Friday, October 29, 2004

Shower with an Audience

I was washing up after a nice work out at the gym, when an older Korean gentleman came in and sat in the sauna. The sauna at the gym is pretty much inside the shower and all the walls are glass. This man sat down, turned on the sauna, and made no effort to hide the fact that he was just drinking in the opportunity to get a chance to watch a white guy taking a shower. I didn't hurry. I didn't hide. Just goes to show how used to the staring I've really gotten since I've been in Korea. We're spectacles here.

Staring is bad anywhere, but it's the worst in the gym. The first time I went to the gym, I felt like everyone else was watching my every move. I felt that way because they were. Sure, I might be a little paranoid, but still. I'm sure it didn't help that I was wearing a shirt two sizes too small, but that's no excuse.

See, I didn't realize how Korean sizing on shirts went the first time I went to the gym. In Korea, the gyms provide clothes for you: shirts, shorts, now my gym even provides shoes if you want to use them (I don't). I picked up a large thinking the sizes would be the same. I thought I was actually erring on the side of comfort, because I wear a medium back home. Somehow, I managed to get into the shirt, but when my workout was over, I had a lot harder time getting out of it. I actually ripped a seam. If you're ever in Korea, get much bigger shirts (I wear an XXL in Korean sizes).

But even with my form fitting shirt, I didn't expect to be on exhibition. People didn't hide that they were staring either. If I looked up and caught someone, they most likely would smile and keep on staring.

I try not to stare at Koreans, even when they are doing weird stuff, but sometimes it's hard. In the locker room, the men are far from modest. They'll come out of the shower, plop a leg up on the counter, and dry in a way that I hesitant to describe here because children might read this. One man at the gym even goes so far as to take the oscillating fan down off the counter, put it on the floor, and use it to dry out. He even gets on all fours and wiggles his butt in front of it, drying out those hard to reach places.

And when you walk in on it, he just says hello and continues with the wiggling. He's grown used to me now: he doesn't even say hello anymore, just nods and wiggles away.

The gym is nice, though. It has top of the line equipment, nice showers, a tanning bed, and massage chairs. But what's funny is that it also has those vibrating belts that you see boxers and body builders using in old time movies. I tried one once. It feels like someone is grabbing a hold of your muscles and trying to jump rope with them. It's not entirely pleasant.

The stares have calmed a little since I've been going to the gym here for over three months now, but if I go at a different time than I usually do, I still get them. Luckily, not often when I'm in the shower.


Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Big Screen Korean Madness with Subtitles

I said I'd call my book "The Benefits of Knowing Half-Assed Korean" if I ever wrote about my experiences here. I think I changed my mind. The title of this post sounds pretty good.

Anyway, I went to a DVD bawng for the first time this weekend. Recall from my post about video games that "bawng" means room. A DVD bawng is a place where you rent a room to, oddly, watch DVDs. It's cooler than it sounds.

First off, the screen that you watch the movies on is huge. I'd say it's about 5 feet by 8 feet. Big. Second, you get to sit on a comfy couch while you watch the movies. Mmmm, nice. Third and most importantly for me, you can get them to turn on the subtitles for you.

So, I've lived in Korea for four months now. I'm a film buff, who has a penchant for foreign films. And there are award winning Korean movies playing around me all the time. Why, you say, has it taken you four months to see a Korean film? Subtitles.

Sure, the movies are playing around all the time, but they play in Korean. My Korean isn't even close to good enough to keep up with a movie. I can barely carry on a half-assed conversation, and even when I do, there are a lot of "moolayo" (I don't understand) and "chawn chawn he" (slowly) thrown in.

But come on, you say, you get paid a shit load, why didn't you just buy a DVD player and turn on your own damn subtitles? Because I already have a VCR, and although I get paid a lot, a DVD player falls down the priority list because I'm saving for a computer right now (with a DVD rom that I can watch movies with).

Still, you say, you've been there four months. Did it honestly take you that long to find a DVD bawng? If you can believe it, it actually did. I've known about DVD bawngs for a while. I've been looking for one for about three months. I even have had offers to show me where they are (but the offers never followed through). I don't understand it: DVD bawngs appear to always be hidden away on the 7th floor of some building that has poor signs on the outside so you can't see a DVD bawng is in there until you are standing on the 7th floor looking right inside its door. These things happen.

