Monday, September 29, 2008

I know. I haven’t been writing. And now my editor—the fabulous Virginia Johnson (more commonly known in my circle as “Aunt Gin”)—is on my butt about it. A clip from an email she sent me today:

“Have you ever really been in to a good book and were fed simply pages at a time? No opportunity to keep reading and enjoy a marathon session. No opportunity to read until your eyes grew tired. But handed a mere page or two at a time. It is like smelling grandma's pie come out of the oven and you are allowed to pick a few crumbs from the edge. Or like letting someone else control your portion of M & M's at a sitting instead of holding the bag yourself......

I will be straight here. I know the above paragraph is talking around what I am trying to tell you. I clicked onto the blog and no new update. I know you are busy and you have a life to live … but is a weekly update too much to ask? I know, I your fan base will ask for bi weekly, and then daily, and......So I guess I understand you have to be out living what you are writing. I just had to let you know how I was feeling.”

So I suppose I better write something. Anything. Truth is, I’ve been wanting to. I have post-its stuck to nearly every surface of my apartment. “Write about the teaching experience,” one says. “Write about the food,” is scrawled on another. “Write about the sartorial fabulousness that is South Korean fashion,” and “Write about your fading aversion to kimchi.” Oh, and then there’s the Seoul trip from this weekend. Let me just preamble that upcoming blog: I heart Seoul.

No time now, though, to devote the time that these topics demand. Just got a gift package from Mom and Dad (Um, I love you guys, like, more than is humanly possible? Splenda? Cinnamon? Clif bars, Orbit, spices and Poptarts a gogo? I almost started crying. Seriously.) and am therefore in too high an emotional state to concentrate on anything else. But in the meantime, a teaser, something new I’m trying. A column-style bit that I’ll call Encounters. Because there are many that deserve at least a word or two. Here goes:

A couple weeks ago, I jumped into a cab and recited the formula for getting back to my neighborhood: Gay-nah-ri-sah-cha. Pulled the door shut, cab now moving. The driver said something to me, and I did the hands palm-up, shoulders raised, “I don’t understand” shake of the head. He said something again. “No speak Korean,” I said. “Where are you from,” he said slowly. “Ah,” I said, feeling a bit of an ass. “United States.” He had been there, he said. I asked when. During the Korean War. Knowing that many Koreans hold ill feelings toward us Americanos in regards to that whole Korean war deal, I decided to change the subject. “I’m here teaching English,” I offered. Our eyes met in the rear-view mirror. “Koreans do not need English,” he said, rather caustically, I felt, and then really caustically, he added, “or Americans.” I said: “Oh. Okay,” and stared out the window for the rest of the ride.

Last Sunday, Sarah and I challenged a couple of our Western friends to a tennis match. What I love about Korea is that you can walk ten minutes in any direction, and you’re bound to find a tennis court. We planned to meet the gentlemen at a court we’d never been to, right across from a Christian church. We walked through the entry gate, and a Korean man was upon us immediately, motioning for us to follow him across two occupied courts to a vacant one. There were a man and woman sitting on the side. Sarah and I were directed to one side, and the man and woman rose and walked to the other side. We volleyed with them, half-court, for about ten minutes, and they were very good. The boys soon arrived, and we thanked our new Korean friends for the warm-up. After dinking around for about half-an-hour, a Korean man hurried up to me and Sarah and pointed to our feet. “Tennis shoes,” he said. “Yes,” I said. “Tennis shoes.” “No, running shoes,” he said, clearly irritated. “You need tennis shoes.” Busted. I used to palms-up, shoulder raise “I don’t know” look again. It worked. He left. We played. Then a man brought us four cups and a bottle of water. Were we paying for this? I wondered, in between I love Korea thoughts. A little while later, a man brought over a large bottle of beer. He tossed the water out of our cups, and refilled them with Hite. We weren’t sure what was happening, but we knew that—whatever it was—we liked it. Then the man motioned me out onto the court, and showed me a few maneuvers. Free. Gratis. I love Korea.

