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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Harbor View

Outside Seogwipo Harbor is a graceful white pedestrian bridge in the shape of a sail that links the mainland to a smaller island that is part of the local UNESCO world heritage site. You can look down from the height of the bridge into the blue water and see the boulders at the bottom--the sea's crystal clarity belies the extraordinary amount of garbage that washes ashore elsewhere and clogs the back alleys of the nearby city.

There are strict recycling laws here--not only must various plastics be sorted, but glass, paper, and even food waste have particular, separate days to be taken to the neighborhood bins, within a designated span of nighttime hours. I am two blocks from the nearest waste collection point, and I have made the journey only once, with a small bag of bottles. Cardboard and paper have to be tied up with string, and my stack is tied...and sitting on my small floor-dining table, as it's been too cold after hours for me to want to go outdoors again after I reach the warmth of my apartment following a long day of work. And the directions for which specific items are collected on which specific days are all, naturally, in Korean (the what to do and what not to do covers two sides of a closely printed sheet), so I've been a little puzzled about what I am allowed to discard when. My food waste is in my freezer, where it won't stink up the house. Regular trash, which accounts for very little, must be thrown away in special 10 and 20 liter bags purchasable at a local convenience store. I certainly don't object to recycling, but I wish they had a single stream system with daily collection of everything. And, again, I can't learn Korean soon enough.

I went to an all Korean language church service for the second time today. The format and the hymn tunes are familiar, and on both occasions I have been able to figure out what the text is for the sermon, because the names of many books in the Bible are cross-culturally similar. But beyond 6 to 10 words I picked out in said sermon, I was completely clueless. I know "love," "Lord," "Jesus," "hunger," and a handful of other terms, but not enough to even begin to guess the pastor's points. Both Sundays, Amy and I have eaten lunch with the parishioners (hearty traditional food with everyone seated shoeless on the floor  at low tables in the room beneath the sanctuary), and then walked a couple of blocks to an English-language service at another church, which is less formal and where the sermons, whatever the text, tend to be identical week after week. But at least they are in our language.

After church today, Amy and I walked 6 miles, through a park and down a winding road to the bridge, then back up to a great coffee shop where I had the best mug of hot chocolate I have ever tasted: rich, dark, with a dollop of cream in the center. Today felt the coldest of any day since I arrived, and though I was dressed in layers, and had loved breathing the bracing fresh air, when the sun went down the wind cut into me, and I was so glad to get home.

Because of the moisture in my bathroom, with its cold tile floors, I have to leave the window open in there (I am trying to slow the inevitable growth of mold), so every time I step in to use the facilities, I confront a temperature drop of 50 degrees. Needless to say I do not linger. For my nighttime shower, I turn on the water heater, shut the window, and crank the hot water at full blast, and wait about three minutes until the bathroom is filled with steam, then step into my shower shoes and under the warm water. Afterwards, I quickly towel off, open the window again, and bolt back into the warm main room,  exchanging my bath shoes for my bedroom slippers at the threshold and then dressing. Then I turn off the water heater, gulp down some cool chamomile tea, and snuggle in to bed.

The islands off the coast of Jeju look imaginary to my western eyes, like whimsical sketches out of a swashbuckling adventure novel, with sheer, rocky cliffs and thick greenery on top. Today the improbably blue sea, salted with little whitecaps, stretched away to the horizon, and a collection of identical ships lay at anchor offshore, the copy of a 19th-century nautical painting. The large fishing fleet was tied up to the dock, and the white cutters of the Korean coast guard rested near a small blue cargo transport, from which the shipping containers were slowly being removed. Twin lighthouses, shaped like chessboard queens, one red, one white, marked the entrance to sheltered waters. Snow clouds rolled down from Mount Halla, flinging flakes against our faces as the sun descended towards China. We stopped at the street market on the way home, to get grilled skewers of meat and bell peppers--they were served in paper bowls and topped with flavorful wood shavings. It was peculiar, but tasty.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Traffic & Food

Looking up my street, I can see Hallasan, the central mountain of Jeju Island. The top of the dormant volcano is usually shrouded in clouds, but on the occasional clear day, the snow-capped peak stands out against the sky. I live on a quiet road just off one of the main thoroughfares in this small city, where there are a handful of buildings over 6 stories, but most have only two or three floors. The streets are safe, except from traffic. One of the girls who lives in my building told me she doesn't worry about locking her door--this is her third year here, and she's not had a problem with any theft. Mailboxes aren't locked in my building, either--they just stuff in the bills and you flip up the flap and fish them out.

