Hi guys!
I decided to finish 2009 before the end of February... Wish me luck!


I woke a tad later than Robert and his roommate who were enjoying a light breakfast and a replay of a TV awards show by the time I ventured to the restroom. The awards were the equivalent of the Emmys and it appeared all of the media glitterati were present. I was surprised at how most of the actresses were so mildly dressed, (a bit fragile-looking actually), as my first impression of girls in Beijing was how sensible and sturdy they looked on the streets of the city. (Far fewer miniskirts and stilettos than Seoul…maybe the Chinese girls are just able to walk better since they’re wearing sneakers?) But the most striking distinction during the awards was the sight of men in ceremonial military uniform in the front rows of the awards auditorium. It reminded me of the last performance scene in The Sound of Music.

After pondering the incongruity of militaristic influence and free artistic expression over slices of breakfast toast, I wanted to hit a couple of tourist areas in the center of town. ; ) The subway stops nearest Tiananmen were closed for the holiday weekend to avoid jamming the trains. Having been the site of The Party’s anniversary celebrations the night before, the parade floats were left there on display for the public to view. I thought it would be fun to brave the crowds so we headed down to check out the aftermath action.

Here I was thinking that braving Namdaemun Market in Seoul on a weekend in spring time was bad. (Ok, actually, it is.) But Tiananmen Square, the veritable center of the capital of the most populous country on earth during the middle of an 8-day national vacation? Boys and girls, that’s the definition of crowded and locals + provincial tourists = amusing.

We approached the Square from the south (all ancient entrances in Beijing face south) and I was surprised by wide assortment of stores in a (obviously new) shopping area that led up to Tiananmen. There were a few brands such as Giordano and Uniqlo that I’ve grown accustomed to seeing all over Korea, (though neither are actually Korean companies), and the typical American retail colonization—re: Starbucks. I was quite envious to see H&M, one of my favorite clothing stores as well since the one in Seoul doesn’t open until March 2010. :(

[Side note: I was absolutely GREEN with envy when I saw a big, bright shiny IKEA on the way to town from the airport. Why? Why? WHY doesn’t Korea have IKEA when both Japan and non-free market China have it?! Huh? ]

I also saw this sign along the way and had fun thinking up various interpretations for each symbol…

Inside a pedestrian tunnel on the edge of Tiananmen, I ran into a little trouble with the authorities. In my defense, I didn’t actually realize they were “real” authorities. Whereas in Korea, uniforms have a reasonable range of variety, ie. there would be no legitimate reason for confusing a parking attendant with a police officer, in Beijing the lines are not so clear.

Beijing uniforms seemed to range from, inspired by military, to Wait, that guy’s not military?, to That’s a police uniform?, to My bad! You actually work for The Party. o_O Folks in the most seemingly asinine positions, ie. security in the shopping area, would have on what appeared to my untrained eye as full military regalia. (Furthermore, I’ve generally found the Seoul riot police to be about as cuddly as can be and have gotten them to pose for photos with us! lol.)

So there I am, a tourist attempting to document the peculiarities of my trip. A line up of soldiers (or not) seemed like a nice addition to my photo collection. I position myself to get the best possible line of focus despite the other seemingly Chinese folks in my way taking photos. In my peripheral vision, a couple of the photo takers scurry away. I adjust my camera for a horizontal shot and am accosted greeted with the sound of English: NO PHOTOS! Huh?

A guy in street clothes waves a pretty aggressive “get lost” in front of me. I’m confused until I noticed he was carrying an umbrella. And there’s no rain in sight. And I remember this. No need to ask me twice! I got back on my way and was pretty relieved that was the end of it. (As I’m sure Robert was…I think I made his blood pressure rise a little!)

When we finally made it through the crowds to the other side of the street, it seemed like the perfect time for an “I was here” photo since there was an entryway with a ridiculously large photo of Chairman Mao above it. [It’s a bit harder to find photos of “The Greater Leader” these days than in the past and who knows…one day he may not be around at all. ;) ] Lots of folks were taking photos with and without the Chairman in the background. The spot was pretty popular…a little too much so.

I handed my camera off to a passerby to get a picture of me and Robert together. On the guy’s second photo attempt, another guy runs up behind me and Robert while his girlfriend takes a picture! By the time I realize what’s happening, the first guy realizes I’m done posing with Robert and asks if I can pose with his girlfriend! Uh, ok.

That seemed to inspire a couple of other out-of-towners…This is my chance! Wait ‘til the folks back in see this! A group of girls asked for a photo…then another guy. There’s a reason I’m not a supermodel, people! Aside from my stunningly average looks, I don’t like having my picture taken. lol.

In the corner of my eye, I could see a few more people gathering their courage. While keeping my pageant girl smile I blurted, “Robert, after this one I’m gonna run! You better get ready!” As soon as I heard, “Ok, thank you,” I pulled a one-legged 180° spin and started my best bob and weave maneuver through the crowd until I got outside the cluster. It was terribly juvenile, but it worked!

