A few weeks ago a new foreign teacher arrived in Daegu. At our hagwon and from what I understand at every other school, all foreign English teaching positions are for one year. As every teacher has a different start date it is a revolving door of teachers coming and going throughout the year. The new teacher essentially replaced a guy who fulfilled his one-year and is now back home in Hawaii. I’m not jealous or anything…really.
Five out of the six foreign teachers on my floor (elementary) will be leaving in May so there will be a major change in the landscape of the office during that time. I was excited to meet the new teacher because he will be here for the duration of my stay. Right now there are 11 foreign teachers in all at our school and not one female. At our last meeting our manager promised us this would change even using this as a bargaining chip to convince some of the teachers to resign for another year:
“I know some of you have to go, but some of you should think about resign. You know, I can help with international girls. Now that I’m here we will be bringing in more women teachers. That’s part of being happy with a good vive (vibe), you know.”
Even though the latest arrival is not a chic it was still nice to meet someone new. Before he came, at our daily FT (foreign teacher) meeting we crowned him with the moniker “Colonel”. This was not an arbitrary decision. You see, his name is Kevin, but we already have a Kevin. The new Kevin if from Canada-> Kevin From Canada->KFC->Colonel.
I like the Colonel. He is easy-going, friendly and up-beat. His arrival triggered some memories of my first few days here in Korea, like my inability to read anything at all on a restaurant menu, getting lost on a run through the city, and I will never forget the morning after trying soju for the first time. The Colonel had a rough time during his first trip downtown. You easily could have mistaken him for Bernie from Weekend at Bernie’s shortly after he got his first taste of drink in a bag.
This Friday a girl from Texas will touchdown in Daegu. There is mild concern among a few that we may have to tone down the “guy talk” that has become so customary when we go for lunch or dinner. I will be sure to filter what comes out of my mouth her first few days, properly gauge the desired level of appropriateness and then go from there. I get the sense that everyone is looking forward to the new dynamic that will result from adding a female to the mix. Hopefully she grew up in a household with a lot of guys.
Our manager explained that she is attractive and that it why he hired her, pointedly assuring us that appearance is the top criterion in the hiring process.
“Guys I look at everything… beauty is important… I’m talkin’ height … weight… body type … all of that stuff.”
Side note: I am still reeling after my favorite basketball player (Deron Williams) was traded away from my favorite team (Utah Jazz) to the lowly New Jersey Nets last week, but I am starting to come around. I tried to vent my frustration, confusion, and uncertainty about the situation to my students but they didn’t seem concerned or the least bit interested. How NBA player movement is not on these young Korean kids’ minds is beyond me. You should have seen their eyes roll when I began discussing the stagnant collective bargaining negotiations.
Side, side note: I spent a good part of today watching Charlie Sheen’s new interview on 20/20, perusing other random Youtube footage of Charlie talking about how “epic” his lifestyle is, and then reading articles surrounding his career and life. When asked whether he thought that it was possible that he might be bipolar Sheen quickly responded, “I’m bi-winning… I win here, I win there.” I highly recommend you take a few minutes out of your day to watch his interview on Youtube. Epic stuff.
Anyone with some life experience under their belt knows that time seems to speed up as we add more chapters to our narrative. Activity can wash away time like a wave swallowing up a footprint in the sand. Tonight, as I visit my blog, which of late has been more rare than a nun visiting your boss’s favorite porn site, it suddenly hit me, I have now been living in Korea for over 4 months.
Upon arriving to Korea, I told myself I would regularly blog about my experiences and adventures. I honored this pact for the first two months. Then I stopped. Why? Is that really any of your business? The important thing in all of this is that I am rededicating myself to blogging on a more consistent basis. I really mean it this time.
Some things worth mentioning from the past two months:
- Daegu winters are cold. Apparently the spring and fall seasons are both very short and the summer is long and soupy hot.
- The only coat I brought with me to Korea was stolen from a booth at a club when I was building a fan base on the dance floor.
- I celebrated Thanksgiving with a large group of coworkers and other miscellaneous people. We ordered two birds from a western style restaurant and everyone added some type of side dish, drink, or dessert to the feast. Before dinner, while perusing E Mart (think slightly classier Wal-Mart) to decide what to bring, my friend Chris and I decide that a king crab would be the perfect complement to the meal. We thought it was 7,000 won. It was 70,000 won (roughly $65). Our outrage dissipated once we started cracking and eating. The host of the party was not happy that the smell of the giant crab masked the aroma of the turkey.
