Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Walk this way

I've read that Korea has the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in the world, and I believe it. Exhibit A: the short and winding road that is my walk to work.

First I turn right out my building's front door and right almost immediately at the corner:

I live on a very quiet street, except when the workers in the 30-story LG r-and-d  building are coming or going from their work day; that's a parking lot that caters to them on the left.

Then I walk to the main street, with no sidewalks and, as you can see, cars parked every which-a-way:

Then I arrive at the world's worst-designed intersection and cross the street that separates E-Mart and Costco, which are two blocks to the right, and divides Yangjae-dong, in Seocho-gu, in the city of Seoul, where the school is, and Gwacheon-si, in the province of Gyeonggi-do, where I live.

What, you may ask (unless you're the type who only looks at the pictures and thus are not reading this, so what am I babbling on about) makes this such a poorly planned intersection? Well...

The two crossing streets are misaligned by ten feet. There's a stoplight, independent of the one in the last photo,  fifteen feet to the left of the intersection and another one forty feet past that. There's a bus stop between the traffic lights.

People turning left out of the side street make the turn and wait, slightly diagonally, while people cross the main street with the "walk" light. Sometimes a second car lines up behind the first, sticking into the wrong traffic lane.

Others (as you can see) park with their butt ends... their car's butt ends... almost in the intersection. This is common with small trucks delivering to the convenience store on the left.These drivers may back into the intersection.
People who have had to turn right out of the E-Mart parking lot, a block to the right, pull three-point turns and u-turns at this spot; I've seen a three-point, a u, and a back-in performed simultaneously.

Delivery guys on scooters, cabbies, and often bus drivers ignore stoplights if there are no pedestrians crossing the street.

Then I zig left, walk across at the crosswalk (that's logical, right?) which is about at the back end of the car in this picture, and zag right, down the little street you see here, which turns into this:

Often at lunchtime there are cars parked on both sides of the street as people are eating at the restaurant on the left. I follow the street around to this, where two Korean guys and I once spent a minute helping a driver navigate between lines of parked cars:

And this:

A couple of weeks ago, as I was walking home for lunch, I saw an SUV parked with its tail sticking out a little, in front of the left-hand building, leaving room for only one-way traffic; the guy in a black car going north wasn't going to back up, nor was the guy in the white car going south. Pretty soon the latter couldn't have backed up if he'd wanted to, as there was a line of cars behind him. The two guys just sat and sat and were still staring each other down as I turned the corner; I don't know how that one turned out, but apparently it was resolved somehow, as the cars aren't all still there.

Finally I turn right down the long homestretch to school, past the beer distributor and the garbage collection center, and make my way to school, which is all the way down the street on the left.

Let's see... three minutes to the main street, wait to cross, three minutes more to the school... what am I leaving out?

Hmm. There is a lot of traffic at lunchtime and rush hour and traffic jams, extending blocks in all directions, on the weekends, when everyone's going to Costco and E-Mart. I took these photos a month ago; now the streets are covered in slush and snow. Korean drivers are crazy, especially cabbies and delivery guys. Drivers here in general don't drive fast, but they don't leave space between vehicles, aren't slavish to the idea of traffic lanes, and don't like to yield.

A lot of pedestrians are pretty casual in their respect for cars; I've seen a group of a dozen men and women chatting, spread across that striped speed bump at the big intersection, several photos ago. I try to be careful and get well out of the way of traffic, especially after I got bumped in the calf by a car in Daegu. Even so, I've had cars come within a few inches of clipping my elbow with their mirrors.

Isn't Geritol supposed to help with that run-down feeling?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Snow place, like home

I had already had my Eggo waffles and pot of coffee this morning when Lauren called; she was back from Christmas in Daegu and wanted to know if I'd like to join her for our traditional Sunday brunch... I would. We stayed in the neighborhood, at CofFine Gurunaru ("CofFine Gurunaru wants to be a tree and a ferry in a river just like a place to rest," as it says on the mug.) Having already eaten, I comported myself in a saintly manner and only had a caramel latte. (A big one; I said saintly, not messiahesque.)

By the time I got back to the apartment, it was snowing; the flakes were small albeit multitudinous and determined. I looked out my balcony window...

...and knew I had to get out in it. I have missed snow so much.

I've come back to the view I had as a kid in Ithaca, that snow is magical, and I felt absolutely exhilarated when I got out. I walked, in something much like one of Thich Nhat Hanh's walking meditations, along my running path down by the stream, escorted by ducks, egrets, and magpies...

...for a half hour, till I got to the AT Center, the convention hall where they were having a huge clearance sale with dozens of clothing and shoe vendors. It was a cold but serene walk.

By the time I emerged with a shell top and a pair of gloves for running, the local drivers were having even a little more trouble than they always do with the concept of merging at an intersection...

...and, by the way, I've been meaning to post for months that 95% or more of passenger cars in Korea are white, silver, or black. This video is Exhibit A. Just be glad that you're not a food-delivery guy on a scooter in Seoul traffic today... or any day, come to think of it.

I walked back to E-Mart, bumping into our principal Ron's wife and son along the way. (It's a small town after all.) Outside High Brand, the five-story gallery of little shops above E-Mart, I found proof that neither snow nor cold nor wind nor... um, more snow... will stop those poor girls who have jobs trying to draw attention to stores by wriggling about to K-pop music. They're pretty ubiquitous, both here and in Daegu (I posted about it back in April), but in this case, I think they went above and beyond...

...and, just as always, absolutely nobody passing by paid any attention to them whatsoever. Ah well, there's no business like snow business.

Then I stopped down at E-Mart (for horseradish sauce, ketchup, soy milk, pancake syrup, and cocoa mix... I have one hell of a recipe.)

And there, despite all the lovely, peaceful, blessed snow, I found the true high point of my day, a remarkably large kiwi, which, considering also its acquisition of a primitive sort of self-awareness, I suspect has been genetically modified...

...thus completing a truly fruitful journey. I returned home... a whiter place than I'd left.

I love me some snow.

Friday, December 25, 2009

And so this is Christmas

It's dinnertime on Christmas day and I'm in for the night. All day there was an odd grayness in the air, which seems to always be the case in Seoul when the winter warms up a little. It isn't fog, it isn't smog... you know how the air looks in the distance when it's snowing over there someplace? It's like that all day here, but there's no snow, there's just gray. My steel-gray windbreaker blends right in; I was going to call this entry "Don we now our gray apparel", but that sounded too negative.

I'm off for ten days. This week at school, we had our little Christmas party with the students on Wednesday evening (I wore my Santa suit) and took a field trip yesterday to the Seoul Art Center, which has an exhibit on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There are Monets and Picassos, Van Goghs and Liechtensteins, O'Keeffes and Wyeths. I'm whatever the equivalent of tone-deaf is when it comes to art, but I was glad to be there, especially to see the Wyeths; as is required for a middle-brow American, he's my favorite.

I admit I was kind of down last evening, Christmas Eve, with nobody around to share it with. I went to the health club and I was even the only person working out there for awhile. Christmas isn't a big-deal holiday here, though the stores certainly do their best to pump up the spirit. On Christmas morning, the Christians (a quarter of the population) go off to church, the bigger stores open, and the streets and subways are a bit emptier than usual.

I wasn't entirely my usual effervescent self this morning, either. Lauren's off to Daegu, Nick to Taiwan, Zach to Miami, and I'm just here. I'm not calling the grandboys till tomorrow morning, and it was rather a solitary morning.

But at noon I met my new friend Ray from the Veggie Club and we went off to a Loving Hut restaurant nearer to me than the one I wrote about in my last post. Then my day brightened; a couple of hours with a sympathetic friend can make a big difference when you're a long way from home on a holiday. We talked about our pasts and our beliefs and gorged on vegan goodies and it was all very nice. The restaurant was packed, I think with people coming from Christmas services, and that was good to see.

When we came out, it was raining; I was going to call this entry "I'm dreaming of a wet Christmas", but then it stopped. It stayed damp and windy, though, as I went to Kyobo Books for a little atmosphere and then back to the 'hood to E-Mart (which was packed) for a little Tug Chow and came home.