You may or may not already be aware that China is the Texas of East Asia… everything’s just bigger there! Tiananmen Gate is HUGE…like “How did they build that thing before construction cranes were invented?” kind of huge. It was impossible for me to get a photo of the entire gate with my little point-and-shoot camera.

Inside the gate, the actual square was sectioned off. All the parade floats were there as were a few thousand people. We opted to walk on the side street rather than endure crowding and cramping. The weather was surprisingly warm and I was super grateful for the little boy hawking bottles of water. I was merely amused by all the other street sellers hustling plastic “gold” medals and miniature Chinese flags. It was so blatantly nationalistic, it felt ‘overdone’…

After having our fill of Tiananmen Square, we began looking for the fastest route out of the area and on to less crowded streets. When we reached the back gate of the area, we found out that in true militaristic style, all foot traffic was being directed such that we’d have to hoof it about a mile or so out of the way. :( Fortunately, the walk was picturesque and shady. : )

All along the path there were more street sellers entreating us to buy medals and flags. While I had scoffed at such a notion just 4.5 hours earlier, the visual barrage of thousands of Chinese flags had worn my resistance thin. There are flags everywhere around the square…and the medals, when I was finally able to see one up close, I realized they were commemorating The Party’s 60th Anniversary…it seemed oddly appropriate…timely at least…certainly something I wouldn’t find anywhere else. Like a little kid at a county fair, I wanted what everybody else was carrying!

The Chinese flag was easy enough…1 Chinese yuan and they all looked the same. The medals on the other hand…some had red accents, some jade green. Others were all gold. Red was definitely the order of the day. By the time I decided to buy one, they were all gone! Vendor after vendor said they were sold out.

After walking for some time, we finally reached the main street where public transport was available. A teenage boy yelled out to us as we passed. Clenched in his fist were several gold medals with red accents. Robert, ever-patiently coddling my whims, asked if I still wanted one. “How much is it?” I asked. Robert approached the kid to inquire. [It might be appropriate at this point to make mention of the fact that Beijing is a city requiring street smarts. Every other person you meet’s got a hustle they’re hoping you’ll fall for and money is typically the goal.]

Judging by the sharp tone of words that passed between them—although my making such judgment while listening to Chinese is slightly suspect—I guessed the kid was asking too much. As it turned out, he was asking WAY too much…20 Chinese dollars if I remember correctly! “Are you serious?!?” I blurted. The kid had his game face on though. If he detected any sort of horror / disbelief / anger in my voice, he didn’t let on. I supposed he figured I was a stingy wench of a tourist considering the exchange rate but I figured he was pretty selfish to consider raking someone over the coals when they hadn’t even done anything to him!

In the end, Robert got him down to the going rate (5 yuan) and I got my shiny little trinket. I remember walking away thinking, “The gall of that kid!” But also thinking that I can’t say I wouldn’t try the same thing if I were in his position…Americans mean dollar signs I guess…

After all the excitement, we got back to Robert’s side of town for dinner. We stopped at (what I was told was) a pretty typical Beijing style restaurant. Y’all, the menu was huge. HUGE!!! Like, for no reason and under no circumstances does a menu ever need to be that big! It was a cross between a scrapbook and a high school yearbook. No lie. There were pages upon pages of photos categorized by ingredients: chicken, beef, seafood, vegetables, rice, noodles…it went on and on. Robert asked what I wanted but I made him pick. My brain started hurting after the first 10 pages!

We agreed on some thin pork slices, to be eaten with flour wraps, sliced eggplant in sauce, dumplings and real Beijing 炸酱面 noodles. (In Korea, it’s known as 자짱면and made a bit differently.) As you’re probably thinking at the moment, that sounds like a lot of food. It was! I was SO full. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it to our evening activity…salsa dancing!!!

Months and months before I went to Beijing, I saw this video a friend had posted on her Facebook page showing a Chinese guy killing some Cuban style (Casino) salsa. (I mean, seriously, watch the video at least to the part where he throws off his jacket, ok?) Being the super-nerd / Google-stalker that I am, I found out the guy in the video has a dance school in Beijing, and determined that I would visit there whenever I got to visit the city.

The dance school is called Casa de David, after the owner’s English (or should that be Spanish?) name. He and his sister Queenie run the school and club. I loved how it had this earthy, “Dirty Dancing” feel. Not because the dancing was “dirty” but because the place was all about dancing, unlike the fru-fru place I went to in Gangnam (Seoul) that seemed like a dance competition incubator. *boo!* I mean, you know you’re at the real deal when there’s a permanent conga rig in the corner. In fact David, the owner, played the congas during part of our lesson. He also speaks Spanish since he studied in Cuba where he picked up his dance skills before moving back to China.

Even though David didn’t teach it himself, the dance lesson turned out to be a lot of fun. The lesson was on Columbian (Cali) style salsa [video], which I wouldn’t have had the nerve to try under other circumstances. Cali style is impossibly fast for someone like myself with two left feet. I often joke that I dance really well…by myself. It’s only when I have a partner that trouble begins! Fortunately, the instructor kept things really basic for us.

