Call me crazy, but I’m anticipating that December of 2010 will be the longest month of my life in a year full of some long, lazy months. Why? Well, this week is finals week at my middle school which means I don’t have a whole lot to do except crochet sock caps and work on wrapping up my next book, at long freaking last. But finals week is kind of anticlimactic because, low and behold, I still have three more weeks of class to teach after this week…and I’m fresh out of ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got plenty of material to teach. But I’m not sure I have that much material that will be useful for keeping the attention of approximately 150 16-year-olds who know that finals are over and, by extension, so is there time at Ildong Middle School. I must spend the next three weeks figuring out how to make English interesting for a throng of students who, even on their best days, place English somewhere between 16th-Century Icelandic History and Ballet on their level of interest.
Oh, sure. I could show “The Simpsons” every day for the next three weeks and my students would be thrilled for that. But I’m a teacher and Korea has paid me well for my services, while enhancing my time here in the best possible ways at every turn. I do feel obligated to fulfill my role, even with finals behind us for at least the next two to three weeks and proudly accept my deserved break once Christmas rolls around. But I’m soon to be confronted with students who feel like the next two to three weeks should be their reward for three years of hard work (Look at me, I almost said that with a straight face) in English class.
At the end of the day, I’m going to give it my best shot. I’m going to try to corral my kids and find something fun to do for at least two more weeks until I can start squeezing Christmas activities out of them. But surely they’re sick of crossword puzzles and word searches by now, so I have to find something truly original for them to do. I just hope they’ll be motivated.
So what else is going to make December so long? How about the fact that I’ve got some amazing trips awaiting me in the new year? I’ll be rolling out to the Philippines and Malaysia and Singapore at the end of January and working my way over to Cambodia in late February. Then my beautiful girlfriend should be arriving in March and, by the time April rolls along, I’ll only have four-and-a-half months left! My time in Korea is about to start hurtling forward at an almost unstoppable pace and right now I’m just trying to weather the storm. That seems like a tall order but I’m trying to get myself back in the proper mindset.
Truth be told, slow weeks like these only make me appreciate the weeks where I actually get to teach. Classes give me something tangible and unpredictable to divert my attention. More and more, I even find myself thankful for bad days of class because it gives me a goal for improvement—a challenge to motivate kids who are “unmotivatable”. Which means that December should find me in a bit of stalemate with many of my students: My enthusiasm to make the weeks fly by vs. their insistence to not do any work. I hope my kids like to bargain because I’m ready to put almost anything on the table so long as it means they will spend at least two (ideally, three) more weeks groaning through my English classes.
By the time Christmas comes along if I can teach my students how to say “Well, that’s a relief”, then I will consider my work in Ildong all but accomplished.
Well, that’s all I have for today, Everyone. Hopefully I won’t be blogging about anything of international political importance in the near future. In the meantime, keep an eye on the news and shoot me an email if you hear anything in the Western hemisphere while I’m asleep in the east. It won’t wake me up, but at least I’ll know you had my back.
So tonight I was going to blog about my birthday, which was this past Monday. Instead, I’m going to limit that conversation this brief paragraph. Even though it was my third consecutive birthday outside of Kentucky, it was the best one I’ve had in some time. I already detailed the weekend that I spent in Gangnam, but what I hadn’t mentioned were the abundant Facebook comments that I received this year, which meant the world to me. A little context; usually my birthday falls around Thanksgiving so I don’t get that many comments because people are in transit and gearing up for the holidays and (long story, short) I usually have some pretty close friends forget all about it. This year, it was nice to hear from almost everyone and receive a tasty little box of Ferrero Rocher from one of my co-teachers. Once again, the people at my school are always so considerate when it comes to these things and I appreciated the gesture more than she will know.
And then Tuesday rolled along.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably already heard about the shots fired at a South Korean island not far from the North Korean border and the site where a Korean naval vessel was sunk in the spring. It’s a very hot area, and it just got hotter this week. Even though I live about two to two-and-a-half hours away from it all, I’m definitely keeping an eye on what is becoming a very significant period in Korea’s history. That artillery exchange, which claimed four lives, is the first of its kind since 1953—the end of the Korean War—and new threats of ongoing hostility have become abundant in my neck of the woods. My friends and family back home are understandably concerned, so I thought I would take a minute to reflect on the situation from my perspective.
