Friday, July 31, 2009

Pink is my favorite color!

I do like Aerosmith, in fact, but that's not the reason for the title, in case you wondering.

I had promised some more Korean cultural oddities in a previous post, but this isn't it. This is just a hold-you-over, snack type thing till we get to the meat of the situation.

But seriously, Koreans really like pink. And not the girls, either. I mean, they like pink too, but that's sort of to be expected, right? I'm talking about the boys. In the past few days of summer camp (and judging by past experience, this seems to be the norm) I've seen pink polos, pink t-shirts, pink-striped shorts, pink socks, pink Converses, pink pencils and pens, pink notebooks, even pink calculators.

It's sorta weird, but Koreans are very flashy in some areas and extremely conservative when it comes to others. For instance -- the socks. Korean socks are awesome. They're largely pink or yellow, and lots of them have pictures of cartoon characters on them. The guys wear a lot of shiny suits, skinny ties, bright shirts and crazy-colored socks... while the girls seem to settle for more muted colors. Of course, they do tend to wear little skirts and tiny shorts over patterned tights, and ridiculously high-heeled shoes... but generally it's earthy tones, with maybe a purple or green here and there.

This whole randomly-conservative thing persists with cars as well. Basically, you get 3 "colors." Most of the cars you see in Korea are white, black, or silver. You see the occasional red, and lots of the work-specific trucks are navy blue, but for the most part the road is pretty boring when it comes to the colors. However, they make up for the lack of visual excitement in other ways.

Traffic lights in Korea, or at least in the rural areas, are completely voluntary. I can't count the number of times I've been in a car where the driver (a normally respectable Korean citizen, by the way) just decides to go for it. Red lights are more or less suggestions here. If there's no one (that you can see) approaching an intersection, it's perfectly acceptable to just hit the gas and burn through that red light. Actually, it's broader than that. It seems like anything that's physically possible in a car is also borderline legal. If you can pull off a U-turn on a crowded street, due to pedestrians blocking oncoming traffic or a school bus picking up passengers, that's definitely fair game. If you can scream through a crowded intersection without killing anyone, feel free! If you can slam the parking brake, spin the wheel, and pull off a 360 while flipping the car end over end blindly through a crowded market without landing on any small children -- well, not sure that actually happens very often, but if you can -- be my guest! And this is why I decided not to buy a motorcycle here. Well... I don't have license, either, but that's mostly why.

PINK! It's the color of passion!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In case you're planning a Korean party...

I've eaten some interesting foods recently. Let me tell you about them.

First, and this ranks pretty low on the list of strange or icky or what-have-you: 쭈꾸미; in English -- jjook-goomi. Even more in English, spicy baby octopus. With carrots and some other junk. Freakin delicious. I've been to this restaurant 3 times already, and I'll probably be back soon.

Next -- and this was also way better than it sounds, I have to say: 닭발; talk-bal, which literally translates to "chicken feet." I would never have thought to eat this part of the bird, myself, but I know people all over the world do it, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Again, it's spicy, served with vegetables. This one is bar-food in Korea... 안주, they call it. Anju literally means side dishes served with beer or liquor, and you can pretty much find something weird to eat at any Korean bar. I've only tried it once, when Mi Jin ordered it... but I'd eat it again. It's just really really effin' spicy... so you've kinda gotta be in one of those pump-yourself-up-for-the-pain moods.

Let's see, moving on up the ickiness scale, we come to... probably the raw beef liver. It wasn't terrible... just velvety soft and with very little flavor. Again, raw, so it's a little chewy, but only a little. It's actually got a very mushy, unresisting texture. I think, if it were very lightly sauteed, it would be quite nice.

Next stop -- 순대 (soondae) and also the soup made from it, 순대국 (soondae-guk). Bet you can't guess what 국 means... :) Anyway, I ate this dish several times during the winter camp, and had it again last week. I guess I had never really asked what was in it, or maybe I did and then promptly blocked it out. But here's the fun list of ingredients for this traditional Korean specialty -- which I would eat again. Actually, the soup isn't great. But a dish of just soondae and side-dishes is pretty heavenly, believe it or not. But it's a "blood sausage-y" mix... blood (pig's, I think, although I'm not entirely sure on that), clear noodles, and barley or other filler... wrapped in a pig intestine and steamed, and then served in a soup with other various entrails, plus onions and potatoes and such. Also, you pick the soondae out of the soup with your chopsticks and dip into a sauce made of tiny (1cm, maybe?) pickled shrimps. Whole and uncooked shrimps. It gives it a really nice salty kick. Really tasty, but definitely getting up there on my newly-formed ick scale.

