Sunday, April 29, 2012

Chinese-Korean Festival

A few weekends ago we met an interesting couple out at our favorite bar.  Michael is a huge Chinese-American married to a tiny Korean woman whose English name is Michelle.  They teach English in Korea and communicate with each other in Chinese and English.  They have a son in middle school, who speaks little English, as his first language is Korean. Michael grew up in the states, so he's always looking for native speakers to interact with.  The two invited us for dinner a week or so ago, and Michael cooked us an incredible traditional Chinese meal.  This weekend they invited us for a day of football and festivities with their son and his three friends.  The friends are students of Michael's, anxious to practice their English with native speakers outside the classroom.

Blinking, we walk into the bright sun we haven't seen since January in Florida.  Peering around, we see a football flying through the air and realize it's Michael.  We say hello and climb into the car.  While catching up on the past weeks' events, Michael quickly pulls over and talks briefly on his cell phone.  He says, "Yeah baby, so I just realized we're going the complete opposite direction... Looks like we'll get there about the same time now!" Michael then looks at his son, "Did you know Daddy was going the wrong way?" Jay Jay just nods, all-knowingly. We re-route and later arrive at a park on Wolmi Island. There is a turf field with tents surrounding the edges.  The emcee of a company picnic is broadcast through a huge jumbotron that stands in the middle of the field and spews Korean to a large audience.

Michelle greets each of us with a huge hotdog on a stick and a smile.  "They're free!" she exclaims.  We walk down the field and toss the football around to warm up.  We meet Kevin and Justin, two almost indistinguishable middle schoolers.  They are close to Kyle's height but painfully skinny without an ounce of body fat.  Then we meet Ben, who is about six inches shorter than me and appears to have been stealing all of Justin and Kevin's food over the years.  He's wearing a big white t-shirt and tight soccer warm-up pants.  When picking teams, I nudge Kyle to pick Ben first.  We end up with Ben and Jay Jay on our team.  Just before the game, Ben decides to have one more hotdog for good measure.  Finally we start, and the first touchdown is scored by Michael diving into the endzone.  We battle back and forth for a while, then the company picnic turns into a pop concert.  Ben's shoes come off, and he can't stop shaking his hips to the beat of the song.  His eyes become fixed to the jumbotron screen as he stares at the girls in their booty shorts dancing onstage.   After every down, we have to refocus his from wiggling his body without shame.  After the girls' performance, a well-known boy band takes the stage, and people suddenly come running from all corners of the park to join the crowd.  Imagine how much more distracting this is for Ben; it's no surprise we end up losing the game..

Kyle making a nice catch

Me, Ben, Kyle, Jay Jay, Kevin, and Justin

Soon after, we walk down the path to Wolmi Myland, a small amusement park.  
On the bay of Wolmi Island

Ben and Jay Jay outside Wolmi Myland

Standing by the beautiful late-bloomed cherry blossoms

The boys play some games in the arcade, and Michael tests his strength on the arm wrestling game. Then Jay Jay, Ben, Justin, and Michael climb aboard to ride a ride similar to the Rotor except the floor doesn't drop down.  You sit in a circle with no seat belts and try to hold on while the guy running the contraption spins and thrusts it all over the place, all the while laughing and calling people out in Korean.  He teases Michael, the hefty ex-Division One college football player, saying the fat kid next to him (Ben) must be his son. Michael doesn't speak Korean, though, so he only realizes what's happening when Jay Jay speaks up and yells, "No, I'M his son!" After the physical torture ends, Michael limps off complaining of a back injury due to old age, not unlike one Mr. David G. Bednar.

Here's a short video to give you an idea of the ride:

Exhausted, we head for Chinatown for the Chinese-Korean festival, commemorating the 20th anniversary of China and South Korea's trade alliance since the war.  We head straight into a Chinese restaurant, past a few street vendors selling As Seen On TV items from America.  Michael and Michelle communicate with the waitor in both Korean and Chinese, which is pretty impressive.  Just before the food arrives, Ben asks Michelle somthing in Korean, who nods signaling Ben permission to leave the table.  He's back in a few minutes with a plastic bag.  He ran out to buy a knife sharpener from the street vendor.  He told us Parent's Day is coming up, so he thought he'd buy a knife sharpener for his mother.  The urge to buy it struck him right then, I guess! At the restaurant we enjoy sweet and sour pork, a spicy chicken and vegetable stir fry, traditional soups, and fried rice.  I lucked out and sat next to Ben at dinner.  Afterwards, Kyle talked with Michael and Michelle about learning languages, while Ben showed me dozens of photos of the paper robots and dragons he constructs for fun.  After awhile, we hobble out with full stomachs and sore muscles. 

