Posts Tagged Korea

Extreme River Crossing

Early in the summer I went on an “extreme hiking” trip with a cool group of coworkers. Well, it was supposed to be extreme hiking. The only extreme thing about it was the extremely bad judgment of our tour guide, and the drinking later on that night.

After work on a muggy Friday night, eleven of us (all foreign teachers) take the KTX  to Busan. We arrive in Busan close to 1 am. The bus is leaving for the hiking expedition the next morning at 9 am, so we decide to try to find a place to stay near the bus station to play it safe.

Standing outside of the bus station weighing which direction might lead to suitable accommodations for the evening, an affable Korean guy approaches and is quick to make conversation. Many English-speaking Koreans have an English name. I have a Korean name that I almost never use. After answering five multiple-choice questions Facebook crowned me with the Korean name Lee Dong Yeol, meaning “eastern passion.”  I never truly appreciated the prevalence of the English language until actually going to another part of the world.  With that said, I prefer to learn someone’s real name, even if I butcher the pronunciation. Maybe they feel differently. At any rate, he is called Johnny.

Johnny is ostensibly inebriated, yet composed. He wants to help us find decent, affordable lodging because when he was studying abroad many Aussies helped him along the way. We go from one hotel to another as Johnny negotiates for the eleven of us. Things heat up when Johnny  is talking to the owner of a motel. Johnny feels we are getting a raw deal and expresses his discontent with the middle-aged owner. Eventually we find a place that costs $10 per person which Johnny is okay with. Our room doesn’t have any beds. It is a traditional room with floor mats, an AC and a bathroom –  its ten dollars. We go to a chicken & beer restaurant until 4 am.

In Korea I find many people to be helpful, especially the younger crowd. The most sound explanation is that they are more comfortable communicating, speaking English. Or, it may be more rooted in having a different worldview, being more open-minded than the older generation. I feel most older folks are either thrilled to see a mayonnaise face like myself or put off by it, without much middle ground.  Either way I usually have been able to find someone to aid me when needed.

We wake up at 8:30 and drag ourselves to the bus station. It is raining heavily. Four hours of sleep on the floor with a stomach full of beer has got me primed and ready to do this extreme hike. Woo! We take off at 9:15 – a bus load of foreigners and a Korean tour guide, Charles. Charles is thinly built with parted hair, glasses and a permanently wide grin.

Despite the rain everyone is in good spirits. Over a microphone Charles introduces himself and explains the itinerary. He then passes on the mic to the rest of us to introduce ourselves and say a quick something. My brain searches for something witty. Not many synapses firing. I say something lame about being happy that one of my coworkers made it on the trip. Instantly I regret not saying I was a recovering heroine addict or something along those lines. Oh well.  There will always be another time to pretend to be a junkie.

The time passes. When I look out the window I see one green mountain after another. Korea is about 70 % mountainous making the roughly 50 million inhabitants much more mind-blowing. It seems that any relatively flat land is either farmland or a city. The bus ride is filled with chatter and faint music coming from an array of headphones.  Sensing uneasiness about the heavy rain Charles takes the microphone: “Um as you see, it’s berry rainy… we have to cross riber … but I don’t know what it’s like … maybe it is berry strong … we will try. It’s kind cold so I think maybe we should drink soju now.” Soju is a popular clear liquor that is cheap as hell and will knock you on your ass before you know it. He passes the bottle around.

We finally arrive. It’s close to 1pm. The rain hasn’t let up, but it hasn’t deterred anyone’s spirits. We’re ready to do this hike, except for two girls. One says that she is staying on the bus because she is still recovering from a torn ACL, the other doesn’t want her to be alone. The rest of us get off the bus and we stand in the rain for 20 minutes. Then we go down a small walkway to the river. I envisioned hiking a few hours and trekking across a river at some point. I am wrong. The river is the first challenge. Due to all the rain the past two days the river is deep and flowing at a good pace. The ankle-deep water quickly swirls to waist-level and presumably eye-level for a little person. There are no little people on the trip. In fact, I didn’t see one little person the entire year I was in Korea. Something to think about…

The river was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to send soup back in a deli.

