Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Steve and Sue's Visit, Part II

Happy New Year, everyone!  I guess this will be my last blog post for 2008.  If 2009 is anything near as interesting, there should be lots of posts to come.  For now, I want to finish updating about Steve and Sue's visit, which is now two weeks ago!

On Tuesday, Keegan had to go to work, and Glenda and I had planned a Christmas party for our students.  We spent most of the morning preparing for the party and the whole afternoon relaxing in Glenda's house on the hill with our multi-national crowd.  

Glenda, Ellen, Alla, Gloria, Joy, Aline, Andrea, and Rafaela at the Christmas party.

Only two of my students were still in Korea at that point.  My Ukrainian student, Elena, made me really proud - she seems to be really coming into her own and was much more willing to speak English in the group.  She's amazing.  My newest Brazilian student was a bit more shy, but considering that she's only had a grand total of eight English lessons, she comported herself well.  She's a natural with pronunciation, and negotiated greetings and introductions with aplomb.  After the party, we went back down to the apartment and started on a stir fry for dinner.  Asian cooking is a staple of our diet, and so easy to do here, where all the markets are Asian.

Wednesday was a fun day.  We went to Jinju to visit Yoon's sister and her family.  I had a really great time practicing my Korean.  This mostly entailed pointing at various objects and naming them, but there were a few more fruitful exchanges.  Yoon's sister let Sue and I try on some of her traditional Korean clothing, and it was such a cool experience.

Ellen, Sue, Yoon's mother, and Yoon's sister in traditional Korean dress.

In the afternoon, we visited a silk factory outlet, where Sue and I bought scarves and Steve bought silk pajamas.  We also went back to the Jinju fortress and enjoyed the winter scenery before returning to Yoon's sister's apartment and having a huge and delicious Korean dinner, complete with both of my favorites:  Korean noodles and seafood pancake.  Mmmm!

On Thursday, Keegan had to work again, so we decided to return to the botanical garden that Keegan and I visited last month.  It was an absolutely stunning clear day, and from the observation deck in the gardens, we could see Japan!  I am itching to visit there for real.  We had just enough time to enjoy some coffee and tea while looking out over the beautiful view of the ocean and the distant, barely visible, mountains of Japan.  

Steve and Sue enjoy coffee and a beautiful view at Oedo Botania.

We also sampled some fish-shaped waffles, filled with red bean paste filling.  They weren't the best I've had, but they were warm, and I enjoyed mine!  In the evening, we whipped up some pasta with vodka sauce.  I think a little more simmering was called for, as the vodka flavor in the finished dish quite strong.  Sorry, guys.  We'll try it again next time you visit!

Friday was the day for a visit to Gohyeon, where Keegan's shipyard is.  We had a chance to visit HomePlus, our favorite superstore, which is chock full of Korean oddities.  As usual, we managed to fill up a cart in no time.  After lunch in the food court, we went over the P.O.W. camp museum and memorial.  Geoje Island was used as a P.O.W. camp during the Korean war, and it was interesting to see old pictures and some information about the camp and its inhabitants.  A lot of the signs had a very, very clear South Korean slant, talking about how wonderful life was for the P.O.W.s and such.  I thought it would have made a great focus for a project in my sociolinguistics class a few years ago, where I had to visit a museum and comment on the narrative that the museum presented - what themes they highlighted and what details they glossed over or spun to fit in with the overall story.  

Tackiest possible exhibit at an old P.O.W. camp?

Anyway, we were a little disappointed with the museum, but we did enjoy the Geoje gift shop nearby, where Steve and Sue found some more souvenirs, and I bought a great silk purse.  We got home fairly early and had time to rest up before dinner out with John and Glenda, followed by a trip to the Lounge, a bar we've visited before, where we played pool and darts and spent some time "singing" karaoke.  

Saturday was our last full day on Geoje Island.  We got a late start and then headed to the nearby memorial of a Korean Naval victory.  We can actually see the monument from our apartment, so I had some idea of what to expect, but there's actually quite a nice park surrounding the memorial as well.  It would be a perfect place for a picnic with a great view when the weather gets warmer again.  There were two Korean toddlers there with their mothers, and we had a great time watching them run around.  We also had a chance to show Steve and Sue the Buddha park that's the destination of my runs these days.  I think they enjoyed the peaceful park and its location in the countryside.

On Sunday, we took a morning ferry to Busan to drop Steve and Sue off at the hotel.  They had a very early flight on Monday morning, so we let them settle in and get organized, and we took the subway back to the ferry terminal area to do some shopping.  It was cold, rainy day (the first of the trip - how's that for luck!), and we had a great time walking around under my umbrella, especially when we discovered the little market stalls tucked back in the streets off of the main shopping drag.  We made it back to the ferry with plenty of time to spare (yes, this is a noteworthy event for us), and arrived home tired but happy with how our first visitors' stay had turned out.  Bring on the masses! 

Monday, December 22, 2008

Steve and Sue's Visit, Part I

I haven't posted for a while because Keegan's parents were here visiting last week, and of course we were spending time with them rather than the usual inordinate amount of time on the Internet.  We did lots of cool things during their visit, and Keegan and I had the opportunity to try out a lot of new activities.  In case anyone is interested, we're more prepared than ever to be excellent hosts for visitors!

Steve and Sue arrived in Busan on Friday the twelfth.  We took the car ferry and drove to the airport to meet them, and then we drove them to the Lotte Hotel where we were staying.  Much to my surprise, they seemed wide awake and eager to spend some time chatting and having a quick glass of wine and a snack at one of the hotel bars.  

Sunset from the car ferry on the way to Busan.

On Saturday we spent the day exploring the area near the Jalgachi Fish Market and the Busan Tower.  The fish market was as slimy and squirmy as I had remembered, but the tower was a new and cool experience.  You get a fantastic view of Busan from the top.  Not that Busan is a particularly beautiful city, but the sheer mass of buildings, streets, traffic, and colorful signs makes it undeniably impressive.  Saturday evening we all went to the ABS Korea Christmas party.  The most amusing part of the evening was of course the karaoke contest.  Keegan and several of his co-workers participated in the contest, representing the Geoje Island ABS employees.  They dressed in drag and were all set to sing "Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night.  Unfortunately, the karaoke guy only had "Joy to the World" the Christmas carol.  So, under pressure, they picked the song "It's Raining Men," which no one knew.  It was unfortunate.  

Keegan and co. sing karaoke at the ABS Christmas party.

Other highlights of the karaoke competition included the scantily clad women of the Busan office and the amazing falsetto of the lone Korean man who sang "What's Going On" by the Four Non-Blondes.  Keegan fared much better in the beer-chugging competition, and for his pains he won a package of ginseng tea and some ginseng capsules, which led to some embarrassing comments to Steve and Sue about the ginseng-enhanced likelihood of a new grandchild.