And finally -- the ick winner. Mostly because it tasted like complete ass, and also looked, smelled, and felt really just vomit-inducing. I don't know what the Korean word for it is, and apparently there is no English word for it, presumably because no one who speaks English has ever wanted to eat one. They were served in a big bowl of 해물 갈국수 that I had last week. That's hae-mul kal-guk-su, or seafood noodle soup. Now, this also comes with dried fish, shrimp with the heads on, and various and sundry other fun seafoods. The fish and clams were delicious, actually, and the soup itself was pretty rockin too. But then there were these... otherworldly alien things, in the soup. Kinda spiny, kinda squishy, yet still crunchy. Like, if you tap them with a chopstick, they make a noise. Anyway, Bo Il was eating them, or at least, I think he was and not just pretending to get me to put one of the damn things in my mouth. So, after letting it cool an appropriate amount of time, I chose the smallest, least-spiny looking of the bunch and chowed down. On the outside, naturally, it tasted pretty much like the soup. Not bad... then I punctured the shell, and all kinds of unholy hell-spawn gushed forth. I mean, this thing was like 11 different kinds of awful, all rolled up into one completely repulsive crunchy-shell-covered goo. And yes, this is the only thing on this list that I definitely, certainly, without a doubt will NOT eat ever again. Even if it does get an English name.

So, to recap: octopus < chicken feet < raw beef liver < blood sausage < unnamed demon-child of the outer deeps.

Bon appetit!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Some kinda big news!

First off, I want to offer a correction, retraction, whatever the heck you call it. I no longer promise that I will blog more often, more regularly, or anything of the sort. I'm tired of being a liar. I mean, I will try, but no more promises. I just feel like there's too many letdowns, too many broken hearts, too many shattered dreams.

On the smaller news front, I don't think I'm going out of the country on vacation this summer. Sad but true. I'm doing this English camp at the private school down the street, and I'm having to use my official vacation days to do so. You know, with work visa restrictions being all... uh, strict (yeah, who's an English teacher now?) and stuff, I can't officially work at this job without going on vacation from my full-time job. Anyway, the upshot is that I can't technically leave the country this summer. So after I finish up with this camp, I'm gonna do a little tour of Korea instead... check out some beaches, see the sights, all that good stuff. It kinda sucks, but I think it'll all work out.

The reason I say "it'll all work out," and also for the long-awaited "Big News!!!" portion of our broadcast this evening, it's official. I am... staying another year in Korea!

Craziness, right? Well, I've been doing a lot of thinking about this, and there are just... a lot of reasons to stay. I mean, there's a lot of reasons to come home as well, but most of those are people. And people just aren't that important.... um, haha? Anyway, I miss all you guys, I really do. But I really like my job here, the kids, the teachers... And of course, as I'm sure you're all aware, the money and the food are big factors too. Plus, I'm in better shape than I've been... well, since Spain in 2001, probably. Today at the gym, I dropped under a certain weight threshhold that I've been eyeing for a while now (and this was with a good layer of sweaty gym clothes too, although no shoes), and also benchpressed like 20 more pounds than I've ever done before. Ever. I don't know, I just feel pretty good here.

For the record, I'm not staying in Korea permanently. I do have other things that I want to do in my life... so you know, don't worry about that. Also for the record, I will be home (for sure So-Il, maybe Chi-town, probably not Houston) for a couple weeks, I'm just not sure exactly when. I'm shooting for the Holidays/New Year, but I don't know if that's going to be possible. But there will definitely be more updates forthcoming long before the day arrives.

Some posts to look forward to: I'm working on compiling some funny and interesting Konglish, should have that up soon. Also, per (repeated) request, I'll try to put up some pictures of my students, and also the results of the pottery adventures #1 and #2. Oh, and the 2nd part of my post on uh... Korean cultural oddments and strange-alities. So, yeah, don't stop reading and I won't stop writing. At least, not for more than a week or two. Promise. =Þ

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Summer camp update

3 days of English camp down, 7 more to go. Tomorrow is supposed to be nice weather, warm and sunny... a true rarity in the past few weeks of monsoon season. So I've decided tomorrow is going to be American games day. I think we'll start inside, play "Heads up, seven up" and "Honey, do you love me?" and then head outside for some "Red rover," "What's the time, Mr. Wolf?" and "Colored Hair." I don't actually remember playing those last two, but they were pretty prominent on lists of games kids play, so I'll take their word for it. Plus, they just sound fun and they actually incorporate a bit of English as well, so that's a plus.