- Christmas eve landed on a Friday, which meant that we had to work (Christmas is not huge in Korea like it is in the western part of the world). For most of the day, I actually forgot it was the eve of Christmas until I got a nice card from one of my students. She said she loved me. I told her that she was moving too fast. After classes finished up while we were all in the office inputting homework and attendance into our computers our boss surprised us with a cake. He designated me to cut the cake. I don’t particularly like cutting cake, but I don’t particularly dislike it either. He told me I had to select a woman from the office to cut the cake with. He said to “choose wisely”. I hesitated for a bit and finally settled on a Korean teacher that I am friendly with. My boss said that I couldn’t choose her because she is married. I could sense where this was going – I wanted to defuse the situation but unfortunately the comments grew more racy, laced heavily with sexual innuendo: “Who do you want to spend the night with?” To add fuel to the fire my foreign counterparts began to chime in with “Ohhhh” and “Who’s it gonna’ be!?” According to some, my face transformed into the color of a ripened tomato. I finally settled on a quiet teacher new to the school. The cake was decent. And, no, we didn’t spend the night together.
- Leading up to Christmas I was not feeling well. On Christmas day I felt like I had been beaten by two dozen of Santa’s more sinister elves armed with mallets. I slept almost the entire day only waking up at 6pm to head to a nice buffet at a hotel in downtown Daegu called Novatel with some friends.
- January 1 – New Years Resolution: get in Bruce Lee shape and learn Hangul.
- For the entire month of January our school, a private English academy, offered its students more classes. They call it “intensives”, I call it “doubling your class load”. Normally throughout the year we work from 2 pm-10 pm, but for this special month during “intensives” our schedule changed from 8 am – 7:30 pm. Talk about taking your circadian rhythm for a ride.
- I have been taking very informal Hangul lessons with a Korean friend. She rocks.
- One positive borne out of “intensives” was that for January I was back on a more traditional schedule for most working humans. This allowed me to frequent the fitness center after work at 8pm. I am not a morning person, as anybody who has lived with me can attest, so I prefer to workout later in the day. I discovered by way of a coworker that a yoga class is offered for gym members at 8:30pm Monday-Friday. I always wanted to give yoga a go so I found this the perfect opportunity to dabble. I really took a liking to the class (and the instructor) so I began going everyday. I am not flexible by any stretch of the imagination, but I made notable improvement. One major challenge was that the instructor conducted the class exclusively in Korean which required me to look at the person next to me for cues of when to change position. I ensured the amicable, toned girl next to me that I was gawking out of necessity. She said, “sure” in a sarcastic tone with a smile. After one week I managed to do a headstand without any wall support. Everyone clapped and cheered in my mind, in reality it was a rather low-key moment after a Monday class. Now that we are back to our regular work schedule I can no longer attend yoga class. There goes serenity.
- I am enjoying the teaching aspect of my life here. In mid December I took on the role of “senior teacher”, whatever that means.
- For the Chinese Lunar New Year (February 2) I went to Seoul with my boy Nicuation. Due to the cold weather and a penchant for partying our visit lacked the requisite sightseeing that you might do your first time in a new city. We did manage to squeeze in a trip to the 63 Building. The view at the top provided a panoramic picture of the city and the aquarium on the first floor was worth visiting. We went to a popular traditional market called Insadong which consisted of rows and rows of small shops that featured artwork, souvenirs, Korean garb, among other things. I came very close to buying a hanbok. A hanbok, which literally means “Korean clothing” is the traditional Korean dress worn at festivals and celebrations. I guess they are not very popular with the younger crowd. At one shop, I was able to bargain in Hangul to get the price down (they can get very expensive, like a suit), but this hanbok was not flashy enough for my taste. I am still searching for the perfect hanbok.
That is the last two months condensed into a small easily consumed package. Obviously there is a lot missing, but sometimes the most important thing is what you omit.
While Daniel was mid flight heading to South Korea from the U.S. he jotted down some thoughts in a moleskin notebook. An unedited excerpt follows:
A nice-figured, tanned, dark-haired flight attendant, Margarita, asks the passengers to please sit toward the front of the jet plane because there is a light load (too few people) and apparently this is good for aircraft’s balance. I happily comply.
Flying out of Syracuse I am catching a connecting flight in Chicago. From the Windy City it’s off to the Korean peninsula. Peninsulas are like islands that aren’t as independent is how I remembered what a peninsula was in Geography class back when my greatest concern in life was how well I performed in physical education.
While we are taking off, my hands instinctively grip the arm rests and my stomach performs somersaults as we ascend toward the clouds. I look around and all the passengers are all at ease either sleeping, reading, or chatting with their neighbor. I am relieved that I don’t have a neighbor. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some enjoyable experiences while sitting next to people and I like being in the company of others, but I often find myself in a situation …
Margarita just offered me a beverage. I asked for a chocolate milk. She smiled and said she was sorry but they didn’t have chocolate milk. I acted very disappointed. She acted very sorry. After a failed flirting attempt I ended up with a Coke. I think she’s into me?