On Sunday, we spent some more time in Busan.  This time, we visited Beomeosa, a Buddhist monastery in the mountains to the north of the city.  

Keegan, Ellen, Sue, and Steve at Beomeosa in Busan.

In the evening, we got together with Yoon's brother, Moon, whose apartment we had visited at Chuseok.  He took us out to dinner at a really wonderful little restaurant out past Haeundae Beach.  We ate some delicious Korean food, including some absolutely wonderful fish and some divine pureed pumpkin and potato dishes.  There was more teasing about future grandchildren because we had some dried jujubes with us.  Apparently there is a tradition that a bride's mother-in-law should throw a handful of jujubes toward the bride, and the bride should catch them in her shirt.  The number of jujubes that are caught is predictive of the number of children she will have.  So we laughed a lot and tried it out.  I'm not sure how many I caught, so I'm just saying it was no more than two!  Keegan and I have been invited to go hiking in the spring with Moon and our other dinner companion, Dr. Lee, and we are very excited about that.

Monday was a travel day back to Geoje Island.  Taking the car ferry back was a bit of a headache since we had a little trouble finding the ferry terminal, trouble buying the tickets, and trouble parking in the tight spaces on the ferry.  Let it suffice to say that the gestures of Korean officials directing traffic are often indecipherable, and this can lead to some frustration.  But we made it onto the boat and back to Geoje in one piece, and next time, we'll be like old pros.  We spent the afternoon unpacking and grocery shopping, and then we enjoyed a good old-fashioned Western dinner.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Day in the Life

Like many of my friends who have blogs, I've been feeling lately like there's not much of interest to write about. The normal day-to-day goes by, and it just doesn't seem very blog-worthy. But yesterday was a normal day with a few interesting quirks, so today's entry will be dedicated to writing about what I usually skip over.

A day in my life in Korea:
7:10 a.m. Wake up and read in bed for a while. (I know, I know, luxurious. Believe me, I appreciate it.)
7:30 a.m. Keegan comes in to tell me good-bye and lets in the kittens. Snuggling commences.
7:40 a.m. Get up reluctantly and prepare for a trip to the pool.
8:05-8:30 a.m. Drive to the pool past the DSME (Daewoo) Shipyard. Barely even glance at the huge cranes and masses of half-built enormous ships.
8:30-9:00 a.m. Enjoy a swim at the newly renovated pool. It's 5,000 won per swim, but the monthly fees for the pool are so exorbitant that it makes sense to pay every time unless you plan to swim practically every day. The new locker rooms make me feel a little more like I'm getting my money's worth.
9:00-9:15 a.m. Shower and get dressed with twenty of my closest naked friends.
9:15 a.m. Turn in my locker key to the friendly woman at the pool desk. Yesterday, I was stopped by a man also working at the desk, who asked me to sign my name and handed me some free goodies promoting the newly renovated pool. I received a small bag, a huge and very, very nice umbrella, and a little baggie of warm dumplings made from rice paste dough and filled with sweet red bean paste. Like many Korean food items, I found them vaguely and indefinably distasteful.
9:40-10:10 a.m. Change into yoga clothes, eat breakfast, begin planning the afternoon's lesson.
10:10 a.m. Leave for yoga.
10:30 - 11:30 a.m. Yoga class. There were very few women yesterday. A few Koreans, some Brits, Norwegians, Ukranians, and unusually, only one Brazilian. Our teacher directs us in her own special English, which I love, but only came to understand after a few classes. It is peppered with "chang-ee" (change) and "po-jee" (pose - Korean doesn't have a 'z'). Yesterday there was a photographer who came in to take publicity photos of our class. I didn't want to be photographed in my unshowered, scantily clad, uncomfortably contorted glory, but what can you do?
11:30 a.m. - 11:45 a.m. Stop at post office to mail Christmas cards and pick up boxes for Christmas presents. Use my Korean to specify the number of boxes. Am met with skepticism at my Korean ability and my desire for nine boxes.
noon - 1:15 p.m. Shower, finish planning the afternoon's lesson, leave for Gohyeon.
1:15-1:40 p.m. Drive to Gohyeon and listen to "This American Life" on my iPod. A highlight of each Tuesday and Thursday.
1:40 p.m. Arrive in Gohyeon late, race to my students apartment. Spend an hour going over food vocabulary and vowel sounds and talking about count and non-count nouns.
2:45 p.m. Drive to HomePlus, the nearby superstore to run some errands. Park four stories below the ground in a miniscule parking space. Take the escalators all the way to the sixth above-ground floor because the elevator is sooooo slow.
3:00-3:30 p.m. Get a haircut at Park Jun's salon. My hairdresser didn't speak English, so it was a quiet but pleasant experience. My shampoo included, most notably, a step where the hairdresser ran her hands briefly under very hot water and then massaged my earlobes. I highly recommend it. At the end of my haircut, the hairstylist apologized, and then reached into her tray of hairstyling supplies to pull out a notebook with a number of salon-related English phrases, including "Is your hair short enough now?" It was.
3:30-5:00 p.m. Wander around HomePlus buying many things I don't need. Buy cat litter (which we do need) and greet the enormous Persian at the vet whose cheeks are dyed rosy red. Get accosted by Jehovah's Witnesses in the baked goods aisle. Politely refuse their request for English lessons. Sample delicious fried dumpling. Pay way too much for my cart brimming with imported and rare goodies. Like ground (not instant) coffee and decent wine.
5:00-5:30 p.m. Drive home and finish my episode of "This American Life."
5:30-6:00 p.m.Unpack and unload everything, greet cats, snack ravenously.
6:00-7:30 p.m. Cook and eat a big pan of ratatouille with moderately good bread from the bakery at HomePlus. Keegan is home and tells me about his day at the shipyard as I cook and he helps with the dishes. (I know, I know, he is appreciated, too.)
7:30-8:30 p.m. Pack up and address Christmas gifts to send to the U.S.
8:30-9:30 p.m. Watch two episodes of the Simpsons on DVD with Keegan.
9:30-10:15 p.m. Check the Internet and get ready for bed.
10:15 p.m. Into bed, with book and kittens once again.

So, I hope this recitation gives you some idea of how my days are filled here. And some idea of why I sometimes don't write about them!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Speaking your sleep!

One of my students told me this week that she woke up to her husband laughing at her. "Why?" I asked. Because, she told me, she had been talking in her sleep in English, saying things like "How are you?" and "What's your name?" I think this woman is a natural language learner! Either that, or I've been giving her too much homework.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Thanksgiving in Korea

What a busy Thanksgiving weekend we had! On Thanksgiving itself, not much happened. We had our final Korean class and exam, which was very short and not too difficult. Keegan and I went out to dinner at an Indian restaurant - about as atypical a Thanksgiving dinner as you can get, but tasty nonetheless. They had the restaurant decorated for Christmas, and it was quite festive.

