Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The pig shat fire so we got a good price for it

Korea is tagged as the Land of the Morning Calm. But it's Land of the Morning Calamity if you've had night-time dreams of teeth being pulled, of hair being cut, or of dogs; in the folk tradition of Korean dream interpretation, these are considered very bad omens.

Losing teeth or hair suggests that you will lose someone precious to you, or, more precisely, someone around you will die. Alternatively, another source says that if you dream of losing an upper tooth, disaster will befall a senior, and a lower tooth portends disaster for a junior. I'm not quite sure what the deal with dogs is, but I've heard that Koreans used to call nightmares "dog dreams." Maybe they're haunted by the ghosts of dog soup 보신탕? (The controversial practice of eating dog is increasingly less common in Korea, but before you go thinking that people are snatching Fidos off the street to boil, note that, just with other livestock, only a certain breed of dog is bred specifically for food).

Those are the bad omens, but what of the good? When is it Dream Land of the Morning Celebration?

First, I learned that it's lucky to dream of pigs. I was told that as the totemic animal of banking, pigs signify money coming your way. And in talking with Koreans, I've concluded that luck is usually synonymous with money, or, in the odd case, a baby. Traditionally, dreaming of pigs can also suggest you'll have a baby boy. The feminine counterpart? Snakes. This would potentially trigger an outcry over unfairness (what- the boys are represented by the likes of Babe and we get snakes?! You can kiss my asp) but then I read that large serpents and dragons (venerated creatures you'd be lucky to dream about) are closely associated in Korean lore. Serpents who are deemed worthy are transformed into dragons and ascend heaven on a rainbow. Weeeeeee!

A vision of your house burning down-- would you guess this is worthy of a high five or crying? If you chose high five, high five. Koreans believe that if you dream of a bad thing, often it means something good. Various signs, like fire, are interpreted in this reverse manner. A dream about your house burning down is one of the most auspicious dreams you can have. A dream about death means you'll have a long life. And, a dream about POO is good luck too! Who knew?

I started to muse with my Korean friends over how I could combine elements to make a super rockstar auspicious dream. What if I dreamt a dragon burned my house down? Awesome, they said. What if I dreamt a giant Poo Monster killed me? Thumbs up, they gave me. And then-- get this-- they told me I could SELL my dream.

I don't know how common it is, but they say people can buy and sell dreams. People usually want to keep good luck dreams for themselves, but sometimes they'll sell (the makings of a plot focus for Inception II, perhaps?). If you read the fine print of the dream-selling manual, you'll see that you can't tell anyone about the contents of your dream without nullifying the good luck (just as you can't tell someone your wish or it won't come true), so your only strategy is to say that your dream is really good and hope they believe you. Sample sales pitch: "Wanna buy my good luck dream? It's really good. And lucky. For realsies. 10 bucks."

You and your buyer agree on a price, just as you would if you were selling a can of Spam or a bowl of dog soup, and then you tell your buyer about your dream, and then they'll own the luck of it. SOLD- one lucky dream!

If this is really the case, I wonder why there aren't more dream con artists out there. You could fabricate dreams and turn them for a 100% profit! Minus the guilt overhead. That's it-- I've found a new career path-- I'm going to start building my inventory of auspicious dreams right now. The following illustrates my deluxe model, the Rolls Royce of dreams (PS dreaming of presidents means you will achieve great things):

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Don't Make Me Turn My Goose

My friend's getting married, so I got the couple some geese. US Immigration might take issue with them. "Hi, Jordan, congrats on your wedding! You can visit your presents in quarantine at the airport, k?"

Despite how fun sending live fowl would be, these are actually geese carved out of wood and painted prettily in a traditional Korean style. They are an ancient Korean wedding tradition; they symbolize the love and devotion of wild geese who mate for life. Back in the day, the groom would ride a pony to the home of his soon-to-be in-laws for the wedding ceremony and present his new mother-in-law with a live goose to signify his fidelity to her daughter. This act later evolved into presenting two wooden ducks instead. I would assume that's because wearing your wedding suit while riding a pony and carrying a giant bird who in all probability is not an equine enthusiast is a dangerous recipe. It is an ancient tradition for geese to shit.

Anyhow, on that note, as I've heard it you can give these geese to a couple as a symbol and a blessing. With this image of beauty and poetry in mind, I shopped Seoul's famous neighborhood of Insadong for the lucky pair who would get an all-expense paid trip to the States. It is my hope they will grace Jordan and Daniel's home in a place of honor, or at least be hastily unpacked for display when I come to visit.

I've heard tell of an interesting tradition associated with these beaked love icons. Apparently, when the relationship is going well, they are supposed to face each other, like they're kissing. But... when the relationship has taken a bad turn, you're supposed to turn them away from each other. Many versions of them come with heads on a swivel to accommodate just such a change in mood. We have done much joking about this. Daniel: "Good morning, Jordan! Can you pass the syru-- [sees turned geese] OH NO!" Gina: "Hey guys, wanna hang out? [sees turned geese] Oops, maybe you guys need some time alone..." Or Jordan: "Daniel, you left the seat up AGAIN! [storms over to the geese and deliberately turns them] As the adjusted position of our geese demonstrates, I am PISSED."

Congratulations, Jordan and Daniel! May your wild geese always be kissing.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Life is about sharing the awesomeness. So, as a correlate to this credo, along with practicing the art of good hugs and incorporating Super Marios Bros into my classroom lessons, I purchased a second helmet in order to have passengers on my scooter.

It is ridiculous. Where else can an agitated cartoon bulldog, a phallic reference, a frisbee, some spiders, and safety all come together? And be worn on your noggin as you zip across the Han River at 75km?
The full-face visor is a nice feature, but I learned the hard way that it's best to raise it up before you sneeze.

Owning a scooter in Seoul is not only super fun, it's practical on a number of levels. They're pretty cheap to buy and maintain-- I bought mine used for less than $550, and to fill up the tank costs $9 every other week or so. I stopped in at an autoshop to have my brakes tightened (a request mostly communicated through mime, but my Korean's getting better!) and to buy some $6 oil, and they only charged me for the oil. It might be possible to shrug that off as an anomaly or the sympathy of a mechanic with a soft spot for lovely little horses (my scooter's name is 애마), but..

The same day, I went over a bump in the road, and suddenly the roar of my 99cc engine doubled in decibels. Part of me felt badass (rawrr my machine makes big noises rev rev), but mostly I was nervous about if something was wrong, and I felt very conspicuous about the way my steroidal sound waves were announcing my presence as I interrupted my way down quiet streets. It was like Zeus was farting out orange bulldog helmets.

I went to my second auto shop of the day, and I said, "Excuse me, my good craftsman, might you be able to discern the malfunction of my farty two-wheeled vehicle and execute the necessary repairs?" ...

What actually happened is that I pointed at my scooter and said, in Korean, "really loud." And I pointed to my ear to indicate the subject of my my sentence as 'sound' and said the word "changed." Clearly my greatest tool in communicating here in Seoul is my finger. If someone took away my ability to point I would be lost.

The mechanic ended up taking apart part of the bike in order to remove the muffler and weld the crack in it, plus he freshened up the wiring and plugs of the battery... and did some other mechanic-y things for over half an hour. In the U.S. I've been conditioned to be mistrustful of mechanics and their insistence that YOU NEED TO REPLACE ALL THESE EXPENSIVE THINGS IMMEDIATELY NOW NOW NOW OR ELSE YOUR VEHICLE WILL EXPLODE IN A FIERY STORM OF HORROR AS YOU DRIVE AWAY FROM HERE, but I wasn't in a position to be overly questioning of this Korean man's judgment. I just had to sit back and wait for him to give my lovely horse some antacids and drop the bill on me.

