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Visiting, vanishing Vakil

Habiba’s brother, Vakil, flew into Korea just over a week ago and stayed with us until he left first thing on Monday morning. His visit coincided with Chuseok, the Korean thanksgiving holiday when Koreans travel to their hometowns to spend time with family and pay their respects at the graves of their ancestors. We were lucky this year in that the three national holiday days fell on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (if they’d been on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, there would only have been one day off work). My employer gave everyone the Monday and Friday that week off, as well.

Habiba picked her brother up from the airport on Saturday afternoon, and, after having not been able to sleep on the flight, he unfortunately found himself unable to sleep that night, despite exhaustion. With nothing better to do, he went out in the early hours – and had an encounter with an old, drunk man who gave him makgeolli (rice wine) and ice cream at five in the morning. On the following nights he was generally able to sleep better, and he spent a few nights in a seedy but comfortable hotel next to our building (despite the fact that the hotel looked abandoned from the outside).

Over the following days, we endeavoured to show Vakil the sights, sounds and flavours of South Korea. We visited Insadong, Itaewon, Namsan Tower, Namsangol Folk Village, Deoksu Palace, Gyeongbok Palace, Bukchon and various places in and around Chungju. We ate Chicken galbi, beef galbi, spicy chicken soup (dalkdoritang), lots of gimbap, divers soups and stews, rice porridge (juk), savoury Korean pancake (pajeon) and a meal consisting of about a hundred side dishes. We pounded rice, saw a musical based on a traditional Korean tale, walked around an exhibition of with the theme of realism in Asian art, took part in an RPG session (sans Habiba), spent a couple of hours singing in a noraebang and spent a couple of days with Habiba’s friend Cybele in what is apparently the geographic centre of South Korea.

Last Monday, Vakil went into Habiba’s work with her to meet her students and see what she does for a living (Habiba’s very proud of her kids and she gets all her visitors to come in with her). I’d been there once before, but this time I was there on business. Zach had taken the Monday and Friday off in order to go to Tokyo and I filled in for him.

I taught his kindergarten class in the mornings and early afternoons and one of his elementary classes later in the afternoon after an hour and a half break. On the Monday I was nervous about following or not following the currculum at the correct times and asked Zach’s teaching assistant, Jasmine, for lots of help. I was more comfortable on the Friday. Both classes were down to about half because of people going away for the holiday, so it wasn’t too demanding in terms of crowd management.

The kids, by and large were very nice and accepted me and co-operated with me. One of the kindergarten activities involved making ‘Thanksgiving food’ out of clay, and one particularly small girl who looks like an old man who looks like a turtle made an extremely detailed sculpture of a table with mounds of rice cakes and a little chair and a person. On Friday, while doing a page from the elementary studetns’ science book on the subject of ‘What is Life?’ I had the opportunity to pose conundrums like, Are cars alive? What about viruses? And computer viruses? I’m sure the philosophical ramifications were somewhat over their heads, but they seemed to enjoy answering Yes! or No!

One of the most memorable parts of the week was going to Insadong on an extremely rainy Tuesday. The rainy season is usually more or less over by the start of September and fine weather is often assured for Chuseok. Not this year. We headed out early-ish and when we got there the rain was such that we decided to go to a café that also does fancy chocolates to wait it out. An hour or so later, still bucketing down outside, we decided on an early lunch and attempted to wait it out in the restaurant. An hour later there was still respite so we decided on travelling across town on the subway to go to COEX, a huge mall. After maybe a couple of hours there the heavens were still in full spate and we headed home.

I’ve never known such extensive and heavy rain and we felt like Vakil’s visit was doomed to be overshadowed by bad weather. The following day was grey and it spat occasionally, but it was mostly dry. From Thursday on, though the weather was exactly what one would have hoped for: sunny and not too hot.

Another downer was the fact that when we went for galbi for dinner on the Wednesday – the actual Chuseok day – they had no lettuce – an integral part of the meal – so we basically had to consume all that red meat with a bit of rice and jjigae.

After the urban jungle of Seoul it was extremely pleasant to get away this last weekend to visit Cybele in Chungju. Chungju is a small city, the limits of which are clearly demarcated by the main road encircling it: on one side of the road are high rise apartment buildings, on the other, apple orchards and tree-clothed mountains.

Cybele drove us to Jungangtap, a stone pagoda whose name means ‘central tower’. It is supposed to be the centre of the country and is set in a sculpture park some distance from the city and on the bank of a river. We saw lots of big black and yellow-orange spiders in the trees, some busily devouring unlucky dragonflies. We also went to the site of an old temple with a large buddha statue and to Seokjongsa, a large, exquistely decorated temple complex whose buildings were in mint condition – and some of them brand new. There were lots of dragonflies around, as well as plenty of praying mantises and scarily coloured spiders. We saw one big black spider (not tarantula-size, but big enough) spinning a web between two widely spaced trees.

Walking through the countryside near the old, ruined temple, we saw some Koreans doing something in a stream. They got back up on to the lane as we passed by and they stopped us and gave us freshly picked mushrooms and soju.

Cybele very kindly put us up in her new apartment, the ground floor of a house in the city (she used to live in the surrounding countryside) as well as being our chauffeuse. Over the weekend, Vakil started taking a deeper interest in the Korean alphabet, Hangul. By Sunday he was about as fluent as Habiba is after two years in the country.

I personally quite enjoyed the noraebang session. It’s not often that I get to do it, and especially with someone who shares my taste in songs. Vakil and I did a fair amount of Metallica together, as well as some Sex Pistols and Iron Maiden. Jessica even did ‘How You Remind Me’ with me – and here I thought all the trendy kids despised Nickleback.

After another sleepless night, Vakil left us at six o’clock on Monday morning. Habiba cried a little after he went and I held her for a while in the dawn light. She’s very close to her family and being away from them is hard for her. Most of the time she copes well enough, but moments like that, leavetakings, bring home how much she misses them.

Vakil’s visit, despite the best efforts of the dying rainy season, was a great success. Vakil is a very nice gentleman and I enjoyed getting to know him better; we both enjoyed tormenting Habiba with our sense of humour. Apart from that rain – and the fact that our original plans didn’t come to pass – there were no big problems. We spent lots of time together, did lots of fun activities, and all three of us got to see more of the Land of Morning Calm.

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