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26 Days In SE Asia

Of the many perks associated with teaching English in South Korea is the access and time to travel about Asia. My contract promises me 26 days/year for vacation during the months of January and February. Here, I’ll synthesize my videos, pictures, and writing from my vacation. Sponsored by Jellanamdo Language Program.

This is a google map that shows where I went and how I got there:

http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=107761706798482579517.000480a3fc9ecb4de15a4&z=4

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Playing Ketchup Pt. 3

I laid on my back, propped up against my messenger bag while soaking up the ondol heat of the Nohwa bound ferry. I closed my cell phone. Kelsi suggested I pick up noodles and lettuce on the way home. A little boy with a “Lloyd Christmas” haircut popped his head over the row of life jacket cabinets in front of me. He stared at me blankly. I smiled and nodded with a peace sign. He stared back at me for a moment then ducked behind cover. I chuckled to myself. “I’m back in Korea,” I thought, “I’m back to domestic life. I’m back to teaching and schedules (well, my middle school’s working on that one), and ferries, and funny looks.” It was the day before day-one of the new school year and I wasn’t a bit as culture shocked as I thought I would be.

In fact the cool air’s refreshing.

I’ve been gone for 26 days. My middle school replaced 3 teachers and the principal while I was away. The Korean teacher is 6 weeks pregnant and my English co-teacher got braces. I no longer teach on one island, but four, and visit six schools in total/week. How’s that for “Dynamic Korea?” I chuckle because the new makeup has caused a stir among the faculty. I can’t define it precisely, but all these new faces, particularly the new principal, will mean the teachers have to re-harmonize (could this mean a new strategy for Wednesday volleyball?).

For me, it’s another day as a foreign peg in a Korean hole. I presented vacation souvenirs to my co-teachers and introduced myself to the new teachers, who’d been eyeballing me curiously since I walked in. My participation in the gift giving ritual was a success. I have to say I was quite nervous handing out the little Laos-elephant-key-chain-offerings for the shear fact that I had left Korea and come back. Arbitrary (for me) gift giving isn’t my style. Hey, when in Korea…

I’m still riding the high of being on the road for nearly an entire month. The people I experienced and the scenes I saw were priceless. Traveling was stimulating in ways I could not have foreseen and I am glad to have spent it mostly in Laos. I almost feel let down returning to my back water post, but after the past month I know I’m doing the right thing in this moment. If your interested in hearing about the journey I made to SE Asia click here. Otherwise keep reading. In my obsession to keep up some semblance of a linear narrative  I want to quickly sum up everything “Korea” to this point. Then I will start with fresh material for the new school year (AKA: the second half of my first 1 year contract in South Korea).

Playing Ketchup Pt. 3

The night after the Soan Middle school drink-up I woke, still drunk, in desperate need of a pisser. I rolled over in the puffy bag of juices my hungover body had become and crawled to the door to exit the main room of my hotel. To my surprise there was no doorknob! Then it hit me like a liter of soju. In my stupor, the night before, I recalled shutting the airlock to my room and locked inside by the faulty doorknob. All that remained of the mechanism was a warped bit of metal that used to turn with the knob. It was jammed and I was trapped inside with a wicked need to urinate. Good thing the guys left me with two bottles of water.

I filled up the one empty bottle, cut the stream, downed the second bottle, and promptly filled it as well. Relieved, I got back to the door situation. Thankfully I woke up early enough to still make my 8:00 AM breakfast appointment with the principal. I just needed to find a way to exit my cell (Anyone thinking “Oldboy,” yeh, I was too). With Macgyver-like skills I broke out by disassembling the latch with a bottle opener and a small glasses screw driver (thanks Sam).

Once free, I took a quick shower and got the hell out of there, leaving behind the deconstructed latch. In the day light things were clearly less mysterious, however, I still got lost and was late. My principle was standing outside his house, next to the school, when I arrived. He brought me in and sat me down to a small table prepared by his wife who made herself scarce by doing housework. “Korean Breakfast,” my principal informed me. I was fighting to hold myself together. My head was pounding and it wasn’t clear whether I would vomit. The vomitous feeling was only exacerbated by the appearance and aroma of our “Korean breakfast”-whole fried fish, kimchi, rice, seaweed soup, and some other salty-spicy Korean side dishes. It wasn’t the usual chicken-fried hangover remedy I’m familiar with back home, and so desperately craved. To my surprise the fare wasn’t so bad and actually made me feel better, albeit the silence, broken by my principal’s one word demands to his wife for “물(mul-water)” and “밥(bap-rice),”  was a little unnerving.

