So I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the ongoing aggression between North and South Korea lately for completely understandable reasons. The media have been hyping it a lot, not only in South Korea, but around the world. Regardless of the facts on the ground or the actual likelihood of renewed military actions between the two feuding brother nations, this is the one of the most important and historical moments unfolding anywhere on the planet at this moment. It’s a conflict in which the world’s major powers have vested and complicated interests and it’s one that spans some of 20th and 21st centuries’ most defining moments.
In some ways, the ongoing Korean soap opera is about nostalgia. It’s about looking at the present and seeing how far both nations have come (albeit in different directions and with different aims). It’s about looking at the past and assessing how we have arrived at this moment. And of course, it’s about both nations defending and touting all that they have built in 60 years.
Overall, nobody at my school seems the least bit worried about this. Nobody in my community seems worried about it, even though many of my local friends have confided in me lately that this is the first time they have ever found themselves considering that the Koreas COULD conceivably go to war again. That possibility is a specter that is looming large at the end of 2010. It will make or break 2011 and set the pace for the next decade (or decades) of relations between the two.
And here I am caught in the middle of it all because I couldn’t find a freaking job in retail or something simple in the U.S.A.
I should qualify the statements I’m about to make by saying that I’m not a religious person. I’m occasionally a spiritual person and I sometimes believe in Fate without actually knowing whether or not to believe in God (consider this my confession). Some people would probably find this incredibly ironic or even contradictory. I get that. But it’s been hard for me to feel like this whole conflict between the Koreas doesn’t have something to do with me on some infinitesimal level. The November 23rd attack on Yeonpyeong, after all, occurred the day after my 25th birthday. On the heels of the sinking of the Cheonan warship in March of this year, tensions between the Koreas have escalated to unprecedented levels and I just happened to pick this year to throw myself into the fold.
Now, as if matters weren’t already kind of stressful for my friends and family back home, I’ve gotten this news from MSNBC and CNN:
Yep, just as things were beginning to settle down, Korea is going to hold the largest live-fire exercise since the Korean War on my doorstep. We’re talking less than the distance from Bagdad to Shelbyville, Kentucky, these drills will be taking place and the Pocheon region where I live will officially make itself a target along its border with the DMZ. I’ve heard the fighter jets and choppers all week. I’ve seen them in scores on my two trips to Bears Town resort to go skiing with friends. And tomorrow afternoon while I’m at school, if I open the windows or go to the roof of the building, it is very likely that I will be able to hear the tests. It’s exciting for someone with my academic background, but a little intimidating as a naïve, young man, as a son, and as a teacher in over his head.
It’s hard to say what, if anything, will come from this. Maybe North Korea won’t go back on the (albeit, mostly ambiguous) concessions they made earlier this week, but this definitely comes as a slap in the face. Granted, it’s one that North Korea has had coming for a long time, but you can only rattle sabers in a crowded room for so long before someone gets cut. The North will reply to this whole ordeal with their usual condemnations and I have no doubt that the North will flex its muscles yet again at some point in the coming months. All that remains to be seen is the extent to which they will respond and how long it will be before they suspect they can sucker-punch the South, as that’s really the only hand they’ve dealt lately.
For this blog entry, I’m Bogarting the name of a Radiohead song, “Everything in Its Right Place”. I haven’t listened to nearly as much Radiohead as I probably should—mainly because I’m a huge fan of choruses and music that sounds “rehearsed”—but the Radiohead songs that I do like are among my favorites, and this is one of them. The title seems appropriate enough. I blinked and I’m almost halfway through December. Remember how about 10 days ago I was complaining about December moving at a crawl? Well, she sped up, Thank God, and now I’m already staring Christmas in the face. Beyond that, New Years.
2011 will be here before I know it and 2011 promises to be an adventure.
Today I decorated my classroom with an inflatable Christmas tree and Santa Claus courtesy of mama. The kids responded to them very well. If I can last the next two weeks without having the Santa Claus inflatable stolen, I will be impressed. The thing’s pretty compact and absolutely adorable and the 14-year-old girls seem to think it’s a big, red cuddly toy. Something tells me it’s not gonna be reindeer that pull Santa out of my classroom and into that snowy, dark night. Oh well, at least the Christmas Tree is too big for them to steal, although if I find out someone deflated that thing you might as well bring me up on murder charges now. It took me two hours to blow that thing up with my mouth and I will literally massacre anyone who I suspect of pulling the plug on it.
