Friday, June 24, 2011

6.24.11 The Great Escape

In our experience, Korean students are good kids - but they are by no means perfect angels. Allow me to explain...

Girl A and Girl B are middle-schoolers in my class. Though smart and adorable, they wreak all kinds of havoc: ceaselessly talking in Korean (which is against school policy), showing up late, and recently, completely derailing class debates. Their behavior worsened significantly yesterday, when Linus and I were baby-sitting our friend Kate's class so that she could attend her father's birthday party.

Girls A and B showed up, and were told that they were supposed to be in another teacher's room. I sensed trouble as they darted out the door - no children look THAT happy when they're actually on their way to class.

Sure enough, I caught them in a darkened, empty room.

"How stupid do you think I am?" I demanded.

There was the requisite whining, and then: "We have to go to the bathroom!"

"Then go," I said. And then I stood in the hall, arms crossed.

The looks on their faces when they came out of the bathroom to find me guarding the exit were priceless. I literally shepherded them into their assigned classroom, much to their dismay.

Class went without a hitch until break-time. I was just about to get back to work when I saw a familiar figure trying to hide in the recessed elevator doors.

"OUT," I said. Girl A came out stomping and swearing in Korean.

The school didn't need me to stay, so about five minutes later I entered the stairwell. Instead of going downstairs, however, I stayed in the darkened hall for a minute. I had a hunch.

Sure enough, down the hall came Girl A, creeping, Mission-Impossible-style, with her back against the wall.

I called her name and she screamed.

"Ugh! Teacher, why? We aren't even in your class!"

"No," I said, as I escorted her back to her classroom, "but you're still my student."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

6.22.11 Thinking on the Run

Running is not a common activity here. The few Koreans who run generally go to a track or they run on a treadmill at the gym. They don't run at night, and they don't usually run without wearing visors, masks, long sleeves, gloves, and track pants to protect them from the sun. They certanly don't stick their hairy legs in a pair of shorts, put on Vibram Fivefingers (AKA "Gorilla Feet") and pound the pavement at 11:30PM with a hyperactive Jack Russell.

While doing just that tonight, something very odd occurred to me. I am more comfortable being an alien.

Back in the US, I was a native but an outsider (note: uber-liberal Buddhists should not go to school in Wyoming, regardless of how afordable the tuition is). I knew that the bulk of the people around me saw me and the few folks like me as wrongheaded, unrealistic, helbound, and/or socialist/communist/fascist etc. In some circles, my kilt wearing even branded me a deviant. I alternated between trying to be an ambassador for the worldview I believe in, and ranting at the ignorant, discompassionate, and outright stupid prevailing mindset of the locals.

Ok, I admit that mostly I ranted, but at a certain point I realized that all the anger just made me a focus for essentialism, and then I felt obligated to try to be a better representative of my side. For me, that involved a lot of teeth gritting and counting to ten as people around me espoused all manner of bigoted and ill-informed tripe. It was exhausting, ultimately futile, and I didn't care for the vigilant/defensive posture it forced me into. In short, it was untenable.

In Korea, however, I am relieved of all that. With my blonde hair, blue eyes, and 2XL shirt size I am clearly, visibly, an outsider, and thus no one expects me to know all of the rules or behave in the conventional manner. In fact, their expectations are so low that I get major brownie points every time I demonstrate even the most rudimentary understanding of Korean language or culture. In a shop or a restaurant, if I manage any Korean beyond hello or goodbye, I get a surprised smile and doting service. If I remember to bow slightly and offer payment with both hands then I am treated with the utmost politeness - even if I drank from the fingerbowl and used chopsticks to eat rice (the latter is apparently very rude... sometimes. We still aren't clear on this one).

It may be a sad commentary on the behavior of other Westerners who came here before us, but is remarkably freeing to know that your behavior is expected to be odd. To most Koreans we are just another couple of crazy waygookin teachers. To the shopkeepers in our neighborhood, we are the Americans with the spastic dog. Either way, we stand comfortably outside the rules. As long as we make even minimal attempts to assimilate, we are accepted as we are. It allows me to be myself in a way I never felt able to pursue in the US. I had to leave home to feel at home.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

6.21.11 How to Get Food in Korea, Part II

Earlier we gave you the run-down on some different kinds of Korean restaurants - now it's time to get to the eatin'.

