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?