There are lights at larger intersections, but at smaller ones, there are no indications of who is to yield that I can tell—one crossroad between my apartment and the school hasn’t any stop signs, so drivers just go through at their own discretion. Thus far, I haven’t seen any accidents, but pedestrians have been known to be hit, I was told by a fellow teacher. On the bigger roads, there are zebra crossings at intervals apart from intersections, but cars don’t usually stop for them (although they are supposed to, according to public service announcements)—using the signal-free crosswalk is an exercise in bold caution as you try to judge the speed of onrushing traffic and your odds of being trapped in the center of the street by cars coming in the opposite direction. I usually try to wait for another pedestrian to be crossing simultaneously, as there is some safety in numbers. On the sidewalks (which are rare on side roads), you have to be cautious of motorbikes and the occasional car as well. The motorbikes drive on both the sidewalks and the roads, rushing deliveries from one side of town to the other. Since there are few parking lots, automobile drivers often just pull in where they fit, and they manage to fit into many small places where a pedestrian might otherwise take refuge from vehicular traffic. In consequence, I walk in the middle of smaller streets, keeping a sharp ear and eye out not only for cars and trucks squeezing their way along toward me, but also for those that are pulling out of the impossibly tight quarters where they’ve been parked. I don’t think I’ll be getting a scooter here--the potential for getting squished is too great.

A couple of well-dressed male Jehovah’s Witnesses showed up at my apartment the other day. I was in my nightgown, my hair uncombed, and hadn’t even washed my face. They should be too frightened to return.

Jeju has so many orange trees that they are used as decorative elements in front of public buildings…and nobody picks the oranges! I hate seeing all that beautiful fruit go to waste. And, ironically, pure orange juice is hard to find in the stores—there are multiple “juice drinks” with 50% or less orange juice in them, but pure orange juice is expensive. Also, they grow kiwis on the island, but the kiwis they sell in the grocery stores are imported from Chile. (Apparently this absurd choice to export everything that is locally grown and import what residents need is not peculiar to Jeju: friend of mine told me that when her uncle lived in California, all the juice he could find to buy was from Florida. Talk about a widespread failure to “eat local.”)

Amy took me to the city’s daily market on Thursday morning, where they had fresh vegetables I recognized, at prices that were much better than in the stores. For about 6 dollars total, I got lettuce and a monster carrot (so big and fat it could be used as a club), a bell pepper, multiple onions, and a couple of heads of broccoli. A girl can live on broccoli. The food halls (the space is roofed, and covers several streets, but is open to the elements at the entrances) included not only vegetable and fruit vendors (local oranges and softball sized apples artfully displayed in gift boxes), but also displays of varieties of fresh seaweed, shellfish, and numerous living, newly dead, and heavily-salted sea creatures. There were stacks of bright silvery eels, and tanks filled with giant fish gulping silently above recumbent schools of sand-speckled flounder, staring up from the bottom with both eyes on the one side of their heads. There were piles of pigs feet, and part of a pig’s face—the entire side jowl and ear—and displays of fat-heavy meat in an assortment of cuts. And mushrooms. And an entire stall devoted to hot red peppers—fresh and powdered. I wish I had a personal chef; while there are many things here that I would like to sample if they were prepared by someone who knew how, I have no inclination to try my own hand at the process.

I mentioned to a couple of other teachers at work that we’d gone to the food market, and they immediately told me how they used to live by it, until their building had burned, almost costing them their lives. They were housed in apartments on the third floor, directly above a dentist’s office, where the fire had started. They woke up one morning to the fire alarm blaring, and found the hall already choked with thick, black smoke. One of the girls managed to jump out her window down onto the roof of the neighboring building, while the other was overcome by the fumes (her window was blocked by flames—they showed me a photo) and collapsed in her bathroom, thinking, “I’ve come to Korea to die” (she’d just moved from Moscow a week earlier). She was found and pulled to safety by the responding firefighters. She was covered in soot and her lungs and bloodstream were filled with nasty chemicals, and she had to spend hours in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. After they told me the story we stood around for a minute or two, reverently repeating “Thank God for firefighters!”

I hate not being able to speak Korean, but I have no time right now to learn. The demands of editing have increased, I’m exhausted when I get home, and preparing for my classes still takes me about two hours every morning (thank God they have an organized curriculum, so I’m not having to produce lessons from scratch!). I try to sound out the words in the business signs I pass as I walk to and from work, but I need to sit down with the language flash cards and audio CD I bought and learn the basics, apart from “hello” and “thank you.” Not being able to buy a steamed bun on my own at a roadside stall is a handicap.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Naming Names

I have a new adult student. This is a specific and dramatic answer to prayer. On Thursday, Ivan and I went through a lesson on superstitions, and among the questions was whether the people doing the lesson were religious, and my student mentioned that his sister was Catholic and his mother was Buddhist, and that he was not at all religious--he was cool with everything. And at the end of the lesson he suggested that we go out for dinner together. The result of what had begun to feel like nightly conversation-dates was the suggestion that we have a real one, since it is pretty clear there was a measurable level of mutual attraction.

