Off the Beaten Path: Mo Do Sculpture Park


Off the coast of Incheon, South Korea, sits Mo Do (Mo Island), where artist Lee Il-Ho once lived.  There is very little information floating around about Lee; the “Visit Incheon” website calls him one of Korea’s most famous surrealist sculptors, yet at the same time, I couldn’t find much biographical information on him.  He has had exhibitions all over the world, but still seems to be a mystery.

To get from Seoul to Mo Do, one must veer far from the beaten path.  It’s rather exciting.  I found myself taking two subway lines, two different buses, a ferry boat, another bus, and then embarking on a 1 km walk in order to finally arrive at Sculpture Park, the beachfront area where Lee Il-Ho has made over 50 of his works open to the public.

Yes, the park is a little R-rated, but that doesn’t stop children from coming and having a good time.  If it’s naughty (and it is), it’s mischievous in a fun kind of way.  It’s also extremely democratic: not only can a person come to Sculpture Park and look at these amazing works, a person can also climb all over them.  Case in point: see me in the pictures below.

The fact that the sculptures are displayed on a beach made the experience of viewing them even more unusual.  Mo Island is the third of three small islands connected by bridges.  There are no ATMs on the island and very few people.  Sculpture Park didn’t appear in any of the Korea travel guides I bought, and the only reason I knew it even existed was because the park is featured heavily in the movie Shi Gan (“Time”) by filmmaker Kim Ki Duk, which I got off Netflix before coming to Korea.

 As I said, Sculpture Park is far off the beaten path.  And going off the beaten path is exciting.  However, one does want to get back onto the beaten path somewhat quickly after straying from it.  Leaving the island, I got very lost and confused and found myself stranded on a dock in the middle of nowhere.  There were no vehicles in sight and I felt like crying.  After waiting nearly an hour and a half, one bus finally came and got me.  Seeing it stop to pick me up, I felt like the happiest boy in the universe.

I think part of what makes a trip to Mo Do seem magical is the secret nature of the whole endeavor.  It feels like you’ve stumbled onto something nobody else knows about.  For about an hour, it was just me and these sculptures and the beach.  It almost seems like if I didn’t tell anyone about it, maybe the place, with its bizarre images and misty grey water, didn’t really exist at all.

How the Use of Improper Garbage Bags Briefly Complicated My Life in Korea


In the Land of Kimchi, there are yellow garbage bags, and there are white ones.  Both have writing in Korean on them that I don’t understand, and neither seems to come in the size of what I would consider a normal garbage bag to be.  Don’t get me wrong – they come in a variety of different sizes, ranging from small to very small to super teeny tiny.  The yellow one is for food and the white one is for everything else.  I believe plastic bottles are also supposed to be separated, but I’m not sure.  Once filled, a person puts their garbage out somewhere in front of their apartment building, where it is later picked up at some point in time.  By someone.  Possibly a city worker.  Maybe with a garbage truck.  In truth, I really have no idea what the hell happens to the garbage.

This is about as deep as my knowledge on the trash system in South Korea goes.  In America, disposing of garbage made some sense – I had a specific spot where I was supposed to leave the garbage, there was a specific time on a specific day when a company that I paid came and took it.  In Korea, things aren’t quite the same.  I have never once seen a garbage truck or a garbage man, and yet they must come around at least once a day to get rid of all the trash.  There are very few dumpsters or public garbage cans, and trash seems to be disposed of randomly here.  Like what you would generally consider littering seems to make up a good portion of the Korean sanitation system.  Every day when I walk to work I pass about a hundred garbage bags thrown all over the street, some free floating trash, a billion cigarette butts, and usually a nice puddle of vomit someone left from the night before.  It’s messy, sort of like Korea is a teenage boy and the streets are its bedroom.

Another difference between Korea and the US is that a person has to purchase regulation garbage bags in order to throw their trash away.  Obviously this is sort of a fallacy, as I saw all sorts of shit dumped in front of my last apartment building, and the box for a large pizza can’t even fit in a garbage bag unless you cut it up into pieces.  Seriously, I filled two regulation garbage bags once with one empty pizza box.  But I digress – one is supposed to only throw away trash in regulation garbage bags.  My first week in Seoul, about a month ago, I violated this rule, was caught doing so on hidden camera, and thus became the most hated waygook in all the chopstick-lovin’ world.

Finding regulation garbage bags in Incheon was easy.  The convenience store by my apartment had them sitting by the register, near the strawberry flavored condoms.  But in Seoul, the rules of the game are different.  Convenience stores don’t sell garbage bags, and so I would leave with only a few packs of strawberry condoms and absolutely no place to throw my trash.  Only one store had anything remotely similar – they were actual, regular size garbage bags and, subsequently, they were not government regulation.  With no other options, I bought them.  For the next week, my first in Seoul, I threw all my leftover food, empty milk cartons, large pizza boxes, and the vomit I had left from the night before in one big bag.  When the bag was full, I tied it off and then wondered what to do with it.

