Sunday, October 24, 2010

Week 4: What the Book?

Nothing like some good ol' bbq chicken feet. 

Work, Work, Work

ON THURSDAY, the internet was down at the school. While technology help was called in to fix the problem, I sat scrambling for ideas on what to do for class. My beautifully detailed power point on Halloween was virtual miles away on my email. My older co-teacher grinned at me. "We teachers are always prepared in case the internet does not work," she said.

So my lucky classes got to sing. The tune for one of the house song videos was pretty memorable, so I jotted it out for them, and then we rehearsed a cappella. A singing competition soon followed. Hey, they've got to get good at karaoke somehow.  As one of my co-teachers told me, the kids always love competitions.

This week I've been able to sit back  and pick up many simple, quick games from the more experienced teachers. I also have more of an idea of where my students stand, English level-wise. Walking back to the bus after work, I chat with the kids, one of whom has a familiar, high-pitched voice  ringtone.

"Justin Bieber?" I ask.

"Ooh! Ooh! You know!" he exclaims, and gives me a high-five.

By Friday, I was feeling a cold creeping up my throat. I'd heard I'd most likely get sick my first few weeks in the country, being unused to the viruses, water, and air. My co-teachers were immediately concerned, and gave me 쌍화탕 (ssang hwa tang). This earthy brown brew is heated up in the microwave, and then served with two pills. Very strong flavor, and the only scent my clogged nose could pick up was something like molasses.

Itaewon Strip

I woke on a warm Saturday morning and smiled. Yes, my nose still felt like a dripping faucet, but it was the weekend!

Last weekend, some friends and I set out to conquer Seoul. It's taken three days so far. The first day, we rode the subway for so long that we finally decided to just get off in Dongdaemun Market. It was a good choice, very vibrant with sky-high towers overlooking the threads of people. We shopped, enjoyed coffee (an easy keo-pi in Korean), dined on a fried seafood basket, and ordered soju straight. If you want to get drunk for cheap, then soju's definitely got Monarch vodka beat. It comes in innocent-looking green bottles at 3,000 won (3 dollars) a pop, and in just 2 1/2 shots, I was feeling cheery (and brave) enough to spout off Korean phrases as to where a noraebong was (karaoke). They're all over the place.

The next day we met up with one of my friends from Korea, who showed us around Myeong-dong, Seoul's esteemed shopping district. We spent significant time at Insa-Dong, a long street with traditional Korean wares flanking it on all sides, offering pottery, masks, hanboks, and stringy candy. There I enjoyed my new favorite (sorry, jja jang myeon), the spicy
Tteokbokki rice cakes in hot sauce, and washed it down with a gray fruit smoothie. Our Korean friend showed us the correct way to drink soju: as a fusion drink.

This has been two full days in Seoul, but we still have yet to see the palaces or the nightlife (the subways and buses stop running around midnight). Today, we explore Itaewon.

You immediately know you're in different territory when you step out of the subway, and a McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Calvin Klein greet you. I saw more foreigners in five minutes than I saw in my entire week in Guri. Itaewon is an international street, with everything from falafel restaurants to cafes playing Spanish music to a high proximity of English-speaking shopkeepers.

During the foreign military occupations, Itaewon was center stage for bars and brothels. Many women, willingly or unwillingly, served as "comfort women," and both they and their children were shunned by the rest of the country. Nowadays there have been numerous prostitution crack-downs, but its presence remains visible.

My friend and I made our way to the foreign food mart, where we found many spices from home and yes, Macaroni and Cheese! There were also big blocks of pepperjack and cheddar cheese (non-existent in most groceries), tortillas, curries, and an aisle of Reeses and Hersheys from home. The vendors on the streets were vocal, but not overly-aggressive about selling. If you said no, they looked disappointed, but didn't pursue the matter. Many shops boasted names such as, "Big and Tall," "The Hulk," and "All Sizes," hinting that they catered to Western sizes. We spent some time with a man who identified himself as "The Jokeman" in his tailor shop, where he showed us the different peat coats he'd designed for foreigners, and chatted in English. True to his word, he gave us a free joke: "Judge Judy asks the prisoner, 'I don't understand. Why do you break into the same store three times?' The man replies, 'I was getting a dress for my wife. She didn't like the first two.' "

My friend and I didn't hear the word "break into" the first two times, so there was a lot of creative guessing at the punch line before we got it.

Another great place tucked away in a loft is called: What the Book? It is a new/used English bookshop with a great variety of titles. You could find everything from Obama's biography to a steamy romance. I scoped out their Korean language section, and bought a book with 2 Cds for only 9,300 won ($9.30). Since it's so interactive, maybe I'll sit down and study it. Maybe. There's a lot riding on this, after all. I have a diner at a co-teacher's house next week, and I want to be able to say more than "kamsahamnida" (Thank you). A fellow teacher in the building is also taking a free Korean class in Seoul on Saturdays, and that'll definitely be something to check into once I'm settled into the routine.

