Friday, August 14, 2009

Ahnyoungheegaeseyo: Or, the Last Hanbok in Incheon

Well, folks, it seems we've come to the end: the 333rd and final installment of School of ROK. Two years, five foster dogs, and 18 Airport Limousine rides later, we're headed to Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow our continuing exploits at The Educated Burgher.

We'll continue to reply to questions posted in the comments threads, so feel free to ask anything you like about our archived posts.

Before we go, though, a final tale.

Now, Nana and I aren't really good at doing the must-do and seeing the must-see (for example, we never ate live octopus, and we never did drag ourselves up to the DMZ or down to Gyeongju), so it's no surprise that we found ourselves in the airport with about thirty minutes left in our Korean adventure without ever having worn hanbok.

Luckily, every concourse at Incheon International Airport features a "Korean Cultural Experience" (part, I think, of the delightfully Engrish Korea Sparkling campaign), where you can learn the Korean alphabet, ingest softcore propaganda, and yes, have your photo taken in extra-heavy polyester versions of Korean traditional garb. For free!

Seeing as we had half an hour to kill, Nana and I weren't about pass up such an opportunity. I, knowing fine fashion when I saw it, instinctively grabbed the king's royal robe, while Nana picked up a simpler, princess-on-her-day-off affair.

The "Korean Cultural Experience" wasn't complete, however, until a passing ajumma stopped by to scold the photographer (as far as I could make out) for putting our elbows in the wrong position. The photographer, being younger than our concerned passer-by, had no choice but to respect her elder's wishes. Hence the pose you see below.So in other words, we went out of Korea the same way we came in: sweaty, being hectored by ajummas, but still trying to smile.

So long, folks! See you over at the new blog!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Animal Rescue Korea Article

(Part of what we imagine may someday be a series of wind-down posts... we've departed Korea permanently but still have some old photos and friends and such to keep in touch with)

Animal Rescue Korea is a terrific organization. All five of our foster dogs (four adopted, one in current foster care) were coordinated through ARK. The Asan shelter, which they visit on weekends now, is a great no-kill shelter in a very pretty part of the Korean mountains. We took our students there for a community service day, and some of them are independently organizing an Animal Welfare club at the school to keep volunteering and fundraising (we're so proud!)

Basically, we can't say enough good things about ARK. Which is why we're turning it over to the JoongAng Daily English Edition and their article about ARK, "Finding Homes for Fido & Co."

If you're in Korea and looking for a great, meaningful way to socialize in English (whether you're a native speaker or a Korean looking to practice), ARK is a great organization. We have a permanent link to it in our sidebar, but here it is again because of the awesome:

Save the puppies! And kitties, and bunnies, and hamsters, and all the other things ARK does. Yay!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Back in the Burgh

Nana and I arrived in Pittsburgh around 3:00 local time this afternoon, making for a 20-hour trip door-to-door, which is a new all-time record (for us).

But that doesn't mean the School of ROK fun is over: expect a trickle of backlogged posts over the next couple weeks. And stay tuned for details about our new Edinburgh blog!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

One Day More!


One day more!
Another afternoon, a final night,
A never ending trans-Pacific flight
(And now I have to face again

those meals they serve us on the plane)

One day more!

I did not pack until today.
How can I fit this in my suitcase?
One day more.
Our worldly goods are worlds away…
Oh, shipping turns us into fruitcakes.

One more day before we go.

Will we come back here again?

Should we pack the peanut butter?

I will miss our little dog

I don't remember buying this.

And our kids, we'll miss them too


Put the heavy stuff in his!

I just know it's going to storm

It's been raining here for days.

We'll be schlepping in the thunder.


What a great name for a band!


But alas, it's the monsoon,

I hear ducks out on the road.

We may have to take a cab.


I think I packed my contact lens!

One day more!
One more day until we're leaving,
On our way to MScs
Off to Scotland for some schooling
Hope my teacher's not like me!

One day more!

BBQ and tteok
Noraebangs and beer
My Korean sucks
in spite of living here

Tuck in all your shirts!
Obey the EOP!
Weren't always fair
but always tried to be.

Chaperoned the student field trips
(In the US, that's DC)
To Shanghai and to Japan
(Lucky weasel, yes I am!)
Went to S'pore and Malaysia
(And to Xi'an, and Beijing)
And Japan again to ski!

APIS, we will miss you!

One day more!

How I loved to sample food
And Asian beers that I was drinking

Now I'm heading for the 'Burgh
But not the 'Burgh you may be thinking


Public transit rocks
Hardly any crime
If you cannot talk

you live in pantomime!

Tomorrow we'll be far away,
Tomorrow is the travel day
Oh, soon we'll leave Korea
For another zany foreign shore….
Goodbye, Seoul,
Bye, Wolgye,
One day more!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Shanghai: Zhujiajiao Water Village

Shanghai isn't all urban glitz: many of the outlying towns are still very traditional. The old center of Zhujiajiao, for instance, has been painstakingly preserved as an example of a Chinese "water village," or canal town.

The town was built on a river delta about 1,700 years ago, then rebuilt several times over the centuries. The natural waterways of the delta have all been channeled to serve as the town's main "roads," a la Venice.

