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?