Saturday, December 3, 2011

Indulging my compulsive behaviors - and for a good cause!

It may seem as though my writing has fallen by the wayside these days - but it's not true! I've been writing a lot! And proofreading, and editing and having meetings, and.....

Ok, excuses, excuses. But I have taken on a new project. It went from becoming Chief Proofreader of Online Content (how's that for a title?) to Online Editor. And it happened pretty fast, but I guess that's the way of volunteer organizations, compounded by the ways of Korea.

I've always had a compulsive need to edit things. In many ways, being in Korea has made me better about it, since I can't edit all of the many, many mistakes around me. But I haven't completely let go of the urge, so it sometimes gets me into trouble, like when I try to edit the menu at a bar. They don't like that. So now I'm indulging my compulsive need to edit things in a constructive way. Enter Gwangju News Online.

GN Online is the brand new, online version of the well-established, monthly, English-language magazine here in Gwangju. We're still tweaking the site, but if you want to have a peak, it's here:


I'm also contributing the occasional article to the print version. You can see my writing in December's issue here (scroll to the bottom to browse the magazine). My articles are on pages 20-21 and 33.

Now you can get your fix of Caity Teacher's writing, even when she's not updating her blog like a good girl.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Adventures of Caity Teacher at EIC

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in Gwangju’s own English Immersion Camp program, also known as EIC. (I will not call this “EIC Camp”, because that is redundant. “English Immersion Camp Camp.” Like “ATM Machine / Automatic Teller Machine Machine.” Not cool.) The camp is in the countryside just outside of town. A group of 30 of the “best” third-year middle school students from all over Gwangju are sent to spend five days speaking nothing but English. The camps are divided by gender, and I worked during a boys’ week. To herd these students and make sure they leave with hyper-stimulated language centers in their brains, three native Englishee teachers are brought in from various public schools to help the native Englishee teacher who is regularly in charge of the camp. That basically means that we showed up, followed the pre-determined plan, and ensured that each student was sore in both brain and body. Yes, body - they had to do pus-ups, squats or run laps if they spoke Korean. Which, during our camp, was fairly often. It’s amazing how such smart kids can be so dense sometimes.

It took about a day for the kids to get used to each other and start goofing around, but by the second day they had already established some interesting nicknames for each other: Giant Messi (the fat kid who liked soccer), Real Messi (the kid who was actually good at soccer), Grandma (something about his permed hair cut), Brother (the kid who looked older than all the rest), Monkey (take a wild guess), Super Strong Stick (use your porno-imagination), and Secret Power (another masturbation reference - go figure, they’re middle school boys). Grandma changed to American Grandma as soon as he picked up the toy shotgun. Interesting how these stereotypes can be so pervasive in the world.

Speed quiz
As with every group, there was also The Crazy Kid. That was our nickname for him, not one from the other students. The early teenage years are filled with drama for everyone, but this kid took it absolutely over the top. Everything was a crisis, and Jimmy Teacher ended up talking him down at least once each day. He was clearly extremely intelligent, but also extremely socially awkward. Personally, I went from feeling sorry for him to thinking we might be able to stem his outbursts by not paying attention to them. (Mainly because I was swiftly losing patience with him. This, friends, is why I’m not cut out to be a teacher.) But it soon became clear that wouldn’t work, and our main concern was just getting him home in one piece before he went mental with the toy shotguns. I suspect there were some legitimate emotional health problems, but in Korea, these sorts of things are routinely ignored and the sufferers very rarely receive the treatment and support that they need. Jimmy tried, bless his heart, but what can anyone really do in the space of just five days, especially when there are 29 other students to tend to?

There were many activities that filled the 60 hours of teaching time. The boys were divided into four groups - one group per teacher - to make English movies. I got the best group, who decided to do an action film. The other groups’ movies all had something to do with zombies and/or masturbation. Go figure.

Another of my favorite activities was the speed interview. Three teachers sat in the office and the students had to come in one at a time to answer as many questions as they could in the space of two minutes. And these were not normal questions that they had encountered before in their English classes. Oh no. These were the stupidest, most random questions we could think of: What’s the best name for a dragon? Why did you eat your cat? How old is your husband? Why do you hate David Teacher? Why did you steal my car? Some kids picked up on it quickly and rolled with it, coming up with some fantastic answers and even stringing some ideas along through the entire interview. One decided to answer each question as though he were the President of the U.S. Others just looked at us like we were crazy. They usually weren’t the fun kids, anyway.

Practicing for presentations
On the last full day, each student group had to present a project that they prepared on some aspect of environmentalism. I was quite impressed with their presentations. Not only was the speaking reasonably good, during the Q&A at the end of each presentation the students asked and answered some excellent questions. They were clearly thinking deeply about the subjects, and were able to express themselves in English, a language so radically different from their own. All this at the age of 15. I’m not sure I could’ve done as well when I was in middle school! It was inspiring to see Korea’s next generation honing their critical thinking skills. The Korean economy has skyrocketed in the past 50 years, and in many ways its society has struggled just to embrace their new prosperity and the vastly different lifestyle it has brought. It’s hard to fathom the drastic change that has taken place here in such a short period of time. And social constructs always lag behind progress in any society, so it’s encouraging to see this generation progressing so rapidly. Despite their goofing off, whining, obsession with masturbation and occasional denseness (i.e. being teenagers), these kids really are the the leaders of Korea’s future.

All in all, it was easy work and good fun, even if we were exhausted after spending nearly 12 hours with the kids each day. It was also extremely refreshing to hear almost nothing but English all week, and to have the kids genuinely trying to communicate with the teachers and (gasp!) each other in English. Oh yeah, and not having “hello!” shouted at me 200 times a day (I’m not exaggerating, and it gets old fast). While it’s been a bit difficult to return to the world of  “average” students, it was inspiring to spend a week with these kids and catch a glimpse of what Korea’s future has in store.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jeju Redux

I've been back in Korea for almost four weeks now, and I'm amazed at how strangely normal everything here seems. The trip home was fabulous, but I was actually pretty happy to get back to my apartment, my friends, and yes, even my job here. I may not miss Korea itself very much when I leave, but I sure will miss my people.

Anyhow, I can now highly recommend that potential Englishee teachers start with the February intake, as second semester is soooo much easier than first. Doing what I did - beginning with the easy semester and then being like, "Wait, what happened to all of those holidays and school events?" the next semester - is a little bit tough. Happily, I'm now doing a repeat of the easy road. And our first holiday was only a few weeks into the semester.

Apparently our first time in Jeju wasn't enough - not enough warm weather, not enough tromping around in nature, and not enough sleep (stupid roe deer). So Paul and I decided to go back again, with a few extra days in hand thanks to the Chuseok holiday. This time we rented a car instead of a scooter (protection from the rain and more time for nature tromping) and stayed in love motels instead of camping (more sleep - sort of).