I was surprised to find that pretty much everybody at the studio spoke English. While the lesson was conducted in Mandarin, when the teacher corrected me she spoke English as did the other students when we were partnered together. In the end, I lost my fear of Columbian salsa. I don’t see myself winning a championship any time soon, but I’d definitely take another class if the chance arose. Truth be told, I enjoyed myself so much, I wanted to set up shop right next door so I could dance every night! :D

David’s sister Queenie was such a darling, she nearly begged me to visit again on Monday night. I truly wished I had had the time. Regardless, she, her brother and their dance studio made my night—a night that started months prior with a video from an American friend of a Cuban show with a Chinese guy that I watched in Korea. The world felt really small that night…in a good way. :)

Despite all the fun I was having, we left the salsa club early to visit with one of Robert’s good friends, a German-Japanese guy—yes, since you were wondering, he was good-looking—who was having a birthday party.

Robert’s friend lived in a hutong, a traditional Beijing neighborhood made up of a bunch of connected single-story houses with little courtyards. The evening was fabulously balmy and when we arrived, everyone was lounging about in the courtyard. I hadn’t been around so many Europeans since the two summers I spent at Choate in high school. If I recall correctly, there were two French girls, an Argentinean by way of Spain, a guy from Denmark on vacation, at least one other German apart from the host, and I want to say, someone from Holland, or Sweden, or that other extremely Nordic country I can’t recall at the moment…

They were so…uh, European. I mean, I assume other people like ABBA just as much, but geez…lol! And there was lots of wine. And singing…to ABBA. (It was a miracle the neighbors didn’t throw their dirty dishwater over the courtyard wall.) J All in all though, I had a bang up time. I even got Robert to indulge in a bit of ridiculous dancing after the fancy struck several of the rest of us.

Sometime after midnight, I gave up trying to stay up, and decided to make the trek back to Robert’s side of town. I had enjoyed a fabulously full day, and like a typical tourist, had scheduled one just as full for the day to come…

...to be continued.

Miss you guys! Love & Hugs. ^__^


Long time, no email! Besides all the distractions the end of the semester / end of the year can bring, I got a little too detailed with my recollections of October. That being the case, this entire email is only my recollection of October 1st and it's quite a doozy. Still, the best is yet to come...


As I alluded in my last letter, October started with a bang.

October 2 – 4 was Korea’s thanksgiving holiday known as Chuseok. Because of that, I had a 4-day weekend. Since China is pretty high on my “Must See” list and I now have a friend there, (met him when he was studying in Seoul last year), I figured October was the perfect time. So I’ve been told, Beijing is even colder than Seoul during winter and there was no way I was trying to find out first hand! So October, (or summer vacation) was my only choice and summer seemed too long a wait.

October 1 was the last day of exams for our girls which meant a much welcomed half-day! After school, I met up with another teacher to donate a couple of bags of unneeded clothing that had made the journey from my old place to the new one. We chatted about our holiday plans, she showed me a spot in our neighborhood to get eyelash extensions (more on that in the next letter) and wished me safe travel.

Next on my agenda, was a task I wasn’t looking forward to. After promising my building management that my dog Peppero would no longer “be a problem” I was messaging/texting half the people I knew in Seoul for advice. Another dog owner suggested debarking. “You could get that awful surgery they did to my dog,” were her exact words. Do note the words “awful” and “they.” Her dog was also a rescue but the culpability was not her own. She had rescued the poor creature from “them.”

When visiting the animal rescue, I had happened across the most adorable little Maltese. When a volunteer and I approached his cage for a little playtime, we appeared to be convulsing. His little head was bobbing back and his torso shook ever so slightly. “Aww, he’s scared,” she said but after watching for a few more seconds, I realized, “He’s barking.” We both watched him closely. His little body made all the motions but there was absolutely no sound. It was pretty pitiful. After taking him out of his cage, he proved to be quite the little yapper…non-stop head bobbing! As odd as it was, I resolved in my mind that it was a better such a dog endure the indignity of being voiceless rather than be sent down “the long walk through the one way door” (as it was referred to in Lady and the Tramp).

Peppero on the other hand, is not “such a dog.” I had chosen her from over 100 dogs at the shelter precisely because she was so dang quiet but still playful! I had never heard her bark. (Even when she got her shots, the technician mentioned he couldn’t believe she didn’t yelp!)

The thought of debarking a dog that didn’t even bark seemed a whole range of words from unfair to cruel. In the end, I had only 30 minutes to make a decision.