On Friday evening Glenda and I cooked up some Thanksgiving favorites at our apartment, and we invited Daniel and Marina to join us for dinner. Glenda made chicken and stuffing, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie. I contributed corn, carrots, and garlic mashed potatoes, as well as whipped cream for the pumpkin pie. Daniel contributed a homemade game of Twister, which gave us at least an hour of raucous, muscle-straining good times. Then we played some rousing hands of Ligretto (a fast-paced German card game that's lots of fun with a bunch of people). A good time was had by all.

On Saturday afternoon, we had our second Thanksgiving dinner at the apartment of another American ABS family. They had invited around twenty people over for dinner, and there was tons of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. I made my first pumpkin pie ever (it came out great, if I do say so myself) and a green salad with spinach, lettuce, dried cranberries, walnuts, and a strawberry vinaigrette. There were also two large pans of green bean casserole, which I think I devoured a large portion of, as well as clover-leaf rolls, which I hadn't had in a long time. Mom used to make them all the time when I was a kid, and I was so excited to see them at Thanksgiving dinner this year! (Thanks, Jackie!) For dessert there were pumpkin and pecan pies, pumpkin cheesecake, and an apple crisp. We stuffed ourselves silly and were ready for bed by about 6 p.m.

On Sunday, my Thanksgiving was completed with a bike ride to burn off some tiny amount of the calories contained in the mountains of green bean casserole I ate. Keegan had gone riding with some of the guys on Saturday, so on Sunday it was the girls' turn. We drove out to our favorite bike route on Chilcheondo, an island off the coast of Geoje. It was my first ride with my new clipless pedals, and I think it went really well. At first, I thought the hills were much easier with the new pedals, but by the time I had finished my first lap of the island (about 13 km), my legs were burning. By the time I finished the second lap, I was absolutely bushed. After dinner, my legs were so tired that I lay on the floor and moaned for a while. I guess my dad was right that starting with the new pedals would require building up strength in new muscles, since with your feet clipped in you can both pull and push on the pedals. Fortunately for me, I have a wonderful husband who gave me a post-ride leg rub, and today I'm not sore at all.

Of course we missed friends and family quite a bit this Thanksgiving, but we are also very thankful for the chance to spend Thanksgiving with the new friends we've made here, who are not only good company, but also terrific cooks and workout partners!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

TEFL Notes

The past few weeks have been good ones for my little English-teaching business. I now have four very regular students. One of them, however, is in Brazil until December, so I've had an easy schedule with six lessons per week. Two of the students I'm currently working with are beginners, and the third is at the low intermediate level. It's been particularly exciting to watch this third student blossom. The first time I met her was at the tea that we had here at our apartment. She was very quiet and spoke only in Ukrainian to her friend. I was nervous about teaching her because she seemed distant and unfriendly. But after only six weeks of lessons, she has gained a tremendous amount of confidence! Now she regales me regularly with tales of her weekend and with what she's cooked during the past week, and she cracks me up with a great sense of humor. She ran into Glenda at the bus stop last week, and Glenda reported that they had a conversation in English. It's amazing how much good a chance to practice conversation skills with a sympathetic listener will do.

I am very much enjoying teaching my two beginning students. They are both Brazilian, and they are both doing great. I've decided that I really like teaching beginners because it is so easy to see them make progress. It's easy to find vocabulary that they will hear often, so they have lots of chances to practice. The grammar they're learning is simple and easy to teach. I do miss the chance for more advanced readings and discussions, but I suppose that will come in time.

I am particularly amused by the system one of my Brazilian students and I have cobbled together to communicate. It works like this: she rattles off a long string of Portuguese, accompanied by diagrams or hand gestures, and I, miraculously, understand her and respond in English. She usually understands, and so we grind on through basic grammar points, using our multilingual skills. Every once and a while, we stop and laugh at how our languages have become mutually intelligible through not much more than our sheer determination to be understood.

My Ukrainian student pointed out to me this week how difficult she finds it to read in English. I gave her a short passage about fashions as an introduction to the past tense and some vocabulary about clothes. She said she hates reading in English, but that she could read when she studied German. I always talk to my students about how difficult spelling is in English because the letters of the alphabet do not correspond one-to-one with sounds. For example, g can be pronounced "hard," as in gentle, or "soft," as in girl. So it's hard to know how to write a word that you know how to use in conversation. I try to sympathize with my students on this point. But I haven't been as sympathetic about reading until Elena pointed out how frustrating it is for her. Then I remembered how hard it was for me to read Polish, even though it does have a one-to-one correspondence between the alphabet and the sounds the letters represent. Sometimes I'd have to actually say words outloud before I'd realize that I knew them or that they were similar to their English counterparts. So, my other students can thank Elena for making me more sympathetic to the unique trials of learning to read English. On the other hand, only practice can ease these trials. So maybe they shouldn't thank her yet.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Korean Language Update

Keegan and I continue to faithfully attend our Korean language classes every Tuesday and Thursday evening. The class is winding to a close - our final exam is next Thursday, conveniently scheduled to make Thanksgiving that much less inviting. (Don't worry, we will be having dinner with a lot of other American ex-pats on Saturday.) Recently, we've been studying numbers. To make things interesting, Koreans use two different number systems, one based on Chinese (Sino-Korean), and the other pure Korean. The Sino-Korean system is used for telephone and bus numbers, for prices and for minutes when you're telling time. It's also used for anything over 100. The Korean system is used for counting, for ordering at restaurants, and for the hours when telling time. The Sino-Korean system works in a predictable fashion: for example, eleven is ten-one (ship-il) and twenty is two-ten (i-ship). But the Korean system is a bit harder to remember because twenty, thirty, forty, etc. are all different words that aren't similar to the numbers from one to ten. For example, two-ten would be tul-yeol. But twenty is actually semul, which has nothing in common with either two or ten, and also has nothing in common with the words for thirty, forty, etc.

Things get even stranger when you start talking about money. Korean currency is called the won, and the exchange rate is very roughly 1,000 won to $1 (it's actually better than that now, but still easy to think of this way). This means that you're often called upon to talk about prices that are in the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands. In English, we count that high with a base of 1,000, so a number like 526,000 is five hundred twenty-six thousand. But in Korean, the base is 10,000, so 526,000 would be 52 ten-thousands, 6 thousands. It makes the head spin a bit.

Last night we learned about saying this and that in Korean. Of course, in English, the difference between this and that has to do with how far the thing you're talking about is from the speaker. If it's close by, we say this, and if it's far away, we say that. Korean has a third distinction: close to the speaker, close to the listener, and far from both. I love the way different languages divide up the world in different ways. The grammar of this and that sounds pretty boring, but in this case, it points to a different way of thinking about the people and objects around you when you're speaking.

