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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Fruit & Time Flies

A horrifying number of fruit flies came boiling out of the trash bag on my porch this afternoon. Clearly, last night's decision to chuck a chunk of aged watermelon into the bin was ill advised. After tying off the bag and bundling it into another (there's almost a dollar gone in official 20-liter garbage bags!) for good measure, I spent 20 minutes on the porch with my electrified ping-pong paddle, implementing a scorched earth policy. A few flies managed to escape electrocution--the snap and flash as their less fortunate brethren encountered the wires was rather satisfying--but I am determined to starve them henceforth. Which means I need to do my dishes, darn it!

June has decamped for the better part of our five days of summer vacation (a long weekend only, but we'll take what we can get!). She took a bus to an Airbnb apartment somewhere on the southern seaside this afternoon. Meanwhile, I have editing to do (several entries have been moved up unexpectedly), and it's so warm that I have no inclination to exercise. I biked over to HomePlus this evening--I arrived just in time to shop before their 11 PM closing--and it was still stifling outdoors. I've spent most of the day sleeping in the air conditioning. And I hope to return to bed soon!

Our heavy summer schedule is almost at an end, thank God! I get to finish double-teaching adult English classes on August 8. Preparing for five two-hour classes a week has really been a bear. I've been waking up in a panic, hours before my alarm time, every morning to either create or revise the day's PowerPoint presentations and handouts. Even the ones for classes I have already taught once have needed serious work. Maybe after I've been teaching for years all of this will be simple. But maybe not. On the plus side, I've gotten fairly proficient with PowerPoint. I can make words and objects fly in and out. I can insert pictures, text boxes, and such. I have yet to figure out the GIF.

This month's speech contest class (seven sixth graders) has been much more amenable than the last one – for the most part, they know their lines, they're good actors, and they are enthusiastic about the project. The one problem I've run into is that key people have alternated missing filming days (mostly due to illness--and that's not counting the one boy who suddenly spouted blood from his left nostril, filling his cupped hand with bright red fluid that dripped on the floor… I have never seen a bloody nose that spectacular--I thought he might be having a brain hemorrhage), which has made the process frustratingly attenuated. I hope the video places in the competition--I would love to go to Seoul with this group.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Certification VS. Competence

This past Wednesday morning, one of my adult students got into an argument with me over a grammar point. I had said that the statement "I'm not much of a dancer" was equivalent to the statement "I'm not a good dancer." He vehemently disagreed, saying that the latter sentence indicated professionalism. His example was: "He is not a good doctor." Try as I might, I could not convince him that the "-- am/is/are not (a) good --" construction isn't limited to professionals.

Upon reflection, I think that this disconnect is based in a cultural difference in how we understand the notion of professionalism. In Korea, for hundreds of years there have been state examinations, and it was only after the passing of the examination that men could enter a government employ. I don't know how fair the examinations were, and certainly the right to take them was limited depending on one's social status, but there was a certain administrative bar that was set. In the modern era, Korean society seems still to place a great deal of emphasis and importance on the possession of university degrees and certifications. A person may not know what the heck they're doing, but if they graduated from a prestigious program, they have much more standing and job opportunities than someone who may have skills but is without formal paperwork to attest to it. We're beginning to exhibit this same inflexibility in the US, but our cultural heroes have long been people who simply accomplished their dreams thanks to innate talent, despite lack of credentials.

In the West, historically we have valued competency over certification. For example, prior to the mid-nineteenth century, a person was a doctor if he had read the canon of medical books, had apprenticed (even informally) with someone who was a recognized medical practitioner, and had a popularly accepted rate of cure. This despite the fact that many doctors of 200 years ago often used methods that today's physicians would look at horrified, knowing them to be little more than quackery. The American Medical Association was founded in 1847 and not incorporated until 1897, and it was the early decades of the 20th century before they finally succeeded in stamping out the most egregious examples of common malpractice by untutored charlatans. Nowadays, there is a professional standard to be recognized as a doctor, from graduation from an accredited medical school to the passing of various board exams. However, medicine, law and accountancy are relatively exceptional in this--I would say that most people still have jobs for which certification is unnecessary. But does that render them less professional? They either know how to do the work, or they don't know how to do the work. Although various car repair spots trumpet the fact that they have certified technicians on board, it is the garage with the person who can look under your hood, tell you exactly what's wrong with your vehicle and fix it properly that ultimately gets your business. On the other hand, as my physician dad joked, what do they call the person that graduates last from his or her medical school class? "Doctor."

