Tuesday, November 29, 2005

New Digs

So, I've moved again and hope this is the last move in Daegu, seeing as the places seem to be getting progressively worse. We were moved into our place last weekend, on November 25th. When I say "we were moved" I don't at all mean the coherent effort that statement implies. You know, like my roommate and I actually being taken to the apartment by our director or anything like that.

Instead, what happened is that we had vaguely known for some time we'd be moving "November 20." Every so often we checked in to see if that was still the plan, but perhaps I knew in my heart of hearts that "yes" answers meant little. A couple weeks back, it turned into "November 26." Then, "I mean November 27," since on Saturday, Nov 26 there was a big pre-school open house at the school and all the teachers had to work that day for a few hours (special case, we usually work Monday-Friday). Then suddenly in Tuesday's foreign English teacher meeting they said, "So, you're moving on Friday, OK, check" and were ready to move on to the next item on the agenda, and I said "Friday? What?!"

I could back up even further and comment on the fact that I was originally told I'd have a single apartment and this whole "you're-going-to-live-with-the-Chinese-teacher-for-a-month" thing was sprung on me on the ride from Daegu station to my first week's even more temporary digs (in the CEO studio). And that I only found out "we" were moving to "our" new place on November 20th/26th/27th, as oppposed to "I" was being moved to "my" new place on November 20th/26th/27th, when my roommate said one day in the old place, "Oh, when we move on November 20th it will be better." I said when we--what?!?

I could also comment on the fact that I found out where we were moving from the Canadian marrieds, on the way to Costco one night. They had heard that day from the other two teachers, the Canadian single guy and the English guy, that my roommate and I were moving into those guys' building. And I found that out only when one said, in passing, "Boy, I wouldn't want to move into that building after what I've heard from those guys about the cockroaches."

Yes, I could do that. I could comment on those things. But I will move forward, because it gets so much better.

With so many things already being ridiculous like the who, the when, the where, and the cockroaches -- picture Linda aghast at her least favorite abode issue in the world rearing its ugly head(s and legs and wings) -- I sat in the meeting going, "How is it that we are moving while we're at work?" Oh, they'll move your stuff for you. Just bring your valuables to work. "Who's 'they'?" The movers. "But we're not moving furniture from our temporary furnished apartment; we're supposed to be getting the furniture that's being stored at the Manchon branch of our school right now." [in a big empty classroom, I saw it when I lived in the studio apartment at that school] Well, the movers will move the furniture from there and then also move your luggage.

I began to have misgivings.

I stopped interrogating the poor girl running the meeting; she's actually my friend, with whom I teach a bunch of classes, and there was no need to shoot the messenger. I approached the assistant director, whom I also like and who is the best at translating things and being helpful, and who holds meetings and conversations that are actually informative. We'll call her Betty. I said, "Here are the things confusing me about my move" and rattled off a list.

Her response: You and Snow [roommate's English name at school] can go to the new place after work Friday. I said, "But Snow teaches at the Manchon branch on Friday afternoons and evenings and comes home from there on Fridays. She won't be here." Maybe you can move on Saturday. "We have the pre-school open house and we have to be here on Saturday." You can move after. "Is one of the directors going to take us?" Maybe you and Snow can move your luggage in a taxi. I said, "That would require calling a cab, which we don't know how to do nor can we speak to them, or walking down our street with all that luggage to the main street to hail one--and where is the new apartment we're going to?" Oh, you don't know where it is? Director Michelle thinks you know where it is. "Why does she assume we know where it is? Like all the English teachers automatically know where all the others live?"

So Betty get roped into major translation and intervention that week, and I felt bad for her, but I was starting to get really irritated. Last time I moved, director John, who spends all his time at the Manchon and other branches of our school these days and is never at ours so I can never talk to him about any of this, moved me and the new Chinese guy and the departing Chinese teacher in his SUV and took us to where we lived. But, Betty said, directors John and Michelle are really busy these days. "Well, then they don't have to move me at all," I said. "Frankly, I'm fine with staying in Bongdoek, as I heard there are cockroaches in the new place. Will it be cleaned before we move in?" Yes, Betty assured me, someone will clean your apartment, but you have to keep it clean too. Really? You don't say.

I also asked if we would have phone service already in place when we got there and a director said, "You need a phone right when you get there?" all shocked. As opposed to when? After the weekend? Days later? Never? Yes, I need a freakin' phone right when I get there.

Another thing I specifically asked Betty--who went to director Michelle on the spot--was about bedding. Not sure if it constituted landlord provided-furniture or school-provided items, I asked if we should bring the bedding from Bongdoek. No, no, no was the answer. Everything in that apartment stays. Just your luggage. And the hard-won plan, when Friday rolled around, was the following:
1. We pack our luggage Thursday night/Friday morning (Thanksgiving, mind you! the one night/morning I wanted free for calling the U.S. at various specific times!)
2. They switch one of Snow's pre-school classes so she is home Friday morning.
3. One of the school's secretaries goes with the movers to be translator.
4. They get the furniture, then come to Bongdoek to get Snow and our luggage.
5. They all go to the new apartment and leave the stuff.
6. Snow goes to the other branch of our school to teach her afternoon classes.
7. The secretary comes to our school and gives me my new key.
8. After work the English and Canadian guys walk home with me and show me our building. (To this last one I replied, "Did you even ask them if they're going straight home Friday evening?" which, of course no one had. Assumptions everywhere. You know what happens when you assume...)

Most of the things in the plan happened, more or less. But Friday at work my misgivings continued. The secretary said there's a phone but the wrong jack and cord and I needed to go buy the right kind. "OK, what kind is it, and can you write it in Korean?" Big sighs, and the secretary went to buy it herself. Next: you don't have gas for the stove. You have gas for the heat and hot water, but it's not connected to the stove yet. "OK, whatever. The least of my worries at this point."

But, they were all hopped up about this one and wanted right then and there to schedule a time for the gas company man to come. We called Snow at Manchon branch to see if she could be home Monday morning. Her first words to me on the phone, "Oh, Linda, the new apartment, it's very bad!" Well, fantastic. Not the words I wanted to hear, Snow. When the boys took me home, they walked up with me to check out the place (I live right above them now).

In I walked, and there it was, and it was ferocious.

There were light brown ondol wood-like floors. The living room had a TV with built-in VCR on a small black stand and some dark brown leather or pleather couch, chair, and reclining chair, all of which had various rips down to the stuffing. Strewn across the floor were plastic bags, some containing dishes, some containing hangers, some containing old cell phone cords or random plastic items or unidentifiable and similarly useless objects. The floors were so dirty: gray, film, lint, dirt, that they were topped only by the walls, which looked as if they had been attacked by bug spray -- not bug poison, but a spray of bugs. The wall was dotted with smashed mosquitoes. Then again, at least it matched the ceiling.

To the right was a door into the bathroom. Its floor was white, so you could easily see the black dirt and grease smeared all over it in front of the sink and toilet, as if six workmen had decided to hang out in there after a day at the motor pool. "In front of the sink and toilet" about covers the entirety of that floor, seeing as there's no shower nor tub, just a nozzle in the wall and a floor that slopes a bit toward the drain in the corner.

Past that on the right is the kitchen. Well, it's a little nook in front of the window, with a sink and "counter" of metal dish drying space on one side and a two burner stove on the other side, and three cabinets above. On the other wall I found a refrigerator, not plugged in, which when opened revealed a covering of mold from freezer to fruit drawer in black and pink hues.

I didn't even want to keep walking at this point, but there was a door leading off of the kitchen. "What's that, or do I even want to know?" I asked. The boys said, Oh, that's your washroom. I looked in. Washing machine, dirty floor. About right.

The two bedroom doors were on the back wall. No hallway, no alcove, and no privacy whatsoever, because my room has sliding glass doors with frosted windowpanes that aren't transparent but aren't really any closer to opaque. I looked in my room: more dirty floor, more dead bugs on the walls and ceiling, and a bed. Mattress on wooden frame.

Snow was freaking out and started in about the phone, because of course no one had communicated to her about it, so I fished the phone cord out of my bag while I tried to lift my jaw from the floor. She promptly took the phone into her room and made a call, but left the door open. None of the three of us English teachers speaks Chinese, but we didn't need to to know she was telling someone how crappy the place was. The Brit was duly surprised by her behavior. "Wow, she is spoiled. I've never seen a 22-year-old stamp her feet," he commented.

They eventually left me to my misery, and I began fishing through the things on the couch to look for bedding. I had a string of Christmas lights, a pile of videotapes, and a couple of couch cushions, although those thin cloths are "cushions" in much the same way a string and cup are a "telephone." No blankets. There was one thin cloth that may once have been a comforter, dirty and ripped in multiple places, and two dirty pillowcases, so I dropped all three into the washing machine, even lacking laundry soap and a way to dry them, thinking maybe I'd sleep on wet cloths that night? but under what? Then I found two pillows sans pillowcase floppy and warped with smashed stuffing and actually black from dirt and grease.

That's it. I was done. I plopped myself on Snow's floor and called director John's cell phone at nearly 10 o'clock: "The place is disgusting, it wasn't cleaned as promised, there's no dresser/desk or bedroom furnishings, there's no table, the furniture is ripped, the refrigerator is moldy, and of paramount concern for tonight there is no bedding and I specifically asked about that and whether we should bring it from the other place! I am going to go in search of bedding to buy tonight, and I fully expect the school to pay for it."

He agreed that I should do that, and of course Snow came with me, all kinds of fretting because she didn't have any bedding either. She never wants to spend money on household things, like heat and hot water in the old apartment, though she does like shopping for herself, and she always uses the excuse that she's here through a school program and gets paid less than us English teachers. However, I had still not eaten dinner and my blood sugar was low, my mood even lower. I was cranky and had no time for this girl's helplessness. So when I told her I was going to buy bedding and get some FOOD, and she said, "After we buy the blanket you first show me how to get back home" I almost lost it. I wanted to say, Why don't you just open your eyes and pay attention, as I'm walking only about three blocks down the street to the Nais Mart...

But I didn't lose it. Yet.

