Monday, March 1, 2010

밥 어디에 있어요?

Wow, what a week. I've been meaning to do an extensive catch-up blog post for a while but I've been way too busy and my internet access has been intermittent at best. I was going to post an update from a Starbucks in Daegu but when I tried to utilize their free internet I found out I couldn't log on without an alien resident ID number, and I don't have my card yet. (Internet security is kind of a big thing here, thanks in no small part to North Korea and an alleged other Asian country which will remain nameless.) The internet at my apartment isn't actually getting hooked up until tomorrow (today was a holiday--Independence Movement Day, I believe) but luckily one of my neighbors has an open wireless connection. (Hopefully my neighbor is not a DPRK spy.) Irregardless, since it's been so long I'll try to keep the post focused and not include too many asides that could be categorized as random bitching or asinine observations about the differences between Korea and the US. (I make no guarantees that some substantial portions of this post will be devoted to those two topics.)

So, where to start... Orientation at Jeonju University ("The Place For Superstars!") was a wonderful experience, although hectic. Our Korean hosts and all the guest lecturers worked incredibly hard to make us aware of what's likely to be in store for us and how we can do the best job possible. I met a lot of fantastic guest teachers from all over the world, had a good time discovering the myserious powers of beer and soju (the Korean national hard liquor), I figured out how to order a proper cup of coffee (happily "Americano" means the same thing in English and Korean) and I had a really fantastically greasy toast sandwich on top of it all. And then of course I ruined everything on the last day by doing a comedy routine at the talent show at the closing ceremony. Well, in actuality the routine went pretty well, considering that the people in the back apparently couldn't hear it because I had the mike too far away from my big mouth. There was one joke I cracked at the expense of one of the Western nationalities represented at the orientation that I wasn't sure was completely fair, though, and for the rest of the night I was paranoid that I had possibly offended a lot of people who probably didn't deserve it. (By the way, if you've stumbled across the blog and you were offended, then I apologize. Unless, of course, what I said was actually on point, and in that case you need to lighten up.) Such are the dangers of the comedian's life, I suppose. Nobody said anything to me, other than "Hey I thought you were funny" or "That took a lot of balls to get up in front of that many people" but usually if you've offended people they don't say anything about it to your face. (That's what the internet is for!) I also failed to get anyone else's direct contact information, which was probably kind of stupid. I've made a few connections on Facebook (hello, whoever's reading this!) and I'll probably make more, but now I'm kind of wishing I had been a little more diligent about it. (Especially now that I'm realizing that I forgot the names of some of the people I should be looking for on Facebook. Whoops.)

We didn't find out exactly where we had been assigned to until the end of the orientation, but I think I lucked out--I'm now in a small farming town south of the city of Daegu. I'm on the main train line from Seoul to Busan, so it should be fairly easy to get around the country and get to international airports. (That said, I'm not sure I'll have any time to travel before the summer break, although there's a couple trips I would like to make before then. Guess I'll have to be extra nice to the administration and my co-teachers.) I met my main co-teacher, whom I'll refer to as Mr. D for the sakes of privacy and brevity, at a parking lot in Gumi on Friday afternoon. Apparently he had Googled me before I showed up (gulp) and found a picture of me from the Coney Island Mermaid Parade from several years ago where I was dressed as a pirate. I'm not sure but I think he may have genuinely been worried that I only had one eye before we met.

My town is a small rural town that's mostly famous for persimmons, peaches and bullfighting. Korean bullfighting, by the way, isn't like Spanish bullfighting, where some dude with swords kills some poor bull with no access to swords and the whole thing just seems kind of like a foregone conclusion. In Korean bullfights, apparently two bulls butt heads until one gives up and walks away, and there's a point system similar to a taekwondo match. I suppose it's cruel to make animals fight each other, but it's probably not that much worse than greyhound racing as I see it. Besides, it's BULL-ON-BULL COMBAT. How cool is that? I think only non-lethal bear-on-bear combat could possibly be more awesome.

