Last few days

It seemed like such a long time when I first got here: three months. Twelve weeks, stretching out like an endless road ahead of me. Eighty-four days with which to spend as I like, provided I sat down each day and put a certain number of words on a page.

And then, just like that, the adventure is winding down. My time at Toji, coming to an end.

My son Lucien and I found a book in the Toji library, written by a Singaporean artist, 阿果 or Lee Kow Fong, titled 寻找 (Searching). I had seen the book in Singapore bookstores before, but it was only upon opening it here that I realised that Lee had reproduced Toji in his whimsical illustrations for the children’s tale. Here was the bus stop, where I had waited for Mystery Bus #34 for so many hours (and missed it, sometimes). The little wooden house of a bus stop that was recently torn down and replaced with an ugly modern glass and grey steel version. Here were the corn fields I had helped plant, and the wooden stiles bordering them. Here, in Lee’s pages, was the path I took from Gwirae House to the main building every day, with its rough-hewn wood planks as steps.

This is how it will be, from now on. Toji, embroidering my dreams, and peeping from the edges of my dreams. If you’ve ever been to Toji, you are automatically admitted into a welcoming club. Membership is in the imagination. But we will know one another, recognise the tell-tale signs, and clasp hands gratefully.

Everything has been magical, and leaving is hard. As I sip yuzu tea in Random Coffee House in Central Market, I think that this is possibly the last time I will do this. The golden retriever is snoozing behind the counter, and I will have to pet it some other time. The shop with the Wonju illustration mugs I have been eyeing is closed, and I will have to buy them some other time, too. As I catch 34 back, I rock in my seat and listen to the serene woman’s voice announcing each stop in Korean, and think this will be the last time she will be the soundtrack to my daydreams. As I walk back from the bus stop, I think, this will be the last time I will trudge past these golden chrysanthemums lining the road, clustered around the sign that says “SLOW”.

Toji has become home, and leaving it is hard.

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Father’s Day at Chiaksan

We spent Father’s Day in a caravan at Chiaksan National Park, about an hour’s drive from Toji. The caravan, meant for six people and extremely comfy for our family of four, cost 100,000 won (thank you, Yeo Jeein, for going through the trouble of helping us book it on the Korean language-only website!).

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The weather up at Chiaksan was lovely, and we took a leisurely late-afternoon 1km walk to Guryongsa, the temple nestled on the hill. And then we just did what campers do: laze around in our caravan and eat microwaved sausages; emerging occasionally to look at the full-moon in the sky and hang out at our picnic table.

Day out with Jiwon

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Left to right: Julian, Park Ji Won and Lucien
Took the kids out on Saturday, for a day of fun with my friend Park So Young and her nephew Ji Won.

We went to Museum San (my third time!) where the Singapore boys checked out the James Turrell exhibit, while six-year-old Ji Won went on a tree programme in Korean – introducing him to the trees on the museum’s grounds. After refuelling on udon and pasta at the museum cafe, we headed to Oak Valley, a golf course/resort/condominium development nearby, where the kids hung out at the playground, paddled in giant plastic bubbles on water, and drove bumper cars in a pool.

We rounded the long day off with yummy Korean bbq at a joint recommended by So Young’s brother. And then it was multiple hugs and a small carpark chase, before Ji Won’s dad picked him up, and So Young drove the rest of us back to Toji.

Ji Won’s the cutest Korean kid I’ve ever met (so far), and I love how he never walks, but runs everywhere. He’s such a big bunch of energy. And whenever he runs up to me to ask a question, he always responds with a loud and emphatic “OKAY!” to everything I say. At dinner, he eats up everything with gusto, and gnaws on the beef rib bones with the most animated cartoon-character expression. He should have his very own TV show.

Goodbye 105, hello 203

The family is here to visit, so I’ve shifted from Room 105 at Gwirae House to bigger digs at Toji Cultural Foundation’s main buildings. I miss Room 105 a lot, particularly my unimpeded mountain view, as well as the easy access to party central aka. the common room. I even miss its distinctive smell (an earthy scent, from the soil that blows in from the fields when I open my windows).

But 203 is good, too, being in a really quiet part of Toji (we’re the only folks in these parts at night, give or take a few overnight lodgers). When I look out the window in front of my desk, I can see the kids playing ball on the lawn. And the ping-pong room, the kids’ new fave, is just a skip away.


Room 203’s key is big-ass in comparison to my old set.