(For the record: this being China, the population of Zhujiajiao "village" is actually about 60,000.)

Zhujiajiao is also a great place to see examples of traditional Chinese bridge-building. Most bridges in China are engineered to have that high peak in the middle, with a series of arches of variable size supporting the footpath.
Below: Zhujiajiao taxi drivers.
The bridge shot above, and the shot of the bell tower below, were both taken from one of these taxis.
Zhujiajiao is also home to the famous Ma Family Garden, built by one of the local magistrates. Both the pond and the laughing Buddha below are popular photo spots.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Today is Justin and my 2nd anniversary. According to Wikipedia, that means we're supposed to give paper, or cotton, or possibly china, depending on who you listen to. I've decided to play it safe and get Justin a lolcat.

I love you, honey!

Shipping shenanigans

Last year we had some stupid problems with our shipment coming to Korea, when the company left it in the warehouse for four weeks instead of shipping it to us and then tried to bill us for the weeks of storage. So we determined that this time, we'd try to be as thorough as possible, and have a shenanigan-free shipping experience.

It was all going so well last week. We found a shipper, got a reasonable quote for door-to-port shipping (since we don't have an address in Edinburgh, we're going to have to arrange for delivery there), and arranged for a pickup.

Then we found out today that the quote, which is for moving our stuff from Korea to the UK, does not include UK customs clearance. And that the fee for customs, if we choose to add it, will almost double the original quote? Oh, and did we mention that the port is not Edinburgh, but Felixstowe, which is next to freaking London, so that even if we wanted to do the customs stuff ourselves, it would take nearly a day of round-trip traveling to get there?

Choice 1) pay ludicrous fee and get on with life
Choice 2) travel with 900 pounds of luggage, paying ludicrous airline fees
Choice 3) mail boxes to US surface-rate and then mail to Edinburgh, producing ludicrous amounts of manual labor
Choice 4) attempt to secure local UK customs expediters, preferably at less than ludicrous quoted rate
Choice 5) set fire to all items, necessitating ludicrous amounts of shopping

I am leaning towards Choice 5.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Movin' on out

Apologies for the sparse blogging. We're in the midst of move-out and things are alternately so hectic we can't blog and so dead we can't bring ourselves to do anything but recover. It's run, run, run, and then play video games for four hours straight to anesthetize our brains.

So that this post won't be a total waste of space - I was ruminating on this end-of-year stress in the context of a topic called allostatic load - apologies for a Wikipedia link on a medical topic, but it's the only thing written in manageable English. This is the idea, as my mangled history-major brain processed it, that when you're chronically under stress, your body remains at an elevated level of stress hormones regardless of whether or not the immediate circumstances call for it. If anybody reads this with medical info (Mike?) and can elaborate or correct me, go for it. I'll come to your blog and proofread your assertions about 19th century military terminology.

Allostatic load has been studied in female teachers and found to be connected to exhaustion and health conditions. The abstract, which I confess is not only all I read, but all I'm likely to understand, can be found here. Another study found that both male and female teachers suffering from high stress did not show reduced blood pressure during less stressful evening (off-work) hours; the researchers theorize that allostatic load keeps blood pressure high regardless of immediate stimuli. Again, abstract only, can be found here.

It piqued my interest for many reasons. One is the long-debated question of how long a summer vacation should be, or indeed whether a vacation of any length is ideal for learning. I can tell you right away that if I did not have summer off, my teaching would rapidly drop to what Harry Wong calls "survival mode" teaching: movies, handouts, reading; whatever it takes to get through the period. Psychologically, by the end of the year, I have ceased to feel "fresh." Major projects and innovative unit ideas - a Casablanca essay on political symbolism cross-curricularized with English, or a demographic study of correlation and causation using CIA World Factbook and Microsoft Excel - would disappear from my curriculum on the grounds that "I just don't have the energy."

(I know, I know - teachers get more vacation hours than other jobs. .But having been in both a desk job - consulting - and secondary teaching, I can make a pretty good comparison. Justin and I calculated once that with after-school activities, grading, and lesson planning, we often worked a sixty-five or seventy hour week, which means that every week, we nearly doubled a standard forty hour workweek. By the end of the school year, we've already worked those twelve weeks off, plus extra. And hours spent in front of kids are more intense than hours spent at a workplace surrounded by adults by a factor of a squillion. You must watch every single word that comes out of your mouth, lest you be responsible for somebody's childhood trauma. You must be eternally positive and optimistic - try asking for THAT from a typical workplace. You have to have enough energy to drag students with you into whatever you're teaching. It's like being on stage for nine hours straight.)

Pardon the derailment. Anyway. Another reason I'm interested in allostatic load is that it provides physical data to back up that psychological feeling of fatigue. I've spent the last two afternoons flat on my back; migraine yesterday and sinus/weather headache today. I've probably slept twenty-six hours out of the last forty-eight. I like allostatic load because it proposed the idea that I'm in some form of stress-hormone detox, as opposed to the idea that I'm just a wussbag who needs to get up and do something productive.

