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There : Surprise, It’s Korea!

May 12, 2008 Leave a comment

The thing about Koreans is that they seemingly lack foresight. It’s not entirely true, or untrue. But in a given situation, they will react far later than the average American is used to. Take, for example, my situation. I was going to leave Korea on May 15th. This basically boiled down to leaving Pohang on the 14th. So, on the evening of the 10th I got several fairly insistent calls that I really should stay in Korea. Sunlin was willing to foot the cost to change my plane ticket and everything. They have asked me to stay until around the end of the month, so that I can be involved in some different things. This is both an honor and an inconvenience.
The inconvenience is because they had something like 6 months of placidly knowing my departure date, only to choose to react as I was leaving. I’d already set up things for the flight back. Additionally, this, like many things asked by social superiors, is not so much a question as a command. Or, at least, an expectation. Younger Korean people have this far worse than we foreigners do; and I would say that where elders have to ask us, they all but tell Korean young adults what they are volunteering to do.
But make no mistake, this is also a blessing, and one I am glad for. I wouldn’t expect most American colleges to even react at all (or to react and not pay for my ticket). I’m flattered, and glad I could spend some more time in Korea. It isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t a comfortable thing, either. And these situations are far from rare, here.

Categories: Being There

There : News, Travel and Food Poisoning, in that Order

April 25, 2008 1 comment

By way of a quick update, I’m coming home on May 15th. I miss home, but I think I will miss Korea very quickly after I get back. I already kind of do.

So, let’s begin. On Tuesday the Korean news came to our classes to video tape us. This quickly devolved into setting up some of the most un-authentic and misrepresenting scenes I’ve ever taken part in. It was frustrating. We had to pretend like we sang songs, played and what have you; anything that looked good on camera. I’ve seen enough Korean news to know that it isn’t that uncommon. Certainly, they show things like murders and other tragedies with proper solemn-ness. Probably political events, too. But anything remotely fun or human interest gets scripted (to an amount I feel is significantly more than in Kansas, at least). This is disappointing to me, largely because Koreans already have a fairly misguided English education system, and equally misguided ideas about foreigners.

On Wednesday I went to MoonGyung SaeJae (문경 새재) with a friend. It was quite fun. It’s a historical site, and quite beautiful. There were also a lot of school children there, who would say “hi” to me, but only when they walked past me (to my back). The bus ride from Pohang was pretty long, but other than that, it was one of my favorite places in Korea (well, one of my favorite touristy places). I’ll try to upload some pictures next week.

On Thursday, I got food poisoning. I don’t recommend it. I still couldn’t tell you WHY I got it, as I didn’t eat anything abnormal or low class. But about 4-5 hours after eating supper I was throwing up and experiencing various digestive problems. I’m still in the process of recovering, one day later. While it doesn’t give me a negative opinion of Korean food, it’s certainly a bit of a shock. My friend and roommate, who has been here for about a year and a half, said he has gotten sick like that a few times. My suggestion, should you be faced with this, is to throw up as soon and as much as you can. And get some medicine. It’s a bit less convenient to get over-the-counter medicines in Korea, simply because you should go to a pharmacy. Stores and markets don’t seem to have much/any medicines (though I’m told they do, I’ve not seen any, and it’s certainly much, much less).

Categories: Being There

There : Holy Rice!

March 6, 2008 Leave a comment

It’s difficult to express just how important rice is to Koreans. For an American, there is no analog. They believe that we eat bread like they eat rice. That isn’t true. If it were, we’d buy bread by the kilo, like they do rice. We’d eat it with EVERY meal. We’d eat a lot of it, say, a handful at minimum, and two or three handfuls regularly. But there’s a lot more to it than the amount.

Koreans don’t typically ask how someone is doing. If you think about it, we say “how’s it going” and “what’s up” almost mindlessly after our greeting. Koreans ask if you’ve eaten. I’m told it comes from the not so distant past, when Korea was quite poor, and it was in doubt if someone was getting enough to eat. The interesting part is, the literal translation of the phrase they use isn’t “have you eaten lunch” or “dinner” or anything like that. It’s “Have you eaten (cooked) rice?” (Bap Mo-Guh-So?). Aside from the fact that they have three words for rice in it’s three states (growing, uncooked and cooked), the word for meal is often “rice”.

