Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Children of the Candy Corn

As I sat in one of the rooms prepping a lesson they brought the youngest students down to our classrooms for trick-or-treating. It sounded like a blend of Children of the Corn and Dawn of the Dead. The kids wandered back and forth in groups moaning "trick or treat" over and over and over in a low, joyless tone. It was a little bit scary. The finer points of trick-or-treating were either lost or neglected with the youngest ones. They all had costumes and some of them recognized my Naruto head band.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

I Hope You Can Wire Bail Money

Oh sugarpuff. I've been here less than two weeks and have already broken the law. I stole my neighbor's mail. None of the mailboxes are locked (odd in an enormous city like this, yes?) and I wasn't paying attention to the numbers and hauled off with his or her bills. I managed to sneak them back without getting caught by the guy with the giant tongs who keeps watch over the building. Yes, giant tongs. He also is in charge of managing the "recycling" and, presumably, the abandoned furniture farm next to his office.

Speaking of obscenities: I had a brief flash of agitation and stress while prepping for a class today. I wanted to print a quiz and was having problems because the printer in the computer lab is older than some of the students (and I don't know Korean). The end result of this was that I just kept thinking "comma jackass" at the guy who was "helping" me. Literally watching him while all kinds of irked thoughts ran across my mind followed by my own private narrator saying, "comma jackass". Totally justified, I might add, as he ended up having to do exactly what I asked him to do before he began futzing around.

When it comes to computers it's like bloody Ground Hog's Day: each time I tell someone to do something in a technical realm they do something else until I yell at them or they realize it's getting them nowhere and they go back and do what I instructed in the first place (unless they've managed to hopelessly pooch things). Fortunately, my frustration melts away very quickly at this job.

Someone's Never Played SimCity

I don't think there is such a thing as a zoning law in Seoul. It seems that if you own the land and have funds at least to begin building something, no matter what it is, you can. There is a mega-church under construction that has been, according to a colleague, under construction for close to two years. They ran out of money and the site sat dormant and half-done for about a year and just recently came back to life. This is wholly contrary to the typical layout in the U.S. where mega-churches are out in the suburbs. Here there is within the same square half-mile: proto-mega-church, apartment colonies, stores, outdoor vendors, a truck driving school, small farms, hagwons, schools, and a mountain.

I passed a sheer cliff down from a sidewalk that was actually a staircase into a subterranean shoe store. I would have taken a photo but was uncertain of whether that was polite. This, and other stores and vendors, just sprout up out of the sidewalk. The distribution of stores, restaurants, and street vendors is very unexpected. In most of the places I have lived there are specific districts and streets that, because of habit or zoning, are the center of commerce. It seems that here you simply have to have a wander two blocks in any direction from any point of origin and you'll hit someone selling something. One time out of two it'll be something fried.

Probably strangest of all, to me, are the gardens. There are small orchards and gardens distributed on any small patch of land not already paved. I assume that this is partly what fuels the vegetable sellers that set up shop everywhere. The last bit of evidence that there isn't a great deal of delineation of function within the geography of the city is that the trash can end up a variety of places. There is a designated recycling day but instead of having specified bins all manner of objets, including used hula-hoops and broken computers and so forth, are hauled into the parking lot and onto the curb here. Old furniture is ditched, whenever the whim strikes, in the yards of our apartments. It is either liberated by people who want it (there's a constant effort by my coworkers to keep an eye out for useful furniture) or taken away by a mysterious force.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Is This My Sock?

The straw that broke the expat's back...

Ghost Stories, Errata

Some general notes:

*I won't record anything from work because 1) I don't really want you to know or see where I work largely because 2) I don't know how to get the appropriate permissions and 3) Although I'm trying to keep this blog and associated clips family-friendly I don't want to be in trouble for dropping the odd f-bomb and linking this to the specifics of my job might increase the cross-referencing possibilities. Those of you familiar with my tales of No Biscuit from my previous job should know that someone here reminds me of her and I might have to just vent four minutes of obscenities in order to keep cool about that.

*My laundry survived. Amusingly, one of the Korean girls at work, who grew up in the Congo going to an international school (thus bilingual), saw my notes and called me out on translating the washer. As yet noone knows why "sliced raw fish" is an option on my washer. More specifically: noone understands wtf I'm talking about when I mention the sliced raw fish status light.