Inside Nais Mart (pronounced "nice mart," you see) we made a beeline for bedding-land. Thus began one of my more distressing attempted Korean communication endeavors. Oh, I had my dictionary and I was throwing around words like "pillow," "blanket," and "cheap" but there were a few obstacles to a smooth shopping experience: my general state of mind, the pressure of being close to closing time, the lack of selection, the extreme lack of cheap selection, and the fact that my roommate had NO MONEY and needed me to buy hers, too (to be reimbursed by the school, you see, so it's OK). Meaning I had to calculate and recalculate. There are no fitted sheets in Korea, so it's a matter of a bottom layer thin blanket, then a top blanket or comforter, and Snow had a thin blanket borrowed from her friend at the other school branch, so I was like, sorry babe, you ain't getting both from my wallet, you're just getting a comforter. Oh, wait, and a pillow. Crap. Calculate again.

At long last, the terribly patient woman helps us carry two blankets, two pillows (which come with pillowcases, heaven be praised) and one thin lower blanket to the cash register, but I still needed to go to the ATM. The store was now going through its closing motions: dimming lights, madly ringing up customers, and wheeling in outside tables. Nice bedding-land woman literally took me outside to the ATM, where I tried and tried to make it give me money from my Daegu Bank account. It was all in Korean but I was sure I remembered "withdrawal" correctly, only nothing came out, and some long message I couldn't read kept appearing on the screen.

This is the part where I lose it.

I walked back into the Nais Mart with tears of tension, frustration, anger and, frankly, hunger spilling down my cheeks. Snow gasped. Ms. Bedding Land was like what?! what?! and I just pointed to the word "withdrawal" in my dictionary, shaking my head. The funny thing was, I didn't even care that I was crying in the middle of some Target-like store in Korea, and if I had had even one spare second I would have gone somewhere and screamed to release the tension, but instead I just thought, 'After all this I still have to sleep on a bare mattress tonight?'

Ms. Bedding then ran with me back to the parking lot ATM where she asked some Korean girl using it what the deal was and reported back, "No cash! No cash!" We rushed back inside and attempted to pay with my Daegu Bank card, which has some symbols such as Cirrus on the back, but of course god forbid the Korean teacher who helped translate/set up my bank account actually be clear on where I can and can't use it. Additionally, I was frantically writing down "60,000 won" and pointing to the card, and "60,000 won" and pointing to the cash in my hand, because I knew there wasn't enough in the bank account to cover the 112,500 won purchase even if the bank card worked. Which it didn't.

By this point we were the only customers left in the darkened store, so a few more employees including a manager had gathered around and the cashier was trying to request things of me, but I didn't know what those things were. Snow offered up her mere 10,000 won (all she had "on her") but we were at a loss. Finally, I grabbed my U.S. bank debit Mastercard and said, "Foreign card? American?" and the cashier took it, turned it over, examined it. Then the little huddle of Nais Mart employees examined it.

I didn't want to use it because there was just enough in there that I had wired to the U.S. the week before to cover the bills to be deducted from it a few days later, but I was like, fine, I'll wire money again on Monday and hope it gets there in time. I was out of options. The cashier swiped it and eureka! A cheer went up from the assembly, the bedding was thrust into bags, I signed something, and all felt a sense of triumph as we marched out, but not before getting the name of Ms. Bedding Land written down in Korean. Any ideas on how to thank her are welcome. Getting at long last to take home some shiny new blue, peach, and purple Korean bedding: priceless.

I walked my useless roommate home, dropped the bags, and headed to a nearby restaurant/hof/bar where I ate a rice concoction and didn't even care that it had shrimp, drank a beer, and had a lovely conversation with the young twentysomething girl who works there and was so excited to practice her English that she has pretty much learned from watching American television like Friends and Sex in the City. I'll say this, her accent and pronunciation beat the hell out of most I've heard around here. She thought I must be very sad because my boyfriend is in America. I told her, well, no, at this particular moment you are looking at someone upset by a crappy apartment and an incompetent school. But the food and beer sure helped.

Needless to say, I was more than a little disillusioned and the fantastic irony was that I had to show up at work the next morning to stand at the top of the stairs smiling and greeting prospective pre-schoolers and their mothers and being a little advertisement for my madhouse...er, school. It's an annual event and a big deal ($$$) that I might have enjoyed had the timing been any less absurd. I spent most of the time regaling my English teacher co-workers about the pit of an apartment. They were perhaps a tiny bit impressed I'd called John and announced I was buying bedding, which I insisted he pay for. They assured me they'd seen English teachers get raw deals apartment-wise before but never quite this bad! Well, that's just swell.

After the pre-school event ended, John and I sat in a classroom and I made my list of things broken at the apartment. Did I mention that the washing machine doesn't work? That ratty joke of a once-comforter is still sitting in it a week later. Did I mention that there's a more-than-an-inch-diameter hole in the front door where the previous tenants ripped out the deadbolt? Did you know there's a leak in the bathroom? The TV doesn't work? The kitchen sink drain was clogged? John couldn't believe I spent 112,500 won on bedding. (Like 110 bucks.) I said, "Believe it!" He insisted Snow already had bedding. I said, "You know what? You are fluent in Chinese. You talk to her. I seriously don't care. I want my money, and I have to wire money home on Monday, so I want to be reimbursed immediately."

I spent the rest of Saturday cleaning. Two or three hours with the refrigerator and its mold. Scrubbed the walls and ceiling...scrubbed the stove...scrubbed the windows and the doors and the floors and scraped moldy gum off my heardboard...scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed some more...I'm still scrubbing. After the initial cleaning day, my most unfortunate Saturday in Daegu, I've still been washing something every day.

Part of me was ready to just leave and go take a job in China or Thailand (where I like the food better), not necessarily because this was the straw that broke the camel's back, but seriously because I thought my time and sanity spent cleaning this hole are possibly worth more to me than my spectacularly crappy Korean job and salary (or so I perceived it that day). But, fortuitously, the next day was the grand Thanksgiving gathering at the new American military friends' place, and everything felt better after that (see previous blog post), and even my spoiled princess of a roommate didn't bug me that day.

Here are the good things about this new apartment:
1. It's close to work. (although my former 35-minute morning walk was nice exercise...)
2. The view is better! I can see the mountains out my window, when the pollution lifts.
3. Um...there's a pizza place nearby and they already know the apartment building because the teacher guys order from there all the time.
4. There's loads of hot water. And gas is way cheap here, unlike expensive heating oil. I can shower endlessly with reckless abandon, if I so choose.
5. I really can't think of much else. I'll get back to you.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

"A distant nation my community..."

This week was amazing, and it turned out to be the most beautiful Thanksgiving I have ever had.

It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was only last Monday night, that on my way out of work I sent an e-plea to just about every American I know asking them to please help me find Thanksgiving, lost over here as I am among Koreans, Canadians, and the occasional Brit who couldn't care less.

I had hit my "wall," that unproven and yet incontrovertible point that you reach after a certain amount of time spent in a foreign land or similarly strange endeavor. I personally have a theory, developed 40 days into my last stay in a foreign country a few years ago, that the Bible is right on for having all of these hardships like fasts in the desert, life on an ark, and so forth come to an end after 40 days and 40 nights. I think that is the limit of human endurance, and apparently God knows it!

And so I reached my 40th day and 40th night in Korea last week, and I was sick of the frustrations, especially the food or lack thereof. Not to mention that seeing the movie Elizabethtown had sent me careening into a tailspin of nostalgia for the U.S. So naturally it was splendid timing that I was heading into Thanksgiving week, when every American gathers with a bunch of people to have a mouth-watering feast, while I sat over here lonely and embittered, surrounded by people oblivious to my holiday.

But then a strange thing happened, straight off a different page of the Bible, if you will: ask, and ye shall receive! The e-mails poured in all week, and every day I got to read more Thanksgiving plans, anecdotes, tales of holidays spent abroad, recipes, and even epiphanies. How I delighted in them! Some were hilarious, some of the food descriptions made me salivate, and some of the tidings brought a tear to my eye.

Also, on my way home from work Monday after sending that gang e-mail, I met a new American friend on the subway, as if I had conjured him up! He ended up inviting me to the turkey-with-all-the-trimmings dinner he and his wife hosted Sunday afternoon, so I got to have a little American Thanksgiving after all!

I really did a lot of thinking this week. The main thing I thought about, in the face of all this Thanksgiving goodness, was how extremely lucky I am, really, when it comes to food. I mean, sure, I've got some issues here in Korea, but what is a seaweed allergy or meat in my tofu compared to how many people the world over are starving? Just - starving, with no recourse. I have never had to go to bed hungry a day in my life. If in last week's blog entry I was fixated on the portion of the Designing Women episode where they indulge in visions of desirable food, my next few days were spent in heavy contemplation along the lines of Suzanne Sugarbaker's realization in the very same episode.

(Those of you who haven't seen it really need to flip over to Lifetime; according to their website that episode is coming up December 12! Or order up the "Best of Designing Women" DVD: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0000A7W13/qid=1133094198/sr=11-1/ref=sr_11_1/104-9588273-4272705

So, Thursday came. I woke up and flipped on CNN International as I do many a morning and what should greet me but a UNICEF spot showing starving children all over the world. I stood there transfixed by the imagery of what I had been thinking about all week in a state of sheer helpless gratitude, and I thought about how I might try to be a bit less helpless and a bit more grateful while I'm here on Earth.

I walked to work past Camp Henry as always and noted that the gate was closed, the place shut down in observance of the holiday. At Dunkin Donuts, as one of my two friends who work there made my iced coffee and the other rang me up, one said in Korean "something something get the Chuseok something," Chuseok being the word for Korean Thanksgiving. Well, they gave me some chocolates as a little "Happy Thanksgiving Day" present! They're so fun.

At work, I did a Thanksgiving-themed pre-school and got my kids excited about "Linda teacher's" American holiday. We practiced writing "turkey, pumpkin, corn, squash" on paper lined with turkeys I photocopied, we colored cornucopias, and we even sang "Over the River and Through the Woods." They weren't bad! My ten-year-old class later in the afternoon did a little better with the lyrics, I must admit. In my level 5 classes, which are learning about any/some and much/many, "Is there any bread? Yes there is some bread. Are there any potatoes? Yes there are some potatoes. Is there much rice? Yes there is a lot of rice..." etc., I drew a giant table on the board and had them draw each item as we practiced the grammar, throwing in a few Thanksgiving words such as "Is there much stuffing? Are there many yams? Is there any pie?" Then when we had drawn our feast we did Thanksgiving word searches with our new vocabulary. Great fun.

After work, I sought out an Indian restaurant -- that's right, Indian, only my second favorite cuisine in the world -- that I had found in a newly discovered guide to Daegu restaurants. It took some doing to find it, but when I reached it I rejoiced and praised and sat in my cushioned window seat gazing down at strollers and shoppers and nightlifers, blissful and content in my personal ironic twist on Thanksgiving dinner.

