there too.  Every time he arrived I’d spring up out of my chair and greet, “Il Tae Oppa!  Coffee DeChilayo?”  Everyone in the office wanted to be known as oppa (older brother) even though outside of the office, Il Tae oppa was always known as Abeoji (father) or Harabeoji (grandfather).  But I never questioned the office rule or went against it. 

Often times, after Il Tae oppa had his coffee, I’d sit in the chair and he’d reach out for me.  I’d take his hand and he’d hold mine tightly with both hands.  I’d reach up and stroke his tan farmers arm and turn it to inspect his military tattoo of a peach near his wrist.  I’ve never much wanted a tattoo or liked them on other people, but that one was just so beautiful to me – its thick, blue-black ink and blurry edges.  I’d go to touch it and he’d pull away.   He was a bit embarrassed of his tattoo, as for people his age, they were extremely taboo.  A man would often be looked down on and called names for having a tattoo.  But however he felt, I really liked it.  It makes me terribly sad to think that beautiful peach was probably burned away in the fire, but maybe it brings his soul comfort to know he won’t be buried with his military mistake. 

When it came time for me to leave Yeoryang I gave my tearful goodbye to Il Tae oppa.  I had special conversation time with everyone that night, exchanging glasses of soju, but when it was Il Tae’s turn we filled each other’s glass 3 times over.  It didn’t matter the consequences, we just wanted a little more time.  We held hands, made hearts for each other with our arms, said what little we could, and laughed together one last time.

I spent a year away in Wonju, but came back to visit the administration office a few times.  I missed it so dearly that I tried to move back when the year was up.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t return to that school, so I settled for another town 20 minutes away – Imgye.  There I could work with a few of my old friends from Yeoryang and be close by to others.  Sometimes when I was walking home from school, Il Tae would stop in the road as he was driving his truck.  He’d tell me he was bringing corn husks or hay for his cows to eat.  Imgye was where Il Tae oppas house and farm were.

Winter came and the break was lonely in Imgye.  I hadn’t made a lot of friends at school and I was stuck teaching never-ending winter camp alone.  But suddenly I heard a low, booming voice coming from the administration office and I knew… Il Tae oppa had joined us at our school.  That day, and every day I saw him for the next 2 weeks, I gave him a big hug.  I didn’t care if other people thought we were weird because people don’t hug in Korea.  Looking back now I don’t regret a single one of those hugs.  I’m so glad that Il Tae oppa and I knew exactly how we felt about one another.

During that winter I also struggled with stomach problems and ate peckishly for a while.  Others at the school discussed their concerns about why I was a picky eater in Korean in front of my face, and while I could understand them, I couldn’t defend myself.  One day, Il Tae oppa invited us to his home for lunch.  His wife made pumpkin porridge and chicken dumpling soup, all from things grown from Il Tae’s hands.  I could tell that she had worked so hard to make everything on the table and yet Il Tae was still worried I couldn’t eat it.  I begged with him not to make his wife prepare anything else, but she did anyway.  I was determined not to insult their family (his daughter was there too) and show them how much the food meant to me, so I forced myself to eat the whole big bowl of porridge, all of the dumplings in the soup, a big bowl of rice, an egg, lots of kimchi and a bit of everything else on the table.  The other men attending were surprised and asked, “Aren’t you going to explode?”  I offered a humble, “Yes, but I wanted to show my Il Tae and his family how much I appreciate all of the hard work that went into making this food.  Thank you so much Il Tae.”  On a side note, I’ll never have pumpkin porridge that great ever again.

Il Tae oppa helped to bring our dysfunctional school staff in Imgye much closer together.  From our first staff dinner to welcome him, we were all enamored by his kind spirit and his wonderful stories.  He was the kind of guy that you sit down with, rest your chin on your palm, and just listen to happily.  He gave me such high hopes for bettering our school atmosphere and he was a welcome glue between everyone.  After only a short time he became the leader of school morale and special activities.  He was worried that I was being left out at school so he installed a messenger on my computer… life was great with Il Tae and everyone knew it.  Even as a foreigner it was obvious for me to see that the whole community here loved and respected Il Tae oppa.

This past Tuesday, our dear Il Tae and his wife were in their home when there was a huge accidental fire on their farm.  After spending some time unconscious and badly burned in the hospital, Il Tae passed on Thursday morning.  His poor wife was told as she was in a hospital bed herself on breathing support.  I can only imagine how horrible it is to be told that your wonderful husband has passed and not be able to cry out for him.  His daughter was in Gangneung when the fire occurred, as she often was, and was racked with guilt over not being there.  I hope she realizes later that we are all grateful that she was very far away from that horrible event.