The rest of the day was filled with ceremonies and other things I witnessed, but didn’t register in my clouded state. I probably spent most of it in front of my computer scanning the blogosphere or stalking my friends on Facebook. The fog began to lift towards the end of the day when the faculty invited me to a show at the High School. The show consisted of two acts. The first was a four man brass/horn/drum band dressed in matching black suits adorned with big red fluffs on the breast. They delighted the crowd with such classics as “Let It Be” and “When The Saints Go Marching In” enhanced by marching band choreography, plenty of fog machine, and a laser light emitter. In between songs they would joke with the students and hand out boxes of cookies. The second act was a sultry female vocalist who belted out pop music lyrics to a background track; plenty of re-verb in the mix (kinda like professional 노래 방[Norebong-karaoke]). Her rendition of “If I Ain’t Got You,” by Alicia Keys, was nice. Koreans are most famous for their singing voices.

The rest of the second act was mix of ballads I wasn’t familiar with (Korean, I presumed).  I felt like I should have been sipping a stiff cocktail and puffing a smoke, while contemplating my lot, amidst a seedy bar patronage. Instead I was sweating B.O. while my students and co-teachers clapped to a rhythm. Next to me a high school boy was sitting on his buddy’s lap, suggestively spanking the ass of the boy next to him. For a country that skirts the existence of its homosexual citizenry I’m always surprised at the way members of the same-sex, specifically men, handle each other in Korea. I’ve gotten used to the heightened levels of male-on-male PDA, but still wonder: when students or grown men address me as “handsome man” or “sexy boy” are they are some actually coming on to me?

After the show it was good to get back to Nohwa after a night on Soan. It was Christmas Eve and I’d been looking forward to taking it easy for a few days. Kelsi and I made our own version of Mexican food with Korean ingredients. A major element in Korean cuisine is the hot pepper so it’s not too difficult to whip up a decent salsa-Kelsi’s specialty. We also had some excellent beans (thanks Kels), flavorless Korean mozzarella, homemade tortillas, tomatoes, cabbage, and cucumber. This washed down with some cold beer and laptop vids made for an excellent holiday evening. We did not spend Christmas with McCaulay Culkin. It’s common for Koreans to catch “Home Alone” marathons on TV Christmas Eve. We watched a YouTube broadcast of “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story.” I almost felt like I was back home.

I wish I could say what made our unconventional Christmas memorable was the food or the setting, well, it might have been the food. Christmas morning I woke up with a sour stomach and loose bowels. This quickly degenerated into a mass exodus of fluids from both ends. The result: a state of dehydration I’d never experienced. No question, I needed to go to the hospital for some intravenous intervention. To my chagrin, the local hospital was closed. Too-weak-to-deal, I waited outside the hospital while Kelsi wrangled a cab that would take us to the harbor. There I promptly barfed all over the concrete outside the ticket booth. The 아줌마(ahjumma)-in-charge yelled at me as she dumped buckets of water on my mess. She wanted me to use the toilet. I obliged.

I’d recently read about the dangers of diarrhea and dehydration in third world countries; how inexpensive packets of electrolytes had saved the lives of Diarrhea sufferers in India. For me, it was pocari sweat/bottled water life support that sustained me on the ferry ride to the next island. Adding insult to injury, the ferry was unusually full of day-hikers sharing soju and making noise. I laid out on the floor, unsure if I would wretch or pass out, while the hikers made awkward glances at me. The drive to spew won out. I made it to the outer rails of the boat for a  release, then made my way to the ship’s squatters for a most precarious squirt. The rest of the ride was without incident save a few words exchanged with the day-hikers. They were probably wondering if I’d had too much soju or was carrying the next swine flu epidemic.

Eyesight clouding and legs buckling I staggered from the boat to the bus bound for town. I could tell Kelsi was seriously worried, but not saying anything. I was just worried about pooping myself. At the bus stop she helped me to a cab. A “병원 병원 (hospital, let’s go)” was said and we were off to our destination. Thankfully, the hospital was open and admitted me quickly. The nurse put me on a bed. I vomited into a plastic bag. She stuck me with the ubiquitous I.V. I’ve heard about from other expat Korean hospital anecdotes. Next, was the mysterious cure-all shot in the ass I also hear a lot about (From what I gather 50% of Korean medicine is IVs, shots in the butt, and little packets of unmarked pills). Pain relived and electrolytes flowing I laid in slightly subdued agony for several hours before gaining the strength to check out.

