Monday, April 30, 2012

My Korean Alter-Ego

Korea is weird.

As the horrifying (-ly regular) smell of what is probably puppy and cicada carcasses boiling in rotten milk and blood wafted up from the flat below, I reflected on one of my favorite quotes from The Little Prince: anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

I’ve been tutoring a woman every Monday evening the past couple of months. I can’t actually remember her name because I was too scared of mispronouncing when we first met that I forgot it just in time for our relationship to cross the line after which you look like a churl for having to ask the other person’s name. I think it’s something like Moon Sung, but that might be more indicative of my early interest in Native American naming practices than a working memory.

Actually, Moon-Sung might be my Korean alter-ego She is quiet and extremely nerdy—loves learning and reading and despite being my height and Korean-size (bones of a bird), she intimidates her coworkers. She’s a little bit twitchy and seems shy of social situations. When talking about a business trip she had to take (had to take a vacation to Singapore because she won a prize for working hard) she said she hoped she could stay away from everyone and read, but she didn’t think they’d let her.

One of my favorite mindmaps.
She also took the above quote to a place I’d never considered.

“Do you agree with this quote?” she asked.
“Yes. I love this one. I think it’s very true.” I try to speak as little as possible to give her the speaking practice. She took the bait.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like hiding my emotions. It’s important and you have to do it to live in society. When I was younger I told people what I thought, but my friends told me I can’t do that anymore. I don’t think it’s good. Do you know ‘white lie’?”
I said I did.
“Yes. That.”
“With everyone?”
“Ye-es. I don’t like it, but you have to for society. I don’t know what others think about me; I don’t know if they don’t like me. I am very scared.”

Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

Everything essential is invisible to the eyes here—the emotions, the individual thoughts, the I don’t give a damns. Maybe this is the hardest part about Korea for me. Like Moon-Sung, I find that kind of life very scary, unsettling. It’s stressful, keeping that mask up. In many ways, Korea reminds me of middle school—there’s a lot of pretending going on, a lot of giggling, and a lot of people become boyfriend-girlfriend just for the sake of someone to date.

I always thought that if I could do middle school over again with the self-assurance I have today, it wouldn’t have been quite so annoying. I think I was wrong. It still is annoying. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m not fat, that I’m not lower-class for wearing flip-flops, and that even if I was either of those things—it is okay. It’s still stressful and exhausting—and I’m not even bothering with the Official Face.
I worry for Koreans, sometimes. Perhaps they are all very exhausted and lonely—but how would we ever know?

That was supposed to be brief because I have three books I’m reading right now and all of them are good. If I sacrifice studying Greek (not a good idea) and sleep (possibly worse idea) I could finish one of them tonight. I find conclusions difficult to write, so...done.

(out with a fizzle)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Busking on a Blustery Day

I wish I had a screenshot of what the weather forecast was for this past week. I also wish I had set my netbook to take a picture of my face when I discovered that both Saturday and Sunday had a 90% chance of rain all day. I imagine it was something like this:

Soggy is not my idea of a good time, so after Saturday morning soccer my weekend plans resembled nothing so much as a cuddlefest of warmth in my snug, little apartment. But as we all know from our Scottish friend Burns—even if I’m no “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie . . . the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft aglee.”

And so it was that, after a sopping soccer session, I found myself playing Green Day’s Time of Your Life on my violin with two couch-surfers and my ukulele-playing coworker, Lee, for a crowd of Koreans transferring subway lines in Seomyeon.

Two years ago I did an internship with Zondervan. It was a long semester of no sweatpants. I learned a lot about editing and the publishing industry, but perhaps the most memorable lesson was given by my supervisor, Bob Hudson. I’ve forgotten the context for the conversation, but we were probably in his cubicle and I was probably wearing my It’s-Time-To-Be-An-Adult work clothes when he encouraged me not to be too serious about a career until I was 30 or so. This is one of the top editors at Zondervan Publishing, mind you.

Go play your violin in the subways or something, he told me. Work at random jobs. Travel. Write. Do the crazy things and wait for the serious things.