Americans have long treated avocations as equally valid as vocations. If you want to dance, you dance. You might be a very good dancer, and enter competitions. In either case, though, you can claim to be a dancer, whether you are a gyrating weekend club goer or a ballroom competition trophy winner. How you perform validates the claim: you are a good dancer, you are a bad dancer. If you are aware that you don't have skills in a particular area, you can state outright: "I'm a bad dancer." You're commenting on your own skills, or on someone else's skills. You're not presuming professionalism, you're assessing competency. I'm a good baker, but a bad cook. I don't make my living doing either, nor do I even do either often. People claim to be artists without having gone to art school (and many of them succeed far beyond those who are struggling to pay off their SCAD loans)--it's what they like to do, not necessarily what they are good at doing.

In Jeju, the coffee shops proudly display the certificates the owners have earned at various barista training programs. The posher bakeries have diplomas from the Cordon Bleu. Of course there are many restaurants whose owners simply know how to cook, whose diploma is their stew itself, but there is a certain fetishism about degrees hereabouts. And, truth be told, I am the positive recipient of this reverence--I have loads of academic qualifications, which may really have exempted me from particular criticism. I don't mind this, but I am also aware that I am not the best teacher. Also, the degree to which I am able to claim competency in a field has always bedeviled me in job searching, as I feel like I am false-advertising expertise both in areas wherein I have experience or fundamental abilities and no certifying paperwork, or, on the contrary, where I possess paperwork and little experience. Am I a teacher? Am I a writer? Am I a historian? Am I an editor? Am I an artist? Am I an estate sale organizer? Am I an antiques expert?

The US is tending more toward the glorification of certificates than it was. Of course, in part this is grounded in a desire to assure common standards are met, but on the other hand, people like me end up in possession of degrees that are almost handicapping in that they do not contain the specific words a computer sorting program has been designed to accept. And, as I did repeatedly throughout my two years of under/unemployment, I want to scream, "I know how to do this! Just because I don't have a degree to prove it, why should I be summarily excluded from consideration?!" There's a big problem here in Korea right now with youth unemployment, and I suspect that the rigidity of the degree-oriented hiring system is largely to blame, alongside a possible inflexibility on the part of young people who have trained extremely hard for specific positions and who are psychologically unable to grasp the notion that they might be able to do something else, even if they don't have the paperwork to prove it.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The First Dog Day Of Summer

Last Thursday we were treated to a sumptuous meal of samgyetang, the whole-chicken-stewed-in-a-pot-with-ginseng-rice-and-dried-fruits concoction that I had tasted once before, on the first day I went to the hospital to get meds for my insomnia (I've been twice more since). This time the restaurant was far, far better, and I got to enjoy the experience with most of my colleagues. One of my Korean coworkers told me that we were lunching on Chubok, the first of the three days every summer that one traditionally eats either goat soup, or duck soup, or dog soup, or samyetang. Most younger Koreans don't eat dog, though it is still considered exceptionally nutritious. This association with summer feasting does give a whole new meaning to the "dog days of summer," though!

I have decided that Albert has regrettable taste in restaurants. After our hike up Shi Oreum on Saturday--June came along, as did Rosa, a young English and Chinese teacher from Shanghai--I mentioned that we would pass a good restaurant on the way back to my house. This was merely an observation, not an invitation, but Albert took it to mean that I was in the mood for an early dinner, and we pulled into the parking lot to inspect the menu. I had had a fabulous late supper there with two coworkers and one's visiting Romanian friend the previous week. We had stuffed ourselves on large portions of lean beef and lamb, with unlimited side dishes, and sampled some soju and finished off one bottle of makoli (rice wine with a low alcohol content that reminded me a lot of Russian kvass). Altogether, it cost us less than $15 a person. But Albert insisted he knew a better restaurant, and drove us to a down-at-heel diner diagonally across the street from the samgyetang restaurant where he'd fed me several weeks ago. The flesh that came on a plate to be pan fried at our table was 75-85% fat. It wasn't marbled. It was white, with the rind on. And rubbery when cooked. Not only was I repeatedly speckled with hot grease popping from the griddle, many of the side dishes featured boiled sea creatures still in their exoskeletons, which I can't stomach. The others seemed to make a good meal, so I kept my mouth shut except when I was expectorating nonmasticatable fat wads into a plate near my elbow. And it cost us the same price per person as the other place. June was ill that evening and this morning – I don't know if the food had anything to do with it.