My friend does not like to eat rice that much. I can’t blame him, it’s everywhere. You can’t not eat it. Kimchi is perfectly ignorable, and seaweed, and tofu. But rice is everywhere, and it’s a part of everything. A meal literally isn’t a meal unless you eat it. I talked to a friend’s father. He asked what I’d been eating. After listing the things I could cook (which was fairly sizable), he seemed expectant. Come to find out, by his (and many others’) standard, I hadn’t been eating. To put it another way, a friend once told me “People think you’re greedy if you eat a bunch of food instead of rice.” It was quite clear, rice is not the same thing as “food”.

Rice is cheap, but it’s not that cheap. It’s probably cheaper in the US. a 1 Kilo bag cost me $10, and that was the cheapest they had. It’s not overpriced, but at Korean prices, it’s not cheap, either. Scarcity also doesn’t factor in much, because there is plenty of bread and potatoes available to Koreans. But they are seen as snacks; certainly they aren’t a key part of a meal.

If you go to a home and eat the rice first, you will be offered more, even if you still have plenty of other things to eat. If you fail to eat your rice, you are insulting their culture. If you don’t want rice, something is wrong with you. It’s quite normal to eat rice with a soup that is full of rice cakes, and then have some rice drink afterwards. I see no reason beyond choice for it to be this way. Korea imports a lot of food. But culturally, they must have rice.

My American friend and I talked about how we would relate the fascination with rice to American terms. I thought it was like having a meal without a drink, something quite rare in America, but common in Korea. But that’s not really true, as no one would think you hadn’t eaten if you did so, and no one would consider you bad for not drinking, or not finishing a drink.
He thought it was like having biscuits and gravy with no biscuits. Strange and certainly not common, but also not the same. Being around truck stops, I’ve seen people order sausage gravy for their pancakes. There just doesn’t seem to be a way to really compare.

Maybe one of the weirdest things, to me, is that the white rice isn’t that healthy. Make no mistake, generic Korean food is pretty darn healthy (despite using a lot of salt) when compared to American food. I eat pretty healthy at home, but my skin is much better in Korea, and I think the average food at restaurants is much healthier. But white rice is like white bread. It’s high is sugars, and lacking in vitamins. Brown rice (rice with the germ still on it), is considered “poor people’s rice” and fairly despised, despite having more nutrients. There have been links to constipation, diabetes risks, increased risk of cancer and liver damage (though many times these presuppose that the person eating the food doesn’t eat other sources of fiber. This may or may not be true of Koreans.) To contrast, Kimchi and Tofu, both very common in Korea, are really quite healthy, but significantly less eaten.

This isn’t meant to be a pro or a con of Korean life. It’s an observation. White rice is everywhere. While I’ve taken a shine to Tofu (which is totally different in Korea, where it’s flavored and salted, and not used as a replacement for meat) and many other Korean foods, it’s hard to keep up with the rice. And while I can eat it a lot more than my friend, I can’t eat half as much as a Korean (or the Chinese students I’ve eaten with, for that matter). Rice might not be a religion here, but if you started a cult based around it, Korea would be the place to come to find members.

Categories: Being There

There : Holidays

February 14, 2008 Leave a comment

Lunar, or “Chinese” New Year, has come and gone. For those that don’t know, in Asia, it’s a big deal. In Korea, it consisted of a 3 day holiday for most, beginning on a Wednesday and ending Friday. In America, this would be a 5 day holiday, counting the weekend, but it seems that a lot more people here, even with more upscale jobs, have to work at least a little on the weekend. Oh yeah, it’s the year of the rat. Charming, eh?

