Sunday, March 27, 2005

Article 6

I had only been in Korea about a month when I took my first trip to the traditional market. There are all kinds of markets in Korea where you can buy about anything you want: electronics, food, clothes, you name it. But the traditional market is different. It’s stranger, dirtier, and somehow more mysterious.

Right inside the gates are knock off purses; you can get a nice one for about five dollars. And just beside those are buckets of live eels (for eating). If you walk up a bit, you’ll find dozens of places to buy traditional Korean clothes (mostly just worn for weddings and holidays these days) and maybe some cheap DVDs.

On my first trip, I was just looking for some fruit, but I also wanted to do a little exploring. Right behind a row of fruit shops, I saw a dark alley with all kinds of other foods. I strolled in confidently, hoping for something to write home about.

I almost turned around when I saw the pig heads. There were about six lined up nicely inside a glass butcher’s case sitting on the street. They looked like they were made of wax: almost too real to be real. They had oddly peaceful expressions on their faces, like maybe they were sleeping.

Not far from the heads were the other parts of the pig, the usual cuts, but also the something more. Steaming in a big vat (and being eaten from small wooden bowls by a well dressed group of Korean men) were pig intestines. The sight wasn’t bad, really (it just looked like they were eating noodles). No, what got me was the smell. It smelled like someone had taken a butcher shop, mixed in a little seldom-cleaned barn, and then steamed the whole thing. I only wish that that had been enough for me.

After I ducked past the gut-eaters, I caught a glimpse of what I thought was a quartered chicken hanging from an awning ahead. From where I was, it looked like the thigh with a foot still attached. But as I got closer, I realized that the foot wasn’t a chicken foot at all but a paw. It was a dog.

The animal was pretty small as far as dogs go. The light brown fur was still on, as well as the feet. Only the head and the insides had been removed, and then it had been cut into four sections—all of which were hanging from the awning. I shouldn’t have been surprised that it smelled like a wet dog.

Not many people in Korea eat dogs: it’s a traditional delicacy, not something most people just munch on. And it’s expensive. The dogs they eat aren’t just any old dog. They breed them and raise them like cattle. They have pet dogs here—many pet dogs that they treat very, very well (creepily well, actually. I’ve seem more doggie sweaters here than I ever saw in the US), but that one breed, that one small light brown canine does get made into soup.

The first time seeing dog all cut up and ready for sale was a little shocking, but after some time, it didn’t seem any more strange than beef or pork. I tried not to think about it when my students joked with me about eating dog, or told me that their family was going out for dog soup that night (dog is used mostly for soup—not for steaks or anything like that). I played along, but I wasn’t about to go out and get myself a bowl.

I wasn’t really struck by the dog eating again until some time later when I was walking home late one night. I was only about a block away from my house when I heard whimpering—lots of whimpering. I stood on the corner and tried to find the source of the sound when I realized it was coming from inside the truck that I was standing beside. I looked into the back and saw about a dozen dogs staring back at me. They were soup dogs: small, light brown, and much more alive than the other soup dogs I had seen—alive enough to make a lick for my hands on the back of the truck.

I took my hand off of the truck, stared for a minute, and wondered what to do. They all stared back and waited for me to do something—but I couldn’t. All I could do was head home and try to get some rest.

And try to be more careful where I turn next time I go to the traditional market.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

24 Hours

It's 5 am. I woke up early this morning, only to find that my bathroom light had stopped working. Not particularly looking forward to taking a shower in the dark, I headed down to the market near my hour that proclaims "24 HOURS" in big letters (in Korean) on the sign. It was closed. Apparently, it means 24 hours (except early morning). Live and learn.


Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Korean Zombie

I opened the curtains to the beds at the doctor's office, and there he was laying on his back. A towel was draped over him, but I could still see his dark, taut, emaciated stomach. He looked at me with a glazed over but astonished look. His face was caved in and very old. He didn't make any effort to talk, nor was I sure if he could.

I shook off my suspicions and closed the curtain, giving the two of us a little more privacy. I knew the routine by now, since I've been going to the doctor for my shoulder off and on for three months, and have been doing this particular therapy for a week now. My shirt came off for the heating pad, and I heard the faint moaning behind me.

When the doctor came in, I settled into position with my heating pad and tried to relax. I even tried to nod off a little, but I could feel his eyes on me. I looked over and found him looking right back, shocked and intrigued, although perhaps he was seeing an alien or a ghost.

