Reflections on the Korean Condition

Busan Harbor ViewThe school year is drawing to a close. Books are being checked for completion, students are practicing dances to inappropriate American pop songs they will perform at graduation (Gimme gimme gimme a man after midnight), and the gray in everyone’s hair is starting to show. The students have none of the ‘school’s out for summer’ attitude popular in American high school movies, instead they know that they will leave Friday with one set of classes and Monday they will resume with another. How I just want to steal them away to an outdoor park for an hour. Teach them what ‘feeding the birds’ is like. They were confused by the idea when I mentioned it in class. I figure my dad will forgive me—he always said it trains them to expect food from people. Maybe they, like these kids, could use a little help.

The Korean condition. The more time I spend here, the more I discuss with colleagues and Korean acquaintances (and students), the more the culture shock becomes apparent. Surviving in a big city is a skill you acquire quickly—dodging old man loogies and standing your ground as the subway doors open become second nature pretty quickly. The little things take more time, and burrow in deeper. Granted, with two months under my belt I have barely scratched the surface and my opinions are primarily based on observation. As I make more Korean friends and push past the cultural boundaries, I’m faced with as many questions about my surroundings as answers.

Last weekend I spent time with two native Seoulites who did their best to appease my stored-up slew of inquiries. I met Hyunjoon at a dinner party and we immediately hit it off, talking about his time spent in the States and his interest in American culture. Often I find Korean interest in my culture as strong as mine in theirs, making for an excellent start of a friendship. He found it hilarious that he had visited more American landmarks. I admit that the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty are on the list, but I’ve always assumed that they’ll still be there when national adventure takes priority.

Hyunjoon is a graduate student in Economics and about to start at Korea University, one of the largest post-secondary schools in Seoul. His attitude is laid back but still very Korean, rigid social conformity showing around the edges of his converse and NorthFace jacket. When I saw his Facebook post re: contemplating eating live octopus again, I jumped at the chance to go back to the Noryangjin Fish Market with a native speaker. We never made it there, but our Saturday did consist of various local sightseeing. From walking through an extensive outdoor market (ginseng! Dog!) to exploring the Children’s Grand Park Zoo, it was a day filled with good conversation and interesting cultural discussion. He even stopped into a few mobile phone shops to help me figure out a phone plan. So much easier when you speak the language. We ended our time by meeting up with some American and Korean friends, having a rigorous debate over the meaningful classification of languages, and playing King’s Cup in a hof until the language barriers had completely dissolved. (Hyunjoon remarked at some point that King’s Cup is like all of the complicated Korean drinking games rolled into one).

On Sunday, I meet with Eun-mee. She is a 27 year-old graduate student studying Lifelong Learning (adult education), and a friend of a friend of a friend in Seattle. I really like her. Quiet and patient, we sit down over coffee and just talk, haltingly at first. Her English is good, but we both have our smartphones out on the table with translators ready. We discuss Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, and the cultural differences that are most apparent to me. The concept of Jeong immediately strikes me as the word for what I’ve been experiencing, the air of collectivism and conformity interlaced with support for your fellow man. While there doesn’t seem to be an English equivalent, the closest definition I’ve found online is “affection”, the “feeling or connection that you feel toward something or someone.” Broadly, “a culture-bound Korean concept of love.”

There are two kinds of jung, goeun-jeong and mieun-jeong. Goeun-jung is a love-love affection, like a husband and wife relation, or just simply, love. Mieun-jeong is a love-hate affection, like you’d have towards a best friend you’d give your life for, but occasionally want to punch in the face for being so annoying. You can also feel jeong  for things, for instance a ring that your grandmother wore at her wedding then gave to you. She dies, and you feel jeong for this ring like you would for a person. It’s complicated. Eun-mee also describes jeong as the communal commitment to one another, like the ‘ship’ in friendship or kinship. It makes people care for eachother, whether on the street or at home. And it’s very apparent here—never mind the elbowy old Korean woman pushing past you, there is another in the jjimjilbang who will come over and just start scrubbing your back (with painful vigor) if there is no one else there to do it for you. Based in Confucian principles, jeong is both a working concept seemingly not found in general Western society and what seems to hold Korean culture together. When you tap into it, it’s beautiful.

Hierarchy, and the acceptance of your role in society, is another Confucian principle predominantly displayed in Korean culture. Most westerners I’ve talked to have a problem with the concept of being born into a certain role in life. Our cultural history of ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘the pursuit of happiness’ make us want to know that there is no limit to our social ladder, that we can rise from rags to riches or flip burgers if that’s what our calling is. Koreans see hierarchy differently. You know your place, and you must work the system in order to move up. At work, you are completely subservient to those above you. Never contradict or criticize, what your boss says goes. What his boss says he does without question, and you support him. Both in the office and out, you are required to be present for every social function, to keep up with your boss’s drinking habits, to never leave before a supervisor does. To be sober when your boss was drunk would be shaming him. To leave early would be incredibly rude. Two examples:

A friend told me he was on his lunch break at work when a supervisor called, saying he needed some numbers crunched and rushed over in a hurry. In a flurry, he dove into the paperwork until a second supervisor showed up at his desk and asked him to come out for lunch. Unable to say ‘’no” to either, he went to lunch and came back to slew of demoralizing and angry emails from boss No.1. My immediate reaction was Well, why didn’t you tell boss No. 2 about the first request, crunch the numbers, and meet up with him? Seems legitimate. Impossible, was his answer. If a supervisor asks you to do anything, anything, you do it. Caught between two impossible situations, he chose the one that was standing in the door. His other boss now won’t speak to him at work, and makes snide comments when he walks by.

Example two, same person. At six o’clock one evening, he started packing up to go home when his boss came in and told (not asked) him he needed to stay until nine. Unpack, sit back down. At nine, the same boss appeared and said there was a corporate dinner he was needed for. Off to dinner, then drinks, back home around two AM, to be up and at work again at six. The next night, the same thing happened. With less than nine hours of sleep in a 48-hour period, he was exhausted but uncomplaining. You just have to do it.

 

Capitalism has blurred some of the financial strata, but there is still the familial expectation to know your place. Those millions you make with your innovative business will more than likely go to your parents, to care for them, to repay them for when they cared for you. Expectations and hierarchy play an enormous role in the family dynamic. Most women live at home until they are married, which by that time is both a blessing and a curse. The subservient role you play towards your parents for the first third of your life is then transferred to your husband for the rest. Korean women are seemingly vicious creatures because of this, in my outsider opinion, yet some of the most beautiful women on the planet. The control they may lack in their destiny they make up for on the street, which is where I encounter them. Fierce, ruthless, determined, these women would be the last you’d want to meet at a free-for-all clothing sale. Yeeowch.

I’m reading a wonderful book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a story about raising children the Chinese way in America. In short, Chua discusses the differences between Chinese and Western parenting. While Western parents give their children the ability to choose for themselves, Chinese parents decide what is best for their children. What instrument to play, whether they can go to sleepovers, that they can never be in a school play… these all fall under the jurisdiction of the parent. The child’s desires are not part of the discussion. The child will grow up talented, skilled, ripe with knowledge, and will be expected to make his parents proud.