First thing to do when you walk in the door: scan the room rapidly until you locate an employee, then sing out a nice loud, "Anyong hasseyo!" in their direction. If you can't see an employee, just say the same thing, but louder - someone will usually emerge from a back room. This rule actually applies to any store you enter, not just restaurants. Koreans are a friendly people, and their convenience store employees and waiters generally object to being treated like part of the furniture (this is especially interesting when you cinsider that Korea is a country in which tipping of any kind is usually considered an insult).

Next, find a table. Unless you're eating at an expensive restaurant, you're expected to seat yourself. If you choose to sit at a traditional low table, there is often a little pile of cushions near the wall. Take one and get comfy.

There's either a menu already on the table, or a waiter will bring you one. If it has some English on it, you're in luck! If it's not, look at the walls - lots of restaurants post yummy-looking pictures of food to inspire the appetite, and you can point at what you want and tell the waiter, "Chogo jom jusseyo" (please bring me that). No English and no pictures? Then it's time to play what I call the "The Point at Something Random in the Menu" game. Linus prefers to call it the "I Pointed at WHAT?" game. Just try not to accidentally order anything too expensive.

Don't wait for the waiter to come to you. If you want to order, just raise your hand and say, "Yogiyo!" ("Here!") or "Shillehamnida!" ("Excuse me!"). Some restaurants even come equipped with a little button on the table, which when pressed will automatically summon a waiter, no shouting and gesturing required.

Once you've given your order, you can get your water and silverware. Chopsticks and spoons are located in a box on the table. Water is usually self-service. Look for an office-style water dispenser next to a UV sterilizer full of little metal tumblers. If you are brought water, it's generally in a big bottle, which is nice because you'll have to refill the tiny metal cups about three times during your meal (or, if you're like Linus, you should just sit right next to the water cooler).

After you've ordered, side dishes will be brought to your table. No matter what else comes, there will always be mat (cabbage) kimchi. If you're like us, you'll become a connoisseur of kimchi in a matter of days - I prefer mine spicy, juicy, and with enough fermentation to sizzle a little in the mouth. Also frequently offered are various kinds of fermented radishes, fermented radish tops, small salty fish, a variation on coleslaw with disturbing pink dressing, corn, clear soup, boiled fish paste (much tastier than it sounds), fermented tofu, acorn tofu, dried fruit stuff, bean sprouts, little sausages, sweet pickles, noodle-things, and if you're really lucky, the best, freshest fried eggs you've ever had.

If you spill on yourself while stuffing all this deliciousness in your mouth, you'll need to get your own napkin. Napkins come in dispensers, like tissue. Sometimes these dispensers are on the table, but sometimes they're on the wall, on the other side of the restaurant, and you have to get up and go get one, which can be kind of embarrassing when you've just splattered kimchi all over your white skirt.

Since Linus dumped all the photos of food, I don't have any pretty illustrations for this post. So, um, here is a cute Korean girl.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

6.14.11 Consider yourself well in...

When you hear the word "orphanage" you probably think of a curly-haired kid named Annie, or maybe Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger. Since orphanages have all but disappeared in the U.S. in favor of group homes and foster care, the romanticized musical theatre versions of these characters are all that most Americans know of orphans. In Korea, however, orphanages are still common. Rebecca and I volunteered at an orphanage in Jeonju last Saturday. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the whole experience was surprising.

There were none of the deprivations of orphanage life that you might expect. All of the 40 or so kids we saw were well fed, clean, and comfortably dressed. As with any group of children there was the 5% who are either crying or refusing to cooperate, but the majority of the kids were great - happy, friendly, and glad to be playing outdoors in the sun. Ordinarily, we would have taken pictures, but photography is prohibited to protect the kids' identities.