*I'm going to try to say "yeah", "uhm", and "awesome" less often. One of my smart (too smart for his own good) kids actually tallied my language in use for class. I already told him I'm sending his mom a note telling her not to let him have sugar ever.

*Also, is it just me or am I sounding more like a Canadian? Most of the weagooks are Canadian and it is taking all of my willpower not to say "eh". One of the guys is from Thunder Bay and, I swear, it's as though he has to fit a quota of "eh"s into the conversation. I like him.

This clip is a touch long. I ended up relaying some ghost stories we discussed in class and thought I'd share. Also, now taking offers to increase my status!

Sunday, 28 October 2007

"Oh, I just turn it on and push the play button..."

I spent several hours today translating the various words on the input panel of my washing machine. I would refer to the words as representing "options" except that poking them did not seem to have any recognizable effect on outcome so for me most of the buttons are not options but taunts. Having now fed the hangeul into Babel fish and observed the results I can understand why it is just as well that I don't make use of the other buttons.

Before embarking on the translation project I spent a great deal of time trying to determine if the internet already held the answers I sought and found nothing. Now, given that there are thousands of expat English teachers here, I have to assume that somewhere on the web is a tool of use but I could not find it. I decided that I would forge new territory and be a hero to the weagooks[clip below] by creating a useful tutorial on operating the washer. Yes! I will contribute to the greater good while learning the language! I am awesome!


Autodidaction is hard. I spent another few hours poking the image above in GIMP. "Weagook" explained:

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Time = Distance/Rate

The traffic in Seoul is horrendous and infinite. Only utter madness could explain one's desire to travel by car or bus rather than train. So, although we were told that it only takes 40 minutes to get to our destination we ended up in the school bus almost three hours. The estimation, I assume, was based on the idea that Time = Distance/Rate (with natural addition of a few minutes for lights etc.). However, in Korea the formula must incorporate complex logarithms and variables, such as how many vendors have set up tents in the road, to achieve any form of accuracy. We took the train to get back and it did indeed only take 40 minutes.

We saw lovely mountains, water, and fall foliage. We enjoyed Korean food. We played kickball. In spite of all that my highlight of the day was finding a fantastic example of "Engrish" in whatever little town we ended up in. It's not upside down because the location to which the arrow refers is indeed on the right.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Compulsory Fun and Nuances of Language

Good morning! It's eight in the morning on my very first Saturday in Seoul. I bet you're thinking, "that's great! You can finally go investigate the city you'll be living in for the next year. See the sights, maybe even contribute to the greater bad by getting something to drink at a Starbucks[1]." Wrong! Today is compulsory fun day for the staff. At ten I have to be at work to catch a bus to an undisclosed location for a picnic with the whole staff.

I'm not actually that bitter about it but I am slightly annoyed that I had to set an alarm on my first weekend and that, instead of checking out one of a million amazing things in the city of my own choosing, I'm essentially going to work. I'm sure it will be fun but the idea of compulsory fun is a bit odd. It sounds like something one of my kids would write. Sometimes they amaze me with the words they know. One challenge of teaching them is trying to explain the nuances of English and why, in most cases, you wouldn't actually describe anything compulsory as "fun", even if technically you could put those words together.

Lest you think all I'm going to do is snark about the food here I should point out that last night I had the most delectable kimchi dumplings for dinner. They make dinner for us at work(!) and it's almost always traditional Korean fare (thusly, meat-tastic) or an Asian interpretation of Western food[2] (thusly, meat-tastic). Anyways, I like kimchi and these dumplings were easily the best native food I have consumed here, I snuck back for more at the end of the night. But, I still had time to buy some more thrilling treats to share with you so keep an eye out for the day that I'm brave enough to drink what looks like pine soda.

[1]When I lived in Japan one of my coping strategies was to drag my kiwi friend to the Starbucks in Nihombashi. I just desperately needed something familiar and American so we would go have non-azuki-flavored treats and study.
[2] I say "Asian" because what is described as "spaghetti" or "curry" here is almost identical to the versions I ate in Japan. The curry seems to have all the elements of an Indian curry and yet tastes totally different from almost any that I have had. It's like curry from a parallel dimension. Barring the meat it's good. In the interest of being the river and not the rock about eating here I have just tried to work around the meat in some of the dishes. A helpful trick is to just use chopsticks and leave the impression that I'm too stupid to get a spoon to finish the sauce/pick up the meat (I don't want to insult anyone by obviously avoiding their cooking).

