Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Cast of Characters

Elijah (left, with Amigo Cactus man) is, as stated in a previous post, my oppa, which means older brother. He’s been here two years already and his students love him. He’s the responsible one of the group (because there has to be one) who reminds of things like using our inside voices on public transportation and that it’s not dignified to run in public in Korea.

Ashley (right, tolerant) is my eunni(older sisters) and our American celebrity. She tall and strawberry blonde, and I can’t go anywhere with her without seeing at least a dozen Korean men openly staring or raising their hand in a measuring gesturing above their own head. Also, she’s my font of knowledge on all things K-Pop and boy-bands.
Adam (left, tall) is another of the Dutch folk, and therefore almost too tall for the Korean people to fathom. He’s on his second year here at Kosin, and (unrelatedly) has fantastic taste in books and movies. His most recent recommendation—Taeguki(pretty much the Korean Private Ryan)—was excellent and I, too, thoroughly recommend it.

Lee (right, stunned to find himself in Korea) is the newest addition, arriving about 2 weeks after I did. He’s as pale as the Dutch tend to be, but not nearly as tall. A business major, but a music nerd, Lee is my go-to if I need someone to talk sports or music.
Unpictured is Hanna:

Hanna is my student assistant and resident Korean teacher. She taught me how to say “you dirty f***ing slut-whore” in our first lesson! In her defense, she was only trying to teach me how to say “girl” But when I tried to say it and she covered her face with both hands and gasped, I forced her to explain what I had just said. You know, just so I’d never say it again on accident or something.
Scenic bathroom break

Midwestern style dies hard.

Korean Mickey with cactus ears!
Kosin only hires the best.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Conditions are Perfect

I recently learned that Koreans do not smile at passing strangers. Those who do so are considered crazy or lewd. Not so in the US of A where smiling is essential to your social life. I’m still in the transition stage, so instead of an American smile or Korean polite distance, I have been giving everyone a horrible half-grimace.

Notice the grinning foreigner and the not-grinning tour
guide. Side note: guess how old she is. I dare you
to guess closer than I did; Koreans are timeless.
Yesterday, my grimacing skills were put to the test as the day dawned perfect for hiking. The sun was bright but distant and the breeze worked hard not only to be pleasant, but playful as well. Plus, Busan is an amazing city in that even though it’s a sprawling metropolis of people piled on top of one another in sky-scraping apartment buildings, the city sprawls take place in the valleys of forested mountains, on which there are some incredible trails.

The day started out well with Lee, my fellow hiker and newbie to Korea, falling on two different old ladies as he tried to disembark from the bus. One of them smiled at me and the other rubbed her wrist but responded positively to my worried “kwinchanna?” Luckily, our interactions became more positive as the day wore on.

Off the subway (from which Lee was able to disembark with much less struggle and injuring of elderly women), we stalked a couple of well-outfitted Korean hikers.

Pardon. That was redundant. All Korean hikers are well-outfitted. If Lee and I didn’t stand out enough without our map, his blond hair, and my tendency to grimace at everyone, our “hiking” clothes did the trick. Real hikers in Korea all wear black hiking pants and a bright-colored, long-sleeved hiking top, hiking backpack, hiking gloves, hiking boots, and hiking poles. All brand names, of course, and spotless.
South Koreans believe in "fan death" (if
you leave the fan on while sleeping...), but
they seem strangely uninhibited about
passing germs by these communal
drinking cups.

So it was easy to know who to follow off the subway in order to find in the trail. Except that one of the women we were tailing saw us and pointed in the direction she thought we ought to go. Which turned out to not be the right way at all. Which led us to speak to a monk—a bald, very friendly chap who alternated between speaking in Korean and laughing at us—and a receptionist manning the desk of the college campus we had stumbled onto. Neither recognized the name of the mountain we asked about: 구덕산 어디에 있아요?

Long story short (too late!) we found a trail that led us to the top of the mountain. On the way there, we ran across one of Korea’s many outdoor public fitness centers on top of mountains: complete with bench press, assorted free weights, and quite a few metal and wood structures that might be intended for flexibility or army training but no 외국인 (oegugin=foriegner) will ever truly know.