I headed off to the vets office with Peppero in hand (ok, bag). Fortunately, the nearest vet and a couple of his staff members speak basic English (although I’m not sure how ‘basic’ the word tracheotomy is! Gotta love Asia…) The vet looked Peppero over. He noted her stitches from spaying appeared to be healing nicely. He explained the debarking procedure was pretty standardized outpatient work that would only take 10 minutes. “We will cut the vocal chords,” he said. I’m pretty sure my face glazed over at that point. I had just had my dog’s uterus removed and we’re gonna slit her throat…great. I was feeling like a great big jerk. He assured me that the procedure was the only guarantee since she was howling rather than barking and howling can’t be stopped with a training collar the way barking can. “In Korea, it is normal,” he said and gave me a little pep talk about the necessities of such operations while living in close quarters. He told me there would be no blood and at that point, I felt I had no choice. Too many things, (my afternoon flight, for instance), depended on a quick resolution. I arranged for surgery, stitch removal, bathing/grooming and four days of boarding. After pre-paying (!), I ran home to finish packing and wash my hair.

I had already limited myself to three outfits for the weekend and as a sufferer of ‘Chronic Over-packing Disorder,’ I was pretty proud of myself. Three outfits and only two pairs of shoes was a veritable tour de force. I consoled myself with the thought of additional shopping to make up the shortfall. ^^ All that was left before departure was the little issue of washing my hair. Unfortunately, this must be conducted with consistent attention to established ritual.

My hair is sometimes fragile and Korea’s hard water has done it no favors. Shampoo must be followed with by a deep conditioner, then leave-in conditioners, and a silicone-based smoother, (yes, plural), one of which has to be activated by heat (blow drying). On the best of days, I can get it done in 1.5 hours. If I take my time, more like two. If I flat iron it…add an hour…Knowing that I’d neither have the time or the tools to undertake the process on (yet another) foreign soil, I determined to get it done before my flight.

When I finally left my apartment for the airport, I had a partially damp head of hair, about 1-and-a-half hours before boarding and a 30-minute ride to the airport. Things were looking…impossible.

I was absolutely torn…express bus, subway or taxi? I stood at the curb outside my apartment running scenario after scenario through my head. I was paralyzed by the possibilities, none of which were sure. I opted for a taxi AND the express bus. I was too jittery to fuss with the subway and figured the bus would save me some cash for the latter part of the trip. My taxi got caught in traffic, of course! The 15-minute drive to the express bus station went more like 20 minutes and the extra moments felt like an eternity. I did some unnecessary walking while struggling to find right waiting area at the bus depot and by the time the bus pulled up, I was ready to collapse into one of the few remaining seats and relax.

Fortunately the 30-minute ride went without a hitch. After arriving at the airport, I bulldozed my way down the aisle past the other passengers and plowed into the expanse that is Inchon International. After a moment’s hesitation, I accosted an airline associate to ask where the Air China desk was.

When I got to the desk, the four airline reps chatted playfully with each other like they were on break. I got directly in front of the counter and said, “Excuse me,” then received a "do you need something?" glance from one of the girls—not the face I want to see at that moment.

“I need to check in for the 545,” I blurted. “It’s been delayed. You should have come earlier. Normally our desk closes at 430,” Uh, thanks for the lecture. “Can I make it?” “It’s not boarding until 630.” “Ok, thanks.”

My mind was so frenzied that while her answer was clearly a “yes,” my brain hadn’t yet absorbed how much time I had left (about 1.5 hours until boarding). What I did know was that I wanted very much to get settled in near my departure gate and unwind. As lightly as I believed I had packed, my luggage was deemed too heavy for carry-on. I relinquished my bag and proceeded to the security gate with the very sensible plan to grab some food and hit an ATM when I got to my departure concourse.

As par the course for Inchon Airport, I got through security pretty quickly. I eagerly hopped on the shuttle to the international departure concourse not knowing I might as well have taken a ride on Willy Wonka’s paddle boat. First stop, Lotteria, a fast food join dedicated to Asian-flavored McDonaldization of food. They have these French fries in a bag with your choice of cheese, onion, or garlic flowered powder. Totally disgusting—totally addictive. I was in just the mood for a dose.

As I headed to the counter to order, I noticed a few stickers plastered over several menu items. The little kids working there did their best to explain to me in their best English that yes, there really aren’t any french fries…or onion rings…or the #3 combos. At this point, I had to will my mind to stop thinking because NOTHING that came to mind at that moment was “noble or pure or lovely.” A burger joint without fries?! It was Candid Camera without the laugh track.

At a loss for what to eat, decided to tackle task #2, get some cash to exchange when I get to Beijing. I stopped by a money exchange window run by my bank and asked to get some money. “Can I use my card to get some money?” “No. You can’t do that.” Uh, ok. Just another disappointment among many… “Ok. Where’s an ATM?” “There’s no ATM here.” Wow…just wow. “There’s no ATM here? Is there one somewhere else? Where can I get money?” “There’s no ATM in this area.” “Wait? Like this whole concourse? The international area?” “Yes. There is no ATM.”


I left the counter and did everything short of blanking out to keep myself from snapping. (The bulletproof glass is there for a reason!) I checked the concourse map to make sure she wasn’t mistaken. 업서요. Nothing. Nada. I decided to head back to the front of the airport.