So. Summer vacation - maybe not perfect for students (although there are allostatic load studies of young people, which I haven't examined, which may support the thoery that they too need time to detox from stress). But as a teacher, I would not be able to survive without it. You don't want pilots flying your planes without sleep. You don't want doctors doing surgery every day, even if there are enough patients. Do you want your kids taught by people who are concentrating on standing in front of the class without falling over?

PS. No medical skills. No medical abilities. No information about allostatic load other than what's cited here. But if it's not allostatic load kicking my backside, it's sure something.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Clothing charades

This one goes out to Justin's family and their Christmastime games of charades: do you think you could pantomime:

1) Please remove these ribbons from this blazer
2) Please shorten the sleeves three inches
3) Please remove the snap and replace with three buttons and buttonholes
4) Please reline this blazer.

I call total success on 1, 3, and 4, and partial success on 2 - the sleeves came out a bit shorter than I had anticipated, but I think that's me having estimated the length wrong.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Shanghai: Opera School and Yuyuan Garden

Consider this a follow-up to Nana's last post on academic pressure in Korea: on the first full day of the 9th grade class trip to Shanghai, we visited two veritable shrines to academic success as the foundation of filial piety--namely, the Shanghai Opera School and the Yuyuan Garden.

Shangahi Opera School

In the morning, we took a tour of the Shanghai Opera School, a boarding school where students aged (roughly) 8-16, in addition to their academic studies, learn the range of skills necessary to perform classical Chinese opera.

In other words, they learn singing, gymnastics, stylized martial arts, stylized operatic diction, costume-making--even how to apply their elaborate makeup. If the demonstration performance they showed us is any indication, by the time the kids are 16, they're really exceptionally skilled.

The shots above and below are from a beloved farce scene in the classical opera literature. The figure in white is the bodyguard of a popular general. The figure in black is an innkeeper who mistakenly thinks the bodyguard is an assassin. The conceit is that they're fighting in pitch dark, so neither can see the other.

Even so many hundreds of years after it was written--still hilarious!

Yuyuan Garden

Our second stop that day was Yuyuan Garden, a few blocks off the river near the Bund. It is a classic Chinese city garden, rambling and shady, rocky and green.
The garden was meticulously built over the span of several decades by a Ming-dynasty official for his beloved father, also a high-ranking Ming official. Back then (and even today, to a degree), it's assumed the first-born son will assume responsibility for the care of his parents in their old age, and this fellow went above and beyond the call of duty.

He got the money to do so, of course, by acing his exams. No joke--the modern East Asian exam system dates back to the old Chinese imperial exams, which secured top performers lucrative and powerful positions in the government.

Apparently this is the #1 destination for school trips to Shanghai.

So let that be a lesson, kiddos. If you don't mind letting your parents starve in the gutter, sure, keep playing that video game. Otherwise, crack open those books!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The International Educator article: "Korean student despairs over intense academic pressure"

"Korean student despairs over intense academic pressure," by Hyung-Tak Han, a student at Jakarta International School, appeared in the April 2009 edition of The International Educator, a trade paper for... international educators. (And I teach writing?) I thought it provided some interesting perspective.
Some manage to survive in this world [Korean schooling] and get into their dream college, but others end up in a coffin or as ashes flowing on the Han River.
Ouch. Really, ouch. But this point (although delivered a bit melodramatically) has some basis in fact: there are high teen suicide rates in Korea. Han later argues that they have "the highest rate of suicide at college and universities," but I don't have a citation to back that up. I wrote about teen suicide before here.
Since the day they enter primary school, Korean students are manipulated and brainwashed into going to institutes, where they learn matematics, science, social studies, and even how to take stantadized tests. At dawn, on the streets of Korea are twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, carrying stuffed backpacks as they travel back and forth from home to these institutes [aka hagwons]
Personally, I'm a big opponent of the hagwon system (more comments at the link above). If your school doesn't offer clarinet, okay, go to a clarinet hagwon, but you don't ALSO need a literature hagwon, a math hagwon, and a science hagwon, for one hour each, all on the same night. I know elementary students who don't get home until midnight. And hagwons are often completley ineffective. Since grades there don't count, hagwon teachers tell me they have no way to create a learning environment. Many kids in my building are hagwon English students who can't say anything besides the obligatory "Hello! Nice to meet you!" hollered across the playground.