[“secret agent doctor” story omitted by request for secrecy]

We spent the next two nights in a hotel where I slowly recuperated. We were upgraded to the penthouse suite (complete with jacuzzi) after our room started to stink like a sewer; probably a result of my overloading the plumbing. The following week was uneventful save the beginning of my winter camp classes. It was clear from the beginning these would almost be a waste of time. More on that later.

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Playing Ketchup Pt. 2

Excitement was palpable the week following the Kwangju trip. This wasn’t for the lead up to Christmas, but for the upcoming winter vacation-time off for the overworked. Christmas in Korea doesn’t share the same bloated significance with the west. Typically it’s a time spent with friends and significant others. If your Christian I’d imagine you go to church (told by the number of cars parked in our front yard, across from a local church, Christmas Eve), but there was no other mention of Christmas traditions from students or co-workers. In fact most were a little thrown off when I wished them a Merry Christmas. But I digress.

As I said before I was limping through the end of the school year, emotionally and physically (I threw my back out of alignment playing volleyball). No matter, I was looking forward to some time away from school. The Wednesday before Christmas was considered the final day of class. After some testing the students played some games for prizes. One game was a modified version of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” where the winner could inflict pain on the loser-a light slap to the face, a pinch of the nose, slap to the hand, etc. All other games were less physical and the kids seemed to enjoy them all equally. Following the games was a highlight reel of the last year. The next day there would be a formal ceremony to cap it all off. Korea is most famous for its ceremonies.

The real hype was a plan made earlier in the week (surprisingly ahead of time). That night I would spend the night on Soan-do and have dinner with my co-teachers. My first 회식(dinner) with my co-teachers! I know schools have these all the time. Presumably I was left out because I live on an other island and must leave early to catch the last ferry home.

Note: In Korea an important mode of team/friendship building is the group dinner. This topic could fill volumes, but I’ll stick to the basics of what I’ve learned. First, the character of the scene depends on the relationship between roles. One’s polite role is essentially based on age and sex (read Confucianism, think male dominated age-based hierarchy). All sit around a rectangular table. In my experience males and females sit on opposite ends. Older folks, especially the 아주씨 (ahjussi-older men) congregate on one end and drink themselves into oblivion. The older men speak the most and demand the most attention. When glasses are empty, or near empty, the younger men instinctively pour refills (again, a sign of respect for superiors) and vice versa (one should never leave another man’s cup empty). Women are generally stoic unless prompted or chattering amongst themselves. I, the foreigner, am the wild card, an empty vessel for filling with soju, wisdom, and Korean cuisine.

The trouble with my position is that I must rely on feel rather than language to navigate the scene. This reality coupled with Korean’s hearty emotional swatch can make for an exhausting roller coaster ride. This is only exacerbated by the composition of my middle school’s faculty [and alcohol]. We are comprised of older men and young women. This sets up a striking imbalance of power and a somewhat awkward dinner. Again, to be fair, I don’t know what’s being said 99% of the time, but I believe I can glean a great deal from body language.

I sat in the middle next to my principal on the border between young females and the ahjussis. My head on a swivel, I engaged in some limited discussion and smiles with my female co-teachers to my left and a game of “fill up the foreigner” with the ahjussis to my right. One man, new to the crew, was introduced as the “Soju King” (perhaps king of the restaurant we were at). He and the principal kept the soju flowing with shouts of “건배!” (kohnbae!-cheers!) The science teacher, who’d suddenly come out of his shell, had morphed into the most gregarious of all. He darted between the men sparking instances of cheer. I’d become his new favorite, but he still reminded me of his superiority by requesting refills and mocking my “one human family” wrist band with a throaty hiss. Little did he know that the essence of that phrase keeps things in perspective when his native culture seemed to be doing its best to drive me mad. Occasionally my principal would bark something toward the woman’s side of the table. Sometimes it was met with laughter, but more often than not, an uncomfortable smile. I asked my co-teacher if they had these dinners often. She replied, “no,” with a can-you-guess-why smirk.

