Archive for October, 2009

I’m not a huge fan of Dane Cook, but the above line from his stand-up wonderfully explains the vibe I’ve gotten at specific times while in Korea. It’s a feeling that leaves one speechless when certain acts reach a level of intensity that, from where I’m coming from, don’t compute.

A couple weeks ago, I was sitting at my desk in the faculty office when my principal and the school’s accountant walked in. They walked up to my teacher’s desk, next to mine, and began speaking to her in an elevated tone. The accountant stood between my desk and hers while the principle, who did most of the talking, stood behind my teacher-a posture teeming with domination. Sitting in her chair my co-teacher swiveled to address the principal. Her facial and audible expressions were upset with a slight air of defiance suggesting she was standing up for herself. The principal became more belligerent-rapping on the back of my co-teacher’s chair and shoving a finger in her face, as if to demonstrate the severity of his point. All the while the accountant chuckled menacingly.

The accountant’s mocking snicker grew in frequency and my sense of comfort was waning fast. I stayed, seated in my chair, staring off into space to show that this sort of behavior would not intimidate me. I was there to support my co-teacher who was obviously having a hard time. Besides I got the sense that this had something to do with me. There had been a vibe of tension surrounding my arrival and the extra work it created (I’m the first foreigner to teach at this school). My co-teacher had been feeling the pressure most.

The accountant broke from his position and turned to me.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Just sitting here.” I respectfully, but somewhat defiantly replied. The question was a little inappropriately delivered given the context.

“What search engine do you use? Yahoo?”

“I like google, I guess.” What an absurd question, I thought, under these circumstances.

“Yahoo is best.”

Now, I haven’t used yahoo since 98′, but I sure as hell wasn’t interested in engaging in this discussion while my co-teacher was getting hung out to dry. The accountant tried to engage me in other topics of small talk while moving away from the principal/co-teacher. I got the sense that he wanted me to leave the room, but I was not about to leave my post.

Before long the principal walked out in a huff trailed by the accountant. I turned to my co-teacher who seemed to be near the point of tears. She meekly fidgeted with her things before standing up and looking at me. “Let’s go,” she said before walking toward the door, “Take a picture.” It was school picture day after-all (I had not been previously informed).

I understood that she was the main target for bullshit since most of Korea runs on a male dominated hierarchy. She’s the youngest female in the school save the students and is fresh out of the University. I felt awful that I had somehow made the situation worse by staying put and not leaving the room when things began to get heated. But I also felt that it was my duty at that moment to show my silent support, however ignorant it may have been.

The next day I was able to talk with my teacher about what had happened. As per usual things were not as they seemed. She said she didn’t really know why the principal had been so angry (I didn’t completely buy this), but that he is “very strange” and she is the youngest, hence the lowest crap magnet on the depth chart. She said he was mainly complaining about a 3,000 won (3 USD) taxi fee I’d written on my transportation receipt. I’d presented my list of transportation-to-school costs that Monday, as requested, and was told everything was fine.

Instead of taking the problem up with me my principal attacked my co-teacher. The situation was simply that my co-teacher and I had shared a cab the previous week and I had forgotten she’d paid (she was technically on a business trip so her transportation costs were being reimbursed).

Why the principal had attacked my co-teacher is beyond me (and apparently her), but I think it has something to do with the fact that she is responsible for me. In Korea I’ve noticed that when one makes a mistake it can be blamed on a superior for not making sure said mistake was prevented. I believe this is one of the pressures associated with responsibility. It also falls under the realm of saving face-a major Korean consideration. The accountant, with his heckling and tangential questioning, was merely trying to lighten the mood, explained my co-teacher (an instance of saving face). This makes sense now, but at the time my Korean meter was malfunctioning (maybe it was set on USA). I’ve since come to know the accountant as a rather nice guy.