The typical Korean Lunar New Years is similar to Chusok, in that it’s about going home, and that it’s traditionally much more of a Buddhist holiday. That’s not to say that the idea of it is Buddhist, at least as far as I can tell. But they have plenty of traditions revolving around it.

Regardless of religion, apparently one must eat a type of rice cake soup for the New Years celebration. It’s pretty good, but hard to eat quickly (because the rice cake, which is not what most Americans think of as rice cake, is really chewy). I think the traditional meal is most commonly eaten at the house of the oldest brother, and there seems to be a similar amount of “side swapping”, like Christmas. That is, at least these days, families go to the wife’s side as well as the husband’s side celebrations.

Buddhists, I’m told, go to temple and prepare offering meals so their ancestors will bless them with good luck. I asked what happened if you cooked poorly; or, if you had bad luck, did it mean you weren’t a good cook, but I couldn’t get any answers on that. I believe there’s a fair amount of grave visiting, too. Graves here often consist of big grassy mounds or drawers in a sort of mausoleum.

Christians seem to mostly just eat the soup and pray. Like Chusok, gifts are given. And by gifts, I mean fruit. Or decorative baskets of Spam. No kidding. Even with an after holiday sale, there were plenty of Gift Boxes full of American Hormell Spam. $45 worth. And lots of fruit. There were also boxes full of nicely arranged personal care things (like toothpaste), and I hear socks are kind of common to give. Exciting, huh? Young children can get red envelopes full of money from their elders, which is exciting. But I was told I’m far too old. Alas.

Today was Valentine’s Day, which is celebrated in Korea, with a twist. The 14th of February is Valentine’s Day, in which the girl buys things for the guy, and plans the day for the guy. The 14th of March is “White Day” in which the guy reciprocates. It’s called White Day because guys are supposed to buy girls white chocolate or marshmallows. The 14th of April is “Black Day”, for singles. I’m not really sure what they do, maybe get drunk. There is also a holiday on the 11th of November that celebrates BbaeBbaeLow, a Pockey-like long biscuit snack covered in chocolate (which looks sort of like a 1, thus it being celebrated on 11/11). Anyway, you buy snacks for children. And you thought US holidays were commercialized.

Finally, month anniversaries are a bit less important here. Instead, 100th day anniversaries are the big dating events. On your 100th day, you should buy your girlfriend 100 roses, which are cheaper here than in the US, but still expensive. I hear that some people go as far as to buy cars for their girlfriends, but that can’t possibly be the norm, and shouldn’t be considered common in any way. It’s just a big deal.

For me, a lot of these holidays are interesting, but often they’re more boring than usual, because there isn’t anywhere for me to go. That’s life, I guess.

Categories: Being There

There : English Camp Completed

January 26, 2008 3 comments

Well, this Friday marked the end of English camp. It went really well. It was significantly different from last time, but I was able to get some great teaching experience. False confidence works wonders. Students were fun, and tried really hard. No real gems of wisdom here.
For our last trip we went to KyungJu World, which is a small theme park about 30 minutes from Sunlin. For anyone from the Kansas City area, it was about 1/8th the physical size, and had about ¼ the rides of Worlds of Fun. But that’s pretty big, for Korea (remember, size is the primary commodity). We ran around and had fun. It was a good time to get to know the students.
And for the last day of class, we had a Picture Scavenger Hunt, in which students were given assignments, and they were to get pictures of themselves doing it. That’s what will make up the bulk of this post. The pictures are way more interesting than I am.

Biting a Chinese Person. More Biting. Poor Chinese Students
Pouring water on the class leader
Making an American Teacher try Dried Squid. She really didn’t like it
Giving people candy on our behalf. More gifts that we didn’t really give
Giving us food
Painting Toenails (Jared’s)
Holding Hands with a Guard. Guards need friends, too
Punching the English Contact for the International Department. He had it coming
Feeding Jared DukkBoki
Giving me flowers, Because I love attention.
Giving People Gifts They Didn’t Want
Giving Secretaries High Fives
Gratuitous Silly Hats. Too cute for TV. Dangerously Cute. Scary cute. Tragically Cute. Cute to the Max. Mind Numbingly Cute. Sorta Cute. Really Cute, again.
Pulling Hair
Rocking out
Money
Fire!
Eating bugs (BonDaeGi). I hear they aren’t that bad
Holding a Fish
HaeJong is Scary. Most Korean Girls Are.
Petting animals
Washing Jared’s Car; too bad I don’t have a car here
Vagrancy
Gluttony, and simulated gluttony, and the good old fashioned kind
And cross dressing, And more cross dressing, And more still more cross dressing, Even more cross dressing