Towards the end of the dinner the group took turns giving speeches regarding the previous school year. When it was my turn I stood and rattled off the few Korean phrases I knew/thought were remotely appropriate. “Anyeong Haseyo!” (hello). “Yong Sangsangnim imnida” (incorrect, but meaning to say “I am English Teacher”). “Bangapsamnida” (“nice to meet you”) Each completed phrase was met with exhalation from the audience. Then, I dipped into my warmly inebriated soul to produce some kind words for the group. I can’t remember exactly what I said (something about Korea was once on paper, in a book, but has been lifted from the page to my heart, or some shit). My emphasis was on the bleeding heart sincerity of my expression. I tried to picture the over-the-top ballads and dramas most famous in Korea. It was a rare opportunity to stand up and be recognized as a  individual whom was truly thankful for his position and experience in Korea; a little pathos for those I’d only begun to know outside the cold silence of the faculty office. I think they got the jist of it.

After dinner the crew headed to the 노래 방 (norae bong-singing room)-the number one place for Koreans to blow off steam. The norae bong is like karaoke where I’m from except its performed in a small room that’s rented by the group. It’s probably safe to say that every norae bong in Korea is outfitted the same way. A large monitor is hooked up to a norae bong machine that stores all the tracks referenced in a plastic coated guide-binder. In front of the monitor is a big table wrapped with plush bench seating. Admission typically includes some beers and a snack tray (squid jerky with mayonnaise, shrimp chips, some crunchy morsels, maybe fruit). Speakers play a rendition of an instrumental with lyrics on the monitor set to imagery of nature or unrelated video. Tambourines and shakers are usually available and there’s always plenty of re-verb in the mix to drown out even the most inept voice. The set-up is brilliant. Koreans are most famous for good singing voices.

I was urged to sing first and would have except I had trouble finding a song. The “pop song” section of every norae bong is chock full of artists I know, but I always have trouble identifying the tracks as it seems they’ve gathered the most obscure B-sides from every top-40 artist of the last 40 years. Eventually I scored with Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So,” but butchered, or rather norae bong butchered, the tempo and key. I did, however, get in an excellent “Let It Be” and “Champagne Supernova.” My highlight performance of the evening was a freestyle to “Shake Ya Tailfeather” spit with a ferver fueled by the previous month’s anguish. I covered a whole range of topics, but kept it quick enough to mask anything that might be offensive to my hosts. When I popped out of my rhyming trance it was clear nobody in the room quite knew what to make of my impromptu verbal assault. I blurted into the mic, “Stress relief!” The science teacher put his arm around me and said, “Never do that again.”

By the end of the night our party boiled down to a drunken pack of men who deposited me in a nearby hotel. Exhausted, but stimulated, I took a short walkabout the small town as soon as the group was out of sight. Soan was a different place at this moment. I reveled in the mysterious darkness; the shadowy crags and craters of a Korean village. It’s piecewise construction of old hanok, fluorescent signs, and concrete reminded me of my school dynamic. It’s not always pretty or coordinated, but it works in the end and has an unmistakable charm. I believe this says something for Korea in general.

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Playing Ketchup Pt. 1

When I was in middle/elementary school teachers always liked to pun around with “ketchup” and “catch-up.” It’s forever altered my perception of these two bits of language. I don’t know how to feel about that.

Anyways, I haven’t posted in a while; falling from my 1 post/week goal. Here I’ll attempt to play ketchup after the last month, or so, of silence.

The Korean school year effectively ends in December. Winter vacation runs through January and part of February. The students return for some ceremonious attendance mid February before taking another “break” and beginning the new school year in March. This being my first year I’m not quite sure how this all plays out for the students. Either way, I’ll be on vacation for the month of February.

To recap:

The first half of December I finished covering the required material for Middle School and helped students review for finals. My once-a-week free-for-all high school classes were canceled and the elementary school days cut short by swine flu and a week of preparation for the school festival-a 3 1/2 hour-33 act explosion of cute. The entire elementary school student body participated, performing for a chattering crowd of parents and grandparents. It was the greatest thing I didn’t know about since Wednesday volleyball.

At first I spent the extra free time [granted by class cancellation] at home. However, this “holiday,” granted by my high school and elementary school, was problematic for my middle school so I was reigned in to spend my M-F/9-5 warming desk at the middle school. This wasn’t so bad until the middle school festival was canceled (swine flu) thus negating my duty to teach Christmas carols. The cancellation left me two weeks worth of time slots and nothing to do. Uninspired and a little jaded I pulled out the great equalizer of teaching tools-Movies. We made it through “Charlie Brown Christmas” and some of “Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer” before my C0-teacher politely suggested I not show movies in class because it embarrasses the other teachers (I suppose they don’t show movies). I got us through the last with some creative versions of scrabble and a “Winter Holidays” sideshow/worksheet.