Anyway, a friend finally showed me a DVD bawng this weekend. I saw the movie "Taegukgi." It was fantastic. It was the story of two brothers forced to fight in the Korean war. The older brother learns that if he gets a medal, he can ask that his younger brother be allowed to go home. He tries for that medal...and gets it, but things don't quite work out as he plans. The real meat of the story is the exploration of how the older brother changes in his pursuit of the medal, and how that affects the brothers' relationship. I highly recommend it to anyone who can find it.

Well, now I know where a DVD bawng is so I no longer have an excuse. Expect a review of a Korean film posted from time to time....when I can find someone else to go with me. It's too expensive to go on your own (about $10 a room), but not too bad if you split it two, three, or four ways. Good times.


Monday, October 25, 2004

The 100 Foot Buddha

It was about 11 o'clock when I sat down to eat breakfast in the bus station. People were staring at me, something I've grown used to. But this staring was different. This was the staring of people who were genuinely surprised to see a foreigner, not the staring of people who want to check out the novelty. They were surprised because the bus station I was sitting in was in Boen. Boen is small (only about 10,000 people), and it's isolated. Foreigners are rare here, as they are all over Korea, but much more rare than in Daejon.

I woke up late that morning. I told Chris I would meet him in Boen at about 10. I didn't wake up until 8:30 because I forgot to set my alarm. With the 1 hour bus ride to Boen, I didn't have time to do much.

I grabbed some food for breakfast before I got a cab to the bus station. I showed up at the station 9:30, already well behind schedule. Luckily, there was a bus leaving just as I bought my ticket. Unfortunately, this didn't leave any time to call Chris to tell him I'd be late.

I called Chris when I got to Boen then sat down and ate breakfast: mandarin oranges (which are incredible here), an energy bar (that Granny lovingly sent from the US), and a bag of chips. I should have gotten more because I didn't eat again for another 8 hours. I didn't know that at the time, though.

The bus ride from Boen out to Songnisan national park is supposed to take 20 minutes. It took over an hour. People were all coming out to see the leaves change. This was, by far, the most people I had seen on a mountain since I've been here. Near the bottom, we actually had to kind of push our way through.

Before we began climbing, we stopped at the temple at the bottom of the mountain. This temple was over 1000 years old...and it sported a 100 foot tall golden Buddha. The Buddha is the biggest in Northern Asia, and it's incredible. I don't think I've ever seen a statue that big.

But what really impressed me was not the tall Buddha, but the Buddha statue that the tall Buddha housed in the temple beneath it. This Buddha was about 10 feet tall and solid cold. It was maticulously polished so it actually glowed. I've never seen a statue in my entire life that actually inspired awe in me. This one did. It was really a spiritual moment. I wish I could have taken a picture of it, but there was no photography allowed in the temple. You'll have to live witht he picture of the picture (that doesn't do the statue justice at all) that I've posted below.

We hung out in the temple area for far too long. It was beautiful, but we had to get going up the mountain. By the time we left, it was after 2 and we had a long hike ahead of us.

As I've said before, mountain climbing stories are only interesting one time, so I'll keep it to a minimum and let the pictures do most of the talking. I'll just say it took us much longer to climb the mountain than we thought. I was doing fine, but a couple of the other guys need to do a lot of resting and slowed us down. Near the end, I just made a mad dash for the top and waited for them there.

The view from the top was incredible. In every direction, all you could see was mountains. I don't even know how to decribe the feeling of standing on the top of a mountain, looking as far as you can in any direction, and not being able to see any evidence that other people actually exist. It was great.

The trip down the mountain was much faster than the trip up, and much faster than I would have liked. By the time we got to the top of the mountain, it was after 5. By the time we came down, it was nearly 6...and the sun was starting to set. None of us wanted to be stuck on the mountain after dark, so we had to run down. I do mean literally run.

But we made it, just barely. The sky went completely dark as the mountain levelled off. We still had to talk back quite a ways in the dark to make it to civilization, but at least we weren't on the dangerous part anymore.

When we made it back to people again, we were starving. As I said, I hadn't eaten for 8 hours, and neither had anyone else. We blew a bunch of cash (by which I mean less than $28 for a meal for four. Expensive by Korean standards) having a big meal at a nice little restaurant. It was worth it.

We made it back to the bus stop just as the last bus of the day was leaving (luckily). The bus took us back to Boen, where I just barely caught the last bus back to Daejon (luckily again). But I made it home. It was a blast. I'm really loving living near so many mountains.