The hike itself was fun, primarily because I could trail at the back of the pack and enjoy the quiet. There were some unusual mushrooms in the forest, including the largest toadstool I have ever seen. It dwarfed the one that I photographed in Colorado a few years ago. It was easily 9 inches across-- probably bigger. In the way of larger vegetation, around the midsection of the hill, there were aromatic patches of huge cedar trees. When we walked into the groves, it was like we had crawled into a hope chest and magically found ourselves bursting into a fresh air wonderland. It was also the first time in my life I had been in a cedar forest like the one that existed in Lebanon before Solomon's workmen clearcut the place. Most cedars I had previously encountered were isolated, skinny, sick-looking things, not big healthy specimens like these that provided shade.

In the first stand of cedars we came to, there were a bunch of low platforms – several of the dimensions of a ping-pong table, Rosa observed. Albert swept one off with a little broom that was hanging on the side of the bookcase that sat in the center of the relaxation area. He proudly pointed out to me that there was a Bible in the case. This was not five minutes after he had genuflected reverently to a huge beehive of stacked gray stones erected at a curve in the pathway. I perversely flicked a tiny stone off the top of the cairn, thereby invalidating somebody's wish to the nature gods.

As we climbed the oreum, we crossed through sun-dappled clearings and walked alongside ancient rock walls. Every stone was blue from damp or covered in intensely green moss. The brown-sugar colored hemp matting under our feet was stapled to the ground with rebar, and muted our footsteps. The matting was laid over rocks and twisted knots of roots, and wound among small trees, past wild mountain hydrangea bushes. There were tiny mushrooms sprouting through gaps in the weave. And occasionally the carpet suddenly ended where dry stream beds broke the path. At these points, there were a long stretches of challenging rocks to clamber over until more comfortable footing resumed.

Rosa teaches basic Chinese to foreigners, and basic English to Chinese. Most of her instruction is online, which she says in the future in China. They use the "very stable" Weibo platform, and some of her students are in Europe and the United States. "I don't teach after midnight," she explained, though she does try to accommodate the students' schedules. June and I enjoyed talking to her.

Toward the end of our hike, we came to the "healing center" which featured various wooden pallets to snooze on, and a wide, shallow, mesh-lined box built around a tree. The box was filled with tiny cedar cubes. I joked that it was a cross between a ball pit and a hamster habitat. A dozen people were wading around in it with their shoes off, massaging the pressure points on their soles. We doffed our socks and shoes and climbed in as well, with me noting that while Korean feet had not imparted any unpleasant odor to the contents, the addition of my sweaty Western toes would indeed. June said that the "healing" designation was likely not so much for the place's intrinsic qualities as for its geographical location...at the base of a steep hill down which hikers were almost destined to fall and injure themselves.

My students keep showing up wearing casts. One of my sixth graders broke his left arm in two places the other day in a bike accident. He did not seem unduly disturbed. Thank God for modern medicine. My primary injuries over the last couple of weeks have been acne and mosquito bites. The screens in the stairwell at school have squares large enough for common houseflies to pass through. I think the wire is simply there to provide bugs a place to perch and rest awhile before they proceed indoors to suck the life blood out of the perspiring people toiling up and down the steps (the other day, I spotted one little elementary student wearing a bookbag so large he looked like a cartoon turtle as he slowly ascended to his classroom). South Korea is the only country that I know of that features a mosquito on its currency; on the 5000\ bill, below the butterfly, the flowers, and the pumpkins, a mosquito lurks. Interestingly, it is almost the size of the butterfly, which I think is true to life. I've been dousing myself in clove oil and deet to keep them away from any exposed skin, but these aren't perfect preventatives. I'll be glad when the heat subsides.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Humidity

I have never before lived in a place where closing the bathroom window to take a shower actually reduced the moisture in the air rather than the reverse. Jeju is fantastically humid during the summer. Exiting my apartment means my diving horizontally into a hot pool. I am soaked with sweat within the two blocks' walk to school. I have asked the school administrators if it would be possible to install a water cooler on the fifth floor – descending to the first for a refill of my water bottle means I swill half of it coming back up the steaming stairs. And the boys bathroom on the fourth floor exudes a ripe aroma later in the day. I am so grateful that the air conditioning in my classroom works well. But my poor students look like wet kittens when they first arrive. And they are constantly thirsty--another reason the level in my water bottle constantly descends, since they beg for sips and end up drinking most of the contents.