Our main goal for this visit was to climb to the top of Hallasan - the tallest mountain South Korea. Having not yet even vanquished my local foe of Mudeung mountain, I was quite nervous, and rightfully so - hiking in Korea is brutal. Koreans don't believe in switchbacks, seem to love climbing over big rocks rather than smoother trail materials, and - because you couldn't possibly have gotten enough exercise just climbing to the top of a mountain - there are usually workout equipment stations along the way. I comforted myself with the guide books that say the trail we planned to take is much less steep than most hiking trails in Korea, and by the impressively large number of hikers who climb that very trail every day. Never mind that the estimated time to get up the mountain (just one way) is 4 hours, and that if you don't reach the half-way point by half past noon, you're not allowed to climb to the summit. Oh, and the other fact that I was (am) so very out of shape. Poor decision? I think so. Too stubborn to let the mountain get the best of me? Definitely.

On our second day on the island, goaded on by the pictures of that damn deer on the "Protect our local fauna!" billboards (we were not going to let that island or its fauna get the best of us again!), we ignored the forecast for a second day of rain and drove to the trail head. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, hideously early in the morning, it started pouring. And I don't mean cats and dogs. It was more like pumas and dingoes. We squinted through the rain-washed windshield at the vague outline of three hikers who were apparently going up the mountain anyway - full hiking gear in place but perhaps a few marbles shy of an ideal collection. A bit of a shower is one thing, but hiking in this deluge would have bordered on masochism. So we sighed, choked down our remaining roasted eggs, and drove back down the mountain to see some of the sights we'd missed the day before.

Ilchulbong from a distance
We climbed up the Seonsang Ilchulbong and took the ferry over to Udo and back. Encouraged by how much we were able to accomplish during the day (since we got up so early), we stashed our hiking provisions in the little love motel refrigerator (soggy kimbap, anyone?) and planned to get up ass early again the next day. Surely the weather would be better - if it rained like that again, the entire mountain might wash away and it'd be a moot point anyhow.

Come Monday morning, the sun was actually shining and the two intrepid hikers dragged themselves out of bed, trying not to think about the fact that our friends were all going to spend the day on the beach. We drove to the trail head - the sun was still shining. We decided to go for it. As did everyone else on the island, apparently. The trail was packed with hikers of all ages and abilities, from grandparents to small children. I'm not sure how those on the extremes of the age spectrum made it to the top and back, as we perfectly healthy young(ish) folks were struggling. Hard. The trail might not have been quite as steep as most others in Korea, but it was still no laughing matter. The beginning seemed easy enough, and we thought we were just going to breeze right up to the top, but maybe 100 kilometers in, things got rocky. Literally and figuratively. I'm not sure whose decision it was to "pave" large portions of the trail with big chunks of volcanic rock, but it was a bad one. Makes climbing very hard on the feet and ankles.

At the summit! And still standing!
Four and a half hours after we started, we had huffed, puffed, snacked, gasped, tripped (me), and hauled our way to the top. The top of Hallasan sits in what seems to be a perma-cloud, and a chilly rain was falling during the final portion of our ascent. It stopped when we reached the summit, though, and the cloud even cleared away long enough for us to get a few pictures of the volcanic crater-like hole in the top of the mountain (which does not, by the way, look anywhere near as cool as it does in photos that they use to advertise trips to Jeju). The glassy lake that I was expecting was more like a muddy puddle, and the summit was so crammed with other hikers, they were nearly all you could see besides the cloud that we were in. Oh yeah, and the crows lurking around, hoping I'd drop some of my lunch. Fat chance, birds. Even if I had dropped part of it, at that point I'd probably have fought them to get it back. We stayed there for about half an hour, then began our descent.

I did not expect that the way back down would be even more difficult than the climb up. Our legs were already fatigued, and the rain had made all of those rocks very slippery. It's a real miracle that I got down the mountain without breaking something critical, like my arm or face. But we did finally make it to the bottom, stumbled our way to the car, drove to Jeju City, and found a nicer-than-usual love motel with decent pillows to rest our exhausted, aching bodies.

It may have been painful, but as we flew home the following morning, I was quite happy to have finally climbed The Highest Mountain in Somewhere. Good thing, too, as that "happy feeling" stuck with me all week, making even the set of stairs to my classroom seem like an almost insurmountable obstacle. It's probably not something I'll do again, but at least I can tick it off the bucket list. Hike the highest mountain in Korea: Check!

Friday, August 12, 2011

And now I proudly present to you another list.

It occurs to me that I should probably rename this blog “Making Lists in Korea”, except this one was made in the U.S.A., so I can’t. I mean, I would, as I accept, and even own, the fact that I am a compulsive list-maker. It helps me arrange my life and understanding into an (often artificial) sense of order. But that's not what this post is about.

I’ve been back in the States, for a much-needed break from Asian life, for a couple of weeks now. From what I’ve seen so far, the city of Washington, DC still exists (YAY!), as do Northeast Tennessee and the Eastern Shore of Maryland (only slightly smaller ‘Yay!’). America seems to be getting on just as I left it, with perhaps a somewhat more dire case of the Crazy Congress Critters. I’ve actually been rather surprised at how fluidly I’ve re-taken to Western life, but there are still certain snags that I’ve run into. Below, an accounting of the Korean habits that have apparently become deeply ingrained in my psyche, for better or for worse.

Things that are normal, acceptable or necessary in Korea but that get you nowhere (or get you strange looks) in the U.S. of A.:

Expressions and phrases:
  • “Let’s get some fish water from the chicken lady.”
  • “Turn on the floor.”
  • “I’m going outside to get some bean fish.”
  • “Put it in the food bucket.”
  • “Have you checked the Cheon Won store?”
  • “Take a rest.”
  • Also, using various non-American words or phrases. Living in an international hodgepodge of an expat community, I’ve picked up many of my friends’ linguistic habits and use them interchangeably with my own. I never know what’s going to come out when I open my mouth these days. Unfortunately, it sounds a bit pretentious here at home.
Gestures and customs:
  • Bowing to…well…anyone and everyone. The grocery store clerks, in particular, think I’m really weird when I bow as I leave.
  • Smiling and/or waving at every foreigner I see. This has many problematic angles. For instance, I can’t possibly wave or smile at every single non-Asian person that I see on the street. Should I switch things up and start smiling and waving at everyone who looks like they might be Korean?
  • Using two hands to do things that really only require one hand, such as exchanging money or pouring drinks. In Korea, it’s polite. Again, kind of pretentious and a bit odd in the U.S.
  • Sorting trash into five different receptacles. This is unnecessary in the States, and often impossible. Even the hippy-est of families usually only have three: recyclable, not recyclable, and compost. I often find myself over-thinking the disposal of my waste here.
  • Tooth brushing in public. Most Americans feel that this daily hygiene routine is best done in private, and usually only twice a day. However, it is done shamelessly and extremely frequently in Korea, to the point where Korean teachers will actually make a phone call with toothpaste and a toothbrush hanging out of their mouths, and children walk down the hall in little cliques, brushing away. Though I sometimes find myself beginning to walk out of the bathroom to go talk to someone mid-brushing, I am not unhappy to have a break from all the foamy mouths. Ick.
  • Making major decisions with a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. In Korea, this game unquestionably and inarguably solves all disputes and brings fair resolution to difficult decisions. If you can win a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, you are clearly a winner in other areas of life and deserve to be treated as such (until you get beaten out next time). In America, well, it gets less respect than a coin toss. Also, yelling “가위 바위 보!” instead of “Rock, paper, scissors” doesn’t go over so well.