I knew that I couldn’t throw the bag in front of my apartment.  It wasn’t regulation.  The last thing I wanted was to look like the dumb foreigner who doesn’t know how to behave as the locals do.  So one morning I snuck out into the street with my enormous garbage bag, deviously planning to inconspicuously dispose of it.  I saw some trash bags sitting outside a different apartment building and thought that I would simply toss my bag over with them.  Who would know?  I walked over briskly and dropped my bag with the others.  They looked good together, especially since my bag was so much larger.  It was like a group of friends, and all cliques need at least one enormous fat guy.  Anyways, I went back to my apartment, proud of my work, thinking the entire garbage fiasco was over.

I was wrong.  An hour before my workday ended, my boss, Leah, came into my classroom.  “Bill,” she said, “did you throw garbage-ee in front of an apartment building this morning?”

Her face showed concerned.  I was thrown.  How did she know?  “Um, yeah…” I mumbled.

“Oh!” she bellowed, then stormed off.  She came back later, and when the kids were gone she sat down on top of one of the desks to talk to me.  “Apartment owner had hidden camera set up and has recording of you throwing very big trash bag in front of building,” she said, devastated.  “He came here because he knows there is foreign teacher.  He showed me tape and it was you!  He will sue you for illegal trash dump!”

“Sue me?” I asked, bewildered.  “He can do that?”

“Yes!” Leah said.  “Why did you throw trash there?”

I then had to explain how I knew I had the wrong garbage bag, didn’t want to look dumb, and purposely tried to dispose of it on the down low.  She looked at me and shook her head.  “I will talk to him,” she said.  “He is very angry!”

“Can I talk to him?”

“No!  I will talk.  You can’t speak Korean.  What will you say to him?  Ahn-nyoung-ha-say-o?”

Having Leah talk to him probably was the smarter tactic – despite being my boss, she’s young and very cute.  If anyone could derail the lawsuit I was threatened with, it was her.  Still, I felt angry.  Hidden camera?  Seriously?  How much could he possibly sue me for?  Really, it was all Korea’s fault anyways.  Why had they made garbage bags harder to find than stick deodorant?

The next day, Leah pulled me into the office.  “The government will come to talk to us today,” she said, and an hour later two men in suits came.  They didn’t say one word to me, only spoke in deep voices to her.  Leah kept pointing at me and looking surprised.  Finally there was silence.  Everyone looked at me and I giggled uncomfortably.  The government men, thankfully, laughed too.  When they had left, I asked her what was said.

“It is okay,” she told me.  “I said you are stupid foreigner and didn’t know.  They said this will be your warning.”

“So it’s over?” I asked, in my stupid foreigner voice.  “There’s no lawsuit?”

“Yes, it is over,” she said, kindly.  “I will take you to grocery store tonight and we will buy garbage bags.”

I breathed a sigh of relief.  Even though I have been living in Korea for over a year, the stupid foreigner card still worked.  The trash lawsuit was over and I was able to focus again on my classroom.  I had a few minutes before the students would come and I spent the time straightening the desks, cleaning the board, and throwing away old worksheets in the cardboard box Leah had given me to use as a garbage can.


Endings at a Park


The list of unspeakables had gotten long.  Ashley and I sat in the park near Incheon’s Arts Center, eating sandwiches and watching the children play in the enormous fountain.  My chicken wrap dripped mustard sauce like sweat; it was a Sunday and the sun was bright and warm.  Summer was just stepping to the front of the line, the heat of the days making things like breeze and shade more valuable.  The children in the park ran through the fountain to cool themselves off.  Ashley and I sat right in the sun.

“Have you noticed that we’re the only non-family here?” she asked me.  It hadn’t dawned on me, but she was right.  Everyone in the park was either a parent or a child.  When a little girl fell down, there was always a mother there to pick her up.  Boys played catch with their fathers.  Sometimes the children would walk past us and, seeing the lightness of our skin broadcasting that we were from somewhere else, they would wave to us and say “hello.”

A relationship between two people – whether it be friendly, romantic, or some sort of mixture of the two – is only as good as the list of unspeakable things is short.  Ashley and I sat in the sun and talked about movies, feminism, and childhood.  We laughed when a small boy took off his clothes and urinated in the fountain.  Still, our list was there and I could feel it stuck between every pause in the conversation.  It was all the bad things that had happened between us – the people that couldn’t be mentioned, the nights that had gone bad.  Certain words, like “lawyer,” had grown fatter in meaning because of the things I’d said.  Simple questions like “what’d you do last night” changed into inquiries, switching from conversation to control.  Those questions weren’t simple any more.  Questions have memories, and my questions were filled with the memories of those nights when she’d left me alone to go off with other guys.