Charles asks for a volunteer to wade across the river first. Apparently, on a normal day, without torrential downpour, crossing the river is not a sizable challenge in any respect. The next day I would see a brochure of this spot on a clear summer day and it was filled with children and their families playing in the water.  Today there was nobody by the river … except for 40 foreigners, and Charles.

 “I’ll do it”, voiced a well-built product of Texas.

 I’m not sure if he had too much to drink, wanted to impress his girlfriend in attendance, or if he was normally this cocksure, but he started across. About five guys hold one end of a rope and the Texan carries the other end with him. The water climbs to his waist. Holding the rope he steps gingerly in order not to lose his balance. After about 10 long minutes the Texan makes it across unscathed. The rain continues to fall.

 The apprehension manifests itself now, written on faces of most in the group. Math has never come easy to me but I do a quick calculation in my head:  bus load of people + heavy rain + river crossing = NO FUCKING WAY.

 After working out the numbers in my head I turn around to find about 20 Koreans standing under umbrellas up on the side of the road watching what is going on down by the river like they are watching a band of monkeys at a zoo exhibition. Some point, some laugh, others look genuinely concerned.

 “This is not going to happen,” exclaimed a woman grasping the hand of another woman. “Where did Charles go?”

 I look around and I don’t see our tour guide.

 Next I hear police sirens, followed by a voice on a mega phone.

 He is speaking in Korean but you get the sense that they want us out of here.

 A Korean man comes down the bank speaking in Hangul. He says we have to go.  I said I understand and tried to explain in piecemeal Korean that our “leader” (I don’t know how to say tour guide in Hangul) has left.

  The bus that parked on the side of the road is no longer there.

“Did Charles leave on the bus?!” cried an Englishman with a cigarette tucked behind each ear.

A few people motion to the Texan that he has to cross back to where we are all standing on the other side of the river. Now the water is even higher and the current has gained strength. Without much deliberation he ties the rope around his waist and slowly descends into the agitated river.

The Texan labors to the midway point of the river and is then knocked off his feet. Everyone gasps – including the Korean spectators by the road. He starts drifting down with the current. More guys quickly take the rope to haul him before he is swept further down the river.  As I see this unfolding I run toward the rope and grab ahold of the rope with the others (you can call me a hero). Later the Texan would explain that every tug of the rope dragged his body and head under the water making it impossible to get a full breath of air. In little time, the Texan is pulled across. Upon reaching the dry rocks that border the river his girlfriend runs to where he lay gasping for air. Later that night when the rain finally took a  break we all went to  the beach that was close to the pension house where we stayed and we had a good laugh about the whole thing as the Texan showed off the severe rope burn across his torso.  

You’re probably wondering where Charles disappeared to. At some point during the Texan’s struggle to make it to shore he reappeared.  Apparently he was on a mission to get more rope so that we could all cross the river faster. Charles was not in the least fazed by the whole ordeal and actually had the idea to relocate and try to cross the river at a different spot before his idea was shot down by a crowd of uneasy, cold, wet foreigners.

We spent a lot of time on the bus that weekend navigating through the rain (it was monsoon season) but we did have some nice meals together, partied on the beach and went to a beautiful wind power plant on the way home. Overall it was a fun adventure, albeit a much different kind than what we had anticipated.

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Coming (back) to America

Recently, I came (back) to America after completing a one-year teaching arrangement in Daegu, South Korea. I had a great time in the peninsula known for its spicy food, loud diners, and myriad singing rooms. There are many stories I plan on sharing now that I have some free time (yeah, I’m unemployed).  I also spent a week in Japan, close to a month in India, and a whopping 18 hours in Egypt, so I will fill you in on some of those adventures as well.

My boy Chris and I paying homage to Buddha at Mt. Seoraksan National park in the northeast part of South Korea.