The End

Categories: Being There

There : Aquariums and English Camps

January 14, 2008 Leave a comment

There : Camp and Aquarium

Regarding the lack of updates since I got here, sorry. It’s been really busy. As you may have guessed, I’m no longer in Inchon Airport. I’ve been back in Pohang for a while now.
I’m sharing an apartment with another English teacher at Sunlin, and that’s going well. We found Dr. Pepper and Tortillas at a local grocery store, so there was much rejoicing. Living outside of the dorms is a little less exciting, but it’s also a lot more comfortable. I can cook, sleep and shower when I want, and I am less worried about people going through my stuff.

English camp started the Monday after I got back. We’ve got 30 students, most of whom are in the nursing department, which I rarely interact with. This is good, because I can meet new people, but it also means a lot of new names to remember, which I am doing poorly. We also have two visiting professors, both from Colorado, to help with the English camp. They are lovely ladies who seem to be doing fine here. It’s, once again, nice to be reminded of how far I’ve come. They don’t speak any Korean, and I got to take them out for dinner one of my first nights back. This might seem like a small thing, but it was a big step in being more useful, and in feeling more “grown-up”.

With so many of my skills relating to the English language (like my strange short stories and my even stranger book), I feel torn between feeling smarter than I really am, and more stupid than I know I am. Here, where my language skills (not the ability to learn new languages, which is NOT one of my skills) are so specific in their use, most of the time I can’t really communicate what I want. I feel like I’m a small child, angry that people don’t understand what I want from them. Then I step into a class and it’s my job to tell people about an equally complex and confusing language, which I have mastered. It’s a bit like being a language centered idiot savant. Most of my other skills aren’t that in demand in Korea. They have lots of computers, but most people don’t seem to know much about what they’re really doing. They have art, but it’s barely important. My skills in singing and playing music are non-existent, but are very much in demand and respected here. Teaching here is based on memorization, but my learning is based on logic.Etcetera.

This isn’t intended to be sorrowful. I’m really happy to be back. It’s just good to point out that this is how I, and I’m sure others, feel from time to time. I imagine it’s true for anyone in a foreign country. Equally, it’s a dangerous trap to associate language skills with intelligence. I have to constantly warn myself that just because someone can’t communicate their deep ideas, doesn’t mean they don’t have them. It’s something that’s really obvious to say and hard to practice fully.

Anyway, back to camp. I’m teaching 3 hours a day plus some random study hall hours late at night (7:30-9:00). I teach speaking, which is probably the easiest subject. Most of my time is spent thinking up what I should do for a given day. Things like slang, idioms and speeches are easy to relate, but take a lot of practice and explaining. Most of the students try really hard, and it’s exciting when they can figure out what “having a bun in the oven” means, or when they say “hey, what’s up” instead of “hello, how are you doing?” outside of class. It puts me into the strange position of both teacher and student, which I like, but which is hard to manage.

We went out on Friday, as a group, and ate octopus and went drinking. Soju still tastes bad. Korean beer isn’t very good, but there is worse than “Hite” and “Cass” (like Natural Light). I’m not a drinker by any means, so it was interesting and fun, but not really comfortable. On Saturday we went to the Aquarium in Busan. THAT was a lot of fun. It was my first time in Busan (Korea’s second largest city). It was also my second trip to an aquarium (the first being in Louisiana). The aquarium in Busan was a bit smaller, but still a lot of fun. They didn’t fall into the habit of lots of big, mostly boring fish displays. There were lots of weird and fun things to see, and you could touch starfish and such. It was really fun.

