Siobhan! Why haven’t you been blogging?

Well…actually I have.  I have a new blog.

BUT WAIT.  I’m not killing this one off.  I’m hoping the other one will be more travelly and this one can be more…other stuff.  You see, I’m quite attached to this one, but I wasn’t able to lay it out how I wanted…

In the meantime, have fun trying to keep up with both of these. I think I will use the other more.  Thanks, as always, for reading.  Stay classy.

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Wednesday was White Day,

a holiday name which probably wouldn’t fly in the States, but is alive and kicking in Korea.  White day is a day to celebrate love. According to Young Rak, it’s called White Day because the candies you traditionally give are white. Wikipedia (sort of) backs him up on this – apparently White Day was originally marketed around marshmellow giving (I can’t make this stuff up).

Basically White Day is celebrated because Valentine’s Day in Korea is not a day of mutual giving – it’s a celebration in which women give (traditionally) chocolate to men.  Therefore, a month later (March 14) it is time for the women to receive (traditionally) candy in return. Naturally the gift giving has escalated and many couples give more expensive gifts to each other (a la Valentine’s Day in the States).

Here’s the kicker: April 14, a month after White Day, is Black Day wherein all the people who were excluded from V-Day and White Day get to have their day. Yes, Black Day is a celebration for single people in which they get together, wear dark clothing, and eat noodles with black bean sauce.

So, essentially, what takes one day in America – man gives gifts, woman gives gifts, single people have their own S.A.D. parties – takes three months in Korea.  Well why not? Teachers score in any case – I received various candies from my students even though I’d only been working a week.

Gentlemen: the best way to navigate dating in Korea is to break up a couple of weeks after Valentine’s Day, avoid White Day, and join your fellow singletons on Black Day.

Ladies: your best path would be to get together after Valentine’s Day, receive your White Day gifts, and break up in time for Black Day.

And, as a subject appropriate topic, here is the continued list of things my boyfriend and I have argued about.

Things my boyfriend and I have argued about: Part 4

1) Who is the better sleeper.

I happen to be an excellent sleeper. It’s a skill that I wish I could make money for – if you happen to know any paying sleep studies in Korea, let me know. I drop off instantly. I can sleep through loud noises. I can sleep with lights on. I can sleep on airplanes. I can sleep late on weekends even though my body is used to getting up at 6:30. Basically I’m good.  My boyfriend thinks he’s better, in spite of having occasional restless nights and difficulty sleeping through noises. I actually don’t remember what his arguments were in his favor. I think he was just being belligerent.

2) Whether you can “go tanning” indoors through an open window.

3) Taylor Swift.  One of us happens to think she is wonderful, while the other thinks John Mayer is superior in spite of being read the lyrics to “Dear John,” and having the meaning and depth explained.

4) Who has the better immune system.  He gets sick more often, but my colds linger.

Surprise! You’re getting a new co-worker.

Yes. I’m getting a new co-worker.  I feel like Littlefoot losing his mother in The Land Before Time. How will I survive without the patience, good humor, and dedication of Young Rak?  He has been an amazing help in navigating my first week here – driving me to the bank, hospital, phone place, etc., and translating everything for me. Not to mention coming up with amazing lesson plans (but not forgetting to ask for input) and disciplining the classroom in a stern but humorous way.

My new co-worker is fresh on the field – 22 (American age) – and new to the school.  Basically one new student joined the fifth grade and he/she pushed it over the student class size allowance, so another fifth grade class is being created, and Young Rak is being assigned as their class teacher (“homeroom teacher”) and the school is hiring someone new to teach with me. Which will probably be fine if she’s flexible and decent at English.  Still, I’m sad.  The news came like this:

Young Rak: “I should be a homeroom teacher.”

Me (rolling eyes): No. You’re fine here. (He had warned me a couple days ago that the switch might happen, but that they might keep him in English and hire someone new for the homeroom).

Later: Young Rak: The new English teacher is Singhee.

Me: What?! They told you?

Young Rak: Yes. I said to you I should be a homeroom teacher.

Me: (Thinking about how to explain that saying “I should be a homeroom teacher” is different than “I will be a homeroom teacher,” and deciding it’s not worth trying.) OK.

She starts Monday. I asked what she’s been doing – sitting around hoping for a job? (I’m not sure what the supply/demand for general teachers is like here). He didn’t know, but she might have been subbing.

