Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I Swore Off McDonald's

I am starting to realize how important food is in a culture. Most of the other aspects of the Korean society do not seem to differ greatly from American culture. Maybe it is because I do not get to interact on a personal level with many Koreans, because we do not speak to each other, but everyone seems to go about their business here just as in every other place I’ve been. Some people seem nice, some people seem awful. But the food is different different different.

Every meal comes with these tiny cups of water (I am convinced that my upbringing has conditioned me to require a lot of beverage…my family had big cups at every meal) and at least two and sometimes as many as seven or eight side dishes. I don’t usually know what they are. There is always kimchi, which has been described to me as “rotten vegetables in sauce.” I don’t hate it. There are usually radishes. There has been cold macaroni salad. There is this chocolate jello stuff that any self-respecting person would be wary of. There are cut up potatoes. There are more. I like to try stuff I haven’t seen before, but, ultimately, not very many of the side dishes are usually consumed.

The main entrees have lots of rice and vegetables, usually. Obviously there is a ton of variety and you can a host of different things. To date, my favorite has been the aforementioned Korean barbecue. Like all meals here, it comes with a horde of sides; however, these sides are a lot easier to integrate into your meal. The barbecue comes with onions, this somewhat spicy red sauce, garlic, lettuce, this leafy, saucy salad concoction, and various other sauces. You throw your chunks of meat down to grill for a while, and then you just grab and eat, or grab and fix to your liking with any and all of those sides. I like to consume it with some onions, but another option includes putting the meat, leafy salad concoction, somewhat spicy red sauce, and onions into the big lettuce piece and cramming the whole thing in your mouth. Oh my.

Other entrees that I’ve experienced but which can’t keep pace with the barbecue include: fried pork cutlet with or without cheese, stereotypical but scrumptious shrimp fried rice (mine had ham in it; I would give my left leg for ham, send me some, I’ll pay you back), mondu (beef and/or vegetables encased in dough), soup (hunks of beef, transparent noodles; or tofu; or there is a spicy one that I haven’t tried), and this rice/lettuce/egg/spicy sauce conglomeration that I had to wolf down because everyone I was with was finished already. Duh! This list is short and I haven’t explored the vast realm of what else is out there. A lot of it comes from my inability to order, or the restaurant’s lack of menus, especially ones with pictures.

Then there is the street food, which, again, I haven’t explored too deeply, but the stuff always looks good and smells even better. That is an understatement. Street food. Smells. Awesome. There are these waffles that they throw whipped cream (or some sweet substitute) and syrup on, and I can’t even say it tastes awesome, but it smells so good. It smells like Anne Hatheway looks in ‘Get Smart.’ I’m sure she probably smells that good, too. Geez. There are these doughy balls with sweet beans inside. Those are good…Ten Mile Britt will tell you that this is the best morsel in Korea, though. Both North and South. She’s sold. And there’s millions of street vendors selling those items and hundreds of other pastry-based foods, meaty foods, soupy foods, and doughy foods. There are crudely-fashioned corn dogs (better than what T-Duck makes in the microwave, even! Believe it…), barbecued chicken on a stick that would rival anything at the MN State Fair, baloney/hot dog-esque items, rotisserie chicken stuff with rice, any and every sea-based creature imaginable, pig brains, bread bread and more bread, and soupy vegetables of all shapes and sizes. If you go to a market street, you could see any and all of these delicacies, but elsewhere the vending carts are not as abundant. A wiser man than myself once pointed out that places that have a lot of foot traffic usually have more little carts selling food. Also, in the more metropolitan/rich/uppity areas (if those can be distinguished in Seoul) you are less likely to find street food and more likely to find a Starbucks or a Paris Baguette.

Finally, the most expensive dining experience that I have had the luck of enjoying came from a high-end chain called Todai. I’ve got their calendar on my desk behind my computer. It was basically a super ritzy, all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. And it was forty dollars a plate. And it was paid for by Poly School. Merry Christmas, Poly teachers. I had crab legs and salmon and snail and seafood salad and shrimp fried rice and Sprite and chocolate-covered bananas and shrimp by itself and tofu and oysters and octopus and a lot of stuff that I either can’t remember or can’t identify. They had this secret dessert section, and there were hordes of goods there, obviously, but they had an ice cream machine e.x.a.c.t.l.y. like the one in the Dining Center at Bethel. I waited around for an English speaker to come by and told her, “If push comes to shove, I can take this ice cream machine apart, clean it, and put it back together as a functioning unit.” And it was true.

