Friday, July 31, 2009

Git Nikid!

On Saturday, I finally submitted to the modicum of modesty that for eleven months has kept me from publicly disrobing, and I visited the jimjilbang.

I’d read about Jimjilbangs—public bath houses—before I got here, and my openness to the idea of luxuriating au natural with the denizens of Changweon has wavered perpetually between varying degrees of “Maybe” and  “Aw, hell no.” Monica—who goes to the jimjilbang so much, she’s got books of coupons—had invited me to tag along several times over the colder months. But I always declined, saying—honestly—that I wasn’t quite ready yet.

It’s not that I have an issue with nudity, per se; it’s only that Korean women have these tiny, perfect little bodies; and a few of my coworkers had told me that they go frequently; and urban legend has it that one is likely to run into the mothers of students, who probably know your face, while you don’t know theirs; or, worse, the students themselves.

And so, as a quasi-professional, was I wrong for so long avoiding an unclad encounter with any of the aforementioned parties?

Yes. Emphatically, entirely, and stripped of vacillation: Yes.

This time, it was actually my idea. My Saturday evening invited a little lounging: The night before, I’d taken in a bit more bourbon than my head was happy with. Then I’d gone and defied the Rules of Hung Over and Out of Shape and run for nearly an hour. My body hated me. And so what else was I to do but plunge into a baking bed of smooth stones, rooms covered from ceiling to floor with ice and frost, and dry-heat, suffocating saunas?

We exchanged our shoes for lockers, changed into prison-orange, thickly woven uniforms, were given two white hand towels, and headed upstairs for the dry rooms. Each of the rooms had an exterior thermostat warning of the level of hellishness inside. Only there was no hell, there; not in the whole damn facility. We entered the rock room and veered to the right into a shallow pool of smooth stones. The lights were muted, and in the corner a couple Koreans sat entranced before some Korean drama playing on a TV set mounted to the wall. Monica grabbed a squat wooden block with a half-moon indent and laid her towels into the sanded-away portion. She motioned for me to do the same. And then we burrowed, like crabs into the sun-warmed sand, covering our legs and arms with stones. After a couple minutes, the heat seemed to fade, but shifting your body even slightly served to impassion the embers, and envelope your body once more in intense heat. The level of relaxation my body slipped into was nearly overwhelming, and if Monica hadn’t been there to rouse me, I might have laid there and fallen asleep and dried up like a banana chip.

After the rock room, we bounced between three heated rooms with wood-knit mats and clay-plastered ceilings. One was too hot, and more than three or four minutes left you feeling a little woozy. One was practically room temperature, and decidedly not worth the trouble. And one was juuuust right.

And then the ice room. Sounds like some alternate version of hell, but scampering to the ice room and plunging our bodies into the Siberian climate actually provided a nice balance to the pass-out heat of the other rooms.

By now, my prison garb was soaked through with sweat, and my eyes were stinging with runoff, and I’d resorted to wiping my face with my towels.

“You’re gonna need those to dry yourself off later,” Monica warned. Oh, I whimpered, and said that my eyes were stinging, to which she said, “Buck up!” and ordered fifty one-armed pushups. Between sets, I sneaked a few brow swipes, only when she wasn’t looking, of course.*

Time to get naked! We made our way back to the locker room, the portal for the bathing room. Inside there were four diminutive pools heated to different temperatures, and rows of vanities—complete with personal sinks and shower heads—so close to the ground they looked to have been made for miniature people.

I was a bit hesitant to unclothe, wanting to wait until it was absolutely time. Was it time? I asked Monica several times. Now, Monica? Now?

It was time. And no big deal, really. We lounged. We dipped in the cold pool. The lavender pool. Skipped between saunas. Nearly passed out in saunas. Monica gave me hell for not being able to scale the cold pool’s wall without the ladder.

At the end, we sat at the vanities and scrub, scrub, scrubbed everything dirty off our bodies. Monica accidentally sprayed me in the face with her shower nozzle, but did the same thing to herself several minutes later. Then she dropped her towel that should have stayed dry into her water bucket. Karma?

How best to describe the jimjibang but half spa, half nudist colony? And at fractions of the prices! They serve snacks. They have those awesome massage chairs you see in malls, with none of the Yes-I’m-actually-using-one-of-those-mall-massage-chairs embarrassment. There’s a small workout facility. Video games. A computer station. They even have tiny one-person cubicles where you can sleep. Need a cheap hotel? Check out the jimjibang. A mere 8,000 won, friends. Which is, what, less than seven bucks back home?

Had my first trip to the jimjibang occurred approximately two months ago, when my biggest indecision revolved around “Should I stay or should I go?”—as in, Korea, or Colorado?—my decision might have been different. Yes; I really might have extended my stay in Korea for the jimjibang. My skin felt so smooth; my body purged of bourbon wastes; my weary, mile-bogged muscles relaxed. I weighed myself in the locker just before we left, and I’d lost nearly two kilos. I don’t know how much that is in pounds, but hey—it’s something.

