Monday, December 6, 2010

The Final Week

So this is it...the last days. A week from now, my title will effectively move to the past tense: South Korea, There I was.

How do you feel? A question I keep getting that I fear I'm answering more poorly each time. This has been such a great year made possible by irreplaceable friends, unfamiliar terrains and quirky students. I have a great life where I'm very well taken care of and comfortable. In my backwards approach to looming changes, I haven't given much thought to leaving and only recently have I thought it all to be too dramatic.

There was a time when I looked forward to this week. I have a distinct memory of a January afternoon in the midst of the dark and unforgiving Korean winter when I was hopelessly sick, frustrated and unsure of myself. I counted the weeks to my departure, it was a number in the high 40's. I remember feeling momentary despair.

This was a disproportionately negative blip in what was very positive, upbeat year. It was just one of many stages I went through. By spring, when the weather started to break, I was settled, comfortable, and happy. I cast my calendars aside and tried to just live here and now. It was the best thing I could have done and I'm disappointed in the person that counted the weeks.

Life in Korea is great, but I'm happy to go home. What is difficult about Korea is that you build these awesome friendships with people from all over that have been all over and you explore and have fun, but over time, they leave. With everyone on year-long contracts that end at a different point in the year, slowly but surely, the original cast of people you thought would shape the whole of your Korea experience three months in gradually dwindles until, towards the end, you feel like the only one left.

Knowing that other friends have moved on makes me feel more ready to leave. I envisioned this as a year-long stint, and I'm thrilled to be going home just in time for Christmas. There isn't a better time of year for family, friends, food, and all the things I feel fortunate to return to. I'm coming home.


November cruised along. While CNN or Fox may claim that we face bombings by the hour from North Korea, things have been peaceful in Daegu. I did have a 15-minute stretch when I first learned about the attack on Yeong Pyong Island from a group of 11-year old boys (who cannot speak in sentences) that had me believing that not only had the north bombed us, but actual war and a full-scale invasion was underway. You can understand when I say I had trouble focusing on my lousy lesson about food.

Once I got the real story, I felt much better, though Koreans still ask me: "are you afraid?" And I'm just thinking: "F***, I don't know, should I be?" I didn't mention it in my overly sentimental introduction to this post, but the threat of war is surely a reason to be happy to get the hell out.

Thinking it wise to get closer to the northern border, we took a trip to Seoul where I visited the National War Museum and disregarded signs telling us not to go up:
Bring it on Kim Jong Il!
A monument to reunification. Brothers from separate sides meet on the battlefield. Take a guess which one is the North Korean...

I also returned to Gyeong Buk Palace for the first time since Emma was in town.
Not a temple, Gyeong Buk Gung is an enormous complex used by royalty to ball out the only way Koreans know how...
The last Seoul weekend crew at a soju-hof joint: Harry, Dean, Katie, Robbie, and Caitlin.

Before I got the KTX back, I found some knockoff Dunkin' Donuts: London Donuts! Really, who's falling for this?
Another recent happening: it's already ski season again!
Rocking my Santa hat and Christmas jams down the mountain really put me in the spirit.
Tamlyn clips in for our best run of the weekend, a night ski right after the reopened the run with freshly groomed snow. Like carving through butter...
Night skiing is a surreal experience, especially when you're practically by yourself. There's nothing more quiet...
A window into our condo for the weekend. I slept on the floor. For those looking to get the bed, it was a sharing experience and be prepared to share with the SOJU. One beverage I'm not sad to leave...

A few months ago, I decided to give nicknames to everyone in one of my classes. One of the students, Clive, kept mixing up "king" and "queen" so I started calling him Queen Clive. I could have explained about how Queen is cool and shown him pictures of Freddy Mercury, but I don't know if it would have made sense to a 9-year-old Korean boy. His classmates were Candy Kim, Duck Tom, and Banana James.

I noticed that in pictionary, Clive liked to draw sea animals, so I decided to add octopus to his name, thus "Queen Clive Octopus." I then made up a little ballad called "Have You Ever Seen A Queen Clive Octopus?" And would begin each class singing: "Have you, have you, have you eva seeeeen..."

I have way too much time on my hands, I must be moving on...

COMING SOON: Things I'll miss, things I won't

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Korean Kids Write the Darndest Things

One of my responsibilities at school is to grade essays. Over time, I copy-pasted and emailed some of the ones I found funny to myself and built up a little collection. I can't remember the author for most of them, but there's something of each student's personality there. You also get a sense for Korean language in word-for-word translation and fuzzy grammar. I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed grading these. You better believe style points counted big.

Highlights to look for:

Olympic speed skater Apollo Ohno is called a bastard

Foods are baked on "fly pens"

A student using an online translator inadvertently makes a sick rap lyric ("a carrot cuts a virtue, and I roast it ,and an egg divides it to HuinJa and NoReunJa, and I post it")

One student dreams of becoming a dinosaur doctor and making a thesis for scientific circles while another aspires to the job of "dog's beautician."

Horses say "ihin!" and monkeys say "okki okki!"

