Holiday greeting from Jeju!

Thursday, Nov. 28. Thanksgiving. Or, as they say in Korea, “Thursday, Nov. 28.” Of course they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here. No turkey. No stuffing. No pumpkin pie. Sniff sniff.

Oddly, today’s sixth grade class started a chapter on giving and accepting invitations, with “Thanksgiving Day” as an example. I would have done a culture lesson, with requisite props (hand turkeys!) but we had to cram four hours worth of lessons into one hour because the class is behind schedule. Hmm, how could that have happened?

But the teacher asked me to talk about the uniquely American tradition, and the kids were really curious. So, with the smell of cow bone soup (really) drifting into the classroom from the cafeteria, and a cold, driving rain outside, I regaled them with tales of juicy roast turkey, freshly baked pumpkin pie and all the trimmings. I skipped the watching football part, because I don’t like football.

They were amazed to learn that students got two days off from school, and that we all went shopping the day after Thanksgiving. Kind of reinforced the stereotype of America, the land of excess, but oh well. That really is what Thanksgiving is all about, right? Oh yeah, and the giving thanks part.

So what is there to be thankful for this year? The U.S. is at the vortex of a worldwide downward spiral, with no bottom in sight. My earnings have dropped 40 percent since I get here just three months ago, again with no bottom in sight. If this continues, by next month I won’t be able to meet minimum payments on my credit cards, which I ran up just by trying to live in Seattle with no job, and will have to decide which credit card to default on. But that will cause all of them to go into default mode, and bankruptcy is just around the corner from there. Join the crowd. On the bright side, once that happens I will be able to start saving again, and perhaps rise from the ashes.

At this point maybe that’s what we can all be thankful for: second chances. This is not the apocalypse, but it is a time of great change; a time to take stock of what matters to us; what we need vs. what we want. What can we not live without, and what do we cling to and covet simply for material comfort?

Living in a foreign country forces you to confront this on a daily basis. Do I need real butter, even if it’s $10 pound? Yes. Do I need to own a car? I would like to, but no, it’s not essential. Do I need to eat kimchi every day? Most definitely no. Do I need to be around people who speak my language and share my culture? Yes.

This point was brought home last weekend when a group of us, eight English speakers and one Korean, visited a Buddhist hermitage on the snow-covered slopes of Mt. Halla. In the waning afternoon light we hiked half an hour over a snow-covered trail, and were rewarded by the tranquil view of the hermitage suddenly appearing through the trees. A small boy labored to roll a huge ball of wet snow, and the lone monk, dressed all in gray, nodded approvingly as he passed. The main temple and auxilliary building followed the standard temple template: ornate and huge multi-tiered “pagoda” style roof atop a building featuring large wood beams and latticework doors. The eaves were brightly painted in primary colors: red, green and blue, with yellow, orange, white and black accents. Dragon heads peeked from every corner.

Worshippers removed their shoes on the frozen stone entryway before slipping inside to bow before the golden Buddha. The smell of incense filled the air. Snow fell in plops from the steep tile roofs. Crows gathered in the bare trees surrounding the clearing.


The monk in residence is in the middle of a three-year stay. Three years in which he will not leave the mountain, but spend his time meditating and moving along the path to enlightenment. Aside from a cook, he is alone. Well, and except for visitors.

On this day he was delighted to invite us all to partake in afternoon tea him. We all crowded around a low wooden table made from a single slab of wood, knees touching. It was chilly in the room, apparently there was a problem with the floor heating, but the simple monk was not without his creature comforts. The hot water for tea was at his fingertips, thanks to an electric water boiler. With the push of a button he poured steaming water over the tea leaves in a small pot. He explained that it was a special kind of black tea. (It actually tasted like mud.) After the leaves settled to the bottom he poured the tea into a small bowl with a lip. This is the traditional way of serving tea, as we had seen at the other temple a few weeks ago. He then poured the tea into small, handmade pottery cups.

He indicated that he wanted each of us to say our name, where we were from, and our age. He was 52 in Korean years, which is 50 in western counting. He was of course shocked when first K, then I gave our ages. He thought we looked much younger. Hey, would a monk lie?

As we talked and bonded over many cups of tea, he invited us to have dinner with him. We all looked nervously at the sky, thinking about the prospect of hiking down the slippery, snow-covered trail in the dark. Our Korean friend relayed our concerns to him, and he graciously moved up dinner time to accommodate us. We were grateful, as it would have been very bad manners to turn down his invitation.

Any preconception of Buddhist monks being solemn and taciturn was shattered at dinner when the monk happily plopped himself down next to, and almost on top of, one young man in our group, while giving him a hearty hug. J was taken aback, but was a good sport about it. Oddly, the monk did not actually dine with us, but hovered around the table making sure we were taken care of.

We felt a bit sorry for his cook, who didn’t know until 15 minutes before dinner that she would be serving not one but 10 meals! After a simple meal the monk loaded us up with organic tangerines (which they call oranges) and we headed down the trail. I was thankful that we made it out before dark.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Eat a huge piece of pumpkin pie with real whipped cream for me.


The good, the bad and the just plain weird

Not to sound like a total cultural rube, but they do things differently here in Korea. Some things seem incredibly backward, while others are surprisingly “forward thinking,” as they like to say here. So here is a list of the good, the bad and the just plain weird, which straddles both categories.

Good: Heated toilet seats that have the ability to blow hot air on your backside.

Bad: The fact that you are not supposed to flush toilet paper, so every bathroom – and I mean every – has a basket for used toilet paper. Ewww.

Also bad: School and other public bathroom sinks use only cold water and communal bar soap. And there is often no toilet paper or paper towels. Probably because people use the toilet paper AS paper towels.

Good: Korean fashions. The endless fashion parade here is fascinating. It’s been interesting to see the fashions move from slinky long T-shirt tunics, leggings and spike heeled shoes to bulky, oversized sweater tunics — and leggings and spike heeled boots.