On the way up and down the mountain, our fellow hikers often pulled over, opened a few dozen Tupperware containers of kimchi, rice, and everything else for a full meal and went to town with their chopsticks. A couple of smiling Korean ladies stopped us and wouldn’t let us pass until we accepted two pieces of Asian pear (which blows normal pears out of the proverbial water, btw, in both size and flavor). This we did, with many a kamsamnida, and as we passed the next few people, I completely forgot to grimace like a good Korean.

Then we reached the top, marked by a large Epcot ball tower that turned out to be a weather station. This tower is visible from everywhere in Busan and at the base of it, three girls were wildly practicing their “Everyday I’m Shuffling” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQ6zr6kCPj8) moves. Recognizing it, Lee taught them some steps and pretty soon the five of us were shuffling like mad things. A few pictures and laughs and a private viewing of said weather station later, we started back down the other side of the mountain.

We were greeted with plenty of anyeonghaseyoes and nods and smiles and one “Have a good day! It was nice to meet you! What nation are you?”

It felt nice to be part of the gang—a cult of hikers or something. I’m clearly an outsider here in Korea—with my curly hair and un-Korean willingness to display my teeth when laughing—and  that wears on a person. As we rode home on the subway, I looked particularly un-Korean. Not only did I lack official hiking gear, but my ankles and shoes were scuffed with dirt, and my hair—far too short for a Korean girl in the first place—was sweaty and unkempt. I crossed my legs and tried to pat my hair into submission.

Then I caught an older lady smiling at me. It wasn’t a close-lipped and nodding sort of smile either. It was a big smile of approval mixed with enthusiasm and—somehow—a wink. On a related note, I am throwing my grimacing policy by the wayside.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Jeju is for Lovers

Before visiting Jeju, all I’d heard that the island was the Hawaii of South Korea. I heard about the local sex and teddy bear museum (separate entities) and not much else. I knew it as a place for lovers and honeymooners—and, of course, the foreign faculty from Kosin University on an all-expenses-paid retreat.

But no one mentioned that Jeju is famous for having women so badass they make Russian Women’s Battalion of Death look like conservative schoolmarms advocating female disempowerment. There’s a saying on Jeju island that says, “Have a baby girl and we will throw a pork barbecue party; have a baby boy, and we will kick his ass.” Hundreds of years ago, these women overturned centuries of Confucian thought to become the main breadwinners of the family.

The Jeju women, called haenyo (or “sea women” or “mermaids of Jeju”), are skilled divers who farm the sea for anything they can catch such as abalone, conch, and octopuses. This taxing job was once held by the men on the island, until it became unprofitable due to high taxes—or until they died leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves. The Jeju women, who were not taxed, picked up the tools on the trade and shouldered on while the men stayed home and raised the kids.

These “tools of the trade” neither include very much that protect the women from frigid temperatures, sharks, and jellyfish, nor are they helpful when it comes to breathing underwater. Wearing a lead-weighted vest or belt and (a recent upgrade) a wetsuit, the haenyo need only a float to mark their location and three metal tools: a flat metal stick to pry abalone rom the rocks, a metal blade with a 90-degree curve (used for dragging octopuses out of lairs), and an all-purpose hook for shellfish and other prey. They dive for roughly two minutes at a time, popping up every so often to deposit their catch into the buoys. There they give a distinct whistle, a unique way of breathing out carbon dioxide and breathing in fresh oxygen.

Also, 85% of these women are old enough to be your grandmother. (My grandmother, anyway)

Up until the 1950s, there were as many as 30,000 haenyo, but now their numbers have dwindled to around 5,000. But still, that’s 5000 grandma’s working a forty-hour week diving up down in the crashing waves of Jeju island. Most people agree that the haenyo are dying out because they have sent their daughters off to college and better prospects. For some reason, Jeju’s younger generation of women now chose to work in an office rather than suffer the stress of sharks, jellyfish, and holding their breath for two straight minutes to swim down 20 meters to catch octopi with a curved blade.

There is another saying on Jeju island about the difficulty of the life of haenyo that goes like this: “Better to be born a cow than a woman.”