In other news, I’m about halfway through Season 4 of “The X-Files”. I feel like each season ought to have a subtitle referring to whatever crap Scully gets dragged through in the overarching narrative of each year. “X-Files: Season One – Scully Gets Hired”, “X-Files: Season Two – Scully Gets Abducted”, “X-Files: Season Three – Scully Gets Skeptical”, “X-Files: Season Four – Scully Gets Cancer”. Why does God hate Scully so much? Is it because she’s almost a ginger? Is she suffering as a sort of counterbalance for all the times Mulder should probably have died but doesn’t in each episode? Yeah, yeah, yeah, Mulder’s father was murdered (after pretty much admitting that he deserved it) and his sister has been missing for blah, blah, blah…But Scully gets kidnapped, has her sister murdered, is probably raped by aliens, and gets cancer all essentially as a side effect of overexposure to freakin’ Mulder. Which only leads me to presume that Scully is essentially my girlfriend, who would probably follow David Duchovny into Hell itself if he only so much as winked at her.
At any rate, I’m already looking forward to “X-Files: Season Five” which I presume will involve Scully buying “Wii Fit”. Oh, wait, it’s still the 90s on that show. Maybe she’ll spend the entire season wondering why “Dinosaurs” had such a depressing finale. That’s how I spent most of my childhood in the 90s.
Speaking of depressing news, not quite everything is in its right place. Our cat Sadie finally headed for that great litter box in the sky and she’s probably having her hip slapped without mercy by the man upstairs Himself as I type this. For more than half my life, Sadie was an integral part of the family. She kept us balanced and refused to take any crap from anyone, especially my dad. You always know a pet won’t be around forever, but you ride the good times and never give a second thought to the inevitable outcome. In your heart, you think just maybe they’ll end up being immortal. Wouldn’t that be sweet? Sadie, you’ll be missed. I, perhaps more than anyone else, will miss you headbutting your way past the bathroom door while I’m using the toilet, leaving it wide open and hopelessly just out of reach, while company passes by in the hallway. Luckily, it’s a legacy you left behind and our other cat Ollie now carries that torch.
We love you, Sadie.
I feel like I’m trying to play catchup on blog posts this week. The days are slipping away from me faster than I can keep track of them. It’s not as encouraging as it might sound. I’m dying for December to be over, so this month is both a crawl and a sprint. My students are pretty much over the whole school thing and my Grade 3 students look at me like I just condemned them to death every time I propose the simplest English assignment. Example: It took them 15 minutes today just to get each student to write the name of their favorite member of Girls Generation on a piece of freakin’ paper.
The phrase in English is “like pulling teeth”. It couldn’t be more true.
In other news, last night I went skiing for only the second time in my life and for the first time in roughly 7 years. It wasn’t a complete failure. Only two slopes were available: Easy and Difficult. Easy got old pretty quickly so my Korean friends quickly decided it was time to take it up a notch, regardless of whether or not I was ready for it. I wiped out pretty quickly the second time (yes, remarkably I survived the first run) after I picked up way too much speed. I spun around on my skis and quickly pulled my left groin muscle and fell onto my hand, spraining my thumb. Not the worst injuries, and at least I was able to keep going for another hour or so on the easy slope. Also, the cold never got absolutely painfully bitter, so we held our own, even as the ice started to soak through my gloves.
One thing that did seem to catch the locals off-guard was the sudden appearance of thirty pitch black helicopters soaring over the slopes at a fairly low altitude at about 8:00 in the evening. They made quite a bit of noise and literally they were flying low enough that you could plainly make out their bottoms sweeping over the tree tops and the resort next to the slopes. Eventually I lost count and I could tell that the Koreans were fairly perplexed by their appearance. No one seemed worried, per se, but I could definitely tell that they were confused. Needless to say, I’ll be continuing to keep my eye on the news. Maybe the government and military know something that we don’t.
On a lighter note, there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken at the ski resort. Not bad considering the place where we skied is only about 12 kilometers from where I live.