I do hope I have made my parents proud, but sadly I know it would be my strength of character rather than my achievements that would cause such an emotion. True to Western style, my parents have always been incredibly supportive. Allowed to make my own important decisions, be they class subjects or who to be friends with, I was given (comparatively) a lot of control over my young life. In my mid-twenties, when the really hard decisions begin to present themselves, my parents continue to be supportive and kind. Sometimes—only sometimes, mind you—I wish they had made more decisions for me. It would be great to be able to play the piano now, even though practicing made my mom and I scream at each other. It would be great to have a business degree instead of one in Art History. Instead, my parents relied on my ability to make my own choices, chose to support me instead of control me, and ultimately produced a soft-around-the-edges but generally well-read, well-mannered, capable and accepting human being. I can handle that.

My time in Korea is teaching me (schoolin’ me is probably more accurate) many things. My life has been easy so far. If you want the reward, do the work. Shut up and put on a sweater. The West Coast is where I’ll end up. I saved way too many things when I packed up my house; I can live on much less. My parents are wonderful, supportive, curious and remarkably individual people. Putting on make-up and heels to go to the corner store still feels like overkill, but how you present yourself does make a statement on your opinion of yourself and those around you. Teaching is a job I enjoy, but I’m not convinced it is what I want to do with my life. Cooking is a job I really enjoy, but I’m not convinced it’s what I want to do with the rest of my life. Loving and being loved by someone you respect, learn from and are supported by makes you capable of just about anything. Peet’s coffee and dark chocolate are amazing, and worth having imported. Being absent for the death of a family member is complicated. I’m really all I have when it comes right down to it. While I’m not convinced that everything happens for a reason, my life being what it is makes me confident in my decisions and my future. Despite a large part of my heart still residing on the West Coast, I know I’m where I need to be.

 

 

 

One Fish, Two Fish, Dr. Seuss Would Love Thish

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Sometimes it takes a trip to a fish market for you to realize, Toto, we’re not even remotely in the States anymore. Such was the case on Saturday when, after spending the morning at work, I received a Facebook message from Rob asking if I wanted to go out exploring. Despite the fact that I was already back in bed, despite the bags under my eyes, despite the precious nap I planned to enjoy… Of course I said Hell to the yes! Where are we going?

To the largest fish market in Seoul, he replied in text.

Curiosity piqued, clothes back on, Cool! I’ll meet you at the corner in ten minutes. It’s gorgeous outside! I’m glad I won’t feel guilty about this wasted day tomorrow, and I’m craving a chance to use my camera.

Don’t wear flip flops, he cautions. Lydia found that out the hard way. 

P1060966.1We meet on the corner as planned and head to the subway station. I’m starting to get the hang of this, I think as we head through the turnstiles and both naturally turn the same direction at the bottom of the stairs. (Often I’m stuck staring at my phone every time I’m faced with two options. Tell me, oh SmartDevice, which direction do I want to go? What should I do with my life? What shoes should I wear today? I’m glad Siri isn’t available (i4) or this could get out of control. Has anyone made a crystal ball app?) To my frustration, once we’re on the car I’m lost again, having to check every other stop to make sure we haven’t missed our transfer. Good thing Rob knows where we are going.

Ready for a small world moment? Last June, Laura’s British friend Ayesha came to visit us in Seattle. They taught together in Seoul the year before, and at the end of her contract Ayesha decided to do an American tour. Over the weekend we took the BOLT bus down to Portland and then drove to eastern Oregon for the annual Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally. Laura’s father, Eric Folkestad, is the main organizer for the rally every year, and it was the perfect ‘American!’ event to show our visitor. The weekend in Baker City was so much fun—beer and bikes and country music—and of course after about ten hours in the car together plus a weekend of hanging out with bikers, Ayesha (fondly referred to as A-Bomb) and I became friends. Ok, small world moment. Not only does Ayesha now teach at the same school as me in Seoul (no prior planning), but our co-teacher and friend Rob is from Baker City, OR. He knows all the restaurants and bars we went to, and tells us stories about the town when it’s not filled with an influx of biker dudes. He has also lived in Portland for a few years, and it’s nice to have someone from your same part of the world to share region-specific jokes with.

em at noryanjin

Rob and I take the subway over the Han, the big river that runs through the heart of Seoul. It’s wonderful to come up from the depths and be traveling above ground. I can even see out the window over the head of the Korean girl in front of me. It is a beautiful day. Cold and crisp; the sun reflecting off buildings tricks your mind into thinking it might be warm. We get off at our stop, climb the stairs to the walking bridge, and stare over the tracks at the city. We’re still a bit away, but you can tell that thousands of pounds of fish are nearby. Not in a nose-scrunching way, more like your brain is telling you the sea is nearby even though it’s not in sight.

Across the walking bridge, we start the descent into the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market. After a flight of wide steps we come out on the second floor balcony. At eye level with ceiling lights and beams, the expanse of the place takes a moment to sink in. Literally as far as the eye can see are stalls, each similar to the last, vendors hawking the day’s catch to hundreds of passerby. I’m glad of the way we came in; with an initial bird’s eye view I am able to take in the scene, assess the dimensions of the place. It’s the kind of market you want to at least see on a map before you dive in head first. I collect my bearings, sling my camera around my neck, and we’re off! P1060969.1

At the main floor I immediately regret my choice of shoes. I had opted for some tennies over my hiking boots, letting my newfound sense of Korean fashion dictate my wardrobe. Mi-stake. Too late I feel the damp and roll up the hem of my jeans, fish juice from the ground having already seeped in. I suck it up (the feeling, not the fish juice), just tell myself I’ll wash my clothes as soon as I get home and on the subway just blame the smell on the old guy next to me. Thank you Merrell for making machine-washable shoes!

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My camera is out and it’s all I can do to not just live behind the lens. The colors, the smell, the sounds of a thousand voices buying and selling fish, the textures of dozens of species of sea life all scream to be recorded. For the first time in Korea I play the unabashed tourist. I can’t help it. This place is amazing! Rob informs me that Anthony Bourdain came here in his South Korea episode, and I see why. While potentially overwhelming, it is a foodie’s paradise. I make Rob stop at the stall selling tuna, literally grabbing the back of his shirt to halt him before he loses me in the crowd. I’ve never seen anything like this, except in my dreams. Old woman vendor, cross-sections of tuna the size of your torso, women yelling to have their order taken, piles of tuna steaks being trimmed to order and size. I gluttonously picture myself sinking my face into a mound of tuna sashimi. It kind of reminds me of the last scene in Scarface when he just lowers his face to the white mountain. That’s what I want. But with tuna. Unfortunately, I still have a few days until my first payday, so no tuna-coke dreams will be fulfilled today. That’s okay, though. I add it to my list

Once through the first line of stalls, we come out into the open at the entrance to a produce market. Looking for a bit of a break, we wander out into the sun. Rob mentions there is a strange alleyway market off to the left, and he stays in the open to smoke while I descend into what looks like a hobo tunnel market. Don’t take pictures, he warns me. A man chased us down last time.

P1070010.1The dark shapes crouched along the tunnel wall are indeed people, and in fact mostly old women. You see many elderly women running the small food stalls here, both in markets and in street food carts. In a society where the elderly are cared for by the young, if you don’t have offspring you simply continue to work, or if your family struggles to make ends meet, there really is no such thing as retirement. The women crouch along the wall, covered in hats and blankets, scrubbing vegetables or shucking beans into plastic pots. Their knuckles are swollen with rheumatoid arthritis, but their movements have the surety that comes from a lifetime of perfecting a skill. In awe, I walk among them and try not to stare. When I do gather the courage to ask for a picture, the woman frowns and shakes her head. For some reason, I feel a sense of superstition in her answer, although I can’t quite explain it. Less curt than wary.

