Saturday, December 29, 2007
Traditional Korean architecture is quite attractive, but because most palaces and old residences are displayed without furnishings, it's very difficult to visualize what any of the spaces are used for. Queen Min's birthplace featured little mannequin scenes that helped us picture these mostly-identical open rooms as actual living spaces. For instance, here is a woman doing... well, something. With sticks. Laundry, perhaps?
Okay, so it's not a total success. But it was still a help.
This picture is more helpful: it is a kitchen. But what you don't know is that it's also the heating system:
If somebody asked me for one area where Korea just vastly outclasses the West, I'd say, without even thinking about it, heating. We blogged about our tribulations turning on our ondol floor heating system, but I have to say, once it gets going, that is one sweet, sweet system that I only appreciate more now that I'm back home with forced-air heating. Ondol is under-floor heating. In our modern apartment, it uses hot water pipes, like a radiator that runs under the floor instead of against the wall. In older homes, it meant having a fire dug in under a house to heat the air beneath the floors. In both cases, it beats the heck out of Western contemporary alternatives: in medieval times, the fireplace against the wall that heated about nine square feet of castle, and in modern times, forced-air heating and its uneven room heating from vent placement or blockage, dirty vents and filters, and dried-out air.
To return to the kitchen picture, the engineering of ondol niftily double-uses an existing appliance. In our apartment, we have no furnace - our hot-water heater heats the ondol pipes as well as, say, the shower and the sink. In this picture, the double-duty appliance is the oven. The air heated up to cook in the kitchen is not wasted up a chimney or just to the kitchen ceiling; it is channeled into those under-floor vents to heat up the house. Toasty!
Another highlight of Queen Min's Birthplace was the stellar objective history.
Queen Min was, as I mentioned, queen of Korea in the late nineteenth century. Politically savvy and unusually influential, she played Korea's neighbors against each other to preserve Korean sovereignty. Ultimately, Queen Min was assassinated by a Japanese squad. Or, according to the signpost outside Queen Min's birthplace, she was "murdered by the atrocious Japanese."
Let's give this sign the benefit of the doubt and assume it's a mistranslation of "atrociously murdered." I could accept this. Murder is never particularly nice, and they made things extra tacky by killing her in a section of the palace reserved for women and burning the body.
But I'm not sure how to get out of this one:
From the filmstrip in the Queen Min museum, with a teacher and students:
Female student: "The Japanese are so evil! Why would they want to kill such a nice person?"
This is what we call, in the biz, a "teachable moment." The teacher could respond with, "All Japanese people are not evil," or some other lesson against generalization. But she does not.
Teacher: And after they killed Queen Min, they burned the body.
Female student: Teacher! Those bastards!
I can't explain that. I really can't.
Bonus: Those voices are recorded in clear American/Canadian English. Clearly, whoever voice-acted that dialogue spoke English. Did it not occur to them to point out that this is a very odd thing for a student to say?
edit by Nana: Oh, yeah. I wrote this one. Justin put up the pictures so it shows up as him.
Monday, December 24, 2007
So, without further ado, here are the top five most-popular numbers in our already-getting-old act (in no particular order):
What are Korean schools like? Everyone we've talked to has been fascinated (read: horrified) by the Korean education system, or even moreso by how little sleep our students get. You see, in Korea, the chances of your daytime school grades ever mattering are slightly less than the chances of a Korean student staying awake through an entire class. Which is to say, appallingly low. (Don't worry, though, we've gotten our kids to stay conscious through the entire day.) In the Korean system, all that matters is your score on the next standardized test, which you study for at your nightly cram schools, called "hagwon," six days a week. What's worse is that families have started using the hagwon as a means of conspicuous consumption: Whereas in the States you're apt to hear yuppie dads beaming about their Beamers, in Korea they're bragging about how many cram schools they send their kids to in a day. All of which results in the high and rising cost of raising a child. That's why so many children are still adopted from South Korea, even though it's a very safe, politically and economically stable country: in a situation where dual-income professionals have trouble affording children, young couples and single mothers don't stand a chance.
What does Seoul LOOK like? I've had a few requests to compare Seoul to various other East Asian cities. Does it look like Tokyo? Shanghai? Beijing? Of course, never having been to any of these other places, I'm in no position to compare (though Nana assures me Seoul does not look like Beijing). The pictures don't like: Seoul looks a lot like this, with bits of this and this sprinkled in. In our part of Seoul, everything's new, and most of it is made of concrete. High-rise apartments everywhere. The defining features of Seoul, though, are the Han River and the surrounding mountains: the first cuts a wide swath right through the middle of the city and the second slice deep into the city from its edges. It's a clean town, pretty safe, with many unexpected great views.
Can you speak Korean? Sadly, the answer is no--we start our official Korean lessons in a couple weeks--though we have learned some Hangeul to trot out as a party trick, plus a few key magic words that can get us food, beer, bathrooms, and transportation home.
What's Korean food like? Ahh, Korean food--a bit of a touchy subject. If you want my advice as to whether or not you should go to that Korean bbq across town this weekend, I'd tell you heck yes. But if you wanted to know whether you should eat nowhere but the Korean buffet for three months straight, you'd get a very different answer. There is some really delicious Korean food and some REALLY gross Korean food. In other words, we've had to supplement the local fare with a lot of our own cooking and with pretty frequent trips to the little foreign enclaves downtown. I will say that there are two things you don't realize about American food until you live outside the US: we have an amazing variety of ethnic food to choose from and almost all of it comes with cheese.
This leads us to our final question:
Do Koreans really all look alike? No, though since it's a fairly homogeneous country as far as ethnicity goes, there are fewer general categories of appearance (ie, you've only got "fat guy" instead of "fat white guy"), fewer hair colors, really only one eye color, and almost no facial hair. But Koreans ARE shorter (possibly because they sleep four hours a night when they're kids). I mean, I feel like a circus midget back here! Though all these growth-spurting cousins certainly don't help.