*Note: Certain creative liberties were taken in sections of this narrative, especially in regards to the dialogue of Miss Monica. She only ordered fifteen one-armed pushups.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Spectacular Post-Race Culture Compression!

After the Hadong 10K, Bishop's boss Cha found us. Susan and I asked if he could tell us how to get to the Green Tea Museum, because Hadong is the green tea capital of Korea, and the museum a must-see if you're in the are, and he told us to hop into the van. He would take us. This is so typically Korean--a Korean person really will ditch their entire day's plans to help somebody else out.

Cha played tour guide to Susan and me for four hours. First, we toured a little community of traditional Korean houses.
Susan and Cha amid the bamboo poles.

A market spread throughout the bottom half, and we looked at some of the items for sale. The people who sell their things there actually live in the little houses and shops from which they sell, which almost give you the feeling that you're encroaching on their lives, but hey--they're making money!
I thought this little boy was adorable--what a ham! He looks like he's practicing for Korea's Next Top Model.
Everywhere you go in Korea, you see women sitting like this, selling grains and greens from the red plastic tubs.

Next, we went to a literary museum, which was really just one small room in a beautiful building on a hill.

After that, we made our way to the Green Tea Museum. It was very amusing.

This tea comes from the oldest green tea plant in Korea, which is 1,000 years old. Tea from the plant has sold for somewhere in the thousands of dollars.

This was hilarious. Written by some wise, old Buddhist sage, extolling the virtues of green tea. Wouldn't he be impressed with the green tea movement today? According to him, the five effects of tea are: 
1. Helps one to absorb oneself in reading, and quenches one's thirst, 
2. Removes one's spleen in one's mind. 
3. Help one keep a polite rapport and a sincere relationship with guests. 
4. Remove parasites from one's body. 
5. Eliminates a hangover.

This one is even better, by the same Buddhist guru. These are the seven stages of tea drinking (all typos authentic): 
After the first cup, "the dried intestines are cleansed." 
After the second, "It's refreshing spirit seems to make me a Taoist hermit with superpowers." 
After the third, "My headache goes away." 
After the fourth, "I become grandiose and openhearted, and my worry and spleen fade away." 
After the fifth (and this is my favorite), "A sex fiend runs away in surprise, and I seems to wear cloud skirt and feather clothes." 
After the sixth, "The sun and moon come to my mind, and all things around me look to be the..." (uh-oh, I cut this part off with my camera!). 
And finally, after the seventh cup of tea, "A clear wind rises from the heart," and something about looking up at a mountain. 
This guy was cuh-ray-zee! 

After the museum tour, we wandered to the Tea Lounge, where we browsed the merchandise and sat and drank tea with some lovely Korean women.

The trifecta of Korean culture culminated in a trip to Sangaesa, a famous Buddhist temple. By this point, Susan's and my legs were a bit fatigued from the morning run and afternoon ambling.

And yet another adorable Korean child.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Three Foreigners run MARATHON in Hadong!

Race season has arrived.

So, my friend Bishop calls me a little under a month ago, and tells me he’s running a marathon. A marathon? I ask. Yeah, he says, totally nonchalant. A marathon. Twenty-six point two miles. I’m thinking: Sure, okay, the guy’s eight feet tall, kind of a superstar, does well at the things he tackles. But he smokes. And it was only about two months ago that he told me he was starting to make it to the gym. And in that short time, with those lungs, he’s going to run a marathon?

I tell him he is not running a marathon. He says dude, come on, it’s only like, ten miles. No, no, Bishop. Twenty-six point two miles. Ten miles, another ten miles, and then over half of another ten miles. You’re telling me you’re running a marathon, there should be none of that spring in your voice. Only fear. Are you running a 10K? I ask. Yeah, yeah, a 10K, he says, a marathon. Ah. No, no, I say. A marathon, minus twenty miles. Things are beginning to make sense, now.

The confusion was mostly a product of Korea’s definition of a marathon. If you tell a Korean you are running a 5K (3 miles), you are running a marathon. And you are a rock star. If you tell a Korean you are running a half-marathon, in the auditory canal, half somewhere sunders from marathon before the information is processed by the brain, and you are running a marathon.

Short story long, I invited myself to come run with him. It would be a terrible, terrible mistake, I knew, because I was and still am in no kind of racing condition, but I’d done this oh-I’ll-do-this-after-preparing-a-little-more stuff too often, for too long. Perhaps this is the product of growing up in a highly competitive environment, where sister constantly debased a slightly—a slightly, I insist—inferior athleticism; where father never slowed his pace through three feet of mountain snow for two little girls, but rather warned against excessive complaining; where mother never surrendered a game of Monopoly or Life, no matter how old you were, because that sure as hell wouldn’t teach you anything about losing.