Thursday was hard for everyone.  Holding it all in and going through classes like nothing was wrong.  Lunch was quiet, and teachers who had never done it before, prayed before their meal.  We went through extra pains the rest of the week to play harder with the kids, cover ourselves in their smiles and laughs like a blanket until the funeral came.  Friday after school we all gathered in our perfectly black clothes.  We loaded into the cars and started the quiet 45 minute drive to Gangenung.  Just after we started, we passed by what was left of Il Tae’s house and farm.  His house was black and sagging almost all the way to the ground – a melted, angry frown. 

The funeral was at the hospital, which was pretty terrifying.  We waited for a while for the family to prepare to receive us and then we walked down into the basement of a side building.  Down in the room, there was a partition blocking my view of the altar at first.  I was distracted by the young family members playing games and napping on the floor.  We finally lined up in front of the altar and members of our school took turns lighting incense and kneeling all the way to the floor to bow twice to the memory of Il Tae and once to the bereaved family members.  The women in the family were wearing black hanboks hastily tied on with string to make them fit, and the men were wearing black suits with golden arm bands. 

It’s rather dramatic to see people drop to the floor and give remembrance to their friend.  I panicked when I first saw it, cried, and lost my place in line.   Even though it felt like the only thing I wanted to do was drop to the floor to give thanks and mourn my friend, the thought of it was terrifying.  I wanted to squeak out, “I can’t do it!” in Korean, but I was too scared to say anything at all.  I tried to control my tears because no one else in the room was crying and I really felt like I was ruining everything but the tears just wouldn’t stop coming.  The last group of people was going to pay respects so I lined up with them reluctantly.  It was so intense crying and desperately looking around to see what to do but I guess the last group only had to bow half way (I THINK because we were Christians and not Buddhists) and I was grateful.  The principal tried to explain to the family why I was the only crazy lady bawling in the room, but I think it was pretty lost on them. 

After that we went upstairs to eat a traditional funeral dinner of seaweed soup and rice.  Our table was pretty quiet for the first 40 minutes, but everyone around us was talking.  Korean funerals go all hours for at least a day… sometimes 3… sometimes 7.  People come and go and they stay as long as they need to feel more comfortable with the person’s passing.  It seemed Il Tae’s closest coworkers at the school had duties upstairs in the restaurant, sitting with some of Il Tae’s friends who had gotten drunk to cope.  They were so strong, spending hours talking about Il Tae’s passing with those who hurt most and trying to keep them from making too much of a drunk scene.  I teared up every time I looked at them because they reminded me of memories I had made together with them and Il Tae, and I desperately wished I could be as strong as they were.  I welled up and calmed down several times over – lost it all every time I saw his son who was Il Tae’s spitting image packed into a young handsome man. 

I sat and waited and just spent time trying to be okay.  It turns out that is pretty darn Korean style.  Everyone was just hanging out in that room as long as it took to get to “okay.”  I felt bad because I didn’t have the conversations with old friends from Yeoryang that I wanted to, because they were okay much sooner than I was and left before I had a chance to catch up with them.  After about an hour and a half I went and took a seat next to my good friend Su Jin.  We started to talk a little and waited for some other friends to drive in from Wonju.  I had one shot of soju even though I’m not supposed to drink because oppa would have wanted me to. 

When our good old friends Nina and Joo Hwang arrived I was so happy to see them and grateful they came.  I was also grateful that they came in crying because now I wasn’t the only one!  It was helpful to sit and talk in English with them for an hour because when I have to sit and just listen to Korean my mind often drifts back to sad thoughts of Il Tae.  Another hour passed and our friends had to get going.  I ended up talking with everyone at our school that night, even the principal and it felt good.  I absolutely didn’t mind spending over 4 hours at that funeral sitting on the floor, but when the call went out to load back into the car, I was ready to say goodbye to my Il Tae oppa and go home to rest my aching joints and eyes.

On the long, dark ride home, I looked out the window and for some reason it felt good to be emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted.  It felt like something was completed, like I had finished running a marathon or something.  I pressed my head against the cool window glass and looked up at the stars peeking over the mountains and through the silver clouds.  I remembered Il Tae and all of the other wonderful reasons I love the country in Korea. 

Goodbye Il Tae Oppa…

The Blackout: My first hwey shik with the new school

By now I’ve become accustomed to the tradition that when new teachers join or old teachers leave a school, there must be a sort of celebration of their coming or going. So when I came to Imgye Elementary I was prepared to eat and drink like there’s no tomorrow each day I arrived at the school. However, days past and before I knew it weeks had passed and still no staff dinner. So, I chalked it up to the school being busy or something and figured we had skipped it.

