Thursday, December 29, 2005

"Winter Break," Day 1: The Savage Beast

What a randomly decadent day. Emphasis on the random. Now don't go getting some vision of velvet or flowing wine or that kind of decadence. Rather, it was just a day of doing nothing obligatory, and stuffing my body full of one Western food after another (not all of it even that good, frankly) and even a big American movie that was actually not really particularly American except it was. It was Hollywood, and New York. The movie was King Kong. You see, Peter Jackson and his little Lord of the Rings team of screenwriters/producers aren't American; they're from New Zealand, of course. But what could be more American than this remake of KONG?

I loved it. That's right, I said it. And I'll say it again. I absolutely loved it. It was like a tribute to all things film and yet not without irony. Plus there is something to be said for someone such as myself who loves New York, who thrills to the pulsating energy that drives the Big Apple, sitting in a huge movie theater in Daegu, Korea watching captive Kong atop the Empire State Building. I'm not sure what exactly is to be said for that, but there's something to be said for it.

It was certainly not a Hollywood love fest, while at the same time it gave props to what film is. I thought that it was very smart in that sense, and the way it told the tale of the theater and the vaudevillians and the starving actors desperate for work, and then this insane pursuit of filming Skull Island and the ape, which ends up destroying a theater - literally crumbling it!

Adrien Brody was phenomenal. Jack Black was phenomenal. The giant bugs weren't bad! I was kind of dreading Naomi Watts. She got on my last nerve in 21 Grams, as did that whole overrated film, but she went a long way toward redeeming herself in the purely brilliant The Assassination of Richard Nixon and I Heart Huckabees last year, and now with King Kong she may have completed her redemption. (And yes, I am aware that Naomi Watts has no need for me to like her. You see, I, too, am not without irony.)

What kind of pressure was on Jack Black, with the line: "It was beauty killed the beast." And they didn't hold back, leading up to it with all the punch-packing melodramatic build-up they could muster. I mean, that line has to be up there in the top cinematic last lines, with the likes of "there's no place like home" and "the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Go, Jack Black.

Oh, it was just great. The visuals. The thrills. The Peter Jackson-ness of it all. Good on him, you know? I say keep handing him $200 million budgets. I mean, you know, if you've got a $200 million dollar budget to hand to someone, that is.

This morning I breakfasted at Burger King on the army base with the "military wives." That's a joke, because there were actually men than wives there, and I'm alluding to the Decemberists' song "Sixteen Military Wives," which of course it really kills my allusion to have to explain, but I knew a bunch of you wouldn't get it because you don't know the clever song: "Sixteen military wives, thirty-two softly focused brightly colored eyes...cheer them on to their rivals, 'cause America can, and America can't say no, and America does, if America says it's so it's so..."

But you see, really there were two men, and one two-year-old daughter, and only one military wife, plus me, in the playland at BK talking about Koreans, and language, and English teaching. Well, and then there was the other military wife, and her child, who popped into the playland at one point, but they just had a cameo appearance.

Later I lunched with two wives at Shanghai Grill. Only I think if it's the woman who's in the military then she doesn't count as a military wife. Well, who's counting? Apart from the Decemberists, of course. "Seventeen company men, out of which only twelve will make it back again, sergeant sent a letter to five military wives, his tears drip down to ten little eyes..."

I had such a Korean day. I told my friend that this morning. "I'm having a Korean morning," I said, delighted that he knew exactly what I meant, right when I met up with him to walk onto base to go to Burger King to get coffee and watch the little one on her electric slide. That's what I kept calling the playland slide, to my own amusement if no one else's, because there was a bit of static electricity in the playland giving her a couple little shocks. Don't worry, she brushed them off, no problem.

I really feel I ran in circles around Daegu today. There were multiple thwarted bus trips, but nowhere I had to be, so what's the harm? In the morning I grabbed a cab to head over to my friends' place near Camp Walker, and the taxi driver started to drive me there but then stopped to get gas. I was like, What are you doing, buddy? It was such a typical Korean moment. He seemed totally offended that I got out, too, to get in one of the hundreds of other passing taxis.

And you know I even thought to myself, 'This is probably a mistake, to get out of this cab, despite the fact that I'm running late and this is another five-minute delay I don't need,' because the first driver actually understood where I wanted to go. I just knew that the next one would give me that look when I named my destination, that screwed-up face look that says, "What, pray tell, you Westerner, are these unintelligible sounds coming out of your mouth, because they surely can't be Korean?! Just wait, oh you foreigner you, until I finally deign to understand what you're trying to say. I will pronounce those syllables and I will pronounce them with a hair's breadth of difference from how you are pronouncing them, and I will show you just how wrong you are. Hyun-cheung-NO!"

Dinner was at Outback Steakhouse with the military family. "Will they find the solution in time, using their fifteen pristine moderate liberal minds?...'cause America can and America can't say no, and America does, if America says it's so, it's so..." I had a Foster's (Australian for beer) and I have leftover cheese fries. Glorious and true!

And then there was Kong.

"And the anchorperson on TV goes la de da de da dedadedade da..."

Here are my two random but related facts discovered tonight: 1. Peter Jackson's birthday is Hallowe'en (that just totally fits him somehow!) and 2. Peter, Fran, and Philippa (think "I'd like to thank the people of New Zealand...") are the screenwriters for the slated-for-2007 adaptation of The Lovely Bones! I hadn't heard that until today! That's amazing. If you don't know The Lovely Bones, you're missing out literarily even more severely than you're missing out musically by not knowing The Decemberists. I'm thoroughly intrigued that the LOTR peeps are writing/have written that movie.

I do highly recommend The Decemberists' album Picaresque. Get the CD, and then read War and Peace and think about how many times we really need the letter "e" in the word Decembrist/Decemberist. That's what I like to spend my days doing.

"La de da de da dedadedade da..."

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Another year over

Random Wednesday thoughts:

I just came from the movie theater where I saw The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe. It was all right. I have the next two days, Thursday and Friday, off for our academy's "winter break." One of my Canadian co-teachers and I ever-so-gently pointed out to one of our Korean teacher friends that four days constitute really not so much a "winter break" as a "long weekend," but what can you do? At any rate, it's the first holiday or days off since I got here! My timing was just that bad, starting work here October 10th: I got here just after the big Korean Thanksgiving (Chuseok) and there has been a dry spell of two and a half months to welcome me. I think it was the longest period without a holiday in the entire year. Grand. My baptism by fire!

I haven't decided exactly what I will do for New Year's this weekend -- maybe Seoul? -- but tomorrow my agenda consists of relaxing and not much else. Maybe another movie.

Did I mention the other great thing about the no holidays thing? Since my job in the States the first nine+ months of this year was for the establishment which shall not be named at which I worked every holiday, I didn't get any there either. So I basically managed to work an entire year with no holidays. The only days of the year the B-land shuts down are Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I left before those, see? Good times. Oh well, who needs holidays?

I just rode the subway back from the movie theater to my neighborhood. The Daegu subway is very clean and also easy to use (and signage includes some English and Chinese!) but the last trains are around 11:30-11:50 p.m. That's unfortunate. The Seoul subway goes a bit later than that. A lot of things in Korea are open late -- it's no Boston -- but the subway in Daegu is not one of them. However, taxis are cheap and plentiful, so no problems when you stay out late.

I've been getting occasional bowl game news, mostly from the American Forces Network radio station, but I will have to pay attention to see what's going on with my USC Trojans right now.

