Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Our Only Friend...

In my last post, I mentioned my desire to try, or rather, my acceptance to partake in, eating dog meat. In Korea, dog meat is a delicacy, mostly carried on by the elders, and shunned by the younger generations who can’t get past the idea of digesting anything resembling man’s best friend, no matter how amazing it tastes. The old men I meet say it’s delicious. At least the dogs, a special breed used for their tender meat quality, are a breed I don’t recognize.
Now, I’ve already eaten live octopus tentacles – swimming and squirming around on the plate in front of me, sucking onto surfaces before my chopsticks pry them off, until they’re in my mouth grabbing hold of my teeth and tongue as my incisors deal the kill stroke – and, well, unknowingly gobbled on some chewy chicken anus before realizing the dish in front of me was, in actuality, exactly what it... gulp, looked like.
I was ready. Not pumped, stoked or excited, but, curious, I guess. Why not? Right? We breed cows, pigs, chickens and other cuddly animals for slaughter. Why get all picky then when some Koreans want to throw Pluto on the barbecue?
A bus ride down the highway last week was all I needed to understand.
I was listening to Radiohead through my headphones, leaning my head against the giant window, closing my eyes in the hopes of catching some sleep amidst a bus full of drunk, and still drinking, westerners, when I came to the revelation that it was no use. I sat up, mouthed the next few Yorke lyrics, then double-took a glance out the window.
It was the typical beat-to-shit-blue cargo truck I’d seen swerving in and out of traffic practically every other hazy Korean day, but what made me look back the second time, and question whether to keep staring or turn back around and vomit into my friend’s lap, was a series of cages overflowing with mangled brown dogs, stacked one on top of the other, maybe six deep, limbs, fur and anything else skinny enough protruding through the chain link prison.
Why would you put dead dogs in cages? I thought, trying to remain rational despite the site. After a closer look: Oh, they aren’t all dead. Fuck, man.
One dog stared out at me blankly through pitch black eyes, as if it had abandoned all hope days, maybe weeks, ago. Rationality flew out the air vents. My heart hurt. I couldn’t return the dog’s stare for more than a few seconds, but he had all the time in the world to gaze at me.
We didn’t understand each other, but we had our assumptions. I looked scared, na├»ve even, in his presence, but still a creature with emotions. A decent owner perhaps. But such potential was being shuttled away from a weekend of mindless debauchery back to a job that had grown tiring and stagnant in a country thousands of miles from home.
He understood my fears, but he’d been there, gotten over it, moved on, metaphorically at least.
He looked unconcerned, accepting even, of his fate, on his way to the end, finally, maybe, after years of a forlorn existence squished between, beside and beneath brethren, unable to stand, walk, run, or move. He’d be tastier that way.
Maybe we both knew, but didn’t dare admit it.
With both our ends in sight, the sun sets in the west. While man sits down to a plateful of his best friend, we have not each other, all we have is the end.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Korean Quirks (a brief reference guide) Part 1

*this blog has all but gone extinct thanks to my distaste with blogger's interface manageability, so now I'll just keep it simple.

Koreans:

believe you can die from leaving an electric on at night while you sleep. no joke wikipedia "fan death"

make their public teachers change grades every school year, schools every five years, aren't allowed to work at the same school as a spouse or significant other

are largely intolerant of gay men despite the fact they blow dry their hair every morning, hold hands with their friends and consider pink a masculine color

don't use any form of checks, its either cash or card

have cable television on almost all new cell phones at a dirt cheap cost

use the same cell phone charger for every cell phone, every company

have cable television on the dashboard of almost every vehicle

don't have addresses on their buildings, the mail is addressed to areas of town that somehow make it your building

pay their bills at the post office and the post office takes care of getting the money to the companies

don't believe in lines, prepare to be cut in front of if you ever visit and bumped into frequently, there is no word for "excuse me" other than to get someones attention for a favor

LOVE MLB hats despite the fact they have their own professional baseball league, but you will rarely see anyone sporting one of these hats outside of the stadium

love the Beatles, Radiohead, and the Once Soundtrack

are incredible at ping pong, darts and anything else that involves very intricate hand eye coordination

go out drinking with their colleagues like Americans go golfing

call the Sea of Japan the East Sea and the Yellow Sea the West Sea, and don't try to tell them any different

don't tip, but you get far better service, all at the push of a button

have a fifth inning stretch in their pro baseball, only its the players that go out onto the field and actually stretch, again

have an incredible medical coverage system at incredibly low costs. A trip to an orthopedist, an X-ray and a splint cost me roughly 20 dollars and about a half an hour of my time. oh, and the doc diagnosed my arthritis correctly on the spot, something it took five doctors back home to do, and at too late a time to really do anything about it

pay about 6 dollars a gallon for gas, but a 10 minute taxi ride costs about 3 dollars

can be found eating dog meat, chicken anus and live octopus. two down one to go

don't grow facial hair. unsure if its intentionally or not

to be continued...