The problem is, as my time in Korea has passed I feel as though I don’t really know anything about a person until I’ve had at least a beer with them. I’m sure Koreans are slower to reveal themselves to each other as well, but it’s especially hard to get to know the staff at a school as a foreigner – often being confined to an English center for most of the day and many people shying away, even outright avoiding you. It was becoming a bit of a problem as I would try and collect students for after school classes and the teachers would give answers such as ‘she doesn’t want your class’ or ‘I told her to go home.’ I wasn’t sure what the teachers’ attitudes behind those statements were because I haven’t interacted with them in a friendly environment before. As many of us know, SOME people are (understandably) not as excited about having foreigners come and teach English as others. So my mind began to fold over on itself in thought and I began to set my defense shields to their highest level.

Finally, the FIRST working day after Chuseok, some coworkers told me that we would be going out for hwey shik that same evening (Surprise!). I was so relieved and excited that I didn’t have time to lament over being exhausted and sick from my Jeju Chuseok trip. I finished up my day, and taught my last afterschool class in which the lights went out for a while. I didn’t think much of it as we had plenty of sunlight in the room and nothing technological planned. The lights came on after about 20 minutes and I cleaned up and got ready to go.

We walked to the restaurant all together through town, as nothing is very far away and it was a nice evening. I went to sit with the branch school teachers who I did know a bit better but they told me I should sit in the middle and wait for others to surround me as I was the ‘president’ of the hwey shik. So I sat down in the middle and was graced by my main coteacher, the principal, the head teacher and others. The best part was that everyone sat down without lamenting over where they were sitting or their proximity to the ‘scary waygookin.’ I, and many people experience this in mid sized cities in Korea. But not here! Everyone just plopped right down and started conversing with each other in Korean and I felt so at home.

I and another teacher were forced to give toasts and I used mine as an opportunity to lay everything out from the start. “Annyeonghaseyo. I’m MinjiLindsey hahaha I am very happy to be in your school. I came here because I loved Yeoryang and I love Jeongseon very much. I felt like we were a family in Yeoryang and I have many great memories there. I wish I can have the same experience here and make some good friends. I wish that we could all be a family together, have many great memories, and teach some kids some stuff.” The crowd was generally pleased.

Then, as we were about to chow down, the lights went dead. More importantly the fans went dead. It had to be an abnormally hot day, didn’t it. And me in my sweater because my washer is broken and I had nothing else clean to wear. AND we were eating Kamjatang, a spicy boiling soup made with pork spine, potatoes, and lots of spice! Mix that with soju and you’ve got a hot, sweaty, red faced mess. So as the sunlight dimmed, we ate our food and I took my lumps (aka shots of soju) from the principal. However it was comforting to hear him and many others throughout the evening tell me that they really were going to do their best to make my time at the school better than Yeoryang and we would be like a family. I took a risk at setting expectations in my welcome speech, but I think it really paid off.

After eating, I quickly went to work making my rounds at the tables. Offering drinks to the one Yeoryang teacher first and choosing people in descending order of perceived compatibility. I must say, I offered drinks to a couple of the girls and then went straight for the boys. It may seem too flirty or bitchy, but I’m sorry. Many Korean girls are just tough for me. I am not a girly girl; I like to drink; I am very much a tomboy. These things put a wedge between many Korean girls and I. They are tough to please when first trying to make friends and they just plain scare me. Guys on the other hand, come straight up hand them a drink, call them a wimp and you’re in. It’s pretty easy.

So I went as fast as I could, all of us struggling through the heat and dim light of the blackout. Finally the lights came back on but soon after that people got the itch to leave. I was hoping to impress some of the staff with my noraebang skills at “second place,” but it seemed that was out of the question for some reason. So my coteacher and I headed up to the school to pick up my wet clothes from the school washer because I just couldn’t live without clean clothes anymore. When we showed up, many of the staff were there chatting away. It was funny and strange but I loved it. By the time I retrieved my clothes and went on my way out many people were set in their place at the school and not ready to go anywhere, so we all called each other to gather in the teacher’s lounge for some coffee and convenience store bingsu. We relaxed and talked and had a good old time until the lights suddenly cut out again. By this time it was quite dark, so action was necessary. We quickly gathered dishes and garbage and filed out of the school. Some kids were out running around in the excitement of the blackout and even the principal showed up dressed all in baggy track clothing. It was hilarious and awesome. We all used our phones as flashlights and showed each other how to download the application. I guess Korean technology has even fully penetrated the country life, LOLs!

The lights finally came on, the chief of administration set the school alarm and we decided it was time to go. And even though my house was only a block away from the school, two of the teachers who are a couple insisted on giving me a ride home. I loaded my things in the car and we took a lovely tiny drive in the cool night breeze with stars shining above to my little apartment.

But now I must tell you, when it rains, it pours because not only did we have hwey shik that night, but the next night I was taken out by a few of the school staff for a lovely dinner way out in the mountains and Monday we’ll be going all the way to Donghae together for a special hwey shik put on by the PTA. Oh man, how am I ever going to recover from all of this hwey shik madness!!! (PS. Secretly I love it.)