I still haven't determined on what channel the Oscars will air, but I did find out definitively it's not the American Forces television station, as they don't have the Korean broadcast rights. If it's a live telecast, it will be on around mid-morning Monday. I might have to take the day off. Unless I can get our VCR to function. (Don't hold your breath. The broken VCR is waaayyyy down on the priority list in our apartment. Plus, who couldn't use a Monday off? See above re: holidays/days off.)

All right, that's my report from the last Wednesday of the year.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

And so this is Christmas...

When I was at USC, in practically every journalism class I took we had to write introductions about ourselves: what experience do you have? are you doing an internship? and the question asked over and over, "Where do you see yourself five years from now? Ten years from now?" I think it was an attempt to dispel any false hopes of instantly becoming the next Barbara Walters. They wanted us to realize that we were more likely than not going to, upon completing our journalism degree, move to Podunk and take a job either on the police desk of a very small newspaper, or behind the scenes (NOT on camera) at a small 5000-watt station.

(Those of you who were around will recall that I neatly avoided the issue by fleeing the country upon graduation. I also had the distinct advantage of being willing to work in radio, not caring a whit for television. At the end of my travels, I was lucky that my public radio internship asked me to do ad-hoc work for them, and I just kind of hung around there until a full-time job opened up.)

I started at USC in the fall of 2005, which means those first "ten years from now" questions were talking about right now. I somehow doubt I accurately predicted "teaching English in Korea" on any of them. I may have said "living abroad," though. It would be interesting to go back and check.

This week we gave an oral test to our level 13 class of 10- to 12-year-olds. They are very conversant in English and can use many tenses. I rather enjoy the class; regrettably it meets only twice a week. Well, I made one of the questions, "Where will you be and what will you be doing five years from now? Ten years? Twenty?"

But who ever knows, really?

Also this past week I got sick, my most illin' of illnesses in Korea. I mean, I was knocked OUT. And the great thing was that the heat and hot water were not working in our apartment for the first few days of the week, when my sore throat/fever/chills began. Well, the thermostat was not working. I suspected my roommate's turning it off last weekend, after we'd been admonished to leave it on and ONLY turn down the dial, might be to blame, and sure enough it was. Our pipes and boiler were frozen and we had no heat nor hot water for two days. I made it through work Monday and Tuesday, although my voice was starting to go, but Wednesday I woke up in such a weak state (although at least the warmth was back in the house, thank goodness) that I used a sick day and lay in bed the entire day. I can count on one hand the number of times from morning to night that I so much as sat up, and still have fingers left over.

I would lie there thinking it might be nice to go get some orange juice from the kitchen. Now mind you, the kitchen is adjacent to my bedroom. If there weren't a wall there, I could sit on the edge of my bed, stretch out my legs and put my feet on the refrigerator. On Wednesday, however, I would start thinking about orange juice, and then it would seem like so much effort, and 45 minutes later there I would be, still lying there thinking about it. The same thing would happen when I thought about the cold medicine in my backpack, and that was leaning against the wall of my bedroom, two feet from the bed. The most hilarious part was when I thought about getting up to do more than one thing, say, get the pills from the backpack and water from the kitchen. It was really like a puzzle for my poor, delirious brain. Where should I go first? Hmm, maybe I can just crawl...

Meanwhile my school's assistant director kept calling, telling me to come to school so they could take me to the doctor. In the snow! Walk outside and find a taxi! That was funny. Frankly, even making it down the stairs of the apartment building seemed out of the question. It was hard to explain this. It was even harder since my voice came out in little squeaks between coughs.

I finally managed to huddle in my knit hat, sweatshirt, and blanket in the cranked up heat long enough to break a sweat and start to feel a bit less feverish. Around 9:30 p.m. I found the wherewithal to order a pizza. I had to psych myself up for the walk to the front door (twelve feet, tops). I leaned against the door frame while he got my change. I was pretty impressed with myself that I accomplished that.

Thursday I did not feel as weak, and I went to work, partly because we don't get many sick days and partly because I have fewer classes on Thursdays. Plus, it was the first day of our Christmas parties so it wasn't too bad. They would have been screwed had I not gone, because one of the Canadians had a vacation day that day, so everyone was already covering his classes. I had NO voice whatsoever though. I truly could not talk above a whisper, and barely that. I had pre-school color and copy sentences the entire hour, and then I went to the doctor where they sprayed mysterious things into my throat and nose (and with instruments I did not find particularly sanitary, I might add). I also got a prescription for another Korean pills concoction in little daily dose packets.

In my afternoon classes we had Christmas activities and I sat around in my scarf drinking water and silently baby-sitting. The kids drew huge Christmas trees and decorated them with colored pencils, markers, glitter, tinsel, shiny paper, etc., then got to eat snacks and sing Christmas carols. I did have to finish two oral tests in the evening class, and that was funny. The kids kept saying, "What?" I had to score them somewhat leniently, poor things. They're supposed to be able to at least hear the question, eh?

I felt much better on Friday, and I held my head high through my eight classes and Christmas parties, including the big pre-school Christmas wreath extravaganza and "Santa" visit (Santa being ably played by our co-worker from England).

Saturday I declined to go off adventuring and I skipped the Christmas Eve party at Commune's, the foreigners' watering hole, but I did meet my friend for coffee in the afternoon. Then I stayed in the downtown area enjoying the crowds, the shoppers, the Christmas music, the band concert, and other random festive goings-on. I spent a few hours in my big bookstore, reading some O. Henry stories and browsing before picking up a copy of Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings.

My aunt Joyce suggested a few weeks ago getting my hands on a copy of A Christmas Carol and reading it aloud on Christmas, something nice she's done before when spending Christmas alone. It was such a perfect idea! The reading it aloud, not so much, as my voice and throat were unwilling participants this year, but I actually sat in the Starbucks in that bookstore with my toffee nut latte reading it for some time, and it was lovely! Then I came home and read some more before going to bed. It was nice to have his other Christmas writings as well.

Christmas morning was sunny and so much warmer than it's been lately that it almost reminded me of Christmas in Phoenix! It was amusing to walk down my street and see two neighborhood kids outside playing with their new remote-controlled cars, just as I always watch neighborhood kids play with new toys in the States on Christmas afternoon.

I would also like to announce, for the record, that the Disney Christmas Day Parade special hosted by Regis and Kelly and Ryan was on at noon Sunday here, so it was clearly not a Christmas DAY parade in Florida and California where they were taping it! It's a lie! Don't believe it! I think I might try to go to Disneyland Hong Kong or Tokyo before my time here is through. Maybe both. I love me some Disneyland.

Sunday afternoon I met up with the American friends and we went to the home of a Korean friend of theirs I'd met at Thanksgiving dinner. This Korean friend is a really smart, awesome woman who's starting her own English school and is very nice, and she had a slew of people over including her parents and sister and a bunch of English teachers. There was a lot of food, and a lot of laughter, and a good time was had by all.

Part of me likes my solitude enough that it becomes dangerous, but as I was feeling a little anti-social yesterday (admittedly, still sick as well, but, let's face it, moody and anti-social), it was really good for me to read about Scrooge. We must remember that a big part of his problem was that he never enjoyed anyone else's company. It wasn't just the miser thing or the anti-Christmas humbug issues. He would not spend time with his nephew! He would not laugh! Yet his nephew, and Bob Cratchit, never gave up hope and they continued to treat him with kindness and drink to his health. Redemption is possible and oh, so wonderful!