Clearly I cannot understate the importance of this event. Some people I know have scoffed when I remark that this incident is more important and more dangerous than the sinking of the naval vessel in March which killed more than 45 soldiers. As I see it, it is the coupling of that event with this new affair in only 8 months time that makes it more significant. Not to mention the facts that civilians are involved and were killed, the exchange of weaponry was actively visible, and that the North cannot simply deny their involvement in this incident. The sinking of the ship was only the beginning. From a diplomatic and political perspective, there are much more pressing forces at work now. The future of the Koreas is rolling forward in a very interesting way now and, regardless of what happens, the aftershocks of this event will be felt long after I return to the United States.
The mood in my little town is nowhere near 9/11 reactions, clearly. This attack is different from many of the skirmishes that have occurred in the last 60 years, but aggression and threats from the north are routine news fodder. The assault was terrible, but it was still confined to an island and therefore somewhat less tangible to myself and those around me. Koreans, as always, are sharing in the experience and sharing in their concern for their beautiful country, but they aren’t above changing the news channel to watch the national team play Iran, as was demonstrated yesterday when I was trying to watch television and had the station changed. Luckily, soccer is an alternative I can pretty much always agree with.
I have not returned to my school since the attacks began because I had to spend Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at a training event in Anseong, which is roughly southeast of Seoul. I wonder if anyone will mention the event to me. I am curious what will be said, if anything, and how they will reply when I start bombarding them with everything I have spent the last three days reading about. Is it wrong to be honest with them and admit that I find the whole ordeal kind of exciting from an academic perspective?
The Patterson School of Diplomacy at the University of Kentucky would be proud (speaking of which, apologies in advance to any of my friends there for whom this incident is about to f*** with their comprehensive exams).
Some people have already asked me what I will do if I have to return home, but I honestly don’t see it coming to that. Clearly, it’s not something I can rule out by I will still be astonished at the end of the day if the sword really is plunged into the earth. Neither Korea has anything to gain from it and North Korea, in particular, has everything to lose. For all its chest-thumping, it still comes off as the obstinate playground bully surrounded by adults who just shake their heads. So for now, I am just going to sit back and keep a vigilant eye on the situation as things progress in the next few weeks. I think this dispute is far from over but there would be no rationality to ongoing physical violence. I’m not saying that this peninsula’s particular bully is a rational one, but I don’t know too many bullies who are also suicidal.
In the meantime, my kids have finals next week and I have a book to finally finish writing. Keep watching the news and pray for my safety (if that’s your thing), but don’t worry about me. My neighbors are carrying on with their work, and that’s what I plan to do, too.
So for the third year in a row I’m celebrating my birthday outside of Kentucky. The last two years I enjoyed the 22nd of November with friends at a Brazilian restaurant called “The Grill from Ipanema” in Washington D.C. This year I’m enjoying it in South Korea, obviously, and I’m loving the fact that the 14-hour time difference basically gives me 40 hours of birthday time. It’s hard to believe that I haven’t celebrated my birthday in Kentucky since I graduated from Centre, but damn if I’m not making the best of it.
So how does one celebrate a birthday in Korea, anyway? If you’re me, you go to the one place on Earth where a young man whose life is more than one-fourth of the way over (barring a vampire’s bite or a near-fatal accident compensated by the U.S. government that grants me bionic powers and a longer life-span) can truly surround himself with friends and feel like a mature adult: Hooters.
I don’t know why Seoul has a Hooters (three of them, in fact) but I located one fairly easily in the wealthy neighborhood of Gangnam and went in expected overpriced American bar food and a unique cultural experience that transcends what I have experienced at Hooters in three different countries (the U.S.A., Switzerland, and now Korea). On the whole, my presumptions were pretty much spot-on. The food was overpriced, but I swallowed that pill fairly easily—after all, you only turn 25 once. The waitresses were less attentive than in America, but what can you do? And the food was pretty much spot-on, with regard to the buffalo shrimp and curly fries, although I had to order reinforcements on the buffalo shrimp, which put my bill for the night at about $50.
With regard to absurdities of the experience, I happened to notice that a pitcher of Heineken cost 90,000 won. That sounds like a lot, right? Well, keep in mind that we’re in Korea and the currency exchange functions a little differently. Hold on, let me do the math. Okay, divide by 100…Carry the one…HOLY CRAP, that’s still between $80 and $90 for a freaking pitcher of Heineken. Yeah, ridiculous. The U.S. should stand down and let the North reinvade at those prices. Absolutely insane. I was also pissed off that when I tried to order a souvenir t-shirt, they were sold out of half of them and only had XXLs for the ones they did still have. The waitress tried to charge one of the XXL shirts to my tab even though I asked for a medium and acted angry when I told her to take the shirt off my card. I ordered a t-shirt, not a blanket.
