Saturday, November 20, 2010

An unexpected blessing

I was not having a good day. I had been forced to stay at work longer than I had wanted to and so would have to use more sick time in order to go to the bank. I got on the subway and fell asleep just before we got to the station at which I had to transfer and consequently missed it, which meant I would be late. After missing the stop, I tried to identify the best way to get to my destination and it was a bit complicated. I ended up getting further away from my destination and so even though the doctor’s office had told me that it was alright (and I knew that it was), it annoyed me to no end. So I ended up being about 30 minutes late and was not in the best of spirits by the time I go to my appointment. That said, the appointment went off just fine and I learned that I do not have any pressing medical issues. However, it had not been the best day and I was not in the best mood as I descended the stairway from the appointment in the hospital and I heard the velvet tones of a B-flat clarinet. This was a bit surprising. Why would there be a live clarinet playing at the hospital? I was particularly interested because I played clarinet for a long time and really loved playing it. The sound I heard was awfully soothing and it was a perfect tone. As I descended the stairs, I saw an incongruous sight. In the lobby area there was an orchestra set up. It was bootheeled amid the chairs between the snack stand and the front entrance. The strings were flat (sorry, from having played in an orchestra, the tendency to evaluate the pitch of the various instruments is second nature ☺) but the clarinet soloist was wonderful. He had polished his clarinet so the keys and valves glinted gaudily. More than that though, his tone was assured, his phrasing competent, and his musicianship very good. The piece they played was a concerto for two clarinets by Stamitz and even though the quality of the playing was not particularly good from the orchestra at large, it was nevertheless enjoyable and heart-warming. I was not the only one enjoying it. There were probably 100-120 people watching the performance and most of the assembled were there for a good length of time. Some appeared to be patients, some seemed to be the family members of the ill. Obviously it’s not news that music soothes the troubled mind, but discovering an orchestra playing in a hospital lobby after an unpleasant day certainly put a nice bow on a day which until then had been a bit of a gag gift.

It’s funny how one’s day is turned sharply by something as simple as a musical performance, but sitting there, basking in the community orchestra certainly drastically improved my mood and had me leaving what is typically not the most pleasant place, with a smile on my face.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Serpice-uh center WIN

Here in Korea, they have service centers where, if your Sony phone or if your Samsung phone, or whichever product you happen to have bought from your local friendly multinational conglomerate gives out on you, they'll fix it. I have a Samsung phone and when I recently accidentally locked it I went down to the nearby service center and took a number. I was the only non-Korean there and after sitting in the waiting area about 15 minutes and having nearly reached my number, one of the receptionists came out and told me, in that adorable, halting, it-sounds-like-a-question-but-it's-actually-a-statement-way-that-Asians-speaking-English-as-a-second-language-do "we will help you in under 10 minutes". Fine...thank you! I've waited at DMVs, car-repair shops, and in every manner of office and have very rarely had anyone come out and let me know how much longer I'd be waiting. Actually, if they did that, I'd think they had a bit of a wicked, sadistic sense of humor given how long I've often had to wait for things and I might have punched them, ha ha. Seriously I do wait under 10 minutes for what is, I'm sure, a completely pedestrian conversation simply asking what is wrong with the phone. I'm by myself though, and so the conversation isn't that pedestrian. It turns into a tortured 5 or 6 minute (actually, I don't know how long it was....I felt the walls of the universe creeping in, time was moving so slowly and there was so little exchange of information) summit, neither of us speaking meaningful amounts of the other person's language and consequently relying on dreamt-up, hoped-for, imagined body movements which we might be able to construe as revealing the other person understood what was being said. Honestly, this was another moment when my lack of Korean speaking knowledge really annoyed me. I could understand a few words she said but then couldn't respond....anyway. Finally however, because the lady couldn't help me too much, she gave me to understand that another company representative would take care of my situation.

So in the meantime, I go back to the waiting area and...well.....I won't say that I'd intentionally harm my phone just to go to the service center but they could really start to change the image of waiting rooms if word on how hospitable Samsung's service center is gets out! They had a machine for making your run-of-the-mill Starbucks variety coffee drinks, they had multiple computers at which folks were sipping their coffees and whiling the time away-one lady looking at dresses, a man looking at directions for something. They had six comfortable leather armchairs, a water dispenser, and a wide variety of magazines (which I ALWAYS read for the pictures).