Situations such as these are not too unfamiliar in Korea. Corporal punishment, for example, is alive and well in Korea. I commonly see a kid brought forth in front of the class and slapped on the palms (my elementary school teacher likes using a drumstick) while being lectured. Older kids often go through what’s similar to high school football drills or pain tolerance testing (usually holding awkward positions). From what I can tell it doesn’t make for any lasting damage. Anyways, my parents spanked me until it no longer had an effect; they switched to soap/vinegar in the mouth (sometimes my mom would give us a choice like some kind of sick game show).

Without going any further, I’d like to stay away from value judgments in this case and rather state that it’s often helpful to let a culture do its thing during moments of intense contrast. Often, through later consideration and explanation, things are not as oft putting or extreme as they appear. Much can be gleaned from the extremes and ,well, I sometimes like the rush.


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It’s Gotta Be the Shoes

It’s rare when I take time to examine the significance of daily rituals unless, of course, the ritual irritates or confounds me. Then endless deconstruction is necessary to understand or uncover a reason to disregard it. In Korea I’ve had a hard time with the footwear policies. It seams like every time I pass through a doorway I need to change my shoes (or slippers). There are house slippers, bathroom jellies, school sandals, etc.

Essentially its like this: anytime you walk onto a new surface a change or removal of footwear is necessary. This surface switch is typically indicated by a lowered section in a doorway or some kind of barrier that blocks the shoe from non shoe environment. As a result most Koreans I’ve met wear slip-ons or step on the heels of their shoes, otherwise they magically slip in and out of tennis shoes like it ain’t no thang. Well, I don’t possess magic, slip ons, or the desire to break down the rigidity of my kicks so needless to say I’m always the last one to enter/exit.

typical demarkation of shoe changeage

typical demarkation of shoe changeage

Ross, why don’t you buy some more adaptable shoes? Because in Korea they rarely sell shoes over size 290 and I need a 355 (~size 15 US). I challenge anyone to fill that order without paying astronomical international shipping costs. And don’t get me started on the fact most manufacturers of shoes that fit me are located in the relative vicinity of Korea. I’m sorry, this rant does come to a point.

The other day I was talking with a co-teacher about the Korean shoe ritual. I explained that in my culture we only take off our shoes if asked to or if they are dirty. Of course one respects a shoes off policy (usually when entering a house), but its typically a self monitored practice.

She responded that in Korea there are shoes for everything; shoes for hiking, shoes for teaching, shoes for the bathroom, shoes for dress-up, etc.-a very utilitarian logic. I replied that we hold the same logic in my culture, but perhaps ours simply reflects our individualistic nature. She agreed. The Korean way of footwear in many ways exemplifies a group mentality where individuals are expected to act in a certain way so as to maintain order for the whole.

So there you have it: an example of the greatest US-Korean dichotomy I’ve witnessed-individualism versus group modality (explained with shoes). This difference informs just about everything here so I’m sure it will come up in other posts.

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Back home I rarely accept a ride from strangers, but in South Korea I’m learning to recalibrate my “stranger danger” sensor. Everyday I commute via ferry to my school on Soan-do (Soan Island). Being 1 of 2 foreigners (my girlfriend, the other) in the area I’ve gotten used to occasionally hitching a ride with more-than-willing locals aching to try out their Englishee and give me a positive impression of Korea. It’s actually pretty cool that people would go out of their way to make us feel comfortable, but  then again the majority of the country (especially the islands) is so homogeneous that welcoming foreigners would be a rare treat. I’m glad that many see it that way.

Last night I stepped off the ferry onto Nohwa and made for the bus stop. Before I got too far an SUV with two Korean guys rolled up and asked to give me a ride home. “Get in!” they said. “Ok!” I said.

I got in the back and we drove toward town. They started up the usual starter conversation of “where are you from?”, “what is your hobby?”, “Married?”, etc. They informed me that they were Wando county public servants and asked if I liked fresh fish. Again, Korea’s different, even in English. They had a cooler full of fresh fish in the back. They wanted my “wife” and I to come to dinner with them and their friends.