Bad: How Korean fashions look on my very un-Korean body. Went sweater shopping Monday and the shop clerk piled on the layers till I looked like Yeti’s fatter, older sister. All the while she kept proclaiming “beautiful,” and “luxury.”

Weird: Most clothing shop are very small, veritable hole-in-the-walls. As such, there is no room for a separate dressing room. Often the clerks will just start peeling off your clothes right in the shop. In the awesome underground shopping mall, I was interested in trying on a dress, so the clerk just rolled a rack of clothes across the entrance and gestured for me to take off my clothes. O…K…. It was fine though, and I ended up buying the dress – it was an extra large and very stretchy.

Good: “Kkul cha,” (honey tea) a nectar-of-the-gods combination of honey and slivers of fruit such as pears or orange rinds. A heaping spoonful in a cup of hot water is the best thing ever for soothing sore throats. I am the only teacher who carries a mug of it around the school, but I don’t care.

Bad: As a foreigner surrounded by germy kids, every passing cold bug latches on to me. They really should tell incoming teachers to get their DPT shots updated.

Also bad: They like to give shots for everything. One teacher recently was so sick she went to the hospital, where they diagnosed bronchitis — and gave her a shot in the ass. Who knew — Korea has a cold vaccine!

Good: The streets here are amazingly neat and clean. There is, for the most part, no trash blowing down the streets or garbage cans overflowing. Order is the order of the day. It is kept this way by an army of old women, covered head to toe to keep off the damaging sun rays, who move along the streets and bus stops stooped over, sweeping with short brooms and a dustpan on a stick. Meticulously they sweep up every cigarette butt and candy wrapper.

Bad: Although it guarantees employment for this battalion of grannies, people do litter freely. I think it comes from knowing that someone will pick up after them.

Weird: Konglish; that odd and ever perplexing blend of wildly translated English and random use of letters and numbers. This week I saw a hoodie, probably meant for the teen girl market, boldly printed like a football jersey with “69.”  Um. I really hope they don’t take that one to college in America.

Great: Floor heating. It’s awesome. It’s designed for a culture that lives on the floor, doing everything from cooking to sleeping within six inches of the ground. It heats up quickly and makes the whole room cozy. Sammy loves it.

Really bad: The temperature plunged this week, down to near zero with a fierce wind whipping up off the water. Snow fell on Mt. Halla, unseasonably early they said. But, the schools don’t like to turn on the heat this early, so both my schools were freezing!! The teachers suffered even worse than I did, maybe because they have no body fat. Hah. But the Korean motto is “endure,” which they did by shivering in their coats and sitting on heated seat pad – a great invention.

The standard school design is to have a long hallway running the length of the building along one wall of windows, with the classrooms off of that. With no heat the halls were literally freezing, while the classrooms were a few degrees warmer, mostly due to body heat. Maybe next week’s lesson will be “How cold is it?” Or maybe, “Can you feel your toes?”
Today at my little school, where the teachers are kind and the kids are cute, I was handed a cup of hot tea. When I looked at the cup I was enchanted to see this verse of tea cup wisdom scrolling down the side:

I wish to be big enough to hold the world in me.

It’s a wonder how much a small cup like this can hold.

I saw my face looking back at me, the moon in it when I was drinking at night by the window, the sky and the trees in it when I had tea under the alamo.

Alamo?? Yes, alamo. It was a beautiful, zen-like sentiment up until that typically bizarre, typically Korean, moment.

A day like no other

On the bus ride to school Wednesday I saw a dog doing a handstand.  But that wasn’t the most unlikely thing that happened.

That was also the *day Barack Obama defied the odds, silenced the cynics and made me, and millions  of others, proud to be an American.
Congratulations,  President-elect Barack Hussein Obama. Or as I called him in numerous emails and posts that day, OBAMA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Barack Obama. After eight years of chewing on ground glass,  it’s a name that rolls around in the mouth like a sweet marble of… marbley sweetness.

*Korea is currently 15 hours ahead of Pacific Daylight Time.

When I arrived at school my co-teacher was waiting for me on the front steps, hopping up and down and apologizing for not telling  me Tuesday that there were no English classes,  as all the students were testing.  Ha. I actually found that out by accident. I’ve learned that without being able to converse with the teachers or read the message board, I have to look for subtle clues that something is up. Tuesday I noticed that the desks in one sixth grade class had been rearranged into neat, single file rows, instead of the usual communal clumps.
When I asked the teacher about it, as we were about to begin our lesson, she said it was because all the students were testing tomorrow. Then it dawned on her that that meant there were no English classes.
So, while my co-teacher looked like she was afraid I was going to be upset about having my classes canceled, I was anything but. A day without facing nearly 200 blank faces and gawping mouths is never a bad thing, but I knew I would have had trouble concentrating anyway, as it was the long-anticipated day of the U.S. presidential election.
With the time difference, when the polls started closing Tuesday night on the east coast it was 10 a.m. Wednesday,  Nov. 5 in Korea. I was so nervous I left my computer on all night,  in case I needed to jump to check if anything catastrophic had happened while I was sleeping. Or not sleeping,  as was the case.

I was grateful for the high speed internet and big screen TV in the English room, as I was glued to the computer for most of the day, watching history unfold,  hopefully in the right direction. At one point a swarm of sixth graders from the class next door came to see that I was doing. They were as welcome as snakes on a plane. Korean children have no sense of personal boundaries,  and think nothing of getting right up in your face to see what you are doing. I had to slap their hands away from the keyboard and keep them from playing with the microphone, while trying to explain the U.S. election process to them. I finally said the electoral votes were like points, and the person with the most points is the winner. They understood that, natural born gamblers that they are. If they ran the country elections would be decided by bingo. Or, beeeengo!!! as they call it.

I alternated between watching MSNBC and the New York Times (CNN required a special download that I couldn’t do), posting comments on facebook and emailing people back home. Thank goodness I didn’t have to be interrupted by teaching! One of my main goals on facebook was to try to arrange, or hook up with, a celebration party of fellow expats. Alas, those efforts fizzled. It was deeply disappointing to see the celebrations going on around the world and not be able to join in.

