Tuesday, January 31, 2006

And the little square-headed statue goes to...

It is Tuesday night here in Korea. Today is Oscar nominations day, and I am pleased to report that I watched the live announcement via streaming video on msnbc.com. Right on. I love that I could sit here cross-legged on my floor and watch and hear Mira Sorvino and Sid Ganis in a little box on my screen and through my speakers. It's times like these when I hardly feel I've traveled around the world at all.

I think about the whole hardly-far-away-at-all thing a lot. I mean, seriously, if it weren't for the complete and total lack of Mexican food, I might not even notice I was living so far from home. (I should like to point out that I do notice that however. Every day. I dream of tortillas. I fantasize about enchiladas. Even Casa Loca in Seoul does not have enchiladas.)

Furthermore, I think about the ways in which I as a 21st-century traveler have it different from travelers throughout history, and the ways in which I do not. For example, as everyone who knows me is aware at this point, the main (only) (non-food) thing that makes me even remotely sad about being here is being far away from someone who allegedly is in a relationship with me, although based on his actions any sane person would have started reasonably doubting that by now. Last summer I read David McCullough's wonderful book John Adams, and I often think about how very long John was away from his beloved Abigail. It was a major theme of that book, while he was in France and England, how he was steadfast in his resolve to work for and build a new country, but how terribly much he missed his wife. Life was so much better when she came to join him, but they had to spend years apart.

I think maybe I'm nowhere near as strong as ol' J.A. He had to wait weeks, months, for contact. With every ship there was the question: would he get a letter from Abigail? No phone. No e-mail. No text messages. No global priority mail tracking. If I go two days without talking to the ass it feels like an eternity! (ed. note -- But then, maybe that's because it usually meant he was up to no good when he wasn't returning phone calls late at night. UGH. -- 8/2008)John Adams was awesome. (And it's a really good book, by the way, the McCullough.)

Then again, this past weekend I was reading The Ugly American. Yes, I'm still reading War and Peace, but I am on page 640 and will be reading that forever, so sometimes on the weekend I pause and read something else really fast. And this weekend I met up with an expat literary society here in Daegu consisting of English teachers who are going to be my new reading pals. They have a monthly book swap, where I acquired The Ugly American, and I am joining a reading group with some of them, too. Anyway, for those who don't know, the novel makes such a major statement about U.S. foreign policy that its title became part of the vernacular. It was published in 1958. Many of the foreign service characters in the fictional country of Sarkhan live as if they are in the U.S., doing their best to not "go into the hills" nor really get intimate with the country.

"He told about commissaries which stocked wholesome American food for Americans stationed all over the world. 'You can buy the same food in Asia that you can in Peoria. Even, say, in Saigon they stock American ice cream, bread, cake, and, well, anything you want,' said Joe Bing. 'We look out for our people. When you live overseas it's still on the high American standard.'" -- p. 80

It got me thinking about how it's not a peculiarly modern thing to try to bring it with you. And even in John Adams' day, travelers and ambassadors kept shippers busy as they ordered goods from home. I think Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson even procured many items from home that they wanted while they were in Europe.

I frankly wish it were ice cream or Oreos that I missed -- those certainly are available.

As for The Book (War and Peace), I am loving it, not that you could tell by how infrequently I post to the blog I made for it. Today I read the all-too-charming scene of the mummers at Christmas, with costumes and sleigh rides and the 'kids' philosophizing, and Sonya and Nikolai falling in love all over again. It was such a delightful portion of the book; that Christmastime evening has made it to my list of favorite scenes in all of literature. (Other all-time favorite scenes include the was-he-poisoned? meal at Hotel Nacional in Our Man in Havana and the whole Hi-Hat/jukebox operator part of Wonder Boys.)

Out of fiction and back to reality, as it were: today our new teacher came! He started work! We don't have to cover departed-Canadian's classes any longer! It was actually strange and a little sad to say good-bye to the Tuesday afternoon class of beginning 6-year-olds that I've been covering. They charmed me, in the end, and they're so cute even though they can't speak for crap. They get so excited when they see me. Today as I walked by the classroom they wanted to play a "hiding" game and - get this! - they USED THE VOCABULARY we've been practicing! I have been drilling "let's run/hide/seek/swing/slide" etc. in there and they were totally busting it out today, of their own volition, before class started. They turned off the lights and hid behind their desks, waiting for me to happen by, and then they cried, "Teacher seek! I hide!" I melted. But then I had to say good-bye. I showed them their new teacher and I felt like I was abandoning them.

I discovered an amusing picture in one of the Ding Ding Dang dialogue books today. There is a dialogue about "Today we're going to the United States. Where is your suitcase?" etc. Well, I looked closely at the little illustrations for the first time and noticed that the Statue of Liberty looks suspiciously like all of the stone Buddha and harubang sculptures here in Korea, especially the square head. I chuckled. The green color was off, the crown wasn't right at all, and it was definitely not Liberty's face. Come to think of it, it looked more like the head of the Oscar statuette...

Oscar acting nominations that make me particularly happy:
David Strathairn
I haven't seen Good Night and Good Luck yet, but he's always so fantastic
Amy Adams
Junebug was one of my two favorites of the past year; she was phenomenal

Oscar-nominated movies "coming soon" to my Daegu theaters:
Walk the Line
Memoirs of a Geisha


Oscar-nominated movies I so clearly yearn to see, and soon:
North Country
Paradise Now


and Brokeback Mountain of course

Oscar-nominated movies I would have little desire to see if it weren't for their noms:
Pride and Prejudice
Cinderella Man

Oscar nominee in category to which I will pay even more attention than usual:
"On a Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin" nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject

Norman Corwin is the amazing journalist and radio legend who was one of my professors at USC. Besides his life and contributions, of personal relevance he was one of the supporters that fateful semester who had been to Cuba and who offered wholehearted support and was impressed by our intrepid traveling. Even a couple years later, when he did some stuff with Marketplace, where I was working, Norman Corwin stopped to ask my Savvy Traveler co-workers, "Did you know Linda went to Cuba?" They were all rolling their eyes, saying, yeah no kidding, it's all she ever talks about, but here was this prominent figure of whom even my then-boss JJ was a bit in awe stopping to give me props. He is a truly wonderful man: talented, brilliant, and good to the core. I hope the film about him wins! Now, how about that, I've given you all a reason to pay attention to the Documentary Short award! Of course, it's an honor just to be nominated.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

In the Grotto

All right, let me just bottom line it for you right now: this weekend is the lunar new year. It is an extremely big deal holiday here in Korea. We have a three-day weekend so I do not have to work on Monday. This is because the lunar new year happens to fall on a weekend this time around, but we would have three weekdays off too (in fact, we English teachers are all a little bummed we got the short end of the stick with the holiday this year). I received presents from work, and presents from a couple of my students. (Towels, socks, a rather nice umbrella...) On Friday we had kite-flying in the park for pre-school and the kids wore the traditional Korean hanbok costume. There was a mass exodus of traffic from Daegu Friday night as people headed to their families, and the downtown areas were not nearly as packed with people as usual. I traveled to Gyeongju today and many restaurants were closed there and its streets eerily empty as well.

All this is to say that in the U.S. this holiday is called Chinese New Year, but clearly it's not just for China anymore!

I tried to explain that to one of the (cool, reasonably fluent in English) KTs at my school on Friday, that the misconception in the U.S.A. is Chinese New Year but she didn't seem to get it. She was sort of confused: "But why, Linda, would you just call it Chinese New Year?" I'm like, exactly! That's my point! I think it's fascinating.

