Saturday, January 30, 2010

Halfway home and we'll be there by morning

My second week in Daegu was a contemplative time, maybe because I had more of it to myself. I had no dinners with friends, though I continued to see them at work. My major work for the week was writing essays, talking to classes, preparing visual aids, and writing up schedules and plans, all of this for Friday's biennial LIKE debate, this one on the (appalling) topic of whether Korea should mandate post-prison GPS anklets for sexual offenders. The whole thing, frankly, is a big dog-and-pony show: dozens of kids prep for hours to cough up the same talking points I laid down, for the benefit of a few parents who attend, most of whom don't speak much English anyway.

But I had my capacious ego stroked: the classes went well; I ran the debate more smoothly than it had gone the last two times, when my role was ancillary; a couple of the more advanced students with whom I'd been working one-on-one said that I'm an excellent writing teacher; Jesse said she learned from watching me interact with classes; and a bunch of the younger kids I used to teach lit up when they saw me, exclaiming "Cone main! Cone main!" (That's the Korean pronunciation of my name.)

So there's that.

Overall, being at LIKE again, I felt as Conan O'Brien would have felt if he'd accepted moving his show back to after midnight. I've graduated from the hagwon teaching world. It was odd.

The Loving Hut I'd found, which I mentioned in my last post, turned out to be different from the ones in Seoul, which are big all-you-can-eat vegan buffets. This one was a sit-on-the-floor place with a grand total of two items on the menu, both of which were soup. It's good soup, though, kinda rich and mushroomy. And I went to see the movie 500 Days of Summer, which I think is terrific. And I watched a lot of Scrubs in my hotel room. The social ramble ain't restful.

The low point of the week came on Thursday, when I walked back to my old neighborhood in the hopes of a miracle reunion with Tiki. The last time I was there, the building I'd lived in was gutted, just a big brick box. Now it was gone completely and there was a big corrugated-metal box of a building in what had been the back yard in which I'd sat for hours waiting for Tiki to come out. If Tiki had still been nearby when they started putting up that tin shoebox, no doubt the banging and whirring scared him away for good.

But I walked the maze of the back streets-- they're remarkably squared-off and blank, like some early shoot-'em-up video game-- and hoped. No Tiki. He's gone for good.

When I left LIKE on Friday, Heeduk was snoring in his recliner and I slipped out and walked back to Dongdaegu Station. On the KTX ride back, I was feeling mellow, not sad, just subdued, as I thought Long Thoughts about Daegu and whether I'd ever teach at LIKE again and family and Tiki and Korea and home and how you-can't-go-there-again, and realized that home for me is whatever apartment Tug's in.

I finished an excellent book, The Curious Adventure of the Dog in the Night-time, five minutes before we pulled into Seoul Station and flipped on my iPod in time to hear one randomly shuffled song, Arlo's City of New Orleans. There's never been a more apropos song for arriving at a train station at night, eight thousand miles from your roots.

Good night, America, how are ya? Say, don't you know me? I'm your native son.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hut one, Hut two...

It's Tuesday in my second (and last) week back in Daegu. Each morning and evening, I've been picking my way through the side streets to go back and forth between the hotel (where, incidentally, I'm in the same room as last week) and the school. This has usually involved scaling one very steep incline.

Today I tried a different route and found that it was all flat. More amazingly, though, I passed a very familiar bright yellow sign: LOVING HUT. This is another outlet of the vegan buffet restaurant I've become familiar with in Seoul. It's so, so hard to eat veg in Korea. For example, yesterday Heeduk ordered pizzas and they failed to bring a plain cheese one and I picked off the bits of sausage. (Back home, that's something I would never do, but we only have 45 minutes' lunch and I've learned I have to compromise to a degree or I won't get to eat much.) I was halfway through my first slice when I discovered innumerable tiny bits of sausage spread about under the layer of cheese. Then I felt sick.

(It's a veghead thing; you wouldn't understand.)

So imagine my delight on stumbling upon a Loving Hut (one of three such storefronts in a city of 2.5 million people) completely by accident. The odds are incalculable.

Still, tomorrow I'm going to make one last trip to my old neighborhood in the absurd hope that poor Tiki, who's been scared, cold and hungry on the streets for seven months (if he's still alive), will inexplicably appear and let me take him home.

I'd rather have saved my Daegu miracle for that.

Friday, January 22, 2010

What happens in Dongdaegu stays...