Even when I do things the “normal” American way, I find myself just a little more conscious of what I’m doing than I used to be. Much of it is, “Ah yes, this is how we do things in America.” But sometimes it’s, “Oops, wrong country.” At times, I even press my palms together in greeting as if I were in Thailand (despite that fact that I was only there for 10 days and that was 6 months ago). I’m sure I’ll be all confused again when I get back to Korea. Perhaps that’s the plight of living abroad for a while – interchangeable cultural hangovers.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Learning: It's what schools are for

Disclaimer: These are really just my own ideas from personal observation during 11 months of teaching in Korea and having completed K-12 in the American public school system. (Back in the 80s-90s, admittedly. It’s entirely possible that U.S. schools have already adopted some of these suggestions, but I doubt it.) The list is far from exhaustive, the ideas are not studied or polled, and they are far from scientifically proven. In addition, it should be noted that I, myself, am about as far form being an expert in this area as I can be. I am also an extremely talented bullshitter. Take that as you will.

What American schools can learn form Korean schools:

  • Metal lunch trays. Yes, they conduct heat and you sometimes burn your hand, but kids learn pretty quickly. And they are the most durable things EVER. Buy them once and you’re set until doomsday. Plus no questionable plastic-y chemical content!
  • Give students an hour break for lunch. Encourage them to play soccer or badminton (or something a bit more American) when they finish eating. It’s like recess for middle and high school students, and it’ll keep them from being so fat.
  • At the end of each day, have students clean the classrooms themselves. It teaches them responsibility and helps them feel some ownership of their environment. Theoretically (key word there), this means they will take better care of the school.
  • Turns out uniforms aren’t such a bad idea. I would’ve hated them as a student, but they really do level the playing field a bit.
  • Require more formal respect for teachers and authority in general. Small acts of formalized respect provide a far less serious line for rebellious students to cross when they feel like testing their limits.
  • Require every student to study a foreign language, beginning in early elementary school when they have a better chance of becoming fluent. The fact that we are lucky enough to have been born speaking the international lingua franca is no excuse for willful ignorance of other languages and cultures. Also, studying a foreign language helps students better understand their own language and culture.
  • OMG, we had some seriously crappy and generally unhealthy school lunches compared to Korean schools. Work on it.
What Korean schools can learn from American schools:
  • Have professional cleaners come in at least a couple of times per semester. Honestly, the kids just don’t cut it in the long run.
  • Never require uniforms that consist of plaid pants and striped shirts/jackets. It’s just not right.
  • Encourage your students to question authority, find their own answers and problem-solve. (This can be done in a respectful and productive manner. We just have to teach them how.) Creative, free-thinking adults are much more beneficial to society than memorization robots.
  • 14 hours of school per day, plus occasional Saturdays, is just too much. Give them time to be children (and pre-teens, and teenagers). That way they’ll be ready to actually be adults when the time comes.
  • I’m pretty sure it actually takes less energy to heat/cool a room and then keep it at that temperature than it does to constantly turn the heat/air conditioning on and off all day. It also helps to keep the temperature in the hallways regulated as well, so there’s not a blast of cold/hot air to fight every time a student opens the classroom door (which is very often). Even if all that’s not true, it most certainly does not help to have the windows open while you’re running said heat/air conditioning.
  • Students who are not sweating or freezing tend to pay attention better during their lessons. And teachers teach better. And we all think better.

Friday, July 8, 2011

I'm leaving on a jet plane.....

...but I do know when I'll be back again!

My exploratory committee has informed me that I have enough support to secure another contract with EPIK, and I have decided to embrace that opportunity. In order to win over the hearts and minds of the people, I will be home for a 3-week visit in August before coming back to start my new contract/finish out this school year. (Korea runs on a calendar school year, so summer break is really mid-year.) The Caity Teacher Non-Korean U.S. Tour will be making stops in and around Northeast Tennessee, Washington, DC and Maryland's eastern shore. Please see Facebook for dates and times of public appearances. Campaign donations will be accepted in the form of Mexican food, nice cheese and alcoholic beverages. (And of course, actual money. Plane tickets to the U.S. in August are no joke, y'all!)

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, "Why should I support this woman? She's really been letting me down when it comes to regular blog posts recently." Well, I have heard your voices and this is what I have to say: I've been really busy preparing myself to be the best Native Englishee Teacher, and the best person, that I can be. Here's what I've accomplished in the past month or so:
  • I planned and executed what I firmly believe was a successful open class. Feedback was positive from all arenas: Office of Education representative, Korean teachers and other native teachers. Well, I'm kind of guessing that the feedback was positive from Korean teachers because, though they can all presumably speak English, they of course gave their feedback in Korean. For 15 minutes each, followed by a 2-sentence translation from my co-teacher. Not sure what got left out, but at this point I don't really care.
  • I paid a diplomatic visit to the Demilitarized Zone and subsequently drafted a motion to have all South Korean breweries taken over by North Korean brewers. Daily life might generally suck for North Koreans, but at least they have decent beer to knock back after a hard day at their state-sponsored jobs. I believe that this privilege should be extended to all citizens of the Korean peninsula. Good, affordable beer is a basic human right, and Cass and Hite just don't cut it.
  • I attended two Native Englishee Teacher retreats at Myeongsasimri Beach in Wando. We discussed superior teaching strategies, how to keep the peace within our borders, and ways to improve and expand our territories....sort of.
  • I conducted historical research in the city of Gyeongju, learning about leadership from the Great Shilla Kings.
  • I attended a summit of EPIK teachers in Boseong, inspected some green tea fields for their efficiency, and acted as a mediator in the disputes between local crabs and mudskippers.
  • I signed my new contract and successfully navigated the bureaucracy of the Gwangju Immigration Office on my own. The strange thing is, it was significantly more difficult to get the required drug test done at the hospital than it was to navigate the red tape of visa renewal. In fact, the immigration office was a remarkably timely and not-unpleasant experience. Kudos, Korea.
  • I kicked off the season of goodbye parties for those brave and honorable folks who have served their schools well and are now returning to their respective homes. They will be greatly missed.
  • I attended an international celebration of American Independence Day, forging lasting bonds with representatives from England, Ireland, Canada and South Africa, and introducing them to the American wonders of deviled eggs and apple pie.
  • I completed my second Korean language course, thus allowing me to awkwardly communicate with Koreans in a slightly more effective way. We shall see on Tuesday whether or not I will get official credit for this (i.e. whether or not I passed the damn final exam).
As you can see, I have been working diligently to become the best that I can be. I hope that you will be able to overlook my blogging delinquency, and throw your support behind me once again!