Before I picked up the Dickens, I browsed among other things a copy of the New Testament. One of the results of having been an exquisite Sunday School student back in the day is that I still have random memorized scriptures pop into my head on occasion. I've actually had the parable of the talents from Matthew on my mind quite a bit lately as I try to decide whether to enroll in law school, and if I'm meant to be a writer, and how to go about changing the world. Well, I found those verses but I'd sort of forgotten that the very same chapter goes into one of my favorite parts of the Bible: "When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." -- Matthew 25:38-40

What an appropriate Christmas message that is! Maybe somewhere, in some family gathering, after reading through the story of the Nativity, someone should flip a few pages to Matthew 25 and take in the message of love, actively shown to all fellow travelers on the planet.

I read that a U.S. "diplomat" in Korea this week raked the North over the coals and called them a hooligan state, which angered South Korea, and I think rightly so, as little good has ever come from name-calling, nor provoking the North to anger when South Korea would really like to reunify in peace. One thing I have learned since I got here is that the propaganda machine is in full force, from "our" side about the North. I think it is too easy for us to believe everything we're told, and worse, to think that because a government is flawed it somehow lets us off the hook for caring about the citizens as human beings. We see this played out around the globe, writing off an entire citizenry because of a prejudice or a grudge. Perhaps a better idea is to heed the message of Matthew 25, or the words of Jacob Marley's ghost when Scrooge asks, "But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?"

"It is required of every man," the Ghost returned, "that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world -- oh, woe is me! -- and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!" -- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Penguin Classics edition, p. 47

And so that's my Christmas. In a roasted nutshell. I love Scrooge and I love the real people in my life even more. Tomorrow I'll go back to hectic school and this week I'll go back to reading War and Peace and I wonder if I will think about some of the good Scrooge did and felt after his awakening. His is one of the all-time greatest epiphanies, I'll tell you. Also, I can never think about Jacob Marley without thinking about --what was his name, Dan Miller? -- the famous case of pink eye when we did the play years ago. "Where will you be in twenty years?" What if someone had asked me that then, in 1983, when I played a little urchin running around London?

We recently commemorated the anniversary of John Lennon's death. That even made the news over here. And so, where will we be five Christmases from now? Ten Christmases? Twenty? And, what will we have done?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Flammables

Today I took the bus to Gyeongju again, this time to see the Bulguksa temple. It's a big one, and pretty heavily touristed, although we're in a slow season (cold!) so it wasn't very crowded. There were many people milling around, but not so many that I couldn't reflect and contemplate a bit. There were buildings built into several levels of the mountainside, with the steep stone steps to climb to the next level, and there were two particular pagodas that are treasured around these parts: Dabotap and Seokgatap. They are on either side of the highest courtyard, and I read that they represent two different religious schools of thought sitting side by side in wisdom.

A lot of what you see at Bulguksa has been rebuilt, but those two pagodas miraculously remain intact from centuries ago. I believe they are from around the eighth century. As is the entire temple site, but many buildings were destroyed in 16th-century conquests by the Japanese, and later reconstructed.

It's quite a peaceful place: layers of tile roofs; bunches of trees, including some evergreens; plenty of wandering paths, graveled or dirt; a stream or two; and spots where you can stand and gaze across the temple at the distant mountains.

And it's all just a $1.30 bus ride from the downtwon Gyeongju express bus terminal, which is itself a mere $3.30 bus ride from Daegu. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the bus system here, and public transportation in general, are fantastic! And today, I got some more English on the back of my bus ticket. This time much of it was written quite well -- far better than my Ulsan return ticket -- but there were a couple particularly hilariously translated phrases, so I'm again reproducing the whole thing here for you:

Terms and Conditions
1. Any forged tickets are void.
2. Cancellation fee of 10 percent will be assessed to per passenger, prior to the departure date. After two(2) days passed from the date of issue, 20 percent during the week is assessed to per passenger.
3. Ristrictions on bus travel are as follows:
a. One who has the flammables or unpleasant belongings.
b. One who gets drunk or unsanitary.
c. One who is seriously ill or a patient who takes a solo trip.
d. One who is a case of infectious desease.
e. One who does not accept driver's instructions.
4. Passsengers are responsible for any damage, loss are custody of their belongings.

It just amazes me that they can get "Terms and Conditions" (as opposed to the last one I saw, a more literally translated "The Passenger Stipulation"), but then spell "ristrictions" and "desease." Is there a native speaker editor or not? And if not, can I have that job?? And, well, "one who has the flammables..." is just awesome.

What else did I do this weekend? Let's see: Saturday was pretty much a wash, mostly because I stayed out far too late partying like a rock star on Friday night. Friday night started out so lovely, too, but I wish I had ended it about three hours earlier than I did. It was snowing when I left work. This is the third time it's snowed, but the last two happened overnight and were pretty well melted by the time I rose and shone. On Friday it started snowing lightly while I was still at work, during the last class block (6:40 - 8:05). All the kids ran outside to play in it on the five-minute break, and the Canadians scoffed at them making snow angels in a centimeter of snow. One swipe of the wing and there's the sidewalk. But I could understand their excitement, unlike the Great White Northerners.

So after work I strolled in the tiny flakes across the bridge into central Daegu's shopping/restaurant/nightlife fest known as Jungangno, site of my beloved basement watering hole, the Commune's. I ended up talking to the same guys I had a great music-Korea-life conversation with there a few weeks ago, plus meeting a couple friends of theirs who were fun and dancing wildly with a 50-something Russian guy. He was funny, and they all knew him: he hangs with the foreigner scene pretty regular, it seems, so it's not as potentially bizarre as it sounds. But it was hysterical because I, of course, was drinking and dancing as I tend to do and then he spotted me and we danced for what in my memory seems like a while but may have been only two songs. He had me spinning and dipping and flying, and even falling to the floor at one point, which did not hurt at the time, but kind of did the next day.

After Commune's we went to Itaewon, another bar (bigger, with pool table!) that is only a few minutes away, but the guy I was walking with and I got lost on the way there and it took us a really long time to find it. Jungangno is a grid, but it's store after brightly lit store, restaurant after flashing restaurant, bar after neon bar, and being "illiterate," we foreigners sometimes fail to distinguish the landmarks very well. So we just kept walking in circles and asking people, most of whom had no clue where the place was, but some of whom would say, "Turn right, then left" but that would fail to yield any results. It was cold, too, but I bought delicious roasted chestnuts from a street vendor (and yes, they roast right there).

It was a fun night but a long night, and the people I conversed with were almost all traveling sorts who aren't particularly concerned with returning to their home countries any time soon, and that is always interesting. I, too, desire more travel; life is a journey, not a destination, right? But hanging with these foreigners always has the effect of putting me in the grappling-with-what-to-do-with-my-life mindset. And sure, you can tell me I already spend enough time in that mindset and should just live in the moment, but that's hard to do when you are entangled with someone far, far away, because if you get Zen about time then your mind gets preoccupied by space instead.

Needless to say, I slept in on Saturday. Then I took a long, pensive walk through the cold in my scarf and earmuffs. The previous night's snow had melted. I went for Starbucks (gotta live it up with the Christmas drinks while I still can!) and later in the afternoon went over to my new friends the military vet & spouse's house. She was out Christmas shopping a couple hours away, but he and the 2-year-old and I wandered onto the Army base where we ate dinner with another friend of theirs at the restaurant/pub/dance floor catch-all that is just the sort of place you would imagine on a military installation: cheap food and a slightly depressing feel.

