Friday, March 19, 2010

Two Words

Today I got to thinking about the five or six Korean phrases I know well. And then I got to thinking that there is only one of those phrases that I have used five to ten times a day since I got here. No, it is not "anneyong haseyo" (hello). It is not "goodbye" or "I'm sorry." It is not "I'm lost."

The one phrase that has lived in my mouth since I arrived is "gamsa haminda"--"Thank you."

And in a world that is sometimes incomprehensible and frustrating because I cannot communicate--when I end up walking out of a store empty-handed because I do not know how to explain to the clerk that I need garbage bags--I find that the ability to express gratitude makes all the other communication barriers mere trivialities.

"Gamsa hamnida" and I bow my head, and they smile, and I realize how easy it is to make people feel valued. No speeches, no lavish gifts. You don't have to make them your best friend and confide your deepest secrets. They just want to be noticed. Acknowledged. Connected with for half a second, when you put life on pause to say, "I see you."

Two words is all it takes.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Yes, Some Who Wander are Lost

Saturday. I'm hungry; my fridge is empty. I decide to go to E-Mart.  I've been there once, I know one of the buses that stops there...noooo problem.


The ride to the E-Mart was ten minutes. The ride home was three hours. (For those who are unaware of the significance of this, I could have ridden to Busan, on the southern tip of the country, in four). As I boarded the #1 bus, which I had arrived on, and settled into my seat, I was rather pleased with myself for not having gotten lost. It was two stops later that I realized that we were heading AWAY from home, and that the determined little Asian man at the wheel was not planning on turning around any time soon.

Not even for a silly little American girl whose eyes have just grown wide at the realization that she is headed into uncharted territory with no cell phone and no ability to communicate her address to the bus driver, assuming she knew her address. Which she didn't.

I saw three options:
1. Hop off at the next stop, find a bus going the other direction, and hope it went by my apartment. If I ended up in the middle of nowhere, I had food and a pocketknife.
2. Give myself a tour of the city and see where bus #1 ended up. Eventually it would reach the end of the route and turn around.
3. Wander back three rows to the boys who had been talking about me for the last fifteen minutes (quietly practicing their English of "Hi, how are you? Where are you from? You are cute.") and see if I could borrow a cell phone.

The boys amused me, and I didn't want to ruin it, so I decided on option number two.

So that's what I did. I gave myself a tour of Incheon. And Gimpo. And Hyundai.

And I ate cookies made in France and sold in Korea as I looked out at Asian shops with American posters in the windows and thought how fascinating the world is.

All the while, I filed away information on the Blue Bus #1 route:
3 middle schools
2 elementary schools
1 high school
1 Incheon Civic Center
8 Outdoors and Sports stores
17 clothing shops
1 tall clown on stilts handing lollipops to teenagers
1 Buddhist temple
2 parks with Asian trees and waterfalls
10 bars for Koreans
2 bars for foreigners
3 very skinny roads where a bus like ours should not have been allowed
1 stunning view of the Han River

Eventually, the bus did come to the end of the route. The bus driver tried to motion me off the bus, but I shook my head and tried to indicate that I wanted to stay on and keep him company on his way back (I was, by then, the only passenger). We played back and forth between American and Korean sign language for awhile, until I gave him the name of my town and he shook his head and muttered and indicated that it would be a long time till we got there. I nodded and smiled and sat back down.

By the time I got back home, I was tired, but my head was spinning with pictures from the city and countryside, and I went to bed happy.

I could end the post here and save myself the embarrassment of continuing, but I'm off work for the weekend and my apartment is warm and I have nothing better to do.

So, the next day was Sunday. And I wanted to go to church. In English. So, I took my trusty map of the subway system, and a piece of paper with my director's phone number in case of an emergency, and wandered out to my bus stop to find Bus #81, which, I was told, would take me to the subway station in Geomam.

It did. And the subway took me to the station at Gimpo, where I transfered subway lines. And that subway took me into Seoul, where I got off and started wandering the streets, trying to follow the vague directions I had been given to the church.