And here I am, on quite a quiet Quistmas. I haven't actually done this yet, but I wish I could write like this, so I'll quote Dylan Thomas:

"...I said a few words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept."

Merry Christmas, everyone.

* * *

Stop the presses!

I'd just completed the post above, resigned to just spending the night at home, when Chris from work called, asking if I'd like to go out and eat. I wasn't hungry, but it took me about five seconds to decide that it was a lot better than sitting here alone all evening, so I said absolutely. Chris wondered if it was raining again, so I slid open my frosted-glass balcony door and found...

Snow, snow, lovely feathery snow coating the park across the street and wafting through the air. To quote from my entry from one year ago tonight, "And then it was Christmas." I laughed out loud like a delighted little kid; instantly, faster than instantly, it really felt like Christmas at last.

We slipped and slid to the bus to Gangnam, where we sat, surreally, in front of an electrical heater, in a little plastic-tented alcove at Dos Tacos, watching the snow blow by as we ate burritos and I sipped a lime margarita from a glass with a stem shaped like a saguaro. So very, very Korean.

...and as we were walking back from the bus stop at 11 p.m., snow blowing around us, some windchimes tinkled... or it may have been sleighbells...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Cold and warmth

It's been really cold here every day, usually with a high in the low 20s Fahrenheit and a cutting, mean wind. Every night, I think of Tiki, probably half-frozen, half-starved, and always terrified, back in Daegu. And the cold accentuates the sometime loneliness, as Christmas draws nearer and family grows farther away, in distance and in time. I have good friends at work, but they belong more to the expat stay-out-very-late-and-drink culture that's so prevalent for Westerners working in Korea, and they can be hard to get ahold of on weekends. Yesterday I was so flat emotionally that I went out in the freezing night to get a quart of ice cream, then came back and ate it. All. Without a bowl. For that matter, I was considering not dirtying a spoon.

Christmas is hard, you guys. (The only source of amusement is hearing Korean singers trying to enunciate "Feliz Navidad" on the Muzak in every store and coffee shop.) It's not the most wonderful time of the year everywhere; in some places, it's the hardest.

Today was much better, though, as I went across the city to the Veggie Club's luncheon. There is a chain of restaurants, in many countries now, called Loving Hut. They have huge vegan buffet, with all kinds of fake meats, salad, soups, coffee, slushies, cookies. All of it's good... 'ceptin the cookies. Vegan cookies suck; always have, always will.

The Loving Huts are owned or inspired-- not sure which-- by a Vietnamese woman who has her own spiritual-religious community; there's a tv playing her talks silently in the background, with subtitles in literally 20 languages. She's called Supreme Master Ching Hai, but you don't have to pay attention to any dogma to enjoy the meal. It's just in the background.

It's clearly a tactical mistake to let me into any "all-you-can-eat" place. It's nearly eight hours since I stopped eating, and I'm still not hungry. I brought a whole bunch of frozen stuff back, too. (Fortunately, it didn't have a chance to thaw on the way home.) More importantly, I made new friends, American, Canadian, and Swedish. Carley from Florida told me that there was a Loving Hut in downtown Orlando, but all the time she lived there, between the name and the fact that it was in downtown Orlando, she always assumed it was just another sex shop.

It's striking how energized I am after a Veggie Club get-together; more than the food (though it's a great pick-me-up, too, to be able to fix veggie meats at home after all this time), it's being around people who look at the world the way I do. I've been told that there are 10,000 vegetarians in Korea, which isn't many out of a population of 50 million. But I saw a dozen of them today, and the warmth with them is stronger than the cold outside.

So now I know I'm not the Sexiest Vegetarian in Korea. I may, however, have Korea's Only Mustache. And that's something.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

You saw Mommy doing what now?

Saturday night was Santacon Seoul, the local iteration of a worldwide event involving cheap Santa suits, songbooks full of irreverent-to-filthy carols, and copious amounts of liquid refreshment. In mid-afternoon, Zach, Chris, and I headed to Costco for candy (a shared bag of 300 chocolate coins for Zach and me, sixty bucks worth of Tootsie Pops and candy canes for Chris) and took a long, sardined bus and subway trip to the plaza by City Hall and the US embassy. Chris and Zach, being bolder/braver/crazier than I, pulled their Santa suits on right outside Costco and rode the whole way there passing out candy to... well, mostly to attractive girls.

Fortunately, it was unseasonably warm, unlike the conditions right now, when the wind chill is 7 Fahrenheit. (Pop quiz: think of an adverb and an adjective that begin with the letters "f-r-i-g".) But, as I say, on Saturday is was pretty balmy, just like us.

We met Tony, in his Santa suit, and his Korean girlfriend Olivia, very fetching in Santa hat and jacket, I struggled into my outfit, and we put on our beards and went to work. In the plaza, there's a big, brand-new statue of King Sejong the Great and, way behind it, an enormous ramp had been set up for a huge snowboarding competition. We had decided to start our Santacon several hours early, hoping to see some of the hotdogging action, but we never got near it.

The second we started ho-ho-hoing and passing out candy, we were mobbed. Kids' faces lit up, dads by the dozen asked us to pose for pictures with their kids, children (and a lot of grownups) eagerly reached for chocolates... have you ever tossed a few crumbs to a pigeon or a scrap to a seagull? You don't have one bird for long. I felt like Robert Pattinson at a Twilight convention.

Oh, it was terrific; the excitement on little kids' faces made my Yuletide bright. Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow shouted out with glee... um. I'll start over.

It was so perfectly Christmas.

Zach's and my chocolate coins were gone in five minutes, but we still had people asking for photos and saying "Merry Christmas!" and smiling at the crazy Americans. After awhile, we retreated to a restaurant for a beer and some taters, then we caught cabs to Hongdae, the neighborhood by Hongik University.

Hongdae is every collegetown bar/restaurant/bar/shop/bar/coffeehouse/bar area you've ever seen, rolled into one. Santacon started at 7:00, at one of the three bars in the same building, called Ho Bar 1, Ho Bar 2, and Ho Bar 3. This event was at number three. That's right... the Ho Ho Ho Bar.

Yes, there's one guy in a banana suit. Just go with it.

We were among the first there, but Santas just kept thronging through the door. It quickly got packed, loud (deafening dance music) and smoky.

This is me at the Ho Bar. It was posted by someone else on Facebook and I can't seem to enlarge it, so you might not notice that the beer bottle's full of water. A regular Billy Bob Bad Santa, that's me.

It was kinda cool to see 200 Santas in a little bar, but after awhile the novelty wore off and it was just a packed, loud, smoky, red bar. Not my thing, really, though Chris and I did have a friendly darts game (he destroyed me, then was destroyed  in turn by a vivacious new Aussie friend named Kat...) 

I stuck around long enough to take part in the procession to the next bar. That was nearly as much fun as our afternoon adventure, 200 Santas parading along singing "Jingle Bells" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" to the astonished smiles of the local college kids. The next gathering place was a more upscale restaurant/bar where perfectly nice Korean couples who'd come out for a quiet dinner were suddenly surrounded, like Moses, by a red sea. A loud, singing red sea. And, night owl that I am, 9:30 seemed about the right time for me to head home.

I took off the Santa suit, rolled it up inside its own belt, and caught the subway back. (Young woman on the platform, noticing the outfit I was carrying: "Part-time job?") Horrible, horrible trip home, seventeen stops, so crowded that for much of the way I had four strangers up against me. They were touching me at my northeast, southeast, southwest, and, I believe, west-by-northwest compass points. I hate being pressed up against strangers. When I got back to Gangnam Station, I was so tired and my knee so sore I just couldn't face another bus ride and I took a cab all the way home.

I found out later that, in addition to the raunchy songs and general debauchery that comes later in the evening, I'd missed a big fight involving two soused Santas and a special guest appearance by the police. Maybe Santa wears a red suit so the blood won't show.

