Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Junk Food

I've expanded my Korean food palate a bit, though more into the junk food realm. In addition to dolsot bibimbap, I've developed a fondness for tteokbokki. It's really popular from street vendors, one of which is right below Sherlock Academy. It's just rice cakes in some kind of spicy sauce:

For 500 won (35 cents USD!!), I can get a small but generously-filled cup of this stuff. It's pretty filling, and a popular pick-me-up among all the teachers.

A (seemingly) popular brand of junk food here is "Market O," they make things like chips, brownies, crackers, and so on. I bought a box of their brownies because I was jonesing some chocolate goodness and they looked like they might be good. Alas, appearances can be deceiving—they were easily the stalest, crumbliest, least satisfying brownies I've ever eaten. Good to know that America is still king of Foods Totally Devoid of Nutritional Content That Do Nothing But Make You Fat. And it wasn't only my brownie that was individually wrapped—I bought a box of cookies last week and each one of them was individually wrapped. I think that's why fat Koreans are a rarity, it's too much of a pain in the ass to unwrap every single cookie you want to shove in your mouth. The head foreign teacher, Mark (who has since returned to New Zealand) once said that Koreans are the king of packaging. He's pretty spot-on with that.

Another one is 오징아, the best Romanization of which I can put together is "oh-ching-ah." The best way I can describe it is "squid (jellyfish?) jerky." I'm still not entirely sure what it is, except that it's some kind of sea creature. With tentacles. And suckers. One of my students offered me some today, and I would be remiss in not accepting it. This is the very first level of English at Swaton, and their English isn't the best, so it might be squid, or octopus, or one of them said "jellyfish." I'm not sure if 오징아 is even the name of the dish, or just of the animal, because when I asked them to write it on the board they wrote two or three things, whose meaning was unclear. 오징아 was the first answer and so I'm sticking with that.

This was in my last class today, probably the favorite class I have on this rotation. However, they are also quite punchy and had recently descended into such madness that I had to have Michael (head Korean teacher) come in and lecture them. The rest of the class they were reserved and not as energetic as usual, apparently embarrassed or chagrined by Michael's lecture, so the 오징아 might very well have been a peace offering. Or just a random gesture of goodwill, or a "let's see if the foreign teacher will eat it!" experiment. So, after much trepidation, with a small crowd of 11-year-olds cheering me on and no water to act as a chaser,I took a big bite.

It tasted okay, just really strongly of fish and seafood. The suckers are pretty tender, but the tentacles are just impossibly tough, so I had to chew it longer than I would have wanted to otherwise.

Speaking of things with tentacles and suckers, a blog post about Korean food wouldn't be complete with mentioning 산낙지 (sannakji): live octopus. This dish, or something similar, was featured in the Korean mega-hit Oldboy. Choi Min-Sik, who played the lead character Oh Dae-Su, insisted on something like four takes of the scene in question. Four takes of eating live octopus:

I don't think you'd find anyone in Hollywood who would do that.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Polishing the...Eggs?

Sometimes the students make little gifts of things, I think I mentioned this before. For my students at least, it's not unheard of for them to let me have a bit of their candy or food, if they bring some to class. Pictures of K-Pop stars also seems to be one that's popular—we have a miniature K-Pop wall of fame in the teacher's office, all courtesy of the students.

Their parents, also, will give us presents. I think it's just the mothers that do this. South Korea is still a nation of single-income families, for the most part, and so the mothers are a bit more involved with their children's lives than they would be in the states. One of the teachers saw one of his students with her mother outside the school, and the mother immediately presented him with a carton of strawberries off the back of a truck (fruit vendors operating from vehicles like this is pretty commonplace here).

Today, Mina and I got about two dozen eggs (eggs aren't sold by the dozen here, but by the tens and fives) from the mother of two of our students. Or rather, she gave them to her sons to give to us. Not just any eggs, either—the first batch, which I guess is fresher or better or something? Two of them just made me a delicious cheese omelette. Mmm.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

And now you find yourself in eighty-two...

...the disco hot-spots hold no charm for you.

Yesterday I went to a language exchange I found online. I ended up being partnered with a very eloquent Korean fellow who spoke with a British accent and who had studied music in college in the US. At first it was a bit awkward, since there was no English I could really teach him, but then we got on the subject of numbers and how I had found them confusing in Rosetta Stone, so we worked on that. Korean has two sets of cardinal numbers, one that's basically Chinese with a Korean pronunciation, and one that's actually Korean, and whichever one you use for what you're counting is just totally random. With money, you use the Chinese set, but with years and age, you use the Korean set. He (and all of the Koreans) kept on going on about how hard Korean is to learn.

"Well, it's really different, but you guys have an alphabet. That's one up on Chinese," I pointed out. They laughed and agreed on that point.

We also talked about religion, traveling, living abroad, being a citizen of the world, North Korea, classical music, and the West's perception of South Korea. It was nice to finally talk to a Korean with really, really good English—I could use sarcasm and everything.