We hung out for a few hours and I spent a lot of time rambling about how I want to figure out what to do with my life, to stop procrastinating, to be able to make a living as a writer, to be with the man I love...and my friend spent a lot of time telling me to "just do it" (far more eloquently, of course) and offering lots of insight from his own life and observations. It was good for me. The painfully cold walk home from the restaurant after dark that made my gums cold, less good for me. But his wisdom, good for me. Then at home, my good ol' roommate had turned off the heater again. I thought we had finally driven home the point this week that you aren't supposed to turn it on and off, just turn down the thermostat, but there it was. At least she's consistent, right? I'll give her that. More like persistent. But I am insistent! And so the battle rages on...

I spend a lot of time alone and contemplative. But you know, I kind of did that even when I didn't live in Korea. I go out, but I also think it is sometimes better to be alone and contemplative then in the company of strangers for company's sake. I mean, I love the Commune's Lonely Hearts Club and that it is there, but there's a reason I can't do like Friday night all the time. Plus I haven't really decided how many people I've met in Korea I actually want/need to be friends with. I don't have too terribly much to say to the other English teachers at my school, though I do converse with the Canadian marrieds more than I used to. That's pretty much just at work, though. The Korean teachers are all smiling, poised, pretty, cell-phone crazy, or some combination of the above, and I don't have all that much to say to them either. There are a couple exceptions to that rule, but there aren't friendships there.

Many of the foreigners I meet in "the scene" are younger (23-26) and therefore in the perfect place in their lives to be living it up in a foreign country and figuring out what it's all about. I've already figured out some things. Not all the things, obviously. But apart from when I worked for Borders in Los Angeles, I have never had many friends who are younger than me. It's always gone the other direction. And the less said about my state of mind during the early Borders Westwood period, the better. Anyway, it's nice to have met people here I actually want to cultivate a real-live friendship with. I just can't believe I get on best not with English teachers but someone here with the Army. I never would have predicted. Now, in addition to them my roommate and I still might have hope -- I initially thought we might become friends -- but we are just not seeing eye to eye on this whole utilities thing, and I think it's made her lump me in the category of "people in Korea who are out to get her." Plus, she's young. And loves to go shopping for fun. (I cringe.)

The thing is, I'm not particularly unhappy here at all right now, just philosophical. I've totally scaled the 40 days, 40 nights wall and scrambled to both feet on the other side, where I dusted myself off and plodded on. I totally love that I'm here. But as the 21-year-old military wife said Saturday night, after we'd been commiserating about wackiness we've encountered in Korea, and I learned that she is not in the armed forces, only her husband is: "No, I'm just here because it sucks being apart." From the mouths of babes.

"The German tutor was trying to remember all the various kinds of dishes and the wines and desserts in order to send a detailed description to his family in Germany, and was greatly offended when a butler with a bottle in a napkin passed him by. He frowned, trying to look as though he had not wanted any of that particular wine, but was mortified to think that no one would realize that he wanted the wine not to quench his thirst or out of greediness, but from a conscientious desire for knowledge." -- War and Peace

Thursday, December 15, 2005

"Let us bake bread together..."

Today we had another pre-school field trip, and it was my favorite so far! I'm not even sure why, but it was just pleasant and full of happy vibes. We went to a bakery where the little ones got to make cookies and decorate cakes and bring their treats home.

On "outing days" we English teachers have to be there earlier, at 10 a.m. (I usually teach pre-school at 11.) Somehow today I could not find my keys as I was scrambling to leave the house and I was nearly late, and when we all loaded into the five Ding Ding Dang vans (the kids call them the "Ding Ding Dang Bus," but they're mini-vans, folks, bright yellow ones) our route took us back down the street along which we English teachers walk our ~20 minutes to work. In other words, we all live between work and the field trip site. The English teachers didn't all ride in the same van, and when we got there I discovered others had also mused, "Man, they could have just picked us up on the way..." On the other hand, my pre-schoolers were tickled to have driven by "Linda teacher's house!" Not that you can even see our side street from the main road, as you'd have to turn twice, but it doesn't take much with them.

Also, hilariously, amid the Korean chattering I heard Wendy, who has zero attention span on her best day, say, "Da-wa-ga-yo?!" in a perfect whine. The Korean teacher answered her something that was clearly a "No, hush" kind of thing. I said, "Oh my gosh, did Wendy just say, 'Are we there yet?'" And yes, she had. It was awesome. I think that's my favorite piece of Korean vocabulary that I've learned, period. I cracked up for the rest of the ride.

I adore my pre-school. Today as we cut cookie dough I got to thinking about how smart a couple of them are. One in particular, Francesca, is a little genius. She's cute, too, but quirky cute, with her short hair, round face and glasses, and big smile. She has the best mind and attitude of just about any of my students (that includes on up through the 13-year-olds). And she's ridiculously helpful in class, like when I've got five or six kids who don't understand whether they're supposed to be writing "big" or "pig" and I'm rushing around trying to attend to all the cries of "Help me teacher" and "Teacher, what is it?" that I swear some days are the only English words I hear from them, Francesca has long since finished her workbook page and she'll calmly walk around the U-shape of chairs translating or repeating the instructions or helping someone find an eraser. She's amazing. I tell her she's going to be president someday. She doesn't quite understand that. Yet.

Anyway, so I was watching her and thinking, 'I really want to know what becomes of some of these kids after I vanish from their lives.' And then I thought, especially with my pre-school whom I spend more time with and whose personalities I know better because we have class Monday through Friday instead of only a couple days a week, 'I think I want to know what becomes of ALL of them!' So I decided at the end of my stint here maybe I will try to tell them they have to write letters to Linda Teacher in America. I mean, it's brilliant. It should make their mothers happy: free continued English instruction, right? And anyone who knows me knows how much of a letter-writer I am and how I am always trying to find fellow letter-writers. I'm certain there are some lurking among my students. So, that is my new brilliant plan. And I can say of Secretary-General Francesca I knew her when.

So we made cookies and I was delighted that there was a penguin cookie cutter. I made a little family of penguins and had them surround my heart-shaped cookie. But then there was more dough, so there were more penguins. I let Brian and Jina decorate some of my penguin flock and take them home for themselves. I didn't really need more than three cookies. And I managed to keep only the three, my two original penguins and their heart, free from the dreaded too-sweet chocolate icing.

Then, the kids decorated small cakes with white frosting. They were so well behaved, sitting in pint-sized chairs around long, low tables, decked out in paper aprons, listening to the man instruct them. In between cookie sheets and cake trays I entertained my dozen. I even managed to intervene between Andy's and Chris's (inevitable) fighting and wage peace. They are really good friends, but they fight every day, too, like physically. And clearly there have been enough injuries in my pre-school of late.

The bakery is called "Pain Pain" (as in bread en francais) but I kept purposely calling it pain - pain as you would say the English word and getting my kids to do the same. Sometimes you just have to be a little rebellious. It amuses us ENTs (English Native Teachers) and it doesn't make a difference to the KTs (Korean Teachers) anyway. I like to alleviate my boredom with the munchkins sometimes. Like Jenny, one of the smart students and maybe the oldest one in the class, who is so bored all the time and who unlike Francesca does not channel that into good behavior. Jenny is also helpful to those who don't know what's going on but spends more time talking to her neighbors in Korean than getting their work accomplished. Francesca will be valedictorian and student body president; Jenny will be head cheerleader and homecoming queen. I can see it now.