A few things you should know to understand the foolishness that soon occurred: I had 3,000 won in my purse…AKA $3. Korean debit/ATM cards issued to “foreigners” generally do not work overseas. It’s been covered here, here, and here. (We can’t get bank loans either.) I have two Korean bank accounts, one I use for daily expenses—it’s where my employer puts my paycheck—and another that I use for savings and to send money to the US. For some reason or another, the debit card for my second account will work overseas but the firstthe money potdoesn’t.

I had no french fries, no money, and now, no time. I jumped into a nearby elevator and headed back downstairs the way I had come. When I got downstairs and attempted to wait for the shuttle, an airport employee intercepted me. I don’t remember what he said, but he did everything short of shove me back in the elevator!

I told him that I needed to get to an ATM. He told me I couldn’t leave. I told him I live in Korea. I showed him my resident ID. He insisted that I go back upstairs to the information desk. I was between a rock and a hard place, tears and explosion. I went back upstairs and found the information desk. It was the least informational moment of my day. Let the meltdown begin! I had images of an impoverished self eating ramen all weekend or even worse—not shopping! God why?!

I moseyed on over to the info desk and explained to the staff member so beautifully attired in her pinkish hanbok that I needed to go back to the front of the airport and use an ATM. *blank stare* “You can’t leave this area.” Riiiiiight. That’s “Scenario A” and I’m trynna make a move to “Scenario B.”

“I don’t have any money. I need to get some money.” “But you can’t leave this area.” “I live here.” I pulled out my Resident ID. “I live here and I need to go to an ATM. There are no ATMs here.” Naturally, a staff member nearby wanted in on the action.

“Don’t you have a credit card?” he asked with a sliver of mock innocence mixed with incredulity. And I’m thinking, what are you, the anti-Dave Ramsey?!

I went into my briefest explanation of Korean’s banking restrictions on foreign nationals and the fact that I had tested my debit card in The Philippines previously. The blood in veins was rising to my neck and I was milliseconds away from becoming “that” person who’s talking a little too loud and a little to forcefully NOT to be taken away by security.

When the staff finally understood what I was saying, (or realized I wasn’t backing down…not sure which), the hanbok lady told me I might miss my flight. “I don’t care. I’m not going without any money,” I blurted as I held back hysterical tears.

In my peripheral vision, I could see a clock indicating there was one hour before my flight’s departure. I called the friend with whom I’d missed my Philippine flight. “What is it with you and airports?” she asked. I still don’t know the answer to that one. lol.

Fast forward 15 minutes and “someone” still hasn’t arrived. I’m as antsy as can be. I inquire and am assured “the person is coming.” I figure the airport has some super secret passage ways (in addition to the speedy shuttle train) that can get me where I need to go. Another five minutes slip by before a Korean Air staffer arrives in her impeccable uniform. [The Korean Air Girls (KAG) are always impeccable.]

The Information staff briefs her. I glance at the clock and tell the KAG my flight leaves at 630. “Will we be able to make it?” In answer, she says, “Come on,” and breaks into a jog toward the elevator. I thanked her for escorting me and we proceeded in silence.

When we reached the next concourse, the KAG broke out the long-distance marathon pace. In heels. In heels! In addition to the guilt I felt at putting someone else through an airport sprint fest, I felt terribly inadequate as a woman. I had on sneakers and could barely keep up. Did I mention Korean girls don’t sweat? They don’t. AND their hair always stays in place. Crazy.

So there I am, my new dog about to undergo the knife, I’ve got $3 in my pocket and I’m chasing the embodiment of picture-perfect femininity through the airport in pursuit of a relaxing weekend. What’s a girl to do? I used my cellphone to make a call to Beijing while running across those George Jetson escalator floor thingies.

“Robert? I dunno if I’m gonna make my flight.” “Hello? Where are you?” “Running through the airport.” It was very much like the scene in Home Alone right before the “KEVIN” moment where the family is running with complete abandon oblivious to what they’re leaving behind.

Somewhere mid-stride—was it Concourse A, B, C, or D?—I had the realization that this was only a four day weekend and if I made the plane I’d be eating dinner in Beijing. If I didn’t, I’d have lost my hostel reservation for the weekend, half-a-day’s vacation, AND have to hightail it 45 minutes back to my apartment. Then, lo and behold—was it the voice of God?—the light bulb above my head turned on…you have money in your American account. (DUH!) The resolve to continue my cross-airport marathon diminished faster than the fig tree on the road to Bethany. O…M…G…

As I was rolling the details over in my mind, the KAG slowed her roll and turned to me. “You will not be able to take your flight.” I battered her with a quick succession of questions: “What time is it? When’s the next flight? How far are we from the ATM?” I don’t think she had formed the answers before I blurted out, “I wanna go back.” Despite her impeccable KAG customer service training, her face said she hoped I was joking. “I wanna take my flight! I’m sorry.” She took a deep breath—God knows what she was thinking! lol—and off we went.