Then the leaders of the exchange announced that we'd be going to dinner if anyone wanted to. Since by now it was six o'clock, I was pretty hungry, and also eager to meet some people who weren't my coworkers. We schlepped over to a Korean barbecue, which seems to be the de facto type of place you go for "nice" food, though good Western-style restaurants still exist. Since there was only bibimbap (and not dolsot bibimbap, an important distinction!) I had pork, rice, and some kind of egg souffle/cakey omelette thing in a small dolsot. And probably half a bottle of soju.

When talking with my language exchange partner, he mentioned that one way of describing Korea is "the Ireland of the East." I agreed that it's a pretty apt description, both in terms of history and also, at least partially, culture. And by culture, I mean "drinking culture." There's an undercurrent of borderline alcoholism in both countries. Any meal at a nice restaurant would be incomplete with multiple rounds of soju for everyone. Koreans drink often and drink enthusiastically—it's very reminiscent of college, actually. Tidbit: you never pour your own drink in Korea. Which occasionally makes refilling your glass a bit tricky.

Also, during dinner, I ended up sitting next to a girl from freakin' Coopersburg. After we both made a mess in our pants over sharing the same stomping grounds, we talked a bit about Lehigh Valley traditions (Musikfest, the New Year's Peep drop, Royal Noise Brigade, etc). It was very therapeutic.

Once dinner was over, we continued drinking, dancing, and bar-hopping for the rest of the night. I caught a cab back to Uijeongbu and got to my apartment at about six in the morning(!).

So overall, good times. I don't think I'll need a night out like that for a while, though.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Little Victories and Still More Names

One of my jobs as a teacher at Sherlock Academy is to fill out monthly reports on each of my students. I grade them (A, B, or C) on "participation," "understanding," and "unity" and write a blurb about their performance, the latter being a waste of time since the chances that their parents understand English are nil.

One of my classes has "that kid" in it: goofy-looking, kind of a space cadet, not all that bright. His English name is Shay. The other students make no secret of their disdain for him, which makes the actual mechanics of class impossible. They're fairly old—maybe 12? 13?—but they still act like he has cooties. Getting them to sit where Shay's been sitting, or to touch something he's used, is impossible. This infuriates me both because it makes my job that much harder and because it's a bunch of stupid cruel bullshit. Whenever they're especially awful to Shay, I yell at them, but the extent to which I can express my displeasure and have them understand is basically rapping them on the head with a book or stack of flashcards, saying "no," and looking very angry.

Today I handed out their monthly reports in sealed envelopes. Ignoring my demand to put them straight in their bags, they all tore into them. One of the students—the smartest kid in the class, Tom, a boy who I otherwise adore and find very endearing but he's just as much of a jerk to Shay as any of the other kids—read his with a look of disbelief and dejection, then moped about for the next ten minutes or so. I can only hope it's because the only thing less than an A to mar his otherwise flawless performance was the "B" I gave him (and everyone except Shay, who got an A) in "unity."

The aforementioned Jeff/Yoda is in this class. He's given up on "Yoda." But a boy in one of my classes whose name used to be "Top" has decided he wants to be "Joy."

"Joey," I said, handing back his test. I saw the change marked on the attendance sheet and just assumed that it was a spelling mistake on Mina's part.

"Ah, teacher, no. Joy."

"Joy? J-O-Y?" I wrote it on the board.

"Yes, yes. Joy."

"Okay then."

It's not his name in Korean, and I checked with Mina to see if that was the name of some pop star or other (which accounts for names like "Top" and "Tableau"). No dice. I explained to her that Joy is a woman's name in English, but whatever. No doubt he'll change it again before he's an adult, if he even continues with English anyway.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


One of the earliest things students learn to say in English is "sorry," which is good—teaching courtesy and so on.

Then Super Junior made my life a living hell. A student can't apologize for acting up or forgetting a pencil or whatever without it devolving into general silliness:


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More Names

A boy previously named Moses has changed his English name to Zero. I have another boy named Adolf—a name, I realize, which has a long and noble history but my first thoughts are still Buchenwald and Auschwitz. I named a girl "Audrey," but since my Korean partner teacher doesn't like that name, I'm changing it tomorrow. And finally, a boy named Jeff has decided his English name from now on will be Yoda.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Jet-Setting, part the First

May 15th
Depart: Seoul, ROK
Arrive: Jogyakarta, Indonesia

May 18th
Depart: Jogyakarta, Indonesia
Arrive: Seoul, ROK

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Things Koreans Don't Like

1. The Cold
In any form, the sensation of cold (or even a slight chill) seems to be unbearable for your typical Korean, to the extent that the toilet seats at work are heated. Not that I'm complaining.

2. Losing Face
Kibun, translated as "face," is a very vague, hazy concept, but it's key to all Korean social interactions (or at least between Korean adults—it's too complicated to apply to interactions between us foreign teachers and the Korean students). Saying "no" means losing face, losing your temper means losing face, and I think being refused also means losing face. One doesn't really "get to the point" in a conversation, especially if the conversation is about something unpleasant (eg reprimanding someone, making an unpleasant request, etc). Things are approached in a roundabout manner that one could call "passive-aggressive" back home and Koreans typically play their feelings close to the vest, as it were.