My dehumidifiers are pulling gallons, rather than mere liters, of moisture from the air on a daily basis. Several days I've come back to the apartment to discover both reservoirs are completely full. I have no idea how my predecessor lived here without them!

I got a haircut last week and felt instantly better. In my decades of having waist length hair, I never knew the morale boost a good 'do could provide. My hairdresser here is an artist. He's a handsome, trim guy who looks to be in his early 30s, and he sculpts his clients' hair into precisely clipped coiffures, every tiny sprig snipped and brushed exactly into place in an elaborate ritual involving very sharp scissors, a round brush, and a blow dryer. He works with swift assurance, smoothing unruly locks and the frazzled soul into a fresh, neat arrangement. He charges $15. No tip. Tipping is not done here.

One of my normally quite perceptive older students told me that I reminded him of a cowboy. Some eighth-graders decided, on the other hand, that I resemble Adele. Although the latter is certainly a very handsome woman, and supremely talented, she is a tad heavier than I hope I am! But why a cowboy? "I don't know, maybe I look like John Wayne," I mused. Whereupon June turned bright red from suppressed laughter and nearly aspirated a chicken bone.

Friday, July 07, 2017

July Difficulties

Truly, there have been better, happier, more restful months than the last.

The primary sorrow was the loss of my 24-year-old cousin, whom I’d just gotten to know pretty well in the last year, when I stayed with him and his parents in Columbia, SC, on a weekly basis. He was on a medical mission trip to Peru weekend before last, went hiking, fell into a ravine, and died. His body was discovered, if not recovered, two days later. I don’t think it’s been shipped back to the US yet. There’s all sorts of bureaucratic red tape to get through when you die abroad. It’s also state, national, and even international news. A reporter approached me online asking for commentary. I simply responded that while it was a commonplace for a bereaved family to think of all sorts of virtues, real and imagined, of the deceased, he was in fact a solid guy. My cousins (his parents, particularly his father) were more articulate, expressing thanks for the years he’d spent with them, and what he’d accomplished, spiritually and temporally, in his abbreviated lifespan.

More than three weeks ago, I contracted horrible insomnia. Perhaps the high level of work (I'm in the classroom four hours a week more than regular for June and July and a bit of August, and there is of course considerably more planning time added to that) contributed to this. But in the meantime, Susanna was coming to Seoul, where June and I had agreed to meet her.

“I hate to travel,” I complained to my British colleague. Amused, she pointed out that I was currently on a small island in the Pacific Ocean. But there are some trips I dread disproportionately, and this was one. I’ve perhaps never looked forward to a trip less. Having had little sleep for more than two weeks, I was rocky and definitely on the antisocial end of the conviviality spectrum. The previous week I had not gotten sufficient time alone. I had wanted to retreat to my house and write (and maybe watch a couple of K dramas that I hadn't had time to start), but when I hadn't been desperately trying to doze off, I'd been planning for classes, or teaching them. I hadn't even had much time for editing, which is not only a valuable supplement to my income, but provides a kind of a mental relaxation for me, as it uses a completely different part of my brain than classroom management and teaching. All I wanted to do was to stay home and clutch my pillow, and now I was not only looking at a one-night (!) trip to Seoul but at meeting up with Susanna, who was full of energy and thoroughly-researched plans and was sweetly using her entire vacation travel halfway around the world to be with June and me. 

I was not a good hostess. I fell asleep on the tour bus after lunch in Itaewon Saturday. I was so tired. Afterwards, we picked up the considerable number of items that Suzanne had brought for us from the US – lots of clothes and shoes, plus toothpaste and other odd toiletries and such that had been stuffed in among them, and hauled these with our own overnight bags down to the nearest bus stop.