There's pressure on parents to send their kids. Sometimes it's as a rival form of conspicuous consumption ("My child goes to FOUR hagwons" can be the Korean equivalent of "Check out my new Lexus!", and sometimes costs as much). More often, I think, it's well-intentioned fear of not doing right by their child, of failing as a parent by letting their child fall behind. These parents respond well to our explanation that being too busy is actually a disservice to the child's education and health. So I agree with Han that hagwon pressure exists and can be really crushing for the student and the parents, emotionally and financially, but I've seen willingness by parents to reduce the load. Fewer hagwons but more learning at each.
For a Korean student, a 90 percent on a test should be hidden, crunched up insaide [sic] their backpack. Because perfection is the expectation of a typical Korean parent.
Obviously, I can't give examples and violate student confidentiality, but this was one stereotype that did not come true for Justin and me. I've had students and parents who freaked out at perfectly reasonable grades, but I've also had students and parents who accepted low marks, both for students doing their best and for students who were underachieving. If I were Jamie and Adam, I would proclaim this myth BUSTED.
Some school counselors say that high SAT scores are merely something for parents to brag about to other parents.... Moreover, parents seem to know more than their children do about their schoolmates, what their SAT's [sic] are, the kinds of grades they get, and the colleges they are applying to, etc. Nothing hurts us more than those kinds of comparisons.
Qualified agreement. There is pressure on parents to have successful children. The Korean language, for instance, has many, many verb conjugations used to indicate your level of respect for the person you're speaking with: not just the "formal" and "informal" of Spanish or German, but a whole gamut of conjugations. Usually these are dependent on age, but I've been told that parents of students may use their child's class rank to determine which parent "ranks" the others and thereby earns a more respectful conjugation. My Korean remains less than basic, so I can't confirm this personally.

I've had many parents ask me for their student's class rank at conferences (my general answer: "There are some higher and some lower," and just hope those two end parents don't ask!) But I've also had parents respond very positively to a nudge to think only in terms of their student's progress against him or herself, to look at grade change over time or skills improvement in writing and such. I wonder sometimes if they might be secretly relieved not to have that information.
It's ironic that parents educate their sons and daughters to be successful but they don't educate them to be satisfied with what they have. Is it possible to be successful without satisfaction?
I love this quote because it goes massively beyond Korean education, Korean parenting, or even Korea. Every parent and every teacher - and every person - in the whole world could stand to take a step back and ask, "I'm trying to get ahead? Ahead to where? Can I just get there and stop?" I'm not implying it's a modern problem - heck, Buddha made "giving up wants" one of his Four Noble Truths. We could probably all use a refresher on that. I know Justin and I have been pondering it as we decide whether or not to pursue PhDs - would we be doing it for us, or to compete with other people?

Han is correct, though, that there is an extra cultural burden on Koreans to keep pushing ahead. I recommend the excellent cultural/historical comic book Korea Unmasked (if you can find it!) for that author's perspective on the Korean affinity for taking things to extremes.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reflections: Top Ten Meals in Asia

(Note: Justin and I had this conversation over our Gmail messengers. I cleaned it up for coherence and added the hotlinks. Any errors are probably original, but I did improve the grammar/spelling that we rushed for time. And now, prepare to get much more inside our relationship than you ever probably wanted to be!)

Nana: We'll go your 5, my 5, your 4, my 4

Justin: sounds good. ready? 5. Onion naan and dipping sauces in Little India, Singapore

Nana: Ah. That's higher on mine. It was darn good.

Justin: More of a snack, I guess, but I'm counting it as a meal. I liked how light it was. The naan was spongy, the consistency of that Ethiopian bread. And the raw onions cut through the oil in the sauces.

Justin: The chana masala sauce was probably the best I've ever had

Nana: Yes. That's why it's higher on mine. My #5 is Japanese-style soy ramen with egg, Tokyo, Japan.

Justin: I thought about putting Tokyo-style ramen on my list. It was, like, 5a

Nana: I could drink that broth forever. I feel very strongly about salt.

Justin: Japanese ramen is so rich and subtle. There's a lot going on.

Nana: I still have cravings for it. And then I go get Korean ramen, and I am so depressed, because it's not even vaguely alike.

Nana: And the egg! Sort of semi-hard boiled. A perfect yolk.

Justin: Mine had egg-drop-style egg, and some fried tofu in it, and a big slice of mildly salted pork

Nana: I had mine at a Tokyo Disney hotel food court, so maybe my love is also connected to my DisneyJoy

Justin: actually, the ramen we had in hokkaido was as good, I think

Nana: I don't remember Ramen in Hokkaido

Justin: at the ski lodge

Nana: Oh, yes. Good, but not as good as my Tokyo ramen.

Justin: then again, everything tastes better after you've spent a morning in waist-deep powder!

Nana: Or spent the day at DisneySea!

Justin: okay, moving up the list: 4. Beef wanggalbi with Dr. Kim last weekend. A recent entry

Nana: Ah! My #4 is also Korean BBQ!

Justin: Which one? The one on the way to Vivaldi Park?

Nana: I couldn't pick - I'm bad. That was one of the three. Vivaldi Park BBQ, the orange Hagye restaurant, and the wood paneled restaurant here in Wolgye

Nana: The wood one is better for Samgipsal and the egg souffle

Justin: I never liked that one quite as much . . . though they DO have the best samgyeopsal

Nana: I love the gaedanjip/egg soufflé and the mushrooms. And that is the best samgipsal I've had in Korea.

Justin: I think I like galbi stuff better overall, so I lean towards the places with good galbi

Nana: Dr. Kim's had the best side dishes, I think.

Justin: Dr. Kim's place, though, wasn't just about the meat--those were the best Korean side-dishes

Nana: Ha! Read my mind!

Justin: I loved that spicy salad . . . the pickles . . . the pumpkin

Nana: What was the other one I liked so much... Oh, the horseradish (If that's what it was in English)

Justin: And that naengmyeon was incredible--I didn't even know there could be a difference with naengmyeon until then!