This will be like getting a new roommate, but a little bit worse because you can leave/ignore a bad roommate, but you can’t do much about a workmate. I’m optimistic, but it’s a bummer that we’ll both be new to the school.

**

groceries

A few items from one of my first shopping trips. Spaghetti was about $1.50, everything else was under $10 I believe.

You can tell a lot about a nation by its grocery stores. Or rather, you can tell a lot about the eating habits of a nation by its grocery stores. (Yes, I’m profound like that.) So…Korean grocery stores.  My local, decent sized SM mart (not one of the really big chains here), has Tropicana orange juice, but no butter. Or no butter the few times I’ve been – it might have been out of stock. It has a very limited bread section, and no brown/wheat loaves of bread. But it does have imported sweet Gerkins (you bet I bought som

e), a ton of spam, and an aisle devoted to Ramen type creations.

 

 

 

I have learned quite a few

life/living in Korea lessons in the past week and a half, and I thought I’d share some here.

Incidents I have learned from in the past week

1) The School Shoes Incident.

My first mistake in this incident was not taking seriously my friend Gail’s post about the sandals worn at Korean schools.  I read it, found it amusing, but shrugged off the idea that the teachers at my school would all be wearing sandals inside. Indoor shoes, maybe.  But a specific type of black sandal?

I was wrong. I’m not sure what it’s like at Hogwans (private learning centers – yes, close in spelling to Hogwarts), but at public schools, the indoor sandal seems to be the norm. Since I had ignored Gail’s blog, I brought my own pair of simple black flats on the first day. Young Rak did not hesitate to inform me that everyone else was wearing sandals “Like this,” he lifted his foot, but that – naturally – it was my choice.

my korean work shoes, korean bathroom sandals

The Offenders

A few days later I was shopping at E-mart (supposedly the Korean version of Walmart), and I saw the sandals hanging everywhere.  As they were inexpensive (under $10), I decided that conforming wouldn’t be so terrible. I bought a yellow pair – fun! – with lots of raised bumps that appeared to be foot support.  I was pretty excited about the yellow – it’s my favorite color, but it washes me out so I can’t wear it near my face. Shoes=perfect solution.

Long story short(er), I arrived at school the next day, toting my new yellow sandals. Young Rak laughed when he saw them, and I thought maybe he thought the color was outlandish. Nope.

“Those are shoes old people wear,” he said.

“No! They’re like yours.”

“See those,” he gestured to the bumps,”Those are like…for old people. They are special. Like medicine. Do you know acupuncture?”

“Yes.”

“Like that. They press different parts of the feet.”

“Oh.” I brightened. “Cool! I have healthy shoes.”

He laughed again. “I think they’re bathroom shoes.”

“I don’t care,” I announced. I put them on. Five minutes later, I hobbled back to the closet and switched into my old black flats. They were extremely painful and not at all the pressurepointmedicinalwonders I had been led to believe. I brought them home to use in my bathroom. (More about that later.)

Speaking of shoes, I would bet a tidy sum of money that the first Cultural Crime that all ESL teachers in Korea commit takes place at the threshold of their apartment. After an exhausting, long amount of travel from their home country, they are led to their room, lugging their suitcases. The minute they step away from the entrance into their room, they are met with the shocked gasp of their co-worker/whoever picked them up.

Another name for Korea could be The Land Where Shoes Are Never Ever Worn Inside Unless They Are Specially Designated Indoor Shoes. The shocked co-worker moment happened for me – Young Rak was actually pretty chill about it though. “I don’t think you can do that in Korea,” he said. I’ve recently realized that he tempers a lot of his orders with “I don’t think,” and “Maybe.”  eg. “Maybe it’s not good for you to play that game with the students.”

2) The Arm and Hammer toothpaste incident.

Here’s a bit of advice for life in general. Don’t ever buy toothpaste in bulk if you haven’t tasted it before. (*Also not recommended for corn dogs.) While I was still in my Treat7-11asmypersonalgrocerystore stage, I found a four pack of Arm and Hammer toothpaste. I bought it.  My reasoning went something like this: “Ooh American words. Ooh American brand that I recognize.” Yes, I recognized Arm and Hammer. I recognized it because it is a BAKING SODA brand that makes baking soda.