Luckily, the doctor came back in and hooked him up to the machine sitting between us. The machine had small pads on it that sent a mild electric current though your body. He was hooked up now, and I would be hooked up after the heating pad. With the electroshock, he was out: asleep or at least not staring anymore.

I nodded off.

When I woke up, he was trying to stand. He moaned and wheezed, saying nothing in any language that I'm familiar with. The moans were deep and drawn out, not of pain, but of deep, deep exhaustion.

He was much thinner than I had originally realized. I couldn't see how the laws of physics kept him standing. At first I thought that he was going bald, but then I realized that he had dyed his hair black and had then left his white hair to grow out into a 3 inch or so ring on the crown of his head. As I was noticing, he dropped his pants. I looked away, but not in time to miss the image of his bony thighs. When I turned back, he was tucking his sweater into his underwear, which I assume is why he dropped his pants.

He shuffled out, breathing heavily and was gone.

As I was hooked up to the electro-machine, a new man walked in. This one also staring and gawking, but at least he was clearly among the living.


Sunday, March 13, 2005

Dancing Girls

Even though I've been here 8 months and am pretty used to things. I'm still sometimes surprised by cultural differences in Korea.

I was walking down the street the other day, and I got held up by a light. I look over and two girls dressed in skimpy clothing are dancing right there in the street to blaring dance music. It's not the first time I've seen it, and it won't be the last.

People actually hire women to dance like that in front of clubs and restaurants (especially when they first open) to draw in customers. They're always dressed in skimpy and flashing clothing. They're always dancing like crazy. And they always have loud music. Sometimes they have extra stuff behind them, like inflatable trees and such. Sometimes they're handing out fliers too. Sometimes they're even mobile, dancing on the backs of trucks that drive around the city advertizing the club or whatever.

It's odd, and something that I still haven't gotten used to.


The reactions to my beard

I looked at the hair in the sink and then up at my face in the mirror. It had been three years since I had seen my face, and I wasn't sure if I liked what I saw. I figured I'd give it a week or so, to see how I liked it once I got used to it, and then I could grow the beard back if I wanted to.

The week at school was rather funny. I was called Nicholas Cage. I was told that I looked weird. I was told that I looked handsome. I was told that I looked good and bad and young and strange. The kids' reactions to my new face were really funny. When I got my hair cut last month, I made up this elaborate story about how the "scissor monkeys" sneaked into my house late at night and cut my hair. The story went on and on now that the beard was gone too. I even spent half of one class trying to convince my students that I wasn't Ryan at all, but his older brother Tony from the United States just visiting for a few days. The story fell apart, though, when they asked where the real Ryan was.

But the best reactions, of course, came from the ladies. I went to the vegetarian restaurant on Wednesday, and I was quite the topic of conversation. The women (who I don't think realize that I often understand them) called me "ye-boo-da," which means pretty. Not exactly a huge compliment, but there was more. The two single girls that work there came up to me and asked if I had a girlfriend. I said no, to which there was a little giggling. They asked me to sit by them, but I showed them that I already had a table and went over there. Even though I had, in essence, turned them down, they still brought me a special cake toward the end of my meal. It was quite tastey.

Then just last night I went to the OTHER vegetarian restaurant that I frequent. The place is family run, and when I first walked in, only the two young daughters were there. They didn't recognize me. It took their mom walking in and asking about the beard for them to catch on that this was the same guy that eats here twice a week. After they realized who I was, the older sister (who I didn't even realize spoke ANY English, since she had never said anything in English to me before) said that I looked "handsome." I smiled and thanked her, then went about my meal. Soon after, her mother left and her sister sat down to eat dinner. As I went up to pay, she snuck me a nice bag of "dak" (Korean rice cake) just out of her sister's view. I smiled and thanked her, and she stood there grinning at me all the way out the door.

This from a woman who had never said anything more than a few words (in English OR Korean) here an there to me after MONTHS of seeing her at the restaurant.

apparently, Korean women don't like facial hair. Live and learn.