Michael heading into the restaurant

At the dinner table

Ten steps down the road, Michael insists we all try some traditional Chinese street food - some sort of lamb skewer. Are you serious? I'm so full I can barely walk! Then he drags us to get Chinese pearl milk tea, a sweet milk-based tea with small, mostly flavorless gummies floating in it. It's similar to the popular bubble tea in the states; pretty tasty!

Michelle and Michael in front of the gorgeous mural at the coffee shop

Two guys making traditional Chinese candy, one caught me taking his picture

A very intricate and scary Chinese statue at the restaurant
We walk up countless stairs to the peak of a small mountain listening to Michael moan and grumble and Jay Jay tell him he's old as dirt.  We reach the top at last, where a huge crowd has gathered around an enormous stage and a Korean woman is belting out a song.  There's almost no place to walk, like going to a concert at Blossom on the perfect summer night.  Plastic chairs fill every space from the base of the stage to as far as you can see.  We climb through the crowd until we find a small opening of rocks to settle onto.  It's so crowded we can't see the stage and can hardly see the huge screens next to the stage.  In response to our lack of sight, Michael tosses Jay Jay onto a tree branch so he can see better, at the same time knocking a bunch of tree bark on an old woman's head.  She looks up shuddering, then changes her mind and chuckles a bit instead. 

Jay Jay up in the tree
After the woman's performance, a pop concert breaks out yet again.  The Korean version of pop is called K-Pop, for those who don't know (I'd venture that's all of you).  The verses are in Korean, but one or two catchy lines of the chorus are in English.  The English is extremely cheesy, with lines like, "oh my god," "lovey dovey," and "roly poly," which is pronounced "Lolly polly," since Koreans can't say the letter L very well. The K-Pop groups are made up of extremely well-groomed twenty-something Koreans who dance around in perfectly choreographed numbers.  Some songs are originally American transposed into Korean language and style.  For example, there's a K-Pop version of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep."

You can't see much, but the sound is decent on these shots of the concert:

Anyway, the concert goes on, and a few popular Chinese songs and fireworks cap off the night. It was both interesting and refreshing to enjoy some Asian food and culture that's different from Korean.  After we finally arrive back at our apartment, we collapse into bed, and the night ends with a brief scare of appendicitis, which turns out to be just a sore oblique muscle from playing football.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A New Season in Seoul

Cherry blossoms

At long last, signs of spring are surfacing here in Asia. This weekend we visited Yeouido Park in Seoul for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.  Not all the trees were in bloom, but it was the first truly gorgeous day, one of 60 degrees and cloudless blue skies.  We spent the afternoon in the park, lounging and reading over a picnic lunch. 

Kyle and Paige enjoying the warmth with some good books

 I also snapped some photos of random Koreans to give you a feel for the fashion trends over here.

The plaid pants caught me trying to sneak photos. Men definitely wear tighter pants over here. Also, New Balance and Nike are the more popular brands of shoe. The tennis shoes are usually donned in bright, neon colors.

A few budding pop stars practicing dance moves in their skinny jeans and white tees. Their hairstyles are always perfectly coiffed.
American baseball memorabilia is extremely popular here! I almost fell over when I saw my first Chief Wahoo hat. I tried explaining to one of my students that her hoodie represented my hometown's baseball team. After a bit of translating by her friend, she quickly removed the jacket. Strange, I guess they don't  have a clue what they're wearing!  The main events of the festival are pictured in the background. Tents were set up for vendors, and various performers took the stage.

Women are more scandalous from the waist down: short skits, high heels, teeny shorts, or tight pants. However, from the waist up, females show little-to-no skin.
Some more tight pants, heels, and a nice man-purse. Perms are very common, as Korean hair is naturally straight. Even some males have their hair permed to varying textures. There are many more options for perming hair here, such as soft curls on the ends or loose waves.
A couple of women in their skimpy skirts and tights paired with a nice set of heels.

Chuck Taylors are worn in Korea, too. Here's a shot of some more fashion and cherry blossoms.
Thanks to the beautiful weather, the weekend was full of outdoor activities. Saturday night we walked with a group up the path to Seoul tower.  From this location, you have a 360-degree view of Seoul. You hike up Mount Namsan (about 40 minutes from the bottom), then you can ride up the tower to the viewing deck. We opted for saving money and just stopping at the top of the mountain. The top of the peak is wide open with coffee shops, restaurants, and stores. Around the edges of the mountain there are fences covered in locks. Traditionally, couples can bind locks to the links of the fence to symbolize promises made to each other. Like the tower, we opted out of this activity... Maybe next time! We plan to make the trek once each season to see the colors change.
Our destination

A few of the city about halfway up the mountain.
A fancy, but overdone rest stop along the hike. You can tell by the attire, the entire path was paved.