I am certain that I will never experience Thanksgiving the same way after this year. I have caught the spirit of this holiday like never before. Now, I have for some time fancied myself an earthy-crunchy bleeding heart, but I never had the understanding of what it's all about that I glimpsed this time around. I felt so close to everyone who sent me Thanksgiving tidings from so far away. It was all so good and familiar. And y'all were making some scrumptious sounding meals and desserts! I had more than one friend give props to Martha Stewart (yea, Martha!) There were plans to gather everyone for the first time in years, new nephews, first-time turkey cookers, plans to try new tastes in brining the turkey or even to roast an entire pig. There were tales of Thanksgivings in, among other places, France, Germany, Poland, Ireland, and Kuwait. In short, it was phenomenal.

Today, Sunday, I attended the American Thanksgiving gathering of 20+ people at my new friend's place. There were the hosts, a thirtysomething couple and their far-too-charming two-year-old daughter. (The wife is a veterinarian in the Army -- how fascinating is that? -- who takes care of all the pets of the personnel as well as military working dogs and whatnot. Who knew?) There were several barely-a-day-past-twenty young military folk, including some couples and another two-year-old, a Korean couple and their two children, that woman's Korean sister, an Irish English teacher and his Korean wife, another Korean woman who runs an English school and her son, and a Canadian English teacher. There was baked turkey, smoked turkey, ham, potatoes, gravy, broccoli casserole, vegetables and dip, stuffing, yams, cranberry sauce, a plethora of desserts like fudge, cake, rice krispie treats and two kinds of pie...oh, I know I'm forgetting things, but I'm not forgetting the wonderful time I had there.

And I will now turn over this blog to the words of my friends, because they did so much for me this week. Instead of over-indulging in food this year, I ate a decent amount of delicious food but feel full of pure joy. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

This is just a sampling of what I received:

"We're going to be up early Thursday to start chopping things, and will have the parade on T.V. I'm trusting that you were being honest about this stuff not making you feel worse when I say that, if you were here, you could come over at about 11:00am and curl up on the couch with the new kitty and watch the parade while Chris and I cook and bring you shrimps and cheese and wine." (that's Liza Hostetler, my merch-it-up partner in crime) ..."Thanksgiving is more than just a bunch of Americans eating over a dinner table, it's appreciating the greatest gift of all - friendship. I guess I realized that while living in Ireland though there were subtle highlights growing up --- aside from you meeting up with the family during this time. You would also take this time to meet up with friends from your neighborhood, high school or even college now"..."My grandma always cooks this huge dinner, with this huge roast that she always makes a little too well done. This year she called my mom (her daughter) and said that she didn't think she could afford the roast this year. My father offered to buy the roast. It reminds me of some kind of tiny Tim story or something"..."In addition to the gourmet spread, we play lots and I mean LOTS of games. This year, we're set to introduce the Thanksgiving Trivia Bowl featuring categories that all begin with, "Thankful for..." followed by the 80's, TV, Baby Boomers, etc. With a bevy of prizes, this will certainly be a lively game. Note to self, must find buzzers tonight"..."My best piece of advice is grab yourself a plastic bag, stop by one of those street vendors, get the frying pan ready and hold your nose as you take your first delectable bite of the Thanksgiving Eel. You never know, you may start a new tradition!!!"...And high-school friend Shelly Hendricks Longenecker wrote, "At the grocery store I was standing in the green bean section -- green bean casserole of course -- along with 5 other fellow Americans looking at a 1/2 filled section of green beans. And it hit me: tomorrow our country - our great, diverse country will be unified by tradition. We will be eating the same things, watching the same things, having the same silly arguments with friends, hopefully we will all be sharing what we are thankful for and all be celebrating what this great country is founded on -- freedom. And I looked at the guy on my left and the lady on my right and I remembered that we are all the same."

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Final Score: Intrepid 1, Linda 1

That huge sigh of relief you heard in the wee hours of Friday morning (U.S.) was us reaching the end of our workday here in Korea, arriving at another glorious weekend. Rejoice, rejoice, it has come.

On Saturday morning I at long last found a swimming place (still more rejoicing). There is a YMCA in the memorial hall in Haksan Park, which is a cute hill-crammed-with-trees affair a bus ride away. I actually took the subway there, with about twenty minutes walking time and ten minutes subway time, but then I discovered that the bus that goes right by my street and the Bongdeok Market ends up about a five minute walk from there. Brilliant! It will cost a couple bucks each time, but I can go swimming in the mornings from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.

I must readjust my sleeping schedule to drag myself out of bed in the mornings a couple times a week. It will be nice to be able to exercise without breathing in a billion particulates. I seriously am afraid to go running here. The wife half of the Canadian marrieds at my school finally capitulated and bought one of those masks (like a surgical mask) that so many people here wear for walking around the city. She thinks she's developing asthma from running and in-line skating in the mornings. Yikes. I like my brisk walk to work, but my throat and nose actually hurt sometimes during it.

Saturday afternoon I met up with the two Dunkin' Donuts ladies for a movie and then dinner. They work at the DD where I stop for coffee on the way to work a few times a week and I am their 10:30 a.m. regular customer. We have been chatting and friendly, and they invited me to hang out. One of them speaks far better English than the other, since she married an American, but I had a good time with both of them. Bonus moment: right when we got to the theater and were buying tickets, two famous Korean actors (whose names I don't remember) were walking in and you should have heard the screams that poured forth from the gaggle of schoolgirls trailing behind them. It was hilarious.

We saw Elizabethtown. It profoundly affected me. Don't worry, no spoilers here. I may not hold out forever, though. I'll give you a month to see it and then I shall post about Elizabethtown all I want. Do yourself a favor. See it. It was glorious and true. What I will say here and now was that I was wholly unprepared for how it would affect me to see sweeping shots of the U.S., road trips, various cities, those telltale freeway signs, the houses, the countryside, to hear multiple people slanging it up in American English, etc. It was really hard to watch in that sense; my heart was in my throat. Look! I wanted to say. I've been there! But it meant nothing to them, of course. The music in the movie was so great, too, to the point that a few lyrics were even subtitled (most background songs were not subtitled of course). I had to go touch the soundtrack in a CD store afterward, even though I don't have a CD player yet and there was no reason to buy it. I just wanted to touch it. That's how awesome it was. Furthermore, the entire movie rang so true to my life that I felt ready to explode. Jolly good.

Then we ate dinner. Now, they had asked me the day before if I have tried "Korean water snake." I said, "You mean eel, don't you?" They weren't sure. I whipped out my dictionary and found the word for eel. "That's it!" they said excitedly. I sighed and explained that I really have been trying to eat vegetarian, apart from those aberrant clams in my tofu, the desperate shrimp burger meal at fast food joint Lotteria the night I moved to my new digs, and the cases of mistaken identity of chicken and pork in my "vegetable dumplings" or on my pizza baguette. They said they would try to think of a Korean place where we could get vegetarian food.

Later that night I wondered if I should just eat the dang eel. Try it once, I mean. After all, am I not on a quest to be intrepid? I asked myself. And isn't it a cardinal sin for aspiring intrepids to shun unfamiliar foods that are part of another culture? I just feel so sad for the eels. I see them everywhere, for sale dried and fried. Worse still, I see them live swimming around their basins at the sidewalk vendors. I have seen a woman in a fancy business suit and purse that costs more than a small car holding her plastic bag of flagellating eels that I presume she goes home and throws into a frying pan? It makes me shudder. Poor things.

I didn't do it. Call me unintrepid if you will (and even though it's probably not a word) but I ordered yet another bowl of bibimbap, which is rice with mixed vegetables, egg, and hot sauce that you stir all up in a bowl. It's all I can ever eat here, but I don't even really like it. One of the vegetables in it makes me sick, I think. I get an awful feeling like my throat is closing about an hour after I eat it, and I feel like a smoky aftertaste is all through my body and coming out of my pores. Only time gets rid of it. There's probably something in bibimpap related to water chestnuts. Those make me so nauseated.

I know, I know, what can I eat here? The girls asked me the same thing. Everyone asks me the same thing. Breakfast, much to the Koreans' dismay, is an apple, some orange or orange-tangerine juice, and coffee. I try to explain that that was my breakfast every day in the States, but they still look horrified. Sometimes I splurge on a blueberry muffin or a "glutinous rice stick" at Dunkin' Donuts. Is it still considered splurging if you're doing it to keep yourself from wasting away? I'll have to check on that. Lunch is either 1)yogurt, crackers, and cookies or potato chips (I know! me, with packages of preservatives! I'm desperate, I tell you!) 2)something from one of the bakeries by work like vegetable roll, baguette, peanut cream bread or 3)the fast food joint Lotteria, to which I treat myself once or twice a week, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays when I have more time to sit there and enjoy my "salad burger" (egg, pickles, mayo, etc. on a bun) with mozzarella sticks and fries. Dinner is generally a nightmare. I got bibimbap and/or tofu the first week or two in this new place from a cheap place on the corner that's open late, but as I said the bibimbap makes me feel unpleasant and the tofu is not vegetarian. I have yet to find a vegetarian tofu dish in this country, although I have not given up. Now it's all about Subway sandwiches and my Costco goods: hash browns, tortillas and salsa, packaged soup.

My roommate understands my frustration better than anyone, as she loathes Korean food as well and cooks vegetables and noodles and Chinese dishes every night. She is very happy for me but also inquisitive about what I have. "Tortilla" was a new addition to her vocabulary. I've tried to explain to her that Mexican food is divine, but she's not convinced. As for the hash browns, I said potatoes are one of my favorite things in the world and I will eat them in any and all forms. She said yes, they are good, but if you eat them every day you will get fat. I just laughed. Would that there were enough food that I actually wanted to eat in all of Korea to make me gain some weight! I'd gladly take the trade-off! Whoever is (un)lucky enough to herald my arrival back to the U.S., I hope you're hungry that day. It's going to be like Mary Jo and Julia on the classic "They Shoot Fat Women, Don't They?" episode of Designing Women, plotting to fill the back of Julia's car with ribs from the buffet after their 24-hour fast: "That'll get us to the next stop."

