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Published: November 16th 2008
The infamous Dok-do banner
Wait Dok-do belongs to who???
Over the past two and a half months in Korea I’ve learned many things but one of the first words that comes to mind when I picture the people of this country is: proud. Korean people have a sense of pride that I’ve yet to see anywhere else, they take pride in their families, work, culture, kim chee, and country. This was no more evident than on my ill-fated voyage to a little known island called Dok-do. One of the “perks” of working as an English teacher for the Korean government is that they sponsor monthly field trips for us, free of charge, so that we can absorb the culture that they take such pride in. In all honesty, the trips seem to be slightly disorganized and heavy on the lectures but they’re free and optional so one can’t gripe too much. When my co-teacher told me about the 3 day trip to Dok-do island I conjured up all kinds of images in my head: seaside villages with tasty and cheap eats, people scooting by on mopeds instead of cars, an island small enough to walk in a few hours, and of course what would an island be without beaches!
The last time we smiled on that boat.
Well, these thoughts didn’t last long. After about a week the trip roster was posted and I was ecstatic to be going (it only added to the joy that it meant missing a day of work!) We were all instructed to attend a 10:30am Saturday informational meeting, where I, along with everyone else, assumed they would be filling in pertinent details of this expedition: where to meet, what to bring, where would we be staying, you get the idea. After a late night Friday, I rushed to get to the info meeting with seconds to spare and as soon as I walked in the room I realized this was not what I thought it would be…by a long shot! I signed in and was given a translation machine, and then I knew I’d be in for a long meeting. We all sat in various stages of a trance, listening through broken translation machines (mine eventually stop working altogether) to 2 elderly men lecture us on one simple fact: Dok-do Island is Korean territory. That was the message, that was what took 2 1/2 hours, numerous powerpoint slides, at least half a dozen maps from antiquity, 120 translation machines, and a
When this boat's a-rockin'...
Moments before things turned ugly!
banner (yes, a big giant banner hanging over the stage that succinctly summed up two and a half hours of lectures), to explain to us. I think I can safely say that as I looked around at all the half-asleep, hung-over faces in the room, they were all thinking the same thing I was: we can read the banner. After all of this we thought we were finally going to get some answers about the logistics of the trip but sadly when one soul dared to ask a question during the designated question time, they were met with a curt, “no questions about that right now.” Hmmm…we’re supposed to get on an “experimental” boat to go to an island that, yes we all know is Korean territory per the ancient maps and the agreement with Japan 50+ years ago in San Francisco, without any information about where we are sleeping, what we’re supposed to do for food, or where to even catch the damn boat! Nothing! So there I was 2 days before the trip with no idea what to pack, where to meet, what time we were leaving and at the end of the day an email is sent
The snack that inspired a holiday
The not-so-elusive "Peppero" in its natural habitat!
to all of our co-teachers (they usually receive our correspondence from the Busan Education Office because we can’t read Korean) saying that the trip is re-scheduled for 2 weeks later because they hadn’t reserved our boat in time.
Fast forward to Friday November 7th, the day before we are to set sail on the high seas, an email is sent out saying where we need to meet and that we will be sailing on an experimental boat courtesy of a University in Busan. Of course the times were all wrong, meet 4pm Sat. becomes meet 12:30pm…big difference. So with a loose itinerary in hand, I pack my overnight duffle, pray that we get cabins and don’t end up sleeping on the floor in a giant room with everyone else. It was an overcast and rainy day, not boating weather to begin with and my taxi driver took me to Pier 5 (after counting all the other piers to me as we passed them, hehe, that was funny. How much excitement could I muster for pier 3? Or was it pier 4? I should have paid more attention!) and I got out with my stuff, walked through security and signed
My private shame!
Indulging in a delicious Peppero snack at home.
in before being told to walk 5 mins. through a shipyard filled with (besides ships) shipping crates stacked as tall as a three story apartment! In the distance I spot a Korean camera crew and we all correctly assume that must be our boat. When we arrive, we aren’t allowed to get on the boat right away, first we all stood in a group and the cameramen filmed us talking, just shooting the breeze, about the blah weather, and the fact that we likely wouldn’t even be able to set foot on Dok-do because the waves would likely be too choppy surrounding the island. After a few close-ups we were let onboard and the crew led the way to our cabins. Each room had 3 bunk beds and our names were on the doors, boys on the left and girls on the right. After claiming our spots and mingling in the hallway while a few were interviewed on camera (What do you think about Dok-do island? Do you think you will have a good visit to Dok-do? Do you feel Dok-do is an important issue?) we were called on deck for the funniest part of the trip…little did I know
Honoring Peppero Day
We ate BBQ only because it'd be frowned upon to eat Peppero sticks for dinner too!
it was to be one of the last times we’d smile on board this ship. They gave us name tags with the now famous motto: Dok-do is Korean territory, and a picture of our flag so we could all see what country we were from, and then we were rounded up in front of the giant Dok-do banner (it travels) and instructed to wave our flags and say, in Korean, that Dok-do is Korean territory. Are you picking up on the theme? They were going to air this footage on t.v and we were all reasonably sure that we would be forever banned from entering the country of Japan after this little display went public.