Thursday, 25 October 2007

My First Day

Today was my first day of work. I made another video in order to showcase some purchases from the local 7-11 and share a bit about the teaching experience. Convenience stores in Korea and Japan are awesome. I have incredibly fond memories of all the goods you could acquire at the "conbini" when I was in Tokyo and, while not as extensive, the ones around here are great too.

First, you can buy liquor at conbini. Having grown up in Pennsylvania I am still awed by the far easier access one has to beer & wine almost everywhere else. In the American deep south you can buy beer at the gas stations and there are often bottle openers at the counter so you don't have to wait to get back to your car to start drinking.

Second, they have all manner of snacky foods and exciting treats. Granted this is mostly taking joy in the exotic. That is why I came to Korea: to have the otherwise mundane turned on its head.

I know that this stuff either is or soon will be totally uninteresting, dear reader-viewer. As it is I'm still pondering whether I'm really contributing to the greater good by making (bad) videos. Over time I hope to acquire a real camera and some actual editing skills but right now, so far from everything, this is how I'm fighting the isolation. Pay attention for a bit longer, though, because I have a challenge for friends and family coming up as soon as I complete a few things.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

You Can Come To My 'Hood, I Will Show You My Crib

My fancy-pants new laptop allows me to make awkwardly filmed movies! Now you can see, in all its glory, my apartment:

Today was stressful. I had to begin planning the umpteen classes I'll be teaching tomorrow. It's a little scary and a little frustrating. I've only seen a few of the many classes I'll be teaching and since I've only been in country three days it's a little overwhelming. I did see one of the classes I am taking over and that was dominated by the misbehavior of two boys and climaxed with totally inappropriate vocabulary (theirs, not mine).

As for observations specific to my Korean experience thus far: questions that are considered rude in America about personal things are the norm here. On the ride from the airport Sunday night the guy driving me asked 1) "Are you married?" and 2) "How old are you?". I was expecting him to go for a hattrick and ask if I believe in God or how much I weigh but he veered into politics. Do I like President Bush? No. That's a fairly safe answer most places outside the United States. I do wonder how I would be received if I espoused how lucky the rest of the planet is that Bush is dishing whoopass and Democracy to all and sundry.

Today, I was introduced to various classes and got to field questions. What did I get to field? Teacher, are you married? Teacher, how old are you? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have a girlfriend?

Whoah! Yea, that last one surprised me. The second time I had to own up to being single I asked the student if she was going to help me out in that department. The boy who asked me if I had a boy- or girlfriend asked me if I was lonely. Oh. My. God. I'm just waiting to come in one day and have innocent seven-year-old faces inquire what I'm doing with my life or if I'm worried that my ovaries (and today's inappropriate vocabulary lesson makes their knowledge of this word entirely possible) are going to turn to dust before I ever trick a man into marrying me. Good thing the kids are learning plural nouns - we can talk about the many cats I'll be living with.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Pray, Good Sir, Would You Happen to Have Any Lucky Charms?

As I type there is water on the boil for what I intend to be a spaghetti dinner. It's just past nine at night and I have spent the last six hours observing various teachers of various classes and being exposed to numerous snuffling youths. Children are vectors of disease and I fear a future of perpetual runny noses and clouded thoughts. Yesterday at lunch I was informed nigh-cheerfully that I will be sick much of the time. Oh boy.

I haven't consumed Lucky Charms cereal since early in my college days but suddenly I almost want them. I hate to admit it but my palate is not cut out for most Asian food as it is found here. I can't read the labels to determine animal content and dread a number of flavors particular to the region, chief among them "fishy". What my time in Japan taught me is that one should never assume that a food, regardless of its resemblance to familiar Western fare, will taste as you expect it. Thus, although the jar of sauce I bought depicts tomatoes and mushrooms and contains a thick, red liquid, I cannot safely assume that what I am about to consume will taste anything like spaghetti.

Observing the classes was interesting. I was assured it would be a struggle to maintain consciousness through six boring hours but the real challenge was fatigue from jetlag. In fact, generously, I was not signed up to observe a solid six hours but found no point in mooching around in the teachers' lounge during the breaks provided and chose to follow whoever was headed purposefully to a class to continue my education. Tomorrow is a full day of observation but I think I will manage much better given that I will likely sleep normally tonight.