But it was also strange. Koreans don’t seem to like animals. At least not at all like my family. There was a magic show. And a dancing show. They didn’t have anything to do with fish. It was because people needed more entertainment. There was also a place to stick children where they could watch movies (like “Madagascar”, not even “Finding Nemo”), because I guess it wasn’t that engaging. I know a lot of the people I was with enjoyed looking at everything, so I am making generalizations about the whole, not the individuals. Additionally, while I’ve only been to a few aquariums, I’ve been to lots of zoos. I love zoos. Korea has very few, and they’re tiny. They have things like chickens and turkeys. I remember being disappointed when zoos only had elephants, lions and other “normal” things, instead of various toads and honey badgers and such. Korea has few zoos because they are so large, the cost would be tremendous. At the same time, Koreans seem to know very little about animals, even their own. I asked some friends what animals were native to Korea, and basically had to list animals I thought might be native and have them confirm or deny them. They couldn’t think of any on their own. That’s ok, except that I’d expect a random person from Kansas to be able to name at least a few native animals, like deer, foxes, bobcats and the like. This is probably because we see those animals, and they just stay inside their cities, but I’d still expect someone from Kansas City to be able to name a few.

That observation aside, they seemed to really enjoy looking at the fish. The sharks, being large predators, stole the show, and were pretty cool. They had some sea dragons (extra freaky looking sea horses), which were very cool, as well as lots of things dubbed “cute”. I was interested in pretty much the same things as them, but I knew about as much, or more, than the information signs beside the exhibits, so it was much more a looking than a learning experience for me. Even with my complaints, it was really great, and I enjoyed my time with the students. Afterwards, some of us went and bought some groceries and ate blood sausage, which is better than it sounds.
Shark
Goldfish in a car

Categories: Being There

There : Adventure

January 4, 2008 Leave a comment

Well, the flight to Korea was long. It always is. This time it was even longer, because it was from Detroit to Japan, instead of LA to Seoul. Actually, I was on Northwest Airlines the whole time, so I had a lot less layover time, and in the end, it actually took a bit less time. But making the 10 hour flight a 13 hour flight was not a good change. Maybe it would have been, if it had been Korean Airlines.

Let me explain: Northwestern was just fine. It was a lot cheaper and a bit easier than Korean Air. But for most of the journey, it wasn’t as nice. Maybe Korean Air’s economy flights are more like other lines’ deluxe. I don’t know. But on the Korean air 747s, you got more stuff (like a toothbrush and tooth paste), more meals, more choice in your meals (by the end of the NW 747 we had no choice in what we got, because they ran out, and they fed us about 30 minutes before landing, which seemed odd), and a lot less entertainment. For the flight, there were 3 pre-chosen movies that played at set times on a distant projector, and about 10 channels of music. On the KE (Korean Air) flights, we got maybe 30 movies on demand, 10 educational shows, 5 sitcoms, huge amounts of movies, and you could watch the airplane’s progress and conditions. This isn’t groundbreaking, but I think each person would have to decide for themselves how much of a value it is. For me, I’d put it at being worth at least $50, but probably not over $100. That seems a bit high, now that I write it down, but you’re stuck in a seat for sooo long. The trip back to the US, for example, I watched maybe 3 movies. I don’t even like movies that much.

The exception was the hop from Tokyo to Inchon/Seoul. It was awesome. Best flight ever. It had video on demand, despite being NW and economy class, just like the other flights. I was on a DC40, a 747-400 and a A363 (maybe, my memory of the Airbus model is fuzzy), in that order, so maybe the Airbuses are nicer for NW. Who knows. Anyway, it was mostly awesome because it was almost empty. There were 2 seats between me and the next guy, so I laid down. THAT would be worth $100. The food wasn’t very good, though.