I derive enormous amounts of pleasure from daily work and study and the everyday banalities. I’m a homebody at heart, so it’s easy for me to get into a pleasant but unremarkable pattern of life. Thank goodness there are couch-surfers and ukulele-ists to jog me out of it!
The two hours of busking were remarkably pleasant. I’m still learning how to improvise, but fiddling comes naturally to me even if it is harder while bowing and saying kamsahmnida. Asians are stereotyped as a Too Busy to Enjoy Life society so I was shocked at subwaygoers’ reactions to us. We had only strummed around when a woman came up to us and told us how happy we made her. Crowds of people stopped to stare and clapped along with us. People were extremely generous—someone even gave us a coupon for a movie—and took pictures and videos of us. I’m happy to have served as amusement, and even happier to have crossed something off my half-formed mental bucket list.

It didn’t rain on Sunday after all. In fact, it was downright sunny and breezy and a b-e-a-u-tiful spring day. So I joined some friends for a jaunt out to the end of the blue subway line. There we found . . . nothing. Just as we suspected, the blue line ended in unremarkable countryside—green and as grassy as Korea gets with a fresh breeze. I noticed for the first time that Yeongdo sea winds taste and feel vastly different than inland “tree” breezes—which have a hint of green life hidden in them and a freshness that the ocean cannot match with its impersonal blusterings.

So that’s springtime in Korea for me so far. I call it adventure.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

That Awkward Moment When...

...You realize half the population probably no longer truly understands what “awkward” means anymore.

I’m a big fan of colloquialisms (even if I can’t spell the word). Take that last sentence, for example, or this one. Take it, if you know what’s good for you. But one of their unfortunate byproducts is a devaluation of the words they highlight and in the end we get Alanis Morissette and heaven only knows how many other crucifixions of English.

You can't tell how skinny this famous
Korean rapper's legs are because he's...
in a bunny suit. But...he's in a bunny suit.
So I thought I'd include it. Yep.
Admittedly, our torturings are, much like the infamous crucifixion on Golgotha, necessary steps in our language’s rebirth: once a language stops changing, it is dead. Mortis. So however painful it might be to see your and you’re someday morph into one word, it is necessary for the life of our beloved, bizarre language.

So while I enjoy the Awkward Turtle (caps necessary) or a friend’s bug-eyed mouthing of the word (awk-kward) at the only somewhat appropriate moment, there are times when I’d appreciate it if we could all stop nailing our language to a tree and torturing it. For instance, when I say the skirt I wore to classes on Tuesday awkwardly hikes up as I take the stairs, I want you to understand my full meaning. It has nothing to do with physical discomfort and everything to do with a good half a foot of skirt disappearing to leave heaven only knows how much exposed to the poor innocent Koreans foolish enough to walk behind me.

It’s not awkward when I find out that some of my male students have been talking about the size of my thighs and how I might have more leg muscle than they do. (I do) It is awkward—extremely—when I catch them comparing our quads while I’m doing my sit-ups and they’re doing their intense bicep curls—using the pink two-kilogram weights.

Semantics are important.
And here are the legs, sans bunny.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Modus Operandi

One time in college my friends and I devoted ourselves to 15 minutes a day of prayer. I don’t remember exactly the impetus for the challenge, but it was probably a L.O.F.T. sermon (o tempora o mores!) about how we spend more time flossing out teeth than praying.[1] Several of us did it: three times a day for five minutes each. It must have been in the spring of my junior year at Calvin because I remember using my ice-cold 25-minute drive to Zondervan Publishing every morning as my morning prayer time. Things usually started like this:

So. So. So. So. Cold. God, I need gloves. Or better yet, I need You to make it not be winter in Michigan.

But five minutes of prayer, as anyone who has done it out loud[2] will tell you, is a long time, and after about one minute of complaining and another of focusing, I finally started to treat the conversation with the reverence it deserved. Perhaps others are more focused than I am,[3] but I’ve found that the best physical techniques for focused prayer are writing and speaking. Most days I write my prayers, but I truly miss those frigid drives down 28th street, through all 12 stoplights between 3005 Woodcliff and Zondervan, if only for the alone time to talk out loud with my God.

Nowadays I probably do about 15 minutes of praying a day (give or take), but it’s all at one time, usually, and it’s interspersed with K-pop songs and sticky-note lists of things to do in the office that day. So this week I’m going to do the challenge again: three times a day for five minutes[4] and at least one of those five has to be out loud. If you’d like to join me, here’s the only other rule:

No more than 10% of your prayer time (90 seconds a day) is spent on you: your needs, wants, and feelings.