It was 30 bucks. Awesome.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Back to you in the studio, Minsoo.

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, my employer, asked me to come in to their TV studio to record some clips for the Teaching English section of their news show. I was waiting to blog about it until some shows aired so that I could include video, but it's been 1.5 months now with no word, so it's quite likely my chance to be a star is laying on the cutting room floor. It's just as well-- I doubt the likes of "Could you turn down the volume?" and "Is this seat taken?" were going to be the springboard to fame. Look, look! It's the "Could you open a window?" girl!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Korean eHarmony?

The other day, I went for a late dinner at a local place I frequent. The proprietress asked me why I was so late-- had I been on a date? The question was all in Korean except for the word "date," and I was impressed she knew it.

But, just now as I sit here studying my Korean textbook, I find that 'date' is the same word in Korean! 데이트 (deh-ee-tuh). This actually happens a lot, like with the words 'shopping' 쇼핑 (syoh-ping) and 'computer' 컴퓨타 (coem-pyew-tah). So, you can almost say this in Korean without knowing any Korean: "shop for a date on the computer!"

You can lead your lovely horse to yoga, but you can't make it plank

'Namaste' was the only word I understood in my yoga class.

It made sense to me to purchase a gym membership in tandem with my scooter (newly dubbed 애마, "lovely horse") because I'll be walking so much less. So, after school I rode my lovely horse down to the local gym, and I fumbled my way through the signup process. I had a short session with the personal trainer, and he put me on some machine that's supposed to read my BMI and such. I was really afraid the machine had Korean parameters and was going to tell me I was fat. But, R2D2ard Simmons was kind enough to consider my American waistline within the normal range.

Later in yoga class, I just copied what everyone else was doing, which meant I had to peek from time to time when we were supposed to have our eyes closed. I said that namaste was the only word I understood, but that's not entirely true-- at one point I was downward dogging when I was supposed to be planking, and the instructor came by and meowed at me: "plaaaaaank-uh!"

The gym runs jointly with a sauna/jimjilbang, so after you work out upstairs, you can go to the jimjilbang, shuck your club-issued clothes off into the hamper, and nakedly use the steam room/hot or cold tubs/sitting or standing showers. The showers were full of the bendy ajummas I had just yogad with, though, so this time, I bowed out. Namaste ("I bow to you").

garsh golly gee that sure is nice

Have you hugged a Korean today? They do some nice things.

Typically you won't get a Korean insisting you go Dutch. When you go out to eat, it's customary that one person pays the bill; it's assumed the other person will repay the favor if and when the opportunity presents itself. This rule holds true with the exception of when an older and younger person dine together. The older person will treat the younger, and there's no expectation for eventual reciprocation. As it was explained to me, this is because the older person received the same generous treatment from their elders, and they are paying it forward to the next generation, who will pay it forward to the next.

In a similarly unselfish fashion, when fortune smiles upon you, you are supposed to share it with others. On occasions of birthdays, job promotions, marriages, etc. you treat the folks around you. My Korean friend had a birthday a while back, and I asked him how he was going to celebrate. I was expecting that we as his friends would take him out and ply him with drinks and shenanigans, but he had no such rowdy plans. He said he was taking his dad out to lunch and thanking him for making his life possible. Aw.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cool Not Cool

Not cool: Currently, when I arrive to school after my hike up a steep hill in the intensifying Korean summer heat, I look like I was just jazzercising in a sauna in business casual. I arrive on campus to see all the students clustered around the entrance of the building changing from their outside shoes to indoor shoes, so each morning I awkwardly navigate the barricade of bodies as unobtrusively as possible in hopes they don't notice how sweaty I am. And apparently I believe lack of eye contact makes you invisible. If I don't look at you you can't see me. But it's not like my eyeballs are sweaty, and the ungazed upon adolescent can still spot backsweat, so maybe I should take another look at this belief.

Cool: Puns!

Cool: I am the proud new owner of a scooting vehicle. This is my sauna jazzercise counter move. Starting next week, I will scoot to school, and as I enjoy the wind rushing by my face I will look back superiorly at the girl who used to struggle up that hill, and I will chortle.

Not cool: My anticipated first week of gleeful scooting coincides exactly with the predicted onset of monsoon season. Looks like I'll be jazzercizing my way up that hill in acid rain.

Cool: I got a good deal on the scooter; I bought it used off a good friend of mine.

Not cool: This awesome friend of mine is returning to the States next week :( Most expats in Seoul I know aren't here for the long haul, so naturally there's a lot of turnover, and it's sad to connect with people just to have them leave. Why can't the cool people stay exactly as long as I do? I will start a campaign: Stay with Meeeeee.

Cool: Team Korea won the big Shanghai tournament! We beat Beijing in the semis and Manila in the finals to win one of the largest ultimate tournaments in Asia. I'm told it is the first time Korea has won a big title on the international scene. Manila's Sunken Pleasure was a talented and spirited opponent, and props go to them for developing an entirely home-grown team. Our Korea roster, admittedly, is lacking on the native Koreans and boasting many a US college/club player. The count was: one true blue Korean, one Korean raised in Japan, two Koreans adopted as children by US families, and my Korean half, making for an unconvincing total of 4.5 Koreans on the team.

Cool: The Filipinos posted this recap of our matchup: "Unfortunately, we ran into a brick wall aka the squad from Korea. Fast, skilled and athletic, this latest reincarnation of the Korean team was unlike any other team we've faced before. Pinpoint hucks, perfectly executed set plays and really good handling accuentuated their game. Not to mention the fact that their tallest girl was taller than our tallest guy and that their tallest guy was at least 6 inches taller than Heyman."

Cool: At the tournament I won a stuffed Haibo (the mascot of the World Expo).
Not cool: Someone stole him.
Cool enough: That someone turned out to be a three year old, so I let it go.

Cool: The day after the tournament I went to the World Expo with an awesome couple from Hong Kong who kindly shared their photos with me since my camera died after taking my second photo. The Expo itself had its neat parts but on the whole was underwhelming. There was little evidence of international attendance, with barely a non-Chinese face there, and people were waiting in hours-long lines for entrance to the country pavilions, so we line-fearing unambitious folk were relegated to country pavilions the likes of Bulgaria. We got alot of amusement, though, out of watching the Chinese people obsess over getting stamps from each country in their "Official World Expo Passports." We'd see people bypass the exhibits and rush the poor clerk doling out the stamps. I don't care about your olive production-- just stamp me! *foam at the mouth*

Cool: I like this alot.

Not cool: The demand for whale meat is growing in Korea, encouraging the "accidental" catching of whales in fishing nets for a non-accidental auction price of about $15,000 per whale. I thought I'd include some current events to show off that I'm reading stuff. I read! I'll do it again...

Cool: USA and Korea advance to the next round of the World Cup! And if they both win their next games, they'll face each other next Friday, in which case, for whom shall I root? Torn I'd be. Speaking of torn, my buddy the North Korean scholar says the World Cup has been beneficial for South/North Korean relations because on the world sports scene, it's easy to cheer for each other. Despite rumors that Kim Jong-Il would only allow heavily censored and edited coverage of North Korea winning, my friend says North Korea aired losses as well as South Korea games.

Funny: excellent source of sparkles!

Monday, May 31, 2010

My two cents and two quarters

I ask my students what their hobby is, and inevitably, the first answer I get is "computer games." In Korea, gaming is hugely popular, and some gamers are professionals respected on a level akin to sports stars. Some, however, aren't to be respected. A couple of news stories that serve as cautionary tales of what can happen when hobbyists go to extremes: one Korean man died after playing 50 straight hours of Starcraft, and a Korean couple let their baby die of neglect as they raised a virtual baby in a simulation game.

