Tuesday, September 30, 2008
What a great day!
I got paid yesterday for my overtime work on Chosuk weekend, and my friend Ray and I had been talking about going out to Camp Walker, one of the US Army garrisons, to see if some of the stores out there had clothes that would fit us. So this morning we did.
First, we found a little Korean-run restaurant that specializes in real, genuine, honest-to-gosh American brunch! Much as I like Korean food, give me some French toast with syrup, eggs, and coffee once in awhile. Which they did. Heaven on earth! (They also had bagels, croissants, pancakes, orange juice, and that old breakfast favorite, Kool-Aid.)
Then, in a little shop just outside Camp Walker's gate, we hit the mother lode: I got a heavy-duty winter coat, a really nice windbreaker/raincoat, and a t-shirt, all for about a hundred bucks; I know I should have haggled, but somehow it still feels like I'm using Monopoly money, and I've always hated haggling... I have to overcome that! As I expected, a lot of hip-hoppy clothing, definitely not made for a Simon and Garfunkel kind of guy. But the jackets are great.
Then, across the street, I got a bookbag/backpack for thirteen bucks that was comparable to the ones for fifty that I passed up at E-Mart. Come to think of it, the belt I bought last week from a table on the street was seven bucks, compared to E-Mart's seventeen. Hmm...
(I've found that I've had to make some compromises with my ethics about animals... the winter coat has down in it and my belt is leather. I hate that! But the fact is that it would be nearly impossible to find strictly animal-friendly clothes here. I did reject a coat that had fur trim around the collar. We do what we can.)
After that, I found a tiny shoemaker's shop. That is, the shop was tiny; the shoemaker was merely diminutive. I asked him to punch one more buckle-hole in my new belt (to make it tighter, believe it or not; it's not that I'm losing weight-- the belt's just really big) which he did, and he refused to take any money.
Then, when I got home, the guy came and hooked up my Internet! Oh, this is great. It only took a month (exactly) since I got here. I have DSL service, the visit was free and it only costs a little over 30 bucks a month. By the way, remember how I mentioned the service ethic here? The DSL company didn't say the guy would come out between eight and one or one and six... they said between one and two, and he was there by 1:10.
So this, my friends, has been one terrific day.
Monday, September 29, 2008
If your favorite team, the Mets, whom you'd been following for over 40 years, had lost their last game of the previous season to the Marlins, thus failing to make the playoffs... and you got up on Monday morning Korea time hoping to find out how their finale this year went... and the game that was on in Korea was a totally irrelevant-to-anybody Pittsburgh-San Diego game... and you caught a glimpse on the outfield scoreboard that the Mets had lost their last game, to the Marlins, AGAIN, and failed to make the playoffs, AGAIN, thus making that the final game in the history of Shea Stadium...
...and you had planned a major mountain hike for that morning, but it was raining, so you didn't go...
that, my friends, would make a really gray Monday morning. Hypothetically speaking, of course.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
If you take a pair of boxers from the washing machine, suspend them on a hanger on the front of a pedestal fan, and let them blow in the wind like an eccentrically designed flag, they’ll dry in about three minutes. This may come in handy if you’re ever ten thousand miles from home and don’t have a dryer. I’m just sayin’.
Last week, at the beginning of one of my classes, a girl of about six came up to me and started petting my forearm as if it were a cat. She was enthralled. I pulled away, confused. Then I realized: Korean men have no hair on their arms.
Ray has been living in Mrs. Kim’s late mother’s house, which is as far above my apartment in size and quality as mine is above the dorm. Now the family is selling the house, and Ray says he’s happy to be moving back into the dorm, because he can save a tremendous amount of money: his Internet and heat are paid with a simple $90 deduction from his pay each month. For all the dorm’s faults, the ugly little rooms will be cozy as Bag End in the winter.
I’ll have to pay my own bills, and the heating bill may be enormous. It’s getting chillier already, and Daegu gets down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. For that matter, there’s a two-inch gap between the window and the right-hand sill over the tv to allow the cables to come in. I told Heeduk about it, and he’s going to have George and Manager Yeung see if they can find something foamy and insulationesque to stick in there.
