Kindergarten Goodbye

Last weekend, my students graduated kindergarten–a two-hour ceremony that featured caps and gowns, song and dance acts, and a re-imagined version of The Blind Men and the Elephant, for which I constructed a miniature elephant from cardboard, felt, and packing tape–the same tape I used to seal up the three boxes I shipped home to Canada.

This week, while I begin my travels through India, my students will begin Grade 1 and the start of a long road through Korea’s education system: days in public school, afternoons in hagwons, and evenings spent studying, often until they sleep.

I want to give them backyards to run around in and afternoons off and free time with their friends.  I want to give them a school life that inspires them to form their own ideas about themselves and the world.  I want their little spirits to to thrive and grow and create.  Have fun, I told them, kneeling down to hug each one in our last moment together.  I will miss you.

They have graduated kindergarten, but in my mind they’ll be six years old forever, lined up in coats and boots, handing me colour-paper cards that say Goodbye Courtney Teacher.  I love you.  Please don’t forget me.

I won’t forget you.



ps–I am writing this from Delhi.

Up next: Post #100 on Coco Busan (last one!) with the link to my new blog…


Holiday Hello

Hello friends, family, and all my Coco Busan readers out there!

Wishing you all very Happy Holidays!  I hope this finds you relaxing with awesome people, sweet tunes, and something warm, cozy and fireplace-ish.  This week I was really craving a hangout around a crackling fire, and also remembering past seasonal festivities such as Boxing Day shenanigans in Victoria and chill-out time with my mom and bro.  Next year I will be back in my home-hood for Christmas 2012, but this year, the season is promising something a little different.

In five hours I’ll be boarding a plane to this island-filled country…

with my guy Joe…

Joe at the top of Busan Tower

where we’ll be spending a couple nights on the island of Bohol at a place called Nipa Hut Village

Nipa Hut Village, Bohol

and then catching a boat to Siquijor Island, where we’ve booked this rustic little number…

Hut #4: The Helen

for three days at a spot on the beach called Islander’s Paradise.

Needless to say, I’m stoked.  Aside from a 24-hour jaunt to Shanghai back in July 2010, this will be the first time I’ve left Korea since moving here almost two years ago.  This girl is ready for a change of scenery, especially one that involves two of my fav’s: jungles and beaches.

Sending love and holiday wishes to all of you, from me and my kiddies…

Reindeer ears and kindie kids

See you in 2012!

xo ~Coco

Dad, Meet Korea

On October 16th, around 2 am, after the last guests had left from a party Joe and I threw at my apartment called October Shindizzle, I checked my email.  Top of the inbox was a surprise message from my dad, which read:

Hi Courtney;

How are you doing?

I am thinking about coming to South Korea to visit you. It would be about a 10 day trip and I would be in Busan for 8 days and 2 days travel time.

I have looked at flights and the dates Nov. 22nd to Dec. 1st are available now and those dates work for me.

Can you let me know asap if then is a good time for you.



My dad and I write and skype regularly, so it wasn’t unusual to hear from him, but he’d never mentioned thinking seriously about taking a trip out to visit, so the news was completely out of the blue–especially after an evening of whisky and gin.  I turned to Joe in shock and said, “My dad’s coming to Korea!”

After a few date changes so his visit would span two weekends, he booked the flight and I told my kindergarten kids they’d soon be meeting Courtney Teacher’s father.  I wrote his name on the board: C-u-r-t-i-s.  They giggled; none had heard this particular foreign name before.  We all started counting down the weeks.

My dad’s been working most hours of the day most days of the year since I was born and long before.  He sold real estate and managed marketing for a Saskatoon company called Plainsman Development.  When I was six he started his own business dealing Panasonic batteries, beef jerky, and pepperoni sticks to stores across Saskatchewan out of the back of an old black van. When I was nine he bought a grocery store in Waskesiu Lake, and ran it for ten years, living with my stepmom and my sister in a tiny two-bedroom suite attached to the side. (My brother and I worked there too, every summer, pricing cans, stocking produce, and scooping ice cream cones for the evening crowd.)  During the grocery store years, he and my stepmom also expanded their clothing store, The Sandbox, eventually opening a second branch in Saskatoon.  In the winter months, for the last 20-odd years, he’s spent most evenings on the phone or in the car, meeting with clients across the province for the Canadian Scholarship Trust Plan– a nation-wide program that enables families to save for their children’s post-secondary education.  He finally retired from CST this fall, though his time now is far from free: The Sandbox’s city store just keeps getting busier, and he deals with all the back-end business; a constant surge of orders, invoices, accounting, payroll, marketing, and inventory.  When I was a kid visiting in the summer, I always wished he’d take an afternoon off from the grocery store to relax at the beach, but there were deliveries coming in, and coolers to stock, and a line-up at the til.  He worked for himself, and put the hours in to succeed.