...ah, heck, nothing happens in Dongdaegu, at least not in my room.

It's Friday and I'm at lunch prior to wrapping up my first of two weeks teaching at LIKE, my old school. I thought I should make a few bucks, rather than spending them, during St. Paul's winter break. My friends are in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia... I've been in a love hotel near Dongdaegu (East Daegu) Station, in the area I've come to call Little Vegas, as it's full of motels tricked out in neon, "business clubs" (which I've never been in because, first, they sound awfully seedy, and secondly, I've read drunk Korean men don't like Westerners looking at their women) that I gather are somewhere in the murky area between Hooters and strip clubs, not-so-secret brothels, and the like.

The sheer number of love hotels is amazing: within a few blocks there are dozens, including the Versace, the Oasis, the Ritz, the Form (?), the Mirage, the Ocean, and (my absolute favorite) the InThe... yes, it's called InThe Hotel. Heeduk's put me up in what I guess is one of the nicest ones, the Castle, ten minutes' brisk walk from school and five from Dongdaegu Station.

The love hotels, I'm sure, are used for illicit affairs and such, but I gather one of the main purposes is to give some privacy to perfectly nice young couples. Apparently most people live with their parents until they get married around age 30, and sleepovers are not encouraged. This is also why DVD bangs, private rooms where you can lie on a couch and watch a movie, are so popular.

The only really seedy thing about the Castle is the fact that somebody comes in every night and leaves business cards with pictures of nice Korean ladies who aren't wearing any clothes, with phone numbers beneath. I'm sure I don't know what that's about.

The room itself is as nice as any hotel room I've ever been in, including the New York Hilton. (I guess the Paris Hilton's a little skankier.) It has a king-sized heated bed with a down comforter, a whirpool bathtub, a huge LCD tv, a couch covered in burgundy velour (or velvet, or something beginning with "vel"... not Velveeta, though) and a shower built for two, with lots of hot water coming straight down from a shower head literally the size of a personal pan pizza. Oh, and the toilet has a couple of mysterious dials on it; I don't even want to know what they control. There are also all kinds of mood lights embedded in the ceiling and around the walls. And a mural of mushrooms and tomatoes that remind me of a 1980s Pizza Hut. Don't ask me why.

After awhile, one begins to notice little things that aren't there, such as, for example, a lamp by the bed. Or a floor lamp. Or any light whatsoever that's sufficient to read by, except in the bathroom. There literally isn't a reading light in the place. Perhaps I'm the only person who wanted to read who's stayed in the room.

But the bed is tremendously comfortable, the showers are glorious, and it's quiet and clean. Tonight and tomorrow night I'm being demoted to sleeping in my own bed, and I imagine Tug hasn't conducted any maid service. How sad. But it will be good to be home.

For 48 hours, then I get to do it again.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jjim ddandy

We finally finished the first semester last Friday, and the next day I celebrated by going to a Himalayan restaurant and a jjimjilbang with my friend Ray from the Veggie Group.

Although I have been known to curry favor, I've never really favored curry  :: rimshot ::. Actually I've seldom had Indian-type food; this was really good, with all the different curries, a relish plate and hot bbang (flatbread). I've always been a bread lover, and it was very very nice indeed.

Then Ray took me on what I thought was my first visit to a Korean institution, the jjimjilbang. I was a little disappointed at first; the facilities didn't seem to be any fancier than my ritzy haelseu cleob (health club) back in Daegu. The men head in one direction, the women in another, and there are a great number of whirlpool tubs and saunas at various temperatures (one reading 93.5 Celsius [205.7 Fahrenheit, as in 6.3 more degrees and your eyeballs boil]... I don't want to look like Arnold ten minutes before the end of Total Recall.)

One hot room with a whirlpool had a myriad of colored stones and crystals, perhaps 10,000 of them, on the ceiling and forming murals of nature and rural life on the walls.

What else this jjimjilbang had that I hadn't seen before was one floor below... a huge room, literally 200 feet long, with resting mats, pillars, heat lamps, with a couple hundred people of both sexes, all dressed in the tops-and-shorts terry jammies the establishment provides. People were playing janggi, Korean chess, eating from baskets they'd brought from home, gossiping, and watching soap operas on big HD tv's. Korea is a very social culture, which I love.

