Friday, December 24, 2010

Two posts in one day!

I know, I know, but try to stay in your seat. I figure you’ve all got extra time on your hands with the Christmas/New Year’s vacation and all, so here’s some extra reading material.

There are few good things about not being home for Christmas, but one of them is that I don’t have to fight the traffic barreling down I-81, cowering in my tiny Civic between ever-present pairs of 18-wheelers. Admittedly, crossing the road in front of the Home Plus to get to the Christmas party that I am attending may well be a harrowing experience, as is crossing any road in Korea (never assume you have the right of way as a pedestrian), but that should only take 5-10 minutes as opposed to 7+ hours.

Christmas cheer at the Nutcracker
Christmas in Korea, while it is commonly observed, is not nearly the huge holiday that it is in the West. It’s a religious holiday for those who are religious, but the secular angle is not nearly as played up as it is back home. Mostly, Christmas Eve is like Valentines Day – a big date night when you hope it snows not because you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, but because the first snow of the year in Korea is thought to bring new love with it. So, in order to fill the void of family and warm fuzzies, we waygooks had to make our own Christmas cheer. For me, these activities included making 12 dozen Jack-Daniels-because-I-couldn’t-find-bourbon balls with the help of a green but promising Irish baker; helping to raise 670k won for the family of a migrant worker through a caroling session downtown (ok, so raising money was just gravy – I love caroling, especially with jingly antlers!); and attending a very Korean performance of the Nutcracker by the Gwangju city ballet company. The sentimentality of simply attending the Nutcracker at Christmas – and the fun of introducing the uninitiated to such a ritual – were quite enjoyable. However, the meat on a stick at concessions, what looked for all the world to me like a giant Tigger on stage during the party scene, the appearance of a tie-dyed flag and countless other features of the performance that were just slightly off all served to remind me approximately every 5 minutes that I was, in fact, still in Korea, Tchaikovsky or no. In anticipation of this, my group decided to class it up. Instead of purchasing an overpriced cup of mulled wine at intermission (there was none to be had anyway), we snuck in homemade eggnog and noshed on Christmas cookies during the performance. As a former usher, I was mortified at first, but since the Korean ballet is apparently an usher-less affair, I quickly relaxed.

In non-Christmas-related news, I enjoyed a nice day trip with……

…..Ok, I don’t know why I’ve danced around the subject for so long, especially since a good number of you probably already know that I now have a boyfriend. [Insert sigh of relief from the entire Korean community. Another case of the singles, cured!] As do all of my students, who have reported back to my co-teachers that Caity Teacher’s boyfriend (whom they’ve seen with me on the street) is handsome and that, therefore, they approve. His name is Paul; he’s from Ireland; and yes, he’s very handsome. Now you officially know and I can refer to him by his name and quit coming up with ways to work around his existence when I write my posts.

So, I enjoyed a nice outing to Namwon with some of Paul’s high school students a few Saturdays back. A group of them attend school on scholarship and live at the school like boarding students. Paul occasionally takes them on day trips to practice their English and expand their knowledge of their own country. (Koreans travel surprisingly little around Korea, despite its small size. I’m pretty sure I’ve already seen more of the country than a large portion of the teachers who’ve lived here their entire lives.) He gets to bring other Native English Teachers with him as co-chaperons, and we all end up with a bit more cash in our pockets and a bit more sight-seeing under our belts. Namwon is a village known as the setting of the famous love story of Chunhyangga. In a nutshell: Nobleman and woman of low birth fall in love and are secretly married; nobleman is transferred to Seoul; woman is taken as a wife by the mayor of Namwon but remains loyal to the nobleman; nobleman, having gained more power, returns to claim the woman and publicly takes her back to Seoul as his wife. A much nicer ending than Romeo & Juliet. We visited two lovely sets of gardens with love, of course, as their theme. Appropriately, this was the first time that any of Paul’s students had seen me, so I was also part of the love-themed entertainment. They were damn good students, though, and even the girls who have crushes on Paul caved and said nice things to or about me by the end of the day.

That trip began what I shall refer to as Caity Teacher’s Grand Week of Korean Cultural Experiences (Part I, as I hope there will be more to come). Final exams meant that classes were over after lunchtime, so the week began with a trip to a grade 2 teacher’s house outside the city. I had never been in any Korean home, but I understand that the vast majority of people in the cities, including fairly well-off and well-established families, live in apartments. So it was also a treat for the other teachers to have a change of scenery. We had tea and snacks, complete with three different kinds of persimmons – green, ripe and dried, all remarkably different in taste and texture. I spent about 3 hours sitting on the floor, picking out the occasional word that I knew from the lively Korean conversation going on around me, and enjoying the fruits of the special chestnut-roasting drawer in the wood stove that was heating the pipes under the floor. My legs were asleep and my ass was sore, but surely I’ll never get used to it without practice. The home itself is newly built, covered in what looked to me like stucco (very unusual in Korea), and models a strange fusion of West Coast USA-Spanish Mission and Asian styles. In true Korean fashion, there was next to no furniture except for cushions and low tables (they always sit on the floor), and the kitchen had no oven. Now I understand why my apartment came so sparsely furnished. On another afternoon, we had a teachers’ activity in which we made our own natural moisture cream while being lectured on the benefits of aromatherapy and how it’s replacing doctors in developed countries (??).