Last Friday, I ventured up the mountain again. It hurt much more than it did the first and second times. This is not good. Anyway, on the way down, I met an army of children, marching up the muddy incline, leaving barely any room for those in descent to pass. I became nervous that I might see children from my classes. I don’t know why I was nervous, really, but I was. The first familiar face I spotted in the throng belonged to Jack, a boy who had failed one of my tests two days earlier. I smiled at him, waved, and said, “Hello.” He ignored my greeting. Looked through me. I felt silly. I decided no more kiddie acknowledgment. Three minutes later I spotted Mike, who I’d recently had to move to the back of the classroom for being disruptive. I buckled and smiled. He ignored me. Looked through me. I was hurt. No more, I said to myself. They’re too cool for me, then I’m too cool for them. I averted my gaze to the trees. Who knows how many of them I passed during the last five minutes down. At the bottom, I began to run, and saw Kelly twenty feet ahead. That week, I’d told my Korean co-worker that Kelly was developing an attitude, and the Korean teacher had told Kelly to stop. I hadn’t meant for the Korean teacher to say anything. I wouldn’t say hello to Kelly, I decided, because she wouldn’t say anything back. I passed her, and she shot me a bewildered look, said nothing, no smile. Sad teacha.

Friday as I left my apartment for work, my neighbors were leaving, too. I’d never seen them face-to-face before, but I’d heard them plenty, and was sure that they’d heard me, too. Every morning, and every night. You see, I have this thing about silence, and I usually fix it by singing. Loudly. I hadn’t felt bad about it until seeing this cute, little old couple, smiling at me, motioning toward me window, trying to ask if I was the girl who’d moved in next door. Their warmness made me want to apologize. I pointed to my ears and asked, “Me too loud? Too loud?” The woman laughed, and the man turned away and started walking up the street. I laughed with the woman, and then walked past them up the street. I thought about asking one of the Korean teachers to write a note. Is my singing too loud? it would say, and at the bottom would be two penciled boxes, labeled Ne and Ani-yo. Yes or no. Please check.

This blog ended up being far lengthier that I had intended. I hope my editor is pleased. ☺

Thursday, September 18, 2008

More Songpyeon, Please!

Not even a month after I've arrived in Korea, a major holiday has passed: Chuseok (pronounced chew-sock). Chuseok is a celebration of the Harvest Moon, the equivalent of our Thanksgiving. And boy, am I glad I made it in time for this one: four-day weekend, camping in Jirisan National Park, and a giant bag heavy with songpyeon--a traditional, half-moon-shaped Korean rice cake, filled with either a sesame or chestnut paste. They're cooked over pine needles for a subtle sylvan infusion, and I'm telling you, they are ridiculously delicious. I just found out that I can get them at E-Mart any time of year. Danger.

So yes, Chuseok. A celebration of the bounty of the Earth. During this time, the 15th day of the 8th lunar moon, Korean families travel (or they're supposed to, at least) from all over Korea to return to their ancestral homes. Ideally, this puts them present at the gravesites of their ancestors, where they might pay deference to the spirits of those long-dead spirits that--legend goes--still play a hand in the fleshy happenings in Earth. 

What I found out, though--from talking to the undeniably reliable student resources at Reading Town--is that Chuseok is primarily about visiting the grandparents. Because on Chuseok, the grandparents become rather liberal with their won, and one can never accumulate too many won. But such is the nature of any currency.

The point being: due to a mass ancestral-home-returning scramble, what should have been less than a three-hour car ride to wonderful and fabulous Jirisan National Park turned into a five-hour study of variance within the conditions of bumpers of Korean-driven cars. And my prior hypothesis was unequivocally correct: Koreans are Krazy drivers. Yes. Krazy with a capital K.

