Monday, September 29, 2008

Kitten Antics

Today was a very, very lazy day. Most of it was spent coaxing the kittens, Chili and Chipotle (Chip, for short) out from under the couch and then watching them cautiously explore their new territory. Glenda and her mother-in-law came over this afternoon to meet the kittens, and they entertained all three of us for over an hour. They enjoy playing with ribbon, toy mice, and each other. Their territory basically covers under the couch, under the ottoman, and under the lamp next to the couch, behind the couch-side table, with a tentative claim on the area next to the window. When they are hungry or need to use the litterbox, they look carefully both ways and then dart across the exposed area in the living room as fast as they can. Whenever one of them is separated from the other, they cry to each other until they are reunited. This happens often because it takes each one so long to pluck up the courage for the dramatic sprint across the terrifying expanse of the living room.

The funniest shenanigan today is courtesy of Chip (the boy), who had made it to the safe haven of the bathroom without his sister. He was torn between stuffing wet cat food into his mouth and calling for his sister, so he decided to do both at once, which resulted in a long, stuttering cry broken by little breaks for chewing: meeewwww...ewww...ewwww...ewww... I thought I would die laughing.

Tomorrow will be a busier day: swimming and yoga in the morning, two students in the afternoon, and Korean class at night. After Korean class we're going to try a Thai restaurant with a couple of Keegan's co-workers. It will be nice to have a busier day, and the kittens will probably welcome the respite from constant supervision!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Three New Fuzzy Beasts

One & Two: Scaredy kittens

Three: Keegan's moustache

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Keegan and I live in a rural area here. We're close to the beach, and the little town our apartment building is in is full of vacation houses and rooms for rent. The countryside nearby, especially on my running route, is mostly small farms, and I've enjoyed watching them go through the phases of planting, harvest, and replanting. When we first got here, chili peppers were coming strong. Now, everywhere you look there are pumpkins ripening on the vines. The rice harvest is on the verge of starting, and the rice paddies have changed from a bright, buoyant green to a heavy, weighted-down yellow. I like seeing so much growing all around and wish that we hadn't missed the entire gardening season this year because of the move.

I think that many of the fields near us are gardens/small farms for people who live in other areas because there are often cars parked on the side of the road as the farmers visit to tend their crops. In order to transport baskets of chili peppers or bags of lettuce or pots of kimchee from field to car or house, several people I've seen use old strollers. Imagine a labor-worn elderly woman slowly pushing a ramshackle stroller down the side of the road, but instead of children, the new lives she is transporting so carefully are vegetables. It's easy to forget how dependent we are on what we grow, and the baby stroller transport system makes a good reminder of how precious the harvest can be.

I've been enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of the Korean harvest in the kitchen quite a bit lately. With so much time on my hands, I've been baking and cooking up a storm, and really enjoying it. I am so grateful that cooking can be enjoyable again, since I always thought it was a tedious burden when I was working full time. Here's a loaf of country white bread that Keegan and I made this weekend. We were so pleased with its appearance that we ran for the camera while it was cooling.

It disappeared very quickly.

Some ingredients here that we've found to be far superior to their American counterparts are mushrooms (so flavorful!) and Asian pears. I've never been a big fan of pears, mostly because the texture reminds me of a mealy apple, but the pears here are very sweet, crisp and juicy. I like to dip them in honey, but really they stand pretty well on their own.

Another food adventure this week took place in a Japanese buffet on Sunday night. We went out with John and Glenda, and while John and I perused the dessert bar, I started joking about some red, spiny, sea-urchin-like fruits on offer. John responded by dishing one out onto my plate. So of course, I was forced to try this mysterious, unapproachable fruit, which turns out to be a rambutan. The spiny outer skin conceals a plum-like white fruit the size of a large grape, with a pit inside. It actually tasted pretty good, but I couldn't stop laughing about the way that the strange, slightly slimy fruit popped out of the hairy, spiny casing when I prodded it.

This is what I love about living overseas - everything, from running to cooking to eating, is a new experience, sometimes edifying, sometimes delightful, and often bizarre.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Weekend Trip to Jinju

Last weekend was one of the biggest Korean holidays of the year, Chuseok. It's a harvest festival involving a big meal, so I've heard a lot of people call it "Korean Thanksgiving," but of course, it's pretty different from the American version. We were fortunate to be invited to a Korean family's home to celebrate the holiday.

Some of you know that Keegan and I have a house in Charlottesville that we're renting out. Keegan's dad found a tenant through the university, and he happens to be South Korean. His name is Yoon, and he was a guest at our wedding. Well, it turns out that his nephew, Sung, lived in the U.S. for ten years while he went to middle school, high school, and college, and he was a perfect ambassador to introduce us to the rest of the family. His mother, Yoon's sister, and his father, a doctor, live in Jinju. So on Saturday morning, Keegan and I got up early and drove for about an hour and a half to the city of Jinju to meet the Han family.