So I was pretty happy to see him arrive in Busan on a holiday.

Though I was teaching full-time during his visit, we had two weekends and each evening to hang out.  Joe and I showed him our favourite Busan neighbourhoods.  We walked along Oncheonjang Stream and drank cocktails with a view of the Diamond Bridge in Gwangalii.  We ate Pajeon at the fish market and sang at a Norebang in Seomyeon. He met my kids and my friends.  In the last months I’ve been a little down, ready to move on from a country that I’ve never felt a deep connection to, despite the opportunities and experience it has given me.  The homogeneous mindset of Korea’s people and culture has grown stifling; I walk among my life somewhat detached from it, my mind scratching at the future.

My dad took back for me a suitcase full of books and photos and the guitar I bought last summer, in a new Fender case he found here at the Bujeon Music Market, so it would arrive in Canada safely.  In an email after his return, he tells me his is proud of me, thanks me for letting him hang out with me, for sharing my life.  He says if he has to fly across the world to spend time with me then that’s okay.

Dad–Thank you for coming, I’ll see you in six months! 


(Please click on a photo below to see the collection in a full-size photo carousel–best way to view!)

Deokjeokdo Bliss: 41 Hours, 39 Pics

Any of you who have been following Coco Busan over the last year and a half (thanks, everyone!) have likely noticed my fondness for Korean islands.  I’ve visited six of them now, escaping the homogeny of the city buildings and immersing myself, temporarily, into the more traditional lifestyle and architecture that lingers on these slow-paced refuges. Bright rooftops and forests of fat green trees frame the small villages that make up this part of Korea’s culture.  Fishing boats glow in the night waters; narrow roads wind up toward silouhetted hills; the sound of families cooking dinner drifts into my minbak windows, unobstructed by cars.  Yep, I like these places. When I leave, six months from now, the islands will stay with me.

So of course I had to show one to my sister.

After three days trekking through Seoul, a journey that included hours poking around the vintage Hongdae boutiques, a sweaty jaunt to see the wooden houses of Bukcheon Village, an afternoon strolling through the art shops of Insadong, an hour at the 14th- century Gyeongbok Palace, which Abby thought would be “an awesome place for a music festival”, a cable-car trip up Namsan mountain to the bottom of Seoul Tower, and a rainy Han River Cruise–we took off for Deokjeokdo.  It’s an island an hour three hours from Incheon if you somehow miss the express boat and have to take the slow one, like we did.  Ah, well. What’s an extra couple hours on a boat with your sister in the Yellow Sea?

We arrived in the late, late afternoon on a Thursday. Our return boat was scheduled for Saturday morning. With only two evenings and one full day to enjoy a little beach time, we had one hopeful wish: sun.

The evening sky looked promising…

and after a couple hours sipping Cass while the tide rolled in…

we headed back to our luxury digs.

There are quite a few minbaks on the island, but in peak season, they were pricier than we’d hoped, so we settled on a minimalist barren room that fit our budget.

The real luxury was waking the next morning to clear sky, bright sun, and a stroll through the village…

past the ajummas and their carts…

and little houses tucked between trees…

to the beach.

Upon glimpsing the sand and the shore in its late morning-Deokjeokdo-sunny-August glory, Abby’s pace sped up.  Seriously, I think this was the fastest I saw her walk in Korea. Forget ancient palaces, traditional wooden houses, vintage boutiques, river cruises, and Namsan Mountain views…

My sister is a beach girl.

And the beach is where we stayed.  All day.

Well, we may have rented a couple inflatable yellow tubes for 5,000 won a piece from a nearby beachshop ajumma and floated on them in the Yellow Sea under the hot sun for an hour, discussing the particulars of Abby’s social scene as she stands on the precipice of Grade 12 (girlfriends, boys, basketball) while a swarm of fully-clothed Korean dudes splashed each other in the water nearby…

but other than that blissful sojourn, it was us, a striped blanket we borrowed from our minbak, the sand, which was a bright gold shade, a couple paper cups of sliced watermelon, and a copy of The New Yorker I’d tucked into my bag back in Busan. (Joe got me a surprise subscription a few months back–best gift ever.)

A beach, my sister, and The New Yorker?