I do so like to do Buddhist things and of late I especially like to mark significant occasions with visits to one Buddha or another. Today Robin and I rode the bus to Gyeongju and then went up the mountain from outlying Bulguksa temple to the Seokguram Grotto. Seokguram was built in 851 A.D. They carried tons of granite up a steep mountainside. I myself rode up this mountainside in a bus, an overwhelming experience in itself. The Buddha statue is a designated UNESCO World Cultural Heritage item. It was beautiful and peaceful. When I stand contemplating the Buddha I do feel what I can only describe as a stirring calm in my soul. It's rather amazing, actually.

After you walk out of the little grotto, you go down some steps along which lie curved roof tiles where people from around the world have written messages that ask for blessings or peace. There were messages in Korean, English, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Dutch, Swedish, German, French, etc., and piles of tiles next to the path that didn't fit on display. It was amazing to behold. There were messages by people from Romania, Malaysia, Thailand, Azerbaijan, Argentina, Ireland, Ghana...I was particularly struck by some of them, even ones whose languages I couldn't read.

*One said, "Angels on earth, please keep family and friends safe" from a Canadian. I thought that was a nice notion, angels on earth. It sort of fit with the beautiful mood of the place on this mountain overlooking ravine, valley, trees, and on out to the distant East Sea.

*One said, "Kyrgyzstan & Japan" with a heart, and a message in Korean, Japanese, and what was presumably Kyrgyz.

*One was from Ngaing wongchhu sherpa chopulung from Nepal.

*One said, "Peace on Earth, blessings to the people of South Korea" from Tanzania.

*I rather liked "Je souhaite que de l'amour naisse de l'union du soleil de notre coeur et de la lune de notre esprit ... Boudhiste, chretien, juif, musulman, tous la meme foi. Ayons confiance en la vie."

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Cat! Cat! Cat!

My pre-schoolers have discovered my tattoo.

It just sort of happened, the other day. I guess it was the combination of my sweater's length, where my jeans rested on my hips, raising my arms, and turning at exactly the right time. It was revealed for a split second, but they all started shrieking "Cat!" And they were up out of their seats and lifting my sweater and touching my back and it was great fun. "Yes, it is a cat," I said. They would put their finger on it, laugh with each other, then look at it some more. I think it could have provided hours of entertainment, but I finally made them sit down and we resumed class.

The next day I wasn't even thinking about it, but in the usual before-class milling about/talking/playing (remember, once I had my skull cracked during that time) they all came up and lifted my shirt to see the cat. The Korean teacher who has them the period before was just leaving the classroom and looked at me strangely. "Yeah, they discovered my tattoo yesterday," I told her. "If you start getting parents' comments about 'Why does that crazy American girl have a tattoo?' I'm sorry." The Korean teacher was a bit fascinated as well, but in more of a normal adult way (even in the West, as it were, sometimes people like my tattoo).

The third day, I hadn't even made it out of the staff room where I was putting my bag down at my desk and about six of the girls appeared in a huddle at the doorway shrieking, "Cat! Cat! Cat!" until I let them surround me and peer at it some more. The two other foreign teachers in there, who were sitting at their desks and thus had the pleasure of their ears being just about perfectly at shriek level, were like, what's happening here? "They seem to be fond of my tattoo," I understated. I walked forward dragging a half dozen five-year-olds clutching at my hips.

We'll see what happens today. It's Lunar New Year! This is a very big deal holiday here, on the level of Christmastime in the U.S. Today we are going to fly kites in the park for pre-school and the kids will play New Year's games and wear the traditional Korean hanbok and eat yummy foods. Or, maybe they will be yummy. So I hear. I tried the rice cake concoction at work last night and it was fine. Then we have a three-day holiday weekend! I guess traffic to and from anywhere in the country will be a nightmare this weekend as everyone visits families and ancestral graves, and bus/train tickets have been booked long in advance. On Sunday things will be closed around the city, like shops and restaurants perhaps. I am going to relax. hike, hang out with friends, read, write, and just generally revel in my good mood. No work on Monday, and then on Tuesday no pre-school (and no cat-touching), so we don't go into work until two in the afternoon.

Happy Seol Nal!

Monday, January 23, 2006


I'm sure there have been people happier to get the Internet at home than I was when I finally got my apartment wired this weekend, but I don't know those people.

Here's an example of how many Canadians there are here in Korea: when Mr. Phone Company came to hook me up, he did his thing with the phone jack and the LAN data box and so forth. Then he worked on the computer, clicking through various screens to ensure I was all set up. He took one look at me and set my homepage to google.ca (Google Canada). Which is fine -- just really funny to me. Canada is just about the default assumed home of English teachers, so in the "Where ya from?" game that is almost always my introductory conversation with people I do get a lot of "Oh, the U.S.!"

Let me just say right here and now that in the last three days I have been to the downtown Starbucks three times. And I'm so okay with that. Two out of three times, a student (late teens, possibly early university) approached me to interview me for English class homework. These things amuse me. Of course, I love anything resembling a survey/interview, so I'm game. Their English was less than stellar. One asked me to describe my personality. I started with "sarcastic." She had no idea. Eventually I wrote it down, but it may not even be an issue of translation. A lot of foreigners here insist there is no Korean concept of sarcasm.

There's almost like a little foreigners' code of mutual understanding. What I mean is, let's say that on any given Wednesday night at the commune's bar there are a handful of teachers miserable in their jobs. These hypothetical teachers might start discussing other options, talking about quitting their jobs, giving each other advice, and automatically understanding each other. You don't have to be friends with fellow foreigners' here to have them default to your side "against" the Koreans'. I don't mean to make it sound sinister or even melodramatic. It's just interesting to me what a given it is, the us/them mentality.

Did you know that here I watch Leno more often than I ever did in the States? That's because Leno and Letterman both air on AFN (the American Forces Network), and they therefore don't conflict with each other. That alone would not prompt me to watch Leno, but he just happens to be there right at the perfect flip-on-the-TV-with-late-dinner time on the weeknights when I do flip on the TV with late dinner, which isn't all of them. Then Letterman airs immediately after that. I would usually watch them on the nights I went directly from work to the "PC Bang" (public PC rooms) and then finally came home after that to collapse on the couch and eat something. Now that I'm on-line at home (wheee!) that dynamic will surely change a bit, so I'll probably go back to never watching Leno.

I'm just such a captive audience to whatever's on AFN. In our old apartment my TV was always on CNN-Asia edition. Here we don't have that much of a cable package. My roommate doesn't want to pay for it, and I haven't really determined if it's worth it for me or not. I do miss my CNN International, but now that I've got unfettered Internet access (are we noticing a theme here?) it's not as crucial. I listened to the live stream of KCRW this weekend! I'm now listening to the BBC World Service on-line! Brilliant!

Just one more week until the year of the dog commences...

Friday, January 20, 2006

Intrinsic Impossibility

Something strange happened on the way out of work Friday evening. Perhaps the mere act of venting to the so-called blogosphere made it happen ("Things I Hate," a few days ago). Anyway, I was shocked. As I left the Ding Ding Dang building, which I do by exiting through double swinging glass doors onto the sidewalk, I stopped just in time to avoid being hit by flying spit. A man who was standing in a group of three to the right of the doorway and who had his back to the doors had just turned and let fly. It therefore sailed right across the doorway at about my eye level, and as I stopped in my tracks, then gritted my teeth and moved on, my usual "Oh, that's so gross" exclamation was pretty much involuntary this time. I mean, it really was right in my face, albeit accidentally. (Lest you think that lets him off the hook, if there weren't so much spitting in the FIRST place then such accidents wouldn't happen.)