I often find myself in a situation where I am squeezed next to an individual with real girth. The seat next to me must look like a vat of rich, creamy ice cream because the obese are constantly plopping down next to me. Let me be clear, I am no weightist. I like all people, but I also like some personal space and so do my balls and they don’t get any when my legs are zip-locked together. In some instances you also have to deal with panting.
Once, I had a very nerve-racking experience on a train ride, and the weight of my neighbor had nothing to do with it.
I am around 13 years of age and I am heading down to NYC with my brother to visit family. While I’m thirteen I probably look more like I’m ten. Dave and I did everything together: sports, lemonade stands, joint investments in candy, neighborhood adventures, you name it. We also fought. We get into an argument, and subsequently he went from the seat next to me to the seat across the aisle. I pridefully pretend that I’m pleased with this new arrangement. Dave knew about my bad luck on the train and he reveled in my uneasiness.
I am listening to my cd Walkman (Busta Rhymes?) when a very imposing, tattooed guy (think Ving Rhames) with a scowl sits next to me. I curse Dave under my breath. After about a half hour I doze off with my head against the window. I wake up to my new neighbor nudging my head with his bicep. Apparently while in my slumber, my head moved from the window to this guy’s shoulder. When I wake up and realize what is going on, I jerk my head back and as this is happening I spot in my peripheral vision a string of drool connecting his shoulder with my lip. I quickly karate chop the curiously strong string of drool with my right hand and apologize profusely. He does not say one word, the fury in his eyes say it all. I notice some remnants of saliva on his shirt so I attempt to wipe it off, but he does not seem to appreciate this gesture and offers me a look of death. I apologize, again. Then I curse out Dave under my breath, again. For the rest of the trip I manage to stay awake without an ounce of difficulty.
Now I am at liberty to drool with no serious repercussions (although I wouldn’t want Margarita to see such things) and arrange my legs to optimum comfort.
Today Mr. Choi, a teacher from Avalon, stopped by my place to see if he could get my refrigerator, which has been out of order for three weeks, to work. Mr. Choi is an extremely nice middle-aged guy (even for middle-aged guy standards) who likes to talk about sharks and other random topics. He speaks relatively good English and you can usually find him in a flannel shirt and black pants. Recently, Mr. Choi has assumed the responsibility of taking care of the paper work and housing arrangements for new foreign teachers after the last guy, Robin went AWOL. A few days ago Mr. Choi proudly handed me my alien registration card. Today he came by place to resolve this lingering issue.
Mr. Choi confirmed what I had voiced concern over for three weeks ago, “Daniel your refrigerator is not working”, then set up a time for a repair man to stop by and fix it. I thanked Mr. Choi and as he was leaving offered him a delicious, crisp apple. Mr. Choi laughed, gladly accepted and offered a slight bow. He then explained that he needed a signature from my neighbor and fellow Avalonist (this is how the big wigs at Avalon refer to the employees). Fresh out of bed Chris lethargically answered the door. While they were going over the paperwork, I went into Chris’s refrigerator (where I have been storing perishable items) retrieved my milk and went back into my room to enjoy a few bowls of Special K.
As I munched on some cereal I could overhear Mr. Choi profusely apologizing to Chris for waking him up. A few minutes passed when Mr. Choi peeked his head in my room and said good-bye. I went across the hall to talk to Chris.
“Ha, Mr. Choi gave me this apple.”
“What! I just gave him that apple!”
“Ha ha really? He left it on my desk and asked if I wanted it.”
“Did he mention that I just gave it to him 5 minutes ago?”
“Na, he just offered it.”
As I started to express my unhappiness with the whole situation Chris sank his teeth into the perfectly ripe piece of fruit.
One, you don’t regift.
Two, if you do regift you give the original giver his or her due credit.
Is Mr. Choi the Korean Tim Whatley?
I thought maybe Mr. Choi felt so terrible about waking Chris that he felt obliged to offer the apple, in which case I could cut him slack based on his intent. But! As it turns out, this is not Mr. Choi’s first time regifting. The head teacher at my school approached me while I was replaying the incident in my head. He said that he heard about the apple episode. He explained that a short time ago he asked Mr. Choi if he would like a hot chocolate in which Mr. Choi replied unequivocally, “yes”. I’m sure you can figure out the rest of this tale -which would only be funny if it wasn’t true. Mr. Choi passed off the hot chocolate to one of his students (not even another teacher!) with no credit going to the head teacher.