When the election was finally called for Obama, I was at another computer that didn’t have Adobe Flash, so no video. I saw the news in the New York Times headline.  I let out a cheer, which startled the Korean teacher sitting across from me. “Obama won!” I explained. She just smiled and nodded. When the athletic director came in I attempted a high five, which he lamely returned. Not exactly a champagne shower or dancing in the streets. Everyone went back to work and I was left to try to keep from sobbing with joy while I emailed people in silence,  giving the exclamation point key a good workout. Everyone here is happy that Obama won though, saying he is very popular in Korea. His worldwide popularity is one of the things I like about him. Finally, a president we can be proud of!

I had hoped there would be an impromptu celebration at the local expat bar, but when I checked at 5:30 it was dead. I ended up having a hamburger and Heinken with C, then calling it a night.

One sour note of the day was when a person whom I considered a friend posted a message saying she didn’t think Obama was going to change anything, that he was just another politician,  and other very negative opinions.  I was sad because anyone who thinks like that just doesn’t get it. They miss the magic, yes magic, that is Barack Obama. I’m as cynical as they come. I’ve lived through the heart-breaking assassinations  of JFK, RFK, MLK,  the Viet Nam war, Nixon, Reaganomics, and the current eight-year-long  nightmare, not to mention my own personal disappointments  and disillusionments.   But when I saw Barack Obama speak at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, I was smitten. Yes, smitten, as corny as that sounds. He was articulate, intelligent and passionate. I said then that I would vote for him for president in a heartbeat. It’s been four long years and many, many heartbeats, but I finally had that chance.

As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said about the election, “”That whole dark cloud of the Bush administration has all the sudden been lifted.” Exactly!

So what’s the big deal about Obama? What can I say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times in this endless campaign?  Aside from the obvious intelligence,  youthful vigor and gifted rhetorical skills,  he has given us all a chance to believe in America again; to believe that we can make a difference in the world, and in our own lives; that we are not passive passengers on a runaway political bus,  but drivers of our destiny.

Barack Obama, center, Rep. Rick Adams, left, and Gov. Gregoire, right; April rally in Seattle. I had a front row seat!

Barack Obama, center, Rep. Rick Adams, left, and Gov. Gregoire, right; April rally in Seattle. I had a front row seat!

I had the chance to see him in Seattle in April, and it was the most moving experience of my life. Along with 18,000 others, I shed the last remnants of my cynicism and joined the chant, “Yes we can!” The millions  of, truly, my fellow Americans who voted for him and his vision share that sentiment. It was a huge leap of faith to cast our lot with this unproven senator from Illinois,  but we have made that leap and it paid off. I feel sorry for those left standing on the other shore. But he can say it better than I can. Just listen to his acceptance speech. I dare you to not be moved.

Down a rabbit hole, up a mountain

Life here on Jeju may be maddening, frustrating, confusing, exhausting and challenging, but it is rarely dull. Not a day goes by that I don’t shake my head and laugh at the latest “Alice in Wonderland” antics, both at school and on the street. Just yesterday at the bus stop I saw this adorable toddler wearing a huge red UCLA sweatshirt, over a fluffy pink ballerina skirt.

And the Konglish signage never fails to make me laugh. There was an abundance of such signage last weekend, when C., K and I hiked up Mt. Halla, the distinct volcano that is the epicenter of the island. Here are some prime sign examples, plus a few photos taken along the way. The “trail” was several miles of steep rocks and steps, jam packed the length and breadth with Koreans out enjoying one of the last days of the fall foliage season. The top of the mountain was not accessible via the trail we took, which ended at a hut serving ramen noodles and snacks. Oh well, it was a beautiful walk.

Follow the line of hikers down the trail...

Follow the line of hikers down the trail...

One section of the trail crosses a lava boulder field.

One section of the trail crosses a lava boulder field.

Back in the city, why, why, why would you put a picture of a bald Nicole Kidman on the side of your hair salon? You can't make this stuff up.

Back in the city, why, why, why would you put a picture of a bald Nicole Kidman on the side of your hair salon? You can't make this stuff up.

If you thought Koreans were conservative…

Then a visit to the Museum of Sex and Health will certainly change your mind. Or at least confuse the heck out of you. It’s the “Mecca of Sex Health, Sex Education and Sex Culture,” according to the brochure. “The first, and largest Sex Museum in the world (79,080 sq.).”

The name of this museum caught my eye the first time I perused the map of my new home-to-be, and finally this weekend I had a chance to visit. It did not disappoint in its weirdness.

My friend K, a Canadian of my same vintage, and I took the bus to the south end of the island, on an impromptu tour, and it ended up being our main stop. We had a taxi driver take us there from a small fishing village, and it was more than a bit embarrassing to explain to him where we, two middle-aged women, wanted to go. He had a good laugh, before overcharging us for the short ride.

The museum is set up to be a major stop for tour buses, and the grounds were immaculately groomed, with palm trees (not native to Jeju), neatly trimmed shrubs, and huge statues of male and female genitalia. I’m not talking coy, abstract representations, I’m talking 10-feet tall marble, vein-covered erect penises, complete with pubic hair. Naked torsos celebrated all types of positions, and bare naked ladies were everywhere. Pornography or art? In the eye of the beholder, apparently. And there was plenty to behold, even before entering the stately glass and marble building.

Once inside, the orgy, so to speak, of erotic imagery continued, from somewhat educational displays to downright hardcore porn. Without the benefit of English text, it was often hard to tell the difference. The Konglish brochure offered these helpful pointers: “What is sex for us? Sex can be beautiful, healthy and enjoyable, but it can also be scary, taboo and shameful.” It went on to say, in red letters: “There is a difference between adults’ genders and teenagers’ genders!!” Yes, double exclamation points. Allow me to add my own: WTF?!?  Neither the brochure nor the exhibit actually illuminated what this difference between adult and teenage “genders” might be. Koreans claim homosexuality doesn’t exist here, yet the most popular male pop stars are extremely effeminate. Many men wear quite girly looking clothes, and no one bats an eye. Maybe homosexuality “doesn’t exist” here because there is already such a blurred line between the sexes. I have several students in my 5th and 6th grade classes that I still can’t tell whether to call he or she.