Foreigners are toxic. Such is my explanation for the remarkable unwillingness of many Koreans to sit near us in public. At the Jeju airport waiting for the plane to Seoul and on the limousine bus back across the island (It's new, did not stop in any of the hotel cul-de-sacs--sparing us the nausea from twisting and turning--and even let us out less than a two block walk from my house. Talk about perfect door-to-door service!) we were given a wide berth (one woman actually seemed to go out of her way to avoid sharing a seat next to us). We didn’t smell that bad.

It was absolute misery trying to find the Seoul Airbnb apartment after dark. Every map app we consulted on our phones placed the address in a different location, and when we finally decided which bus to take, and triumphantly rode it to within 10 minutes’ walk of the destination, we were surrounded by high-rises and stairs and gates and no street signs. In the courtyard of one complex, we did meet an American woman wearing a Clemson t-shirt who teaches kindergarten on the US base, but her husband acted like we were about to kidnap her when she offered to show us to a likely spot nearby. He defensively hailed a cab for us, which drove us around the block to the correct building. The loft apartment was microscopic but extremely clean, and the bathroom was practically the biggest room. We slept comfortably.

It took us almost two hours Sunday to find an available luggage locker and get to the metro station to meet Susanna for a walking tour of the Seoul city wall. Only, when we emerged from the station, we were in Russia. We could read all the signs, which were in Cyrillic. Everything was locked up tight, and there was no sign of Susanna, who turned out to be at another station which shared the same name. We forewent the tour and decided to meet later. I don’t remember what we did before we went to the airport. I was preoccupied with concern about my cousin, who I had learned had gone missing on a hike in the Andes.

I learned of the discovery of his body Monday morning. Betwixt my preexisting fatigue and this new sorrow, and my really incredibly heavy workload, I was on the verge of falling apart. “You need a boyfriend!” had been Albert’s unsolicited advice. He had accompanied me as my interpreter to the doctor a week earlier so that I could obtain a prescription for sleeping medication. The doctor himself had been completely unhelpful, attributing my severe insomnia to “being far away from home,” and “living by myself.” It was a very Korean diagnosis. I LIKE living by myself, and had in fact had an almost intolerable amount of social time in the previous week. And I have not been homesick. It’s almost impossible to be homesick with the communication technology nowadays. At least the doc consented to give me a weeks’ worth of sleeping medication.

When I’m tired, being an older single woman is harder and harder. Albert was a person I might cheerfully date if I knew he were a believer, but as far as I can discern his Catholicism is merely nominal. Furthermore, he is divorced (and one of his two Facebook pages describes him as “married”!). And he didn’t understand about my OCD diagnosis, which I was forced to transmit through him to the doctor—talk about letting relative strangers into your most intimate business! I don’t know whether his “you need a boyfriend” idea was his panacea for mental illness or insomnia or both, but it certainly was clueless BS, however well-meant. And he did mean well—he pulled up a list of foods reputed to help with insomnia on his phone – many of which I am already eating! And he said he would take walks with me every day.

That last was a red flag, as desperate as I am for company; the reddest of red flags was his hovering his arm around me, clasping my waist and shoulder as he insisted on holding an umbrella over us as we walked to and from the car. I knew I was terminally susceptible to charm, even perhaps scattershot charm, and that in my current addled state I needed someone to step in and keep me from doing something profoundly stupid. I do get weary of trying not to be stupid. It seems to get easier and easier to be stupid when I am tired and old, with few people to talk to.

I allowed myself to be taken to lunch after the appointment, although I was practically demented from exhaustion. Lunch was delicious—an entire chicken per person, delivered to the table in a boiling broth of onions. There were side dishes, too, of course, and I didn’t have to resort to the fork which the restaurant owner preemptively retrieved from some place in the kitchen and brought to the table. I felt like it was a skill test, to fish out and debone a chicken using only chopsticks, while barely conscious, and talking with a proficient. Albert encouraged me to put a little seasoning from the tiny dishes on the table on my poultry, and then he proceeded to criticize the extent of my salt intake. During the meal, I asked him point-blank whether his suggestion about the necessary boyfriend referred to himself or someone else. He didn’t respond directly. He did affirm that he was “going to be my helper” every day and so forth, which may have been an assent.