So there is a lot of variety. And sometimes I just settle for peanut butter and jelly, the old fashioned way, because sometimes (right now, and yesterday) it is too cold to go hunt something down. Throw in certain American places like McDonald’s (an establishment that I will not be seen in until post-Dec. 8, 2009), Starbucks, Quizno’s, Subway, KFC, Burger King, Outback, and TGIF to round out the lineup, too. Don’t think there aren’t places where we get our MSG fix. But for the most part, it is healthy Korean cuisine. I’ve been told that most folks lose weight when they get here, because the food is so healthy. That and the fact that there is a fair amount of walking involved in this fair city means, well, I think you can figure that one out yourself. Happy New Year to all of you out there!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Christmas"/Tourism with a Capital T

Monday (12/22). It snowed. It snowed “a lot,” for Seoul, which, when translated through a thick Minnesota accent, comes out as “a dusting.” Big puffy flakes. It was sweet. It made the dirty air seem not so dirty. Did I forget to mention that the air here is completely gross here? It’s true. When I blow my nose, which is frequently, out comes this gray sludge. Weeks tick off of my life. There are some three million vehicles in this city, and it seems like every Seoulite and his/her mom lights up. My door is by this window on the fifth floor hallway where everyone goes to smoke cigarettes, so I open my door and get a ton of backdraft. Anyway. Not nearly as much snow came down here as in Minnesota, I’m sure, where it sounds like a hundred inches of the aforementioned white heaven accumulates each week, but. I was crabby and tired on my trek to Itaewon, but as I waited next to a grove of bushes clad in purple Christmas lights and watched the snow fall on down onto the traffic, I felt better, somehow. It reminded me of home.

Tuesday (12/23). I have w4,000, which, when translated through a thrifty Dutch accent, comes out as four dollars. That is it. Tonight I went on a [pointless] hour and a half walk through my neighborhood to find an ATM that would spit me out some cash. The best luck I had was with a machine that wasn’t even in English. I know CitiBank ATMs work for me. Locating one is my main prerogative during the first day of break…Christmas Day. I set out with a dual agenda: find money, buy small presents for the pre-schoolers, and some chocolate or something for the two Korean teachers who help with each of the classes. One has gotten me coffee a couple times and got me a mug for the holiday. I didn’t meet either of the goals, so I felt like The Grinch.

Wednesday (12/24). This morning was the morning of the Mok-Dong Poly School Christmas pageant. The venue: some gym that happened to have this little theater in it. There was not nearly enough room in the back to house the twelve or so pre-school and kindergarten classes. There were kids EVERYWHERE. And they were all wearing Christmas costumes. My class was garbed in white, so it sucked when Jarry got a bloody nose. Fortunately, it was after our performance of “Winter Wonderland,” a performance I had very little to do with. The previous teacher had taught them the dance; I simply had to make sure they were at the relative right spots on stage. The pageant was about two hours long, and for the most part each class got five minutes on stage. I guess the kindergarteners got to watch “The Lion King.” I know the pre-schoolers just sat around, being fairly loud but surprisingly not that rowdy. The rest of the day was spent administering tests to first, second, and fifth graders. One of my fifth graders brought pizza as a post-test snack, which he shared. Stud. After work, I met up with a one Jonathan Enger. Some of you may remember him from such shows as “Jazz Ensemble I” with Jason Harms, and “Bethel Packers Fans Anonymous.” Who’d have thunk I’d run into a Bethel graduate in this city of ten million? I guess that makes the odds better. To celebrate Christmas, we went to this Korean barbeque place; the waitress brought us a few platters of meat, we threw the meat down onto this grill that was at our table, and it was delicious. He paid, because I still only have w4,000. Count it. But such was Christmas Eve ’08.

Thursday (12/25). What a relaxing Christmas Day. I got up late. I showered at 2 PM. I read. I wrote e-mails. I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. At 6, the Blazers fan from down the hall, Scott, took me to this different Korean barbeque, and we celebrated Christmas there. He paid, because I still only have w4,000. Count it? We watched a movie and called it a night. It was another simple celebration. I can't say I did not wish I was with my family in Iowa, though.

Let's fast forward to Sunday (12/28), the next day worth noting. First, my lack of funds was alleviated the day before: God bless Frontier Bank and the Shazam card! Anyway, on Friday, our crew of four included Scott (Trail Blazers/Lebowski fan), Sarah (very helpful teacher from Detroit), Dave (Sarah’s visiting boyfriend), and myself. We left armed with a trusty subway map and our cameras. The agenda was twofold: explore the Korea War Memorial and Museum and scale the N Seoul Tower. The most difficult part of the journey was the trek from the subway to the war memorial, which took probably forty-five minutes and multiple changes in direction. But we found it, and took in what it offered. Outside the museum were many leftovers from the Korean War. One thing we didn’t really realize was that the museum encompassed every military event in Korea’s history, not just the Korean War, which was fine; there was a lot more to see that way.