Several of the instructors are married with both spouses working at our hagwon. They seem to have gotten married directly after college. I am attempting to get a fix on what kind of person chooses to take this type of job. I am tempted to say some form of desperation plays a role (either for money or to get out of whatever dodge you happen to be in[1]). One instructor indicated that he had no interest in working an entry level job given the bad pay and my response, partially vocalized, was that you don't get to expect a whole lot when all you have in the world is a BA in English.

I have now been gripped with the sudden fear that even the innocuously packaged spaghetti noodles I purchased might be secretly infused with fish sauce....

....I am saved! It tastes almost like spaghetti.

[1] Myself included. "Dodge" could be simply dissatisfaction with whatever you were doing before you came here.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Honkies A Go-Go

Is the plural of "honky" spelled "honkies"? I'm tempted to implement "honki" and "honkus". I lost the battle to stay up last night and have been vaguely to completely awake since four-something in the morning. I've spent the last half hour poking to get my MacBook to play NPR stories with WMV. I have to admit it's easier on a PC but worth the battle to avoid the virus and security problems that plague that other OS.

It occurred to me that I should report to you that the saturation of Westerners is significant in Seoul and particularly in my neighborhood because there are a lot of hagwons (English language schools). In my apartment there are Western style plugs! Right there in the wall! This is most excellent since I did not get around to acquiring a converter[1] but a little disturbing. I am torn between being pleased with the ease of life here and being horrified that Western influence is so significant. One can't help but ponder if this aspect of globalization is a bad thing. What wonders and mysteries of Korean culture are being forgotten, mutilated or buried by the force of unchecked capitalist aggression?

I do not mean to imply that the losses from globalization and/or Westernization are intentional. I think that modernization, technical advances, and development tends to take place in a vacuum for its proponents. It seems that little time is spent evaluating the consequences of changes (culturally, psychologically,environmentally) and that technical advances and industrialization brought on so many positive changes that we forget the negatives[2], especially since the costs are often diffuse and the consequences, like global warming, delayed.

I do not yet know enough of Korea's history and culture to do justice to a treatment of how the culture has been altered or influenced by it's rapid growth in the past few decades but I hope to learn. I am spending a lot of time comparing and contrasting Korea and Japan. One of the other instructors apparently feels that Japan is much cleaner (the implication was one of superiority on this point). I suppose it is true to the extent that I don't recall ever smelling garbage in Tokyo but have on my outings here. Perhaps it has been too long but I see a great deal of similarity between Tokyo and Seoul - maybe it's just the big city of Asia feel.

[1]I could have. Sort of. In the Pittsburgh International Airport I wandered into the Brookstone knowing that there was something I had forgotten but after floating lost for a few minutes I could not remember what I needed and left.
[2]After all, the price isn't being paid by the proponents. Yet.

Day One

I have now been in Seoul for just shy of 24 hours. It is Monday night and the next two days will be training before I begin work on Thursday. I am battling jet lag to a small degree, attempting to force myself to stay awake until at least 10pm. Because I had been so busy in the lead-up to getting here the weight of the decision to take this job really did not sink in 'til about half way through my 13 hour plane ride from LAX. [1] So, somewhere near Fairbanks, Alaska part of me began screaming, "Oh my God, what have you done? You are leaving for a year to live on the other side of planet!" As it is I'm trying not to think of all the fun things I'm going to miss, some of which I'm enumerating here because I am a masochist:
*Friends' birthdays
*Various exciting adventures with my former neighbors and good friends
*Heroes on Monday night at the Mouse House
*The next season of BSG (also at Mouse House)
*Dinner circles
*My cat
Things I won't miss:
*Being a temp
*Feeling like I haven't traveled
*Applying for jobs

I have my own apartment and it is less than five minutes on foot from where I will work. There is a mountain across the street from the cluster of apartment buildings where I live. I hiked part of the main trail today and took a few pictures. I relayed this elsewhere but for the record: the most notable event of the last 24 hours was finding this: in one of the cabinets of my new apartment. After calling my soon-to-be coworker to return to the apartment it was established to be merely a bb gun. Still, dude, what? It looks like a real gun to me.

When I am not fighting the urge to go to bed unreasonably early I shall impart more data and photos.

[1]I had never been to or flown through LAX before and was amazed to see that LA really is monstrously polluted. Departing I looked down at a disgusting brown haze floating in a layer over the city. Also, LAX is huge. I am half convinced that we landed in a neighboring zip code and drove, in the plane, several miles.