Anyway, so Jenny with her long hair and long limbs and ultra-confidence always wears something cute, and on the last field trip she had these pleather boots, a sassy skirt, thick gray tights, the works, and she's, like, all of six years old. I called her a little fashionista and she immediately repeated the word, amused. That happens a lot: you can't get them to repeat "Where is the book? It is here" to save your life, but they'll hear some random comment and seize upon it. So the name stuck and I call her Fashionista almost every day, now. She still doesn't know what it means, really, but I can tell that she knows it's slightly teasing, but not mean.

I actually gave Francesca a nickname today, too. They had slices of fruit to put atop their cakes: kiwi, strawberries, tomatoes(!), etc. Naturally, Andy cried because there were no banana slices. He loves him some bananas. Well, Francesca put almost all the grapes, and only grapes, on her cake. I said, "Hey, Ms. Grapes of Wrath, what's going on with you here?" Then it struck me how she is kind of Steinbeck-like, and I think equally brilliant. She was "Hey, Steinbeck" to me for the rest of the day. *She* probably will figure out what her nickname means soon. She's probably already read the entire works of Steinbeck for all I know.

They've just about mastered "Jingle Bells" so I think tomorrow we're going to sing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." We're also about to move on in our reading book, an extremely easy version of Three Billy Goats. The veeeeeeeery big goat is just about across the bridge, so we'll have to see what the troll is going to do about it. I was impressed to see them using the word "bridge," now part of their repertoire, in the van today, on the way back from Pain Pain: they would place their bags of cookies across the opening between two seat backs, or bridging the gap between my knees, and then I would walk my fingers across "Cookie Bridge." This provided endless minutes of fun.

And now it's just about Friday. And it's just about Christmas. And things are merry and bright.

"I got thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an’ mankin’ was holy when it was one thing. An’ it on’y got unholy when one mis’able little fella got the bit in his teeth an’ run off his own way, kickin’ an’ draggin’ an’ fightin’. Fella like that bust the holi-ness. But when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang—that’s right, that’s holy." -- The Grapes of Wrath

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Lots and lots

Today I read an article in The Korea Herald, an English-language newspaper published in Seoul, about the opening of the ASEAN summit talks. ASEAN is the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. After this two-day gathering, there will be a meeting of the brand new East Asian Summit, which will be ASEAN plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. Here's the sentence that struck me:

"The East Asian Summit, which represents about half the world's population, will consider ways of enhancing cooperation, and proposals to create European-style economic intregration..." and so on.

SO casually, oh, you know, about half the people in the world. Hello! This is a mind-boggling thought. I already think many of us Yankee Doodles tend to forget, as we take for granted that we are the biggest and baddest, about the rest of the world, but we certainly neglect to think about just how very many people there are in Asia. When I had CNN International-Asia edition (in the old apartment), I became intrigued by viewing the world from here instead of there. It has nothing to do with being anti-anything, by the way, nor pro-anything. It's just good to remember once in a while that this new swath of 16 nations is, oh, let's see, just about half of EVERYONE ON THE PLANET.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Two Months

Can anyone believe I've been here two months? Because I can't.

That is 1/6 of my time here!

I really feel like I live in Daegu. This is especially true when I return to it from a jaunt off to some other city. It amazes me that I can feel that "coming home" feeling to a city in Korea.

I have definitely emerged from my 40 days & 40 nights "this blows!" phase. It probably helps that tomorrow is payday, that I have discovered the wondrous "tcheon" or Korean pancake-type thing, and that I have my new American friends. Today I went with them onto the army base and we ate lunch at -- lllaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! -- Taco Bell. That's right. Ummm-hmmmm. I made a run for the border, and I had to show my passport and everything. (They're not allowed to bring on guests who are citizens of "communist bloc" countries. I find that hilarious seeing as there is no more "bloc" of communism. Besides, everyone knows it's been replaced by the axis of evil.)

Of all the useless, dirty, moldy crap that came to us under the heading of "furnishings" for this new apartment, the one useful surprise was the string of white Christmas lights, which I have strung up around the living room. They are white and they blink at different speeds and in different patterns, and it's a pretty long string, and I like them.

Our washing machine works now, and I did so much laundry today. I rejoiced in the warmth of our apartment and the fact that when I run out of places to hang clothes to dry, I can lay some on the floor because Korea has floor heating instead of air pushed through vents, and it's very handy for drying socks. Also, my life here is infinitely better now that I have purchased a CD player, which I did last weekend, a $48 boombox. Even though it meant I was on such a strict budget this week that I pretty much *had* to eat on the post with them today, because I could pay in US$ with the random $20 I had left in my wallet that I'd never exchanged, or else I would have had an orange and my last leftover slice of pizza today and that would have been it! But tomorrow is payday, hurrah! Weirdly, today when I did pay with my greenbacks they felt strange, and they didn't seem like real money. I am that used to Korean won now.

Hey, look at that! "won now" is a palindrome! fun!

The other wonderful thing I got to touch today was Entertainment Weekly. I hadn't even realized that I missed it. I knew I missed The New Yorker, but they have that at the big bookstore downtown (where the Starbucks is). It costs $12.50, so I can't buy it every week, but it's there and maybe I can treat myself to it once or twice. But EW, at the cover price -- especially as we enter Oscar season -- that rocked.

Wish me luck this week as I fight with my director about our utilities costs. I am going to insist that the costs from the old apartment be split between me and my roommate even though she claims not to have used the heating oil because she didn't take showers. (She boiled water on the stove.) But she kept the windows open and turned the heater and thermostat on and off twice a day thus using more energy so I think it's crap that I have to pay the whole $150. I wouldn't have used that much if she had ever listened to me, but she is clueless about thermostats. I am going to insist that our tri-lingual director meet with us so he can translate everything into Chinese, including my conditional tenses like, "I wouldn't have used___ if you hadn't ______." (That's beyond even my level nine students' grasp!) It should be interesting. But it was their idea to have me room with the Chinese teacher and not teach her how to work a thermostat.

Speaking of asinine bosses and workplaces, I e-mailed someone in the benefits department at Borders Inc HQ and found out that the reason I haven't received my COBRA information is that the geniuses at my Cambridge store never terminated my employment in the company's computer system. That pit of madness continues to haunt me.

And now it's on to Monday. Happy birthday to my sister! Too bad she never reads my blog! Did you all remember that the "They Shoot Fat Women, Don't They?" episode of Designing Women is scheduled to air Monday at 8 a.m. on Lifetime?! Don't miss it!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Yeah, but you should see the five-year-old!

So another week -- ninth, incidentally -- has come and gone and I'm only a little worse for the wear.

You see, on Tuesday morning I was trying to make it right. Monday had been a particularly irritating day in pre-school. I blame this on the fact that I had not had my usual coffee beforehand. Pressed for time, I skipped the five-minute detour to "my" Dunkin' Donuts, the one on my old route to work that I still frequent because I'm friends with the girls who work there. It's only five minutes longer to go there from my new walk to work (which is a far shorter walk to begin with). Well, Monday I didn't do that and meant to grab coffee at the Dunkin' Donuts next to Ding Ding Dang (or DD next to DDD), but that DD has randomly closed. Bummer! By then I really didn't have enough time, so I had to teach pre-school first and get coffee at noon in the little shopping plaza across the way, at Kaffee Jamaica Bean. Which made for a rough pre-school. They were loud, I was irritable, we were all cranky together, and I didn't really care, but since I hadn't been particularly cheerful about not caring, I figured on Tuesday I should try to make it up to the universe.

I went in the class a few minutes before my start time to be particularly enthusiastic in my greetings and spend a little extra time doing the stupid things that mean so much to them, be it an effusive "Wow, Jinny, you have such bright pink flowers on your pants today!" thus surreptitiously teaching some vocabulary, or picking them up and spinning them around a bit, or whatever random bit of attention-showering they need.