Another distinction was brought up the other day when I asked our teacher how to say "cat food" in Korean. She told me that the word for food is related to the verb to eat, but changed to indicate that the food is being fed to the animals. Then she said that the word for food is different for animals than it is for humans. And I thought, ah, it's just like in English how we call food for farm animals feed. But in Korea, according to my inference, cats eat cat feed. I don't think I should draw too many conclusions from this, especially since I don't know all the grammar involved, but it is interesting that we make a division between words for food between pets like dogs and cats (food) and farm animals like cows and horses (feed). But in Korean, cats at least are grouped differently from people. And indeed, in general I think many Korean people are more distanced from their pets than Americans are, although I suspect based on the number of tiny dogs in little dog coats walking around Okpo, that this may be changing.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Busy Weekend

This weekend was nonstop fun, let me tell you. On Friday night, just as I was lamenting another quiet and boring evening in the apartment, Keegan called to tell me we had been invited out bowling with some of his co-workers. There is a whole new batch of younger folks who have arrived here over the past few months, and they are unencumbered by kids and ready for fun. So a group of nine of us trooped over to the bowling alley. The alley we went to was on the fourth floor of a building in town - we couldn't imagine what was underneath it on the third floor! Hopefully something that closes before people start rolling ten- to fifteen-pound balls down wooden alleys overhead. We were pleasantly surprised that we were able to walk in and get two lanes right next to each other. All of us were about of equal ability, so we had fun competing with each other in a good-natured way. We noticed that many of the Korean bowlers around us had beautiful shiny bowling balls and professional looking wrist braces, but strangely, they seemed to be bowling only about as well as we were, even with all their advantages, so we didn't feel too outclassed.

After bowling, the girls in the group had a hankering to go sing karaoke, so we headed off to find a place one of our group had been to before and liked. Three of the guys in the group went off to go play pool, but Keegan came with us to sing. I'm a lucky woman to have a husband who shares my utterly unreasonable love of karaoke! We ended up in a second floor norae-bang (karaoke room). The way karaoke works here is that you go into the establishment and ask for a room at the counter. The clerk points you to your own private space where you have a list of songs and two large screens. You pay by the hour for time in the room. Our room could have held maybe 12-15 people, and it had comfortable couches along the walls and a big table in the middle. There was a disco ball overhead, and the karaoke screens played the funniest videos as we sang. They were completely unrelated to the songs and featured scenes from nature, track and field events, and pictures of European and Korean cities. We were also provided with several tambourines for enthusiastic accompaniment. We sang a lot of songs, but everyone's favorite was a ballad called "Making Love out of Nothing at All," which Janey sang with Keegan as a back-up singer. Of course, Keegan didn't know the song, so the chorus degenerated into Keegan chanting "makin' love" in a deep, Barry White type voice, and Janey following up with a beautiful "out of nothing at all." This went on for quite some time, accompanied by gales of laughter from the rest of the group. Keegan's mustache lent a certain je ne sais quoi to the performance.

After our all fun on Friday evening, we got a late start on Saturday. We decided that we'd spend the afternoon taking a trip to Oedo Botania, an island off the coast of Geoje with a botanical garden on it. We took a boat from the nearby town of Jangseungpo, somehow managing to arrive at the ticket office exactly when the boat was leaving. The trip out to the island took nearly an hour. We cruised along Geoje's coast, enjoying the beautiful views and listening without comprehension to the guide's narration in Korean. We sat quietly without speaking up when the dried squid vendor walked past. After about half an hour we came to a small rocky island with huge cliffs, and the guides told us that we could stand outside on the narrow deck of the boat. We took some pictures and then stood back in awe as the pilot steered the boat into tiny gaps in the cliffs. I knew that the pilot must be very skilled at steering the boat through these small spaces, but it was still a little scary to watch the cliffs slide past only a few feet from our faces.

At long last we arrived on Oedo. The garden was very impressive and chock full of Korean tourists. I don't think we saw any other foreigners there, which surprised us a little. We also think that every single Korean tourist there was industriously taking pictures and posing in the funniest ways. We enjoyed the plants and flowers and the cactus garden and funny sculptures, but we'd also like to go back during the week when the garden might be less crowded. We dutifully followed the pretty garden path, ate some fruity flavored ice cream, and enjoyed some stunning views of the ocean and nearby islands. The sky was particularly beautiful, even though it was mostly cloudy, because the sun was streaming through the clouds and the light was muted and soft.

The ride back to Jangseungpo was much shorter, and many people fell asleep. The woman sitting next to me was wearing a fuzzy bright red sweater, and the girl behind us was amusing herself by picking fuzz off of the woman's sweater and placing it on her husband's black jacket, then laughing uproariously. It was hard not to laugh along.

After all this activity, you'd think we were ready for a quiet afternoon at home on Sunday. But we had already made plans to go biking with our triathlon buddies and some of the new surveyors that we had gone bowling with. So we drove in a caravan out to Tongyeong, a town just off of Geoje Island. There is a triathlon there every year, and our friends wanted to show us the bike course. We parked in a huge parking lot that serves as the transition area for the tri and got ourselves ready. One of the new surveyors had just gotten a new bike and was learning to use the clip-in pedals, so there were a couple of false starts, but she was a real trooper and we were off on our adventure. Everyone rode at a different speed, but those in the front were patient and waited for the rest of us so that no one got lost. We rode up and down some monster hills and enjoyed still more views of beautiful harbors full of fishing boats and rounded mountains covered in trees turning orange, red, and yellow. It was a great ride, but the last uphill of the course was a real killer. Thank goodness for my granny gear, because even with it I was huffing and puffing pretty hard at the top. Everyone was filled with biking ambitions after the ride. Mine is to be brave like Rachael and learn how to use my clip-in pedals, too.

In the evening, we went up to John and Glenda's house for dinner with them and with Daniel and Marina. John showed us pictures from his trip to Australia, where he did some wonderful scuba diving and took a lot of good pictures with his underwater camera. I was so tired from the bike ride that I could barely keep my eyes open, but it was a good feeling to know that we had spent the weekend so productively, in the company of so many nice people.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Happy Pepero Day!

November 11 is a special day in Korea: Pepero Day! It's named after chocolate dipped pretzel sticks (yum!) called Pepero. On this day, boyfriends and girlfriends give each other little gifts of the pretzel sticks, and the stores have been filled with special displays composed of fancily wrapped Pepero packages. I'll see if you can guess why November 11 was chosen as Pepero Day.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

More Culinary Adventures

From what we understand, we are quite lucky to be in Geoje now and not earlier. Two supermarkets in Okpo and the Tesco in Gohyeon, near the shipyard, are among the fairly recent conveniences that we enjoy now. As a result, it's not hard to find a lot of the foods and other goods that we're used to as Westerners. Unfortunately, though, a major deficit in food stores here is the cheese selection. We can buy cheddar and mozzerella, but other fancy kinds of cheeses are harder to come by. One cheese that I particularly miss is ricotta, which plays a starring role in my favorite food, lasagna. A few weeks ago I found myself yearning for some lasagna, so I decided to check for ricotta in a deli shop where I had seen some unusual cheeses on offer. A very small tub of ricotta cheese, about 1/2 cup to be exact, cost 9,500 won, or about $9.50. But such is the pull of lasagna that I paid it willingly. At least Keegan and I got several meals out of our very pricey pan of lasagna!