A lot has changed since I last had American soil under my feet:

My Grandpop got remarried to his former high school football coach’s daughter. Well played.

Revolutions have occurred and persist in the Arab world…

…Hell, even Americans have joined in with the Occupy Movements. If I don’t land a job in the next month I might join the party … if only for the free food.

I now practice yoga.

Osama bin Laden no longer haunts the American psyche.

The NBA is not in business (dejected sigh).

My bro moved to New York City.

Another friend tied the knot. Congratulations BD and Cynthia.

Harley, the family German shepherd, is now hobbling around due to pain in his hind quarters.  Eventually all of our biological clocks submit to the force of time. Poor guy.

And this is all just at the surface!

When I was in Korea I didn’t really get homesick at all except for the holidays. It was only the last month when the finish line was in sight did I really begin to yearn for chicken parmigiana. I thought about teaching for another year, not at the same hagwon (academy) but at a different school. I learned that work life can really improve after your first year of teaching because you know the lay of the land. You get a better idea of what academies are top drawer, what area is nicest and, of course, you are more comfortable with the culture.  Plus, you establish a social network of people. I met some great people during my time in Korea.  

Pretending to grade papers on my last day of work.

About a month before I left Korea, I had a meeting with the manager of the academy where I worked. His English name is Kenny. His user login name at work is Brad Pitt. What Kenny lacks in mental stability he makes up for in emotional immaturity. In the one year that I knew Kenny I think I accumulated enough material to write an entire book series based on all of his idiosyncrasies.

First day back from summer vacation Kenny and a female foreign teacher have an exchange.

“Hey, Kenny.”

“Hey, how was vacation?”

“It was brilliant.”

 [motioning to his face] “Did you get the plastic surgery?”
“Uhh, no.”

In the meeting, right off the bat, Kenny made it perfectly clear the reason why he wanted me to resign for another year.

“Daniel I can’t find a replacement for you.”

“Sorry to hear that, Kenny.”

“You know, I got to find a replacement because your leaving and [sucking his teeth] right now it’s not easy to find a teacher in a month.”

“Yeah, I can imagine.”

An uncomfortably long silence follows in which Kenny leans back in his chair and gazes at the ceiling.

“You’re not coming back to Korea, are you?”

“No. It’s not my plan.”

Another long uncomfortable silence ensues.

“So, what will you do?”

“I’m going to look for work in New York.”

“You know Daniel, I’m from New York.”

At every conceivable opportunity he slips in that he is from New York. Nobody is sure how many years he actually spent in NY because the number changes so frequently, but apparently he spent some time living in NYC. He is from South Korea.

“You’ve said that.”

“My dream is to go back and be a sushi chef (I have also heard this many times) …you know I understand American culture … I know Americans don’t like working hard.”

“That isn’t true.”

“You know, you’ve done a good job here.”

“Thanks.”

“So what do you think?”

“About what, extending my contract?”

“Yeah.”

“I told you, I’m going back to New York.”

This is more or less how the conversation ended. Even if I thought about extending my contract before the meeting the manner in which he asked me would have changed my mind.  Not surprisingly I was forced to make a threat that I was going to file a complaint with the labor board in order to get paid on time before I left.

After leaving Korea I spent almost a month in India. It was quite the experience. A real jolt to your senses.

I’ve been back in the US for two weeks now catching up with family and friends and getting re-acclimated with American culture. Being separated from the life that I knew really has allowed me to appreciate everything I have, especially my family.  Also, eating NY pizza again was a glorious moment.

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The Korean Wedding

I went to my first Korean wedding over 3 weeks ago.