For all my [teaching] intents and purposes December was a wash. Much confusion and poor communication within my school devolved into questions of self worth [in Korea] and hating Korea (sample). My girlfriend was having as much trouble coping as I was. Thus our combined efforts to secure sanity on Isolation Island (as we sometimes call it) were holding by a thin thread. Answer: we took a trip to Kwangju.

Kwangju is home to most of my co-teachers and some friends. My girlfriend and I made the last minute decision to visit a Korean friend who lives there. Unfortunately I jotted down his phone number incorrectly (sorry Yong Sang) so it was too late by the time we corrected our mistake. As luck would have it we ran into a pack of 외국인, way-gook-eun (foreigners), one of whom my girlfriend and I met while teaching @ a summer camp (my girlfriend also knew a few others from a previous girls weekend). We followed them to “German Bar” or what might more appropriately be called “Western Bar” since it seems to cater elusively to the 외국인 contingent (at least that night anyway). The wood paneled scene housing 40+ foreigners offered a much needed release (Song’s Beer) and a chance to socialize with other foreign English teachers. However, the last 3 months of relative isolation made it difficult to handle the like-university bar scene. A feeling of reverse culture shock ensued. Fortunately my feelings of anxiety were dampened by the friendly crowd sympathetic to my situation and experience. For the first time in a few months I felt accepted as an equal within a group, albeit a very drunk and rambunctious bunch. This was a great place to be, however, I couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling amidst the pack of flamboyantly foreign bar hoppers. I’ll relate in tangent.

Tangent: Now’s a good of a time as any to highlight the trend of anti-foreigner sentiment that’d been coming to my attention around this time. I know I’m not the only one to recognize that the blogosphere had been paying a great deal of attention to the matter of Korean/English teacher relations. This apparently stemmed from the reported activity of a group known as the Anti-English Spectrum-a coalition of South Korean citizens whose primary focus is the exposure of degenerate foreign English teachers. It’s been reported that this group  has stalked English teachers, drummed up anti-foreigner sentiment, and even declared death threats. They’ve even gone as far as to influence recent changes regarding visa requirements and procedures. All-in-all I believe this group  represents a radical minority in Korea, however, the media coverage they’ve received has elevated their status significantly and perhaps swayed public opinion. Korea has a rough history with outsiders and xenophobia and harsh criticism of out outsiders are understandable. Unfortunately the fact remains that a slim minority of foreigners commit crimes in Korea thus rendering the generalizations made of  외국인 unfortunate to say the least. For a better treatment of this subject I suggest following the hyperlinks starting here. This blog is an excellent resource for foreign English teacher related material.

Anyways, the trip to Kwangju made it clear that more often than not similarities appear to out-way differences regrading the experiences of foreign English teachers in South Korea. This continues to be a comforting theme reminding me that I’m not alone in the Hermit Kingdom.

Part 2

I also wanted to draw attention to some props I got a little while back from another blog. Check it out-here.

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Grievances

These are some samples from some impulsive writing I did in December. It should be obvious why I didn’t Segway them into legit blog entries. If you don’t understand It’s cause I don’t want to sound like a rambling asshole. This is supposed to be a blog for constructive storytelling aimed at a wide audience. Anyways, I think this stuff lets you know where I was at in December. Note: I ran these through a spell checker since it was written without much consideration other than a drive to transcribe thoughts to text. I wanted to keep this a fairly pure stream of consciousness. I do this kind of thing alot. I highly recommend it.

I’m hoping for high membership within the blogopshere. Be one of those guys that reads the web and composes daily on thoughts meandering and powerful. However, it would seem that such a task desires a lifestyle inexorably tied to the screen and and a seat; a pear shaped hypertensive body reconstituting reality from bits of text. I can’t do it all the time so I make a goal of writing once a week. But then nothing happens or I’m busy and forget to document that groovy weekend when everything seemed to come together. After that it’s gone and I’m back to work and my blog is about Korea @ work and how that sucks for my waygook ass out-of-place. Instead I try to imbed meaning in quality storytelling. I try to cop dope metaphors and pull out great cultural significance from the deconstruction of the everyday-the seemingly mundane.

Then one day my blog get props from another blog and I’m rushing home to connect and tidy up my site. I need to make sure that this blog holds the appearance of something masterful, yet composed with ease. To make it seem that I were the pear shaped hypertensive ramen eater plugging away at this for the past few months, but I also have glorious adventures. But most of my writing has been like this. Streams drawn from multiple consciousnesses. Thoughts that spill from the delirious mind, the sober mind, the drunk mind, enraged mind. Stereotypes next to carefully worded remarks regrading a person’s t-shirt design and how it so beautifully displays the tortured Korean soul. I never make jokes about seoul=soul unless I absolutely have too. I save this bullshit on my computer for no reason.