Perhaps I sound like a naïf to you but seeing a waiting room with this array of stuff was pretty impressive to me. It did, as I said, somewhat take the bite out of, you know…waiting. And after only a few minutes surveying the latest baseball scores and seeing what was wrong with the world via the Huffington Post, this associate came to me with my phone unlocked. Again, and this is not to damn the United States by comparison, but personal care, nicely appointed waiting rooms, and prompt service…seriously, if I want some good coffee, I may just have to try and disable my phone this coming week!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hahoe Folk Village

On a recent weekend I went to Hahoe Folk Village. What a place! It’s a UNESCO-protected village founded early during the Joseon dynasty (1592-1910). It’s notable today because a lot of the structures have remained unchanged since their construction. Many of the houses’ roofs, both thatched and slanted, remain in excellent condition. I was down there in order to take advantage of the Andong Mask Festival and see some of the masks which have played a prominent role in Korean culture for many years.

During September in Andong-about a three hour drive south of Seoul-there is a festival centered around the of Korean mask. At the festival, one can sample a variety of Korean foods, can buy traditional Korean gifts, can make one’s own mask, and can also take in some musical and dramatic performances at a large stage in the center of the festival. I didn't stay in Andong too long because I wasn’t sure how long it would take to adequately see Hahoe and that was the main purpose for my trip. For this reason, I soon headed off on the 45 minute shuttle ride to Hahoe. It is quite rural and situated on the Nandong river. There are some spots nearby from which you can get amazing views of the village and the surrounding countryside.

Seeing the old houses and the tree (known as Samsindang) that dates from the time of the founding of the village wa wonderful. The village is, as noted, out in the sticks a bit, which for me was wonderful. I love Seoul but at times the never-ending press of people can be overwhelming and it’s lovely to get away from the hustle and bustle. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to imagine what the village was like 500 years ago because the area hasn’t developed too much. There is a very informative mask museum in Hahoe which has masks from all over the world. The museum is fully captioned in English as well as Korean so non-Koreans can enjoy and learn about the variety of masks and how and why they came to exist. It’s very interesting to learn how and why masks are significant in their cultures.

Walking through the Folk Village of Hahoe is akin to stepping into a time machine. Old walls, tiny lanes, and only the slightest hint of tourism-several road-side stands hawking Andong’s famous soju (Korea’s national alcoholic drink, a grain-based drink which is made stronger in Andong), masks, figurines, and a variety of other traditional Korean gifts. The houses are well-maintained to a large extent. I saw two houses which had fallen into disrepair and I walked most of the village. I don’t know which regulations compel the upkeep of the village other than pride in its history. That would seem to be a pretty compelling force, to the benefit of visitors and to the credit of Korea. The landscaping of some of the properties also only enhances the beauty of the village.

Truly, coming out to rural Korea, seeing how a village would have looked in Korea 500 years ago, and being able to see the mask festival made for a great day.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ill communication

Like the Beastie Boys said in 'Root Down', "Like Ma Bell, we got the Ill Communication." Well, my communication here is ill quite a bit of the time, but most of the time it doesn't bother me. Most of the time I just lay back and wait for my cue to talk...then I do my English teacher thing...then I go back into mental hibernation. It's not hard work and it used to annoy me that I couldn't understand anything but when I stopped worrying, work actually went better anyway.

But from time to time, there are moments of serious frustration at my ignorance of the language. One of those times was when I went into a hair salon recently. When I came to Korea, I had decided that getting a hair cut was something about which one couldn't afford to have miscommunication. It was something about which I didn't want any miscommunication and so I set about finding a place where the barber would be able to speak English. I found a place in Itaewon (for those in country-it's on the road which Roofers is on, and from which Hooker Hill turns off) where the barber had been a barber for five years in Britain and so I knew there wouldn't be any fear of having him unexpectedly chopping massive holes in my scalp on the grounds that he thought that was what I wanted. I've gone to this guy steadily for 21 months now. He does a great job and my attitude about most things is "why fix what's not broken?" But it's a little far away and one day I was around my home and thought I could probably communicate adequately what I wanted in a hair cut without making a trip into Seoul.