In a future post, I will explain in detail my positions on certain key issues related to English education in Korea. In the mean time, may God bless the pilots who will be flying me home.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

School emails according to Google Translate

Korean and English are very, very different. And they're not only different in the obvious ways - writing system, vocabulary, basic sounds. They also have nearly opposite sentence structure and entirely distinct approaches to verb conjugation, the use of articles, and even which words need to be included in a sentence at all. This is on top of the divergent cultural approaches to linguistic expression. In short, Korean and English are, appropriately, about as different as East and West.

And that is why, despite its valiant efforts to accurately translate from Korean to English, Google Translate often spits out some of the most nonsensical and hilarious sentences I have ever seen. That said, it is still the easiest and most reliable method that I have for translating inter-office school emails, so I continue to use it. My daily Google translations have become more of an entertaining pastime than an actual information-gathering activity these days, so I thought I'd share with you some of the better snippets I've collected. Google translations are in italics; my thoughts/interpretations are added in plain text.

If you're a 10,005-year-old children, school staff refer to official documents, please contact your office

We don't take kindly to mummy-students in the classroom. They require more paperwork than normal students.

Concerts ever since the resurrection of the teachers.

Zombie musician teachers!!!!

I think that our school will make shine gloriously.

This sounds more like it should have been written in North Korea.

Check the status of clean and ask the map to go to class.
Uneducated maps will lead our students astray.

Student Ministry ovule is zero.

To establish availability and expertise of our colleagues held hostage every time the kidney will be OK.
If you have healthy kidneys, your most expert and available colleagues will be abducted by terrorists.

Lee, Jin Sam's moans, the office ...
The reason
So do not you come in each subject's test range .....
Please help the tears to cease .....

Seriously, guys, get within those subjects' test ranges or this woman is never going to stop moaning.

Two won by modifying the objective Taxonomy send back riohni
Because subjective taxonomy is just unscientific.

For information contact, our Chairman of the teacher to contact you when the Nordic Council session to say how you want to rust.
I would like to rust slowly into a nice burnt-orange color that brings out my eye color.

Hard to do two days rest to start a new Monday ildeulgo many hair pushed hard for everyone is not working well right? There are no see pony up more jobs.
The hair pushing isn't keeping everyone busy enough. Better find more jobs to give them.

Clean the area around the ruins remain drawn out sludge schools are a lot of things to do.
Sludge schools are commonly found in sewers and at the bottoms of ponds.

Teachers need to please take advantage of you.
It might be wise for me to quit soon if this email has been translated correctly.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The creature in the night

‘Twas the first night of camping, when all throughout Jeju
Not a camper was stirring, not even for soju.
The tent poles were placed on the platform with care;
The sleeping bags, bug spray and scooter were there.

The waygooks were nestled all snug in their tent
While visions of beaches all through their dreams went.
And I in my hoodie and Paul in his wooly hat
Had just settled down on our take-a-rest mats.

When outside the tent there arose such a sound,
We nearly stopped breathing, hoping not to be found.
Shivering with cold, we clung to each other.
Ok, maybe with terror. What could be that creature?

The moon gave no light through the trees in the woods,
And the flashlight was dead; we’d no batteries with our goods.
And what was it that our straining ears did hear?
A barking loud and guttural, inspiring much fear.

With breaking of branches and crackling of leaves,
The creature made its way nearly under our eaves.
We two novice campers froze in our shelter
While conjuring images of demons and specters.

“Cait, what was that?” Paul barely breathed.
“Shhh! Don’t move!” I hissed, imagining claws unsheathed.

Near the front of the tent, then the side, then the back,
The Jeju Forest Monster was plotting its attack.

The creature circled and the braying continued.
Our muscles grew stiff, every tendon and sinew.
We slept not a wink on that frightful eve,
Listening for the creature, praying it would soon leave.

In the bright morning hours as the sun warmed our tent,
The creature finally went back to its den.

We laughed at ourselves as we packed up our campsite,
For things in the night aren’t so scary in daylight.

Careening through the mist down the winding mountain road,
We set our sights on Jungmun and a new camping abode.
With our super-hero poncho-capes billowing out behind,
Scooter anxiety replaced monster fear in my mind.

We set up our tent in the sand and the silt,
But down toward the water our campsite did tilt.
It turns out that sand’s not so soft after all,
And we awoke at the bottom of the tent in a ball.

With three hours of sleep as we got on our way,
And the weather bringing four seasons in one day,
We decided a love motel was the way to go,
So we packed up once more and went to Seogwipo.

Showered and fed, we toured the island:
Oranges and pineapple, and mushroom-like stone men,
A lava tube, a waterfall, the World Sex Museum;
The good and the bad tourist sites, we did see ‘em.

On the last day we headed north to the ferry
That would take us to Mokpo, then back to our city.
Paul’s patience endured throughout our vacation.
Though I was proud of myself, he was our salvation.

Upon our return, the internet I did search
For in the back of my brain, the Jeju Monster still lurked.
After hours on Google, I found what caused such great fear.
“We’re such pansies,” I told Paul, “We were afraid of a roe deer.”

Friday, April 29, 2011

Deskwarming and Microsoft Paint

Koreans are magnetically attracted to foreigners. Physically, not metaphorically.

This happens consistently.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

So this is what death tastes like....

Because my last post on food garnered such interest, I am here to entertain you with yet another food-related adventure. Ladies and gentlemen, I tried 홍어 (hongeo) last night.

To be fair, I was unknowingly tricked into trying it. I had heard of this food-horror before, and had planned to do my very best to avoid it at all costs. However, Koreans are sneakier than I had imagined.

My head co-teacher and her husband decided that Paul and I needed to be exposed to the most traditional Korean meal possible before we leave their beloved country, and the other English teachers were brought along. We hopped in the car and rode to what is unquestionably the most beautiful restaurant I have yet seen in Korea. We had a traditionally decorated room to ourselves, floor-chairs with backs to them (hooray!), and our own hanbok-clad hostess who took very good care of us waygooks the entire night. In the midst of this beautifully presented, tasty meal of more traditional Korean dishes than I could count, there appeared a three-part dish of steamed pork, kimchi and what looked to be a variety of fairly standard raw fish. The hostess put a slice of the fish on top of a slice of pork with a piece of kimchi in between and placed the protein sandwich on my little dish. I was worried about fitting the whole thing into my mouth, but that should have been the last thing on my mind. As I chewed, I discovered that this fish, whatever variety it was, was riddled with a strange kind of cartilage-bone that, while not quite as gag-inducing as other bony fish, was nevertheless quite unpleasant. And then it hit me. The overpowering, throat-searing, nostril-tingling, eye-watering sensation that someone had slipped one of those pink urinal cakes into my food, only without the chemical-flowery smell that normally goes with it. It was like chewing on a bony bottle of old-school desk cleaner. The ammonia taste and smell was overpowering. I have never swallowed such an enormous lump of food in such a hurry. It’s a wonder it didn’t get stuck and scorch a hole in my esophagus. Probably the only thing that saved me was the large quantity of makgoelli that I immediately poured down my throat.