I was frustrated not only by the lack of real communication, and the unsolicited dietary criticism (I found out later that this is a Korean thing, not exclusive to him—as a culture they tend to be painfully blunt about small matters and frustratingly oblique about serious ones), but also by the realization that in my unrested state, even these frustrations didn’t seem sufficient deterrent to possible terminal idiocy on my part. So that afternoon, after teaching my classes, I asked the school assistant director to talk to the guy and explain to him, in a diplomatic manner, that he needed to back off a bit. Albert continued to bring me water and other drinks for the next several weeks, until two days ago he announced that he would no longer be attending the adult English class because he’d decided to enroll in scuba-diving lessons. I am relieved. He would linger after class, and other, older students would tell me (in front of him!) what a nice guy he was, and what a “good helper” he was for me. I was deliberately obtuse, and cheerfully agreed that he was a good student, and that I appreciated his efforts.

I’m sick of being deliberately obtuse when it comes to male attentions, although I admit its necessity in all cases in which I have used the technique. I don’t see the point of dating someone that you cannot marry. But I really wish someone whom I could marry would come along. As I told an elder at a church here, it’s not like I am wedded to the notion of giving birth to my own genetic offspring, which is increasingly unlikely anyway. I would cheerfully adopt children if I could afford it. I just think that children should preferably have a mother and a father. Furthermore, my energy level seems to be dropping by the day. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to physically handle the demands of motherhood of young, energetic individuals if I get too much older. Heck, I’m not sure I can handle it even now, but I’m still willing to give it a go, provided I have a suitable partner in the enterprise. "You need a boyfriend," poo. I would love to get married…to someone who understands the reality of mental illnesses, who doesn't think less of me for my OCD, someone with whom I can have a good conversation, and worship together at church.

Thank God the other doctor I saw at the local hospital for a follow-up appointment was female, but the prescription she gave me barely touched the insomnia, and I continued to struggle for another fortnight. When Susanna came from Seoul to Jeju, she stayed with June in her tiny efficiency instead of with me in my spacious two-room apartment because she didn’t want to sleep on the floor. Given my circumstances, though I was glad of her visit and EXTREMELY grateful to her for serving as our hemispheric pack mule, I was relieved not to have company.

We three did hike almost fifteen miles together over the last weekend. We saw multiple local waterfalls, including a dry one out in the countryside, off a main road oddly bereft of taxis. Near the non-working waterfall, which only pours over the stone cliffs when there has been substantial rain on the mountaintop, there was a rusted sign pointing to the “world’s first kissing cave”; the bottom of the sign begged visitors to limit themselves to locking lips. Or, as I put it on Facebook, “further hanky-panky was strongly discouraged.” The “kissing cave” itself was a damp, unlit tunnel into the rock, and faced with a large heavy square stone entryway like a nuclear bunker. Maybe it actually had been a bunker at one time. Large yellow plastic packing pallets covered the floor to keep visitors from sinking ankle deep in mud. It was not a romantic location. And there were copious mosquitoes boiling out of the brambles that clogged the nearby ravine. We retreated down the hill to the road and waited, fruitlessly, as night fell, for a taxi. After about half an hour we managed to get on a bus back to town.

God has been exactly providing for me in small but notable and fascinating ways in the midst of my somnambulance. Saturday night last I was twenty minutes in to a bad migraine, and we ran into a colleague on the street who happened to have two aspirin and a bottle of water with him. I got a personal message via Facebook from a fellow I haven't seen since high school encouraging me to stay strong in faith (he was voted most likely to become a preacher, and I was voted most likely to become a nun in our senior year public school class "silly superlatives." He is a preacher… I am a nun, functionally, although without the institutional support.) My boss gave me eight hours off to rest when she heard about my cousin’s death. I wouldn’t have made it through last week without this respite. My adult students quietly collected 300,000 KRW ($261 at that day’s exchange rate) to be sent to my cousins to help cover the costs of returning their son’s body to the US. I burst into ugly tears when they presented it to me, and bowed deeply, not realizing until later that the undershirt I was wearing over my loose blouse didn’t fully compensate for the depth of my genuflection. Whoops.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

7 Years

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of Daddy's death. If I were a non-Christian Korean, I would have prepared a table full of his favorite food, and genuflected in front of his portrait, if not at his gravesite itself. However as I am a Christian and not Korean, and still recovering from last weekend's insomnia, I neither cooked nor bowed, but went to bed early.