On the bright side, after I left the girls last night I wandered around downtown a bit and found a cool bar with great music and they actually had a slew of American beers, including my beloved Sam Adams! Hurrah! I sat perched on a high booth and next to me on the wall was an American flag that had been covered -- as had the entire walls, ceiling, and some of the furniture of the whole place -- with graffiti. It was about 90% Korean and 10% English. I amused myself trying to decipher it. You could spend days reading that place. In front of and above me on the ceiling was something about "Mayra N Linda forever" so I had my name hanging over my head the entire time amid a sea of hangeul characters, which was kind of weird.

Today was Sunday. Since I had plans in Daegu yesterday, I ventured out of the city today, reversing my usual weekend routine. I met a photographer on the bus back from Seoul last weekend who showed me some really cool pictures from an exhibit that opened in Ulsan this weekend. I was intrigued and talked to him about going to Ulsan for it, but was shocked to discover not a word about Ulsan in my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook. His English was less-than-perfect, but he drew me a map of central Ulsan and how to get from the station to the Culture Arts Center. Still, I was wary. A city that off the beaten path that it's not even in Lonely Planet? Would I be at the ends of the earth? Additionally, when I tried to e-mail him this week, it bounced back.

However, I decided that if I really were intrepid I would get myself on that bus to Ulsan, guidebook or no. I also had determined that it was on the coast, and I was quite intrigued by the idea of looking at the water. I've missed it. And so I went. Well, when I got there, I found a big, bustling city with huge department stores, hotels, a Dunkin' Donuts, and a tourist information desk in the spacious bus terminal. ... I think maybe Lonely P forgot to print that page in this edition or something. I checked out the map and decided to spend the afternoon at Ilsan Beach. It was a 1/2 hour city bus ride across the river, past the Hyundai Motors plant, Hyundai Test Driving Course, Hyundai Cultural Center, Hyundai Dockyard. All things Hyundai. (The photographer I failed to connect with, in fact, works for Hyundai.)

When I got off the bus I was immediately cheered by how a beach town is a beach town is a beach town. This, Dong-gu, the eastern swath of the Ulsan area, had the restaurants and the smells and the beachfront bars and cafes and the throw-a-dart-to-pop-the-balloon-and-win-a-stuffed-animal that you would see anywhere. I walked along the cove of Ilsan Beach and touched the water of the East Sea. I gazed out at boats and barges and rocky outcroppings. Also, there's this great pine forest(!), Daewangam Songnim, on one side of the cove. You walk up and over this huge slab of rocky land and there are more restaurants, vendors, basketball court, benches, all nestled in the trees.

Legend has it that the spirit of the great Silla king who unified the three kingdoms on the peninsula back in the 7th century turned into a dragon when he died to guard and protect his people. He's buried somewhere else, but the legend also has it that his wife turned into a dragon when she died too, it apparently seeming like a good idea that worked out pretty well for her husband, and her dragon spirit apparently came to rest under this rock, which is why no seaweed grows on it. (A good rock for me.)

After I wandered out to the end of the earth, I went back along the other rockier side. The sun was setting and I crept along the boulders in an orange-gray glow. It was a much more arduous path than the dirt trail I'd come up on, but it was amazing. I watched the city light up in neon before hopping my bus back to downtown. I can't believe I was afraid to come to Ulsan!

I'm still struck by the fact that it now feels like "coming home" when I return to Daegu after these weekend jaunts. Now, usually when I head out on my weekend adventures I like to spend the first part of the ride translating my bus ticket. There's very little English going on in these bus stations and I try to practice a little script-reading and maybe some vocabulary, although it's nearly impossible for me to decipher sentence structure and conjugation with just my dictionary (I can't wait until I can take a Korean class!) But today, for the first time, some English appeared on the back side of my bus ticket! Only on the return ticket from Ulsan to Daegu, but it was great, so I shall reproduce it here for you in its entirety as my parting thought...

The transport stipulation

1. Forgery items are not valid.
2. We will refund after 10% subtraction of price until date of departure (no price until 2 days before). and after 20% subtraction of price for departure to 2 days after (50% subtraction-weekend, holiday seasons.)
3. It is invalid for two days passed after departure.
4. We can reject the following passenger's riding.
a. Passenger who have firing things or unpleasant things to the others.
b. Drunker or unclean passenger.
c. Deadly patient who is travelling independently or a contagious desease patient.
d. Passenger who does not accept officer's instructions.
5. It is passenger's responsibility that damage, loss and custody of carrying things.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Lonely Hearts' Club

I so love commune's, the small bar/hangout in central Daegu that serves as a watering hole where the foreign teacher crowd gathers. Amid the layers of neon glare in the streets of Jungangno, commune's waits with its blue sign and lowercase English: "commune's lonely hearts club." I went back last night. I can definitely see Wednesday nights there being a regular thing. Last night I stayed later than the week before and talked to a bunch of people. The place really fills up later in the evening.

The owner, who speaks English (like, really speaks it) plays the best music ever on a sound system linked to his computer, and you can sit there at the bar and request good stuff and he'll pull it right up. I spent some time with a couple of guys (one Irish, one American) who have been teaching English for years in various countries. They have great taste in music and we found a lot of common ground, everything from Bob Dylan and Neil Young through U2 and Radiohead to the Killers and the Decembrists. It was a great evening with fabulous conversation about music, life, love, Korea, and anything else important we could think of.

There were other fun people around, too. There was even a funny moment when one guy said he loves his job and I said I didn't imagine I would ever utter that exact statement in the course of this year. He asked where I work and when I told him he said, "Oh!" His girlfriend worked for a different branch of my school when she first came here, three years ago, and she quit after six months and found a better job at a different school. She has been happy as a clam ever since. My school has a bit of a reputation, it seems.

Now, I suppose I should count my blessings that I'm at a reputable place that's not totally illegitimate or shady, or that doesn't pay the teachers on time, or something like that. Still, it's hard not to envy someone making close to the same salary to work 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. (as opposed to my 10:30 or 11:00 to 8:30). There's a whole network of people who put in their year at a brutal school or a frustrating one, then find a great gig and never look back. I can see where this teaching English abroad thing can be really addictive. Will I re-up at the end of this year, you are asking yourself? That shall not be revealed at this time...

Today at work I was chatting with one of my Canadian co-workers. He and his wife have been staying out of the "scene" here (expats in general and foreign teachers in particular). In one way, it's a lot easier for the marrieds, because they can be a world unto themselves. He pointed out that they don't have to seek out communication, social life, English-speaking, lifestyle, etc., because it's all found in each other. He also said he's wary of the way the expat scene often turns into a bitch-and-moan fest about what's wrong with Korea, our jobs, and so forth. I am wary that, too, especially because I never imagined I'd be that. But I can't deny that it does feel really good at times to talk to people who understand exactly what I'm going through.

I won't get into all the frustrating things about the job right now. I'm still working it all out, of course. Most of my classes are starting to gel. I'm beginning to understand the interpersonal dynamics of the staff. Oh, pesky office politics!

This week (my sixth, amazingly) was far better than the last two, although my pre-school would not sit still or shut up for more than about thirty seconds at a time. I guess they felt they did their part being quiet last week when I was sick in the throat and for two days had practically no voice. Nah, they probably can't recall what happened ten minutes ago, let alone last week. Oh, I'm kidding! I adore my pre-school! But they need some serious help in the sharing and cooperating department, so I'm trying to work those into my curriculum.

My least favorite class this week was still the level 10 eleven-year-olds. They sunk to a low point last week and are not interested in rising any time soon. Three of the boys are bored studying English and have decided to act up big time. They can get really nasty. I haven't decided the best way to approach it. I'm thinking about the To Sir With Love method of treating them like adults so I can expect them to behave like adults. They're so far beyond the baby games with which I entertain lower levels. Still, they're not adults, or even teenagers like Sidney Poitier had. Plus, he spoke (pretty much) the same language as his students. My problem students think English is hard and boring, and they stop trying to listen, even though they're advanced enough to understand more than they will let themselves.

Meanwhile, one of my favorite classes is turning out to be the one that was just plain awful the first couple of weeks! It's a level 8 class of nine- and ten-year-old boys. Now, they are some seriously maniacal little hooligans, but oh, how they've grown on me! They love to beat each other up and speak in Korean, but their English comprehension is fantastic. The Korean teacher who formerly taught that class with me left (she had given her notice and left this job about three weeks after I started), and she was part of the problem, arguing back to them in Korean and just generally approaching it as, "I can't control them, they won't speak English, they don't understand." As soon as I found out that another Korean teacher with whom I teach four classes and am pretty friendly was taking over that hooligan class, I was so happy! We have transformed it in a couple of weeks. They are still crazy, but their participation has done an about face. I think they're really good kids at heart.

Teaching. Sometimes I like it; most of the time it is just so tiring! (It probably doesn't help that I get very little nourishment here.) I teach eight classes on Monday and Wednesday, five on Tuesday and Thursday, and seven on Friday. Pre-school is every day from 11-12. Other classes meet M-W-F or T-Th, except my one-on-one conversation tutoring session that is just twice a week, M-W. That one-on-one would be the best part of my week if I weren't so tired but the time I drag myself in there at 7:30 p.m. Then there are the dastardly notebooks of lesson plans, the great void into which hours of our days are sucked. We also have a weekly meeting on Tuesday, a project on Thursday, and telephone teaching sessions. Telephone teaching consists of calling our students at home to get them speaking English outside the classroom. It's just a few questions, but at 2-5 minutes per student the time adds up.

Also, phone teaching pretty much has to be done in the evening, so don't count on getting out of there before nine on days when you have a lot of kids to reach. The great part is the initial conversation of getting the student on the phone. I've learned to say in Korean, "Hello. This is Linda teacher. Is Joey home?" When the answer is no, it just spirals downward from there. It helps if they're at taekwando (we can make out that word!) and some parents can say, "Uh, no, Gina piano. Nine clock." But sometimes it's just a string of Korean to which I say, "OK, no Patty?" and then "Thank you" in Korean. It's a good time.

All three of the Canadians I work with (not sure about the Brit) plan to be teachers when they return home. It's a little bit better paying and frankly a better respected job in Canada than in the States. I'm not so sure. I think I still like teaching and training, but this job makes me think if I never stand in front of another classroom the rest of my life I'll be just fine with that. My supervisors think I'm better with the older students than the young ones. I completely agree (with the exception of pre-school). Many days I wish I were teaching adults. That's yet another reason I like the one-on-one: it's with an adult, the branch manager of the bank that's in our building. His bank was bought by an American bank, so he's coming to us to improve his conversational English.