We RAN all the way back to the international wing of the airport which was more exercise than I’d had in months…no doubt, scaring a few people as we blew by. Naturally, as one would expect in a situation where time is of the essence, my plane was parked at the very last gate of the hall. By the time the gate was in sight, I had a side cramp, was wheezing and breaking a nasty sweat! The KAG showed no physical signs of distress other than her perfectly-formed hair bow taking a slight dip.

I made the flight by the sheer skin of my teeth. I was the last passenger and presumably looked like the poster child for swine flu with a clearly above-normal temperature and a mucus-laden cough. I wouldn’t have wanted to sit next to me! Fortunately, my nearest seatmate knocked out pretty early so I didn’t have to feel guilty.


My two-hour flight went without a hitch. Beijing is an hour behind Seoul so I gained some time as well.^^ My buddy Robert (Zhengyu) was darling enough to come all the way across town to meet me. The Beijing airport is ginormous. I always say Inchon Airport is big ‘for no reason’ and Beijing is that plus one! I was really glad I didn’t have to navigate it alone. As it so happened, my arrival date coincided with the "democratic dictatorship's" celebration of 60 years of glorious rule, as it were.

If you watched the Olympics last summer, you already know, China does it big. Every TV at the airport was tuned to coverage of the parade and performances in Tiananmen Square. Even on TV, the enormity of the production was apparent. I was only able to catch a few glimpses on my way out of the airport.

It took close to an hour to reach Robert’s neighborhood. We took an express train then two subway trains. He lives in a nice area of town full of new residential and retail developments. Despite missing the big parade, on the way to dinner, we were able to catch a few fireworks in the distance. It was a nice touch to my first night in China. We stopped at a small family-owned spot and got a really amazing plate of vegetables and another of tenderized seasoned beef. YUMMY! It was nice to eat something different that tasted so good. ^^

One of Robert’s roommates was gone for the weekend, so I accepted his offer to crash at their place. His other roommate was a Russian girl who spoke more Chinese than English. She was nice but naturally, we couldn’t talk too much. I had a comfy bunk laden with extra bedding from Robert’s brief stint as a hostel owner (before "democratic dictatorship" intervention on his location). I contemplated how many ‘toursity’ things I could fit in the next four days, then fell into a much earned sleep.

To be continued...

Miss you guys! Love & Hugs. ^__^

September began with quite a literal blur...
Like I mentioned in my last letter, I returned to school on the heels of a pink eye infection and stumbled through the week's lesson plans. I hadn't taken the time to prepare lessons before I left for vacation and out of haste, when I returned, I had mistakenly planned a lesson from the wrong book! It was a bumpy ride to say the least.

I had done my best to set up my new apartment and found myself constantly cycling between home and local superstores for miscellaneous items. When the weekend came, I was quite content to stay home on Saturday and attempt to out rest my fatigue. I met up with an old friend for dinner and considered that my "event" for the day. On Sunday, I returned to the small Baptist church I had been attending (SIBC) to meet up with old friends. The vast majority of folks who had attended the church last year had completed their teaching contracts and returned home. I greeted the family that had hosted the Sunday lunches/prayer group then spent the rest of the day lesson planning.

The second week of the month passed much like the first, save the fact that I now had a bicycle by which I could explore my new neighborhood. I don't think I had ridden a bike in at least 15 years or so and I found I enjoyed it as much as I did when I had Huffy bike. ^ ^

The second weekend I met up at an upscale buffet for a friend's birthday on Saturday night (and had a little incident with missing the last train home and wandering the streets after 12am looking for an ATM to get cab fare). The weekend was otherwise mild. The new express subway made it possible to visit Sarang Community Church, a friend in LA had recommended--(thanks Monica!)--since the previously 1hr 45min trip is now only 30mins. It's one of the larger Korean churches in the city and they hold three English services every Sunday. I enjoyed the service. It was interesting visiting a majority Korean church for a change...

After work, I took the time to do something I had been contemplating for a while...sign up for Chinese classes! Some of you may know about my self-study in Mandarin and my interest in China. (I'm actually sitting in a Beijing Starbucks as I write this.) Despite that, I have yet to take a Chinese class. One of the community centers in Seoul offers classes for only $10 each 3-month session!

While I was signing up, the community center volunteer noted my inability to fill out the form written in Korean and suggested I sign up for Korean classes that begin just before the Chinese ones. I tried to decline, considering I've taken three months of Korean and judging by my speaking ability, it isn't doing me much good. In the end, I agreed to the beginning class which means I'll be suffering through five chapters introducing the Korean alphabet again...*sigh* If I still can't fill out a basic questionnaire after this one, I quit! lol.

Since last year when my Pomeranian ran away in the States, I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to get another dog...in Korea. I had also made up my mind to adopt a rescue dog. I have never seen so many purebred dogs in a pound until I got here!

