Oct 31, 2012

An Ode to Ondol

Ondol is the name for the Korean system of under-floor heating. This is my tribute to it.

Oh, ondol, how I adore thee.

I know we haven't known each other for very long, but I can foresee that this is a love that will last a lifetime. If I could, I would bestow a thousand bottles of soju upon the wise, wonderful Koreans who invented thy delicious floor-warming properties.

Nothing in this mortal world compares to the moment when I set foot in my humble home, kick off my shoes, and alight upon my toasty, warm floor. Thou, my wonderful friend, hast convinced me of the infinite superiority of sleeping par terre. Indeed, I have gone native for thee, ondol.

Behold: My bed is no longer my bed. It has, instead, been relegated to the position of mere sofa.  My ukulele and violin have taken up residence there, the way cats perch on their favorite piece of furniture. Now, the floor is my bed.

And what a lovely bed it is. Always radiating warmth and comfort, ready to embrace me at day's end. Who needs companionship when I have thee, ondol? Thou providest all of the cuddly warming benefits of another human, and yet I worry not about thee hogging the blanket.

Ondol, where hast thou been all my life? Ah, but it matters not. We are together now. Let us never be parted again.

Oct 29, 2012

Non Sequiturs

My school toothpaste tastes like green tea.

I'm convinced the lunch ladies give me extra kimchi.

I'm still waiting to like kimchi.

My coteacher (and principal, and vice principal) keeps insisting the neighborhood around my school is dangerous. Just once, I'd like to ask what exactly they think will happen to me.

I'm pretty sure the 6th grade boys are saying inappropriate things about me.

I have no way to prove this.

I will never understand why Koreans sanitize their toothbrushes with special UV cabinets... but sneeze into their hands.

I think I know the real reason Korean style is loose and baggy-chic. S'cause nobody has a dryer. Their clothes just stretch out ad infinitum. My sweater sleeves are almost to my knees.

My coworkers get super stoked when they hear me say even a single Korean word. I think they forget that outside of school, 90% of my interactions have to be in Korean.

Few things make me happier than the words "Second grade is cancelled today."

I believe I've stumbled upon the secret to why Koreans are so skinny. You try deboning a fish with chopsticks. See how long it takes you before you give up and stop eating.

Floors are just more comfortable here.

Oct 22, 2012

Out of the minds of fifth graders

I think that mysterious letter in the second word is an a... so we can only guess what he MEANT to write.

Mmmm, Lunchtime

Also, today I finally managed to snap a picture of my school lunch. I have to be sneaky about it because I eat in the conference room with all the other teachers and the principal. That's why it's vertical. I had to look like I was texting. They already think I'm weird. No need to confirm it.

Behold, the setting for my daily game of What Did I Just Put in My Mouth?

As far as I could tell,  today's contestants were (clockwise from top left):

-Kimchi (duh)
-Steamed(?) sesame spinach
-Mysterious black stringy substance (that one will remain an enigma forever)
-Spam(?) with barbecue(?) sauce
-Soup with tofu and octopus bits
-Rice (also duh)

On the ratings scale, I'd say this lunch was a 5. I've had way better, but I've also had way worse. What's for lunch pretty much makes or breaks my day. Special Food Wednesdays (a city-wide tradition) are the single most anticipated meal of my whole week. Sometimes it's "western food," but sometimes it's just SUPER KOREAN food. Last week we had crab soup. There was an entire claw sticking out of my tray like a creature from the deep.

Either way, it's always an adventure.

Yay, Korea! Acupuncture

This is the first in a new series I'm calling "Yay, Korea!" There are a lot of things here that are just so brilliant, you don't know how you ever lived without them.

Today's "Yay, Korea!" is, brought to you by the letter P, for pain.

I've had back problems for a while, but my firm Korean bed, my uncomfortable work chair, and the Forces That Be have combined to make my lower back a constant source of pain and discomfort. I think (read: webMD tells me) that I probably have sciatica.

Anyway, as I mentioned in my pity party last week, I've been wanting to get acupuncture but have been  apprehensive about the language barrier. Today I decided, "Screw it, I know the word for 'here' and I know the word for 'hurts.' Let's do this."

I went to the clinic in the building next to mine. The place was warm and cozy and smelled like ginseng. A smiling middle-aged man greeted me and handed me a little registration form. When I looked at it uncomprehendingly (note to self: add the words for name, address, and phone number to your flashcard deck) he pointed and said "name," "address," etc.