Well, the shocking thing was that the man immediately realized what had happened! and he apologized! in English! A triumvirate of surprises! I was so blown away that I sort of mumbled, "That's OK" and walked on shaking my head, asking myself if I'd really just heard what I thought I heard.

And so the 15th Week comes to a close. Exactly 15 weeks ago I was sitting in Boston's Logan Airport contemplating my imminent departure. I had completed my frenzy of jettisoning items to get my bags down to 50 pounds apiece (although I argued that since I went through Tokyo I should have fallen under the "flights to and from Japan" rule of 75 pounds per, but whatever United) and released them into the airline's care. You may recall that the airline liked my bags so much they kept them for two extra days. I sat in the chairs just that side of security and I tried to comprehend what was happening, but it really hadn't hit me yet at all. Not to mention that I was so tired. The rush to pack up and store my life had been madness. "Imagine no possessions..."

And now I'm here. Just - here. I'm sure that my blog of late has left the impression that I am dissatisfied with my Korea experience. That is not entirely accurate. In fact, I am so delighted to be here so much of the time that I think I forget to mention it; it becomes one of those things you take for granted, you know? We always seem to remember to complain but not as often do we note the things for which we are grateful.

The mere act of living abroad is profoundly satisfying. I cannot overstate the importance I place on experiencing different places. This goes for living in different places within the U.S. as well. It makes you more interesting, well-rounded, and wise. It is just better. I have a hard time respecting people who have lived in one place their entire lives. I eye them warily, no matter how perfectly nice they seem.

The fact that my school is loopy, frustrating, exhausting, racist, and just generally logic-defying can be overlooked. Or at least contended with. It's a job. I mean, if it's a choice between my previous job that made my head spin (even the lure of two to three glorious store opening trips per year couldn't keep me in that Cambridge store), and this one, I'm happy to be in this one because of the experience of which it is a part: being in Asia. Would I do this forever? Emphatically, no. But that's also partly because now that I'm here I know how to find a better gig, so if I were to re-up to teach another year in Korea, I would leave Ding Ding Dang behind and never look back.

But I very much doubt that I'm going to teach another year in Korea. Part of me fervently wishes I had done this earlier, because if I were in my twenties like a lot of these foreign teachers I meet, I am certain I'd be doing China next year and Thailand the year after that, or some such thing. However, turning 30 does things to a person. It may have been part of what made me reach my escape velocity from B_____. And it makes me have to get my self to law school. No more delays. That's my current mindset.

(Random tangent: I would like to point out that, rest assured, I may be in Korea but I will be able to participate in the delightfully silly ritual of going to 31 flavors on my 31st birthday this May, because there are about three Baskin Robbins per capita here.)

And the weekends, the weekends are just wonderful! Even though I am on a severe budget, and won't really have much carefree cash flow until April's paycheck, thanks to the wonderful world of health care and COBRA costs, I am able to see places reasonably cheaply and learn about Korea and entertain myself and search my soul.

(ed. note: With the glorious benefit of almost three years' hindsight, I offer up the following revision of what I originally wrote: What made me unhappy on any given day was my stressful, desperate, constant wish that that miserable ass who deceived his way into and out of a relationship with me (not to mention my bank account) would make good on his promise to come visit/be in Korea with me. It's true -- that's the only thing at the end of the day that made me restless, agitated, sad, or regretful. (Thanksgiving week freak-outs notwithstanding -- those are just part of the fun!) It was really, really hard to be so far away and want to be with him. Those of you who know me know I am loathe to say such things, and I even avoided saying that for all the world wide web to read for a while over there because in some twisted way I thought it makes me look weak, or something. But the really weak thing was me not trusting my gut, and when he pulled some bullshit letting him lie and connive his way out of it. It shames me that his presence taints this blog at all. I might just remove every reference. He doesn't deserve to be here. But the motherf**ker owes me money, so I'll keep some evidence around of that, I suppose. -- 8/2008)

I really wish I could know what this experience would be like if I weren't seeing it through the prism of trying intensely to reach him, each and every day. But I will never know that. "And now I think of having loved and having lost, you never know what it's like to never love, and who can say what's better...?" -- indigo girls, 'fare thee well' Of course that runs through my head.

Speaking of Indigo Girls, I must say that yesterday after having "It's Alright" running through my head all day (as well as occasionally bursting forth from my mouth), I was so happy to go home and play Shaming of the Sun and that track in particular over and over. I can't believe I didn't have a CD player for my first month and a half here. Almost two months, actually. I was going to wait until getting paid in December to buy it, too, and I couldn't. I had to get one and it made my last eight days or so before the December check ridiculously budgeted, but it was worth it. Besides, who needs to eat, right? Especially here! The way I spend money has entirely changed being in a place where the food does nothing for me.

Speaking of *that* I do believe I erred in going out with some people for Japanese "okonomiyaki" on Wednesday night. I was willing to suck it up and eat meat -- I do on occasion here to avoid starving to death -- to procure some cheap, plentiful, tasty food with my friendly new acquaintances, but I'm now pretty sure it had seaweed. It was Japanese, after all, the one country that might cause me more culinary problems than Korea. (Might - the jury's still out.) It couldn't have been much seaweed, thank goodness, or perhaps it was a different strain that doesn't give me hives and a rash, but I did get sick, and I have had that telltale two-day headache plus a swollen hands and shakiness. Oh, well. At least it wasn't a bad bout. But it does reinforce my belief that there's so very little for me to eat here.

Anyway, back to the psychodrama. It doesn't help when I'm sitting there minding my own business, reading a little War and Peace, and I come across lines like: "Never had love been so much in the air, never had the amorous atmosphere made itself so strongly felt in the Rostovs' house as during those holidays. 'Seize the moments of happiness,' it said, 'love and be loved! That is all that is real in the world--all else is folly. It is the one thing we are intersected in here!'" --p. 405

Come on, people! Give a girl a break, here!

All right, enough blather. I'm off to check out a restaurant/"brew pub" I've heard about that is said to be frequented by foreigners. It's in a hotel, so that is likely true, but I will believe the "brew pub" part when I see it. Those are hard to come by here in Korea!

Oh, I think I forgot to mention that Ding Ding Dang is moving upstairs. We have been occupying the second floor of our building and now will be on the third floor, effective Monday. We will have a shiny, new, paint-smelling, possibly asbestos-leaking workplace with new "desk" arrangements and big windowed classrooms and a fresh start. The remodeling of that floor has been going on for a while but I never count on these things happening in a timely fashion. However, it's now official and real. We all took our things up to place them on our new tables tonight. You see, we don't really have desks. We share classrooms that we rotate through during the different periods, and in the staff rooms we have tables that are divided into small areas at which we sit. In the new seating arrangement I am on the end of a u-shape, and there is definitely more space around the chairs than in our current stacking on top of each other. I will sit by the new guy, the English teacher who allegedly arrives in a week to ten days. I am quite eager for him to arrive, because I am completely sick of covering the classes that will soon have his name on them!

OK, completely exhausted, over and out.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

"I ran as hard as I could and still ended up here..."

Today as I walked to work I enjoyed singing the Indigo Girls song "It's Alright[sic]." For those of you who are wondering if I mean I really sang it: yes, I sang softly but out loud while walking down the sidewalk that, if not exactly crowded, is far from empty of a Thursday morning. But what do I care? We foreigners get stared at incessantly anyway, so might as well make it worth it.

The song, which I've loved since first hearing it ten years ago, so perfectly sums up how I feel right now it's eerie! About my emotions, my life, Korea, the madness that is this place, being here, not being there, my personal life, my plans, my job, my future, my past, my present...wow. You go, Emily Saliers. That's all I'm saying.