There were also "fire rooms" around the perimeter. These are igloo/yurt-shaped chambers, all carpeted, which you crouch and duck-walk to enter and then lie on the floor until you can't stand the heat anymore.

So the fire rooms, the mineral murals, and the gigantic gathering room were new to me, but all in all I thought that a jjimjilbang isn't a whole lot fancier than the gym in Daegu...

I'm posting this from my room at a love motel room back in Daegu, where I'm teaching for two weeks while SPPA's on winter break, and today I looked at the big sign high up on the side of the building that contains both LIKE School and my old health club... it says 찜질방 (jjimjilbang). I'd been there dozens of times and completely taken it for granted.

Boy, was my face red. But I'd gotten used to that in the fire room anyway.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Ah, I seen better cultures in yogurt

After a lifetime slumming, I've been up to my eyebones in culture lately. On Christmas Eve, as I wrote about in my Christmas Day post, we took a field trip to the Seoul Arts Center to see the exhibit of great paintings from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Show me the Monet!)

This past Saturday evening was the school's biennial performance night, sort of a talent show with no judging. There were a dance group, a variety of instrumental performances, several one-act plays, and a short movie. Considering what a small talent pool we have (fewer than 80 kids), they did themselves proud.

But I'd have to say the performances were maybe even a little better last evening. The school was one of the sponsors of the Gangnam Symphony Orchestra's New Year concert and offered us free tickets. Several of us braved the tundra to make our way back to the aforementioned Seoul Arts Center, arriving precisely on time to hear my favorite piece of classical music, Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. (I gots that one on my iPod.) They followed with some Tchaikovsky, a little Liszt (which they didn't check twice), a can of iced coffee at intermission-- wait, that was just me-- and Dvorak's New World Symphony. As an encore they did Rossini's William Tell Overture and then... um, something that wasn't Rossini's William Tell Overture; I think it was about Tonto.

I'm not much more of a commonsewer of classical music than I am of art. I do like a lot of the stuff I recognize, though that isn't much. I knew the Copland, some of the Dvorak (the part that goes "bom bom bom BOM bom bom bom bom bombom BOM") and the Rossini. Oh, and I can pronounce "Dvorak".

I'm glad I went; I've seen Baryshnikov dance, I've been to the Louvre (and the loo), I've seen the RSC do Romeo in Stratford-Upon-Avon, but I'd never been to a classical concert before. The sound quality was excellent, as far as I could tell the musicians were very fine, the pianist had ludicrously long fingers, and the soloist on the cello sure was purty. Oh, and every time the orchestra stopped playing I knew not to clap until everybody else did. What more could I have asked?

Oh, and... what do you call a band of orcs?
an orc-estra!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Going native

Just now, our administrative assistant Jin came out of her office with a woman I've never seen before, a Caucasian woman with blonde dreadlocks.

She and I locked eyes and I smiled and gave her a little bow with my head.

I think I'm turning Korean, I think I'm turning Korean, I really think so.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Snow day!

The final, official count for yesterday's snow is 10 inches, the most they've ever recorded here.

Today we have, I guess, the first snow day anybody here's ever had. I slopped all the way to Gangnam and finally got a USB cable so I can charge my phone.

Here are a couple of pictures, down my block and up my balcony. (Does that sound vaguely dirty?)

...snow looks so much better the next day if it's sunny than if it's overcast.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Rice/Czechs and ice cream

Oh, almost forgot to tell about this...

On New Year's Eve, Chris, Lauren, and I went to Gangnam, the ritzy shopping area three or four miles from home. They wanted to go to a Chinese restaurant, so we did; they shared a multicourse meal consisting mostly of strange and somewhat offputting sea creatures, totalling 100,000 Won (85 bucks); I searched for something, anything, I could eat and found "Rice with bean curd and beef". We had a nice waitress who seemed to speak English pretty well, so I asked for it "gogi upseoyo" (without beef). I figured rice and tofu would be fine. Well, when it came, I didn't find and tofu, but I did find a whole bunch of little shrimp. Since I was already about two courses behind Lauren and Chris, I gulped, tried not to worry about what was in the sauce, and gave my friends the shrimp, which ironically were the most normal-looking things they ate in the whole meal.

Then we went to a nice coffeehouse. I'd made my resolution to lay off sweets completely for the month of January, at least, so I had to back up and get a running start; I had Americano and "ice cream wapple". (Korean has no "f"s.) That was whipped cream, chocolate, two scoops of ice cream and a Belgian... um... wapple. But it's now the evening of January 4 and I've kept my resolution in 2010! Of course, that could be because I'm still not hungry after New Year's Eve.

