Friday, October 22, 2010

Strange things that Koreans believe: Lesson 2

Like Mickey Mouse ears, only not.
This week began with the school picnic. Growing up the U.S., a school picnic was just that: having pizza and popsicles in the schoolyard, playing field games like water balloon tosses and sack races, and just generally running around like the maniacs that we were at that age. Here, it means a trip to Family Land.

Family Land is a shabby little amusement park on the outskirts of the city with approximately 10 rides, all of which desperately needed a coat of paint 15 years ago. It also houses a shabby depressing little zoo in which animals roam around their tiny, plant-devoid enclosures looking melancholy/angry/mangy and occasionally threatening the passers-by. I’m not kidding – a monkey got up on the bars of his cage and threatened to throw a rock at me and my co-teacher. We left in a hurry. I can’t say I blame him, though. Being constantly on display can get a bit tiring. It’s a little like what we foreigners deal with a lot of the time (only we have far better accommodations). We’re like the local celebrities, and people of all ages feel completely free to stare at their leisure with no consideration as to how uncomfortable it might make us feel. Case in point: while standing outside the baboon cage, a chubby (and, I could just tell, obnoxious) little boy of about 8 pointed at me and yelled, “Waygook!” while frantically motioning for his friends to come over. Yes, kiddies, I am part of the show. I’ll even sign autographs with my surprisingly human-like paws if you have a pen and paper.

Don’t get me wrong; I honestly had a nice day. The second grade teachers (of which I am honorarily one, since I sit in their office) put together a lovely picnic of kimbap, fake onion ring snacks, bean paste walnut waffle thingies and clementines. Eating a picnic with chopsticks was kind of fun, and it was certainly better than the usual daily struggle of getting my kids to keep their chatting to a dull roar so I have a voice left at the end of the day. Yay for amusement parks and picnics!

And now, because I don’t have much material from this week, I present to you:
Strange Things That Koreans Believe: Lesson 2
First, blood type & personality. Much like zodiac signs (which I could include in a post about Strange Things That Westerners Believe), Koreans think that a person’s blood type largely determines his/her personality and compatibility with others. (“Hey baby, what’s your blood type?”) For reference, I’m type O. As far as my perceptions about myself go, this is completely inaccurate. But feel free to correct me. Either way, I do come off in a positive light when a Korean asks me my blood type – type O is not only very rare in Korea (and elsewhere in the world, je pense), it is also viewed very positively. Much like being born a white American female, this is another point on the Korean score board that I didn’t do anything to deserve. Great!

And item #2: Not drinking water with meals. Even though Korean food is almost universally spicy, Koreans never drink water with their meals. They believe that it interrupts digestion. However, they will drink water right after they’ve finished eating, or drink other things (like beer or soju) while they eat. Its’ just water, apparently, that does the damage. Please reference my discussion of logic in Korea.

That’s all for now, folks. I’m off to the Busan fireworks festival this weekend to watch sparkly things exploding in the sky. Pictures and/or video to come.

Friday, October 15, 2010

My budding Korean social life

This bit has little to do with Korea, but I feel that it’s necessary. On Wednesday night (morning in EST), my cat of 15 years passed through the veil to the state of true feline enlightenment (with lots of critters to chase and sun to lay in, I imagine). There’s nothing like the passing of a pet to make you feel both incredibly miserable and incredibly silly for feeling so incredibly miserable over an animal. I am fortunate to have friends here who understand, and was the recipient of one of the best group hugs EVER right when I needed it. Thanks, guys. You can all add “Comforter Extraordinaire” as a bullet point on your resume under the EPIK teaching section. I’ll even make you a certificate if you want, since everything in Korea comes with a certificate upon completion.

To follow up on a previous post, the purchase of my cell phone has come with a sizable boost on the Korean end of my social life. As far as Koreans are concerned, if you do not have a cell phone, you do not exist in the social sphere. But now that I have a phone to call, they are not afraid to call it. All of the promised outings are coming to fruition, fast and furious. A couple of weekends ago, one of my co-teachers invited me to go shopping with her, which was followed by several beers with her friends. Naturally, the very first question out of her friend’s mouth was, “Boyfriend?” But we’ve already covered that. It wasn’t long before we were chatting it up in halting elementary-level English, munching on dried squid and describing our ideal man. Dude, girl talk is so much more difficult with a language barrier. I have a hard enough time with fluent English speakers, let alone with people who don’t know anything beyond “tall” and “handsome” in my language. I eventually gave in to the temptation to just say the few words I knew they would understand and leave it at that. Despite (or maybe because of?) the fact that they have a somewhat skewed view of who I am and what I like, they told me that they “feel intimacy with” me and that I am like a Korean woman. I’m not sure what this means, exactly, but I’m taking it as a compliment.