A student hates goats because they don't fight

Hamsters "emit a squeaks upwards. It's very wonder."

Another student acknowledges that some would consider the Korean tradition of eating dog meat "crazy."

Parents are a "precious existence"

Mice become cheese detectives

Topic: Sports

Author Unknown:

I like sports very much and I can any sports very well. these days I watch winter olympic. I watched short track and speed skating. It is very exciting. and when I watch them I am pungent. Korean short track is amazing! when start we were last but they catch up to first. but there was some fouls so I was angry. korea was skating very well but Americans are did foul in womans american did foul so we could not have gold medal and mans Oh no did foul very much so I am angry for american. speed skating is amazing too. I think it is very fast I envy them . I want feel that speed . It will be very cool and get rid of stress. 샤니 데이비스 is very good athlete. he had gold medal and it is amazing. I like him If I was olympic athlete in speed skating I could have gold medal. and snow boarding was very excited I want learn it . It looks nice and great. I do not like apolo anton ohno he is bastard. he would caught korean athlete and he do foul very much so I do not like apolo anton ohno. germany is rank 1 now gold 7 silver 9 bronze 5 and america is rank 2 gold 7 silver 8 bronze 10 and 노르웨이 is rank 3 now gold 6 silver 3 bronze 5 and canada is rank 4 now gold 5 silver 4 bronze 1 now and swiss is rank 5 now gold 5 silver 0 bronze 2 now and 대 한 민 국 is rank 6 now gold 4 silver 4 bronze 1 now. it is good grade that rank 6 in all world I think korea is doing hardly I wish 김 연 아 has good grade in figure skating . She is fantastic. she play against asada mao but I think she can not win 김 연 아 I believe her and I am proud of korea athlete

Topic: Favorite Food

Author Unknown, but apparently very focused on directions:

I like food very much. But I hate vegetable. However, I like kimci, because it is korean food. Kimci material is cabbage. Kimci recipe is this. First, make the kimci spice. Second, apply the spice on the kimci. Third, ferment the kimci. Then, the kimci is complete! Next food is junk food. It is chicken! I like chicken very much. I always want eat chicken. You see, chicken recipe is very simple. First, smear flour on the chicken. Next, fry the chicken. Then the chicken is complete!!!!!! World is wide, food is much! Worldeast people usually eat rice. worldwest people usully eat steak. Worldeast people use the chopsticks and spoon, but worldwest people use fork and knife.

I will introduce other korea food. It is bulgogi. I don't know how to make the bulgogi. But many foreigner like bulgogi. I like bulgogi too. I like Italy food. Pizza, spaghetti,etc... That food is representation Italy food. Pizza recipe is this process. First, make the flour dough. And make thin and circle. Next, cheese, ham, etc place on the flour dough. Next, the pizza put in an oven. Wait 10 minutes, then the pizza is compelte. Next food is french toast. First, mix the egg, milk, salt, sugar. Next, bread wet into the mix. Next, bake the bread on the fly pen. Then french toast is complete!!!!!. French toast recipe is very simple. So you can cook this food easily. You can usually eat this food. Next food is japen food. It is sushi. I can eat this food. But I don't like this food. So I don't how to make sushi. But many japenses, foreigners like this japen food. Finally I like food very much!!"

Author Unknown, clearly copied and pasted from an online translator:

I will do ti about seasoned bar rice cakes, Long and slender rice-cake cuts with 4cm by length of a degree, and I cut it to 2-4fork, and beef cuts it into small pieces, I sell and a dropwort, a carrot cuts a virtue, and I roast it ,and an egg divides it to HuinJa and NoReunJa, and I post it, and I each cut it with an agaric, altitudes, And I roast meat and the mushroom which seasoned in a pot, and I pourt water, and I insert a rice cake and a carrot in, and I put sugar, I place an egg to have cut with a lozenge to a bowl, and I scatter a pine-nut kernel.

Topic: Dream for the future

Min Jae:

I like dinosaur for long because The dinosaur is olden reptiles and dinosaur has so much secret. I want to get a doctorate and trable around the world look for dinosaur fossil. and make thesis for scientific circles. then scholars will respect me, and I will become a famous dinosaur doctor. I must be a famous dinosaur doctor and make a lot of money and give much pocket money to my mother and father.

Su Yeon:

My dream is dogs beautician. When I young,my dream is doctor. But doctor is study very well. I don't like study. So now my dream is dogs beautician. dogs beautician is special and fun. It is nice job. Because I like animals and specially I like puppy. it is cut and lovely. So Mt dream is dogs beautiful. But I want to a doctor and teacher and caricaturist. But doctor is study very well. teacher is love and like children and study well. And caricaturist is draw very well. I don't like study and I'm not good at draw. dogs beautician is puppy beauty culture. So always look at the puppy. I had puppy. but it is not now. It give other people. So I want to see.
Topic: Favorite Animals

Se Min:


I like animal hamster and puppy and rabbit and husky. animal is nuisance. animal is characteristic cute,scary. I want grow animal! But mom say 'animal is nuisance' and 'Don't animal!!!' I mom's angry me scary. There is lately ninetendo chep in 'grow puppy'.

