Sunday, February 27, 2011

It's not funny.

There's a website called Blackout Korea, run by an American expat, that consists solely of photos of drunken Koreans passed out on sidewalks, in the subway, and in other public places, usually accompanied by grinning young Westerners showing how very funny they think the unconscious locals are.

I can only scratch the surface as to how disgusting an idea I think this is. For one thing, the Chosun Ilbo, one of Korea's premier newspapers, has run an article about the site, which can only inflame anti-American feeling; if the site doesn't reek of racism, it certainly is a case of culturalism.

There are a lot of things in Korea that a Westerner can find curious or backward or (in the case of some of the treatment of animals) repulsive. Sleeping in a closed room with a fan on will not kill you and your blood type does not dictate your personality. A Westerner doesn't have to address, say, his sister's husband's younger brother with a different honorific from our sister's husband's older brother.

...and Korea has the highest per capita consumption of hard liquor in the world. Heavy drinking is very much a part of the male-centric culture and sometimes the locals can get very drunk indeed. But I would have hoped we'd outgrown ridiculing the hopeless and the helpless.

I feel the same way about that "People of Walmart" site; I don't think that the fat, the sloppy, and the toothless people there deserve the ridicule of their "betters". It makes me squirm. How far off is it from making fun of the mentally or physically handicapped? It's no wonder so much of America thinks those of us from the coasts are self-satisfied, pompous jerks. That's the kind of thing that keeps people like Sarah Palin in business, stirring up resentment and suspicion.

And I can only feel that Blackout Korea will stir up resentment and suspicion of Westerners here. It's ugly and I don't like it.

Rainy days and Sundays

All my life, I've had a bad case of the Sundays. I know a lot of people, from Garfield to the Mamas and the Papas, have it in for Monday, but when Monday morning comes I just get up and go do it to it. But Sunday... Sunday just hangs Monday over my head all day. For most of my life, Black Sunday began after the ritual reading of two newspapers (first the Ithaca Journal and the Syracuse Herald-American, later the St. Augustine Record and the Florida Times-Union, no matter how awful a paper it was... and you can't spell "flatulent" without Fla. T-U.) It had its own ritual, starting with the comics and the sports, all the way through every last opinion column in an effort to forestall the Sundays. Now the Sundays start when Coffee With Lauren ends... I don't know what I'm going to do when she leaves in a few months. (People are always leaving here... but that's another topic.)

This Sunday, today, has been particularly harsh, as it's brought nothing but cold, windy rain-- my least favorite weather condition, behind only tornadoes and locusts-- all day. It's seemed even worse after the sunny, springlike weather that has held for most of February. Just as I discontinue my gym membership (which, between the weather and my head cold, I've used once all month) and hunt for a new used bike, the weather, in the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson, is the "suckiest suck that ever sucked a suck."

I waited most of the day for the rain to stop in order to get in my long, half-marathon-training run, and finally went out anyway and thought, "Hey, this isn't so bad." Then I turned around into the wind, said some naughty words, and came straight back. I ended up running 15 of my planned 70 minutes, came back and took as warm a shower as the building allowed, and did a whole New York Times Sunday crossword.

When I was a kid, I'd watch Lassie at about this time on Sunday night and my mom would inevitably make pancakes or French toast or real waffles and I'd feel better. Well, if Timmy's down the well he's going to damn well stay there, because Korean TV doesn't show Lassie. My mom's not making me my bestest comfort food anymore. And I made myself French toast for lunch and the magic's worn off.


Oh! I just noticed that this is my three hundredth blog entry!  :: blowing soggy unfurls-when-you-toot-it noisemaker ::

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Me? Preciousssss...

For dinner this evening, I went to the Loving Hut vegan buffet with five of my friends. When it came time to leave, the lady at the register asked me in very good English if I was a vegan.

Vegetarian, I said.

"How long have you been a vegetarian?"

"Twenty years."

"You are noble and precious," she said.


...and I guess that's where I should end this story; it's a good punchline. But I can't help noticing that as over-the-top and utterly inaccurate those adjectives are for me... it was an hour ago and I'm still glowing.

Just a little. Nobly.

Necessity is a mother

Having a small apartment, wanting to save money, and not speaking the language all contribute to the necessity of being creative in acquiring goods. For example, when I first moved in here 18 months ago, the school supplied a wardrobe with a wooden bar you hang clothes from (is there a name for that?) ten inches longer than the wardrobe was wide. Solution? Swiffer Sweeper handle.

Some months ago I found a two-drawer dresser somebody had put on the street. One man's trash is another man's... umm... tacky furniture. And Tug does his part... his two favorite beds are my soft-sided suitcase with a blanket that came free with a box of Frosted Flakes and a New Balance shoe box with a blanket courtesy of Kellogg's Corn Flakes.

Anyway, I spend 90 percent of my waking at-home time in one chair, in front of one little table. This is where I write, surf, correct papers, plan, watch TV, eat, take my pills... the problem is that my laptop and its accoutre... accouter... stuff take up half the table, leaving me with an area about eight inches deep for my paperwork and meals and such.