I'm teaching at one of the two local high schools (whose name I keep forgetting) and the English lab I'm teaching in makes my old high school look like a cave in Afghanistan. I've met two of my co-teachers, Mr. D and Mr. S--both of whom have been extremely generous and helpful--and I'm sharing the apartment building I'm living in (which is called Happy House, of all things) with one of the other foreign teachers, an extremely nice South African gentleman whom I will call Mo. I'm unbelievably grateful that I'm in the same building as another Westerner because both of the Korean co-teachers I've met live outside of town. It's hard for me to imagine what the last few days might have been like without another native speaker of English around.

So, now that the status update portion of the post is over, it's time for more Interesting Observations About The Differences Between America and Korea:

The Locals: Koreans are 100% totally cool people. Maybe I'm just saying that because I've only been here a couple weeks and I still haven't discovered the cultural differences that might make things a little difficult at times, but I've already observed a lot of things that make me really glad I'm teaching in Korea. For example, all the Koreans I've meet so far are very friendly and open to foreigners, especially compared to what I've heard about Certain Other Asian Countries Which Will Remain Nameless. The Korean attitude towards cultural differences seems to be, "What you're doing isn't the Korean way, but you're a foreigner so it's OK for you." I've definitely seen more than my share of embarrassed looks when I've accidentally walked into my apartment with my shoes on, or made a toast or passed an item using the wrong hand gesture. But overall Koreans seem very tolerant to Westerners and foreign ideas. I mean, the country is apparently trying to become functionally Korean/English bilingual by 2014. Can you imagine trying to even suggest an idea like that in America? People would be throwing tea at bodies of water left and right. (And for Christ's sake, we're already practically English/Spanish bilingual, even though nobody wants to admit it.)

Westerners: Westerners basically seem to roam the country in drunken packs, like benevolent English-teaching Vikings. I haven't witnessed a lot of it yet but I have a feeling I'll be seeing a lot more of it while I'm here.

The Language: The Korean language isn't easy, although some of the locals seems to be really impressed if you know as much as a few phrases. The grammar is extremely dissimilar to English, and some of the vowel and consonant sounds are a bit tricky to get used to, but every day I thank my lucky stars that King Sejong the Great saw that it might be a good idea to establish a phonetic alphabet. If you can read the Korean alphabet you can at least sound out an unfamiliar word even if you don't know what it means. This comes in handy a lot for the "Hanglish" words that are English words phonetically adapted into Korean. It's always a pleasant surprise when you slowly sound out a Korean word and realize that what you're reading is actually something like "sausage & special toast." (If you're even in Jeonju, I highly recommend the sausage & special toast. I haven't found a toast shop in my town yet but there's a lot of unexplored territory left out there to explore.)

Of course, the difficulty also works the other way around. Anyone who's familiar with the offensive "Engrish" stereotype of the way Asians speak English might not be surprised to learn that "R" and "L" are the same letter in Korean. The Korean alphabet also doesn't have equivalents for letters like "F", "V", "Q" or "Z." "F" tends to get replaced with a "P" sound in Korean, thus "coffee", for example, becomes 커피, pronounced "kaw-pi". Some Koreans use this Korean pronunciation when they speak English, which can lead to some awkward moments. For example (and I'm going to leave out a lot of detalis so as not to embarrass any of the parties involved) I was speaking with a group of Koreans and Westerners about the state of the film industry and how the industry needs to learn how to deal with different forms of digital distribution. One of the people I was talking to chimed in, and to me what he said sounded like he was suggesting the future lay in "internet porn." I was more than a little embarrassed that he seemed to be suggesting that I should get involved in pornography. (The only time I was ever offered a job on an adult film in LA I passed it on to an acquaintance without knowing what the exact nature of the gig was. That acquaintance tends to bring this fact up whenever I see him.) Soon after, another member of the conversation said something about "watching movies on your phone", and I realized that my conversational companion was actually saying "internet phone", which is the Korean term for a smart phone. I'm really, really glad that a snappy one-liner about getting into porno hadn't crossed my mind before I realized the nature of the misunderstanding.