"It's all right, forty days of rain
My skin stretched out from the growing pain
It'd be nice to have an explanation

But it's all right

And it's all right if you hate that way
Hate me 'cause I'm different, hate me 'cause I'm gay
Truth of the matter'll come around one day

So it's all right

I look at this lifeline stretched way all across my hand
I look at the burned out empty like a plague across the land
And for everything I learn there are two I don't understand

That's why I'm still on a search
Through the weather-strewn church
I'm doing the best that I can
And it's all right

And it's all right, though we worry and fuss
We can't get over the hump, can't get over us
It seems easier to push than to let go and trust
And it's all right

When we get a little distance some things get clearer
Give 'em the space, our hearts grow nearer
I ran as hard as I could and still ended up here
But it's all right

I look at this lifeline stretched way all across my hand
I look at the fires of hatred burning up the bounty of this beautiful land
I know I'm small in a way
But I know I'm strong
And it's my thirst that brought me to the water
When I give it all up then she carries me on
And it's all right
Yeah, it's all right

And it's all right, though I feel afraid
My plans in pieces, plans mislaid
It's the will of the way, the will of the way,
The will of the only way that could have brought me here today
And it's all right. "

-- indigo girls

As I come to the end of week 15, it's starting to really hit me that I am getting a lot out of this experience. This place affects you. I sometimes tend to be blase about things, perhaps for fear of betraying the slightest bit of weakness in myself. But Korea, man, this beast will sink its claws into your chest and rip to shreds anything you had covering up your human heart.

I can't get into all the details of the past week, though I will happily dish in private e-mail to those who want them. I was thisclose to getting the !#$* out of my current Hell Stew and into a greener pasture. (Do forgive the mixed metaphor.) Then again, the grass is always greener...and that's part of what made me hesitate. There's more to it than that.

Man, I have a fiery, burning, fierce, unyielding desire to get to law school as soon as possible and therefore to do all I must to effect that, including paying off debt. In addition to my emotional maelstrom of the last little while, I have been trying to sort out two huge, pressing financial issues: the FAFSA and COBRA. I wanted to have my FAFSA (student financial aid application) done by now, but I've been having major problems completing it on-line, and we've finally determined, Mr. Fafsa Help Line and I, that the Korean-language browsers don't support the application. So he's sending me a paper copy to fill out. How terribly archaic. And COBRA (continuation of my health insurance benefits from my old job) is just so ridiculously expensive that I have had to redo my entire spring budget, and I still am not sure how it's all going to work out.

The people I've found here, and the opportunities, are so very interesting. I am reminded of that continually.

I have also had days on which I hated my job/my employer/my thirst/the dirty floor of the school/the smell of food in Korea so thoroughly that I've thought I must be insane to be working here when I could be eating cheese enchiladas (although with no job) in the U.S. It's been hard (and it has NOT made me feel at all like posting to this blog) to be considering escape. Escapist that I often am, the Soul Asylum lyric comes to mind: "Shake me, I've painted myself in the corner of an escape artist's dream." I don't actually want to flee at all, but I want things to be different. I suppose that's the story of humanity, though.

In the past few days I have contemplated, contended with, discovered, and agonized over a year's worth of decisions and emotions. I feel I have looked into a mushy pile of soul and stirred it up to see what emerged on top. I think it just boggles the mind to be now sitting here, Thursday night, with such a powerful feeling that I am heading into the future, into my life. You know? My LIFE! That despite or because of the turmoil, things work out, and they don't just fall apart.

You see, you should be glad I haven't been posting. It would all have been like this, or worse.

"And it's all right..."

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Beware the Ides of January!

Well, duh! I should have warned myself. It's no *wonder* I've been feeling so ornery, frustrated, cranky and, most of all, restless this weekend. It dawned on me as I sat in Starbucks on the second floor of my big Kyobo Books store at Jungangno: today is my 100th day in Korea. That's right, 100 days!

Well, "dawned on me" is not entirely accurate. I was in fact sitting there doing a little tally of the days: how many I'd been in country, how many I'd taught, how many I had left to teach, and how many I had left in country. I actually don't mind the number of days staying here; I'd stay here for a good long while enjoying myself immensely if it weren't for this job, and it was really the "teaching days" number I was after. But in my count I discovered that Sunday, January 15 was my Day 100.

One hundred days could be an even more significant number than 40 days! It is so amazingly neat, 100. Bold and round, 100 declares itself and 100 inserts itself into your consciousness; 100 is significant. We strive for 100. It is wholeness. Furthermore, it is a shift in the numerical landscape, from a two-digit sum to a three-digit sum. And if it's not the last time there is such a numerical landscape shift for me in Korea I will be quite surprised, as it is a good long while before 1000 rolls around (by which time I should be handily on my way to being a 3L!)

One hundred. It means 100 moons have journeyed across the Korean sky on my watch and 100 screaming trucks have cruised through my neighborhood of a morning blaring messages of commerce, community action, or maybe even, "Die, you Western swine!" for all we know. I have eaten 100 light (my word), insufficient (their word) breakfasts (fruit and bread with coffee or tea), 100 pathetic attempts at lunch(from Lotteria fast food cheese sticks to snacking on crackers) and 100 hard-won dinners of questionable vegetarian status. I have closed my eyes 100 times and laid down my head only to open them and recall myself to Korea.

This 100-day stretch is the longest continuous time I've been outside the U.S. It is also probably the longest stretch in years that I have not left a tip in a bar or restaurant (tipping is frowned on here) nor heard a commercial with a sing-songy jingle for some American product. Even on CNN International, Asia edition the English commercials are decidedly not sing-songy. And they tend to be for products of global business, with ethereal music or sitars. "Thai Air, smooth as silk to Moscow," a voice breathes. And while the American Forces Network provides me with my fill of insipid spots, PSAs and the like, there's no paid advertising. Just the umpteenth reminders that hypothermia is dangerous, terrorism is a threat, and human trafficking is wrong.

I once spent almost this much time outside the United States, that time I about didn't get back in. But I believe that, all told, that trip was 93 days or so. This 100 is a new world. Presidential administrations are judged on their first 100 days. Wars are fought in 100 days. From popular song charts to test scores, 100 is a monument to achievement and completeness. Now, I must pause to consider what 101 will bring.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Things I Hate

Whenever I say "Things I Hate" I am of course alluding to Anastasia Krupnik and her fantastic lists in the intermediate reader Lois Lowry books.

I absolutely detest spit, seeing other people spit, hearing other people spit, etc. When I watch baseball I will avert my eyes if they have a close-up on someone whose jaws are moving. In all of the movie Flatliners the one scene that makes me cringe and shudder is when the boy drools on Kiefer Sutherland. I mean, I really, really hate it, and many of you already know this quirk about me.

Well, I've certainly picked the wrong country to live in on that account! Within days of arriving I noticed that people here spit. A lot. On the sidewalk, just in a walk to work, there are several major encounters. It's so bad I've started in the last few weeks voicing my feelings, such as, "OH please don't please don't" as they're hacking, hocking, and preparing, and then "That is really disgusting" after the deed is done, or sometimes I throw in a few more angry and vulgar comments. Who cares, no one understands me anyway. They probably think I'm congratulating them on an especially nice one. It is foul. Bogue. Nasty. And it is everywhere. Sometimes even in the subway and such.

I also roundly dislike the after-smell of kimchi that lingers on people. I thought it was body odor for a while, but I finally caught on.

Other things I dislike I just avoid, like: the street vendors where everyone double dips, triple dips, quadruple dips, and so on in one communal sauce, which I think is a fantastic way to spread Hepatitis; the meat in every tofu dish and general lack of vegetarian food in restaurants; the motor-scooters that drive on the sidewalk...but the spit and the lovely aromas just hit me with no warning on a daily basis. Good times.