So I went into a salon near my house and went to the reception desk. The salon itself was quite nice. It was quite spacious, the waiting area had some comfy-looking sofas and there were probably six or seven hair-cutting stations. The lady at the reception desk asked me, I presume, what I wanted. Of course I don't KNOW that's what she said and if I had responded, it would have been in the broken language which I too often have to employ. I guess most of the time this doesn't bother me but being in an unfamiliar environment, I felt a little more stupid than usual and obviously I didn't KNOW what the lady was asking me. I said something like "cut-uh, cut-uh", hoping this was a universally understood term for getting a trim, but instead I got a blank stare. This isn't really surprising because obviously I don't speak Korean well but I was hoping that because I was at a hair salon that it'd be self-evident what I wanted and that I'd be understood. Obviously that didn't happen though and since I really had no follow-up ready in my Konglish arsenal, I felt a little off-balance and awkward. I feebly, very unconvincingly, repeated, "cut-uh, cut-uh" but with less conviction this time.

At this point, the lady probably now thought not only that I was probably crap at Korean, but also that maybe I was trying to take her scissors. So finally I just mumbled something about choesong hamnida (sorry) and stumbled out like Napoleon Dynamite.

Anyway, as I said, most of the time, not knowing Korean too well doesn't annoy me. And all's well that ends well, as I ended up going to a nice salon and chatting to a cute Korean girl and I actually had a little conversation with her in Korean! Ha! So the lesson here is either shave one's head or learn Korean better, ha ha.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

a night in Seoul

Quite a night last night. Went for some coffee first and had some Patbingsu which I’d never had before. It was very good. It's a popular Korean dessert which is very nice during the summer as it is nice and cold and refreshing. It includes corn flakes, ice cream, 떡 (rice cake), fresh fruit, and quite often, ice shavings. Here's a pic of what we had. One mixes all the ingredients together and it's really really good, cold and refreshing during the wearying Seoul summer.

Just down the road from this coffee place was Chois' Tacos where we got some burritos. I dunno if I'd say it was the best burrito I've had in Korea-Tomatillo Grill is incredible, my couple of experiences at Dos Tacos have been wonderful, and the three times I've been to Taco Family in Itaewon have all been excellent, but it was a fantastic burrito. I think given the multiple times I've been to Taco Family and the quality of the food there, make it my highest-ranked burrito place. The only knock I'd give to Dos Tacos (and again, this is really nitpicking) was that the burrito I had there once was just a bit on the small side. Tomatillo Grill was just excellent. But Chois' Tacos, wow. All fresh ingredients, well-made, didn't fall apart. Just unbelievably good.

So then we went to a fine 술집 (bar) quite popular with westerners and 교보 (folks of Korean descent who have citizenship in another country) and ordered some fine Hite and played games and generally had a laugh. We played one game where this spring-loaded clown head was on top of a body into which one had to put some keys. The head would only come off if one put in the right key. If one lost, one had to drink. I lost four times and so, had to drink a beer in one shot four times. That was alright-in fact, as punishments go, it's one of the more pleasant ones. However, one guy, who I'll call M, couldn't handle his drinky. He ended up face down next to the porcelain god. He had been telling his new friend (who I'll call J) how much he loved him, would take a bullet for him, how he understood him for quite some time. Anyway, so J and I, after M had been in there a few minutes, go and check up on him (meantime I was kickin' ASS in darts, lol). M is a big guy, as tall as me but a bit slimmer. So he's in the cubicle, face down, totally gone. We give him some time, and we're standing around him, both of us, in this small cubicle. At one point I started telling J, in my best M imitation, just how much I loved him. Honestly, what is one to do to kill time while waiting for a passed out guy to hopefully come to? After about 15 minutes, we encourage him to get up, we try and pick him up (it's the only stall in the men's john and a guy has arrived and has to GO). Perhaps our attempt to pick M up catalyzed his digestive tract.....and he puked.