Anyway, it was an enormous hassle to get there and back and the bar scene was no thrill, but the moments of Santaing, singing, hohoing, and giving candy to kids made it more than worthwhile.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Like a vegan

I've been getting so tired of eating the same few things that after school today I took the long trip (a short bus ride and fourteen stops on the subway) to Insadong, the ten-block long area where last weekend's Veggie Society dinner was, to visit the other restaurant I saw, the one with the vegan "meat".

It was a perfect time to visit Insadong, with rain-slicked streets but no rain, unseasonably warm just after dark, and very few people out at dinnertime on a weeknight, so I could stroll around and really look at the courtyards, alleyways, and shops. The latter, hundreds of them, carry an amazing array of traditional Korean clothing and art, and innumerable ticky-tacky items. Insadong is a much higher-class area than Itaewon, which is right by the US Army base, and I only saw one instance of the double barber pole, which is the sign in Korea of an establishment of ladies whose pecuniary motives are strong and whose virtue is negotiable. The Christmas lights were on all around Insadong and it was very pretty.

I bought a half-dozen frozen vegan items, not actually having any idea how to prepare them, but upon arriving home I found the company's website, in English (more or less, like nearly everything translated into English by businesses and the government, and even by our "American" school), for example: "high quality vegetable hamsausage. Once try the favor, then twice will be surprise at the taste" and "soy protein processed to taste chicken... enjoy conveniently it with ketchup or honey mustard in one mouthful". Mostly, I had no idea whether to grill all this stuff, nuke it, or shove a stick in it and lick it like a Popsicle. The website says "warm in microwave or on fryer". So, basically, it just doesn't matter.

It's kind of pricy, about ten bucks a pound, it's a time-eating, often uncomfortable hassle getting to Insadong, and I don't know yet if the food is any good, but I am so ready for "vege soy meat" and "soy chicken ball". Maybe I can cut the eggs and hashbrowns down to three times a week; I've been eating the same stuff ova and ova.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A very cool Saturday

I was running on the treadmill at the hael-seu cleob yesterday morning when it started to snow (outside, fortunately). The treadmills face the windows and the street, and I was on the machine on the far left, so I could open the side windows and let some cool air into the overheated room. So I had windows two feet to my left and two feet in front of me.

The snow started tentatively, one big wet flake drifting aimlessly around, then another, and another, and soon I was running in a snow globe, the air just full of thousands of swirling flakes. It was magical.

It was possibly marginally less magical as I took the short walk home, all sweaty and virtuous, and the wind started blowing the heavy snow at 20 miles per hour into my face. Still, I felt invigorated and alive. By the time I got out of the shower, the air was still thick with enormous flakes, the little park across the street had a thin blanket of white, and the mountains were ready for yodelers.

 I was reminded of a 3 a.m. walk around the Addams Family house and Six-Mile Creek in Ithaca, nineteen years ago, and a Christmas Day cross-country skiing down Linn Street, ten years before that. Now we know exactly how long it takes, after four decades in the sub-Arctic, to find snow enchanting again. Fourteen years, nine months, twelve days. And three hours.

But it melted.

I had a long a rewarding Skype talk with an old friend from St. Augustine, which continued my cool day. (If any Sarah Palin fans are reading this entry, I'd be glad to explain my sophisticated use of the word "cool" in both the metaphorical and literal senses to describe my day.)

In the early afternoon, I met my friend and fellow member of the Most Righteously Marvelous Department at St. Paul Prep (tm) Zach at his apartment. He had a four-foot-high bookshelf he wanted to get rid of, and we carried it a third of a mile to my place. Of course, Zach is the only teacher who doesn't live within two minutes' walk of my place, but as frickin' frigid as the walk was (the snow had stopped, but the wind hadn't), as cumbersome as the bookcase was, and as parlous as it was dodging the traffic on the tiny sidewalk-bereft streets, it was worth it. I barely have room for another coffee mug in my apartment, but the shelves in effect increase my space. I can get a few things off my little table and finally unpack the last box I brought from Daegu.

The best part of the day, though, came when I took the long subway ride to Insadong for my first dinner with the Seoul Veggie Club. I got to the area early, so I had a little time to explore. I had walked through Insadong (a blocks-long pedestrian mall with alleys and courtyards, lined with restaurants and tiny shops) once before, with Zach and Chris, to get to Gyeongmokgung Palace. But that was on a lovely Saturday in fall, and the sheer mass of people made it impossible to actually see anything.

True trivial fact: Insadong has the only Starbucks in the world with a sign that reads "Starbucks" in the local language's writing system. By law, Insadong shop signs must be in Hangeul.

Now it was very very cold, very very windy, and just about to get dark. (Just reg'lar dark, not very very.) There was all the space in the world to look around at the art galleries and shops selling traditional Korean goods, wall hangings and Buddha statues and shamanist totems, ranging from the almost lovely to the truly tacky, caricature artists (one of whom I think drew my picture at the New York State Fair in 1982) and street carts, some protected from the winter by heavy plastic sheets, selling roasted chestnuts and little doughy custard-filled "walnuts".

And then it was time for the elite to meet, greet, and eat. I met a bunch of folks at a subway exit and we walked to a vegan restaurant a few blocks away. The place is like a church basement meeting room, just a big space with several rows of long, tables covered with white tablecloths, with more long tables laden with aluminum containers full of food. The get-together was a joint effort between the SVC and the Korean Vegan Society, and the room filled up with fifteen or twenty Westerners from the former and twice that many Koreans from the latter.

Please don't tell PETA, but vegan food doesn't thrill me; just not enough fat and sugar for my sophisticated palate. But the buffet was good, lots of greenery and brownery, identifiable and un. My favorite dishes were the pumpkin tempura and the Chinese noodles with... mushroom stroganoff?

It wasn't the food that was the best thing, though. It was meeting people in this tremendously carnivorous country who think like me; I had almost given up the thought that there were any. Our table looked like Ithaca, scruffy beards and flannel shirts on the men, adorable knit hats with tassels and long straight hair on the women, and I made some new friends, the first I've found in Seoul whom I don't work with. In particular, I had a really nice conversation with a couple of friendly guys named Zenas and Ray about Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, and football. One of these things is not like the others...

I don't know if you can understand the "up" I get from all this unless you're a veghead living in a nation full to the brim with meatheads. (Note to self: edit this before posting.) But it's so good to be around people who exude positive energy and kindness.

What's almost as good is that they told me about other veg restaurants: two more in Insadong (one of which carries frozen prepared veggie "meat"-- oh frabjous day!) and a chain of vegan places called Loving Hut, one of which isn't too far from my neighborhood. I Facebook-friended Zenas and talked with Ray about meeting for lunch at Loving Hut sometime soon. And the next Veggie Group dinner, at a different location, is only two weeks away.

And my late Sunday morning is blindingly bright, and there's still a light confectioner's-sugar dusting of snow on the highest mountain outside my window.

Very cool.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose

Some ends and odds possibly of interest only to me... possibly not even to me... I have a short attention s... ah, heck, read it. It's free.

I've been really pleased with the effort and originality the kids in my creative writing class have shown. Of course, they have some problems with English grammar, but some of them are amazingly sharp and put a lot of work into their assignments, illustrating them with their drawings or a myriad of images from the 'net. Yuri, especially, who when she speaks is very hard to understand, writes all her poems in Korean and then translates them, always including sophisticated words such as "effervescent" and "redolent", and always correctly; so many times, kids find words in thesauri but don't quite get the right word. In their illustrations, the kids use glitter and cotton and White-Out (to simulate graffiti on a photo of a brick wall) and I'm blown away.

(By the way, where do you find synonyms for all the words in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre? In a Brontesaurus! Thank you, thank you very much.)

