Posts Tagged United States

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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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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Plenty of mirrors, not enough cabbage

Gimchi, a very common side dish in Korea

Kimchi

Kimchi Crisis

Kimchi is an extremely popular traditional Korean dish. This spicy fermented cabbage is ubiquitous throughout Korea and is basically served with every meal. To say that Koreans love kimchi would be an understatement.

When you dine at any type of eatery they will bring you kimchi before you get your food and they will also make sure there is enough on the table to compliment your meal. I have really taken a liking to kimchi and I think it is best with a mouthful of beef. People are in a kind of panic here because a very rainy September ruined much of the Chinese cabbage crop that is exported to Korea.

I cannot really think of America’s equivalent of kimchi. I read an article that said kimchi for Koreans is like pasta for Italians, people cannot go without it (or how about potatoes for the Irish) . The price of kimchi has gone up so much that some restaurants are becoming much more frugal with their kimchi and the people here are referring to it as gold. The city government of Seoul recently initiated a kimchi bailout program. Seriously. In the US, the government bailed out failing banks, here in Korea the government is rescuing cabbage consumers. Apparently the government is shouldering 30% of the cost of roughly 300,000 heads of cabbage it has purchased,  making it more affordable for consumers.

No pot to piss in

For those of you who have not been to Korea before and are coming I would like to offer you a valuable piece of advice. Before you leave your house pretend like you are going on a long road trip in a car. In other words, make sure you relieve yourself before heading out, because it’s likely to be difficult to find a bathroom. Decent restaurants typically have restrooms but you have to dine  to use their toilet. Most small family run eateries do not have accessible bathrooms nor do convenience stores and the like.  I have been here for three weeks so I do know of a place or two that I can go to in case of a dire situation, but the scarcity takes some getting used to; my body is becoming conditioned and quite adept at operating at a high level with a bladder that is on full.

Another thing … when you actually do find a restroom there’s an excellent possibility that it is a mixed gender bathroom. It would have been nice if someone told me this before I nearly pissed all over myself at a urinal when a girl walked passed me and into the stall behind me. At that moment I was utterly confused: Am I in the women’s bathroom? If I am in the women’s bathroom why are there urinals? Maybe she is in the wrong bathroom. Did she see my package? Did she look impressed? Why does it sound like she is dumping a bucket of water into the toilet? I alerted a coworker when I got back to our table and he explained to me that it is not uncommon. I can deal, but a warning would have been nice.

Sans trash cans

Whereas public restrooms are a challenge to find in Daegu, trash cans are impossible. I’m not sure if this is the case in other cities, but in Daegu there are no public trash cans outside, anywhere. I have come across one since I have been here and it brought me so much joy that I went into a corner store and bought a candy bar just so I could use the garbage can by throwing away the wrapper, and because I like chocolate. Remarkably the streets are relatively well-kept and for the most part free of debris and litter.

Vanity

What Daegu lacks in trash cans and restrooms they make up for in mirrors. There are mirrors everywhere. I am used to seeing mirrors in many places in America  so it is not foreign to me, but I’m not used to having the opportunity to look at my self so frequently. I often see women standing in front of mirrors fixing their hair, reapplying makeup, or just staring. Nietzsche wrote that “vanity is the fear of appearing original” and this seems to be a perfect explanation for Daegu’s abundance of mirrors where people can make sure they fall in line with the rest. People here tend to value collectivism more than individuality and self-differentiation. You see a lot of the same hairstyles and people wear the same kinds of clothes because being different is not something that too many strive for – although this seems to be less the case in the younger generation where personal self-expression is manifested more often. What does this mean for me? I find myself singing Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror more than ever before.

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Kim Jung Il?

I am trying to get a feel for if it would be in bad taste to be Kim Jung Il for Halloween. When I mention it to my Korean coworkers they laugh and my students love the idea. I scoured the internet for a sweet mask, but I haven’t really found one. The costumes I came across include a wig, glasses, and a green jump suit – I would need to find some elevated black shoes. Here is a guy who claimed to get 11  hole-in-ones his first time golfing. I like having fun, but I don’t want to offend someone too badly and end up triggering an international incident. I need time to reflect …

I could pull this look off.