The brochure also promised: “Enjoyment!! Straightforwardness!! Variety!!  Not sure if they were talking about the museum, or sex. Exhibits included a full-sized photo of a naked reclining woman with a metal rod surrounding her cutout form. The game was to run a round, metal wand around her form without touching it to the rod. It was accompanied by a soundtrack of the woman moaning loudly, as if approaching orgasm, I assume. As the wand got closer to her pubic area the moaning, which you could hear throughout the museum, got louder. If the wand touched the metal rod, the electrical connection would be broken and the recorded moaning stopped. K and I both tried it, but it was impossible to keep steady while trying to hold back from laughing.

There were also phone booths were you could listen to phone sex (free!), a display of rather grungy, well-fondled sex toys, porn videos looping over and over, hundreds of renditions of the Kama Sutra positions, and – my personal favorite – a chaste white gown made entirely of sanitary napkins.

Of all the culture shock that I’ve had to weather in the past six weeks, this had to be some of the weirdest. This is a culture in which it is considered “unseemly” for women to wear sleeveless tops – even in the heat of summer – or tops that reveal any hint of cleavage. To get around the sleeveless ban, women wear sheer mesh cardigans or blouses over the sleeveless tops. Yet, it’s perfectly acceptable to wear hot pants or mini skirts and high, high heels, or short tunics, leggings and stilettos. And don’t even get me started on the fetish wear passing as actual school girl “uniforms!”

The Museum of Sex and Health offered a different look at Korean culture, one that I’m sure many Koreans haven’t seen as well. Or at least, not without blushing.

You can check out the museum online at

A few of the less X-rated sculptures:

And the just plain bizarre:

Zen and the art of blog maintenance

I wish I could blame my tardiness in blogging on a zen-like calm that has descended upon me in the past week, but no. I’m just lazy.
Speaking of zen though, last weekend my friend C treated several of us to a day at a Buddhist temple, located about half an hour east of Jeju-si in a small seaside village. She has a friend who is the unofficial cultural officer for the temple. Seems the chief monk wants to bring in more “foreigners” to check out what it’s all about. I had to suppress a childish giggle every time she said “chief monk,” because it sounded like “cheepmunk/chipmunk.” See, told you it was childish.

Anyway, we were privileged to get a chance to observe a special ceremony to honor the village’s ancestors. The site holds two temples, one an older, traditional one, and a more modern which is essentially two stories tall inside, but with the first floor below ground. Participants enter the temple via a ramp, while spectators enter at the ground level, ending up on a mezzanine that surrounds the temple. We were eye to eye with the huge and impressive gilded statue of Buddha. The Lord Buddha sat serenely (as always) in the lotus position while acolytes piled food on the alter in front of him.  The plumpest grapes,  roundest Asian pears and freshest rice cakes; only the best for Buddha. Explains the belly.

The village participants were all women, as were two of the monks. Our hostess explained that this temple was run by women monks. And they were called monks, not nuns. The lone, senior male monk was a special guest just for this occasion. The three monks took turns chanting from scriptures and keeping rhythm on drums, while the attendees bowed repeatedly. With the deep, droning chants and the steady drumming, it was quite hypnotic. Koreans practice a type of Buddism which is a close cousin to Zen, but that’s about all I can explain about it. The ceremony lasted about an hour, then we were invited to eat lunch with one of the young women monks.

I’m not sure about the protocol, but after we ate a quite delicious vegetarian meal, the rest of the attendees then entered the dining hall to take their lunch. Had they been waiting for us to eat first, and leave? It reminded me of my Chuseok experience, when only I ate with the elders, while the rest of the family apparently ate later. After lunch we retired to the “culture center,” a modest building with lava rock-covered outer walls. Inside we gathered in a circle on the floor (with no pillows – ouch) and the young monk joined us. She proceeded to brew up a special young green tea, which she then served in an elaborate tea ceremony. We talked for several hours, and she never stopped making tea. There were also piles of fresh fruit and boxes of rice sweets. They said it was common for monks to drink tea non-stop all day.

With her shaven head and loose grey garments, it was hard to tell her age. I would guess she was under 30. She was “on loan” from a temple in the mountains of the mainland. She invited us to join her there in the winter. While that sounds beautiful, something tells me it might be a little austere. With windows open for fresh air, the room was abuzz with mosquitoes. One of the visitors asked the monk if Buddhists killed mosquitoes, and she just sort of smiled. By the end or our visit I noticed her unprotected head had fed several fat mosquitoes. She didn’t swat at a single one.

I wish I could report that I quizzed her about Zen, Buddhism and the meaning of life, but I was woefully lax. Everything had to be said through the interpreter, and with four other English speakers vying for her attention, I faded into the background. Oh well, being a fly on the wall is not without its rewards. Oftentimes you can learn more by listening than by talking.  Did Buddha say that?

This was an experience where words don’t do it justice, so I will let these pictures tell the rest of the story. Enjoy.

You can get an idea of scale by the fruit on the altar.

Our monk host, making the first of many pots of tea.

Our monk host, making the first of many pots of tea.

Dancing as fast as I can


Another week down, and I finally feel like I’ve turned a corner – I moved into my new apartment and school is going smoother. I am, with fingers crossed, thinking maybe I can do this. I still don’t believe I am making an impact on the children in terms of learning English, but at least I am a constant source of amusement for them. It’s weird to walk down the hall, or even sit at my desk and be constantly greeted with giggles and a musical “hello-o!” And the kids are even worse.

The weekend was again chockful of activities, starting with a parade on Thursday evening. The first weekend of October was the Tamna Festival, marking something like the 1000th anniversary of Korea. I don’t have any pictures of the parade because I didn’t know about it until Thursday afternoon, when my Aussie friend emailed that it was happening.