When Mijin asked me if I wanted to join her for her friend’s wedding my response was an emphatic “obvi”.   During my stay, I have experienced many parts of Korean life and I figured this would be a good opportunity to bolster my cultural traditions resume. Plus, Mijin is good company. And, who doesn’t like a wedding? My favorite wedding moment came when my mom was getting remarried during the time when I had my first signs of armpit hair (an exciting time in my life). My brother Dave, who is one year older, was 16 then.  Dave isn’t a big dancer now, and was much less likely to bust a move during this pubescent stage. I forget what relative was feeding him drinks the whole night but before anyone could even do the chicken dance he was out on the dance floor grinding  with my mom’s boss’s daughter like they were at a club in Cancun. Great moment. She got grounded as a result. The next afternoon, I stood laughing outside of the bedroom door as he delivered an apology over the phone. I think I was bitter I didn’t get a dance.

The wedding was in Busan so we left Daegu on a rainy Sunday (it’s monsoon season) at 10 am. Mijin messages me that her friend will pick me up at a bank near my apartment before picking her up. I stood underneath the roof awning outside of the bank when I hear a beep from a black SUV. I run toward the car and jump in the back seat. Her friend knows very little English so we basically greet each other, exchange some words,  and  ride in silence until Mijin hops aboard. Goeun and I get to know each other as Mijin interprets. The roads are slick. We have several close calls with other cars on the road, resulting in Goeun proclaiming, “I am best driver!” I find solace in the green rice patties and rolling mountains.

We arrive at Paradise Hotel in Busan at 12:30, just in time for the start of the ceremony. Paradise Hotel is large, upscale hotel across the street from the beach. Mijin greets her friend, the bride who is sitting in a secluded room.  She looks very bride-like: white gown, hair did, the works.  The bride, who doesn’t speak English, is talking to her two long-time friends.   I look  on with a smile. The photographer motions for a photograph. I quickly move out-of-the-way when the photographer signals for me to join the picture. I refuse. She insists. I stand behind the three seated friends. Later Mijin shows me the picture that was taken with her IPhone. I look like a random guy photo-bombing the picture. I regret not giving the peace sign.

The wedding ceremony is in a spacious banquet hall. Because we don’t arrive early and the tables are not specifically designated for the guests, we have to stand along the back wall.   I survey the room, estimating about 250 people (Mijin later tells me about 400 people came and went). I am the only westerner. I don’t really feel out-of-place except that I’m wearing brown shoes with black pants. I was always told this is a cardinal sin in fashion, but Mijin assures me that it is in style now. Mijin’s outfit goes together seamlessly.

Apparently, the groom is loaded  (rich not drunk).

Up to this point, this wedding doesn’t look or feel any different from a large, upscale wedding in the States except that everyone is speaking Korean and it was a little earlier in the day. The groom walks down the aisle and the bride and her father make the stroll next.  A  man appearing in his early 30’s  with a microphone says some words that were probably much different from what I was imagining in my head unless he was indeed analyzing the looming NBA lockout. Mijin said he was giving something akin to a best man toast.  After that, an older guy (ajoshi) has some things to say. I’m not sure if he announced them husband and wife. Next, the microphone is given to a young guy seated at a table. He stands up and serenades the new couple with a song. I recognize some Korean words such as “love”, but my mind is on other things.

 I hope filet mignon is being served.

Luckily, some guests leave before lunch is doled out which means we get to sit down. Mijin and Goeun go to the stage to take part in some group photos. I watch with a glass of red wine and a bowl of mushroom soup. I am ecstatic to discover steak on the menu. Haven’t had much steak in Korea. Hard to come by.Later in the meal, the new married couple enter the room each wearing  traditional Korean garb.

They go around the room and greet each table in their flashy hanbeoks. Apparently, the couple had a short, private traditional Korean ceremony moments before. Mijin asked if I wanted to go see it. I asked if it would be more exciting than the steak and we stayed put.

At the end of the meal they served Korean wedding soup. It consisted of noodles and kimchi. Tasty.

I well understood beforehand that the wedding would only be for a couple of hours and that there would not be a long drawn out reception ceremony filled with dancing, drinks, and mingling, but as lunch was winding down  a melancholy feeling hit me. There will be no dancing. 