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A Tragicomedy

This weekend I made it to the night scene in downtown Daegu for the first time. The section that we went to is the most popular spot for bars, clubs and norabangs. The streets were littered with young people conversing, drinking, walking, all pursuing a good time. Taking in everything with fresh eyes made the experience exciting and the time evaporated like a shallow puddle  under a blistering sun.

Almost all of my coworkers went to Seoul for the Global Gathering concert. I stayed behind because as I am getting settled here in Korea I am without extra won to spare on a weekend trip to the capital, and I don’t get paid until the end of the month. I wanted very much to make the two hour  KTX train ride to Seoul, especially since my boy  from NY, Nicuation was going and we could have united forces. It is about a 4 hour car ride to Seoul from Daegu but apparently the KTX travels at a very high pace. Two coworkers, Taco and Meat Sauce, also stayed behind so we went out together. Meat Sauce has been in Daegu since January so he acted as a guide  for the new arrivals (Taco arrived about a week before me).  After too much soju and whiskey Meat Sauce’s sense of direction was deeply compromised, but we still managed to hit up some good spots and on Friday we met up with some Korean teachers at our school. One of the girls had an amazing singing voice. I was impressed.

Before I came to South Korea all of my research signaled that Daegu is home to the most beautiful women. After being here for a week I admittedly was somewhat skeptical of this. My neighborhood is a working class part of town with many seniors selling produce and prepared dishes  and school children running around. For this first week it felt as if I  have more of a chance of seeing two extremely drunk middle aged men fist fighting in the street (which I witnessed) than seeing a breathtaking girl. The disturbing thing about this is  numerous people walked by these two men and did  not so much as blink. I was across the street viewing from a table, set outside of a convenience store. One of the inebriated guys pulled the shirt off the other and ran down the street with it as if it were his nations flag. The other fella trotted behind him wanting the shirt but not wanting to continue the quarrel. I felt guilty watching.

I have seen some good-looking women but to be frank it was not living up to the hype. This all changed when I went downtown this weekend. There I found an abundance of yeputa (pretty) girls at every turn. On Saturday, after hitting up a few bars that are popular among the foreign populace (The Commune, Thursday’s, & Organ) we checked out a Korean dance club. Virtually everyone there was on the dance floor bobbing to the music that sounded very techno. Interestingly I did not see any men and women dancing with each other, rather everyone kind’ve did their own thing. I’m not sure if this is typical in Korea or what. When I approached a few ladies to dance they seemed more startled then anything else and after some unsuccessful attempts I realized this was a futile method. Unfortunately I don’t speak Korean beyond greetings and ordering food. My conversational skills are on par with a two year old baby that really likes beef. In short, I did not truly “experience” a Korean girl this weekend. Regardless, I had a great time and danced for a large part of the night. I met some nice Korean guys who were quick to call me handsome and explained to me a little about Korean women.”You hav to choo vewry careful” stated one guy in a thick accent. We also made friends with some Italian guys who loved to dance and who wore permanent smiles.

We left the Korean club at around 5 am with two Korean guys and their female friend. How did this trio end up joining us? Meat Sauce began talking to a guy named  Kwan and this is how their encounter went, or how I remember it.

Meat Sauce: (Put’s arm around Kwan)

Kwan: (Jumps) Hey I’m not gay.

Meat Sauce: Trust me Kwan I am not gay either, my friend. I love women very much. Last night I had sex with two women. I want to find Korean girl to bring back to my apartment, my man.

Kwan: Do you know American girl?

Meat Sauce: Yes, yes Kwan. I know many white American girls that you can one hundred percent have lots of sex with.

Kwan and his friend explained that they watch plenty of American porn and that they have fantasized about being with an American.

Kwan: I know girl for you, but she little fat.

Meat Sauce: That’s perfect, my man. Kwan,  I do not discriminate. Being with a Korean is like trying to stick a watermelon in a thimble.