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I was filled with an immediate sense of respect… for her, for her way of life, for her beliefs. While incredibly different from me, our shared humanity was tangible in a brief interaction. And I suppose we are both doing what we need to in order to survive.

She may have denied a photo, but her pickles didn’t.

 

 

Just Another Day in the Life

After what I consider to be way too long, Alec and I had a Skype session this morning. A Friday, I wake up an hour early and rush to make coffee as I sign in. I admit it has been a little rough lately. Definitely time for a chat with my BFFL. IMG_3804

That’s Best Friend For Life, if you don’t know.

She is baby- free for the moment, eight-month-old Soleile is napping, and we chit chat about life, homesickness, adaptation, care packages, my experiences as a teacher, various ways I kill small children in my dreams. Not exactly the best thing for a new mother to hear, but as my friend she makes it constructive and by the end of the call I know I will survive another day. She is very good at this. I am glad she is a mother.

To better my health, and my mood, Alec has me on a new exercise regimen. Together we position our computers and she leads us in a twenty minute workout. Ok, fine, it was fifteen minutes. Maybe ten. Soleile audibly wakes up and crawls into the room. Wondering what the heck is going on, she sees her mom talking to a computer with a face and adopts the confusion-to-acceptance face I know I’ll continue to love her for as she gets older. No big deal, Mom’s talking to Auntie Em on another continent and they are doing kickboxing kicks and lying on their backs making pedaling movements. Cool.  What’s for lunch? HEY! I said what’s for lunch?!

Psyched for the day by fresh endorphins, I head off for school. Did I mention it’s Friday? Working odd days in a kitchen where your weekend falls mid-week, you dont quite appreciate the communal nature of TGIF… But let me tell ya, the learning curve was quick. Thank friggen AthiestBuddhaGod it’s Friday.

Today I kind of ‘wing it’. I have a long break around lunch and I have to head to the bank to open an account. Banks in the United States are often intimidating, at least for me, a poor person with no money. I always feel like I am underdressed, or that I should have brushed my hair. Wells Fargo is not the kind grandfather institution who wants to hold my money gratefully and give me interest, no, he is the evil uncle trying to swindle my poor self out of my last dime with overdraft fees, checking account costs and, what’s this? I transferred from my savings account one too many times in a time of need? Well, here’s another $35 for you. Anything else I can get you? Coffee? Footrub? Firstborn? IMG_3860

Korean banks are intimidating, but in a different way. It makes me a little nervous just walking in without knowing if they speak English, or how to say what I want in Korean. Like the rest of the day, though, I wing it. Winging it gets me pretty far.  Luckily Korean banks, surprise!, treat you like the customer you are. You walk in, there is a friendly desk agent who you can ask where to go or what the protocol is, and then you take a number and sit on comfy benches until it is called. No waiting in line, no high-eyebrowed glances at the tag on your jacket to see if you are actually worth helping. As a foreigner, I waited for someone who spoke English, was taken into another room, and have two people helping me. Nice.

From what I can tell, Korean bank accounts are more similar to American savings accounts. You do have a check card, which works like debit and at an ATM; it can also serve as your loadable subway card if you choose. Singular, fast, efficient. And rainbow colored! I get to choose my maximum withdrawal limit per transaction and per day, unlike Uncle Wells who decides everything for me. I leave the bank with my new card in hand, a bank book, and an account with zero dollars in it. I get paid in eleven days.

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On the way back to work I realized I have missed the lunch service so I pop into a convenience store for some gimbap (think Korean sushi roll). I eat hurriedly at my desk before the next class period starts, and then we all head up to the Playroom (not that Korean children ever actually get to play) where there will be an assembly to award prizes and talk about the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.

Cate, the head foreign teacher, has prepared a PowerPoint presentation and somehow I find myself volunteering to demonstrate a traditional Korean game without quite knowing what it is. When I’m up in front of the class I’m handed a stick with ribbon tied around it, and instructed to try and throw it into a bucket across the room. It reminds me of horseshoes. I realize that in this moment I could go down in ECC history: if I make this shot I will be applauded by halfpints for days! Do I? No, silly, Laura would readily tell you that naturally my aim makes the stick land about two feet wide of the bucket, and I try to play it cool. There goes my opportunity to gain the admiration of a roomful of children. Alas.

After the assembly, I whiz through my last classes, eager for the freedom of Friday afternoon. At 5:55pm the bell rings and that’s it! I’m a free woman.

The weekend is always so full of possibilities. For the past three I have been lying low after the stress of the workweek, hanging out most of the day Saturday at a jimjilbang (Korean spa/bath house) and spending Sunday doing pretty much nothing. It’s strange… Making this huge leap and moving to a foreign country feels like it should be an entirely new experience. What will I encounter daily that I’ve never done before? What will I see and smell and hear and do? The promises of an exotic lifestyle make the harsh reality that much more sobering. In truth, my day to day life hasn’t changed that much. I go to work five days a week, and work much longer hours than I did in Seattle. I’m in earlier, out later, and unlike working in a kitchen my work now often comes home with me. Papers to grade, lessons to prepare… About 80 percent of my weekdays revolve around education. When I’m finally off work, all I want to do is relax and rest, watch downloaded TV shows, read a book, go to bed early. It’s lame, but the paycheck (so I’ve heard) and lack of rent makes up for it. I’m paying my dues. And learning a lot about myself in the process:

1. I need sleep. I’m not someone who can get six hours and be totally normal the next day.

2. Getting up early is great. Alec and I have been ‘Skypersizing’ in the mornings and it is fantastic. Mostly just to start my day by seeing one of my favorite people.

3. The best moments here are ones when I do something completely new. I climbed a mountain on Saturday! Amazing. Restored my faith in this decision.

4. I have nightmares about small children. I wake up frustrated, and instead of going to work and taking it out on a pile of uncut vegetables or a thirty-pound halibut with a knife I grind to a razor finish, I get to work and PTNSD (Post Traumatic Nightmare Disorder) kicks in. Keep your cool, woman. Just keep it cool. That kid isn’t out to get you.

5. As it has always been, my sense of homesickness is primarily for people, not places. I do desperately miss the Northwest, however. Strange that my sense of belonging is tied there; I wasn’t sure a few months ago.

6. Every time I try a new Korean dish this wave of euphoria overwhelms me. I still really want to cook. Markets have been some of my favorite places I’ve visited.

7. Speaking of which, I have been cooking for myself almost every night. If you know me well, this is unheard of. It’s nice, to know exactly what I’m eating. Hopefully more vegetables will become available come springtime.

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For now, that’s basically my weekday. Get up, work, go home, cook dinner, read/ relax/ zone out, fall asleep. Seattle minus intoxicants and plus more work. I guess I’m glad I didn’t realize this reality until I was about a month in. Still waiting for the culture shock. Of course, what makes every day worthwhile is actually the kids, as much as they drive me crazy. No polite hand-covering-mouth cute Asian giggle for me, this stuff gets a full on belly laugh. Hey, I’m around kids all day. My sense of humor isn’t exactly getting more sophisticated.

Planning a temple stay for the first weekend in March. Let the Wow Moments live on.