I also have to remark on my first poor meal experience. Don’t get me wrong. There was a lot about the meal that I liked, including one gesture on my behalf that was truly special to me. Let me begin by saying that it’s no secret that I don’t like a lot of fish dishes. We don’t eat a lot of fish in Kentucky that isn’t deep-fried or lemon-saturated catfish. Long John Silver, Captain Ds, and Red Lobster pretty much round out my fish experiences. So every time I go abroad, I am inevitably exposed to eating a lot of fish that contains tons of little bones, if not all the bones that fish has ever had. I can pick through most of the cooked ones, just fine, and spit out the bones. Even smoked fish isn’t terrible.
Fish in soup, on the other hand, can be a tricky matter. I don’t enjoy soups that have a lot of little bones in them as it tends to compromise the consistence of the soup for me. I usually struggle through it regardless, but when Koreans ask me if something is “Good”, the question really boils down to could I possibly stomach this again if it will placate my hosts. If the answer is “Yes” (and it almost always is) then I answer “Yes”, but this meal caught me a little off-guard.
This is where I would remark on that gesture I was talking about. The daughter of the Lee family (my oft-mentioned caretakers) poured me a bowl of soup. Immediately I noticed the gigantic fish head peeking out of the bowl, just aching to be placed in front of me so that he could accusingly look me in the eye with that dead, puckered face. The father immediately noticed this and told her to take out the head and give me some of the body meat because he remembered, based on past conversations, that I have a hard time eating anything with a face (call me a hypocrite, but I still love the **** out of meat). Still, this was a sweet little gesture on my behalf that I thanked him for and it just validates over and over again how important it is to these Koreans—strangers, not more than two months ago—that I some day leave the country with a positive impression and fond memories. To this end, there is simply no hospitality greater than that which I have experienced here.
Back to the meal. The REALLY tricky part of the pre-skiing dinner was eating the raw crab and eggs. Considered a delicacy, this consisted of two crab-based items. One involved the shells of the crabs being cracked open and served with all the “innards” basically scrambled into a brownish-gray-colored puree that tasted vaguely of soy sauce and “guts” with a touch of sugar. Eating it was not a problem, but it’s not a meal I would revisit for the taste. Then came the pinkish-red “eggs” that were described to me as salty and came served on rice. I ate this, too. The problem here was texture, as the consistency fell somewhere between runny eggs and a runny nose and sliminess so slimy that even Slimer from Ghostbusters would declare “I say, that is mighty damn slimy”. The second dish involved eating whole crabs that had basically been drowned in soy sauce and left in that dark, salty grave to ferment for three days, after which someone removes them and apparently declares “Voila! Ready to eat!”
So, essentially this is raw crab smothered in soy sauce. Okay…Let me put on my game face. I split the crab open and watched the father as he began to suck out the dripping innards. I hope it doesn’t taste as gross as that forced sucking and slurping sounds. I put the cleaved shell to my lips and let out a breath before sucking in everything I could. Truth be told, it wasn’t bad at all. Just impossible to eat. The rest of the family made it look like no problem, but let me tell you that crab is damn near impossible to eat with chopsticks. You remember how hard it was the last time you had crab just trying to pry open the shells and use those nutcrackers correctly? Yeah, imagine not having any of those very useful tools and being left with nothing but a pair of cold, steel chopsticks. I struggled for nearly ten minutes to gnaw off one of the legs so I begin grinding on it with my teeth (reminiscent of the chicken feet from a week or two ago) but it was all in vain. I simply could not conquer this meal, and I hung my head in shame when the father told me not to worry about it.
Oh well. At least they topped it off with a hot pork dish that would rival any meal I’ve had in Korea as one of my top food experiences. Absolutely delish. The father has now included that as long as something is spicy, bordering on the offensive, he’ll be able to coax an “Mmm…Good” out of me. There’s a running gag going with that because the first few times we went out I was so nervous that every time I tried anything I said “Mmm…Good.” Now if I don’t say that for something, the father acts like his feelings are hurt and he asks me “No Mmm Good?”
I guess you had to be there.
This isn’t a picture I took, but it is the same meal we had. Tell me that doesn’t look appetizing.