I do ride a horse! I wear a safety helmet. Horse said 'ihin' Horse is dirty! Horse nose in runny!!! I did look runny scene, I by that time a promise Don't ride!!!

I did look monkey. monkey is said 'okkii okkii'and I throw banana. animal is fun fun fun fun !!!

Su Yeon:

I like hamsters of animals. Because they are very cute. When they eat sunflower sew, It's very cute. They're very lovely. I'm keeping the hamster. But I didn't gave her name, yet. My hamster is boy. But he looks like a girl. Oh, my god. If it die, I'll cry. I like cat,too. But they have sharp nails. Anyway I love them. Also I like puppy,too!! When they bark, I'm very happy. "Bow-wow!" What's the hamster's voice? Sometimes, they're emit a squeak. Not "Zeeeck!", It's "Zeeck↗!" They're emit a squeak up. It's very wonder.

Chewbar (real name Ju Hyeong, and I started correcting this one):

I like animals,but I don't like several animals.And my favorite animals is (are) lions and tigers and monkeys and dogs,and I like many animals very much!And I hate chickens and cows and pigs and a sloth.They are very dirty and fat and lazy.And I like sheep, too!Because Sheeps fur is very soft and warm.And the goat is very hate (I hate the goat very much).The goat (looks) is very look like weak and It doesn't fight!I want to fight even animals!So I like lion and tiger,and I like monkey because monkey is very smart.So I like nearly every animal!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Jeong Hoon:

I hate touch the animals. But I like see the animals. I will write each animals are a strong point and a weak point. First, tiger's strong point is intrepid. Have you ever heard tiger's roaring? It is very scared but this roaring is have brave spirit. However, tigers were sometimes ate human. Second, rabbits are very fast. And rabbits are have a long ears. But they are very weak. So strong animals eat rabbits. Third, turtles are live long. They are live the longest than others animals. There are can live 200 years!!!!!!! But they are slower than others animal. Forth, an alligators haven't strong point. It is more danger than tigers, lions, cheetahs etc. They are very ugly. And they're eyes very scared, they're tooth very dangerous. I think we must kill them. Fifth, hamsters are very cute. So my sister is very like hamster. I like them,to. But sometimes hamsters bite people. Sixth, cows are very big and heave, but they help people's farm work. So people used cows in the farming since the New stone age. And beef is very delicious!! Seventh, dog is more familiar than others aniamls. Maybe human and dogs are best friend!! But some people like eat dogs because to aid. Actually, many korean people like eat dogs, so many foreigner think, 'They are crazy!.' Eighth, cat is very cute aniamls. So people like as dog as cat. But they are very sharp. So cats sometiems bite people. And they eyes very scared. Ninth, cheetah is more fast than others aniamls. But they can't run fast in long time. Tenth, horse is very fast. And they can run fast in long time.

These days most people hunt the wild animals. This behaviors make desruct ecology. So we must love the animals!!!!!!!!

Topic: Parents

Su Yeon:

Parents is the precious existence. And we, too. They think us the precious existence, too. The 8th of May is the 'Parents' Day'. When the day, most child are give an carnations for their parents. So before the day, Many children make an carnations at school. Me, too. So Many people call May, 'Family's month'. Because May has 'Childrens' Day', 'Parents' Day', 'Teachers' Day'. So I like May.

Why parents is precious? The 1st reason is they bear us. And 2nd is they make much of us. And 3rd, They're love us. Then, We need to love them !! Anyway, I think parents is 'PRECIOUS PEOPLE'.

Topic: Favorite Books

Seung Ho:

The book that I introduce is “Who moved my cheese?" At first, I read the book that mom recommended. Mice found a cheese factory while they were looking around for cheese. and then they were getting lazy. One day the cheese disappeared because the factory was bankrupt.

A, B mouse went to look for cheese again.

A, B mouse were eating cheese to find.

C, D mouse waited for cheese to come back

In the end, C,D mouse went to find cheese because D mouse tell C mouse we should go to find cheese. I think this book is very good. Thank you.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Musangsa Temple Stay

I hear the faint sound of a wooden stick striking a hollow wooden gourd. I roll over. It's 3am. That would be the moktok. Time to bow...108 times to be exact. It's a temple stay, and man, I wouldn't have it any other way.

My friend Eric sent me a message on Facebook about doing this weeks ago. Staying overnight at a temple and getting a sense for the lifestyle of Buddhist monks sounded like a cool contemplative experience. I've long held a curiosity for Buddhism and began to learn about it from Mr. Lee, but never got around to going through with a stay. With less than a month left, the now-or-never syndrome is in full effect.

Early on a Saturday morning, we hopped the KTX to Daejeon. I found myself having flashbacks to Christmas 2009. We took a city bus from the train and ended up in small suburb where we took a taxi and made it to Musangsa.

If you're wondering how a group of wae-gook-eens can fall in with Korean monks, I should mention that Musangsa is a actually a special international temple, and most of the monks are either European or American, not Korean. They have a real nifty website that you can view here.