A Walk in the Woods

Going to Seoul can be simultaneously elating and depressing. Elating because it's a fabulous city and I love simply walking down the sidewalk there. Depressing because I know my elation is fleeting and I don't get to stay, live, work, play, etc. there.

This blog entry is a time capsule.

Right now we can't understand it but soon we will.

I went to Seoul today partly because I had just had it with this entire week. (Which, p.s., was week 14!) Madness on all fronts. Some of it not even vaguely interesting/relevant to get into here, some of it personal/emotional, and some of it Ding Dingity Dang.

I went to Seoul because I was hungry, and I rather enjoyed my Mexican food at Mi Casa Loca, thank you. Today I dined at the Yeouido location (last time, the one in Apgujeong). Seoul is a fantastic city. I may have mentioned that.

I haven't been posting much of late because I have been alternately busy and fretting, and I think Korea or rather Ding Ding Dang is sapping my inner artist and making me have nothing to write. Or I'm letting it do that, I should say. Some days I just don't log on because I don't want to give my audience (such as it is) the wrong idea. I'm not angry at Korea, and I know it comes out that way, often, when the expats start bitching and moaning.

Imagine you worked at a factory. You made eight cartons of widgets per day. Then you started meeting people from the nearby factories and you found out they're only required to produce four or five cartons of widgets a day, and don't have to work nearly as many hours, but they make the same monthly salary as you. And that if you quit because they wanted to hire you at the factory down the street, which was clean and shiny and sparkly unlike your dirty, grimy, claustrophobic, unsatisfactory factory, the boss of your factory would have to give written permission for the boss of the other factory to hire you. Which the boss of your factory was unlikely to do, because then who would work at his factory? Also imagine that you can't look at the factories before you start working there...and that when you have an idea of how to make a widget more productive they tell you the assembly line has been making widgets this way for years...

I am so often hungry, and so often bored, working at my job and being here. It's strange. Those two feelings I hadn't had in years before coming to Korea. Until the end there at B____. In fact, I think after all the anger, irritation, outrage, and philosophical disagreements, boredom was the last straw in that job and helped me reach my escape velocity. I am craving the intellectual rigor of law school so badly. Does anyone understand? I want to be challenged. It's been too long. But I also want to have time for my writing, which decidedly does interest me. Hence wanting to have a job that's not full-time. And so on and so on in circles of hell.

I'm a big eater. I take care to feed myself, a lot. But I just can't here. It's been such an interesting few months. And the job, with its endless days of classes and mind-numbing illogical hoops to jump through...the other day as we stood trying to slam some water during our five-minute break between one slew of rugrats and the next, I remarked to Jessica (and, ostensibly, anyone else who was around, but I knew they wouldn't pick up on all of the implications of my statement, nor half the vocabulary), "I wonder if it's actually possible that my brain could just commence leaking out of my ears from boredom. I wonder what that might feel like. I suppose it would be terribly messy." She said she knows the feeling.

I went to Seoul because I needed to be deliberate and to think, and I did do those things.

This message is a time capsule. Can you read between the lines?

"If I have a care in the world, I have a gift to bring."
-- Indigo Girls, 'Hammer and a Nail'

"One thing was obvious. We were never going to walk to Maine."
- Bill Bryson, in _A_Walk_in_the_Woods_

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Lucky 13!

I love the number thirteen. This is the end of my thirteenth week in Korea! That means 1/4 of a year, for those who'd like a fraction.

As you know if you've been reading this blog, a Canadian co-teacher left this week, having completed his year. That puts the Englishman at between seven and a half and eight months, while the Canadian marrieds are approaching their sixth. And me, I hit three months on Tuesday.

Are we obsessed with marking the timeline? You could say so. But that's our life at Ding Ding Dang. We love it when the days and weeks fly by, bringing us to another evening or weekend when we can enjoy ourselves, rejuvenate, and clear our minds of the nonsense that so often is our working week. With the co-workers spread out across the year it helps to chart the progress of others. You make it through one's countdown, then another, and another, and then suddenly it's your own and you're on your way to being free of this job!

In fact. now that I'm at this point, I see my time here as the limited thing it is and I have to start hustling to make sure I allow time for all the things I want to cram in this year: places I want to visit, things I want to learn, a bit more Korean vocabulary, etc. I feel like I have all the time in the world left, but I see how time flies.

I was so disgusted with Ding Ding Dang on Tuesday after the "no blacks need apply" discussion, and I went home to consider whether or not I would walk away in protest. It was definitely food for thought. Which is good, as that's the only kind of food I tend to get around here. Last count I've lost 19 pounds. I would still have to lose about 10 more to reach the weight I dropped to in C___, but I started out weighing less there, and that weight loss was much healthier! That was due to eating fresh foods; nary a preservative passed these lips that summer! Plus we swam and walked and danced a lot. I was positively glowing when I came back to the U.S. in 1997, figuratively and literally: tan, relaxed, happy. Here I might waste away. Don't worry, that's probably an exaggeration. I figure I'll give it until 40 pounds lost, then I'm out of here. No matter where I am in the timeline.

I had just reached such a great place mentally with this whole gig, as well as the direction life is heading, and then Tuesday happened. Well, I thought long and hard, and slept on it. Sleeping on it is really such a great problem-solver. Maybe I will teach my level nine classes the phrase "sleep on it" this week. I woke up Wednesday morning all kinds of inspired that I would commence a plan of education to combat racism, slowly working it into each class. Also, it dawned on me that MLK day is right around the corner. Time for another "American Holiday" lesson! Then, in February comes Black History Month. I felt better as I started to think about things I could teach my students. They say that Korea today resembles the U.S.A. in the 1950s in many ways in terms of its conservatism. It sure feels true in this respect.

Then, I was happy to see that a bunch of blog readers had commented along those same lines. I'd forgotten about Langston Hughes' book. Any and all children's book ideas promoting the novel concept that humans should not be judged on their skin color are welcome!

On Wednesday night I gave my first MLK "lesson," to the banker I tutor in my one-on-one conversation class. Because of the lack of replacement teacher for Canadian Jon, Ding Ding Dang is sending my banker student on hiatus for two weeks so I can cover a class at that time on MWF evenings, which is terribly annoying. It also means that Wednesday was my last day to teach him for who knows how long, so I talked about MLK then.

We had a good conversation. He of course knew who Martin Luther King Jr was. I asked him if most Korean children would know, and he thought teenagers, yes, but not elementary school children. He knew about the civil rights movement in the U.S. but was not familiar with the "I have a dream" speech. I explained, summarized, and quoted some of it to him. Yeah, guess what I'm planning to photocopy next week for my classes, level nine on up!

This also led my banker man and me to the vocabulary word "assassinate." (and "assassination") After explaining it I asked him if he can tell me of a famous Korean figure who was assassinated. He proceeded to tell me about Kim Gu, a beloved Korean patriot who struggled for independence from Japanese occupation in the first half of the twentieth century. Kim Gu was the last president of the Provisional Government of Korea and the leader of the Korean Independence Party. When the Japanese surrendered to the Allies in 1945 and the United States and Russia started establishing their separate Korean governments in the South and in the North, Kim Gu would not participate in either effort. In fact, he went to Pyongyang to attempt reunification talks with Kim Il-sung!

In 1948 the Republic of Korea was established (you may know it as "South Korea" but those of you who've sent me snail mail have written the official title) and Kim lost the election for first president of the Republic to Syngman Rhee. In 1949 Kim was assassinated, and there is some belief that a right-wing conspiracy was to blame (don't know how vast the conspiracy was) and that Rhee himself may have been involved.

