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 cafĂ© 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.