Later, we met the pair at a nearby restaurant where the chef prepared our meal. She sliced the fresh fish the men had brought and served it raw with gim (seaweed) and sauces. Of course the dinner would not have been complete without the traditional side dishes of Kimchi, etc. and somaek (soju + beer). The men explained that the fish was from somewhere in the deep sea which I ineterpreted to be halibut by the look of things. Whatever it was it was delicious; this coming from a guy who’s never had a taste for raw fish.

After a while the rest of the men’s friends showed up. As it turns out the guys were actually some kind of quality control agents sent to Nohwa to deal with the overproduction of Abalone. The “friends” were a couple abalone farmers whom I’m learning are the local hicks with money. Earlier in the week we’d been introduced to a friend’s sister who was home for Chuseok; a daughter of an abalone farmer. She invited us to her parents house for dinner and let’s just say the abalone farmers are doing alright.

As one might imagine the farmers were a contrast to the suited pair who’d picked me up earlier. The farmer sitting across from me dressed in a shiny track suit and dirty t-shirt similar to his brother on my right. He was dark-tanned and quite large in stature. His mannerisms were lively; bobbing his head as he chuckled. With his long arms he gracefully swooped up all our glasses and began pouring stiff drinks intended for one shot. With translation the man made it apologetically clear that he did not know any English and was not able to learn due to a lack of intelligence. What he did say was translated to mean “we’d drink for conversation.”

After a few rounds of discussion the group was more boisterous than ever. The abalone farmer pouring drinks had adopted us as his younger brother and sister-in-law. He now refered to each of us as 동생-dongsaeng (younger brother/sister); he was 형님-hyeongnim (older brother-in-law). To seal the deal he fed us fish from his chopsticks like a couple tipsy seals.

With the older, suited man, serving as  interpreter, the abalone farmer said that he would come to fetch us sometime for a trip to his house; we were to be prepared anytime. With all the conversation that’d taken place I could not refuse the invitation. I imagined the abalone farmer’s home as similar to the hillbilly heaven of rich country folk in the states; dirt bikes, animals, guns, and harsh liquor drunk on a porch. I’m sure it’s not a valid comparison (nothing ever really is in Korea), but it’s probably not far off. Anyways, my stereotype sounds fun.

We walked home from the restaurant giddy from the nights unexpected pleasantries. Hyeongnim caught up to us in his car-what I’ve dubbed the Korean Cadillac(although the exterior looks more like a Bentley/Mercedes “until a Bentley roll up”). He gave us a ride home which probably would have worried me if we hadn’t only a few blocks to go. We arrived safely, said goodnight, and went inside.

It’s funny how you sometimes recognize people as similar in appearance and action to other people you know. In Korea I thought this wouldn’t be true, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of a few others when I looked at my new hyeongnim, the abalone farmer.

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How I Spent My Chuseok Pt. II

Saturday arrived with a vibe of exhilaration amongst Nohwa-eup. The town swelled from visiting families and young people returning home. Down the street the new “Nohwa Mart” opened its doors and the clink of metal bats rung out from the grand opening of the nearby batting cages/fun center. The town itself felt relaxed as groups strolled down the streets ducking into doorways to the sounds of welcome. My girlfriend and I were pleased to find some stores open; probably trying to scrape a few extra won out of the holiday crowd.

After stocking up on supplies we settled into a lazy day zoning out into books and computer screens. Occasionally we’d break the silence to inform the other of a new fact or idea; a pattern we’ve gotten used to over the past couple months. A knock at the door-“Oh shit,” I said, “I guess we’re going out.” We assumed immediately and correctly that the family who’d visited us earlier in the week was swinging by to execute whatever plans they’d made for us. Luckily, we’d locked the door thus preventing them from walking in. We put on clothes and answered the door.