This is a picture of me at the very top of the mountain. I am sitting nearly 1100 meters up at this point. I think this picture makes me look like a saint or something. I'm veiled in sunlight, and it looks like I'm holding a tablet or some sort (really, it's the marker telling me I'm at the top). Posted by Hello

Here's a group shot at the top of the mountain. From left to right: Me (obviously), Jeff, Darryl (a coworker and good friend), and Chris (my former roommate). Posted by Hello

A great view from the top of the mountain. The mountain I climbed was the tallest one in the area: over 1000 meters above sea level. It's the tallest mountain I've climbed to date. Posted by Hello

This is another view from the very top of the mountain. Posted by Hello

A good landscape shot. Those mountains you see are huge...and yet, I'm looking down on them from nearly the top of the mountain I climbed. Posted by Hello

More of the landscape. Posted by Hello

This is from much further up the mountain. I just wanted a pic to show exactly how far out in the country I was. In every direction, all you could see was mountains. Posted by Hello

A good view of the leaves changing. This was taken from the top of a small mountain I needed to climb in order to get to the top of the big one. Posted by Hello

A great view from part way up the mountain. Those mountains you see? They're small compared to the one I climed. Posted by Hello

This is the view from a hermitage half way up the mountain. A hermitage is a little area where monks live far away from other people. Oddly, there were no monks actually there when I visited it. Posted by Hello

A night view near the bottom of the mountain. Posted by Hello

These are people building pagodas at the bottom of the mountain. These things are for good luck and to make wishes. Essentially, it's just seeing how high you can stack rocks. You see these stacks all over the mountains in Korea. Posted by Hello

This statue is the biggest Buddha in Northern Asia. It's over 100 feet tall. See those dots at the bottom? Those are people. And those red trees behind it? Each is about 50 feet tall. That puts it in perspective. Posted by Hello

This is a picture of a picture of the most beautiful thing I've seen since I've been in Korea. It's the Buddha statue in the bottom of the 100 foot Buddha statue. This one is only 10 feet tall or so, but it really is breathtaking. Unfortunately, you aren't allowed to take pictures in the temple down there, so this picture of a picture is the best I can do. Posted by Hello

Here's a beautiful building inside the temple area. Posted by Hello

This is a huge rice cooking pot for the monks at the temple...the monks that lived there in 700 CE, which of course makes this thing 1300 years old. Posted by Hello

This is what the traditional Korean markets look like. One day I'll get more pictures on the inside of one (and maybe even on of a butchered dog). Posted by Hello

Friday, October 22, 2004

The Americanization of Korea

Korea is, well, about as far from America as I can get on the globe. You'd think it would be pretty different, and yes, reading the rest of my blog, you'll find that many things are, in fact, different. But one thing that really weirds me out is that there is a lot that's the same...and it's normally not the good stuff.

Within walking distance right now there is: a McDonalds, a Popeye's Chicken, a Pizzahut, an Outback Steakhouse, a TGI Fridays, a Walmart, a YMCA, a Subway, and many many other little things. It's odd really.

The only one of the above restaurants that I've tried is the Subway. It's pretty much the same as back home, but there are differences. The pickles there are sweet pickles (as are all pickles in Korea, it seems), and they have way fewer toppings. I liked veggie subs back home; here, not so much.

But it's far from only food that's been Americanized here. Many signs are in English as well as Korean (but as I've said before, sometimes the two languages don't say the same thing). One of the weirder things is that some signs are in only English. Considering how few people speak English here, I don't see how this is a good business move.

Even when written in Korean, the language still barrows many English words. "Sports" is "Su-port." "Computer" is "Kom-pu-ta." "Video" is "Be-de-o." And so on. If it's a word that's been invented in the last couple decades (and even if it's not: "cup" is "cup") then chances are they've borrowed it from English. Socio-linguists will tell you, language means dominance. Creepy.

And then there's movies. And clothing. And cultural sayings. The list goes on.

Don't get me wrong: Korea isn't America--not by a long shot. But it is weird that there's so much America in Korea. And, as I've said, it's never the good stuff.


Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Old Man and His Bike

Now that my bike's been stolen, I walk a lot more. I walk to school. I walk home. I walk to friends', and neighbors', and, well, everywhere really. But because I walk, I really get a chance to notice things a lot more.

Every morning on the way to school, I've noticed this old man riding his bike. Every morning it's the same man. Every morning he's riding the same stretch. This wouldn't be that odd except that I don't go to school at the same time every day. He's there at 9. He's there at 9:30. He's even there at 11, riding away with glee.

This man must be in his 80s. He's tall for an older Korean man (about my height), but he's really thin. He always has on a tan jacket. He always has on a plaid shirt. He always has on a cap.

