Friday, January 29, 2010

What it's like

Today is January 29th. I arrived in Korea on November 28th. Here's to two months.

You're wondering, what is Korea like? It's hard to summarize really. I need to tackle this question sooner rather than later. Every day that passes I find myself raising my eyebrows less.

Some of my recent inner thoughts:

So I told the cab driver "Daegok," but as I look closer, this is definitely Chilgok (Boston equivalent of asking to be taken to Quincy and ending up in like Framingham). No problem, bound to happen eventually.

A truck towing a hoard of bundled up Korean women just rolled by my classroom on a neon parade float-like trailer blasting dance pop music with a PA shouting about how the prices and quality of food at their restaurant is unmatched in Daegu? And?

(At a night club) Yes, I understand for the sake of "comic relief" there will be male strip show that features crude pinned-on stuffed genitals. Am I troubled by the fact that the "live guitar player" just swung his instrument around his neck while stutter stepping with his hands on his hips AND playing a musically flawless g-major scale? Not particularly, because that's Korean for talent.

My school routine has normalized. I've made solid friends, foreign and Korean. On a surface level, the differences are there - the old world Korea of fishy street market smells, squat toilets, and structures like I saw in Gyeong ju, and new world Korea of a smattering of neon lights and signs, pounding dance pop synth music, and cutting edge technology/design. Taking a step back, I mutter under my breath: "where the f*** am I?"

I mean, it's just a lot of information questions: why, where, how, what? Take for example, the squat toilet. Looking at the hole in the ground and sizing up the logistics, I asked myself each one of those information questions in exactly that order. I get it now, but the first outing went something like a game of Twister. I'll leave it at that.

My increasing comfort with situations in which I haven't a clue what is going on comes in handy. These are most often meals with coworkers. It's really not bad. The food is great! I'm not quite yet sick of my diet that exclusively consists of rice, noodles, vegetables, and sodiumsodiumsodium (not a typo). Also, only in Korea can you order rice and vegetables only to discover squid and shellfish "hidden" in there too. Surprise!

My language skills are limited to "yes" (nay), "no" (an-yo), "hello," (an yang ha say yo) "goodbye," (an yang hee ga say yo) "thank you," (cam sa hamnida) and words/phrases that I've heard my students say hundreds of times, loosely translated: "I have no clue what the hell he just said" (mool yeo), "this one" (igo), "here" (yogi), "foreigner"(way gook), "American" (mee gook). And they think I don't know they're talking about me. I also know how to tell a cabbie how to take me home: Daegok eeee dun-jee! I think of former Colts head coach Tony Dungy every time.
I'm slowly but surely finding my way around town. The reality is that I only leave the neighborhood on weekends, and that's to go out. Everything I need, restaurants, shops, groceries, department stores are all here in Daegok.

I recently got a subway/bus keypass that I can just wave at sensors (like a Mobil fastpass) for fares and recharge any time. It's great, though the buses are a little intimidating. The day will come when I get taken somewhere real far away. I have most of the Korean alphabet down (I still can't understand what it means, but I sure can read it!) but I still need much more practice. With a few drinks, I still can't tell the bus headed for home from the bus headed for the PRK gulag. It's a problem.

Without any transition, I'll conclude with some sunset shots of the scenery behind my apartment.

The park.
The lake and mountains beyond the park.
Facing away from the lake towards my hood. Directly in front is Dowon Middle School. My apartment is on the other side.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Gyeong ju

My apologies for slacking recently, I've been getting into the groove and neglected to update. I'm especially excited to share these pictures. Two weeks ago, I met a nice Korean gal named Kyoung Hya. We bonded over a late night/early morning (7:00am) breakfast after the bar. She introduced me to her sister and asked what I hoped to see in Korea. I said anything she thought was important or fun. So the next week, she invited me to Gyeong ju, a town famous for its historic Buddhist temples and shrines. I ended up having one of my most educational and adventurous days yet in Korea, thanks in no small part to the lovely Koreans that showed me around.

Juyeong Lee (left), Kyoung Hya (right). Their friend Sang Hee also came along, and took most of the pictures that you see me in. This was taken atop Mount Tohamsan, our first stop. A took a bus up the mountain to see the Seokguram Grotto, home of a very impressive Buddha.
I got this photo online, since pictures weren't allowed. The girls tried to trick me into taking a photo to see how badly I'd get yelled at as a rule-breaking foreigner. Luckily, the enormous sign inside had a convenient translation that read "NO PHOTOS." Nice try.

