Sunday, April 18, 2021

Stunning Korea in Spring: Road Trip to Seosan and Taean

My heart is so full! We rented a car again and got away from Seoul for a long weekend--this time to Seosan and Taean. Spring has arrived in South Korea, and it is absolutely gorgeous! These photos are just a small slice of the beautiful things we saw on our trip, but they were a sight for sore eyes especially after a cold and dark pandemic winter.

Our first stop was the AMI Art Museum in Dangjin, which is on the way to Seosan and Taean if you're driving from Seoul. I almost didn't stop here because we don't like art galleries and I was concerned about COVID-19 safety if exhibitions were indoors, but I'm so glad we went. The exhibitions were largely open air and there weren't many people at all. (It probably helped that we went on a random weekday instead of a weekend.) Although it wasn't a particularly large building, the spaces were thoughtfully decorated with all kinds of art. The variety and number of pieces you could walk through and interact with were a big plus for me.

AMI Art Museum used to be a school, but once the school shut down it was repurposed into a space celebrating art. I thought it was such a cool way to use the building, and there were little signs like this board (pictured below) and the school bells still there that paid homage to the building's history.

On the art museum grounds there was also an adorable, quirky cafe called Cafe Giverny with more art inside. They didn't have food or baked goods, but they did have a great selection of coffee, tea, herbal tea, and fruity drinks. M got a sparkling strawberry drink and I got a yuzu herbal tea (something that has quickly become my go-to Korean coffee shop drink).

After that, we went to Yugibang Gaok (유기방 가옥), a residence and hillside famous for its daffodils. The first patches of daffodils we saw were in pretty rough shape, but we're glad we kept going: the daffodils on the side of the property were awesome! I've never seen so many daffodils in my life, and I was again grateful that we came in the middle of a random weekday because it seemed like the kind of place that would be packed on a holiday or weekend.

Before heading to our Airbnb in Seosan, we wanted to grab a bite to eat. At this point, it was about 3pm and we still hadn't had lunch because we were too busy sightseeing. Unfortunately for us, we had so many fails back to back trying to get some food! Some places were closed, another was open but said the employees were taking a break between lunch and dinner service soon, another had the door unlocked but there was nobody inside and no answer to our cries for help, and the list goes on. Eventually we had to drive into the city to try and find some place that was open, and I was so hungry I just insisted we go to the first place I saw there even though it had no reviews online.

I don't know how that place, called The Zone Galbi (더조은갈비), had no reviews, because that late lunch (really more early dinner at that point) was one of the best meals I've ever had. We ordered two servings of grilled pork and they brought out what seemed like four servings' worth. There was unlimited banchan (반찬, side dishes), rice, and soda that you could self-serve and decide what you wanted (the photo above shows the "self-bar" (셀프바). M said it was the best Korean barbecue he's had in his entire life. The best part was, for the all-you-can-eat sides and drinks as well as the massive amount of grilled meat we got, it only cost $24 for the two of us! We learned they have another location closer to Seoul, so I expect we're going to become frequent customers.

The next day, we went to an herb garden called Farm Kamille. It was so cool to walk around the grounds and buy some fresh, local herbal products. They also had an herbal foot bath section of their cafe where you could sip herbal tea while getting your feet treated. That was definitely not M's scene, but I'd love to come back with friends at some point and give that a try!

After that, we visited the Taean Tulip Festival. It was one of the many places we've seen in South Korea where you could tell it's normally packed but was nearly empty due to COVID-19. The flowers were in full bloom, and I saw more kinds of tulips than I ever knew existed. The gardens were gorgeous and I was really impressed with some of the flower designs you could only see from higher viewpoints.

We finished the day with what I thought would be a romantic stroll but was more of a hike along Noeulgil. We did a two-hour loop but the trail connects up and down the coast of Taean and can take up to eight hours if you do the whole thing. We ended by watching the sunset at Kkotji Beach (꽃지해수욕장). There are two famous rocks where people watch the sunset, known as grandmother and grandfather rocks. Legend has it that the grandmother rock (the one on the left) was a woman who turned into stone waiting for her husband to return to her and then one day the grandfather rock (the one on the right) appeared to accompany her. Is it her deceased husband, finally back? Who knows...