We hoped that might be the tonic he needed to get up, but no. So we leave the guy there for a few more minutes. It's next to impossible to pick him up because he's so big and with two of us in the stall, we can barely get the room we need to pick him up but yet he's big enough that two of us are really needed. We come back a few minutes later and try again. This time he's cursing at us and just when we nearly have him up (I grabbed him under the arms and just about have him up), he slaps J in the face. At that point, it just seems this is a losing battle. I put him down. So then, J's ex-girlfriend comes into the stall and using her feminine wiles, tries to be a bit more persuasive in separating him from the floor. However it becomes increasingly obvious that there's gonna be no moving him for now. M is quite content kissing the cold white floor, for now. So after waiting another 15 minutes, we don't know what to do and we go. Honestly, what are we supposed to do? We couldn't budge him, we didn't make him unable to handle his drinky. We found out that the staff roused him and put him in a cab later.

Anyway, so the mood of the group had soured a bit after this episode. We were annoyed we couldn't move M and there was the issue of the break-up of J and his girl (who I'll call H), which happened that night, and as we spilled out onto the barriers at the side of the road, the uneasiness was quite clear, at least to me. I tried to encourage everyone else to head off to another drinking establishment or hof or something coz J had told me he wanted to go. It was obvious it was going to happen sooner or later. J and H had to talk and they were in another place mentally from the rest of us, so it shoulda been wise to head out and find another place in Seoul that serves some grown-up beverages....but folks stood around, wanting to help the nice girl, and dissolve some of the tension that had built-up and make everything OK on this gorgeous clear Sunday morning. However, all the well-wishing in the world wouldn't make everything OK. J and H had to deal with whatever they had to deal with and it was helping no one for us to hang around. Anyway, finally the group was able to make its break and let J and H talk things out. We headed to a hof where we had some 오징어학오, 지긴학오, 소주 (chicken, squid, and soju). A good time was finally had by all although some of the group were fading by about 3 or 3:30 o'clock. Some of us lasted all through the night though, heavily fortified by soju. We stepped into Seoul's breaking light around 5 o'clock, somewhat drowsy, but vowing to do it all again, in spite of the negative parts of the night. It was a wonderful night in Seoul, a painful night, an enjoyable night, it was a night in Seoul.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Just a few thoughts tangentially related to Korea......

  • So the other day, I was at the Itaewon subway station after getting some Mexican food and a nice Negra Modelo when I bump into this friend who I'll call Fred. He's an English guy and so as we wait for the train, we chat a bit. He then introduces me to his American friend who I'll call Steve. Fred explains that I am a curious English/American hybrid and Steve says that he doesn't hear an American accent. I nearly wanted to kiss Steve at that point but, uh, he wasn't my type, ha. So then Fred says to Steve, well, you can have him. So once again, I'm neither British enough for Brits, nor American enough for Americans, a point that was roundly re-asserted to me during the World Cup when I really didn't know which team's colors I'd wear. I feel British and my passport says I am, but let's be honest, I've lived in California nearly 20 years and I love the place and I don't sound particularly British, I don't think. I like lots of things that Californians like, in many ways I am a Californian. And honestly, I'd like to be able to vote. I've never voted in my life. But living 12 of my first 16 years in one country, in my case Blighty has an effect on a person. As they say, you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy. The norms and mores I absorbed as a kid were by and large British. I may not sound British, but I feel it, regardless of which passport I might hold. Honestly, the words of John Lennon's "Imagine" - "imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do..." is a really wonderful thought for me.

  • So I don't think I'll ever get fully used to the different attitudes toward personal space in Korea (i.e. people can practically get to first base with you and it's not supposed to be an issue if you're in a public space) but I have adapted to a large degree. However, something happened the other day that was just strange. I had been in the supermarket and was taking the escalator down to the street level. I'd just got on, was probably 5 or 6 feet onto it and some guy walks on and puts his back against my back and pushes his trunk against my trunk. It was a bit strange. I turned around slowly but deliberately so the guy knew I wasn't too please and the guy overtook me and went on his way. There was no one else on the 80-90 ft. escalator and he literally was pressed up against me. It was...well....I've been felt up, um, I mean, I've ridden the subway enough here, that it's not a big deal. It was just weird.

