Thursday, May 12, 2011
Back to Busan: Part 2
Had some wacky dreams there - sorry about that.
Anyway, back to Busan...
Geoje Fail - as my friends Neil and Emiko would tell you, Korea's second largest island is a bit of a mixed bag as far as being a tourist goes. They happened to live their for a year - teaching in a hagwon and doing their best to survive their choice to not live in Seoul during their time in Korea. I suppose there was some appeal to the idea of living on a southern island as opposed to a concrete jungle, but the reality - as they would tell you - was far less than appealing.
The rabbit and I didn't live there for a year, but we had enough bad luck on our one day there. Basically, through a late night the night before, the idea of waking up from a jimjilbang slumber at 5:00 in order to hop a one hour subway ride, plus a one and a half hour bus ride to the island to be there for 8:00am wasn't going to work for us. This meant that we weren't able to make the tour with "The Captain".
"The Captain" was and is a native Geoje(ian?) and he runs a tight ship of a tour of the place. For about 50,000 won, he will take a bus or a van (depending on the number of people) around the island, onto ferries, and to sites that are notoriously hard to reach without your own form of transportation. I'm pretty sure that even after one year of being on the island, Neil and Emiko had a hell of a hard time getting anywhere using public transportation. Anyway, the rabbit bravely decided to forge ahead, just the two of us, but we soon discovered that it wasn't going to work: ferries sold-out, buses making their rounds only a handful of times per day, and we both got pretty discouraged. Next time, we'll be catching the early bus for sure, or even staying overnight on the island, which might be the best way to low-stress the trip.
We didn't see much of Geoje at all, except for a few cool new bridges which link the island to the mainland near Busan. For what we missed, check out this guy's site - he saw it all.
Yonggungsa - Is the seaside temple I spoke of earlier. Man, I really need to learn more about Buddhism. With all of the temples I've been to over the past (almost 4) years in Asia, it would be like walking into the Notre Dame Cathedral or the Sistine Chapel and not knowing what that bearded guy is doing up on the cross.
While it's true that most of Korea's temples have been run over roughshod by various invasions, wars, and acts of nature, many of them are still beautiful in their re-built form and many of them have the added bonus of being in a beautiful location. Such is the case with Yonggungsa - about a 20 minute drive from Haeundae beach - just North along the coast.
The place was filled with lanterns hung in recognition of Buddha's Birthday - national holiday here, and one that has a great many varied names according to a great number of people representing different Buddhist sects. Let's just stick with "Buddha's Birthday" for now.
I'm pretty sure my mom would have loved this place the most. Her time in Asia was a little bit heavy on the "big city" side of things in Korea, and heavier on the "peaceful hillside temples" while in Japan. I fear that she, and my dad, may have received an unbalanced view.
Like most temples in Asia, Yonggungsa's outer paths are lined with souvenir and food stands, but the view of the place by the crashing waves is worth running the gauntlet. I only wish we could have had one more night so that we could have seen the lanterns lit after sunset. Next time.
Random Thoughts About Racism - I like Busan - about as much as I like Vancouver, I suppose. I appreciate the coast, though I've never lived there, so I can't really say what I'd think of it all. Too many bridges and stuff for me to navigate and, while it's fun to do on vacation, I'm not sure how much fun it would be during a weekly commute.
But there's more than enough about the city (Busan) that intrigues me. If it weren't for a certain rabbit, I might even consider a move there for a year of teaching in the future. If only all jobs were that much in-demand, flexible, and portable as that of a native speaking English teacher in Korea.
What did rub me the wrong way a couple of times on this trip though were the stares that the rabbit and I were getting on various legs of our trip. There are enough foreigners in Seoul, that sometimes I forget what an oddity we can be in other parts of the country. I've been spit on and at in Seoul on a couple of occasions now (and returned the favour not so long ago, though not fueled by race), but generally, my existence here has been at least tolerated if not welcomed with open arms. On this Busan trip though, I saw more than enough middle-to-old aged Korean men and women staring at the rabbit and I with serious scowls, and they were indeed scowls of the unmistakable racist variety.
On a quiet and not-crowded subway on our last day, I noticed a very dark-skinned woman, possibly from SE Asia, sitting on the bench across and down from us. She was quietly reading a book and the middle-school aged boy sitting beside the rabbit couldn't stop pointing and audibly commenting to his mother, who did nothing to stop him. I remembered a story my dad told me - way back in the day, growing-up in Eastern Canada, my dad, his sister, and their mom were riding a bus or a subway car. My dad and his sister were both small children, and I suppose her behaviour can be explained (if not excused) by the fact that this happened around the time of the civil rights movement in the U.S., but there, as my father remembers it, was my grandmother getting all red-faced through anger and embarrassment as she tried to drag my very young aunt away from a black family while my aunt pointed at the youngest among them and exclaimed "Look at the nigger doll!"
Like some of the people on Geoje commuting to Busan, I suppose - most young white girls growing up in the Eastern townships of Quebec had likely never seen a black child before, and if they did, their culture provided them with less than desirable names for people with darker skin.
So, yeah - it's an embarrassing but (I think) valuable family story now, but it also happened generations ago, and I see it through that lens of time. Yet, it makes me think, at what point does this privileged white male traveling abroad cry foul as a minority who is looked-at sideways on a subway because he's holding hands with a local? I'm not sure I know the answer to that. Though I wonder what names some Koreans might have for me, as I think it's safe to say that if many smaller-town Koreans have seen any foreigners before, it was either Wayne Rooney during repeated Park Ji-Sung centered Manchester United Highlights, a shipyard miscreant, or some yahoo foreign teacher fratting it up on the beach and showing how impressive it is to catch an American football.
One Last Thing - On my last night in Busan, I got a bit melancholy, I'm sure you're surprised. I attach to places - even ones I've only been to once before.
Busan was a good trip, and it was a good trip the last time I went there as well. It was almost three years ago to the day that I first ventured down to the city with good friends. Back then, we explored the tower at night, regretted checking-out a foreigner bar near Haeundae, and stayed-up 'til sunrise to watch the morning catch arrive at the Jagalchi Seafood Market at Busan Harbour. But, what I remember most are adventurous moments with good friends - cab rides, exploring Gukje Market, and the joy in realizing that we were vacationing within a newly adopted country - soon to go "home to Seoul", whatever that meant. It certainly means something now. Though, I do miss you guys, and it was surprising how many details I could remember about corners we turned on this street or that.