Nana: Yes, that was the best of that. But it wasn't as good as Japanese ramen!

Justin: I don't know--overall meal, I'd repeat Dr. Kim's KBBQ before I'd repeat the Tokyo ramen.

Nana: See, now that I think about it, I totally might switch ramen over barbecue

Justin: anyway- #3: Mongolian hotpot (in Beijing and in Shanghai)

Nana: DANG! That was on my list yesterday and I forgot it today! Good thing you're representing!

Justin: I love spicy food, and I'm a complete sucker for lamb--those lamb meatballs, mildly spiced--those things are delicious

Nana: I like the lotus root. It stays nice and crunchy

Justin: I liked the one I went to in Shanghai a bit better, I think, because you got to mix your own spicy sauce. I added a little sesame oil to mine, to round out the spice, and it was awesome. But the noodles at the beijing place were crazy, how they pulled them at the table.

Nana: I'm totally watching the video of that now (NOTE: At the above "Mongolian Hotpot" link)

Justin: The Shanghai place didn't serve noodles at the end--I missed that. So I kind of couldn't choose between the two. Oh, also--the broth was lighter in shanghai, not as oily. It meant you could eat more meat before getting full.

Nana: My #3 choice was the Chinese food meal we had that night in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Justin: oh, that was a good one. I forgot about that.

Nana: I really enjoyed the sweet and sour/hot shrimp, and I love teh tariq

Justin: Yeah, it was just very good, mild, simple Chinese food

Nana: and I loved playing with the stirrer with Gia and coming up with stupid things it might be, like a microphone or a miniature flagpole. They made very good fried rice, if I recall

Justin: oh, no--you're talking about a different night. Not the place in Chinatown?

Nana: No, not the little corner place. The big one with the lazy susan, where we all went as a groop.

Justin: The place in the mall by the Petronas Towers

Nana: Yes

Justin: he he, groop

Nana: Shut up. You spell "hee hee" wrong.

Justin: yeah, though that was more of a fusion place--they had Malay dishes, too

not just Chinese

Nana: That's why it was a good place. Lots of variety, and everything was good

Justin: I loved the beef rending, though it had coconut, so you couldn't eat it

Nana: That's not the dish's fault, though.

Justin: true

Nana: The strange thing is, I don't remember too many individual dishes from that night. (a hazard of dining out with Dr. Kim and his shotgun-spread approach to ordering). But I remember being thoroughly pleased with it.

Justin: man, I should have remembered that one. Though I don't know what it would have bumped from my list . . .

Nana: It's okay, we can poach from each other.

Justin: anyway-ready for #2?

Nana: Yes

Justin: #2: Sushi in Hokkaido

Nana: That's my number one. We'll have nothing to say about it when we get there. Thanks a lot.

Justin: The. best. sushi. I. have. ever. eaten.

Nana: Absolutely.

Justin: let's leave it at that for now.

Nana: Okay. My number two, though, we also talked about. It was the chana masala/poori combination in Little India, Singapore.

Justin: the onion naan?

Nana: No, I didn't like the onion naan as much.

Justin: yeah! We had poori, too. I forgot that

Nana: That chana masala was unbelievable. Chick peas are so frequently bitter, but they were butter-sweet.

Justin: yeah, the chana masala was the platonic ideal of chana masala. Sweet, a bit of sour, still that tangy-salty-mildly-spicy thing you get

Nana: If we lived in Singapore, I'd go there every week. I'd eat my way through the entire menu. And then go to that dessert place.

Justin: absolutely. I was torn between that place and the murtabak, but I liked the onion naan better

Nana: Okay. Your #1. I know it!

Nana: Your #1 is going to be Xinjiang food.

Justin: I know you know it! #1 XINJIANG FOOD

Nana: Ha!

Justin: it was like FOOD and GEOGRAPHY ALL IN ONE

Nana: Did you guess that mine would be the sushi?

Justin: Yeah, I knew yours would be sushi

Nana: I think I would love that restaurant more if we went back and ordered some less spicy dishes. And also if I didn't have a fever. I do remember that the bread was unbelievable.

Justin: There were just so many different flavors on the table. Chinese flavors, Indian flavors, middle eastern flavors, blended in so many unusual ways

Nana: It was a thick, spongy, almost focaccia-style bread, which I didn't expect

Justin: oh yeah, the bread. Like turkish bread

Nana: yes, that's it.

Justin: plus the little Chinese pocket bread, for the szechuan-style pork

Nana: I remember some terrific kabobs, right? Lamb.

Justin: Yeah, the lamb kebabs

Nana: You're such a sucker for lamb

Justin: wow. I am, aren't I?

Nana: Okay. My number one, Hokkaido sushi

Justin: yeah, it was a close second for me

Nana: I think this one wins overall champ, if you add up your placement and mine

Justin: It's actually difficult to describe why or how it was so darn good

Nana: I can! It was insanely fresh

Justin: But still tender--not chewy

Nana: The fish was sweeter than any fish I've had in sushi before or since

Justin: There were simply extra flavors in there somehow

Nana: Instead of a saltier fish in salty soy sauce, it was sweet fish in salty sauce with sweet rice and spicy mustard... it just combined so elegantly. I have to specifically shout out two sushi rolls: the mackerel first.