For food, our most notable bites that day were a feast of gegukji (게국지, spicy crab stew, a signature dish of the region) and a seasonal strawberry bingsoo (빙수, shaved ice dessert).

M was not a big fan of the first but loved the second. I loved both, but I will admit the first is extremely messy! I wondered why the table was covered in plastic when we arrived but it quickly became apparent that it was much needed.

Our last full day, we went strawberry picking at Anmyeondo Strawberry Farm (안면도 딸기농장 딸구네). It's so easy to do a visit like this here: I just called in advance and let them know when we'd be coming. They gave us half an hour to eat as many strawberries as we wanted and to fill a box of strawberries each. The lady who managed the farm was so sweet and friendly, and the strawberries were the best I've ever had. M and I ate more of them in that half hour than at any other time in our lives, I'm sure.

Once we left the strawberry farm, we were pleasantly surprised to find the weather was not the pouring rain that had been predicted. So we squeezed in a quick visit to Anmyeondo Recreational Forest, where we walked along beautiful paths between 100-year-old Korean red pine trees. The wood from these trees is so sturdy and beautiful, they used to use it to build palaces.

In addition to the forest itself, there was a sprawling array of gardens connected to it you could visit visa a foot path underneath the main road. Both were delightful, and although we heard thunder in the distance we managed to explore plenty without any rain.

For our last big meal of the trip, we swung by Kang Mee Roo (강미루) Chinese restaurant in Seosan. We enjoyed sweet and sour pork and jajangmyeon (짜장면, noodles with black bean sauce), and I had a great conversation with one of the owners. He is the son in the mother-son pair that runs the restaurant, and he provided great service and delicious food. The ambiance of the place was also fantastic, so if you find yourself in Seosan or need to stop for food on the way to Taean, I highly recommend Kang Mee Roo!

Lately we've been returning from trips on Saturday, and it's been so nice to be able to have the rest of the weekend to unpack and rest before work on Monday. We even treated ourselves to some amazing baos in Itaewon when we got back. I'm not planning on taking much leave this summer, so this long weekend getaway was our last for a while. I so appreciate living in such a road-trippable country with so much nature and places to have adventures away from crowds (especially if you go in the middle of a random week like we did). We can't wait to see more and eventually when the pandemic is over to start hosting our loved ones.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

He Is Risen!

Happy Easter to all who celebrate! (And yes, Mormons celebrate Easter! A few people actually asked me...) Did anyone else feel that the message of the Resurrected Christ just hit a little different this year, over a year into an unprecedented pandemic? In a time of so much pain and suffering around the world, I've felt more hungry for messages of hope and peace. I've looked forward to this weekend immensely, and I really needed it. It helped that springtime in Seoul is already so beautiful: I've been watching cherry blossoms and magnolias, pansies and flowering shrubs, and plenty of plants with names and shapes I don't even recognize bloom.

I talked with my family and a number of friends via video chat and then M and I went to our neighbors' house for an Easter lunch. We had a wonderful afternoon filled with great food and plenty of laughter. I also even bought some gorgeous, huge Belgian chocolate Easter eggs from a friend down the street (yes, that is one milk chocolate, one dark chocolate, and one ruby chocolate). After that, we joined other members of the Embassy Seoul community for a socially distanced vigil and solidarity walk in memory of the victims of the Atlanta-area shootings. It was a very healing experience for me, and I was heartened by the show of support from the community in the face of anti-Asian racism.

Then, we came home and watched a local church broadcast. Because of COVID-19, we still couldn't go to in-person worship services today. Thanks to modern technology, though, I was able to tune into special talks and musical performances live on YouTube (including in a mix of Korean and English). I was struck by the story of Arland D. Williams, Jr., which I hadn't heard before. He was one of many passengers in a horrific plane crash into the freezing Potomac River in 1982. When a rescue helicopter came, he kept handing the line to other passengers, saving many lives. By the time the helicopter came back for him, he had drowned beneath the waves. You can read more about his story here. The speaker mentioned how many might see this man's death as a waste, but "greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).