But the smart kids are so wonderful! As are the ones who behave. As for the communication problems between the Korean teachers and the foreign teachers, they're an inherent part of this system, really. I am starting to see that what we perceive as ridiculous behavior, insensitivity, or oblivion is so often insecurity about speaking English to us. I mean, this is their actual job, not some "finding myself" year abroad. They are clearly investing themselves in teaching English and have worked really hard at studying and mastering it, and then we just blow in and are probably seen as pretty cavalier. No matter how much they've worked and accomplished with the English language, they will still make mistakes and they know it.

I was talking with an assistant director about this when she did my evaluation/class discussions last week. She is really cool and confident, even though her English is nowhere near perfect, and she told me a lot of them are almost afraid to speak to the five of us (English Native Teachers) sometimes, whereas we're over here perceiving it as, "Why don't they ever tell us what's going on?!" Oh, life is so interesting.

I kind of wish my fellow foreign teachers weren't so irritated by the Korean teachers all the time. We're all just human beings, you know? We're all in this together.

Speaking of forgetting that other people are humans, I haven't heard too much about W's Asian sojourn. I heard some of his buttering up of Japan, and I know he's got issues with China, but I haven't heard much about Korea other than that "the North" is on the agenda in addition to APEC.

When I read the Korean proclamation of independence a few days ago, I was struck by a line that in 1919 referred to Korea and Japan, and which I was thinking about vis-a-vis the U.S. and Iraq today amid questions of "should we stay or should we go?" But I suppose it could refer to a whole host of situations:

"Ought not the way of courage be to correct the evils of the past by ways that are sincero[sic], and by true sympathy and friendly feeling make a new world in which the two peoples will be equally blessed?"
--the proclamation, written in stone in Seoul's Tapgol Park

Sunday, November 13, 2005

I've got Seoul (but I'm not a soldier)

Who said life is a journey, not a destination? S/he was right.

Careful readers will note that here in southern Korea I have been craving Mexican food as I have never craved it before. I can't even pinpoint what I dislike about Korean food, besides the utter lack of vegetarian options outside the Buddhist temples. But it just is not my cup of tea (pun both intended and overused at this point).

I am desperate. I beg the gods of cheese fries and enchiladas to rescue me from where I lie prostrate atop a sea of clams and squid in my tofu. I want to rid my life of wet noodles and smoky flavors in my rice. I yearn for an orange that is just an orange and not a tangerine or some citrus hybrid. I decided that once payday came I would go to Seoul and seek out the Mexican restaurant I'd read about. I thought I may even allow myself to go to Seoul once a month this year. Of course, I wanted to tour the city properly, since all I'd done was pass through on the bus from Incheon airport to the train station in a jet-lagged daze. But if I am honest with myself, I will admit that Mi Casa Loca was a huge draw, a motivation to make the trip this month rather than next month, a mouth-watering fantasy, mounds of chips and luscious salsa that beckoned, my Shangri-la.

I considered catching the Seoul train, hitting the restaurant for an early dinner, and returning to Daegu that night. But even I could see that was pathetic. I should see some sights while there. My roommate, who knows full well that I like to adventure but also that I had one thing in mind for this particular trip, gave me a knowing look and said, "Have a good time!" as I left the house Saturday morning.

I capitulated at the Daegu train station and called the (highly recommended by Lonely Planet) Seoul Backpackers Guesthouse to reserve one dorm bed for the night. At least, it was kind of like making a reservation. I didn't have to give a credit card number. Nor did they ask my last name, although that's not unusual here. Even on my newly issued Korean health insurance card, only my first name appears. We foreigners have such long and, presumably, strange names that they don't even bother with the last name. But I digress.

On the way to Seoul I flipped through good ol' Lonely Planet and pieced together my maps. Unlike my previous weekend adventures, I was headed for a massive city, and the subway map looked more like a map of L.A.'s freeways. But when I arrived, Seoul Station felt so familiar. I remembered how awestruck and just plain fried I had felt there a month ago. This time, I was a.)reasonably awake b.)prepared to see what there was to see.

And I'll tell you what, that city reached out and grabbed me and sent a shock of delight through my being.

It's wonderful! It's big. It's thriving. It's full of life. It is almost like Manhattan: energy that just pushes up into you the moment you step from the train station onto the sidewalk. There are people everywhere. There are huge markets with hundreds, thousands, of things for sale. There is a river -- a real, wide river that is glorious in the nighttime city lights. There is an easy-to-navigate subway system with a slew of criss-crossing lines. There are about five million coffee shops. I actually stopped counting Starbucks, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (!), Tom n Tom's Coffee, you name it.

The first thing I stopped to gaze at was Namdaemun, the Great South Gate, the largest of the gates from the city wall that once fortified the place. It still stands, with its sloping roof and walls painted beautiful telltale Korean teal-maroon-blue-red. It's on a kind of median at a gigantic intersection, and I stood next to its base waiting to cross the street. Old meets new.

I knew in an instant that I loved this city. I only felt bad I had waited five weeks to discover that fact. I'm sorry, Seoul. I wasn't myself when we first met. I was - distracted. Edgy. Exhausted. I didn't know what I was doing. Can you forgive me?

I walked for about two hours, wending my way toward the hostel, looking at the buildings, the crowds, the North American businesses. People didn't stare at me on the street. I saw Westerners, often. Sometimes groups of them. I checked my progress on the map and took a quick left to catch the main boulevard I wanted, noting that I was about to pass the U.S. Embassy. That's interesting, I thought.

I rounded the bend and there were suddenly cops everywhere. I mean, dozens and dozens and then more dozens of Korean police officers fanned out along the road, and the next road, and the long front of the building as well, wielding their riot clubs. It was unnerving. I had no idea what was happening. They weren't doing anything in particular, just standing, guarding. There were so many that they couldn't possibly be there all the time, even in the so-called "post-9/11" era. I didn't know what special event they were there for and was thinking who knew, maybe Bush had dropped in to see if there were any good wars to be started. Only later did I find out the W was indeed headed this way, and that there was a huge demonstration the next day against him -- which I saw people gathering for on my Sunday walk! By the way, I had the good sense not to get in the thick of it. Until I can make my sentiments clear in Korean, I best stay away from hostile crowds, methinks.

So maybe these were protest-anticipating police. I kept thinking I should go back the way I came, but I saw occasional Korean citizens walking this sidewalk, blissfully unconcerned about hundreds of policemen, so I followed their lead. Clutching a backpack strap in one hand and my water bottle in the other, I tried to pass as quickly and nonchalantly as possible, succeeding at the former but definitely not the latter. I kept hearing in my head Colonel Mustard in Clue, "I'm only a guest!" as the FBI run by him, other things on their mind while he worries he'll be arrested or shot.

Oh, and then there would just be a random huge 15th century palace and mountaintops peeking up behind it.

Seoul Backpackers was absolutely the best hostel-type place I've ever stayed in. A shared room, but get this: bathrooms in the rooms, not down a hall or two! Clean, free Internet, and English-speaking staff. It was great and I highly recommend it to anyone travelling to Seoul. It was very close to the subway and to Insadong-gil, a street of art galleries, crafts, more coffee, and all kinds of funky stuff to enjoy. I talked to a few of the Euros staying there, and it was odd talking to travellers after so many weeks of only Koreans and bitter foreigners teaching English. Travellers are so -- I don't know -- zen. Living in the moment. I reveled.

But I had not abandoned my pursuit.

Seoul's subway system is huge but user-friendly and signed in English, too. My directions, copied from the Internet, said when I exited the subway to turn left to go down the hill, take a left, and Mi Casa Loca would be just past Bennigan's on the right. But the subway stairs put you on the sidewalk so that turning left would be stepping into the road. I looked one way, then the other, and frankly both ways sloped down. Hmmm. I made a guess, but a few blocks later knew I had guessed wrong. Should I double back? One cab pulled over and I asked, "Apgujeong Bennigan's?" Nothing. He seemed annoyed. I tried the next one. "Bennigan's? Casa Loca?" I wanted to cry. It was nearing 8 o 'clock. SO help me, if I got there and it was closed....and then what to my wondering ears should appear but English. The cab driver fully spoke and understood English.

Furthermore, he got on his cell phone, called information, found Bennigan's, got directions, and drove me to the little restaurant row. Yikes, was I even still on planet Earth? I thanked him and then had to stop and collect myself and breathe deeply on the sidewalk in front of Mi Casa Loca for a moment before going in.

And it wasn't even all Westerners, OK? There were Korean families, Korean couples. But when that basket of chips and plate with salsa, pico de gallo, and jalapenos were placed in front of me I absolutely melted. I savored them as well as a veggie burrito, full of rice and goodness, veggies and pinto beans on the side, and for the icing on the cake, they had Coke! As in, Coca-Cola! Pepsi is everywhere in this country, but Mi Casa Loca saw fit to have the real thing, that's right! At the end I signed up for their frequent diner V.I.P. card. Why not? I will so be going back there.

Back in the glowing city, I found a bar called Old Man with "live music, rock & folk." Sounds perfect. There weren't a lot of people in there, and it was way expensive, so I just chilled out for one beer in the cozy, wood-paneled darkness. The three staff members were incredibly nice to me in spite of our language barrier. The main thing happening was a big birthday party consisting of a bunch of twentysomething ladies, and I guess they liked me because they even gave me a piece of the birthday cake. Around midnight I returned to the hostel and chatted with some travelers downstairs before crawling into my (surprisingly comfortable) bunk.

I had such a lovely Sunday morning in my new favorite Korean city. A hot shower (I think I might prefer living in that hostel to my Daegu apartment! we had hot water issues again this week, of course...) was followed by free breakfast with other travelers. Now that I'd been-there-done-that with the Casa Loca pilgrimage, I had a new quest: randomly on Saturday night I had heard that a relic purported to be a bone from the hand of the Buddha, normally kept in a museum in China, had just this weekend arrived in Seoul.

What a strange confluence of events! But where in Seoul? Some of my fellow travelers at Seoul Backpackers had also heard of the traveling Buddha digit but no one knew quite where it was, so I had to poke around the Internet a bit. Turns out that after the arrival ceremony at Jogyesa Temple it had gone to be exhibited at the fencing stadium in Olympic Park. Well, I had been kicking around the idea of going to see Olympic Park anyway, but this clinched it.