I haven't been raising any armies or babies, but I've been playing this, uh, tactical role-playing game since arriving in Korea:

NAME: Gina Phillips
OCCUPATION: English Teacher, SMOE Public Middle School
SKILLS: Ability to read Korean very very slowly but with no comprehension, throw a frisbee, smile and nod
RESOURCES: Contact information for some of mom's friends, work visa, helpful books gifted from buddies: Frommer's Guide, Ultimate Guide to Karaoke Domination, Making Out in Korean (a coyly titled phrasebook teaching the phrases which, it insists, are truly useful; thanks Sarah!).
WEAPONS: A winning personality and zest for life? Denial? Ice cream.
CITY: Seoul, South Korea
MISSION: Thrive. Be awesome at living a full, worthwhile life. Make the most of your time.

Okay sooo the 'mission' wouldn't market well. It's much more fun to shoot agile zombies and aliens or liberate girls with impossible dimensions or rob Egyptian tombs or whatever. But I've already put my two quarters in. I'm living in Korea by golly!

Level 1
-You're an alien. Card up (get your Alien Registration Card).
-You're a commuter. Card up (get a T-Money card for the subways/buses/some taxis and some convenience stores).
-You're a tenant. Collect spoons and TP and stuff and conquer your appliances. MIDBOSS: Take a shower (see porcelain-cuddling post).
-You're employed. Navigate the streets to school and successfully pose as an English teacher. Don't blow your cover.
-You're hungry. Take on a spicy Korean meal. Go grocery shopping.
-Locate and infiltrate the local frisbee team.
FINAL BOSS: Using only your limited Korean and miming skills, coordinate with your landlady the set up of your internet. Bonus: Because you've performed so well in Level 1 so far, and because of the pity elicited by your embarrassing attempts at demonstrating "wireless", you can redeem your bonus points for the translation services of the landlady's awkward son.

Level 2
-Decipher the code of recycling and waste disposal procedures.
-Master the art of strategic positioning on the subway to minimize bodily smush.
-Ingratiate yourself with the proprietor of a local restaurant so she helps you study Korean and gives you free appetizers.
-Scout different neighborhoods in Seoul and different provinces in Korea.
MIDBOSS: Properly utilize the traditional sauna facilities. And by 'properly utilize,' I mean 'be naked.'
-Designate yourself a fan of the local baseball and soccer teams and don't look clueless when the entire stadium participates in the same elaborate cheers and gesticulations.
-Play a tournament with the frisbee team. Get on a friendly heckling/butt slapping basis with your teammates. Witness a surprise wedding! At the Jeju tournament, a couple got married on the fields after play Saturday while we looked on in our cleats. THAT's why the party theme was love-- it was a wedding reception!
BOSS: Partake of food items you think are gross (see sannakji post), likely to be some form of marine life.

Level 3
-Eavesdrop on people who underestimate your Korean comprehension.
-Take up with your school's teacher volleyball team. Advance to the Seoul championship tournament (top 16 teams in the city)!
-Host a few out of town guests and feel more informed than they are.
MIDBOSS: Hold a conversation through dinner with your non-English-speaking family you've never met before.
POST MIDBOSS BONUS: Learn you have like 12 first cousins-once-removed and all their kids living in Seoul!
-Make peace with the idea of kimchi at every meal.
-Don't just grocery shop. Card up and become a MEMBER. Now all that cereal and orange juice you're buying translate into points, and someday, maybe in Level 32, you'll get a free head of cabbage.

So here I am, middling in Level 3. I've been playing for three months straight and am feeling pretty good-- which means I beat that one Starcrafter Korean dude's record by about 2,110 hours.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Photovoltaic Module Textiles

I have been a sardine for the past fifteen minutes. A sardine shooting through underground tunnels and unwillingly smushed against knock-off designer bags and suits so shiny they would be better used as solar panels than garments. That's it-- Seoul's alternative energy plans should include harvesting the shine off businessmen's backs! We could run the subway system off Samsung employees alone.

All this is to say that the subway can be crowded, especially the green line (my line) at rush hour. Apparently there used to be professionals hired by the city by the title of "pushers." Their job was to challenge the laws of physics and the ideas of personal space to cram as many people as possible into the subway cars. They would literally push and shove people so that the cars could accommodate the max number of commuters. It was like a human girdle effect: you think your stomach can pooch out those extra inches? Nuh-uh; I will smush this teenage boy against you to push that tummy IN.

I guess pushers pissed off one too many shiny suits or something, because they don't exist anymore. As much as the neighbor-girdle promised to be the next big thing in the compression garment industry, pushers fell from favor. But, even in their official absence, I think their spirit lives on in each and every native Seoulite. They've all got a little pusher inside them. When you don't think there's even enough space to slouch, a little pusher shows you that you can indeed stand straighter. When your toes aren't touching the heels of someone else's shoes, a little pusher will find a way to change that. When you think that no one could possibly fit behind the closing doors without losing an appendage or protruding facial feature, a little pusher becomes a contortionist and shows you not to doubt.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Chuck Norris just roundhouse kicked your birthday

Happy birthday to David Street... and Buddha. I move for a joint birthday party: frisbee, meditation, Luby's macncheese, and moderate amounts of beer for all!

This weekend, an American girl bought a birthday cake for our Korean friend and presented to him at a big gathering. Another Korean friend of ours, an accomplished martial artist, then proceeded to KICK the cake into the bday boy's face. The American girl was furious, but everyone else was mightily amused-- and allowed to be. Apparently Cake on the Face is a customary birthday practice. Usually it takes the milder form of a finger scoop of frosting, but I guess there's some flexibility when your friend is a national mushu star.

Speaking of national stars, Buddha's upcoming birthday inspired a Lotus Lantern Festival this past weekend, the highlight of which was a 2.5 hour parade downtown. It was a magnificent spectacle-- huge robotic lantern-lit animals, musicians in hanboks, dancing school children-- and it seemed like the entire foreigner population of Seoul was out to see. It was an odd experience to see masses of non-Koreans, because with the exception of the Itaewon and Hongdae areas, it's noticeable when I see a foreigner out and about. It's like a living game of Where's Waldo (PS Chuck Norris is the reason why Waldo is hiding. When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he doesn't push himself up; he pushes the world down. They once made a Chuck Norris toilet paper, but it wouldn't take shit from anybody.).

Because Buddha's birthday is a national holiday, we have a three-day weekend coming up, so we're headed down to the coastal city of Busan for some beach time. We'll be celebrating one of my friend's bdays, in honor of which I have re-written the lyrics from Journey's Don't Stop Believin'... Don't stop BEING... Ok ok, it needs some work...

A more successful creative pursuit was the scavenger hunt I put together last weekend. Teams had to take pictures of actions/items specific to Korean life, and the team with the most points won the cash pool. I can't quite take credit for all the clues, but here's a copy:

**The team to return with the best costume gets 70 points!!!**

**Mandatory first photo: group shot of all your team members (^^)V **

-A funny (read: poorly written) Konglish sign/menu/shirt.
-Team members making obscene faces/gestures in front of double barber poles.
-A couple: a white guy and a Korean girl.
-A sparkly necktie.
-Find someone passed out drunk and stack miscellaneous objects on them.
-A dog wearing clothes/sporting painted body parts.
-A ridiculously big bow in a girl’s hair.
-Team members drinking beer in a crazy/random location.
-An FC Seoul jersey.
-Something gross.