It’s Hooters, after all. I want a souvenir I can wear. It’s not like I’m going to take the thing home and frame it on my wall.
After Hooters, we went to one of the nicer norebangs I’ve ever seen. For those of you who don’t know what a norebang is, a norebang is a singing room where a group can order some drinks and enjoy karaoke in a soundproof box with a decent selection of English-language tunes. I mean the book is huge. You could easily smother a chupacabra with this thing. For those of you who don’t know what a chupacabra is, a chupacabra is the famed goat-sucker of predominantly Latin-American origin and which is of questionable mythological legend. It varies in size between roughly that of a larger Rhode Island Red rooster and an adult purebred golden retriever. Anyway, this norebang was fashioned to look like a dollhouse and the inside was sparkly and immaculate. I regaled my friends with “Careless Whisper” by George Michael and a few other hits until my voice was conquered by the dynamic duo of “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi and a cold that I have been fighting for well over a week now. This didn’t stop me from continuing later with “Lose Yourself” by Eminem (a duet) and “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, which I mostly mouthed since my throat felt like the Sarlacc from “Return of the Jedi” at that point.
After norebang, we eventually ended up at a Korean club—my first real dance club since Croatia in 2003. Overall, I was impressed with the scene. The music was great and the DJs were super amped. The crowed was poppin’ and the sweaty, gestating, amoebic mass of people was overlooked by a nice terrace where I enjoyed the surreal moment from my air-conditioned perch, Hite in hand. We stayed for a couple of hours and I was not nearly as bored as I feared I would be, and by the time we left I was feeling the most awake I had been in hours. Good thing, too, seeing as how we wandered out of the club at about 4:30 in the morning.
The next few hours found us wandering the Hongdae neighborhood with a throng of other (mostly drunken) foreigners and marveling at the number of people already passed out along the steps and gutters of the city. In Korea, these people are not treated as criminals or miscreants. On the whole, they are left there until they wake of their own accord and eventually wander off into the shadows to find their ways home. We joined them for a brief interval, stopping to catch our breath as a few of us quickly passed out on the steps of a nearby park while I took potentially incriminating photographs of them. Later, however, we managed to corral everyone to the second story of a Kentucky Fried Chicken along the main drag. We found a table and everyone in my group promptly fell asleep, leaving me alone at 5 o’clock in the morning at a KFC in South Korea realizing: “This is the closest I’ve been to Kentucky on my birthday since Centre College.”
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I know a lot of my teaching friends view my blog from time to time so this one’s for them.
If you ever want to waste five to seven minutes of class, show this video to your students. My middle schoolers went nuts for it. My uncle Jerry in Florida sent the link to my father who forwarded it to me. It’s got some absolutely incredible stuff in it.
This week marks my tenth week of teaching. Technically I’ve been at the school for closer to twelve or thirteen weeks, but I couldn’t bring myself to count Chuseok or the midterms week that found eight of my classes being cancelled while we watched “The Simpsons” in the other seven. No, that doesn’t count as a week of teaching. So here I am in my tenth week of teaching and I just thought I would blog home about what’s going on in my world at that moment.
Honestly, at this point it’s pretty easy to say I’m over the whole teaching thing. Like a prima Donna actor negotiating with an invisible director, I ask to no one “What’s my motivation?” and I’m not surprised when nobody answers with anything convincing. At this point, I’m coming to terms with the fact that 85% of my students just don’t want to learn English. Think about that for a second. That’s far worse than my students simply being poorer at English than other middle schools in Korea. They don’t want to learn, and a foreign language is probably harder than any other discipline to learn vicariously. If someone asks to multiply two integers, chances are you can figure it out. If someone asks you the capital Montana, you may not remember it right off the bat but as soon as someone throws you a bone, you’re bound to go “Helena!”
But with a language, if you don’t want to learn it, you just don’t. If I could accidentally learn German or Mandarin, I wouldn’t be in Korea in the first place.