Yep, this is me again. Thought I'd try to take a better picture. Posted by Hello

Me naked faced lookin' cool. Posted by Hello

Last week was graduation. I hate to see some kids go. I'm happy to see others go. It was a weird day all in all, and it's strange to think that I've seen some of these kids almost every day for the past 8 months but might never see them again.  Posted by Hello

Some of the younger kids saying goodbye to the graduating students. Posted by Hello

Katie reading a prepared speech Posted by Hello

Me with Yu-jin after the ceremony Posted by Hello

Nicole Posted by Hello

Arwen Posted by Hello

Arwen Posted by Hello

Mike Posted by Hello

Bona Posted by Hello

Ho-bum Posted by Hello

Ho-bum Posted by Hello

Soo Posted by Hello

Yu-jin Posted by Hello

Katie Posted by Hello

The reason I haven't been posting lately

I haven't been posting because I've been busy. I started a new Korean class that meets every morning before school. That means I've been getting up at six every morning and often not getting home until after 10. Doesn't leave me much time to write on the blog, I'm afraid. I'll do my best to catch up on the weekends, though, so don't think that I've stopped entirely. Keep an eye out on Saturdays and Sundays, because I'm still taking notes for things that I want to write about when I have time. In any case, I'll talk to you all later. Enjoy!


Article 5 for the Communicator

“’Mianhamnida’, not ‘I’m sorry,’” said my Korean teacher as she was walking past two students in class. She was trying to get them to stop speaking English with each other and focus more on Korean. That’s probably a good idea, and it certainly wouldn’t be odd…if the rest of the circumstance wasn’t known.

One woman was Thai; the other one was Chinese. They had both been living in Korea for several months. And yet, the language the chose to converse was English. Not Thai, not Chinese, not even Korean—English.

English is an odd thing overseas. Signs are often in the native language of the country and English. Many people speak English (at least a little) abroad. And many English words are incorporated right into different languages, especially the ‘technology’ words. In Korean, “TV” is “Tee-Bee,” “computer” is “Kam-pyu-taw,” “internet” is “en-taw-net.”

But what’s odd is “wife” is also “wai-puh” and “sex” is also “sek-suh.” That says a lot.

Native English speakers are in a privileged position. We can go nearly anywhere in the world and find someone to talk to. We can get jobs overseas simply because we were born in a certain country and know that country’s language. We have an automatic advantage in business and technology fields because we are fluent in the language of international business. We are, in a global sense, very very lucky.

And with that luck comes a lot of strange circumstances. There are people in Korea that have lived here for years that can’t speak the language. It’s not absolutely necessary to learn (you can get by with broken English and hand gestures) so many people don’t bother. My former roommate has been here for seven months, goes to the bars every weekend, and still can’t even order himself a beer in Korean.

Many foreigners I know here can’t even count to ten.

As I’m sure you can guess, this breeds two things: surprise and resentment. Honestly, the resentment isn’t nearly as common as you’d think. As surprising as it sounds, Korean people don’t seem to expect you to learn Korean or to learn about Korean culture if you’re a Westerner. The simple truth, though, is that although I might not see the resentment, I’m sure it’s still there. I’m sure if a group of foreigners came to the United States and expected us to learn their language, more than a few people would be upset. I can say, though, that if you’re interested in anything Korean, most people are delighted to share—which brings me to my second point.

The other day I was walking up the stairs to my new apartment when I bumped into a Korean teenager from my building for the first time. He looked up at me in awe as I came down the stairs.

“Oh hello,” he blurted out in surprise.

“Annyong haseyo,” I said back. He stood dumbfounded by the fact that I could say “hello” in Korean. He was still standing there on the stairs staring at me when I turned around at the bottom of the stairs.

That’s extreme but not that extreme. Koreans are generally surprised to hear a foreigner speak Korean, especially a foreigner whose native language is English. I even get free things sometimes at fruit stands or restaurants just because I know how to ask for them properly in Korean. Believe me when I say my Korean isn’t very good, but also believe me when I say I get a lot of shocked looks from just knowing the simplest words.

I never was one to be a strong supporter of learning foreign languages before I came to Korean, but if you ever plan to see the world, I suggest you learn one, if not out of respect for another culture….if not to broaden your horizons…if not to put a good face on America to the rest of the world…then at least to get free stuff when you go to the market and surprise the hell out of a fruit stand owner when you ask how much the apples are in their language. You can save yourself a couple bucks on your food budget.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Yep, I've been saying it a while: "I'll shave my beard when the weather gets warmer." It was in the 50s today, so off it went. Still hurts like hell. Posted by Hello