I do not pee. I am a freak.
홍 어, as it turns out, is fermented skate meat. Skates (along with rays and sharks) apparently don’t pee. No kidneys, no bladder. They just excrete their waste through their skin. That means that when you ferment skate (or ray, or shark) meat, you end up with the equivalent of fish soaked in concentrated urine (ammonia). Now, who in their right mind decides to willingly eat that a second time, let alone feed it to unsuspecting Westerners?

Other than that little side show, the meal was quite lovely. The food was enjoyable, the company was good, and the conversation flowed as best it could between parties who don’t share a native language (rice wine is a very nice conversational lubricant). I guess it had to come with some little unpleasant shock, or I might risk being lulled into a false sense of security.

I have another English teachers’ dinner on Thursday with my visiting school. I’m rather hoping for a proper raw fish dinner. I will gladly eat multiple plates full of wiggling live octopus before I ever touch 홍어 again.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


One day, while I was sitting in my local 김밥천국 chowing down on some 돌솥 비빔밥 and wondering whether to go drinking at Speakeasy or Soul Train that evening, the Six Month Mark whizzed past me with barely an “안녕”. (The Six Month Mark is kind of rude.) In three days, I will have been in this country for 7 months, a fact I’m having difficulty getting my head around. I’m more than halfway through my stay here and I feel like I barely have my act together enough to navigate daily life like a semi-normal person. And now, with my head still spinning from the passing of month #6, I’m already being asked whether I will be leaving or renewing my contract. This is not a good question. In fact, I refuse to answer that question. I am going to sit here, inert, until the universe hands me the answer on a divine silver platter. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, EPIK.

In the mean time, school has begun again, and with it another round of Find the Open/Cracked Door/Window and CLOSE IT So It's 3 Degrees Above Freezing Rather Than Just 2. Although with spring slowly making its entrance, it is now frequently colder inside the school than it is outdoors. Much colder. Figure that one out. I suspect it has to do with buildings in Korea somehow being made entirely of poured concrete, which grips the cold like the hand of death and stingily holds onto it until summer arrives and then *poof!* suddenly we’re all sweltering again.

This semester has brought a few changes with it. I am now working at two schools instead of just one, like most people in EPIK. This means I spend three days at my main (old) school, two days at my visiting (new) school, and get paid an extra 100k won per month just to walk a bit farther two days a week. I’m teaching four more hours than I did last semester, but so far the only thing being negatively affected is my Facebook presence. I don’t really have much more lesson planning to do, which is good because I never did get any planning done over the break. I teach grades 2 and 3 at my main school and grades 1 and 3 at my visiting school, but I’m teaching one of the two grades at each school straight from the textbook. This is not my idea, mind you. I find the textbook material more than a little bit boring, but the regular English teachers are having a hard time getting through all of the material, so it falls to me to pick up the slack. Not only does this cut down on lesson planning, it also helps make up for the fact that, after two months off, I’ve forgotten how to teach (not that I really ever learned).

There are definitely some perks to being the new teacher again this semester, at least for two days of the week. More curious students staring at my eyes, screaming “I love you!” in the halls, telling me that I’m pretty and giving me candy (even though they’re not in any of my classes). With 6 months of teaching under my belt, I knew what pitfalls to watch out for in the first weeks, and I hope I’ve begun on a better foot with my visiting school students than I did with my main school students last semester. Only time will tell if I can hold it together or if this is just another honeymoon period. I have once again been blessed with good co-teachers at the new school, and the one co-teacher I didn’t like at my main school has moved on. And! The principal at my visiting school is not only a very warm and friendly woman, she is a woman who likes decent coffee and has a drip coffee pot in her office. We are friends. Coffee friends.

You can check out the photos for other stuff I’ve been up to recently, including attending my second soccer game ever (not nearly as exciting as baseball in this country). Intermediate Korean language classes begin in a couple of weeks (God help me), and I plan to fill my spring with many interesting activities so that I may entertain you with a recounting of them.

Until next time! (or until the Japan-centered nuclear holocaust reaches Korea)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

International Women's Day

Today is International Women’s Day. I’d only vaguely known, and never really thought, about this day while living in the States, where Mother’s Day is the main women-related holiday.

For reference among my American readers, International Women’s Day is like a combination of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, when appreciation is expressed for women and our roles in society, and our social progress is celebrated. It began as a socialist holiday, but has lost its political meaning in many countries and is still celebrated today with little regard for its potentially controversial origins. Just goes to show there are some ideas that are good no matter who puts them forth. Different countries usually have different themes for each year. This year’s United Nations/global theme is “Women and men united to end violence against women and girls”. You can read U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Women’s Day address here.

It’s interesting to hear such words coming from a Korean, particularly given the plight of women in Korea despite its status as a modernized country. (Yes, I know he was saying them as U.N. Secretary-General and not as a representative of Korean society. Bear with me.) While no country – including the U.S. – is a stranger to violence against women, I’d not come face to face with this fact before moving here. I have found, from conversations with foreigners and Koreans as well as personal observation, that domestic violence in Korea is disturbingly commonplace.

One Saturday afternoon, my usual brunch-making routine was interrupted by a couple yelling at each other in the hallway. I was annoyed, but didn’t think too much of it, as at that point the woman was certainly holding her own. However, once the couple went into their apartment at the end of the hall, the yelling turned to desperate screaming from the woman and absolute rage from the man. In a flash of righteous indignation, I threw on my coat, shoved on my shoes and stormed down the hallway to do something about it. About a foot from the door, my courage evaporated as I heard the woman pounding on the door, continuing to scream as though her life were in danger, trying to get out. Standing so close and yet so far away, I had never felt so helpless in my life. What exactly was I going to do? My three sentences of Korean were not going to help in this situation – there was no way I could make myself understood. I was just as likely to make the situation worse as to help, and I had absolutely no means of defense if the man’s anger encompassed me and my intrusion. So I stood in the hallway, momentarily paralyzed, trembling with my heart pounding in my ears, before running back into my own apartment to call the police. But the police don’t speak English, either. So I just stood there, listening, hoping the woman would make it through all right, and feeling like a coward and a traitor to womankind.