For two weeks straight I watch “the Boondocks” on the way to school in the morning and feel the word “nigger” popping into my thoughts as if it were making its way into my everyday lexicon. I read Fight Club, reconsider reality, and take postmodern hip shots at the ignorance around me and want to punch the ferry guy who yells at me. I read The Singularity is Near and think about how nanobots could loosen the stiffness in my hips and let me pick up smoking again, or at least think I’ve taken up smoking again. But would that even be worth it? Korea is one of the world’s largest consumers of impotence drugs-boner pills for the millions who said fuck it to the warnings about smokes and brother booze.

Today, the ferry pulled in on the south dock. I waited patiently (as I’ve been coarsely told to do); elevator rules. I’m confused. I point at my destination island, say the name, and flash the ticket. The fuck-ass dude who always gives me shit does his usual bit to be as unhelpful as possible and simply yell repeatedly at me in Korean with no attempt to use hand gestures. Eventually I deduce that the North dock is my departure point and head there, but that ferry has come form the wrong direction and, as expected, the North dock guys look at my ticket and say no. They point to the first ferry which is pulling away, but comes to park at the north dock. It docks and dumps off a bus and some passengers. The North and South docks are about 30 meters apart (at the most). I wait; elevator rules. Get on the ferry. The ninja turtle looking mother fucker who always gives me shit for no reason gets in my face and tugs at my shirt tail poking out from underneath my sweater/jacket combo. He says some shit in Korean that I gather is not positive. I say, “shirt,” smile, and give a little jerk to the first thing I can get a hold on-the zipper to a breast pocket. He kinda moves away disgusted. I think about throwing him over board; getting him all wet in front of his friends. Make him cold just like the dozens of times he’s made me stand outside while he enforces his bullshit elevator rules. I also think about smashing his face against the cold grated steel loading ramp until he stops talking shit. Either way, I’d have nobody to back me up and I’m sure he knows this, otherwise there’d be absolutely no logical reason to make threatening advances toward me in this situation. He, however, is probably not threatening me, but just a dick and this is how people who are dicks act in Korea (or at least in this dude’s case). Nothing will happen, I’m sure, but it doesn’t keep me from imagining things if they were to escalate.

I started sleeping while sitting in the bedroom next to the space heater, reading. I always get tired while reading next to the space heater. I speculate the heater coils slowly consume the oxygen in the room; a silent combustion-perhaps a type of fan death. There’s a smell wafting from an unknown origin I can’t quite identify, but it’s like a fart. It’s not my fart (I’d have felt it), but a stink nonetheless foul and obtrusive. Kelsi comes home. The bang and creak of our sheet metal door wakes me up. I’m not sure if I was sleeping. I ask her, but she couldn’t say.

I fucked up Ramen. I’ve got a new thing where I fry some vegetables in the pot before I boil the noodles. My theory is that the pre-fried vegetables will release their flavor into the ramen. I like mandu (pot stickers) in the mix. I microwave those first before adding. All together I get a fairly hearty soup in under 20 minutes. It usually gives me heartburn.

Something I ate last night gave me glue shits. Glue shits are high volume and reasonably difficult to push out, although not quite categorical constipation. The glue shit almost always leave a mark on the thumb of my wiping hand since a sizable amount of feces is exposed after I’m finished; hence the glue effect. The glue shits always plug the toilet. Yes, I flush my toilet paper. Yes, I know your not supposed to in Korea. I compromise by using a small amount of TP. No, the toilet paper has nothing to do with the plugging. My evidence is that no toilet paper actually makes in near the drain with a glue shit. The glue shit fills the entire drain hole like a batch of concrete. The paper rides on top, always last to exit after the multiple flushes needed to discard a glue shit (5 flushes is the current record). We have no plunger. I have not seen a plunger in Korea. They are probably around, but I don’t intend to look. I’ve got these glue shits under control.

Things I have less control over:

-Korea

-Korean people

-My Korean school

-The Korean language

Either way the feeling of losing control is something I’m familiar around here. It usually translates to a desire to lift weights or, if drinking, a desire to violently compose crap tunes on my guitar/freestyle. Typically these desires don’t last long and result in napping. Today I lost control of my eyeballs; they may have started falling out after spending the morning engaged with the laptop screen. Reading helps and so does napping. The heater is just a catalyst, perhaps deadly.

