Sunday, September 27, 2009

I hope I don't inadvertently jinx Obama by tagging this post as "dead presidents."

I had an interesting political discussion with one of my sixth grade classes yesterday.

I forget why, but the topic of presidents came up. "Obama is very clever," one boy said. "Very smart. Face is very ugly. Dirty. Very old. I look at Obama, I see grandfather."

"Good president? Or bad president?"

"Good president," the class replied. "Lee Myoung-bak is bad president."

"Bad? Why?"

"Crazy cow in Korea."

"Mad cow disease?"

"Yes! Yes. Lee Myoung-bak bring crazy cows to Korea."

They then quizzed me on South Korean presidents, and to my shame, I only knew of the ones who had recently died.

"Yi Seungman?"


"Number one president of Korea."


"Yes, yes. First."

"Park Chung-hee?" (The dictator who ran the country for 18 years, from 1961 to 1979.)


"Chun Doo-hawn?" (Another dictatorial president, this one with only an 8 year term.)

"Kim Dae-jung?"

"Yes, yes. Kim Dae-jung good president? Or bad?"

"Good, good." They gave the thumbs up.

"What about President Roh?"

"Good president."

I wish they spoke better English, if only so I could have more conversations with them like this, but oh well.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pins and Needles

Today I went with a coworker, Maddie, to Mangwolsa to get acupuncture done.

The different attitudes about medicine across the hemispheres surprised me, although I don't know why it did. I guess in my imperialist American paradigm, Western medicine prevailed across all of the developed nations and that only poor, backwoods cultures and/or old, superstitious people clung to more traditional medicine.

But no, here acupuncture is totally legitimate and covered under my state-sponsored insurance, so my visit cost all of 5,300 won. That's about $4.50 (currency rates changed when I wasn't looking). Let me repeat that: I paid less than $5 to see a doctor. Wrapping my mind around that is taking some adjustment, never mind that this doctor was a practitioner of what would be "alternative" medicine in the US.

We hopped the bus to Mangwolsa and loitered in front of the entrance until it opened at 9.30. Maddie had been before and so had records; I had to fill out a little slip of paper with my name, marital status, birthday, and blood type. You could see a kitchen from the lobby, where nurses were mixing up traditional Chinese medicine. Whatever they were using triggered my asthma at one point, and I started coughing and wheezing rather noticeably. The granny sitting next to me smiled and asked me something in Korean, and I felt like a big dumb foreigner.

The asthma attack passed, and eventually I went in to see the doctor (who spoke fairly good English) to explain what was going on. I told him that my shoulders and upper back were still a bit tense from an incident a few months ago where I tried to lift a heavy table. Between that and stress at the hagwon tensing me up from time to time, I could start to feel my muscles scrunching in unnatural ways. He nodded and made a few circles on a chart showing the different meridians, notes to himself. The doctor squeezed my shoulder and back in a few places, asking what hurt and what felt fine. Then he took both of my wrists in his hands and spent a few minutes listening to my pulse. All this was enough to prescribe a course of action.

He led me to another room, very sterile and hi-tech looking. There were a few hospital style beds hooked up to machinery. The nurse pulled the privacy curtain and told me to take my shirt off. Face down on the bed (comfy pillow included!), I nearly fell asleep—I had been up since 7:00 in the morning.

Before the needles came what the nurses called "physical therapy," better known among the ESL teachers as "the cups." They look really gross so I'm not going to embed an image, but if you check Google image search for "acupuncture cups" you'll find it easily enough. The idea is—I think—to draw out the bad blood, Like Medieval leeches, but not as gross. I'm not entirely convinced they actually sucked any blood any out of me, but my arm went kind of tingly like when I give blood, so maybe. In any case, the cups lasted for a few eternities. Sometimes it felt good, like a massage, but other times it almost hurt. Once in a while in must have it some kind of pressure point (I had three, or four, all along my upper back), because my right arm would start twitching and shaking uncontrollably.

If the cups were the opening act, then the needles were the headliner. Compared to the cups, the needles were no big thing at all—though I have years of allergy shots to thank for my relative apathy towards needles. I could barely feel them. The doctor came in after the nurse cleared off the cups and stuck me like a pin cushion: a handful of needles scattered across my upper back, one each on the back of my knees, and one each by my elbows. Once he was finished, he turned on a heat lamp and left me to bake for a while. I zoned out, enjoying the warmth on my bare skin, barely registering the mellow nature sounds and muzak in the background.