Anyway, earlier in the week I used Simon and Garfunkel's I Am a Rock and James Taylor's Sweet Baby James (appropriately, on the first of December) to teach alliteration and extended metaphor. (Brilliant lyrics in both of them.) Today we had a fire drill; it's been cold, windy, hazy, and gray for quite awhile, and as we were all shivering in the wind in the little park across from the school, I said, "Remember the song? 'A winter's day... in a deep and dark December...'" Whereupon the girls in the class spent the rest of the drill huddled in a circle for warmth, singing "I am a rock... I am an iiiiiiiisland!" over and over. A forty-some-year-old song, and a bunch of fourteen-year-old Korean kids love it. Neat.


With the cold winds a-blowin', it's getting a bit raw to run outside, so along with several of my friends, I joined the little gym right on the short walk home from work. It's quite a comedown from the health club I belonged to in Daegu, with its gleaming hardwood floors, bright lights, and multitudinous jacuzzis, saunas, and steamrooms. This place is small, darkish, and utilitarian. But it's a lot cheaper, certainly a lot cheaper than hopping the KTX to Daegu every time I want to work out. Six of our dozen teachers belong. I will say it's less a social outing than I'd hoped; listening to my iPod on the treadmill while Lauren listens to her iPod on the elliptical machine ten feet behind me is oddly uninvolving. But I've put in two weight circuits and an hour and forty-five minutes' running in the first three days. It feels good to be so sore.


The air's been weird for days, a thick gray haze that I can't identify. It isn't dank like fog, and fog wouldn't last all day. It doesn't smell like smog, and nobody's coughing. Like Pauly Shore's career in the eighties, it's ugly, you can't figure it out, and it just won't go away.


I posted thirteen months ago about the Obamarama we had at my apartment for the election returns and about the cheap mugs I found for party favors, with a happy, grinning donkey on them. Tuesday, as Silent Sustained Reading period was about to begin in the school's library, I was holding my donkey cup full of coffee with my back to the doors when a kid ran in just the bell rang, and he bumped my elbow; my mug flew out of my hand and shattered on the hardwood floor. Considering American politics recently, there's some heavy-handed political symbolism in there someplace, I just know there is.


There's a Seoul Veggie Club page on Facebook, and I just joined the group. In less than 48 hours, they're having a dinner get-together at a vegan restaurant called Hwangwachae. I'm not sure which I'm looking forward to more, eating some good food for a change, or meeting some people I don't work with. And the folowing weekend, I'm going to take part in Santacon, in which a large number of idiots in Santa suits traipse around the streets hugging people, singing songs, and drinking seasonal libations... it's beer season, right? I haven't traipsed in a long, long time.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Oh, oh, what I want to know is are you kind?

My friend Ray sent me this image with the suggestion that I might want to use it in class. I think I will, as something to spur the kids in my creative writing, where, frankly, I'm scrambling for ideas. (Thanks, Ray!)

More to the point, though, this picture, which was taken in Indonesia, is everything I wish I could stop in the world. The sheer unkindness and lack of compassion in the human species overwhelms me sometimes, and it's why, I think, what Mark Twain called "the damned human race" has caused suffering to itself and other living things since, well, forever.

In St. Augustine once, I stopped a bunch of boys from throwing rocks at a cormorant in a lake. In Daegu, I tried to stop a boy and girl from throwing rocks at a birds' nest. Under a bridge on my running path here, there's a graffiti of somebody giving the finger to the world. Boys beat homeless people to death and men use rape as a weapon of war. At this moment, billions of animals are living gruesome, horrible lives so that people can eat their bodies. Down the street from me, people chop up live baby octopi for dinner. It's all the same thing. We, the damned human race, have to stop inflicting pain, death, and sheer meanness on the world.

I recently taught The Catcher in the Rye to my American Lit Honors class, and in doing so I found that for the first time I really like Holden Caulfield. Like me, he is enormously self-centered and builds walls around himself as he longs for companionship. Holden seems so jaded, but gets tremendously upset when he finds "FUCK YOU" scratched into the wall at his little sister's school, and he worries about the ducks in Central Park when the winter comes.

All this may seem condescending, and I apologize. But it's what I think about a lot. People I respect highly think that I'm being immature or simplistic. Maybe they're right (they usually are) but I think that, deep down, it really does come down to whether we are compassionate or not. Buddha said it. Jesus said it. They were right.

Here's an image to close with: 8 a.m. on a November Sunday morning, 30 degrees Fahrenheit, windy... a man kneels on the stone landing on the steps going down into Yangjae subway station, head touching the stone platform. He's barefoot. A little box rests by his head. There is 300 Won (about a quarter) in the box. People go by without acknowledging him.

I drop all my change (a dollar's worth) in the box and go down into the subway and feel a little better about myself.

Is it enough? No. Nothing will ever be enough. All we can do is something.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pi r not square, pi r round

Today is, theoretically at least, Thanksgiving. Last year, Robert, one of the teachers at the Samduk LIKE School, laid out big bucks for a whole bunch of us to go to the ultra-fancy dinner at the Novotel; it's funny now to look at the photo on this blog and realize I'm the only one still in Korea.

Anyway, no such luck this year; it's just another working day for us. Some of my coworkers are going out to a big "Thanksgiving" dinner on Saturday, but I'm not paying 35,000 Won to eat side dishes. And Thanksgiving is today.

I have always really loved Thanksgiving, with the family together but without the hype and pressure of Christmas. I say that knowing full well that there was no pressure for me because, having a mom who never taught me anything in the kitchen other than which half of the big white box the ice cream goes in, I never had to do anything but watch balloons and then football and then eat. We had traditional male and female roles in my family, and I'm still totally incompetent when it comes to cooking.

On Cheosok, Korea's Thanksgiving, the women not only do all the work but also wait till the men have eaten, including dessert, before they sit down to eat. So I guess the Cornman family was enlightened in allowing the women to eat with the men.

Anyway, I was at Costco last night and on the spur of the moment grabbed a pumpkin pie to bring to work and share out at lunchtime. It's the only thing at Costco here that's a bargain, under seven bucks for a pie the size of a Mack truck tire. With luck, it will be tastier than that, however.

So... Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. It's ironic: I'm more thankful than ever in my life, but I guess I have to do my thanking unofficially. Thanks for being in my life.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Your text here

I wanted to call this post "You can't go home again", then a couple of hours later I was going to title it "What's eating you?" and finally I just had to settle on "Your text here". All shall be (slightly) clearer shortly.

I'm just back from Daegu for one more Sunday evening with Joanna before she goes home; the impromptu week off is over and I have to get up for work in six hours, but I need to unwind, so...

Six months ago, Joanna invited me to return to Daegu for her Thanksgiving spread, but-- huh-- I'll be working. When I was at LIKE, she and I developed quite a nice little tradition on Sundays, usually dinner, usually ice cream, often both. I needed that one more time. Also, though I said my goodbyes to Emma a few weeks ago, I was delighted at the thought of seeing her one last time. Also, Jesse, though I'll be seeing her again in January, is also one of my favorite people in the Eastern Hemisphere, so...

I caught the KTX bullet train this morning. It's a cold, bright, windy wintry day all over Korea; on the trip down, I saw my first snow on the ground in the last 15 years. Yeah, it took that long for it to look good to me again.

When I got to Daegu, I walked from the station to LIKE and worked out a schedule for me while St. Paul is on winter break: the week after Christmas and two at the end of January. I'll be teaching one-on-ones and small groups and doing videos, all on how to write an independent essay.

Then I walked to my old apartment. I felt I needed to walk around the neighborhood on the one-in-a-million chance that I would find Tiki. I didn't find him for the last three weeks I lived there, and that was nearly three months ago, but I've seen miracles before so I couldn't fail to take the time.

I was absolutely gobsmacked when I got there. My apartment, the landlord's apartment, the egg-shipping business downstairs: all gutted, the window glass removed. The red-and-white striped awning: gone. (For a moment, I wasn't sure I was standing in front of the right place.) The yard where I spent hours and hours waiting for Tiki to show up: impassable, thigh-deep in debris.

No one was around, so I went up the steep stairs (now with no railing) to the apartment. It's an eerie feeling, having the biting wind whistling through the place you happily spent the last year.
It felt like the closing scene in some downbeat movie. And there was no Tiki around.