I have been bequeathed a heater that resembles a pedestal fan. It makes things nice and toasty for a six-foot radius. Even so, I probably will need to put plastic sheeting over all the windows, keep the heat down, wear lots of layers, and hope my hands don’t shiver too much to shell out all that money.
When I first got here, I didn’t mind picking up my cup of soup to drink it, but I was careful to not slurp. Don’t want to be the ugly American, after all. But then I noticed that everybody slurps: it’s good manners, as it shows how much you’re enjoying the food. So now I’m learning to slurp. It’s kind of liberating, in a way.
However, an awful lot of men hawk and spit, and I think that’s one habit I don’t think I’ll pick up.
Korean currency is a funny thing. A thousand Won equals about 88 cents, so I was instantly a millionaire when I exchanged my dollars at Incheon Airport. The largest bill they have is 10,000 Won, so that made for quite a stack, though as I get nearer my first payday, it isn’t nearly as big a lump as it was. If I were paid my monthly salary in cash, I’d have to try to close my wallet on over 200 bills.
On the other hand, their denominations are different sizes and colors, so in that way they’re a lot smarter than we are.
Now that I have my alien card and bank account, I should have the ‘net hooked up at home in a few days. It’s been hard without it; I’ve missed chatting with friends, I’ve missed the collapse of both the US economy and the Mets (the two are equally important), and I missed the debate. I can’t believe Obama isn’t up by fifteen percent.
In 1968, my Uncle Frederick sent us a post card from Southeast Asia that said one thing: “Vote for George Wallace.” I thought, and I still think, that telling someone how to vote is the epitome of rudeness. But… please go vote for Obama as many times as you can. I’m Steve Cornman, and I approved this message.
At the track meet, I sat for awhile with some Americans, Nike executives who came up from Busan to see their wares in action. Sadly, the six-year-olds in China who actually manufactured the gear couldn’t make it. Anyway, the guys gave me a program and a beer and passed on some of their experience of living in Korea.
What one guy said stuck with me: Korea is a land of opposites that are equally true. It’s very, very hot in the summer (Ryoo, a girl I’m helping with her writing, says she saw a tire melting on the street in August) and very, very cold in the summer. The women are very beautiful and very… not. Their voices can be charming and can drive you up the wall.
More to my point, he said that Koreans are the most gracious and the rudest people in the world. He’s right: they can be very warm one-to-one, whether welcoming you to their homes or waiting on you in a store. It feels as if E-Mart has hundreds of salespeople, and they bow and say hello and would break a leg to grind your coffee or bag your vegetables. One doesn’t tip cabbies or waiters, because providing good service is part of being hospitable. But…
One of the first phrases I learned was “shilleh hamnida” (excuse me), but I have no idea why they have it in the language; I don’t believe any Korean has ever actually said it. People will brush by on the bus, bumping you hard, and not acknowledge that you exist. Sometimes I’ll be walking down the sidewalk toward two people talking, and one of them will seem to go out of his way to stand in mine. On Saturday and Sunday evenings, the grocery is mobbed; last night, I had a woman to my left and a kid on my right, and the little booger shoved my cart into her to get by. She never even noticed.
But when some little kid’s face lights up and he says “Hi!” in English, so proud to show an American he knows the word, all that is hard to remember.
Friday, September 26, 2008
But some good stuff is happening: I finally got my alien registration card, which will allow me to get the Internet (at long, long last), as well as a cell phone, if I want one. I also opened a bank account, which has a zero balance, but will be bulging with Won on October 10. I authorized a charge of about $4.40 a year, which will get me a Visa check card. (Highway robbery, I know.)
Gale, who lives in the dorm, told me we get CNN here, which would be a big deal for me, as I feel completely cut off from the news at home. I hoped to even get to watch the debates. But apparently central Daegu is on a different cable system from the one I get on the east side; I get the Discovery Channel instead. It's the only purely English-language channel I get; I still want CNN.
It's very chilly and windy today, and I only have the one cardigan and no coat. I was really excited for thirty seconds: I found a lovely jacket that fits me at the outdoor store across the street from the school. It had many zippers. It was GoreTex. It cost four hundred bucks.
I don't really need a jacket.
I met an American soldier at the track meet; he confirmed what I had guessed, that there are stores near the army garrison here that carry larger sizes for the Americans. Failing that, Ray says there's a Russian store by the beach in Busan, a mere three-hour round trip by bullet train. I think I'll check here first.