Also, things at my middle school are very much beginning to feel like they’re winding down. I see it in everything from the week of finals rapidly approaching on the calendar to the performance of my co-teachers who, while far from exuding indifference, have been caught staring off into space from time to time when I need them to translate something. Again, I am the last person to be critical of my co-teachers. I’m not saying their performance is slipping however much I might imply as such. What I’m saying is that the full academic year is showing its toll on them even more so than me by now. They look tired.
Which brings me to the general behavior of the students. There are days of late when there are so many students being disciplined in the teacher’s room for poor performance, bad attitudes, and for just being brats, that I start to go get a cup of coffee only to reconsider because I just don’t want to fight my way through the swarm of young people (addendum: the swarm of young people who aren’t paying attention and are bound to splash my cup of coffee all over me). They fight before class. They fight during class. And as soon as the bell rings at the end of class, they start punching and slapping at each other as if their skin will melt “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-style if they go two seconds without some sort of violent human contact. They groan if I ask them to do even the slightest bit of English and there is nothing more discouraging than watching a room full of students protest doing a freaking word search.
Then you throw into the mix that a group of boys regaled me this morning with their take on the Virginia Tech massacre, and I found myself this close to giving up today. The incident began when I approached a student during class during an activity that required them to name something to do with the United States that begins with each letter of the English alphabet. He said “Burger King” first and I applauded him. Then he said something like “Burgernia”, and I cocked a curious eyebrow while he tried to fix the scrambled word in his head. Finally, he said “Burginia” and I realized he was trying to say “Virginia”—the confusion being caused by Korean’s lack of any “V” or “F” equivalent, which causes the sounds to become “Ps” and “Bs”. I asked him why he was saying “Virginia” and he, laughingly, tells me “Shooter. Korean.” and pretends to fire a machine gun at the other students in the class while his buddies snickered. Afterwards, he gave me a thumbs up and said something along the lines of “Awesome”.
I’m so happy that my students are learning just enough English to make light of a national tragedy, and I would think that the shooter’s identity as Korean would have filled the student with more shame than glee. I was not amused. And, of course, I do not intend to suggest here even for one moment that the majority of Koreans share this mentality. Quite the contrary, I doubt that any person in my school shares that idea. I doubt that the student who offended me even believed his own words. Instead, he was only trying to appear cool in front of his pals and probably to get a rise out of me. I can safely say I kept my cool, even though I made it clear that I didn’t approve of his opinion, but ultimately he succeeded in little more than scrapping that last bit of hope I had in making a difference in the lives of these students.
…Until my second and third classes of the day. That’s the beauty in teaching, I guess. You can lose hope in the blink of an eye and find new hope without even looking for it. As winter settles in Ildong and all things are dying out my window, it is like the steadfast reminder that spring will be here before I know it. There are always students who will test your patience, and there are always students who are so good and so brilliant that you sometimes don’t see them sitting there. They deserve so much to impress you that they can barely be spotted as they sit there, polite and attentive, amongst all the little devils you despise. My first graders were good as gold today. My third graders surprised me with their focus on a very difficult worksheet.
I guess the moral of my morning is that sometimes you shouldn’t try too hard to be the catalyst that births a miracle. Sometimes the miracle is sitting there, just waiting for you to notice. And sometimes the miracle is that you eventually do.
NOTE: The following blog post is a fairly graphic departure from my usual entries. I’m going to go ahead and suggest a PG-13 rating. Parents and grandparents and family friends probably need to keep an open mind when reading the following entry. As for the rest of you, the following entry may cause you to picture me naked…as if you weren’t already. Consider yourself warned.
Yesterday was a loaded day for me in Ildong.
The day was already made fascinating by the fact that it happened to be Pepero Day. I’ll address the second thing that made it interesting as soon as I discuss the nature of Pepero Day. Anyone who calls Americans commercialistic should take a gander at this marketing brilliance. A “pepero” is a long cookie-stick coated in chocolate and nuts that comes in various degrees of what can only be described as “phallusness”. They are a product marketed and sold by Lotte—Korea’s evil junkfood mega-corporation, which is something like McDonalds if you could buy chocolate-covered Big Macs at Wal-Mart and if McDonalds coined its own holiday called “Buy a S***ton of McFlurries from Us and Give Them to Random People Day”. It’s really a genius idea and Koreans give into it, wholeheartedly.