I spent the morning doing a little more Insagong-gil artsy-crafty wandering and visiting Tapgol Park, the site where protesters gathered to declare Korea's independence in the face of Japanese rule in 1919. The Proclamation of Korean Independence is etched in two large stones, in Korean and in English, in the park. I stood there reading every word. The gray sky, Sunday morning strollers, and fluttering golden-brown leaves were the perfect backdrop for my moment of contemplation.

Two young teenage girls stopped me to interview me for a project for their English class. I got to answer questions like, "Why are you in Korea?" and "What is your favorite Korean food?" and, my personal favorite, "What should Koreans do to improve?" I was tape recorded, and she made notes in her notebook and took my picture. It may sound odd, but they were seriously charming little sprites. I'm sure the teacher required proof they had spoken to real people. And everyone from about age five and up here has a digital camera, either on their cell phone or otherwise.

Then I sat in a Starbucks sipping cappuccino and reading the International Herald Tribune and thinking, "I could get used to this." Things were just so much more pleasant in Seoul. It was kind of nice not being stared at every five seconds, or frowned at. I thought how different an experience it must be for English teachers who land a gig in Seoul. Since returning to work I have discussed this notion with my co-workers and they have affirmed it.

"That's pretty much when we decided to go back instead of doing a second year here at Ding Ding Dang," the husband of the Canadian marrieds told me, "about three or four days after we went to Seoul." Another teacher said the previous married couple who were here went to Seoul every weekend. I'm telling you, it's addictive.

So, after gazing at more temples, the pavilion of the city bell forged in 1468, and gathering protesters, I took another long walk back through the central city to the Seoul Station area. I was in my contented reverie when I rounded the last bend. There was a man, likely homeless, lying on the street barefoot, his shoes kicked off near him. His head was toward the doorway he lay in, and I saw that his forehead was bleeding a little, like when someone in a movie gets hit over the head (perhaps with a candlestick). He was shaking and saying something which may or may not have been coherent, but the blood was not dried. I looked around for a person but was of course on the only empty street in Seoul, a little shortcut side road that comes down the hill behind a big luxury hotel toward the train station.

I approached the employee in the doorway of a mini-mart a storefront or two down. "I'm sorry, no hanguk," I said. I pointed to the homeless/wounded man, then motioned to my head and said, "Bleeding," having no idea if this worker understood me or not. He looked toward the man on the sidewalk. "I don't know," I tried again, "but blood - bleeding." I finally succeeded in getting him to come look, and he returned to his store and went toward a telephone. I was like, OK - um, thanks, bye. I felt pretty useless. Another woman walked by and looked at the man on the sidewalk in something like dismay or possibly disappointment. I like to think it wasn't disgust.

It was sobering and I had a subdued subway ride out to Olympic Park. Now, the park itself is a huge, gorgeous, sprawling affair, and under the gray blanket of sky I couldn't figure out which direction was east to orient myself on the map. So I wandered, initially following one crowd of people, but that turned out to be a gigantic youth rally of some sort being held in a different stadium. I kept walking, and then some parking lot employees took pity on me and offered assistance. "Ahh, fencing stadium," one said, followed by a string of Korean. I just asked him to show me where on the map I was, but he walked me across two parking lots and a small road until the stadium was in sight. So kind! I went around the weightlifting gym and approached the doors of the fencing stadium, not quite believing I would in a few minutes be able to gaze on this (alleged) Buddha bone!

For those skeptics among us, of which I am usually one, the backstory is that this bone was found in China in the Famen Temple in 1987. It is believed to have been there for 1000 years, undisturbed, since being enshrined by the Tang Dynasty, but they accidentally discovered an underground palace in the 1980s while doing some renovation.

At any rate, I wanted to see the display! I bought my ticket after the very helpful ticket sellers called over the one who spoke some English to help me. "Buddha bone display?" she asked. I nodded eagerly. I was supposed to fill out a form, but they decided my (first) name and birthdate were enough. I passed through a metal detector on my way into the stadium, and then was ushered into the main arena. On the floor there was a platform decorated in gold on which two monks stood watch over the sarira -- the gold, jeweled case that holds the bone. Other monks stood below the platform in front of rows of chairs, one chanting and one with drum and bells. Many believers were gathered praying and bowing on their mats. There were candles, incense, lanterns, bright and swirling colors and song. Yet the whole thing was quiet, and the atmosphere was heavy with holiness.

I'm rather glad I went at the end of the day; it was not crowded, and I had only a moment to pause, in fact, behind the stanchion and velvet rope before it was my turn. A woman bowed to us and motioned us up the steps to the platform in groups of four. And then I stood there, facing the relic. The spot we were allowed to stand on was a couple feet away, so you had to kind of peer through the side opening of the gold canister-like container at the small rounded cylinder containing the bone. A minute later, I was moved on, and I tried to be very polite and bow as I left. The whole thing reminded me a bit of when I had my moment of face-time with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Los Angeles: also in a sports arena, also with a whole lot of build-up, and then it was all over so quickly as he said hello and then went about his business of spreading peace.

Those of us opting out of the praying and prostrating continued to the outer hall of the stadium where other artifacts from the Chinese museum were exhibited, including Buddha statues, tools, and gold objects, all quite old. Not a word of anything was in English so I can't tell you exactly how old or what purposes the objects served (there were some strange-shaped tools!) but there were some obvious things like jugs and bowls and everything was so beautiful!

I was very satisfied with my Seoul experience. Even the throngs of screaming twelve-year-olds that packed the Olympic Park subway station like sardines departing their youth rally could not shake me. I can't believe how many buddhist things I get to see all the time by just being in this country!

I took the bus home to Daegu, and my seatmate was a man from Ulsan, a city about an hour from here. (What isn't "about an hour" from Daegu at this point, besides Seoul? I feel so well-positioned for galavanting about south central Korea.) He spoke some English (along with some Vietnamese and some Arabic, I might add) and he is a photographer. He showed me a brochure of some of his photographs, and they were stunning. Well, they are being displayed in a big gallery opening this weekend in Ulsan. It's him and a few other photographers.

How very intriguing and off the beaten path that sounded to me. I whipped out the Lonely Planet and to my surprise there was nothing on Ulsan! It's a reasonably significant industrial city on the east coast, north of Pusan, from what I gather, but the fact that Lonely Planet has nothing at all written about it means it is beyond "off the beaten path." They delight in finding obscure things of interest to travelers. I became worried that if I went to Ulsan I would truly be at the end of the earth with no resources. My new friend drew me a map showing how to get from the Ulsan bus station to the gallery, and he swears there's an information kiosk near City Hall. I'm so blown away by there being no mention in the L Planet. They say something about everything, even if it's just "hikers pass through here on the way to such-and-such." Oh well, this man was really nice, so maybe I'll give it a go. He has a daughter my age who teaches middle school English! I want her to be my new friend!

It always astonishes me how a new place really feels like home the first time you return to it after traveling. I didn't think I would actually feel that "coming home" feeling to Daegu, but I did. When I finally emerged from my subway stop, tired but fulfilled, and headed toward my sketchy little Bongdoekdong street and apartment, I felt I was really walking home. Too bad we're moving -- again -- the weekend of Nov 26-27. (Hey, that's Thanksgiving weekend, isn't it? I'm really out of touch with the "holiday season," here, folks!)

But never fear, Seoul. I won't stay away long.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Remember Veterans, Remember Pepero

So November 11 is a holiday here - sort of.

It's "Pepero Day." Or "Bepero Day." (P and B are very close friends around here.) We foreign teachers remain unsure of exactly how to say it, is it PEP-per-row (like the start of pepperoni?) or Beh-PAIR-oh? Because we all had kids in our classes saying it both ways. Then again, there isn't really syllable stress in Korean as we know it in English.

At any rate, what happens on Pepero Day is that you get lots and lots of pepero, which are these little cookie wafer sticks dipped in chocolate and packaged and sold by the gazillion so that you can give them to friends and family and loved ones on November 11. Like Valentine's candy, perhaps, those little hearts with random messages.

Many of my students brought me pepero! We were all drowning in it! I have more than I could eat in six November 11ths! The Canadian married couple teachers had bulging backpacks of it, too, and she's diabetic and doesn't eat it, so he gets it all, and no way can he eat all that.

We're told that this pepero occasion falls on 11/11 because all those 1s in the date look like the sticks, you see. Or, the sticks look like the 1s. Or something.

Meanwhile, the Canadians were asking, "Are we going to celebrate Remembrance Day or what?" I gathered that that was their version of U.S. Veterans Day. Then we had a little North American cultural exchange talking about the differences in the ways our two countries celebrate the holiday. They are all very big on the moment of silence at 11:11 a.m., so much so that one even had his Korean pre-schoolers observe the moment. I had to be honest and tell them a lot of people kind of blow off Veterans Day in the U.S.: they'll notice their mail isn't getting delivered but are more likely to "observe" a holiday if it's a three-day weekend. I tried to represent us well, but come on: that's kind of true, isn't it? What did *you* do to commemorate the day? I did say the President (or in this case, the "President") might lay a wreath at Arlington, and there are parades and such. I think the Canadians do a little bit better with this one, folks. Sorry. Canada 1, U.S. 0

Apart from armistice, we've been talking about things, the Canadians and I, this week. I loved how one put it: "The great thing about living in Canada is you are totally invited to the party (U.S.) and get to enjoy everything, but then late at night when the party gets all messed up, you don't have to stay." A fantastic analogy!

I went to Costco with the Canadian marrieds on Friday after work. The prior English teacher in their apartment, whom they replaced this summer, bequeathed them her Costco card. I bought yogurt, soup, frozen hash browns, a big ol' jug of salsa (well, Pace picante sauce) and some tortillas. Hurrah! On the way home, we had a very nice cab driver. They handed him some of their pepero when they got out of the cab. It was like the most natural thing in the world.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Oat and Abote

All right, let's see then, where was I? Oh, right, Korea. The mind -- still -- boggles.

I've been away from the blog for a few days! Don't worry, I didn't make a run for the border, although I did see a guy walking with a Taco Bell cup on the street near my house. I knew the answer even before I approached him, as you can surely bet I did: he's Army, the Taco Bell is on base (I'd heard tell of such wonders over the barbed wire), and no, there isn't yet secretly another one anywhere off-base in the city. I shall have to make do with Subway, Burger King, and that still-in-the-future pilgrimage to the Mexican restaurant in Seoul.

So. Have I really not posted about this weekend? Gosh, I haven't even had that exciting of a week; I just have been sort of sick, distracted, and pensive. You know me.

