Early in October we walked down to the Han River for the Seoul International Fireworks Festival. Teams from Italy, China, the US, and S. Korea each put on a dazzling twenty-minute pyrotechnics display. We saw thirty red starbursts hanging in the sky all at once. Cubes, hearts, mushrooms, and smiley faces lit up the night, as did fireworks resembling whirling red galaxies, white dandelion puff balls, and yellow waterfalls. Starbursts half yellow and half pink, shimmering, glimmering pinwheels, and comet tails painted the sky. Some fireworks quickly appeared and disappeared, while others lingered awhile. It really was an amazing evening.
Another adventure involved traveling to the town of Gimje, a major rice-producing area, and participating in its rice harvest festival. The festival grounds were surrounded by an ocean of golden rice. We foreigners donned white outfits and straw hats and harvested rice for about three minutes; then after all that hard work, they fed us a feast! We also tied on aprons and competed against teams from other countries to make traditional treats out of rice products. We had no idea what we were doing, and were advised by Koreans who spoke no English and did a lot of pantomiming. In the evening, we participated in a torch-lit procession of over two thousand people, setting a Korean Guinness Book of Records for the largest gathering of torch bearers. Fortunately, none of us got hurt by the lit torches and the rice-harvesting scythes!
Our daughters Clare and Andrea, one now living on the east coast and the other on the west, visited us together for a week, arriving the Saturday night the embassy compound celebrated Halloween (we gave out over 500 pieces of candy). All went smoothly, and I’m glad they came early on in our tour because preparing for their visit goaded me on to learn more about Korea and what sites to see. One highlight of their trip was visiting the Jogyesa Buddhist Temple during its chrysanthemum festival, and seeing elephants, butterflies, snails, and swans made of lavender, yellow, and rust-red flowers. Another was seeing “Nanta,” a live show that’s been going strong here since 1998. It’s about screwball chefs who have one hour to prepare for a wedding feast, and incorporates comedy, lots of percussion using kitchen utensils, martial arts, and audience participation. Tom ended up onstage to help make food, and his team won : )
We went to the ritzy Gangnam shopping area, immortalized by Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video, and the mammoth, modern, undergound Coex shopping mall. Their last evening we visited the traditional Gwangjang market with its hundreds of stalls selling clothing plus material for making the Korean hanbok dress, and ate bindaettok pancakes made of ground mung beans. Then we enjoyed the spectacular Seoul Lantern Festival, where transparent figures lit from inside were positioned on platforms in a stream that runs through a downtown area, so instead of floats parading past us, we paraded past the floats, including Spiderman, a colorful school of fish, dragons, and It’s a Small World-inspired figures dressed in traditional costumes from around the world.
I read David Halberstam’s book about the Korean War entitled The Longest Winter. It was an excellent eye-opener about why we entered it. We didn’t really care about Korea, but we had to get involved because we’d already “lost China,” even though there’s nothing we could really have done to stop Mao Tse-tung against the ineffective Chiang Kai-shek. The US had a huge “China lobby” because so many Americans had served there as Christian missionaries or been born into missionary families.
It was fascinating to learn about the reality behind the myth of General Douglas MacArthur, and understand why my military friend thinks MacArthur should have been court-martialed and thrown in jail! He surrounded himself with men who would tell him only what he wanted to hear, which was that it was OK to push on to the border with China, and that the Chinese wouldn’t enter the war—despite the punishing mountainous terrain, bitter cold, and reports that some Chinese soldiers had already crossed the border. MacArthur never slept one night in Korea, and his arrogant ignorance unnecessarily cost American lives. The book also highlighted how certain American officers’ prejudice against the Chinese backfired against them, as Mao’s “inferior” forces, already honed in the war that brought him to power, whipped Americans who underestimated him.
I’m still hanging in there on the language lessons. In Korean, “yogi” doesn’t refer to a bear, but means “here.” At this stage we can ask Koreans basic questions, and get frustrated when their answers go “off script”—when they say something that wasn’t part of the dialogue we memorized, which is almost all the time. But one time, I said something in Korean, the response was on script so I understood it, and then I answered “thank you” in Japanese!