Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Korean Quiddities, Including Cuisine

My own distinctive peculiarities may likely be ascertained in all their fullness by a comprehensive reading of this blog, from its uncertain beginnings in October 2004 to its compulsive updating now in December 2017 (although, be forewarned: the effort is like to take twice the time regularly accorded in-depth examinations of War and Peace). Those aspects of South Korea to which another American found it impossible to adjust himself are listed on Red Dragon Diaries. Mine are not the same as Mr. Gates's (he known to the vlogosphere as SeoulTee), so I thought I would review his list and then share my own.

Mr. Gates's 2013 quartet of unfathomable Korean curiosities included: Cats on Leashes, Women Spitting on the Street, Penis Slugs, and Globs of Vomit.

I have yet to see a cat on a leash here, except for the one who lived with the British couple I befriended, and who has since traveled back with them to the old country. I've seen several leashed felines in the US (I even took a huge muted calico out on a leash once, and she terrified a small dog), and I follow loads of them on Instagram through such accounts as and WhiskeredAway. Giving your indoor-only cat supervised access to the great outdoors has become trendy as a type of feline enrichment. But I don't think Trixie'd go for it. I do have a harness for her, just in case.

I have yet to see a single Penis Slug in either the Olle Market or in a restaurant (thank goodness!). Perhaps they are not a staple of Jeju cuisine? As aphrodisiacs, I would think eels and oysters more attractive options.

I've only passed one small mass of vomit on the road the whole year I've lived here. Of course, I don't live in an area of town overwhelmed by watering holes, as Gates used to. But also, people hereabouts seem to be able to hold their liquor fairly well--maybe better than their mainland compatriots? I have seen a couple of guys peeing against walls even in daylight hours (to be fair, I also saw this at midday in Georgia). Must be nice to be able to unzip and let loose when your bladder prods you without hunting for enclosed facilities that have toilet paper, but there is a lot to be said for not exposing your digestive business (if not your anatomy) to the eyes of casual passersby.

Finally, I haven't seen any women spitting on the street in Seogwipo, but almost every male over age twenty, whatever his station, seems to regard this as a regular civic duty. Just yesterday I walked past two middle-class men who snorted in massive, sinus-emptying mucus pulls and hawked out on the pavement before getting into their car. Yet, somehow, obviously blowing your nose in Kleenex in public is taboo.

My "unadjustables" list is minimal: Live Octopus Consumption and my own nagging inability to learn Korean as fast as Heinrich Schliemann (claimed to have) learned Greek. I pick up on odd words, and can often respond to intra-student classroom conversations as if I understood everything they said (and it's not like most pre-adolescents talk about far-flung subjects, so sometimes it's just a matter of logic, not vocabulary), but I really understand next to nothing!

I had my first taste of soondae (순대; a good way to remember the word is humming "Soondae, Bloody Soondae") Friday evening. It actually wasn't bad, especially when dipped in spicy dukbokki (떡볶이) sauce. My ability to tolerate large quantities of chili paste has most definitely improved in the last year, though I always expend large quantities of paper napkins discreetly wiping my streaming nose when I eat it!

Moonpies & Manuscripts

For my birthday two weeks ago, my small students probably had no idea, when they presented me with a cake-like structure of Orion choco-pies, that I was sorely tempted to inquire "Do you have RC Cola?" The Orion company version of the moonpie was invented after a South Korean researcher visited my home state in the year of my birth. It's a pretty good approximation. My adult students gave me four today at our last class of the year, and I ate all four (though not at one sitting). I hope that this is the primary source of my current toothache, and that the molar pain will soon subside. I really don't want to have to risk miscommunication with a Seogwipo dentist.

Choco-pies were worth up to a month's wages, apiece, in North Korea a few years ago, as the border industrial complex administered by the South (until being closed in the aftermath of Kim Jung Un's early nuclear shenanigans) paid its northern workers in food. Given their local rarity, the DPRK folks traded these snacks at an impressive profit until their sweet speculation was cut short by the illustrious sourpuss who likes to retain all nice things for himself.

I've been invited to a Christmas party the day before Christmas Eve hosted by one of my adult students. Her new house is a bit out in the country, so I wonder how I'll make my way home. A student will likely agree to take me there, but given the alcohol said student is likely to consume at the party, I can't rely on that means of transport back to town. And I can't walk safely--don't want to risk freezing to death or being mashed by a car barreling down a narrow lane in the dark.

