The other week Lindsey's sister Laura was visiting and I was showing her some real beautiful spots around where I live. We travelled northeast about an hour by train to a coastal city named Donghae. The town is pretty interesting because it has a healthy Russian district known as Little Odessa because of all the Russian shipbuilders working around there. But there's also a place called 무릉 계곡 (Mureung Gyae Gok), that means "Paradise Valley". There's a a spot at the beginning where you can choose one of the two dozen some odd restaurants to eat a bowl of san chae be bim bap (mountain vegetables over rice with spicy sauce and a fried egg). We ate sitting on bamboo mats on the floor of a wooden platform that extended out on stilts a little over the river. They had a a special type of dong dong ju we drank, which is a very traditional milky rice wine. It comes in a big pot with a ladle you use to fill the bowl you drink out of. There were groups of ajuma (old Korean women) on both sides of us at adjacent restaurants tapping their stainless steel spoons and chopsticks and clapping while they sang together. Some of them even got up and danced and slowly waved their arms around in the air dressed in their colorful blouses. At first it was a cacophony, since they're old and drunk, so never quite on beat or in key, but the longer you listened, the cooler it sounded. I mean they were putting those of us like Laura and myself,who are in our twenties, completely to shame. All of these ladies had decades on us, some of them definitely tripled our ages, and they still had so much life inside of them.
After the mountain vegetables and rice and rice wine, we followed the trail by a temple and continued hopping rocks up river until we hit the twin waterfalls. So awesome and peaceful. That particular day was Parents Day, so there were heaploads of Ajuma plopped down on old newspapers they placed on rocks by the river. And the soju was running strong. Laura (Lindsey's sister) and I were invited to sit down with one group and share in their festivities. They told us they were celebrating Eomani Nal, which means mother's day. I guess their way of celebrating it was getting blasted on soju in the forest with their friends. They definitely picked the right place to do it as far as the scenery goes.
An 아주마 (Ajuma) literally translates to aunt, but it's generally how Koreans refer to women of age with respect. They also say there's three sexes in Korea: male, female, and ajuma. It's because many of these women are products of pretty hard lives. Sometimes bowlegged and bent over, they often have this strong wide legged squat, colorful and flowery attire, and smoke and spit and drink in public like it's going out of style. In contrast, at least in smaller country towns like the one I live in, it's very common for younger women to only smoke in restrooms or in private rather than risk harsh judgement from others. But for some reason, once a woman has become an ajuma, she transcends these constraints. In Korea, women are still definitely supposed to take the submissive role, not drink as much, and be more respectful and obedient to males. It's getting a lot better, especially in the larger cities, but I've seen many examples of this inequality in the area I live in. I've witnessed domestic violence a few times, which I've heard to be fairly commonplace, and you can tell that, glass ceilings firmly in place, the business world is set up for men, almost exclusively. They say an ajuma is the third sex because they literally don't give a fuck what anyone thinks about the place a woman is supposed to take in Korean society. And, in truth, they don't need to. They've already had their kids and watched them grow, or if they haven't had them, they're not going to and they've accepted it. In effect, there's no one else they need to impress. They are free. Free to plop down on the ground anywhere they like and drink and smoke while spitting watermelon seeds out right on the ground all over the place. And in most cases, no one is going to say a damn thing against them for it, as they shouldn't. I only hope that I can execute the same freedoms when I grow that old.
Some ajuma sell vegetables and half live half dead sea creatures on the streets. And I can't count the times I've been waiting in line for a bus ticket or something (usually on a time constraint), and a 4ft 9in ajuma shoulders me aside and walks up to the ticket counter before me like I wasn't even there. Either they're empowered from living a lifetime in an overtly male dominated culture or they just don't care. I don't know which. I've always wanted to do a photo series on ajuma. A lot of them REALLY don't like having their picture taken though, especially by a tall white man. Although I think I'm just never that motivated to make photographs of people that often though. The images are just always so loaded. But I hope another artist will someday do a series on them. It would make a strong statement on the expression of womanhood and female empowerment in Korea. Or, if nothing else, be pretty fascinating visually. I'd buy the book, at least.
In any case, these women we joined passed over some newspaper pages for us to sit on, and offered us paper cups first to share soju and mango juice chaser, then after the alcohol customs were out of the way, we could fully sit and they gave us rice cakes and hard boiled eggs and fruit slices.
Generally Koreans are very generous and warm people to foreigners in my experience, but after soju, their generosity really goes beyond measure. There's a VERY common custom in Korea in which you give your glass or cup to another person at your table using both hands, and then fill it for them with soju (or a non-alcohol substitute). Once they drink it, they're supposedly obligated to return it to you and also return the filling favor with fresh drink. Go germs! When my principal took me out for BBQ pig belly the first week I arrived in town he told me to give him my glass, and then told me to fill it with soju for him. After he drank it he gave it to the person sitting next to him and told me "This is not your glass. This is OUR glass." The glass eventually came back to me after doing a full circuit of the table. I really like that part of the culture (even though it may be the reason I get sick so often here...)
These ajuma had mouths filled with fillings and gaps and golds and blacks and browns and purples. So of course one of the ladies held out her paper disposable cup for me to accept and drink from it. However, the cup was by this point a little more than half-crushed by her badly calloused ancient death grip hands and sopped wet and half-gummed by her badly aged and mangy grill. I definitely wasn't overjoyed, but I accepted it anyways, tipped my head back and gulped down the soju as quick as I could without looking or thinking about it and then offered the cup back to her.
I wanted to stay longer than just half an hour with them, but the sun was dipping and valleys tend to get dark fast. It was cool to sit with them while they were singing and clapping and laughing.
I was looking at a picture of the last time I was invited to an ajuma party, which was on a mountain trail in Seoul.
There's a little more money in Seoul, so these ajumas were a lot better outfitted for their climbing club. But man, I've gained a ton of weight since then! I sit at my desk so long during the day here like a sack of potatoes. So I'm thinking of buying a folding bike. Never imagined myself owning a folding bike before. But my friend Aaron has been researching this company named Montague who makes these bang up folding bikes. One particular model is called the Paratrooper. It's named so because it has apparently been used by the special forces and dropped out of planes on the back of soldiers while on various covert ops. So it's a full size 24 speed mountain bike that folds up to 3ft X 3ft and is light enough to strap on my back. It'll be perfect for throwing in the storage area in buses and trains so I can hit cool riding spots all over the country. here's a description from the Montague website about it:
"The Paratrooper® is a full size, 24 speed mountain bike designed to endure any terrain at high speed in silence with no heat signature. In addition to the high performance feature, the bike folds simply without the use of tools.
By turning one quick lever, the Paratrooper® folds in less than 30 seconds into 3' x 3' pack that can be dropped from a plane, strapped to the side of an LAV or thrown in the back of a trunk."
What can be better than riding around knowing that you are emitting ZERO heat signature? I'm not even fully sure what that means...
Well, apparently, I just found out what it means -- a guy from a bike website (see comments) was kind enough to expand on/correct the bike-related addendum to this post. And even more fascinating, I thought, was what he wrote about the Paratrooper actually being used in active missions on the DMZ.