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 na├»ve, 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?