The publisher responded after two short queries (the first went unanswered, so I sent a second yesterday) that I shouldn't give up hope quite yet on the Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands manuscript--he's had a magazine deadline and hasn't been able to give the project much attention the last few weeks. I told him I'd wait patiently. But I devoutly hope to hear good news by the New Year!

Saturday, December 09, 2017

From The Base To The Sacred

Have you been missing the kiss of the cold wind on your bare posterior that disappeared with the advent of the indoor toilet? Well, wait no longer! Come visit KYP’s apartment in South Korea. Yes, that’s right, in the land which invented floor heating, you can enjoy all the amenities of modern plumbing and overhead electric lighting while freezing your buns off in a bathroom without heat of any kind! Frigid temperatures guaranteed (except when you stand directly under the shower head pouring near-boiling water—but don’t worry, half of your body won’t fit! Remember, facing temperature extremes is good for the soul! And you probably didn’t need those frostbitten digits anyway!) Just don’t forget to open the bathroom window after your shower, so that icy tile won’t molder.

Snarky whining (and the wintry feel of the bathroom during the colder months) aside, I really love my apartment here. It’s big enough to entertain dinner guests, and small enough to keep clean. It’s not too far from the ground, and it’s quiet. It’s within easy walking distance of everything. The water is plentiful (good pressure) and hot, while the floor heating works nicely in the bedroom and common room during the colder months, and the AC is correspondingly good in the summer. My washing machine is huge and efficient, and the refrigerator has room for all my milk and cheese. And so far I haven’t either poisoned myself or set myself on fire with the temperamental gas stove.

The Almighty has really blessed me. Like most people, I tend to focus on the “withouts”—without publication (I guess no word means they decided the manuscript wasn’t marketable), without youth (I’ve begun smearing expensive creams on my face in an effort to stop the creases from deepening), without sleep (the insomnia is wretched), without savings (though I guess if I die early from sleep deprivation I won’t need any).... But truly, the “withs” far outweigh those empty longings. I have a good job (two, actually, with the editorial contracting), pleasant coworkers, a nice place to stay, friends near and far (and I am particularly grateful for the Koreans who have enabled me to go to church and to the doctor, and to get to know other people), plenty of tasty food (most of which I don’t have to cook!) and so forth. I really haven’t reasonable cause to complain.

I talked to Grandmommy and my youngest aunt night before last. They are both so sunny, despite the considerable physical challenges they are facing or have faced. Both of them are well marinated in the Bible—“learning to think God’s thoughts after Him,” as one of my pastors once put it—and as a result have become more and more comfortable in their own skins over the years. They are the sort of people that when you interact with them, you feel emotionally lighter, like the weight on your soul has been lifted. You think afterwards how pleasant it was to talk about even the most mundane subjects, and that life is hopeful. This is a bit of that “peace that passes understanding” that Jesus brings.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Bugs In The Cold

There is something morally wrong about mosquitoes and snow flurries floating through the same air at the same time. Tuesday was allegedly the first snow of the year here, and although I didn’t see it—the flakes apparently melted before they hit the ground—I did see, and get bitten by mosquitoes, many of whom have moved indoors in response to the cold weather. I’ve got to remember to buy an electric mosquito paddle for my classroom.

Tuesday was kind of a personal mess. For the second time in a year, I slept through my nap alarms and missed the first half of my first afternoon class. I got a call from the principal to the effect of “Where the heck are you?! The kids came downstairs to get me!” I arrived at school looking distinctly disturbed, and she didn’t yell at me, just remarked that I looked exhausted during the faculty meeting earlier in the day. I’ve been really tired. I feel old and I look old. The sleeping pills don’t appear to be doing a dime’s worth of good. I followed the directions to the letter, and still lie awake past the wee hours. Last night I got a maximum of four hours’ sleep. I’ve been so tired that I’ve been shaking involuntarily (although some of that may be due to the cold—sometimes my “longhanels” as Granddaddy called them, don’t keep me as toasty as I would like) and some students have asked if I am OK. Nonetheless, I haven’t been depressed, although my memory is dreadful. I’m getting extra exercise returning to rooms and floors I’d left where I’ve forgotten something.

There is still no word from the publisher about the Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands manuscript. If and when I get a positive response on the subject, I think I’ll drop to the floor and sob with relief. In the amount of time it’s taken me to translate this thing and (I hope and pray) find a welcoming publisher, Jacob had earned two wives.