The parade was composed of various elements of Korean traditions, from Shamans and haenyo, women shellfish divers, to a rainbow of fantastically costumed musicians and dancers (can’t you just picture it?). The best part was the complete absence of commercialism – not a single waving politician or thinly veiled advertisement.

Saturday was the day my schools have been working toward for a month – the all consuming Sports Day. English classes at both my schools were randomly cancelled all week because the students needed to practice their games. If they put a fraction of that effort and enthusiasm into “playing English,” as they call it, they would be orating at the U.N. by 6th grade.

On Sports Day all the parents are invited to come and watch the all-day races, contests, dancing and music exhibitions. It’s basically an open house, but they don’t go into the school. Koreans are crazy about fitness, certainly something Americans students could stand to emulate. Teachers in Korea are expected to put in lots of free hours, all in the name of the common good. Sports Day was no exception, and when I rolled in around 11 a.m. (exhibiting my American work ethic), the Korean teachers had been at it for hours. Everyone was dressed in their best sporty attire, from track suits to golf clothes. Korean women believe in avoiding the sun, not for fear of skin cancer, but for the antebellum notion of keeping their skin as white as possible. Here, tanned skin is still associated with the working peasants, laboring in the fields. To protect their faces they were these enormous visors, sometimes with extra flaps on the sides to protect against rays from all possible angles. Tres attractive. They also wear white gloves, which make them look like traffic cops. Or Minnie Mouse.
As I walked up the long sidewalk to the school the students greeted me with their usual enthusiasm, pointing me out to their parents, who shyly avoided me. Families had picnic blankets spread out along the walk, covered with the usual assortment of Korean food: 16 kinds of kimchi, 10 kinds of dried fish and rice in various shapes and colors.

At this school, the vice principal, my buddy, is always dragging me into the staff room to sample the latest delicious cuisine. This week it was yet another form of gelatinous rice, called doh, colored deeply green, which was apparently a plant derivative.

Anyway, after being greeted by my VP, and ignored as usual by the principal, who speaks NO English, I mingled and took photos. Things were going well until after a large group of mothers took to the field to do a hip hop routine that I swear was based on “The Time Warp” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. When they were finished one of the teachers grabbed my arm and said “Now the teachers dance!” Oh god, no. Oh god, yes. Oh well. I trotted out to the middle where I hoped to blend in (ha ha!) and shuffled along in my Birkenstocks as well as I could while the camera-wielding parents clicked away. Afterward the VP said the students thought I was a good dancer, and they got it on video. All week teachers kept saying I was a good dancer. It was embarrassing, but I think it helped to make me at least not quite the outsider. This week one of the teachers asked if I wanted to come along next Friday on a teacher hike. They do them quite regularly, but this is the first time I’ve been invited. It’s a huge big deal, really.

The man featured in the photo below, left, is Hong Song-min, the school athletic director and resident hottie. Thirty-four, not married. He’s leading the school in a form of Japanese exercise to music. They have been practicing this at least once a week for who knows how long, but as you can see the kids are still just flopping all over the place. This is pretty much a visual of what English class is like every day. Me: “What. Do. You. Want. To. Do?” Student: “I play computer game!” Today I took special time to make them say “games,” plural, over and over, and they overstressed the S every time so it came out “gameZZZZuh.

Instructor Hong soars like an eagle while the kids, well...

These kids practice their drumming every day after school. Right outside my open office door...

These kids practice their drumming every day after school. Right outside my open office door...

And this is our school secretary, showing both her love of golf and Konglish. Speaks volumes.

Sunday I swapped apartments with a teacher who actually wanted to live in the Pig Pen. She got the bigger apartment, but I am very happy with my new place. It’s right on the bus line so I can step out my door and catch a bus that runs all the way to either of my schools, instead of walking a quarter mile to the rural bus stop while gagging on sewer and manure smells.

And it has high speed Internet and a HUGE HDTV monitor. I spent all day Sunday unpacking and gorging on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. It was killing me to not be able to watch them during the presidential campaign, the richest source of satirical material ever. Speaking of which, it was also great to be able to watch the presidential debate this week at home, instead of hunkering down in some coffee shop with bad Korean pop music assaulting my ears. I could yell at that insane McCain and not look crazy myself.

Sammy isn’t too happy with the move though, since it is so much smaller, and has no outdoor access – I’m on the 13th floor. Yes, 13th. He keeps looking for the “other” room. He also is not happy with the Korean cat food I had to buy when his U.S. food ran out last week. I hope he adjusts. I did make him a custom cardboard cat scratcher, which he enjoys.

One more anecdote: Thursday a boy in class was suddenly seized with stomach pains – he looked really miserable. But the teacher said he didn’t want to go to the school nurse because he was afraid of the, “what do you call it, needle?” Huh? She explained that for non food-related stomach pains the remedy was to poke a finger and squeeze out the bad blood. I guess I looked skeptical, because she insisted, “It’s not mystery (I think she meant myth), is traditional Korean medicine.” I suggested that maybe the pain of the bloodletting distracted the patient from the stomach pain and they were thus “cured,” but this didn’t get across to her. Some Koreans also believe in “fan death” — that if you sleep in a closed room with a fan, it will suck out all the air and you will die. So there you go. Open a window.

The yin and the yang of expat life in Korea

UPDATE: It’s been nearly a week since I wrote the following entry, but I didn’t have a chance to post it. This week I got a phone, am moving to a new apartment in town, and had another showdown about the intolerable third grade class situation. My new apartment comes with Internet so it will be much easier to keep you up to date.
Thanks for reading!