After school yesterday, I was headed over to the Yangjae Cheon to meet Lauren for a run and found a little computer table, with a slide-out drawer, out on the street for pickup.
 (This isn't it.)

I brought it back home and left it, figuring I'd find a space for it somehow. When I came back, I toted it all over-- to the extent that a postage-stamp-sized apartment has an all over-- seeing how it would work in front of the sliding doors to the alcove and balcony, eyeballing moving the TV, seeing if there was somehow space in the little bedroom...

I had just sadly determined that I had no space and was about to take the desklet back down for some other bargain hunter to find when it hit me upside the head like a 25-pound bag of tapioca: it might go under the other table.

And it does, as if designed for that purpose. Now I can just slide it out for 432 glorious square inches of desk space. It has a shelf, too, that's good for a footrest and yet another cat bed and in case I ever buy a book...

In principal, I'm a huge supporter of recycling, Craigslist, Freecycle, and all that good stuff. I won't go as far as the customer we once had at our bookstore who told an old lady she could find really cool magazines if she'd go dumpster diving. (He was the guy with the mustache that was really his nose hair...) However...

Our culture teaches us to chase more and more bigger and bigger stuff. But what we want isn't the stuff; it's the happiness that we imagine the stuff will bring us. I'm just skipping the middleman and trying to learn to be happy.

And telling the stuff to stuff it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"All right then, I'll go to hell."

There are so many times as a teacher, just as there are so many times in any job, that involve going through the motions. There are just so many subject-predicate-complete thought sessions and so many Gift of the Magi readings one can do before it becomes pretty much rote. (If you're wondering, the numbers are four and two, respectively.)

But occasionally I'm reminded of what I love about being an English teacher This always happens when I teach Huck Finn. (My late uncle Charles, perhaps incidentally, was one of the world's great Twain collectors; his widow sold his stash to a Japanese collector for $3 million.) I learned to love Twain at a young age; all the Cornman men in my dad's generation strove for that dry, ironic wit and more than anything else when I was a kid I wanted to make people laugh like my dad did. (Yeah, I'm still trying.) (A sidebar: Uncle Charles had a tabby cat named Tearalong the Dotted Lion.)

More than that, I agree with Hemingway that "all American literature begins" with Huck Finn. Huck is the American literary hero, I think, plucky and rebellious and with a great, great heart. It's a shame that so many people can't see past the fact that Huck (the boy) is a racist (since that's all he's ever learned) to see that Huck (the book) is a powerful statement against racism. I've taught American lit in English 11 for a dozen years, and I always, always teach Huck; one student's mother in St. Augustine initially didn't want her son to read the book because of that word, but I explained how I would approach it and the background work I wold do in my introduction, and he read it and it was fine.

More than any other literary scene I love the part we got to today, where Huck's written a letter to Miss Watson to turn Jim in and believes he has to mail it or he'll be punished forever for the "evil" of helping Jim escape. He takes a deep breath and says, "All right then, I'll go to hell" and the reader knows in that moment that Huck's heart is much wiser and stronger than his head.

...and I teach my butt off on this chapter, better, I think, than on anything else I do, making it come alive, explaining the stakes and the significance and why Huck is such a terrific kid, and hoping my enthusiasm is catching.

Here in Korea, as at the vocational high school in Florida, and even with the "bright" kids at the Catholic school, I have to wonder if the kids are getting it. They're attentive, but are they going, "Yeah, yeah... what's the old man on about this time?"

But all you can do as a teacher is to try to connect with the students and lay out the information as clearly and interestingly as you can.

And hope.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A snowy mountainside

Yesterday's 38th Parallel hash run was in Uijeongbu, just north of Seoul, erstwhile (albeit fictional) home of the 4077th MASH. Though Hawkeye and BJ never set foot there, plenty of real doctors and nurses (and soldiers, American and Korean and Chinese) did. These days, Uijeongbu is full of high-rise apartments and convenience stores, but just north of the town, where the hash led, is all farmers' fields guarded by shivering chained-up dogs, and mountains covered in bare trees and wet snow.

The hash itself was arduous, 75 minutes of (for me) hard running followed by a long hike over a very high, very snowy, hill. Halfway up, already hundreds of feet above the valley, I turned around and it hit me, as it never has before: this was a horrible place. I looked down at the river and the little houses below and the big hill facing us across the valley and realized that real young men were hunkered down on this mountainside, perhaps readying to fire artillery down on other real young men on the flat below. And both sides (the American kids just out of high school up above and the Chinese farmers' sons below, or vice versa; it doesn't matter now) were shivering through the vicious winter, hoping or praying to live to see spring.

Seoul, just to the south, changed hands four times in twelve months. This place has seen much too much.

Yesterday, like today, was very foggy, so the forty-story apartment houses in the distance faded almost into nothingness and the valley below was silent. It felt like a dream, so that those poor guys on both sides, stuck here just before I was born, seemed almost more real than the twenty-first century waiting at the bottom of the mountain.