Escape from the Mall: Yeongdungpo Market

At this point, our bellies were rattling. Shops were closing down, and we had a while to go before bars would start opening.  The Changgyeonggung Palace I'd wanted to see had closed for the day, but my friend mentioned that there was a huge mall nearby. So we hitched a ride on the subway and got off in Yeongdungpo Market. People swarmed through bottleneck-wide sidewalks, and I began to feel pretty suffocated and woozy from my cold. I needed food.

We ducked into a Korean BBQ, away from all the hustle and bustle. This was the first restaurant I'd been to with absolutely no pictures on the menu, so we squinted at the characters ferociously for any familiar words. Soju. Well, that wasn't what I wanted at the moment. Our waitress arrived, and we began a little charades game. She would point to an item and mime; we would guess.

The first one I felt confident about. Beef. Ok. The next one appeared to be some type of fish. I glanced over at our neighbors' table. Alive on the grill, thrashing, was a pile of eels, all paddling madly away from the heat. The diner calmly clamped them with the tongs, and tossed them back on the hearth. The eel began to wriggle frantically again. It was both pitiable and mesmerizing. I couldn't look away. I knew how good eel tasted…

I looked back at my waitress and shook my head. She pointed at the next item and made a wing motion.


"Neh! Chicken!" She clenched my arm excitedly, and made a clawing motion with her hand. Now my friend and I were both laughing.

"Yes! Chicken! Hana!"

She made the clawing motion again. I wondered why she kept doing that. Then she shrugged, marked the menu, and brought us our side dishes. We grinned at the savory marinated beef. Then she brought out the chicken feet.

We stared at the crooked claws dripping in red sauce for a second. Then I made the scratching motion with my hand. "Chicken...feet… Ohhhh." Nevertheless, it was barbecued along with the beef. The tendons popped rather unpleasantly in my mouth, and a bone pricked my gum, like when you bite into fish and the little white bones are left in. However, it didn't taste bad. Perhaps it was because I had a cold, but the feet didn't really taste like anything. It was more of the texture, and popping tendons, which required vigorous chewing.

It was good we had the food in our belly, because the subway route that had seemed so simple and clear to get there suddenly became complex  and subject to much more walking. We trekked back and forth through the underground shopping center about three times trying to find the right exit. First we ended up at the train station by following the signs for "tracks," and when we tried to back-track to our original subway station, it had mysterious vanished (or our aching feet refused to go any further). We kept seeing exit signs, but no subway signs. Finally, a vendor attempting to sell us something decided we could benefit from his travel guidance instead, and directed us to the subway line: the area we were originally in. Not caring where the subway was going at this point, we clambered on, glad to escape from the mall.

Excited to be celebrating a far-from-home Halloween next weekend; have fun in the States, everyone!

The above is presented as opinion, not fact.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Week 3: White Girl Far From Home

Namyangju. Picture courtesy of:

Day 1: Lost

THE DRIVER dropped me off in front of a sky-rise apartment building. Off one alleyway, the road dipped down into a vibrant marketplace. The streets swarmed with cars, people moved with the purposefulness of stalking lions, and drug stores and cafes competed with glowing advertisements for wall space. The strange characters flashed like rapidly blinking eyes in violet and green neon lights.   I wasn't even sure what my apartment was called.  I would be lying if I didn't say my mind wasn't one, big, what-the-fuck.

Coming to my rescue was my welcoming Korean co-teacher, who for the sake of privacy I will call Lynn. She showed me the apartment, which is actually quite cozy. It has a loft for a bedroom, and the rest is like a studio. The view from the 11th floor is great. Again, I was in shock, because I have never lived in a city before. Namyangju isn't a tourist-catering city. If you see another foreigner there, they're here to work. Lynn gave me a whirlwind tour of the surrounding shops, for it was getting late. School was the next day, and I was to report at 8:30 sharp. I toddled behind her feeling ridiculously like a chicken: I took my steps cautiously and my head bobbed about as if my life depended on cramming everything into it.

That night, I stared out at the shroud of smog enclosing the city. I felt like I had wandered into an otherworldly island, dream-like, cut off from the way of life I had known. The smog hid the city from the rest of the world.

Day 2: The Devil is in the Details

I woke up ravenously hungry. The prior occupant, also the previous teacher at the school, had left me some tuna, noodles, and rice in the cupboards. I lumped it together, heated it, and drenched it in soy sauce. So I had my first meal in Korea, and it tasted damned good.

Shopping for laundry detergent and putting money on a bus pass are suddenly challenges that require a brave heart. I squint at the characters on my thermostat and microwave, sounding out the words, but not knowing the meaning. It is very lonely being trapped in such a bubble of silence: unable to communicate with the people around you. However, I feel very welcome here. I've never felt unsafe on the streets alone (knock on wood). When I was attempting to put money on my card for the bus, three people crowded around trying to help.