This might be my new happy place. Definitely in the top ten…

Did I mention trees are one of my favourite things in nature?  Check out that green.  The whole island. That green.

I’d been eyeing up a long breakwater to our right since the evening before, so as the day dissolved into late afternoon, I dusted the sand from my bronzing reddening skin and went for a walk. Abby stayed, sprawled out and snoozing with her shades on.

A stream flowed out near the edge, the sand framing it windblown into long thin ridges that form what’s probably a sort of steep staircase to the local ants and sand flies…

And to the left of a few old Korean fishing boats perched on the wet shore.

Nets and ropes were piled along the edge of the break…

and graffitied bins…

and unidentified piles of stuff wrapped in blankets.

Close to the breakwater’s end, this little secluded spot appeared… 

And I thought, now that would be a sweet place to spend an afternoon!  If only we had another day…

Abby says I’m wistful.  Actually, I think I said it first, lamenting our limited time on Deokjeokdo the first night, when I saw how beautful it was.  “We have all day tomorrow,” she’d said.

“I know,” I said. “I just get wistful.”

“Ha! And where do you think you get that from?”


“Dad!” she said.

My dad finds new spots when they go on trips,  a quaint little neigbourhood in Southern California or a beach town on Vancouver Island, and starts to daydream.  “We could get a little place,” he says, “spend the summers, maybe come out for a few months in the winter.”  Traveling does that to you, to us. You think about staying for more than a day or two. You’re not ready to leave. You want this part, the discovering part, to last.  But my dad wants to see more, too, to get back in the car and keep driving. There’s only so much time, and more places along the way.  So that my sister and my stepmom have to convince him to park the car and just enjoy where he is.  I think he wants both–to stay and to go.  The idea of returning, perhaps, provides some kind of reconciliation between the dwindling time and the desire to find out what’s further up along the road.  Last May he went to Turkey with my brother.  Colleen, he wrote in an email to my stepmom, you wıll enjoy Anytalya when we come here.  The old cıty ıs very ınterestıng and wıth the cafes and promenades ıt has a European feel to ıt.

I ask my sister, “Do you think they’ll go?”

“Oh who knows,” she says. “Every time we go somewhere Dad says he wants to go back.  And then we go somewhere else.”

Back at the beach…

Abby was roasting herself.

A little dehydrated, we packed up and found a shaded patio…

with pajeon!

and this little visitor.

Late-day light on the stroll back…

turned to dusk.

The next day, we would return to Seoul, then ride the slow train back to Busan.

Eighteen months into my time in Korea, I’m homesick.  I miss Canada.  I miss my family and all the friends there who have also become my family.  When I hugged my sister goodbye at the Gimhae airport three days later, I thought, there goes my family–separated again, for what will be almost another year.

But, like the islands, she stays with me.

(Thanks Abby. xo)

An Ajumma Stole My Firewood

Well, technically it was Joe’s firewood.  He wrestled it from the brush on the hill behind the beach on Bijindo, the island we chose for our one-night camping trip in April mostly because I tracked down photos of it on a foreign dude’s blog, and in the photos foreigners were camping.  On the beach.  With a campfire.  “Check these out,” I said to Joe.  “Looks like you can have a fire on Bijindo.”  

Anyone who’s traveled in Korea knows it’s tough to find seclusion.  Forty-nine million people live here, in a country three times the size of Vancouver Island. Head to the beach or the mountains or a paved park on the edge of the city and prepare yourself for company: Koreans love a dose of fresh air, even if they are a little sun-shy, as their detachable arm sleeves and foot-long visors suggest.

So, when we arrived on Bijindo around 3 pm to a mile stretch of almost-white, almost footprint-free sand and NO ONE in sight, we were stoked.

Spend the night? Okay, if I have to...

The wind had picked up, so we carted our bags and the tent to the end of the beach, which was sheltered by a tall rock wall and bordered on one side by the sea, and on the other by a battered but oceanfront motel/pension that appeared to be closed.

Rock wall camp spot

Pension at the end of the beach

On the way we passed an ajumma, squatting on the concrete looking out at the water.  Her hair was grey and she was gripping a fistful of green onions.  For my overseas readers, an ajumma is a Korean granny. Technically the term means “married woman”, but really it refers to members of the aging female population–a demographic that largely outnumbers that of the ajushi, or elderly Korean man, as so many from their generation were lost in the Korean War.

These grandma’s are tough.  They push in front of you in the grocery line and stare you down on subways.  Their hair is short and curly and they travel in packs. Most wear animal prints, and they like to hike.  Often you can find them sitting on the sidewalk, selling socks or shellfish or root vegetables displayed in red plastic bowls.  They also like to work their muscles on the outdoor exercise equipment parks scattered throughout the city.  If you see one ajumma, you know there’s more nearby.  They. Are. Everywhere.