Last week saw the beginning of a new chapter in the riveting English class curriculum, with promising titles such as: “How Many Cows?,” “Is This Your Cap?,” (which I have already edited to read “Is This Your Crap?”), “Do You Want Some More?”, and “I’m Stronger Than You.”
Most of the foreign teachers agree these lessons are complete crap, and no way to learn English. Some teachers have even told their Korean co-teachers that they will not use the book, and are designing their own lessons, but I’m not sure that’s the wisest course. It’s a flimsy foundation, but it is what their entire English curriculum through grade 12 is based on. Besides, that sounds like a lot of work.
Also, I really don’t feel like the students are going to learn English by mass yelling and game playing sessions, no matter how you serve it. I have to clear my desk of sharp instruments before each class so that I don’t poke my eyes out with frustration or jam markers in my ears to block out the horrible, horrible song lyrics. I can’t help thinking, I am an award-winning journalist…what the hell am I doing here?
Then I remember, oh right, bills, bills, bills. Money is not the most altruistic reason for teaching overseas, but it is a driving force and a major reason many people choose Korea. I believe it’s the only country that does not require a TESL certificate. But I think I’ve already said that. Sorry.
We did finally get paid this week, which helped considerably to ease my anxieties about this decision. I also keep telling myself teaching is a means to an end: gaining the experience of living in another country while earning the income to make it possible, and possibly doing some traveling to neighboring countries during school holidays.
As sure as death, taxes and screaming Korean children, the weekend always comes.

This weekend held a variety of diversions, thanks to my new-found foreign teacher friends. Friday night we attended an amazing concert of traditional Korean music, which was held on the water of an inlet. Yes, ON the water. The concert is an annual reenactment of a concert that was held for the king of the Joen dynasty.
The concert-goers (standing in for the royal court I guess) are seated on small concrete piers that jut out into the narrow inlet, and the performers are floated out on rafts into the middle of the inlet. A high, suspension foot bridge serves as a backdrop, complete with fluorescent neon lights, which I’m sure they would have loved for the original show, had they been available.
The weather turned much cooler on Friday and it finally felt like fall. As night fell a wind picked up on the water and the concert was actually chilly. One performer was a beautiful opera singer, and we all felt sorry for her as she bravely gripped the mast on the small raft as it bucked on the incoming waves. She must have been freezing in her sleeveless evening gown, but her voice was amazing. Oarsmen fore and aft did their best to control the craft, which was also tethered to the shore by a long rope. Basically, the man in front pulled the raft along the rope while the one in the stern provided thrust. Another performer wore a beautiful traditional silk dress, with bamboo painted in broad strokes on the cloud-like outer layer. She was seated on the raft and played a bamboo flute. I managed to take this shot of her clutching the raft as it lurched back to shore. She didn’t look too happy.

Like a lotus blossom on a calm pond...or not

Like a lotus blossom on a calm pond...or not

Opposite us on the inlet wall was a full orchestra and a big screen TV, which was great for seeing what was going on when the rafts floated away from our view a bit.
The most dramatic moment came at the end when a male opera singer was riding the waves, so to speak, while the orchestra played dramatic music which seemed perfectly timed to the waves crashing against the raft. I thought it sounded like Wagner, and I was close – music major Karissa said it was another Germanic composer, Carl Orff. The composition was “Oh Fortuna,” from Carmina Burana if you want to look it up.
As the song reached its finale a hail of white fireworks rained down from the footbridge, lighting up the water and the sky. They probably did have those for the original performance.

The concert was the first time my fellow Foreign Language High School cellmates got to meet the teachers I have made friends with, through the Internet, who have been here more than six months. Since two of them have the luxury of owning cars, after the concert the seven of us went back to the City Hall area where we reconvened at a Korean restaurant that specializes in a drink called makali, which is a milky, alcoholic rice beverage served in a large pottery bowl. Individual portions are scooped out into smaller bowls with a wooden, hand-carved ladle. It was a fun evening and a great start to the weekend.

Saturday morning (well, noon-ish) Cindy, Karissa and I went in search of a fabled Belgian waffle brunch, back at City Hall. It was also the day of the first presidential debate, and while I was not able to find a TV with CNN at 10 a.m., when it would be live here, I was determined to watch it on a computer somewhere. We found the trifecta of waffles, coffee and free Internet at Ti-Amo, a newly opened “Italian” café. The waffles come served with two huge scoops of gelato, smothered in whipped cream and topped with a maraschino cherry. Yum! The café had a huge and mouthwatering assortment of gelato flavors – it was hard to pick just two! Karissa had pistachio and chocolate, Cindy had blueberry and tiramisu and I had pistachio and strawberry.

When Karissa got hers first, it came with three forks. While we waited for waffles number two and three to arrive, we realized that the waffle makers assumed that we would share one waffle, as that is probably what Koreans do. But no, greedy Americans that we are, we wanted our own INDIVIDUAL waffles. That’s the American way! We did share though, tasting each gelato flavor. They were all divine. So much for my plan of losing weight while I’m here. It would be easy to stop off on my way home for a gelato cone way too often. I was better off when all I knew about were fish soup and kimchi. (photo coming soon!)

We caught a few minutes of the debate video, before catching a bus up to the National University for a lecture on how to teach public speaking, sponsored by the Korean TOSEL organization (KoTESOL). It was not very productive, but once again we met up with our other teacher friends. Colleen, who is on her second year teaching here, loaned me a cell phone. Everyone here is cell phone obsessed and keeps saying, “you’ve got to get a cell phone!” But, getting a phone is another set of hurdles, requiring possession of an Alien Registration Card and having a Korean friend to go along to the store with you to make sure you don’t get screwed. Usually this is your Korean co-teacher, but mine have been pretty worthless about doing anything outside of school. Colleen and Sherrin said I could “borrow” their Korean friend.

Saturday concluded with more makali drinking with Colleen, plus blended kiwi and soju drinks at a Japanese restaurant, and a beer at Led Zepplin, a young expat bar, where I met up again with my FLHS mates. There is apparently no such thing as “closing time” in Korea. One girl said she knew a bar that stayed open until 6 a.m.!