Basically the toothpaste tastes like baking soda. And that grosses me out. And being grossed out by toothpaste should be at the top of a list of bad things. But there’s nothing I can do because I’m too cheap to go buy more toothpaste when I have four tubes at home.

Speaking of toothpaste, the kids and teachers at my school bring their toothbrushes and paste, and brush in the bathrooms after lunch. Wow. Hygiene win.

Unfortunately, in the same bathrooms, mounds of used toilet paper sit in the trash bins because the Korean plumbing system is apparently too delicate to take in toilet paper. Hygiene fail. (“Hygiene fail” as defined by anything that sounds grody to me.)

**

Well that was only two lessons, but I’ll stop for now. To be continued.

Here are some articles for the meantime.

A teenaged polyglot – a young man who is a compulsive language learner, and America’s habit of “stealing the world’s doctors” – an unsettling piece about how the world’s brightest doctors are settling in America at a high cost to their home countries.

One of the first things I read when researching Korean

cultural norms, was that you never blow your nose at the table. Not too weird, right? Blowing your nose at during a meal in the States would also be considered rude, though I doubt it’s on a list of things you can/can’t do there. I wondered why I read this rule so often, as it seemed to be common sense – excuse yourself for a moment, and then come back.

(photo from howstuffworks.com)

Now I know why I was warned. When you are a) sick with a cold, b) cold (for example the unheated cafeteria), c) eating spicy soups and sauces, and d) sitting cross-legged on a floor squeezed between new acquaintances on a social occasion, it is very hard not to fantasize about pulling out some Kleenex and taking care of things. In the social eating situations I’ve been, it’s been impractical to actually leave the eating area to blow my nose – how can I walk across the entire cafeteria to get outside every few minutes, or weasel my way out from between my seatmates and leave the eating room?  Instead I had to sit there and turn around and dab with a tissue every ten minutes. I’ll be glad when I’m healthy again.

Speaking of health, Koreans appear to have combined two polarized approaches: Determinedly going into work no matter how awful you feel, and at the same time, using hospitals for the smallest of ailments. So, stoic hypochondriacs?

**

Tonight I got to see everyone at my school get drunk. Well, not really.  Only a few of them overdid it. I don’t know why anyone ever thought it would be a good idea to mix co-workers and alcohol (see: Christmas office parties in the States). It’s like dating a co-worker – you really don’t want all the weird details when you’re supposed to relate to someone professionally. Different masks for different places. That’s why you don’t wear PJs to work.

Soju (photo from wikipedia)

I had my first taste of soju, Korea’s version of vodka (Sweden’s version was Absolut:P), and a glass of beer. The soju was decent if you like that type of thing (which I generally don’t), and the beer tasted like beer. (My senses aren’t too refined.)

I found out yesterday that we would be having a school staff work party tonight. Apparently it is paid for by a special fund that teachers contribute to (except me: foreigner bonus:))

The night went something like this:

1) At the last minute Young Rak discovered he needed to pick up his son from preschool and wouldn’t be able to join until later. This was daunting because he’s the only person I’ve properly talked to at the school, and I have no idea about the English abilities of everyone else (except that the principal speaks none.)

2) I receive a ride from “Sofia,” the English name of one of the third grade teachers. She is middle aged, loud, and friendly, with decent English. I try to get everyone’s name in Korean, but the reality is that I remember their English names much better. (Which is the point I suppose.) Sofia tells me about her stay in Riverside, tells me I looked sad when she first saw me (I’ve been sick and jet lagged, but I also tend to make bad first impressions when I’m out of my comfort zone) asks how old my mom is, and informs me that people have told her she isn’t married because she is too “jdkghjkfd.” (English word). She repeats “jdkghjkfd” over and over until she realizes I have no idea, and then she says “Stricteh.” Strict. Koreans like to add an “eh” to the end of their words, and they carry this over into their English.

3) Upon arrival, I remove my shoes at the doorway of one of the back rooms in the restaurant that our school has reserved. I’m thankful to be wearing the black converses that are half a size small for me so that my mammoth foreign feet don’t stand out. (Actually I don’t care that much, but I’m painting a picture for you. See?). The room has four low, long, flat tables covered in side dishes which surround a large circular opening which will be filled with coals on which the barbeque will cook.