Recently, a 24-year old Korean woman named Kim Yeon-ji has decided to join the ranks of the haenyo and carry on the tradition of her foremothers. As a fellow 24-year old (in Korean years), I wish her well. It’s nice to know that at least 1 person my age can be as bad-ass as our grandmothers.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Kosin University Student

Some blog posts just write themselves. The results of my “ten sentences using ‘have to/has to’” assignments are as follows:

I have to get up early tomorrow. I have to study hard.
I have to diet.
I have to exercise.
I will have to challenge in life. This is power that I was movement.
I have to draw my eyeline.
I have to log some Z’s.
I have to find a job. I have to get married. I have to makeup my face.
I will have to be tasted again.
I have to dry down the laundry.
She has to cook for her husband.
I have to be with her.
Do I have to see him?
He has to be joking.
I have to do what I have got to do.
Do I have to spell it out for you?
I have to soccer. (Agreed.)
I have to finish this homework.
I have to attend this class.
I have to study English hard.
This homework has to be finished by Wednesday! (Really, Tuesday.)
She really has to relax all the time.
He has to be quite.
He has to tell me “tuve.” (or tune, ture, lure, love?)
Do we have to fight?
You have to agree my opinion.
We have to protect the environment.  You have to finish the homework. You’d have to use a lot more sugar. I have to be patient. You have to clench your teeth.
I don’t have to forget you.
She has to eat a midnight meal.
I have to study English.
I have to make-up every day.
I have to date.
I have to make rice be eaten.
I have to meet a lot of people and have good relations.
I have to live very happy, funny, and well.
I have to wear clothes. (It’s rough here in Korea)
I have to live to eat.
I have to make my boyfriend.
I have to go the bathroom once a day.
She has to write a letter. He has to remember her every day. He has to call her.
I have to play the game.
My mother has to loves me because I love her she.
I have to try to understand you.
They have to get out of here because so terrible noise.

Debauchee of Sea Spray

Confession: the water beneath my hotel room, while
lovely, dark, and deep, was not nearly this photogenic.
I hate everything about Katy Perry’s songs: the inane lyrics, the mundane melodies, and the drawn-out rhythms (ex-tra-terre-strial!!), but damn—her songs are catchy. Luckily, she has brilliant competitor in Robert Frost, and Frost’s poetry is stuck more firmly in my head right now as I sit on the balcony to my overpriced hotel room on Jeju Island, and the waves crash against the breakers 50 feet below. The sea is lovely, dark, and deep…

The first Dutch guy to come to Korea
brought 15 terrifying clowns with him.
It’s been a long day of touring. This “vacation” reminds me a lot of my previous trip to China. Those of you who know the stories may well cringe, but don’t worry: Jeju can never match the toska of Ningbo. But both Chinese and Korean sightseeing is enough to make you miss the ebb and flow of a work routine.

Often half of the entertainment is figuring out exactly how we are supposed to be entertained. Today we drove past an inviting temple on a mountain to stop in a random parking lot, 500 feet below. We wandered around and eventually found the seaside—which was beautiful and windy and everything a seaside ought to be. Also, there was a small shrine/museum/enormous fake boat dedicated to Dutch people.

                                          I thought I was joking, too.

Green Tea. In plant form.
Then we wandered around a tea plantation, where there was a four-teacup museum accompanied by  an extensive gift shop for the likes of green tea, green tea soap, green tea tea cups, green tea cakes, green tea cookies, green tea ice cream, and green tea face exfoliate. There were lots of green plants, too. And some windmills which weren’t green, but probably should have been.

All in all, I am happy to be sitting on the balcony over the lovely, dark, and deep waves. The only other sound’s the sweep of steady swells and plunging crests. The sea is lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep—

and miles to go before I sleep.
Cute couple enjoying the tea museum.
Note the matching shirts: this is COMMON in Korea. O_o

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Tea-less State

My compuer (name: Johann) is abou 1 year old and herefore pracically decrepi. One foo in he grave, if you will. Bu he’s sill go some ricks up his sleeve. One such rick is his: every day a new key on his keyboard doesn’ work. Can you guess wha oday’s is? Pain in he bu.

It works if you slam it, though, which is why I am still updating. Plus, I’m sure there’s some kind of crazy good metaphor for life mixed up in all this nonsense.

I can' figure i ou hough. So here are some picures:

Kosin University's pretty serious about their cooking major.
No joke--there are about 4 more rooms for "Food Chemistry"
Three little piggies!
Prayer slates at the Buddhist temple
I am the blood of the dragon.
(Game of Thrones, anyone??)