  

Room 203-A, where I work now, and sleep with younger son Lucien at night (he gets a comfy futon on the floor)


Room 203-B, where the husband works, and where the elder son Julian sometimes taps some Star Wars fan fiction on dad’s laptop

  

Living/dining/kitchenette

The kids are loving it at Toji, and keep pestering me to let them go to Gwirae’s common room. Lucien’s new best friend is poet 손유미, who used to be my next-door neighbour in Room 104. He reserves the seat next to him at mealtimes for her, and loves eating ice-cream and playing badminton with her.

Everyone’s really kind to us, and Yeo Jeein rocked up one morning with a huge bag of snacks for the kids.

Elder son Julian tells his dad: “I like Toji. Can we come again?”

And his dad says: “You know what to do. Become a writer and apply to Toji, and we can all come visit you.”

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Hard at work

Seoul International Book Fair 2016

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Entrance to the fair
I took the express bus from Wonju Express Bus Terminal to Seoul, COEX, to check out the Seoul International Book Fair.

Buses run from Wonju to Seoul at 15-minute intervals, or thereabouts, and getting on one is fuss-free. Just take mystery bus 34 to the Express Bus Terminal (you can see it very clearly from the bus, it’s right next to the road and has an English sign). The terminal is also where you can catch buses to other parts of Korea, such as Incheon and Gangneung. Anyway, an express ticket to Seoul costs 10,400 won, and the journey is 1.5 hours. The seats are comfy, and you can watch some K-drama on the on-board TV screen if you so desire (I just wanted to sleep).

When you get off at Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal, just head for the subway station right next to it. To get to COEX, I had to take the No.3 line, change to the No. 2 line at Seoul National University Station (the next stop), in the Gangnam direction. And then get out four stops later at Samseong station. If in doubt, just go to the information station at the Express Bus Terminal station and ask. The very kind young man there gave me a subway map, very specific directions, and brought me to the right platform. Once you get to Samseong station, COEX is right there. Just follow the signs.

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Shaky-handed cam from excitement at the fair
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German books at the fair
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Man Booker International prize-winning translator Deborah Smith at a press conference (I was sitting really far behind, hence the zoom and the heads.)
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More bad photos from me, but I’d just stumbled upon the press con, and didn’t have my ‘working’ camera with me – just my iPhone.
The fair was fairly – ah hah! – interesting. There were some illustrators there, selling their very whimsical artwork, as well as booths by the Wonju municipal literary department and major Korean bookstores. I did a tour of the whole thing in about two hours, and then headed back to the express bus station for the 5.45pm back to Wonju.

I’d actually bought a ticket for the 6.30, but they allowed me to exchange it for an earlier one, since I didn’t have much to do but hang around. There’s a huge underground shopping mall there, but I’m kinda trying not to buy anything because I’m going to have enough trouble getting stuff home as it is.

Anyway, verdict: getting from Wonju to Seoul is a piece of cake.

Jeju

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Seongsan Ichulbong tuff cone (that big lump on the right) at 5.30am
Sometimes, you just need a break from your break, you know what I mean?

I think I’d been getting very stressed out from thinking about where I’m going next with my writing, and what’s my next step after this Toji stint. I was hunched at my desk for days, submitting stories to journals in a kind of frantic fever, until I developed a horrendous shoulder and neck ache.

So when So Young and I went to Jeju for four days, it was heaven. Jeju is everything everyone says it is (although it can get just a tad crowded with noisy tourists, sometimes). We stuffed ourselves with great food, drove around to oogle at lovely coastal scenery, and lazed in bed watching TV (TV! I don’t really miss it at Toji, but sometimes it’s just nice to have background noise) and reading at night.

And when I came back – voila! – all my aches were magically gone.

Plums

  
The village ajumma were out today, plucking the choice plums from te trees lining the road outside Toji. Swaddled in their sun hats and hoods, they would hit the trees with a stick to make the green downy fruit fall, then load them onto their trolleys. By evening, all the rejected plums left on the road had been flattened by passing cars’ tyres – leaving brown splats on the asphalt.

Muk!

On the day Han A left, she and Su Jin took me to Heungup to eat Muk! It’s basically buckwheat paste jelly, in cold soup, which you then mix with rice and eat. Love it! And love saying the name! Which demands an exclamation mark! Always!

Muk!


Korean pancake with leeks

  

Kimchi pancake (I think)

Dramatised reading

On May 27, 2016, an intimate recital was given, featuring dramatised readings of two of Park Kyong Ni’s short stories, Snow Flower and Siamese Twins. The readings were by Seoul’s Whale Theater, headed and directed by Lee Hae Seong. There was also a musical interlude by Park So Young on kayagam.