Our tiny ricotta tub, with Keegan's cell phone for scale.

Another food adventure involved a strange fruit we found at the supermarket. It looked like a large, green-skinned, oval apple, and we decided to buy it and see what it was like. First we discovered that it was hard as a rock. It was nearly impossible to cut off a piece to sample, but when we did, we were both sorry. Not only is this fruit hard as a rock, but also incredibly bitter. This is not a fruit that has evolved to be remotely approachable to human tastes. Some research on the Internet led us to the discovery that we had bought Chinese quinces, which are, as we had already learned, basically inedible unless cooked for a very long time with lots of sugar, as in quince jelly. Since we don't have any jelly jars or any experience making jelly, I looked around for another quince recipe and found one for a quince and apple crisp. It came out delicious, with the sweetness of the apples, sugar, and maple syrup complimented well by the tartness of the well-cooked quince. But the difficulty of peeling, coring, and chopping up the quince is not an experience I'm eager to repeat. I'd say the quince is giving us pretty strong signals that it does not want to be eaten, and I'm willing to listen to those from now on.

A Chinese quince and a pan of quince-apple crisp.

A more friendly fruit we've been enjoying are small tangerines from Jeju, a large island that is the southernmost part of Korea. They are tiny and sweet and tasty, and I bought a huge box of them last time we went shopping. In Korea, it is not unusual to see people buying fruit in bulk when it's in season, and we've gotten caught up in the trend. Here's the result:

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mini World Cup 2008

This past Saturday Keegan and I spent the whole day at the "Mini World Cup," which the city of Geoje puts on for all the foreigners that work and play club soccer at the shipyards. It was held at the Geoje Stadium, which is really nice, with a perfectly manicured field and a big, wide rubbery track. I had a nice four-mile run on the track while Keegan warmed up with the ABS team. Normally I don't like running on the track, but it was so nice to have a long, flat running route that I didn't mind so much.

The soccer tournament had eight teams in it, which were assigned country names based on the location of their home office. There were two Brazilian teams, one from each shipyard, and one each from Qatar, the UK, Angola, and Korea. ABS's team played as the U.S., even though there are a number of people of other nationalities on the team.

The opening ceremony featured a Korean traditional drumming group wearing the most outrageous costumes. There were a man and "woman" dressed in traditional Korean clothing who just danced and didn't drum. The man had a stringy fake white beard, and the "woman" was actually a man with lipstick who really hammed it up. Keegan thought he must have had the benefit of some early morning soju. Some of the drummers had these huge blooming hats with crumpled crepe paper glued all over them so that they looked like enormous blowsy flowers. Another drummer had a long ribbon attached to his hat so that if he moved his head in the right way he could twirl the ribbon around his body as he drummed. There was also one man playing a very shrill horn over all of the drumming. Definitely a spectacle worth seeing.

After the drummers finished, the pushy Korean women who were emceeing coaxed all of the players onto the field for some "exercises," which consisted of abashed men dancing around to obnoxious techno music. As a spectator, I can report that it was truly hilarious. After the exercises, some Geoje VIPs were introduced, and they cut up an immense, steaming rice cake to distribute amongst the participants and spectators. It was gluey rice paste covered in very dry bean powder and not very flavorful, so it did not go over well in the American tent.

The opening events over, we settled in for the tournament. I spent some time chatting with two of the female surveyors that Keegan works with, who are both quite nice. To entertain the spectators while the soccer games were going on, the sponsors of the event came up with a number of games to keep us entertained. There was a hula hooping contest, during which we realized how amazing Korean women are at hula hooping. While the Americans thrashed around desperately, swinging our hips violently from side to side, the Korean women stood practically still, as if they didn't even notice that there was a heavy plastic ring covered in punishing bumps twirling around their tender middles.

After hula hooping came hackey-sack and traditional Korean darts and then my personal favorite: the "throwing your shoe in the air" contest. This involved five people lining up and kicking their loosened right shoes as far as possible. Kristin, Keegan's co-worker, placed second and won a gift pack full of soap and toothpaste. My kick was only mediocre, unfortunately. In the afternoon, there was an 800 meter relay. We had trouble finding participants from ABS since the guys were playing soccer, so another female surveyor and I teamed up with Brazil and Holland teams to run our 200 meter legs. My team was pretty slow, but we had a good time. The last game of the day was tug of war, which was set up just as it would be in the U.S. except that instead of pulling with a sustained effort, the teams tugged suddenly and then released in a regular rhythm. My team won, and I was treated to one of the coveted soap and toothpaste sets. Keegan also won some soap, so between the two of us we won enough to keep ourselves clean for perhaps the rest of our stay in Korea.

The ABS team ended up doing quite well and played in the final against Qatar. The game was tied 2 -2 after the second half, so they went to penalty kicks. Both teams made their first five kicks, but on the second round, the Qatar goalie stopped the ABS kick, and then they scored another penalty kick to win the game. It was an exciting finish to the day! The whole event was pretty fun, and we were impressed with the amount of food and prizes and entertainment that the city provided for us - we'll look forward to going again next year.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Historic Day

Today was full of excitement as we watched election results come in.  Since we are fourteen hours ahead of the east coast now, we started seeing results around 9:30 a.m., when I got home from the swimming pool and glued myself to the computer.  By the time my student arrived at 2 p.m., we had the news:  Obama will be our next president!  I watched his victory speech with tears in my eyes.  In the coming months, Obama will be sorely tested as he deals with the mess left behind by eight years of the Bush administration.  But for now, I just want to reflect with happiness on Obama's win in the U.S. and in my home state of Virginia.

Pepper is sharing the joy:

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Why I Voted for Obama

I've tried to keep away from politics in my blog throughout this crazy election season, but now with the election looming in just a couple days, I want to publish my thoughts about what makes Obama the better candidate in this race. I strongly doubt that my thoughts will change anyone's mind, especially since most of my readers are as liberal as I am, but I want there to be a record that not all Obama supporters are crazed, anti-American elitists. Much of what I will say is laid out, more eloquently and in more detail, in the New Yorker's endorsement of Obama, but I'll add my two cents as well.