I had arranged to meet Emma downtown at 1:30 and Joanna and Jesse at 4:30. As it turns out, it was so cold that there wasn't much to do but stay inside and eat. Emma and I started at a new, fourth-floor organic restaurant/used book store. The place may be something special in awhile, but they've only just opened; the only books they had were the proprietor's, and she got screwed over with their heating: it doesn't work at all. So we froze-- I sat there in my long-sleeve t, cardigan, and windbreaker and shivered. The food, veggie lasagna for me, was good, though; it reminded me of Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca.

When we were through, we just wanted to get warm, and Emma steered me to an amazing coffee shop. Starbucks and other similar shops will charge 4000 Won ($3.50) for a single paper cup of coffee; this place was warm and sunny, and for 3500 Won you get unlimited coffee, in real mugs, and equally unlimited bread and dinner rolls that you pop into a toaster oven; they come with butter and jam. And... for 2000 Won more... a fifteen-minute appointment with the doctor fish!

 (These are not my feet; I had brilliantly left my camera across the room and, inexplicably, my feet were wet. This is a photo from the Web. Close enough, though.)

Doctor fish (garra rufa) come from Turkey and make their living eating rough skin on people's feet. (Some people at some spas immerse their entire bodies into tubs of doctor fish; not me, pal, not now, not ever, never.) It was such a delight sitting next to Emma, who covered her face and giggled and giggled and giggled. And squealed, just a little. This was in spite of the fact that she had had a pedicure quite recently and only attracted a few fish while I-- the runner without a bathtub or a way to sit down in the shower-- had literally a couple hundred, all over my feet. How does it feel? Somewhere between a tingle, a very mild electical current, and 7-Up.

Frankly, with my distaste for fish-- THEY'RE CREEPY, DUDES!-- I was amazed I went through with it. I remember seeing doctor fish on The Amazing Race a few years ago and just knowing that was something I'd never do. However, I'm still not eating live octopus, which the Race had contestants do right here in Seoul. So don't invite me to your next raw octopus gala, please.

Then it was time to meet Jesse and Jo. They were starving and led us to a new pizzeria, where I saw the single best sign I have ever seen in my very long and now widely-traveled life:

I'm laughing at it now, seven hours later; I think they could have used a little Anglophone help.

Having had veggie lasagna, salad, and a half-dozen dinner rolls in the last two hours, I only had some garlic bread and enjoyed the company of three of my favorite people.

And then it was time for Jo and Steve's Last Ice Cream Social. We all went to Baskin-Robbins, just like old times. You know, even when the air is colder than the dessert, ice cream is goooood.

Finally they went their ways and I caught the subway to Dongdaegu Station and came home. It took 100 minutes from Dongdaegu to Seoul Station and another 80 from there to the apartment, and that would have taken longer if I hadn't gotten tired of waiting for the bus-- the temperature was 28 Fahrenheit, the wind about 20 miles per hour-- and taken a taxi on the last leg home.

So, as Samwise Gamgee said, I'm back. Tug is warming his shaved belly on my lap but it's past time to go to bed. I doubt that I'll ever see Emma or Joanna again; the trip was worth the money, the time, and the fish. Good night, friends.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ith a small world, after all

Yesterday, I made a grand and massively crowded tour of half of the Seoul subway system, First, I visited Tug, who's in the shop having his oil changed. (Actually, he has a bladder infection; I'm going out on a limb and saying that cats, unlike Robin Williams, look better before their bellies have been shaved.) Then I went to Seoul Station to buy a KTX ticket for a trip tomorrow to Daegu; I want to visit Emma and Joanna before they fly away to their nearly antipodal homes, in New Zealand and Alaska, respectively. Then I met Murphy, who's up from Daegu visiting a lady friend, for a vastly overpriced dinner at a fifteenth-floor restaurant where you can see the skyline a lot more clearly than your dinner.

Koreans don't have much of a personal space, and when the tube is so packed... let's just say that a couple dozen people, according to the rules in some societies, have to marry me now.

Anyroad (very British word, but I love it), in one of the mobbed subway stops, I was going up a long escalator and a friendly-looking, middle-aged Western guy was hurrying down the stairs. He saw my "Ithaca is Gorges" hoodie and called over his shoulder, "I went to school there!"

In a day so far from home in which I saw perhaps ten Westerners out of 10,000 people, it made me smile. Ith a thmall, thmall world.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Days of swine neurosis

...wasn't Jack Lemmon in that movie?

Anyway, this is my 200th blog post... where's my cake?

It's dinnertime Tuesday and we were supposed to be back at work at 1 today, with parent conferences tonight and classes resuming tomorrow after our short swinish break, but I just got email saying that we'll be closed all week, which will certainly muck up our vacation schedule. The last numbers I heard indicated that five of our students (out of a total enrollment of 80) have been confirmed with H1N1, as has the principal. Me? I feel fine. Too lazy to go to the effort of contracting the virus, I guess.

Speaking of health, last Monday I finally reupped my bp meds. In Daegu, I had a little clinic/hospital just a few blocks from my apartment with a friendly, English-proficient doctor. Here, I did a fair amount of research and finally got an appointment at the nearest hospital that promised English competence, St. Mary's Hospital, which is linked to the Catholic University of Korea, in the Gangnam area.

I got off work at 4 and theoretically had to be there by 4:15, which necessitated a hectic search for a taxi, an eight-buck, frustrating cab ride in rush-hour traffic, and an intimidating search through the massive hospital itself, where I only found one person besides the doctor who spoke English. The signs were all in Korean, and I can read the letters just dandy, but unless they spell a word that's basically English (such as the little Hershey's foil packet by my elbow, with Hangul letters reading "kee-sae-seu" but which sadly now has only empty wrappers and little discarded paper flags left to offer), it doesn't help much. Trying to follow the directions of a lot of staffers pointing in general directions across a huge lobby with lots of branching corridors is more frustrating than you might think.

My doctor was surprisingly young (I think I may have been her first patient ever) and, judging from the top half of her face, cute. However, the mask covering the bottom half of her face was quite ordinary. She was quite accommodating and, once I returned to that receptionist to point me to the machine to feed my ticket into to get my prescription to take across the street to the yakguk (pharmacy), it all worked well. Then I looked at my phrasebook and said "Where is the subway?" only to have the pharmacist point down. It turns out the hospital is right on top of a subway stop, just three stops away from our nearest one. So I'll schedule my next appointment, in three months, when I don't have to get there in a rush and ride in relaxed subterranean comfort.

The next night, the PTA had the faculty out to dinner. The family of one of our students owns a galbi (short ribs) restaurant a half-hour south of the city. The property is an amazing mix of lovely park and ticky-tack; the grandfather showed us a tree he planted fifty years ago, there were big pools full of koi the size of your forearm, and there were lotsa nekkid women statues. Apparently it's a big place for weddings. I didn't want to make a fuss or stand out in front of the PTA, so I decided to just eat the multitude of veggie side dishes. Unfortunately, Zach (half of the most awesome department at any prep school in Asia) tried to be nice and told them I'm veg; I tried to tell them don't bother, I'm fine, but they brought me a lovely "vegetarian" plate... tuna. With a side of oysters. Oy.

More successful gustatory endeavors... I found a place called Butterfinger Pancakes in Gangnam, and on Sunday Lauren and I had brunch there. Oh, lordy, lordy... a Village Inn garden skillet, if God were the short order cook! Pancakes with three choices of butter (reg'lar, honey-, and I Can't Believe It's Not) and syrup, a massive omelet subsuming a pound of roast veggies, and a Matterhorn of roasted hash browns redolant of rosemary and delight. And lots of coffee. And last night, I joined Lauren, Susan and Chris from work at a little Mexican restaurant in Gangnam. Dos Tacos is down a wide alley from the main street, hard to find, but worth the trip; I'm pretty sick of the two Korean dishes I know I can order, and a delicious veggie burrito, hot, fresh fries, and a lime margarita... muy, muy bueno, ajosshi! It's a bit of a trip to Gangnam, but my culinary horizons just got a lot wider. As did I.