I still feel guilty for not pounding on the door anyway. Much can be communicated by tone of voice. I later spoke to one of my co-teachers about the situation, and she told me that next time I could call her and she would call the police for me. Fortunately there has been no “next time” (at least none that I’ve heard), but I still wonder whether the police would even do anything about it. Addressing domestic violence is a tricky thing, particularly in a society that is still very patriarchal and tolerant of violence in everyday life. Several of my friends here have told me they’ve heard similar rows from their neighbors, and no one seems to have come up with a good solution. I am told that there are services for women who are victims of domestic abuse, but they must have a reference from the police. That means something really bad has to happen that somehow gets the attention of a Korean-speaking neighbor or friend, and the abuser must almost literally be caught in the act.

Evidence of how normalized domestic violence is in Korea slapped me straight in the face during my winter camp. I was a bad teacher and didn’t fully preview all of the music videos I was showing during a lesson on how to discuss preferences and tastes in music. The first one, a K-pop video, featured a scene in which the singer is hit several times by her boyfriend. (You can watch the video and see how she gets her revenge here.) Before beginning the intended discussion, I asked the girls in the class what they should do if a man ever hit them. Now, these were bright students; that’s why they were in my camp. I know they understood the words of what I was asking. But the concept just didn’t compute.
“You should break up with him, and maybe call the police!” I told them.
Blank stares. Why would they do that? In Korea, being in a relationship is of utmost importance. What’re a few knocks to be endured once in a while?

I have mixed feelings about special laws and protections for women. Ideally, these would not be necessary, and in a way I feel that putting women in a special category permanently makes us more vulnerable in the eyes of society and negates the equality that the measures themselves are striving for. But I have now been about as close as I ever want to be with the fact that, (almost) no matter what, a man will always be stronger than me. What can I do to defend myself? And abuse is never just about the physical violence. The accompanying power-play of emotional entrapment makes it extremely difficult for women to get out of abusive situations. The strength of men over women also applies in the halls of power in business, politics and religion. While I would rather ignore it or laugh it off, women are still marginalized and kept out, to some extent, of many of the real positions and gatherings of power in my own beloved and supposedly forward-thinking, equal-rights touting city – the one that should be a shining beckon of true freedom and equality for all the world to see. Are these initiatives promoting the defense and uplifting of women necessary to get us over what seems to be an ever-rising mountain ahead of true equality? Will we ever see the other side? And if so, will we have a need for Women’s Day at all?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A cuisine without cheese

Happy Tuesday! Also know as Lesson Planning Fail Day #2. Seriously, if anyone has seen my motivation frolicking past their window, please net it and return it to me ASAP. This is getting bad.

So today, rather than getting a jump on next semester, I’ve been compiling my thoughts on food in Korea (among other activities that might fall into the procrastination category). The first question to tackle was where to start. I can’t possibly cover it all, so you’ll just get a dose of what I’ve eaten (or just observed) over my time here so far.

First, we’ll start with some basic facts about Korean food and eating customs.
  • Koreans eat for health rather than taste. Well, maybe they would say they also eat for taste, but Koreans’ taste has been developed over thousands of years to favor things that are at least believed to be good for you. Foods are recommended based on how they will benefit your health rather than how delicious they are. So when I’m eating too much of that fried vegetable pancake, I’m told that “Caity, there are more nutritious things on the table.” That’s why they’re all so thin.
  • Kimchi and rice with every meal. Kimchi is one of the numerous little vegetable side dishes that come with every Korean meal. But, unlike the other banchan, kimchi possesses miraculous superpowers that may not just be limited to the health arena. Not long after my arrival in Korea, there was a cabbage shortage that was considered a national crisis. That’s how seriously they take their kimchi here. And no meal is complete without rice. If you haven’t eaten rice yet, your meal is not finished. There will be at least one more course, so save room. There’s also usually soup with every meal, which helps with the no-water thing.
  • Eating is a communal activity. Always. It is very rare to see Koreans do anything alone, most of all eating. If you have a snack, you share it. Relationships are built over food (and drink), and the quickest way for a native English teacher to ruin his or her relationship with a co-teacher is to not partake in lunch or snack time with everyone else. Everything is always served family style, so everyone eats the same thing. The question is not “Where shall we go for lunch?” but “What shall we eat for lunch?” This dictates where you shall go, as the majority of restaurants (with the exception of the Kimbap Nara and its counterparts) only serve one thing. This fact is also the main reason that waygooks frequently find themselves in tough spots – you’re expected to eat what everyone else is eating, or risk insulting every Korean in the entire restaurant.
  • Manners. Rice goes on the left. Rice that is set to the right is reserved for the dead. Naturally I was eating somebody’s ancestor’s rice for at least a month at lunch before someone clued me in to this one. Never finish the side dishes unless you intend to eat more, as this means that you weren’t given enough to eat, and your dish will keep getting refilled. No Clean Plate Club here. Never pour your own drink, and always hold your glass with both hands as someone pours for you. When drinking with elders (that’s anyone who’s at all older than you), turn your head away as you drink. Offer to refill your elder’s drink when their glass is empty, and do so with both hands.
  • Creativity. Even after six months, I continue to be surprised by things that are set on the table in front of me. Koreans eat things it would never even occur to Westerners to eat. Some of this may have been born of necessity in years past, but I have no idea why some of these foods persist in the modern Korean diet. Examples: leaves that belong on trees rather than in my salad, bugs in various stages of their life cycles, fish that are so tiny they must be eaten whole and in piles (how do they even make nets small enough to catch those things??)
So, in that context, here are some things about Korean cuisine that stand out in my mind:
  • Seafood. Koreans eat a TON of seafood, and it’s incredibly cheap compared to Western prices. This is a peninsular nation, and they will eat anything with which Poseidon doth bless their nets (or whoever the traditional Korean sea-god is). The thing is, lover of seafood that I am, it is still my opinion that there are things in the sea that just aren’t meant to be eaten. Sometimes it seems that someone just scraped the bottom of the sea with a giant plastic bucket and dumped it all into my soup. Koreans are also loathe to remove the bones from their fish, a fact that causes me more trouble than anything else about eating in this country (*gag*).
  • Love affair with seaweed. Seafood is not limited to creatures. I have seen more varieties of seaweed sold on the street than I even knew existed before I got here. Recently I was introduced to seaweed-flavored jellies. No sugar - they're not like candy – just an extra-firm, rectangular jelly with seaweed flavor in it. I rather resent them for their deceptively candy-like packaging. This came right after the seaweed soup we had for lunch that contained a variety of seaweed which strongly resembled the stringy algae one finds floating on a small, stagnant pond. Lukewarm pond water with little rice balls floating in it. It didn't taste too bad, so I just tried not to look at it. I’ve actually become a pretty big fan of other varieties of seaweed soup, as well as kim.
  • Obsession with fresh food. Koreans like everything to be as fresh as it can possibly be. Frozen and prepackaged foods are looked down upon as extremely unhealthy. Yes, this is reminiscent of Western attitudes, but Koreans actually follow through on these views. Fish are bought from squirming buckets-full on the street and vegetables with dirt still clinging to them. Many dishes are brought to the table uncooked, and you get to do the grilling/boiling yourself, just so you know it’s really, really fresh. The most infamous of the super-fresh foods is raw octopus. No, not just raw, but still squirming on the plate. You might think that after a while, when the tentacle pieces have stopped moving, it might be safe to eat. But as soon as you touch that slimy mass with your chopsticks, it starts writhing all over again. And detaching the suckers from the plate is a challenge all to itself. This is usually served as part of a larger raw seafood meal including everything from white fish to as-yet-unidentified shellfish.
  • Regular meat is as expensive as seafood is cheap. This makes sense, given that Korea has little, um, ranchable land (add that to your dictionaries). However, some of the ways they work around this – well, one way in particular – is disturbing and puzzling to the average American: Spam. Now, I’m sure this lovely Spam eating trend probably started around the time of the Korean War (see #5 here for a similar story), but unlike Guam, Korea most definitely has a native cuisine to embrace. They also, at least these days, have plenty of money to spend on things other than meat product. So why, in Korea, does Spam come in gift sets and cost at least twice what it does in the U.S.? Perhaps some insight can be gained from #1 in the previously mentioned article, but I’m not completely convinced.
  • The almighty sweet potato. Forget yams, there are more kinds of sweet potato than I could have ever imagined, and they are all eaten with gusto here in Korea. They also turn up in rather unexpected places, like on pizza, in cakes and in milkshakes and lattes.
Given all of these, um, challenging foods, the majority of which I have eaten at some point, it’s a miracle that I’ve only had a couple of meals that I’ve really had to choke down (both of which involved fish bones). This is in stark contrast to the experiences of many of my friends here, so perhaps I’ve just been lucky. And yes, there are many foods here that I genuinely enjoy, but they'd make for a rather boring blog post, now wouldn't they? All things considered, when I get back to the States, I doubt I’ll be rabidly tracking down Korean food. Some bean fish, cinnamon pancakes or kimchi might be nice once in a while for nostalgia’s sake, but you won’t see me hanging out in the Korean groceries of McLean or Centerville sniffing out the best dried squid to go with my beer and peanuts. You might find me at Spa World, though – a Korean institution I am quite glad I won’t have to leave behind.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Not all of Asia is like Korea