There is only one way to handle a compulsive regifter: give them a gift that is so useless that no one else would even accept it. Luckily, I have a carton of expired milk sitting in my tepid refrigerator.
p.s. Mr. Choi is still the man.
This morning I awoke at 7 am. My eyelids conceded around 3 am with a Richard Dawkins book in my hands. With only four hours of sleep I should have been tired, but I wasn’t. Conversely, I was rather energized and anxious to start my day like I had already been on my third cup of coffee.
Inspired, I sprung out of bed, turned on Nas, and did some stretching exercises for a good twenty. Subsequently, I studied Hangul for close to an hour and then headed to an eatery aptly referred to as Orange because – you guessed it – it’s Orange. A trip to the gym followed. Did Deron Williams’ recent game-winner impel me to accomplish more? Eager to be productive, I felt fresh, vibrant, and sharp. Perhaps more importantly, I felt grateful for all that I have. I was reminded of an expression my father uses when he is particularly excited about something: “It’s a good-to-be-alive day”. Every breath felt wonderful.
We all have this flame inside of us. Instead of waiting for urgency to make a visit the onus is on us to stoke the flame and compel it to grow.
Blue Team vs. White Team
A week and a half ago, Avalon Academy hosted a sports competition day in which all the Korean and foreign English teachers from all three of the Daegu campuses came together on a Sunday. We were split into two teams, competed and had some fun. Prizes were given out and the MVP took home a laptop computer. Needless to say, I wanted the laptop. As we know, history is narrated by the winning side so instead of giving you an account of the day you can read the story in the words of Chris Justice.
Since my last post a lot has happened. The past two weeks have been a heaping plate of interesting with a side of mundane and a hint of nostalgia. Despite what some Daegu inhabitants will tell you I am becoming much more competent at the business of living in Korea.
Until late, updating this blog was not a chore, I actually looked forward to it. Now that I am more acquainted with the area and my coworkers, my free time has become filled with studying Hangul, going out/playing soccer, and trying to get an adequate dose of American sports, especially the NBA. Speaking of which after a slow start the Utah Jazz are really starting to come together. Back-to-back come from behind victories in Miami and Orlando? I’ll take it. Especially when Paul Milsap, a player known for his blue-collar work ethic and rebounding tenacity puts up 46 against the Big Three and their suffocating defense.
My work hours are by no means traditional: Monday-Friday 2pm- 10pm. I dig the hours, but a few late nights turn into sleeping past noon which translates into not having enough time to really do anything other than eat, read the paper, and shower before teaching a full day. I have done a decent – but not impeccable – job of avoiding this seductive pattern. Strangely, we (teachers) are required to be in to work by 2pm, we have class preparation for half an hour and then from 2:30 – 3:30 pm we stuff our faces at lunch; at 3:30 pm we are back in the office for class prep and by 4 pm we are teaching our first class. Curious, I asked my coworkers on my second day why they don’t just have us come in at 3 pm and have class prep for an hour and eliminate the lunch hour altogether. They all said they wondered the same thing. It’s not that I terribly mind this schedule, but it feels off-kilter taking an hour break after only being there for 30 minutes- I liken it to pulling over to eat after driving only half an hour on a 7 hour car ride.
Last week I went to Daegu Bank, a one minute walk from my apartment if I have blisters on my feet from wearing running sneakers to play soccer and a thirty second stroll if I am at top fitness, to transfer money from my Korean bank account into my U.S. account. I recognized the gregarious gentleman who opened up my account about a month ago and sat down. During our first meeting he talked at length about his favorite American television dramas, like CSI and Law & Order, and before leaving he printed me out a map of the area and circled a few restaurants that he highly recommended (I went to one of them later that day and enjoyed my first bowl of kal-guk-su, one of my favorite dishes). He said he was happy to see me again and I said likewise. I practiced some Hangul phrases and expressions with him and he became very giddy. He proudly demonstrated that he got alerts of U.S. news stories in English on his I-Phone and then he showed me several framed pictures of his wife and kids that were displayed on his desk. His English is not great but he can maintain a conversation and is able understand what I say if I slow down my pace. After I exchanged some won into dollars he told me to wait one moment. When he came back he handed me a box of Korean brand toothpaste. I asked if he was trying to give me a hint. He smiled without picking up on my insinuation and said he is happy to talk to me and would like to know me better and asked if I drank maekchu. I said only when forced and offered a wry smile. Song Choel gave me his business card and highlighted his mobile number. I walked out thinking what a genuinely nice guy, why don’t Korean ladies give up their number this easily?