I found it. There are stories worth telling about the next seven hours, but not in this lovely post about being lost. We shall skip to after the single's activities and dinner, when my new friend, Jon, and I boarded the subway to head home. Jon was the only other person in the ward who lived out in my area of town, so he decided to travel back with me and see where I lived so that we could get together sometimes on the weekends if we were bored. We did just fine until we hopped the 81 bus to head back to my apartment. It should have been a 15-min. ride.

As it turned out, the bus never went by my apartment. I don't know why. Except that I am doomed to be lost all the days of my life. After we rode the 81's short circle route a couple times, we hopped off and caught another 81, hoping this one would make the right stop. It didn't. We got back on another 81, which was actually the same as the first one. The bus driver recognized us.

We got off. Walked to another bus stop. Got on. The bus driver was now quite perplexed.
We got off. And decided perhaps we should try a different bus. We got on a #78.

At one point, I made Jon get off the bus with me because I saw a Paris Baguette breadshop and thought my apartment must be nearby. Jon didn't bother to tell me until we had gotten back on another bus that Paris Baguette has shops on just about every corner in Korea.

Through the whole thing, he was grinning and teasing me and having a great time. He thought it was sooo hilarious that I didn't know where I lived and couldn't find it. He said he had been meaning to just hop a bunch of buses one Saturday and orient himself to the city.

And really? It was a lot of fun. Riding buses around with a martial artist who is in love with literature, people, sleeping under the stars, watching sunsets on mountain tops, and trying to take a chunk out of world hunger by teaching economics, really made for a good evening.

The 78 didn't go by my apartment...

But, hey, the 76 did.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Taste of Korea

Korean food is something else. And often, it’s made from something else that I don’t really want to know about.  However, all my nightmares before I came of spearing my own fish and eating it raw and then puking from giardia for the next two days, seem to have been unfounded after all…So far.

Now, I will try almost anything once. And if it doesn’t make me sick, I will usually try it again. Two shots—that’s what you get to convince me.

So, let’s first cover the basics. In Korea, with every meal, you are served a bowl of rice. (The rice is sticky rice, which I love).  With every meal except breakfast, you are also given a bowl of soup.  And then, there are a variety of side-dishes. These are served in communal dishes that you just stick your chopsticks into right along with the dude next to you.  (If you have a problem with germs, this is not the country for you). Most Koreans will take bits of these side dishes and mix them with their rice. The kids are much more gung-ho about this, and will mix everything on their plates together, including the soup. It ends up looking kind of like it’s already been half-digested… Luckily, the adults don’t do this so much.

Also, on the table with most meals is kimchi. (Oh, the dreaded kimchi!) This is not, however, actually revolting. It’s not. It is very spicy, as are most dishes here, and doesn’t taste at all like the rotten vegetables it actually is. I don’t love it, but I’ll eat it.

Another thing that’s big here is seaweed. Seaweed is gross. I tolerate it.

Well, one of the first nights I was here, before I’d really been introduced properly to Korean cuisine, I had a cheeseburger that Patrick was so kind as to order for me. I think he told me “cheeseburger” just so he could see my reaction when I bit into it. He was amused.

This was, if you haven’t guessed, not exactly a cheeseburger. The wrapper said it was a “Hanwoo Steak Burger.” I initially intended to look up “hanwoo” and see what kind of animal that was, but then I decided that maybe shouldn’t.  And I left it at that.

The burger was not too bad, really. The strangest thing about it was the “fixings.” On one side, there were onions. On the other, was broccoli and mushroom pieces glued together in some gray colored-something and smeared onto the bun. 

Ask no questions, and you won’t throw up your lunch.

One more “interesting” experience before I tell you that I actually really love most Korean food:

On the first day of classes, I ate lunch with the kids at school, which is normal.  On this day, for one of the side dishes, they had these little crispy things that looked kind of like Chinese noodles, except a little darker and a lot stickier. They were covered in some kind of sweet sticky sauce, and tasted excellent!  I was about halfway through them, mixing them into my rice a little at a time, when I stopped, horrified. The crispy little noodle things had eyes.