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Lost In…wait, what was that?

In the global village (cliche #1) I’m aware of the all-to-common moment lost in translation (cliche #2). In the Land of the Morning Calm (cliche #3) I’m faced with another cliche. I’m at a loss to name it so I’ll try to explain.

I’d bet any foreign teacher is familiar with this phenomenon in Korea (correct me if I’m wrong about this being a Korea-only thing): It begins with a plan or bit of information. This might be a contract, teaching schedule, or agreement, whatever-a plan that sounds concrete. At the last minute, without warning, the plan dissolves and chaos ensues. Sometimes, it works out in my favor-like yesterday when I woke up to an e-mail that said I didn’t need to visit the high school=”Ross Mordini’s day off.” Other times, not so much.

For instance, my first couple weeks teaching were wrought with issues-smoking water heater, no phone/internet, no money, and wardrobe malfunction (to name a few). I’d spent the previous couple months living out of a backpack and was short on appropriate teacher attire. Long story short, I observed teacher dress in Korea to be more formal than expected (Korean men seem to wear suits by default). To make matters worse I ran my only dress shirt through the washing machine with a pen in the pocket. As a result, I wore the same green dry-fit polo to school everyday for my first two weeks (there is nothing in Korea that comes close to fitting me, except hats). Eventually reinforcements arrived from the states. Thanks Mom.

One day, during my green shirt stint, I arrived at school to find all the teachers dressed up. It was school picture day and nobody had said a word to me! Coincidentally, it was the same day my co-teacher took a tongue lashing from the principal (earlier post) so things were already a little crunchy. I was ushered outside and photographed with the teachers and students.

Fast forward to this Monday when the pictures surface, nicely packaged in a multimedia slide show. These are the images of me they used in the slide show meant to highlight the past year.

It’s this type of situation I laugh about later. There’s not much I could have done. It makes me think of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode when Larry David is flipping out about a TV Guide photo of the Seinfeld crew. Unfortunately, the results of these last minute surprises are not always so benign.

It’s been established from the beginning of our contract that winter vacation runs from January to February. Larger schools in Korea often use this time to host extra classes or camps for enrichment. My contract stipulates that I’m allotted 26 days paid vacation, however, I’d been told that my school would most likely not be holding any extra classes; perks for working in such an isolated area. I recently spoke with my principal who confirmed this fact. I would not need to work during January, but am required to stay in Korea until I take my official vacation in February (this prevents swine flu or something).

Last week I was clicking through the blogoshpere when I ran into Brian Deutsch’s piece on “deskwarming” during January (this is an excellent blog by the way). A little confused I waited for further news that eventually came in the form of an E-mail from the head office and a fax to my school. The short of it was that the national office in Seoul has decided to require all teachers to report to schools whether or not they have class. This is in effect regardless of the fact that Korean teacher may file paperwork to “work” from home if class is not in session. The higher-ups claim that our contracts are different and therefore do not allow for such “work from home” provisions. The time at our desks is intended to be used for academic development and lesson planning. Fine.

Honestly, I’m upset, but have come to tolerate this kind of thing in Korea. I’m already planning to do some cool things with the kids and will spend the rest of the time working on my book list and what not (this post doesn’t have room to air all my grievances toward this anyway). Too bad I couldn’t be taking this time for myself, well, for myself, but I have experienced another sort-of cliche in Korea-when the ball’s dropped Koreans have an uncanny ability to make it better. Typically its indirect, but the balance always seems to come, usually in some last minute twist of fate (fate=the decision of a higher-up). This has to do with the way Koreans resolve conflict however unprofessional and masochistic it appears to me.

Anyways, I’m off to play in a Volleyball game that I first learned about this morning. I hope my dress shirt and slacks hold up cause I know all too well that the competition will be fierce (that’s Korea). However, afterward, I’m certain there will be a tasty meal with plenty of beer and Soju to calm any lasting nerves.

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A Bout of Regularity

A good friend of mine warned me that at some point it would strike me that this place was my home and that patterns of behavior would emerge. I’d say this has come to fruition, but its been gradual. Life on this little island has become dare I say, routine. Let me indulge in the description of a typical Monday commute.

It’s Monday morning. 6:00, 6:10, 6:20, 6:27. I get up.

My throat’s sore from the cold-dry breeze blowing in the window. Most nights the window stays open to exhaust my rugged farts-results of my Korean diet high in spicy peppers, garlic, and ginger. Perhaps, this is why Korean couples traditionally do not live together before marriage.