I have no clue what to do with the next five days. I may chase down to Daegu one day to visit Emma (returning to New Zealand shortly) and Joanna (Alaska, ditto). I think Daegu will always have a bit of a pall for me because I lost Tiki, but I want to see both of them again, and see Heeduk to negotiate terms for me to tutor in January... if these autumn days off for H1N1 don't completely eat up our winter break like me engulfing pancakes.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

She drives me crazily

I taught driver's ed back in St. Augustine, but I decided in my first couple of days in Korea that I'd never drive here. Turn signals are unheard of, lane markings are vague suggestions, and in Daegu, buses slammed up to stops at high speed, taxi drivers got bonuses for flipping pedestrians in the air, and cars are always driving on sidewalks to get to parking spots up against stores.

It doesn't seem quite so insane in Seoul, if only because the streets are too congested for anyone to go fast, but where I cross the main street on my way to work, the two side streets are off plumb by about five feet, people park in the intersection, drivers turn left out of the side street and are stuck all diagonal-like as pedestrians cross with the "walk" signal, and there's always a driver pulling a three-point turn in the intersection.

Korea has the highest rate of pedestrian deaths in the world.

And now this, from

SEOUL, South Korea — A woman in South Korea who tried to pass the written exam for a driver's license with near-daily attempts since April 2005 has finally succeeded on her 950th time. The aspiring driver spent more than 5 million won ($4,200) in application fees, but until now had failed to score the minimum 60 out of a possible 100 points needed to get behind the wheel for a driving test.
Cha Sa-soon, 68, finally passed the written exam with a score of 60 on Wednesday, said Choi Young-chul, a police official at the drivers' license agency in Jeonju, 130 miles (210 kilometers) south of Seoul.
Police said Cha took the test hundreds of times, but had no specific total. Local media said she took the test 950 times.
Now she must pass a driving test before getting her license, Choi said.
Repeated calls to Cha seeking comment went unanswered. She told the Korea Times newspaper she needed the license for her vegetable-selling business.


Even the 1962 Mets didn't go 1-949.

Friday, November 6, 2009

One flu over the cuckoo's nest

The inevitable has happened; our school's closing for a couple of days due to the "epidemic" Yesterday we had seven kids absent (out of 80 or so). One was out with a broken hand, and I don't think we can blame that on H1N1. Today, the same seven kids were out. There's one funny thing about this horrible, horrible pandemic... apparently it only strikes boys. In my creative writing class today, all four boys were out sick. All seven girls? All feeling fine, all present. Hmm. (Also, one boy yesterday wanted to go home with a temperature that was elevated by 2/10 of a degree.) Anyway, we had been in the middle of a story-writing project and there was no way to continue it with 36.4 percent of the kids missing from their groups, so... we watched Grease. (I was amazed; the girls all knew the song Summer Nights!) It was my only class today. Tough, tough Friday at work.

At noon, the principal made the announcement that the kids would go home two hours early today and that we would be closed on Monday and Tuesday, as a prophylactic measure. (We were supposed to have had three days off for the Jeju trip in October and only had one, to go to Nami Island, so it works out.) The teachers have a three-day weekend and have to report at lunchtime Tuesday for a work day; the endless dreary parent conferences are still scheduled for Tuesday night. I'm thinking of returning to see my friends in Daegu on Sunday.

We have no documented cases of H1N1. Say it with me now, the unofficial motto of this blog: "Everybody here crazy."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Are you sitting down? Good. I have a secret...

...I love my job. 

It's a different beast entirely from what I was doing at the hagwon in Daegu. It's a real college-prep high school, and the biggest disciplinary problems I've faced are uniform violations. So in that way it's a different animal, too, from my teaching positions in the States. The vast majority of the kids are friendly, and a lot of them are really smart. They're all Korean, with the exception of the principal's son, with varying degrees of English proficiency, and most of them know as much about indefinite and definite articles as I do about court etiquette in the Joseon Dynasty. (Hint: not much.) But they seem to thrive under the  relative informality and humane treatment they find at St. Paul, compared to the practices at Korean public schools. (For one thing, we don't hit their legs with sticks when they're late to school.) Certainly they wouldn't dare say "Annyeong" to the usual Korean teacher as say "Hi" to me or the other SPPA teachers; they know they're in a good place.

My schedule is easy, too: on "A" days, I have two 85-minute classes, a 150-minute break and another class; on "B" days, I have a free period, a class, and the rest of the day free, except for speech class or newspaper at the end of most days. I like my English 7 and Composition classes just fine, but I love my American Lit Honors and Creative Writing classes.

Am Lit Honors is full of bright, bright kids (four of whom are in this photo). They got into Fahrenheit 451 and are positively eating up The Crucible and The Catcher in the Rye. That's another thing: I get to pick the vast majority of my own curriculum. I'm enjoying Catcher far more than I ever did before, largely because they do. I thought it would shock them; it doesn't. I thought they'd have trouble with all the 50s slang; they don't. One of the girls asked me yesterday why I like Holden, and I said because his sister Phoebe's a smart kid and she loves him. I realized two things simultaneously, as I said it: that is a reason I like Holden, and--huh!-- I like Holden.

Creative Writing is just a ball because I get to make it up as I go along, gleaning projects and assignments from the 'net and my own still fairly serviceable mind. The students are having fun with it, and I have to say I'm amazed at some of the work they come up with despite their limitations with English. My schoolroom walls are decorated with their work.

Most of our students have adopted Western names, though some, notably boys named Atom and Ecclid, are a little shaky on the execution.

Perhaps the most rewarding thing, and one I can claim virtually no credit for, is the blossoming of a few kids in my English 7 class who seemed hopelessly lost in all of their classes. Jenny was horribly, painfully shy and seemingly totally at sea in English. She happened to be the first person I called on in my first class at the school, and the long silence was painful. She was getting close to zero on nearly every assignment, but her teachers had a meeting with her parents, and somehow letting her know we're on her side has made a huge difference. I call on her now when I'm sure she knows an answer, and she gives it! Better yet, she's made a friend of a girl named Lonie and they beam and wave and say, "Hi! Mr. Cornman!" every time they see me, before I can say anything. They give similar greetings, suitably adjusting the "Mr. Cornman" part, when they see other teachers. Jenny got a 78 on her test on The Pearl, about 50 points higher than she had been averaging. It feels good to be able to tell kids how well they're doing.

Sangjoon, in the same class, seems developmentally slow and, to put it horribly bluntly, was rather lumpish for the first six weeks. But he's saying "Hi" now too and his grades are beginning to come up a bit. And Alex, in the same class (he's on the left, below), has gone from being mute in class to wanting to answer everything. In each case, a meeting and some encouragement have worked wonders. All the stuff they tell teachers about believing in their students' ability... it's coming true.

So, you see, as the logo on the LG building down the block from the apartment is always reminding me, Life's Good. At least at St. Paul Prep.

A hazy shade of winter

...okay, it's not really winter. It's only the morning of October 31, and soon, back home, the kiddies will be going house-to-house, filling their bags with Reese's Pieces and some odd radioactive stuff rather hopelessly euphemistically called Circus Peanuts. (Do kids still go door to door? Seems like all you ever hear about anymore is "safe" trickrtreatin' in malls, "harvest festivals" at churches, and twenty-somethings [preferably female] swigging tequila in Naughty Nurse outfits. Ironically, the whole "harvest festival" thing that fundie churches go for is totally utterly completely ultimately pagan in origin, and their "Satanic" Hallowe'en-- yeah, I spelled it the way I was taught to spell it in 1960-- is, being the eve of All Saints' Day, in that sense Christian.)

But I digress.