But there had to be something that brought us to the park on a hot Sunday afternoon.  It wasn’t coincidence, or boredom, or the allure of eating a chicken wrap and getting mustard sauce all over our fingers.  It was the three months we spent together, talking for hours every day, making each other laugh and becoming great friends.  When there’s a list of unspeakables, something must be there to keep two people pushing past it, making conversation in the face of it feeling forced and awkward.  Or at least a person likes to think so anyways.  Like every sentence she said told me that no matter how much she might have hurt me, she was still there.

Every now and then, the water in the fountain would stop, and the children, their wet clothes soaking up the heat, would wait anxiously for it to start again.  Some of the little ones would wander around, confused.  Still, they seemed to know where they were, aware that they were inside the confines of something – the park, the fountain, their families – and if they would wander away from the collection of children at the fountain’s center, they would never have walked too far away.  Not so far, they seemed to know, that they couldn’t turn and come running back to the water when it started up again.  It would only take a few beats to rejoin everyone, in the heart of the fountain, where all the complexity of the world was washed away by giant geysers of white water shot five feet up in the air.  I wondered if, at the end of their day, headed back home to dry off and get ready for school the next morning, those children, thinking back to their Sunday in the park, would feel like smiling or like crying.

Monday morning I called Ashley.  I was exhausted.  I told her that I cared for her, and then I told her that I couldn’t handle having her in my life anymore.  Our list had gotten too long, the hurt too much.  Strange, isn’t it, how empty one can feel when they know they’re doing the right thing?  It must’ve felt, I imagined, the same way those children felt leaving the park.  I suppose the end to anything, no matter how good or bad the events that preceded it, is always at least a little bit sad.


Peacocks in Chinatown


Amy and I were walking through Jeyu Park when I turned to her and said something that some might consider offensive.  “You know what I’d like to be able to do?” I said.  “I’d like to be able to look at an Asian person and say with certainty, ‘That’s a Chinese person.’  Or, ‘That person is Korean.’”

Jeyu Park is at the heart of Korea’s Chinatown, located in Incheon.  In 2002, the South Korean government spent $18 million creating a Chinatown, hoping that it would be a lure for Chinese investors and tourists.  Red lanterns line the streets, restaurants serving chajangmyon (noodles in black bean sauce) are everywhere, and there is even a statue of Confucius given to Korea as a gift from China.  Small shops are ubiquitous, selling glass bird whistles and wooden swords, Chinese fans and large painted pots.

“Do you think Asians can tell each other apart?” I asked Amy.  She said they could, and rather easily.  I looked at the people in the park.  What were the giveaways?  Skin color or shade, the roundness of the face, the shape of the eyes, the length of the nose?  I had no idea.  Then I turned to Amy and asked a question that I would eventually look up on the Internet, and which would spark the idea for this essay, “I wonder how many of the people in Chinatown are actually Chinese?”

Not many, as it turns out.  Up until 1945, Korea was colonized by Japan, and during that time the majority of the Chinese people living in Korea were ousted by the Japanese.  But even after Korea gained its independence, things didn’t improve at all for Chinese immigrants.  The Korean government passed laws disallowing Chinese residents from owning land, it was made illegal for Chinese restaurants to serve rice, and Chinese people living in Korea were forced to renew their residential permits every three years.  The Chinese population decreased every year, until it bottomed out at about 25,000 for the entire country.  Today, Chinese residents still have restrictions, having to prove financial ability in order to stay in Korea, and having Alien Registration Numbers that deny them access to Korean Internet sites and email accounts.

About one-third of the shops and restaurants in Chinatown are run by actual Chinese people.  The rest are run by Koreans.  I had to read an article from the New York Times to get that figure.  Apparently an Asian person can ascertain such a stat just by looking around at faces.

At the height of Jeyu Park, there is a large clearing where cheap kites are sold for 5,000 Won.  Each kite has a gaudy picture of a peacock on it, and comes with about two miles worth of string wrapped around a plastic handle.  Amy and I bought a kite, took it into the square, and tried our best to fly it.  Our peacock struggled to catch the wind, flapping its one-dimensional wings and falling pitifully to the ground.  An old Asian man laughed at us.  Several others tried to help us.  Finally a woman with a baby on her back succeeded in getting our kite off the ground.  We looked into the air and there it was, our peacock flying proudly in the cloudless sky with the rest of the kites.  It was a sky devoid of real birds, populated only with painted peacocks attached to string. 

Perhaps it was a decent analogy for where we were.  We were in the center of a Chinatown without Chinese people, an ethnic community run by the dominant race, gazing up at a sky filled with fake birds.  Amy let the rest of the string go and our bird soared higher than any of the others.  It was a cool sight to see, our bird flying way up high, looking at us and all the others down below, probably thinking we all looked exactly the same.