Just as a reminder:
  • Honey, do you love me? One person is it and everyone else sits in a circle. It has to go up to a target and ask "Honey, do you love me?" Target replies "Honey, I love you but I just can't smile." It then has to try to make target smile. If successful, target is now it. If not, it tries again -- I remember this from summer/church camps in the past and it was always a good time.
  • What's the time, Mr. Wolf? One person is wolf, standing with their back to the group, and everyone else lines up 30 feet or so away. They call out "What's the time, Mr. (Miss) Wolf?" Wolf says a time (It's nine o'clock!) and then turns around... while everyone takes that many steps towards the wolf. Wolf turns back around, and we do it again. If anyone gets close enough to touch the wolf, the wolf loses and we do it again. Eventually the wolf says "Dinner time!" turns around, and chases the group back to the starting line. If they catch someone, that person's the new wolf.
  • Colored Hair. Again, one person is the wolf. There's a starting line, a finish point, and side boundaries. Each person (not the wolf) picks a color, out of maybe 5 different choices. Wolf: "Knock, knock." Group: "Who's there?" Wolf? "A big bad wolf with (choose a color) hair!" Everyone who has that color has to run, touch the finish point, and run back to the start without getting tagged. The wolf chases... first person tagged becomes the new wolf.
I also liked "Statues," but I'm not sure how well it would work. In this, there are 3 groups: buyers, sellers, and statues. Sellers spin the statues 3 times and then give them a push. However statues land/fall, they have to stay that way. Then sellers tell them what they will be. Buyers come in and ask about the statues... sellers explain/describe their statues and then push the "on" button -- touching the nose. Statues come alive and demonstrate their role, and then buyers choose the best statue. Then the groups are changed. Sounds like fun, but perhaps a shade too difficult.

However, I've agreed to run a summer camp up the road at one of the local high schools. Pros: Well, 1 major pro, anyway. I get paid kind of a lot of money for it. And it's only 2 hours a day for nine days. And it should be a good experience. All the kids in 8th and 9th grade who wanted to attend the camp had to take a test, and I'm getting the top 20. So at least I'm hopeful that I'll have some kids who not only want to be there but have a decent level of proficiency in English. Cons: 2 major ones... it cuts down my vacation time by 2 weeks (but I've been saying this whole time I'm here to save money and not go crazy with travel, so I shouldn't complain), and I have no idea what I'm going to do with these kids.

The focus of my class is supposed to be conversation. I've got a few ideas, I guess... I just need about 15 more. For instance: roleplaying. I'm going to set up some scenes that involve Korean celebrities in different situations. Seeing an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend, talking to crazy fans, deciding whether or not to do an embarrassing movie role, etc... and have them act out the scenes. I've got some time to refine this, but at least they'll be interested (I think!) and able to express themselves in English (I hope!). Also, the statues game I mentioned above might be much more fun with this age group, so I might save it for that. 20 Questions might be fun also... and I think that there's a similar game played here in Korea so it wouldn't be a big deal to adapt it for an English setting. Oh, and Taboo! Get them to describe something without using any of the "taboo" words and the other students get to guess what it is.

Mi Sun said the English class she took in Australia was done this way -- mostly games -- so she's going to look through some of her old materials for ideas. Still, anything ya'll could suggest would be greatly appreciated. Remember, 14-15 year olds, high level of English... although in Korea that generally means high level of reading/writing, much lower on speaking, hence the conversation focus of the camp.

On a completely different note, the maintenance guy came by to look at my window frame this afternoon. It was leaking like crazy last night... water dripping (nay, streaming) down from this space -- invisible, but obviously present -- between my bedroom wall and the window frame. I had 3 different bowls and a pot catching streams of water when I went to bed last night... thankfully, the rain let up and they weren't yet full when I woke up. The dripping/streaming had stopped too. Anyway, I met the guy at my place after school today, and he went to work on his (hopefully) temporary fix. Which was to put up a sheet of plastic over my windows. Now, the main problem I see with this is that the sheet isn't really long enough to cover the whole window opening. So, he taped it to the wall above the leaky area, and then (partially) taped the bottom of the sheet to the windows themselves. Like, in 3 places, over a 5-foot wide window opening. I mean, I guess it'll keep my bed and wall outlet from getting wet, but he's just directed all the incoming water into the tracks at the bottom of the window frame...