Today, Kim is revered by Koreans and they wish that he had become the first president of the Republic of Korea, whereas Syngman Rhee (or, Rhee Syngman as he is properly called here) was favored to lead Korea by - who else? - the U.S. And every good X-Files viewer knows what can happen to those who get in the way of Uncle Sam's plans.

I thought it was wonderful that my cultural exchange education led to me being educated about this important piece of Korean history, which I don't recall learning in any of my social studies classes! I think U.S. students know who Syngman Rhee is and that's about it. Nor did I learn about Kim Gu on M*A*S*H.

Wow, am I craving M*A*S*H. Listen, does anyone have any suggestions about how to get a tape out of my VCR? Our crappy television, just one of the many crappy furnishings in our apartment, is a TV with built-in VCR. However, the videotape stuck in it refuses to budge. The only thing I haven't done is stick in a long knife blade to try to pry it out. Visions of electrocution dance in my head. Furthermore, I can't find a spot on the back of the television where I can put the cable to hook up another VCR. Can that be possible? That a TV with built-in VCR doesn't have a way to hook up an additional VCR? I haven't been too worried about it because I don't really have a lot of spare time for TV/movie watching anyway.

In other news, I did benefit in one way from Canadian Jon's departure - and this will leave me even less time for video viewing. I bought Jon's used desktop computer for $100. I don't have cable Internet hooked up at the house yet, so I'm still visiting PC rooms this weekend, but I can write away to my heart's content at home now and access everything on my floppy disks. Hurrah! The danger is that I will disappear into my room and live the life of a solitary writer and lose interest in all else. Sometimes in Boston if I had a weekday off (and therefore access to a computer and the house to myself) I would sit for hours writing and then look up to see it was four p.m. or something and I hadn't showered yet. Or I'd missed a totally nice day outside.

Man, I wish I could make my living as a writer full-time and then take days off from that. Some day? I am on the path to pay off my debt, the main obstacle to my exiting the full-time work force. But I also am craving the intellectual stimulation of school so unbelievably much that I can't imagine not returning this fall or next fall at the latest. Which means - more debt, less full-time writing.

"If God asked me what was my wish, I would reply unhesitatingly, 'Korean independence.'
If He asked me what was my next wish, I would again answer, 'Our nation's independence.'
If He asked me the same question for the third time, I would reply in an even louder voice,
'My wish is our Great Korean Nation's Complete Independence.'"

-- Kim Gu, in his autobiography, Journal of Baekbeom

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

I am aghast

Today before pre-school I spotted some writing on Rosa's calendar (her desk is next to mine) mostly in Korean but with our names and some classes listed; I determined that it was the breakdown of which English Native Teacher will cover which of Canadian Jon's classes after his last day, which is tomorrow(!) So, I pretty much figured that the coverage of his classes and the status of his replacement teacher (or lack thereof) would be the main topics of our ENT meeting this afternoon.

I have to teach two of his classes during the interim until we get another teacher. The good news is, they allegedly hired someone -- he accepted the job this morning. The bad news is -- he just accepted the job this morning. Director Michelle said she thinks it will be about two weeks before he is here. I suspect it will be closer to three and a half. He is from England. Now it will be even: two Canadian against two English, and me the fifth wheel American.

So for a while I will lose my beloved Tues-Thurs schedule of only five classes and I will teach six on those days, and my afternoon class schedule will start 45 minutes earlier. That class is little tiny beginning 5- and 6-year-olds, level "Fun 1." In other words, they are new and they know even less than pre-school, so we will sing a lot of songs and play alphabet games and I could possibly be annoyed a lot. The other class I will be subbing is Mon-Wed-Fri evenings, and it is level 11 adolescents, hurrah! I know them from subbing there once before, when Jon had a vacation day. They weren't bad.

However, none of this is the reason that I am aghast.

The reason I am aghast came at the end of the meeting. Today's meeting was conducted by director Michelle (see previous blog entries such as "Ironical Pajams," "Yeah but you should see the five-year-old!" and any entry about my apartment woes) and assistant-to-the-assistant-to-the director, a young woman by the English name of Winnie, whom I just don't get along with (see previous blog entries and hear any given day's rant).

At the end of the meeting, Michelle and Winnie thanked us ENTs for our cooperation and help in taking on Jon's classes (blah blah, yeah, that's all fine and good). We have all been on the edge of our collective seat awaiting news of who will replace him as the candidates have bailed, one by one. Plus, a few weeks ago, every foreign teacher in Korea had to present his/her actual diploma at the immigration office and sign a sworn statement that it was a real diploma and we truly had a university degree. You can see that this is a big issue here. It was kind of amusing, that day, when we foreign teachers, including my roommate the Chinese teacher, all piled into a cab and went to Immigration, signed a paper for all of two seconds, then came back to school. But apparently during that time there was a mass exodus of English teachers from Korea! Caught! Busted! I heard a rumor that 75 left Daegu alone. Our directors have told us that the sudden severe shortage has contributed to their trouble finding a replacement for Jon.

But HERE'S why I'm aghast:

After Michelle thanked us, she lamented a bit about how hard the candidate search has been this time around. She was partially speaking to us and partially speaking in Korean to Winnie. She said something about South Africa -- that we knew about, that they had considered but hoped not to hire someone from there. The reason is that it is considered scraping the bottom of the barrel accent-wise. New Zealanders aren't looked upon too highly either, for reasons of accent, and Australians just above that. There are a fair amount of Irish teachers here, but I've met only one from South Africa and none from New Zealand. The vast majority of teachers here are from Canada.

And then I caught a familiar word in Korean I couldn't quite place, as Michelle lamented. Winnie smiled and turned to us to translate, "Yeah, and black people, and everything." Then it was, Ahh, but now all's well, now we've found someone, breathe a sigh of relief, OK, on with our day.

I said, "Um - what? What just happened?"

My fellow ENTs clued me in: "Yeah, they won't hire black people. The parents don't want them. They want to see white foreigners. Daegu's a conservative city..." And on and on and on, it was like the room started spinning as these comments were hurled at me. 'You must be joking,' I thought. "You must be joking," I said aloud. The meeting was ending. Four of us ENTs stayed in the room chatting for a bit. I was shocked. Aghast, I tell you! Canadian Bram said, "Yeah, don't you think that's why we had to e-mail our pictures in the beginning of the hiring process, to make sure we were white?"

We went back to the staff room and I sat and stared at my desk, hunched over, trying to collect my thoughts. I thought about talking to Rosa or assistant director Betty, the people I like and consider the most reasonable, but then I was like, you know what? No. This is a clearly a situation for dialogue, and if I really plan to be a human rights lawyer in the peacemaking business I'd better be able to discuss uncomfortable issues with people I dislike, right? So I turned around to Winnie, who sits behind me.

"Winnie, I have a question about what just happened in the meeting," I began. I think she was basically shocked (aghast?) that I was speaking to her, as she and I have carefully cultivated a relationship of avoidance, despite teaching a class together and everything. I asked her if that notion of refusing to hire people who are black actually strikes them as normal or acceptable?

She asked me if I thought it was discrimination. "At least!" I replied. She told me there is discrimination in America. Well, no kidding. I did point out that you can't go around saying, "We don't want black people to work here." I mean, actually saying it! Yes, I think it happens in the U.S. in insidious ways, but that was not the point of this conversation yet. I was asking if the blatant dismissal of the candidates struck them as acceptable. And I was getting, if not a resounding yes, then at least an echoing yes. A couple other Korean Teachers were lurking about, listening.