Food: There are certain things that one expects to be difficult when one is wandering around a place as a functional illiterate, but food isn't typically one of them. At most shops and restaurants I can usually get away with pointing or plopping things down on the counter. If I'm feeling really conversant I might manage to stammer out something like "Americano hana juseyo." ("One Americano, please.") But I never expected what sort of trouble I would run into at the grocery store. Namely, I couldn't find rice. Nothing makes you feel like you're completely out of your depth like the realization that you can't find rice in East Asia. As it turns out, the problem was that I didn't realize the rice was rice. In America, rice is typically of the long-grain variety, so to me the short-grain white rice they have here looked more like a bag of kosher salt. I only figured it out when I went to a different grocery store and found short-grain brown rice. Even though I brought Korean and Chinese cookbooks with me, anticipating that it might be hard to find Western food, it's still going to be tough figuring out exactly what to eat on a regular basis. Most of my LA staples (bean burritos, spaghetti sauce, Chunky soup, hot dogs, franks and beans... did I mention California's economy sucks?) aren't as readily available here. Even stir-fry is a little tougher to manage when the label on the soy sauce is in Korean, the cuts of meat are different, there's no bags of ready-mixed frozen vegetables and you're too much of a stupid greenhorn to find fucking rice.

By the way... it's true, people eat kimchi for breakfast here. I actually picked up the habit during orientation, although I'm back to cold cereal and milk now.

The good news is, there is pizza. Koreans don't seem to share our affection for the combination of mozzarella and tomato sauce, though. It's more likely the pizza here will have a teriyaki or sweet mustard sauce, or maybe a thin layer of sweet potato paste. The last one I ordered came with a side of pickles. All in all, though, I haven't had a slice I really didn't like. (That might say more about me than the pizza.)

Pink: Pink is a really prevalent color in Korea and there's not nearly as much of the gender bias against it as there is in the west. Hey, remember the 2006 World Cup, when Korea's kit was officially listed as red and white but their jerseys were hot pink? We kept adjusting our TV because we couldn't believe it. Turns out that shade of hot pink is actually very traditional in Korea. Who knew?

Electronics: Appliances in Korea are fun because they all seem to be programmed to play a little song when you turn them on or off. Also the elevators are programmed to use the absolute most formal form of the Korean language when they address you, so I always felt like a big shot whenever I got to my floor. On the other hand, Koreans don't seem to believe in hot air clothes dryers. There were dryers in the laundry rooms at the Jeonju University dorm, but for the most part they just seemed to spin the clothes for a long time, and on the hot settings they basically gave your wet clothes a sauna. I have to admire the dedication to energy efficiency, but I kind of miss the phenomenon of getting an unwrinkled shirt out of the laundry. (I asked one of our group leaders how to set the dryers to the permanent press setting and he had no idea what I was talking about.) Mo was nice enough to loan me his steamer for my shirts for tomorrow. Now I'm only wishing I had paid more attention to what the costume designers and wardrobe assistants did with their steamers on the films I worked on in LA. (Most of the time I didn't have to deal with them until they blew a circuit. "A steamer and three curling irons pull as much power as two of those big lights? Really?!?")

There's more I could touch on--T-shirts lauding strange combinations of locations in America, Starcraft on two cable channels simultaneously, Olympic curling on TV instead of ice hockey, the obsession with this Kim Yu-Na person--but it's getting late and I need to work tomorrow. In summary, I'm happy to be here, I'm looking forward to the upcoming semester, and I hope to do the kids of Korea right by my English teaching. And I need to buy a steamer and a coffee grinder as soon as possible.

PS Pics as soon as I figure out how to get them developed. (Film still kicks digital's ass, people...)

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