After a while, the doctor came back for his needles and informed me that my session was over. He left me to put a shirt back on and suggested I come in this Saturday for a follow-up session. I said sure.

So, the burning question: did it help my back at all? The answer is: uncertain. The rest of the day I was certainly more conscious of my back and made sure to keep it from tensing up. I didn't feel magically better. But during the process I felt a weird buzzing in places throughout my body, mostly up and down my left side, so I don't know what that was all about. We'll see how the follow-up session goes.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bong Hits

There are a few different kinds of bongs here in South Korea:

1. Noraebong

Number one past time of drunk foreigners and Koreans alike, noraebongs are all the fun of a karaoke bar with the added bonus that instead of embarrassing yourself in front of an unknown number of strangers, it's just in front of your trusted friends and drinking buddies.

Alex, looking classy and Korean at the Luxury Noraebong near Sherlock Academy. Note the random Korean music video in the background that has nothing to do with whatever song we'll eventually sing.

You can usually get mediocre Korean beer to keep your buzz going, as well. At the end of each song, you get graded on a scale from (presumably) 0 to 100. The scores are always a bit inflated. Anything less than a 90 and you should really be deeply ashamed.

2. PC bong

There's this thing called Starcraft, maybe you've heard of it? MMOs in general are pretty big in Korea, and so PC bongs are just as omnipresent as noraebongs. They're also handy when you're out and need to quick email someone, or double-check directions in a message someone sent you on Facebook, which I've had to do on more than one occasion. PC bongs are the reason that Koreans don't really use their hi-tech gadgety cell phones to cruise the Internet or use instant messaging programs: the fees to do so on a cell phone are outrageous and it's just cheaper to find a PC bong while you're out and about.

"Bong" translates to something like "room" or so. In that respect, calling a PC bong a "bong" is kind of misleading since, unlike the noraebong, you don't get the privacy of your own room. It's just one giant cubicle farm.

3. DVD bong

DVD bongs are the sketchiest out of the three; quite often they're a front for amorous Korean couples and other sorts of illicit rendezvouses. Like the noraebong, you pay for the privilege of privacy, as well as the entertainment—though this time it's a DVD instead of a karaoke machine. But if a cuddly-looking couple shows up and checks out the extended edition of Fellowship of the Ring, well, they might not be interested in hobbits.

4. Jjimjilbong

This is Korea's take on a sauna, though a bit more extensive. They're cheap, open 24-hours, and the large ones often include amenities like PC bongs, making them the perfect "staycation" option for lots of Korean families. They're segregated by sex, but there's a co-ed section as well (clothed, of course). I have yet to go to one of these but I'd like to try it out sometime.

To everything there is a season / And a time for every purpose under heaven.

I don't know what it is about me, but I seem to give off the "I need the healing power of Christ!" pheromones. I have been approached on the street—rather aggressively—by evangelical Christians more times here in Korea than I have ever before in my life. I have quite the assortment of English handouts about the Heavenly Mother, "Comfort for the Depressed," and also a Watchtower booklet. Awesome.

The title up there is doing double duty, as it's about that time to note that fall is in the air. The weather hasn't really gone from boiling hot to gradually cooler as much as from boiling hot days and nights to boiling hot days and freezing nights. This makes dressing for work something of a puzzle, as I begin work during the hottest part of the day and leave well after the sun has gone down.

Last night was a farewell party for one of the Korean teachers, the first to leave since I've arrived and probably the one who's been here the longest. We went out for samgyupsal (the bacon-like-but-not-really-bacon dish) and tried to pretend that we didn't have to work the next day.

Mina, my partner teacher; Alex, Mark, and Michael, our manager

Krystafre and Irene. Scissors are cooking utensils here.

And there's me. And Brendan, tending the meat.

Earlier in the week I went out to dinner with my friend Jong-min. In need of comfort food after a major work crisis, he suggested 곱창구이 —gobchang gui. Stuffed intestines.