You may have wondered to yourself in the above paragraph just how much Korean I can understand these days. Well, folks, I can understand as much as a person who has diligently studied (ha!) for 48 hours worth of Korean language course credit at the prestigious Chonnam National University. I can now say many useful things, such as고양이가 어디에 있어요?(Where is the cat?) and 앤나씨 도서관사에 공부 하고 있어요. (Anna is studying at the library.) We wrapped up last night, and presented our course instructor (who is probably the awesomest Korean teacher EVER) with this little gem as a Christmas/thank you gift. This was honestly one of the most difficult subjects I have ever studied, probably not any less so because I haven’t taken a real class in 5 years. But I attended every session, I actually passed, and I am quite proud of me.

And in my final bow to Korean culture this month, I caved under the pressure to wear a coat indoors. In my Western mind, coats are for outdoors, hallways should be heated, and windows should NEVER be opened in the winter. When the other teachers asked me if I was cold and why I didn’t wear a coat, I firmly told them that where I come from, our mothers make us take off our coats when we come inside. But after weeks of seeing my breath in the restroom, scurrying down the frigid hallways between my classroom and the office, and enduring frozen fingers and toes while an arctic wind blasts through the windows at cleaning time (“Air must be presh-ee!”), I decided that it might be better to walk around the school in my down coat looking like the Michelin Man. At least my core is now warm, if not my hands and feet.

For those of you still worried, I have one more thing to say: Not surprisingly, Kim Jong-Crazy's bark is worse than his bite.

That’s it; that’s all I’ve got to say this time. Merry (or Happy) Christmas to all! I wonder if the Land of Morning Calm is still calm on Christmas morning?

Merry Christmas!

즐거운 크리쓰마쓰!
 From Korea (and Caity Teacher and her friends)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A month of catching up

First, we’re all still alive down here in Gwangju, and aside from the few who were killed in Yeonpyeong, so is pretty much everyone else in Korea. Kim Jong Crazy still has his thumb above the button, not on it, and despite the tough talk, everyone seems to be exercising some measure of restraint. My students got over it a few days later, and there’s been little talk of it since, except on the news. Pray it stays that way.

So, a rundown of what I’ve been up to recently (and not-so-recently, you know, because I’m behind):

Nov. 6  Went hiking up Mudeung Mountain. I would like to say that I hung back with the kids who were getting over a cold because I was being nice and wanted to make sure they were ok. In reality, I just couldn’t hack that hike. I will be back to conquer you later, mountain.

Nov. 7  Visited the Biennale on the final day before it closed until the next one in 2012. Apparently the one here in Gwangju was Asia’s first contemporary art biennale. Interesting and surprisingly edgy stuff. One exhibit included front pages from newspapers published around the world on Sept. 12, 2001. Fascinating to see the varying international coverage.

Nov. 11  Veterans’ Day, also know in Korea as Pepero Day. Americans commemorate the end of World War I (Tom Nelson, if you’re reading this, I still remember that trench you made us dig) and thank the veterans who have fought to protect us. Koreans swap boxes of stick-shaped cookies dipped in chocolate because, um, 11/11 looks like four sticks of the stuff. And we complain about Valentine’s Day being created by the card companies! Also, my president was in Seoul for the G-20 summit. I watched him on TV.

Nov. 23  Giant box of Christmas goodness, including the necessary ingredients for pumpkin pie, arrived at my desk. And there was much rejoicing.

Nov. 25  Thanksgiving Day. Went to school; taught my students about Thanksgiving, complete with the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special. Went to Korean class; struggled. Yep, that’s pretty much it. They don’t do turkeys in Korea. Unless you’re really dedicated and have an oven and other such bourgeois contraptions. I am not and do not.

Nov. 26  Accepted that I was coming down with a cold. Also, decorated the apartment for Christmas.

Nov. 30  Box of cheese arrived from home. I now have sharp cheddar, haloumi, havarti with dill, and edam. My refrigerator is complete.

Dec. 1  Following much urging from all of the Koreans around me, I finally gave in and went to the doctor. He gave me a shot in the ass and mystery miracle pills. I felt worlds better. This is why Koreans don’t take sick days – why would you stay home and be miserable when you could go to the doctor and get a string of medication for less than 5 USD that makes you feel as healthy as a strung-out horse?
Yay for kebabs!

Dec. 3-5  A large crew from Gwangju piled on a bus and headed to Seoul for a fantabulous Western-style Christmas dinner. I had resolved not to eat a bite of Korean food the entire weekend, and I succeeded. Beginning with dinner on Friday, I ate Chinese food, greasy bar food, a total of three kebabs (the Turkish version of gyros), waffles, a full and proper Christmas dinner (TURKEY!!!), Italian food, and a roasted veggie sandwich. We also finished up our Christmas shopping and did some drinking and dancing. We love Seoul; we will be back.

On a more informative note, it’s hard to believe that such a vibrant, modern metropolitan city is just 30 miles from the flailing economy, starving population, extremely restrictive censorship and general backwardness of North Korea. It’s also surprising just how different Seoul is from Busan, the second largest city, let alone from Gwangju and other cities I’ve visited in the south of the country. It just has an entirely different feel to it. If you’re at all interested, this is a fantastic article on Seoul’s rising.

Dec. 6  Pictures from Seoul were posted on Facebook. I resolved to buy a scale and eat more Korean (read: healthy and super low-cal) food. Just because I know where to find Western food now doesn’t mean I should be eating it all the time. Maybe start exercising? Nah…..

Dec. 7  Today I finally figured out what it is that I’ve been drinking LOADS of in school every day since the weather turned cold: Solomon’s Seal tea. Apparently it’s good for sports injuries, broken bones, gastrointestinal issues, menopause, PMS, blood pressure, coughing and mental clarity. Just call me Super Woman.