During my preparations for my Thanksgiving celebration, I found a sweet potato soufflé recipe that will hereafter be part of my standard repertoire. It’s delicious, and healthy, with one tablespoon of honey added to the filling, alongside several teaspoons of citrus zest (I’ve been using tangerines because they are plentiful); the only sugar is in the topping. I could eat it by the bucketful. I tried baking the sweet potatoes at a higher temperature this go round, and though the skins were rather burnt, it was easier to separate them from the meat of the potato.

I would go get a smoothie this evening (I try to get one once, and only once, a week), but all I want to do is curl up with a huge mug of steaming hot herbal tea and think sleepy thoughts. But I’ve got two more classes to teach before I can bundle up and trudge home. No matter how tired I am, I am animated in the classroom, but away from my students I crash into near-immobility. Is that the definition of an “introvert who can’t shut up,” as my sister once phrased it?

Monday, December 04, 2017

Class Parties

Koreans take the categorization of tomatoes as fruits very seriously. The birthday cake my adult students got me Tuesday had cherry tomatoes on the top, lodged on the white icing with green grapes amongst curlicues of milk chocolate. The cake was a cheese cake, but not in the American understanding of cheesecake. It seemed to be made out of American cheese, however. The kind you melt on a burger. My coworkers devoured it rapidly.

The cake was odd, but it was beautiful, and I dearly appreciated my students’ getting it and a bunch of balloons for my 43rd. They sang and I blew out the candles, and one of the men read a heartfelt note of appreciation for my teaching efforts, although he admitted they still didn’t wholly understand me. One lady gave me a packet of tea, and Roxanne presented me with some pretty costume jewelry. And then afterwards my boss took me and my colleagues to lunch.

June gave me an exquite cat-themed grownup coloring book. I’ve probably spent an hour already just admiring the drawings. I plan to buy an enormous rainbow of colored pencils to use on it.

On Monday, three of my five fourth grade girls had conspired to give me a surprise party. One little girl was bouncing on the between the fourth and fifth floors as I slowly climbed to the classroom. “Hurry, teacher!” She begged excitedly. When I opened the door, I found that they had written sweet messages on the whiteboard, and there was even a “cake”—they had bought a box of choco-pies, unwrapped them, and arranged them in a cake shape, complete with candles. They gave me a gift, too—in the box was a journal with a Shakespeare quotation on the front, a tiny day planner, and a pen topped with a little model of a chick hatching out of a shell. They told me they had gone out together to Alpha (store that combines qualities of a Michaels, an Office Depot, and a stationery store with a gift shop) on Saturday and then to a norebang (karaoke room).

Wednesday, I think it was (I was pretty short on sleep), the school director got me and one of my co-teachers, whose birthday was a week earlier, a shared cake. We got a joint birthday song, too.

Thursday I bought donuts for my third graders, who had earned them after twenty days of good behavior. However, one little guy spent the first twenty minutes of class sobbing silently into his sleeve, and refused to take one. His sleeve was wet with tears from elbow to wrist. I appealed to his classmates for an explanation, but none was forthcoming. Eventually, he calmed down, I gave him first choice of the donut holes, and he agreed to take a swirl pastry, which one of his female classmates immediately said looked like 똥 (shit). I gave her The Look of Doom and she subsided. Her comments didn’t curb his appetite. He was happy today, and had drawn an entire multi page  manwha of SpongeBob slasher fanfic, which one of his friends was reading at the beginning of class.

Friday I bought a cake for one of my two sixth grade classes (I got another for my other sixth graders today): I have had them almost an entire year, and on the eve of seventh grade (the school year ends in December) they are being reassigned classes, and starting new book series—I don’t know how many, if any, will still be my students. It was a valedictory gesture—several were kind of pills to begin with, but they have grown up a great deal and learned (mostly) to behave themselves. I told them I was glad to have had them in my class. One of the guys (who had been something of a stinker early on, but who has really been diligent lately) stayed after briefly today to give me a real, proper bow. The wordless gesture meant a lot. He wants to be a policeman. I had my doubts at first, but I think he’ll be a good one.