And the bunker sitting beside the trail (built by which side? Who knows?) testified that it was all real and, in the scheme of things, not that long ago.

And then it was time to go over the mountain and back into my world of Starbucks and 7-Elevens.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Strange day indeed

It's an odd day.

Almost everything is closed for Seollal, though Lauren and I did manage to get together for coffee, as two of the four coffeehouses in the neighborhood are, surprisingly, open. But E-Mart, Costco, and every restaurant-- everything but the convenience stores-- is closed. The streets are nearly deserted. It's 41 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly 30 degrees higher than the recent norm, but nobody's out enjoying it.

Meanwhile I'm watching remarkable live coverage of the Cairo uprising on Al Jazeera's English web site. It's objective and comprehensive, much better than you could find on an American cable-news channel; I've been listening to gunfire and seeing Molotov cocktails being thrown by thugs and undercover cops, thinking of my friend Joelle, who lives in Cairo just a few blocks from the square where all the protests have been taking place. The US government said to get out now. She sent out detailed live-history emails six hours ago, but I hope she's on her way to the airport. If she's not scared, I am.

Funny how a couple of months ago people were worried about my safety.

Meanwhile, I made my very own improvises ddeokboggi, the spicy red rice-cake-and-sauce dish so popular at the ubiquitous street vendors' stands, like this one.
The big letters say "Gongju Ddeokboggi".

My improvised recipe: boil the ddeok for a minute, drown it in store-bought pasta sauce, throw in tomato chunks, sprinkle in Tabasco sauce, nuke, eat. The whole process took five minutes and the meal cost maybe fifty cents. Ddeok dishes are to Korea on Lunar New Year what hoppin' john is to Dixie on Reg'lar New Year... what you eat for good fortune in the coming year. So I'm all set till the dawning of the Year of the Dragon.

...and the Eagles are playing Seoul in six weeks. The flippin' Eagles. I'm going to try to see them, though a foreigner practically needs to submit a retinal scan and a polygraph test to get a ticket to anything.

I'm a-walkin' down the street and I'm not eatin' meat, I got three big hashes on my mind.
One's up in Ouijeongbu, rhymin' like this song do, one's the Sunday morning kind.

ah, heck, songwriting's hard.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

My bunny lies over the ocean

We're have five days off from school this week, counting the weekend, for the biggest holiday on the Korean calendar, Seollal, Lunar New Year. In the States, it's generally called Chinese New Year... and by the way? Those Chinese restaurant place mats that give your Chinese sign? Yeah, well, if you were born in the first three to six weeks of the year, they're wrong... the New Year doesn't begin on January 1, you know. So if you gave birth today (which I imagine would be a big surprise to you), your child would still be a Tiger, not a Rabbit, no matter what the place mats at Ho Lee Chow say. (That's the actual name of a restaurant in Itaewon... it's a lot better than "Chinee Takee Outee" in Gainesville, Florida, at least.)

The Rabbits arrived a little early at Gimpo Airport this year.

Anyway, tomorrow, Thursday, is the actual date of Seoullal, the start of the Year of the Rabbit. I'm going to go to the "38th Parallel Hash" in Uijeongbu (home of the fictional but beloved 4077th MASH) on Friday, and I'm supposed to find a rabbit hat or ears or something before that. (Wearing my handsome tiger hat would be a faux paw, akin to wearing a "Happy Old Year" hat to Times Square for Reg'lar Ol' New Year.)

But what I really want to note is the array of riches showered upon us teachers in the last couple of days...

The father of one of our girls who got early admission to a Japanese university brought in a huge box that held a dozen flat, rectangular boxes; each box had the LG logo on it, so I was rather hoping for a flat-screen tv, but the six soaps, three shampoos, three conditioners, and six tubes of toothpaste will be welcome too. (LG, like all the Korean conglomerates, has its name on every kind of product and service imaginable.)

The mother of one of our kids gave those of us who wrote recommendation letters $50 gift cards to Starbucks.

For Seollal itself, various parents gave us:

an eleven-pound gift box of magnificent Korean apples, each one the size of John Goodman's head.

a big bag of  ddeok. (What's up, ddeok?) They're round disks made of rice flour that are usually served with spicy red sauce but can be thrown into soups and such.

a chocolate birthday-style cake made of rice flour.

wicker baskets full of rice candy and tangerines.

A $30 gift certificate to the upscale Shinsegae department store, which fortunately is also good at E-Mart, which Shinsegae owns. I'm set. I'll certainly never have to buy soap or toothpaste again, anyway. 

E-Mart and Home Plus and other department stores are always packed and colorful leading into the big holidays, displaying expensive gift boxes full of fruit (as above) or toiletries (as above) or Spam (a great delicacy) or wine or whiskey. Most of the multitudinous female sales associates still wear their jacket-miniskirt-leggings combos that say "Heineken" or "Kelloggs" or whatever, but a lot of them are resplendent in their traditional hanbok like the outfits the kids are wearing in the rabbit photo above.

And tomorrow is the big event itself. As the French say, "C'est une bunny day." (It's a good idea.)