As an aside from my own line of thought, I’m going to propose at this point that you’re probably thinking “Woah, Sean just said ‘phallus’ in a blog post”. Well, it won’t be the first time as yesterday—one of the most memorable days I’ve enjoyed in Korea—was pretty much rocked by Richards. And if you don’t get that joke, I want you to ponder why we don’t call former Vice President Cheney “Richard”.
This “phallic” trend leads me to my next point of interest from yesterday, which was my first visit to a Korean swimming pool. I spent most of 2010 teaching myself to become a better swimmer after destroying both of my ankles in 2009 playing soccer and landing myself on crutches for a while. I discovered that I really enjoy the workout and planned to keep doing it in Korea, but could not for the life of me imagine how I would go about doing that what with my tattoos and not knowing how to find a pool in my relatively small area. But low and behold, I have since been adopted by a wonderful Korean family and they drove me to Pocheon (7 or 8 minutes away) to partake in my first visit to a swimming pool in three months.
What they did not tell me is that an important part of this particular swimming pool was its combined locker room/sauna. Clearly I went in anticipating that I would see some full frontal male nudity, but I hadn’t quite contemplated the extent of this nudity or, to be more precise, the duration of it. Incidentally, I had put on my bathing suit at home before we even set off for the pool, so I was wearing it when we entered and still wearing it even after everyone around me stripped naked and headed for the sauna. Hear me when I say that the only thing more awkward than being the only white guy in a room full of mostly older Korean men who have largely let themselves go in the last decade or two is being the only white guy who happens to be wearing pants. Throw in my tattoos, and I don’t think I could have stood out more in that place if I had wanted to.
You know at the end of “Star Trek: First Contact” when the vulcans show up and meet mankind for the first time? Yeah I was the vulcans. It kinda makes you wonder if the first thing the humans did was strip naked and take the vulcans on down to the bathhouse. Kinda gives live long and prosper a whole new connotation.
The swimming part was fun, even though I was initially worried about the crowd. But it worked. Korean hospitality is absolutely unparalleled and my fellow swimmers quickly lent me a swim cap and some goggles to help me navigate the Korean system. This involves lap lanes, each with about eight people and four at each end. One person from each end swims towards each other, being sure to share the lane by staying to the right side. People rotate, take a 30-second breather and then fall back into formation and it actually worked very well. Of the six or seven lanes, two or three were for beginners. Two were for intermediate swimmers. And the final three were for advanced “butterfly” folk. I was more than happy in the middle and got in probably 20-30 laps. Considering how out of shape I am after three months of comparative lethargy, I was pretty happy with this.
Then we go back into the locker room. This is where I joined my new Korean companions in a little nude male-bonding. Clearly we all headed for the showers and washed ourselves as I would have been accustomed to doing in the U.S., however I was a little surprised when one of my neighbors handed me soap and shampoo to make sure I got the job done. I washed once and thought I did a good job, but evidently I must have rushed it because I was given a new bottle of soap and shampoo and told to do it again. Clearly, I was trying to get my clothes on as quickly as possible and eliminate the awkwardness, but after washing myself twice with (evidently) poor results, I decided to savor the experience on the third try and nobody offered me soap again. I also doubt that I’ve felt so clean since I’ve been in Korea.
Then my host shows up with this pad on his hand and tells me to turn around. Now, in the United States I would have whipped out my toothbrush shank at this point and prepared myself for a rumble of “Oz” proportions, but seeing as how I’m in Korea, I decided to just roll with it. So he exfoliated my back by rubbing this pad on my lower back and shoulders and then showed me all the dead skin he had removed. Truth be told, I was pretty impressed and my skin felt great once he had torn all the flesh away from it. All joking aside, though, it’s no wonder that every guy in that bathhouse had wonderful skin—and trust me, there was plenty of it and more than enough time to look.
The only other thing I would say is that, between the bathing, the exfoliating, and the 10-15 minutes chilling in the sauna, you throw in washing and drying the swim suits, talking a little politics, conditioning your hair, shaving, etc. and you end up with about 45-60 minutes of naked time with about three dozen strangers who barely speak a word of your language. That was a first. It’s also probably the most time I’ve spent naked outside of the bathroom and bedroom in my life. It’s probably the most time I’ve spent naked in Korea, period. Between my three to four 60-second showers a week, you’d come pretty close.
But the point is that I had fun and it was an experience I will always remember. The people were great and it was a fabulous opportunity to (literally) come out of my shell. Sometimes you just have to take the plunge.