The previous night, Lynn had told me she was worried about me taking the 20 min bus ride by myself to school. Immediately, I felt the need to rise to the challenge. It was with great triumph that I arrived at the elementary school without getting lost. Other foreign teachers had told me their first day was just introductions, and then they went home to recover from jet lag. Lucky me, my school decided I could start work immediately instead. While lamenting the fact that I had arrived Monday instead of a Friday, I met my first batch of kids.

They're really great. Extremely curious, talkative, and will turn into screaming devils if you turn your back on them too long. But isn't that the same with kids everywhere? I was the newest animal at the zoo. The most common questions were, "Is that your real eye color? Is that your real hair color? Do you have a boyfriend?" When I said yes, they shrieked their excitement and demanded I bring in a picture.

The question I always dreaded was, "Do you speak Korean?" I spoke a couple phrases, and they applauded my attempts. The driver on the way over told me something I hadn't though about: for English speakers, we are used to people of all nationalities speaking English in a variety of accents. We can still understand what is said. In Korea, they are not used to a strange accent speaking their language, so it seems very funny. This only makes me motivated to study Korean more, because it's frustrating not to be able to speak with the kids when they really want to get to know you!

8 hours at the school, and my day was only just beginning. Next I had the medical exam, and then passport photos taken, and then a welcome/goodbye party. I was arriving; the prior teacher- we'll call her Katy- was leaving. I met many of the first grade teachers and we had a yummy Korean dinner. Korean food is reaaallly good. I had no idea I would like it so much. The pork and marinated beef was turned over on the fryer at our table, grilled with mushrooms, garlic, and onions dipped in soy, and then wrapped in a lettuce leaf like a sandwich ball. And the beer! Again, another pleasant surprise.

After dinner, the night was only just beginning. We went to a karaoke house and sang and danced our hearts out. My coworkers would sing slow Korean ballads, then fast-paced ones, and Katy and I would add our American numbers (Backstreet boys and Journey, hell yeah). I got dropped off at my apartment, but didn't recognize that it was the back way in. It's amazing how hard it is for me to distinguish buildings and streets- the Beer Factory on the corner is the landmark I use to know I should get off at the next bus stop.

Day 3: Lesson Plans on the Fly

I put the rice cooker on, and glanced at the clock. 4:30 am. I had two lesson plans to write: one for my first third grade class, and the other for the after-school fifth and sixth graders. I thought of my 2.1 million won salary, and smiled satisfactorily at the thought that yes, in this lifetime, I will be a millionaire. Then I cranked out those lesson plans and was on the bus by 7:50. My clothes suitcases were still unpacked.

Katy had told me that it took her about three months before she began feeling settled in here, but even then, there were moments of loneliness when she looked out at the laughing friends on the playground, or met another teacher in the hallway and could only smile with an awkward "annyeong haseyo." However, I am very lucky. My co-teachers always make sure to include me at their lunch tables, and Lynn has been a godsend getting me settled in. Her English is very good. The classes are challenging, but there are those moments when the kids are so engaged, voluntarily taking the information one step further without prompting, that you feel this thrill, this, "Yes, this is what it should all be about."

I get off the bus around 5 pm, practically running to my apartment in my excitement to take a nap. However, an older American guy falls into step beside me. Whenever we foreigners see one another  in Korea, we go dashing into each other's arms as if we're family. Once linked arm-in-arm, we feel more confident in exploring the wonders of the exciting, new cityscape around us.

"You're a teacher, aren't you?" this man asks me.


"I could tell. You look as green as they come."

It turns out, this man, we'll say Paul, has been in Korea for two years. With the friendly air of an older brother taking pity on a shy sibling, he shows me around the train station, good places to buy groceries, and where the movie theater is. I'll never get tired of gawking at open market fare: fried shrimp sticks, deep red peppers, dukbokki (hot and spicy rice cake), crawling octopus tentacles, Belgian waffles topped with pillars of whipped cream and berries, and my favorite: jja jang myun (black bean noodles). He also tells me where to pick up packages from home and tells me a bank is actually on the third story of our building. Shows how much I've explored the apartment. 

Jja jang myun. Myun = Noodles. Picture courtesy of:

Taking great pride in his impromptu tour guide ability, he next informs me that he used to be in the stripper business. I ask what exactly he means by that- like Chippendales? "Yes!" he exclaims, and then lists off all the girls he knows in the building. At this point, I feel a little weirded out. However, Paul does earn the spot as first apartment friend.

You meet one, and then they all come out of nowhere. The next day I would meet a man from Canada on the bus, who knew Katy before me. He tells me he can introduce me to the other foreigners in the apartment, and I feel like it's college move-in day all over again. Then the teacher I met at the airport hits me up to go to Seoul on the weekend, and I immediately say yes. I have a social life!

So in between culture shock, becoming coffee buddies with Lynn at the school, meeting all my students, and missing all my family and friends on a daily basis, I realize I can do this. And I'm ready to travel outside that veil enclosing the city. The sun broke through it today, and I saw hills carpeted with trees. I wonder where they lead.

I promise I'll start taking pictures soon!

Disclaimer: The above is opinion, not fact.