Deciding to check out the town behind the beach and search for wood, we set our stuff down in front of the rock wall and cruised up the beach steps toward a narrow concrete path.  It was quiet on Bijindo.  Ghost-town quiet. Little houses with overgrown yards lined the alleyways, but no noise drifted from their windows, not even the buzz of a television or a barking dog.  People must live in these dwellings, but we saw no one until stepping inside the nearest restaurant, where a middle-aged woman appeared and nodded yes to our request for dwinjang jiggae (spicy tofu soup).  April was definitely still off-season on the islands.

Abandoned building between the beach and the town

Vines on the concrete

The scene on the street...


Bijindo house

After stocking up on essentials for the evening (beer and chips), we headed back to the beach…

collecting a few sticks for firewood along the way.  Our evening plan: Pitch the tent.  Build a fire.  Sip on cups of wine and cans of Hite.  Watch the sunset.  We strolled back towards the bushes on the hill behind our camp spot and loaded up on branches, including one particularly hefty log that Joe dislodged from a stubborn tangle of brush and proudly added to the pile.

Back on the beach, we settled on the exact locations for tent and fire, and while Joe stacked the wood, I began collecting stones for a makeshift fire pit.  Something about this task–brushing the sand from each stone, then placing it down, arranging it into the circle–started to infuse me with a kind of peace I can’t seem to access when I’m inside the walls of a fourth-floor classroom, looking out through the window bars at the neighbourhood rooftops while the kids ask me how to spell continent or mountain or Brazil, scribbling sentences in their little notebooks, forgetting or remembering where the period goes.  The last time I sat in front of a fire was a year-and-a-half ago in Spring Lake, Alberta, with friends who had known me as far back as Australia and before, when I still played guitar and wore my hair in braids.

It was around this time when the ajumma approached.  Not the one we passed upon arrival, but another, younger one in flowered pants and a pink vest.  Her hair was short and curly.  She called out in a loud voice, pointing at us.  As she drew closer, her voice grew louder, yelling in Korean.  We realized she was telling us we couldn’t make a fire, but with my embarrassingly-poor and Joe’s better-but-still-limited Korean skills, we couldn’t discern the details–namely, the WHY we couldn’t have a fire.  Was it because of the wind?  It was windy, but we had chosen a spot sheltered by a rock wall for that reason.  Did the island not allow fires?  But we had seen online photos of foreigners having a fire ON Bijindo, with no text alongside it reporting ajumma interception.  Was there somewhere else on the beach we were allowed to have a fire?  If so, where?  We couldn’t ask, and the ajumma couldn’t explain, at least not in English, though she was definitely trying in Korean.  I didn’t want to listen.  I wanted to keep arranging my stones.  It was only April, which meant the nights were still cold.  The entire evening ahead revolved around THE FIRE.  We had traveled an hour-and-a-half by bus and another 45 minutes by boat to be here, on the island where we had seen photographic evidence of flames at night.  I guess you could say we were feeling a little determined.  So we did what I feel confident saying many foreigners would do. We played dumb.  Eventually the woman walked away, shaking her head, and we pitched our tent, shaking ours.  Problem unresolved but solved, or so we hoped.

Twenty minutes later she returned, and had recruited an ajumma friend.  The woman’s hair was short and curly.  She wore pink pants, a flowered shirt, a blue vest, and a red baseball hat.  The hat and vest, it seemed, were part of a uniform, because as she shouted at us, she kept pointing to the logo on each.  At one point she even took the hat off to point to the logo, really reinforcing that she was in charge of something.  Was she the Bijindo Island Park Service?  A one-woman crew who monitored all island incidents?  We couldn’t ask.  We had to listen.  She pointed to the firewood, then pointed to the ragged front yard of a shack next to the abandoned pension.  There were a few boulders and a steel vat in the corner of the yard, with a small opening beneath for fire.  After a lot of hand gesturing, we deduced they were telling us we could have a fire there.  The second ajumma marched over to our wood pile, grabbed Joe’s prized branch, and started heading in the direction of the shack.  All we could do was follow.

I'm telling you, they run this country

New fire location meant new tent location, so I hauled the already-pitched tent over while Joe flattened the sand in preparation.  The ajummas sat on the concrete sidewalk, watching.