We are in the throes of the second round of test preparation for the seventh graders. I only have 11 students in each class this time, which is a blessing. They have a vocabulary quizzes at the beginning of each session, and then we launch into review of their dialogue testing books. Both of my classes are from the local girl's school, and some are sillier than others. Earlier this week I had to make one girl put away her makeup--it turned out to be her friend's, not even hers!--the full kit of which she had spread out across her desk. I confess I would rather fuss at girls about makeup application than at boys about making ribald comments.

I have 19 adult students in my English III class, and nine in my English I class. The former class members are a great group, and most have been with me since February. The latter has three old faces, and six new ones, including a retired hedge fund manager, and a coffee appraiser.

I have signed up to be on the roll at the Korean language church, and may be meeting the pastor this Sunday. I'm not exactly sure how membership works here, or if you're just clerically associated by virtue of putting your name on the list. Kristen had to translate the sign-up form for me, and will definitely have to translate the conversation when I meet the pastor. I'm learning a few new Korean words each week, but it's hardly rapid language acquisition! Again, Sunday morning people smiled at me, and little old ladies gave me some sweets. A young high school science teacher sat with me and Kristen at lunch. He was genuinely puzzled by the fact that I had walked to church on my own. It's going to be a major personal cultural adjustment for me to go to church with someone – I ran into Kristen just outside the parking lot, and so we ended up sitting together. Over the past 15+ years, I've gotten used to going to church by myself, as well as doing many other things by myself. I told him this solitary behavior wasn't an American thing, it was just a "me" thing. Perhaps actually being included as part of a group is going to be more of a shock to me than being excluded!

I am really grateful for Kristen and for the several ladies in my adult class who have asked me to hang out with them.  Saturday afternoon I went to a calligraphy museum with Roxanne and another lady, whose father-in-law was the calligrapher. None of the captions were in English, and I asked, through Roxanne, if I could perhaps help translate anything. But the super enthusiastic docent  explained that since much of the calligraphy was in Chinese characters, they were already losing a great deal of meaning being translated into Korean, and he felt that they would be removed that much further from their original intent if an attempt was made to put the captions into English. The characters were beautiful, although I could not appreciate them fully. One was a sort of life motto, which read, basically, "Eat, Sleep, and Write." I would love to have a poster of it. The majority of the museum gallery space was dedicated to a photo exhibition about the artist, who lived from 1907 to 1997, despite a fondness for cognac and cigarettes. The old gentleman looked exactly like one of those sages one imagines lurks on cloud-shrouded mountaintops, as he always wore traditional clothes and had a long white mustache and goatee that reached almost to his waist. In the last few years of his life he leaned on a natural wood cane, though his hands were smooth and youthful looking, perhaps from decades of exercise wielding calligraphy brushes. In the summertime, he wore a woven wicker cooling frame between his body and his shirt--the rattan kept the cloth from sticking to his moist skin, while the stiff collar resembled a Victorian chair back.

After the museum--at the gift shop of which the daughter-in-law gave me a silk scarf--we went out for tea, and it took some fancy footwork for me to sneak up to the cashier and insist on having my card run for everyone's snacks before my companions could beat me to it! Such a wonderful afternoon.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Slouching Towards Slovenliness

South Korea is a society with superb posture. Even the little old ladies have backs that are ramrod straight. I am learning to stand taller here, as everyone walks around with his or her shoulders thrown back commandingly, and I don't want to be the one person who's slouching.

Taxis here operate the way I always thought taxis ought to operate. They are everywhere, ready to be hailed, and when you phone for one, they show up within two minutes. None of this D.C.-area nonsense about ordering a taxi an hour or more ahead! One of the ladies in my adult class is a massage therapist, and I made an appointment for last Wednesday morning. She even gave me a face pack while she worked on my legs. I felt thoroughly relaxed. After lunch (she whipped up homemade jjajangmyeon, which I wolfed down like a competitive eater, it was so tasty) she rang for a taxi and they said they'd arrive in two minutes. They were there within 45 seconds. And the base rate is only 2800 KRW.