But we made it. And it was definitely beautiful. Before we had all left work Friday, Mrs. Lee had told me that for years after the Korean war ended, scattered sprinklings of North Korean soldiers hid within the forests of Jirisan. According to my Korean guidebook, eventually the squatters were, well, flushed out--which Sarah and I didn't take to mean they were shooed back across the DMZ by broomstick-wielding Koreans. The rumor is that of the large wildlife that once roamed them thar hills, two bears remain. I suggested that unflushed North Koreans might prove a larger threat to our food stashes.

From camp, I could see the mountain I was destined to climb, and curbed the first-night boozing, specifically, so that I could cover serious ground the next day. The others expressed a desire to lay lazily in the adjacent river all day, but what I wanted was to walk. Forever and ever.

The next day, the ever-helpful Anna walked to the campsite director man's office to inquire about the trailhead leading to the top of my mountain. They exchanged quite a few words as I stood there gazing across the road, across the river, up the forested slopes and to the pinnacle where--I was sure--the very best supplemental blog pictures await taking (always thinking about the blog, always, always). The man and Anna fell silent, and as soon as she turned her face to me, I knew.
"He says there are no trails."
"No trails?" I repeated.
"Mmm, yes. There are no trails."
I hadn't expected this. I hadn't expected this at all. All day laying in the river? By the river?Might as well be under the river. My father understands.
Not proud, but I pouted a little. A lot. I pouted a lot. And then I waded into the river, onto a rock, where I cursed my decision to leave my book at home (No time! There were mountains to climb!). The others were having fun in the water, and so me and myself walked the pity party upstream a ways, sat on a rock, and polished off about twenty serving's worth of pity-party trail mix.
Then I decided to be a big girl, and rejoined civilization. The trip was actually quite fun, a good opportunity to get to know everyone a little better, sit around the camp fire and take turns showcasing guitar skills, a little beer, a little more trail mix. Good people. Good mountains. Good times.


Monday, September 8, 2008

Oh, where to begin!

Chronologically, and—I apologize—hastily:

A couple weeks ago, Angéle expressed some interest in doing a little jogging, and I’m always looking for people to run with, so we made plans to meet at this great new park near Reading Town. The place is fabulous: quarter-mile rubber-based track, badminton courts, soccer field, skate rink, and these rudimentary, archaic-looking (but actually fairly new) weight machines. Yeah, outside. Check it out:

Instead of adjusting the weight, each machine is rigged so 
that as you—for example—sit and push the metal bars away from you to 
work your triceps, you push your own body weight. Rather ingenious, right? And free! (My favorite part). So at 7:30 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Angéle and I run a couple laps. Walk a couple laps. Do a few stretches. Lift our body weight a few times. Think about doing abs, talk about doing abs, and usually pass on doing abs. And all before the other teachers have rolled out of bed, we’re pretty sure. This is good for me, this having somebody waiting at the track three times a week. Because you can’t roll over, press snooze, and let your running buddy down. You just can’t.

That said, I think I’ve gained about five pounds in the last week. I love U-Dong noodles. I love them. And they’re so bad for you, too.

Next: the weekend! Friday night, we had a company dinner to celebrate (I was 
told) my coming to Korea. More Korean barbeque, which is quite frankly far more work that I’m accustomed to while going out to dinner, but this might have been my favorite yet. We had duck, instead of the fat-laden pork slices, and a type of kimchi I really liked. I sat next to Helen, who told me there are over 400 types of kimchi, although only a few are made regularly. She makes a few types every fall, and I think I might ask her if I can help this season. So Grandma while you’re canning jams, and Aunt Gin, salsa, I may be filling vats of vinegar with cabbage and spices. Who’s jealous?