The first order of business after arrival: dress to look the part. Traditional Buddhists robes are definitely meant for comfort, given that meditation sessions can last for hours on end, but I found them to be loose to a point of clumsiness. More on that later.

We soon had an orientation with the rest of our group, close to 15 other foreigners in total. Sitting on floor mat cushions crossed legged, we listened to a monk give an introduction and overview of meditation. It was funny to listen to him speak, because he had that cheeky zen master way of slipping jokes in around deep spiritual questions and I struggled to place his accent. He demonstrated the correct form for sitting zen: either crossed-legged or knees bent with your legs underneath you. For those that couldn't handle either position for extended periods of time he shouted:


But as you can well imagine, the way he spoke about the chair kind of discouraged further inquiry.

After a short break, we reconvened in the meditation hall (above). The temple complex was relatively small, composed of three buildings: the sleeping quarters/dining building, meditation hall/monks quarters, and the main Buddha hall.

By mid-afternoon and I was starting to drag. I hadn't slept well the night before and got up early. As I made my way to the hall, I tried to tune into the zen going on around me.

When I walked into our first meditation session, I sat on the wrong end (with the women, it was separated by sex). I was then made to sit between the two pros that scrutinized my form. Turned out I was able to sit right in neither of the postures, but before we could correct this (no way was I asking about the chair), three stiff strikes of a stick to the floor meant the start of twenty silent motionless minutes of sitting zen meditation.

Around five minutes in, I started to sweat from discomfort. I could feel my legs were already completely asleep. I closed my eyes had to will my way to the end of the session. Sitting there in my baggy robes, I did my best to focus. The power of meditation begins only once you push all thoughts out of your mind and channel your energies toward intense concentration upon nothing. That's right, nothing. Not a thing. If you're thinking about something, you're doing it wrong. I happened to be thinking about how poor my form was, and I had my tingling legs to remind me. Deep breaths.

When we stood up, I almost toppled completely back to the ground. We did walking meditation weaving loops around the hall, and it felt like I was swinging a couple of dense Sunday hams that were attached just below the knee. I couldn't feel my feet all at.

We had a coffee and tea break afterward and by the time I felt blood returning to my toes, it was time for our Dharma talk. A Dharma talk is an open lecture and discussion with a zen master. It raised more questions than answers, but I was particularly interested to hear the visiting master, because he made frequent references to Master Seung Sahn. You may remember Seung Sunim from the book Mr. Lee gave me. The temple followed his "know-nothing" school of Korean Buddhism and there was an elaborate shrine to his memory in their Buddha Hall.

We ate dinner in complete silence, seated cross-legged on the floor (I dealt better), again separated by sex. I made sure not to take a scrap more than I could eat. Monks rinse their bowls with warm water and drink it to get every last bit of sauce or food left. Welcome to the clean plate club.

Later that evening we wandered up to the main Buddha hall for chanting - a disorienting, beautiful, and mesmerizing experience. Buddhist chanting follows a complicated routine of specifically numbered and timed bows, sing-chanting, and in general, just following the flow. If you care to have a listen, this is one of the chant performed that we were encouraged to join: Kwan Seum Bosal

For me, the most confusing aspect of the whole weekend was that we weren't supposed to talk, so we couldn't really ask questions; it was monkey-see, monkey-do for tips on the finer points of practice. I felt like I was doing everything wrong, and I was half giving myself pep talks and apologizing to Buddha as I tripped over my baggy robes trying to keep up. It became increasingly obvious I wasn't alone, and the monks really didn't seem to mind as long as we at least tried. I really admired their openness and positive encouragement.

Before we knew it, it was bedtime, around 8:45PM. Why so early? I guess I already gave it away.

Every day at t
he temple starts at 3:00AM. Awoken by the sound of the moktok, the monks make their way up to the meditation hall for 108 bows to Buddha. Why 108? I wondered myself, and then did the research:

We have 6 doors of perception: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste and thought.
There are 3 aspects of time: past, present, and future.
There are 2 conditions of the heart/mind: pure or impure.
There are 3 possible attitudes: like, dislike, and indifference.

Korean Buddhists use this formula 6 x 3 x 2 x 3 = 108. Thus, 108 bows to "cut through our Karma."

These aren't little bows we're talking about. It starts from full standing position, dropping to your knees, lowering your hands down in front of you to the ground and then your forehead to the ground, then returning back to a standing position with a reverse of those movements. At the pace we did them, it took some fitness and I admit I was sweating by the end. It was made no easier by the fact we began at 3:25AM.

After the bows, it was morning chanting, more meditation and then breakfast. My legs fell asleep again, but I think I dealt with it better this time. After breakfast, the day was very relaxed. We took a hike around the misty mountain and pretty much had the rest of the morning to ourselves.
We had time to reflect, take some pictures, and take a much needed nap.
Flat Adam on a lantern in front of the meditation hall and again in front of the Buddha hall. My cousin sent me his Flat Stanley recently, for those not familiar with the project, check it out here:
The Buddha Hall in full perspective. Note the dragons coming out of the hall - they were actually not just heads - their torso and tails extended inside. I haven't seen this in a temple before.
May the zen peace be with you.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Just Another Day In Korealand

Some might think that this blog isn't updated enough. The truth is that in general, there isn't always much to write about. My life in Korea is very structured and routine, centered on my 1pm-9pm schedule Monday-Friday. I have not yet written anything describing my typical day, so I thought I would go ahead and bore the hell out you with this rundown. If it's updates you're looking for, just re-read this. It's that consistent.