I’m not talking like potato eyes or something. I’m talking EYEBALLS. That’s when I realized what I was eating—fishies. Itty bitty fishies who still had their itty bitty eyeballs and bones and everything.

I was suddenly a bit queasy. I don’t like fish. I detest it when it is still recognizable as such. But I had liked them before I knew what they were. It’s just that, now, every time they crunched, I imagined tiny little skeletons breaking into pieces. And the eyeballs…They were wide open, staring at me as they had stared in their moment of death…I couldn’t get over the eyeballs. At that moment, little Crystal held up her tray to me and said, “More fish please.” I just looked at her. She knew what they were and still wanted them?! Culture fascinates me sometimes. It’s kind of like brainwashing from birth. I’ll have you know, though, that I finished my fishies. I will not be outdone by a five-year-old.

Well, after all that, let me say that I have grown quite fond of Korean food. There are so many delicious dishes. Beef bulgogi is one of my favorites, as are the egg and bacon sides. Gimbop is really good if you can get past the seaweed it’s wrapped in. Sweet and sour is classic and is big here. The Ramen tastes like it has a whole bottle of Tobasco sauce in it, which is kind of fun.  But what Korea really does is pork.

A couple of nights ago, I was down at the school late, trying to finish up lesson plans for the next week, and eventually Patrick and Sunny were ready to close up, so they insisted that I come to dinner with them. So, I went to dinner with the boss, his wife, and his mother-in-law. We went to a Korean barbeque. And let me tell you, it is an entirely different experience going to dinner at a Korean restaurant with Koreans, than it is going with Americans.

I had been to a Korean barbeque with Sarah and Brianne, the other American teachers at my school, but the experiences were completely different. For one, when you go with Koreans, you are seated in a different place. Usually, part of the restaurant has normal tables and chairs like we’re used to in the West, and part has low tables and mats that you sit on on the floor. They will usually sit a group of Americans at a regular table. But if you go with Koreans, you take off your shoes at the door, and are seated at the low tables on the mats.

Another thing that is different—the sides that come with your meat. When I went with Sarah and Brianne, the sides were very good, but very safe. When I went with Sunny and Patrick, our sides included raw tuna, wasabi paste and stew (dang hot!), some other really hot something, cold kimchi water, and a drink made of burned rice.

But the BBQ was amazing. Korean barbeque is famous, and there’s a reason for it. In the center of your table is a hole, and in the hole are charcoal briquettes. Your meat is grilled right on your table. They slap the meat on there, and you cut it and turn it, and all that as you eat your sides.  And during this meal, I made a discovery. I have never really liked pork all that much, but that is because Americans have NO CLUE how to season or cook it. Pork here is to die for. Americans do steak. Koreans do pork.

It ended up being a really fun time. They wanted to order me some beer or soju (popular alcoholic drink made from rice), but when I declined and told them that I didn’t drink alcohol, they all ordered Sprite. That’s something else I noticed. Hospitality here is not only that your guest be provided the things they need, but that the very environment be tailored to their specific comfort.

Also, I kept watching the mother-in-law, Rachel. Through all of this, she was absolutely attuned to me. The minute my glass was empty, she would remind Sunny to refill it. She didn’t speak English, but that didn’t matter. As soon as a few pieces of meat were done on the grill, she moved them over to my plate. She ate a little, but if I had finished mine when more meat was done cooking, it went on my plate.

