Sunday, August 31, 2008

Wowza, the weekend flew by! Teaching last week was rather exhausting, and I think all of us were ready for a couple days without reciting “cat, hat, hug, and bug,” and various other three-letter words, in front of ten confused-looking children. Actually, they’re rather smart, the kids, and we do more than just recitation, but by Friday, ready for rest.

Friday evening, Anna, the Korean teacher I sit next to in the office invited me and a couple others out for dinner—LATE dinner, as our last class ended at 9:30. We discussed what we were in the mood for, and eventually decided on “meat,” which is basically Korean grill. The way it works is your party sits at a table with some type of grilling mechanism—the grill at this particular restaurant was sunken into the center of the table, with a stainless steel cover with numerous slits for fat to drain through—and you order a large plate of very uniformly sliced beef or pork cuts for the table to share. Side dishes are brought out, like kimchi (growing on me) and soybean sprouts (love them) and bean paste (delicious) and—my new favorite—green radishes. I believe they were marinated in some type of vinegar, but Sarah described them perfectly as having a watermelon/sour apple Smirnoff type taste. Absolutely delicious. And of course we ordered a couple bottles of Hite, which seems to be the official beer of Korea. So you grill the pork, which is actually very little pork and giant chunks of fat (how do they stay so slender? This is a mystery to me…), grab it off the grill with chopsticks (I’m getting better, ate eggs with ‘em the other morning!), wrap it in a some type of leaf with all the other fixings, and voila! Korean cuisine. Quite good. Way too much work, but good in the end.

Went shopping this morning at E-Mart—the equivalent of Wal-Mart, but better—located about ten minutes by bus from my apartment. It lays on the edge of what Changwonians call The Roundabout, and has five levels: grocery store, electronics and home stuff, clothing, and two parking floors. The Lotte department store is across the roundabout, and has a movie theater and nice clothing stores. Pictures!

I thought it hilarious that this boy was riding a pink floral moped. And that he wore socks with his sandals. But everybody here does.

There just may be more squid in the grocery stores of Changwon than in the all the waters of the oceans—gross. Actually, if I knew how to cook it, I’d probably get some.

After shopping, I thought I’d try the mountain again. Turns out, I’d only been about ten minutes from the top the first time, but sooooo glad I saved it for today, because the view was absolutely amazing, just mountains in every direction. There seemed to be quite a few connecting trails, and a Korean man I chatted with on the way down the mountain said it was possible to backpack to Busan and many other places—so that’s the plan, if I can recruit some coworkers to go with me!

Just a few pictures:

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Totally forgot to put up my pics from Hyundai beach! My first time ever seeing the ocean while actually grounded. I hate to admit this, but it was incredibly anticlimactic. Fun for a little while--yes--but one can only lay in the sun for so long and wander out to sea so far before longing for a nice mountain to trek up :)

But here are the pictures. Sara was oh-so-sweet as to invite me, and several other people, but they declined the invitation. We met two gentlemen at the beach--Cam and Anthony--whom she had met at one of the international bars some weeks ago in downtown Changwon.

Waves! Sand! Water as far as the eye could see! One can only imagine how astonished I was that these things existed in such tangible tandem, and not merely in pictures and television.

Couldn't think of any better way to express my feelings at that moment. Like I said: anticlimactic.

Some ways down the beach was this fabulous mermaid statue, and just before that, strange Korean disciplinary action. Perhap this child had failed to complete his hagwon homework the week before.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Now Introducing: Kristen Teacha!

After three days of observing Angele and various other teachers conduct classes, I was let loose—and Lordy, was I sweating it. Summer session ended yesterday, and so a new schedule was handed out. Everybody was stressed. Everybody was bustling. I had no idea how to read the schedule. Daniel, a foreign teacher from New Zealand, was leaving, and so I was re-colonizing his desk, and a few of his classes. But I didn’t know which ones. And he didn’t seem to know which ones. And I couldn’t figure out how to tell who had previously taught my other classes (very important; some classes were transferred in the middle of their session, so they might be on lesson 17 on my first day with them) even though somebody had already explained it. I couldn’t ask again—stupid people aren’t allowed to be teachers, right?—and so I spent two hours trying to reference one schedule alongside a second schedule alongside a list of class rosters. Impossible. And even then, I doubted if I had done it correctly. Finally, close to tears, I asked Angele is there were simply an easier way. Flash the rosters around, she said. See if anybody recognizes old classes. I did that, but still three mystery classes—no paper trail at all. Turns out, they were brand new classes. No paper trail to find.