Anyway, time to go help with our very American Christmas Eve: pickup football followed by piles of food either shot through with sugar or smothered with cheese. Yum!
Thursday, December 20, 2007
You better watch out
You better not talk
You better not pout, I'm tellin' you why
Mr. Goff is coming to class
He sees you when you're chatting
He knows when you are late
He knows if you've been speaking Korean
So be good for goodness sake!
You better watch out
You better not talk
You better not pout, I'm telling you why
Mr. Goff is coming to class!
Feel the holiday spirit!
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
In other news, it turns out that a very small percentage of travelers suffering from jet lag don't experience insomnia, but hypersomnia. Guess which of us is the hypersomniac! (Hint: Sure as heck ain't me.)
PS: We've also got some photos about Yeoju to post, but Nana's going to have to write that one, too, since she has some witty stuff to say about Queen Min's assassination. Interest piqued?
Sunday, December 16, 2007
It's 9:24 Pittsburgh time. I've been up for an hour after sleeping eleven and Justin is, miraculously, still asleep. We did the math and here are some fun travel-related facts:
- We got up at 6:00 AM Saturday in Seoul, which was 4 PM Friday Pittsburgh time. We finally went to bed in Pittsburgh at 9 PM Saturday, for a total travel time of 29 hours.
- Our flight from Seoul to Tokyo took off at 12:30 (lunchtime) on Saturday, Seoul time. Our flight from Tokyo to Chicago landed at Chicago O'Hare at 11:15 AM on Saturday, Chicago time. So we landed in Chicago an hour before we started our trip.
We got singled out at Chicago customs but not overly harrassed, although one Christmas gift (we'll tell you which one after we give it) did raise an eyebrow. Our two pieces of checked luggage were in the first twelve pieces off the Pittsburgh flight, so evidently somebody up there thought we'd paid our travel dues and let us go home.
Our dog Kipper seems confused -he can't quite remember if he knows us or not. But since we pet him, he's okay with us either way. And we are definitely okay with him! He's a little bigger than we remember (ahem ahem KATHY) but his face is just as cute and his fur is still heavenly.
My apologies if this doesn't make a lot of sense - I've been sick for the last five days and I haven't turned the corner yet. Head cold, fever, joint aches, and a bit of, shall we say, King Sejong's revenge? Getting back here to normal food and, wonder of wonders, A BATHTUB will make all the difference, though, and we hope to get some catch-up blogging in over the next few days.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Sunday, December 9, 2007
The first, and most obvious reason is that we don't speak Korean. We can make a lot of observations but we often have no idea if our explanations for what we observe are even close to accurate. It also makes it hard to get to know any Koreans outside of our work bubble who might be able to help us confirm generalizations.
The second reason is that for better or worse, we live here now and probably will for next year, too (we decide whether or not to renew our contract within the next week). Spending time constructing generalizations and fixating on ways in which Korea is different is kind of counterproductive to our eventual goal of feeling comfortable here.
The third reason, of course, is not to trip anybody's racism flags. Sometimes it seems to me like people have nothing better to do than be easily offended.
So having now provided you with three perfectly good reasons not to write about "Koreans," I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway. But here is my Official Flagrant Generalization Posts disclaimer: a) I don't know what I'm talking about, b) I am going to try to keep it positive, and c) if you think my generalization about Korean culture is actually a generalization about the Korean race (ethnicity? Don't know, don't care.) or means I'm assuming it's true for every single Korean who ever lived, well, how dumb are you?
When I first got here, I was surprised that nobody stared at me. In China, it was so common I developed a minor complex about it. People in the internet cafe pointed their webcams at me while chatting with their friends. I sat on a park bench once in Dalian and looked up to find people standing behind my bench so their friends could take pictures with me in it. I started wearing sunglasses and a cap like an incognito movie star. It was kind of ludicrous.
Anyway, not so here. Children shout out "Hello" and "Hi" at us (we call this "Getting Hi'd", as in, "I got hi'd in the park today") and stare in elevators. Teenage girls or boys sometimes, we think, dare each other to speak to us, because we see them giggling in a group and shooting us looks before one intrepid member will dash over, say "Nice to meet you!" and then run back to safety. But for the most part, people do a mild double-take and go about their business.
(As bad as it makes me look, I will admit to being piqued by this. Where was all of my attention? Just because I'm married, nobody wants to stare at me anymore?)
I have a theory, however. Commence flagrant generalizations!
If you recall, a while back, Justin posted about the swearing, flailing man on our bus, the man we tolerantly and politically-correctly refer to as Crazy McNutjob. Reflecting back on it, the strangest part of the whole thing was not actually the swearing and flailing (we lived in New Haven and Washington; we've seen our share of public mental illness) but the part where every single Korean on the bus stared straight ahead and pretended like absolutely nothing was happening. As the man shouts things in Korean that we're pretty sure we didn't need to speak Korean to understand, nobody turns around or reacts. When he slaps the window or kicks the chair in front of him, everybody startles in unison at the sound, flinches, and doesn't turn around. If it weren't for the jump in the chair, you would have thought the whole bus was deaf.
The teenage boy sitting in the chair in front of Crazy, whose backpack actually got slapped a couple of times in the course of the flailing, responded to being hit by - absolutely nothing. Not a "Hey, what the heck?" or a "Dude, stop hitting me," but just a "If I pretend he's not there, maybe he'll go away." He sat forward in his chair at a forty five degree angle to take himself out of range and continued to stare straight ahead. When the flailing got too intense, he finally got out of his chair and walked casually to the front of the bus. He didn't even turn around.