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Spring Fever

The power of beauty

At some point over the last several weeks the increasingly strong, warm spring air triumphed over the last remnants of the cold winter, giving my students something other than homework or my appearance to complain about : the humid weather. The complaints may go from annoying to intolerable as we make our way into the summer heat. I’ll keep you posted.  I welcome the high temperatures because I’m not much for wool socks, dry hands and chapped lips. Plus, the cherry blossoms are nice on the eyes, especially when the cherry trees are closely clustered together. Apparently, the Japanese introduced Korea to cherry blossom festivals during their rule over the peninsula.   While cherry blossom festivals are popular in Korea today, after Japan surrendered in WWII many cherry trees were destroyed because they reminded some of the Japanese occupation.  Whether most know the origins of the tradition or not, everyone I’ve spoken to in Daegu about cherry blossoms only  mention their beauty.

Admiring the cherry blossoms on a grey afternoon.

Rebirth of the perfectionist

I’m taking a painting class in Lotte Department store with a Korean friend Mijin. You might be wondering why I am taking an art class in a department store, something I’ve asked myself. Lotte is like Macy’s on steroids,  featuring a nice food court and grocery store and offering all kinds of classes, like dance, piano, yoga, etc.  The class meets every Sunday. I find myself looking forward to going every week even though it has triggered some of my obsessive, self-critical qualities.  As a kid I had a knack for drawing and I would spend hours on a single sketch, trying to make every line, every mark perfect. Typically, it would end in me throwing away my work out of frustration. I have made it over a month without  snapping a single paint brush, tearing apart a canvass, or unleashing any real emotional outbursts. Can you say growth? Though sometimes it feels like the instructor and I are speaking two totally different languages (hint: we are). According to Mijin,  my defacto interpreter, the teacher has concern that I am devoting  too much attention and detail to the background. I think she applies to much makeup to her eyebrows. Mijin deserves an award for being the  middle(wo)man and bearing the brunt of my neuroticism.

Progress Report

With six months of experience living in Korean under my belt my perspective of the country is starting to take form, rounding like an inflating beach ball. I am proud to say that the unfamiliarity and separation from my culture  and traditions  has not led to me becoming a xenophobe. Contrarily,  the wider the difference, only the more interesting.  I’ve compiled a list of my  favorite and least favorite  things about Korea (so far).  In my opinion, the pros substantially outweigh the cons.

Pros

1.  Friendly people – most people I meet are  nice and welcoming. Unfortunately the men  are much quicker to strike up conversation with me than the women, which usually entails them saying something like, “Hi! You’re handsome! Where are you from?” Whatever confidence I collect from these kinds of exchanges evaporates when my students begin critiquing every asymmetry on my face.

2. Mountainous region – no shortage of beautiful mountains

3. BBQ restaurants – they supply you with a plate full of raw meat, as well as an array of side dishes, and you cook the meat on a grill at your table.

4. Noraebangs – karaoke room with friends are everywhere. Apparently some places offer “service” something that is missing from my Korean experience.

5.  Public transport – the subway and bus systems are top-notch and don’t get me started on the high-speed rail system … the KTX, which spans the entire country from top to bottom goes up to 190 mph (305 kmh). Enough said.

6. Women – I was never a guy with an  ‘Asian  fetish’ per se (like my good friend Mike professed that he had back  in 7th grade), but with every  day that I am here I am finding Korean women increasingly more attractive.

Cons

1. Lack of cheese

2. Lack of public garbage cans

3. Lack of respect for personal space-I’ve become accustomed to getting bumped, skipped, and on one occasion, massaged.

In the news

I don’t know what was more shocking Osama bin Laden’s death or the Lakers getting swept.

Prediction

Miami Heat win NBA title

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Tempus fugit

Time flies.

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.

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Pepero Day

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.

Work Schedule

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.

The Banker

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?

Pick-Up Soccer

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?

First Date

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.

Pepero Day

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):

  • Gandhi
  • Obama
  • Kim Jung Un (Kim Jung Il’s fat son)
  • monkey
  • 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
  • Baldy
  • Thank you
  • SK
  • 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.


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Old Spice not nice?

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].

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