He immediately took me to one of the offices in the back, where the doctor asked me a few questions. I have no idea what they were, I just kept nodding and saying 네, 네 (yes, yes) .  If that didn't seem satisfactory, I would point to my lower back and say that it hurt.  Then, he took my pulse and felt my shoulders. Right away, he cracked my neck, which felt AAMMMAAZZZINGGG. I already know I'm going back tomorrow for another one. Immediately my upper back and shoulders felt looser.

Then he took me to another room and had me lie facedown on a table. He examined my lower back, asked a few more questions (네, 네) and then started sticking me with needles. I think he use maybe 10 all together, but it's difficult to say because they're so small, you can barely even feel them.  He put a heat lamp over me, and left me to ponder my fate.

About 10 minutes later, he came back, took out all the needles, and ushered me to the front to pay.

The price for all of this? 6,000 won. Yep. In Korea, acupuncture is covered by insurance, so you can get it for less than $6 USD.  Honestly, I'd pay that just to have my neck cracked every day.

I'm definitely going back tomorrow.

Yay, Korea!

Oct 21, 2012

Hi, Herman!

A quick shout out to Herman of Doobybrain.com, who has been following my adventures and posted about my blog on his awesome website today. Check it out if you want to see and learn about a HUGE variety of interesting stuff!

Myeongdong: A Shopper's Paradise/Nightmare

I was talking to a friend from home recently, and she asked me about the shopping here. I told her it would make her head explode.

Korean shopping is a whole different experience. Take, for example, the shopper's paradise/nightmare of Myeongdong.

Oh, Myeongdong. How I love/hate thee. Every time I go to this black hole of shopping, I come away having spent way more money than I intended to.  A 5 dollar shirt? Don't mind if I do. 10 dollar shoes? Sure, I need a new pair of flats. Wait... is that a Forever 21 over there? And it's... oh my god, it's 5 floors tall.

Myeongdong has all its bases covered. Getting a little hungry? No need to sit down (which would take away from crucial shopping time). "Here, you go," Myeongdong says, "have a hot dog covered in french fries on a stick. If you want to be healthier, have a kebab of grilled chicken and leeks, sprinkled with an addicting amount of salt."

"Or a piece of fried dough filled with cinnamon and sugar, still crackling from the fryer. Or have an ice cream cone the height of your head."

In case you do decide you want to sit down, there are plenty of coffee shops and restaurants to choose from. If you're in need of a little company, you can even go to one of the dog or cat cafes, where for a small fee you can play with the resident creatures to your heart's content.

As I keep learning (over and over again), there's no such thing as a "quick trip to Myeongdong." It's like Ikea. It just sucks you in, and you can't help but love it.

Oct 18, 2012

Microwave K-Fail: Solved!

Update: K-fail solved! Thank you to Paula and Chloe who both took it upon themselves to help me clear up the mysteries of the microwave:

보온: warm
약 : light
약중: light-medium
중강: medium-strong
강: strong

K-Fail: The Microwave

This is the latest installment in a series called "K-Fails", in which Meg does something dumb because she can't speak Korean.

Today's K-fail is an ongoing problem. 

As you may have gathered from a few posts back, I have recently acquired a new microwave. That does not, however, mean that I know how to use it.

I wanted to break it in by making a mug cake. I had slaved away for the better part of an hour in the grocery section of Homeplus looking for ingredients. I hauled them home in my pimpin ajumma cart (see below) and started mixing. It was challenging without measuring cups, but I've made enough of these to be able to guestimate and correct for mistakes. When I deemed the batter satisfactory (despite my lack of vanilla extract), I popped it in the nuker and anxiously awaited that first warm, gooey bite. So, you can imagine my surprise when I pulled it out and it was... the exact same temperature. Puzzled, confused, and sad, I put the mug back in and punched in a few more minutes. When it came back out... same thing. I squinted at the settings knob, pulled up my trusty Google Translate app on my phone, and started translating. Here's what I came up with:

Clockwise from left:
보온: Lagging
약: About
애동: Thaw (the one in orange)
약중: Yakjung
중: Of
중강: DCM
강: River

Yeah. I know. Google Translate's crippling weakness regarding the Korean language aside, I have no idea what any of these could possibly mean. Except thaw. That one's pretty self explanatory.