I went to the dance floor and came back to the lounge and their female friend was sitting next to Meat Sauce. Her friends  said she wants to drink so we went to a restaurant type establishment. There we ordered red wine and hor d’oeurves. It was a typical Korean restaurant in that you sat on the floor cushion with a low table, but it was more intimate because all the tables were separated by a very thin, see through curtain. We enjoyed a few bottles and got to know each other. The two guys kept saying their friend was fat for Korean standards and she agreed. Meat Sauce was extremely quick to put these thoughts to rest. She was not thin, but not fat by any means. She had a round face and short, straight hair that mushroomed around her ears. After about an hour, a pissed-off  guy  claiming to be  her boyfriend came by and grabbed Kim Chong Yong.  The three Koreans hurried out of the place with the agitated boyfriend. I’m not sure if it was a ploy for a couple free drinks or if it was really her boyfriend but the disappointment on Meat Sauce’s face was reminiscent of a kid finding out Santa is not real.

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Lost in Translation (Episode 1)

Walking in downtown Daegu I thought I inadvertently wandered into a gay-friendly section of town. I thought this because there were many same-aged women holding hands with each other, and there were a handful of men holding hands as well. “Not that there’s anything wrong with it” (if you know where this quote is from you have my ultimate respect) but I found it odd because  people I have spoken with and things I have read  all suggest that the Korean culture does not really embrace homosexuality. After reporting back to some of my trusty coworkers it turns out that two people holding hands is just a normal part of the culture and it does not necessarily suggest romantic intimacy.  I try to experience things with my cup empty and without preconceived notion about how I think things ought to be based on my culture. Using your own culture, in my case American culture, as a template of what is normal and measuring any deviation from this as abnormal is an easy trap to get caught in and it is something I am trying to avoid. In this case, I clumsily made a premature judgment about something and as a result I was probably mixing up which players belonged to which team.

 

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Put the Bang in Norabang

“Drinking in Korea is not only well accepted, it’s encouraged and often necessary at certain social functions (such as business dinners and family gatherings). ”  – Robert Nilsen in the traveling handbook  South Korea

Avalon school (hakkyo) threw a work party for new teachers arriving to the school -like myself – and teachers who are on their way out. We went to a bbq place which the foreign teachers at my school call ‘Mountain’ because there is a picture which appears to be a mountain on the light up sign outside. We enjoyed dweji gogi (pork) on the grill with an array of spices and vegetables. I am beginning to like eating entire chunks of garlic, people conversing with me close range probably don’t.   It was at the restaurant where my first encounter with the soju occurred. Soju is extremely popular because it is dirt cheap and it gets you wrecked in no time. It is a clear liquor usually made from rice, similar to vodka. My boss made sure everyone had a drink in their hand at all times throughout dinner and if you didn’t than a shot of Soju mixed in a cup of maekju (beer) ensued. Apparently, when you are out socially  with co-workers there is not a level of professionalism that needs to be maintained in South Korean culture. The more you drink at a function of this sort the better. It’s safe to say I made a fine first impression.

Bulgogi (bbq) Dinner.

 

My awesome boss is on the top right ensuring that everyone is wetting their palete.

 

After dinner and drinks we all made our way to a karaoke establishment called a norabang. We drank more soju and maekju and sang into the early morning hours. There was a mixture of Korean songs and American classics and the highlight for me was Living on a Prayer and Hey Jude …

 

 

Na na na, na-na na na
Na-na na na, hey Jude
Na na na, na-na na na
Na-na na na, hey Jude


The norabang is much different from what karaoke bars are typically like in the States. We went inside this dark room with a giant screen in the middle and bench seats surrounding the area where you stand up and sing. It was a cool atmosphere and you really can’t help but to have a good time. The teachers I work with are a fun group. England, Ireland, the US, Ecuador, and  Scotland are all represented.  The English Dan told me that our boss asked him if he could speak more American-like when he started out at the school. In order to prevent any confusion I am Daniel at the school. I have never really been called Daniel throughout my life so it is taking some getting used to.  When people call me Daniel I feel the need to act in a more sophisticated manner. The Dan in me is itching to come out.

The Korean teachers at my school are somewhat reserved but always cheerful. I don’t know if I have improved my level of humor since I’ve been here but they are constantly laughing at things that have no intention whatsoever of being funny. This is how a conversation went with a young  Korean teacher that I said looks like Cameron Diaz after a wee (the Irish influence) bit to much soju (she looks nothing like Cameron Diaz).

Cameron: Hi.

Me: Hello, how are you?

Cameron: Good. You?

Me: Excellent.

Cameron: Ha ha ha ha ha

Tomorrow I am going to try ‘wonderful’ and see what I get.

 




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