I just hope this isn't the permanent solution, because with this sheet taped to the windows, I can no longer open them. I'm told that, this being monsoon season, nobody does outside construction-type work, and I just have to wait for the weather to improve. Wonder when that'll be? I hear that the monsoon only lasts a few weeks this far north, so I'm hoping to have this all resolved within the next week or so. But still, this can't be good: I mean, there's some serious structural integrity being breached, I'm sure, and this building is less than 9 months old. I even went out in the stairway last night just to peek at those windows, and sure enough! 2 out of the 3 were leaking in the same way mine was. Shoddy construction... tsk tsk tsk!

OK -- time to watch the new episode of Weeds and then get some rest! Peace and love, ya'll.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

When it rains, it pours

You know those conversations that start with "We need to talk" and then have a lot of things happen in the middle and then end with "And that's why I don't think we should see each other anymore"?

Well, my right leg had that conversation with me today. At least, that's what it felt like. And for all of you who were expecting relationship issues... ha. Not today. =) But yeah, after school Mi Sun and I had dinner and then went to the library to look for some books for her upcoming TEPS exam (which looks like it sucks, by the way), and then she dropped me off at the gym. I got there around 6:30, so, much later than usual. And I went to the squash court to hit the ball around for a while before going upstairs to lift. You know, get the blood flowing, muscles loose, get a good sweat going, all that. By the time I finished, however, 3 of the girls I work with (Yun Kyoung, Un Ju, and another whose name I've forgotten at the moment! oopsie!) were getting ready for their squash practice. Yun Kyoung and I played for a bit and then she suggested a quick game. I was feelin pretty good, up maybe 12-5 when I hit a short drop shot. As she was running for the ball she kinda stumble/tripped and (I think) rolled her ankle. It turned pretty red, but their squash coach was right there and sprayed some kind of icy-hot medicine-smelling stuff on there, and she would be ok less than an hour later. So, girl-whose-name-I-don't-know jumped in the box with me, thinking she might be able to avenge the loss of her friend. Alas, I regulated that shit. I beat the snot out of her, like 21-8. Maybe 21-10, but it wasn't really that close. So, at this point, I'm thinkin, yeah... I can play this game. Alright.

I sat down to grab some water and rest for a bit, and watched these two older guys play. Right away, I could tell that this was a whole nother level of squash. I sorta know one of the guys from the gym -- we've talked a few times... he's a Methodist minister, name of Rev. Shin. Yes, it's a common name here... Mi Sun's last name, also. Anyway, he won the first game, but lost the second, and of course, I'd talked myself into thinking I might be able to play with these guys. You know, when you watch pro tennis or golf and you think to yourself "I coulda hit that shot!" Same principle. So when they were done he sat down and we chatted for a bit, watching another game. When that game ended, he asked if I wanted to play him. I said sure! Not feeling like I'd win, necessarily, but at least that I wouldn't embarrass myself. Oh, how wrong I was.

Long story short, he beat me 21-5. I don't really think he was trying. I did hit a few really nice winners, but the general feeling was one of hopelessness. Well, I've only just started playing this game. Maybe a few years down the road, right? Haha... That's when reality set in. Mr. Shin's partner, who'd played him pretty even before, got his ass beat by this even older guy, musta been in his 50's I'd guess, but just looked so smooth moving around the court. So, I'd just watched the guy who beat the guy who beat me, get beat. Badly. And still, there was the coach guy (who's much younger than most of them, probably around my age), sitting down with this serene grin on his face, watching and cheering them on. Finally I got to watch him play, and I'm not sure he lost more than a few points. He didn't play the older guys who took it all serious, but some of the women who were there (and yes, I'm certain these chicks were better than me). But he was routinely hitting different shots backwards, between his legs, slamming the ball off the back wall to hit all 4 walls before it hit the ground, left-handed, you name it... and it looked like he never took more than 2 steps to get anywhere on the court. I'm not sure how you'd even go about scoring points on this guy, to be honest. Guess I've got some practicing to do, eh...