  • I have now seen lines onto the street for Taco Bell. The end must be near. Seriously though, in Itaewon, a Taco Bell has opened up. Those of you in Korea who think Taco Bell is some admirable iteration of Mexican food, ignore Taco Bell and across the street from it and down about 10 meters is a restaurant called Taco Family which is a fantastic Mexican joint. A wide variety of burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, chimichangas that are much heartier, bigger, and more satisfying than those served at Plastic Mexican Food Joint. The decor is that of a stereotypical Mexican casa, the ol' Mexico style. Anyway, the portions are thousands of times bigger and much more satisfying. They serve beer also.

Monday, July 5, 2010

How To Lose Weight (In Many Complicated Steps)

Yeah, diet and exercise is one way to lose weight, as is declining food and drink late and telling the nice barista that no, you don't want whipped cream on your Mocha FrappuCappuLatteccino. However, another way to do it...and of course this is totally wasting copious amounts of money on wine, women, and song (not necessarily in that order) rarely checking one's bank balance, buying drinks for strangers, picking up tabs, staying out in Seohyeon, um, going out evenings, keeping poor financial records, and one day waking up and realizing that one can't cut anything else of significance from one's budget and consequently, in order to ensure the viability of a forthcoming obligatory international trip, largely forgoing public transportation for several weeks and walking when one might have taken the bus or subway. Again....TOTALLY hypothetical, cough, cough.

Monday, May 17, 2010

unusual/racist story in textbook

So there was a video scene in a kid asked her "mother" what time it was. The girl was south Asian-perhaps Indian or from Pakistan and the lady was African-American. The kids noticed the difference and large numbers of them snickered. There is another character in the book who is African-American so I know the kids weren't snickering just because there was a black character. They started snickering when the black lady entered the scene, after they had already seen the south Asian girl. I really don't know what GEPIK was thinking. Was their intention that it seem that the black lady had adopted a south Asian girl or were they downplaying the difference in color between the two females? I really don't know what they were doing but it seems really misguided.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

brain droppings...

Some interesting things with very little relation to one another, but at least worth writing down:

  • Today went into a police station-my crime is having loved pajeon too much-and it was abandoned. The door was open but it was cleared out. There were a couple of small desks, but that was it. The door was open, there were no barriers telling you that you couldn't go in, so me and a fellow English teacher just walked right in. I just can't imagine seeing that in the States. I imagine they are re-modeling or moving to a larger building. If a police station was closed in the States, I imagine the security around it would be quite tight and certainly there would be no way to physically get into the station. I can't really remember ever having seen an empty police station. It reminded me of that Stephen King movie "The Langoliers where passengers disembark into an abandoned airport. Very strange to just be able to walk around in an abandoned police station.

  • The Korean word for apple is the same word as that for apology. Consequently, in order to atone for something wrong, Koreans sometimes give someone an apple. It has obviously a bit of a double meaning. Also, the Korean word for Grandma is harmony. I found that out last year when I read it while teaching the kids. It was written in English and the kids said, "teacher, Grandma!". I thought that was nice because obviously Grandmas are often associated with all things nice.

  • The Korean word for "friend" is the same as the "f" word in Spanish. A bit ironic really, and it makes me giggle when I think about how I could possibly get out of a tight situation in southern California if I said that-"dude, you're my friend-if we were in Korea" "Oh, you barely got out of that one dude." "Nah, I'm for real, the Korean word for friend is chingu." "Well, you better get your ass outta here 'fore I change my mind."

  • You haven't really been embarrassed until you've had to explain what the word "d***head" is.

  • Had to tell a Korean friend that the Irish word "craic" cannot be used with "my" or "your" or "his" (or "a"), because its meaning could easily be misconstrued and so it must be used solely with "the".

  • Went to Songtan recently which is where the Osan Air Force Base is. I have to say, it was as if I could do what Dorothy did and tap my heels together and be transported to another place. That place would have been Anytown, USA. Yeah, it was cool for an evening, perhaps even one evening every couple of months. But not more than that. Itaewon is Gyeongbokgung compared to Songtan. I didn't see an awful lot of Koreans where we were hanging out. Again, not complaining because it wasn't bad to have a fatty burger and home comforts, but I don't think I am into doing it too often. It's just not Korea.