Have you found a costume yet?

-An ajumma squatting (the Asian squat where the bum touches the heels).
-Team member in a hanbok (Korean traditional dress).
-A foreign car.
-A Korean man wearing makeup.
-Team members sitting bobsled style in the aisle of a bus or subway.
-A Korean girl showing cleavage.
-Team members doing a love-shot round of Irish Car Bombs or Red Headed Whores.
-An older Korean couple (40+ years) holding hands.
-An origami frog riding a taxi naked.
-Team members taking over cooking duties for a street vendor.
-Have a stranger pour soju into your mouth. 30 points if they baby bird it (from their mouth to yours).

Giddyup! Where’s your getup?

-Team members all posing as Kim Yu Na.
-A couple: a white girl and a Korean guy.
-Team members putting on a puppet show using whole dried squids.
-A Korean girl not wearing heels or Converse.
-Team members serenading Koreans. The world is your noraebang.
-Team members mimicking a K-Pop promotional poster.
-A Korean couple with matching shirts.
-Team members spelling out a word with their bodies (word must be Korea-related). Ex: SEOUL.
-One team member giving a Korean man a piggyback ride (must be a stranger!).
-A lime.
-Walk into a hagwon and insist on signing up for English lessons.
-Acquire a crab. Get the crab to dangle off a (any) portion of your body.
-Sell something on the subway. Crabs maybe?


Monday, April 26, 2010

Burning Potato

Sports is like udon and ping-pong is like taco.

I could come up with an elaborate sports-as-food metaphor here, but these are actually my mnemonics for remembering the Korean words for sports (eundong) and ping-pong (taegu). Sports have been such a positive element of my experience here!

Baseball (yahgu):
A couple weeks back we invited a huge group of people (SMOE folks plus frisbee folks) to a baseball game. My buddy, after highlighting how cheap the beer is and how amusingly terrible the players are, further encouraged attendance by writing: "If you're still not convinced, through some wonderful cultural miscommunication they thought baseball was supposed to have cheerleaders. No one ever corrected them because why mess with a good thing?"
As we happily heckled, drank tall boys, snacked on dried squid, and watched the cheerleaders instead of the players, the Doosan Bears and the LG Twins (both home teams) played out twelve innings... to end in a tie. A tie!

Frisbee (peu-lij-bee?):
The weather and my health has finally improved, which makes for happy frisbee afternoons by the Han river. And the big Jeju Gnarly Nines 2010 tournament is this weekend! I hear the fields were used for World Cup training and are some of the nicest fields in Asia; a treat for the cleats, a treat for the sole! Seoul's top team won the tournament last year, so we have to defend the title as well as win the party, or, at least give a good showing. The party theme, somehow, is 'love', so our team, of course, will be dressing up like old people. We're brainstorming fun team names for the tournament, and I humbly suggested Pighting Mandus, Kimcheetah, or Gettin' Jiggae With It. I'll risk an over-explanation here: Pighting-- read: Fighting-- is something Koreans say to cheer on someone, as in 'Doosan Pighting!'; Mandu is the Korean word for dumpling; Kimchi + Cheetah = Kimcheetah; Jiggae is a common style of soup.

Basketball (noenggu):
Another school's foreign teacher saw me shooting around during pre-game warm-ups at our volleyball tournament, and she invited me to play basketball with her rec team. So, this past Saturday after frisbee practice, I took the subway to Sookmyung Women's University and scrimmaged in their gym. One of the girls on the team is a grad student there, so we have the use of the gym for free, which is significant considering the usual fee is $500/month for two hours of gym time weekly. Because of the seductive powers of frisbee, I haven't seriously played basketball since high school, so it was an odd experience coming back to it. My frisbee instincts took over more than once when I tried to stall the person I was guarding and yelled "Up!" whenever anyone put up a shot. Anyway, it was a ton o fun, and we'll see how consistently I'll make bball a part of my weekend.

Rollerblading (hell if I know):
Later on Saturday, I went over to my second cousin's place. Considering my mother's side of the family is Korean, you'd think my second cousin would be Korean, but no. As the cosmo's sense of humor would have it, this cousin (a handy catch-all phrase for someone vaguely related to you) is the grandson of my Romanian great uncle by marriage on my dad's side. My Great Uncle Otto is Horatziu's grandpa. Ta da! Horatziu's place is amazing-- a far cry from the cubbies commonly issued to English teachers-- and was filled with carefully selected Japanese and Korean contemporary art and friendly Samsung executives with MBAs and expensive shoes. No cheerleaders or dried squid here.
Anyway, so the reason I can get away with heading this section 'Rollerblading' is this: through a series of events, I will soon be teaching one of Horatziu's friends how to rollerblade. Two years ago, she bought the entire rollerblades/helmet/pads set, tried it once, and gave it up for difficult, so the kit's been in boxes ever since. We will out them! And make her into a superstar. Kim Yu Na better get out the way.

Volleyball (paegu):
I'm on my school's volleyball team of teachers. Last week, we played against two other schools in our district, and it was by far the most fun school-related event I have experienced! I mean FUN. Most of our school's other teachers came to cheer us on, prepared with giant empty water bottles they slammed together in rhythm while chanting. They were on their feet, yelling, the entire time, and they brought a school banner with them and hung it high and proud on our sidelines. With more exciting outfits they could give those pro baseball cheerleaders a good run!
It helped that our team is badass and gave them something to cheer for; we won both matches without losing a game, and then we all went out for barbecue and soju (the most common alcoholic drink here, like a rice vodka). Soju brings people together. Under the influence, some teachers who had never talked to me before revealed that they know English! The little sneaks. One in particular cracks me up. He's the ethics teacher, and when he saw my flushed soju face he called me, in English, a burning potato.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Skip Down the Chocolate River

The air here does not agree with me, and it has made me a liar. Yes, the air here (three parts nitrogen, two parts oxygen, and one part cigarette smoke) has made a perjurer of me. I wrote that I was officially not sick, and now that is false. After a week of feeling a tightness in my chest, I went to the doc, and I have some sort of upper respiratory infection. There's a rumor that the pharmaceutical companies pay doctors to overprescribe, but regardless of whether or not that's true, I have a heap of pills to take with every meal. I have my doubts to their efficacy because this stubborn nugget of ow-ness on the left side of my chest has stayed intact, and it's been tough getting through ultimate practices, but yesterday a strange thing happened. We had practice, a break, and then a league game. I hurt through practice, but at league I felt significantly better. Where could the change have come from? I've sourced it back to the ramen I ate during the break. But of course! The medicinal qualities of msg!

Healthcare here is super cheap. Through the co-payment system (there's a max co-payment ceiling of 3mil won over a 6mos period), my x-ray and the doctor's fee was less than $30, and my mountain of pills was less than $5. I pay about $50 a month for my national health insurance (a percentage of my wage that is matched by my employer). Since 1988, Korea has had universal health insurance coverage made possible by contributions from the insured and government subsidy.

(oops... now almost a week after I started this draft...)