Long time since an update, so I thought I would catch everyone up on some of the funnier things that have been happening lately. As anyone would expect this means, first and foremost, that I’ve been going swimming.
Comedy pretty much ensues every time I go to the pool. First, a couple of weeks ago we were driving to the pool when we found our ways into the thickest fog that anyone in my town had ever seen. You literally could not see three feet in front of you and even the streetlamps overhead were invisible aside from their eerie, purple glow. This didn’t stop about thirty Koreans from having a soccer game behind the pool, though. We joked that there was probably just one guy out there in the fog chasing a ball around wondering why nobody was passing it back to him.
Afterwards, we drove about 20 minutes to a place that Mr. Lee (my Korean caretaker) said had the best chicken feet in the area. I have to admit, they were the best chicken feet I’ve ever had. Cluck cluck.
This week, however, my Korean family bestowed upon me the gift of gifts—something that will change the course of my time in Korea if not the course of my life…forever. You’ve probably already guessed what it is. I mean, what else could it be? What would complete the Sean Chandler package (no pun, intended). When you sample the finely-honed recipe that is Sean Chandler, what is that one spice that you know in your heart is missing. It didn’t take the Koreans I know long to guess…
They bought me my first pair of Speedos and I think they were a little taken aback by just how eager I was to jump into them. We did the whole naked thing in the locker room that made me so uncomfortable several weeks ago—that’s right, now I just refer to it as “the whole naked thing” because I’m so used to it—and squeezed my way into the Speedos. I can only describe their design as an “Optimus Prime” homage. If the Speedos resembled Optimus Prime any more than they do, the makers would probably have a law-suit on their hands.
Just kidding. If copyright laws mattered in Korea, you’d have to sue the whole country.
Another note on “the whole naked thing”. Now that I’ve had more time to come to terms with the Korean locker room experience, I really should say that if you have to spend copious amounts of naked time around just one nationality in 2011, make it Koreans. They really know how to swing—NO, WAIT. I meant, they really know how to shake it—NO! What I mean, is they’re really a bunch of upstanding…Anyway, it’s not a big deal.
I also wanted to talk about the increasing trend at the swimming pool of some of the Korean gentleman asking Mr. Lee who I am. A fair question. I can recognize enough Korean, though, to understand a few words, though, in these conversations, but not enough to really grasp everything that’s being said. To me, I feel more like a nice import car. Here’s how I imagine the dialogue goes down.
Korean Man: “Hello, Mr. Lee. Say…I see you got yourself a new American.”
Mr. Lee: “Sure did.”
Korean Man: “What is that, an ‘85?”
Mr. Lee: “You know it.”
Korean Man: “(Whistles) He sure is a beaut. What’d you pay for it?”
Mr. Lee: “Well, with the economy the way it is, the U.S. is practically giving em away.”
Korean Man: “Well he sure is in fine shape. A lot of the American models get poor mileage.”
Mr. Lee: “He’s only got about 20,000 miles on him.”
Anyway, you get the idea. I’m going skiing tomorrow so I should have something to talk about it after that experience, as well. Today it snowed buckets in Ildong but it didn’t amount to more than a solid dusting. I guess it’s still reasonably warm here compared to Kentucky, from what I’ve heard. Before I end the entry, though, I thought I would remark on a few of my English class thoughts for the month. It’s hard to believe that my first semester is already nearly at an end. Hopefully the second one will be here before I know it.
– Is it too much to ask that just once—ONCE—, given all the episodes of “The Simpsons” that we watch from week to week, that my students notice the “P” between “Sim” and “sons”?
– Is it too much to ask that just once, my students call a “kitchen” a “kitchen” and a “chicken” a “chicken” and not say one when they mean the other?
– Is it too much to ask that just once, given all the times I’ve taught them how to spell it, that they spell “Kentucky” and not “Kenturkey”?
Until next time, Friends. And if you think of it, you might head over to Centre’s website (www.Centre.edu). They should have an interview with me posted sometime on Thursday (Friday if you’re in Korea). Frankly, I didn’t think they had much of a story talking to me, but that didn’t stop me from talking to them. Hopefully their interview won’t become a story before September 2011.