So, in effort to battle my procrastinatory tendencies—functioning, I know, mostly to disguise lack of perfection—my brain braced itself for potential mediocrity, and I asked Bishop to sign me up. My self-esteem buffering mechanism (this may or may not be the technical term—I’ll have to consult my psychology textbooks) began functioning immediately. The handicap floodgate opened. I’m in terrible shape, I told Bishop. I haven’t run six miles consecutive since I’ve been here. And I want to point out, I told him, that your legs are about three feet longer than my entire body, thus enabling you to cover twice the distance, in half the time.

True, but I’m a smoker, he says to me.

Over the next three weeks, I stepped up the running, for sure, but not as much as would have been sensible. I decided to not kid myself. I wouldn’t be competing in this thing—no time to prepare—but would view the Hadong 10K as a warm-up for the rest of the season. A kind of kick in the butt. A motivator. I invited the girls from the office to come along, and Susan, our newest teacher, after gentle prodding, accepted the offer. She’d been in the gym most days of the week, it seemed, and would come run the 5K while Bishop and I stumbled through the 10.

On the Saturday afternoon before the race, Susan and I hailed a cab, nabbed a 4,500 won bus ticket, and were on our way to Jinju, where Bishop would meet us and then take us the rest of the way to Hadong. We’d been in phone contact to coordinate a meeting time. He was visiting with some friends, he said. When Susan and I arrived at the bus terminal, Bishop was not there. I called, and he said he would be there as soon as possible. We waited and watched a cute Korean girl run around her mother’s—or sister’s, maybe?—little concession stand. Eventually, I heard a voice, and turned to see Bishop’s six-foot-plus gargantuan frame ambling toward us. He had a Korean man and little girl in an adorable purple coat in tow. He introduced them as his Korean family; she was a student, and he her father. I felt a bit envious, I admit. None of my students’ families had offered to adopt me at any point. Soon, a little boy ran over. He, too, was part of the family. Suddenly, we were being herded toward their car. The father would give us a ride. At the curbside, we met the mother. She spoke no English, but smiled profusely. I wondered at how long the family would have to wait there as the father took us wherever we were going. But no, no. We would all go. Bishop, Father, Mother, Susan, a little girl, a little boy and I, plus bags, crammed into a five-seater. No trunk utilization. The ride was cozy, for sure, and by the end, we all felt like family.

We caught a movie in Jinju (This is where Bishop goes to escape the sometimes stifling and contemporary-culturally negligible offerings in Hadong). As we sat in a little smoothie shop, waiting for the flick to begin, Bishop asked Susan if she was artistic. If she liked to make things with her hands. We both thought it an odd question, but with Bishop, the juxtapositioning of his comments sometimes makes sense only in the end. Susan said no, not particularly artistic. Oh, he said. Would she like to cut his hair that night? Mouths dropped. Eyebrows lifted. No, not particularly, she said, as we both examined his head and struggled to discern what was there that needed to be cut. He turned to me. Would I?

Seriously, Bishop? No.

He made up for strange barbershop requests with homemade dinner back in Hadong. Susan and I sat in the teacher’s room of his school while he labored in the kitchen, refusing assistance. We looked up oddball marathons over the internet. The Death Valley ultra: 130 miles through the lowest, hottest point in the United States, 130+ degrees of hydration-zapping, heat exhaustion-inducing heat waves. No, thank you. We found a YouTube clip of some fools “running” up Mount Everest. I repeat: fools. One race runs along the Great Wall in China, and we thought, hey, we could potentially make it out for that one. Ha. Like we’re that hardcore.

Dinner was fabulous. Homemade salsa. Mexican-style chicken and cheese and chips. I ate up heartily, fueling up for the six miles the next morning. Throughout dinner, Cha’s drunk friends trickled into the room, and a spattering of broken English was thrown around. Mostly a lot of “Hey!”s, and high-fives, and “I’m Sorry!”s, but entertaining company, to say the least.

We’d planned on staying in a motel, as Bishop’s place is rather small, but 10,000 people were signed up to run this race, and there were no rooms to be had. So Susan and I squeezed into Bishop’s twin bed—I gave her the okay to push me out if I tried to spoon—and Bishop splayed out on the floor, bless his heart. We would wake up between 7:30 and 8:00, we said, because Cha would pick us up at 8:30 (he was the only one who knew where to go), in time to make it to the registration booth and starting line by 9:30.

At 8:30 the next morning, un-running-attired Bishop was cracking up over YouTube videos, and Cha was nowhere to be found. I’ve mentioned before that I have a few serious anxieties, two of which are (1) being late, and (2) not knowing where I’m going. They’re interconnected, obviously, and the anxiety began welling up inside me as we milled about Bishop’s apartment, race garb on, numbers pinned to our shirts. Would he be here soon? I wanted to know. Should we leave without him? Would we be late? Would they hold the gun for us—Americans—if we weren’t there by 9:30?