The Kim family, as Mrs. Kim later introduced them, were dawning some spiffy hiking attire popular amongst Koreans who always want to look the part. There was Han-Su, the oldest, who immediately drilled me on my taste in computer games, specifically Starcraft. Ha-Nu, the second down, mimicked his brother, but with less tact and more childhood rage. Han-Bee, the sister, bounced around the yard between grinning as she looked up from under the wide brim of her hiking cap. Hyon Ju, the mother, introduced us to two year old Ha-La asleep in the passenger seat.

Weed Pulling Party

Weed Pulling Party

After a little weed pulling party in the front yard we loaded up into the van and headed to Bogil-do. It was a beautiful day – sunny, clear, and warm. Mrs. Kim rattled off the names of beaches, residential areas, and breathtaking viewpoints of the ocean as we passed. My S.O. and I, bedazzled by the brilliant scenery, occasionally broke gaze to chat with the kids. They communicated using the bit of English they could muster; counting my leg hairs, marveling at Kelsi’s blond hair and blue eyes, and giving everyone the name of an animal.

Our first stop was a rocky beach. I forgot the name. The large crescent shaped shoreline of flat stones in various shapes and colors made excellent skipping. The boys and I took to counting in English and sometimes Korean the number of times the rocks skipped across the water. I was comforted to see this game devolve to “who can throw the biggest rock into the water.” It reminded me of similar times in my childhood.

Skipping stones with Han-Su and Ha-Nu

Skipping Stones with Han-Su and Han-Nu

The next stop was a seaside hiking path that climbed up the nearby cliff. At the top of the cliff we hiked trails carved out of dense foliage-like some kind of fantasy portal. Through the breaks in forest were incredible views of the sparkling ocean and nearby islands that jutted out of the water. Brightly colored buoys bobbed in the swells. Han-nu ran on ahead leaving Han-Su to give chase. Han-bee walked slowly just ahead of us picking up hazelnuts on the path.

Bogil-do Trail View

View from the trail

A little ways down the trail we caught up with Han-Su and Han-nu. Han-Su was sitting on rock aside the path, a small pool of blood pooling at his feet. Looking up I could see his nose was bleeding and I immediately thought of the two ways one generally get a nose bleed: dried mucus membranes or a brother’s punch to the nose. I gave the benefit of the doubt to Han-nu who was already running down the path to get his mother. I demonstrated to Han-Su that he ought to pinch his nose and keep his head level. “Yes. Good.” I said, handing him my handkerchief while nodding my head in acceptance of his mimicry, “You don’t need to shake your head.” I stopped him by gently placing my hand on top of his head.

Mrs. Kim reached us about the time Han-Su’s nose stopped gushing. The kids ran off ahead and we hiked onward toward our destination – a lookout. At the lookout we sat in a circle on a cliff top platform overlooking the sea. Han-nu showed me his sketch book filled with still life sketches and portraits he’d done. I was very impressed. Afterward he set to work sketching a nearby island and then some acorns he’d laid out on the deck. Han-Su chatted with me about Starcraft and taught me some hand games. Han-B played along and helped her mother feed Ha-La.

On the hike back Mrs. Kim, exhausted, handed off Ha-La for me to carry. As cute as he was I felt waves of discomfort at the thought of myself carrying a baby next to my “wife” walking down the trail. At this stage in my life, amongst a culture that esteems procreative marriage, the thought of myself bound to a wife and children is frightening. Anyways, we made it back to the van just as the late afternoon sun began to cast an amber hue on the surrounding beaches.



Mrs. Kim took us back to her home. There we met grandma and grandpa Kim and ate a delicious  Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) meal with fresh sesame leaves from the garden. With the end of the meal came darkness and our cue to exit. We walked to the van in time to greet Mr. Kim who was just arriving home.

Mrs. Kim drove us home, but it was clear that the night was not over. I had made an obligation to play Starcraft with the boys that evening so I agreed to accompany them to the local PC Bong (WOW dungeon). The local PC room is located on the first floor of an old building in town. The entrance is a sliding door masked by a coat of paint and some video game posters. The sunless inside contains at least 50 PCs (quite large for a small town) lined up against the walls of two large rooms. The joint was packed (for Chuseok I’d guess), but we were able to snag the last 3 PCs available. Ha-Nu showed me to a platform next to him while Han-Su took a spot in the back.