After finishing our t.v. spot, we were directed to lecture room #1 where things took a horrible, horrible turn. Per Korean law, we were instructed on how to wear our life vests and also the entire procedure for abandoning ship at which point the instructor tells us that after our lectures conclude we will be practicing the abandon ship procedures…he said it was Korean law so who am I to argue? 7 short blasts followed by 1 long blast, got it, that was the
Happy Peppero Day!
Celebrating the holiday with some Korean BBQ!
“code” that indicated we were to abandon ship…but first he would announce that we would be doing a drill, nice. SO, not two minutes into the next lecture by a scientist (he said he was filling in for the history speaker who had a death in the family and couldn’t be with us) but the boat starts rocking really hard! Many of us tried to stand up to look out the little porthole windows and the guy who had been in the Royal Navy tried to give us tips on how to keep our food down but it was no use. All the won we had invested in motion sickness patches and Korean Dramamine was for naught…several people got sick which almost immediately set off a chain reaction, people were fleeing to the bathrooms (which by the way had prison style showers, no divides. They told us they had made a shower schedule so guys and girls didn’t shower together…honestly I think the last thing on anyone’s mind was co-ed showers on a dirty, old, experimental ship! This wasn’t exactly the Love Boat!) or their respective cabins and we all looked drunk as we tried to stay on our feet as the ship tossed and turned (along with our lunches!) I made it to my cabin, hoisted myself onto my bunk, and closed my eyes trying to focus on rocking with the ship while the girl opposite me threw up into a shopping bag. I nearly fell asleep (praying the motion sickness pill would kick in faster than the promised 40 minutes) listening to the distant sounds of people vomiting in the communal bathroom and, those who weren’t, discussing the details of what was going on in the bathroom. Sounds pleasant, huh? After dozing off I hear an announcement in Korean because they still haven’t realized that we don’t speak Korean, which a few of us assumed meant we were doing the abandon ship drill. Not a good time for this. I was sure if I had to move anywhere quickly it would get ugly. I decided to be proactive and so a couple friends and I grabbed our life vests and slowly headed up on deck so we’d be ready when the blasts went off…only they never did. So basically you have the three of us up on deck looking ridiculously paranoid with our orange vests that were clashing with my, by then, green face. A sailor, I am not! I told you that doing the flag waving for the propaganda shoot was about the last time we smiled on the boat, well here comes the finale! The boat turned around! I was back on my bunk when I felt us move from side to side instead of the familiar back and forth groove. We were all so excited it was as if we instantly were cured (well almost) of our sea sickness! Instead of another 14 hours to land it would be only 2!!! Joy swept across the deck despite the fleeting instruction that we would be turning back only to drop off one person before heading back out to sea. I jumped off my bunk, packed my things, and stood with many others in the hall with our bags like kids waiting to go to Grandma’s house. If that boat docked, we’d be off it in a flash! One person was actually taken immediately to the hospital but as for the rest of us, upon docking, we were asked to stay onboard to eat dinner since the crew had already prepared tansuyu (like breaded pork tenderloin) and some other tasty eats. Hesitantly we agreed, and we all filed into the makeshift dining room in our coats, looking shaken, cold, sick, and tired but we ate and then after another brief meeting (so many meetings even after the trip was over!) we were set free on land and I’d never been so happy! I didn’t even care that it was rainy and dark, or that I was in the middle of a shipyard. The final word was that they will reschedule this trip yet again (though I think we’re pushing our luck here, what more has to happen? I for one am not up for anymore nautical mishaps on an experimental ship!) and that we couldn’t continue on to Ulleung-do because the water was too rough. Good enough for me! Although, I wanted to go to Dok-do, the sea sickness wasn’t worth the 16 hour boat ride to Uleung-do and another 3 hours to Dok-do (and yes I kept it together, no shopping bag run-ins for me!)
I also celebrated my first “Peppero Day,” which is a holiday in Korea that is apparently dedicated to a snack food! My kind of place! On Sunday I poked around Nampo-dong and noticed candy and lots of it! In shops where there had previously been none, I found myself squeezing passed huge displays of Peppero, which is basically a cookie shaped like a stick and then dipped in chocolate. The holiday is on 11/11 because they think the elevens look like Peppero sticks…I guess that’s as good a reason as I’ve ever heard to create a cookie based holiday. My students brought me boxes of the Peppero cookies (just like Pocky sticks in Japan, even the box is the same!) and they were delicious, especially the ones dipped in chocolate and then rolled in almonds! You see the sacrifices I’m making to embrace the culture: eating cookies… and of course there was the dressing up as a Wonder Girl (*the Wonder Girls are a Korean girl pop band that are hugely popular) in an attempt to win a ticket to Thailand thing. Just an update on that, the Halloween costume contest has not officially ended so votes are still coming in but when last I checked we had the most votes!!! We even learned the dance and admitting that fact alone should entitle me to something! I never thought I’d come to Korea, enter a costume contest with 4 friends all dressed as pop stars and then actually win a ticket to Thailand! This country is full of surprises! The people are very proud and they have a lot to be proud of. From Peppero Day to Dok-do island to the Wonder Girls (well okay maybe that last one was a stretch, I mean how proud are Americans of Britney Spears?) this country has a lot to offer and I’ve only scratched the surface…
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