So, in conclusion: the Chinese reaction to weirdness was to stare at it, similar to the American reaction (I will stereotype here; feel free to disagree) to engage with it ("Hey, where y'all from? China? Hey, I have a friend from China. Do you know him?"). The Korean reaction is to ignore it. Perhaps it's just good manners - "You're being very rude not to fit in, but I would be even ruder to point it out." Maybe it's also a Seoul thing, and people would be different in the country. American urban areas are definitely different from American rural areas in this regard, and Seoul is widely considered to be very different from rest of Korea. Maybe it's not even a thing at all, and I'm completely flagrantly generalizing. But hey, you can't say I didn't warn you!
But I, at least, will run with this explanation because it lets me feel better about myself. Just because they're not staring doesn't mean I'm not still awesome! In fact, the fact that people aren't noticing me means that they want to! If they did notice me, it would mean I was not noticeable!
Sometimes, living overseas makes my head hurt.
Saturday, December 8, 2007
Anyway. The third and final day of our Thanksgiving excursion to Sokcho/Yangyang was spent, for the most part, trekking back across the country, though this time by the faster and less-scenic southern route. However, as we drove south along the beach, my lovely wife reminded me that I had never touched (any branch of) the Pacific, so we persuaded our convoy to stop for an impromptu romp at the seaside.First, we spent a while scampering about some rocky tidepools at one end of a small harbor, where your very own Nana suddenly transformed into amateur marine biologists, while I hovered above, furiously clicking the shutter.
The finds included some starfish and one particularly pointy sea-urchin, which Naomi said would have been delicious, had we not already had our fill of half-dead sea creatures earlier in the weekend.
After the tidepools, then, we took a stroll on a lovely beach, where the brilliance of the sand and the beauty of the waves were marred only by the rusting barbed-wire encircling another of the ubiquitous bunkers--long-disused since defection became the popular avenue of infiltration for North Korean spies (though they still keep the beaches spotlit at night).
Still, even this reminder that we were only a day's march from the edge of the free world couldn't keep us down on this bright, clear November day. See how Nana throws geopolitical caution to the wind as she frolics in the waves!
Now, it was all fun and games until Nana stumbled upon a chilling sight while searching for seashells by the seashore . . . Nefarious instrument of the international communist conspiracy, or innocent pair of nail-clippers? You be the judge:Also, the day did NOT end well for the four delicious ducks our party ate for lunch. YUM.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Anyway. Our second day at Yangyang, we woke up to overcast skies that looked like they could blow off by noon. Our plan was to take a cable-car ride up one of the nearby peaks of the famously-beautiful Seoraksan National Park, and while many of our group (Dr. Kim especially) were a bit bummed that the weather actually worsened as we drove to the park, I had high hopes for some dramatic photos, and Seoraksan did not disappoint.First, the cable-car up the mountain, which probably would have brought back some Austria flashbacks, if it weren't for the excruciating K-pop ballads they pumped into the car. Though the rainbow across the valley, which sadly didn't photograph, was a very nice touch.
At the top, then, after donning a few hastily-purchased ponchos to ward off the sleet and the rain, we climbed up to an exposed cliff-top with some spectacular views of the adjoining valleys.
Below, we have our fearless leader, one of the valley views, and then us (aw!), with my hair thankfully covered this time.
After a very cold thirty minutes at the top of the world, we rode back down into the valley and paid a visit to the park's landmark ginormous seated buddha (at right). This turns out to have been an excellent idea, because it was right around then that the rain really hit in earnest. I can only imagine what it must have been like at the top, what with the sleet/snow and freezing wind.
In any case, the weather, while inclement, did provide some extremely photogenic vistas, which I humbly hope I have captured adequately (below).
And a final treat on the day (no, I'm not talking about the sundubu, or "uncurdled bean curd," which is both much tastier than it looks and much less oxymoronic than it sounds): When we got back to the resort, what else did we find to welcome us, but our second rainbow of the day! It was a good one, too. Take a look:
Monday, November 26, 2007
As promised, here's the first of three photo-posts on our Thanksgiving trip to the East Sea / Sea of Japan (don't get me started). This one covers our visit to Naksansa (Naksan Temple). Details about Seoraksan, Sol Beach, and our impromptu seaside cavorting, along with some sweet, delicious photos, will go up sometime later this week.
Now, without further ado . . .
Our intrepid band (see below) left Seoul around midmorning on Thanksgiving Day and, after a few hours spent winding our way through some startlingly underpopulated mountains (plus a generous lunch break for some back-country Korean barbecue), the East Sea suddenly materialized before us, doing its darnedest to look like California. The weather was cool and clear, too--gone was the snow and haze we'd had the previous week in Seoul.
After settling us in at the hotel (more on that later), our fearless leader marshalled us off to Naksansa, a nearby Buddhist temple complex that, while devastated by a wildfire a couple years ago, still offers some interesting sights and spectacular views.
You can see our group below: from left, it's Dr. Kim, Ms. Linklater (music teacher), Ms. Ko (aka Mrs. Dr. Kim), Lia Kim, "Ms. Massie," "Mr. Goff," Gia Kim, and Ms. Anno (Japanese teacher).
(Note: Yes, I ran out and got my hair cut within sixty minutes of seeing how awful it looked in this shot.)
Word on the street is that Naksansa is one of only a few temples in Korea that overlooks the sea, and the effect overall is quite stunning. The view from the peak of the main hill, where a 16m statue of Gwaneum, the goddess of mercy, resides, offers 360 degrees of eye candy, from the nearby mountains (see the photo at the very top of the post), to the deep blue water, to the picturesque and relatively desolate coast.
But the views aren't the only thing worth seeing at Naksansa--the temple is also home to an antique set of larger-than-life temple guardians. The figures pictured below can be a bit hard to find--they're tucked away in a dimly-lit gateway next to the big bell outside the main shrine, and I saw several people walk right past them without a second look--but once noticed, they're mesmerizing. The details are just incredible: so many colors, and so many precise cuts in the wood. I especially love the expression on the face on the left, and how that fellow on the right there feels surprisingly animate.
