travel: Bohol, Philippines

We arrive at the warm shores of Bohol somewhat paralyzed from the fast ferry trip. There’s static at the pier when we realize that we can’t get to the Wonder Lagoon without a twenty thousand won taxi trip (about 700 Filipino pesos).

The Wonder Lagoon is Korean-owned. There’s ample Korean dining on the menu and little Filipino food. There is one of those pools you read about in the magazines featuring a swim-up bar adorned with dancing fluorescent lights under palm trees and Romanesque arches. Everything’s subtitled in Hangeul. I may as well still be in Korea. Even the TV blurts out Korean news. Right now, relates Nohyun, Rain is dating the most beautiful pop star in Korea, and sneaking out on his military duties. South Korea is aflame with judgment and scandal. Meanwhile few care about Park Su Min, who cut off his own ear to get out of the service. He isn’t Rain. Rain’s an international superstar who everyone in the world worships after he starred in a box office action hit. Ye gods. Buy the ticket, right?

My Korean family despises the adobo at dinner. I’m the only one who eats it. I chewed the flesh and whispered over the table to Nohyun, the only one in our group willing to understand why kimchi jiggae and kpop news is not what I envisioned for this trip. Dude, we gotta get out of here… let’s just sneak away. Of course Koon Hyeung was also channeling that vibe. We escaped stealthily and caught a bus to Alona Beach.

We’re dropped off in the midst of a typhoon of activity. All the foreigners are here. Levels: beautiful, wonderful levels! From Filipinos with rasta dreads encircling their sun-beaten chests selling blown glass trinkets, to overweight Americans hauling along dark skinned women who look to be ten years old (I’m sure they aren’t). It’s all there on the beach. At first I imagined just a regular beach: a place to take the kids for a nice swim, not unlike the infinite stretches of deserted sand you find even on the Canadian West Coast in the summer. I pictured some pristine white sandy beach with the occasional stray driftwood. The closer we got, in view of the the fire flaring up over tiny rotisserie chickens under huts, skeletal middle-aged men hocking snorkeling adventures, young men wearing off-white wife beaters with blue toques and gold-plated status dropping like albatrosses around their necks, the closer I came to the truth: we are not in Korea anymore.

All those levels! I want all of them! But no. Reality speaking. I may not go and sit in the sand for hours and listen to Marley and Bradley while this glass blower paws at his taut animal hide to attract the consumers. I may not learn more tagalog with the cute chubby woman selling sweet chili crab for her Korean boss while sipping San Miguel. I’m with Koon Hyeung and Nohyun, and I must be here, on this level, just this time. We’re here for a couple of days. Maybe I’ll get the chance later.

But I should give these guys more credit. We drink San Miguel and laugh loudly into the night. Something magical happens: I completely stop speaking in English. It’s only Korean from there on in. My companions don’t even notice. Might be the drink. Might be the company. Might be the fact that I’m getting out of myself, and I’m finally getting it.

There’s a lull in the conversation. The lull comes when I look over to my left. There’s this woman standing there as a poi dancer behind her lights up their halos with liquid light. I pay no attention to the poi. It’s the woman who’s coveting my regard. My eyes do not make out her shape well. All I can see is that she is quite rudely staring in our direction.

I’ve had too much soju. Too much mekju. Too much imagination. I assure myself that it’s just a local staring at the white foreign guy laughing and talking loudly in bad Korean. Now she’s gone. I trace with my eyes the ways she could have fled. She left instantly, as though she vapourized.

Tell me, is it possible to imagine something as real as this, while still somewhat lucid, and find a realistic explanation? Or do things like this really happen to us all the time? Do we explain our delusions away with justifications in our zealous pursuit not to know uncomfortable things?

Are the spirits among us?