So I'm home now, and just realized that my bedroom window frame leaks. It sucks, really. I've got some bowls and pots there to catch the dripping, but this is a brand-new building! It wasn't finished yet when I moved to Korea last November. Just blows. I've had to move my bed out away from the wall, unplug everything that was plugged into the outlet on that wall, just in case... you know. But I've got no idea who to get ahold of for fixing something like this! My co-teacher, who might actually be able to help, isn't answering his phone... so, I'm kind of at a loss. Bowls and towels for the night, I guess. I just wish it would stop raining!

Oh, and the opening of this post -- my right leg really hurts. I think I might have slightly pulled my groin, but it really hurts to lift my right leg above parallel. Like, hurts to the point that I more or less can't do it at all. I noticed a little twinge earlier when I was playing, but nothing big. The longer it goes (and the more I tried stretching it out), the worse it feels. Hence the whole relationship metaphor. Nothing I say or do makes it any better! This will never work! We should just end things now, before one of us gets hurt! And I say, "It's too late! I'm already hurt!"

OK, I think that's the end of the road for tonight. Wish me luck with the leaky bedroom thing. Peace ya'll.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Teachers' Retreat

What a weekend! Friday was uneventful -- students were on a field trip to Icheon to go swimming, so it was awful quiet around the school. Mrs. Kim brought in a bunch of kimbap for lunch, and Mi Sun and I finished watching the first Lord of the Rings movie and started on the second. With no students coming to the Global Center, we've had quite a bit of free time... and the Icheon Experience classroom has a laptop connected to a projector with a giant screen, so we've pulled a bunch of cushions in there and set up our own private movie theatre. Good times!

At 4:30, we boarded a bus with the rest of the teachers, bound for ... well, I knew not what. But as I boarded the bus, in the school parking lot mind you, I was handed a warm can of beer and a bag of dried squid. It was gonna be that kind of party, it turned out. All the teachers were already crackin open the beers, so I happily joined in. Not two minutes out of the parking lot, Mr. Kim (no relation to Mrs. Kim from earlier -- Kim is a really common last name here) handed me another beer, so I threw down the first one and popped open number 2. Number 3 would follow soon after, as there seemed to be no shortage of booze on the school bus. Yep -- school bus. And yes, drinking in a moving vehicle is perfectly legal here, and actually somewhat of a tradition, I'm told. Beer number 3 carried us to the tomb of King Sejong, but most of us (including me, actually) had been there before, so we walked around for a bit (it was on a free day to celebrate the designation as a UNESCO Heritage Site) and then got back on the bus.

We drove for a bit longer before stopping for dinner. The "restaurant" was on side of the street, but they didn't actually sell food, I don't think. Well, side dishes and stuff, but the main dish, the beef, was sold at little butcher shops across the street. So we purchased an ass-load of beef to cook at the restaurant to accompany the massive amounts of soju we ordered. Now, this beef was supposed to be something special -- all Korean-grown, very exclusive. I mean, it tasted great, don't get me wrong, but I saw the price tags on this stuff and Jesus H Tapdancing Christ! Probably... um, not worth it, is all I'm gonna say. Delicious, yes... but $30/pound delicious? I don't think so... Also -- I tried raw beef liver for the first time. Some of the other teachers were wolfing it down, but Mi Sun and I were both looking at kinda warily. So we decided to "kawi-bawi-bo!" for it... that's Korean for rock-paper-scissors. I lost. It wasn't bad -- honestly, it had a silky smooth texture and not much flavor... I made her try some too, and we both agreed it was pretty inoffensive. Of course, dessert mostly consisted of liquor, and then...

After dinner we headed to the hotel and got settled in. The men-folk hunkered down for a night of gambling and drinking, but the card game was way too complex for me to learn quickly, especially in my already-nearly-inebriated state. Luckily, Bo Il and several of the girls were headed to the noraebang, so that was my new destination. At the noraebang I was forced to choose from the usual lame selection of English songs so I fell back on my standard Aerosmith, Oasis, and the Beatles... but Mi Sun was on fire! This girl was jumping around, headbanging, dancing her little Korean ass off! Never seen that before -- it was a nice change of pace, I gotta say. I think the fact that she wasn't driving anywhere was a big factor. I need to hang out with her when there's no driving involved more often. After a couple hours of singing, we headed back to the hotel.