We played kickball, dodgeball, and had some three-legged races with the kids, then finished up with a balloon stomp.  A few had some pretty annoying behavioral problems; aggressive and recalcitrant, they attempted to run all of the activities to their liking. All of the games invovled significant cheating and an uncomfortable amount of bullying. I imagine this is an outgrowth of the orphanage lifestyle. It seemed there was a clear-cut pecking order beyond the normal stratification of kids by age and gender. There was one boy in particular who seemed to be the boss of the place, and he ruled by threats that he seemed willing to back up. He knew exactly when the adults were far enough away to assert his authority, and he was completely unrepentent when confronted about his thuggery. It was a pretty sobering reminder of how much staff it takes to handle a pack of kids this size. A government that takes on this responsibility has a huge, expensive job at hand.

I urge all of you to do what you can for kids who are wards of the state in your area. Please donate money, clothes, toys, and your time if you can. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

6.9.11 Picture Dump

I've been blogging for quite a while now, and this has happened to me before. You take a couple pictures that you want to put up, and you plan to write a really awesome post to go with them... but then you (insert random timesink here). After that is done you want to post, but you have taken several more cool photos, and you have a cool experience to share - you realize it will take several posts. You plan to write three or four posts on the weekend and then schedule them to post every other day for the next week. Naturally, towards the end of the week you find out that (insert cool event you can't possibly miss here) is this weekend, and you put all posting on hold until it is over on Sunday. Sunday rolls around and you are too (drunk/hung over/sunburned/frostbiten/injured/exhausted/pregnant/depressed/etc.) to write. Rinse and repeat once or twice and then you are where we are today - too far behind to ever catch up. The pictures and half-written posts clog up the pipes until you dread going near your computer.

Thus, we dump. Yeah, this is the blog equivalent of your neighbors inviting you to look at their slides from Mazatlan over wine spritzers. Sorry, but if we don't dump these, we'll never be able to face the keys again. Bear with us...

Papbingsu - amazing dessert. Sweet red bean paste, rice cakes, and fruit over shaved ice.  Amazing.

Teriyaki woodong - very tasty, and seriously spicy.

Becky getting her hair washed with water that was steeped with sweet flag leaves. It's for good luck, and it's a major attraction of the annual Dan-o festival. We also entered a wrestling tournament that day - alas, there are no pictures.

"Our" bakery. It's ours because it's by our house, and the lady who works  there in the evenings loves us. She actually hugs Becky all the time. She speaks Korean to us constantly - we are susually reduced to smiling and nodding as she puts free doughnuts into our bag.

Sinpo soondaboo - the food that is as fun to say as it is to eat. It's tofu, veggies, and a little meat in a spicy chili soup - really good for  chilly mornings.

Choenbuk - the university district. Filled with cool shops, cheap food, and on the weekends, young people dressed to kill. Lots of incredibly pretty girls with amazingly well-dressed boys, strolling.
Dak galbi - chicken, kimchi, rice cakes, and chili sauce, cooked at your table. This is the before picture...

... and this is after it's been cooking for about 10 minutes. It's possibly my favorite thing I've had to eat. Ever.

Dan pat chuk - sweet red bean soup with rice cake in it. It's like a warm pudding, really, with a ton of cinnamon and nutmeg.
Typical lunch. Doekboggi, gimbap, boiled fish paste, and (sigh) a corn dog for Becky.
Lotus leaf rice - the green thing that looks like paper is a lotus leaf . The rice comes to the table wrapped up in it - looks like steaming green baseballs. Delicate flavor - very different.
Pork Bulgogi - very hot, in both spiciness and temperature. Surrounded by some of the side dishes that came with this meal...
...more side dishes...
... and still more side dishes. This meal was incredible, and it was about $9.00 per person!
Our coworker, looking radiant on her wedding day.
Pumpkin roll - Becky's new favorite sushi.
Spicy bacon roll - the name meant I had to taste it. You'd be surprised how well bacon and tuna go together.
Seafod dupahb - basically a seafood omelette over rice. Very satisfying comfort food.

And finally, Star Trek Becky.

Ok, I feel better now. I think we can return to regular posting again.