During the morning, we spent some time getting to know the family over juice and fruit. Both parents speak some English, especially Dr. Han. Mrs. Han is a fantastic golf player, a world traveler, and an enthusiastic scrapbooker. They were very friendly, open people, and we enjoyed talking to them. After our snack, we went out for lunch at a beautiful Korean restaurant close to the river. Keegan was complimented on his expert use of chopsticks, and we enjoyed our seafood pancake, bi bim bap (rice and veggies), and beef cooked at the table. There was also soup, kim chee, and lots of little side dishes. After lunch we visited a really beautiful little cafe with a nicely landscaped outdoor area and a glass-floored section with huge, elegant koi swimming underneath. We drank some sweet rice drink, and Sung's parents told us stories about the Jinju fortress that we would visit that afternoon. Mostly they spoke in Korean, and Sung translated for us. It was a good opportunity for me to practice Korean. I am at the level where I can catch a few words in passing and then wait to confirm my understanding of those few words in the translation. It's like hearing the subject of a sentence but no verbs, adjectives, or other information. So there are a lot of gaps to be filled in!

After coffee (have you noticed that we have already done a lot of eating on this trip?) we went to the Jinju fortress, which is a meticulously maintained, sunny park dotted with colorful buildings and temples. We got to see a changing of the guard ceremony with all the participants dressed in colorful, old-fashioned Korean costumes and then a martial arts demonstration. We had a lot of fun learning to shoot a bow and arrow and beating a huge, very loud Korean drum. We climbed into a couple of brightly painted pavilions and were treated to lovely views of the city. Sung named one of the pavilions the "chillax pavilion," demonstrating his superb knowledge of American slang so new that even Keegan and I have rarely heard it. His term also points out something that I love about these pavilions - there are always at least a few people laying peacefully in them, flat on their backs, enjoying the nice breeze. It seems to me that people work hard here, and then they rest hard.

In the afternoon, we visited the Jinju National Museum, where we watched a 3-D movie about a historical battle between the Koreans and the Japanese that took place in Jinju. The Koreans in the fortress were about to withstand a Japanese force almost ten times their size. Sung warned us that the movie was corny, but I'll admit that I enjoyed it. I can't remember the last time I saw a 3-D movie! The museum's main exhibit was closed for remodeling, but we saw a small exhibit of various artifacts from the time of the Japanese invasion, including some beautiful paintings on silk. There was also a photography exhibit with pictures from Mongolia and the Gobi desert - absolutely stunning landscapes.

After our long visit to the fortress, we headed back to the Hans' apartment for dinner. Sung's mom made a lot of really delicious food. We had a noodle dish called jop chae (sp?), which was yummy, and we also had a really good bi bim bap with good fresh veggies and not too much spice for my wimpy palate. She also made a tofu soup that had a really unique, sweet flavor. This was the first time I had homemade Korean food, and I enjoyed it quite a bit!

After dinner we spent the evening looking at memorabilia and pictures that Mrs. Han had saved from her sons' growing up. There were certificates and letters and graduation programs and all kinds of photos. We saw some photos of our friend Yoon as a boy and lots of photos from Sung's time in the U.S. at school. It was funny to be in Korea looking at pictures of what seemed to be a fairly typical U.S. adolescence. We all enjoyed all of the little scraps that Mrs. Han saved, so I feel more inspired now to get to work on my wedding scrapbooks!

Once it was dark, we went back out again to see the fortress all lit up in the evening. They are preparing for a huge lantern show in Jinju at the beginning of October, involving hundreds of larger-than-life lighted silk lanterns floating on the river near the fortress. It should be truly amazing, and we're hoping to go back for it. We saw a lot of the lanterns in various stages of preparation - some with just a wire frame and lightbulbs, others with unpainted silk, and others completely ready to be floated. There was also a huge fountain with multi-colored lights that "danced" to music blaring over the field. We stood and watched that mesmerising display for a while before we headed back home to bed. We would have to get up really early on Sunday in order to make it to Busan for the Chuseok festivities of Yoon's family there.

Meeting the Newest Member(s) of Our Family

We met the kittens today! Keegan worked a short day today since the shipyard is still closed for the holiday, so we took the chance this afternoon to visit the litter of kittens that need homes. Jackie, their owner, was very nice, and it was good to meet her. She has three girls, who have been taking care of the kitties for her, but they were still at school.

The kittens live in the laundry room because there are other cats in the household, too. Jackie brought them out for us to see in a little cardboard box. The kittens are about six weeks old and absolutely adorable. They are all orange and white and little and trembly. They are also capable of uttering the most piteous mews you can imagine. One of them sat curled up on my lap, and another crawled up my belly and licked my fingers. We will have a hard time deciding which to adopt! We are thinking of adopting two because they can keep each other company during times when we don't have as much attention to give as we do now. I think it will be easier to get littermates than to try to introduce a second cat later on.