It took me several tries, but I eventually figured out that if I put it on "yakjung," it will more or less do the trick. I don't know if that is a low setting or if my microwave is just a pansy microwave, but it still takes a loooooong time to cook my mug cake.

This K-Fail is still unresolved, so if any Korean speakers out there would like to chime in and demystify the enigmatic microwave, I would welcome you with open arms.

My pimpin ajumma cart:

Oct 17, 2012

5th Grade Heros

I love my 5th graders. I think I've said that already, but I'm saying it again. They're awesome and teaching them is a pleasure. This week we're talking about jobs and careers, which  is fun because it gives me a chance to get to know them better. In my advanced class (which is only 10 kids), I have a future mathematician, a future plastic surgeon, a CEO, a science teacher, and a pianist. So, when these kids grow up to do amazing things, let it be written that they first learned the English word for their profession from ME!

That is all.

Oct 14, 2012

The Slump

The Dark Place. The second phase of culture shock. The Adventure Hangover. Whatever you want to call it, it is very real, and can strike with a vengeance.

I'm heading into my third month in Korea. When I got here, everything was new and exciting. Everything was a fun challenge. Can I order coffee in Korean? Delivery? Can I figure out where I'm going without getting lost? It was a time of discovery. Look at this! Why didn't WE think of this? Haha, thing X (grocery shopping, ordering food, buying shoes) is exactly the same, only in Korean! 

Now, that novelty has turned sour. Ugh, grocery shopping is the exact same, just in Korean, so why is this so hard? All I want is some f***ing vanilla extract. Everything is still a challenge, only it has ceased to be a challenge in the sense that challenges are fun and stimulating. Now, a better way to describe it would be that everything is an effort. Things that are supposed to make your life easier are an effort. My local 'mart' delivers your groceries to your house for free, but that involves telling the cashier that you want them delivered, then explaining where you live. Even though this would save me enormous effort when lugging home my 6 pack of 2-liter water bottles (no drinking the tap water here), the thought of having to have yet another "conversation" with someone who thinks (correctly) that I am a stupid foreigner who can barely function in society is more mental strain than I usually want to deal with. I'll just carry my water, thanks.

Traditional medicine-- like acupuncture-- is covered by health insurance here, and I have been having back problems from...just...life, I guess. I would love to go get acupuncture at the clinic in the building next door, but you have to call and make an appointment. If there's one thing that I hate more than having to explain myself (in broken Korean) in person, it's having to do it over the phone. In person, I can lean on my well-developed and finely-honed charades skills (Seriously: Never go up against a TEFL teacher in charades. We will smack you down like the hand of God). Over the phone? I'm hopeless. I'll take the back pain. That's what my Costco-sized bottle of Advil from  home is for.

The Slump also often sparks mini existential crises, seemingly at random. On the subway, in the middle of 2nd grade, at home on a Sunday night downloading the latest SNL. They sometimes come in the form of "The Head and The Heart" lyrics. God, what are we doing? Can't live this way forever.  I find myself wondering what I've gotten myself into, and whether I've made the right decisions along the way. I wonder if I'm doing everything I can to be the best teacher I can be, the best person I can be. I worry about losing touch with the life I left behind, and clinging too desperately to it.

It's Monday morning, and according to my rigorous planning schedule (see below), I should be in the middle of planning fifth grade lesson 2. I'm writing this instead. I sort of have an excuse. Waygook.org, my saving grace and lifeline, is in the middle of its usual Monday morning server overload.

Time to forge ahead.

Oct 10, 2012

Mysteries of Korea

2nd grade kiddos never did show up, so I ended up lollygagging around my classroom playing the ukulele for 40 minutes.

Where were they? I'll never know.
Just chalk it up to one of the mysteries of Korea.

The suspense is killing me

At this moment, my 2nd grade class is almost 20 minutes late to their 40 minute class. Are they coming? Are they not coming? Aren't there rules in the Geneva convention against this kind of psychological torture?

The Joys of Modern Cooking

Behold: the fruits of my Korean online shopping labors. Even though my new toy effectively decreases my counter space to zero, my cooking options have just increased exponentially. I am about to become the iron chef of microwave cuisine.

Oct 8, 2012

Gettin' Naked Part 2: Significantly Less Naked

For the first part of this tale, see Gettin' Naked: Part 1.