We ended up leaving just before 9, at my humble behest. I suggested we run to the event to “warm-up”. Really I just wanted to make it there in time. It was easy to find, because small swarms of sneakered people were heading in the same general direction. When we arrived, we couldn’t find the registration booth. We walked around, searched, and I became anxious once again. How would we find it? I wanted my race shirt. I stopped and asked two men who were stretching. Eo-di-ae—and I mimed signing a paper—iss-eo-yo? Where do we register? I speak English, one replied bluntly. Oh, I said, and laughed. Can you tell me where we sign up and get our shirts? There is no registration, he said. Just run. We ended up hanging out with these guys right up until the gun went off. They were customs officials. Ha. Good thing we are all upstanding Korean visa holders.

The race was fantastic. Bishop bolted ahead from the start, and I secretly cursed his giraffe legs, but Susan and I settled into a nice pace, and had a nice pre-season warm-up run. We passed the 5K sign, and were both surprised we’d already run that far. Before we knew it, the 9K sign was moving from the front to back of our peripheral vision. We ran along the river, and there were few hills, and as two of only a few Westerners in the race, I think we attracted a little attention. People would fall in step with us along the way and yell, “Hello!” or “Where are you from?” or flash the universal sign of goodwill: thumbs up.

Near the end of the race, a man who I found out is from Changwon struck up a conversation with me, and we ended up sprinting through the finish line together. There was just such a convivial, familial atmosphere to it all. We had come from starkly different worlds, but that day, we were runners, and here, in Korea, we ran together.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Excuse the Ill-Matched Photos?

We’d been waiting to see it for weeks. The next term’s final schedule. Somehow, happiness from March through May was inextricably tangled up in two excel spreadsheets, spreadsheets that we would quickly cover with yellow or pink or green highlighter. The fluorescent filling exposed coveted break times and class levels and the names of future students. One six-class teaching stretch could ruin an entire day. No dinner breaks would oblige you to overhaul your eating schedule. One wayward student might make your life miserable.

Do you see why we’d been waiting? It came last week. Christine walked through the office, laying the photocopied sheets before each teacher, and the inevitable groans filled the room instantaneously. At first glance, for most of us, the bad overshadowed the good, I think, and some were better at hiding their disappointment than others. I myself was less than thrilled. Four days of six class stretches. That’s brutal.

But the student lists for each class are more grave than the time frame. It’s interesting to me that certain students inspire disgust in some teachers, while arousing affection in others, or that some kids can embody both halves of the dichotomy in a single teacher’s mind. It all depends on our mood, I suppose. When I’m energetic and in good humor, one of my lowest level classes (the young, young ones) is fun and exciting and stimulating. When I’m exhausted, or preoccupied, they’re unruly. Angele was assigned to a higher level course mostly full of students that I’ve taught, although never all together, and she’s dreading the blend. I think they might be wildly entertaining. Class composites are like chemistry: the perfect amalgamation might garner gold (again, like chemistry, impossible…), while shoddily constructed compounds catalyze small explosions.

We do, however, have to account for the effect of environment on a child’s—or anybody’s—personality. I’m eager to see what the kidlets do when released into a strange classroom full of unfamiliar faces. Will peer anxiety make little Wilson less weird? Probably not. Will Billy and Fred tear oddball Paul apart? Probably. Will being in a class of less rambunctious children spur to Vicky to verbal interaction? (I’ve never heard her speak). Maybe. It’s nice to switch things up like this, because the kids become too comfortable in their environments, the atmosphere somehow slides in a casual direction, and classroom management becomes difficult.

In October, I wrote a blog lamenting not knowing what the hell I was doing, most of the time, and while I like to believe that I’ve learned a bit over the last six months, I still have much to improve upon. I’ve been doing this for six months, now, and still, some days, I feel as if I’ve just started. I’ve touched on this subject before, but with a different perspective—a more naïve, green perspective. Teaching includes challenges I hadn’t anticipated, mostly in the administrative and discipline departments. I think sometimes my biggest problem is that I don’t understand children and what is fun for them. I was always an independent, test-loving, nose-in-a-book child, and so sometimes don’t understand the appeal of group work, or finding hidden images in a picture, but apparently, they love this stuff. A new sticker sends them into a paroxysmal state of bliss. I’m telling you: I don’t get it.

In the beginning, I lacked consistency—between classes, and far too often, within classes—but I believe I’m leveling off in that respect. If you don’t minus cents for only one page of homework missing, you must do that every time—not only when the mood suites—because they will remember the precedents you set. And if you’re going to minus cents for Korean talking, you must do it every class, for every student, as hard as it is not too excuse little angel Anny’s one-time trangression, and write her name on the board, because it only slipped, Teacha! Just that once!