This past week I was invited out with my other co-teachers for some makgeolli, a milky-looking traditional Korean alcohol typically served in an enormous metal tea-pot-looking thing that is then poured into and drunk from small bowls. [It should be noted that this time, we all decided together what day to go. I am a fan of this change in m.o.] It turns out that, contrary to what I hear about most Korean teachers, my co-teachers don’t drink very much. By contrast, I ended up looking like a lush with the fortitude and constitution of a rotund German man. Unlike my soju, I can hold my makgeolli pretty well. Conversation flowed freely with my flush-faced co-teachers and I’m sure we’re all better friends for it. In other social news of the week, I was invited to eat grapes in the administration room with the vice-principal and the music teacher this afternoon. I’m sure this has nothing to do with the cell phone, but it’s still a step in the right direction!

Last week we had midterms, which means that we had the afternoons free for lesson planning. Or, as was the case on Wednesday, sports day at the neighboring middle school! I am not a sports person. Sports may provide health and vitality for most people, but for me, they are a threat to my un-injured existence. I am clumsy, uncoordinated, and terrified of any and all balls that fly through the air, because in all likelihood, they will eventually hit me in the head. Somehow I made it through several rounds of a dodge ball-like game and another kickball-inspired game with some really weird twists without bruising or any major humiliation. Until the hula-hoop competition. Hula-hoops are a HUGE fad in Korea, and I’m pretty sure that all Koreans – men and women – spend several hours a day just practicing their hula-hoop technique. Probably while they watch those crazy TV shows about people in animal costumes with pop-up bubbles on the screen. They naturally assumed that this hooping prowess extended to me and the other native English teacher at the school we were visiting. They gave us three giant hula-hoops each and, when we protested that we couldn’t possibly manage all three at once, insisted that using just one would take too long. The first round was over in less than 5 seconds. The second round lasted maybe 10, but that’s because they let us use just one hoop each. We were then put to shame by two Korean teachers whose face-off lasted 5 entire minutes. With all three hoops. And I think they would’ve gone on longer if one of the teachers’ hoops hadn’t been slightly bent. We followed up the sports part of the afternoon with the eating part of the afternoon, an area in which I am much more skilled.

In food-related news, I tried my first persimmon a couple of weeks ago. Persimmons are very popular in many forms – fresh, dried, ripe, green, in teas and in sweets. I had to try one eventually, so a friend and I each purchased one from a halmoni (grandmother) on the street. We thought we’d been charged a rather steep price because we’re foreigners, but it turns out that may not have been the case. What we unknowingly purchased were the cream-of-the-crop persimmons, with very soft, brown insides and a particularly sweet/creamy taste. After that experience, one of my co-teachers brought me a huge bag of persimmons she picked herself that are now ripening in my kitchen. Being the nerd that I am, I’ve read up on persimmons and know to mind the laxative effect they can have if eaten in large quantities. I’m quite glad that I did my research this before eating the entire bag in one sitting. That could’ve been interesting. I also made it to the Costco in Daejeon last weekend, where I bought some proper cheese. There was no cheddar to be had (*sniff*), but they were selling some rather nice Parmesan (for a not-so-nice price, but what do you want?). Now the Parmesan from Daejeon is sitting in my fridge, beneath the personally picked persimmons, making me smile every time I open the door.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Baseball in Korea, or How to Cheer Nonstop for 3 Hours

Now that the baseball season has been over for several weeks -- at least, the Kia Tigers have no more home games -- I am finally getting around to posting this. Being as how this is my blog, sports will never take priority. We should just be glad it's getting up here at all, and that's mainly credit to the cheerleaders.

To put it shortly, baseball in Korea is INTENSE. Korean baseball fans make American baseball fans look like golf spectators. I'm not sure how baseball became so big in Korea, but it almost seems shameful to call it the American national pastime when the Koreans get so much more excited about it. In America, you wander in at some point during the game, probably not at the very beginning. You get up at intervals to get beer, buy a chili dog, talk to your friends, whatever. You may or may not yell anything at the batter or the umpire. In Korea, you arrive on time. You get your fried chicken and beer before you take your seat, and then you stay there. And you cheer. Nonstop. For the entire 9 innings.

And there are cheerleaders. Yes, cheerleaders at baseball games. They have a very big job, leading a different cheer for every player who comes up to bat, among other team cheers and team songs. They dance, they do costume changes, they wear white gloves and enormous sparkly bows that resemble odd animal ears more than proper decorative headgear. The guy who is the head cheerleader yells the entire game, and I have no idea how he does not lose his voice halfway through. Fans all participate eagerly, never missing a beat with their blow-up cheer sticks. A baseball game in Korea is not a time to kick back and relax with your beer. That beer is crucial nourishment for the task at hand: leading your team to victory through the sheer force of your collective voices, proudly singing your team song while ogling skinny cheerleaders in tiny shorts!

They really do put us Americans to shame.