What I love about this man is too much to describe, but I'll hit the highlights. His bike is old, very old, but it has a brand new bright red paint job. He takes pride in that old bike. The bike has a bell, and damn if doesn't get as much use out of it as possible. He rings it at pedestrians as he slowly creeps by them. He rings it at speeding cars as he slowly creeps in front of them. He even rings it at empty sidewalk as he crosses over it.

But what I love most of all about him is that I only ever see him on the same stretch of sidewalk. He loves his bike. He loves riding. But he obviously doesn't like to go far from home.

When I'm 80 years old, I hope I'm riding a freshly painted bike down the sidewalk somewhere and ringin' my bell like a Salvation Army Santa. If I can at least get that, I'll have done fine.


Today is Parent's Day at my School

I'm wearing a tie. I feel like a monkey in a cowboy suit.

Nothing spectacular happened with the parents really. I got to meet them, and I got to practice my Korean (since many of the parents' English is about as good as my Korean).

The funniest thing that happened is that I got a compliment. Yes, that's funny in and of itself, but let me explain why it's funnier than just that: Jennifer, my co-teacher for my youngest class, was talking to a couple parents so I decided to walk in and introduce myself. Before I could speak, Jennifer said some stuff in Korean to them. The parents responded with "oooohs," realizing this was the guy their kids make fun of at home. So I went ahead and introduced myself to them Korean.

Jennifer's response was, "Oh, he's been taking lessons and his Korean is getting very good." She said it in English. Now, I didn't think anything of this at the time and just smiled and excused myself to get ready for the next class. It occured to me a few hours later what had happened: she told them my English was good in English. Based on talking to them a bit in English, I seriously doubt they understood Jennifer. I'm sure Jennifer knew they wouldn't.

So why would she say it then? I have two theories.

1) She wanted to compliment me and wanted me to know I was being complimented without saying it directly to me. Perhaps she said the same to them later in Korean, but she wanted to make sure I knew she thought my Korean was good before I had to trot off.


2) She wanted to say my Korean was good to only me, meaning the mothers probably wouldn't think so, and she didn't want them to understand for fear of embarrassment. If that's the case, it was probably more to get me to trot off to that next class than anything else.

I'll pretend it was option 1, :).


(Jennifer, if you read this, it's all joking. I promise.)


Tuesday, October 19, 2004

My Streak of Bad Luck

1. Terrible cold this weekend (the remnants of which are still with me).
2. My bike was stolen again.
3. I just found out my favorite bar back home burned down (edit: I just found out it didn't burn down, it just had a fire. It'll be up and running long before I come back to the states. Still...).

All in the last three days. Good times. I suppose it has to balance out sometime, though. Eh?


Why I'll Never Have a 25th Birthday

That's right. I'll never have a 25th birthday. How can you say that, you ask? You're 25 right now, you say.

No, not quite. See, I'd be 25 if I was living in America, but I'm not. Here, I'm 26. I have been since I got here. That's because in Korea, the age system is different.

In Korea, when you are born, you are are one year old. On the lunar new year, you turn two. So, by our standards, you could be only a few days old, but in Korea, you'd already be considered two. Just how it works.

So here's how it applies to me. I was 24 when I arrived in Korea, but I needed to add two years: one because I was one when I was born and another because it was after the lunar new year. When my actual birthday rolled around, I was already 26. But see, I didn't change to 27 on my birthday because that's not when it changes. I won't be 27 here until the Lunar New Year.

Now, when I come back home, I'll have my 26th birthday party...but I'll never have a 25th because of my time in Korea. I will, however, get to have a 27th birthday party twice (once on the Lunar new year this year and once on my 27th birthday).

How many people can say they were never 25?


Monday, October 18, 2004

Flag hat dancers. If you look close, you can see the long white flags. These kids were amazing, flipping around and such. These pictures go with the story "Slow Dancing in Korea." Posted by Hello

The fingernail dancer. Obviously, this is before he showed the colorful robe underneath. Posted by Hello

The colorful dancer: I think this is after one layer's been shed. Posted by Hello

Another of the dancers. This is what they look like before they take off some of the layers. Posted by Hello

More pictures of the mountains. I just love this shot (all the pictures that follow are taken up in the mountains too. I focused more on the temples this time). Posted by Hello

A very cool (meaning both neat and cold) mountain stream. Posted by Hello

A close view of one temple. I would've taken more inside pictures, but people were inside praying (as you can see if you look close). Posted by Hello

Just a very cool temple. This sign in the front says that you can't go any closer because the monks are studying and mustn't be disturbed. Posted by Hello