It was a bit unnerving at first, but really the thought of eating intestines is more repulsive than the actual act. It seems that there's a variety ways to prepare it (if a Google Image Search is to be believed); I had it in the form of a chigae-type stew with bits of cow gut floating around that you could eat or not eat at your whim. Kind of like this:

It's a bit fatty but otherwise pretty good. (Fat seems to be a recurring theme when it comes to Korean meat, unless of course it's SPAM. More on Spam in another post, though.) That's one bizarre food down on my checklist. The next is 보신탕: dog meat soup.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Obligatory Korean Tourist Spot #2: The DMZ

The DMZ is actually a huge tourist destination in South Korea. The only other time I've been in such a large group of foreigners was at the Irish pub in Itaewon a few months ago. You have a variety of options (lots of private Korean tour groups offer trips) but we (me, two coworkers, and another foreign friend of ours) opted for the USO tour.

The process to get in was a bit arduous. You have to submit your full name and passport number (for a passport check) a couple weeks in advance. You also have to bring it with you the day of, to confirm you are who you say you are.

So my day started at about 4.40 in the morning; I woke up and got dressed, since we had to be in Seoul by 7.30 AM. We filed in to the USO office and milled around for a few minutes before they told us to queue up, passports open to the picture page.

We piled on to two coach buses, where a tiny Asian grandfather gave us the rundown of the day: first we'd take the bus to Fort Bonifas, where we received a short briefing on the history of the Korean war and the basic rules to follow while in and around the DMZ.

The entrance to Fort Bonifas.

We piled back on the bus and there we were, tourists at the world's most militarized border. We had an American military escort/tour guide with us on the bus, who answered questions about the DMZ and also pointed out various sites of interest along the way (there's a one-hole golf course, for example). We got to see one of the buildings where the North and South held peace talks after the war, which technically involved stepping in North Korean territory.

Our tour guide.

North Korea also brings tourists to the DMZ. But not nearly as many and not nearly as often.

That's right, I was in North Korea.

This was probably the number one photo op on the tour, since this is the closest most foreigners will ever get to North Korea. Plus, the ROK soldiers look like such badasses that it's hard not to get your photo with them.

Then back on to the bus to the souvenir shop (yes, a souvenir shop, I got a t-shirt), after which our military guide/escort was relieved of his duty with us. We went to a lookout tower afterwards, largely unremarkable because it was foggy and you couldn't see all that much of North Korea.

Those buildings and hills you can kind of see in the distance are North Korea. That's the most of the DPRK you or I will ever see.

After we gawked at the North, we piled back on to the bus and had mediocre, mass-produced Korean food for lunch at a "restaurant" that seems to exist for the sole purpose of feeding tourists. Usually Korean food is made fresh and right for you (if it doesn't actually cook right at your table); this was like the high school cafeteria version of Korean food. Unimpressed and unsatisfied, I bought a snack bar and some biscuits at the pseudo-grocer's attached to the eatery.

Our last stop was one of the incursion tunnels that the North tried to dig under the DMZ. South Korea has found four of them so far, there might be more. Ideally, the tunnels would lead directly to or near Seoul and could deploy infantry from the North into Southern territory in one hour. A comforting thought, living out here in Uijeongbu. First was a movie about the DMZ, then a small, two-room museum, and then the tunnel itself.

The entrance of the Incursion Tunnel.

The entrance was walkable, but steep, and we had to don hard hats to enter. Interesting note: the tunnels were blasted through granite, of all rocks. (Which I noticed with my keen cave eye and then confirmed on Wikipedia. Go team geology!) It was, for the most part, just a giant tunnel, without any sort of signage or displays to spice it up. We walked for a while and then it just terminated at a small steel door, through which we could see light on the other side. Then we turned around and walked out the way we came.

Rice grown in the fields at Daeseong-dong, a village within the DMZ.

North Korean soju.

The whole trip was surreal. Here's a busload of big fat foreign tourists, and on either side of the road there's minefields. There are strict rules about where we can take pictures and where we can't, and they don't hesitate to confiscate cameras if they catch you being sneaky. South Korean guards were posted everywhere, looking very serious, and we weren't allowed to attempt any sort of communication with them, not even pointing. A lot of us laughed and joked around, since there are actually funny stories about the DMZ, but we had to sign a waiver before we left saying that we understood we were entering into "hostile territory" and ran the risk of "injury or death."

Was the Berlin Wall ever as big a tourist attraction?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

All You White People Look the Same, Part 2

The listening class I gripe so much about here has been put on hold for a month. Instead, I spend 45 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday giving an informal conversation class to one of the Korean hagwon teachers. The legality of this is fuzzy, but I'm pretty sure there's no word for "labor law" in Korean.