Near the gateway with the guardians was another unexpected treat: piles of roof tiles signed by visitors, apparently as a fundraising program for the temple complex's ongoing reconstruction. Surprising number of Germans among the expected Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese.
Finally--and I promise you we're nearing the end, because this was also the point that my camera was running out of batteries--we strolled down to the bottom of the hill for a peek at the tiny prayer pavilion perched at the side of a cliff over the water. The pavilion was an unforgettable location, secluded among the roaring surf, but alas my Energizers did not, in fact, keep going and going long enough for me to get a shot of the place. I did, however, manage to get a very topical shot of the barbed wire and the guard post beyond the pavilion (they're there to keep out purely hypothetical North Korean spies) shortly after snapping Nana, possessed by whimsy, playing with a fish mobile like a cat.
Well, that's about it it for Day 1 of the trip. Stay tuned for more East Sea / Seoraksan goodness in the days to come. Though probably not tomorrow: Nana and I have a date with the Royal Asiatic Society. Free lecture on Korean folk music? Hells yeah!
PS: Using blogger to format photo posts still sucks. Ugh!
Saturday, November 24, 2007
If you guessed "toilet," you've probably lived in Asia--or you've been reading our blog! Yes, these were the ludicrously complicated controls for the toilet at our hotel near Sokcho, where we spent the weekend (more pics forthcoming). As you can tell from the above photographic illustration, the DobiDos toilet includes all the latest options in butt-cleansing technology, from "funnel" and "manly funnel" to "skirt squirt," "gushing river," and, on the far left, "please stop, you're hurting me, let me go." Of course, we were reluctant to give any of these a go (see: fear of apartment toilet), but we did take the power seat for a spin.
Oh yeah, that seat? It's heated. Now, if only we could have figured out how to flush the darn thing . . .
In other news, this is SchoolofROK's 100th post! And you can expect more well-documented shenanigans in the near future.
PS: Mike, did I fool you on this one? I was trying pretty hard!
Friday, November 23, 2007
For Thanksgiving break, our principal figured out a way to get a group of us to China for only $500, plus visa fees. Sounded great! Justin and I were in.
Unfortunately, the school needed fifteen people to be interested to get the rate. Well, it didn't turn out that enough people wanted to go all the way to China, so that plan went away.
So, for Thanksgiving break, our principal decided to host a Thanksgiving potluck. The school would provide the turkey (these are very expensive over here – the one at Costco clocked in at $70) and everybody would bring a side dish. Sounded great! Justin and I were in.
Unfortunately, the school needed enough lucky potters to pull off the potluck, and not enough people wanted to get together for dinner. So that plan went away.
Finally, for Thanksgiving break, the chairman of the board of the school offered to take us to Sol Beach, a resort on the Pacific coast of Korea. The school would pay transportation and lodging. All we had to do was go. Sounded great! Justin and I were in.
So there, at the Yangyang fish district, Justin and I rang in Thanksgiving with a hearty round of Korean sushi (which, I have to tell you, does not live up to Aunt Alice's turkey and ham). The difference between Korean sushi and Japanese sushi is that with Korean sushi, the fish is fresh. I don't mean to say that Japanese sushi serves bad fish. I just mean to say that with Japanese sushi, the fish has been dead for more than ten minutes. Fresh here means FRESH. When the squid arrived on a platter, there were still some perceptible involuntary muscle spasms going on in the tentacles. Barely perceptible, mind you, but perceptible.
And here we join the scene.
Justin, man among men, takes the first bite, claps his hand over his mouth, and starts giggling. (A man among men, yes, but he does, in fact, giggle like a girl).
"What?" I ask.
That's not possible, says Dr. Kim. It's not that fresh. He picks up one and repeats the hand clap. He has changed his opinion. The tentacles are, in fact, sticking.
Naomi, the Japanese teacher, picks one up and dips it in her soy sauce. The suckers stick to the ceramic dish and she has to pry it off with the other chopstick.
I pick one up from the dish. I'm just trying to get a tentacle, but the suckers are sticking to the adjacent meat and so that comes up with it.
I am assuming that at this point, all of you are adequately grossed out and rooting for me to put that thing down. And half of my brain told me the same thing. But the other half of my brain, which proves to me more than anything else that I really have spent the last four months in Korea, told me to go for it.
So there I am. Brain Half #1 is making some argument about only being in Korea once and seizing opportunities and Brain Half #2 is wondering abstractly what would happen if I threw up on the host. And somewhere along the line husband-related peer pressure takes over, and I pick up the chopsticks.
And I ate it.
And it suckered to my teeth. And once I got it off my teeth, it suckered to the roof of my mouth. I even ended up with a sucker stuck on my tooth after I ate the rest of the tentacle, and I had to go in and get that one off with my fingernail.
But Justin was right. It tasted pretty good. Almost exactly like Ika Geso, but fresher. And suckier.
So that was the culinary highlight of the evening. Also in contention was the sea cucumber, which looked kind of like gelatinous salsa but tasted basically exactly like regular cucumber, with a bit of red pepper. It also edged out the $250 Russian Red King Crab. Koreans, much like the Chinese when I was there, do not consider discussing prices to be impolite. Dr. Kim mentioned quite casually that he'd bought it and what it cost, and the last time we all went out back in August he said the same thing about the bottle of wine. I think it's said with the sense of, "It's just a fact, so why not say it?"
It was excellent crab. I don't know that I ever had better. And it was very large – the leg was probably two feet long, if you straightened the joint. But in my book, for $250, the damn thing had better crack itself open and dance its way into my mouth.