4) I am separated from Sofia and led to a seat at theonlytablewithoutanysortofenglishspeaker. I don’t discover this until later when I meet all the teachers in the school who can speak English.

5) The evening progresses. When Young Rak finally arrives, they call him over to sit by me, and I say “No, it’s OK, it’s OK” because I feel bad that the guy next to me has to move all his dishes/drinks. Foolish girl that I am. I just said it to be polite – I definitely wanted Young Rak next to me, as he is a real trooper about translating for me and helping me in general.

6) Suddenly a bunch of people are moving around. Young Rak pops over next to me. “It’s a rule,” he explains. Or role, I’m not sure. “We all move to another table to see new people.” Basically the dinner turns into a mingling event, except the food isn’t finished, so you take your chopsticks with you and eat from the bowls/grill of the other tables. Very cool. (Unless you end up in my old place and are eating after someone who isn’t too adept at chopsticks). Also, apparently it’s awkward to just go next to someone and start talking, so you have to go next to them and offer to pour them a drink. Even if they’re in the middle of a conversation, you just butt in with your drink offer. Much less awkward. (!)

7) I meet several other teachers who have good English and are extremely friendly. We have some good conversations, and I’m really enjoying the whole mingling thing. Also, all of the food is delectable. Just fabulous. I encounter many of the cliches I’ve read about – people being excited that I use chopsticks and eat kimchi, a teacher telling me that the kids like pretty teachers with long hair, etc.

8) At one point, the head fourth grade teacher, who I will be working with once a week, gets someone to pour himself another shot of soju (you don’t pour drinks for yourself in Korea if you value your ability to spawn). He has already made several drink-induced, impromptu, loud speeches to the whole room, and something about his mannerisms/appearance reminds me of Dwight from The Office. (Not in a horrible way, just quite amusing.) Anyways, he chugged a shot down, and I said, “Opa!” which is what the Greeks say for “cheers.” I got quite a few surprised laughs over this, and I wondered if they had also seen “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Nope. As it turns out, “Opa” sounds like the word for “Honey/Sweetie” in Korean. Young Rak explained this to me later. “That’s why he liked it. Just don’t say it to me!” (Young Rak is married, but this was mostly a joke.)

And that’s about it for day 9. On the bus ride home, my card was out of credit (which is weird because it’s been pretty full) and I had no change and the driver was getting agitated. In steps a lovely Korean girl with dyed red hair (the red suits Koreans, I think), and she explains everything that’s happening to me. When she discovers I don’t have change, she pays the fare for me on her card. I am deeply appreciative of these bits of kindness which I have been receiving here.

You’ll be glad to know, after my last post,

that I have discovered several more chicken restaurants in walking distance. I guess that’s a thing here. Also, they have KFC here, which reminds me of traveling with my sister to an exotic country with yummy, cheap local food and her insisting that we eat out at KFC.       

Eight days. Wow – Korea is a confusing time warp. (Yes, I suppose most time warps are confusing.)  In some ways I feel like I’ve been here forever; Sweden feels a lifetime away. But at the same time, it’s hard to believe I’ve been here over a week.

Today was freezing – OK, technically it was a few degrees above freezing – and every time I stepped out of our (thankfully) heated classroom, I bolted to my destination. The hallways aren’t heated, and generally feel colder than it does outdoors, probably because they’re built to keep cool during stifling summers.  I’m not too bothered by the frigid hallways because I had been under the impression that the classrooms wouldn’t have heat either. The joy of low expectations.

On Monday, my first full day, I discovered the women’s bathroom. Well, and why wouldn’t it be filled with squatty potties? Yes, squatty potties – a hole in the ground with a sloping ceramic entrance. As a hiker/former Middle East expat brat, I’ve used my fair share of these, but never on a daily basis. Never in work clothes. Gentlemen, you are blessed to have aim. And standupability. Imagine, for a second, squatting down, pants around knees, squinting at the 2 inch door crack to see if students are peeking in, pulling your trousers and longjohns away from you, and trying to angle your face to get a good view of the stream in case it veers sideways.

You’re welcome.

**

When I first arrived, Young Rak absent mindedly mentioned something about figuring out how to get me a special trash bag. I chalked this up to some sort of language misunderstanding.  Wrong. The Korea trash system requires special bags that are bought from specific locations. I’ll post in detail on that later. Suffice it to say that I’ve still not purchased these bags and now have a week’s worth of trash in my apartment. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t include all my “move in” trash (from all my new stuff, including a giant box full of styrofoam), and my “sick” trash (blowing my nose all week).