Now dinner out would've been an ethical issue were we on the same page beliefwise, as dating one's student is a big academic no-no, but given the profound gulf between our attitudes toward and relationships with the Almighty the question immediately became superacademic, and the sudden definitive determination that this guy wasn't a believer, made my way clear, if not easy (in the least!--how often do I meet attractive, single, smart, multilingual former soccer players who admit to being "around 40" and who are well-traveled, outgoing and share my socio-economic background?).

The new student – of whom I was told just five minutes before the Friday lesson began – is a neat, sophisticated woman of my age who has two young children that attend a international school. The lady told me that she had taught herself English using the BBC and CNN! Unlike Ivan, her grammar and pronunciation are superb, but she lacks confidence in speaking with natives. I was glad that I got a few minutes to get to know her before Ivan showed up. I felt so much more comfortable with her in the class, and she seems to be of his comprehension level, which is a godsend. And she was not intimidated by him. I think he may have been a bit intimidated by her, really, because she was so mature and self-possessed.

I remind myself that it is not romantic relationships that are the most important in the world, nor familial relationships, nor friend relationships, but the one between you and your Creator. If that one isn't settled and primary, nothing else fits into place. Of course it is a blow to meet a guy who is fascinating and seems to share many of the same interests, and also seems to find me equally interesting, but I remind myself that without that essential relationship with God, all of that is meaningless.It is bad enough to be temperamentally, emotionally, intellectually and otherwise incompatible with one's spouse, but to be spiritually unequal is even more lethal to a marital relationship.

And I'm not comforting myself with that blather "that there's somebody out there for me." Bull hockey. There might be, there might not be. It's not an issue of comparison, of waiting for that perfect someone, or even of anticipating a better someone. The fact is, this particular someone is not the right someone. This scenario is more than a little like the employment situation I faced when I returned home from D.C. three years ago--within weeks of my arrival, I was a finalist for what seemed on paper to be the perfect job, but it turned out not to be the one for which I was destined. Does this mean that I'll meet Mr. Right two years hence? We shall see!

My classes have achieved a modicum of rhythm, and I am starting to learn the kids' names. Slowly, slowly, I am learning the names--just the adopted English ones, not their real Korean names. Given that a year with the same adult colleagues of different ages left me sure of the monikers of less than twenty, the effort to absorb the personal sobriquets of fifty children between the ages of eight and twelve is a challenge. But I have to record grades for each before this coming Wednesday, and so I have been making a concerted effort, and using what distinguishing characteristics--from earlobes to eyewear, pencil cases to hairstyles and body types--that I can observe to try to put the words on the rosters with faces. There are some memorable kids, of course--mostly among the second and third graders. The two little girls who were giggling underneath my desk, "hiding" from their speaking tests the other day; the round jolly fellow who enthusiastically shouts the vocabulary words and giggles infectiously at my explanatory contortions; the sweet bespectacled scholar who stays swaddled in his huge insulated red coat, hunched over his desk, carefully carving each letter into the paper. But the older kids tend to clump together, and when you are dealing with five adolescent boys in various stages of apathy and insurrection, names are the least of your concerns.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Recognizing & Reckoning

I had been dexterously avoiding infection these past two weeks, but it seems that a fortnight's respite is all I will be granted from the illnesses of the young. I woke up at midnight coughing and sneezing, and while an antihistamine has taken the edge off, I suspect that I will be staying in this weekend nursing the inevitable cold. Germy little creatures, middle schoolers.

 My adult student is a fascinating conversationalist, borne of his having lived for 10 years in Moscow while he attended МГУ (Московский государственный университет--Moscow State University) and worked as a sometime tour guide for visiting Korean executives. He's traveled widely, with stops in France, Estonia, and Turkey. He said in the last country the hotel room rate was listed at $300 a night, but he got it for $30. Apparently you're a fool if you pay full price for accommodation in Istanbul! He's a certified social worker (a female friend asked him to write a social work paper that she was too busy to do, and he got interested in the subject) and he plans to start an bachelors program in architecture this coming year. Although I've created a basic outline for what we will discuss day by day, the conversations frequently range widely. I hope he's actually absorbing something – I am certainly learning a lot! His P/F conflation continues, but he is making an effort.