Any new job is rather stressful, as anyone knows, because not only are there so many new things you must bother busy people to explain to you, but there are also those questions you don’t know to ask. These, to me, are more stressful than anything. They’re like phantom limbs, right? Itching, itching, itching, while they may not really be there at all. That was a horrific simile—phantom limbs? Truly horrific. Am I seriously still harboring these dreams of writing?

But it ended up working out. My first class was at 3:30 this afternoon, and I showed up at the school at 11:30—only Mr. Kim and a cleaning woman were there—to hash out my lesson plans and familiarize myself with the books. The other teachers were super supportive and offered lots of help. Angele showed me how to use the copy machine—very important. As 3:30 approached, I was strangely calm. I felt like I should be nervous, but I couldn’t talk myself into it. Class wouldn’t be perfect. I wouldn’t be perfect. And it would all be okay. I spent the last minutes leading up to class convincing myself of this.

And then the bell was ringing, and I was gathering my supply basket and books, and eight faces made that “Huh?” look as a short blonde American walked into the classroom instead of Daniel, their old teacher. I introduced myself, and asked their names, and started talking about I don’t remember what, and they all stared at me with wide eys, and then began chattering to each other in Korean. Some of them laughed. I asked what was funny, and Newt (yes, Newt; they each pick an English “name” as they begin classes at Reading Town) said to me, “Teacha, you talk too fast!” My dad says this to me nearly every conversation we have, and my rejoinder is typically: “You listen too slowly,” but I thought this might confuse the children. So I told them that the next time I lost control of my jaw, they should raise both hands and yell: “Slow down, teacha!”

But the class went very well, and we were joking around as far as the language barrier would allow, and mid-way through, one of the boys told me I looked funny. I laughed, and told him that was not very nice, and he and another boy looked at each other with confused expressions, and then laughed themselves. “No, teacha!” the other boy said. “You funny!” I’m tellin’ ya: Made. My. Day.

I’m sitting here at my apartment trying to remember the funny things that they all said today, because there were so, so many funny things, and in such cute little Asian accents, but my mind is drawing a blank. One day while I was sitting in on one of Angele’s book library classes, the class had to write a book report together, and she asked the children what a “summary” was. They all thought a moment, and then one boy began to fan his face and said, “Very hot.” Many have tremendous difficulty pronouncing the letter L. The letters R and L are basically interchangeable in Korean, and so when they’re reading the word “small,” they pronounce it “smarll.” Hilarious. Call? Carl. People? Peorple. Definitive articles do not exist in Korean grammar, so I’m told, and so to them, I am new English teacher. And Newt is loudest boy in class. Many Korean words end in a vowel sound, and so the children often add “ee” or “uh” to the ends of consonant-ending words. Handa-me-downs. Kristen Teacha. So very cute, and it sometimes takes all you have not to laugh in the middle of class. During my last class today, I was walking around with a red pen checking sentences they were writing, and Steven had his grammar a bit mixed up—and they HATE getting red marks on their papers, because Mom will see them later—and he yelled, “Shit!” I was very startled, and expected the class to erupt in titters, but nobody said anything, and I thought maybe I had heard him wrong, and so I said, “What did you say, Steven?” and he looked up at me through is glasses and smiled. “Uh, shit!” he repeated. I couldn’t help but laugh, and I said, “Bad word. Don’t say.” Heard it at least twice more before the end of class.

I’m going to start carrying my little writing notebook with me everywhere, and recording the hilarious things they say, because they’re too good to pass up. Wish I had done it today.

Hey, here are some pictures of my apartment:

View from the front door

Ahh, the kitchen, in which lives the pot in which I boil every ounce of tap water I drink, in which--apparently--live some real bad things.

Nice big living room

The "office." It houses only a desk. Rather depressing.

The bathroom. That corner is where I point my shower nozzle when I hose myself down.

The right half of my bedroom...

And the left. Spacious, no?

The funny park across the street from my place

And the sad converter box that I somehow melted. Lucky I didn't kill myself, really.

And possibly the coolest front door I've ever seen. Yup, it's mine.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Decided last night that this morning I would venture up one of the trails on the mountainside directly behind Reading Town and my neighborhood. Angele explained to me how to get there, but still got a little lost this morning. Ran into a few interesting things before I found the trail, head, though, such as a good way to recycle old tires:

Could see a bit more of the Changwon area on my way up:

The trail was marked well, and a little map at the bottom showed the three routes. I wasn't quite sure which I was taking.