Despite my whining, though, things are looking up: I am still getting more and more and more high-level students, and I've learned to say "Chaeshik juuija imnida" ("I'm a vegetarian"), which will make me much more confident in going to new restaurants.
Besides, the Mets were on tv, live, this morning, and they won in a dramatic finish. So all is well, for the moment, in the world.
I had the day off yesterday (Thursday), as Heeduk asked me to teach on Sunday instead. My shift to the upper-level classes, SAT- and TOEFL-prep, is accelerating, which is great. It appears I’ll have days with very little to do except some prep and proofreading and days where I’ll be here from noon till midnight.
Anyway, it seemed fortuitous that he gave me the day of the big international track meet off; posters and banners and bus ads all around town have been advertising it since before I got here. The only other time I’d seen a major meet was in 1976 in London, and my girlfriend Alison and I had took the wrong bus, so we missed half of it.
Daegu will host the world championships in 2011, and this was a sort of dry run. The meet was at the ultra-modern stadium—well, maybe just the modern stadium, as it doesn’t have escalators—that was built to host World Cup soccer games in 2002. The stadium is way off on the southeast edge of the city, nestled against a hill, as you can see. Korea in general and Daegu in particular seem starved for international recognition, and admission was free so they could build up a big crowd.
I took the 20-minute walk to the nearest subway station, intending to train it and then walk another 20 minutes to the stadium. However, the platform was mobbed with literally hundreds of high-school and middle-school students, and when the train came, they pushed and shoved and crammed in as if they were trying to get listed in the Guinness book. (By the way, hundreds of Korean students in a subway station sound exactly like two hundred thousand sparrows in a tin can.)
So I got the brilliant idea of taking the next train going the other way, getting off at the first station, and coming back toward the stadium; at least then I’d have a seat in the crush. But when I got to the next station and the train came in, of course it was already bulging with students… apparently every student in this city of 2.5 million was taking time off to go en masse to the meet.
So I found a taxi. (Not actually on the train platform; I had to go upstairs.) The meter counted three bucks getting within a quarter-mile of the stadium and ticked off two more dollars (and me) waiting for the cab to be allowed to turn left into the lot; finally I just said “Yeo-gi” (“here”), paid the cabbie, and got out in the street.
The lead-up to the meet featured fireworks, cheerleaders, guys running around with flags, a unique race among high schools (the coed 8 x 200 meters), and an appearance by a female singer who is apparently very, very big here. It may have been Roberta Flack; I was in the upper deck.
By the time the meet started, there were perhaps 40,000 people there, and 35,000 of them were students, banging those damned inflatable plastic sticks together and occasionally watching the action. Every single one of them was in school uniform, which universally includes a white shirt or blouse, so it’s just as well it was overcast, or I might have gone snow-blind.
The meet itself was okay; it had a few Olympic medalists in it, but it was really rather fragmentary: some events for men, others for women, but it only added up to maybe half a meet. That’s okay; I went for the experience, not for the sport, and in fact, not being an idiot (usually), I left before the final three or four sprint events and walked back to the subway, embarked, rode, disembarked, and went home, too tired to walk to school to use the Internet or even to go to E-Mart(!)
I said some words into the close and holy darkness, and then I slept. (tm Dylan Thomas.)
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
I have neither two cats nor a yard, but I'm really happy.
I've been working on picking up a little Korean, and I don't mean a short local girl. I can make out about ten characters and can spell "Kim" (the bosses' family name) in Korean characters. It's tricky; with Rosetta Stone, I've been trying to make out if "man", for example, is pronounced num-da or num-ta; according to the Korean Made Easy book (and Heeduk), it's num-ja. Things the books say are pronounced with a "j" are actually, to my ear, more like an "s", and so on.
I like the main streets, because they have road signs in both Korean and English. It's helping me learn, much the same way as (according to my parents) I learned to read at age 4 or 5 by reading chirons on tv commercials that matched what the voice-over was saying.
I don't know why, but it seems Heeduk has taken a real liking to me. In the last week, he's asked me to go to lunch with him three times-- once with a student, once with Luke on his first day off the plane, once with just him, though I asked if Ray could come along. Yesterday (Tuesday) I didn't have any duties till 8:15 and showed up before 4:00; he said he was going to Kyobo Books, and did I want to come along? I did, and then he took me back to the waffle house for another banana-split waffle. And, of course, I was the only teacher asked to the family home for the Chosuk ceremony.