3. Waiting
You'd think, with words like the above "kibun" in the language, the people would generally be passive and patient all around. Not so. If they'll take three days to discuss a business decision, God help you if you delay them on the way to the actual meeting. Koreans drive like assholes. People from New Jersey have an excuse because their highways are goofy and the signage is poor; Koreans just straight-up drive like complete jerks. Pedestrians never seem to have right of way, traffic lights are less orders than they are suggestions, and failing that, driving on the sidewalk is a perfectly legal means of recourse, in terms of rules of the road. Living here will either cure me of my abnormal fear of crossing the street/getting hit by a car, or reinforce it beyond any possible hope of unlearning it. I can't even count the times where, at a crosswalk "walk" signal, I've nearly been bit by a car or a scooter. Scooters are the worst. They're like speedy little harbingers of DEATH.

4. Natural Light
Just kidding. Kind of. All of the windows at Sherlock academy are covered with banners advertising the school or some kind of canvas something, or they're otherwise really small and narrow. We slave away under the harsh, environmentally-friendly glare of CFLs instead. My other coworkers liken it to a cave; it occurs to me to point out that at least they don't need to take flashlights with them to class but in the interest of not having to explain myself, I just stay quiet. Admittedly the temperature feels about spot on.

5. Foreigners
Again, kidding. Kind of. Obviously no one's spitting on me or trying to kick me out of the country, and really this one only ever applies to white men with Korean girlfriends, as far as I can think of it. They seem to think we Americans are all right, just a bit dense because obviously if we were smart we'd speak Korean, but the sight of a white guy with a Korean girl on his arm might occasionally raise the ire of a crotchety old drunk or two. This does not come out of nowhere; you tend to see histories of violence and rape following soldiers around, and there's been a U.S. military presence in Korea for half a century at least. This is also coupled with Korean Comfort Women abducted by the Japanese during WWII to "service" their soldiers; women applies only in the loosest sense because a lot of them were really young girls, some only 13. Nasty stuff that's still a bone of contention between ROK and Japan. So seeing their women with foreign men, Koreans have a historical basis for worry. Though at the same time they do not seem all that fond of their women, so.

6. Public Displays of Affection
But really, who does like those? Again, tied to saving face. A suitable alternative to PDAs is, instead, coordinated outfits.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Opening Day

No, not baseball. Yellow Dust (aka "hwangsa") season, If you're too lazy to check out the link to Wikipedia, I'll quote it for you. Enjoy the infodump:

[Yellow Dust] is a seasonal meteorological phenomenon which affects much of East Asia sporadically during the springtime months. The dust originates in the deserts of Mongolia and northern China and Kazakhstan where high-speed surface winds and intense dust storms kick up dense clouds of fine, dry soil particles. These clouds are then carried eastward by prevailing winds and pass over China, North and South Korea, and Japan, as well as parts of the Russian Far East...[where they pick up] sulphur, soot, ash, carbon monoxide, and other toxic pollutants including heavy metals (such as mercury, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, lead, zinc, copper) and other carcinogens, often accompany the dust storms, as well as viruses, bacteria, fungi, pesticides, antibiotics, asbestos, herbicides, plastic ingredients, combustion products as well as hormone mimicking phthalates...

...the dust is known to cause a variety of health problems, not limited to sore throat and asthma in otherwise healthy people...

The dust storms also affect wildlife particularly hard, destroying crops, habitat, and toxic metals interfering with reproduction. Coral are hit particularly hard. Toxic metals progagate up the food chain, from fish to higher mammals. Air visibility is reduced, including canceled flights, ground travel, outdoor activities, and can be correlated to significant loss of economic activity. Japan has reported washed clothes stained yellow.

Korea Times has reported it costing [$2268 US], 6000 gallons of water, and 6 hours to simply clean one jumbo jet.

You get the idea. I have been unable to breathe properly the last few days, today being the worst of it. It sucks tremendously. It would suck to begin with, but as a natural phenomenon what are you going to do? But the addition of stuff like heavy metals and hormone disrupters rather scary, whether or not it has any immediate affect on my breathing.

Japan and South Korea are understandably fed up with just how bad it's become and have offered aid and equipment to China to lessen some of nastier effects (sulfur filters for their power plants, trees to block the winds and absorb the carbon monoxide, straight up cash money) but China has pretty much thumbed their nose at both of them. (Or so it seems.) Very few of the filters have been outfitted to the smokestacks, and the trees have been planted outside where Japan and South Korea intended them to go to mitigate the effects.

Allergy medicine, sinus irrigation, and hot tea can only do so much. I'm considering going to the hospital (where they have a foreign clinic and nurses who speak English) to get a prescription for an albuterol puffer or something similar, I can't handle a whole spring like this.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Polishing the Apples

One of my students gave me a donut today. A jelly one, with too much dough and not enough jelly, but still delicious. Especially because it was dinner time and I had nothing to eat. Status as "favorite student"? Set.