If the hike isn't enough of a workout, why not stop for some weight lifting?

A collection of locks and notes

Seoul, South Korea

Seoul Tower lit up in the night sky

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lunch Tasting Day

Today we put on airs for the preschoolers' parents, who pay more for their children's preschool than I did for college. It was lunch tasting day. Iryne and I introduced ourselves to the twenty-odd parents of Bear and Calf class with a short speech about how we'll teach the kids and encourage healthy eating habits. Few of them speak English, so after what I had to go through to please them, I wish I would have said cruel, honest statements while smiling and speaking in a cheery, upbeat tone of voice. I wonder what my supervisor (who had to translate my speech sentence by sentence) would have done?

I kid... I kid!

It was an exhausting day, though, undoing each naughty child's behavior all morning: turning the bulletin board pictures right-side up, tucking in shirts, scrubbing black crayon from the tables, smoothing down pigtails and braids, and stuffing vegetables into tiny Korean mouths. We did our best to make preschool seem like a very orderly, well-assembled affair. It's pretty interesting what sorts of expectations these parents have. More about that later, though.

The parents observed their little darlings enjoying a "typical" lunch at SLP. "Typical" meaning: silverware always on the plates, never on the dirty table, kids smiling while eating their vegetables, polite requests for more rice, please, no one eating with their fingers, no food spilled anywhere, no kids wrestling for the last chicken nugget. After about ten minutes, the parents left to meet with the school's nutritionist and try the food themselves. A lot of forced smiles, awkward giggles, and nodding occurred, as we all tried to make decent impressions. I wouldn't say it went perfectly or even smoothly, but I seem to have made it through unscathed. I still have a job!

Anyway, on this lunch tasting day, I thought it fitting to share some pictures from lunch in Bear and Calf class. Some days I scarf the food so ravenously I have to remind myself to take a breath. Other days I take the cover off my lunch box and quickly replace it.  Regardless, we are always served soup, some sort of main dish, kimchi, rice, and a few side dishes. These are more or less normal lunches, maybe next week there will be some stranger ones to share with you.

The top left compartment holds a sort of savory pancake with peppers and corn cooked into it. The top right has a mixture of vegetables and slices of fish cake in a red pepper paste. Fish cake (kamaboko) is made by pureeing white fish, adding some ingredients then steaming it until firm. It is then sliced and covered in sauce.
The bottom left is plain white rice, and the bottom right is kimchi made with radish. The soup is a red pepper paste-based broth with scallions, and I added rice. In the foil is dried seaweed (gim), for which I have developed a strong liking. The seaweed is coated in sesame oil and salt before drying and basically dissolves in your mouth. On a scale of 1-10 (10 being the best Korean school lunch I've had yet), I'd give this lunch an 8.

In the top left, there are mini hot dogs, which we have a couple times a week in various forms: sliced up, cooked whole, and sometimes diced.  These little weiners were covered in soy sauce and topped with a sprinkling of sesame leaves and seeds.  There are also some little dumplings in the mix (the white-ish lump), and I dont know how, but they are always in random shapes like stars, hearts, and animals. The top right contains a very spicy cole slaw-like side dish with julienned carrots, cucumbers, bean sprouts, and other greens. The rice for this meal was served with dried seaweed crumbled into it. There is also more radish kimchi! This day gets a 6.

The soup is a clear broth with cucumbers, carrots, and egg, to which I added rice. The main dish in the top left is a mixture of vegetables with Korean buckwheat noodles. The top middle is a very strange food that I have only tasted once. It's called acorn jelly (dotorimuk), and basically it's the consistency of jello. It is made with acorn starch, so there is a faint taste and scent of acorn, but overall it has little-to-no flavor. It is covered with sauce, sesame leaves, and carrots. I'm not usually picky about food textures, but I can't seem to get over this one. In the top right are soft, boiled potatoes with a red pepper paste sauce. The kimchi in this lunch is more traditional, as it is made with cabbage. I don't love it yet, but I try to eat a little kimchi every day to improve my tolerance for spice. This day gets a 7.

 He always eats all-gone in Calf class, though he usually has to run to get water halfway through because he can't eat much kimchi yet either.

She is usually the first one finished, and she always cleans her plate! No kimchi problems here. Such a cutie- she likes to randomly raise her hand in class just to tell me she loves me.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Kids say the darndest things

As an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, any given day has its jumble of funny stories. Here is a collection of anecdotes I hope I never forget.

