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.

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