We'll be able to adopt the kittens at about eight weeks, so that will be right at the beginning of October. I can't wait! Glenda and I are going shopping tomorrow morning and plan to have a cat supply buying bonanza. And after that, just a little more waiting. And thinking of names! Suggestions are appreciated.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Why the Matiz Rules Korean Roadways

I filled my car up at the gas station this evening, and this time I paid a little more attention to the amount of gas that the attendant pumped in. Here's the rundown: I got about 28 liters of gas for about 50,000 won. To translate that into terms we hear about a million times a day on the news (I know because I still listen religiously to NPR), that's about 7.5 gallons of gas for about $50, which works out to $6.66 per gallon. That's why there are small cars, public transportation, and about a million taxis here. Take heart, America, it is possible to function as a society when gas prices are almost double what they are now.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Wonders of Hangeul

Our Korean lessons are progressing well, and we've finally finished the unit on the alphabet. Now we're actually looking at "dialogues." Granted, so far the dialogues consists of

A: Hello, teacher.
B: Hello.

But, still, it's progress.

On Tuesday, we watched a video about the Korean alphabet (Hangeul). This was obviously a piece of feel-good Korean linguistic propaganda, and it was not flawlessly translated into English, so it made some pretty odd claims. First of all, let me try to explain what I understand about Korea's alphabet. The alphabet was invented by (or at least disseminated by) a man named King Sejong, who wanted to help more people in his kingdom learn how to read. Because the alphabet is a phonetic alphabet (each character represents a sound) as opposed to an ideographic system (where each character represents a word), it was much easier to learn than the Chinese system the Koreans had been using. There are 24 characters in the Korean alphabet, while literacy in Chinese requires knowledge of something like 6,000 characters. For this reason, there is a UN prize for literacy efforts that is named after King Sejong. The video made a lot of this prize. I think it's great and am happy to be learning King Sejong's alphabet.

The history of the alphabet makes it a bit unique because it was specifically engineered to help people become literate. We know how and when it was introduced, and we have a record of the principles behind the shape of each character. Interestingly, the letters are designed to tell you something about the sounds they represent, based on the shape that the tongue and mouth make when you pronounce them. Letters that are phonetically related (for example, aspirated 't' and unaspirated 't') have similar shapes. So it's a clever system that's easy to remember because the form of the letters has some link to the way sounds are produced.

Now, the claims that the video made. First of all, there was lots of talk about how Korean is a "scientific" language. I've heard this claim in other publications, too. There's a confusion between the language, which is as unwieldy and irregular as any other, and the writing system, which was well designed and based on a good understanding of phonetics. How can you really say that one language is more "scientific" than another, though? Has it been tested in a laboratory? Does it increase the speed of understanding between people? Does it have more technical terms in it? This phrasing drives me nuts.

The next claim was similar: that Korean is "a phonetic language." Ok, since phonetic simply means "having to do with sounds," it is clear that all spoken languages are phonetic. What they really mean is that Korean has a phonetic writing system. I think that's great. I love phonetic writing systems. In fact, we have one, France has one, Poland has one, Germany has one, and on and on. Of course, English spelling is notoriously difficult, and many letters represent one sound in certain situations and a different sound in other situations. Our system of correspondence between letters and sounds is inconsistent because of the way English has been influenced by other languages in our history. The Korean system is definitely clearer than ours, especially in terms of the vowels, which are pronounced the same way whenever they occur. But it also has letters that represent more than one sound, depending on the position of those letters in the syllable. We had just finished studying how that works, and then we watched a video that claimed that all letters in the Korean alphabet represent the same sound wherever they appear. And Koren pronunciation follows the same rules as other languages do - sounds change in rapid speech and take on certain properties based on the sounds around them. So hearing about how superior Korean is in this regard left me nonplussed.

Finally, the funniest claim was that Korean is uniquely able to represent the sounds of nature through its well-designed phonetic system. This just made me laugh. They showed pictures of a single droplet falling into a pool and of a rushing brook and then the Korean words for those sounds. But it's not like Korean has special access to imitating the sounds of nature just because it has a clever alphabet! It's not a magical alphabet that allows the human vocal aparatus to produce the sound of a bubbling brook.

I know I sound like a linguistic curmudgeon, and I do think the Koreans have a reason to be proud of their writing system. But they should be proud of its real merits and not make silly claims about it that strike their audience as ridiculous right off the bat.

Perhaps someday, I'll discover a scientific, phonetic language capable of brilliant representing the sounds of nature. But for now I'm content just learning Korean.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Another Odd Motto

Our friends Glenda and John just moved into a really nice new house, and now they are our neighbors! Yesterday I helped Glenda move some stuff out to the house (including the two cats and her fish), and while I was there, I noticed another interesting Korean motto. On both refrigerator door handles is written:

"Ennoble Your Advanced Life."

Certainly ups the pressure to keep the fridge stocked with good stuff, huh?