I heat water and flip on the laptop. Check E-mails, look @ facebook, zone out, wait for Green tea, 녹차, to steep.  Breakfast is PB&J (toasted if I have time) OR rice with soy milk and assorted toppings OR egg toast with honey mustard and extra pepper OR, a new one, bean toast (beans on toast, nothing special).

I typically don’t shower. Our place lacks the water pressure or quick draw hot water to break the chilly morn. Monday means clean clothes. Other days this might not be the case. It depends on my mood and dry time (24-48 on the line for cotton garments). We don’t have a dryer.

I leave at 7:20 to make it to the ferry in time. A taxi (pronounced taexshee) picks me u…

Honk!

It’s 7:17 not 7:20. I strap on my ankle brace and and search for the last of my items-book potentially explaining Korea(check), broken MP3 player(no check), good luck pendant necklace with glow-in-the-dark beetle, (check check).

Honk! OK, now it’s 7:20. I say goodbye to my “wife” and wrestle the steal door open. Outside, next to the random cars that park in our yard, is my man the cab driver.

The taxi driver’s a middle aged Korean gentleman. He’s friendly, balding, and pudgy. I forget his name. Sometimes he teaches me new words. Today it’s 비 (bee), rain, as in: today it might rain so I hope you know how to deal with that. Body language fills in a lot of gaps.

The ride is a gorgeous morning show of agrarian splendor. The sun rising over mountains defrosts the fields and my morning attitude. Typically farmers are already up tending to the crops. Taxi costs 8,000 won.

동천에 (dong-cheon), is the ferry harbor. I’m greeted by a host of familiar characters. The frog voiced bus driver and his associates chain smoking by the ticket booth/snack shop. The 50-something man with the red ball cap who says “hello. nice to meet you” and slaps me on the back with a smile. The ticket lady who’s always over dressed with a thick layer of makeup.  The ticket lady’s mother who scoots about the scene cleaning and BSing with the regulars.

Today’s new site is an 아주마  (ajuma, grandmother) with a pig strapped down inside a basket, squealing. There’s always new sites and sounds to engage the imagination. I’ll not run with that for now.

Anyways, 1,600 won takes me to 소안 (so-an) where I teach the youth. My ride is a ferry en route from the mainland connected island-Wando. The ferry docks and releases a stream of vehicles and passengers. I hand my ticket off to the ferryman who either yells at me or smiles depending on the day and amount of unloading traffic.

The passenger room on the second deck of the ferry smells like a nursing home. The 온돌 (ondol) floor is littered with snozzing bodies covered by jackets and face masks. The scene’s like something from a cult mass suicide save a few travelers propped up chatting or staring at the TV in the corner (they’re usually zoned out enough to pass for traumatized survivors). Outside the cabin is the deck that looks out over the passing archipelago. The passing scene of islands, fisherman, and a matrix of buoys is incredible; an everyday beauty that’s astonishingly uplifting.

A tune from the static speaker signals imminent arrival. I take the stairs down to the main deck and navigate the maze of autos to reach the bow. The front gate lowers as the ferry drifts into position on the concrete launch. Bodies pile out and storm the awaiting taxis.

My co teachers and I coagulate and snag a taxi. The driver is one of four fellows. A 30-something dude with a military haircut and an obsessively clean ride (he shot me a dirty glance once for setting my beg on the seat next to me); a chipper gentleman with big pockmarked cheeks the likes of a Koren howdy-doody; a surly older man who always mumbles things to himself and yells at traffic “in the way”; the elusive, jolly heavyset chain smoker whom I believe runs the cab op. He often picks up ajumas on the way and refuses payment. My ride costs 3,000 won.

My co-teachers have figured out that my rides are reimbursed so I’m typically expected to pay these days. In the beginning I rarely payed for anything, but such is the splendid hospitality granted to newcomers in Korea. All good things must come to an end. The commute’s usually 18,000 won (~$18) there and back. Considering I could almost swim to Soan it’s a little exorbitant, but I’m thankful to have my place with my girlfriend (the school pays for it anyway). I won’t pretend to understand the logic behind budgeting of funds around here neither do I think too much about the carbon footprint, etc.

I arrive at school. Say goodbye to the driver and walk into school. I change into “teacher shoes” that used to be my TEVAS (lost), but are now some pixel sized korean slips. I shuffle into the office, flip on my desk PC, and put throw together a lesson for my first class.

So begins Monday.

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