You may be thinking the title of this post is alluding to my skills as a Counselor, but for the first time in my life, I actually had empathy for a cat. To say I am a dog person would be a huge understatement! There have only been 3 cats in my life who I have felt any sort of connection to: Cinnamon, a kitten I had as a kid who was a surprise birth by a stray cat my Sister, Jessica, adopted; Caleb, a cat who my good friend and college roommate, Pete, brought home and acted more like a dog as evidence by the fact that he fetched bottle caps; and Nigel, my best friend Eric’s cat, who is truly a dog whisperer.
However, after 13 Days in Quarantine I found myself staring from our 3rd story apartment onto the outside world. I felt like something was watching me and looked at the building next door to find a cat perched in the window doing the exact same thing. Our eyes locked and I was so starved for face to face to contact that I started meowing across the alley way. I held the cat’s attention long enough for Ashlee to get concerned about my state of mind and ask if I was ‘doing ok.’ It occurred to me then that I had been living a cat’s life; one that is marred in seclusion and what you see you are not allowed to experience. At that time, I truly had empathy for why cat’s often appear like they don’t care for anyone but themselves as they marinate in bitterness day after day. So, when that 14th day landed and we were allowed to free our apartment, I’m convinced that it saved my sanity.
We met up with some co-workers from our school, David, Emily, and Stevie. David and Emily have lived in Seoul for 5 years and were wonderful tour guides on that day. Stevie had just been released from quarantine as well and like Ashlee and I, was along for the ride. We walked the mile from our apartment to the Subway station and I noticed that in a city with a population of 10 million, people don’t necessarily make eye contact or say hello. And, once on the packed subway car, no one else was talking aside from us Americans. We had a few transfers that David navigated with ease, crossed over the Han River and were soon in the urban center of Seoul. When we went to exit the subway station, neither Ashlee or my transit cards worked. The gate would not open and as people started to pile up behind us, I felt my nerves starting to sweat. As soon as people figured out we were struggling, everyone around tried to to help us. One woman, who was in her 60’s and in a red dress, literally tried to sneak Ashlee through the gate behind her. The other good samaritans ushered us over to a ‘Help’ stall in which we were simply allowed to walk through. This kindness to complete strangers is not something I’m used to experiencing and I realized that even though people in Seoul may not be incredibly outgoing, they come from a sincere place of compassion.
Once out of the subway station we walked to an area called Insadong. Although it was considered a more touristy spot in Seoul, we fell in love with the vibrant energy of the place. The main road, which was blocked off to cars, was lined with shops, boutiques, restaurants and buzzed with people. Ashlee and I kept saying, ‘Can you believe that this is our new home?’ For the first time in two weeks, we felt like we were actually living in Korea. After eating Indian food for lunch, because what else are you going to eat in Korea, we strolled around soaking in all of the sights, smells, and sounds that filled the air. Even though our appetite had been filled with Samosa’s and Tiki Masala, Emily insisted that we find a place she knew about for a sweet treat. We were not disappointed as there was literally a hole in the wall kitchen where an Ajumeoni (Korean Elder) was rolling dough, filling it with a brown sugar mix, and then piling it in oil boiling on a flat top for a succulent bubbling delight! Of course, I bit into the desert before letting it cool and I had caramelized sugar dripping down my shirt that I wore like a badge of honor.
We continued to stroll around the Insadong area before taking the subway back to our Dong (neighborhood). Even though it had only been a few hours before our last meal, the smells were pouring into the streets and we waddled into one of the many Korean BBQ joints that lined our streets. Something to ponder: If you are eating ‘Korean BBQ’ in Korea, is it simply called BBQ? Probably only a confucian can truly answer that question. Regardless, eating BBQ in Korea is a full participation event and one that I could see being a weekly experience. The host recognized David and Emily and even though they did not have seating as they were expecting a large party, they found room for us as long as we agreed to be done in an hour. Three hours later, we were reveling in our reckless abandonment and gluttony. They fired up a wok in the center of our table and then we started grilling thick cuts of steak, thin strips of beef, and kimchi (pickled cabbage). The party of 25 arrived and they were more than happy for us to stay. I know that it is particularly strange to be talking about being in a crowded restaurant during a pandemic. However, Korea has been incredibly thorough and efficient with their COVID testing, contact tracing, quarantining of travelers, and people voluntarily wearing masks at all times. This approach has allowed students to return to school and restaurants/bars to be open. Brace yourself for this one: If individuals living in communities restrict themselves early on for the betterment of society, people will actually have more freedom down the road!
BBQ In Korea
The following day we had hoped to go on a hike to a Buddhist Temple, but there was an absolute downpour that morning. People are saying this is the rainiest summer for over 15 years and there have been 40 straight days of rain in Seoul. At times, rivers are swollen and streams have flooded into the streets while the temps are still in the mid-80’s. That morning, two teachers from our school, Jim and Mindi, picked us up and we went out to eat for breakfast in the neighborhood of Wirye. From there, they took us to a shopping center which had a wet market of fresh seafood on one floor, fresh produce in the basement, a home furnishing shop in one area and restaurants/bar in another. We shopped in the ‘foreign market’ to pick up a few items that we would get from home like tortillas, cheese, black beans, and chips;) Ashlee and I had bought touring/commuting bikes just before leaving Oregon and had them shipped to our school in Korea. Jim had been kind enough to store them in the parking garage of their Quad and was excited to teach us how to assemble them. We were in awe that Jim had created a full on bike shop in this space and serviced over 40 bikes of staff members on a donation basis. Jim is an amazingly patient teacher and we had fun learning some of the basic mechanics of our bikes. Ashlee and I have been amazed by how welcoming everyone has been towards us and it has made our transition to Korea incredibly smooth.
Jim’s Bike Garage
We had not been into a school with students since March and we were excited to get back to working in that environment. Because of quarantine, we only had one day to set-up our offices and get trained before we would be meeting with families. Tuesday morning was an absolute downpour and I had previously refused to buy an umbrella. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon there is a sense of pride that the rain rolls off your back and all you need is a hooded sweatshirt or jacket. Our walk to work is about 1.5 miles and there was no way that we could show up drenched on our second day to work. I stopped in at a local convenient store and they had a slim selection of umbrellas. I grabbed a black one for myself and there was pink one that had ‘Aloha’ inscribed on it. I figured it might be a Hawaiian themed umbrella and picked it up for Ashlee. To my surprise, when Ashlee opened up the umbrella, ‘Hello Kitty’ popped out. I tried to assure Ashlee that she would be the coolest and most popular teacher in school as kids love ‘Hello Kitty,’ but, she was not convinced. Hopefully, it does not rain for the rest of the year…