Monday, November 3, 2008

Korean Women

Sorry it's been so long since I last posted, but I've been pondering a few things instead of writing lately.

SEOUL - After a four-day English teaching conference where I found myself surrounded by a wide mix of fairly arrogant foreigners, I've come to realize that I got pretty damn lucky nabbing a kush job that also makes me happy. The stories I heard spew out of my fellow comrades' mouths all seemed like nightmares on Elm Street compared to my own bubbly family sitcom. But by the second day of falling asleep to useless lectures in broken English, I started to question if it was just dumb luck that dealt me this Full House of a job.
An 80-year old die-hard Christian grandmother I befriended during the conference told me that Jesus had brought me here. Was it really divine influence then? Should I really have lied and said "yes" like I did when she asked " Are you a believer?"? Curiosity crucified the cat. But I wouldn't have begun questioning blind chance if my nose didn't grow a little longer first. Why was it that out of 20 or so jobs I applied for back in the states, this teaching job, in South Korea of all places, was the only one that even called me back? And why did the original, more qualified, candidate decide to back out of the contract and allow it to fall into my unquestioning lap? Maybe I heard enough negative truths about the position in the interview process to make me believe the job offer didn't reek of old kimchi.
While most of the foreign teachers surrounding me at the snorefest explained they had contacted private teaching agencies or the provincial education office to land their locale, I seemed to be the only one who contacted the school, and the teacher I'd be replacing, directly.
Was it divine intuition then that landed me the sweet setup? Were my instincts that spot on? I'd like to think so. My track record at the poker table could attest to some sort of cognitive ability to interpret subtleties, but luckily my putrid fantasy football records currently keep me grounded. Yet, what I'm writing about here is real life. The problem I'm facing is I've never been good at that before.
Today I found myself dab smack in the middle of my usual lunch routine. I descend four flights of stairs, returning the hellos from about 40 different Korean kids on the way down, before I escape the chaos with a duck into the teachers' lunchroom. There I find the usual metal food cart, and the 10 or so Korean women leaning over it as if they're warming their hands above a fire in the middle of a blizzard. Kimchi does that to Koreans. Life without it would be, well, uncivilized.
The food isn't bad today. In fact, it's never bad. Not like the memories I have of elementary school food back home, where I sat on a shitty green fold out table watching the unfortunate "buyers" repeatedly tap their rock-solid taco boats with a white plastic spork.
Once I'm done waiting patiently for my coworkers to fill their trays to the brim, I plop today's menu onto my metal tray: dokboki (rice noodle things that look like potato sausages), japchae (imagine gelatin noodles with beef), kimchi (pickled cabbage with a ton of chili paste thrown in), spicy seafood soup and, of course, sticky white rice.
I take a seat next to the vice principal and greet the other teachers at the table with a slight bow accompanied by an "Annyung haseyo." They do the same back to me, practically dipping their heads in their soup like a congregation of passed out drunks. We've all got smiles on our faces. We're the lucky teachers who don't have a homeroom class. Those are the unfortunate souls that have the pleasure of eating lunch with 38 of their "michin" students whose hunger doesn't hinder there energy levels.
Light table conversation I can rarely understand usually fades away quickly, making room for mouth fulls of food. Koreans don't normally eat slowly unless there's something worth taking a long time for. Most of the time I feel like I'm one of Tolkien's Ents in a forest of soup-slurping hairless hobbits.
It's nice not having the ability to pay attention to conversations though. It gives me some time alone with my thoughts. But some days I'm invited into the circle. And by now I've picked up enough Korean to realize when they're asking my co-teacher to translate something to me.
Today it's a question I haven't heard before, at least not from my coworkers, and it catches me off guard enough for me to pause.
"They want to know what you think of Korean women," my co-teacher Jenny says to me with a hand over her mouth, as is customary when Korean women talk with their mouths full.
My facial reaction makes the women still left at table laugh out loud.
What do I tell them? I can't tell them what I really think. Half the reason stems from my educated guess that Jenny can't translate "high maintenance." The other half comes from me not wanting to be rude. Intuition reigns.
"Very beautiful," I say after judging the situation rather quickly.
They all understand what I say without need for Jenny to step in, as do most Koreans when you talk about appearances. They love appearances. They rely on appearances. In high heels, foundation make-up and short skirts they trust.
They can have their appearances. I'll put my faith in what got me over here.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cross-Legged Floor Dining