Breathing Bliss & Coffee Friends

Have you ever been in a storytelling mood, and then discovered that your ability to string words together coherently, much less in any interesting way, it has entirely deserted you? This was my past week. Maybe it was anxiety over the fact that I still haven’t heard from the publisher as to whether Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands has any hope of making it into print; he said I should hear by December. I wrote him an email yesterday, and I dread the inevitability of bad news. Or perhaps my inability to be interesting was attributable to my lack of sleep. Insomnia has become my apartment co-tenant, not just a regular visitor. I hate sharing space with it – it makes my memory and attention span even more abbreviated than usual. For example, the new teacher, who lives in the flat right above me, mentioned a week or so ago that a tile in his kitchen had “exploded.” Since we have gas stoves, this could be a real reason for concern, and at the time he told me, I apparently impressed upon him the necessity of letting me know any updates. He updated me on the situation on Friday, and frankly I insisted that he had never mentioned any tile problems – it took a good 15 minutes for me to recall a shred of our previous conversation. Clearly, my concern over the situation had not been keeping me up at night. In fact, my being awake into the wee hours had expunged the situation from my memory. He said it wasn’t a gas issue after all. Well, that’s a relief. It was probably due to the damp – he doesn’t have the dehumidifiers on which I rely.

I finally got around to ordering new filters for my dehumidifiers—or rather, finagling a delightfully sweet and long-suffering Korean colleague into ordering them from the company for me. The filters cost a fortune – about $30 each – but you only have to replace them once a year, on average. My old ones had been in place for 10 months, and both were charcoal gray with smut— impressive evidence of the ambient dust level. This isn’t China—the air outside is fresh and there is rarely any smog. But clearly my inside environment needs help. So I have the dehumidifiers, and two electronic air purifiers (I am still waiting for their replacement filters to arrive). To me, home should be a place where you can breathe easy both figuratively and literally.

I cycled to HomePlus on Saturday afternoon and wept involuntarily the entire way, my eyes streaming tears in the cold wind. It’s finally gotten chilly here. I am grateful that June taught me how to turn on my floor heat’s four-hour cycle, so I can maintain a basic level of warmth in my rooms without wasting too much gas. I wish I had known about this cycle function last winter, as spending $200 on one month’s heating bill was an expensive learning experience.

There was a couple kissing near the fish counter at HomePlus. The woman was wearing a long black quilted down coat, as are most other Koreans this year. I asked one of my students if they were issued by the schools, since everybody seemed to be sporting identical outerwear, but he said “it’s just the fashion.” The nationwide memo must have been in Korean—I didn’t get it.

Roxanne took me back to the doctor Friday morning for more sleep medications. The lady (who was sporting a new platinum diamond solitaire on her left hand—I congratulated her on her engagement, which she sheepishly accepted) gave me the maximum length prescription for non-addictive sleep aids: three weeks. They don’t do automatic refills here—every time you need meds, you have to meet with the doctor. This is a real pain when you have a chronic condition. But I was amused to see that the hospital was almost empty this time around – it’s tangerine season, and everyone who is ambulatory is in the orchards. Roxanne told me that the halls are crowded on rainy days, but when the weather is nice everybody who is remotely able to work is picking citrus during December and January. The only indication that there were usually more patients waiting to be seen were the dark spots on the corridor walls behind the backless benches. While I was waiting to see the doctor, I was attempting to puzzle out the vocabulary on the banner across the hall that advertised a machine for sonically pulverizing kidney stones. I could understand one word: 디지탈 (digital).

Checkout from the hospital took (literally) less than 20 seconds. I am known by my first name alone here, and at five syllables in translation, it’s longer by two than Korean full names. It makes me feel like Madonna—I am the only one. The hospital bill was a staggering $13. And then the medication cost me another $5 at the pharmacy. In the two minutes we waited for the prescription to be filled, we were offered cups of hot sweet “Jacob’s Tears” tea—it was delicious, with peanut bits floating in it. Allergies be damned.

I spent a fortune on other kinds of nuts—pecans, almonds, and walnuts—at HomePlus. They were on sale, but were still pricey. And then I added almost $40 on organic low-fat milk to the bill. My dairy habit is not cheap, but it’s one of the more healthy addictions out there. And thank God there are the aforementioned kidney-stone sonic pulverizers nowadays!

Thursday evening I went to Maxwell’s for my weekly strawberry smoothie. From across the street I could see a little pair of orange ears at his elbow behind the counter. As I walked towards the door Edouard’s furry face and whiskers popped up, until the whole cat hopped over the counter for some obligatory affection. I was already in a good mood, but being greeted on arrival by a furry receptionist made me laugh. Maxwell’s collection of fan art has grown—customer sketches of Edouard (I think most are by women) are slowly papering the front of the counter. There’s a colored pencil drawing of both guys in a small frame by the register—the small tangerine and white short-haired feline and his longhaired human. Maxwell complained that he thought the picture made him look like a girl, but I told him it didn’t and that anyway, I like his hair.