Fresh Looks at Old Favorites

A month into ‘The Great Korean Adventure’, I’m realizing that this experience is less adventure and more ‘new spin on old life’. Don’t get me wrong, much of my life here in Seoul is different than it was in Seattle, but the formula is still the same: long work week + winter daylight hours = definite routine. As much as I try to break it up with Wow Moments (those heart-expanding do-it-for-the-first-time awesome experiences), routine and monotony kind of cling to winter like Ramen noodles and cheap beer do to college freshmen–it’s not your first choice, but hey, sometimes you do what you have to to survive.

Speaking of Ramen, and survival, to break it up and keep the creativity flowing I’ve been experimenting with food. On a minimal budget and able to read about a quarter of the labels in the grocery store, my shopping list is pretty mundane. I’m embarrassed to say that I still haven’t figured out which dark bottle is soy sauce, although whatever it is I purchased is quite delicious. Cooking for myself has also been a challenge. In Seattle, cooking when I got home (from cooking) was like asking a garbage man to take out the trash. Er, not. I think I’ll sit on the couch, thanks. Now, with a full day of teaching, cooking dinner is a creative release and the time of my day when I get to focus on something that I love. True, the menu rarely changes given budget and fridge contents, but with a paycheck later this week that is sure to change. In the meantime, surrounded by the amazing culinary profile that is Korean food, I’ve been attempting to change old favorites into new flavors.  Tonight’s menu? An egg salad sandwich.

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If I was back cooking in the states, I’d give this some ridiculously fancy write-up to make it sound complicated and exotic. Think, “Free-range quail and king oyster mushroom salad with fresh chilies, sweet mustard and toasted sesame seeds on freshly baked whole-seed bread.” In reality, it’s egg salad with a bunch of stuff in it on the only wheat bread I can find. We tend to experience food long before it hits our taste buds, often using all of our senses to enjoy a good meal, and a good write-up can make anything more delicious. Try it next time you serve a basic dish. It can be fun, at least to see how pretentious you can sound.

You’ll need:

Quail eggs  (a lot of them) or regular chicken eggs if you’re too lazy to peel a dozen bite-sized delicious cholesterol balls. Also, please ignore the foodie blasphemy surrounding the use of quail eggs in an egg salad. I’m not sure how to describe the difference in taste, but quail eggs are delicious. Also, they’re not as expensive as you’d think. You can probably find an 18-case in a produce vendor or good grocery store for around $3. Granted, that will probably make about 3 sandwiches. My favorite way to hard boil eggs is to put them into the pot with cold water, turn the burner on high, and once the water is boiling turn off the burner and set a timer for about 6 minutes. With quail eggs, you can set the timer for 3. They’re tiny. The shells should peel off rather easily. I’ve found that when peeling quail eggs, it’s important to get that inner membrane going otherwise the shell will just shatter.

Some kind of fresh chili, be it a jalapeno or something less spicy. If you’re not in the mood for chilies, green onions will do the trick. And then this will just be a normal egg salad sandwich. Depending on the spice level you can handle, remove the pith and seeds carefully. Be sure to wear gloves or wash your hands well.

The Korean mustard I happen to have in my fridge is yellow, but on the sweet side. Think yellow mustard with some honey in it. Since you have access to it in the States, and are going through the trouble of buying quail eggs anyway, I’d recommend some kind of whole-seed mustard or a sweet Dijon. (Pretentious theme continued). In my book, any egg salad isn’t really worth going out to buy ingredients for, so on second thought, use what you got, buddy. Make it your own. Lately I’ve steered away from mayonnaise, so mustard is really the only addition I use and it helps to keep it healthy and fresh.

I like egg salad with a bit of texture, but I’m not a pickle relish egg salad fan. Things like cucumber, celery or shredded carrot can be delicious, but today I chose mushrooms. I thought the texture would mimic the egg white, and fluff it up without having to use more eggs. It worked! Clean the mushrooms by rubbing the tops with a paper towel (water will make them soggy), then cut the mushrooms into small cubes. Use whichever variety you prefer, but a denser mushroom will more accurately mimic the egg white’s texture. White or crimini mushrooms work well, and king oyster mushrooms are so prevalent here in Asia that it was the logical choice for this recipe. they have a similar dense texture (like the cap of a white mushroom), and a delicious delicate earthy flavor. Goes quite well with the quail eggs.

Lastly, toast some sesame seeds in a dry pan. Coat the bottom of the skillet (no oil!) with seeds, turn the burner on medium, and basically just wait. Once they start to toast, begin  mixing them so all the sides get a nice toasty color. A delicious smell should develop, which lets you know they’re almost ready.

Feel free to add other ingredients, (obviously, I won’t be there to stop you, not that I would), and mix everything together. Be sure to add a dash of salt and pepper!  I like to mix in some of the sesame seeds and put more on top. They’re tasty! Save some on the side to mix into rice, or put on salad. Yum.

Be sure to toast your bread and add lettuce, etc. for some extra crunch. Enjoy!

P.S.- As a side dish alternative that you’d be more likely to serve on real plates than paper ones, try using all the same ingredients, but cut them into long strips. (Mushrooms, chilies, maybe add some thinly sliced carrots) Pan fry them slightly until browned in sparse canola oil. Add salt and pepper while they are cooking, and toss in the sesame seeds at the end once you’ve turned off the flame. Instead of mashing the quail eggs, peel them and quarter them lengthwise with a sharp knife to make them pretty and bite-sized. Serve on lettuce, with a thin drizzle of mustard and topped with more sesame seeds. Yum!

 

 

Budgeting for food, and art supplies

P1060675Leaving work today, it was an art night. I could feel it. Even during my stay in California art had failed to surface as an outlet, and I could feel the lack of creativity in my life suddenly reach an immediate and painful boiling point.

Tight budget, and tonight it’s going towards art supplies. Some nights I feed my belly, tonight I feed my peace of mind. It’s a fair trade, and a healthy one in the long run.  I headed to Alpha, the art store around the corner from my house. Thinking it was just full of the usual nauseatingly cute Korean stationery that is everywhere, I stumbled in a few days ago and was surprised to find a fairly decent collection of art materials, supplies, handmade paper and, of course, cuteness. The back half of the store is basically Emmy paradise. I got lost in the shelves the first time I was there and had to literally make myself stop and walk out the door. Dangerous. But at least I know where to go if I want to do a project.

Giving myself the 8,000 won I would have spent on food today was a great exercise in self control, but it stretched. Origami paper, a length of ribbon, some craft wire, two big pieces of handmade printed paper and a calligraphy pen accompanied me out of the shop. Score.

At home, determined to not spoil my creative evening by just eating ramen, I cooked up a sweet potato and scarfed some white rice mixed with cheap packaged curry powder. Sort of a fried rice stir-fry, and it did the trick. A few moments to eat and practice Hangeul (the Korean alphabet). To work! To work!

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Although completely incorrect, I’ve been playing with Hangeul  initials drawings. Mine, ESH, for example, looks remarkably like a winking face. I love it. Thanks calligraphy pen and my mediocre knowledge of Korean! I can’t wait to explore this further. Too bad it is grammatically incorrect for most combinations. Still looks pretty cool.

All I knew I wanted to do with the art paper was decorate my walls; they are painfully bare. Luckily, I brought along some watercolor pencils and a watercolor pen. We’ll see what the painting turns into over the next few days.

In all, dinner rations well spent. It’s a whole different kind of satisfaction.