Was super surprised and incredibly amused to see people pumping iron at seven in the morning in this outdoor exercise facility. I wanted to jump in there and work out with them! There was a gentleman standing off to the side who called out "Good Morning!" to me, and it really startled me, because I had yet to be greeted by an Korean just in passing, let alone in English.

The trail was absolutely gorgeous, and very steep. A man who was on his way down warned," Be careful--very slick!" as I passed him, and it definitely was; we had some torrential rains last night.

There were several of these water stations on the way up. I'm not sure if they're for drinking--the water here isn't safe to drink unless boiled--but one wouldn't think they'd be there just to cool people off, especially with those colorful water scoops.

Midway up the mountain, the trail became incredibly steep and rocky, and the view of Changwon better and better:

I didn't go for the top, because I didn't know how far it was, but perhaps next time I will. Tomorrow, we go to the beach!

Friday, August 22, 2008

At ten on Friday, my second day at Reading Town, Mr. Kim picked me up for the requisite hospital visit—basically a checkup to make sure we foreigners are not dragging any of our nasty venereal diseases or nefarious drug habits into Korea. Because I cracked my crack habit long ago, I wasn’t too terribly nervous, that is, until Mr. Kim and I pulled onto the busy main street in front of Reading Town. The drivers are crazy here—I’m talking cars driving through red lights as often as green, or pulling U-turns while three cars deep in the turning lane.

Mr. Kim and I didn’t chat too much all the way from the Reading Town lobby to the hospital lobby, as he speaks little English and I no Korean. For some reason, when I am alone with another person, silence makes me wildly uncomfortable (the cause of my infuriating banal-comment tick), and so I sought some way to communicate. I tried to ask him what the word for “car” is in Korean, but he only smiled and nodded furiously and repeated “car”. A little later he pointed to one of the mountains and actually said “mountain,” and then “running training,” and I remembered that I had told him the day before that I had gone running.

We made it to the hospital and parked in one of numerous parking lots where cars are angled haphazardly into tiny space. We pulled a ticket to secure a spot in the check-in line and then sat facing the counter, silent. Mr. Kim asked for my passport. I handed it over, and my extra passport photo fell out. Angele had asked me to bring it along, although I didn’t know what it was for, and Mr. Kim took the photo now and looked at it, and then all the pages in my passport, even the empty ones. He opened his wallet and slipped my photo into one of the plastic picture displays and said, “I keep.” I admit that I was rather confused and thought he might be pocketing my passport photo, but didn’t ask any questions, mostly because they couldn’t have been answered. (I asked Angele about it later that day and she told me that Mr. Kim needed the photo to make my school ID—so he’s not a salacious old man, after all.)

Our ticket number was finally called. The receptionist looked at me and smiled, rambled off to Mr. Kim, and then looked back at me again. I simply smiled, wondering what they were saying. After the paperwork was sorted out and we walked away, Mr. Kim turned to me and said, “She say you very—”, and then a word I couldn’t quite understand, but that sounded so much like “freaky,” and I thought this wasn’t very nice of her at all, so I repeated it to Mr. Kim. “Freaky?” I asked with a laugh. “No, no,” he said, and thought for a moment, and then said, “Boo-tee-full.” Ahhh. Pretty.

We walked to another section of the hospital, and Mr. Kim showed my passport and paperwork to a young man sitting behind a counter. Before long I was escorted into the back by a relatively tall, confident-looking doctor. He said something to me in English, but besides being able to recognize that these were indeed English words, I couldn’t understand him at all. I said, “Pardon me?” several times before he finally gave up and walked me to the changing room. I opened the door, and was surprised to find two rows of lockers and two teenaged-looking girls swapping their clothes for blue hospital shirts. I opened one of the lockers and found my own pair of shirt and pants, and wondered how many people had already worn them today. I was only required to undress from the waist up, and shrouded my torso with the blue shirt before removing my bra so as not to embarrass the two girls. Instantly, one of the girls was tapping on my shoulder, and I turned to face her, startled, and she pointed to my bras strap and said, “Brassiere—you must take off!” I laughed, and said “thankyou,” and she and her friend laughed. Such a helpful society, I was quickly learning.