I really am going to have to go back on the fish soup and kimchi diet after this weekend. Sunday Colleen drove me and three other folks down to Seogwipo (Soggy – poe), where we had lunch at an amazing Italian restaurant, or Korean-Italian I guess you could say. The setting was fabulous, with a big deck for al fresco dining with a view over the harbor. The weather was perfect, warm in the sun with a cool breeze in the shade.
I had “spaghetti del mare,” a pasta dish made with a very rich cream sauce and tons of clams and mussels. It was divine, and only about $13.

Served with a smile, Mokambo style.

Served with a smile, Mokambo style.

We planned on going to the Jeju United soccer game that afternoon, but we lingered so long at the restaurant, reluctant to leave, that by the time we got to the stadium the game was half over. Oh well, it’s island time.

The game was held in the Jeju World Cup Stadium, a 42,000 seat stadium built to host the World Cup game in 2002. It was a beautiful stadium, but seemed small for such an important event as the World Cup, you know, what the rest of the world considers the Super Bowl, but with “football” instead of football.

World Cup Soccer Stadium. Go Jeju U!

World Cup Soccer Stadium. Go Jeju U!

All in all it was a great weekend, relaxing and rejuvenating at the same time. However, Monday is still Monday, even when it’s pronounced “wo-ryo-il.”

“If you lived here you’d be home already.”

Some of you may recognize that quote from the late great Firesign Theater. It was posted on a housing development beside a busy freeway, as I recall.

It comes to my mind every day, on the hour-long bus ride to school, and the hour-and-a-half commute home. I like my apartment alright once I get inside, but the commute is a nightmare.  Going in to town for the evening guarantees a $6 taxi ride home. There are thousands of apartments within walking distance of both my schools, and I think constantly of moving. Oh – and I found out the “manure” smell is not from fertilizer, but a pig farm down the road. I have dubbed our building the E”PIG” Ghetto.  But, while EPIK housing is not great, it is furnished. I can’t see putting out a lot of money to furnish a place when I really don’t want to stay that long.

Classes continue to vascillate between hell and just purgatory. But last week two fifth grade girls came up to me at lunch and said they wanted to talk English with me, so we went up to the English room. One goes to a private after-school English program for gifted kids, and the other lived in Ames, Iowa for a year.  One said the last teacher was much younger and was like a big sister, but that I was like a grandmother. She meant it in a nice way. The other agreed and said I was like her grandmother. She thought a minute then said, “benevolent and amiable.” I almost cracked up. So cute!  Then today as I was coming in to school this tiny girl held her arms out for a hug. Awwww.

The kids are so darned cute, it’s just too bad the school system is so messed up.

I came down with a cold last week and spent the weekend in bed. Not much more to report. I’ll try to be more exciting in the future, for all you armchair adventurers. 🙂

I really needed a vacation

Only two weeks into this gig and I was already looking forward to having three days off. This weekend marked one of the biggest Korean holidays, Chuseok (chew-sock), which has been described as “sort of like Thanksgiving.” Sure, if on Thanksgiving you eat fish soup and kim chee at 9 a.m., then bow to your ancestors in an elaborate ceremony and clear out by noon, it’s just like it.
I was invited to join my vice principal’s family for the holiday, and, judging from the reaction I got from my co-teacher, I got the impression that the invitation was an honor. I could hardly refuse, and besides, I was excited to partake in “real” Korean culture.

I had read that the holiday celebrates the harvest, like American Thanksgiving, and honors the ancestors of the family, unlike our holiday.  I envisioned a big family dinner followed by some sort of ritual, so I was surprised when she said she would pick me up at school at 9 a.m.. Not keen on catching the bus at 7:30 a.m., as I do nearly every day, but I agreed.  I thought the women would spend the morning in the kitchen, and I was looking forward to learning some Korean cooking.
My vice principal is a woman of approximately my age, maybe a little younger, whose name, near as I can tell, is Soo-sana Oh. Or as they say in Korean, with the family first, Oh Soo-sana. Yes, like the song.

Soo-sana picked me up and drove me to one of the thousands of non-descript apartment towers in Jeju City, where her sister was hosting the “dinner.” We were met by Soo-sana’s husband, who had just picked up her elderly parents. Grandpa (who looked a lot like Abe Simpson) was sitting in a wheelchair, and as they wheeled him into the building, I wondered if this building had an elevator. We foreigners have speculated that buildings don’t seem to get elevators unless they are over four floors, or a hospital. Sure enough, no elevator. Soo-sana and her husband (she never said his name) hoisted the old man out of the wheelchair and pushed and pulled him step by painful step up to the second floor.

Once inside they deposited him on the living room floor, which is not as inhumane as it sounds – Koreans do almost everything on the floor, from cooking and eating to sitting around playing games or watching TV.
Around the corner in the kitchen I met her sister, who had prepared a massive amount of food that was spread across the kitchen floor on various platters and in bowls. There were stacks of cooked beef and pork on skewers, octopi filleted with tentacles splayed, piles of dried fish, battered and fried vegetables, mountains of kim chee and bowl after bowl of unknown colorful side dishes. A room off the kitchen held a low table laden with fruit and food for the ancestors.
I presented the hostess with a bottle of Turning Leaf white zinfandel that I had purchased the day before at Emart. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bring a gift, but thought it was better to err on the side of generosity. Now I know to Americans Turning Leaf is not a high-class brand, but they didn’t know that. Besides, it was either that or Spam – very popular with Koreans. When I told them the wine was from “Cally-for-nia” they seemed impressed.

I was told to sit at the low table in the living room with grandma and grandpa, and Soo-san and her sister began carrying food in on trays, not stopping until the entire surface was filled (see photo).
I thought there would be more family members, at least her two university-aged sons I had heard so much about, but it was just Soo-san, sis, the oldsters and me. Her husband was milling about in the background, but she said something about him eating with other relatives later.