Not too long after I arrived at the shop, a trim Korean guy in shorts walked in. He’s from Seoul and opened a coffee shop in the new district of town around the same time that Maxwell debuted in the older district. “This is Brad,” Maxwell said, and Brad shook my hand. “You must be KYP,” he remarked cheerily. I smiled that that I was, but internally wondered, “‘You must be’? Why have I been a topic of conversation? And what on earth has been said about me?” It was interesting listening to the two of them talk, as they fluidly mixed English and Korean. My friend Anita and her mom often garble English, Russian, and Armenian, which means I can follow two-thirds of their conversations; this particular bout of bilingual code-switching left me more than half confused.

Then, Brad got a call from my sometime student Jeff, the coffee sommelier, wondering where he was—Jeff and Bill (another student of mine) were at Brad’s shop, which was, obviously, closed for the evening. So they, too, came over to Maxwell’s, lugging a battered black suitcase. They both clasped my hands in affectionate greeting when they arrived, and then hoisted their luggage atop a back table. It opened to reveal an assortment of coffee equipment, from brewing devices to a delicate electronic testing machine that measures the depth of batch roasts.

Maxwell brought out bags of beans, which Jeff scooped into a shallow square black dish and tapped smooth with the edge of a plastic card (gestures that looked to me for all the world like a drug addict cutting cocaine powder with a razor blade). Once the expensive device was clapped over the beans in the dish, it gave a number to the roast—the darker the beans, the lower the number. Dull sand-brown beans read as medium roast. According to Jeff, the shiny mahogany brown beans often depicted on posters—examples that we admire as the chocolate incarnation of perfectly roasted coffee—are actually inexcusably burnt. I had no idea. After every digital reading, he popped a few beans into his mouth and crunched on them thoughtfully, his expert taste buds working in concert with his digital reader.

Jeff’s disciples clustered around him. Despite his bulk, Bill bounced around like a hyperactive Chihuahua—I attribute this to excessive bean crunching. Brad and Maxwell listened rapt. Jeff, who kept his coat on, was calm, and lectured earnestly, reeling off numbers and names of coffee varieties, along with advice on how to improve the roasting process, and sprinkling the Korean conversation with international English coffee terms like “caramelization.” When my thoughts wandered, I stared at the flawless steel mirror back of Maxwell’s main coffee machine, and at a peculiar implement that had also been pulled out of the black suitcase: a hand roaster made of brown glazed ceramic that looked to me like a giant bong.

Jeff subsequently explained that you grasp the hollow handle with an oven mitt and undulate the base over a fire. When the beans start making a popping sound, you dump them out through the handle into a waiting container. Maxwell told me that he usually sources his latte beans from places Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, since Central American coffees are less acidic. Like the other guys, he keeps an alchemical diary, a journal of beans and roasts and results. The men pulled out and compared these journals, pouring over the data with the concentration of gamblers over their racing forms.

At one point, Jeff drew me into a long, solid hug, not only exceptional for him personally, but for Koreans generally, as embracing is usually limited to lovers, same-sex friendships, and family members. He patted me gently, comfortingly, on the back, and I noticed that while his face was normal, his body underneath his heavy coat was thin. He’s been hospitalized several times in as many weeks. While coffee and mental stimulation may have kept him alive longer than any other pancreatic cancer patient on the globe, it seems he may be running out of time.

One of the last curiosities I spotted in Jeff’s bag (before I glanced at my watch and realized it was time to head for home as quickly as possible--I had editing to do, and hadn't originally planned to stay for more than 20 minutes, and here it was 1.5 hours gone!) was a copper clad, brass-spouted Kalita pouring kettle for making hand drip coffee. While the sophisticated coffee machines may be able to produce quality brew, there is an entire cult hereabouts of people who eschew mechanical application of water to grounds in favor of the artistic touch of hand-drip. This kettle, a fine disposable filter, a glass cone, and a glass carafe are all part of the peculiar technology of hand drip. It's as much art as science: a talented barista drizzles hot water, and the perfect coffee is created. It’s theater.