The drive to Ansan takes an hour they tell me from the front of the car.
I can barely sit still, twisting and turning in the backseat so I can catch glimpses of a foreign highway packed with paint-chipped mini-trucks and compact luxury Hyundais. Old wrinkling Korean men stare at me through their windshields with as much curiosity as I, gaping mouthed, exude back at them. We pass pitch black car windows that shield the men and women hidden behind them, whose featureless faces stare back beneath the tint with their own quizzical pondering. "Oma! Appa! Miguk! Miguk!" their children must be saying. The backward Oakland A's hat must have given me away on the spot.
I'm in the depths of thought when I figure out Aesop is trying to ask me something.
"Why did you decide to come to Korea?" he says again, turning around in his seat to face me.
"Um..." I have to give him something. The truth might be a little too whimsical for him to handle. "I wanted to teach somewhere in Asia, and I did a lot of research, and, uh, Korea seemed to be the best fit."
Aesop translates my white lie so Stewart can understand. Who knows how Aesop reworded it.
Korea is very different from America he tells me once he's finished.
No shit, Aesop. I laugh.
"You are very brave. You must like adventure."
"I was just bored with America," I explain.
I spot Aesop's smiling reflection in the side view mirror. Stewart laughs after he hears the translation, replying in soft, incomprehensible Hangul.
"Stewart and I are very bored with Korea," Aesop quickly summarizes.
Small talk fades as Ansan approaches through the windshield, long after Aesop and I have exhausted our mutual understandings. It's anyone's guess what each of us is comprehending now.

"Welcome to Ansan," Aesop says.
My eyelids draw open like a broken bedroom boom. Sleep in the last 56 hours or so was nonexistent. I must look and smell like a dirty American.
After a brief glimpse of the bustling downtown area, Stewart navigates his modest ride down two-way streets skinnier than alleyways, then past a plethora of pedantic pedestrians until coming to a quick halt in front of what I believe to be Testimony's apartment complex.
"We here?"
"Yes, you are hungry?"
"You have no idea."

"What do you want to eat?" Testimony shouts while walking towards me and my luggage, long before my sleep-deprived eyes get a chance to focus on his features in the twilight.
"Anything you got."
"American or Korean?" he asks.
"Korean," Aesop shoots in. He understands after all.
I have some catching up to do.

Once inside the place, Testimony gestures to the floor for me to take off my shoes, but I'm already working on my left laces. I notice the pile of footwear congregated near the restaurant's doorway before he even remembers to make sure. I'd read about these places in my travel book on the plane ride over. Shoes off at the door, sit cross-legged on the floor. Good luck to any 6 foot 3 white boy that recently crash-landed ashore.

I can smell my feet shortly after sitting down to the 12 inch tall table. A 4-foot tall waitress hurries over to place a clear water plastic jug and five porcelain cups on the table in front of Testimony. He pours each member of our group a cup full until finally filling his own.
"I apologize about my feet smelling," I say out of nowhere.
Testimony laughs.
"Jeff, no problem."
He hands me a set of chopsticks and a spoon for the bean soup the server just brought to our table.
"There is story that says Mary liked smell of Jesus's feet very much."
He seems to get a kick out of my confused reaction judging how he inspects my smile.
"I'm sure Jesus had better smelling feet than me," I reply as soon as the words rip free from the cobwebs of my brain.
The whole table laughs.
And one.

Duck's for dinner, and it can't come soon enough. The pins and needles in my legs have turned the limbs into numb byproducts of my body.
"You use use chopsticks very well," Testimony points out to the rest of the table and myself.
"Thanks. I eat a lot of sushi back home. It helps."
"You like sushi?"
"I love sushi. Unagi especially."
By the look on his face, Testimony seems to have missed what I've just said. Come on, Jeff. This isn't Japan.
"Oh, right. Um... I mean eel. You know..." I hold up my right arm and move it like a microscopic flagella to get my thoughts across.
Testimony's eyes grow wide.
"Oh, chang-o! In Korea they say chang-o gives you stamina. Do you have a girlfriend?"
A little creepy, I think to myself.
"Nope," I answer, shaking my head back and forth, waiting on the edge of the floor for what he'll say next. "Why do you ask?"
"Because you are a very cool guy," Testimony finally replies after swallowing the enormous lettuce wrap he's just stuffed in his mouth.
My auto-pilot engages. All I do is laugh. If it wasn't for his three kids wrestling around on the floor behind me, occasionally whacking me straight in the abdomen, I'd think he were hitting on me.
"Thank you, I reply."
"Korean women will very much like you," he says as if he's been listening in on my thought process.
You gonna find me one? I think to ask.