On second thought, no. I've had enough of that for tonight.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
As a consolation prize, though, the school founder has offered to take us to a mountain resort near Seorak National Park, one of the most beautiful spots in Korea. Hiking, spa-ing, and an opportunity to get out and see something other than Seoul--all at someone else's expense? You can bet we're there! The only downside is that a (possible) lack of internet could keep us from calling home for the holiday. We'll do our best.
On another note, it turns out that Thanksgiving is literally a foreign concept in these parts, so yesterday I delivered to each class a throwaway enrichment lesson on the origins of the holiday. (With my 6th graders, though, it tied into their reading and their upcoming project pretty closely, so that's good.) The kids who had lived in the States understood the basics--Pilgrims, turkey--but no one had the whole story. They were particularly intrigued by the idea of eating turkey--those who had pronounced it much tastier than chicken, those who hadn't were wondering what, exactly, a turkey was--and deer, which almost no one but me had eaten. I also had the kids compare it to Chuseok, the Korean harvest festival, which replaces the "giving thanks" with "giving thanks and respect to your ancestors." Total cross-cultural moment. But hey, that's what they pay us for, right?
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
In other news: internet. After months of frustration, the school has finally forced our crappy ISP into action, and discovered that the reason we have such unreliable service is that the provider has almost no bandwidth for connections to servers outside Korea. This explains why Yahoo (which maintains servers in Korea) and its affiliated sites almost always work, and why Google (which has been largely muscled out of Korea by Yahoo and local-competitor Naver) almost never does. The ISP has asked for one more chance to fix the problem (good luck) before we give them the axe. Which means there's hope that we could have ACTUAL, RELIABLE internet access within a few weeks! Though I wouldn't get your hopes up too high--there's still time for plenty of foot-dragging and bungling. But at least we're a lot closer than we were at the start of the week.
So! The snow. Seoul weather is notoriously wacky--hot as hell with drenching rain until September, then hot as hell and dry for a month, then cold as hell and damp (but with nary a drop of rain) for two . . . all the while, the daily weather report being about as reliable as a . . . uh . . . an unreliable thing. You come to expect the unexpected. But still, our first snowfall Monday night still threw me for a loop.
Now, I began the day Monday, as my lovely wife can corroborate, by commenting on how much colder it had gotten overnight, and by whimsically proclaiming that "it smelled like snow." (I have been convinced for a long time that a well-trained nostril can detect the combination of cold and damp in the air that precedes a snowstorm, though I can't really describe what impending snow smells like . . . all I know is that I take a deep whiff and fell a sudden urge to ski.) Sure enough, that night, we opened our curtains (we had them closed to keep in the heat--more on that later) to a snowy downpour. Nothing unusual, right? Until a deep, rolling boom echoed down the streets. Salt truck overturning? North Korean invasion? No, this was a rare (to me) instance of what I have right now very authoritatively dubbed a thundersnowstorm. In any event, we woke up the next morning to a dusting, which had mostly melted by midday, and this morning to a much more substantial dusting that, by all indications, could last well into the afternoon.
Which leads me to two questions: 1) Frequent light nighttime snowstorms--is that what winter's like here? Not that I'd mind, of course, but 2) If so, why in the hell does no one own a windshield scraper? As if the drivers here weren't bad enough when they could actually SEE the road!
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
This morning, we could only find one of our passports in the drawer where we've been keeping them since we last used them to apply for our Korean Alien Registration cards (We walk among you! Take us to your leader!) We turned the drawer inside out, checked all the other places we store paperwork, tore our desks at school apart, checked the school office, and finally came back home to halfheartedly confront the inevitable. And yet, wonder of wonders, we found it on the bookshelf! Huzzah!
On the plus side, we are now experts in embassy passport policy. Or at least the web links.
And in reference to Justin's post earlier - anybody want some Pepero? We're freaking drowning in the stuff. I got five more boxes yesterday.
Monday, November 12, 2007
- pencil ("My pencil is my friends because, it always working me.")
- "I will bring my lego box because if there is someone with children, I can give a lego box to them and they can play with that legos."
- "a watch to see the time after time."
- a television, "because I love TV"
- "bodyguard, to guard my self from saints afterlife"
- "APIS teachers, to learn more even after having death."
And of course, the titular comment:
- "I will bring snakes."
I did follow up on this one with the student - would she bring them as pets? Did she remember that they were the symbols of the pharaoh? Were they there to guard the tomb?
In fact, none of the above: I don't think Korean has a flat "a" sound (like "hat") - I've only heard "ah," "eh, and "ay" as in "say". So "snakes," it turns out, was a Konglish mistranscription of the word "snacks."
Everything tastes better after death!
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Old and busted (with expert electrical-tape repair job by Nana):
Nana aptly describes this shot as "emo book jacket."
Bonus: Nana acts fierce as I test the camera. Thus illustrating the perils of watching too much America's Next Top Model.
(Nana asks: Why are my eyes the size of peanuts?)
Not that I'm complaining, of course. While I spent much of my life trying desperately NOT to like Pocky and its derivatives (the Pocky-lovers I knew where all creepy and irritating Japanophile anime fans--except for Hudson, who was not irritating! I kid, I kid!), I have since developed a fondness for the little things in this country where every third thing I eat makes righteous war on my gut. And any holiday that results in piles free, unreciprocated candy is fine by me!
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
The good news: Though I'm not ready to write off the possibility of my new glasses spontaneously combusting or something like that, I was at least successful in getting a new prescription, new lenses, and new frames.
Now, the whole glasses-getting-experience here in Korea is pretty different from how it is in the States, which is to say it's not excruciating and expensive. First, there are optometrists everywhere. We have at least one in our building. There's one in the Homever. We pass two on our way to work every day. Second, everything is walk-in, the frames and lenses cost about half what they cost at home. Third, they're open late. Fourth, they keep tons of lenses in-stock and cut them for you in 30 minutes or less! Honestly, I was expected to be de-spectacled for at least a week, and these folks fill my order in as much time as it takes to deliver a pizza. Of course, the downside is that you don't get all the doctor stuff. But, still, that kind of service can't be beat.