This week's ailment is of the throat. My roommate has it too and is about two days ahead of me in its cycle, so I clearly blame her. The great thing about it is that late yesterday afternoon I began to lose my voice, which is really convenient when I have eight classes to teach today! But I made it through somehow. I made them play lots of Pictionary. Every lesson from the grammar books can be made into a Pictionary game; that's my new motto.

On Saturday I had the first vague traces of the illness, so while I wanted to adventure, I also wanted to keep it mellow. I went to Gyeong-ju, a city about 65 km from Daegu, and a real tourist town. As in, when I got off at the bus station I saw multiple other foreigners eating in the cafe, and there was a souvenir shop in the bus depot. Gyeong-ju is described as an open-air museum, where around every corner you can spot another temple, relic, monument, grave of a famous general, pagoda...while at the same time it now has a bustling shopping-eating area, hotels and the like, and a population of a couple hundred thousand. There is also a ton of hiking.

I wasn't up for a strenuous climb, as I mentioned, but I spent the day strolling around two of the city's parks that are famous for their "tumuli." These are tombs that are mounds in the earth; they look like huge bumps covered over with grass and in them are buried many an ancient royal from days of old kingdoms. I mean, some of these tombs are from, say, the 9th century! They are the Silla Kingdom's answer to the Egyptian pyramids. A few have been excavated during this century, so they have found things like gold crowns and some names, and thus been able to date them. Of note to Swedes and Swedophiles: one was done with the participation of Prince Gustav Albert V (I think) around 1926, and there is a big plaque honoring him at the tomb he excavated.

I sat there munching my banana in the big, open Noseo-dong Tombs park, leaves of brown piling up on the just-yellowing crisp grass, surrounded by mounds of earth under which lie the royal dead. Schoolchildren in navy uniforms gathered, and some even sat atop the mounds themselves, while others stuck to the benches and lowlands. Couples strolled hand in hand; it was a regular Saturday afternoon, and this was the place to chill in Gyeong-ju. I became inspired, for the first time, to take some pictures! Since I hadn't brought along my camera (a cheap ol' thing that is somewhere in my not-yet-unpacked bag-o-tricks in Daegu, along with extra medicine and my winter scarves), I actually went into a convenience store down the street, bought a disposable camera, and went back to the park so that I could photograph these tumuli. They're really strange, and cool.

Then I walked on to the next park, and on my way I tried some traditional Gyeong-ju bread, piping hot out of the oven. I guess it's a baked wheat dumpling with red bean paste, although it tasted much better than any red bean pastry I've had in Daegu. There was a shop about every ten feet selling it in Gyeong-ju. Claim to fame.

Wolseong Park, my second stroll, was a huge expanse of rolling tumuli and clumps of trees. There were many other sojourners, including a massive group of adolescents clearly on a school trip. The brave ones said "Hello!" in English to me, as many Korean teens are wont to do when they spot a foreigner, all giggly and proud of themselves. Some of this crowd carried the conversation even further, past "How are you?" and into "I'm great, too."

Wolseong has, among other things, a still standing ice house from the fabled castle Banwolseong, and an old astronomical observatory tower built around the year 640(!)called Choemseongdae. The round tower is small, but interesting: it has 12 stones in its foundation for the months of the year, 30 layers of stones for the days of the month, and a total of 366 stones.

I also had my second delicious Korean meal, in a restaurant plucked straight out of my Lonely Planet guidebook, consisting of fried rice, mushrooms, and a whole bunch of vegetables. (All hail Lonely Planet!) All in all, it was a relaxing day and I will definitely revisit Gyeong-ju in order to see the fascinating temple I missed and do some hiking.

Sunday was Daegu day. I am in a routine, I would say, of galavanting to other places on Saturdays and spending Sundays walking around my fair city. This past Sunday, the 6th, was particularly nice weather and I walked a quite a bit in the afternoon, reflecting on my imminent one-month anniversary of being here. Among the interesting things I saw were the Kondulbawi Rock, a centuries-old attraction. Its shape supposedly looks like an old man with a traditional hat on (though, like Timpanogas, I didn't see it on first inspection; I'm sure I will eventually, just as I now can see nothing but the outline of the woman when I look at Timp). It's on a once-stream-now-irrigation-canal outside an old Confucian academy area, so people have come to this rock for many years to contemplate. I contemplated a little there as well.

I spent the evening downtown in the bright neon clangy shopping restaurant nightlife blitz of streets that is central Daegu. I allowed myself to dine at a Western restaurant (also part of my new Sunday tradition) but Bennigan's was a disappointment (no house salad unless you order a steak or seafood dinner? An outrage!)

And then it was back to work, and after last week at work I was none too thrilled about that prospect, let me tell you. Oh, it's hard to put my finger on exactly why. Last week was extremely busy, and I have to do a lot of new teacher stuff right now such as fill out a report about each level of instruction, and do a report on each of my classes with the Korean Teacher for that class, and all of this is due at once, and so forth. But more than that, the little nit-picking ways coupled with lack of communication are getting very Dilbert-esque. Furthermore, one of my classes is out of control: adolescents who don't want to be there. I won't get into all the details, but suffice it to say last Friday I was very happy to leave Ding Ding Dang at the end of the day.

Resolved, undaunted even, on Monday morning, I donned a nice black shirt, gathered my hair in a loose bun at the nape of my neck, looped a paisely bandana through my jeans, looked myself straight in the mirror eyes, and said, "Give 'em hell!" Sure enough, the class in question went all right on Monday (they're testing me, I know it, these eleven-and twelve-year-old hooligans are just testing me and seeking attention, but it doesn't make it any less worrisome that things will get ugly in the meantime). The problem is far from solved, though: today's class was a slide back down the slope. But things will be fine, I'm sure. Hey, it's already Wednesday! Another weekend approaches! I hope my throat gets better.

Tuesday we had a pre-school outing, a train trip to Cheongdo. Now, you have not really lived until you have tried to herd dozens of pre-schoolers onto the express train in a strict three minute time limit. It was our Suseong branch plus two other branches of the Ding Ding Dang school, and there was an absolute sea of four-to-six-year-olds dotted with Korean teachers and a dozen foreigners. I must give credit where credit is due, however: these kids are on the whole remarkably well behaved. There are many days when pre-school is my favorite class. They're certainly a better lot than the aforementioned troublesome pre-teens. And it's rather heartwarming when they are all aglow with their field trip excitement in the morning and they come running up to "Linda teacher! Linda teacher!" jostling and fighting over who gets to hold my hand as we walk.

We ate lunch on the mini-plaza outside the train station, the kids ran around in the autumn leaves throwing them at each other, we sang songs, we took pictures, and then we rode the train back to Daegu. Outing day lunch consists of kim bap (rice and vegetables wrapped in seaweed) and chicken. My vegetarian-allergy combination strikes again. The school's director came along on this massive outing and he saw me not really digging in and actually remembered, "Oh, you don't eat chicken--and you can't eat seaweed!" He found tangerines for me. I thought that was kind of nice, seeing as I barely remember talking to him about my food issues; I believe it happened in the car the first day he picked me up at the Daegu station while I was in my two-days-no-sleep-welcome-to-Asia haze.

I was really not hungry, though, as my throat was firing up, and I spent the time looking on at the munchkins and chatting with the Canadian teachers about what would happen if a military action began here. "You're lucky," one of them told me, "'cause if the North invades you get to go on base. We have to wait and only get saved once all the Americans are safe."

Although I personally think we, and by we I do not in any way mean myself, are far more likely to launch this military action than "the North," I thought that was funny. I told them I'd smuggle them in with me in my duffel bag. "Just don't say 'sore-y' [sorry] and don't say 'oat'[out]," I warned them.

Tonight, those two Canadians (the married couple) took me out for a beer at this place called Commune's, a foreigners' bar/music venue/place to chill out downtown. Commune's Lonely Hearts Club. Lots of the English teachers gather there and it's low lit, down some steps, mellow, and perfect! We talked a good deal about life, the school, being in Korea, misbehaving miscreant children (I'm not the only one suffering!), past teachers who have bailed on their contracts because they were so miserable, and all kinds of good commiserating like that. One of them is also 30 and taking decisive steps to finally figure out what to do with his life, so we have common ground. It was fun.

In Commune's you actually have decent beer and other people around you speaking English and a very familiar (Western) feel, so then you step back onto the garish street where you blink in the face of a hundred flashing signs reminding you of your illiteracy, and you think, "Oh, I'm still in Korea."

One guy I met at Commune's tonight made a good point about the language thing, when I posed my nagging question: "Why do they look at us like we have three heads when we try to speak Korean in the markets and such?" He said I have to remember that foreigners are so rare here that no one is used to hearing Korean spoken with an accent at all, the way we are all so used to hearing English with an accent all the time. I hadn't thought about it that way.

My latest Korean language misadventure was last night trying to procure something resembling Nyquil. I actually don't want the real thing, as it's Proctor and Gamble and I don't buy the big PG, but I want fake Nyquil or "Faquil" (as [lying jackass] christened it). There is no over-the-counter medicine in the markets here but there are pharmacies sprinkled around, so I popped in the one by my house last night on the way home. Oh, my dictionary and I sure gave it the ol' college try, but beyond "cold-medicine-liquid-sleep-throat" I somehow could not get across my wish that it all appear in one nighttime-sniffling-sneezing-coughing-aching-fever-so-you-can-rest medicine. I drank the last dose of my "Faquil" last night, but I did not throw out the bottle. It's in my backpack, along with a list of those words translated into Korean, so I can show the whole thing to the pharmacist next time and hope for the best.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

But why?

At the request of (one of) my friend(s) Amy, I will now post about how I came to this teaching-English-in-Korea thing in the first place.

I've had a few people, whose lives I've been dipping in and out of the last couple years, pose the "Why Korea?" question, and I basically say "Why not?" I shall try herein to give a better answer.

(So if you were wondering if this blog takes requests, the answer is a decided yes!)

This is actually three questions in one. Here we go:

Why leave the country?
It's actually not because of Dubya. I was plotting this move long before he got "re"elected. Among other reasons, I miss Los Angeles but have forbidden myself to move back there until I have lived abroad again for at least a year. This is to remind myself that not all of the world has life as wonderful as those in California can have it. I say this only half-jokingly. Obviously, I also love traveling and, well do you know if you know me at all, I love learning languages more than just about anything. I am trying to determine how I might spend my life galavanting about the world. Working abroad for one year seemed like a good start.