One little stomach scan and that was done and I was able to change back into my clothes. Next, Mr. Kim and I headed down the hall to a busy room with a friendly receptionist and horde of screaming children. This, I knew, must be where my blood was to be taken. Mr. Kim once again handed over my passport and papers, and the woman smiled and handed him a paper cup and test tube. He turned to me, directed me back into the hall, and handed the cup and tube to me. We walked about twenty feet before reaching the public restroom. He pointed to the two items in my hand, signaled to the half-full point of the cup, and the very-nearly-full point of the test tube, and then toward the bathroom. I repeat: the public bathroom.

I jumped inside, and there were a few people milling, but one stall door slightly ajar. I opened it to find a hole-in-the-ground toilet, which look very much like a horizontal urinal, and which I used for the first time in Japan some days ago, and already dislike very, very much. I was wearing a skirt, and wasn’t quite sure how I was going to maneuver through this, because I didn’t want to accidentally stab a leg into the hole, or dip my skirt into it, and my hands were absolutely full because I had cup in one hand and cylinder in the other. I almost lost my balance and fell a couple times, and peed on my hand before the cup was halfway full, and somehow managed to grab a few sheets of toilet paper. I retrospect, I suppose the skirt was a good thing—would have been more difficult with pants.

I poured the pee into the test tube, and then emptied the paper cup into the ceramic and threw it away in the trash can. As I prepared to open the door, I became acutely conscious—and rather embarrassed—of the fact that everybody between here and that receptionist’s desk was going to see my pee. But there was no hiding it. I exited to the hallway, cradling the test tube in my hand so as to cover as much of it as possible. Mr. Kim was a ways down the hallway, and when I reached him I smiled and breathed, “Okay.” He looked at my hands and asked, “Cup?” Shit, shit, I thought. I was supposed to have saved the cup? Was the test tube for blood, and the cup only for pee? But then why would he have sent the test tube with me to the bathroom. I made the “oops” expression, pulling the corners of my mouth toward my ears, and he turned to the receptionist and spoke to her very quickly. She gave him another cup, but I was already shaking my head. I wouldn’t be able to do it again, I thought. No more pee coming out of this chica for awhile.

But Mr. Kim didn’t hand me the cup. He pointed to my pee tube and motioned for me to hand it over. You’re going to touch it? I wanted to ask. I gave it to him, and he removed the plastic lid, right in the middle of the waiting room. I was mortified, mostly for him and of the risk he ran of splattering Kristen pee on himself. He poured half of the liquid waste into the cup, resealed the tube, and walked them both over to a little cooler in the corner of the room.

I was then asked to replace a screaming toddler in a chair opposite the receptionist. She smiled at me, grabbed my arm and extended it toward her, and pricked a needle into my vein. I’m not scared of needles or blood by themselves, or even together, in a tangible sense—it’s the thought of somebody taking my blood out of my body that gets me. Of course, she didn’t need too much, and it was over quickly. I was ready for my Band-Aid, but she only pressed a tiny piece of gauze to the inside of my arm. Mr. Kim directed me back toward the hallway, and halfway to the bathroom, he pointed to a little trashcan set against the wall. I looked at him, and then the trashcan, and then the gauze on my arm, and finally threw the little bit into the garbage. A trickle of blood immediately streamed down my elbow, and Mr. Kim jumped, and we practically ran back to the receptionist’s desk. I laughed the entire way, but by this point, I don’t think he thought I was very amusing.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Whelp, I made it!

So far, so good. I was exhausted last night when I made it in—in Colorado, the time was five-thirty a.m. Wednesday morning, exactly 26 hours after I’d woken to be driven to the Denver airport. The twelve hours over the Pacific (and the Canadian Rockies, but I was in the middle aisle, damnit! Would have loved to have peered out the window at that) passed surprisingly quickly, despite several stints of ridiculous leg cramps, and my inability to sleep longer than an hour at a time. It was the flight from Japan to Busan that was torture—the last thing one wants after a trans-Pacific flight is to hop onto another plane for two hours, or three, rather, because we spent a full hour taxiing from the loading dock to the airstrip. By this point, I couldn’t keep my eyes open, but I couldn’t sleep, either, because each time I nodded off, I nodded a little too hard to the left or right and jerked myself awake. I sat next to two little Korean girls who had just spent a month visiting the national parks in America’s West coast and Midwest, one from whom—true to my imperious American nature—I discreetly stole the window seat. But the Korean flight attendant was my not-so-silent accomplice in this, and the little girl was far too polite and acquiescing to have had any qualms about taking the aisle. Like I said: imperious.