The boys were still playing cards, so I grabbed a beer, some soju and some watermelon and started trying to figure out the game. Well, I got the basics of it but the simple fact that the cards have only pictures (no words, no numbers, nothing else) was too much for me. However, I realized I could pretty much play the game blind... just like poker. Get a feel for each guys behavior's and you could start to see patterns, who had a hand, who was bluffing. I even got to the point where I was ready to join in, but they wouldn't let me! I got kinda pissed off, but there were two reasons for it: 1) one of the teachers was down like 200 bucks and didn't want the dynamic of the game to change (although I woulda thought he'd be all for it! haha) and 2) they didn't want me to lose all my money and 3) racism? ha... whatever... I was pretty lit up and it probably would have been a bad idea anyway.

Woke up at 7am Saturday morning, still wearing all my clothes but in a different room than I remember being in. Well, I slowly inched the door open and there were like 8 people passed out in the main room, so maybe it was just as well. I stumbled to the bathroom and got cleaned up. Brushed teeth, washed, clean clothes. Then, thanks to my oversized and angry head, I realized the extent of my hangover, so I headed to the kitchen for something to make me feel better. We had, of course, no food on hand... but there was a whole lotta booze left, so I did the only thing I could think of to make myself feel better -- breakfast beer! Hair of the dog, breakfast of champions, whatever you wanna call it, I'm just sayin... it works. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so: 3 other guys made the fridge and the beer their first stop in the morning upon waking up. So, an hour and a half or so later we were ready to bounce, and I was 4 beers into a promising day!

Breakfast: sadly, Koreans have no concept of breakfast as we know it. Breakfast, to them, is just a meal eaten in the morning. But, it pretty much contains the same foods as lunch and dinner. So, "breakfast" was some kind of seafood soup: little shellfish critters (maybe a centimeter long) were boiled with seaweed and served to us in their broth. For breakfast. Actually tasted pretty good, except sometimes you'd get one that was a little more attached to his shell or something (at least, I hope that's what it was) and they were pretty crunchy. Some of the men sat at a separate table from all of us, and I noticed some soju bottles at their table. For breakfast. I was feeling pretty loose though and abstained. Anyway... then we were off to the river.

We arrived about an hour early for our little river cruise, so we ended up snacking on ice cream and corn on the cob (which absolutely, positively blows here, might I add -- they have no idea what they're missing), along with iced coffee. We played another Korean card game (no gambling this time), and after watching one game, I jumped in and I dominated. The strategy was really simple -- not sure what they were missing, but anyway...

The cruise -- meh. It was nice, I suppose. Just a little sight-seeing jaunt up the river and back. It was pretty hot up on the top deck but the lack of wind below made the heat worse there. I got sunburned, but not terribly bad. I'm just a little pink around the edges, is all. After the cruise one of the school maintenance workers ordered a jug of makeolli (different kind of Korean liquor) from the snack shop... no one wanted to sit down with him, and I felt bad for the poor guy. He's always really nice to me, and very chatty, so I went over and joined him to drink a bowl of makeolli. He had also ordered a Korean pancake (which is like a really light batter mixed with lots of veggies and hot peppers, then lightly fried), which turned out to be freakin awesome, especially when dipped in the sesame soy sauce they provided. Soon though, we were back on the bus, and off for lunch. Lunch was two things: Some of us ordered spicy chicken stew, which I've had before actually, remember? Mi Jin's was way better, it turns out, but this was still yummy. The rest had catfish boiled in a spicy soup. Whole catfish. Yeah, I tried it... and no, it wasn't great. I mean, catfish doesn't have a whole lot of flavor anyway, and this was really overpowered by the soup it was used in. But, on the plus side, I did get to pluck meat out of a catfish head -- can't say I've ever done that before. Whoo-ee!

Finally, back on the bus and headed home. I got in late yesterday afternoon, and I've done approximately nothing since. Relaxed, went to bed early, and today has been the epitome of monsoon season -- nothing but rain, wind, thunder, rain, wind, more rain... I did make it out to the store for some cereal, milk, and tomato sauce earlier, so my needs are met. English camp starts tomorrow, so I think it's time to hit the sack and rest up for my exciting first week of camp. Peace ya'll.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Weekend Retreat

That's right, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, dogs and cats, Catholics and Protestants, superheroes and supervillains... this weekend I'm going away with the teachers from my school. I've been given (as is their wont) very little information about said retreat, but I was told to bring a swimsuit, pajamas, a toothbrush... and that's it, actually. I mean, I added some things to the list on my own, but I think it's just going to be a relaxing couple of days in the sun. Well, no. It's monsoon season here in Korea, which means there's very little sun to be had these days. Just a lot of rain, a lot of wind, and clouds as far as the eye can see.