One little guy in Bear class is pretty smart but not at all interested in learning.  He'd much rather sneak off to empty classrooms or the playroom if he's feeling especially ornery.  He always speaks Korean during my lessons and drags other students down with him in his mischief.  I'm allowed to hug him now and then, but usually he's much too cool for that.
One day he traipses into the classroom with a huge frown and his head drooping.  "What's wrong?" I ask.  He looks up at me, tears welling up in his eyes and his bottom lip trembling.  He mumbles something in Korean, then collapses onto my shoulder sobbing. What in the world!? I call for Iryne to come over from next door. She speaks to him, and after a quick translation I find out he doesn't like his shoes. They look like girl shoes. Not so tough now, huh?

I told Iryne I'm so frustrated some days because I can't understand Korean.  I know the kids are saying hilarious things all the time, but I just hear jibberish.  She told me a few funny stories so I didn't feel left out. 
One day the kids were talking in hushed voices at playtime so Iryne snuck over to eavesdrop.  A little girl (the one whose mother wrote me a note saying her daughter wanted to get to know me more) was lecturing a small group of kids. Iryne heard her instructing, "Now, we have to love Shelly and Iryne because they are our teachers. They take care of us and teach us things." All the kids nod and agree.  The girl continues, "But we have to love Shelly Teacher a little bit more than Iryne...." One kid spoke up, "Why?" The girl responded, "Because Shelly is here all alone. Her family is very far away, so she needs a little extra love."

I have a little girl in Bear class who is really enthusiastic and thrilled to be in preschool but also happens to have a short fuse. If I don't call on her every time, she moans in frustration. Sometimes I think she might be cursing in Korean. She is the same way with kids who don't share at playtime.  She comes tattling about four times during that 20-minute span of time. I bring the perpetrator over and attempt to mediate.  This usually involves a lot of charading, as the kids understand only very simple English at this point.  I gesture good and bad behavior with thumbs up and down, attempting to act out hitting and stealing toys.  Eventually, I just make them apologize to each other one at a time, and finally they close the deal with a hug.  One rather strange boy, who is either slouched in his chair in utter boredom or literally bouncing off the walls laughing hysterically, offended my short-fused girl. As I was wrapping up the apologies, he stopped mid-sentence. "I'm sor..." He looked up into the girl's eyes, staring intently, brow furrowed. He pointed one finger at her face, then proceeded to pluck a booger from her nostril as he said her name, "Huni..." I sent them back to playtime before I doubled over laughing. I guess that's how real friends make up after a fight.

The kids are learning simple things like colors, body parts, and weather.  They are starting to use short sentences like, "It is green," but usually I get one word answers.  However, lately they've taken to imitating Iryne and me. I didn't realize this, but if someone is acting out, I often say, "Heyheyheyheyhey what are you doing? Stop that." A few kids enjoy mocking me when I do this.  They also mimic Iryne, who always says, "Wait a minuuuute," when the kids are bombarding her with questions.  When she says this, she puts one hand up, in a halting gesture. The kids really enjoy imitating this one. Their imitations are usually in good humor, and they don't even know what they're saying most of the time.  One day we were finishing coloring letter "G," so I told the kids to clean up the crayons.  One boy wasn't cleaning up so I walked over and said, "Alright, let's go, clean up!" He looked up at me, very calmly raised one hand and responded, "Shelly Teacher, wait a minuuuuuute." He bent his head and finished coloring letter "G."

I have an advanced class twice a week in the afternoon after preschool.  Unlike the rest of the stick-thin Koreans, one kid is rather plump. He is always pushing up his glasses, and he wears the same dirty green Crocs every day. They're either completely off his feet or barely hanging off his toes. No one wants to sit by him because books and papers are always spilled all over the table in front of him.  The kids also seem to think he smells, and I always overhear them calling him fat.  I feel terrible about this and really get on the kids when they taunt him. He's pretty smart and harmless but also a bit clueless.  He doesn't realize others dislike him, and he always has hundreds of irrelevant questions for me.

 For example, I started giving happy/angry faces for good and bad behavior.  I said if you get three happy faces throughout class, you will get stamps (this is a school wide thing). If you don't, no stamps for that day.  Of course he asks, "What if I get four.. or five smiley faces?" I ignore him, but he asks louder and more vehemently, "What if I get five smileys!?" I respond, "Well, then I'll pat you on the head." Later in class a girl walked in late, so I had to explain the new game.  The Croc-wearing boy raises his hand. "Yes?" He says, "Teacher! You forgot to tell her what happens if you get five smileys!" Oh dear, that was just a joke...