I’ve become aware, too, of the subtle—and yet indelible—sexism engraved into our minds and actions. I scorn when class is almost over, and it’s time to call students to line up for the bus. Because they all want to be first. The sequence is best settled with a few matches of rock, paper, scissors, but we don’t always have time for this, and even then, which duo or trio of children do you call on for the first round? I feel that my voice too quickly calls the names of the more pleasant children, and that then, the misbehaved must think I’m playing favorites with teacher’s pet; or, if I call a girl first, the boys must think I’m a man-hater, favoring the girls; or, if I compensate for this anxiety by calling a boy first, I must be contributing to all the negative forces in the world convincing girls that they’ll always come second…

Perhaps I’m thinking too far into the issue, but there are many of them, those students, and only one of me, and so while I’m selectively discerning nine or ten sets of actions and attitudes and faces, each of them is looking at me, only me, and I hope my occasional negative actions don’t settle too personally with them. And I must struggle to shield my feelings, at times; I must be more conscious of it, because they’re only eight, or nine, or ten, and I am Teacha—the supposedly objective party.

I’ve made a mistake in telling some (most) of my classes the puppy’s name. Remember: the puppy’s name is Soju, which is Korea’s national hard liquor. Everyday, now, I have students stopping me in the hall, asking excitedly, “Did you bring Soju today?” and “Where is Soju?” and “Bring Soju!” Not entirely appropriate, as you can imagine, and now I live in fear that an angry mother will call and report that a boozer is teaching her children, and offering to bring the goods to school, no less. I suppose that in the excitement of Soju’s arrival, I might have left my common sense at home.

Perhaps, after being introduced to the new classes on Monday and Tuesday, my potential woes will disappear. Bring forth the positive thinking!

Speaking of positive...

I went to Seoul last weekend for the Jason Mraz concert with some gals from work. I'm not much of a concert girl—they’re expensive, and the noise is earsplitting, and standing, straining to see the stage through the throng is exhausting—but it was Mraz. One just doesn’t decline Mraz.

The concert was amazing. The weekend was amazing. Angele, Anna, and Annie were fabulous travel partners (none of this sleeping in 'till noon business, thank you) and I believe it was my most enjoyable trip to Seoul thus far. We contemplated strategies to get Jason to come back to Changwon with us, of course, but none of them panned out. Maybe he'll be back next year?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

News Item #1: I have a boyfriend. For his sake, I’ll skip the public cyber schmaltz. Any questions you have regarding the subject (estimated betrothal dates, etc.—kidding, Anthony! And Dad. Hehe), I’ll be happy to address via personal email.

Which segues into:

News Item #2: My boyfriend’s puppy is lodging with me for a bit. Her name is Soju, and she’s really sort of my fault—I’ll admit to a speck of goading (“Awww, you should get one!”) as we stood gushing over a teeming box of puppies at the market one afternoon—and for this reason, 25% of her person—I mean, puppy—has been relegated to my ownership. I’ve chosen a back haunch.

I suppose “fault” implies “mistake”, though, and she’s far too fabulous to be called a mistake. Of course, mine is not the apartment she spent a good deal of energy destroying in her first few months. Puppies love to chew on things, apparently. I wouldn’t know, as my parents cruelly denied me any fur-laden, emotion-inducing creatures throughout my own childhood. Snakes? Okay! Grasshoppers? Alright! Dogs? Forget it.

I offered to take Soju a few weeks ago, as Anthony needed to prep his place for an apartment swap, and, of course, considering my cataclysmic pleas for the pup’s purchase, I thought I might take a little responsibility, step up to the plate, so to say. I expected enthusiasm at the proposal, but he said, hesitantly, Thank you. I’ll think about it. This reinforced a lesson I learned a little over a year ago: Men love dogs more than they’re often publicly willing to let on. (Reference “The Love Story That Was Ron and Bo.” Film version currently in the works.)

Before she moved in, I admit, I had a few anxieties about how we’d get along, but really, she isn’t the shit terrorist* that Jennie’s dog, Bo, was when a puppy, and although I admit to a shoddy memory, this is what I remember disliking most about that rambunctious pup.
She’s peed on the floor only when overcome with excitement (to see me!), has dragged only a few embarrassing dust bunnies out from under the bed, administered minimal damage to my difficult-to-replace Mac power cord, and has eaten only a relatively small section of lime-tinted wallpaper. I’ve had worse roommates.

*Note: Soju pooped on the floor for the first time roughly two hours after this line was written. Jinx!