 

 

 

 

A New Year

Homemade kimchee jjigae in hand, Jen, John Stephen and I discuss plans for New Years. Being the new kid on the block, I’m pretty much down to do anything. There has been talk of a boozy club night in Hongdae, a neighborhood of Seoul known for its club and bar scene, and I smile and nod without much enthusiasm. Something about going out to spend a bunch of money for an evening I likely won’t remember much of the next day seems a little depressing when I’ve only just arrived here. Really, I could have just stayed in the States for that.

So when Jen mentions something about a bell ceremony at midnight, I jump at the idea. She has been doing research into what the Koreans do for New Years, and is also feeling as strapped for cash as I am. We make plans to meet up around 8pm, get some dinner, stuff some soju in our purses and head to the Jongno district for the ceremony. In the morning, she informs me, Koreans traditionally hike to the summit of a mountain to watch the first sunrise of the new year. You mean to tell me that I will literally ring in this year with a bell ceremony and a mountain summit sunrise?! Yes, please. Count the new girl in.

The idea, no surprise, catches on fast with our coworkers. Soon a group of eight is looking forward to the late night events, the attempt to stay up all night, to catching the first subway on New Year’s Day.  I’m actually giddy with the prospect. We meet at a Hof (beer bar) around eight in the evening, pre-funk with some cheap beer and soju, eat a plate of garlic chicken goodness (which I’m pretty sure was actually pork) and head to the subway.

The Bosingak Watch-Night bell ceremony takes place every year in Jongno on New Year’s Eve. Since 1953, prominent figures and celebrities have attended the ceremony, and there was rumor that the new conservative female president of Korea would be there to take part in the ceremony. She wasn’t. The mayor of Seoul was, however, as was the Superintendent of Education.

jonggak bell

(photo courtesy of visitseoul.com)

In the subway, the car begins to fill. First a few get on, then streams of people are flowing in and all around us, taking up every available inch of space. All sense of personal bubbles fly out the door, along with valuable oxygen and any hope of escape. If you want to get off next, you better start elbowing. Tonight, however, everyone is going to the same place. When we finally reach the Jongno station, the dam breaks and the train must look like a punctured vein from above, people like cells flowing out at all angles, trying to revive their arms and legs, take deep breaths, stretch their necks. After a brief moment, we are back in the flow, traveling to the next destination, just a cluster of American, English and Canadian faces like huge white cells among all the Korean blood. We hold hands so as not to lose each other. Without a phone or internet, being lost in this throng would be tragic. Cut to: still image of me standing a head taller than everyone around, facing the camera as Koreans stream past and around me. I call it: American Island.

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We make it to street level, together and in one eight-piece unit. What we find there is a whole new adventure. If we thought the subway was packed, the tens of thousands of people in the street soon put it in perspective. There are bodies absolutely everywhere, and surprisingly I see more English faces than I have in my entire time in Korea so far. It’s amazing to feel this sense of camaraderie, and difficult not to just smile at everyone I see. There is certainly a sense of freedom being in such a large crowd. You become just one of the mass.  The soju helps.

We push forward to try to see something, anything, but there are too many people. It’s minutes to midnight, and Rob points out that we are the among the first in the world to celebrate the new year. Our families back home won’t celebrate for hours. I close my eyes in the crowd, imagine the world turning, internalize the physicality of the time zones. My ‘present’ is both accurate and bizarre when compared to those of my friends and family back home. They will celebrate the new year tomorrow, once I have already spent an entire day of 2013. I feel like a trailblazer. A woman of the future.

Suddenly, I hear shouting… and what can only be counting, even though I don’t understand the numbers. The excitement makes it plain: this is the moment! The countdown! 3,2,1….. Happy New Year! It hits me: I am in Korea. This year, this entire year, will be spent in a new country, with new people, new food, a new job… and by the end of the year it won’t be new anymore, and a new year will begin again. Time. Yet another new path, a new chapter of my life beginning.

Soon after the countdown, I hear the sound of an enormous bell ring. Once, twice.. I begin to count but soon lose track amongst the noise and activity. It is an amazing feeling, being surrounded by people, staring up into a sky lit by fireworks and bright lights on tall buildings—and to my right over the top of some trees I can see the Bosingak Belfry, its traditional architecture in stark contrast with the modernism all around. An urban blend of new and old, traditional and innovative. In harmony. The history is audible.


When my alarm goes off at 5:40am I struggle to remember why, dear god why, I agreed to this insane plot. Legs go over, and body follows. By the time I’m standing, I’m awake and excited again. This morning, before it is light, I will climb a mountain.Back at Rob’s apartment, we sit in a circle on his floor eating 7-Eleven snacks and passing a bottle. Our eyes are sore from the hour but our hearts are swollen with the evening’s excitement. A new year! In a circle like this, anything is possible. I agree to come back to Rob’s at six to make some coffee, and I head to bed to catch a few hours of sleep.

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Achasan is one of the easier mountains in Seoul to climb. In winter, when the earth is icy, it seems an ideal choice for a climb in the darkness and a co-worker has confirmed that the trail is mostly stairs and will be ascendable. I pull on my boots, silk long underwear, a down jacket, gloves, a JL wool base-layer, my handmade Alec Hat and, still half asleep, head over to Rob’s. It is snowing outside. The world is quiet before dawn.

Rob is also grumbling about waking up, but when he sees my face he pulls it together. Somehow grumbling+grumbling=Let’s Go Climb a Mountain! About half of last night’s group meets us outside and we head to the corner store for supplies. It is 6:15 am.

P1060586A few stops from Achasan, the subway begins to fill with fellow hikers. Appearance in Korea is everything, and these early risers have not come to disappoint. Decked out in high tech gear, crampons, hiking poles and packs, these guys mean business! Even with my Goretex boots on I feel ill-prepared. By the time we exit the subway, we are flanked on all sides by summit-hungry Koreans. Whereas the night before I had seen many Western faces scattered in the crowd, today we are alone. I notice a few glances our way but they seem friendly; maybe our early presence is scoring us bonus points. There’s a sense of community as we watch sleepy children having their coats zipped up under their chins, men testing each other’s crampons, packs being zipped up by friends. Everyone is ready.

We have directions to the trailhead, but there are enough people here in the darkness that we just follow. Up a hill, around a corner, through a sleepy neighborhood. Stairs appear on our right between apartment buildings and we start to climb. The trail is busy. Once again we are in a line of people, only now it is to walk up a mountain instead of onto the next subway. It is still snowing, and soon my hair is covered. When I reach up to brush the snow away, I realize it has frozen. My hair is frozen! Yet another new experience. I tuck it up under my hat, and continue uphill.P1060602

Near the top, we reach a flat area topped by a magnificent temple. Intricate architecture is further ornamented by colorful paintings, and there are people everywhere. Let me just say this again, we are hiking up a mountain before dawn, and we are hiking in line, only to reach the top and have to fight for room to stand. On top of a mountain. I’m confounded. Some have brought small backpacking stoves with them to make tea, others are slurping up ramen, some, like us, are just standing around taking pictures. It is a powerful moment for us, here on top of a mountain at dawn, surrounded by the people of this land who are so better prepared than we are. Respect flows from me for these people who have maintained such a beautiful custom, and as I stare down at Seoul I realize yet again that this is truly a new beginning for me. It helps to feel a sense of community at this moment. As always I am surrounded by people, and I allow myself for a moment to feel that I am one of them. We continue on to the top and experience the snow fall stop and the sun peek through the clouds. The ground is covered in fine powder and we have a view for miles. Everything feels new. I send silent thoughts to friends and family back home, feeling concurrently the distance and the presence of them in my thoughts. It is beautiful, this feeling. Powerful and charged. Full of the unknown. Part of an international community of people I love, trust and can share this moment and these thoughts with.