My likely punishment had I taken a picture: spend the day making things up as the Free English tour guide!

Fresh mountain spring water. It was a silly picture themed day.
A typical Korean sidewalk. I make my way past dozens of vendors like this one every day on my way to work. It's quite an experience for eyes and the nose.
I had many opportunities for quality time with Buddha (there were shrines everywhere). Despite my relative ignorance of the religion, I tried to give the man his props.

These are some of the tiles that make up traditional old-world Asian roofing. At various stands around Gyeong ju it's possible to write your own message on one and have it displayed. This picture gives a sense of the international tourist traffic that comes through. Allow me to translate the only one I can read, fourth from left: Caracas, Venezuela. You have a beautiful country that is an honor to see. From the other size of the world, with respect. Douglas Majete.

At peace.
Another picture from atop the mountain. From what I've seen, there is something so ancient and mystical about nature in the orient. When I find myself especially caught up in it, I'm just about waiting for a little man to appear with a flute to play me a traditional folk song to complete the eastern feel.

Korean pottery barn. Couldn't resist, really. Most buildings of the town had this style of roofing. You don't really find many in Daegu, or in much of Korea I think, but as a major tourist destination, Gyeong ju seems to strive to preserve the traditional old world style.

Who's afraid of the Bulguksa temple guards? Not I.
It didn't appear in "Rocky," but this is a very famous stair set. It leads up into the Bulguksa temple, the largest in all of Korea. Constructed in 751, and restored to its "former splendor" in 1973, it was a breathtaking site to walk through and observe.
Kyoung Hya and I inside the courtyard.
Ninja antics. Stay stealth, young grasshopper.
I was really struck by the angles. Here, you can see some of the beautifully detailed painting done on the wood. These designs decorate throughout.
The day was capped by a stop at a street vendor for a little snack. What you ask? Oh, well salted caterpillar cocoons. If I had to use one word to describe the taste, I would say "earthy." The texture was about what you'd expect. A little crunch followed by a soft chew. I spent half the time trying to figure out what the hell I was eating while also trying hard not to think about what I was really eating.

Cocoons really aren't bad. I ate that whole cup, and not just to make a point. The girls think I must be some special kind of crazy foreigner (I should mention that they love the things and gobbled their own cups). I tried eel the other night with Mr. Lee and when I told him I'd never had it before, he announced that I could probably live in the jungle and eat anything.
The sun sets on a great day.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Feelin' the Christmas Spirit in Daejon

Korean Santa. Cartoon father time meets Foo-man-chu striking a Christ healing pose.

Christmas morning I awoke for a Christmas Eve Skype chat. With all present, communication got dicey a few times. It was more than a little strange for Christmas to come for me before it did for everyone back home. It was the first Christmas morning that I woke up on my own terms (wink wink Kourtney).

The chat was unfortunately cut short because I had a train to catch. With a Christmas kick of the heels I hopped the subway to Dongdaegu station where I was accosted by Korean Jehovah's Witnesses that I wished "Merry Christmas" without really thinking. They sort of awkwardly smiled and carried on with their pamphlets. While waiting for the others to turn up, I grabbed a coffee at Dunkin' Donuts. That's right, Korea's got Dunkie's. I think its much classier here, though it of course has some peculiarities, such as the green tea latte and the sausage bread sandwich which is, by all indications, a hot dog.

Once Diana (New Zealand kiwi), Joanne (German from Wales), and James (a cheeky ass Brit from Leeds that says things like "you know what really boils my piss?") arrived we were ready to enter the time warp that is the KTX. The top speed of the KTX is 350km/hr (~220mph). It moves.
Daegu to Daejon is probably 2 hours or so. We arrived in under 45 minutes. Silly.
We were totally "winging" the trip so we basically arrived and proceeded to wander in search of shelter.
Joanne struggles under the weight of her ridiculous luggage for a weekend trip. I jest, she was actually meeting up with her father on one of the islands off the southern coast that weekend. A likely story.

All we came across in the neighborhood of the station was the Beer House. Useful find, but not the ideal accommodation.
I'm told that Daejon was a planned city built for its central location on the peninsula, but some reason it has two separate "downtown" areas. We resolved to try the other.
Daejon city hall. This find led to me repeatedly make jokes with some variation of: "I'm taking this to city hall!"

Through more wandering (taking yet another blurry picture: At first, cocktail kept me alert, then it kept me awake, now it keeps me alive)
and assistance from a cheery Brit we met on the street, we found the SM Motel. While it was not the S&M motel, it did classify as one of the more fascinating gems of Asian society: the Love Motel.