She’s a fabulous running buddy, actually. Took her out for the first time last week, figuring to knock out the dog walk and personal run in one go-round, and we had a great time. Now she goes with me every time. She’s fine off the leash and just trots beside me as I amble along, her perfect little face poised upward at me, ears at point, tongue hanging happily, loving and endearing. Sometimes she gets a bit curious about something off the path, and runs into the grass and bushes, but I simply call out, “Soju!” and she gallops back over. On-looking Koreans must think I’m crazy, as soju is the name of their national hard liquor. Imagine somebody running down the streets of your neighborhood, yelling, “Vodka!”, “Rum!”, or “Beer!”

She reminds me a lot of Bo, in that she’s super social, and just wants to be near you. I thought I might feel smothered by the responsibility of another body to take care of—I usually have enough trouble taking care of myself—but it’s rather nice to come home to life and unconditional love, jumping at your shins.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

I'm Back!

If dust could accumulate in cyberspace, a thick layer would cover the ‘ole blog, here. I’ve been hounded by various parties for weeks to throw something new onto the page, but have suffered from an utter lack of inspiration. Scary place for a writer, you know, and sometimes (always), instead of sitting down and typing away at something potentially mediocre and completely lacking in entertainment, it’s easier to say, “Oh, I’ll write tomorrow, once those creative synapses spark up a bit.”

Well, they lie dormant, still, but here’s an attempt to wake them up. Random thoughts, mostly, and mumblings, a few grumblings:

I’ve been here for almost four and a half months, and I really cannot believe that. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that I was filling in family and friends on my expatriate plans, being met with stares of bewilderment, concern-laden inquiries, and the occasional jeerish, “You know what it’s like there, right?” from those who wouldn’t have been able to point SK out on a map. No, no—I didn’t know what it would be like here. Didn’t want to, fully, wholly, of course, because learning as I go has all been part of the adventure.

I won’t lie and say this is the best decision I’ve ever made, and that life here is full of shimmering rainbows and frolicking ponies, but it has been rather fabulous at times. The worst of it hovered right around Christmas, a season that—as Mom, Dad and Jen can attest to—incites in my behavior some horrendous and—I’ll venture to claim—mostly unintentional Ms. Hyde moments. Just hard being away from home for the first time, you know, during that time of year, especially when you’ve family like I have. Fortunately for me, there are lovely people here who buffered those blood-family absences, like Angéle and Pierre, who threw an amazing Xmas Eve soiree, and Johnny and Laurel, who hosted on Christmas Day, and of course Anthony, who on Christmas morning made me tater-filled breakfast burritos with real cheese. And, of course, there was the brimming box of gifts sent from back home, which I send out many thanks for. Made it seem a lot more like Christmas, although I wish I could have been with everybody while opening them.

The hardest part about being here? Balancing my time. Fitting everything in. Because there’s no dearth of things to do, or people to meet up with, and it’s simply hard to incorporate all of these new things into life while also working almost nine hours a day, and fighting the guilt of both my recent inadequate writing (zero) and running (sporadic) output. Working on it, though.

Life is mostly very good here, though. I enjoy the teaching, although am still suffering a bit of anxiety over feeling that I’m not that great at it, some days. My disciplinarian skills are developing, but I think I’ll always prefer being the fun teacher to the mean, and allow myself to be walked all over occasionally. We did recently switch schedules, which changed our class lineup slightly, and I somehow was rid of each of the classes that I really dreaded going to. I lost a couple good ones, in the process, but it looks as if I’ve gained a few good ones, too. The week before the switch, I told one of my favorites that I wouldn’t be their teacher anymore, and one little boy erupted into tears, which could have been induced by anything, I know, but I like to think it’s because he liked having me as a teacher.

Food has been hard. Despite having taken the Korean language class, I still can’t read the labels, and so have no idea what proportion of organic and mineral compounds I regularly ingest. I’ve developed an addiction for mandu, a type of Asian dumpling that can be filled with anything from beef to noodles to kimchi. I’d kill for an oven. And real cottage cheese. And whole wheat bread, or deli meat, or affordable frozen vegetables. But, we all learn to cope.

What else? The weather has been frigidly arid, and dry skin runs rampant. I have three guitars, now. Went to a wedding last weekend, which wasn’t too incredibly unusual, besides the irreverent hum created by the horde of people chatting at the back of the wedding hall during the ceremony. My bag of Christmas cards lay labeled yet unstamped on the heated floor of my apartment.

I suppose this entry might sound a bit depressing, but really, what it lacks is focus and direction. I’m in desperate need of topics, so please, if there’s anything you think I need to report on, let me know!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I’ve been a negligent little blogger. Today, I offer culture:

Pepito? Pepapo? No, Teacha…Pepero!