Other than that, everything goes. Here’s a link to some great music to pray to. Each song centers on a single, life-changing Biblical truth. I personally am hoping to find some written prayers of Karl Barth’s and pray through those, but if that’s unavailable, I’ll probably turn to some online Catholic resources.[5] If anyone has any suggestions, leave a comment!

[1] I don’t floss, but clearly I was convicted that night, if not about dental hygiene.
[2] I’m sure everyone has their modus operandi, but I’ve rarely found silent, in-my-head praying effective. If I can make it thirty seconds through that kind of prayer without imagining juking three defenders to score the winning goal, mentally reciting my to-do list, or singing inane K-pop lyrics (“I’m so curious! Yeeeaah!”), I usually throw the towel in for the day because I will not be able to accomplish anything so impressive from there on out.
[3] Note: I’m skeptical. The human mind, particularly the human mind on crack known as the internet, is programmed to bounce around.
[4] The athlete in me says, “Three reps! That’s it?!”
[5] Because, let’s face it Protestants, the Catholics know how to do reverence and repetition a whole lot better.

Friday, April 13, 2012

My Ideal Type


It’s hard being a moderate because as good as waffles are (WANT), waffling seriously slows your writing down. We moderates are a winging, nitpicky, soppy bunch of indecisive saps obsessed with our own level-headedness.

“That seems a bit much,” the moderate in me cautions. “Yes, waffling occurs, but perhaps it is better to be level-headed than hot-headed. Shall we discuss it over tea?”

No! No time! I’ve already begun this post eight different ways now, but I can’t get a short, snappy topic sentence because you, O Moderate Dear, will not shut up. So, without further ado, this is what I mean:

Some books are bad enough to be burned.

But that’s no good at all! Because now you think I’m either a crazy Christian[1] or a reprobate of a writer who ought to be thrown into the flames along with the literature I propose to burn. And so, the moderate must win as I waffle my way down from such a strong statement.

Thank-you, Rowling.
I’ve heard teachers encourage their classes to be inquisitive by saying, “There are no stupid questions” and then for the next fifteen minutes be forced to answer seven variations on “If I don’t do my homework what happens?” These poor, well-meaning teachers can do nothing but answer, trapped by their own misguided encouragement. There are stupid questions—many of them—just like there are Bad Books.

There is no universal “bad book,” of course, but variations on a theme. The book I find bad enough to forget so thoroughly that I read it twice without realizing it—Eregon—might be a national best-seller and quite enjoyable to others. Everyone has their own their own standards, their likes and dislikes. Here are mine:

     ·         original plot that becomes apparent quickly and moves smoothly, without contrivances
     ·         complete dearth of clichés
     ·         full, memorable characters who develop throughout
     ·         snappy dialogue
     ·         surprisingly talented people
     ·         women who aren’t stupid[2]

And I prefer it if there are swords and adventure and thieves and magic. And dragons are good too. But I’m flexible.

There is not enough time in this world to read all of the books that should not be burned. In the meantime, I hold a significant grudge against the books I do take the time to begin which are not up to snuff.

This post prompted by the awfulness of Joe Abercrombie and his nightmare of a book called The Blade Itself. If I could fit more cliché characters into a wandering plot speaking such awkwardly unrealistic dialogue, I might have to burn my own book.

“Then again,” the moderate chides, “he’s actually finished a book, dull though it may be. And you have not.”

It’s hard being a moderate.

[1] I am. Jesus is pretty damn awesome.
[2] Call me a feminazi, but even misogynist male writers ought to be able to have a few female characters that don’t suck and aren’t merely stock. We make up half the population, give or take, after all and a much higher but yet undetermined percentage of the reading population.

Disclaimer: I have very little say on where the pictures go on these posts. Apparently the internet is stronger than I am. Who knew?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

North Korea is Crazy: Thoughts from a South Korean Soldier

One of the more interesting things about day-to-day life in Korea is its mandatory military service. After he appeared in class the first day, Sangcheol Eom remained absent for three consecutive class periods. I read his name faithfully each time until my students informed me, “He go to army.” Sangcheol Eom and boys like him are always disappearing from university, heard from only occasionally by their girlfriends and friends at Kosin, and then reappearing two years later bigger, stronger, and more responsible.