P1060642The camaraderie continues once we are back down the mountain. Everyone and their mother (this is Korea, so, literally) is out trying to get some hot soup after the long, cold climb. Most restaurants are empty and the few with people inside are completely packed, with lines out the door. We find one with an empty table and manage to slide in before there is a line. Apparently we have chosen the place well. There is a man walking around just giving toasts, raising his glass and yelling. Everyone laughs, raises their mug and shouts back at him. Even without understanding the words, the meaning is clear.

Happy New Year.

 

 

Bosingak Belfry
“From the early Joseon era dating back to the 5th year of King Taejo (1396), the bell at Bonsingak was tolled twice a day in order to open and close all the four major gates (Sungnyemun, Heunginjimun, Sukjeongmun, Donhuimun) as well as the four smaller gates (Hyehwamun, Sodeokmun, Gwanghuimun, Changuimun) of the city.  
The bell was tolled 33 times every morning (“paru”) at about 4 a.m. to signal the end of the night curfew and the start of a new day, and the city gates were opened. It is tolled 33 times because the Goddess of Mercy in Buddhist religions manifests herself in 33 different forms in order to save mankind.
※ The bell was originally called Jonggak, but it was re-named as in 1895 when King Gojong granted it a votive plaque with the name “Bosingak” engraved on it. Unfortunately, due to the turbulent history of late Joseon Dynasty, the bell suffered a lot of damage, and can now only be seen on display at the National Museum of Korea.The bell that is currently standing at Bosingak was newly cast with contributions from the public. It was hung in the belfry on August 14, 1985, and was first rung the following day in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the 1945 liberation.” *courtesy of http://www.visitseoul.com

Kimchi jjigae!

528695_796113909505_2009643140_nIf I’ve learned anything in my brief time in Seoul, it is that if you open yourself to the world, the world will do the same. What a whirlwind of experience, all condensed into a few short weeks. Moving into a new apartment, New Year’s eve and day, my first experience making home-cooked Korean food and a jimjilbang… the ‘Wow Moments’ just keep coming and each one is unique. I feel myself adapt to a new life, a new city, a starkly different culture.

New Year’s weekend rolled around and it was finally time to move into my school-appointed apartment. At last! Tim had been a wonderful host, but living out of two suitcases got old really fast. What should have been a smooth transition quickly proved to be a huge mess, in more ways than one.  My contract replaces that of RJ Teacher (everyone is a teacher here, even the accountant and the janitor), meaning that I take over his classes and his apartment. Basically, I come and he goes. Well, he went alright… without leaving me any information on his classes, and (dun dun duuun) without a key to the apartment. Jump to: Me standing on the landing with all my things and no way to get in. I’ll spare you the details of that day, except to say that it just kept getting worse and worse. When I finally did open the door a few hours later, it was to a scene out of a horror movie. RJ had basically just packed the things he wanted and left everything else. Cigarette butts, spilled cat food, dark dried stains on the floor, piles of stained bedding… despite the custom of not wearing shoes indoors I ended up throwing out the first two pairs of socks I wore inside.

Luckily this was on the Saturday of a four day New Year’s weekend. Translate: plenty of time to get on my knees and start scrubbing, but what a way to spend a holiday! With a faucet-like head cold to top it off, the whole scene was a nightmare.

 

Around five in the evening of my second day of cleaning I hear a knock on my door. I lay the scrub brush on the floor of the bathroom, hastily wipe my nose on the nearest piece of tissue and try to pull the dish gloves off my hands enough to be able to open the front door. My neighbor and co-teacher Jennifer is there, eyes straining past me into the apartment, searching for confirmation of the rumor that RJ had left the place a mess. Her eyebrows go high and stay there when she sees me; I must look pretty insane after two days of intense cleaning, nose-running and general fuming.

Jen had heard that I was interested in learning Korean cooking, and is here to invite me to another co-teacher’s house to make kimchi jjigae. My savior! A break is exactly what I need, not to mention some spicy Korean soup to clear my sinuses. I literally can not get out the door fast enough to meet John Stephen and Jen at the market for supplies.

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Now when I say market, I mean the grocery store in the subway station. I know. Apparently there are many other markets and grocery stores in Seoul, but I have yet to go to them as this one is the most convenient. It’s your basic small grocery store, stocking everything from cleaning supplies to snacks, to a small selection of alcohol and some meat and very expensive produce. That is definitely one thing to note: produce is the most expensive food group here by far. And the selection is slim to none, mostly onions and sweet potatoes, with some imported tomatoes and peppers. Lettuce is nearly impossible to find, and ridiculously expensive when you do. So much for salad.

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When they don’t have exactly what we want, John Stephen suggests we go to the outdoor market for the bulk items, like kimchi. We step out of the subway station, go down a main street I pass every day on my way to school, and turn right into a narrow alleyway. Suddenly we are in a different world, surrounded by late-night shoppers, stalls of salt fish, buckets full of grains, garlic, ginger, chilies, literal wooden tree stumps used as chopping blocks covered in fish scales with a cleaver slammed into the center like something out of a morbid still-life painting. Everything from the last two days of depressive scrubbing evaporates instantly. THIS is the foodie Korea I want to see! The stalls are so close together, their awnings nearly touching overhead, and each has thick sheets of plastic hung over the entrances with an overlap for a door to keep in the heat. I’m not sure if Jen and John Stephen are entertained or thrown off by my enthusiasm, maybe just surprised. The smell of ground ginger is in the bitterly cold air and I am in culinary heaven.

The old lady that John has bought kimchi from before has already closed her stall, so we go in search of another vendor. I find a man with two tables covered in kimchi of various kinds: cabbage, green onion, radish, cucumber, grass… you name it. I don’t see the kind we are looking for, however, so I ask him as politely as I can, bowing, “Kimchi jjigae kimchi, juseo?”

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He nods, and reaches under one of the tables to pull up an enormous bucket. Motioning to me with his hands to ask how much I want, he winds the opening of a clear plastic bag around a wire loop, slips kimchi in through the opening, and pulls it back off, tying it with a clean swish. Simple. Effective. Korean. He holds up four fingers, I hand him 4,000 won (about $4), he hands me a football-sized bag of kimchi, and the deal is done.

Back at John Stephen’s apartment, we slip off our snowy shoes at the door and Jen and I sit on the floor as John starts to prepare the meal. I’m taking copious notes on my iPhone until I realize that kimchi jjigae is really incredibly easy. If you like kimchi and can find a decent variety, you should definitely make this. It is spicy (depending on your kimchi) and tasty and filling. Oh, and CHEAP.

 

 

What you’ll need:

A good chunk of cabbage kimchi (standard kimchi)IMG_3717

Some pork cut into 1 in. cubes

Firm tofu

Pork or beef bouillon or seasoning

Water

That’s it.