My attempts at online self-diagnosis with symptoms like 'chest pain' and 'difficulty breathing deeply' kept leading to serious warnings to seek medical attention and to me freaking out, so, even as someone generally reluctant to go to doctors, I made an appointment at an international clinic. For some reason when I made the appointment they failed to tell me that it was on the English-speaking doctor's weekly day off, so when I showed up, I was shown to a Geriatrics doctor with limited English skills, which was rather beside the point of my visit to the international clinic (as opposed to my neighborhood doc), the mad dash from school, and the $11 cab ride. Nevertheless, a game of charades and an x-ray later, I had my prescription. If I were writing some kind of parallel Neverland/Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory story, I would fashion the doctor as a human pez dispenser in a lab coat. The ailing girl would point to parts of her body and make faces, and then the pez dispenser would tilt his skull back and from his dislocated jaws he would produce a a pastel-blue brick of medicine. The girl would take the brick with both hands and put it in her little backpack, secure in the idea of forthcoming health, and skip down the chocolate river.
I don't know why this occurred to me, but there you are.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Natural By Themselves Will Wear the Sauce

Koreans eat live octopus. I hear it's yummy. And if you go to a seaside restaurant and order sashimi, often the octopus will come for free! as "service". These aren't giant flabby purple things but petite translucent creatures; these baby octopi are cut up and then served immediately so that they're still wriggling their grippy little appendages... protesting with each bend and flex the termination of their lives and their fate as novelty food, as their frantic acrobatics amuse and amaze and sicken tourists tempted to eat them... The name for a bowl of wiggly baby arms is sannakji.
Here is a visual for you. I will not be eating this. Or, at least I won't be eating this without powerful persuasion-- either from alcohol or a native Korean who wants me to appreciate their culture. If you pull the culture card it can be hard for me to say no. Nakedness in the public baths falls into the same category of "I'd Really Rather Not... but Then There's This Respect the Culture Thing, Sooo (Dammit) Hmm..."
My co-teacher-- the one I'm considering nicknaming Button (as in 'as cute as')-- told me that preparing to eat sannakji takes very little effort. You don't need to pick an arm up with the chopsticks; instead, you just hold a chopstick above one, and it'll climb aboard and wrap itself around your stick. And then you don't need to work to dip it in your sauce; just put it close and the octo-arm will move and swish in the sauce by itself. The way Button described it, word for word, was "put it close and they natural by themselves will wear the sauce." Suit up!
I've heard that sannakji can be difficult to wrangle into your mouth- you can miss, and it'll grip the outside of your cheek or something. Haha what if it SLAPPED you: "There's no changing my fate, but at least I'm gonna slap the sonuvabitch on my way out."
Once it's in your mouth, give it a mighty and thorough chew. If you don't kill the sucker (pun!) between your teeth, it might cause some problems for you when you try to swallow. I wonder what would happen if you just ate it whole without chewing, and it was still alive as it slid down your esophagus... is the inside of your stomach ticklish?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Heckle zombie

Wait, do people I don't know read this thing? If random people think my ramblings are interesting I'd be tickled. Just tickled!

I officially pronounce myself not sick. Ta da! Yes, ladies and gents, it's been a long time coming, but now I can say I've kicked the flu. It was an agonizing battle, but I have slain the stubborn foe. My gummiberry juice operation will suffer, but that's a loss I'll gladly take for the privilege of breathing through my nose once more.

Last weekend I underestimated how sick I still was and zombied through a weekend in Gyeongju with SMOE friends. Gyeongju is 230 miles southeast of Seoul-- 4 hours by bus. This weekend, though, I took another 4-hr bus ride to Ulsan for a frisbee tournament. We played at the university, and since there was only one field, there was a lot of down time to sit around and heckle. There are some skillful heckle vets in our ranks. To be sure, it is an art of cleverness, timing, and conviction. It is not at just any moment at any decibel that one may yell "hammer or you're nothing!" to great effect.

My body wasn't exactly on board with my plan to be athletic this weekend (chiropractic appointment today!), but my team managed to lose respectably in the finals, and *garsh shuffle blush*, I was voted the tournament's female MVP... (do pardon my brag!). And again, I met some people that I'm connected to in ridiculously unexpected and manifold ways. The world it is a small one. Or, my network it is a big one? Or, I am pleasantly stalked by friends of friends?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Aha! Saboteur!

"Quick Korean learn do" is the direct translation of what I need to do (Bbali hangookmal paewo heh... this is not the official romanized version of the Korean a la the 2000 debut). My landlady told me this when we were mucking through a conversation about setting up internet, and I felt this through and through when I sat at lunch with a table of only-Korean-speaking teachers at lunch (I usually sit with the English department) with all the desire to have a conversation but nothing to follow through with. Later I asked one of my co-teachers how I could have said, "how are you?" or "how is your day going?", and she said that those are particularly English questions, and if I want to start a conversation I should ask about food. This struck me as funny-- "if you want to talk to someone, don't ask them about their thoughts or feelings; ask them about lunch." She continued by saying that in Korea the three meals of the day are really important, so people mentally organize their day around them. I should ask a lead-in question like "have you eaten lunch yet?" at any point pre-lunch. I haven't come to terms with this quite yet-- the idea of replacing 'how're you' with 'how bout that next meal'... and besides I already know when all the teachers are scheduled to eat lunch, so asking seems silly. I wonder if she's pulling my leg and really there's an easy 'what's up' equivalent and she's just setting me up to be the weird foreigner obsessed with talking about food... Aha! Saboteur! I'm on to her.

Last week was my first attempt at clothes shopping. Aaaand the Chubby Giant struck out. We went to a Migliore, which is a kind of truce between a department store and a flea market: vendors have their own sections crammed against each other in a six-story building organized floor by floor, and you're allowed to haggle. I was overwhelmed and intimidated. There were so many clothes and people flagging you down, and the aisles were so narrow, and the clothes were for the most part just TINY (what is this- a center for ants? -Zoolander). And I had witnessed my friend being turned down to try on anything, which we figured was a form of discrimination against clumsy foreigners, so I was timid. But apparently a lot of places won't let customers try on anything for fear of damaging the merchandise in some way, so it's common to buy without trying, an idea which seems to Un-Korean-proportioned Me to be one with a low probability for success. Thus, I just browsed. I'm sure I'll try again soon; with a proper pep talk and the right phrases handy, I will prevail! The day I buy pants here I will hold the receipt above my head in victory.

Love Actually Korea

One of my co-teachers is really curious about Western relationships and asks me all sorts of questions, which of course, as a Communications: Human Relations major and gossip I am happy to answer. Through our conversations I'm learning about the Korean dating culture, and now my impression is that Koreans are little dating speedracers. Beep beep! A race to coupledom. Here is a rough recap of our dialogue:

Co: If two people are dating, doesn't that mean love? Doesn't that mean they are a couple?
Me: No... two people can date (as in go out on dates) just to figure out if they like each other, and even if they both like each other, they may decide not to commit to being a couple. Love is something people take seriously and develop over time and may not say even when they feel it. Ok, ok-- this does not reflect the attitudes of all Americans, I know.
Co: We say 'I love you' very quickly. It means... 'I like you.' So it's not uncommon to say on the first date.
Me: *mouth open*
Co: And it's not uncommon to be a couple after the first date. He'll ask you to be his girlfriend. And then maybe on the next date you'll go together to buy each other couple rings. See my post on this. And you can buy couple/matching shirts, too. My friend reports that couples also buy matching underwear sets-- barf-o-rama.
Me: Do you say something different later when you feel love like the American concept of love?
Co: No, we say the same thing.
Me: If Koreans become a couple really quickly, does that make for more break-ups? What happens to the rings?
Co: Yes, you are a couple more easily, and breakups come more easily. You sell the rings back to the jewelry shop.
Me: And here I thought for a moment that you'd sell your rings to another couple-- "didn't work for us, but here, you give it a go."
Co: What about sex?
Me: Well, some Americans treat it like something you do to express love after you've built a relationship with someone, and some Americans are casual about it.
Co: I think Americans and Koreans are the opposite in sex and love. With Americans, sex comes easily, and with Koreans, love comes easily.
Me: That can be true; some Americans who would never say 'I love you' on a first date wouldn't think it weird to sleep with someone instead.
Co: *mouth open*

Monday, March 29, 2010

Gummiberry Juice

I am shocked by how much mucus and phlegm my body produces. Oh flu. The factory is operating 24/7-- if only somehow I could get my body to focus on turning out something else, something worthwhile or profitable-- like honey... or Gatorade powder... or Gummiberry Juice. My research on Wikipedia supports the fabulousness of this idea. Gummiberry Juice is "a magic potion that endows Gummi bears with bouncing abilities, but gifts humans (or ogres) with momentary super-strength as well as other numerous uses, including serving as fuel for mechanical machines." Just think what a popular gal I'd be with Gummi bears, ogres, and mechanical machines; you could come to my parties and rub elbows with animated bears from the 80's, monsters, and tractors.