I have been sleeping like a log at night for weeks and weeks and weeks. It's been wonderful. And Thursday night, insomnia sucker-punched me, following up the low blow with a right hook last last night. I've slept for less than seven hours in 48. I do not like waking up at 3 AM. In the wee hours today, I caught up on a bit of Kdrama watching (The Best Hit--the first two hours, which are all that have aired thus far, were hilarious, stuffed with cameos and meta references).

I was really encouraged on Thursday evening by getting to have dinner with a woman and her daughter from Atlanta. The guy who brings me tea in my adult class runs several Airbnb apartments, and he contacted me Wednesday to see if I'd be interested in meeting them. We went out immediately after I left work for shabu shabu, and talked for hours. It was so good. The mom, a newish Christian, works in healthcare, and her high-school age daughter, who is a longtime Kdrama and Kpop fan (she described herself as having practically hyperventilated when BTS won the Billboard Music award a week or so ago), are on an almost month-long Korean tour, covering most of the country. They've had a great trip, and I was impressed both by their enthusiasm for travel and by their kind willingness to listen to me ramble on. I was a bit confused when I had first heard the mom's voice on the phone, because she sounds exactly like my aunt (who also spent years living Atlanta, and works in healthcare…), though she's a generation younger. It was refreshing getting to talk about Christian things, and the pluses and minuses of living in Korea as a foreigner, with people who are genuinely interested. They were a Godsend.

I wish the dishwashing fairy would make a visit to my house. On Tuesday, which was a holiday--and praise God it rained all day, because I was behind on editing, and that gave me time and inclination to catch up!--I attempted to clarify the beeswax that my colleague's parents had given us the previous Friday. It was absolutely full of bee debris. All of my pots and pans are now speckled and smeared with wax and apiary dirt. I hate not having a dishwasher. We're planning to have a student camp in the fall, and one of the little projects that has been floated is having the students make candles. I had thought that the beeswax would be perfect for the project. But I ultimately had shockingly little clean wax once all was said and done, and half a week later I still have a sink full of dirty dishes. Maybe that's the reason I can't sleep.

Or, maybe it's my fifth graders. Every other month, my school asks the teachers to choose one class from among the assortment that we are teaching to create a textbook-based skit to be entered in a nationwide speech competition. Last month was the first time I had done this. I carefully composed a script--geared toward the personalities of the children involved, and approved by the curriculum coordinator and my Korean co-teacher--and gave it to the fifth grade kids. We read through it. I had them practice it. I impressed upon them that they needed to memorize their lines. I told them weeks ahead of time when we would be filming, and got them to bring props. I collected more than an hour and 20 minutes of footage for a four-minute video. The one girl was the only one to commit her lines firmly to memory. One of the boys almost, almost had his lines down. Two other boys were less conversant in their roles (their intonation was terrible, and despite my physically moving them into the camera frame, and telling them where to look and how to act, they just didn't get it down, or loosen up), but the remaining kid hadn't bothered in the least, and ended up reading his lines off a paper on the floor. The video, which my curriculum coordinator spent more than three hours editing (making a silk purse out of a sow's ear!) was good, given the content I had sent her, but not good enough to be entered into the competition. And, I found out yesterday, not really good enough to be presented to the children's parents. I think my fatigue made me even more vocally unhappy about the prospect of having to re-shoot than I would have been; venting to the school director's daughter, I described the sensation of working with that unmotivated group of kids as akin to pouring money down a sinkhole. My next group of speech contest students are much more enthusiastic about the effort. They are one of my my sixth-grade classes, and I have already written a script tailored to them and had them read through it and suggest amendments. And a pair of them waylaid me in the hall yesterday to ask excitedly if the changes had been made. I am giving them weeks and weeks to learn their lines, and no special props are needed.

I've started my round of daily adult classes, and had 19 people show up for my first advanced English session on Friday. I don't know how many will return – the first day tends to be more well attended than any other– but it's a good group, with some new faces. Instead of tea, the fellow who supplies me with beverages brought a strange cereal slurry, best described as like Honey Nut Cheerios that had been allowed to dissolve in the bowl. I liked it, once I adjusted to the texture. It's called misugaru, and is a traditional milky multi-grain beverage. I hope he brings it again!

Theoretically, I'm supposed to go on a walk with Roxanne today, but I need to get some sleep…