Nana: Which was not actually a roll, but whatever

Justin: yeah, I loved the mackerel

Justin: usually, you get mackerel and the fishy flavor is overpowering

Nana: yes, too fishy. But there it was perfectly savory

Justin: yeah, it was just right

Nana: And the other one was the Salmon roe

Justin: oh my yes

Nana: Never before and never since have I had salmon roe like that

Justin: yet again: often, it's overpoweringly fishy, but this stuff, the fishy stood to the side a bit, let the other flavors come out

Nana: Somehow it came out tasting sweet.

Justin: a bit of a champagne flavor in there, too. or sweet white wine. So good.

Nana: You bit down on the roe, and the texture was perfect - a perfect little pop - and out came this cold sweetness with just a hint of fishy. Fantastic.

Justin: Yeah, it's strange--those are two things I don't usually like at other sushi places, but they were absolutely my favorite things on the table

Nana: Okay. Now for the head smackers.

Justin: ?

Nana: The "D'oh, I forgot that!", or the "I'm surprised you didn't mention"s.

Nana: I'm surprised you didn't mention the Korean duck.

Justin: smack

Justin: I'd completely forgotten about that meal

Nana: You rhapsodized about that duck and the purple wild rice with beans that it was stuffed with.

Justin: That was really, really, really good. An unusually complicated flavor for Korean food--not bland, not sweet, not spicy

Nana: Sometimes, you call out its name in your sleep.

Justin: "DUCK!"

Justin: no, that's just my war flashback . . .

Nana: And I will never forget Naomi-sensei panicking because she thought we were going to a dog restaurant

Justin: oh, yeah. "duck" & "dog" = phoneticized the same way in hangeul

Nana: same as "tteok," too

Nana: The other thing, which doesn't really count for me probably because I had it the first time I came to Asia, was the Peking Duck in Beijing

Justin: Yeah, I toyed with the idea of including that, but it just didn't make the cut. It was a great meal, don't get me wrong--but I liked my five better

Nana: I really love Peking duck. The skin was so perfectly crispy, the pancakes were great and the scallions and hoisin sauce... yum yum

Justin: The hoisin sauce was really good.

Nana: whose dumb idea was it to have just five?

Nana: Oh, mine.

Justin: I don't know if I can think of any head-smackers for you

Nana: Chicken Tikka in KL?

Justin: maybe the Dongbei food in Beijing? The basement place with all the dumplings?

Nana: Barley rice?

Justin: we liked the barley rice, but I don't think it was top-5 material

Nana: The kaffir lime soup you had in Singapore?Again, good but not top five?

Justin: I was also tempted to include the mee siam (rice noodles in spicy-sweet kaffir lime broth)

Nana: HA

Justin: hey, I was just typing that

Nana: I can read minds.

Justin: yeah, it was really good, but I'm not sure it was quite top-5. It would be a staple of my diet if we lived in Singapore, that's for sure

Nana: OH. There was that OTHER Chinese food in Malaysia, too. The one we had the afternoon of the rainforest walk. That's the place with that pumpkin-battered chicken that I wanted to grow a second stomach so I could finish

Justin: oh, yeah. That was good. Wow! How'd we forget that?

Nana: I think it blurred for me with the other KL Chinese restaurant

Justin: that's going in at #6 for me

Nana: OH! And the Korean barbecue in Japan! Didn't you fall in love with the tripe?

Justin: oh, yeah, that was also really good.

Nana: So are you sticking to your choices or do you think you'd reorder anything after our conversation?

Justin: You know, I'm pretty satisfied with my list

Nana: Let's take a minute and use our conversation to expand to a top ten each, and we'll finish the post with that.

Justin: okay

Top Ten Meals in Asia: Justin

(Note from Justin: "My 1 and 2 are solid; 3-6 are a tier, followed by 7-10")

10. KBBQ in Japan--especially the tripe

9. Mee siam in Singapore

8. Breakfast curry and paratha in Singapore

7. Korean duck

6. The Chinese/Malay restaurant in KL we went to after the rainforest walk

5. Onion naan in Singapore

4. KBBQ with Dr. Kim

3. Mongolian hotpot

2. Sushi in Hokkaido

1. Xinjiang food in Beijing


Top Ten Meals in Asia: Nana

(Note from Nana: I'm pretty comfortable with 1 and 2, but 3-5, 6-8, and 9-10 could move around based on what I'm craving on a particular day.)

10. Korean duck with wild rice, Korean countryside, Korea
9. Korean barbecue - Hagye/Wolgye versions
8. Malaysian mix dinner, mall by Petronas Towers, KL, Malaysia
7. Ethnic Chinese food lunch post-Rainforest Walk, KL, Malaysia
6. Korean barbecue - en route to Vivaldi Park, Korea
5. Japanese-style soy ramen with egg, Tokyo, Japan
4. Peking Duck, Beijing, China
3. Chinese hotpot, Beijing, China
2. Chana masala and poori, Little India, Singapore
1. Japanese sushi, Hokkaido, Japan

So, the overall verdict for travelers to Asia? In Korea, try the BBQ. In Japan, get ramen or sushi. In China, check out the different regional foods - Mongolian, Dongbei/Northern, Xinjiang, etc. In Singapore, hit up Little India. In Malaysia, try for a Chinese restaurant with a mixed menu.