So there's Brian, who is smart and adorably crazy and has come a long way, I feel. He used to cry every day but now that's been taken up by some of the other boys (funny, the girls never cry in pre-school). Brian is one of my favorites, except we're not supposed to have favorites, but I think he's fantastic because he cares and he learns and he pays attention and he sings the songs better than anyone. (He could give some American Sunbeams a run for their money on "We Are a Happy Family," and he occasionally still starts singing some of our made-up Halloween tunes to himself while he's coloring a picture.)

Tuesday he had a 'B' on his shirt. I was crouched down at their level gushing about Wendy's flowers and Jinny's pink pants and Brian's 'B' -- "It's B for Brian," I said, standing up but still talking to him. I bent down at the waist, to maybe a 135 degree angle, smiling down at him. "Yeah!" he shouted, jumping up with all his might as I bent. The top of his head SMACKED so hard into my face I thought my entire head must surely have just shattered.

The crack! sound and a wave of pain jolted through my nose. I saw stars, I saw black, and mostly I just reeled. I instinctively backed away and crouched down, leaning against the wall below the dry-erase (not chalk) board. I wanted to sit, lie down, collapse, but was repeating to myself like a mantra, "Don't pass out. Don't pass out." I said, "Brian, Brian, are you OK?" He looked dazed but surprisingly (and much to my relief) wasn't freaking out. "Yes, yes," he said. "Are you sure?" I demanded. Yikes! I looked at him. He kind of touched his head and then smiled at me, and I saw --again to my utter relief-- that he understood as well as I what a pure accident it was, and that we were still conscious. He sat at his desk ready to begin, and, well, then I had to teach pre-school.

That was not fun.

I started with whatever random warm-up questions I started with, probably, "Are you hungry? Do you want a pizza? 'Yes, I want a pizza.' Does she want a pizza? 'Yes, she wants a pizza'" and so on. We were reviewing foods and requests this week. Then I leaned on the desk for a while. I moved quickly into some activity where they took out their books so that I could get into workbook time, when they write letters and color the "dog, duck, doll," and other d-word pictures, and I can pause for breath.

Brian started to cry at his desk. It was about fifteen minutes in, and my head was frankly starting to hurt more and more as well. I went over and said, "Are you OK? How are you doing? You want to come get a drink of water?" He shrugged, then shook his head no. Just then, the Korean teacher who assists with that hour of that pre-school class came in. I like her, by the way; she's one of my favorites there. I said, "Listen, Brian hit his head earlier and I'm not sure if he's OK; can you take him out and pursue it a little more in Korean?"

Her response? "Oh my, Linda, your head is totally swelling! You have a huge bump!" Well, right, I told her. We sort of collided. "Are you OK?" she asked. Yeah, not so much, but I told her I'm getting through this pre-school here, but worried about him -- we need to call his mother. She attended to him, and he did come back in and make it through class, as did I, with a fair amount of leaning on the desk. It just makes me think that when you watch people get the crap beat out of them in movies, but then they get up to run, dive, leap, shoot a few more bad guys, scale a cliff, jump over a river, climb on a moving train, and save the girl, it's all a bunch of hooey. I mean, maybe some serious adrenaline could kick in, but I was not fit for any action sequence, I'll tell you that. How do you people who get in bar fights do it?

After class I went to my desk in the staff room where there were two packages waiting for me. Usually receiving snail mail is the highlight of my week, but today I ignored my friend (another of the three people there I actually like) who sits next to me as she cooed "Ooh, you have so much mail!" and I collapsed at my desk. The pre-school teacher was explaining what happened, which of course made everyone gather around, and our desk area in the staff room is pretty crowded anyway, with 14 people in a space about the size of a kitchen. Not a large kitchen. I just wanted water and I was like get off me, get away from me, get me to the water cooler, shut up, stop talking to me in English, stop talking about me in Korean. I made a bee-line for the bathroom with my bottled water where I drank, beheld my bump in the mirror, and discovered it was quite a mound.

The assistant director (the third of the three people there whom I like) came into the restroom and was awesome. She consoled me and helped calm me down. I was kind of shaky. I think I was probably in a state of shock -- medically -- while I taught pre-school. Now, I was cold and just upset and starting to feel pain. She told me about when one of her students accidentally kicked her and gave her a black eye. Good times. When I could breathe a bit better I went into the staff room where one of the Canadians was joking, "Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner, Linda! In this corner, a Korean rugrat!" Ha ha ha.

Being Tuesday, we had a longer break between pre-school and the afternoon classes, but we also had an English teachers' meeting at 2:30 p.m. I sat at my desk eating crackers, drinking water, and writing all my lesson plans. I also looked up the word for "concussion" in Korean (nway-jeen-tang). Around 2:15 I sat down at our computer to check e-mail, and I don't know if staring at the screen played a part, but when I stood up from there I got such a wave of dizziness and nausea as I'd never had. Remember, I don't really ever throw up, just in general, so that worried me, but I slouched into the meeting and when it ended I decided to take my friendly Korean co-workers up on their offer to take me to the doctor.

So, I inaugurated my Korean health insurance card at the clinic down the street with the assistant director whom I like doing the translating, but the doctor looked at my forehead mound and decided to send me to a different clinic for an X-ray. He called over there to set it up, only now it was getting on 3:30, the T-Th class start time, and this woman had to teach a class, so we went back to school and I had to go to the second clinic with the director whom I don't particularly get along with. I don't dislike her (although some other teachers do) but she absolutely hates my roommate and me right now since we've made so many demands with this move to our new apartment (you know, like, to know when we're moving, or to have a pillow on the beds, or to have the washing machine work, stuff like that). It was kind of awkward in her car on the way there. She doesn't speak the best English anyway, but she clearly has nothing to say to me these days.

At this next clinic I was called in after the guy with the bulging, black-and-blue, clearly broken hand, but before many of the assembled old folks who were very entertained in the waiting room by what appeared to be a soap opera set in the Confucian era. This doctor did the whole pen-light-in-the-eyes, reflexes test, and poking my bump (OUCH!) and the area next to it (nothing). (The latter a good sign, I think.) Then I had my X-ray. I did tell them how very many X-rays I've already had this year, but they didn't care. They also didn't cover my chest with a pad. Well, what can you do, really? I asked about it, and had it translated, but it's not standard practice. "I think, no problem," the X-ray tech told me. Well, OK. So, I saw my skull, again, and the doctor looked at the X-rays and then decided to send me on my way, but cautioned me that if I got dizzy or nauseated at night I should come back the next day and get a CT scan.

We went to fill my prescription for some painkiller, which turned out to be four different little white pills, or rather, three and half pills. The doses were pre-divided into packets all nice and neat, and one was cut in half in each dose packet. I couldn't even begin to determine what they all were, and Ms. Thang director was little help, so I just took them that night, and have been taking them (after meals, as instructed) for the last few days. I sleep pretty well with them and the headache that creeped over my entire skull on Tuesday did go away that night. I figure I've probably put worse things in my body at some point than this mysterious Korean medical concoction.

I missed two classes during the excursions to urgent care, and one of them was my absolute favorite, my smart-as-whips level nine 10-year-olds, but I saw them in the hallway when I came back to teach my 5:50 pm class. "Teacher, what happened?" one girl said, motioning to her forehead. "A bug?" I said, "No, a pre-schooler." Some of them had heard I went to the hospital. When I returned to them on Thursday they cheered me for being back in the land of the living.