First of all, what about McCain? I used to like McCain, especially because of his touted maverick status when it came to the issue of torture. Any senator, especially a Republican, who stood up to the Bush administration's shameful endorsement of torture gets my respect and admiration. Also, McCain's willingness to break with the most conservative members of his party marked him as someone with sense and moderation. Unfortunately, McCain has abandoned that stance in an attempt to pander to the most conservative members of the party. The worst instance of this is his choice of an extremely conservative, poorly prepared, evangelical as his running mate. Sarah Palin has shown herself to be ignorant on important issues, extremely inarticulate, and willing to engage in the nastiest of misleading attacks against her opponent. Yet McCain chose her to fill one of the most important political posts in the U.S. Did McCain really think that this woman was the best choice to help him lead the country and possibly to take over in the event that McCain is unable to finish out his term? Really? Or did he deliberately pick someone with more folksy appeal than education and experience in an attempt to win over conservative voters in the "real America"? I cannot vote for someone who treats the decision of who will be his second in command so irresponsibly.

So I'm not interested in voting for McCain. But what makes Obama an appealing candidate? First of all, I am a staunch Democrat and tend to side with liberal policies more often than with conservative ones. I believe that education and equal opportunity for everyone are higher priorities than military might and the well-being of enormous corporations. I think the world is more nuanced than neo-conservative policy allows. So I probably would vote for Obama regardless of his personal appeal. But, Obama also has personal appeal in spades. He is an amazing speaker and exudes intelligence and a detailed understanding of the issues that a president would have to deal with. He seems like a sincere idealist. I realize that he has been playing the political game just as hard as McCain over the past few months, and he's made decisions that I haven't agreed with, such as his about-face on accepting public financing for the campaign. But I think that Obama has shown tremendous character over the course of the campaign. What I like about him the most can be illustrated, I believe, through his reaction to the Jeremiah Wright controversy that erupted during the primaries.

When Obama's connection to his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, began to make headlines in the spring, I thought he would react like most politicians faced with such accusations: deny, deny, deny. But instead, Obama acknowledged his ties to Wright. Yes, he attended Wright's church. Yes, Wright baptized his children and performed his marriage. He repudiated unequivocally Wright's inflammatory speeches, but he would not repudiate the man who had played such an important role in his life. How absolutely refreshing to see someone in a position of power own up to potentially damaging information and take responsibility for his choices!

But Obama didn't stop there. In his amazing speech about race, he went on to address the lingering issues of race relations in the U.S. in a way that did not obscure just how complicated the relationship between whites and blacks in the U.S. really is. So, Obama disagreed with his pastor's rhetoric, but instead of simply dismissing him as "an extremist" or an "evil" man, he tried to look at things from Wright's point of view. Why would an aging black pastor in Chicago be angry enough to say terrible things about his country? Is he justified? How can those of us who aren't as angry or vitriolic reach out to those who are? The contrast with the Bush administration's neo-conservative view of the world is clear: in Bush's world, things are black and white. Those who do not share the interests of the United States are labeled "evil." What does it really mean to say that a leader or nation is evil? Not much. It doesn't lead to an understanding of what leads our enemies to act as they do or a willingness to use our common humanity as a basis for compromise. Instead, looking at the world as a battleground for the forces of good and evil pushes us towards viewing our enemies as irrevocably different and irredeemable. I don't know whether McCain has such a stark view of the world, but his running mate's evangelical background and her lack of reaction to the violent, ugly rhetoric from the audience at McCain-Palin rallies suggest to me that she does, and that worries me.

In summary, Obama's liberal stance and his intelligence appeal to me. His refusal to lie about or deny his connection to Jeremiah Wright speaks highly of his character and his belief in himself and his choices. Finally, Obama's willingness to engage with those he disagrees with is the crux of his appeal for me. In a world where relationships between nations are as fraught and complicated as those between the races in America, I can think of no better quality in a president than the desire and ability to understand those relationships and engage with those who seem irreconcilably different from us.

So, when I received my absentee ballot at the end of September, I cast my vote for Obama. I don't know whether he will be the kind of president I hope he will be, but I hope that I'll have the chance to find out.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Another Language Teaching Story

Another funny thing that I came across while teaching highlights the limitations of translating by dictionary when you have a limited familiarity with the language you're learning. One of the sentences my grammar book used to illustrate the present continuous tense was "The sun is shining." Simple, right? But when my student brought her completed exercises to her next lesson, she asked me about that example, clearly baffled. I was scrambling to figure out how to explain what it means to shine, thinking about shoes and pennies and water in sunlight, when my student pointed at her lower leg and said "Shine?" Then I understood: knowing that she would find only verb roots in the dictionary, she cleverly looked up shining minus the -ing and got....shin. Well, no wonder it didn't make sense to her to say that the sun is bottom-half-of-your-leg-ing! So we had a talk about how spelling changes when you add -ing to verbs, and the problem was solved, and I bet this student will always remember both shine and shin now.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What Happened this Week?

This week I:
  • took another hike with Keegan.
  • failed to find the trail until reaching the top of the mountain.
  • was directed onto the trail by picnicking Koreans wielding scissors. (They were grilling bulgogi, and scissors are often used to cut the thinly sliced beef.)
  • had my picture taken by a Korean hiker, whose overall attitude was that of a man snapping a picture of a rare species at the zoo.
  • nearly had a heart attack riding my bike on the scary, windy, hilly roads north of our apartment.
  • had my first two lessons with a new student whose knowledge of English grammar is encyclopedic but whose basic speaking and listening skills are way behind.
  • went to a lunch that featured lively conversation in English and Spanish and a lovely coconut flan.
  • left my lights on, ran my battery down, and learned just how easy it is to push my car around the parking lot for a jump.
  • had my first knitting lesson, during which is was discovered that my independent attempts at knitting involved the wrong needles, inappropriate yarn, and a knotty, unrecognizable mess that could not be called knitting.
  • learned to knit the right way!
  • bought and then painted a hard-shelled Korean pumpkin for Halloween with Glenda and Keegan.
  • was chagrined to see what Keegan chose to paint on his Halloween pumpkin (see below).
  • watched hours of kitten antics.
  • disciplined kittens for their antics involving plants, curtains and my exposed flesh.
  • rearranged furniture, painted a picture frame, picked out photos to have printed and framed, baked granola, and bought new plants for the apartment.
  • enjoyed another whirlwind week on Geoje Island.

