Saturday, August 30, 2008

New Car!

We bought my new car this morning!  It's definitely the smallest car I've ever had, and it'll take some getting used to, especially parking.  I already love it, though, even the color, which is growing on me.  Glenda mentioned that she's seen some tremendous panda-themed seat covers, and I plan on looking into it. 

Not much time to write as we're going out for Chinese food this evening.  But here's a picture of the new wheels.  There are more on Flickr.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Surface Freight Chaos

 A picture is worth a thousand words, so here are a few to explain how we've been spending our time since noon yesterday:

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Trip to Costco

Yesterday Jacki and I made a trip to Costco in Daegu. It was a long drive up the highway from the island to Daegu, which is a fairly large city in southeastern Korea. The scenery on the drive was interesting - rolling, forested hills and lots of long tunnels on the highway. Parts of the drive really reminded me of Virginia, and I started getting excited about all the hiking we'll be able to do once we learn our way around better. We drove past the city of Jinju, which Keegan and I will visit next weekend at the invitation of a South Korean connection we have through Keegan's parents' tenant, Yoon.

The Costco was definitely hard to find, but fortunately, Jacki knew exactly where she was going. The entrance to the parking garage was completely unmarked, so I don't know how people ever find the Costco without already knowing where it is! Once inside, we grabbed some carts and started loading them up. The Costco was about what I expected - some items that were familiar from the Costco at home, as well as bulk offerings of the type of Korean goods you see at regular supermarkets, such as rice, chili pepper paste, and seaweed. If you want to buy an entire octopus, tightly wrapped on a styrofoam tray just like a slab of beef, this is your place. The Korean harvest holiday of Chusok is approaching in about two weeks, so there were all kinds of gift sets available for that. Some gift sets featured nice tea and a teapot or fancy looking bath soaps, but others were strange. Apparently it is not uncommon to buy your friends and family a gift set full of toothpaste and soap or a Spam gift set. I bought myself a very well-priced gift set of six liters of orange juice!

Other good finds for the trip were canned tomatoes, bagels, somewhat cheaper beer and wine, and a desk organizer for Keegan. He's been looking for a particular kind of file holder for a long time, and we couldn't find it anywhere. So now Keegan is ready to be a very organized project manager!

Yesterday evening, we also had a chance to visit "The Gangster" on his used car lot. Apparently this lot serves a lot of ABS families, and there is a rumor that the proprietor gets his merchandise through shady connections. He seemed like any used-car salesman to me - full of smiles and encouragement for us to buy something! We test drove a little Daewoo Matiz around town and put down a down payment on it. It is an ugly beast, but it should get me from place to place in a fuel-efficient manner. It is an awful yellow/olive color, and we've decided to refer to it as the Ugly Ducking, or Ugh for short. :) The Gangster is going to replace the tires for us, and we will pick up the car on Saturday. I'm looking forward to it!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Happy Wonderful Smiling Life!

One thing I've noticed about Korean products and advertising is that they make claims that to my cynical American mind are laughably over-the-top.  Many stores and signs promise you "happy life" or "wonderful day."  I have a notebook that says on every page "I wish you are always smiling!"  Don't get me wrong, these are nice sentiments, they just seem a bit over the top.  The final straw that made me decide to comment on this was my jam jar, which I noticed at breakfast this morning.  It exhorts semi-awake, probably crabby breakfasters to "Enjoy the most precious and happiest time with Strawberry Jam."  I love my strawberry jam, but seriously!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Cargo, Kitten, and Car

This post is about things I'm looking forward to this week.  I have been thinking about them because of a recent disappointment.  Glenda and John are moving into a house out in our part of the island, and they mentioned to us that there is another, smaller house just down the hill from them that is also available for rent.  I got really excited about it.  It's not that I don't like our apartment, but I love the look of these houses up on the hill (we can see them from our kitchen window), especially since they have decks and patios.  The little house that we might have jockeyed for has a picnic table outside.  We decided to take a walk up to the house, just to look at the neighborhood and see what the yard was actually like.