He's said he enjoys my company, though I don't know why; I mostly just ask questions. I have made him laugh a few times. Maybe he just wants me to re-up next year. I know I'm young and pretty, but I have no reason to think that he's gay. We certainly don't have much in common; I'm twice his age. Maybe he just respects the hell out of Cornell. I dunno.
In Korea, the "senior" person always pays; as the boss, that's him. Monday, he paid for my lunch and ordered take-out for dinner; Tuesday, his parents paid for lunch and he bought the waffle. Later he brought an "American cheesecake" back to the office. Both my midsection and my wallet are staying pretty hefty.
He's shifting me very heavily to the high-level kids, especially coaching them on writing. This is great. Yesterday, I just had one student all day: 45 minutes of writing followed by 45 minutes of TOEFL speaking. Today, I have one small class doing "Lord of the Flies" and two one-on-one writing sessions. He's rearranged this week's schedule to give me Thursday off and have me come in for some SAT teaching on Sunday. I intend to always come through for him, which may be what he had in mind all along. In return, maybe he'll keep me out of the dorm.
I had lunch in a little storefront in the underground today (there's another huge underground shopping area in Banwoldang, a bit south of what I call downtown.) I seem to recall an SNL skit nearly thirty years ago about a toast restaurant. Maybe it was some other show. Anyway, that's this lady calls her little storefront a toast restaurant. Through gestures and trying to draw a cow and a chicken, both with slashed circles over them, and then drawing an egg, I tried to indicate I wanted a toasted egg sandwich. That didn't work.
What did work, however, was the laminated menu, a foot from my hand, that had "egg sandwich" written in English. I also had a kiwi smoothie and it all came to 3,000 Won (about $2.65). According to the lady, "egg" in Korean is "egguh" and "toast" is "toastuh". That ain't what the books say, but if it works... at any rate, my favorite things on the menu were "nude toast" and "sausage nude toast". Maybe I'll try them next time.
It's amazing what people sell in the street here: there are tables and trucks and people just plain sitting on sidewalks, selling produce, food, jewelry, clothing... yesterday my belt broke and I bought a new one from a guy on the street. Stupid Americano got ripped off... his little sign said his wares were 3,000 Won and 5,000 Won. The belts, however, didn't reach around me, except for one... He held out three fingers on one hand and five on the other, and I thought he wanted 3,500. Wrong. Eight. And I paid it, like a sap. I figured that's just over seven bucks, which seemed like a good deal anyway, and my new belt is way bigger than all the others he had... if I had a six-pound buckle, I could be Toby Keith.
Turns out, later I saw an almost identical belt on another sidewalk table, priced at 5,000, and Ray told me you can always, always haggle, and I probably could have gotten it for 3,000. Oh, and speaking of street vendors, there's a guy right outside our building who sells little pancakes stuffed with cinnamon, fresh and very hot off the grill, for 45 cents. People who have much less willpower than I say the pancakes are delicious. (Burp.)
I was all over town on bus, subway, and foot today, and noticed that all the subway platforms have locked cabinets with gas masks. I looked up "Daegu subway" on Wikipedia; right in the downtown station I always use, in 2003 a suicidal man set several trains on fire and 200 people died.
I also went through two major department stores, neither of which has clothes my size (and they were very expensive, anyway), Daegu Station, the main train depot, which is near the ballpark, and Dongdaegu Bus Station. I walked from the former to the latter, and to work, in ten minutes. I really am beginning to know my way around a bit better. I can be anywhere (that I know of) where I want to be within 40 minutes of home.
Okay, I'm going to post this. I'll be back sometime soon with more (clap) stuff.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
This one is hard for me to write.
All of us with a few months’ experience or less were asked to go to the Samduk school this morning for a little training with Dr. Kim and his wife. There were five of us: Ray, who’s been here three months, Alex, Luke, and Nicole, who’ve all arrived in the last week, and me.
Afterward, Ray led Luke and me across downtown to one of the bigger outdoor markets. There were hundreds of shops and stalls. Vendors of similar items were grouped together: ten with tools, a dozen with dishes, and so on: herbs, clothing, kitchen items.