Finally, I announced that I was full, which was mostly true. I could have eaten more, but didn’t need to. And I realized that only after I was completely finished, would Rachel eat. I thought about this, and later asked Patrick some general cultural questions, and I realized that Rachel is part of an older generation—a generation that has seen harder times in Korea, that is more traditional, and more immersed in the old ways. In this country, “Have you eaten today?” or “What are you going to eat when you get home?” are
common greetings instead of “How are you?”or “Goodbye,” because there was a time when the majority of people here were poor and did not get enough to eat. Korea is now a large industrialized, modern nation, and starvation is not a real problem, but the traditions of the past still make up the fibers of their social and behavioral codes. And there is a kind of grace in it that is enthralling and mysterious, and very beautiful.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Bit About Town

Well, I was going to wait to do another post until later in the week, but the cold rain today ruined all my exciting plans of jumping on a red bus and seeing where it took me. (Buses here are color-coded. Red ones go into Seoul.) Today is Korean Independence Day, so everyone has work and school off. There is a big celebration in Seoul, and as a result, Geomdan is nearly deserted this morning. (Geomdan is the outlying provice of Incheon where I live). On Saturday, Sarah, one of the other teachers, took me around the city a bit. During the day, this part of the city looks a bit tattered, as there is a lot of industrial growth here. Every floor of every building is a different business, so sometimes you have to enter a restaurant and then take an elevator or stairs to get to a department store. There is a delicious little bread shop right around the corner from my apartment called "Paris Baguette." Random, I know. But you can look inside the windows as you stand out in the rain, and the warmth of the fresh bread inside fogs up the windows and makes it the most inviting shop on the street.

Across the street from Paris Baguette, and down just a bit is a bank which doubles as a convenience store. I had a time there Saturday, trying to buy shampoo and conditioner. They have a hundred kinds of shampoo of all sorts of colors, but I saw no conditioner on the shelves. "Conditioner" is a hard thing to explain when playing charades. I have been very grateful these past few days for my long years of education in the theatrical arts. One thing I love about this country, though, is how friendly everyone is, how anxious to help. Case in point: Sarah and I took a bus down to the E-Mart, a muliti-floor, multi-purpose store similar to Walmart. After shopping for groceries on the bottom floor (which was quite an experience--I have never seen so many fish eyes staring at me as I walked down an aisle), we went upstairs to look for a plug converter, since the electrical outlets here not only use a different voltage, but also are a different shape. Now, imagine walking through aisles of electronics, trying to find an adapter that: 1. changed voltage from 220 to 110, 2. adapted flat prongs to round ones, and 3. could take a three-pronged American plug with a ground. Now, imagine that you cannot find such a thing, and must now try to explain to the saleslady exactly what you're looking for. As we tried to demonstrate with invisible plugs what we wanted, the poor saleslady started looking more and more distressed that she could not understand us. Just as this was happening, two shoppers who were passing stopped, and the man started translating for us to the saleslady. It was a big relief, and also kind of funny, because as soon as he told her what we were looking for, this huge grin broke out on her face, and she started herding us across the store. The other shoppers followed, and continued to translate as they all started rifling through plugs, and Sarah and I stood back, trying not to laugh at the exuberance of these helpful Koreans. As they found the right one and we thanked them and started downstairs, I saw our little saleslady chattering to another store worker. In moments, before I knew what was happening, they started charging down the escalator toward us! At first I was a bit alarmed, and wondered if we had gone out the wrong exit or if we were supposed to have taken off our shoes in the store or something...but as they reached us, and motioned for the adapter in my basket, I realized that they were still trying to be helpful. She picked up the adapter and began pantomiming how to put the pieces together (it was a multi-adapter with different pieces for about five different countries) and how to plug it into the wall. I bowed and thanked her and tried to let her know I understood, and then watched how happy she seemed as she headed back up to her floor.

This is something that seems universal here. People want to help. There is an underlying thread of kindness and hospitality that seems to run through all the interactions I've seen. Perhaps it would be different if I was not a foreigner, and of course I am sure it is not always the case, but it is something I think that is much more a part of their culture than it seems to be in America. There, we so often treat foreigners with impatience and frustration because they have not learned enough English to communicate with us. Here, they treat foreigners (for the most part) as guests.

Well, I was going to say a bit about the food here, and my experience with traditional Korean barbeque, but my hour on the computer is about up, and I think it will soon be kicking me off. I've been using internet in a "PC Bang," a big computer room usually filled with dim, creepy lighting, smoke, and a whole bunch of Korean gamers. (World of Warcraft lives strong in Korea.) Hopefully by next week I will have internet in my apartment.