Love motels are basically establishments for the stated purpose. I think its quite eastern to just be blunt about these things. Why skirt the issue? We run a shag palace. Hourly rates subject to change.

"Entrances are discreet and interaction with staff is minimized, with rooms often selected from a panel of buttons and the bill settled by pnuematic tube, automatic cash machines, or a pair of hands behind a pane of frosted glass. Although cheaper hotels are often quite utilitarian, higher-end hotels may feature fanciful rooms decorated with anime characters, equipped with rotating beds, ceiling mirrors, or karaoke machines, strange lighting or styled similarly to dungeons, sometimes including S&M gear." (Wikipedia)

Hang around outside one and you'll see shady businessmen with their heads down hopping out of cabs and scurrying in. You wouldn't think so, but for travelers, an overnight stay is actually quite cheap. Our room was only 40,000 won ($35USD) and it came furnished with a 40" flatscreen, a computer with internet access and of course plentiful protection. Shampoo and soap is wonderful and theft encouraged. Europe has the hostel, Asia, the love motel.
So there I found myself lounging with Diana, Joanne, and James listening to hits from the 80s and 90s on YouTube, James listing the various things that boil his piss (can't you just say it bothers you man?). It made for a non-traditional Christmas day. We were waiting on others to arrive so we decided to postpone the springs until the following day.
Diana in the spirit.

Christmas dinner was subpar Vietnamese. I was definitely missing the reduced for quick sale roast beef. I also traded my Sam Adams for Hite and Brandy Alexander for soju. Poor.
James and Joanne.
Joanne and Diana ham it with a handmade pilsner we discovered at a German-themed place.

Later on, we found our way to Boston Bar. Some very cute Korean bartenders aside, I found it to be a great disappointment to beantown. Alas.


Boxing day began with soju headaches and promises of hot spring serenity. We kickstarted the day with more Dunkin' Donuts. DD international, baby.

During the TEFL course, Terry told us the story of the Dunkies they opened in Saudi Arabia that forgot a rather crucial "u." The huge sign across the front read "Dunkin' Donts." Wuh oh.

A hungover trip to Dunkin' Donuts begs the question: Is this lifestyle and the experience all that different? Well, actually yes, and in unexpected ways. An extraordinarily cordial Korean lady employee that did not screw up a single order made me think about all the times at DD drivethrus across Massachusetts that something as simple as a sesame bagel with cream cheese somehow was delivered as a blueberry muffin. Order accuracy rates are really abysmal and I know there are native English speakers in there somewhere.

America runs on Dunkin' but Korea actually runs Dunkin' well.

Click here to check out the Korean Dunkie's website and watch an awesome commerical. "Coffee, donut, coffee, donut!"


Daejon has a district known for its springs and spas. When we arrived, we discovered that the co-ed, bathing suited, mini bar experience we envisioned wasn't exactly what they had to offer. Separated by sex, no booze, and no clothes. Puritanical indeed. The girls were hardly keen.

James and I hadn't come all this way to back out. As for cultural experience, this most certainly has to rank up there. James and I had to mentally prepare ourselves. We were set to embark on a journey to the famed Korean Jjimjilbang to disrobe and unwind with loads of our nearest and dearest Korean brothers.

Now I'm used to getting stared at here, I don't mind at all. There's not much that can be done to blend in. I sometimes go for days without seeing another non-Korean. Children approach me on the street and say "hello, I love you." I'm amused.

James and I got off to an expectedly conspicuous start. The locker room had a confusing policy that called for separate lockers for shoes and for clothes/possessions. A friendly Korean stopped to help us along and we were stark naked in no time.

Procedure called for a shower before jumping into the tub. Unfortunately, when we strolled in, all the showers were in use, leaving James and I standing around in the open sort of searching for something to do with ourselves.


I reached to put my hands in my pockets to stop the awkward underhand swing clap but found none.

For the sake of hyperbole, I want to say hundreds (maybe 100) but really dozens of nude Korean men stood, sat, walked, and pranced in every direction you could see. My attempt to barter for a Morocco rug was confusing but goodness gracious I got to do it with my pants on.

Okay, you got me. I'm drumming all this up for your entertainment. It really wasn't bad. The bizarre feeling lasted about 15 minutes before it all seemed pretty normal. The relaxing element helped as it was hard to feel that uncomfortable in a hot tub with jets blasting medicinal salts, even if we were rubbing shoulders with wrinkly old Korean men.