Monday, January 10, 2011

Holiday Break: Do Not Mess with Winter

First: HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! 2011! Wish everyone the best for the new year. Just one more year 'till doomsday 12.12.2012… 

The Frozen Pipes Disaster

BIG MISTAKE. Major mistake. And now I had ice-crystal water spewing free like an unblocked dam. The blinds of the window in the utility closet, which only moments before I'd been attempting to board up, now sprang open again, the knife-sharp air gleefully nipping at my numb skin. I backed out of my utility closet-turned-freezer and wondered where to shut the water off in my apartment.

A skype call came in. Mom and Dad, with the computer set up by a softly-glowing Christmas tree in the background and mugs of hot chocolate in their hands. It was Christmas Day back home. Their smiles widened. "Hi honey! Merry Ch-"

"Mom, the pipes burst in my apartment."

From the looks on their faces, the sound of water gushing must have sounded like a waterfall  thundering down through the ceiling. 

The day before I'd finished tidying up my apartment. My grocery bag was bursting with my contribution to our upcoming Christmas party: lettuce, tomatoes, dressing, and a single sweet potato. Also the onions. I had to get rid of those damned onions. Before I left for the subway, I turned my heat off. Because I was fuming about how high my last heating bill was and was hoping to shave off a few extra won. Because I honestly didn't think. Winter cold was slowly advancing upon the city like an unstoppable army, but I ignored signs of its approach. That night it dipped to one of the coldest nights of the year.

Christmas night was fun. I returned home with a full belly and high spirits. Popping on my heat, I waited for the cool air to be dispersed so I could blissfully settle into an afternoon with Dexter and green tea. But the cold stayed stubbornly where it was. I glanced at the monitor, and the red and green lights were ominously blinking.

Shit. I peered into the dark utility closet, where my pipes hung out. They spared the space with a window that had the world's most dysfunctional blinds. No matter how hard I pulled them closed, the cold air continued to leak in. I tried to run a start up test on the water heater, and the lights blinked again. Crapola. Looked like maintenance needed to be called. But first, this window… I could see leftover tape from when the last teacher living here had attempted to board up the blinds. I gathered my cardboard and masking tape. This time, my foot crunched on something and cool, wet water spread through my sock. Ice. I stopped. Ice encased the pipes. My alarms senses were on full alert. There was something I was absolutely not supposed to do in this situation, like maybe snap off the ice. I poked around and snapped off the ice. Water erupted. The wind blew. Skype chimed. I just stared. Fuck, how much water was in those things?

Luckily, it was Sunday, so no one was at the desk downstairs. My calls to other friends in the apartment went unanswered. So after a brief farewell salute to my parents, I went on Google Translate and typed in something to the equivalent of: "Help! My pipes burst!" and hoped the Korean made sense. Hastily jotting the note down, I bolted from the apartment. I dashed all around my building, until I found a parking lot attendant. Ha, so someone does have to be on duty on the weekends. He summoned up an emergency maintenance man, who showed me where to shut off the water (out in the building hallway, in a little white crawl space). He shook his head at me, probably telling me what an idiot I was, and I agreed. I called up my Korean co-teacher to report the situation.

She was a godsend. Completely cool and calm about the situation. She insisted I stay at her place until the pipes could be fixed. And the very next day, while I entertained ideas about technicians having to remove the entire wall and replace all the wiring, two maintenance men from the school came over to fix the problem. Two valves had cracked from the ice, but that was all. In about an hour, they had repaired the pipes and the red and green lights were glowing steadily again. Heat wafted up from the floor. And it had all cost me under 10,000 won (10 dollars). The maintenance men refused to accept payment no matter how much I pressed them. I've found that sometimes to express my gratitude in Korea, I literally have to shove gifts into people's arms. So that's what I did the next day. My school responded so well to my situation, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude. It reminds me of how much I've had to depend on the kindness of strangers since coming here, and every time, they've responded. I can only imagine trying to call up a maintenance man myself in my broken Korean.  Can't use Google Translate for everything.  

I just left for vacation, with my heat left on the lowest setting.

"The pipes should be fine on that setting," my co-teacher told me. "When my husband and I bought our first place, we wanted to save money on heating, too, so we turn heat off during the day. But when we received our first bill, it was very expensive. Cheaper to leave it on the lowest."

As for that wonderful utility closet window? I boarded it up and the tape's still holding. Welcome to winter.