I've been in Korea for over a month. I had a week of orientation, and now I'm in my fourth week of teaching. I'm learning what different personalities different classes have-- they'll respond completely differently to the same activity-- and how so much of teaching kids is the simple struggle to keep their attention. I guess all my teachers growing up did a good job of being professional and hiding how human they were, but being a teacher now I can tell you that there are definitely kids I favor and kids that annoy me, and sometimes in class when it's obvious the kids don't care, I have to will myself to keep trying to move the class forward. Oops. I don't think I'll be taking home any teaching awards here, but I'm confident I'll get better. I'm keeping an open mind, but so far I haven't felt any kind of click that would lead me to believe I've found my calling as a career. I don't mean to be negative-- some of my classes are really fun and/or really gratifying, some of my kiddos are cute and excited about learning, I'm definitely learning a lot about classroom management and lesson planning, I like the freedom/demand for creativity, and it's interesting to see my teaching style take shape. Plus I get to write on the whiteboard a lot.

You'll have to refer to my last post, but my grandpa sent me this in an email, and I wanted to include it:

Hi Gina,
I haven't mastered the 'comment' system on the blog so here it is:

I`m so glad to see that Phillips humor carried to a next generation.
For a while I feared its demise and the loss to civilization of a unique form of comedy.
Way to go, girl!

I do hope you feeling better and will soon acclimate to Seoul`s ambient conditions.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Festivus: a holiday for the rest of us!

Last week I connected with some of my mom's friends-- a sweet old Catholic nun and her tiny Catholic nun sidekick. They brought me some stuff for my place: a rice cooker, dishes, towels, etc., but the highlights were three cans of Spam and a Jesus mug. A new place can't truly feel like home until you've been spammed and mugged. Hahha I feel like my dad would make that joke-- dad, are you reading this? I don't think everyone will think we're funny.

It's snowing balls here. There are some weird weather patterns where it's slightly warmer for a few days and then really cold again. Apparently there's some scientific explanation for this having to do with atmospheric pressure and such yadda yadda, but let me tell you I am le tired of the teasing and this cold! Living in Austin and San Diego have made me le weak to it. I've been sick since last weekend, and I struggled to keep my voice teaching this week, and Saturday night it all culminated in a crazy congested coughing fevered mess. All my foreign friends are taking their turn with this flu thing. It may be the new environment, or it may be the Yellow Dust from China-- wind picks up dust from Mongolia/China and sweeps it over to Korea, giving the sky a dark orange haze and causing people breathing problems (asthma, sore throat, etc). The surgical masks come out en masse on bad days.

It's common for men and women to live with their parents until they get married, thus the abundance of DVDbangs and Love Motels. DVDbangs are rooms you can rent by the movie; yes, people go there in groups to watch movies, but also yes, couples go there for some short-term privacy. There's a wide assortment of such establishments, and they've all agreed to the same disguises, for example, a brothel will be marked by two barber poles (legit hair salons will be marked by just one). I wonder how many naive quests for haircuts have turned into... a night Jesus' mug would frown upon.

One of my co-teachers has been with her boyfriend for five years. He wants to get married and her parents want her to get married, but she's stalling because she doesn't want to be pressured to have kids right away. The only way she can keep from being a mother is to keep from being a wife. My co and her bf aren't engaged, but she does wear a ring. Here boyfriends and girlfriends give each other couple rings. It doesn't necessarily reflect the seriousness of the relationship, just that you're in one. Some of the kids at our middle school have them, and I've seen them advertised in jewelry stores. Recently, on March 14, it was White Day-- the counterpart to Valentine's Day. On VDay, the women give the men presents, and on WDay, the men give the women presents. I thought the US was supposed to be the main perpetrator of made-up holidays and gift-giving occasions? One of my favorites is Festivus, as made famous on Seinfeld. Festivus, celebrated on Dec 23, features an Aluminum Pole, Feats of Strength, and an Airing of Grievances, where everyone sits around the dinner table and tells each other how they've disappointed them in the last year. Also, any easily explainable phenomenon you can call a Festivus Miracle. "It's snowing?" "Yes, because it's precipitating, and it's cold." "It's a Festivus Miracle!" I wonder if with the Yellow Dust it can snow yellow snow? You know what they say about yellow snow.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I made the top Seoul team for the Jeju tournament in May! The teams are small, so there are only three spots for girls and six for guys. Should be rad :0)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Go Skyhawks

When I was researching reputable programs in Korea, an acquaintance of mine from high school recommended the SMOE because he was having a good experience with it. He answered my questions through the hiring process, and since then I have become a SMOE teacher too. SMOE teachers can be placed anywhere in Seoul-- a city of over 10 million people. It can easily take more than two hours to cross the city by subway.

Once I figured out the closest subway station to my place, we talked about meeting up for dinner, and we discovered that we live near the same station. Not only that, we live on the SAME STREET! In all of Seoul, it so happens that two Southridge Skyhawks live two blocks away from each other. It's a small world afterall.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


People are taller, skirts are shorter, and there are fewer frozen yogurt shops. This is my comparison of 2004 Korea and 2010 Korea.

The younger people are in fact pretty tall; someone said that Koreans are the largest of the Asian races. Before I got here I stocked up on pants because I was convinced my status here would be Chubby Giant and any attempt to clothe myself with Korean-made garments would be fruitless, but I've seen myself enough larger-framed folks to give me hope. To recap my logic: I am bigger than the average Korean bear- better stock up- oh not everyone's tiny- I can go shopping! I'll stay away from the skirt racks though; I am shocked at the consistency at which I see micro-mini skirts and dresses just barely covering the bum. Koreans value pale and clear skin, big eyes, and long legs, and while they won't show off much up top, they'll hike up them hem lines. Generally though, the entire populace of Seoul is much more fashionable and dressed more formally than any city I've lived in. The men here love shiny suits (SHINY, for realsies), and the women are all in heels. The subway stations around universities especially may as well be catalogues. This CG's getting lessons on lookin' sharp!

I'm brushing up on my Korean. During orientation, there was an introductory class, and the teacher went over counting numbers. Hana, dul, set, net... and the way she said them- all slowly and seriously- triggered something of a stress reaction for me; it reminded me of when my mom used to count at us when she was angry ("I'll give you to the count of ten, or else...). *shudder. *love you Oma! Anyhoo, a lot of Korean's coming back to me, but I need to start some kind of formal study regimen. There are expats who have lived here for years and are still clueless about the language. For shame! The other day, though, I called my grandma and was just tickled I could have a rudimentary convo with her- "I'm at a restaurant eating Korean food, and it's raining outside. I miss you. I love you."