As soon as we approached the house from the main road, I knew it wasn't going to work.  First of all, there is a new road being put in on the island, and there is an exit ramp being constructed VERY close to this house.  Second, the hill that forms the "driveway" for the houses is incredibly steep.  As in it's hard to walk straight up without bracing your hands on your legs steep.  Third, there were loud and unfriendly dogs all over the neighborhood.  The last straw was a huge white bushy dog behind a tiny, flimsy-looking fence only ten feet away from the house's front door.  No, thank you.  I don't want to be barked at every time I leave the house, and I don't want to listen to our neighbors get barked at either.  So, we decided not to pursue the house further.

I don't know why I was so disappointed about not getting the new house, but to cheer myself up, I made up a mantra of the three things I'm looking forward to getting in the next couple weeks:  "Cargo, Kitten, Car!"  First of all, cargo is our surface freight, which should arrive later this week (we hope).  Measuring cups and spices and new books, oh my!   Second, kitten:  There is an American woman here who adopted a pregnant stray cat and now has a litter of kittens to give away.  Keegan and I have decided that we'd like one.  We know that kittens are high maintenance, but what better time to get one than when I'm at home often and can give the kitten lots of time and attention.  Sierra has safely gone home, and now we are ready to welcome a new little one into our home!  Third, now that I've given Jacki her car back, I'm looking forward to getting one of my own.  In fact, this morning I missed the bus I was going to take to meet up with Glenda and ended up walking into Okpo.  The walk was good for me but took almost 40 minutes and would have been disastrous in unpleasant weather.  So I am excited about having my own tiny little Korean car to get me around.

So, I don't care about you, imaginary dream house.  Cargo, Kitten, Car!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Learning Korean

Keegan and I have started taking language lessons at the shipyard on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.  The class is mostly shipyard employees, but there are a few other women, from Brazil and India.  We have a good Korean book - the best one I've seen so far.  It's actually geared towards absolute beginners like us, with much more modest dialogues and smaller vocabulary sets.  The other book that I've been working with is way too fast-paced for self-study, so I'm finding the class much more manageable.

So far in class, we've just been focusing on the alphabet.  I had already learned the alphabet letters, but having the sounds pronounced over and over again by our teacher is very helpful.  There are still some sounds that are very difficult to differentiate, though.  For example, the consonants p, t, and k each have three corresponding Korean letters:  a "plain" sound, an aspirated sound, and a tensed sound (glottalized, for you linguists out there). They all sound basically just the same to us.  There are also two o's, one that sounds like o with the lips very round and one that sounds more like aw.  Spelling is definitely going to be a challenge!

Overall, I'm finding learning Korean to be pretty difficult.  I've never studied a language that uses a different alphabet, and I think it's making it unusually hard for me to remember vocabulary.  The basics of verb conjugation are not too complicated, but I'm not very confident, and I know very few verbs, so making sentences is nearly impossible.  I know how to ask for things, and I think I'm beginning to have a very basic grasp of restaurant vocabulary, but it's often easier to get by in English.  Fortunately, we have lots more time to listen, read, and learn more words!

It's definitely true that you can get by here without learning the language, as many of the Americans here have done.  But I think it's already clear that knowing the language will make things much easier.  In many stores, I could request larger sizes or different colors if I knew how to ask.  I could ask which dishes the waiter recommends at the restaurants.  I could ask the pool attendants if there was a lost and found where my missing goggles ended up.  I could tell irritating teenage boys in my lane at the pool to please stay out of my way.  And if there's ever a problem or an emergency, knowing a few words could make things run much more smoothly.  Overall, making an effort to communicate in the native language is a very good way to show people you are invested in their country and their culture, and not just biding your time until you leave (think of the controversy over Spanish in the U.S.!).   So I will soldier on and keep working out my memory.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Trouble with a Capital T

Here is just some of the trouble that our pet-sitting charge, Sierra, has gotten into.  First of all, you should know that Sierra is a husky who is shedding.  If you haven't had the pleasure of living with a shedding husky, know this:  if you do not vacuum at least once a day, you run a very real risk of perishing beneath a suffocating pile of soft, white hairs.  Second, Sierra has a talent for finding things to eat.  Since she has been here, she has gotten her tongue inside the peanut butter jar, eaten four packets of green tea latte mix and pumpkin gruel powder, and devoured three and a half bagels in one sitting.  Of course, most of this illicit eating takes place on the carpet, where the dog can use her tongue to effectively grind saliva and food into the fibers.