Mr. Kim was so kind as to drive Angele, Sarah, Vanessa and I back to our apartments, and as we walked through the busy, downtown Changwon streets, our steps slightly swervy from a couple bottles of Hite (the Korean equivalent of Bud, or Miller, or—for us Colorado kids—Coors) some Korean men trailed us, calling out, “Hello! How are you! Hello!” Apparently, my judgment was slightly swervy, too, and I said hello back, because I didn’t want to be that rude American, you know? The girls shushed me, told me to ignore them, because, they said, wayward Russian women often roam the Korean streets looking to turn a trick or two. And with my incriminating blonde hair…

Next: Andrew Bishop came to town! Bishop is one of the fellows I bombarded with my battery of “What’s Korea like?” questions for the few months before I arrived. We had mutual friends at Mizzou, had been to a few of the same parties, and—the most special—I once walked in on him in a single, unisex bathroom on the Mizzou campus. Luckily, at this point, he was to the hand-washing stage. His own fault, really. Didn’t lock the door.

Anywho, he was in Changwon for a training seminar, and so we met up Saturday evening when that was finished. We wanted to find him a new bag, because, he says, Korea is the bag killer. Two of his bags have spontaneously fallen apart here, for no good reason whatsoever. We searched the Lotte department stores, but decided it was too expensive for teachers of English. Next the E-Mart, but they had nothing to his liking. So we decided to drink, instead, and were forced to jaywalk a rather busy street to do so, during which Bishop risked his life to save 
his pack of cigarettes. But in the end, we got our Hite.

Then, City Seven with Anna and Daniel for din-din. City Seven is a new shopping district 
in Changwon, and let me just say: amazing. After a little Italiano cuisine, we wandered to the top 
floor, which lays open under the daunting presence of some massive skyscraper-like apartment buildings, and which
houses a classy restaurant and stellar fountain-light show. We 
drank cheap beers and discussed things like: If we could have three superpowers, what would they be? Very intellectual.

Later, a little roof-top party at Sarah’s place. More games and deep conversations. We walked home at some point, and two minutes into my apartment, I saw my first live cockroach. Upside down near the drain on my bathroom floor, little legs twitching. Disgusting. I felt dirty. But we were feeling rather adventurous at this point, and wondered just what a cockroach tasted like (who hasn't?), and mused at what an incredible Facebook-profile picture us eating a cockroach would be, and so we each grabbed a pair of chopsticks from my kitchen and…

And, my creative license has run out. Actually, Bishop promptly flushed him down the toilet, and spent five minutes quelling my anxiety that I have a filthy apartment.

On Sunday, Anna and Daniel invited a bunch of work kids over for a spectacular Sunday dinner, with sweet-potato noodles and sautéed beef and sliced peaches and fettuccine alfredo and chips 
and salsa and a wonderful cake baked in—yes, baked in—an oven. I’d almost forgotten what an 
oven looked like. We also played Scrabble (Scrabble, Mom! Scrabble!) during which I convinced my opponents not to challenge me on fatso, but made up for it with the triple-letter hitting, thirty-something-point-scoring quaint. Mother would have been proud. Sarah did inform us that advanced Scrabble players should expect to score somewhere around 400 points a game. None of us even flirted with 100. But we did have fun warming up. Click on the 
picture at the right to check out some of our fabulous Scrabble-letter concoctions.

On our way out of Anna and Daniel's apartment, the strap on Bishop's bag tore and snapped. Korea the Bag Killer. 

And den—I slept. The end!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Gaps We Bridge With Music

"After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music." ~Alduous Huxley

At Home Plus the other day, Sarah and I were exploring the various levels, and near the top was a tiny music store, the floor crammed with pianos and the walls lined with guitars. The man who worked there was very nice, and his English consisted of: "I do not speak good English," "I like the blues music," and then of course the names of his favorite Western musicians and lyrics of their best songs. He played "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton, and even sang, which was wildly entertaining in his Korean accent.

He offered to unwrap and tune a guitar I was looking at so that I might play, and I did, and he urged me to sing, which I did, terribly. My claim is that the strings were very flat, because my voice just couldn't pick up the tune of "Wicked Game" by Chris Isaak, which I've probably played and sang more than any other song. However, perhaps I'm just that out of practice. He must have though that I needed much more practice, because he offered to take 20,000 won off the price tag!