Korea knows how to do hills.
Life is a series of choices: violin or cello? Calvin College or Indiana University? Play soccer or don’t? (Sounds like a silly question, but at one time I seriously debated it. O tempora o mores)

An ever-present choice in my life is this: work-out or write? After so many years of choosing one or the other, I know to plan for this gridlock. So I set my alarm for six this morning, allowing me two hours before the stress of school: one hour for a workout/shower, one hour for writing. Smart thinking, Schnabel, I said to myself. Then I woke up at seven with only one spare hour, having incorrectly set my alarm (was it the am/pm?! the volume nob? Alas—the on/off button is my nemesis), and was forced to make a choice.

Similarly ever-present is this choice: social time or alone time? I recently read an article about modern-day writers being uninterested in reading. As someone who will always “love the book and the look of words, the weight of ideas…the tracks of new thinking in my mind,” many of the articles’ comments jibed with me. Most particularly, this statement rang true: Humanity is losing its ability to be alone with nothing but our thoughts.

Even someone like me who loves to read, tries to write, and occasionally spends long drives in complete silence—even I have trouble seeking out alone time. I may be an incurable introvert, but I also love getting out and doing—especially when I’m on the other side of the world. And aside from old ladies who cut me off in the left lane, I really do sort of like people.

The gaijin (gringos, oegug-in) going on a day trip.
As always, balance seems to be the key. That’s why sea legs are such a problem. For my first couple weeks in Korea, I had no balance—no land legs yet. My time management, while still decent, was topsy-turvy and dangerously interested in tipping over. But—may God not smite me for overconfidence—I think I’m getting there now.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Twosome Place

Since coming to Korea I have been to the beach twice. Considering I went to the beach twice for the last four summers combined (maybe an overstatement), you may be marveling at my inconsistency. I am too. But that’s boring, whereas compare-and-contrast charts are beyond cool!

      1.      Apparel: At the beach, Americans wear bathing suits. Koreans wear every possible article of clothing they can find in their closet.

If you look closely, you'll see every spare inch
of skin is covered.
Believe me, I wish I had a picture of this, but I felt too creepy whipping out a camera and taking pictures of people in wet clothing. Boys and girls alike wear classy plaids and designer brands as they submerge. And it’s not about modesty—it’s about protecting skin. And it’s not about protecting skin from cancer—it’s about protecting skin from becoming slightly browner and thus resembling a southeastern Asian and those of the lower classes. From what I’ve so far observed, Koreans are slightly xenophobic, extremely sun-ophobic and also (unrelatedly) not a little bit homophobic.

      2.      Dearth of Frisbees: Americans toss things at the beach like it’s their job. Koreans do not pelt the skies with flying objects.

They do, however, occasionally engage in beach soccer games and spend ample amounts of time floating on tubes, splashing on another, and allowing children to strip naked or pee at will in public. Sure, back home in the states you get the occasional naked child making a bid for freedom, but usually some mortified parental unit is chasing said child down while giving everyone else in the area apologetic grimaces. Here, child nudity is condoned, and possibly encouraged. Still getting used to that one.

      3.      Beachfronts. American (maybe only Midwest?) beaches are national parks and thus devoid of anything besides sand, water, and the occasional lifeguard. Korean beaches have beachfronts.

Back home on good ‘ol Lake Michigan, you pack a cooler if you want to eat, drink, survive a full day at the beach. But here in Korea, you can spend quality time soaking it all in not on a sand-infested towel, but at a rooftop table of one of the many nearby cafes. There’s plenty of space for the sandy-towel nonsense, if you’re into that sort of thing. But as for me and my sandy towel, we will go to Angel-in-Us Coffee, or perhaps A Twosome Place. Quality establishments, both.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Needs More Cowbell

Ashley and Elijah: my oeni and oppa.
(Older sister and brother)

Introverts get a bad rap. We like to stay in and read on Friday nights and sometimes we forget to laugh when we’re supposed to. I’ve even heard it insinuated that introverts hate people. Of course we hate people. We hate that jerk who always has a date and that old lady with the handicap license plate that cuts us off in the left lane and then drives 30.

But the point is, we get a bad rap—and it’s not even for the right reason. The real reason introverts are annoying is because they never stop thinking. Sometimes they do things too, but mostly they sit around exhausting themselves and anyone foolish enough to hang around with their extensive thinking.