I know you want to read about my trip to Southeast Asia, but I just have to share this first. I am a frequenter of coffee shops, mainly because I am incapable of getting work done in my own apartment. I’m in one right now, in fact. Coffee shops in Korea, it seems, all own the same collection of jazz tunes by this one female vocalist. But these are no ordinary jazz tunes – no “Blue Skies”, no “La Vie en Rose”, no “Take the A Train”. Instead, we have smooth, slightly upbeat remakes of pop tunes, new and old, that were never, ever meant to be set to a jazz beat. Some examples: the theme from The NeverEnding Story, U2’s “With or Without You”, “Barbie Girl”, the list goes on. At the moment, I have been spared the vocalist and am being treated to a jazz piano version of “Pomp & Circumstance”. I practically expect to hear a velvety voice crooning the lyrics to “Baby Got Back” in the next shop I go into.

So, to the truly Korean soundtrack of bastardized tunes, I shall now tell you about my vacation (patience pays off, dear readers). In summary, I began my trip by meeting my friend and fellow Englishee teacher Laura, and her friend Katie who flew in from England, in Phuket, Thailand. Thank God I was only there for one night; that place is a westernized black hole of entitled tourists. We then took a bus and ferry to Koh Phangan, a charming little Island in the Gulf of Thailand. We spent several days lying on a beach of fine, white sand next to a turquoise sea with calm waters at exactly the right temperature for cooling off without giving a cold jolt to the nether-regions. We spent our last night at the famous full moon party on Haad Rin (one of the many beaches on the Island), but don’t worry folks, my compatriots became ill after just one vodka-and-cheap-grape-soda bucket and we never even made it up to Mellow Mountain. The most tricked-out thing going on in our trio was the horrendous neon paint job on my face. After that, we flew to Bangkok where we did a walking tour of Chinatown before Katie and Laura flew back to their respective winter wonderlands. I spent the next couple of days tooling around Bangkok on my own, which was a lot more fun than it sounds. Bangkok is remarkably easy to get around on public transport and is filled with friendly people and mind-blowingly cheap, tasty food. And temples and markets and great places for people watching.

I then hopped on a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I met Paul. Since we were both flying Air Asia (me on my way back to Korea, him on his way to Ireland to visit the family), a point-to-point carrier with its main hub in KL, this was an easy, logical spot to see together, if not on the top of either of our lists of world traveling destinations. Compared to Bangkok, KL is a nightmare to get around, but we stayed in fairly convenient locations, so that helped tremendously. We tried two new fruits every day; had Malay food, Moroccan food, Spanish tapas, proper English tea, Indian food and Chinese food; visited the Batu caves, the Petronas Towers, the aquarium, the bird park, the Chinatown market, Little India, the national mosque, the national museum and Merdeka Square. Now you can click over to my Picasa album and check out the photos and get a bit more info on what I did and saw.

One of the main things I learned in my travels is which differences I’ve observed/experienced here that are just the Asian way, and which ones are Korean quirks.

Asian things: squatties; sink-hose “showers”; omnipresent cacophony of mostly unpleasant smells; lack of personal space concept (though Koreans are way worse about this than Thais or Malaysians); enthusiasm for food coupled with an illogically high metabolism; communal (“family style”) eating customs; fondness for strong fishy flavors; use of a wide array of brooms to sweep anything, everything and everywhere; love of super-sparkly, over-decorated items

Korean quirks: ajumas and their elbows; acute social distress in the presence of foreigners; trustworthiness and general good will towards others; absolute, every day, young to old obsession with fashion; a sweet tooth that even extends to things like garlic bread (this may just be a misunderstanding of the concept of baked goods); the ability to take almost anything from almost anywhere in the world and somehow make it Korean (please refer to the previously mentioned frosted garlic bread); lack of trash bins in public places; army of ajumas with tongs picking up the results of the immediately preceding item in this list

To their credit, Koreans are much better at following through on environmental concerns than people in Thailand and Malaysia. Sure, they don’t have the natural resources (jungle/rainforest) to exploit that Malaysia and Thailand do, but they are far more conscientious about recycling and the efficiency of their vehicles. There are ads plastered all over Thailand and Malaysia encouraging citizens to recycle and use less water, but the cars, trucks and buses spout noxious fumes the intensity of which I’ve never seen before. I’m not sure whether it was actually the pollution or the fact that I was all of a sudden sweaty all the time when I had become accustomed to winter weather, or perhaps a combination of the two, but my skin – and I don’t just mean my face - freaked out after just a day in Bangkok. It’s only now even considering the concept of clearing up. Fortunately my lungs got along just fine, so maybe the amount of pollution got blown out of proportion in my smog-loathing mind (or I just got lucky).

