Saturday, November 24, 2007

Korean Technology Update: Part 3 (I think)

Can you guess what appliance this control panel belongs to?

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

Who needs cranberry sauce when you can have sea cucumber?

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.

We were, it turned out, almost the only people in. The music teacher came along, as did the Japanese teacher, and that was it.

Okay. I can understand not wanting to go all the way to China, and I guess theoretically I can understand not wanting to cook something. And I know that some people had other plans in advance. But seriously, I have never met a group of people it was this difficult to give away a resort weekend to.

In any case, the trip was on. We bundled into the little yellow school van and headed for the coast, which I will continue to refer to as "the coast" to avoid taking sides on the "East Sea" / "Sea of Japan" debate. They take that rather seriously over here. Forty years of colonial rule will do that to you.

Justin will do another post with temple pictures so I'll leave it to him to write about that and skip straight to the dinner. I feel we have to do something to compete with Leslie's descriptions of the Taganrog meat district, so I offer to you the Yangyang fish district, featuring aquariums full of everything from a two-foot long tuna to live eel, sea cucumbers and squid, and a king crab that was about six inches away from escaping its tub and heading for glory.

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.

"The suckers," he said. "They're sticking to my mouth and it tickles."

"They're doing WHAT?" I say, partially as a Concerned Wife but mostly as Concerned Person Sitting Next To Him If He Barfs. He reassures me that it actually tastes good. It's just tickly.

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


At the risk of sounding sappy: This will be my first Thanksgiving ever away from home. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday--all the food, family, and football of Christmas, but without the presents, which means without half the stress--so it's particularly hard to be away. My family is an exceptionally close bunch, and family holidays are always a lot of fun. So, to those of you family members reading today: I miss you a lot, and Nana and I can't wait for Christmas!

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

Bringing the Heat; and, Internet Update

So as the weather has chilled over the last couple of weeks, we've realized that our apartment heating system has been, shall we say, under-performing. (It doesn't help that Celsius makes everything feel colder. It got down to 15 C in our bedroom one night! That feels so much colder than 59 F.) Initially, we chalked this up to the inefficiencies of "ondol," Korea's quirky under-floor heating system that involves pumping near-boiling water through a lattice of pipes under the floorboards, and the fact that our corner apartment, while very well-lit, also catches a whole lot of wind. When we heard stories of people using ondol to turn rooms into de-facto saunas, however, we realized that something was amiss. As it turns out (thank you Paul!) there's an extra button you have to press on the boiler to actually put water into the floor, at which point you can literally trace the course of the pipes with your foot they're so warm (and so much warmer than the un-piped spots on the floor). Amazing how much a heated apartment can lift your spirits, eh?

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.


Expect a flurry of posts today (pun most definitely intended!): we've had a few updates to write about, but a combo of no time and no intarweb kept us from updating the blog.

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!