After almost three weeks of fighting a steady and, gratefully, non-confrontational battle, I was welcomed on Friday with a brand new boiler and heating system in my apartment. The floors are toasty and my hot water is restored to wonderful (and scalding) consistency. I could not be happier. I wish that the ceiling lamp in my bedroom hadn’t exploded two days later and nearly caught my bed on fire, but you learn to take these fights one at a time in Korea. Best to do things slowly, after all.
In the meantime, I thought I would comment on some of my culinary endeavors of the past week. I’m beginning to come out of my shell a little bit on the cooking front. For instance, I made my first omelet in months using the electric stove in my kitchen, complete with natural eggs and cheese, some gochujang sauce, sea salt, and kimchi (because you have to have kimchi). I also combined rice and ramen noodles with some diced beef and fish to create a sort of stew that I had never tried before which came out wonderfully. On that note, I could comment that ramen noodles here will knock your socks off. They do a spicy noodle here for about 85 cents that is absolutely amazing and will curl your toes it’s so hot.
Of course, I also knocked back the usual 10 chocopies yesterday just because time + junk food = problems. My favorite dessert is only becoming more addictive as I waste away in Ildong, to the point that I am very much starting to worry about the trend. I have consumed about 15 boxes of chocopies since I’ve been here, including two a week for the last three weeks. That’s like eating somewhere around seven Big Macs a week, as far as calories are concerned. I’m not sure if that math is accurate but I can tell you that, physically, it feels about right.
I’m trying to balance out the poor diet by going buck wild on some kimchi. A lot of foreigners don’t have a taste for Korea’s pungent national dish. I find it rather refreshing, though. That combination of hot and cold gets me every time and while I don’t usually gorge myself on it, I always feel better after enjoying a plate of it. What has taken kimchi to the next level, though, is throwing it on the grill by itself. Even using my electric stovetop is enough to make kimchi just that bit more delicious, blackening the leaves and bringing out the hot juiciness bestowed upon it during the fermentation process. I cannot recommend it enough. Kimchi, unlike revenge, is a dish best served hot.
Of course, care packages help a lot, too, and I owe it to my wonderful mother to blog a bit about the package she sent me. She sent me a few packages of cookies so I decided to share two of them with the school. At first I was worried that no one would take to them. Boy was I wrong. I put two open bags of gingerbread cookies out for the faculty and all 60 or so cookies were gone by the time I returned from class. Those babies went like hotcakes! At least I got to enjoy a couple for myself before they all vanished. However, it remains to be seen whether or not anyone is even aware that they came from me. The fact that the package was entirely in English didn’t quite tip them off, I think…
In other news, I would make a recommendation of a particular music video right now to anyone who’s bored with the usual YouTube offerings. Look up a video by the Korean girl group Girls Generation for their song called “Hoot”. It’s James Bond-themed and features some very catchy music and dance moves that are…interesting to say the least. I should explain here that I show a lot of music videos in my class. Music in any language is universal and kids will latch onto a good song whether they understand the lyrics or not, and the ones who really latch onto a song might even learn some English from it so I encourage their usage. But there are some pretty strict parameters on what is considered classroom appropriate. For example, videos by the Pussycat Dolls—not fit for classroom. Videos by these Korean girl groups, however, are good to go. For me, I find the video for “Hoot” to be every bit as risqué as that for “When I Grow Up” by PCDs. Watch it and I’m sure you’ll either agree or disagree.
At any rate, I know which one I would rather show in class. You mean there’s nine of them and they’re all gorgeous? Yeah, I think I could stand watching that 15 times this week. Hell, we might even go for 30 by showing it to every class next week. Anything for Korea.
If you have any sort of weekly contact with me via email or Facebook, you probably already know about my latest predicament in Korea. Actually, “predicament” has a connotation that I would rather avoid. For the sake of optimism, let’s say “unanticipated adventure” instead. Winter is upon us as we enter November and the temperature has already dropped from the pleasant 70s I enjoyed two weeks ago to chilly zero degrees on the ol’ Celsius that most of the world insists on using. As they said on “Oz” last night, Americans must insist on using Fahrenheit because we just can’t bring ourselves to accept that zero degrees really isn’t all that cold. Well, try telling that to someone without heat.
Someone like me.