Every Thursday after work a group of us rent out this outdoor turf field that is fenced in by massive netting and scrimmage from 11 pm until they tell us our time is up which is usually around 12:30 am. It’s great fun. I was never adroit with the ball but having been removed from the game for so many years the first few times playing was a little rough. “The touch of a rapist” is how an Englishman I work with described it. My conditioning is fine and I am more than able to keep up but beyond making a simple pass and playing solid defense I was not very serviceable. It did not help that I was playing in cross-trainers while everyone else had on cleats or turf boots. Fed up with being one of the last picked every week I made a trip to Homeplus, a Wal-Martesque place and invested in a pair of Diadora indoor soccer boots for 30,000 won, the equivalent of roughly $25. Granted they are not the highest quality, I felt like a new player during my first outing with them on. Who says shoes don’t matter?
I had my first official date here in Korea a few weeks back. It went alright but there were no real fireworks. The highlight of the night was probably the makgeolli, which is a cloudy, milky-white wine made from rice; it’s dirt cheap and usually sold by the pot but at this place it was in bottles.
November 11 is Pepero Day in South Korea. This monumental day celebrates a thin chocolate cookie stick. 11-11 represents a pack of these tasty chocolate sticks. Get it? 1111! People hand out these treats to people they like. According to my students, a guy is supposed to give them to a girl he is into. I guess it is a lot like Valentines Day. Apparently they don’t have antitrust laws for this unofficial holiday because Pepero clearly has a monopoly on the day. I thought this whole thing silly until the nice-looking girl at the café who I often talk to gave me a pack of Pepero cookie sticks. Now I am smitten by her.
Within the past week my students have said I look like the following mammals (usually intended as an insult):
- Kim Jung Un (Kim Jung Il’s fat son)
- Bill Gates
I am convinced that they utter any non-Korean person that they know. As for the monkey reference, well, what can I say?
Last week I organized the students in some of my classes into teams for a trivia competition. Here are some of the team names that they chose:
- Daniel’s face is in danger
- Windows 7
- Thank you
- Jazz (my suggestion)
- Kimchi now!
- Daniel is under attack
- Harry Potter in big cast
‘Daniel is under attack’ was stacked with some of the brightest students, winning in a route, forcing me to give them a stamp in their workbooks.
It seems like everyday I am here in Daegu, Korea I learn something new about the culture. Yesterday, late afternoon while teaching one of my lower level classes I ascertained, quite emphatically, that Koreans do not wear deodorant. This discovery was not made by detecting a pungent odor, but rather through the unambiguous suffering of my students.
Early in the class, I noticed something very strange. Pizza Pan (this is the English name he chose) a normally outspoken, disruptive student was curiously subdued. Normally, he finds it difficult to resist chatting with others, yelling out random things about killing and death, and staying in his seat. On this day he was in noticeable discomfort. Later on I noticed a few students covering their noses as I walked by. Some appeared gasping for fresh air. I thought perhaps one of their peers was breaking wind or someone was emitting unsavory body odor. Then suddenly, as I leaned closer to field a question for a student, Pizza Pan burst out:
“Teacha you not smell good!”
Perplexed, I made a mental checklist in my head:
Showered today – check
Clean clothes – check
brand new deodorant – check
body spray – check
Laughing, I tried to explain that I practiced good hygiene and even attempted to explain the concept of deodorant and that I was in fact wearing Old Spice High Endurance.
“Too much teacha, too much!”
The rest of the class moaned in agony and I stood there hands on hips trying to justify myself.
I smelled myself and assured Pizza Pan and the rest that I smelled fresh. But, the more I wasted my breath explaining the more they objected and the more I laughed. At one point I even tried to convince some students to get a whiff of my pits and they scattered like exposed frightened sea crabs. Eventually, I conceded and opened the windows and the door to circulate the room with fresh air. After class I walked to the teacher’s office in defeat and explained to a coworker what happened and he said that he had a similar experience one time from wearing after shave. I still needed further reassurance so I asked a Korean teacher if people here used deodorant. She laughed and said it was very uncommon.
I guess from now on I will put the deodorant and body spray on the shelf and only use it during times I am not teaching. We’ll see if my natural body odor is less offensive to my students than long-lasting odor protection. In American culture, people are so accustomed to smelling body fragrances that when you don’t wear anything at all you run the risk of turning people off. Here, artificial scents are apparently less desirable. Either that or I just need a better smelling deodorant.
If nothing else, this bit of insight will come in handy for disciplinary purposes the next time Pizza Pan gets too far out of line – if he thought a few layers spread on my arm pit was too much to handle imagine how he will feel with the entire stick of deodorant pressed close to his nose [evil laugh].