And now, a song that’s been stuck in my head all week, because we’ve taught it (with actions!) to at least 10 classes:

I laughed quite a bit the first time I heard it, because its central expression “I’m a can do kid,” is not very commonly used anymore. I have visions of my 4th graders visiting the States for the first time and describing themselves as “can do kids” to strangers.

Today I made the rookie mistake of alienating the

neighborhood fried chicken joint. And it’s not just in the neighborhood, it is literally next door to my apartment. Side Note: On my second day, I announced to my boyfriend that I would be losing weight because everything was so much healthier here.  He laughed and said that wasn’t going to happen as long as I lived across from Dunkin’ Donuts. His comment was strangely prescient, considering he didn’t know that I was next door to a fried chicken joint. And a few doors down from “Lotteria” – Korea’s version of McDonalds.

And, back to the chicken story.  Not much of a story except that I saw fried chicken in the window (they have a pile of it), I craved it (Bathsheba?), and noticed that there were young Koreans in charge of the place. Young people! Finally I would communicate with one of theoneswhosupposedlyspeakEnglishbecausethey’vebeenlearningsinceamuchyoungeragethantheoldergeneration.  Nope. Whoever tells you that is lying.  These young people couldn’t even respond to my “Do you speak English?” question, which is something that you should be able to guess at.  I know I know, it’s their country, I should learn some of their language.  But English is the lingua franca – it’s the new Latin (educated people everywhere speak it, not just Roman citizens), etc. etc. etc. OK, no really, I’m not a cultural imperialist; I’m just bummed that I alienated the neighborhood fried chicken joint.

After establishing that we had, in fact, no common language other than our youthful good looks, I began an elaborate mime of what I wanted – pointing at the pile of chicken and holding up two fingers.

“Two.” I smiled. This is how I say please because I’m scared to pronounce “Joosayak”.

“Two #$%$*&^%$ ?” One of the (young!) guys behind the counter said. No, he was not swearing. It was a complicated Korean word that I hoped meant chicken.

“Ummm.  Two pieces?” I tried.  At this point a younger girlwhocouldalsospeaknoenglish came over and helped add to the confusion.

“Two @#$#!%$%(^*$()@?” she asked.

I pointed at the chicken (about three feet away), jabbing the air twice.  Two pieces of chicken.

They conversed amongst themselves.  I decided we had communicated well.  He pulled out a few pieces of chicken to put in the deep fryer.  And a few more.  And more.  16.  There was only one other customer whose chicken was already cooking.

“Oh!  I just want two pieces!”  I tried to find a cheap price on the menu. “What is that?”  This, apparently, was not a phrase they had learned in the excessiveEnglishclassestheyhadbeentakingsincetheyweresix.  I pointed again at the photo of chicken pieces on the menu.  “Two.”

She nodded. “Two pieces.” She was typical Korean cute with her shiny dark hair (I haven’t seen anyone with thin or frizzy hair here), and black mini skirt.  Ladies, it’s winter. I was freezing in my jeans, undershirt, shirt, sweater, and jacket. Baring your legs is ridiculous. (Yes, I’ve done the same thing – started dressing for Spring way too early thinking that it’ll spur things along.  It doesn’t.)

“Yes! Two pieces!”  I cover up all the chicken pieces in the photo except for two.  This throws her.

“#$$%(*)()# )@#$@#*     ($*%$%#(    ($#*%(#$%*”  I’m not sure why she keeps speaking Korean to me when it’s obvious I don’t know any. Probably the same reason I keep speaking English with her. We like to make our noises.

It finally becomes apparent that I don’t want two boxes of eight pieces (??!!), but simply two pieces. They show me their box sizes – they only go down to four, and I willingly accept the compromise.  They are left with 12 freshly fried pieces. I apologize several times (does it count if they don’t understand?)  Happily, two new customers walk in and a few of the pieces are sold as I am paying. (The dude behind the counter is a bit passive-aggressive and serves them/accepts their money first.)

Yes. So now I’m not sure how welcome I am at my neighborhood fried chicken joint. The problem with being the only white person in my neighborhood is that when I make mistakes, I will be recognized.