A quick observation, which is more a cumulation of other observations: Asians, in general, follow the rules less than Americans. They smoke where they aren’t supposed to, speed because they can get away with it, run red lights, pirate software unabashedly, and they stand up on airplanes. The seatbelt sign is totally a suggestion. The call for landing is actually a call to get out of your seat and run for the bathrooms, seconds before touchdown, causing the stewardess to issue a hasty announcement that people standing up while landing will die (actually, I don’t know what she said, because she didn’t say it (or need to say it) in English). There were many many incidents of people just wandering around the plane, standing around, and randomly violating rules. It wasn’t anything huge, and I’m sure some Americans do it too, but on my flights, it was all Asians. They do it in their cars and businesses, too, so I don’t think it’s a language or process issue. But the Koreans don’t Jaywalk. Probably because the people in the cars violate their laws enough to kill people pretty regularly. Also, they don’t talk on their cellphones much when they drive, but that’s because people get money for photographing and turning in people who are doing so, and it’s become a bit of a mercenary business in Seoul, I’m told. The moral of the story is, only laws that immediately lead to death or fines are obeyed. Not that we’re perfect. I started driving well before the legal age, and I always got ~5mph over the speed limit. I’m a rebel and all that. It’s just interesting to see such a wide spectrum of people ignoring different rules than us.

So, I got to Inchon around 9:00, and once I got through customs and got my luggage, it was 9:30ish. Which apparently is when this place (I’m still here) shuts down. No currency exchange, most of the information booths were empty, most of the stores were closed, and all the buses had stopped. It was too late to get a bus to Pohang, so I went through my options with Jared over the phone. I finally found one lady (a very nice lady) at the motel booth. I told her I wanted a cheap hotel. She said I should get a “guest house”, that it would be about $50, they’d pick me up for free, they’d take credit card, and maybe some other stuff. I was barely awake. Anyway, she called some places and found me “Kim’s Guest House”. Someone came and picked me up, helped me with my luggage, and drove me about half a mile to the hotel. It was nice. I was expecting a hostel or something. It had two beds (I’m not sure if I was charged for the 2nd, or if it was just open to be filled if someone came; no one did come, so I don’t know). It had a full bathroom, a washer, a stove top, a TV, and lots of room. It was quite nicer than I needed, but that’s not really something to complain about. It ended up being $42, and I’d HIGHLY recommend it. It seemed like it was set up for longer stays, but the guy said lots of people use it for layovers. Anyway, there was a pickup for the free airport shuttle bus across the street, and I’m back at the airport, waiting for my 1:40 PM bus to Pohang. McDonald’s won’t serve me anything but breakfast until 11:00, and I hate McDonalds, so I’m using my time to write this.

It was an adventure. Most of the people around the airport speak English. Enough that you can get your point across without speaking or reading Korean. But it helps SO much to know a few phrases, the numbers, and how to read some of it. I think that if you learned your question words (where, who, what, when…how is kind of worthless if you can’t communicate very well), you’d be fine in almost every touristy area. But not everywhere in some places like Pohang or AnDong.

In the Korean airports, they have pairs of assault rifle armed guards patrolling at all times. Since guns are outlawed here (I don’t know if police have them or not, honestly), this is a pretty significant show of force. Maybe they consider it a legitimate vector for an attack.

The Japanese airport had free Internet. Inchon doesn’t. The hotel didn’t, but someone near it did. Kikiki. Stealing Internet may be an entirely American crime-that-we-think-is-ok-to-commit.

It’s good to be back. It’s exciting. It’s challenging. It’s unpredictable. It makes you tired, over time, but it’s energizing at first. It’s it’s own kind of entertainment, where your manners and your mind tend to determine how you do. I’d suggest studying abroad or traveling for an extended stay, away from tourist traps, to anyone who feels unsatisfied with day to day life, or get that rush out of being in an unpredictable environment. Going back to America was honestly a lot “easier”. Even though here, I’m much less independent, which I’m sure annoys people, the things I do on my own count for a lot more (to me).

And that’s where I’ll leave this, because I’m here and everything has been said.

Categories: Being There