I often get questions about how the military service affects daily life. (For a thorough treatment  of the subject from a much more qualified source: link) From my soccer buddy Gyu I gleaned that most boys are apprehensive about going into the army, but always happy to have done so after the fact. Girls don’t like their boyfriends leaving, but most couples think of the separation a little romantically, and those girls with boyfriends in the army are treated similarly to American girls with boyfriends at a different college.

In this week’s homework, I was delighted to read Bowen’s paragraph about his proudest accomplishment:

“I don’t have big accomplishment. I went army. It Korean man’s duty to army. I protected my country for 2 years. North Korea is very uncomfortable. When I was army, North army ship attacked our country’s ship. Our soldiers is dead (46 soldier). My feel was shocking and sad. North Korea is crazy. I proud of my country army. Without them, we are not safe.”

In this slice of homework, Bowen addressed two of the most common interests Westerners have for Koreans: North Korea and the mandatory military service. As Bowen said, serving in the army is a Korean man’s duty and something they are proud to do. Korean men love their country and they are proud of their army.

As for North Korea…it is crazy and uncomfortable.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Lost Art of Letters

I assigned a worksheet to my Global Conversation classes that included unscrambling two addresses and writing the correct order. After living in Busan for nearing eight months (not including the 9 weeks I was in SE Asia), I have written quite a few letters. On each of them, I’ve written my return address, to help the people on the other end to easier address the letter they will no doubt send in return. All that to say: addresses in Korea are in the same order as addresses in the States.

Elaine Schnabel                                               name
Kosin University, English Department           institution, if applicable
194 Wachi-ro, Dongsam-Dong                       street address, neighborhood
Yeongdo-gu, Busan 606-701                          minor area (city),major a. (state, district) zip code
Korea                                                              country           

You can imagine my delight when not one single student was able to correctly unscramble the addresses, nor successfully write their incorrectly unscrambled guesses on the right place on the page. In despair, I asked my classes, “Who has written a letter before?”

Not one student raised his or her hand.

Allowing for poor English listening skills I asked the question several different ways and still received nothing more than blank stares and shaking heads. These are college students around my age who, like me, did not grow up with smartphones pressed into their palms 90% of the day. Korea is about the size of Indiana and their postal service is incredible. I shipped a borrowed camera to Seoul for about $3 and it arrived less than 24 hours later. I’ve since been told that I was silly to even go to the post office and buy the box myself: you can order that service online and a postal worker will come to your door and package it all himself.

Call me a luddite, but this ignorance toward traditional methods of communication bums me out. Letter writing is one of the most perfect ways to sustain a long-distance relationship with anyone. It requires all of a half hour a week of focus[1]—an amount of time many of us unthinkingly give to facebook ten times over in a week, mostly used for acts of voyeurism.

It may take longer to write a letter than an email, but I can guarantee you that after writing it, you won’t feel busier like you do after finishing an email (only to have three more pop up in your inbox). You will feel fuller, calmer, and usually more accomplished.

The best part is the waiting. Waiting is a lost art these days; instant gratification is rampant and exhausting. Getting an email back the next day is lovely in the business world where things need to be done quickly. But in the friendship and correspondence world, it’s too quickly, too much. Nothing new can be said a matter of hours after you’ve already said everything. Give it a week and you’ve already forgotten to write back, lost the thread of the conversation. Correspondence through emailing is like riding a bike with rollerblades on your feet—overkill and awkwardness.

When you get a letter, the wait was worth it and the half-hour you spent writing the first one was worth it. The one trip every three months to the post office is negligible and so is the poor self-esteem contracted when you saw how bad your handwriting was. As my students would say to finish this extended paragraph: “Try writing a letter! It will be nice!”

They are precious to me, the letters you write. Thank you all.

[1] And that’s only if you vow to write one letter a week. Depending on where your correspondents are, you can probably write to three different people with that amount of dedication.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Do You Know "Ddak-Bam?"

Do you know “ddak-bam?” Chris’ Korean culture paragraph on last week’s homework enthusiastically asked me. Ddak-bam, it transpires, is the Korean punishment for the losers of a game. When Koreans play games, there are often punishments and some of them are not very nice. Perhaps it’s an Asia thing because Japan has a hilarious game-show based entirely on administering some of these punishments in the middle of a library where all the players have to keep completely silent.

