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.

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

...I need some English conversation, stat!

Please don't pour flavord syrup on my menu.

"We'll do our best" ...but don't get your expectations too high.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

I bit off more than I could Chuseok

Happy Chuseok, everybody! Unlike last year, when Heeduk invited me to his parents' home to share their observance, this one, today, has been solitary for me. While Koreans are feasting with their families and bowing to their ancestors' pictures, waegookin (foreigners) are left with nothing open but the 7-Eleven. Still, it's been a busy few days and a down day or two isn't such a bad thing.

As I've been whining, the school's trip to Jeju Island was canceled due to fear of that swine behind the curtain; it's been a good though hectic week nonetheless. On Wednesday, the whole school went to Nami Island, a little resort northeast of Seoul. The place, perhaps borrowing a leaf from Key West, styles itself the "Naminara Republic" and issues passports to its visitors. It's a small, leaf-shaped island in a lake, and is much beloved by Japanese tourists because it was featured on a Korean tv show that was wildly popular there.

The Naminara Republic is replete with (in case you're a nihilist who doesn't believe it really is a small world after all) a King of Pop display,

artwork (of which this...

...was my favorite), little electric Model T's, duck boats, ostriches,

restaurants, bike rentals, trails, and a big big field perfect for our school "Olympics": three-legged race, balloon toss, egg-and-spoon race, and the like, all topped off with a nifty photographic scavenger hunt. I'd like to point out, first, that the Cornpeople did not finish last (eighth of nine teams isn't bad), and also that I didn't get to draft my own team. Kinda like being a Mets fan. (For God's sake, must you keep bringing up the Mets' season?)

On Thursday, the kids had off and the faculty had an in-service day, after which Mr. Park, the director, took us all out for a massive dinner at VIPS Steakhouse. Ironically, I had one of the best meals I've ever had in Korea, as their salad bar has salad (shocking, I know), all kinds of fruit, pasta, pizza, desserts, five kinds of coffee... it was a really nice time with everyone there, darkened only slightly by the fact that when I got out of the cab as we arrived, my pack zipper came open and the bottle of Chilean cabernet Mr. Park had given me for Chuseok shattered all over the sidewalk. (When we got to the restaurant, I couldn't figure out why the floor was sticky... it seemed like a nice place and all... till it occurred to me that if you walk around in Chilean cabernet, the soles of your shoes are likely to be a bit agglutinative.) (I swear, that's the first word from a thesaurus that I've ever put on this blog.)

Afterward, a few of us went up the stairs to the street, looking for a bar, walked around, found none, and went back down to the one in the basement, where we had a pitcher of good German lager. It was nice, and demographically and linguistically balanced: Lauren, Chris, and me as the Anglo contingent, Korean-Americans Susan (who speaks Korean) and Nick (who doesn't) and our office manager Jin and secretary Michelle, both lifelong Koreans who speak wonderful English. Chris, Lauren, and I are customarily beer buddies, but we'd never been out with the others before, and it was good to see them on a more social level. Nice folks.

Yesterday (Friday), we were off for the holiday, and I was delighted to get a text from my Kiwi friend Emma, up from Daegu for the weekend. (By "Kiwi", I mean that she's a native of New Zealand... she is neither green nor fruity. Come to think of it, though, she is small and flightless.) We went to What the Book and then to lunch, both in the notorious Itaewon neighborhood, then took the subway to the Ingwangsan Shaminist Hillside Walk, as Lonely Planet calls it.

Right in the middle of the world's second-biggest metro area, we walked ten minutes up a very, very steep hill (one to rival Gunshop Hill in Ithaca, or all of the hills in Florida combined) and entered a little village carved out of the rockface, with winding, uneven stone stairs and the little homes of Buddhist monks; we wandered innocently into a yard and a monk came out to tell us, in English, that we should feel free to walk around and take photos. (The tv dish on his home and the next-door convenience store's advertising Cokes and cigarettes seemed utterly incongruous.)

The area apparently is a key, ancient Shamanist shrine, especially these rocks...

...which allegedly house many spirits, but most of the religious presence is Buddhist:

...and that's Emma. This is me...

One odd thing about the life we waegook sangsaengnim (foreign teachers) live is that we make friends easily, but know all the while we won't see them for long. Especially at the hagwons (private, evening academies) people come and go as if they were on a traffic circle. I hugged Emma goodbye on the subway, knowing I'd never see her again, as she'll be back in Middle Earth soon, and thinked heavy thunks about the transience of life and how I'll miss her.

Sic transit emma mundi.