And then we came to it: a narrow aisle with dozens of, maybe a hundred or more, food vendors. I was a little put off by the piles of big dead octopi and tanks of living fish the size of my forearm, and more disturbed by the tubs of live turtles waiting for slaughter. I tried to look straight ahead and run the gauntlet as quickly as possible. Then we came to a couple of tables with skinned dog carcasses.
According to the ‘net, it’s illegal now to eat dog in Korea, but it might still be done in some of the rural villages. Two and a half million people do not constitute a rural village. This market is only a few blocks from shops selling Ralph Lauren and DKNY!
Logically, as an animal-rights person, I think that it shouldn’t be more horrifying to eat dead dogs any more than, say, dead pigs. But that’s not how it feels, even for me. It feels as if it's a step short of cannibalism.
I’m sad when I walk by a restaurant with a big tank full of doomed fish or I’m in the grocery department of E-Mart and see the aquarium with dozens of crabs, each with a leg span of twenty inches, piled on each other. I learned to turn my response off back home, going by the lobster tank at the grocery. The restaurants here have tanks out front, with squid or crabs or carp in them. Sometimes there will be one swimming, or floating (dead), upside down. And that bothers me, too.
I don’t believe in causing the suffering and death of sentient beings to serve our "needs". Kindness to all creatures is at the heart of my spirituality. (I’m sorry if I sound preachy.)
But the slaughtering of dogs is one step beyond; knowing it happens and seeing the results are two different things.
I still feel sick two hours later, and I expect to see it behind my eyelids when I close my eyes tonight.
Monday, September 22, 2008
It’s Sunday evening now and I’ve done several more things today. My piggies are beginning to feel better, so I walked to PapaRotti’s coffee shop, which is a Web hotspot, and sat outside with my laptop and a bun to upload my previous post. I like their coffee and I love their buns. (Please don't take that last bit the wrong way.) The buns are addictive: big, warm, wheaty, a little sweet. Most of all, I love the block the shop is on. It feels so continental, with wide, shady walkways and a plethora of coffee shops and restaurants and little tables with umbrellas in front of the storefronts. Just on the one side of the street, there are five coffee shops: Dunkin' Donuts, PapaRotti's, Sleepless in Seattle (great name, neh?), DaVinci, and Angel-in-us. And that's not counting the Starbucks in E-Mart, across from Dunkin'. Oh, and there's a "men's beauty shop", too.
Everything was perfect, except that the laptop supposedly connected to the ‘net but wouldn’t open any pages. I'm so frustrated; I wanted the Internet at home within a day or two of my arrival; by the time I get my foreigner card, and thus can get a bank account, an Internet account, and a cell phone, it will have been over a month. Anyway, I guess PapaRotti's signal wasn't strong enough out in front of the store.
I blew my budget all to hell today; I bought some groceries and a wall clock at E-Mart, on top of the Costco trip. I need the apartment to feel like home, and that means cooking from time to time and having a few basic furnishings. I’m in living room 90 percent of the time, and I’ve sat aimlessly in front of the tv, not realizing how much time’s gone by; the clock should help. If I don't buy anything but lunch, I can get my budget back in shape by the weekend. It's two and a half weeks till my first paycheck.
When I got back from that trip, I headed right back out again for a short walk, and a half-mile to the east (the opposite direction from all my usual haunts), just past a gigantic community garden, I found an ultra-modern sports arena and a concert hall; behind that was a neon-laden neighborhood with a couple of dozen restaurants, sports bars, and hotels (including the one in the photo above). Best of all, there was a carnival area with batting cages, bumper cars, a mechanical bull, break-the-balloon and shoot-the-basket games like at a carnival, big plush animals for the kids to ride up and down on like the tacky horsies in front of K-Mart back home, and some real amusement park rides: merry-go-round, tilt-a-whirl, that big swingy-back-n-forthy pirate ship thing. But, this being Korea, it wasn’t so much a pirate ship as a dragon. If I hadn't just wandered randomly, I would never have known any of that was there.
The locals aren't really big on copyright law: that little area has Popeye's sports bar, the BMW restaurant (complete with the car company's logo), and the Prada Motel.
This place is amazing.