All of my fellow SMOE teachers are scared to put the garbage out. There are so many rules here and not enough people who can explain them and not enough public garbage cans. I've heard tales of midnight chores- people will take their banana peels and candy wrappers out under cover of night, ditch the evidence, and scamper back hoping they weren't seen. Who knew banana peels a criminal could make. What's inconsistent, though, is that while recycling is mandatory, Koreans I've seen aren't very particular about food waste. My mom's friend taught me how to ask to take our leftovers "to go" (pojahng hehjuesayo) and then explained how the practice was pretty un-Korean.

I had frisbee practice this weekend (yay!). There were between 30 and 40 folks gearing up for the big Korean tournament on Jeju island the first weekend in May. I'd say the ratio was about 3:1 foreigner to native Korean and 1:0 friendly to not. I heart frisbeers.

^^V is an emoticon that George showed me- it emulates the Korean habit of throwing up the Peace or Victory sign when being photographed. I asked him, "Victory over what?" and he said: "Everything."

Monday, March 8, 2010

Gina Teacher

My Place
The school provides each native teacher with housing. My neighborhood is on the poorer side, but there are plenty of restaurants and shops around, and the next station over is Seoul National University, full of young people and trendyspots. In my case, I was given a small and pretty old studio a half hour's walk from school and a sub-ten mins jaunt to the subway. I live by myself, I have a washing machine, a fridge, a bed, an armoire, and the odd bit of furniture, the floors are heated (pretty customary here), and I pay 120,000 won (roughly $120) a month for all utilities minus internet. The bathroom is pretty tiny-- a tiled closet, and the shower is a hose/head combo attached to the faucet. There is no sort of partition, so the sink and the toilet and I all shower together. First, though, I need to go out in the hall and turn on my water heater that I share with my neighbor (what if we need to take a shower at the same time?), and then I need to take all the waterproof things out of the bathroom. The head of the shower sits in a little rack in the corner to the upper left of the sink, so in order to take a hands-free shower and place myself under the stream of water, my belly button must make contact with the edge of the sink. You know your bathroom's small when you have to cuddle the porcelain to get clean.

My Co-Teacher
George is the man! His English is great, and actually, so is his Spanish; he studied it in school and in Spain. His English is good enough to where we don't have to resort to Spanish to speak to each other, though it'd be sweet to brag about if we did. He's pretty laidback, and I'm relieved I can be direct with him-- none of this 'noon chi' ish. He's insistent that I think of him as a friend and not a co-teacher, and actually he came out with my friends last night. He loves having foreign friends, he's super helpful, he's got a nice sense of humor, and he's quick to giggle. George also tap dances.

My School
I'm teaching at Kuksabong Middle School in the Donjak district (today's my second day!). Because it's a relatively poor area where parents can't afford to send their kids to hogwans, the level of English here is pretty low, and my lessons need to be really basic. It's a struggle to know what to plan because while the overall level is pretty low, there is a wide range of skill in each class. And, while some of these kids are shouting from their seats and telling me hi every five minutes, some of these kids won't even look at me. I stand by their desks and ask them a question, and their eyes never leave the desk. Apparently I am both loveable and scary. We were warned at orientation that we would be treated like celebrities-- kids excited about you and telling you how good-looking you are all the time-- and across the board I'm hearing from my fellow SMOE teachers across Seoul that this is the case for them; at least for a little while we are all rockstars in Korea.

The kids are SOooooo cute. Today I had a little boy silently get my attention and show me that on his paper he had written "hi" and a smiley face. Adorable! Yesterday in class when I was taking questions after introducing myself (btw, as custom goes they're calling me "Gina Teacher"), everyone wanted to know where I was from, how old I am (in Korea I'm 24 because they consider you 1yr old when you're born), how tall I am (I learned I am a giant and the concept of 'inches' kerflummoxes them), and if I have a boyfriend. I was also asked how much I weighed and was told I was more tan than they expected.

The other English teachers here (all Korean) teach their classes out of the textbook and keep to the grammar rules and repetition. They see my real value as being an authentic source of the language and helping students with their speaking skills, so they don't care if I follow the textbook or not, and they say I don't need to turn in lesson plans ahead of time, and if I want, I can wear jeans and ballcaps (this is way more laidback than the school policies I'm hearing from my fellow SMOE teachers across Seoul). Woohoo! The co-teachers' role (I have four co-teachers, including George) is to help manage the classroom, translate when necessary, and assist me in my lesson. Some of the other English teachers here (I am the only non-Korean in the entire school) are really cute and want me to introduce them to foreigner "wehgook" boys. Teacher/rockstar by day; matchmaker by night am I.

So, things are going really well, and all signs point to this being a solid decision. Yay Korea!

Thank you for all of your support and good wishes! I miss you all. I'll send out an email with my address in case you want to send me bits of home.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Garbage Snitch

Oops, meant to post this a while back--

A smattering of interesting bits I've learned lately about Korean culture:

A High Context Culture: Koreans have a reputation for not complaining and engaging in the practice of being indirect, called "noon chi". Instead of being straightforward about a problem, Koreans will express themselves in subtle (and sometimes passive aggressive) ways, and you'll have to read in between the lines. Considering that we're being told time and again that the quality of our year depends on a good relationship with our co-teacher, this makes me rather nervous (our co-teacher is the native Korean teacher at our school who has been assigned to be our mentor/handler; we may have up to eight different co-teachers we teach classes with, but there's one in particular who's supposed to take care of you).

A Drinking Culture: A vodka-like liquor called soju is ubiquitous here, and the Koreans are happy to drink it, make you drink it, and leave the idea of moderation at home. The pouring and serving of drinks is pretty ritualized (receive everything with both hands, turn your head away from your elder to drink, don't pour your own, etc.), and empty glasses that hit the table are invitations for a refill. We were told that it's not uncommon for your principle to take you out and for all the teachers to take turns buying rounds for everyone; depending on the size of the group, you may not be able to leave the table under your own power. At orientation we were coached in how to say no without offending people. It's a tricky thing.

A Recycling Culture: It's a small, resource-challenged country, so Koreans are careful with their waste. You have to buy special trash bags and separate trash, food items, and recycling. There are fines for not following the protocol, and it may be just a rumor, but we were told that the government pays people who tattle on offenders. Garbage snitches.

A Competitive Culture: Most of the families who can afford it send their kids to private English academies, or hogwans. Some families view public school as a formality and the hogwans as the real education; students go to hogwans after school, sometimes until 1 in the morning. Apparently there are some new laws restricting the late hours, but hogwans get around them by bussing kids to the teachers' apartments. Crajy.

Bias: The rumor is that schools prefer blonde-haired, blue-eyed American females as native English teachers. The hair and eyes advertise "foreign!", and the American and Canadian accents are preferred over English or Australian, etc.

Greetings: Koreans don't greet a stranger on the street; someone they know must introduce the third party. But, once you've been introduced, this person becomes a part of your circle, and it's rude not to greet them. When you do, use both hands (shake their hand with both of yours, or shake their hand while touching the crook of your arm with your opposite hand)-- or, if you're bowing, the younger person must bow first and more deeply. Age is a really important consideration here. It affects how you speak to others, and sometimes, whose fault something is.