On a related note, Nana is now extremely disoriented by my appearance. I hadn't quite realized that I'd been wearing the same glasses since before we met. The new ones aren't a huge departure, though--basically the same shape, but a half-frame--so I'm pretty sure this doesn't mean the deal is off.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
more informative, and infinitely more frequent blog (see the link at
right), I have unilaterally resolved to post more often, come heck or
high water (or unreliable broadband . . . or web filters . . .).
[Edit by Nana: Speak for yourself! My posts are entertaining, informative, and frequent! That's it, Leslie. It's on.]
Hopefully, though, figuring out this whole posting-by-e-mail thing
should help, so I can fire off brief missives from the classroom in
some of those rare free moments I steal during the day.
As for us, I'm pretty sure lack of daylight savings will actually make zero difference, since we're up and out of the house shortly after dawn anyway. Not so bad, though, compared to the kids, some of whom are busing in from two hours away.
Saturday, November 3, 2007
Instead of having a regular school day on Wednesday, APIS had a field trip to Everland. I think it had something to do with reconciling Christianity and Halloween, which apparently is difficult for some people, by avoiding the issue entirely. Personally, I think anti-Halloween parents are overreacting a bit, but then again, I have seen some pop star costumes on little girls that offend me, much less God. So to Everland we went.
I was quite concerned about the safety of the rides, but it was actually a high-quality amusement park. And I've never been to one in the fall, and I have to say that the cool day was much nicer than some of the scorchers I've been to at Cedar Point (although the water rides aren't quite so much fun). My seventh graders behaved impeccably. We did lose a couple of sixth graders for a while, and I had a crisis where the cafeteria lady said my lunch voucher was only valid for the acorn noodles, but all came together in the end. The kids got a kick out of seeing Justin in jeans.
What really amused me was the fact that on Thursday, back at school, all the kids seemed like they'd been steamrollered. I was pretty pooped, but I had to bounce back to teach, so I did. Aren't kids supposed to have faster recovery times? The difference probably came from Justin and my 8:30 bedtime. Amazing what eleven hours can do for you.
And on a last note- thanks so much for all the wonderful birthday wishes! We had a party last night at a fellow teacher's apartment and I baked cupcakes from care-package cupcake mix. No Korean birthday soup for me! Two students actually gave me small presents - a lavender aromatherapy pillow and a picture frame - which I thought was very sweet. And tonight, Justin took me into town for a birthday hamburger at TGI Friday's. Hooray birthdays!
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Really, it's been frustrating. I know you've seen our posts about how the Internet refuses to work (both at home and in our classrooms), about the fact that the recycling pickup is on Saturday mornings before 10 AM, about how I can't eat the food without getting sick, about the month-long delay in our shipment... it just seems like nothing will go right here, even the stuff that honestly shouldn't be that hard. And I know that once you get in a funk, you always pay attention to the negative and forget the stuff that's going right - for instance, my care packages from my mom have gotten here great, and the slingbox is working right now and has provided us with football and an amusing new show called Pushing Daisies on top of our beloved House. But even typing that, I want to point out how I can't use some of the stuff in the care package because we're the only school apartment without an oven and how the slingbox still cuts out for no reason, sometimes in the middle of shows.
Anyway, we were pretty bummed to miss that trip today for yet another stupid reason. I'm going to send an e-mail and see if we can get some refund or at least apply the money to a future trip.
Now, back to Slingboxed college football...
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Thankfully, it looks like the RAS could be well worth the effort (and the 80,000-won membership fee--discounts for married couples! finally, my motives become clear!). While last night's lecture certainly didn't earn any style points--the speaker could barely speak English and was completely shackled to his hideous Powerpoint notes--the content was very interesting: a history of Korea's representation in Western cartography. (Apparently, we white folk took a good three centuries to notice that Korea is, in fact, a peninsula, not an island. But, hey! At least we knew by then that it existed!)
What's more, we signed up for a day trip to Ganghwa Island with the RAS this Sunday--Ganghwa-do being one of Korea's UNESCO World Heritage Sites, on the strength of its fortresses, its temples, and its prehistoric dolmen tombs. We've been wanting to visit Ganghwa since we learned about it, and sweet serendipity caused the RAS to reschedule the trip for precisely the weekend we're able to go. Plus, apparently we'll get to visit a certain RAS member's swanky Ganghwa-do pad. (Nana says: "Bonus for networking, eh?")
But the real news, I suppose, is that Nana and I are finally finding/making the time to get out and do something, other than sit around and work all the time. Slowly--very slowly--we're getting this school thing under control and carving out little pockets of dorky leisure. If only we could wrangle some Korean lessons somehow. Though that may have to wait for the summer.
Ah! It's too bad that we live so far out of town--the RAS adjourns for a round of ale after every meeting, but our long train ride back to Nowon gets us home pretty late. Though maybe we'll just have to suffer through some sleepy Wednesdays here and there.
In other news, Nana and I got to share our bus home with an utter lunatic tonight. Tourettes or schizophrenia or something. Shouting, flailing. Totally weird.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
She also gave me a bit of information on the character as well as the first chapter of the book. According to Ms. Kelly, "Nana is a delightful character" - how could she be anything but? - "and she gets an excellent man, a post captain in the royal navy named Oliver Worthy." In fact, she says, she had so much fun with the whole thing that she's hoping to do a trilogy around the Worthy family, so I may even reappear in the future! This has to be the first time ever that I've hoped for a gratuitous cameo by the protagonists of previous novels.