But, all this pales in comparison to what happened Friday evening.  Keegan and I went out to dinner with John and Glenda, and we got home, sleepy and ready for bed, around 10:30.  We keyed our code into the apartment door and then opened it....only to find that the security lock was on, and we could not open it all the way.  This lock is like the ones you find at hotels, just a metal bar that when flipped over catches on a little metal knob and only allows you to open the door about four inches.  The only way to flip the lock back off is to be inside the apartment with the door closed.  The only being inside the apartment was the dog, who, although she had managed to engage the lock, was now more focused on scratching the bottom of the slightly opened door.  Off we tramped, back down to the car to drive back to John and Glenda's and borrow a screwdriver.  Keegan had to unscrew the lock from the door, contorting himself to fit his fingers and the screwdriver through the four-inch gap.  

Thanks a lot, Sierra.  You are Trouble.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Oddities at E-Mart

Yesterday was a rainy day, so we decided that we'd drive over to Tongyeong (just off the island) to visit E-Mart, supposedly the Korean equivalent of Wal-Mart. Overall, we didn't think it was that much better than Tesco, which is much closer, so we probably won't make a special trip out there again. But we did see some interesting things, including:
  • A huge crowd in front of the grapes in the produce section. Grapes were on sale for 8,000 won for 5 kilos, so people were massing by the grape display to pick up large cardboard trays full of grapes. What will they do with them all?
  • A "cupping set" in the health area. This set consists of several rows of small plastic cups, varying slightly in size, and a sucker that pulls the air out of the cups once they're placed on your skin. It's a Traditional Chinese Medicine thing. We got a big kick out of trying them out. It feels weird.
  • The employees singing, in unison, and bowing repeatedly, right in the middle of the produce section.
  • Free samples of tofu and drinking vinegar.
  • Huge sacks of dried chili peppers for sale.
  • Covers for everything. If you are on the lookout for a tablecloth, you can find on the same aisle cloth covers for tissue boxes, microwaves, washers and dryers, chair legs, and, most amusingly, refrigerator door handles.
On our drive to the store, we also saw some teenagers with a lousy job. The town is having a festival commemorating a battle, and the teenagers, dressed in traditional clothing, were stationed in wooden lookout towers along the road into the town. There was nothing for them to do but sit and look at the road. They looked as bored as it is possible for a person to look. Keegan remarked that it was funny to see one of them talking into a radio, but I reminded him that they were lookouts and they had to have some way to communicate!

Monday, August 11, 2008

My First Lesson

This afternoon at two I had my first ESL tutoring session. Flavia, a Brazilian whose husband works at the same shipyard with Keegan, came to my apartment and introduced herself. She speaks English pretty well, so it is easy to communicate with her. We started by talking about her goals and her reasons for taking English lessons and a little bit about her background. It turns out that her husband is French, but they usually speak English together, so she has a constant mix of English, French, and Portuguese in her mind. No wonder she gave up on her Korean lessons! She is eager to start coming every day to practice English. I think she is a combination of bored with being at home alone and very ambitious. We worked on some language words - parts of speech, the names of different tenses, etc. I'm looking forward to working more with her. Teaching one-on-one is so different from teaching a class - it is easier to know exactly what your student wants and needs, and the opportunity for good questions is endless. I love that. But I miss the opportunity to get discussions going and to have everyone working on something quietly so I get a little break.