Let's resume our harrowing tale of nudity and friendship. Last we left our heroines, they were recovering from a verryyy close encounter with a nearly-nude old lady who scrubbed all the dead skin off their bodies.

Ok. We soaked in pools of various temperatures and flavors (like ginseng) until we felt like mandu that had been left in the boiler for too long. Overcooked dumplings. That's what we were.

The ladies and I oozed back to the locker room and poured ourselves  into our standard-issue jammies.  What followed was an exensive lolling-about on the cozy, heated floor of the jjimjilbang common area, complete with small, brick-like pillows and the traditional snacks of smoked eggs and sikhe, a sweet, refreshing rice-water drink.

The next hour or so can be summed up in these snippets from our conversation:
(must be read in the croaky, slurred voice of someone who just spent far too much time in very hot pools of water.)

"I think you stole my pillow."
"Here, have it back."
"No, it's ok. I already lost my head indent."

"The floor here is just...comfier.
"Comfier than what?
"...other floors."

"I wish this straw were longer. I can’t lie down and drink at the same time."

"Two of us have the same colored straw, and now I don’t know which sikhe is mine."

"My sikhe has too much rice in it."

"Guys. There's an ice room. It has a snow man."
"You're on your own, sister. 
I'll stay here and save this patch of floor for you because I love you."

" The sauna is too hot... the ice room is too cold."

"Guysssss, someone stole my patch of floor."

"Remember: Shower sauna warm bath medicine bath shower repeat."

"Guys. An ajumma in a lace bikini told me I have dry skin. Then she scrubbed it all off.

"That was the only action I've gotten in Korea...and I think it was better for me than it was for her."

That lasted for about 2 hours, before we finally caved and decided it was sleep times for real.  The great thing about jjimjilbangs like this one is that they're open 24 hours a day, and have built in sleeping rooms. And by sleeping rooms, I mean quiet, dark, temperature-controlled rooms with floor mats and more brick-ish pillows. And by temperature-controlled, I mean not really. Same with quiet... and dark. But the sleeping mats and pillows were there.

Here's a picture. The first three sets of legs belong to the ladies.

We slept here for about 7 hours, then headed home around 9 the next morning.

One final note: The cost for all of this? About $40. Here's the breakdown:
$12-- Entry fee for 12 hours
$25-- Scrubdown
$2-- Sikhe
$2-- smoked egg

Ok, fine, $41. I have degrees in Linguistics and Journalism. Mama doesn't do math.

And that, my friends, wraps up my jjimjilbang saga. I'm sorry this entry wasn't as cleverly written as the previous one. All my writing mojo went to lesson planning today.

Oct 7, 2012

Gettin' Naked: Part 1

Not like that.  Take your filthy mind elsewhere.

No, I have crossed off yet another rite of passage for living in Korea: the jjimjilbang. If you're too lazy to click the link, here's a snippet:

Jjimjilbang (찜질방) is a large, gender-segregated public bathhouse in Korea, furnished with hot tubs, showers, Finnish-style saunas, and massagetables, similar to a Korean sauna or mogyoktangJjimjil is derived from the words meaning heated bath. However, in other areas of the building or on other floors there are unisex areas, usually with a snack bar, ondol-heated floor for lounging and sleeping, wide-screen TVs, exercise rooms, ice rooms, heated salt rooms, PC bangnoraebang, and sleeping quarters with either bunk beds or sleeping mats.

In case it wasn't clear, the part with the hot tubs, saunas, and showers is gender-segregated, and participants are au naturale. That's right. It's nekkid time.

The ladies and I decided to check out the most famous jjimjilbang in Korea: Dragon Hill Spa. We walked in and were given a bracelet with a key and beep-thingy that acts as your credit card, locker for our shoes and jammies to change into later. We went to the women's locker room and stashed our stuff.

Then it was time to get naked, and subsequently seal our friendship forever.  It's part of the Girl Code. Once you've seen someone's lady bits, you have to be friends for life. That's the rule.

So, after several admonitions of "FRIENDS FOREVER," we stripped down and darted into the bathing area. Walking around naked is a very interesting experience for someone raised with American puritanical-like modesty.

You think Americans aren't modest? Think again. How much hell is raised over nudity on television? Answer: A lot. 

