DMZ checkpoint, Cheorwon, South Korea

DMZ checkpoint, Cherwon, South Korea

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On the Border: A visit to the DMZ

Two days ago I went with a group of students to Cheorwon County. One of the northernmost counties in South Korea, this agricultural area touches up against the DMZ. If you don’t already know, the DMZ (demilitarized zone) is a 2.5 mile wide strip of land that runs along the entire border between the two Koreas. It is heavily patrolled on both sides.

We were not able to go to the JSA for various reason, but we went to the observatory and also did a tour of the infiltratn tunnel that was discovered beneath the DMZ.

During our tour, I couldn’t shake the thought that Cheorwon sounds like “Charon,” the name of the boatman on the River Styx who would ferry the dead across. From the platform at the observatory we could see all the lush green around us. The area has been left to biologically flourish, but it is hard to forget that the ground is soaked in blood. Thousands of men from both sides died on that strip of land. They were ferried into the land of the dead right there, right below me.

It was eerie knowing that as we were looking across at North Korea and they were looking straight back at us from their observation posts. For the South Korean students, probably more so. As a US citizen, I can arrange to cross the border into North Korea and tour Pyongyang. South Korean citizens cannot legally go into North Korea.

When we entered the infiltration tunnel it was about twenty degrees colder than the outside air. Everything was damp and as someone pushed past me on their way out, I touched my hand to the wall. It came away slimy with fungus that I discreetly wiped off on my pants.

Following the the path down we came to a metal cage that divided North and South Korea underground. We were standing inches away from the North. I thought about the miners who spent over three years digging through solid rock to make that tunnel. I wondered at what had been done to them after they were found. As we turned to journey back out of the tunnel I began to feel sick. I still have a lingering cold, but this felt different. I’m not claustrophobic, so I’m not sure why I felt so badly. I thought I might throw up or pass out. Climbing the stairs back up to the surface, I leaned back against the railing and let people pass me while I cradled my head in my hands and tried to steady my breathing. My friend Sara was behind me and kept gently urging me on from behind.

After surfacing, I went into the bathroom and looked at my face in the mirror. It was a deathly shade of white. I’m not sure what made me react so strongly, if it was emotional or physical, or both. I’m sure I’m not the first person to have an extremely negative reaction to the tunnel. I felt incredibly stupid and wondered if I should have waited outside, not feeling 100% healthy to begin with. I am glad I saw it, however. When will I get another chance to do something like that?

Travel Sick in Northern Seoul

I am not here to lie in bed listening to French music feeling sorry for myself. That’s what I keep saying, but yet here I am.

Many people feel a little sick within their first few days on foreign soil– from jet lag, the change in climate, the change in food– any number of things really. I wait until I’ve been on the road more than three weeks. I was jet lagged when I first arrived in Taiwan, but felt rather robust by the time I arrived in Seoul. Indeed, while everyone else was sleeping off their travel sickness the first week here, I was wandering around and eating kimchi that was making everyone else want to vomit.

Now, everyone else has gone to the National Museum while I assume the fetal position in a dark little room listening to my head throb in my ears and feeling my throat scratch against itself. My Korean suite-mates came to check on my before they left (my fellow countrywomen had already split– cue enraged fist shaking). I really wanted to go. I love museums. Many people experience what I like to call “museum fatigue.” The second they walk into one, they are overwhelmed by the sheer bulk of old things they are supposed to look at.

I stood up, thinking that I could muster the necessary health for this excursion. Then my backed up sinuses caused me to sway. Then my blood tried to rush out of my head and into my feet. Then I remembered how I had almost died in the lecture we had this morning. Then I sat back down on the bed and bravely told them to go on without me.

I have been plagued by occasional intense migraines for several years, but this also seems to be some sort of sinus upset. My allergy attack in Florence was a nuisance, but this is actually getting in the way of me fully experiencing Seoul. And not to sound like I have a substance abuse problem, but when I was traveling in Italy I believe that the wine helped keep my migraines at bay. I’ve used a glass of wine to help relieve especially bad migraines at home as well. This is not really an option here since I am staying on campus and this campus happens to be a dry one. Besides, wine is really expensive here and I’m not sure Soju would have the same affect.

So, here’s my whiney dispatch from the road. My skin, however, is luminous and feels like a baby thanks to that weird face mask.

Micro-sized Korean Fashion

I went shopping in Dondaemun a few days ago with another international student named Sara.  We knew that this was going to be a challenge, but there were definitely moments that afternoon when we wondered why we had even bothered at all.