Again with the "the parents don't want them." Ahhh, yes. The parents of these little Ding Ding Dang-ites. "The parents" are the reason given why we should dress up on open house days, never give bad grades, and, as of yesterday, not wear loose, "silky" (rayon) pants. This is a money-making venture, and I have clearly seen how that takes precedence over, say, making the kids learn English. Keep the parents happy!

But this is different. I was sitting there at my desk ready to walk out of this job in protest. Honest to God. I did not have a qualm with that. What stopped me was the thought: would that help? Or is it more helpful for me to be here to try to "brighten the corner where I am"? To teach my pre-schoolers not to solve their problems with violence. To teach my level tens not to say that the U.S. is bad "because it has a lot of gays." To teach my level 13s that the n-word is unacceptable, even though they heard it in the film Boyz N the Hood. And now, to advocate for equal employment opportunity, or something like it. To find the children of "the parents" and to show them a different perspective.

I've mentioned before the antipathy toward foreigners here. This put a whole new spin on it.

I asked Winnie, "What do 'the parents' actually say?" I wanted exact words, not a vague impression. I also wanted to see how much was "the parents" and how much was perfectly agreed with by Ding Ding Dang. I thought that Winnie was hemming and hawing as she talked about "not actually saying anything" and "not having heard anything." I pressed the point, and she clarified, "There has never been a black teacher. Not at this Suseong branch, not at any Ding Ding Dang. So, I don't know what they'd say, because they don't respond to it, because it has never happened. Never. It won't happen."

I see. You know, if I weren't so busy being appalled, I might also like to point out that they are idiots to refuse to consider people based on race and then to be all, Oh, woe is us, we have no teacher. What the...?! I swear I should refuse to cover Jon's classes out of protest.

I managed to gather the impression from various teachers that it is "maybe a little different in Seoul" although Winnie insisted it is the same "in all of Korea." Bram and I talked more about it during our prep period (which won't be a prep period for much longer, as I'm taking on Jon's "Fun 1" class). Bram shared several anecdotes about horribly racist comments the kids in his classes have made.

I'm really at a loss here, folks. What should I do?

The next class I taught was my totally beginning "Fun 2" 6-and 7-year-olds, and we were practicing the letters "S" and "T." The workbook had the letters in rows with one letter backwards. They had to circle the one that didn't match. I was writing "s"es on the board to demonstrate and said, "Circle the one that is different. Which one is different and doesn't belong?" Needless to say, Ani DiFranco pounded in my head:

"When I was four years old, they tried to test my IQ
They showed me a picture of three oranges and a pear

They said, which one is different?
It does not belong
They taught me different was wrong...
I sing sometimes like my life is at stake
'Cause you're only as loud as the noises you make...

If more people were screaming then I could relax
But a good brain ain't diddley if you don't have the facts...

For every lie I unlearn I learn something new
I sing sometimes for the war that I fight
'Cause every tool is a weapon - if you hold it right."

-- ani difranco, 'my IQ'

Monday, January 02, 2006

Ironical Pajamas

"Monday, Monday, sometimes it just turns out that way..."
-- The Mamas & the Papas

So it was happy new year and back to school. One of the Canadians has finished his year of indentured servitude and his last teaching day is the day after tomorrow. Ask me if they've hired his replacement yet...

What that means for the four of us (the Canadian marrieds, the Brit, and me) is we'll probably have to cover a dang lot of classes until a replacement is hired. By the way, if any of ye want to get yourself on a plane, say, tomorrow to come teach here, I'll split the referral bonus with you!

Today in my first afternoon class, the Level Three 7-year-olds, our journal writing page was "It's time to get ready for bed!" In this particular book they write sentences and draw pictures about a different personal topic each day. Today's ended up something like this: "First, I brush my teeth. Then I read a book." Or, "First, I wash my face at 8:45. Then, I brush my teeth at 8:50." Therefore, I taught them the word "pajamas." After all, putting on pajamas is a key element of getting ready for bed. I also noted that it was an easy word to teach without translation: "Pajamas are the clothes you sleep in. Not these clothes. At night you take off your shirt and pants and you put on - what? Pajamas! What color are YOUR pajamas?" etc.

After that, the day wore on with few to no aggravating incidents. In the Level One 6-year-olds class I took away Lily's necklace because she wouldn't stop playing with the clasp. I didn't take it off of her neck; she had it on her desk and continued to play with it after a warning, so I took it. I take things from the kids from time to time -- it's amazing how naturally some parts of being a teacher come to you. I usually even remember to give them back at the end of class; I once forgot to return Ben's laser toy and it was still in my pocket that evening, but I returned it to him the next class day. I take something away from Sally in Level Three about once a week. She wasn't there today, though, so she missed our pajamas lesson. Anyway, when I took the necklace from Lily she physically struggled to keep it, quite emphatically. When she reclaimed it after class she rattled off a string of Korean to the KT, who informed me, laughing, "She says it's a $100 necklace!" Well, good for you, Lily. Even more reason not to play with it in class, I'd say.

My last class on Mondays and Wednesdays is the one-on-one conversation tutoring with Bud, the bank branch manager who's there to improve his English since an American company bought his bank. But he didn't show up today, as happens from time to time with the demands of his job. Usually if he doesn't show I have to wait around the whole class period until 8:05 p.m., just in case he is late, but today I found out he had called and just plain wasn't coming. So, there I was, able to leave a bit early, but I decided to first finish up all of my lesson plans for tomorrow so I can disappear after pre-school to have coffee across the street until our ENT (English Native Teachers) meeting. This coffee break is a new ritual I've developed and rather enjoy on Tuesday afternoons. (This new plan also gets me out during pre-school lunch time, always a good thing, as I tend to find the smell of their lunch nauseous, and it's all spread out on a table in our tiny staff room and it's overwhelming and basically god-awful.)

It was as I sat writing lesson plans that director Michelle approached. Hardly anyone else was around (they were all teaching) so I sat alone (blissfully!) at my desk space (such as it is) in the staff room. Now, Michelle is the one who started hating me after all the "trouble" I caused when we moved into our new apartment, but then she bonded with me the other week when she discovered that my roommate "really doesn't get it" about the thermostat (uh, yeah, that's what I'd been trying to tell you people!) A lot of the ENTs aren't fond of her, but I don't much care one way or the other. There are other people there worth disliking, and I don't waste much energy on Michelle when I'm not trying to obtain hot water or something.

Anyway, she came over to talk to me about my clothes. Huh? "Right, maybe you can wear the jeans, but the pants today are maybe not so good." Um, OK? The pants in question, and some of you probably know them, are black with a bright red, yellow, green, and turquoise pattern of big flowers. They are 100% rayon, they were probably cheap, I'm thinking Target? And I've had them for a dozen+ years. At least since BYU days. I have probably four or five pairs of loose, rayon-or-something-like-it, brightly flowered pants. They're totally low maintenance. I'm also wearing a short-sleeved black shirt. "So, maybe it's different culture, but maybe the Korean parents don't like you to wear these pants."

OK, now here's the thing. I don't really care -- at all -- about these pants or whether I can wear them to work. But I was confused. And amused. So I asked why. She started to look a little uncomfortable. "Maybe they don't look like teacher. This is school, right? You in these pants do not look like teacher." But why, Michelle? "Maybe they look too comfortable, like soft? Flowers is OK, or butterflies is OK, but these look maybe like pajamas. You can maybe not wear them." At this point I think she was really not enjoying prolonging the conversation, and she was blinking a lot. I asked her if she would like to touch them. They aren't remotely sweatpant-like. She said in Korea "silky" looks like pajamas, not teacher. I asked her if she can give me a dress code (knowing full well the answer would be no). She said, "Just wear the jeans and the casual pants and the skirt and the short pants but not the soft flowing look like pajamas."