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cultural confusion holiday love

I am the mad story-stealer! I was given this tale by a coworker who began taking English classes last year. Since then, she has really taken to the English language through much discipline and practice. I was quite amazed to hear her tell this story. I’ll admit to adding some details, but the story structure is completely hers, and she told it completely in English 🙂

Min-hu was a retailer of children’s books back then. He led a quiet, simple life. He loved having conversations about interesting things with the people who came into his shop. He spoke a little English, but not much.

Greta was a teacher of English from Germany who loved to learn languages and explore new cultures. She had spent her life traveling, a life which had brought her here to Min-hu’s bookstore in a quiet little South Korean town in Jeollabukdo.

Greta began to speak with Min-hu this fateful day, partly in Korean and partly in English. Min-hu was happy to speak to this warm, kind foreigner who had a great love for her new home of Korea and children’s books. She was teaching kindergarten in those days and had come to select the right picture book for her students.

She spoke with the gentleman behind the counter. A conversation began to emerge about the season, the cold and snow, and how in Germany it is a custom to invite friends to one’s house to warm up with a hot beverage. Greta told Min-hu that she would love it if he came over to her home, as a friend, and enjoy some tea and snacks. Min-hu was delighted to accept the invitation from the stranger. He looked forward to having some practice speaking English and possibly making a new friend.

Greta went home and prepared the ingredients for tea and snacks. She wondered what Min-hu would think of the Christmas decorations she had put all around her apartment. At the agreed-upon time of 7:30 pm, Min-hu rang Greta’s doorbell. When Greta opened the door, Min-hu was overwhelmed by what he experienced.

In the air, he could smell baking ingredients like cinnamon, clove, and vanilla. The entire apartment was lit in rich amber light, and beautified with red, gold and green decorations. Awestruck, he slowly entered the apartment where there was a small tree on a table wrapped in lights in front of small fragrant pine cones sitting around to decorate the space. On each surface, a red votive sat and burned away. In bowls, there were piles of mandarin oranges, nuts and soft sweet bread. Candies sat in smaller bowls with mint candy sticks, and three large red socks adorned the window. There were lights around the windows, each with a distinct colour: one red, one green and one blue.

Greta served tea. The amazed bookseller wasn’t really sure what to say. This woman he had just met had gone to so much trouble for this evening. She loves me, he thought.

After the pleasant conversation and tea with snacks, Min-hu went home, unable to think properly. Here, this beautiful stranger had worked so hard to tell him she was interested in having a relationship with him, but he didn’t say anything in response. What she must be feeling now– hurt, rejected, unappealing– why, that would be terrible. He quite enjoyed her company, but he never expected foreign women to be so direct!

He had to show her somehow that he reciprocated her feelings. What does a man buy for a woman to show that he feels affection for her? He thought of it. Of course. Lingerie.

The next day he went and purchased some lingerie and wrapped it neatly in a package. He called Greta and told her he would love to meet again. She agreed. He went to her home the following Wednesday evening, and as before, it had been decorated and filled with sweets. He gave her the present and she thought to herself, “Oh, what a nicely wrapped present. He must celebrate Christmas the same way we do in the West.”

There was a little confusion on both sides. Min-hu hadn’t understood why Greta’s apartment looked, smelled and felt so warm and inviting. Greta didn’t think it strange to receive a present so close to the holiday. All this confusion would be unraveled with the pulling of the ribbon from the neatly wrapped, brightly coloured package. Once Greta opened the gift, she drank in the sight of the adult apparel. It was obvious how Min-hu felt, and she instantly realized how Min-hu must have been confused. “No matter,” she thought.

“I think you were confused, Min-hu. During the holiday time, it is common for Westerners to decorate their homes, bake, and put out goodies. But don’t be embarrassed. I want to teach you about another custom you might not know about. Do you see that little bundle of leaves above us?”

Greta pointed up to the beam above them where a little mistletoe was wrapped with yarn, hanging from a small nail. She explained the tradition, and then demonstrated it.

You know, Greta and Min-hu are married these days, and they still love to find out new things about each other’s culture, and other cultures around the world.