Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year from Jungdongjin!

What'd you do for New Years? Was it what you usually do?

Usually (or lately), I've  groggily decided whether or not I'll stay awake til midnight. I eat my mom's holiday dinner, and wait for her to say she can't hold out any longer, that she'll see me next year.  I sit in front of my computer, watching interesting things. I sit in front of the TV watching non-interesting things. The best part of those New Years shows has been watching clips of the fireworks going off all around the world. I didn't want to watch so-n-so's performance. I didn't care what interesting questions, knowledge, and gossip the hosts had to spew to the nation's viewers.  Nah, I just wanted to watch the ball drop, drink a glass of Welch's Sparkling Grape Juice, and maybe wake my mom up to wish her Happy New Year.  Without any "official traditions" in my family, it's easy to do nothing during the holidays and be okay with it.

I'm really glad that I did something different this year. I'm thankful to my friend for inviting me on an awesome trip to the East coast for a tradition popular for many Koreans: watching the first sunrise of the New Year. The train trip was almost 4 hours, but that didn't take away from the fun. We walked for hours in the cold, trying to get a room to spend the night in (for some reason, that didn't occur to us beforehand to take care of). There were ajummas everywhere, hawking the passersby and looking for hotel/motel rooms to sell at high prices. It was a special event, and the town was small. They'd already known that desperate people like us would be coming. We ate dinner at a "Mexican Chicken" restaurant. I'm not sure which items on the menu made the chicken Mexican though, because we ordered regular fried and regular sauce (the two things I could readily recognize on the menu). The place was packed, but one of the staff quickly fashioned us a table in front of the cashier counter (who needs that, anyway?), and we wolfed down our food when it came.

There was a moment (before finally getting a room) where a little old lady asked us if we wanted a place to stay. We watched her a bit earlier as she asked various Korean passersby, and they politely declined her request. For some reason, when she asked us, we said yes and followed her. She had pointed to a building we'd already walked to, so maybe she had connections or something, we thought. No. Turns out she was pointing past that building. WAY past it. She led us past the building, into the road and across it, and then there were no lights. From the brightness of the town behind us, we could see two dark buildings appear down a dark lane that went downhill. We stopped the lady, apologized for making her lead us this far (she had taken us pretty far), and told her we didn't want the room (in the best Korean/English we could).

We DID eventually get a room (a room. no bed. a super old turn-the-knob tv. lots of blankets, pillows, and ondol flooring); a complimentary toothbrush for each; and a key that didn't successfully lock the door. Well, that's what we get for not booking a place ahead of time. Still, it was so much better than staying outside all night long. You do not know how amazing ondol flooring is in the winter!  We took a short 20 minute nap, then headed back into the cold, crowded night. On the beach, heavily-clothed people were sending lanterns into the sky, setting off fireworks, and taking lots of pictures. We did those things, too. My friend smartly brought a box of hot chocolate packets on the trip. We filled our TaLK travel mugs with hot water from the convenience stores we passed, and toured the area, stopping every now and then to do something fun like light a firework, get snuck up on by the rising tide of the sea, and write on lanterns that would be sent into the night sky.

Near the beach was a small park with the world's largest hour glass. This hour glass was actually in the shape of a disk. It held enough sand to fall for exactly one year, and at every new year the disk would be pushed to the opposite side of the track it rested on. When we got to it, we couldn't really see if any sand was falling or not. It didn't look like it. Yet, after midnight came and the planned fireworks display finished, we rushed back over to the park (we had been about to light fireworks of our own down at the beach... totally lost track of time) to find that the hour glass had been moved. In the center one of the triangular windows showed sand falling in small spurts.

The night was good, but the adventure wasn't over. There was still the sunrise to see. We grumbled to each other about the fact that the sun was scheduled to rise at 7:44 AM. Who wants to stay up for New Years and then wake up early and go back into the cold? But we needed to. That's why we'd come! When our alarms went off, we discussed whether or not we should get up after all, finally decided it was for the best, and headed back into the cold. The beach was quickly filling up with people. Cars lined the streets everywhere. We found  good spot and stared out at the horizon. Many more lanterns were flown, many more personal fireworks went off. There was one heart-shaped lantern that had been released into the air, only to race downward to the sea. Inches from the water's grasp, it bounced a bit here and there, finally regaining control and altitude. The crowd watched all this with the utmost intensity. There was a unified "Oh!" when it dipped, an "Oooo," when it stopped short of the water and bounced along, and an "Ooooh," when it took to the air steadily.

Though we watched our clocks carefully, we almost missed the sunrise. Someone in the crowd shouted, "Oh!" and everyone turned their heads to the right. A tiny, blushing ball wrapped in thin clouds rose up above an antique war ship that rested on the coast. Oh, it was going to rise over there? We're at the East Sea, though. Why are we all facing north? Still, it was a cute sunrise. Funnily enough, it only appeared at the horizon. Then as it rose completely above the horizon, it disappeared into the cloud haze. Perhaps the elements were being considerate for the people who had waited an hour in the zero degree hours of the day to greet the first sun of the year. Well, I'm certainly thankful.

I may've also spotted some famous people at the beach, though my failure at remembering all the faces of the latest Korean stars only left me speculating.

'Til next time,

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