9:00am: Wake up, open my laptop, get some morning jams pumping, check email.

10:00am: Two possibilities: go for a run or make breakfast. I run just about every other day.

10:20am: Breakfast is almost always French pressed coffee and toast made by heating up slices of bread one side at a time in a skillet. What are toasters like?
My wingspan can almost touch both walls at once. Ching Chang was absolutely compensating for something at the Walla-walla Bing Bang.

10:30am: Sip coffee and read the news, bum around on Facebook.
11:30am: Take a shower. No tub, no curtain, no problem! More a suggestion of a shower space than a suitable one. Korean style showers require that water goes friggin' everywhere. Are there things that shouldn't be wet? Yes. Will this exacerbate the mold and mildew problem? Absolutely. I have soaked many pairs of socks through because I missed a spot with my post-shower squeegy.

12:00pm: With an hour before work, I have options. Once upon a time I Skyped Emma, but that was before she disappeared into the jungles of Panama. Nowadays, I might play guitar, read, or look at more news (no more about the Ground Zero mosque, please). It's also a prime time for errands like the bank, post office, dry cleaners, or other random shopping.

12:45pm: Leave for work (in actuality, I leave around 12:52 and thus I am consistently 3-5 minutes late no matter what I do).

12:55pm: Out of a large group of students standing on the street corner down the block, one brave girl or boy will say: "hello!" or "nice to meet you!" or "handsome guy!"

I live in front of a high school and middle school so this happens almost every day.
12:58: Tip-toe around the ajummas selling produce on the street. It's remarkable how many varieties of greens Koreans eat, though I think much of it would be considered invasive vegetation rather than food.
12:59: I stand next to Paris Baguette. The Korean script reflects the French pronunciation, thus PAH-REE Baguette, though they place emphasis on the first, rather than the second syllable. It's pretty much the only place you can get a decent loaf of whole grain bread or a real baguette (it's nutrition-less Wonderbread galore at the grocery store).
Note COOLish Foreign Institute, above the tree on the right, 4th floor. The smattering of signage typical of buildings in Korea. You can only imagine what it looks like at night when they fire up the LED lights.

12:59:30: I cross the street to Lotteria. Run by the department store empire Lotte (they own everything from retail stores to soda/junkfood brands to baseball teams), Lotteria is the official fast-food burger chain of Korea. Many similarities to BK and McD's are there, but watch out, those onion rings you successfully ordered by pointing frantically at a picture are actually squid rings, one of many seafood options. Decidedly Korean.

1:00pm (1:05): Arrive at school, have a quick chat with Mr. Lee about current events, often concerning the weather.

1:05-1:50: I gather up and sort through the stacks of photocopies I use in class. Since each class is only 20 minutes, it can take a few days to get through just a single page, depending on how much I can squeeze out of it. If the class is a talkative one, we may never even get the pages I prepared. I figure out what I need and what I'll be doing today and that doesn't take long. I often just use this time to read and write.

1:50-2:10: Phonics class with Mr. Lee's oldest son, Jae Min. He's about six years old, so we just spell basic words and draw pictures. He's really into firefighters:

2:15-2:30: The phonics class from hell. Four students, three boys and one girl. The boys all have English names: Alex, John, and Tim, while the girl just goes by her Korean name, Soo Min. The boys are out of control. To delay chaos as long as possible, the beginning of class is very structured, hitting on the day, the weather and moods:

Laying the smiley-teacher enthusiasm on thick:

What day is it today?

What's the weather like?

It's sunny!

How are you John? I'm so-so.
How are you Tim?
I'm happy!
How are you Soo-Min?
I'm so-so. Good.
How are you Alex?
I'm tired and sad. Oh god.

Well, we can count on Alex smacking another kid with his pencil case. He prefers to climb on the tables while his peers proudly spell "telephone" and cries when he loses the ABC bingo game. He punched me the other day. John is a slightly better behaved, but in very non-Korean kid fashion gets all wide-eyed and mocks you while putting his thumb and finger together in the an "okay" sign whenever you ask him to do something. This is my favorite class.

2:30: Lunch from the kimbap shop. Korean food delivered on the cheap, I get my daily kimchi and rice fix. I'm going to have to write the ladies over a card or something. My order is sometimes the only thing that distinguishes one day from the next and keeps my energy rolling.

2:55-3:15: I slip out of school and hang out on a bench outside with a book. Good people watching and I appreciate the fresh air.

3:20-9:00: Teaching.
The kids hate me.
I am a dessert.