With our consoles ready we began to play. Rather, my attempts at playing were interrupted by Ha-Nu who didn’t approve of my style. He’d grab the mouse and take control as if he were not interested in his own game. “This is one fop-aux I’d correct them on,”I thought. On top of the coaching we were playing Han-Su’s custom map leaving me to feel as if game was more of a script that played out whenever the brothers played Starcraft. Either way I gave them two games worth of my time and announced that I was tired and wanted to go home. They immediately launched into another game which I didn’t have much chance to object to. After they finished I told them it was time to go, but they’d seemed to have lost their communication skills in the hypnotic glow of the LCDs. I let it slide, but after the game raged on beyond twenty minutes I decided it was enough. Besides, I felt a little irresponsible allowing the prepubescents to continue zoning out amidst a cloud of second hand smoke. I threatened a power button shut-off to break the video game trance then made a swift exit.

Walking home I felt like a dick for having threatened to turn off their game (a tactic used by my parents for years), but my limit had been reached and it was time to return to my own life. On the way home they protested by running to play in the new fun center, but as I walked ahead they finally followed. Back at home Kelsi was entertaining Hyon Ju and Han-Bee with tea and card games. The boys entered behind me and started to run about the house. They wanted to go fishing. At this point it was late in the evening and we’d had enough of kids for the day. Hyon Ju took the hint. “Next time fishing,” she said. “Yes,” We responded.

They left. We fell asleep.

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How I Spent My Chuseok Pt. I

During this time of year Oregon‘s leaves turn, the weather mellows, and folks make postgraduate excursions to their choice tailgate mecca. When I think about it I can almost smell the Pabst and pumpkin guts. In speaking with South Koreans it’s practically unanimous that the favorite season is Fall. Just like Oregon, Korea’s forests turn to a blend of yellows, reds, and greens beginning late September. Summer mellows into a brisk autumn atmosphere and sports junkies get riled up over the Korean pro baseball playoffs.

On the 15th day of the 8th month of the Lunar calender Koreans celebrate Chuseok (Chew-Suck) 추석. It’s this time that Koreans gather with family to visit familiar tombs and feast on traditional cuisine; like Thanksgiving with more emphasis on historical relevance. My introduction to this holiday was slightly less conventional.

Last Wednesday evening, while sitting half naked in a living room chair and icing my swollen ankle injury, I looked up to see some kids staring at me from the front window. “Hello,” I said, pretending to ignore a possibly inappropriate situation-me splayed out in boxer shorts for the sight of small children. “Anyong Haseyo!” (hello) they gleefully responded. Then a knock @ they door. I half wittingly yelled out “just a sec!”, but this being Korea, English and its social morays are understandably scarce. The door handle began to jiggle.

While hobbling about the room grasping for clothes the stubborn door gave way just as my girlfriend leaped from the shower to the bedroom. Through the doorway piled 3 small children and their mother; Coscto-esc pack of toilet paper in hand. The woman spoke only a few words of English, but with our short list of Korean words/phrases we deduced that she was inviting us to Bogil-do, a nearby Island, that Saturday. We assumed this was her way of welcoming us to the neighborhood. She introduced us to her children and gifted us with the 30 pack of premium scented toilet rolls. Still a little flustered, but pleased to have visitors, we muttered some “Kamshaminda”s (thank you) and “Anyaghe Kaseyo”s (goodbye) as they filed back into their school-bus yellow van and drove off.

That Thursday we made a trip to Mokpo for beer and paperwork. After speaking with some Korean friends my girlfriend and I decided that we’d probably been invited to a family’s Chuseok festivities. Having been inundated with Korean culture that week, lacking sleep, and unaware of where/when to meet the family we felt a lazy Saturday was in order. That Saturday we planned to stay home… or so we thought.

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