  • It's really strange understanding so little of what goes on around one. The longer time goes on, the less I understand. Which is cool because when you're so clueless about what's going on because well, I'm just so ignorant that I can't be accountable for stuff, but not having ANY idea what people are talking about is a bit....well, I can't put my finger on it, but the Roots song "It Don't Feel Right" comes to mind. However, as Newton's Third Law of Motion indicated, for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. OK, so my becoming more unaware of what's going on around me isn't really a physical force (I'm just gifted that way...), but still, I've been going to a language exchange group the last couple of weeks and have been able to use some of the Korean I've picked up from studying. I don't know tons of Korean, but I do know quite a few words and I can read and write a bit, but didn't have too much opportunity to speak Korean at the hagwon last year because so much English was spoken there. Anyway, it's great to be learning some Korean and knowing that all the studying I did last year is bearing some fruit. I was reading the sentences in my book and I could pronounce them quite well and could read decently also. Anyway...fingers crossed on that.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

at the cinema

Like Vincent wisely said about the difference between Europe and the States in Pulp Fiction (and I think it's largely true regarding South Korea and the States), "it's the little differences. They have the same sh** there that they have here, but there it's just a little different."

For example, at the theater I went to recently to see Shutter Island, one had to take a ticket to line up and get a ticket. There was no one at the counter and not an awful lot of people around. It reminded me of that great scene in Meet the Parents Ben Stiller's weekend at his prospective in-laws has crashed to a halt and he fumes while a punctilious clerk runs through the routine of the checks she has to do in spite of the fact that he's the only passenger.

Anyway, one goes up to the ticket counter and tries to buy the ticket. It was just two foreigners, neither of whom speak a lot of Korean....but fortunately many of the movies are just Koreanized versions of English names so indicating which film we wanted to see wasn't too much of a challenge.

But in Korea one has to choose one's specific seat. So the ticket clerk turned the monitor around and I indicated lamely where we wanted to sit-cheogi (there!). They have all kinds of healthy refreshments at some theaters although I don't remember whether they did at this one. The portions aren't so huge though. No 64 ounce sodas or popcorn that requires its own seat. Sometimes they have apples and bananas and other things which are better for kids than monster servings of popcorn and nachos. The theaters are quite nice though at least the auditoriums I've been in have fewer seats than many in the States. The seats are a little bit cushier.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

lack of vandalism in Korea a.k.a I'm really, really, gobsmacked that computer screens at bus stops are not smashed by dopey kids or hopped-up adults

Never ceases to amaze me how stuff in the public domain here is respected. They have computer screens at many bus stops here telling people when the next bus is coming. I have never seen one that had been beaten with a bat. Perhaps it's an indicator of my western cynicism that it's so amazing to me that I've never seen one vandalized but there it is. I'd say it'd take, oh, 11.6 seconds for one of those screens at a bus stop in the States to be attacked by a hopped-up 17 year-old kid feelin' his rocks, or maybe by some "grown-up" with a substance abuse problem. It just doesn't happen here. It's really cool but every time I see it, it just blows my mind simply coz it's so different from the States.

On another similar point, they have a batting cage at my subway station and they leave the bats in each of the four cages. No one is there watching over them. No one takes the bats. No one. They have batting gloves there. No one takes those either. Again, I'm just amazed coz again, I think it'd take approximately, oh 42 seconds for someone to run off with the bats in the States. When one went to a batting cage in the States, one had to give the clerk one's driver's license and then one'd get a bat. Obviously one could use one's own bat if one wanted, but they wouldn't DARE leave a bat out there unguarded. Some dope would run off with that bat in, oh, 42 seconds. Again, I guess it's just very impressive to me that this stuff can sit out there in public and be unstolen.


That funny-looking word (to our western eyes) is the Korean word for a public bathhouse complex in Korea. At the jjimjilbang, they have spas, saunas, massage tables, and often, in another part of the complex, they have a PC bang (a large room with many computers where kids often go to play Internet games very cheaply), and a noraebang (a private room available quite cheaply where people choose songs which are then played on a video screen and with which one can sing along to. Often, one can purchase drinks and/or snacks to consume in the room.)