I did enjoy the first chapter, although I won't distribute it because that's probably not appropriate. You'll all appreciate the fact that Nana spends most of the first chapter looking for food. The neatest thing by far, though, is that Nana is her character's nickname, too, and her real name just happens to be Eleanor. Eleanor, for those of you who don't know, was the name of my maternal grandmother, a wonderful, brilliant woman who died just a couple of years ago. I did not tell Ms. Kelly this, although I did write back to let her know. It is just a lovely coincidence.
Now I need everybody to send positive vibes to Carla Kelly's editors: Buy this book! Love this book! Pay Carla Kelly all the money in the world for this book! Don't change the names of any characters in this book!
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Itaewon is the foreign district in Seoul, historically, I believe, sprung up because it's right by the US Army base. It's not just American, though - all the expat communities hub around Itaewon (except, of course, the expats affiliated with APIS, because we live over an hour away). It's where you go for African hair stylists, Pakistani restaurants, international grocers and the like.
As we left the subway, Justin spotted sort of a shabby-looking ad for a restaurant called Chef Meili, which promised authentic Austrian food. (Amusingly, the picture on the review is of the dish Justin actually ordered - the beef roulade). I wasn't completely confident but I didn't have a better idea so I went along with it.
Nobody was in the restaurant when we got there, which added to me being nervous, but it turned out to be a huge success. The prices were a little high for Korea, which seems to be standard for foreign food, but I would say it was worth it. I had smoked salmon on a potato pancake, and we got a vanilla ice cream/berry sauce dessert that was really amazing.
None of that, though, was as awesome as talking in German to the Austrian chef. I think he got a kick out of it - he says he's only been here four months, and there are about 150 Austrians living in Seoul, so it was probably nice to talk to somebody new in his own language. But for me? It just felt good not to feel so stupid.
Being surrounded by these kids who speak Korean whenever our backs are turned and then coming home on a Korean bus with Korean speakers everywhere - well, it's not like I didn't expect that, coming to Korea, but it really does make me feel like an idiot not to have a clue what's going on. The school did promise us Korean lessons, but that hasn't started yet, and it'll take a long time to get anywhere with them. So we can certainly look forward to months of more cluelessness.
Anyway, I just felt a lot better about myself after a nice reminder that no, I'm not a language-deaf moron American - I just don't happen to speak this one.
PS. Put a hold on the optimism regarding having only one class with student failures. I forgot the one sixth grader getting a 42%. Which I suppose is fair, since by all indications he's forgotten about my class.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
1. The slingbox is down again, inexplicably.
2. The weather has been spectacular lately--very clear, very cool.
3. Visited a big info fair for foreigners down at City Hall and finally got in touch with the Royal Asiatic Society. Hopefully, we can rescue a weekend or two here or there from the clutches of schoolwork and actually get out and see some of this country!
4. There's a possibility we may finally be able to ditch our awful internet service provider.
5. I (Nana) now have only two students failing my class in all grades! Two students have reached the magical 60%! Grades are due a week from Monday and I will do everything in my power to keep that D- alive.
6. We miss our dog.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
In the event that anybody has noticed that we haven't been posting as recently, I apologize. To the rest of you who didn't realize we were missing, carry on. There's nothing to see here.
It's been pretty hectic lately. We went into the school yesterday (Saturday) for four hours and Justin's entering hour six or seven of work today. The depressing cause of all of this is that our kids just don't seem to be able to write.
It's very odd. Yes, there's the whole ESL barrier problem, but it's more than that. Some kids whose English is just fine are totally incoherent on paper. The concept of "paragraph" does not seem to exist. After a heavily plagiarized assignment on Alexander the Great, I made all the seventh graders keep a research notebook as they worked on a project about Rome, but some of them have submitted a typed version of their notes in place of an essay. We can't figure out if they're honestly confused or if they don't actually think they need to bother.
On that note, I read a disheartening quote from a Korean mother in one of the English-language papers, where she essentially said that she condoned her high-school child buying papers online because homework wasn't as important to getting into college as his exam grades, so she wanted him to buy the papers and focus on studying for the tests. Of course, given some of the test scores we see, they're not doing that either. But can you believe it? I sincerely hope no parent at our school feels that way.
I hesitate to say TOO much about the Korean school system, seeing as everything I know about it is hearsay from our students who have been in it, fellow teachers who went through it, or from deductions based on experiences (students are constantly surprised when I ask them to stay awake in class.). But I guess I will say that American newspapers rhapsodize so much about the glories of the "Asian educational system" and stereotype the kids so heavily that I couldn't have helped but come here and be surprised.
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
A Korean movie contains the following scene:
A man goes to the store and buys a container of seaweed soup. He then sits in his apartment alone eating the soup.
The reaction of Koreans in the audience: sobbing.
Ready for the answer?
In the United States, we celebrate birthdays with cake. In Korea (and Japan, too) the birthday treat is a bowl of soup (this in and of itself might be enough to make me cry.) The Koreans in the audience were crying because they knew that it was the man's birthday, but he was all alone and had to buy himself the soup and eat it by himself in his apartment. In an American movie, the comparable scene would have the man perhaps lighting a candle on a cupcake, wearing a limp and crooked party hat, and singing a particularly tragic rendition of "Happy Birthday to Me." Oh, man, now I'm going to cry.
Saturday, October 6, 2007
Anyway, the restaurant. No picture menu, it turned out--in fact, not much of a menu at all. Our dinner choices consisted of tuna, tuna, or tuna, sliced and raw, in various portions (the cheapest of which was 18,000 won per person). But, hey! We chalked it up to cross-cultural experience, sat down, and opened our collective wallet wide.
Now, the good news is that the food was excellent. After an utterly inexplicable aperitif consisting of one shot of cold whole milk, we had several different cuts of several different kinds of tuna (ahi, yellowfin, albacore), all very high quality, and thanks to some gesture-laden instruction from the server, figured out that we were supposed to dunk the tuna in either salt oil or soy sauce before we laid it on a sheet of dried seaweed (with a dab of wasabi, of course). She did not, however, show us that we were supposed to eat the resulting contraption with our hands, and no doubt got a good laugh out of whitey fumbling needlessly with chopsticks. Bonus: the tuna came with a creamy roasted corn casserole of some sort and a really tasty salad.