The “wonderful” under-floor heating that everyone told me about prior to coming to Korea is on the fritz in my apartment. The short version of the story is that I have about 45 seconds of hot water a night and absolutely no heating for the time being, so my apartment stays slightly cooler than it is outside. I sleep in thermal underwear and a hoody with two comforters and double socks, but I still wake up chilly in the morning. It’s a nuisance more than anything else, but it does get my ass to school more quickly. I usually find myself in my office about twenty minutes after I wake up and, keep in mind, that ten minutes of that is spent walking.
One more thing I can say is that the walk doesn’t seem quite as cold when I have to change into my work clothes in roughly the same weather. But I don’t think I’ll be taking another cold shower until we solve this heating crisis. I started shivering so much that my instincts told me to stop drying myself with a towel. Of course I realized that if I stopped drying myself I could catch pneumonia or worse, so naturally I fought through the pain. Nevertheless, I think I’ll be bathing out of the kitchen sink for a few weeks or so.
What is staggering is my school’s relative inability to really address the issue. Nobody quite knows who to blame. I don’t want you, the reader, to think my school is not trying. Quite the contrary; they’re trying very hard. The problem is that they literally seem to have no clue what to do about it. The landlady is evidently angry with them because she thinks they’re accusing her of incompetence of insensitivity. My co-teacher is limited in what she can do because she’s my age and, let’s face it, she’s no mechanic. Personally, I blame the repairman who will soon be making his third trip to my humble abode and still seems convinced that there “is no problem”. Meanwhile, I’m freezing my toes off.
At any rate, one thing I will say about Korea is that every negative experience usually opens windows to good experiences. This ordeal has allowed me my first one-on-two (“two” because I need a translator) discussion with the head honcho, himself, the principal. It has also placed me in a situation where people from my school are donating things on my behalf to help give me heat, including the space heater I should be receiving this afternoon. This is showing just how much these people do care about me and, in some ways, how grateful they are for my presence here. Or at the very least, they are showing me just how embarrassed they are that an American is freezing to death on their metaphorical doorstep.
That is symbolism that does not settle well with the average Korean—young and old, alike. Politics and history play one role in that notion, naturally. Also, the fact that Koreans pride themselves on their hospitality (as they should) means that they take this situation very seriously. My co-teacher told me that she spent much of the weekend worrying about my situation. In the U.S.A., this might ring hollow, depending on the person, but I believe her with all my heart.
So as to make sure that this isn’t yet another negative blog entry, though, I would also like to talk about my wonderful experience on Halloween. While folks in the U.S. were undoubtedly gearing up for or recovering from costumed and alcohol-fueled theatrics of which I wish I could have been a part—this year for the friendship more than the booze, actually—I was passing time at a Prehistoric Festival an hour west of home. Here, I was treated like a child but all in good humor. Surrounded by hundreds of fellow tourists (and maybe one or two other white people), I walked between giant statues of wooly mammoths and cavemen and marveled at the number of people who had shown up for this thing. After all, there was about as much to learn about the Stone Age at this festival as someone at Steak & Shake could hope to learn about the 1950s.
But then I realize, these people aren’t here for the prehistory. No, they’re here for the staggering number of booths surrounding this surreal fair. Within minutes of entering the place, I was treated to a taste handful of grilled caterpillars (actually quite delicious, although the aftertaste was a little sour) and various nuts that were only a preview of the deliciousness yet to ensue. We sampled local wines and milk and a sort of rutabaga milkshake that I was told is good for sperm, although I could have misinterpreted the gesture. Given the appearance and texture of the “shake”, I pray to God he said “for sperm” and not “from”.
I also had the life-changing experience of making my first batch of kimchi. Most of the ingredients were already preprepared in the right portions for my convenience, but it was an interesting process to see how Korea’s national dish is actually made. First we made a sort of spread from diced radish and onions with ample portions of garlic, sugar, and hot spice all tossed together. This was spread in between the folds of two large head of cabbage until the hue of the whole thing was suitably red. Afterwards, the cabbage is crammed into a glass pot and sealed airtight. I must let it sit for roughly ten days and ferment before I sample the final product, but I can tell you with all certainty that I have made something hot enough to test the tongue of Satan himself. A week from Thursday can’t get here quickly enough as far as I’m concerned.
Wow, finally a suitable blog entry. I hope I can keep up this pace. Hopefully the next time I write, I’ll be doing so from a heated apartment. In the meantime, I’m starting Season One of “X-Files”. Mulder and Scully—do you think they’ll ever KISS???