Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Stranger in a strange land

It’s Wednesday morning, and I feel good! The jetlag's easing up, the sun’s out, and I’m beginning to feel more confident in getting around. That is, I can wander a few blocks from the main roads and have a sense of which direction to turn to get back to them. I wish I had a little hand-held GPS, but E-Mart doesn’t sell them.

Still, I saw some Asian birds, big black and white raucous things like bicolored crows. Magpies, maybe? And the city is completely surrounded by gorgeous mountains… too bad you can hardly make them out through the smog.

I live a half-block from a four-story middle school. Each morning about 7:45, the kids in their uniforms start to troop by. At 8 (right now), a loudspeaker comes on as the headmaster, or possibly some wacko with a Mr. Microphone, sternly announces something. It’s probably benign, but it sounds like a Japanese POW camp movie. I don’t think I’ll be sleeping late very often. At 8:20, there’s a roar as a thousand kids hurry into school, and at 8:30 I hear the slap-slapping of sneakers rushing by my building as the latecomers try desperately to make it on time. I saw one kid scaling the fence while his friends on the fourth floor laughed and shouted at him.
Drivers here are absolutely bloody insane, but not as much as the pedestrians, who will stroll down the middle of a narrow street, unconcerned that they’re about to get a Hyundai suppository.
Good Lord. There’s some show on with little girls gyrating their hips like the Pussycat Dolls.
I practically live at the E-Mart. There’s always something I need: scissors, clothes hangers, squid. It’s right on the way on the only route I know to my job. It’s a challenge deciphering what all the merchandise is, since it’s all in Korean and doesn’t always have pictures. I also bought a three-foot long pillow and an 18-inch long pillow case. Apparently brewing coffee at home is uncommon (although there are Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts around) and E-Mart has no coffeemakers, so I had to buy some packets of Taster’s Choice. On my first try, I—stop reading if you have a weak heart—bought decaf by mistake.

On my first solo visit, I wandered around and around looking for the entire floor of groceries, which seemed to have disappeared. Finally I tried to ask a checkout girl:

ME: “Do you speak English?”

HER: “Annyeo” (No.)

ME: “Where is the food?”

HER: (Some Korean phrase that I believe translates as ‘What the…”)

ME: (Making the ASL sign for eating) “Food?”

HER: “??!!”

ME: (Cupping my left hand in a perfect imitation of a bowl and shoveling hypothetical food into my mouth with my invisible fork): “Food? Eat?”

HER: (Shakes head).

ME: (remembering the only Korean food words I know) “Pap? Ppang?” (Rice? Bread?)

HER: (as the 100-watt bulb, manufactured, as everything else in this country is, by Samsung or LG, clicks on) “Oh!” (Points to the far corner of the store, then down—the groceries are down the moving walkway, in the basement I was too foggy on Sunday night to realize existed.)

ME: “Kamsa hamnida.” (Thanks.)

HER: “Neh.” (Yes.)
My damn microwave seems to have broken. Nothing better than room-temperature Taster’s Choice.
Great honk, I need an Internet hookup.
There are four or five tv channels that play nonstop sports: volleyball, golf, taekwondo, and baseball. Over my shoulder our local team, the Samsung Lions, is playing the Kia Tigers. My favorite team name, though, is the SK Wyverns.

Every morning so far, one channel has carried a live American baseball game, the US feed with Korean sportscasters. So that’s way cool. I hope they carry the World Series. A lot of guys here wear caps of US major league teams, mostly Yankees and Bosox, but I believe I have the only Mets cap in Korea.
On Korean tv, occasionally you’ll see breasts, usually an even number of them. However, a guy’s plumber’s crack must be pixellated. I thought you’d like to know.
I hope this blog doesn’t read as if I’m looking down on the Korean people. I can’t help but see everything through American eyes, but almost always I feel things are different and fascinating, not goofily inferior. I really like it here and I hope it shows.

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