A US size 8 seems to be a sort of magic number in Korea. It is very hard to find shoes or clothing above that size. We wandered around with our 90 pound Korean friends feeling disillusioned about all the adorable styles that surrounded us.

“”Let’s go look at those scarves,” Sara said wistfully after we had pawed through racks of smalls and mediums–the feminine gauzy lace dresses and adorable printed blouses ranging from sizes 2 to 6. The dresses that were more flowing and forgiving in shape were often super short. They come up scandalously high on girls barely over five foot tall. I would have to color coordinate my underwear if I tried to wear them.

Curiously, in Korea they are very open about showing a ton of leg. I have been flashed by girls’ underwear on occasion because their skirt is so tiny. However, deep v-necks or anything that shows a lot of collarbone, or shoulder, or any cleavage is shocking. Most of the blouses they sell have very conservative necklines.

Sara finally found a dress at a big department store in a size “L” that fit like a glove and looks really sexy on her. When we made our way over to the H&M I let myself hope that maybe I too would find something cute. I finally found 3 blouses all in a very rare size 12, and stole away to the dressing room. The first blouse fit, but was too short for my 5’7″ frame. The second fit rather awkwardly, but the third, the third was perfect. Being a few inches shorter than me, Sara adopted the too short first blouse and we both felt a little better.

After a quick search of the lingerie department it became clear that A and B were the only sizes available in bras. Perhaps, tucked in the back you might find a C. Sara and I are both bigger than a C cup. Sara is even bigger on top than I am which gives her many challenges for fitting clothes in Korea. I am still apparently rather busty for Korea, but I have very wide hips, and carry my extra weight there. Goodbye any hope of finding pants in Korea ever.

I have seen some larger Korean people around Seoul, not everyone is tiny. I think the bigger issue Sara and I face is the shape difference. Most larger people in Korea seem to carry their weight solely around their middle. The loose tunic style shirts I kept finding accommodate that well. I found plenty of blouses like that which fit me, but they don’t look good on my shape.

Boutiques and smaller shops are absolutely not the place to shop if you have any kind of curve. These have even less size selection. Most of the shirts and dresses are “Free” size. This means they fit from an extra small to maybe a medium. This is to cater to the teen and early twenty shoppers who want fast fashion. Pants usually only come up to a size 6 in such places.

When Korean friends drag me into a boutique to shop with them, I often feel awkward. There is really nothing for me to do but see what they are going to try on. Sometimes the shop keepers even look at me with a sort of puzzled, “why are you in here?” expression.

The funny thing is, my Korean friends rarely seem to register that I am much bigger than them. Sometimes they are even surprised when I don’t find anything at a shop.

So I now know that the only clothing I will be able to buy in Korea are tunics and maybe some sweaters. This definitely informs I will pack for my year here. I will basically have an entire suitcase of shoes, bras, and jeans set aside. And perhaps some belts to wear over those shapeless tunics.

老外 Foreigner in Sanchong

As a white girl with auburn hair and blue eyes I’ve attracted some attention in Taiwan. Children will look at me shyly and sometimes whisper to their parents. Older will women will come up to me and hold their arm up against mine, remarking at how pale my skin is. Men sometimes stare at me on the metro. Overall, my experience has been pretty positive. I stand out, but most people are curious and welcoming. Many people I’ve met know a few words of English and are eager to try them out on me.

Sanchong is just over the bridge from Taipei. It is a tiny island surrounded by the river on all sides. It has about the same population as Brooklyn. Before my brother moved to Sanchong he spoke to a friend who had lived there for a few years. This friend told him, “if the devil had an anus, if might be Sanchong.”

It’s true that Sanchong is not a nice as Taipei. It’s like Taipei’s awkward cousin who lacks a little in hygeine. However, Sanchong is very convenient. It is just minutes outside the city and it is much more cost effective.

Apparently, back forty or fifty years ago, Sanchong had the reputation for being a very rough neighborhood. It was known to be the place where the Taiwanese gangsters were located. Now it’s a fairly safe neighborhood where I feel perfectly safe catching the bus back at 11 pm and walking a few blocks back to my brother’s apartment.

The biggest danger is from the mopeds. Sometimes families in Taipei seem to treat a scooter like a minivan. They load a bunch of kids (and occasionally even a dog) onto the moped, everyone hanging on and often helmet-less. This was shocking to my delicate American ideals where helmet laws and seatbelt laws are enforced.

I am in Seoul now and in neighborhoods like Itaewon, I am just another traveller. I am not such an uncommon sight. It’s slightly less chaotic in Seoul than in Taipei, but I still have three weeks left before I return home.