My day consists of 5 separate hour-long blocks during which I teach three 20-minute classes in row. I have 10-minute breaks in between. The pace makes the day move along. On the good days, the kids are into it or least wear unintentionally funny English t-shirts:
I love you and all, but if you think I can be counted on to provide starches, you're dead wrong.
Your grass is sad? At least your t-shirt is green.

The other day, a student wore a shirt with what looked like the outlines of zoo animals throwing feces. Across the top it read in pink and green letters: "POLITICAL PARTIES." Right on.

I was chuckling for a long time, and my class of 3 students sat without any emotion or energy to speak of (these classes bring on the harder days to get through). It would have been hopeless to explain what I thought was funny, and even if it did get through, I've found Korean sense of humor isn't very receptive.
Jun Beom (pronounced JOON-BUM). One of my all-time favorites. I sometimes like to give a round of high fives to get class started. Jun Beom insists upon getting another student (sometimes two) to hold my arm in place while he punches as hard as he can for as long as he can. It's well meaning. Everything Jun Beom does, he does without smiling, but this off-beat dazed determination to carry out his intent. What that intent is, I really don't know, but it's hilarious.

Whenever I ask how he is, Jun Beom says that he is "hungry." He's been saying this everyday for seven months now. When I ask what he wants to eat, he used to list every edible thing he knew in English, but now he just says "everything, everyone, and everybody." Jun Beom is open to cannibalism.

I once did an activity in his class where I had the students take a piece of paper divided into thirds. In each part, I asked them to write a sentence and draw a picture of what they like to do. Jun Beom drew a cow, a pig, and a duck. He wrote: "eat cow; eat pig; eat duck."

He's about four feet tall, but he once lifted me clear off the ground. Jun Beom, you're a legend.

They can be a pain sometimes, but these guys are entertaining:
Seong Jun. Once claimed he went to Washington and kicked Obama you know where, only to make up and negotiate a successful free-trade agreement. Okay, maybe I put words in his mouth, but he's a joker.
Jae Hong. His t-shirt says lust. This pose is even better when he shrugs his shoulders with his hands up. I ask him to do it every class. Gets me every time.
Sang Deok. Frequently comes to school reeking of cigarettes because he lives at the PC-room (internet cafes for computer game junkies, there are about 20 of them within a two-block radius). Will do anything to avoid doing anything. Bravo, Sang Deok, bravo.

The bad days are when I'm tired and struggling to keep focus. It's on those days a kid says "he play computa gay-eem on home" and in my daze of auto-pilot is say "yeah! good job!" Shameful, but it happens. Some of my classes are like teaching statues. This makes it tough in a conversation class, leading to me to dance around waving my arms shouting a grand monologue as part of an effort to summon pigeons to remind these kids that they are ALIVE! Shit!

I ask things like "what's your favorite fruit?" and get blank stares. Blink twice for bananas! After I ask a few times, giving examples, telling all about how much I LOVE ORANGES, I might be fortunate to get them to grunt or whisper "mho?" (what?) "moy-yo" (I don't know) or "nae" (yes). If only life were a yes or no question kids, if only.

Kids are shy, I get it. I'm making these poor awkward middle school kids really uncomfortable. Kids that are quiet in Korean are going to tend to be silent in English. What do they think of me?

Who is this crazy foreigner that is so unsatisfied with the fact that I don't like fruit and all I want to do is play computer games and I spend 15 hours a day in a classroom and don't have hobbies. You've had your 20 minutes, now let me languish in this cell phone application!

If you're starting to sense that I find myself frustrated sometimes and may be going off the deep end if I stay here much longer - you're onto something. It's been a lot of deep breath, grin, and bear it. Day by day.

9:00: I fill my 2-liter bottle up at our filtered water cooler. I take one home just about every day. I drink a lot of water.

9:15: I stop into the grocery store in the basement below Paris Baguette. I go almost every night, so all the women that work there know me. I'm reasonably sure they judge my purchasing habits and wonder how I could possibly feed myself with the things that I buy. For one, they seem concerned that I've never bought meat there. My usual is a variety of veggies, tofu, cereal, milk, pasta, noodles, and rice. They ask me a lot of questions. None of which I understand.

In one interaction, I used up my entire arsenal of Korean vocabulary and they took this to mean I was capable of answering complex questions (what's your favorite fruit perhaps!?). What I think they've asked me:

"Do you eat meat?"

"What's wrong with you?"

"Would you like to try our swamp cabbage? It's on sale this week."

"What exactly do you do with these groceries?"

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

9:30: Get home, cook dinner. I usually spend the afternoon in class daydreaming about what to make. Let the grocery store ladies believe that I live on ketchup and raisin potato chip salads.

10:00: Eat dinner, sit on Facebook, read some more news. Perhaps watch the Daily Show. Bed time is usually around 1.