Finally, we went to Castle Praha, a very neat old-world pub with their own in-house draft beers, made with equipment imported from the Czech Republic, with ingredients ditto. It's a little place paneled in dark wood, very much like the hofbrauhauses I remember from 40-plus years ago in Munich. (Yes, I know Munich is not in the Czech Republic.) The tv's were playing a K-pop concert, kind of the equivalent of Dick Clark's Rockin' Eve. K-pop music is like cotton candy; a little bit is fun, but too much and you get a bit queasy.

At about 11:58, the tv cut over to downtown Seoul, where they had a countdown to midnight (Yeol... aho.. yeodol... ilgo... yeoseot... daseot... sa.. SAM... EE... IL... HOPPY NEW YIEO!) They repeatedly swung the big battering ram into the huge bell , we all clinked glasses back in our little hof, and oddly, things looked about the same as they had a couple of minutes before. The house did treat us all to bottles of good Czech beer, which was nice.

A couple came over and was eager to talk with us; he's Chinese (his name is CheolGang Yoon, by the way; say hi for me if you see him) and she's Korean. They both work for IBM in someplace called Dalian in China. We didn't talk of anything important, but everyone was full of New Lang Syne and chatted amiably and animatedly for awhile and exchanged business cards.

And then we caught the last bus home. If we'd missed it, we would have had a 75-minute, cold, cold walk; the taxis won't take us home (barring a huge overcharge) because they'd rather wait for longer rides, bigger fares, and drunker passengers.

You know, it seems as if every year I can remember, on New Year's Eve we all think, "That was sure a crummy year; this one's got to be better." Well, my personal 2009 was fine, but as for the world... this one's got to be better.

Happy Year, everyone!

Serenity now may know it by its abbreviation, S'now.

We were back in school today after a week off for the holidays, and it snowed and snowed and... wait for it... snowed, beginning sometime in the small hours. All the kids said they'd never seen this much snow in their lives. Back in Ithaca, we had a name for this kind of January day... we called it "Monday".

The forecast was for one to three inches, which would be a lot for here, but I think we had the three before I even left the apartment. They're not ready for this kind of thing; rock salt is rare and I haven't seen any plows. What happens here is that the main streets quickly become piles of brown slush and, a couple of days after it snows, the side streets become bumpy sheets of ice until the next snow comes to cover it up. With the gym closed for New Year's, I went running... well, skating... on the path down by the creek twice over the weekend, but just walking on my street is a bit more adventurous than usual. It should take a little longer this time to wear the snow down.

On the walk to work, I saw a single moving car out on the street. At our starting time, perhaps ten percent of our students were present. Rumor had it that one of our buses was stuck in a snowbank and the police had told the other to turn around and go home, but apparently the rumor had all the veracity of a Fox and Friends news segment; 90 minutes after our first bell, all the rest of the kids trooped in.

Just as the administration canceled the Jeju Island trip in the fall before anyone had H1N1, they've announced a snow day for tomorrow. I bet the roads will be okay by then, of course.

After school, I did a long treadmill run at the jamesnasium, followed by a hot shower (so, so good... the water's not getting above tepid at home). Then I slid home, measuring the snow on the way, by a highly scientific method: I found a discarded styrofoam tray, shoved it into the snow on the roof of a parked car, then compared the tray to a sheet of typing paper at the apartment.

It's about ten inches; I measured it myself. (I realize that this may not be the first time in your lives that some of you have heard that.)

Korean tv says it's their heaviest snowfall since they started keeping track in 1904.

As soon as I got home, I took these pictures in the park across the street:

Hey, there's a tennis court open!
The bike is just two-tired of winter.
Life's Good.

A little later, I stomped my way over to Costco, and that was delightful; on Saturday, the checkout lines stretched literally two-thirds of the way to the back of the store, but this evening, you could have played Rollerball in there without disturbing anybody. On the way, I saw a lady shoveling her driveway with a dustpan, and a couple of guys using thick plastic boards. They're not really equipped for this.

As for me, I love it; there's that serene silence when there are hardly any vehicles moving and the snow muffles all sound. It's not really cold or windy, but it's white. It's lovely and I've missed it since I left Ithaca. I can't wait for 2116, when Seoul's due for another day like this.