Two weeks ago, I began to notice massive displays of red-boxed candy and cute stuffed animals everywhere. I wondered if Koreans prepared for Valentine’s Day much like Americans prepare for Christmas: no less than four months in advance. Turns out, last Tuesday was Pepero (pay-pay-ro) Day—a uniquely Korean holiday. Took me all day to remember what this holiday was actually called. I kept saying “Pepito” and “Pepe le Pue”, but trust me, this was no skunk of an idea. You think Wal-Mart has power? Well, the high-end-shop juggernaut of South Korea is Lotte Department Store, and in 1983, it created it’s own holiday, simply to (gasp!) make a won or two off sugar-stick lovin’ Koreans. In 2006, Lotte made the equivalent of $47 million dollars off pepero sticks, alone. They deny premeditation, of course. And would we expect them to do otherwise?

The designated day is November 11th—11/11—and the month-day configuration symbolizes friendship and love and all that jazz. Get it? The ones—they’re like little people standing side-by-side. So Lotte manufactures, boxes, and sells long sticks of cookie candy that represent the ones, that represent the people, that represent—ahem—the love of the Korean people for one another. I’m telling you, for a country practically drowning in everything that is cute, this is a fabulous marketing idea.

The candy is fabulous. Tasty. Cheap. And the think tanks at Lotte solved that de facto profit-inhibiting factor of Valentine’s Day: pepero sticks are not just a between-lover exchange, but for friends, or family, or—lucky me—teachas! So the kids brought us teachas boxes and boxes of pepero. Crunchy pepero. Chocolate smothered pepero. Blueberry yogurt pepero (my favorite). Pepero dipped in nuts and sprinkles, and pepero with columns of fudge running through the center (they call this “nude” pepero). And for one day, the whole country was happy. Or, at least, our office was.

An article if you’re interested:

What else? My Korean skills are coming along. Skipped class Thursday due to a little head bug. The man who owns the corner store where I buy my eggs and Dr. You health bars teaches me a little each day. Learned how to say “diahhrea” the other day (the direct translation from Korean is basically “water-poop”) and threw it out there on the bus the other day, just to see what the Korean high school boys would do. They remained very serious. Perhaps saying “poop” ceases to be funny at a certain age? I know the elementary kids think it’s but-gusting hilarious.

Thursday was the national university exam test day. According to a couple of my coworkers, one of the highest suicide days in Korea. The other is the day the kids get their test results back. Clearly, this is an important test.

Everything academic or intellectual here is done by rank. Chloe, one of my fabulous co-workers, has a cousin who consistently scores #1 in the country on the annual MD boards (and she’s a woman). Similarly, the kids are ranked in class according to monthly or quarterly tests. Kind of like ranking by chair in band class, right? Well, the result is serious self-esteem deficits. Brains are everything here. Imagine if kids in the United States were each given an ordinal number ranking how beautiful or handsome they were in relation to the other kids in class, and if this number was posted on the wall for all to see? Anxiety. (I harbor a bit of disdain for the state of the American education system. Could ya’ tell?)

But the point is, is the eyes of Koreans, one’s entire future is determined by this one day of testing, and the number spit out by the grading machine. The goal is to score high enough to gain admission in a Seoul university—they are the best. Going anywhere else is humiliating and seriously debilitating to chasing one’s true ambition. Sad!

So on national testing day, business and government workers are required to go to work one hour later than usual, to avoid traffic jams that might prevent kids from reaching testing sites. People are asked to avoid honking their horns at all costs (hard, in this horn-happy country) to cut down on noise. And the kids are locked up all day, scribbling, filling in bubbles, possibly contemplating, “Rope?” or “Subway jump?” I repeat: sad! At least we’re allowed to take those big assessment exams eight times over, if we really want to. And go to school in some obscure state like Missouri and not feel like your life is over.

What else? I’m going to Seoul next weekend. Sooooo excited. I promise a little blurb about the city this time.

Friday, November 7, 2008

I Feel Pretty?

For some time now, I’ve been promising various parties a blurb on some major cultural differences between Americans and Koreans. Recent incidents have incited me to address this request immediately.

I’ll avoid a long digression into the psychology of self-esteem and mate competition (don’t want to use that hard-earned Mizzou degree too much) and, instead, simply present the obvious thesis: when your body ain’t lookin’ so good, your brain ain’t feelin’ so good. People are able—to varying degrees—to employ their powers of self-awareness and introspection in order to overcome whatever deficiencies might result from a decline in perceived physical attractiveness, right?

Okay, maybe this is sounding too much like a mid-semester paper…

Basically, I feel that I’m typically capable of drawing a sufficient stream of self-esteem from my mental prowess, and that—if I’ve so happened to pack on a couple pounds—I won’t feel any urges to slit my wrists.

But what happens to the brain when the body is afflicted with a trifecta of body maladies? Serious serotonin deficiency, my friends. Which is no fun for the brain.

Body malady #1: I was sick with a cold all last week, which somehow caused me to miss TWO weeks of running. This, like serious serotonin deficiency, is bad (partly because a decline in exercise causes the deficiency…) and whether or not the pounds have actually been gained, my eyes see them. And perception is everything.