Painted pumpkins, L to R: Ellen's, Glenda's, and Keegan's.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Meaning of Children

I had an interesting exchange with one of my students this week. We were reading a story about a woman who had quadruplets, and one of the exercises after the story asked my student to write how many children were in her family and then how many boys and how many girls. She wrote that she had no children in her family, but then she wrote that she had two boys, which I know is true because we've talked about her sons before. I asked her how she could say that she had two boys but no children. She said "No. They are not children. They are 19 and 25." I was surprised - I've never really thought about the fact that child can mean both "young person" and "offspring." So we talked about how children can grow to be tweens and teenagers and young adults, but they are always your children. My student looked at me like I was crazy when I told her that it's possible to talk about "adult children." But in the end, we both learned something. That's what makes language teaching so much fun.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Parking Madness

Parking in Korea can be quite an event. First of all, there's parking on the street. Finding a free parking spot in town can be interesting. Cars park along both sides of narrow streets full of shops. This makes is difficult to drive down said streets, which often have about one lane's worth of space available for actual driving. It's often necessary to pull off to the side of the road to let someone else pass. As you drive around looking for a spot, you have to be aware of the lines on the side of the road (you can park on white lines, but not yellow, although this rule is often ignored). Many times, a potential spot appears, but as you approach, you see that it's taken by a scooter. Or businesses will sometimes put plastic gas cans out in front of their shops to make sure that people don't park directly in front of the doors. Since there's no sidewalk, it is possible to park literally right in front of a shop door, and of course shopkeepers don't like that. So even if there aren't gas cans out, you have to be conscious of this and avoid being yelled at by proprietors. Finally, a tiny spot turns up, and then you have the challenge of squeezing into it. This situation is one of the major reasons that I love my tiny Matiz.

We are fortunate that we can park easily at our apartment building. Buildings that were constructed in the past often have fewer spots than the residents have cars. In this case, there are some unspoken parking rules that help everyone have a place to park. First of all, it's common to have your cell phone number posted in the dashboard of your car. This can be written on a card, etched into a fancy plastic doo-hickey, or cross-stitched in a cutesy design. This way, if you're forced to park somewhere that blocks another person in, that person can call you and ask you to move. Another solution, which we encountered in an apartment building parking garage in Jinju, is to leave your car in neutral with the parking brake off. This way, you can double park, and the person you're blocking can just push your car out of the way when necessary. Watching our host in Jinju push cars around so that we could go out for an evening spin just struck me as so odd! But it's an effective solution. And another good reason to have a car that's, like mine, barely bigger than a golf cart.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Weeks in Review: Trailblazing, Traveling, and Talking

Lots has happened in the past few weeks - we've gone biking and hiking and visited Jinju again. I've met Brazilians and Ukrainians and acquired another student. Here are some of the details:

Two weekends ago we had quite a hiking adventure! We decided that we were going to hike a mountain overlooking the Samsung shipyard where Keegan works. We saw a sign for the mountain, so we parked by a small village and started walking. We went through some rice paddies and when the concrete path along the fields came to an end, we saw a small track leading into the woods up the side of the mountain. We forged ahead. The trail got rougher and rougher, and we brushed aside more and more spiders, and finally we realized that we were not on a trail at all but were instead hacking our way up the side of the mountain in rugged explorer fashion. My calves and ankles were screaming as we plodded up the steep mountainside through brambles and sandy soil that crumbled away under our feet. Finally, I heard a call from Keegan up ahead, and he said that he had found the trail! After less than ten minutes of walking on the real path, we were at the top of the mountain. Unfortunately, the weather was not so nice - drizzly and hazy, so our views were a bit disappointing, but we were proud of our rugged adventurousness!

On the way back down, we took the real path, curious to see exactly where we had strayed. Well, it turned out it was at the very, very beginning. On the concrete paths that led through the rice paddies, we should have taken a sharp right at one point. But there was no marker at all, only a signpost where the trail started, which was not in sight from turn that we missed. Well, now we know.

Last weekend we went back to Jinju for the annual lantern festival - maybe you've already seen the pictures on Flickr. The festival had everything you could hope for in a fall festival - food, games, crowds, and a very impressive display of lights and fireworks. All of this had a distinctly Korean flair, especially the food, which was fascinating. The first thing we noticed was small mobile food carts parked along the side of the road selling seafood and ricecakes. My favorites were trucks whose entire back ends were covered in stacks of enormous crabs. There were also the perennial favorites bbang tigi, which are rice cakes made in a funny machine. The machine pours about a quarter cup of rice into a small cylinder and then covers the cylinder, which I suppose is very hot and at a high pressure. When the pressure gets too high, the cylinder pops open and shoots a rice cake out with a satisfying "bbang!" There were also several stands selling a very hard kind of slightly sweet peanut brittle, which the proprietors cut up with scissors that looked like they had cleavers for blades. Also for sale were dried squid and silkworm larvae, which smell terrible and look like something the contestants on Fear Factor used to eat.

The main attraction of the festival was, of course, the lighted lanterns floating on the river and displayed along the shore, and they were amazing. We saw fire-breathing peacocks and a fire-breathing dragon, an enormous pogoda at least two stories tall, bulls and matadors, and countless others. On the shore, there were tunnels hung with all kinds of lanterns made by festival attendees, and there were walls of red lanterns, too. There were booths where you could make wire lanterns (unfortunately, you had to have a reservation), and there was also the opportunity to buy a small lantern that you could attach a wish to. These lanterns had a candle inside, and after you wrote your wish on the lantern, you could float it down the river. There were also floating footbridges that you could cross to get a better view of the lanterns on the river. It was all just overwhelming, and I'm so glad we went.

This week has been full of social events. On Wednesday, I went to Quizno's, favorite hangout of the Okpo foreigner population, for a meeting of the Brazilian Ladies of Geoje Island. One of my students was eager to introduce me to her friends, and I was eager to go. The Brazilian women are a talkative, friendly, noisy bunch, and I enjoyed spending time with them. Many of them speak very good English, but of course now I am intrigued by Portuguese and want to start learning. If I am going to start spending time with a group of Brazilians, I'd probably be able to pick up the language more quickly than I'm picking up Korean! It helps that there are a lot of similarities with French and Spanish as well.

On Friday, Glenda and I invited our EFL students over to my apartment for tea and snacks. We had a Brazilian contingent and a Ukrainian contingent, but everyone seemed to do very well speaking and listening in English. It was a fun, interesting gathering full of fun, interesting, intelligent people and lots of chances to talk about and observe linguistic quirks, so I was really in my element. There may not be any money in adult ESL, but it sure is a wonderful way to meet the best kind of people.

Here are a few pictures from the get-together:

Our tea group. My student Rita, who is doing fantastically, is on the left. Next to her is Andrea, also from Brazil; Elena, my new student from Ukraine starting Monday; Alla, our neighbor and Glenda's student from Ukraine, and Glenda.

Pepper discovers the tea cozy is just as its name suggests.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Korean Language Learning Update

Keegan and I continue to make slow progress in learning Korean.  Our beginners' class will finish at the end of November, and then we'll take a test to move up to the intermediate level.  I'm guessing that those classes will start after Christmas.  Recently we've learned how to introduce ourselves and to tell people where we're from and what our job is.  Now we're working on asking where someone is going or asking where something is.  Apparently asking Eodi gayo? (Where are you going?) is a very common question in Korea, like part of a greeting.  Our teacher explained that many foreigners find this odd and a little nosy.  But she told us "Don't worry, Korean people do not want to follow you.  They are just being polite and making conversation."