Third panel: gourd and walnut Onew cracked with
powerful ddak-bam. Source.
Eighth panel: administering the ddak-bam
Panels nine, ten, eleven: the effects of ddak-bam.
Ddak-bam, however, is relatively harmless compared to some punishments I’ve heard about. But it can be painful depending on who is administering it. Ddak-bam is using the middle finger to hit someone else’s forehead. There are two techniques: either flicking or pulling the middle finger back and snapping it into the forehead.

Apparently Shinee boy-band member Onew has a strong enough Ddak-bam to crack chestnuts. Turns out that is particularly appropriate because “ddak-bam” was named thus because when the forehead is hit, the sound is similar to “ddak,” and “bam” means chestnut.

I’ve only seen ddak-bam administered once and that, coincidentally, was last night. My friend and I went to a bizarre play that was entitled “Love Actually.” We were banking on her superior listening skills and our combined knowledge of the movie by the same title to get us by. It did, for the most part, although the extremely tiny size of the theatre dramatically and uncomfortably exposed us as the only nonnatives in the 35-person audience. The tricky part (and the ddak-bam) came in when the two narrators (??) of the story, a cross-dressing older man (possibly acting as a transvestite?) and a skinny and wildly gyrating younger man, took the stage. When, at one point, the older man ddak-bam-ed the younger several times in a row the “ddak” resounded through the room and everyone in the audience visibly winced. (We still have no idea why the young man was being ddak-bam-ed.)

Chris also informed me that Ji-Sung Park (the beloved Korean Manchester United player) taught this bit of Korean culture to his teammates who have since used it in training sessions. But don’t worry. Chris assures us that ddak-bam is “not a bad action. It just for games. If you are foreigner, try ‘Ddak-bam!’ It will be interesting!”

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Finally We Taste It

Kosin University was blowing a strong wind yesterday.
I normally give you bastardizations of the English language for your amusement, but today’s excerpt from Max’s journal is quite good. There are obvious errors and I left most of them in (I couldn’t help correcting a few) because I think seeing which parts of the language are difficult even for very bright Koreans[1] is interesting.

When you see the mistakes, imagine it from my perspective: how do you teach that grammar rule? As soon as you start down that road, you begin to have a lot more compassion for the more grammatically challenged among us (or those who are speaking and writing in a foreign language).

Interesting Korean culture is about food. It is unique food culture which is wrapping main food on the vegetables. Koreans usually uses main dishes pork or fishes. They take a lettuce and put it pork, sauce, some rice and wrapped. Finally they taste it. Sometimes one person (who is maked a food) feeds the food to another person. Make the food with using their hands, and picked up and pass it to the other’s mouth. This direct action could be surprise to some of foreigners, but this conduct indents, “I want to show every kindness.” Korean culture have a kind heart and also Koreans are very warm-hearted. Koreans use foods as a tool to introduce their culture, and teach how it can be familiar with Koreans.

This is my favorite side of Korean culture. When we go out to eat, Koreans always want to give each other their food. “You wanna try?” my friend Kim always asks me after she has already transferred little mounds of food from her plate or bowl to mine via expertly-wielded chopsticks. Of course I do! Because you’re giving it to me. This is gift-giving done correctly (as opposed to the somewhat legalistic and ostentatious pastime at American Christmases) and it does indeed reflect the warm hearts of Koreans.

On that note, “warm-hearted” is not a term an outsider would use to describe Koreans. “Friendly” and “polite,” certainly. Even the “I want to show every kindness” is apparent (except on the subway). But most visitors would not know the giving nature of Koreans if they had never eaten a meal like the one Max described.

It’s one of my favorite kinds of meals in Korea: barbeque. You have to work pretty hard for it, and I’m not much of a griller. But it’s a very communal meal. One of my first observations here in Korea was that I would never want to be the dishwasher or busboy at a restaurant—they use a million little dishes. You chopstick bites out of each little dish and onto your lettuce leaf (as Max succinctly described) and personally grill your own meat on the table.

Usually the Koreans only feed each other. They know we westerners are a little more germophobic than they.

At first it’s a little overwhelming. The beginner Korean bbq-ers are too focused on their own lettuce leaf and not dropping their chopsticks to really appreciate the community of it all. But as their competence grows so does enjoyment in the pastime.

[1] Max is one of my favorite students, mostly because he laughs at my jokes. The real jokes, not just the pantomiming jokes. And he does his homework