First, sauté the pork in a deep pan until mostly cooked. Don’t get it too brown or overcooked or it will be tough. Add your kimchi, mix, and cook until everything  is heated through. Fill the pan with water so that the kimchi is pretty much covered, add a small amount of bouillon/ seasoning, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir well, then cube your tofu and layer on top. Cover again and simmer for another five minutes. Kimchi jjigae!

As the kimchi is really the main ingredient, I’d only recommend making this in the States if you can find some good kimchi at a local Asian market. If you do stumble on some, make this immediately. In a Korean restaurant it is served in a hotpot, literally boiling like lava and much too hot to eat at first. Torture… the smell is so appetizing that I always burn my tongue anyway. It is also always served with rice, which is delicious to mix in to soak up the broth. Also recommended: Soju. Kimchi, soju, rice. TIK.

This is Korea.

How to Survive the Subway, and other Seoulful Tales

It was fifteen degrees in Seoul today. 15. I’m not quite sure if you West-Coasters can fathom this temperature.  Yes, I’m talking Fahrenheit.

The air outside is so cold that your face hurts. You pull your scarf up over your nose and your hat down to your eyebrows, and still your eyeballs hurt and every breath in is painful as it saps all the warmth from around your face. It’s too cold to snow, too cold to think, your brain cells serve one purpose: to keep your legs moving until you find the next available indoor heated space. Pray you don’t have to carry anything, as that would mean your hands are out of your pockets. Wear two pairs of socks. On your hands if you have to.

Koreans care a lot about how they look; it is a display of respect to others, and a sign that you respect yourself. I’m violently resisting the urge to just put on every article of clothing I own every time I walk outside. Instead, I layer up, bare my stocking-clad knees to the weather, hurry from one place to the next. Screw my hair. I’m wearing two hats.

Today is Boxing Day, I’m informed by Canadians and Brits, a day that never held much (read any) meaning for me in the U.S. Today is the day you eat leftovers, take out all the wrapping paper to the rubbish bins, and watch Junior League hockey. It’s “Recover from Christmas” day. Good one.

No recoup for me, though—today I made my first appearance on the Seoul subway and went to day one of New Teacher Orientation. Located across Seoul, I ventured out two hours early to ensure I was there on time and was introduced to Seoul commuter traffic.

Lessons from the Subway:

  1. If you want on the train, get your ass on that train.  The little Korean woman in front of you is sure as hell gonna elbow her way on. Follow her.
  2. Don’t bring coffee, and hold on to something. Luckily, I didn’t learn this the hard way. During rush hour it is super unlikely that you will have a seat, or even something to hold on to. If it’s busy enough the other bodies will hold you up. If not, learn how to surf.
  3. There is an area reserved for the elderly, pregnant women, etc. If you are a foreigner and don’t see the sign, you will get dirty looks until you get the hell with it and look around.
  4. Subway stations are incredibly well organized and labeled. Color coded, even. Run little mouse, run through the maze to make your connection.
  5. Wanna buy a dress in the subway? No problem. Coffee? No problem. Dried fish? No problem.
  6. Everyone EVERYONE wears black. Tomorrow I’m going to wear my magenta down jacket, stand in the middle of the car and let everyone play ‘Let’s spot the foreigner’. Heehee. Just kidding. I’m going to take up three seats because I’ll be wearing every article of clothing I own.
  7. Subway seats are heated. Things like this just make my day.

 

After arriving a half hour early at my station, I walk the two blocks to the training school and there on the corner is a Starbucks. A mother <beep>ing Green Mermaid Queen of the U.S. Starbucks. I felt my body go into this kind of confused-disgust-panic-relief mode, and found myself walking across the street towards it before I really knew what was happening. It was like some West Coast honing device suddenly switched on, my arms went up in front of me in zombie mode, and my eyes glazed over knowing exactly how it would look inside. Now THAT is marketing power. About two steps from the door I woke up, noticed a Coffine coffee shop two doors down (I’m assuming they were going for a clever ‘coffee/caffeine’ wordplay, but the similarity to ‘coffin’ didn’t escape me) and broke the magnetic pull only to walk in and find that a latte is 4,500 won, roughly $4.50 USD. Damn you, coffine addiction. Seriously world, let me keep my last—cough cough—vice! I’m really not asking for much, just coffee for under $3 in a land where you can get a whole pizza for $6. C’mon.

Orientation starts and I’m not only the first person there, I’m the only person there. The teacher gets a text on his phone and pulls one of the remaining two desks to the back of the room, continuing to make small talk while he repeatedly looks at the clock on his phone. Matthew: Orientation Teacher, five foot eight, big smile, definitely gay. Like, the gay where you just leave your gaydar gun in your pocket because his nametag says, “Hello, I’m Gay Matthew”.

Eventually the other teacher comes in, nose red with the cold, carrying a small suitcase. He’s travelled from Daegu, and managed to only be fifteen minutes late. He is definitely not spiking the Gaydar meter, and his shoes confirm it. Straighty straight straight. Matthew, however, looks like it is Christmas morning all over again and his present just arrived. I just sit back, happy to be done with my end of small talk and pleasantly surprised that I get my own live Korean drama to watch. Actors: Nicolas and Matthew. Set: Korean elementary school classroom. Plot: Gawkwardness (that’s my new term for when a gay man gawks at a straight man and it’s awkward). It’s hilarious. At least I think so.

What’s NOT funny is that our heater seems to be broken. Did I mention it was fifteen degrees outside? Nick and I both huddle in our student desks still fully bundled in our outdoor gear, passing furtive “What the heck? How am I supposed to learn like this?” glances at each other.  I start making jokes about burning our workbooks in the middle of the floor for warmth, and a new friend is made. Sometimes it’s that simple. Common problems, survival, comic relief.

It makes me wonder about the people in North Korea, and if they have heat.

Lessons from Day One Orientation:

  1. Korean superstitions include: If you leave a fan on at night and have all your windows closed, you will die. If someone writes your name in red ink, you will die.
  2. Almost 50% of Koreans ‘don’t have a religion.’ I’m not sure if they are atheist, agnostic or just don’t practice one, but I still found the number interesting. A personal Plus One for Korea. The remaining percentage is divided between Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, etc.
  3. If you wrap your scarf around your legs and sit on your hands you may save them from frostbite.

 

If I remember any of the actual lessons, I’ll let you know. It was pretty basic. I led a 20 questions mock game. With two people. Woo.

Insert: subway travel, reverse order. Once back to the apartment, I turned up the heat and lay down on the floor to defrost my bones. The temperature outside is twelve degrees. Holy sweet baby Atheist-Buddha-Jesus. Some cold sweet potato curry pizza (you heard me, and yes, it’s amazing), a cup of tea, and it’s time for this old girl to hit the hay.

Merry Boxing Day.

 

 

The Great Korean Adventure Begins

And so… Here I am. The Mayans may not have predicted the end of the world, but they certainly had an idea when my world would take a drastic turn.

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IMG_3673It’s Saturday, around 1pm Seoul time (you are all just finishing dinner, I expect) and I’m sitting in a cafe a few blocks from the apartment I’m crashing in. Americano in hand, I’m almost enjoying the Christmas music blaring on the stereo. A few songs in, you can tell the Korean cover of ‘White Christmas’ from the others and it is rather endearing with its ‘May arr your Christmas be white.’ Ill take little bits of home where I can get them. Next up: Korean techno Christmas song. My favorites are the ones with an English chorus and a Korean-rap verse.