Tomorrow Flavia will come again, and I'll have my first lesson with Rita. It's really nice to have something to do in the afternoons that involves conversation and the use of my brain.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Settling In

The past week has seen a lot of everyday activities undertaken here for the first time. I got my hair cut and went to the post office, and last night, we went to the movies here to see the new Batman. None of these things was quite as weird as I expected - maybe I am getting acclimated! The hair cut came out fairly well, and, as a stodgy introvert, I have to say there is something nice about just relaxing in silence rather than racking my brain for innocuous chitchat with the hairdresser. I was nervous about the trip to the post office because I had heard that people there are very pushy and will cut in front of you in line without a second thought. But it wasn't crowded there at all, and I walked right up to a window. Of course, just before I finished my transaction, another woman came up to the same window, put her letter on the scale, and started talking to the woman who was helping me. But I just collected my change and sailed out. The movies were also less odd than expected. We thought they'd have all kinds of crazy food for sale at the concession stand, but no, it was just popcorn and soda and nachos. And the movie was great! Keegan said he barely noticed the subtitles at all, but I amused myself by trying to read key words in them. I could recognize the names written in Korean and some of the briefest lines of dialog (such as: "hello" and "yes").

Our dinner last night before the movie was slightly more interesting. We met up with a friend of Keegan's, Zeke, who he had met at a few ABS training sessions in Houston in the past couple years. Zeke is working for the other shipyard on the island, currently has a hellacious commute every day, and is extremely busy with work, so we haven't had a chance to spend a lot of time with him. But I liked him a lot. He's only been here for a few more months than we have (I think he got here in the spring), and he's clearly very curious about the language and the culture and the food. So we trooped off to find a Korean restaurant that served some dishes that were not beef or pork. We ended up in a fish restaurant, where the waitress recommended a fish combo meal. We weren't exactly sure what we were getting, but it turned out to be grilled fish (whole, with heads and tails and scales and bones), raw fish, and a spicy fish stew. Believe me, if you want a culinary challenge, trying eating a whole fish with nothing but chopsticks and a spoon! But the fish meat was tender, and we were able to pick it slowly off with our chopsticks. I didn't try the spicy soup, since I'm not a big fan of spicy, but I did enjoy making little fish and salad rolls with the basket of lettuce and sesame leaves that they brought. I never tried sesame leaves before, but they are very flavorful. At a Korean restaurant, you never know when you'll get another dish of food, and sure enough, in the middle of the meal, they brought out a plate of spring rolls (my favorite thing I've had here so far - delicious!) and another plate with tofu and mushrooms in a sweet sauce. So we fed the four of us for about $30, which I think was a very good deal.

Another experience this week was trying a punishingly hard running route over the hill to Okpo. Keegan wanted to find a soccer field that Matt had told him about, so we took the "back route" into Okpo, and let me tell you, it was a killer. When was the last time that any of you runners went up a hill that was so steep that you had to stop? For me, it's been a long time. Well, that happened on this hill. Here's how it feels: First, your legs start to burn. Then, your breathing reaches its limit, and your heartbeat skyrockets. Still, you keep jogging, trying to gut it out. Then, you look ahead to see that the hill doesn't end for probably another 200 meters and that if anything, it looks steeper ahead. Then, your brain, desperately trying to talk some sense into you for the benefit of your flailing body, points out to you that at the rate you're jogging, you'd be better off just walking. So you do. At a swift walk, your breathing remains as labored as if you were running the 100 meters, but at least you can maintain the pace up the rest of the grueling climb. Keegan made it to the top on the way out, but on the way back, neither of us could make it up the other side of the hill. Granted, neither of us is in top condition, but this was definitely a surprise.

I've been doing a lot of running and swimming this week, and on Thursday, my day off, I took a walk along my running route to take some pictures of the scenery. I'll post them to flickr soon. I meant to mention that I occasionally get funny comments when running. Keegan and I have gotten the thumbs-up sign from a pair of older Korean ladies out walking, and last week an older man that I passed heading in the opposite direction smiled, gave me the thumbs up, and ran a few steps in solidarity. We also passed a man in his fields who yelled out "one, two, three, four, one two, three, four!" in strict military cadence. I think people are fairly active around here overall, and we've seen lots of people out running and walking, but we are still a sight on the path out to the Buddhist park. I've never seen anyone else running there, although Jacki says that she and Matt come out to run there occasionally.