Conclusion: I feel fat.

Body malady #2: My face has been breaking out like an adolescent school-girl’s. Seriously—I thought I was done with this stuff. And I’m not talking just a zit here and there. I’m talking prairie-dog town across the whole bottom of my face. And I can’t figure out what’s causing it. My diet, maybe? The air? The water? Soooo frustrating.

Conclusion: Society might benefit from my wearing a mask.

Body malady #3: Over the weekend, I was attacked by a flock of mosquitoes. No, not a swarm. This was definitely a flock, like something right out of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Just the backside of my right arm has about fifteen bites. And they don’t look like typical mosquito bites. They look like the manifestation of some terrible, Korean, infectious disease.

Conclusion: I feel dirty and contagious.

So Tuesday. I’m at school. Walking to my second class. Acutely aware of a little belly protrusion beneath my shirt, which I’d tried that morning to conceal with some strategic sartorial decisions. I was reeling a bit already, because Anna Teacha had just commented on my lower-face inflammation, which I’d brushed off my mosquito-bite-ridden shoulder, because this is what they do, Koreans. They confront all of those things that, out of embarrassment, we avoid talking about in American culture.

So I walk into class, smiling anyway, and begin to take roll.
“Teacha!” Gina yells out in a whiny pitch. “Teacha!”
“Yes, Gina?”
“Uhhh, Teacha!” she grunts, and rubs her hands over her stomach.
“Bay-go-payo?” I ask her in Korean. Are you hungry?
“Uhhh, no Teacha,” she cries, and her face distorts as she continues to rub her belly. Then she points at me. “Very fat, Teacha!”
Little assholes, sometimes, I’m telling you.
“Me?” I ask incredulously. I mean, maybe a couple pounds, and I’d thrown around the “I feel fat” phrase several times in the last few days, but—really—this was kind of an exaggeration. Female drama.
“Yes, Teacha! Why so fat, Teacha?”
“Teacha has been sick,” I said meekly, maybe pleadingly, looking into a sea of ten-year-old faces for some kind of social understanding. There was none.

A little later, I texted some friends who teach downtown to see if they wanted to meet up after school for batting cages or football in the circle. Everybody was down. I was excited.

Fifth period, I walk into class of older kids. First off, I’m asking for the day, month, and year, writing on the board as the kids yell out answers.
“Uhhh, Teacha!” Donna yells out.
“Yes, Donna?” I ask, turning to face her.
“Uhh, Teacha!” she yells again, a disgusted look on her face, and makes a spinning motion with her finger. “Turn, Teacha!”
I am confused for a moment, but realize she’s seen the bites. I show the class my arm. “Mosquitos,” I explain, and mime something attacking my arm.
“Mogi!” David yells.
“Yes, Mogi,” I repeat, and attempt to draw a mosquito on the board, anything to draw attention away from my blighted arm.
“Teacha!” Donna shouts, raising her arm. She waves her hand around her chin, and then points to my face. “Mosquito bites?”
Oh no, she didn’t. A solid punch, right into my flabby gut.

As soon as my last class was over, I sent a text canceling those after-school plans. Ashley walked me to the pharmacy, and we picked up acne medication. And then I went to the gym and ran what I think was four miles (still working on the in-my-head kilometer-to-mile conversion). Take that, Korea.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Had my first work trip this weekend! The three Changwon Reading Town branches united for a day of Buddhist fun on Kajisan--Kaji Mountain. The trip was absolutely fabulous. Wish I had more time to write about it, but pictures will have to do for now.

The fall colors are beginning to change, here, and they are stunning.

Anna and Chloe--two of my fabulous Korean coworkers. They are incredibly helpful and generous: Anna has helped me with everything from working out my water heater and washing machine to helping me buy fish at the grocery store to taking me to the doctor last weekend for my little kidney stone (I think?) episode. Chloe recently helped me open my bank account, and we went to "Mamma Mia!" and lunch last Friday. Great gals.

Crazy tree!

That rocky section of the mountains reminded me so much of the mountains right above Tarryall. Oh, nostalgia!

Angele and Pierre: they're both simply fabulous. A very generous Canadian couple, and a ton of fun to be around. They take care of me :)

Helen and Mrs. Nam: Helen is my co-teacher for many of my classes (poor woman!), and this is good for me, because she is absolutely on top of the ball at every moment. She really is an inspiring person. And what can you say about Mrs. Nam, besides that she's fantastic? She doesn't speak as much English, so our "conversations" can be a little comical at times, but she is always telling me never to hesitate to ask her if I need help with anything. And she dresses so dang cute! Found out Saturday she has two teenage daughters, the elder of which has a boyfriend. Thing is, they're allowed to see each other two hours a week. Supervised. Oh, the Korean dating scene!