Being a good sport

Once the tent was officially set up in the new spot, the ajummas seemed to trust we weren’t going to strike a match back near the rock wall, and left us alone.  It was fire time.  Not the crackling open fire we had envisioned back in my apartment in Busan, but the contained, covered-by-a-vat kind of fire you get when you’re in a foreign country that’s also kind of your home but you don’t speak the language and it’s run by old women who have lived through wars and who wonder why you’re there in the first place.  That kind of fire.

Thinking about the other kind of fire...

Joe and the fire stick

But then it was sunset time…

And the fire didn’t matter so much.

I wish I could say we were left in peace for the rest of the trip.  The truth is yet another ajumma emerged, and shouted at us about the fire, or the vat, or something to do with the fire and the vat, then walked away muttering and shaking her head, and re-appeared in the morning and yelled at us some more as we were waking up.  Then, as we waited at the dock for the boat that afternoon (after some breakfast ramen on the other side of town), an ajushi who had clearly been informed about the waygooks (foreigners) on the island, pulled up on a bicycle and pointed to us, shouting a bunch of Korean, then pointed back at the beach.  We didn’t know what we had done wrong.  Did the ajummas not tell us we could make a fire where the vat-firepit was?  Had we misunderstood?  Had we let the fire burn too late into the night?  Was there a fire shut-down time?  Were we terrible people?

 We didn’t mean to disturb anyone on Bijindo.  We just wanted to camp, with a fire, on a beach.  Which we did.  Sort of.

Waiting for the boat on the dock

Scene of the crime

I'm pretty sure we didn't disturb the starfish

We’ve made plans to visit another island called Somaemuldo in a couple weeks.  We’re bringing the tent.  But if the island ajummas say no fire, we’ll rent a room in a minbak.

I’ve lived here a year and three months.  Korea is my home, for now.  But the country belongs to the ajummas, the ajushis and the generations that have followed them.  Mostly the ajummas.  These ladies gut the fish the country eats and carry its heritage in their bones. They’re in charge.  I’ll settle for candlelight.

Bus Ride Hite, Portside Morning: Busan to Bijindo

Board a bus on a Friday night from Busan to Tongyeong, a little city west on the southeast coast, with a couple cans of Hite and a blue tent left in your apartment last year by a guy called Alex who lived in it before you arrived.  Bring a sleeping bag and a copy of The Korea Herald, bought for 1000 won from the newsstand guy at the Seomyeon subway transfer.  Look out the darkened window as the engine comes on.  Crack the Hite, crack the Herald.  Lean back and smile at Joe.  It’s Friday.  It’s April.  The evenings have started to shake off the cold; spring in Korea is on time.  You’re going camping.

But first, a night and a morning in Tongyeong



where the fish in the port are drying…


and a pelican (that’s a pelican, right?) perches on a bucket of shellfish before flying out toward the shipyard…


and fisherman haul up nets from the Tongyeong Canal


and we board a boat that looks like this one…


to ride on the green waters…


to an island called Bijindo.


More  to come!  Soon, I swear.

(p.s. Photo credit to Joe for all pics in this post.)

Sunrise to Japan and Other Thoughts

Sunrise, Ulleungdo


It’s 10:30 pm on a Tuesday night in Korea and I’m typing presentation slides on how to write an essay about scenes from Baraka for the uni students in tomorrow evening’s lecture, and Billie Holiday’s singing through the Mac and there’s a white candle burning on the coffee table and a fluorescent bulb beaming from the ceiling and Facebook is full with Bin Laden and Harper and opinions and a Martin Luther quote and the New York Times is flying giant flags with stripes and stars and big fat capital-letter headlines about a dead man and a compound and justice and revenge and the people are happy and the people are angry and my west-coast and east-coast and middle-Canada friends are fuming and sad about the new blue map and one of them used the word crushed and I’m sorry I didn’t pull it together to apply for an absentee ballot and I didn’t mean to be absentee from my country, though I saw a photo of it last week from a student who had been there on vacation, her and her Korean family sitting in front of a lake somewhere near Vancouver, she said, with a crazy tall mountain stretching behind them all the way out of the frame and holy shit did I miss it and I’ve got six-year olds in the morning and a cup of mango tea to keep me awake well past midnight and I miss the long nights of writing when I had time with the words and the thoughts but for now, a sunrise, witnessed from an island as far east as you can go in Korea except for Dokdo, that spit even closer to Japan, a small stone of territory claimed by both countries with accusations and ancient maps, but either way the path I watched these rays pierce the cloud from was pretty far east in the far far east and the waves were foaming up against the rock as the dark lifted and I wanted to share it, and remember it tonight.