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The apartment where I’m staying belongs to Tim Teacher, one of my fellow English teachers from Canada. The place is kind of what you’d expect from a 25-year-old male recent college graduate: dirty, clothes everywhere, a few necessary dishes getting cycled through the dish rack, nothing in the fridge save some eggs I definitely won’t touch and an entire condiment shelf packed FULL of Korean Taco Bell hot sauce. Homey. To tell you the truth, I’m super grossed out, and the thought of having a place of my own in about a week feels like the best prize someone could give me for completing a week of training.
There are some perks of the place though, namely the heating. It comes through the floor, I’m assuming distributed by heated water in pipes. It’s awesome. It keeps the room warm and when you step out of bed it radiates up through the soles of your feet. Ok yeah, that’s really the only perk I can think of.
YBM Sungbuk ECC (my school) is pretty amazing. The children already know so much, and they are only six! In Korea you count your age from when you are born, so when you turn one in America you are two in Korea. The age system makes a lot of sense, and explains why the kids here are so advanced. I certainly couldn’t read another language, much less do addition and subtraction, when I was in kindergarten! It almost makes me feel better when they count on their fingers.

Fish, anyone?
Fish, anyone?
The classes themselves are small, usually under ten kids to a class. We have a set curriculum to get through but if we finish early we play games like hangman or quackdiddilyoso or Simon Says or Freeze Dance. The ‘kindies’ are so adorable. One girl came up to me and just put her cheek on my arm and didn’t move. I think she was trying to be a kitten. Another boy tried to tickle me under the arms and I had to ask him to stop a few times before giving him a stern look… Which totally worked. Guess I can be scary when I want to be! Ill have to remember that. They are all very interested in my tattoos (I actually put a cardigan on after the first class), and are a little surprised at how big I am. The door in the bathroom is covered in ‘being slim’ propaganda (well, I think it’s propaganda): posters about ‘you are what you eat’ and why ‘slim is healthy’. It made me immediately feel bad for the one girl at the school who is bigger than the others… And for myself,  if you must know. I am definitely the tallest of the female teachers, and all the male teachers have quite slim, Emo body-types. As we were walking back to class, one little boy said, “Teacher, you are heavy,” and I just smiled and said, “It’s because I’m so tall!”  He seemed to accept that after a minute of mulling it over, although I think he was trying to get a rise out of me. Ahh children, you don’t know but you will teach me so much about myself.
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Can you find the heron? 
***
Ayesha meets me at the coffee shop after we message back and forth on Facebook. She has spent the morning at an international fair at school, and is tired and a little grumpy having had to work on a Saturday. We head off to Daiso (the dollar store that has EVERYTHING) to pick up some things she needs, and walk the couple blocks to where her apartment is. I have been so looking forward to seeing what my apartment will look like, and apparently I will be in a different building that is much nicer. That’s always good, although her apartment is nice enough, and definitely big enough for one person to live comfortably.

 

Let me tell you something about Korean apartments. The bathrooms generally don’t have showers. Well, not the shower you would think of, rather a hand-held nozzle on one wall and a drain in the middle of the floor. You basically stand in the middle of the room and get water on everything, including the toilet, washing machine and sink. In the states this might feel luxurious, but here it is taking a little getting used to. Bathroom Slippers, plastic slip ons that you can wear after everything is wet, are necessary for survival and will be my first Daiso purchase.
Everything is new, and strange, and exciting, and overwhelming, and wonderful. Minor moments of panic are pushed aside by the amazing feeling of walking down the street of a completely strange city and realizing that this is probably one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I really do thrive in moments of change, and this… this takes the cake.
Notes on Korea:
1. If you don’t jaywalk, you won’t get anywhere.
2. Octopus is more likely to be roadkill than squirrels. (Probably off the back of a truck, but still. I’ve seen three with tire marks today. Took me while to figure out what it was.)
3. Convenience store gimbap (rice rolls) are perfectly acceptable. The orange triangle ones are quite good. And cheap.
4. Coffee is big here, and refills are available. My americano this morning cost 2,500 won, and my refill was 1,000. Not too bad, since in the states I could spend upwards of $5 on coffee a day. To save money, I bought some instant coffee today. It tastes like… instant coffee.
5. Men on the street are polite, the old women are the ones you have to look out for. Shameless. They look you up and down and sometimes shake their heads. I always wonder what they’re thinking.
6. Everyone wears dark colors. I feel super flashy in my magenta down jacket. Not like I wouldn’t stand out anyway.
7. Faux fur vests are super in. So are super baggy sweaters. Hopefully a baggy sweater on a Korean will be a decent-fitting sweater on me.
8. There is no flouride here, in the toothpaste or in the water. All the kids have silver molar teeth. Their baby teeth have cavities!! They also brush their teeth after every meal. Someone please send me some American toothpaste.
9. Korean BBQ is amazing. You can sit for hours, eat slowly, drink slowly (or not), and come out smelling like a campfire. They have bottles of Febreeze by the door in case that smell is not your thing. I think it’s homey. There are worse things to smell like than smokey delicious meat. (ha)
10. I have never seen anyone carry this much stuff on the back of a motorcycle. It basically becomes the size of a small car, and you can barely see the person driving. INSANE. I will not be jaywalking near anyone driving a giant moving pile of garbage bags.
Until next time, love from across the pond.
IMG_3679

Landed!

Is it strange to say that the adrenaline of the last twelve hours made the flight seem not all that long? It must be the lack of sleep, dehydration and wide-eyed discombobulation talking. But seriously, if you can sit through Bourne Legacy, the Iron Lady, some Korean War movie about coffee, and half of the newest Sherlock Holmes atrocity (yes, I only made it halfway before my literary snobbery overcame my Hollywood bad-plot-forgiveness gene)…. Well, you can do anything. 

Plane food:"Would you like beef steak  or Bibimbap?"
"Bibimbap, please."
Plane food:
“Would you like beef steak or Bibimbap?”
“Bibimbap, please.”
I did make friends with a 66-year old Thai lady, who is going home to Thailand because her brother has spinal cord cancer and is in the ICU. Oh, and her son has schizophrenia and let me tell you, we had a good conversation concerning recent events and gun control. So really, the flight was an experience.
Which is kinda what I’m going for.
So.. Off the plane, rapidly through the immigration booth, passport STAMP!, Visa CHECK!, and I’m staring at the baggage claim board like a beer drinker in the wine aisle, head tilted, confusion sinking in until the screen flashes and Boom! It’s in English. Phew. Carousel 22. And off I go.
IMG_3660Minutes later, bags in hand, I’m through the exit doors and am faced with a solid wall of Asian faces looking at me like “Move over! I can’t see my daughter/husband/person more important than you!”  The only people who look happy to see me are the taxi drivers swarming like sharks for the kill. At least they bugger off when I botch my Korean and just say “Aniyo, kamsahamnida”. Close enough. According to my ‘teaching kindergarteners’ booklet, it’s 80% body language anyway.
The cold outside actually feels good after the recycled air of the plane. I did a quick change into jeans and a t-shirt in the bathroom to at least feel somewhat less travel-gross. On the bus, I think I annoy the driver by fumbling for my Korean money and then staring at it to make sure I’m not overpaying. I hope he lets me off at the right stop.
So, there you have it, folks. I’m on a bus, somewhere, heading into the middle of an enormous Asian city, hoping that the next few steps will be as easy as the last.
Think I’ll look out the window for a while.