I had my first bout with monsoons last week, and I won! It was pretty nice out in the morning, a fresh breeze blowing in through my open windows, a little cloudy, but with patches of beautiful blue sky here and there. Anyway, I thought I'd leave the windows open while I was gone for the day, get some fresh air in the apartment, you know. Well, come about 10:00 in the morning, just after class started, I happened to glance out the window outside my classroom. And saw... well, actually, I saw very very little. This was due, I realized, to the torrential downpour of rain and that weird grey-green darkness you get during a summer storm sometimes. My heart sinking, I started plotting ways to get back to my house and rectify this situation, preferably with no one noticing I was gone. Could I steal one of the other teachers' cars? The women usually leave their keys in the office downstairs. Hmm... if I left at precisely the right time, and ran to my house and back, I could maybe make it on the bus. Finally, my co-teacher Bo Il noticed that I was distraught, and I filled him in on the depressing details. After a couple minutes of thinking, he offered to go to my house and shut them for me. Yep -- he'd deal with this hurricane. And he did. He's like the Wolf, from Pulp Fiction. He fixes things. By the time he made it back to class, it was barely raining at all, which was nice... and when I nervously asked how bad it was, he told me that my apartment was completely dry! I couldn't believe it, because it looked like destruction was flowing in all directions from where I sat, but I guess the wind was mostly blowing the other way, and not into my windows. Anyway, crisis averted, and for the next few weeks at least, the windows stay closed when I'm not home. Stupid monsoon season.

English camp starts on Monday -- 2 weeks, but only in the afternoons, which is nice. That gives me the mornings to get prepared and whatnot. Last winter I had, I think, 18 kids in camp. For this summer, that's gone up to 28. Which is roughly half the school. But I've got a pretty good schedule lined up, I think... should have some fun activities for the kids. I dunno -- my first camp was kind of a blur, I was nervous... I'm not even sure what all we did during that time. I at least had enough activities in my head this time to fill up all 40 hours of class time, so that makes me feel pretty confident. Is it just the overconfidence that often follows from ignorance? That is a distinct possibility. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Korean Culture as I see it, Volume I

Wow -- long time between posts. Dropping the ball, here... sorry bout that, ya'll.

Good news first. Classes are over for the semester. I've got 2 weeks of English camp starting next week, and then off till September. Unless (at the last minute, as always here) some school wants to participate in a summer program at the Global Center, in which case I'll have to rush back from wherever I am to work, or something. Doesn't sound like a very restful vacation, but I'm sure it'll work out. Also, I'm going with the other teachers to a resort this weekend. I think it'll be pretty low-key, but we're leaving Friday after school, relaxing in the sun, maybe some swimming, then a barbecue (with soju, of course) and then something on Saturday. Not sure why, but I keep getting flashes of the Beach Games episode of the Office in my head. Where, by the end, Michael was trying to get people to walk across a bed of coals for his job? Yeah, I'm getting that kind of vibe. Hopefully I'm wrong though. If I burned my feet and went to the hospital, I'm 99% certain that part of the treatment would be an injection in the ass. And a whole boatload of happy pills. Worth it? Hmm... maybe so, maybe so. OK, I'm down for the coal walk. Thanks for talking me through that.

On the "No news is bad news" front, there's been no progress on the girl situation. We had a great time on Friday -- went out with Mi Jin, had spicy octopus, went to a bar, drank so-mek (soju+maekju... soju beer bombs, basically), then finished up at the noraebang. Tomorrow night we're hanging out again, going out for dinner. And I guess we'll be spending the weekend together (well, not together-together, but you know) at this resort too. When I write it all down like that, it sounds great, huh?! Well, unfortunately, we're hanging out a lot but it feels awfully platonic. Still, not giving up.

Ok -- 1st post promised long long ago about some Korean cultural oddities, rarities, what-have-you. Let's see, where to begin. I'm not gonna go all deep into why these things are the way they are. For one, I'm not much of an expert on Korean culture and pyschology, so I'd probably just be wrong, and two, it's funnier this way. OK, here we go.

You can't pick up your chopsticks for dinner until the oldest person at the table does first. You can't pour your own drink -- you must wait for someone to pour for you. This sounds like it might be a pain, but they're very observant: by the time you finish the drink, but before you put the glass down, they're ready to hit you up with a refill. When the drink is pouring, you should hold the bottle/glass with both hands, to be respectful. When you drink after an older person poured for you, you should turn away to drink. It's customary during a meal for younger people to take their empty glass and soju and kneel down and offer the glass to an elder. Then you pour them a drink, and they shoot it. Then you take the glass back and they pour you one, which you throw down, while turning your head away, of course.