This is Lee, grabbing a drink of water at the Buddhist temple.
Quote of the day: "Wait. Did I just worship?"
This morning, for example. Excerpt:

Mmmmmmmorning. What time is it? Have I slept in too much? 8:30. Maybe I should be getting up earlier to do stuff. What stuff? I don’t know—stuff. But it’s vacation! Maybe—I’m arguing with myself. That must mean I’m awake enough to take a shower. Aha. Shower.

But perhaps my introversion is most debilitating when it comes to writing. This entire week I’ve had more free time than ever and more material to write about than ever and I have neglected to write much at all. But don’t worry—I’ve been thinking a lot about it! Excerpt:

I should write about Korean beaches. But it’s not that different than American beaches and I have nothing funny to say and whiiiine and why don’t you write about your pathetic chopstick skills instead? Oh that’d be interesting. Why not write about talking to a taxi driver for the first time or that one guy with a 1920s mobster hat and hit-man glasses who stared at you as you came out of the subway? I think I’ll go listen to K-pop music instead. I could write about that…after I think about it.

See what I mean? I bet you’re exhausted having just read this. Introversion is a disease. I have a fever and the only prescription is either more writing or more cowbell. Most probably both.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


At the center of Kosin’s campus is a dirt soccer field. The nets and goalposts are ancient, the ground sandy and rocky in turns. On one side of the field are buildings one and two where I teach global conversation and Greek mythology. On the other side are buildings three and four, where I fumble about trying to instruct others in the migraine-inducing art of grammar. And every day, there is the soccer field.

Sometimes a Korean boy is shooting. Sometimes two Korean boys are passing. Korean girls don’t play soccer. And since coming here, neither do I.

I tried to explain to my coworkers why I was so mercurial yesterday—all moody and mopey and all sorts of other “m’s”—but I couldn’t. I thought about saying, it’s like being in love. Like a first kiss, or like arms wrapped around you in an airport after too many months apart. Or like freedom—wind on top of a mountain and the great river gushing down it faster than fire. Or like a dog rolling and mucking about in the grass. Or like the knowing smirk of a friend. Or the reliable scowl of an enemy.

But everything sounded too melodramatic or literary or homesick. How do you explain the crazy addiction of a sport to someone who’s never discovered that she (or he) feels more alive on the field than off of it? How do you tell them that soccer has the beauty of a sunset, the wild abandonment of dance, and the raw power of fighting wolves—without sounding stupid?

Short answer? I can’t. If you’ve never been in love, Romeo and Juliet is the stupidest play in existence. And I think we’ve all watched the “triple complete rainbow” man enough to have a healthy cynicism about a nature-lover who can’t stop talking about mountains and rivers.

The slightly longer answer is this: I will play soccer tomorrow and it will give me the kind of joy that other people get from baking or programming computers or—God save us all—playing the banjo. I pout at the thought of being unable to find the right words, but I am comforted by the theory that everyone understands anyway.

Friday, September 2, 2011

They Call it Culture Shock

Is that what this is? Is that why I don’t like kimchi? Is that why I can’t use chopsticks? Is that why I can’t pronounce the Korean “eu” sound? Is that why no one tells me where my classes are? It is culture shock that forces me to smile anyway?  Is that why my hackles rise at the assumption that I will not be phased by an added Friday night class? Are the stares culture shock?

Are the stairs culture shock?

Is it culture shock when I show up to teach and none of my students arrive and I have to track down the English Department Secretary and weasel the reason for their absence out of her? Is it culture shock that saps my appetite and makes me long for a couch to nap on? Or is that homesickness? What’s the difference? Is there a difference?

Are the long bus routes culture shock? What about the mosquitoes bites riddling my legs, arms, hands and feet? Are they culture shock? Is the mouse that drops by occasionally culture shock? Is culture shock the boredom of 3-hour ceremonies? Is it culture shock that keeps me from screaming when my taxi careens up and down the mountain? Is it what makes me shy about wearing a two-piece at the beaches here?

Is culture shock why the creaky pipes wake me up? Is it why everyone here is beautiful? Is it why I’m losing weight? Or is that the stairs again? Are long hours and low pay culture shock? Or is that just another teacher perk? Is culture shock why I don’t have an office or a key to the building? Is it why my legs hurt when I curl up for Korean-style meals?

Is that what it is? Is that what these moments are about? These times when I picture a globe and realize I’m on the other half? Is it culture shock when I want a hug or a peanut butter sandwich?

Is it the burning ember in the back of my throat when I think about God and my family and knowing the rules?