Meeting me at the airport was Angele, Anna, and Mr. Kim. Angele is the woman I was put into contact with through my recruiter in order to get a feel for the Changwon Reading Town, and she is absolutely fabulous. Reminded me a bit of Nicole Schnee, an old high school friend, and after observing her teach, reminded me a lot of Nicole Schnee. Anyway, we drove the half hour through and away from Busan, and despite the darkness, I could see the outlines of mountains on all sides, which was comforting, and promising. Before long we pulled alongside a building on a narrow street squeezed tight with similar-looking buildings, and this was it, they told me: my apartment, my home for the next year. They had bought me a couple bags of food to get me started, and so we dragged these and my 100+ pounds of luggage up two flights of stairs to my front door, which is quite possibly the most fantastic front door I’ve ever seen, and we stepped in and removed our shoes—very important to remove one’s shoes—and I was so pleasantly surprised: wood floors, big bedroom, good sized living room and kitchen, a screened-in porch, and—surprise, surprise—a second room with a desk, the “office,” I’m calling it. The bathroom has no tub or shower stall, just a hose and nozzle attached to the wall, and a drain in the middle of the floor. TV in the living room, and a loveseat and small table and chair. Across the street in plain view is a little sand-based playground. The washing machine was missing—Mr. Kim said it had been moved downstairs—but he would have it moved up sometime soon.

I forgot my exhaustion and spent the next couple hours unpacking, and then the next seven—which I had relegated for catatonia—tossing and turning and waking every hour. Apprehension perhaps, excitement mostly, jet lag possibly. At 6:20 the next morning, I decided to just get up. Made some instant coffee, which didn’t taste like coffee, or have a bit of caffeine, I think. Once again, jet lag, possibly. I wanted to go run, but was afraid if I was going too quickly from street to street, I might forget them and get lost, plus I desperately wanted to take the camera, and more desperately wanted a cup of caffeine, and figured that after all I’d heard about the ubiquity of Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonalds in Korea, I was bound to find something. So I set out for a walk—North, South, East, West? Where’s Pike’s Peak when you need it?—and after traipsing up my street, ran into a main-drag-of-a-road, with a little brick-laden, tree-lined path running parallel. This, I decided, was where I would be doing most of my running.

Walked along here for awhile, smiling at everyone, receiving empty—sometimes accusing—stares in return. High rise buildings all to my left, some with vibrant and wildly mismatched signs; almost nothing in English. I was surprised about this at first, and then thought about it a bit, and then felt like an asshole. What had I expected? Was I not in South Korea? The biggest English sign I saw was orange and read “Beer Hunting.” I immediately pictured the Deer Hunter game advertised in the states, and then I thought about Dad, and then I thought: ahhh, liquor store, and how appropriately advertised. They know their market.

Finally spotted a Dunkin’ Donuts, and as I approached the door, clutching my won bills, I realized I didn’t know how to say “coffee” in Korean. Or much else of anything, besides “hello” and “whiskey,” and it was clearly too early for that, and I wasn’t sure if I could count won, and most of all, I became acutely aware of my foreignness, and the supposed incompetence that so often accompanies that foreignness. So I kept walking. Right on past. No coffee.

I realize this is becoming an “and then I did this, and then I went here, and then I saw that” narrative, but bear with me; my mother loves it.

Came back to my place and ate, and finally made it our for a run, and as soon as I got back, decided to try this shower deal. The water heater must be turned on specifically for the shower, approximately two minutes before showering, but I couldn’t remember which buttons to press. They looked to be labeled very well, but—of course—in Korean. I pressed a couple, and then tested the water. Icy. Tried again, and still cold. Last button, and then just stripped and went for it, and the nozzle burst at me frigidly, but luckily, I had pressed the right button that time, and it warmed up. By the time I had the entire bathroom soaked, the last of the conditioner was rinsed from my hair. I bent over, staring at my knees, and squeezed the water out of my hair, when I heard a knock at the door. I froze. Another knock. Kr. Kim wasn’t supposed to pick me up for another two hours. I grabbed my pink towel and wrapped it around myself, and tiptoed just outside the bathroom door, and then Mr. Kim was yelling my name through the small kitchen window. There was nothing I could do now but answer the door, and that I did, praying that I wasn’t breaking some sacred Korean law of propriety. Mr. Kim looked thoroughly embarrassed. The washing machine was ready, he said.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Just a little test blog!

Hey--my shirt matches the colors of my blog. Neat.