Winter Camp

 School's out, but the week every Korean student looks forward to is here: English Camp! Yes, every school holds week-long English camps for students to drag themselves up out of bed for and for English teachers to glance longingly at the calendar to their countdown until vacation. I had a week of 3rd/4th graders and then a week of 5th graders. Not many 5th graders had signed up, declaring that English camp was usually "boring." I took that as a challenge.

I'm really impressed with my 3rd/4th grade students. These kids are smart and super enthusiastic. In the regular English classes, they always made life miserable for the other students by claiming, "Too easy, teacher! Too easy!" I figured I could challenge them with an Around the World camp. Every day we would learn about a different country: South Korea, America, Italy, and Brazil. The last day would be an Olympics Competition. I love coming up with the ideas for camps. Then, actually making all the materials kills me. It's so time-consumingly long! And then you have to summon up the enthusiasm to teach the material you've spent too much time with.

Luckily, the 3rd/4th graders made it easy. They enjoyed learning the English words for Taekwondo actions, struggled through the difficult he/she/it English rules, liked learning new animals in the Amazon Rainforest, and oohed at a video of a flooded Venice. Cooking Day was their favorite. In honor of Italy, we just had to cook something in class, and if it couldn't be pizza, then why not Puppy Chow? Also, I was craving something sweet. As I said, these kids really impressed me. One of their Olympics tasks was to write their own funny recipe, in English, and they took the mission seriously. Everyone huddled about in their groups, whispering the ingredients they would use and glancing furtively at each other. I'm amazed how quickly they pick up English words. One girl was trying to sneak a peek at another team's recipe, and I called out, "Uh oh, are you a spy? Don't be a spy!"

Within five minutes, all the teams were using the word. "Spy! Spy, teacher! Teacher, he spy!"

The 5th grade camp went pretty smoothly as well. The 5th graders get their mood swings, but for the most part, they get just as excited over stickers as the younger kids. Their camp was pirate-themed and from the beginning, I divided into pirate crews to compete the entire week for a prize. They made pirate flags and came up with their names. The balls started off rolling slowly, but by mid-week, they were fully engrossed in the competition. I felt so bad for the Black Pearl crew- they tried so hard to catch up to the leading team and ended up losing by 1 point.

Next time: no cooking days with peanut butter. The 5th graders had fun making peanut butter cannonballs, but that peanut butter found its way into places it should never go. It was pretty funny. The girls made perfectly round cannonballs, but the boys' looked like reject Hersheys kisses.

Korean Folk Village

 Shortly before the holidays, I had the pleasure of visiting the Korean Folk Village, a cultural center that shows the architecture and life style of feudal Korea. I was near Suwon at the time, and some relatives (related to me in a complicated fashion- second cousin's wife's sister's family, but hey, the connection's there) gave me the tour. Huge draft horses stood in the snow banks, still as statues. A field of old kimchi jars sat lined up like soldiers for battle. People wove rope into shoes. Jindos, a wolf-like hunting dog native only to Korea, watched with intelligent eyes from cages. Jindos are said to be very smart and incredibly loyal.  

Entire villages had been constructed in the rural fashion, some with roofs of straw and others of clay. It was interesting to see how the housing varied in Seoul compared to the far south, on Jeju Island. The folk village also featured a lord's manor and a jail yard, in which visitors playfully tormented each other with the medieval punishment devices. My favorite was the girlfriend who wielded a huge spanking paddle over her begging boyfriend. Little tension in the relationship there, haha.

Mid-afternoon, the village held a dance and acrobatics performance. We sat in a ring, hands huddled within our snow coat pockets, while an old man nimbly balanced his way up a tight rope. The first time across, he stumbled. But now I'm convinced that was a ploy to heighten the tension, because he completed every other trip across the rope flawlessly. The rope was his trampoline: he gracefully bounded up and down on it, his legs doing swan-kicks in the frosty air. He spoke to the crowd after the show was over, and my relative told me he could usually do more tricks, but the harsh winter air had caused his feet to freeze up.

At the end of the village walk was a quiet waterfall, plunging into a glacial river swimming with ice. We crossed the bridge and entered a cottage with hot floors, the much-needed heat shooing off the chill. It was time to warm up.

"What's the coldest month?" I asked my relative, to see how long I would have to dash from building to building shivering.

She thought. "December's cold."

I nodded, relieved.

Then she said, "But January and February are colder."  

At least there'll be plenty of skiing.

Next blog: It's about time I showcased the epic K Pop (Korean Pop) my students love. Stay posted for lots of dramatic music videos and boy bands with hair healthier than mine.

Disclaimer: The above is presented as fiction, not fact.

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