Hope this has demystified my life in Korea. Peckrill will agree that those who think we're making profound cultural discoveries each day and conquering feats of historical signficance in our down-time are mistaken. Those things happen, but in flashes wedged between a very normal, routine working life. It's in a sometimes strange country, but it doesn't take long to normalize the cartoon characters pushing cosmetics, old ladies hawking weeds they picked from the highway median around the corner, and armies of pre-schoolers that swarm the white-skinned, blue-eyed dude in the street like a god.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Moolgogi Hunting: Part Deux

This past weekend, Mr. Lee invited me on another fishing trip. You may recall our last adventure to wrangle with water meat ("moolgogi," the Korean word for fish, literally translates to "watermeat") featured fake school principles, deliciously inky squid (you haven't an inkling), and eel slime hair gel. The sequel has understandably high expectations, but I'm sorry to disappoint. This won't quite stack up. I got some good pictures though.

We went to the same place, a town called Samcheonpo. So far as I can tell, the defining feature of Samcheonpo is the bridge across that crosses the bay. By nightfall, in true Korean fashion, it's illuminated by a full spectrum of constantly changing LED color. In contrast to the modest blue lights of Boston's Zakim bridge, Samcheonpo brings to mind glow stick acid trips and randomized computer screen savers.
I found a YouTube video that ever-so-delicately documents the night view of this bridge. I couldn't help but crack up at some of the zoom-ins. While I'm not pleased with the quality and you hardly get any real sense of the "spectacular" light show, it's a funny example of differing perceptions. The Korean film-maker sets the footage to peaceful piano music while when I look at the same scenes, I think of pulsing K-Pop. What do you think? View for yourself.
The bay when we arrived. The sun had been fighting the clouds all day and it made for some beautiful scenes down by the water.
Note Mr. Lee's hat: "Boston, Massachusetts Est. 1630." Spelling? Correct. Dating? Correct. Rarities in Korea...thanks Emma!
Rather than fishing from a dock, we rented a floating barge that had a little room to sleep in. You get some sense for what these things were like the background. We fished well into nightfall and woke up early and fished some more.
Mr. Lee shows off the first catch of the day. This is a full grown adult for this type of fish and apparently it's a very expensive delicacy. We were joined by another group later in the evening and they filleted it for us. Tasty. We of course caught some eels:
As the sun set behind the clouds, I let my reel out, sipped my beer, and kicked back.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Jirisan: A Chuseok Holiday Adventure

I wipe the rain from my brow and take tentative step onto what looks like the outline of a stable rock on the pitch-black mountain trail. While the sun set around an hour ago, the rain clouds and tree cover had made our path dark well before that. Only three of the six of us have flashlights and I am one of those without. I try to see by staying in someone's light, but as we make our way up and down the winding trails, it's almost impossible. Be it fact or myth, I tell myself that the carrots I've been eating regularly make the situation manageable. My unpreparedness only begins with lighting; my non-waterproof jacket soaked through long ago and without a backpack cover, my provisions and extra clothes are suffering a similar fate. Many day-hikes around the neighborhood mountain range where I would rock nothing more than a tank top, swim trunks and Crocs with a water bottle and encounter silly Koreans with full hiking-suits, cleated hiking boots and hiking poles with packs for a day hike made think I could get away with minimalism. This was a different ballgame.

We start to think we should have planned this better.

Our arrival at Jirisan National Park had gone smoothly. A series of bus connections took us from Daegu to Seong-sam-jae, a peak at the beginning of the range we planned to cross in a 3-day excursion over 30kilometers (~20 miles) that would culminate with a 1,905M summit at Cheon-wang-bong:
Here's the crew at Seong-sam-jae before we set off:
Jen, Harry, Kaitlin, Caitlin, and I (our sixth member, Robbie is missing). Not as much confusion over C(K)aitlins as one might expect.
Following the funny pictures of the Korean man, Caitlin gets her stretch on. Hoo-rah!
While the Koreans picnicking in the parking lot had their typical 10-course meal, we fueled up on peanut butter sandwiches.
To start, the fog was thick and the views were nil. Robbie commented that it was like a scene out of a war film. I have to agree.
5.5km ahead: Banyabong. Who in the world would want to ban ya' bong? The DEA, that's who. On the state level, it turns out Florida already has. But really, drugs are bad and bong just means "peak" in Korean. I'll let you fashion your own joke playing on the fact that peaks are naturally high.

Caitlin and Harry each brought their tents to camp, but we hadn't planned where. Strict park regulations prohibited camping outside of designated areas (enforced with a hefty fine of 500,000Won), and since all park information was in Korean, we had no idea where these places were. We thought maybe we could camp outside a shelter up on the mountain range, but by the time darkness crept up on us, we had passed one 5km back and the next was about 5km ahead. The rain began in spurts but was soon coming down full. This was where I found myself thinking about carrots.

When dread really started to set in, we found signs pointing towards an information shack. We arrived to find Koreans, decked out in their typical hike-Everest gear huddled under a tarp strung lean-to style to the shack. Down the hill, there was a creek and a bridge with another tarp shelter fashioned over the rails.