Anyway, I just went to the jjimjilbang. It was great. I will be going back a lot. I've always like hot tubs and saunas and I've found them very relaxing but I don't think I've ever been to a sauna, or a public bathhouse, for that matter. I had done my research online to find out what the customs and norms were so that I didn't upset some naked Korean men and that I didn't look like a completely clueless foreigner and I don't think I did anything wrong. Anyway, one goes into the complex and pays a very small fee (in this case, only 7000 won (about $6)) and one's given a receipt and a key. You put your shoes in the first battery of lockers and take the key to a front desk, inside the spa area. There they give you a key and you can lock up all your valuables and put the key (on a wristband) around your arm and you're off to the spas. The place I went to had one fair sized spa with jets. There were a couple of very hot baths where one could soak and there were two cool baths also-one VERY cold and the other only mildly cold. There were also two sauna rooms, one @ 79 degrees Celsius, and the other 57 degrees Celsius. There is also a massage table where one can get a massage (unfortunately of course, from someone of the same gender (although I guess some people would get more sensual pleasure out of this than most of us)) for an additional fee. There are several shower areas also. By the way, if you do go to the spa, make sure you DO SHOWER FIRST. This is perhaps the most basic rule of etiquette when visiting the jjimjilbang.

Everyone's naked there obviously and no one seemed the slightest bit insecure about this. I wasn't really. Once one realizes that we're all playing with the same equipment, really, what's all that shocking? Anyway, jjimjilbangs are popular family outing destinations here in Korea and so of course in the spa area there were a couple of 8-9 year old boys. In typical little boy fashion, they were more interested in jumping into the cold water than sitting still and relaxing like most of the men who were there. After I had boiled in the hottest pool, I went into the coldest pool to chill and the two boys were splashing around in there. They ask me where I'm from and I tell them and I saw their father looking over their way but since I'm used to humoring kids all day, it was no problem. I smiled at them, they smiled at me. That was about it. If I knew more Korean, maybe I'd have said a bit to the other men, but I don't know much. Anyway, that's all I spoke while I was in the bathhouse.

However, after I'd cooked a while and decided that was enough, I left. They have an area where they have a few hairdryers and toiletries where one can get back to normal a bit. The towels are small. I've found this in Korea. If in a catered location, the towels I've been given have been more like hand towels in the west. I guess just different strokes for different folks. I didn't actually need a second towel but what can I say, I still like a typically western towel. So after drying off and putting my clothes on there was a baseball game on, so I watched a bit. I got to see my man Hee Seop Choi, who used to play for the Dodgers and who has very successfully resumed his playing career back here in Korea, drive in a run against the NEXEN Heroes. I don't know if they have a sleeping area at this jjimjilbang but it was a very relaxing experience all the same. I've slept at a jjimjilbang before. The floors are heated by Ondol and one lays on a mat on the floor. It's a nice, relaxing environment in which to sleep. I can't believe it was all only about $6. Anyway, any wayguks reading this, I really recommend the jjimjilbangs.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

second day of school

First day of teaching is over here. It’s a little early to make any broad generalizations, but after first couple days, I can say:

  • Teaching kids at a much lower English level. They’re all excitable and of course they’re amazed that I’m tall and have hazel eyes, but they can’t say much more in English than “Hi teacher” or “Nice to meet you.” That said, teaching seems really nice. I think I’m going to enjoy it. My co-teacher has a lot of experience and seems really nice. I think I’m gonna like it here. That said, I could see the Devil outside my door and think, well, “I think I could take him."

  • You knew it was gonna come back to food with me; the kids eat in their homerooms here, with their teachers. Lunch food is good and very cheap. Today we had a chicken stew, kimchi, strawberries, rice, all for under $2. Yesterday rice, kimchi, apples, seaweed, some meat. I love Rialto but I don’t miss dried food that is made of who knows what. Fresh ingredients is where it’s at.

  • Kids are very polite here. I’m sure part of that is a cultural difference or the fact that it’s early days yet. I imagine the kids will be better behaved than my gangstas with hearts of gold in Rialto, but I guess we'll see. There's something to be said for ignorance. It's good not to know what people are saying about you because perhaps you wouldn't like what they were saying anyway.