Friday morning Facebook informed me that it was Jeff’s fortieth birthday. Had I known it was, and that I would see him on Thursday night, I would have wished him many happy returns in person. But the bear hug probably was the best blessing I could bestow, as a "return" may well be well beyond hoping for.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Good Housekeeping

Except for the common room rug, which is heavily salted with crumbs, my house is revoltingly clean at the moment. Preparatory to the Thanksgiving meal on Saturday, I polished the whole apartment, even discarding the pile of handouts—leftovers from my adult English classes—that had been accumulating in a corner of my bedroom for more than half a year. I scrubbed the joints in the bathroom and kitchen faucets with a toothbrush. When you know you are going to have guests sitting directly on your floor, you pay particular attention to sweeping up the dust in the corners and the crud between the floorboards. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was a marked improvement. I should have people over more often, if only for the housekeeping benefits.

I went out to lunch with all of my Korean colleagues last week—on days when I have my adult classes, I’m at school well in advance of the other Western teachers, and so they kindly, impromptu, asked if I would like to join them. There are so many “invisible” restaurants here! This place is in a house, and is only open for lunch. I would never have known it was there. The six of us shared two main dishes of spicy pork and squid (I had made sure beforehand that the squid was going to be thoroughly dead before it arrived at the table) and two sets of side dishes of bean sprouts, shredded cabbage, cucumber, kimchi and other things. As usual, we each were given little lidded metal bowls of sticky rice—it was a pale purple color. The floor was warmed, so we sat comfortably on the mats around the tables and tucked in quietly, sitting back when all the food had disappeared. Typically, Koreans save chitchat for after eating; mealtimes are times to consume diligently, then talk. One of my coworkers credited this to Korea having been a farming society with limited eating utensils: one shift would eat quickly, the dishes would be washed, and then another shift would eat. Recreational chitchat had to take place afterwards. I really hadn’t noticed this difference, as I have always eaten quickly, and when the food is good, I am far more interested in eating than talking. But I agree that Americans in general talk more and eat more slowly—we chat after sips of our drinks, and people usually don’t drink much with their daytime meals here, and when they are drinking, they aren’t usually sipping, but knocking back shots. It was so nice being asked to lunch, especially given my essential ignorance of Korean.

A few weeks ago, I realized I had easily eaten a whole meal without actually thinking about my chopsticks. I’ve been more self-conscious on occasions since, but it was a major breakthrough to just eat without obsessing over whether I was going to fumble my food. Finally, chopsticks are beginning to feel fairly natural in my hand. I always feel like a preschooler, except when I am near real preschoolers in the grocery store or elsewhere, and hear them cutely counting in Korean and talking with their parents or grandparents, and then I realize they are far more advanced than I am in many respects.

Although I have forgotten so much of my Russian, my first instinct is to respond to people in that language when I understand what they say in Korean. On Friday night, the grocery store lady asked me if I needed bags, and my gut reaction was “yehst” (есть) not “issayo” (있어요)—both meaning “I’ve got some.” I just pointed to my backpack and muttered something unintelligible. The checkout lady did not look impressed. She was clearly less so when I failed to get my purchases off the counter and into my bags quickly enough. It’s like a race here—can you bag all your groceries in the time she takes to swipe your card and give you your receipt? Other people are waiting! And sometimes they’ll just run roughshod over you, sending the next customer’s groceries down into the bagging area and taking their money before you’ve even gotten out of the way. I try to be quick, and just stuff everything in to my bags as fast as possible, then retreat out of the surge of traffic to rearrange things for my walk or bike trip home.

Tomorrow I plan to go to the bank to wire money to the Customs people, who have been holding a package of perfume and anti-wrinkle cream hostage for almost two months. I thought it would have been returned long since, but it hadn’t been. The shipper tracked it down still in official hands. The customs people are demanding I wire an extra 40,000 KRW to cover the import fees before they’ll let the package through...It turns out (such a costly lesson!) that perfume is subject to hefty luxury goods tariffs, and no, to my consternation, the shipper had not paid the duties up front, so I am in a pickle. I won’t do that again—especially since in the intervening time I found a local seller who was charging less! Live and learn. And stink and get more wrinkled.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Happy Belated Thanksgiving

I wonder if June slept through her church alarms today, too. I didn’t hear anything from my three, but slept until almost noon.