We've also learned how to say good-bye, which is more complicated than you'd think because Korean makes an interesting distinction.  If you are leaving somewhere, and the person you're saying good-bye to is staying, then you say good-bye one way:  annyeonghi keseyo (literally, please stay well).  If both you and the person you're talking to are leaving, then you say annyeonghi kaseyo (literally, please go well).  This kind of thing is what I love about studying foreign languages - choosing the right words forces you to look at common situations with an eye for distinctions you don't usually think about.

Our Rosetta Stone Korean disk finally made it to Korea, and we're back in business learning on the computer.  I am fascinated by the process of learning with this program because it relies completely on implicit language learning with no explicit explanations of grammar rules or pronunciation.  Each lesson consists of a series of pictures with descriptions in Korean, either spoken, written, or both.   Your task as the learner is to figure out how the words paired with the picture work.  You have to pay attention to the differences and similarities among the pictures and make hypotheses about how those match up with the differences and similarities among the words.  In this way, the exercises are similar to what babies do when they are learning their native language, except that the baby's environment is usually much less controlled than this program and full of many more examples of language use.  Figuring all this out is fun, like a puzzle, so I'm definitely motivated to sit down and spend some time using the program.  Some of the rules and associations I figure out using Rosetta Stone are more likely to stick with me because I am proud and excited about figuring them out myself.

However, I think that it would be very difficult to rely entirely on Rosetta Stone to learn the language.  First of all, my deciphering of the parts of the sentences is made much, much easier by the fact that I learned the Korean alphabet and some basic Korean grammar through more traditional methods.  Second, I have a hard time remembering the full words and phrases from the program.  I tend to use the beginnings of words and phrases to distinguish between sentences and match them to the appropriate picture, and without making an effort to remember the full word or phrase, it doesn't stick with me.  Also, because my understanding of how the pictures and sentences match up is based on hypotheses about how the language works, I am wary of using those hypotheses to create new sentences because I'm not entirely sure about what I'm saying.   So far, my opinion is that Rosetta Stone is an interesting and challenging way to learning a language, but it is good to pair it with some more traditional language learning techniques, such as memorizing vocabulary and reading about grammar rules.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Fashion in Korea

Keegan and I spent a good amount of time yesterday afternoon wandering around in a department store, and I have a few oddities to share, mostly regarding clothing styles, which are pretty different from what we're used to. One style that we've noticed on the racks and on the streets for women is very baggy, long shirts and leggings. In fact, Glenda and I have a joke when we go shopping: is it a shirt or a dress? I think some native shoppers are confused too, though this is largely based on my observation of one woman I saw this afternoon in town. She guessed dress, but I think she should have gone with shirt. Otherwise, shirts with English sayings on them are pretty popular, even though they sometimes don't make a lot of sense or are just odd sounding. One of my personal favorites is a baggy, off-the-shoulder number proclaiming simply "FAB!".

Men's fashion can be quite debonair. Men's suits often include metallic fibers and shirts and ties sport little details like small sparkly, multicolored stones or shiny stitching. Colors like pastel pink, fuschia, and all kinds of other shades that men at home generally eschew are not out of bounds for Korean men. I think this is kind of refreshing, although it still takes some getting used to to see vests, ties, and dress shirts in shades I normally think of as feminine.

Another fashion trend that we foreigners inevitably find noteworthy is dressing like your brother/sister/daughter/son/girlfriend/boyfriend. It's not terribly unusual to see couples sporting matching outfits, and shops often sell T-shirts or bathing suits in complementary men's and women's styles. I think I mentioned soon after our arrival here that matching sets of underwear are also popular.

So, as you can see, there are a lot of differences in fashions between here and the U.S. I try very hard not to think about what my Korean neighbors think of my fashion choices. I hope that they are more mystified by my taste than horrified by unwitting indiscretions, but you never can tell. As our little village is populated mostly by elderly farmers, I'm sure that my summertime running outfits have caused at least some consternation.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Week in Review: Socializing and Swimming

This week saw several more social outings than usual. First of all, on Tuesday after language class, several of us went to dinner at a Thai restaurant. I was a little disappointed that there weren't more tofu options, but we did try an absolutely fantastic soup (the name of which I have already forgotten) that had a tremendous flavor - somehow both piercingly lemony and reassuringly creamy at the same time. There was also a mixed vegetable dish that was really tasty with a brown sauce that, to my wholly American tastes, seemed more like Chinese than Thai.

At the table were two Thais, Pong and Amorn; three Americans, me, Keegan, and Kristin (another surveyor); a Pole, Slavek; and a Russian, Boris. I love international gatherings like this, especially when I have a chance to show off my Polish (I'm actually still quite good at saying "I speak a little Polish, but I've forgotten a lot. I lived in Debica seven years ago."). We waited for a long time for our food, and during that time Amorn was cheerfully loud and overbearing, Boris and Slavek got into a heated argument about the economics of homebuilding in Russia and the U.S., Kristin, Keegan and I compared stories about previous Thai meals, and Pong watched us all in observant silence.

On Wednesday, many of us were reunited at a Korean restaurant so that we could send off Mr. Moon, a Korean surveyor who is moving to Busan to work as an engineer. Again, vegetarian offerings were sparing, so I had an odd dinner of cabbage soup, cold tofu with scallions and soy sauce, and cabbage salad with raspberry dressing. I really enjoyed meeting and talking to Mr. Moon, who was kind, interesting, and spoke very good English. The evening ended fairly early when all the foreigners began groaning more and more about their knees, backs, legs, etc. Only Mr. Moon could keep his place on the floor gracefully.

Friday was a holiday here (National Foundation Day) so Keegan had the day off. It was a beautiful day, so we went to the beach with John, Glenda, and John's mom and stepfather, who were here visiting from the states. We spent a lot of time peering at tiny sea life in rocky tidal pools (shrimp, slugs, snails, crabs, and tiny fish were abundant). Keegan had his mask and fins, and I tried on an extra mask and swam around to look for more underwater life. I didn't see a whole lot, but there was one bright yellow and gray fish and many sand colored bottom dwellers that were pretty hard to spot unless they moved. We also saw a sign that had been washed off the beach. I told Keegan that it made a good Korean test: if you can read the whole sign in Korean before running out of breath, you finally know the alphabet well enough! I really enjoyed swimming around, until we started getting stung by jellyfish. We didn't actually SEE any jellyfish, but Keegan said there were some huge ones further out and that possibly bits of stinging tentacle had floated in towards the shore and were nailing us all over. So we decided to cut short our swim. All in all, it was an enjoyable day, and the beach was much less crowded than earlier in the summer.

In the evening, Glenda, John and parents came over for pizza and a rousing game of Phase 10, which Keegan won. I really enjoyed having the apartment full of people. We welcome visitors here anytime! The plane ride is only about 20 hours.

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?

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.