  • I really wish I could speak more Korean. This year there are of course fewer native English speakers with me so I will have to do even more listening. It's frustrating to hear conversations that sound like a lot of fun and everyone else is getting into....and I sit there grinning like a doofus. It’s only two days of school so far so I’m sure I’ll get to know some of my co-workers better anyway, but it's frustrating. And if I practice, I’m sure I can learn Korean. And if I don't, as Led Zep says, it's "Nobody’s Fault But Mine." I like that-it puts me the responsibility on to me.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Korean student names

Our kids typically choose English names, I guess to make it easier for us foreign teachers. Most of the names are fairly straight-forward - in fact, if I never hear the name Sally and/or Brian again, it'll be too soon. It reminds me of how there were five boys out of 35 students in my class back in N. Ireland named Andrew. Anyway, there are also quite a few Jennies and Kevins but we also have some more unusual "names". I don't find them bad, mostly just amusing.

It's also quite amusing how often kids want to "change" their names. Just recently, in my class in which the kids are the youngest, one of my girls, an adorable little girl named Angela, tells me, "teacher, my name is Sellasia." Well, alright. She's smart enough and typically smart so I said OK. Another kid then wanted to change his name from Joy to Leo. This seemed alright so I agreed to it. However, then one of my boys, a very smart little boy named Harry, says, "teacher, I want to change my name to "?". I could sense that this discussion was taking a turn for chaos but I like the kids to be happy, they seem to learn better. So I told Harry, "TODAY you can be '?' Tomorrow, you are back to being 'Harry'. Tomorrow I am not calling you '?' or '.' or 'Lion' or 'Pencil' or anything else of the sort." He seemed amenable to that but one of his buddies, Jerry, in the meantime, says, "Teacher, can I be'!'?" I commit to the same deal with him, emphasizing that this is a one-time only offer. So for the next hour or so, I was asking questions of '?' and '!' The kids didn't even think it was funny after a while. I thought it was funny and had to stifle my laughs a few times as I thought about how 20 years of education had prepared me to address little kids as '?' and '!' Sellasia has remained Sellasia and is still adorable and Leo remains Leo.

I have met some kids with very unusual names. Some I think stem from the interests of their parents, some, perhaps, from knowing too much Konglish and not enough English, and some, well, I guess when you're devising not legal names, you can call yourself what you want. Anyway, how strange is "Hoony" when there are people out there called Peaches Geldof and Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence? So, here are the top ten (in no particular order) goofiest names of kids I have.

10. One
9. Cabin-wondering if his parents wanted to go with Kevin but just were a little unclear on the spelling. Either way, it's a nice change from conventional names and he's very funny
8. McQueen-he did make some very entertaining movies
7. Puppy (also goes by Pink and Green Puppy, depending on what color his Crocs are that day). He also barks on occasion which adds a nice touch to his name. However we've tried to discourage him from using the prefix pink in order that he is not badgered too much when he gets to secondary school.
6. Jazz - I got nothin'
5. Edison - unusual, and inspired
4. Lion - I'm guessing this was his choice
3. Hoony - really, this one, unless his parents have an unusually strong love of honey, I have no idea about this one.
2. Serim - she's a sweet girl and this sounds like it could be a name, but it isn't.
1. Zeus - no pressure on this guy

Thursday, February 18, 2010

one year in....

I've been in Korea a year now. I arrived at my workplace around 4 p.m the day after and I was at work within about oh, three minutes after a brief tour of the facilities and cursory introductions to people who would be my co-workers for the next year. I knew that the education industry in Korea is so big and the company I work for is one of the larger educational company, that they'd put me to work probably quite quickly and I'd probably be working pretty hard. I had no problem with that and I still don't. Honestly, it's been a pretty good year. Yeah, some bad things, but many more good. I'm glad to have been able to significantly pay down some debts while being here which I hadn't been able to do in the States. I've met lots of cool people, many of them a lot younger than me, lol, and had lots of fun. I thought about staying with the company I've been with but decided against it and so I'll be moving to a public school job this coming year. If you want to see the school's website, here it is. Unless you speak Korean, it won't be of much use to you but...

Anyway, yeah, I miss the States (and Britain), but I don't see much of a choice given the money I owe. Really, life could be a whole lot worse out here.