PHEW. So there you have it: we're a couple of amateur-foodie windbags (which may or may not be related to what's in the food...) But it was a really fun trip down memory lane for us, so I hope we weren't too self-indulgent.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Shanghai: Pudong Downtown

(This post is part of a series on my trip with the 9th grade to Shanghai in May 2009.)

In May, I helped chaperone the 9th grade school trip to Shanghai. We had a much lower turnout, proportionately, than last year's Japan trip, in part owing to the students' general lack of interest in visiting China. Without saying so directly, the students who elected not to go made their reasons pretty clear: China, they seemed to think, is the land of swine flu and melamine, a sprawling slum that dwarfs Mumbai, an impoverished Communist police state like North Korea, only larger and dirtier.

Even the students who came on the trip, it seemed, expected to get food poisoning from every morsel of food that passed their lips, and as such came equipped with entire suitcases full of ramen and Spam (both available, mind you, in any Chinese grocery--and both exported to Korea from China, of course).

So it was a stroke of good luck that our first sightseeing stop in Shanghai was the Pudong ("east of the river") section of downtown, seen above at night.

Pudong is home to two of the four tallest buildings in Asia (the others being Taipei 101 in Taiwan an the Petronas Towers in Malaysia), and by 2012 it will be home to three of the five.

The tallest building in Shanghai is the Shanghai World Financial Center, which features the highest public observation deck in the world.

Here's a view from the Financial Center observation deck, showing the second tallest building in Shanghai, the Jin Mao building (foreground), with the iconic Shanghai TV Tower in the background.
Oh, and those little white boxes in the Financial Center photo above? Window washers.
How would you like that job?

Here's a clearer shot of the TV Tower from street level at the Financial Center.
And here's a shot of the Jin Mao building and the Financial Center from the Puxi district, on the other side of the river.Needless to say, the students were quickly disabused of their misconceptions about Shanghai. Of course, the fact that we stopped for ice cream at a Cold Stone Creamery after lunch--and no one died of melamine poisoning--certainly helped.

More on the trip coming soon.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Wolgye Warrens, Part II: Details, Details

I separated out some of my images from the original Walk in the Dong post to discuss separately, as architectural details. First, we have the Korean roof tiling:

Not much to say about it because I don't know much about it, but I think it's pretty.

Next up, Korean gates. The homes are courtyard-style, as I've said, so you have a big courtyard gate instead of a front door to the home. Some are completly solid and plain, but that's boring, so I didn't take pictures. Here's one that seems to evoke Chinese moon gates, only in the negative (solid where moon gates are hollow):

Here's a more ornate, scroll-y one.

No brilliant insights from me. Moving on! Here's a door from a distance, and then a closeup of the decorative panel:

These, I actually can comment on, thanks to a Royal Asiatic Society trip to the Museum of Korean Embroidery. There are, in the East, ten traditional symbols for longevity, which may be presented all in one work, or in matched pairs. The pairs are, in no particular order,

1. Sun and clouds
2. Crane and pine
3. Deer and "plant of eternal youth;" I don't know what it is in English, but it's the spiky thing behind the deer in the picture there
4. Tortoise and waves
5. Rock and bamboo

In the panel above, you can see the first three: sun/clouds, crane/pine, and deer/plant.

I would cite that information correctly, but the citation would be (Huh), and I think that would confuse readers. So I will say that it comes from the book Crafts of the Inner Court, by Huh Dong-hwa, published by the Museum of Korean Embroidery and purchased by me there.

(On a side note, the museum is small but worth visiting just to get a crack at their textile library. Unfortunately, the hours suck: they close at four and are only open on weekdays. So keep your eyes open for the RAS annual tour, when they have a special Saturday opening just for the RAS group. I also recommend the Chung Young Yang Embroidery Museum at Sookmyung Women's University; free admission, and more great books, including in English).

Another door panel, about which I have nothing to say:

This is a gate door handle.

I theorize that the circle-and-square means that it's in imitation of a Chinese coin. The bottom character is means "peace" in Chinese, and the top one is pronounced "chang" but I'm not sure what it means in this context. Longevity, maybe? Whatever Chinese skills I once possessed have faded after three years. If anybody reading this knows these characters, I'd love to hear.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

8th Grade Graduation

The 8th grade parents put together a lovely graduation party evening for the kids as they moved from middle to high school. I was so amazed to see all the kids dressed up - the girls in particular looked so grown up and beautiful. I don't know if there was a parent in the room who was prouder or schmuckier than me :)

After dinner, a PowerPoint of kids's photos and the film of the Japan trip, we had some great awkward middle school dancing. The students became acquainted with my mad Hokey Pokey skills, which date back to my freshman year of college, when my roommate Connie used to put it on and we'd all go running into the common room to do it for a study break. (We also declared a mandatory moratorium on academics whenever the movie Selena came on television, which for some reason happened like nine times that year). I also do a mean YMCA, but my chicken dance skills pale in comparison with the master: Justin's mom. Kath, I salute you!