It was so awesome. Who'd a thunk it, right? I probably haven't uttered the word "pajamas" since I got to Korea, and today after teaching about them I was accused of wearing them. Maybe I should teach about "one million dollars" next and see if I can conjure that up! Unless Lily was devastated about the necklace, I'm guessing this one can also be traced back to Winnie, the assistant to the assistant director, my least favorite of them all. She's the passive aggressive one who I suspect may have silently declared war because she can sense my utter disdain for her (which is mutual). Lily's clever, but not that clever. Oh, it was just so funny. I wish you all could have been there.

Frankly this isn't the first time I've wished I brought all of my jeans with me. In my rushed packing for Korea/packing up my life, I was contending with space-in-the-suitcase issues and never dreamed that the more casual clothes I had, the better off I'd be. I also told myself, then, that I should not waste space packing those too-tight jeans you always swear you'll lose five pounds and fit into. And here I've lost not five but fifteen pounds from having nothing to eat, and I could be wearing every pair of jeans I've ever owned, I think, but a bunch of them are languishing in a box upstairs at Grandma's house in western Mass., and director Michelle doesn't like my pants.

Did you know that "ironical" is really a word? It's an archaic but not obsolete synonym of "ironic." It's used a lot in War and Peace.

"Tuesday afternoon, I'm just beginning to see
Now I'm on my way, it doesn't matter to me..."

-- The Moody Blues

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Hollywood, we have a problem!

Alas and alack, my "winter break" is now coming to a grinding halt. It has been a glorious four days of relaxing, eating cheese fries, seeing movies, wandering through Confucian and Buddhist enclaves nestled in the hills, and not having to go to work.

I was also pleased to read a little, write a lot, and ring in the New Year. Here's to 2006!

On Friday I visited Andong Folk Village. The small city of Andong is about an hour and a half by bus from Daegu, and outside the city in the hills the folk village lies in a beautiful riverside setting. There is a museum telling about Confucian-era life and I enjoyed wandering, looking at the buildings, and climbing to the top of the hill. I guess the big claim to fame is that it's been used as the set for some KBS (a big network here) television dramas.

On Saturday I mostly hung out in Junangno, the central Daegu shopping/nightlife/restaurants district. I relaxed, had coffee, saw the movie Big White, browsed my bookstore, and had some more coffee while I wrote for hours. Quite frankly, it was a wonderful way to spend the day. That bookstore/Starbucks is a grand place to hang out, and then I pop over next door to see a movie. The movie experience here is slightly problematic, but I'll get to that in a second.

I wasn't feeling inspired to do any particular thing for the New Year, but you know, you feel the pressure to ring it in one way or another, so I strolled down to commune's lonely hearts club bar and parked myself on a bar stool right around 9:45 p.m. At that point the place was far from crowded, and I was glad to stake out my spot early. I decided to sit right there until midnight, and whoever else came to sit at the bar would be the people I talked to, and whoever was far across the room would be the people I waved to, and I would have a seat of my own once it became standing room only. And that is in fact how it came to pass.

I met a few Americans, saw some other foreigners I'd met there before, and talked for a while to a very well-traveled Korean guy (he's been to among other places, Boston, the Grand Canyon, Brazil, Cuba). Some of the other people on barstools and I discussed our resolutions. When asked, I opened my mouth and "finish my novel" came out. So, I guess that's my resolution. I enjoyed the music, the beer, and the countdown to midnight. Shortly thereafter I headed home and had a fabulous taxi driver, my best yet in Korea. He was friendly and fun and we chatted even though neither of us could speak much of the other's language. He also gave in to my pleas that he make an illegal U-turn to get us out of the crush of people and cars spilling out of the bars just after midnight. Later he enthusiastically said, "U-turn very good!" I told you so, man.

On Sunday I visited Donghwasa, a significant Buddhist temple just a half hour or so north of Daegu in Palgong Provincial Park. This is the same park where you find Gatbawi, the Buddha sculpture I climbed to weeks ago (see Got Bawi? from October 29). But today I wandered around different peaks and the huge Donghwasa area. Its big highlight is a rather large Buddha statue called the Tong-il Daebul statue. It was definitely big. It stands in a stone plaza at the top of a lot of steps, with a semi-circle wall of carved Buddha, bodhisattva, and warrior images circling behind it. And, of course many people were doing their bows, spread out on the stone in front of the statue. I actually saw a few other non-Korean tourists, a trio from perhaps Pakistan? or Indonesia? it was hard to say for sure, but somewhere closer to central Asia or the Middle East than here. It's so rare to see foreigners, and when I do they are usually English teachers downtown, so I like to spot tourists from other lands.

While I stood near the Tong-il Daebul main hall, I gazed to my left at the statue and to my right at the beautiful sea of coniferous trees spilling across the ring of surrouding mountains. It struck me how nicely parallel those two vistas were: a masterpiece statue created in reverence by mortals to show respect and love for deity, and the majestic mountains that are perhaps an equally reverent masterpiece, created out of respect and love for the mortals placed there.

Some Catholic nuns sat by me on the bus on the way back into town.

And the movie I went to tonight was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That shows how desperately I wanted to see a movie. Scraping the bottom of the barrel. It's the first time I've watched an HP flick in the theater, and only the second one I've seen at all -- I capitulated last year and rented HP & the Prisoner of Azkaban because I'd seen ALL the other Oscar multiple nominees, and most of the single nominees, and I'd simply run out of options. I'd even watched Spider-Man 2 already, so I broke down and watched my first HP tale. Now, this makes two.

Well, I certainly remember why it's a bad idea to watch it in the theater: annoying children make up far too much of the audience. The movie was all right, a little boring at times, but nothing a little absent-minded hair-braiding couldn't get me through. I just don't have the Harry Potter gene. And next time I will definitely start in on the Korean movies before watching a movie with that many kids in the audience.

But the real problem with going to the movies here that I've discovered over the last few days has to do with one of my little quirks with which many of you are undoubtedly familiar. No, not the one about having to have the cap on the end of the pen for me to be able to write with it -- I refer here to my movie theater quirk. That's right: I NEED TO STAY TO WATCH THE CREDITS. And I can't here.

I have gone to four movies in the last five days (Narnia, King Kong, Big White, and Harry Potter) and in four out of four, I tried to watch the credits. First, I got dirty looks tempered only by utter curiosity from the staff cleaning up popcorn trash. But then, they actually TURN OFF THE PROJECTOR and pipe up the music and send you on your merry way. I am truly prevented from watching the credits.

This is not good.

This will in fact make me very sad over the next few months.

They have turned off the projector at various points, depending on the day. Sometimes I get to see a fair amount, but most of the time they snatch them away not much past the cast, if even that far. When I watched Elizabethtown with my Dunkin' Donuts friends in November, I stayed to watch the credits and they thought I was crazy, and that day we made it all the way to the songs and "soundtrack available on..." I wonder if it helped that there were three of us in there? There is definitely no sympathy for me as I sit in these theaters alone.

I have not yet actually tried asking them to leave the credits rolling for me. It's an interesting concept. Will I be able to find a manager who speaks English? Will they think I'm insane? Will they find me oddly charming, or just ridiculous?

It hurts me when the screen suddenly goes white and the music is yanked. On Saturday after Big White, which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way, I gathered up my bag, scarf, and jacket very slowly in protest. "Sure you can take away my credits but you can't force me to leave any more quickly! Oh wait, yes you can. OK, I'm going, take your hands off of me, I don't need an escort...!"

This could be a motivating factor for me to get the VCR working in our apartment after all.