Superstition: In most buildings, there is no fourth floor. The number four here is associated with death because, I think, the word for four sounds like "death" in Chinese. Thus, in my building, I take the elevator past floors 1, 2, and 3, and live on F. Also, Koreans are superstitious about writing names in the color red, because it's like sentencing that person to death, or inviting death to find that person. Rather than write his name with the only pen in the room (red), my coteacher left the classroom to go back to his office to get a black pen. He's safe for another day.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Getting Oriented

It's true-- here they serve kimchi at every meal, and I ate my scrambled eggs with chopsticks this morning. It's also true that yesterday, instead of achieving my goal of blogging, I attended a Korean Etiquette class and learned a step routine in one of the dorm hallways. There are all kinds of folks here-- Zac who competed at step competitions with his frat in Atlanta, Erin who taught 6th grade in inner city LA, Adam who developed a sponsorship program to connect kids with skateboards, Jaime from the bay who misses his car and just graduated with a degree in accounting but wants to have some adventure before settling in, Sonny who was a stock trader but got burned out and decided to come to Korea because he hadn't been back since being adopted at five years old... a Kiwi who moved here despite breaking up with his Korean girlfriend at Christmas, a Canadian straight out of college and another Canadian who has been teaching here for more than ten years, a South African whose real passion is gumboot dancing... I remember talking with my buddy Scott back in San Diego about what kind of people I'd meet, and he reassured me that people who pick up and move to another country for this kind of thing are generally interesting, open people who are "up for shit", so I'd be in good company. Ah, wise and foul-mouthed friend, you are proving correct so far!

Friday, February 26, 2010


Good morn from Korea! 'Tis my first full day. All of the SMOE (Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education) teachers are gathered at the Hyundai Learning Center for a week of orientation. They're going light on the scheduled events for the next couple of days to let us adjust to the time difference (we're 17 hours ahead of San Diego) and meet each other. I lost no time in recruiting a group to throw around the frisbee after breakfast; ultimate is my wingman.

It didn't really hit me that I was actually moving to another country until I was getting in line for security at the airport. I checked 115.5 lbs of luggage with no penalty, which I owe to the clerk finding my mom cute, and my cute mom hugged me goodbye, and the realization hit. All of the packing and goodbye parties (yes, there were definitely more than one... how I love a good party) had failed to make real what a goodbye hug from Oma did. I'm living in Korea now! Weeeee

My last night in San Diego was particularly great, though. It was the night of my flash mob and the after-party at Tiny's bar. Thank you to everyone for making me feel so very loved; it was difficult to say goodbye to all of you (and I was doing an excellent job of not crying until Lauren broke the seal :0P). Here was the email that was sent out, and yes, the result was exactly as amazing as the email promises:

Picture this:

You're browsing the antipasto at the end stall of the Ocean Beach farmer's market. You're feeling good because you're wearing your lucky Wednesday underwear. You hear a few sung verses of a familiar Journey rock ballad, and you think hey, it's just some street musician, a little off-key, but you forgive her because hells yes what a great song. The first guitar solo hits, and your foot starts a-tappin, and "it goes on and on and ooon..." and then, suddenly and all together, as if possessed by drunk 1980s karaoke singers, the crowd joins in and belts out "STRANGERS, WAiting... Up and down the boulevard..." and you're like wtf how is everyone being this awesome at the same time?! The crowd is amped and rocking out, and at the end of the chorus, they start sweeping down through the farmer's market: grooving up the middle of the street and both sidewalks, and surprised onlookers like yourself gawk and smile and look at each other to try and figure out what's going on. The energy's contagious, and you start believin' and put down your antipasto and join in the happy parade. We're walking down toward the bars at the end of Newport when a new song comes on over our rolling speaker: "...hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching yoooou... so good SO good SO GOOD!" The caroling party continues with "Cecelia" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" as we walk and belt out our passionate renditions of the classics. It's a beautiful thing really. In this fashion we make our merry way to Tiny's, where we have the patio reserved to embrace with beer our collective awesomeness. We play our freshly-created video footage of our jolly shenanigan on the patio TVs, and we toast to Gina because, finally, to end the streak of goodbye parties, this is her last night in town.

JOIN US Wednesday at the intersection of Newport Ave and Cable St by 6:20pm!! Browse the stalls/read a newspaper/blend in with the scene and wait to join in the chorus of "Don't Stop Believin'" after you hear me sing "it goes on and on and on" around 6:30pm. Walk and sing with us to Tiny's! The lineup is as follows; see the attached document for lyrics. Forward this to your friends! We want as many people as possible, for EPIC tastes sweeter when shared.

On a different note, here's the link to the Mardi Gras Masquerade Ball photo booth pics from Friday night! Y'all looked ravishing.

Many thanks and much love,

1. Don't Stop Believin- Journey
2. Sweet Caroline- Neil Diamond
3. Cecelia- Simon & Garfunkel
4. Bohemian Rhapsody- Queen
5. You've Lost that Lovin Feeling- Righteous Brothers
6. Baby Got Back- Sir Mix-a-lot
7. Build Me Up Buttercup- The Foundations
8. Leaving on a Jet Plane- John Denver

Friday, January 22, 2010

Knock Knock

It's here! The next step.
After backpacking in Thailand and Cambodia (the catalyst for this here blog and the trip that, despite my fanciful intentions, mostly did not yield the life answers I was looking for), I came back to San Diego to dig in and look for a job. Eventually (I will let this word gently represent the nature of my job search process), I found a job with St. Vincent de Paul Village, a member organization of Father Joe's Villages and San Diego's largest rehabilitation center for the homeless. They centralize all sorts of resources for residents and the public (a medical clinic, recovery and mental health services, career and education classes, etc.) in an effort to help individuals and families achieve self-sufficiency. They really help people out (like midwives! hah I love that bumper sticker), and I'm happy to have put in some time here. I took my GRE and am considering a masters in social work, so maybe I'll be back in the non-profit sector, but for now, I'm choosing a different path-- one that takes me across the Pacific to a little peninsula called Korea.
I took a job with the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education as part of the government's initiative to bring a native English speaker to every school in Korea. The SMOE will place me in a public school in Seoul and provide me with housing, and the contract is for a year with the option to renew. My sweet visa (it's like the Hey You Can be an Honorary Korean Cuz Your Parent Used to Be One of visas) is good for two years and is easily renewable, so who knows: Korea may be my 'the next step' for a good chunk of time.
My Goals
--I think it'd be easy to go over there and seek out an American bubble-- to surround myself with American friends and to speak English all the time, etc.-- but I want to immerse myself in the culture and become fluent in the language. A big impetus for this move, or at least the move to Korea in particular, is a responsibility to my heritage and the desire to have a conversation with my halmuni (grandmother) past 'I love you.' I realize that 1) I have the same responsibility to my Jewish side (oo maybe Israel's next!) and 2) if you're going to have a limited conversation with someone, 'I love you' is a pretty stellar way to go, but I'd like to be able to speak directly with Halmuni about some of her amazing experiences during the Korean War. I did my best to capture some of her story as part of my undergraduate thesis research, but I'm sure more than a little was lost in translation. I want to take this chance truly to live in another country and not just visit. Also, this is my plan to be Official Favorite Grandchild.
--This is a move of independence for me. I've learned some valuable lessons in my post-graduate year, the gateway year to the real world, but I still have a lot of growing up to do. I want to learn more about what I want and who I want to be, and I want to be comfortable with myself and being by myself.
--I will play frisbee. Korea has an active pickup, league, and tournament scene, and I already have a taste for international frisbee after picking up with the Soidawgz in Bangkok. Maybe I can find a way on to the Korean Worlds team! w00t.
--I will cook. Give Gina a Korean meal and she will eat for a day. Teach Gina a Korean meal and she will host dinner parties. This is my plan to be Official Favorite Friend.
--I will blog and photograph and share my experiences with you. Blogging encourages me to be a thoughtful experiencer and provides a record of where and how I've been, so I'd like to keep it up. I love comments!
I'll miss San Diego, like I miss Austin, and I'm so grateful for everything I've experienced and for everyone who's gifted me with their friendship. Cheers!