Here's Justin and me. Seeing as I went to holiday dances, decade dances, and even my junior and senior proms with my female friends, this is the first picture I've ever had with myself and a male at a school dance. (One might have been taken when I went to one at another school but I never saw it). And I had to be on the faculty to get there. Sad, really.Here I am with Naomi Sensei, of the Japan Trip and Disneyjoy. When I make a list of the coolest people I've ever been lucky enough to know, she'll be in my top five.

All in all, a terrific evening.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

One Day More!

Tomorrow is the last day of school at APIS, and Justin and my last day as full-time teachers (we will be teaching summer school here until mid July). I anticipate that I will cry. A lot. I'm a mushbag. Plus, I'm totally crazy about some of my kids.

I can't really believe it's over. Not because it seems like it went fast, but because we've been going flat-out for what feels like a squillion years, and I can't believe it's about to stop. I've gotten home these last few nights and looked around trying to figure out why I didn't have anything to grade.

Ah, well- soon we'll be packing and moving. That ought to keep us busy!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Wolgye Warrens, or A Walk In The Dong

We live in Wolgye-dong (월계동) in Nowon-gu, on the north side of Seoul. Wolgye means, as best I can translate, "Moon Creek," while Nowon means "Field of Reeds." As a commuter hub, Nowon is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, chock full of 15-story apartment buildings.

But Wolgye also retains a holdover from older-style Korean life. I'm sure it has a name in Korean - the best analog I can think of is the "hutong," the traditional Chinese neighborhoods of Beijing. It is a maze of Korean flat-roofed courtyard homes which I suspect may, in the not-too-distant-future, become a thing of the past in Seoul.

(Sample Korean older-skool house, with sample Korean huge apartment towers in the background. Note flat roofs, which seriously confuse those of us who come from the land of the ice and snow. Note outdoor staircase, which probably confuses everybody. Seriously, I have no idea why it's designed like that. Maybe the second floor belongs to a different family?).

The Wolgye Warrens have a special place in my heart, because it's the only place in the world where I can navigate more effectively than Justin. He's got spectacular compass navigation but is completely unable to remember which turns dead-end and which ones go through, and in which parts you have to go backward in order to go forward (you'd think, as a Pittsburgher, he'd be good at this, but no!). So while Justin was in Shanghai, I took a camera with me and documented my walking path to school. Follow along!

This is the bakery where we wait for the bus. The Korean name is "Moong Ma Cake House." According to our Korean teacher Emily, this is the mangled Konglaise (Korean + Francaise) spelling of "Monmartre."

Parts of the Warrens are quite starkly gray, but you will start to see peeks of color in the spring. Flat-topped roofs, for instance, can support vegetable gardens...

... potted plants...

... or a cascade of flowers:

"Say," you may be thinking, as you look at these pictures. "How did those cars get there on that skinny little street? More importantly, how do they get back out again?" (You're a very observant reader!) Well, if you take a closer look in the front window of one of those cars, you might see something like this:

Each car has the cell phone number of the owner displayed on the dash. If the car is parking you in, whip out your phone and call them to move it! What happens if the person is asleep, or in the shower, or otherwise occupied? No idea. It's a 90% solution (scroll about 1/2 down), a specialty of Korea.

You emerge from the Warrens at Induk Institute of Technology. See what I mean about the giant apartment towers?

Here's the crosswalk, with its countdown arrows. Unlike in the U.S., the second the last arrow goes, the traffic light turns green, so you better get your little foreign butt out of the intersection posthasete.

The green pill-shaped bus in this picture is the 1160, the bus I usually take to school because I'm too lazy to walk. This is a rare shot of Seoul dominated by green. I also risked my life to take it, so you better be darn sure it's going on the blog.

Then it's a right turn up the hill, where earlier this spring, the city ripped up all the leafy sycamores and replaced them with scrubby cherry tree saplings. Yeah, it'll be nice for one week in the spring, but sycamores are better for shade and air quality. I don't really think it's worth it. This is not the first time I have disagreed with Korean environmental practices.

Bleeding hearts on the side of the building:

Then there's a sharp left turn, and you go up this wind-y path skirting the edge of a hillside.

This is probably the only Korean picture in the history of time when I can read every Korean word in it. It says, "School entrance. Slow." Woo-hoo!

To get to the school in question, you must pass the church (note mountains in the distance, v. confusing for Ohioan):

Then you will find the school, apparently painted in 1950s army surplus. Notice that their soccer field is, like ours, just a big pile of sand:

This is Wolgye Middle School. We see these kids on the bus all the time. You can pick them out because a) they're the ones with Burberry plaid as their uniform skirt and b) they won't give their seats up to the elderly. Not that anybody is good at that here.

And at the bottom of the hill, you'll come to our main gate, and the APIS main building! Hurray!

And now you know how to get from my house to the school. Wasn't that fun?