Yes, I do appreciate the irony of the fact that Brian apparently survived the whole experience better than I, but just think -- doesn't the bullet usually fare pretty well?

A few days later, I still feel quite tender on the actual bump, and god knows what's happened to my brain. I don't think I've lost any memory. On Tuesday my Canadian friend asked, "Linda, what day is it? Who's the president?" and I was able to reply in a quite vulgar fashion, "That !#$%!&* is still president, I know that." I'm still taking my pills (two doses left) and I'm still not doing any jarring activities like jogging, nor drinking alcohol.

Last night I went to a Korean friend's house and met her American army husband and his buddy, and they were highly amused by the story, turning it into a toddler battering ram taking out this poor, defenseless English teacher. They cracked up and said they would keep it in their little collection of happy thoughts to call upon when they have a bad day. I told them, "I think I'm going to hear this story repeated back to ME in a foreigner enclave one day, 'Did you hear about that English teacher who got head-butted by a five-year-old?' and there are going to be all sorts of unrecognizable details in it!" Who knows if I'll be an urban legend among the Daegu expat crowd.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Decembrists

Here are this weekend's top stories:

1. I very much enjoyed an all-expenses-paid trip to Busan (aka Pusan).
2. The phones in our apartment stopped working.
3. It snowed.
4. I began reading War and Peace.

Well, all right, let's take them one at a time, then.

Not one to be outdone by a slew of world leaders, I of course had visiting Busan on my agenda. It's the second largest city in Korea, it's on the coast, it's about one and a half hours from here by train, and there's no good reason why I haven't gone yet, other than studiously avoiding it during the recent APEC gathering. But I was invited to go this weekend on one of the strangest trips I've ever gone on (a short strange trip) and it turned out to be loads of fun and my best day yet in Korea!

Last weekend at American Thanksgiving, I met the American couple's Korean friend, J.J., who has over the months been their guide to Korea. They've seen tons of sights, their families are good friends now, and J.J.'s father is even making my American friend a traditional Korean wooden backpack (chigae). Stuff like that. J.J. works for a global company whose workers often galavant off to Shanghai or Toronto on business. On a regular basis the company pays for "work club" trips where they go on a little field trip with some foreigners so that they can get used to being around Westerners.

For some time, J.J. has been urging American friend Bryan to come be a token foreigner on the trip. They were discussing it last weekend at Thanksgiving and invited me to come be a token foreigner as well. It did seem a little weird -- what exactly would I be doing? I'd really be getting a free trip to Pusan and all I had to do was hang out and be the English-speaking person that I am? What's the catch? But there was no catch. Really. I felt a bit more comfortable because Bryan was going too, and I decided I was up for an adventure, and a free trip, so off I went!

We met at the Daegu train station at 9 a.m. and J.J. introduced us to our two new friends for the day, B.K. and S.G. I was beginning to feel a little left out for not going by my initials! Actually, it's just easier for foreigners to deal with initials, so for example if your name is Byeong-Kuk you might shorten it to B.K. on the English side of your bilingual business card. I did have to restrain myself at first from calling him "B.K. Broiler," although by the end of the day when we were all old friends that was fine.

It was such fun! I guess there are a dozen or so people who participate in these "work club" trips, but it's a busy month so only these three could make it this time. On the train we talked about the initial things you talk about: where are you from, where have you been, have you been to____, did you like it, what should I do when I go to ___. They spoke pretty good English, and they were nice, easygoing, maybe thirtysomething? I'd wondered if it would be really bizarre, just hanging with some random Korean businessmen, but it was all very casual and fun and we got along famously.

I was next to S.G. on the train and we got to talking about Buddhism. He asked me if I knew why the Buddhist temples are almost all secluded, nestled in the mountains. "Well,"I replied, "during the Joseon dynasty..." He looked at me funny. Was I saying it wrong? "Um, the Joe-sohrn dynasty," I continued, trying to emphasize the different "o" sounds in the two syllables correctly, "when the Confucianists ruled they exiled Buddhists to the mountains." Then I realized he was looking at me funny because I knew the answer and it surprised him. He said he was impressed. I said are you kidding, I've been fascinated learning about Korean history these last few weeks! I try to pay attention in the museums! (When I can read something, that is.)

Pusan has a great energy and we strolled happily. I'd heard a lot about Haeundae beach from the Canadians at work, who frequented it in the summertime. It is nice. We hung out in the sand for a while, took pictures, and looked at the sea. It makes me happy to look at oceans/gulfs/ seas/bays. I really think when I "settle down" I don't want to be landlocked, and I will have to live in a coastal city. Now, which coast -- in which country -- remains to be seen. (Then again, when will I settle down? That also remains to be seen.)

The Busan aquarium is right there by the water, and that was our big event for the day. Normally, I am not one for aquariums. I am not a fan of the whole animals-in-captivity scene. But I am also not a total plebe; I was on this fully hosted adventure and it was my job to go in and be Western on all the planned activities, so I did my duty. Though I believe you can safely offend some of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, there are some times when you should most assuredly not offend people, and this was one.

We got to see fish from around the world, divers in the huge tank feeding sharks, jellyfish, crabs, you name it. And of course, my two favorites: frogs and penguins. How I love those little guys. "Hello, froglets," I said. "I'm sorry you live in these tiny glass houses." There were a whole bunch of varieties of frog, and a big frog statue that many kids sat on to take pictures; we got a picture of me kissing the frog, to turn it into a prince, of course. The penguins, I can't even go there. I love penguins so much that it makes my heart hurt even when they're not trapped in a big room. And this year, being fresh off the March of the Penguins movie, I just stood there overwhelmed as I looked at them. They're brilliant and so cute, yet tough. Intrepid, that's what they are!

We took a glass-bottomed boat ride on which we got to feed the fish and be inches from a shark. The sharks are so thoroughly non-plussed by humans at this point, though. I did pretty well on the shark quiz. My surprise favorite exhibit was the sea dragons. They look like pieces of plant! It was a challenge to spot all seven of them in their tank. For a while I watched two of them of different colors (clearly a male and a female) dance and float around each other, playing, swimming, touching, backing off, then dancing and floating some more. The one I'm guessing was male (the only printed information in English was the species name, so I had to guess) would brush some of his little fronds along her back, and then they would curl around each other and float up a couple feet together before swirling away, then back together again. It was fascinating.
I discovered that I love purple fish. I knew that I am partial to blue, violet, and purple flowers, but I didn't know that I also loved purple fish. I gravitated toward every tank with purple things in it. Who knew?

Lunch was, obviously and ironically, at a seafood restaurant across the street: Korean sushi. Still being dutiful, I was actually rather excited to eat at another traditional Korean take-your-shoes-off-and-sit-around-a-low-table restaurant, and yes, I did eat some fish. I had to warn them about my seaweed allergy, but it was all fine. What I did not eat was the live baby octopus. I'd read about this Korean delicacy. Lonely Planet warns that the suction cups still work and you can choke when the baby octopus gets stuck - truly - in your throat. So when our server put down the platter of flagellating octopi, I declined. Bryan declined, too. But the Korean guys were in the mood to tease by this point. I stood firm. They told me not to worry about the choking, you just use lots of sesame oil and they don't get stuck. "No way," I said, "I have a policy against eating things that don't hold still on my plate."

"Here, watch," one of them said, "I'll kill it for you." And he speared it with his chopstick until it was still. "There, now you can eat it!" Chivalry is not dead, eh? Don't worry, we were all laughing, and nobody got their feelings hurt (except the octopus), but no way, man. When those guys lifted a tentacle the suction cups clung to the plate!!! Why should I believe they wouldn't also cling to the inside of me?