I think one of the most interesting things about it is that after about 5 minutes, it ceases to be an issue. That is... until you get a glimpse of yourself in the full length mirrors. WHY, SATAN?! WHY DO YOU PUT FULL LENGH MIRRORS IN THE JJIMJILBANG?! (On a related note, today I started the 30 Day Shred. More on that later.) But seriously, once you see all the little old naked adjummas scrubbing each other's backs, you kind of just get over yourself. Nobody cares.

Speaking of scrubbing, one of the staples of a true jjimjilbang experience is getting a full scrubdown. Jjimjilbang etiquette stresses extreme cleanliness. You're supposed to shower thoroughly and scrub down every inch of skin with a rough brillo-pad-thinger before you go into any of the baths. If you fail to do any of this, prepare to be yelled at by a naked adjumma.

To help you in this process, many jjimjilbangs offer a service where, for a small fee, you can lay down on a table and be scrubbed within an inch of your life by an adjumma in a black lace bikini.

Obviously, I had to try it.

I beeped my little bracelet-cum-key-cum-credit card against the beepy-paying thing, and a naked adjumma beckoned me over to a table.  She strapped on her lace bikini (I am 100% serious about that detail), and went to town with the brillo pad thinger. Within a minute, I was covered in little grey rolls of my own skin (EWWWW).

About 10 minutes later, I emerged raw, red, and soft as a baby's bottom. Even as I'm typing this now, I keep running my hands over my arms. So. Soft.

After we each got a scrubdown, we cycled through the various pools and saunas, raising and lowering our body temperatures in such rapid-fire succession that I'm surprised more people don't have heart attacks in jjimjilbangs. I certainly thought I was going to have one after going from the dry sauna to the cold pool. Talk about a rush.

After an unknown amount of time (there are no clocks inside, and obviously my phone was far, far away in my locker), we figured it was time to put clothes back on and see what the rest of the facility had to offer.

More on that later. I'm hungry and tired of typing. Stay tuned for "Gettin Naked: Part 2: Significantly Less Naked" 

Oct 4, 2012


Sorry I haven't written in a few days... I've had the last 5 days off and have been busy manically making up for lost time exploring Seoul!

Saturday we decided to get as many photo ops as possible, which mostly involved a stop at the Hello Kitty Cafe before moving on to the Trick Eye Museum.

 Sunday, we took advantage of being strangers in a strange land... and went to the Korean version of Disneyland.

While we were there, we rode on the steepest wooden roller coaster IN THE WORLD (for which we waited almost two hours).  Below is the "before" picture.  I was too busy having an existential crisis to take the "after" picture.

Monday, we decided to take in the view from the top, so we headed up to N Seoul Tower.

After that, we got our culture on at the Hanok Traditional Village, where we met a very precocious 8-year-old name Jane (as in Tarzan and Jane. She told us.)

Tuesday, we decided to take it easy and give our feet a little TLC, while also seeing to the nourishment of some clearly hungry fish.

I also made a few strategic footwear purchases.

I wrapped up the weekend with a visit to one of Seoul's palaces, Gyeongbukgung. It's open all year around, but they only open it up at night twice a year. Sit back and enjoy the killer night-reflection-on-the-water shots.

Oct 2, 2012

K-fail: Chuseok Edition

This is the next installment in a series called "K-Fails", in which Meg does something dumb because she can't speak Korean.

This week's K-fail comes as our heroine tries to embrace Korean culture on the harvest holiday of Chuseok.

Sunday was Chuseok, also known as Korean Thanksgiving. As a result, I got a five day weekend, and subsequently my first paid time off in the history of EVER.

One of the myriad activities I undertook during my free time was a visit to a Hanok traditional village. It's always open to walk around, but on the weekends and special holidays (like Chuseok), you can do crafts! You can make masks, paint fans, and assemble kites, among other things. I got there just before 5 with my friends, and we pondered for a while which craft to make. After much deliberation, we decided to go for the kites. We walked up to the ticket stand, only to be ignored. We stood there in a daze for a moment. Then, I heard a small voice behind me. "Excuse me, it's finished today." I turned around, looked down, and there was a young girl dressed in traditional clothing, explaining to me in flawless, unaccented English that the crafts were done for the day.

Even an 8 year old could tell I had no idea what was going on.

K fail.

P.S. This 8 year old turned out to be one of the most precocious little girls I have ever met. More on her later.