It feels like winter. It's uncharacteristically warm today, 62 degrees at 9:30 in the morning as it preps for heavy rain most of the day, but the little trees just outside my apartment have, overnight, shed all their lovely red leaves. They think it's January. The air, which remarkably has been quite clean since I've been here, in the last week has been filled with fog or smog or something ending in "og". (Frog? Gog? Magog? Egg nog? ) It's windy and gray a lot of the time. And the locals, who by my standards tend to bundle up way too much, are bundled up way too much. I just came back from my morning run and a young Korean guy was out running in a baseball jacket. Buttoned to the neck.

My birthday (my eighth, exactly, in dog years) came and went on Monday and I felt pretty flat. I got lots of birthday wishes on Facebook and a couple of e-cards (thank you all!) and some of my friends at school went out with me for dinner, but it didn't feel very birthdayesque. The big days-- birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas-- are the hardest days to be on the other side of the marble; we're teaching on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, but even if we weren't, it's tough.

On my birthday, the dinner was over early, as they tend to be when you eat at 4:30. I took the bus to Yangjae and walked to Kyobo Books in Gangnam. Walking back, elbowing my way through thousands of Koreans shopping, going out to dinner, or trudging home after a day's work at LG or Hyundai, I felt so alien, so totally out of place, with nobody who looked like me or sounded like me-- hardly anyone my age, for that matter-- in a way I've only felt once before in fourteen months in-country. 

Thursday was more birthdayish for me; Vanessa, one of our other teachers, had her birthday, and her boyfriend sent over a wonderful cake, which she shared. And my Bestie sent a very nice present (for me, not for Vanessa), She (Bestie, not Vanessa) also sent a very thoughtful email saying that I look so much better in photos here than I did in pictures taken in the States, that Korea has obviously been good for me.

And it has; I'm doing pretty darn well. But there are times when early winter comes from inside. I weigh an astounding 199, the most I ever have, and don't seem to get up the energy to do anything much. And a niggling thought keeps sneaking in (or out): my dad had his first stroke when he was seven years older than I am, I have a couple of congenitally narrowed blood vessels in my brain (I guess I'm narrowminded after all), I have rather high blood pressure, and I don't want to one day be alone in my apartment in Korea and stroke out, having somebody find me a day later.

I know that's asking for trouble and certainly self-pitying, especially when I have people I care about with real and serious health problems. Sorry.

So... this post has been a lot of SJC, and not in an attractive light, and not much ROK. Read it fast; I might just decide to delete it. But I feel better for having written it.

And I'll post later about the good stuff at school.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Not far from the madding crowd

I've been wanting to go mountain hiking in Seoul, as I did so often on Palgongsan near Daegu, but it's seemed such a major deal to find the right bus line to even get to any of the mountains around the city that I haven't gotten around to it. So when Jin, the wonderful lady to really runs everything at the school, posted a sign-up sheet for a Saturday hike, I signed up with alacrity. (No, a lacrity is not a type of Korean pen.)

Six of us (Jin, our school receptionist Michelle, my fellow teachers Lauren, Chris, and Nick, and yr obdt. svt.) went by taxi today to Chonggyesan, the main hiking mountain on our (south) edge of the city. Hiking here on a beautiful fall Saturday isn't much like it is on Palgongsan, where you can sometimes get away from people and find a little serenity. This was the scene at the bottom of the mountain...

...and the climb itself wasn't exactly Frodo and Sam in the Misty Mountains, as most of the way up and most of the way down, the view was of whoever was five feet in front of you. Also, the bulk of the climb was on prefab stairs, each one of which had its own numbered faceplate. Just so you know, there are 1263 stairs. There's a lot more climbing than that, though, most of it as crowded as the subway.

On the way up (and back), in a little rest area, we saw the jolliest guy, a Buddhist monk in gray robes, cute little hat, white cotton Mickeyesque gloves and sneakers, with a little boombox playing Korean Buddhist drum songs. He looked like a cross between Mr. Rogers and the Dalai Lama and he was bouncing from foot to foot and happily waving and calling to everyone who came by. When he saw us, he called out, "Hello hello!" in English, and when I answered "Annyeonghaseyo!" he called (in English) "Where are you from?" I answered, "New York saram iyaeyo!" he laughed and clapped and cried, "Goodbye goodbye!" I wish I'd gotten my photo taken with him.

At the top, if you can elbow your way to the edge, there's a great view of our end of Seoul, which would only be improved if the air were cleaner; if the smaller mountain in the foreground were about ten feet shorter, I could have seen my apartment.

At one point, a formation of four fighter jets (South Korean, to the best of my knowledge) roared past below us. Every once in awhile, one is reminded that the war never officially ended and that it's not all that far to the DMZ. We also came upon a plaque dedicated to 53 soldiers who died in 1982 when their transport crashed into the mountain.

Anyway, on a happier note, this is our party near the top. ("Donner, party of 33, your table is... oh! Never mind.")

(back: Jin, Lauren, me, Chris; front: Michelle, Nick)

This nice Korean man volunteered to take out picture together, and ended up taking this picture with my camera, with Jin's, Lauren's, and Chris's dangling from his arms like Christmas-tree ornaments after he'd used them to take photos too. (Speaking of which, Costco put up Christmas decorarations in the first week of October. But I digress...)

On the way back down, we came upon fifty people at a full stop coming up, and fifty more going down, all waiting for this guy... finish crossing the trail. Lauren, who likes snakes, reached out to pet him, and have you ever heard 30 Koreans squeal? I have.

A little later, we took a rest break next to a young Korean couple with the cutest, cutest little girl, two years old at most. We smiled and gave her a little wave and she very gravely bowed to us, at which point we all burst out laughing and a couple of the women in the party decided maybe they did want a baby, after all.

When we got back to the bottom, we found a packed restaurant, which makes its tofu right out front in a large vat...

...and serves the traditional Korean seafood pancakes and dongdongju...

...which is this delicious, nearly frozen, sweet, tangy rice liquor. (It also has the advantage, if you say the name just right, of sounding like the lead-in to We Will Rock You.) It's basically fermented rice milk and has little bits of rice floating in it and it's wonderful. It's the only liquor I've ever had that comes in a big bowl and gets ladled into smaller bowls that you lift and slurp from.

Jin had to work really hard to talk them into finding me something to eat, as the pancakes only come stuffed with seafood, and even the hot tofu/veggie stew cooking on our table had beef floating in it.

But we managed, and it was all very nice, till the World's Drunkest Man Who Can Still Stand (yeah, it's official) came and leaned over Lauren and, in a frenzy of misplaced bonhomie, insisted on guessing her age-- 43 or 22, he wasn't sure-- and arm wrestling Chris...

...and then kissed him, and, upon finding that I'm a teacher, kinda half-sprayed into my face that he teaches elementary school himself. Now that's encouraging.

...and then it was time for all of us to go home and take a nap. Oh, and apropos of nothing, here's a photo of Jin and Michelle...

...because they're really, truly nice, it's not like you're paying for this, anyway, and when I have I ever majored in logical organization?

Lost in "found"

My best friends here and I have developed a little Friday tradition of going to "The Primes" (That's the
7-eleven to you normals) right after work, setting up a sidewalk table, and having a refreshing beverage or three. Then we generally go out to a Korean dinner and see what might be in the offing. The offing usually consists of my going home and the young'uns going clubbing or some such till some ungodly hour.

This week, we only got as far as the Primes, then, perhaps shagged out from the events in the last sentence of the previous paragraph, everyone went home. Not wanting to sit alone all evening on a Friday, instead I caught the bus to the subway to the other subway to Yatap station, coincidentally where I visited the school last December before it moved, to the Home Plus store.

The advantages of Home Plus over E-Mart are, first, that it's co-owned by the British chain Tesco, so it has a wider, slightly more Western, array of foods, and secondly, that its clothing sizes run to 110, which fits me, rather than 105, as at E-Mart and everyplace else, which doesn't.

Only... this Home Plus only runs to 105. There went a three-hour trip for not much return.

But it wasn't a total loss! If I hadn't gone, I never would have seen the cheery-looking white bag of ox intestines next to the corn dogs in the frozen food case, and I would have missed one particular t-shirt.