This week I'll begin my English lessons and we'll try to watch some of the Olympics. I'm also hoping to go for my first bike ride here. I'll try to keep you all posted.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Burger Shop and the Pebble Beach

Sorry that it's been a while since I've written. Keegan has had this week mostly off from the shipyard, and we've been enjoying a relaxing week together. We have also discovered the world of MacGames, which is a dangerous place indeed. I'm sure Keegan regrets the day that he introduced me to Burger Shop, an addictive game based on serving demanding customers at a fast food restaurant. Sounds dull, but it's really well done. Somehow, I'm unable to walk away from the ice cream machine, the ketchup dispenser, and all my customers, from punks to hippies to clowns.

We have managed to get out of the house a bit, though. We've had dinner with John and Glenda and then we all got together on Wednesday night so that Matt, John, and Keegan could do a beer brewing. I know Keegan is really happy to have found people here who share his hobby - he just wishes that he had known so he could have brought more of his brewing equipment.

Today we decided to do some more exploring around the island, and we ended up driving north to check out Chilcheon Island, which we'd heard was a good place for biking and running. It's about 14km around the island, and it is a HILLY course. But there's not a lot of traffic there, and the scenery is certainly stunning - I can't wait to get out there on a bike or on foot to better appreciate everything. Of course, it will help when the weather is not quite so hot.

We had thought about doing some hiking, but we've had trouble figuring out where the trails are. I know they're all over, but they can be hard to spot. For example, when we did our first hash last Sunday, we went on a trail near our apartment, and the start of it was through a grassy field with nothing in it but a goat. I don't know how we would have known to go up it if we weren't on a group walk. Anyway, we ended up going to Nongso Pebble Beach, north of us on Geoje. It's a really pleasant beach, but it helps to have a mat or beach chairs to sit on to get up off of the hot pebbles that cover the beach instead of sand. The water was really pleasant after being in the hot sun, but it was easy to feel how cold the water is beneath the surface. Once we swam out a little way, we could extend our feet down towards the bottom and feel an icy current beneath the upper layer of warmish water. It's smart to stay horizontal in the water at Nongso!

After roasting on the beach for a while, we decided to go for another Korean lunch. We found a little restaurant with low tables where you sit on cushions instead of chairs. This time, we ordered the other kind of bim bap - they had the same kind as at the last restaurant, but we wanted something different. This time, instead of orange fishy substance in our rice and veggie bowl, we had white, not-quite-as-fishy substance. I was able to translate what we had in our last meal - sea squirt. But I haven't been able to translate what was in today's. I'll keep looking. We also had a big bowl of spicy fish soup, and the ubiquitous kim chee. This time, one of our side dishes was a really tasty dish of sweet roasted peanuts. Yum!

This evening, we decided to venture out again to see if we could locate the movie theater in Gohyeon, near the Samsung shipyard. We had some vague directions from friends, and we had a little blue cinema icon on our map, so we thought we were set. Well, we were a little bit off. Driving down the street where we thought the theater should be, Keegan saw a sign that said "cinema" in English letters. So we parked and got out to explore. Well, this didn't look like we thought a cinema should look, but everything is a surprise around here, so we kept poking around. The building that the sign was on was a motel, but it was called the "cinema motel," and we thought that maybe one floor of the tall building was the movie theater or that the theater was nearby. Through a series of misunderstandings, we ended up on an elevator that smelled really bad and had liquid sprayed on one of the walls and on the floor. We tried not to guess what it was. We got off on the 5th floor and saw an information desk and a seedy hallway with hotel rooms. Yes, we were in a motel, probably a rent-by-hour joint. We got out of there fast, even though it did require getting back on the urine-evator. We decided to call John and refresh our directions to the movie theater, and we ended up finding the right place a few blocks over. We looked around but didn't see any American movies we were interested in - we'll try to go back when Batman finally comes out here.

After dinner at Mr. Pizza, we headed back home. We're planning a trip to Pusan tomorrow on the 9:00 ferry, so I'd say we should get to bed....maybe after one more round of Burger Shop!