She didn't give me her real name, just her English name—Christina. She's very sweet and teaches English grammar at the hagwon. I'm 90% sure I have her son in one of my classes (embarrassingly enough, he's a rather poor student of English). It's pretty fun, all told, and while I do kind of miss some of my middle school students, this gig is much easier and much more enjoyable.

I sometimes get the feeling she thinks of me as some kind of...Barbie doll?...a bit. I coined a phrase talking to my friend Jong-min: "OMG White Girl" syndrome, or OMGWGS for short. Mostly it applies to Korean men, but once in a while it works for Korean women as well. Our first lesson she said she thought I was "so cute" and insisted on painting my nails next time. The second lesson she did, indeed, follow through on her promise of nail art and commented on how small my hands are ("like baby hands!"). My third lesson with her was this past Tuesday. We were talking about bacon flu and I did an impression of Mrs. Kim wigging out because another foreign teacher had a bit of a cough. Christina thought this was hilarious and commented that I resembled the girl from Gremlins, Phoebe Cates. A refresher: that we both have brown eyes and brown hair? Yes. But other than that I don't see much resemblance. Koreans don't always have a sense for what passes as resemblance among white people, same as most white people don't have a sense for what passes as resemblance among Koreans (and other East Asians). I'd like to think I've gotten a bit better at it, but they've had a whole lifetime of comparing and contrasting Korean faces. I've only had six months.

Today promises more nail art (yes, I am indeed getting my nails done by a Korean while in Korea) and also some hot tea. Perfect for my sore throat.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Lord bless Charlie Mops, the man who invented beer.

Song lyric #3 in the title post, courtesy of Bard's Tale.

Today I and a few coworkers and some non-coworker friends hopped in a van and drove out to Pocheon, a city even further north than Uijeongbu, to check out a little Korean brewery that was supposed to be amazing. And it was.

Note the "mood" setting on the light. If this van's a-rockin'...

The drive was upwards of forty minutes, during which we mostly thought about how damn good some freshly not-Cass or not-Hite would be. We also stopped at McDonald's on the way. I had a Flurry and a large fry, a decision I would later regret on the ride back home. Six months away from the US and I had forgotten why I stopped eating fast food.

The ride was also absolutely scenic, as I-dong brewery is set more or less in the mountains outside of Pocheon. The view was spectacular.

You have to call ahead and make a reservation; I assume that if no one calls they just don't open it up. We were the only ones there today.

What a motley crew.

And here it is: a 5,000 won beer, fresh and dark. Totally worth it.

We spent a while afterwards milling about, talking, and taking pictures. You could hear the yelping of dogs in the distance—no doubt being raised for food nearby. Just in case we forgot that we were in Korea.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Things Koreans Are Really Good At

  1. Sleeping on the Subway
    Apparently Koreans didn't get the memo from Petula Clark. Catch the subway at the right time (9, 10 at night, or the 5 am "zombie line" leaving Hongdae) and you'll see at least a few passengers out like a light. Some internal clock never fails to wake them before their stop, though; typically they'll suddenly shake themselves out of it a stop or two before they have to get off. While I, on the other hand, oversleep by at least two or three stops whenever I try this—granted, I haven't had to do this all that often.

  2. Controlling Dogs With the Power of Their Minds
    There's no such thing as leash laws here. And while you will see a fair amount of dog owners with their dogs tethered, you see just as many who let their four-legged companion roam free during their daily walk. Even alongside busy streets at rush hour!

  3. Doing Really Dangerous Shit Without Dying
    For example, riding side saddle or even standing on the back of a bicycle while their buddy bike-chaffeurs them to wherever they need to go. Without helmets. Unattended four-year olds are another favorite of mine—parenting is really hands-off in this country, at least in some ways. Drinking themselves into oblivion on a weeknight is also really popular, and I have to wonder what the rate of liver cirrhosis is in this country. A friend of mine I saw on Saturday told me, almost as if he didn't believe it himself, "I drank every night this week. I don't know how that happened."

  4. Staying Really Skinny Despite Huge Serving Sizes of Calorie-Rich Food And A Drinking Culture That Rivals Ireland
    Even more mind-boggling when you consider that Koreans often work late hours and weekends. When do they find the time to burn all the calories they consume?