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.