I gave a test in the class last week, and the last three questions were free response questions.  One question was, "How are you and your best friend alike?" One boy thought it was two questions in one, for he wrote: "I'm fine. We both like movies."
The Croc-wearing boy wrote:

"We are fat and need glasses."
At least I know he has a friend somewhere out there!

There's one boy in Calf class who is very independent.  He's probably the smallest kid in class, but he likes to do everything on his own. I have to wrestle him after a visit to the bathroom to help tuck his shirt back in and adjust his underwear, which are usually down at his knees.  It takes a few minutes, but he always wants to find the page himself.  When he was clean-up helper he ran up everytime I tried to throw anything in the trash and did it for me.  Lately he started called me Shelly instead of Teacher or Shelly Teacher; he's mature like that.

After finishing a page of their Alphabet Books, everyone was shouting, "Teacher, TEACHER! I'm FINISHED!!!!!!" I told them to please wait nicely, I have to check each of your books.  Kids were throwing books across the table, still yelling at me that they'd finished.  I must have looked pretty stressed because the next thing I know, I feel tiny little fingers digging into my shoulders. Next, fists are pounding gently across my back.  I turn around to find Mr. Independent giving me a full-on back massage.

My personal masseur

Monday, April 2, 2012

Notes on Korean culture

A few idiosyncrasies about Korean culture:

  • It's completely acceptable to hock loogies on the street.  The pavement is covered with piles of spit and green gooey phlegm.  A walk to school does not pass without my dodging a few bubbly gobs of mucus or witnessing someone plug one nostril and shoot snot out the other side.  Nor does it pass without my listening to someone gargle phlegm as fiercely as possible to transport it from their throat and onto the ground. No wonder they don't allow shoes in the house.
  • Koreans do not make eye contact, smile, or nod hello to strangers. Ever. Not on the subway, elevator, or passing on the streets. They also will push around you and cut in lines. It's nothing against you, it's just how they interact - very little respect for personal space.
  • Koreans greet one another by bowing, not shaking hands.  A slight bow of the head will also suffice.
  • At grocery stores, there are workers posted at almost every aisle.  They are usually handing out samples of food, but others are there to guide you in your purchases.  They can be very overbearing, shouting at you, gesturing to some product you don't want.  A worker at the local Lotte Mart convinced me to buy a 10-pack of croissants today just because I glanced at them..
  • It's not uncommon for a man to carry his girlfriend's purse/shopping bags for her. Kyle's still perfecting this one... :)

  • When you are born in Korea, you are age 1 (not 0).  Koreans age at the Chinese New Year (January) rather than on their actual birthday.  So a Korean's age is 1-2 years older than their Western age. 
  • Tipping is not expected in Korea.  In fact, sometimes it's considered rude to bartenders, servers, and cab drivers alike.
  • Koreans are very quiet when riding public transportation.  Older Koreans will glare and shush you if they think you're too loud.
  • Maybe it's just my first time living in a big city, but it seems Koreans will park anywhere and everywhere.  Double parking? Why, of course.  Triple parking? Just this once.  Parking on the sidewalk? If you're in a pinch.
These are all "parked" cars
  • When you order take-out, most restaurants bring you re-usable plates and bowls along with real silverware.  You simply place the used dishware (dirty with food waste and all) outside your door, and the delivery man picks it up later.
  • When exchanging something (merchandise, money, receipts, etc.), you're supposed to give and receive with two hands, or with your right hand extended (palm up) and your left palm on the inside of your elbow.  It's rude to take with one hand, especially your left.
  • At restaurants (even fancier ones), immediately after you place your order, the bill is placed on your table.  Even before you get your food!
  • Finally, English is not very prominent in Korean culture.  Few Koreans speak survivor English, and even fewer speak it intelligibly.  I've yet to find a Korean with whom I don't have to slow my speaking down, use elaborate gestures, and oversimplify my sentences.  Here's an example of an English translation you might see around South Korea:
Not "Low ceiling," or "Watch your head." Just, "Head careful."

Like Americans, Koreans can be extremely rude, extremely kind, and anywhere in between.  I've had cab drivers shout at me to get out of the car and old Korean men shake their heads at us saying, "No, no, no..." when we're talking too loudly. I've also had random Korean women stop me in the subway station just to practice their English on me.  One even gave me her phone number in case I had any problems, questions, or needed help during my stay.  How sweet!

Overall, the culture shock has been rather weak.  I've observed some cultural norms gradually over the weeks, and most Koreans assume if you're a foreigner, you won't abide by them anyway.  The expectations are low. However, if you do put forth effort, like handing money to a cashier the polite way, or saying hello/thank you/goodbye in Korean to vendors, they express great appreciation. I wonder what else I'll observe in the coming months.