In a mix of very limited English and Korean, we worked out that they'd let us pitch tents next to them. We happily did so. With a setup complete, I went down to the creek for some water. When I got there, I met two Korean guys camping it on the bridge. They offered me sam-yeop-sal (strips of pork meat, usually barbecued) and I was excited and expecting to have a bite of leftovers. They gave me an entire unopened package of meat and two bags of kimchi. "Chin-cha?" (really?) I asked. "Nay, chin-cha," (yes, really) they responded. I thanked them profusely with the widest of grins. Could our circumstances have turned around any faster? God bless the hospitality of the Korean people.

We ate heartily, at times using an umbrella to shield our tiny portable gas burner. Harry and I retired last to the 2-man tent. Unfortunately, it wasn't completely waterproof, so we slept on and off through the night between torrential downpours and corresponding bouts of Chinese water torture from water condensation inside.

The next morning, we saw that we had apparently broken 3 out of 4 campsite rules by pitching tents, cooking food, and smoking cigarettes. We were considerate enough not to "throw."
After a breakfast of baked beans and hot dogs (anything edible is delicious when your burning 4,000 calories a day) we gathered up our gear and tread into the rain.
A thick fog continued to spoil any views. I show off my green plastic bottle of delicious spring water.
Having accomplished nothing, I pose like a gold-medalist skier. Most Koreans on the trail had hiking poles, and to support her knees, Caitlin got outfitted with a pair. They made for fun props.
The fog showed signs of breaking that afternoon. Like magic, mountains began to appear.

Looking around, it was something out of a movie. We were up close and personal with the clouds as they slid up and over the mountain curves.
Emma described this one as a "cloud beach." I like it.
Though we were rain-drenched, the landscape went a long way to lift spirits. We were even happier to be sleeping in a warm, dry shelter. At an earlier stop, a friendly Korean man called one ahead for us and made sure they had space. Score another for the compassion of this nation...

The shelter reminded me of a lodge somewhere out in the western United States. The landscape around it added to the effect. Nestled at the sloping base of one of the open ranges, it was like a mirage rising out of the rugged, remote terrain. There were had huge rooms that probably could have slept over 100 people if full (side by side with only a blanket on the wood floor - yeah Korean style!). It was at about 70% so it wasn't so bad.
Here, Harry, Robbie and I try unsuccessfully to dry something from our bags. Oh the wetness.

At dinner, I ate what I estimate were five helpings of ramen. I was starving. Later on, Harry and I befriended a trio of middle-aged Korean guys on a serious night-cap. One of them offered me to try a drink of something he made himself. It was brown in color. It tasted...unique. With a mix of English, Korean and body language he explained that it was made from oak trees, but he kept making this gesture where he wrapped one hand around the other I think to indicate what part of the tree it came from. Neither Harry nor I knew what this meant, but we just pretended we did. I now think he meant oak tree bark. A combination of soju and extreme altitude really put a damper on the mime-guessing skills. In any event, this drink, like the fabled eel, provided stamina. That's all we needed to know.

It came out that one of guys had studied in Guatemala years ago, so he spoke some Spanish. Thus, we communicated with a mix of English, Korean, body language, AND Spanish. For the record, not one of these methods was working well, but using bits of each usually got the point across. Harry has some extensive South American traveling under his belt so he knows some Spanish. The Korean Spanish speaker's companions were confused as hell when we would switch from English to Spanish and back again. Cool stuff. Yeah language.
Dawn. At last we saw the sun shine. Was the effect ever appreciated.
A steady relationship with the clouds, now complemented by blue skies.
Our shelter from afar. What an outpost.
Look at the distance to the town below! Caitlin takes it all in.
Harry, Kaitlin and Robbie. Robbie had a beautiful Canon lens camera, so I will be after him for the shots I could never hope to get on my little point-and-shoot.
The trail marches on. We are well within range of the summit, and you can feel it in our pace.
Between peaks, stretches often opened up the way to stellar views. For those tallying, this was Caitlin teacher's favorite.

After a series of stair sets and treacherous inclines where we passed Koreans coming down and belted a hearty "an-yeong-ha-sae-yo!" to each one, we finally made it:
The summit of Cheonwangbong, with plenty of company.

The cloud cover up there was intense so the views weren't quite as clear as those before. It didn't take anything away from our sense of accomplishment and awe at the fact we were 6,282 feet in the air.
Harry strikes a pose with the summit marker. A Korean girl with a funky Asian cartoon backpack looks on in curiosity. An actual interaction that happened shortly before we reached the summit:

Korean Man: "I like your beard."

General laughter amongst our group.

Harry: "Oh, why thank y..."
Korean Man: "Just kidding!"
Much contemplation. In their grand proportions and natural beauty, mountains sure make ya' think.
We had lunch, again marveling at how many side dishes Koreans actually toted up the damn mountain. We finished off the bread for the last peanut butter sandwiches. Final tally on peanut butter damage: 2.5 jars. Consider the fun fueled, Skippy people.
A little ways down, we took in my favorite spot on the whole hike. We all lay out on a rock face listening to music, catching some rays, and taking in the impossible distances we could see.
Why leave?
On our way down, we stopped in to check out a small temple. While several women chanted a Buddhist prayer in the main hall, Harry, Robbie and I wandered around the grounds. It was a fitting and peaceful end to our journey.