The other major difference that I noticed is that Malaysia (or at least KL) and Thailand are much more Westerner-friendly – English is almost universally spoken to at least some degree (and the locals aren’t terrified to speak to you); Western stores, restaurant chains and food are all much more prevalent; it’s difficult to find a sign that doesn’t have an (almost always correct) English translation along with the local language; and you could, with relatively little effort, completely isolate yourself from the local culture and live in a bubble of Western-ness. This is not at all possible in Korea. When you are in Korea, unless you are extremely wealthy and never leave Seoul, you know you are in Korea. There’s just no escaping it.

And there’s no escaping the fact that I am now back in wintry Korea without my boyfriend for three weeks (whine, moan, complain). Fortunately I don’t have to desk warm, which means I’ll only have to spend three days in school this entire month. These days are for grade 3 graduation, though I have no idea how in the world a graduation ceremony requires three days. In the mean time, I’ll be keeping myself busy with lesson planning for next semester, catching up on the reading I’ve wanted to do, and attempting to lose the weight I’ve gained over the past semester (due in no small part to all of the Thai and other food I consumed over my travels), and getting my ass back in shape.

So happy Lunar New Year, my dears. Stay warm and feel free to send over any food you have that tastes really good but will miraculously melt away all of my fat.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

This post is NOT about New Year's resolutions.

Christmas Day has come and gone, and New Year’s, and plenty of Caity Teacher’s Daily Korean Adventures™. The best and brightest (or maybe just the ones that come to mind at the moment) shall be recorded herein.

Best Christmas gift EVER
For Christmas the group of friends affectionately known as the Lenny Crew put together an admirable potluck, which we ate using our host’s bed platform as a large table (we are resourceful people), sitting on the floor in classic Korean fashion. The pumpkin pies (ingredients sent by the Jacobs American Food Goods Acquisition Service in Kingsport, Tenn.), complete with real whipped cream, were a big hit. I was also introduced to the European Christmas desserts known as mince pies with custard and Christmas pudding. The mince pies are decidedly not worth the calories, but the Christmas pudding was rather nice (especially smothered in whipped cream, as most things are). The winning ugly Christmas sweater was a neon-green & black snowflake fleece, and the winning Secret Santa gift was a holographic poster of Jesus arm-wrestling Satan. And I got cheese! The metaphoric angel on top of the non-existent tree was the snow that fell while we were eating dinner, covering the city in a peaceful white dusting, which we promptly ruined with our tipsily-made tracks heading toward the bar. Yes, the bars are open here on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – it is a couples’ holiday here, remember?

Paul and I headed to Seoul for New Year’s weekend, expecting to be followed by several of the Lennies, but ended up being ditched at the last minute. But that was their loss (Seriously. Lennies). We literally rang in 2011 outside City Hall, where an enormous Buddhist bell was struck at midnight. The bell ringing was preceded by cheesy Korean musical performances (e.g. Seasons of Love in Korean – yes, I was a RENT-head back in the day, so I loved it) and followed by a few performances of more traditional Korean musical arts. The crowds weren’t nearly as bad as we were expecting, as New Year’s by the solar calendar isn’t nearly as big a deal as Lunar New Year on this side of the world. Temperatures were well below freezing the entire weekend, especially on NYE. After nimbly avoiding the storm of roman candles in the streets and the human maze created by lines of way more policeman than could possibly have been necessary, we landed ourselves in a McDonald’s to warm up. Then we decided to go to a few bars, but near where we were staying so we wouldn’t have as far to go when we were done. Well, maybe just one bar. Ok, so we just got to our subway stop and decided to go to bed. We’re not old people! It’s just that kind of cold can really get to you after a while….

Feet fish
We did plenty of touristy things that wore us out, too. We toured the ChangDeokGung Palace, where members of the Korean royal family lived until 1989. That means there are still easily traceable living descendents of Korean monarchs. How weird must that be – to be living among the common people, knowing that your ancestors lived in a palace and ruled the country? And how much crap must said descendents have taken at school when they were kids? Must be like being the principal’s kid, only worse. Later, and after much searching, we finally found some doctor fish to spruce up our tired and beleaguered feet. What in the world are doctor fish? This is a perfectly legitimate and oft-uttered question. Doctor fish, also known (maybe just to me) as feet fish, are little fishies that eat only dead skin. People in Korea keep them in small pools in special cafes, where they freak out adventurous Westerners looking for a “cultural experience”. They also tickle quite a bit. I had the entire coffee-sipping, toast-munching café full of Koreans staring at me with all of my shrieking and laughing, and I was honestly trying to keep it down. I don’t think my feet were any smoother afterwards, but it certainly was an experience. On New Year’s Day we managed to find some sauerkraut at an Austrian restaurant (good luck for all!), and I even made it to an honest-to-goodness, English speaking, Lutheran church on Sunday. 2011 ought to be a good year; I’ve certainly started it out right.

With the help of a good friend and her glorified toaster oven, I baked my first (and possibly only) cake in Korea (from scratch!) for Paul’s birthday the following week. It was a huge hit, as real cakes, like cake mixes, are not to be found down here in the armpit of Korea. Winter camp started last Monday and has been fantastic. They’re all good kids with fairly high levels of English, the classes themselves are pretty low-key, I have a fantastic Korean teacher helping me out, and we get to have snacks during movie time every day! Planning the camp was plenty of work up front, but I’m pretty much sailing through now. Only two days left!

On Saturday I’m heading to Thailand and Malaysia for my allotted winter vacation days. I am eagerly anticipating the summer weather with every fiber of my frozen being. The difference between the cold here and the cold back home is not as much that it’s below freezing and snowy the majority of the time, but more that back home, when you go inside, it’s actually warm. Anywhere you go indoors. It’s pretty much a given. Here, not so much. There are days that I do not feel truly warm until I get home, crank up the heat and flatten myself against my ondol floor like a squirrel licking a brick in a walkway at Elon University. I also really miss having a bathtub. A hot bath would be an excellent way to thaw out after an entire day spent wrapped in my poufy coat, trying to warm my icy fingers and toes. I guess I could go sit in a jimjilbang, but the other patrons would likely disapprove of my wine, tea candles and book, and there’s no way I could afford enough bath salts to make the entire communal bath smell of lavender. So, the ondol and I are great friends.

Also in recent days, my attention has turned from crazies in North Korea to crazies back home. It seems that, periodically, the U.S. must be challenged by the realization of some of our deepest fears. Our response to this tragedy, our following discourse, the choices and changes we make together as a country and as a community, will be telling of who we have become. We had a chance to follow the path of compassion and courage after September 11, 2001. In my opinion, we chose a different road. I pray that, this time, we live up to the high ideals on which our country was founded – those of respect for individuals and individual liberties alike – rather than fear and scapegoating. May love and peace prevail, at home and abroad.