I've posted before about the random, often nonsensical, and not infrequently misspelled English phrases on t-shirts over here, but this one was impeccably presented. It read:

"I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study."

...which led to three questions in my mind:

1) How many young Koreans want to start their own universities?
2) Doesn't anybody here care at all what their shirts say?
3) I'm home! They stole the motto right off Cornell's official seal.

Woulda bought the damn thing, too, but the biggest size was a 105.

There's crying in baseball

I'm watching the seventh (final) game of the Korean baseball championship series, and a guy for the Kia Tigers just hit a homer in the bottom of the ninth to win the title, and he and a couple of his teammates are weeping on the field.

Everybody here crazy.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Otter Limits

I have a hard time, as a veghead, finding stuff for lunch. There's a little kimbap restaurant near the school, and it makes a quick, cheap takeout lunch...

but I can't get across to them that I want it with no meat, no fish, no crab. They have bibimbap (veggies with rice and hot paste) and ice noodles for eating in, but the place is always packed with LG employees at our lunchtime and we can't get a table.

A nice big restaurant has just opened around the corner from there, and, wonder of wonders, they speak English! But when my friends and I went there for dinner, our hosts were so flummoxed trying to find something for me to eat that they finally came up with a bowl of sticky white rice and a kind of tofu broth; they thought so little of their own creation that they gave it to me, apologetically, for free. Tony suggested I put the rice in the broth and bake it on the grill set in our table, and it wasn't bad, but still, it would be an awful hassle explaining what I want and having them figure out what to charge me.

I'm sick of walking home for eggs and I'm sick of taking pb and j's to work and I'm sick of Costco pizza, let alone the hassle of getting in there, fighting through the crowd to the basement, standing in a long line to order (twice, ajummas [aunties-- middle-aged ladies] have butted in line right in front of me as if I didn't exist), waiting in another line to pick up the pizza, and riding back up two escalators to the outside.

It all kind of came to a head the other day when I went to a coffee shop and was ready to pay six bucks for a veggie wrap; they don't have one, just chicken or ham or tuna, but I decided to order a chicken wrap without chicken, just the lettuce and tomatoes and such. With my pidgin Korean and the two girls' pidgin English (despite the fact that everyone their age has taken several years of English in school), it went something like this, in a mixture of Enrean, Konglish, and gestures:

(Me:) Chicken wrap, no chicken, please...      (Girl:) What?
No chicken. Chaesik (veggies)...      No chicken?
No chicken...      (girl points to menu) Ham?
No ham...      Menu changed: no ham, bacon.  
(At this point I'm willing to settle for a wrap without bacon instead of without ham; I'm easy.)
Bacon wrap, no bacon. Chaesik...      No bacon?
No bacon...     Tuna?
No tuna. Chaesik...     (silence)
Chicken wrap, no chicken. Bacon wrap, no bacon. Tuna wrap, no tuna, I don't care...     (silence) 

Chaesik wrap, please...    Oppseoyo. (We don't have that.)
:: sigh :: Thanks. Bye.

It's sometimes hard to stay true to my beliefs when I seem to be the only one in the country who believes them. Even most of my Western friends say either they've eaten dog (and it's delicious) or they'd like to, and sometimes at the grill-it-on-your-table restaurants, the pork sizzling under my nose is too much, even though most of the restaurants have these aluminum elephant-trunk things hanging from the ceiling to suck away the smoke from the grill. And I won't walk into a restaurant that has, as so many do, fish and eels and octopi on death row out front.

Speaking of our aquatic amigos, I did something a couple of weeks ago that I'm not proud of, though most of you will think I'm nuts for minding and one or two will be disappointed in me. I was at the huge underground COEX Mall, which looks like it was designed by moles with architectural training; it has tons of really upscale stores, and the corridors wind around and around, giving few clues as to whether they have three Adidas stores, or whether you've just passed the same one for the third time. COEX also has a Kimchi museum and a stage where they tape videogame championships, which constitute full-time programming for two tv channels. Be that as it may, they also have the biggest aquarium in Korea, and... I don't know why... I visited it.

Now, animal rights people, of whom I'm one, believe that animals are not our property to do with as we like, to kill, eat, imprison, wear... I haven't been to a zoo in twenty years, and for all the times I passed Marineland and Sea World in Florida, it never would have occurred to me to go inside. They need to buy all the imprisoned animals one-way tickets home. And yet, somehow... boredom, sightseeing frenzy, the idea that, hell, they're fish, they'd have been eaten by now if they were in the ocean, I don't know... I went in.

I'll admit that the gigantic tank where you walk through the tunnel and let the sharks and rays and all swim right by you and over your head is cool, and I don't quite know what to make of the "whimsical" room where they have live fish in mockup toilet bowls and bathtubs and the bases of lamps and the front of a Coke machine:

...but, though I was only theoretically opposed to their keeping the fish, however hypocritical or illogical that may be, I hadn't counted on the penguins, the lizards, the bats, the toads, and (my favorite animals in the world) the otters...

..all of which were in enclosures entirely too small and immeasurably smaller than their rightful enclosure, the planet.

I'm sorry I went, sorrier than I am for my troubles finding lunch in Korea. If I'm the only living veghead on this peninsula, then I guess that makes me Korea's Sexiest Vegetarian. Always look on the bright side of life.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Snugg as a bugg in a rugg

Despite the inexplicable lack of tailgating and pep rallies, it's definitely fall here. Last night, for the first time, I slept with both my windows (the one over my bed and the sliding door to the little balcony) closed, inner and outer windows both. I'm beginning to suss out how I'm going to survive the winter. I'll almost certainly put a double thickness of heavy plastic sheeting over all the windows. I'm not looking forward to that, as I hate being cut off from the outside and it will take away half of Tug's entertainment when I'm not home, the other half being flinging his little toy mousies all over the apartment. But I don't want to spend my entire salary on heating the place.

That leads to the question of how to stay warm without going broke. In Daegu, I ran the heat (underfloor heating using gas) as little as I could and had a rotating pedastal heater near me nearly constantly. I will probably do that here; it's true that my current apartment is so much smaller that it shouldn't cost so much to heat, but on the other hand, it's generally five degrees colder in Seoul than Daegu. Also, the Daegu apartment came with an electrical heater; I'd need to buy one here, for fifty to eighty bucks. I'm not sure which option is a better buy, relying on keeping the whole place toasty or carrying my heat around with me. Then again, the apartment's so small, I'd basically just have to turn it around, not move it.

Then there's the problem of the heavy wooden doors that separate the alcove (which is the home of the washing machine and the catbox and has huge sliding windows) from the living room/kitchenette... it's going to be a lot warmer if I keep them closed, but if I do, either the catbox has to come in, perilously near the kitchen, or Tug's going to have to concentrate really hard till April or so.

And then there's the idea of an electric blanket, but I don't think I'd leave it on all day for Tug, in case of fire... or a heating pad...

...and today, at Costco, just to confound me further, I was confronted, for the first time ever, with a fiendish invention I had long heard rumored but never actually seen... I came face to faceless with the abominable... Snuggie. It wants me.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1395

Yesterday, Zach, Chris, and I walked through the unbelievably crowded artsy street Insadong to Gyeongmokgung Palace, which was originally constructed 514 years ago (back when I was in high school). If you're a syntax stickler (which, I realize, sounds like some small exotic hedgehog) you may find "originally constructed" redundant. Au contraire, smart guy... the Japanese army burned it to the ground in 1592, and after its reconstruction in 1867, murdered the queen in 1895 and razed the buildings again in 1915. Apparently it will be another 20 years before it's completely rebuilt. But what's there now is pretty impressive.

Here, let me show you: (Click on any picture to enlarge it.)

I need cooler facial hair..

...and sartorial help from Carson Kressley...

...and a cooler pet.

Zach, Spot, and Chris.

You'd think the king would at least have a Barcalounger

That's a bed in the middle. Ow.

Would you like a Dr. Pepper with your Moon Pie?

The gazebo.

What, this old place? It's not much, but it's home.