The two of us devoted all of yesterday to preparing a Thanksgiving feast for a group of our fellow teachers (and two spouses), and were delighted but exhausted at the end of the day. For the meal, there were nine seated on the carpet around the two low tables in my common room: four Koreans, three Americans, and two South Africans. We ate well. The cheese smorgasbord bahind me wasn’t disturbed much because the main dishes came out of the oven just as guests started arriving, so everyone —including me—tucked in to our main meal directly. The macaroni and cheese and the sweet potato soufflé recipes I was trying out for the first time were delicious, if I do say so—people went back for multiple helpings. The chicken that June and I had each cooked was devoured. Her mashed potatoes were almost obliterated. The steamed broccoli and the raw vegetable salad had a good audience, although most people overlooked the black rice in the steamer (it being out of the general view doubtless played a part). For dessert, we had June’s pecan pies, and my baklava and M&M cookies. Our guests brought strawberries, and chocolate bread, and cheese bread, and apricot-puffed rice snack bars. And soft drinks, two bottles of makgeoli, and local Jeju ale. I do have leftovers, but I sent the remaining cookies home with two of the men, and my colleague’s husband also took some baklava.

I got compliments on my cooking, and though I appreciate it, trying to do it on a regular (daily) basis would drive me insane. You have to think about menus and ingredients constantly, work out the timing so everything is done at the right time, adjust for unexpected developments (the Korean sweet potatoes, which are white, not orange like American ones, took three times longer than expected to bake, and then were devilishly hard to peel), and consider colors (the green broccoli, multicolored salad and dark-purple rice offset what was mainly a monochrome meal, as the chicken, potatoes of both kinds, and macaroni and cheese, which was made with blond British cheddar, were all pale). It’s a huge job. Even with more than eighty years of experience in the kitchen, Grandmommy plans succeeding meals when still eating the first one. She’s always strategizing, thinking about not only what she can make fresh, but also which dishes she’s made ahead and frozen can be brought out, and how to use the leftovers. She never “eats the bread of idleness” even when she’s resting. If I had a family, housekeeping would be full-time and more; if I had a paying job, too, my family would be rewearing dirty clothes and subsisting on pasta.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

You Are What You Eat?

My American friends were invariably scandalized by my account of my Sunday meal, with one supposing that the animal rights people hadn’t made noticeable inroads into the Korean Peninsula. I think that what with their outcry against Japanese wholesale dolphin slaughter, PETA has bigger fish to fry (ahem, so to speak) than protesting the occasional scalding to death of the odd mollusk at a Korean restaurant. And I myself like meat, I just want it to have been quickly and thoroughly dispatched before it approaches my table on a platter. Even lobsters—which are basically giant sea bugs, in my view—shouldn’t be reduced to involuntary screaming in a hot pot. I know how to quickly kill a lobster, but how does one efficiently execute an octopus? They have three hearts, and their tentacles are basically (in my unscientific assessment) sort of complicated fingers attached to their unitary head-body, so decapitation wouldn’t work. I hope I don’t ever have to figure this out: I instituted a personal rule of never eating anything smarter than I am after I guiltily consumed baby octopi at a DC restaurant about a decade ago.

A general, historic Asian belief, on the other hand, and one whose traditional medical claims continue to drive a black market continent wide in rhino horns, tiger bits, and the like, is that “you are what you eat.” To improve virility, for example, you eat virile looking things. And to prevent gray hair, you eat black beans. I guess there’s no downside to the latter (which practice I learned this morning in my adult English class) except for intestinal gas. Another traditional remedy for gray hair (one which has some efficacy and less noxious effluent than bean consumption) is mixing coffee grounds with raw egg and smearing that on your head, letting it dry, and then washing it out. This was a method one older man’s mother used when he was a child. Most folks now, of course, just go to the many local salons for an expert dye job. I’m happy to go gray—thank God, my hair is mousy rather than black, so the silver just blends in; “natural” is also so much cheaper than color treatments. No maintenance required, either.

My birthday is a week hence: my boss is taking me and my colleagues out for samyatang (I’ve specified the no-octopus variety), and we’ll be talking over the planned events for the school Christmas party, which is a hotly anticipated event each year. So far we’ve decided on a Christmas carol norebang (karaoke), lots of food, Wii games, a cotton candy machine, card-making (and another craft involving the Xacto knives that most students carry and some casually whip out in class to sharpen their pencils), and some form of photo scavenger hunt. But we still need a big game suitable for all ages at which the kids can win prizes—they have done Bingo the last three years and it’s lost its entertainment luster.