The second weekend of the month, I visited a rescue to meet dogs that were up for adoption but didn't "click" with any of them. Since I had a half day Thursday of the following week, I took it on myself to visit one of the largest Korean animal shelters in the area and see what dogs are available. An hour-and-a-half subway ride, a 30-min bus ride, a bunny trail down a partially gravel side road--which I'm pretty sure provided some very old people their entertainment for the day--I arrived at the shelter. The staff looked shocked to see me as none of them spoke English.

After visiting all the dogs, as heartbreaking as it was, I narrowed myself down to two, an adorable Yorkie mix who looked like a miniature Benji and a brown poodle that was so happy at a few moments out of her cage, she bounced around like a little lamb! I was assured a Seoul veterinarian would examine the two dogs and transfer them to his shop so that I wouldn't need to repeat the long trek to the shelter. The rest of the week, I kept thinking about the two little dogs and wondering which I would end up with.

On Saturday, I headed across town to the vet's office. I quickly discovered the cute, previously mild-mannered Yorkie mix was a little bully as he challenged every male dog he encountered! He refused to walk consistently on a least and barked at every other thing in sight. He was a great dog...for someone else!

The poodle was just as pleasant and even-tempered as she had been on first meeting. She adjusted to my walking style on leash after only a few minutes. The choice was easy. I named her Choco Peppero after the Korean candy sticks and made plans to bring her home the following Saturday after she was spayed.

With exams beginning the last full week of the month, time flew by quickly. The weekend brought a goodbye to another friend returning to the States after the end of her contract. Her employer had scheduled her departing flight just 12 hours after the end of her last working shift, so there wasn't much time for goodbyes! A group of us met up for some salsa dancing then headed off to a jjimjilbang (찜질방).

After a year in Korea, I still hadn't been to one of the public bath houses. Those of you know me well are probably familiar with my general distaste for public nakedness. It's not you. It's me. I find it a larger violation of my personal (visual) space than I'm generally willing to permit. In addition, given the Korean public-at-large's propensity for disregarding boundaries of personal space and staring, "get naked with staring, space-violating strangers" wasn't exactly on my 'Life List' (nor was "naked with friends.")

All that is to say, I was still wavering on the experience when we stepped on the jjimjilbang premises around 3am. (The baths are open 24 hours and people sleep over.) One of the other girls was a first-timer as well so we kept motivating each other to go through the experience.

To answer the big questions: yes, the bathing areas are single-sex; yes, children are permitted; no, they don't use chlorine; and no, I was neither the only black person nor the only non-Korean. (When we arrived, half the people were foreign.)

Fortunately, 3am isn't exactly prime bath time so the facility wasn't anything close to crowded. Fortunately, my mind slows down a bit after 2am so my thoughts about hygiene and closet lesbians and peeping toms couldn't fully materialize between my concerns over where I had last lain the two little hand towels that I was supposed to dry off with later.

It was an interesting experience. I can't say that I'm "a believer" now because I already know I'd get crazy in a space like that with more than 10 or so folks inside. And, only one person has to stare at me and/or say something inappropriate before I snap. With that in mind, I think I'll stop while I'm ahead. :D

After the jjimjilbang, everyone said their goodbyes, my friend headed off to the airport, and I went home to sleep. After a mere 3 hours, I dragged myself out of bed and headed to the vet where Peppero was waiting. WAY too much money later, me and my furry sidekick headed onto the subway to meet up with friends in Incheon for the Annual B-Boy competition. I had heard about the competition from some folks who went last year and were pretty impressed. The event featured dance crews from Europe, North America and Asia.

Keeping a dog in a carrier when she's been in a cage for at least a month is not a fun task. Getting to the park was quite a relief. Incheon has a "City Festival" going on through the end of the October. Vendors of all sorts are set up near the entrance to Incheon's Central Park. Peppero was quite a hit with little kids as she pranced by. She has a bouncy gait and thankfully isn't bothered by squeals of "mong mong!" or the rough sort of petting the 2-feet tall set tend to give. :)

When I finally reached the display area of the park, I was barred entry because of my sidekick! You can imagine the flash of emotions that rushed over me after just having gotten my dog and traveled over 1 hour by subway! The boy at the ticket counter did his best to communicate the reason with his limited English but in the end he walked me over to...the Pet Check.

Yes, boys and girls, the Pet Check is exactly like a Coat Check, sans coats. It was inside a small air-conditioned trailer with an attendant and cages for about 20 or so small dogs and the service is completely free! I was quite surprised, relieved, and disappointed---surprised by the fact that the city had been so thoughtful toward pet owners, relieved that I wouldn't have to miss the competition and disappointed that Peppero and I were being separated after a mere 2.5 hours together! With a heavy heart, I headed of to join my pals.

The competition was really cool. Most of you know how much I like dance (despite being a mediocre dancer myself) and these teams were insanely good! By the time I arrived, the competition was well into the final rounds. A Russian team, some guys from New York and a Japanese team were left.

The boys from New York had no chance against the Japanese team. Break dancing originated in New York but it doesn’t live there anymore! The NY team was a full head taller than their counterparts, a fact that severely undermined their ability to do the kind of precise acrobatic moves that have become standard fare.