This year, Easter happened to coincide with General Conference, a weekend of gathering and spiritual messages from the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to members everywhere. Unfortunately, the time zone difference is so great that I couldn't watch the broadcast live as I usually do. I'll have to watch the videos later, but I'm so excited to have those to look forward to when I need a little uplifting.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Happy International Trans Day of Visibility!

Did you know March 31 is the International Trans Day of Visibility? It's a day to celebrate the contributions of trans people, combat transphobia, and advocate for greater inclusion of trans people in our society and institutions. We have an Employee Affinity Group (EAG) called glifaa promoting LGBT+ pride in foreign affairs agencies, including the Department of State. In recognition of the International Trans Day of Visibility, I wanted to take the opportunity to share some of glifaa's resources for trans* members and allies here.

If you've never heard the perspective of a transgender person in the international affairs field before, I highly recommend you start with this account from Dr. Chloe Schwenke. Here is one excerpt but I highly recommending reading the full post: "Unlike sexual orientation, there really isn’t any way to be discreet about changing one’s gender. A critically important part of the therapeutic process is living and dressing in the gender you know yourself to be. My therapist asked me early on to come to our sessions dressed as a female, which necessitated awkward changes of clothing in my car in the dark corners of underground parking lots. At least once I was dressed and with make up on, I passed pretty easily as a female. Not all transgender people do “pass” easily, yet their needs to express their authentic gender are every bit as urgent and valid as my own. In less tolerant societies than those found in liberal cities in the east and western regions of the United States, the humiliation experienced by transitioning people who appear in public, or need to use public toilet facilities, while not easily “passing”, presents profound problems, or the potential for serious victimization by others, even (in countries such as Uganda where I lived) by the government authorities. Few if any foreign diplomatic or aid missions are geared up to understand or be supportive in such situations, and the more realistic option may be to request a transfer back to Washington for the two to three years that most transitions require."

I'd also like to share a wonderful personal story from a Foreign Service member at the Department of State who transitioned while serving in Romania. You can read the full post here, but here's an excerpt: "In my mid-50s and with State being my second career, I have known I was transgender from my earliest years even though I did not know the word. I attempted to come to terms with being transgender in college in the 1970s, again in 1990, and a third time in 2000-02. Each time I was forced back into a closet, unable to overcome the obstacles both within myself and in society. When I began again to walk this path in 2010, I did so with dark memories of those earlier attempts. Would I have the courage and strength to see this through, perhaps the last chance in this lifetime to live as myself, not as an artificial construct for others?...U.S. society has changed and evolved in my lifetime. It is possible to transition gender and not lose everything, and it is now possible to do so in the Department of State. What a happy, wonderful time it is to be alive!"

You can read more about the International Trans Day of Visibility here, but if you're looking for a way as an ally to support here are a few ideas:

  • Reach out to a trans friend expressing your support.
  • Donate to organizations that support trans people.
  • Write to or call your elected representatives, school administration, workplace, health insurance, church, union, or other institution where your voice matters and express support of trans-inclusive laws and policies.
  • Share the contributions of trans people with others in your network.
  • Read about the history of trans people in your community, state, or country.

I'd like to share a little information about a trans person who inspires me: Victor Mukasa, a Ugandan human rights activist who identifies as trans-lesbian. He was assigned female at birth and raised in a conservative Catholic family, but he became a vocal member of the LGBT community and as a result faced intense persecution and harassment. He has spent his career speaking out against laws criminalizing homosexuality and other human rights abuses against LGBT people. You can watch a BBC interview with Mukasa here (CW: sexual abuse, homophobia, transphobia, violence). I am moved by his example of living as his authentic self and working tirelessly for the rights of his community and others.

Thanks for making it this far, and Happy International Trans Day of Visibility!