Here we have the exterior memorials to the Korean War...

And the interior. The first room we found ourselves in was awesome, and neither this picture nor any words I could try to use to describe it will do it justice. I didn't see exactly what it had to do with war, but.

Other points of interest within the museum include: this big ship.

This violent painting (one of many).

The 38th Parallel! I didn't think it'd be right there in the museum, I thought it was further to the north, but I was wrong! Hey-o!

And then there was this deal: it's basically tags from many of the 1,300-some UN soldiers who were killed in the Korean War, symbolically configured in the shape of a tear, along with some barbed wire.

We left the memorial under the cover of darkness and found a Korean barbecue, where we were pummeled with the best service I'd seen thus far. Just a taste:

The next step was the N Seoul Tower. The thing is a monster. We could see it from the war museum. Our simple American plan was to grab a taxi and point to a picture of the tower that was on the back of the subway map, but when Scott did so, the driver cut off a bus and told us to get on that instead. Which worked nicely, the bus took us right to the top of the Namsan Mountain. What a stud. The view from this tower was another exercise in the the inability of words to accurately describe anything, so. I took a bunch of pictures and most of them are blurry and crappy, but you get the idea.

They also had numerous cities from around the globe painted on the windows that faced the corresponding cities, which I thought was dang cool. They had the North and South Poles (both...imagine that!) on there, and almost everything in between. They didn't have anything I could really relate to; Minneapolis wasn't on there, Beirut wasn't on there, Rock Rapids wasn't on there, but. Chicago is about 10,500 km from Seoul, so that is good to know.

Also at the tower was the Teddy Bear Museum. Duh.

The three accomplices (from left: Scott, Sarah, Dave):

The short-distance and long-distance views of the tower:

Appropriate because the day had been filled with its quotes, the night concluded with a secret viewing of 'The Big Lebowski.' Count it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Part, Meant

This where I lay my head to rest, and where I relieve myself and shower, and where I do laundry and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

38 Parellels of Separation

Today is Day Number Thirteen of my displacement from the midwestern United States. Yesterday (Dec. 20) I struck out from my apartment, tired and sore as I was, for Gangbyeon and TechnoMart, which is eleven floors of technology for sale. Also of note: my parents got me a Seoul city guide for my birthday, and there is a picture of the interior of TechnoMart on the front cover. But that was not what drew me there on this fateful day. No. My agenda was to purchase some sort of laptop computer, as my consistently fickle Dell had basically given up the ghost. Which means all of my music is basically lost. Anyway, after searching high and low, I finally found a Toshiba that a) could be payed for with my SHAZAM DEBIT CARD from Frontier Bank in the Siouxland area b) had an OS in English (I checked multiple other brands and was told that they couldn’t be had in English) c) had a built-in microphone (I didn’t actually find any laptops without one) d) wasn’t a gazillion dollars. After purchasing it, riding the hour back to the other side of town on the crowded stupid subway, and taking a much-needed two hour nap, I discovered that the dudes who sold it to me, who I had thought were sweet because they’d gotten it to run in English, had neglected to give me a power cord. However, as proof that the age of miracles may still very well be upon us, the power cord from my Dell fit into this strange new machine, and so here I am.

The initial posting on this particular blog is to be boring and informational; it will simply depict the setting into which I have been thrust and will not be event-driven at all. Three cheers. The subsequent postings will maybe have more of what is happening out here in the boonies.

The school I am working at, Poly School. A bus comes to our apartment and takes my fellow teachers and me to the school, which is about a ten minute drive or a forty-five minute walk. Or a twenty-five minute sprint. Prep time begins at 9; the pre-schoolers arrive at 9:50. Classes throughout the day are all forty minutes long. The first two class periods I teach reading and phonics to the Orcas, whom I enjoy quite a bit. I think they like me, too, but one just can’t be certain with pre-schoolers. The pre-schoolers speak English alright; they have limited vocabularies and still talk like little kids/Clayton Celiberti, who are generally hard to understand anyway. The third period I switch to the Walruses, who give me a much bigger headache. I have arts and crafts/computer/gym with them third period, depending on the day of the week. After that is another forty minute block for lunch; all the teachers always go out and get something, since the dietary world is cheap and healthy here. At 12:50, there is one more pre-school class and then we have to take them out to the buses. This part terrifies me. The kids are foot-loose and fancy-free and how none of them have gotten creamed by a car yet is beyond me. We have to transport a hundred something little kids across a major highway everyday. No one else seems concerned. I have this vision of a teacher jumping in front of a vehicle to save a student sometime, and getting hit and hospitalized, and I shared this vision with a couple of the others. One replied, “Yeah, we talked about that, and figured that Poly probably wouldn’t provide any compensation.”