By 9:30 a.m. we were tucking into Chuseok grub with gusto. Or, as much gusto as I could muster for fish soup and rice at a time when I would have killed for a Cinnabon and coffee. We had no sooner finished eating (about 15 minutes later) when the horde of relatives I thought would eat with us, arrived. Apparently their arrival post-meal was part of the plan, but no one spoke any English so I couldn’t ask. All the men were dressed in suits of a shiny gray material that seems popular here. About a dozen mostly young men and women, with a few small children, filled the three-bedroom apartment.

Soo-san introduced her sons, simply calling them “my sons.” I never did get their names. I had to tell them my name as she knows me only as Mrs. Miller. They were very handsome boys, but one kept petting the hair behind his ear, much like young, insecure children do while sucking the thumb on the other hand. Nervous I guess. I had been hoping they would be able to translate for me, at least give me a clue what was going on, but they avoided me as much as was possible in the confined space.

After a few minutes the men rolled out a tatami mat in the entryway, and brought out the ancestors’ table. One middle-aged man got down on the mat and made a deep bow in front of the table, held it for maybe 10 seconds, then got up. The table was then returned to the back room and the milling about continued.

After a few more minutes all the men got down on their knees, facing the room with the ancestors’ table, and did a deep, collective bow. I couldn’t see what was going on in the other room, but I think it was some sort of ceremony. Sorry if you expected this to be an enlightening look into the cultural ways of the “Hidden Kingdom”  – I never said I was Bruce Chatwin. I pretty much didn’t know what was going on at any time during the event. A more extroverted person might have jumped in and asked lot of questions, somehow ferreting out information and winning friends in simple English and halting Korean, but it’s hard enough for me just being here, introvert that I am. If the definition of bravery is “feeling the fear and doing it anyway,” then I’m brave. I just sat quietly and observed. I also didn’t want to become the center of attention at their family gathering. I’m sure they were all keenly aware of my presence anyway.

Then, with the ancestors honored for another year, the men loosened up considerably. Every one took of their jackets and ties, carefully folding them identically and laying them across a chair back. A second low table was brought out to join the one we had eaten at, and the women brought out platters of fruit and my bottle of wine. After much discussion someone produced a Swiss army knife with a corkscrew for the wine. Two wine glasses were given to the grandparents, while the rest of those at the table got shot glasses. Nothing says Chuseok like a shot of white zin. Or three or four.

On to Sunrise Peak

After the party broke up, shortly after the wine sharing, Soo-san and her husband drove me back to my apartment. As the day was still young, I had time to pack up for the next adventure of my three-day weekend, an overnight trip to Seongsan Ilchulbong. Also known as Sunrise Peak, this is a peninsular land mass caused by an underwater volcanic eruption about 5,000 years ago. Rather than lifting the ocean floor, as some eruptions do, this one spewed forth magma until it reached an impressive mound, settling with a deep bowl in the middle.

While researching Jeju I noticed it listed repeatedly as a don’t-miss site. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and pretty impressive. There is a wide stone path that switchbacks to the lip of the caldera (crater), and affords amazing views to the west and back across Jeju to the east.

The trip included myself and three other teachers from this building: Karissa, Cindy and Julia; Mike, a teacher who lives in town, and John, who was assigned to teach on a tiny island off of Jeju. Karissa and Julie are 27 and 28, while the others are just out of college. The weather was not great, with rain clouds threatening, but we set off anyway. It’s only an hour and half away by bus, but it really felt like an adventure. We planned on finding a cheap hotel, called a minbok, although we had no idea how easy that would be, or if there would even be vacancies on a holiday weekend.

Fortunately we were “saved” at the bus stop by an old man who immediately struck up a conversation in halting English. And what a coincidence – he just happened to know of a minbok nearby and would be happy to lead us there. Now, anyone who has traveled outside of the U.S. or Canada knows this is the oldest trick in the book – find the unsuspecting tourists and lead them to your fleabag hotel that had been banned in all the guide books. Surprisingly the place he took us to was quite satisfactory – small and simple, but clean and ridiculously cheap. While the woman of the house showed us the rooms we mumbled amongst ourselves, trying to figure out how to tell her that we only wanted two rooms for six people. She apparently thought we were not happy with the price of 60,000 won (abut $60) for two rooms, so she dropped the price to 50,000. We were very pleased, and even more so when we found that the rooms were right at the base of the peak, with an amazing view straight up the face.

The town of Saensong is not much to write home about; a modest fishing village that looked worn out in the light rain that fell on the broken streets, piles of kelp and garbage-strewn beach. Walking along the waterfront I came across three large dogs held in small cages. They began barking ferociously as I stopped to look, from a safe distance. Poor things. I don’t know if they were guard dogs or if this was one of the areas in Korea where dog meat is still consumed. I need to find out how you say “dog meat” in Korean, in case I see it on a menu.

Our tour guide had also helpfully booked us a table at a seafood restaurant, although that severely limited the food choices for Karissa, who is a vegetarian with a seafood allergy. Good thing she loves kim chee. I ordered a dish I had been looking forward to trying since I read about it while researching Jeju – a porridge made from rice and abalone. It was good, and refreshingly simple. The others ordered a huge seafood stew, brimming and bubbling with every kind of creature you could pull from the sea locally: abalone, scallops, crab, clams, prawns, fish, snails and octopi, just to name the most obvious ones.

I went back to the room to watch TV while the kids bought fireworks from the local convenience store and went to frolic on the beach. The plan was to get up at 5 a.m. in order to hike up the hill and reach the top to greet the sunrise over the Pacific around 6 a.m. It’s only about a 20 minute hike for those in reasonably good shape, or 40 in my case. John and Mike had hiked up the night before, so decided they would try to get shots with the peak in front of the sunrise, as many travel photos show. My camera chose this moment to start flashing “low battery,” and of course I didn’t have the charger.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much to photograph. The clouds were too thick for the sun to penetrate, so the sky just lightened gradually and uneventfully. We girls had a good time at the top anyway, and they took enough photos to cover what I was not able to. The good thing is we will be able to come back! The peak itself is a fascinating lava sculpture full of caves and covered with rocky spires and dense jungle vegetation. I look forward to exploring it again, in sunnier weather.