An Incredibly Long Post About My Sunday

There’s no way I could explain my amazing experience on Sunday with video or pictures. Some things are just beyond the capture of a lens. But I’ll try my best with words. Here’s just sayin’ that it’s only fate that I spend a good portion of my first weekend in Jeongseon reconnecting with where I left off…

My first year in Korea, working in the country, we waited on baited breath for our good friend Ok’s baby to come. Shortly after I moved to Wonju, that little bundle came. Now, a year later (believe it or not) that baby is 1 year old, and that calls for a big celebration in Korea.

Meanwhile, Tuesday I stopped by my old school in Jeongseon to try and make up for neglected relationships while I was away (in Wonju). I awkwardly said hello to the familiar faces in the school, but lacked the words, and the correct language, to express myself. Feeling uncomfortable, I ducked into the administration office that I once felt so at home in. I sat down with my best Korean friend, Chan, and we tried our best to share like we used to. It’s understandable that the wheels of even the tightest relationships can get rusty when you’ve both given up riding it around for a while. We certainly felt comfortable around each other, but we just kind of forgot how to have a great conversation. What we did manage to discuss was Ok’s daughter’s first birthday party and whether or not we would go as he had done an even worse job of staying in touch throughout the year. Chan and I left it as a maybe.

Later in the week Ok harassed me about coming to the party and I gave him the same [maybe]s and [I’ll think about it]s that he had been giving me for the past 12 months. Chan and I considered it again and eventually we came to the decision that we really shouldn’t miss it and it would be a great opportunity for us to feel a bit reunited – remind ourselves of those good times we had more than a year ago. So Chan volunteered to be the driver on a car ride that would total 6 hours to and from to visit Ok near his new home in Chuncheon.

A lot of catching up can be done on a 3 hour car ride in the country. Conversation went from “how’s the job going this semester,” to discussing old friends, to sharing our most private struggles. Even though our conversation was sometimes painful, it felt so good to catch up and be in sync again.

It’s funny how so much communication in Korea happens through a perceived mood rather than through words. We walked through the door to the party and the smirk and laugh we got from Ok was priceless. It was comforting to be in the same room with Ok again, and contenting just to sit and watch him greeting others, laughing, smiling, holding his daughter, and looking 7kg lighter.

Whenever Chan and I began to dig back in to happy conversation Ok was drawn our direction. He seemed to want to watch us get along and be a part of it, however because of the situation he kind of felt he couldn’t… or shouldn’t. It’s sad to see people letting go of things they cherish to turn and embrace other things. Whether it’s necessary or not is opinion, I suppose, and not something I’m too concerned about right now.

We picked at the food and enjoyed the traditions of the first birthday party. We used lottery tickets to predict which item from a tray the baby would choose. I guessed that the baby would choose a pencil for a scholarly future and Chan guessed the baby would choose a mirror for beauty. In the end family members just cheated by piling money on the tray and the baby chose a 10,000w bill of course for a wealthy future. We sang happy birthday and watched other little games, but didn’t have much more to say or do so we decided to start on the long road back home. When we went to say goodbye, we were begged to wait and after finishing a conversation, Ok grabbed us with either hand and brought us to the back of the room. We received a sincere thank you and loads of parting gifts. In spite of awkward handshakes and pats of the arm, Ok was truly happy we came and so were we.

On the ride home, Chan was in his English speaking stride after a year of neglect, and he told stories the whole way. He told me stories like that of the Emille Bell and Jeongseon’s Min Doong Mountain. I groaned and laughed and enjoyed every minute of it. He illuminates Korea for me like no other person can, and he loves watching me enjoy the stories as much as I love hearing them. We stopped along the side of the road to drink from a mountain spring where locals were gathering water to bring home. We saw our first mongoose in Korea scurrying in the dirt. We swayed with the mountain roads, enjoyed the beauty that surrounded us, and talked about never leaving our little corner of the earth.

We finally did arrive to my drop off point and it seemed a bus was not in my near future, so we decided to drive on a bit further and catch a bus at a different spot. It was then Chan told me about the salt that protects homes from fires on a mountain behind the elementary school and the giant rock vagina that must be appeased or the citizens of Najeon will be in peril because, as he put it, “Pussies are God’s gift.”

Days like these are what make me want to stay in Korea forever and ever. I’ve only been back in Jeongseon for a week and already I have returned to having the Korean life I love. It has to be a sign I am meant to be here, right? I must come back and read this when I am feeling unwanted.

Moving in more ways than one…

So this is my first official post on the blog I will be using for this school year.  If you want to check out my blog posts from my previous 2 years in Korea please go to this site.  As you may know, this year my online presence is going to be more about sharing how wonderful it is to live in the countryside of Korea.  I moved back to the Jeongseon area of Gangwon province in South Korea to get back to living a more traditional Korean style life.  Wish me luck and invite me on adventures… better yet, come and visit!