The 1:30 to 3:00 block is prep time for the afternoon/evening classes. From 3 to 7:30 we have either five or six more classes, depending on the day. I have quickly discovered that I prefer the afternoon over the morning by leaps and bounds. Leaps and bounds, friends. I think I may have lucked out and gotten an unfair amount of competent, motivated, and intelligent students in my schedule. There is only one class that frustrates me, and even they aren’t as bad as the cursed Walruses. These afternoon classes range from first to fifth grade; they all speak English quite well and are fun to teach. Even though the kids are pretty cool, it’s still a long afternoon. I am usually pretty bushed after it all, or at least I was after one week of teaching.

The teachers at the school are pretty cool. I do not know how close I will get with all of them, for a variety of reasons. One reason is that most of them are a little bit older, late twenties/early thirties (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Another is that about half of them are dating/married to each other, so I feel like they are secluded within themselves. Probably they aren’t, but. A third is that most seem to have been here a while and have established friendships with other folk in Seoul, so. But! I am by no means writing anyone off. Most of them are pretty funny. Most of them are also super helpful; various folk frequently ask how things are going or go out of their way to explain things to me. I think it is because Poly doesn't do a great job of explaining the finer parts of the schedule to new employees, and all the teachers have had to go through that and know how disorienting it is. There is a guy from the Oregon/Washington who lives three doors down from me who is pretty sweet. I have connected with him the most, over such topics as how stupid the Yankees are and how sweet The Big Lebowski is. There is also a girl who lives two doors down from me who is pretty cool; she commiserates with how disoriented I have been upon arriving and has been super helpful, which is much appreciated. There is also this enormous sumo wrestler who lives one doors down from me…that’s not true.

The city of Seoul/Korean culture. Well. In describing this city, various people have used the cliché line, “the city that never sleeps,” but that is a completely accurate delineation. There seem to always be people scurrying around, whether it is in our neighborhood or on the subway or anywhere. The place is huge huge huge. I haven’t traveled much, but if I do more of it, or if I give anyone advice on it ever, I would say to throw all of your preconceptions about anything out the window. My school is on the fifth and sixth floors of a skyscraper that is as big as most in the downtown Twin Cities area, and it is not nearly the biggest by any means. Getting driven to the Poly School headquarters on my first day here was an exercise in neck-craning: I wanted to see everything; there were just massive pockets of insanely tall high rises and skyscrapers. Most buildings seem to have some sort of business or restaurant or what have you on the first couple floors, depending on how tall they are, and then everything above that are apartments. And there are a ton of restaurants, likely due to the massive population here. Everybody’s got to eat. Although I am still baffled at the number of similar shops and marts and places; it seems like most of them sell the same stuff…how do they not go out of business?

Other stuff: people wear mostly dark, quiet colors but are almost always dressed pretty nicely, so needless to say I feel out of place in that regard. But! There is an abundance of baseball caps here! They are mostly teams I totally despise: White Sox, Yankees, Red Sox. Maybe it is a sign that I should not be here. There are also many Tigers and Braves ones around. I soon took it upon myself to see if I could spot a hat from every MLB team, in the same way that we would try to find a license plate from every state on family vacations. So far I’ve seen eighteen. No Twins hats. Anyway. I digress. There is huge drinking/party scene; every time I have come home remotely late in the evening, there have been more than one pile of puke on the sidewalk. Also I was taking a cab home a couple nights ago and some dude in a taxi next to mine rolled down his window and slowly threw up down the side of the door. Count it. There is a major consumerism complex here, as far as I can tell. Some things never change. Everyone has hand-held technology (this I figured coming in); on the subway, 17 out of 20 public transit riders can be seen either texting, watching television, reading, or playing a video game on some sort of hand held console. Or poring over a book. Or sleeping. Eh there are a good handful of chains here; there is a 7-11 near my place, and a Mini-Stop. Lots of those two. There’s also lots of (get ready for a shocker) McDonald’s’s’s’s. There’s very little poverty, at least from I’ve seen (I haven’t been very many places, though?), and I feel completely safe almost anywhere I go. There is a lot of English available; the subway stops are all announced in Korean, English, and one other Asian language (I’ve got my money on Nicobarese), and most of the road signs (like I ever drive here or ever will…) depict directions in English as well as Korean. The people themselves, well, who knows. I don’t anticipate getting to know a ton of Koreans, unless we count the students at my school, because not many speak English and I haven’t, to date, learned much Korean. The adults who speak Korean at my school are all from North America, so culturally they aren’t truly Korean, either. We’ll see what happens. No one has tried to practice their English with me anywhere, like I heard was going to happen. And no one really stares at me. Unless I'm wearing my stupid stocking cap.