Why teach English?
Simply put, supply and demand. Throughout Asia, there is a demand for English teachers. The requirements are simple: be a native English speaker, have a college degree, and be willing. The first person I ever knew of who taught English in Asia was the sister of a freshman dorm friend (coincidentally also named Amy) who taught in Japan. Throughout my twenties I heard of people who did this, especially in China, and then about three or four years ago when I found myself working for the big B and completely flummoxed as to what I was doing with my life, I started looking at the financial realities of it. I discovered that it might really provide some cash flow (since they tend to cover your apartment cost) and help me to pay off my debts. And, since I love language and have always liked the nuances of English, from editing friends' papers to reading about grammar for enjoyment, I thought I might actually enjoy the teaching.

After moving to Boston, having fulfilled my self-imposed requirement of leaving Los Angeles, I realized I needed to impose a requirement to leave the country for a while (as opposed to just a week or two). My first attempt to take a job in Korea, in the spring of 2004, was thwarted when I did not have my actual USC diploma to present to obtain the work visa, the original diploma having been accidentally sacrificed to a Southern California landfill. By the time my replacement was procured (at no small cost) I had missed the deadline for that job, and I decided the whole debacle was a cosmic message from the universe that I was supposed to stay in Boston for a while. That may in fact have been true. This year, I put the wheels in motion again and it all worked out.

Why Korea?
Last spring I was of the mind that I would go to basically any country to teach English, wherever I found a job offer. (I was a bit worried about Japan, seeing as I break out in hives pretty much just by walking by a Japanese restaurant, and I feared I might starve to death in a year there.) I vascillated between a job in Taipei and a job in a suburb of Seoul. As my friend Greg put it, it could come down to a choice of who I'd rather have pointing nukes at me: China or North Korea.

Coincidentally, we had a Korean roommate move into our place (getting a chemical engineering degree at Tufts) and I thought maybe that was a cosmic sign as well. While she lived with us she and I tried to find time to talk about Korea and teach each other our respective languages, but you know how life gets too busy...but she always encouraged me to go to Korea and assured me I'd love it. Anyway, at that time Korea became a possibility just because jobs were so readily available, and so I started learning more about it, and then it became more intriguing, and so on. One big advantage of the Korean schools is they pay for your airfare over, as opposed to reimbursing you for it after you teach a certain number of months. I was all about getting out of the U.S. at very little cost. A get-out-of-jail-free card, if you will.

Now that I'm here, I find Korea fascinating. The Buddhist factor alone could keep me intellectually and emotionally stimulated for at least a year if not dozens of years. I can't believe how much history there is to learn about and actual remnants of it to see! Plus, the mountains are so beautiful. There are so many places to visit, and big, modern cities, and things to do and learn, and a challenging language to wrestle with, and it's all just wonderful!

My friend mused that she might have been skeptical of an illegitimate-seeming promise luring English-speakers to Asia...well, there are some shady outfits and recruiters, I'm told, but I kind of went with my vibe, plus the research I did and the things I'd heard from other friends who've done it (I've met more and more people in the last couple years who have done the year-in-Asia thing). "Leap, and the net will appear," right? (Artist's Way)

I hope that answers the question. I basically wanted a challenge, a new country, and a new job rolled into one. And here I am.

Prior to last year, everything I ever knew about Korea I learned from M*A*S*H episodes. M*A*S*H remains one of my top two television shows of all time, and I must say I am craving, absolutely CRAVING it, right now. I have a VCR but not a DVD player here, and I think I am going to have to get my hands on some tapes soon. I love being here and having periodic random reminders of that beloved show up close and personal.

Parting off-topic thought: there is a little cult of us forlorn souls with delicious blood that have always wondered why the bugs eat us more often than others. This week I found a few suggesstions on a web site: It asked "are YOU a mosquito magnet?" and offered the following as mosquito attractions: carbon dioxide, of which you produce more if you have high metabolism; lactic acid, released after working out or eating salty/high-potassium foods; estradiol, a female hormone; floral & fruity fragrances; body moisture; acetone, which is in larger amounts in diabetics and people who are starving; and sweat. Hmmm...unfortunately I now can't find the web site I copied and pasted that from! Ack! But I thought I'd share what I learned, and you may take it with a grain of salt. Which will possibly make you more attractive to mosquitoes.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Bite Me

It's the middle of Week 4. I am definitely in a routine, and it is strange how quickly indeed the weeks start to fly. My English-native co-teachers warned me this would happen. The great thing is that so far the weekends aren't flying by, so I actually feel like I have a weekend but don't feel it takes forever to get to it. (knock on wood!)

My Chinese roommate is pleased as punch with my jack-o-lantern. I gave him a big, wide, three-toothed grin and he is hanging out atop a chest-high cabinet in our living room. I lit the candle the last two days and he glowed for us. My roommate likes this little tradition and she pledged of her own volition to get a pumpkin each October 31 when she returns to China! Isn't that fun! She is awesome. She tells her mom about me, and about pumpkins, and Halloween, and how I'm trying to learn Chinese from her, and whatnot. Her mother seems to approve of me, so far, so I must be being presented well. I'm not the big bad American after all.

Speaking of lighting things on fire, I have also been burning mosquito coils in my room the last two days. I am thankful that the last Chinese teacher who lived in that room left them behind. I ignored them the first two weeks, but the other day I was eaten alive by some nasty ones. The bumps on my arm are big, red, and hard. No tiny "bug bites" they, more like welts or hives. But they're not hives; I can see the little dot in the middle where the dastardly creature stuck its sucking proboscis, and I can also see the creatures themselves coasting through my room from time to time, or lifting off of the desk, the windowsill, my jeans, etc. like little helicopters. They're at school, too. Major ugh.

I also have a smattering of small red bites on my face, which are very attractive. So, yeah, I'm a big fan of these mosquito coils! They're like incense, only maybe not as sweet, warm or cedary of a smell. And, well, they're in a coil, not a stick. And they make me happy. Even if there is a bit of incense-ish smoke in my room all night. I'd rather breathe in smoke than malaria. My lungs aren't afraid. (By the way, I am 952 days cigarette-free right now, for anyone who's still interested in the count. Although this year I keep having dreams again that I smoke, and I get confused as to whether they are reality, so I secretly wonder if I still have my 952-day quit. But I think they were all dreams.)

Major digression. Back to Korea: OK so time flies and mosquitoes fly. In other news, I was walking to work Tuesday and just felt so good, like I was floating (if not flying) and I realized just how addictive this English-teaching gig can become. I can definitely see why some people never want to return to "normal" life in the States. It's a job, but it's a fine job, as jobs go, and for someone like myself interested in all things words and language acquisition (if not the hooligan and rugrat acquirers themselves) it's even a good job, most days. It's more tiring than anything else. I have gained all kinds of new respect for every teacher I ever had (and I already really liked most of them).

I popped into the Dunkin' Donuts I pass on my walking route to work, where the two twentysomethings who work the morning shift now say hi and know I want iced coffee, and when I left a middle-aged Korean woman actually held the door for me as she came in and I went out. That may not sound shocking, but it was. The street/walking culture (not to be confused with streetwalking) is not exactly one of politeness, personal space, and stepping out of the way. It's not aggressive, either, it's just not really caring at any moment if you bump into, step on, knock down, get in the way of, or otherwise affect anyone else on the move.

I felt so happy! The sun was shining, I was shining. I've had a lot of that the past month: a carefree happiness that just seems to settle throughout my entire being. Of course it made me start wondering what was going to go wrong, and sure enough one of the Canadians was out sick so my workload and lesson plans and everything almost doubled as we covered her classes. My nice long Tuesday middday break disappeared. One of the classes I had to cover was brand new, too, as in five- and six-year-olds who have had three or four class sessions and are still on, "'Hello. I am Linda teacher.' 'Hello Linda teacher!' 'Who are you?'" Even, "Jessica teacher is not here" was too complex for them.

Also this week, on the subway home, I saw the missionaries! Well, two of them. The funny thing is, I had totally been thinking about missionaries on Sunday, during my afternoon reverie/walk, partly due to cousin Ken's comment, of course. I idly wondered how many missions/branches/wards there are in Korea, and if there is a meetinghouse in Daegu, and so on. And I did tell them: "Hey, I was just thinking about you!" I'm not sure they knew how to respond to that. We talked for a while (four stops, plus we transferred together). One is from Australia and one Alabama. Elder Australia was the one who talked to me, really, as Elder Alabama was busy chatting it up with someone else in Korean. They've both been here around a year.

I learned many things -- some of which I'm sure a bunch of you already know -- like that there are four, count them, four! church buildings in Daegu, that there is an English-speaking American military branch here with around 50 people, that there are four missions in Korea (also more than I expected), that the Seoul temple is older than I realized, that there are two temples in Japan, and that there are MTCs ("a few," he said) in Australia and New Zealand. (MTC=missionary training center. It occurs to me that those of who you who don't know what it means might be wholly uninterested in this paragraph and not reading this far anyway. But who am I to say?) I read, learned to translate, and promptly forgot most of his nametag. I think "saints" was something like "chong-ga." I could be totally wrong.

He gave me a piece of paper with their phone number and a map to the church (not very far at all from work), and he said he'd hook me up with the sister missionaries so I can hang out with them and learn about life in Korea. I did not give him any of my information. I did tell him my heathen status. When we were talking about temples he asked if I'd been in any since doing baptisms for the dead (he thinks the Arizona temple is pretty) and I said, "I told you, no, I haven't been gone to church in ages, no temple work. I stopped going to church for good while I was at BYU." He laughed. We had fun talking. On Sunday I had been toying with the idea of seeking out a church to attend--in Korean--just for the familiar-yet-differentness of it all, but now turns out there's an English one. Who knew? But I am wary. I know what happens. Maybe I'll give a fake name. Then again, I don't even know my residential address here, so I couldn't give it to them if I wanted to.

And today I taught my pre-school class "We Are a Happy Family," or started to, anyway. It will take them a few days to get it down. We've been practicing the words mother, father, sister, brother, so it's perfect! This I had planned long before running into the missionaries. In fact, I've been trying to remember more of those random easy Primary songs -- no God songs, just the activity/happiness ones. If anyone wants to remind me of a few, let me know. "Do As I'm Doing," for example, I might use in my level 3 classes, with verbs. But I know there are others appropriate for young, super-beginning classes. Help?

Another item on my wishlist: Eclipse gum!

Over and out.