When the corn casserole was scraped clean, then, and the last bit of tuna devoured, Nana and I, very satisfied (but very much $36 poorer), stood to pay the tab, at which point the waitress all but shoved us back into our seats. To our utter and lasting horror, she returned with another heaping plate of raw fish! Which means that the 1-person, 18,000-won portion would have been plenty for us, in fact not much more than dinner for two at the KBBQ! Curse you, Korea, and your ban on two people sharing one plate!
Friday, October 5, 2007
BONUS KONGLISH NOTE (from Justin): In that second video, right after you see me (Justin), but before you see my butt, you can totally hear the voice-over say "miguk ibee leeguh," which, of course, means "American Ivy League."
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Note: Unlike Spanglish or Germisch, Konglish doesn't refer to English-speakers mangling Korean, but to Koreans . . . not mangling, but . . . appropriating English words into their native tongue. And many of these appropriations are complete fabrications, or at least a total stretch. Example: "skinship," which, as far as I can tell, is the middle-school equivalent of "friends-with-benefits." Let me tell you, I had students who were appalled to learn that I had no idea what that word meant.
Seriously, we're having the eighth grade start a current-events/research-skills/media-literacy mini-unit on the (sadly waning) uprising in Burma-Myanmar (has that been getting as much coverage in the States as it has here?), and we're setting the seventh grade out on a research-skills/proper-citiation mini-unit on the Roman Empire. Not only is this going to be really cool for the kids, it will make meeting some of my standards SO much easier! Plus, we'll get to synergize a lot with our work.
2) The social studies teacher totally cute.
Friday, September 28, 2007
Korean shampooing is where beauty salon products meet professional wrestler hands. And believe it or not, I mean this in a good way. We sit down to get shampooed, and these innocuous looking middle aged women proceed to tenderize our scalps like our heads are made out of modeling clay. These women have fingers like you wouldn't believe. Keyboards and push-button phones tremble at their approach, and pianos lie shattered in their wake.
Then, feeling pretty darn mellow, we sit down to get it cut, giving directions as best we can entirely by pantomiming snip-scissor fingers (although I did bring down the dictionary so Colleen could point to the word "trim"). This was hampered by the fact that whenever I brought my arms out from under that little cape you put on, some well-meaning salon employee would come extract the cape from behind my elbows and tuck me back under again.
Colleen has naturally curly hair, and by naturally curly, I mean corkscrew kind of curly, which proceeded to overwhelm her Korean stylist by bushing out like a puffer fish upon the application of a blow dryer. He then made matters worse by trying to brush out the poof, and finally, on the verge of serious emotional distress, settled for massive application of styling products. Let's face it, this is not the sort of hair they teach you about in Korean beauty school. I have, however, seen her since, when she hasn't blow-dried or brushed it, and it looks fantastic. So all due credit to the cutter.
And how did my haircut turn out? Well, you tell me!
I'm pretty pleased, actually, although I would have been fine with it even shorter in the back. And it only cost about ten dollars, which for a shampoo, scalp massage, and haircut is a ridiculous bargain. I'm getting my hair cut every week!
Wow. That was definitely one of the weirder things I've had in a while . . . and I live in Korea! It was like drinking a delicate solution of Vick's Vaporub and Pine Sol. Not an experience I plan to repeat.
Also: I won't go into much detail, because it's gross, but if you were thinking of drinking bunch of Aloe juice because I said it was really tasty . . . don't!
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Anyway. This attempt started at about 10:00 AM with Nana's decision to stay home to rest, nurse a stomach ache, and prepare to host some friends for an afternoon of football, fried chicken, and beer. (Our giant new $420 flatscreen monitor helped make this totally sweet, by the way.) Then, a few minutes later, my hiking party showed up--minus one more, a colleague who mysteriously disappeared in the course of several Skype calls yesterday morning. However, undeterred by this appallingly high rate of attrition, we two remaining hikers set off through the streets of Nowon, navigating by sight to the foot of a small mountain nearby.
Now, you need to understand that we chose this hike because it was supposed to be relatively easy--the guidebook talks about a wide, sandy trail meandering its way up from street level, with some nice views and some rocks at the top. Well, apparently we took a wrong turn somewhere, because the trail we took was steep, narrow, deserted, and barely-marked at all! But after about an hour of hard climbing, we were finally rewarded with a nice view across Nowon, a short rest--and, of course, a glimpse of the aforementioned wide, sandy trail. A tiny helipad--yes, helipad--signaled that we were at the summit. We continued on, deciding to press forward to the Danggogae Metro stop rather than retrace our steps to the foot of the hill.
But at the summit we were not! After about 15 minutes on the sandy, windy footpath, we reached a rocky clearing and found ourselves looking straight up. (We also found the well-marked trail down to Danggogae, but seriously, how could you pass views like these up?) The last 20 minutes to the real summit were pretty wild--much more climbing than hiking, with long lines of ropes to help you up the rock face and some harrowing drops at the side of the trail.
But, hey! The views were well worth it. I could see my house from here!
And just to add a little more thigh-burning goodness to the day, the descent up at the top here was even tricker than the climb: we eventually figured out it was best to go down backwards, belay-style, but on more than one occasion we had to rely on the tried-and-true buttslide, plus a little help from our Korean guardian angel (some guy who adopted us for the day and made it his business to make sure we got to the bottom of the hill in one piece).
We did, of course, make it to the bottom in one piece, downed a few bottles of Pocari Sweat, and then geared up for an afternoon of sloth and gluttony--fried chicken and two NFL games. Sweet!