You always take your shoes off when entering a home, school, church, or any traditional-type restaurant. Some kim-bap places and fast food joints you can just walk in and sit down, as well as stores, but any place where people generally spend a lot of time or go to relax, shoes off at the door. It's important to wear clean matching socks, for this reason. I suck at this. I realized soon after I moved here that a good percentage of my socks had holes in the toe or heel or both, because hell -- who sees your dress socks in the states?

It's rude to smoke in front of your elders. It's rude to fail to acknowledge the eldest person first when making your introductory bows. So, people in Korea, upon first meeting, will almost always ask your age either right before or right after your name. Soon after will be your job title. This is because your age determines what verb endings to use when conversing, and your job title (and not your name) determines what they will call you. Koreans rarely use names with strangers or people they've just met. Or with their superiors. Or colleagues. Or elders. Or family members. Or anyone, really, except people you've known and been friends with since you were in the same grade in elementary school. Yes, the same grade. That's important.

I'm a teacher: in Korean, it's 선생님 (sun-sang-nim). This is also a general title of respect for strangers or people whose position you're not certain of yet. Teacher is a very respected profession here, by the way -- as it should be. So when teachers talk to each other, they just call each other sunsangnim. Or, if there are many teachers present and they're addressing a particular one, they'll use their full name + sunsangnim. So, Hwang Bo Il Sunsangnim! Yes, it does take a lot longer to say than "Hey Sean!" in case you were wondering. Now, with text language and those crazy kids changing the language all around (sounds familiar), it's ok to shorten sunsangnim to just 쌤 (ssam). Or, Hwang-ssam! The kids use this a lot but I hear it even more from the younger teachers when they talk to each other, actually.

Now -- this aversion to using names goes much further. In families -- you don't call your siblings by their names. Like, if I had an older sister -- she'd be 누나 "nu-na." An older brother -- 형 "hyung." But if a girl has an older sister -- she calls her 언니 "un-ni" and her older brother 오빠 "ohp-pa." There are different words for younger siblings too, actually... which means a boy who has an older brother, a younger sister and a younger brother could actually be "a nam-dong-sang," "oppa," and "hyung" all at the same time. Weird, right? But get this -- people in school who are even a year above you... well, they're called the same things. So like, in my after school class, the 2nd grade boys call the 3rd grade girls "Nuna!" (mostly because I can't for the life of me get them to remember each other's English names...) Which technically means older sister, but it applies to the more general Korean family as well. When you go out to a restaurant, and you want to get the waitress's attention, and if she's around your age (because she gets a bump in respect for working there and taking care of you) you can call her Nuna or Unni (if you're a girl) as well. Or you can just yell out "Yogi-yo!" Which sounds rude when translated into English ("Over here, please!") but is perfectly acceptable. If she's older, she's "Ajuma" -- literally, woman who's already raised children. Always makes me think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, quoted here in its entirety for your enjoyment:

King Arthur: Old woman!
Dennis: Man.
King Arthur: Man, sorry. What knight lives in that castle over there?
Dennis: I'm 37.
King Arthur: What?
Dennis: I'm 37. I'm not old.
King Arthur: Well I can't just call you "man."
Dennis: Well you could say "Dennis."
King Arthur: I didn't know you were called Dennis.
Dennis: Well you didn't bother to find out did you?
King Arthur: I did say sorry about the "old woman," but from behind you looked...
Dennis: What I object to is you automatically treat me like an inferior.
King Arthur: Well, I am king.
Dennis: Oh, king eh? Very nice. And how'd you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers. By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.

Note that in Korea, ajuma is a title of considerable respect, for it's said that women must be something akin to superheroes to successfully raise children. So if Dennis were Korean, he might not have minded so much about the "old woman" thing.

One more interesting factoid: Lots of Korean girls call their boyfriends Oppa. Sounds funny, at first, but no worse than Hispanic guys calling their girls "Mamacita," right? Ha, anyway... I guess the guys like it cause it makes them feel like they're in charge and the protector and all that. Coming up next time (or at least, the next time I feel like writing about this): Why the guys are definitely not in charge...

I'm back, baby! It's the summer of Sean!

And I'm going to make a concerted effort to update more regularly, promise.