Then, another great thing happened as we sat around the table, so familiar and fast friendly. We got into a political discussion! My first Korean war-American military-George W. Bush-even North Korea(!) discussion. It was fascinating, enlightening, and I think goes to show that we were clearly getting along like a house on fire, because that is like the unspeakable topic, the North. It was most interesting.

Next, we did a lot of walking along the beach and went to the outlook point past the big Westin hotel. We saw various things like islands, seaweed harvesting boats, and the site of that APEC "class picture" photo-op with all the world leaders. J.J. took pictures of us all day, so I'll try to post some soon.

Our last event was BEXCO (Busan Exposition and Convention Center), where a shoe and textile convention was underway. It was kind of random, but then, the whole day was random and surreal, so why not a shoe exposition? (My leather issues aside. At this point I could check my animal principles at the door, eh.) I was an old pro at this EXCO thing by now. I can't believe I've been to more conventions in Korea than dance clubs.

Among the highlights were a fashion show complete with runway and models, a machine that I stepped on and had my tread/pressure electronically analyzed, and a giant embroidery machine that had fifteen or so needles going at once making intricate patterns on a huge cloth. "Get a load of this thing," I said, "this is brilliant. It could so clearly put an end to children in sweatshops! No more little eight-year-old fingers needed for the needlework!"

Not five minutes later, as the five of us hung out near the "press some wool into a keychain ball" booth, a man asked me if he could interview me about my impressions of the convention. "Sure," I said, and turned around. Suddenly the guy behind him turned on a camera and bright lights and they held up a microphone. Oh, that kind of interview. They were from one of the big networks, MBC, and if they needed a quote from a foreigner then judging from the few of us I saw I'm sure either Bryan or I or both of us made the evening news, but it would only air in Pusan. Thank goodness. I would flip if any of my students in Daegu came in saying, "Linda teacher, I saw you on the news!"

They asked me what I thought, why was I there, what had I seen. I told them the embroidery thing was fascinating. I actually refrained from my sweatshop comment. I've seen the way things get translated around here, and it ain't pretty. They asked my age, of course, as there is a Korean obsession with that question. I resisted answering it because I've declared it off limits (for example, from my students). We need it for the chyron subtitle, they insisted. "Let's say 29 and holding," I said. I was kidding, but they turned off their camera and moved on. Oh, well. Age is different here anyway. They start at 1. They say they count the year you're in the womb, so I'm always a year off in Western age anyway, I just went in the wrong direction this time.

We ate some more delicious roasted chestnuts and had a hilarious subway ride on the way to the Pusan train station. It had been a long, exhausting, but immensely amusing day. Bryan and I were the only two who stayed awake the whole train ride back, which gave us time to have some good conversation, and upon returning to Daegu we all went out to dinner. I can't believe how much stuff the company paid for, and they absolutely would not let us pay for anything, not even coffee on the train. I had such a good time with these people! Of course we exchanged info and want to all hang out again. I can't believe how randomly in the past two weeks I've collected new friends and the most wonderful experiences.

From about midway through the shoe and textile convention right up until we parted after dinner I seriously laughed so much side-splitting laughter that my mouth muscles actually started to hurt, along with my stomach! It was the craziest thing ever. My jaw was truly in pain, like after you exercise. I realized that I hadn't laughed like that in ages, and hadn't really laughed much at all in eight weeks. (Most of my good times here have been of the solitary, reflective sort.) The only amusement I get are two of my co-workers (the sarcastic ones) and that's not often, and it's just dry banter and witty asides. It was quite a realization. People, we need to laugh much! And I was out of practice. I need to seek out some truly laugh-out-loud reading material or something. That'll be the next item on my wish list.

After dinner I stopped by the Americans' place for a few. By the time I rode the subway, checked e-mail, and got home it was late and really cold, so of course I was excited to get inside, kick off my shoes, sprawl out on my warm bed, and pick up the phone...oh, what's this? No dial tone? Strange. I checked the line into the phone and into the wall. I checked with my roommate, in her room. I knew she'd planned to get a phone from her friend who now lives in our old apartment, where there are two phones, since we have only one in this new place. And the jack in our living room doesn't work and we'd rather have them in our rooms anyway but with only one we have to move it back and forth, what a pain. She affirmed that she had the second phone, but yeah, the phone apparently didn't work, she'd discovered when she brought it home around 9 p.m.

"!#$*%*&#!" I screamed as I hurled the plastic hinged pencil-case type thing I was holding into my room, where it broke apart in a very satisfying clatter. Unfortunately, I think I scared my roommate and her friend. "Of course the phone doesn't work," I muttered, as I got my sweatshirt and pullover and scarf and shoes and gloves back on, fished for a calling card, and grumbled my way out of the apartment to a pay phone down the block. "It was the one of the few things that did work in this place; it probably felt lonely." It was particularly cold, so I felt even more righteously angry as I huddled in my phone booth and left a bitter, petulant message on voice-mail, something along the lines of, "I had a great day. No, really, though maybe you can't tell by my !&$&#!* tone now!" I was so irritated. Today, though, after sleep, I resigned myself to the fact that I'll likely be without a phone until Monday at least. (Sleep always helps in these situations.)

Pray for me that the heat doesn't break next, because it's genuinely cold here now, and today when I stepped foot into the sunshine I was surprised to slide across the steps outside my apartment. Ice? I looked at the parked cars. The ones on the shady side of the street were covered in snow! I couldn't believe it! No wonder I was so cold in my payphone a few hours earlier! I slept through a dusting of snow. It had already melted on the street surface and the cars on the sunny side, though, as well as on the rooftops, but I can see little white patches on the mountains. Isn't that fun?

I spent today doing relaxing things, including a nice, long swim at the YMCA and a visit to Starbucks. I am happy to report that the Christmas drinks and their attendant red cups are here in Korea, but sad indeed to report that the gingerbread syrup is not. They have only peppermint mochas and toffee nut lattes. I'd already very much doubted that I would be able to find gingerbread-house making materials anywhere for my little Christmas cheer project, and this pretty much clinches it. If Starbucks doesn't even bother to do its gingerbread drinks, then I'm sure no one cares.

So, I had to settle for toffee nut latte this year, and as I enjoyed it I commenced Tolstoy's tome, the "best novel of all time" -- well at least the biggest, baddest book, right? Anyone who knows me probably knows I've planned to read it approximately forever, and in 2004 when Dubya was really starting to remind me of Napoleon I reawakened my desire and went so far as to examine all the translations at Cambridge Borders, settle on one, and purchase it (along with a collected works of Dante, I remember; the cashier was like, "Geez, Linda, a little light summer reading?") Plus Oprah was doing Anna Karenina (and as Oprah goes, so goes the nation, right?) but I read A.K. in high-school, so I needed to read a different Tolstoy. Regrettably, my real-life war and peace activism kept me busy, and then there were Borders sorts, and the Sox in the series, and holidays, and I got distracted by 2005, and so on. I never got around to it.

When I packed to come here it was the obvious choice: a big fat paperback that I could bring instead of packing a bunch of books, and it will keep me busy for a while. So Anna Pavlovna and Prince Vasily and all the other aristocrats and peasants and I are starting our long winter's journey together. I might just have to go into hibernation and emerge in the spring with it read. Anyone want to read with me? We can have a little on-line discussion group. Consider the gauntlet thrown down!