The battle between the Russians and the Japanese was pure electricity. (vids here) Their styles were quite different and each seemed to up the ante at every turn. The Japanese guys ended up taking the title through questionable technique. Their dancing was superior but they also violated the team boundary line and were accidentally—-if you can call 3 incidences accidental—-dropping small hand towels at the end of their turns. It was a distraction at the least and at worst, a hazard for the other team who had to dance in the same space.

In between rounds, there were some top notch performances as well. A Korean break dance crew did an interpretive dance. (I know the words interpretive and break dance don’t typically go together but trust me, it was awesome!) A couple of guys from Europe did a weird / scary / cool Cirque-du-Soleil type piece that was amazing.

After the competition, I caught up with my buddies and convinced them to hang around for the fireworks / multimedia / water show that closes out each evening at during the ‘Incheon Festival’. It was definitely worth viewing. There were also pyrotechnics and what looked like human holograms projected onto streams of water. Cool stuff!

Afterwards, the 5 of us + dog squeezed into one taxi for the 30 minute drive home. Back in Seoul, we had some “king samgapsal” (barbequed pork) and Peppero enjoyed nibbling at the bones.

I spent Sunday morning convalescing at home. I was surprised to discover that Korean couriers not only deliver on Saturday (which was how I was woken up the previous day) but also Sunday! I received the last of a series of items to decorate my apartment: a rug and what I thought was going to be a couch. What I actually received on Sunday was four cushion covers!

I had previously been patting myself on the back for placing several orders on GMarket (Korea’s Amazon.com) by myself. I had received several items without a hitch and somehow managed to take phone calls in Korean confirming delivery. You can imagine my disappointment as I’m waiting for a cute little floor pillow 'couch set' to complete my living room décor and I receive a small square box!

I had misunderstood the item listing…the covers themselves where 70 Korean ‘dollars’…the actual cushions were an additional 50! I don’t know when I might have to move again and $120 worth of pillows doesn’t exactly sound like it'll have a good resale value!

Sunday evening, I met up with a couple of girlfriends for the Heritage Mass Choir’s monthly worship service.

[During one of the months I had neglected to write updates, a friend’s friend who was visiting from the States asked us if we’d seen the Korean choir “that sings black gospel.” Negative. I would definitely remember something like that!

So, being the Google Diva/’online stalker’ that I am, it didn’t take me very long to find them. I happened upon this video and emailed the guy who posted it. I asked where there church was and if the choir sang every Sunday. He responded the next day saying that they were all from different churches and got together once a month for a worship service. The next one would be that weekend. Score! What he hadn’t mentioned was that they were recording for their new album and DVD! My first experience with the Heritage Choir was pleasantly surreal. The seven of us who attended were all black Americans and they were quite happy to see us! lol.]

The Heritage Choir members definitely have some of the best voices in Korea. (vid here) So long as I’m in town, I won’t miss their service. It’s rare to see Koreans worship so freely since most of the churches here range from conservative to uber conservative. (Um yeah, not a wide range.)

After Sunday’s service, I was happy to pick up a copy of the new CD/DVD so I could look for me and my friends in the audience shots. (We’re in there! ^^)

On Monday, I tried to head off to work and Peppero was in a panic. They say dogs have the mental capacity of a two-year-old and having worked in a preschool, that sounds about right...the fact that she had food, water, a doggie bed and plenty of room to prance around meant NOTHING if she was going to be left alone forever—-as she perceived it anyway.

It wasn’t long before building management called my school--(I had missed the call to my cell)--and a third-hand message made it back to me via my primary co-teacher. I was on freak out status! [When I had mentioned to her in passing that I was getting a dog, she had said no pets were allowed in my building as per the lease (that I totally couldn’t read since it was in Korean). Peppero was already waiting for me at the vet's office at that point...oops!]

I was completely tense and prepping myself for a showdown with my building. But as with so many other things in Korea, the conclusion differed from my expectation. I stopped by my building office to check on another issue and was told, “Your dog was really loud. The neighbors were angry,” followed by a tsk tsk.

I apologized. Surprised at the laissez-faire response, I asked them to send my apologies to the neighbors and let them know that my dog wouldn’t be a problem after September 30. The manager took it in, nodded, and that was that.

I had forgotten I was in the land of “contract as guideline” rather than “contract as law.” Up until now, that fact had worked against me, but I’m glad this one worked in my favor. The first few days of October were Chuseok, Korea’s thanksgiving celebration. I had promised to solve the problem before then. I had a lot of planning to do...

Here’s the preview of October 1:
Taryn finishes a half day at school and leaves to the joyful sound of “Happy Chuseok” spoken in the halls. She meets a fellow teacher to make a clothing donation then dashes home to get Peppero to the vet. She has to complete a consultation on major surgery and be at Incheon International Airport by 345pm. It’s 115 and her clothes are still all over the place, as are her emotions...

Miss you guys. Talk to you soon.

Love and hugs,