Most of my young students are making an effort, too. The second and third graders are sweet, enthusiastic, and bouncy. The fourth and fifth graders have accumulated enough vocabulary to be pressing against its limits. The sixth graders are particularly tough nuts to crack, though, with one class stocked with boys who like to cut up, and the other entirely populated with kids who are terrified of speaking aloud. I must regularly squelch the former and have been plotting various ways of tricking the latter into speaking audibly.

We are supposed to submit monthly grades early next week, and I have been straining to learn the kids' names and identify strengths and weaknesses in their linguistic capability. I am so grateful that the classes are small! Still, I have about 50 students, and figuring out what they actually know and can do versus what they think they know and don't, or what they moan they can't do and are perfectly capable of doing, is an effort.

I hope the school administrators are happy with my work. I don't get observed in person, but remotely – all the lessons are CCTV recorded by unobtrusive little cameras in the corners of the classrooms. I don't know if this includes an audio track, which would doubtless reveal my heavy southern accent and my frequent rambling...

Friday, January 13, 2017

A Full First Week

When  the humidity is 47%, an air temperature of 38°F feels much, much colder. I told Amy that I was going to have to start dressing like a Muscovite matron of the pre-Petrine period-- layers upon layers upon layers! While my longjohns and leggings remained disused in Georgia, they have certainly been brought out of retirement with a vengeance here. The damp cold seeps into your bones. The school does not have heat, so both teachers and students are swaddled for the duration of classes. I do usually shed one layer as I roam up and down the aisles of desks, pointing out spelling errors and remarking "perfect!" when I see the student has finally rendered everything correctly. Today, however, I trotted home just before classes commenced to get a sweater and my largest scarf, and I wore them for the rest of the day.

I am officially a resident alien of the Republic of Korea. The school director and I drove cross the island Wednesday morning, dropped her daughter off at the airport, and went to the government office that oversees such matters, and in less than 10 minutes I was digitally fingerprinted and issued a paper affirming my legal status. The real card should arrive in the mail in the next day or so. My new Discover Card should also arrive around the same time – somebody nicked my number and had started to make Internet purchases, and thank God the Discover people immediately contacted me about it.

Amy and I went to the E-mart up the road near the World Cup soccer stadium and spent more than an hour shopping the home goods and grocery store sections. I found an enormous kettle, a glass measuring cup with the cups measurement on the correct side if you hold it in your right hand, and some good vegetable enriched pasta. I did not get any ramen. They had an entire aisle of ramen. That stuff is so salty. I did get a nice wedge of Parmesan cheese and some mozzarella, and a decent bottle of red wine. I'm spending a fortune on organic milk.

My adult student owns an orchard, and brought in fresh picked oranges and kiwi fruit on Wednesday evening. Delicious. When I have difficulty explaining an English concept to him, I revert to its Russian equivalent, as he has a doctorate in that language. He worked as a tour guide in Russia for Samsung employees sent over to become specialists in that country's emerging market. He would take them to Lenin's tomb, the Bolshoi theater, the Kremlin and various other spots, though rarely into the metro, as for security reasons the company didn't want its employees going underground.

I feel like most of my classes – thanks to profound prayer and lengthy preparation -- have gone fairly  well this past week, with the exception of one of the sixth grade classes, in which the students sat silently on Thursday like a little unresponsive bumps on a log when I reviewed some material with which they were supposed to be thoroughly conversant. I wonder if I have to go back to square one with them. I tried going on to another lesson, this one about Spanish siestas, but they didn't have any idea of what a nap was, since apparently no self-respecting Korean sleeps during the day.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sudden Seniority

Several people have asked how it is possible for me to have aged 3 years in less than six weeks. On November 27, I was still 41 by American reckoning. However, when I came to Korea I was suddenly 44. How?

 In Korea, according to the most common system, you are considered one year old at birth: your gestational age from conception is rounded up to a full year. On January 1, everyone officially ages another year--your birthday may not be until the end of November, but you are already accounted as having finished a year. Birthdays are celebrated in Korea on the real date (traditionally you get seaweed soup) but you aren't really considered to "turn" a year older on that day, since everyone turns together at the beginning of the year.

Thus, I left the United States at the age of 42 on December 31, 2016, but the moment I landed in Seoul on January 1, 2017, I was 44. Looking back, this also means that according to the Korean system I turned two years old on January 1, 1975, when my parents considered me only five weeks old, and I couldn't even hold my head up, much less walk or talk. I have always been a late bloomer.

Were I to stay in Korea for a full two years, I would miss being 43 entirely...

Phineas Fogg gained a day by traveling toward the sunrise. I lost a whole year of my life moving in the opposite direction.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

A Belated Welcome To The New Year...

If it's not Orthodox New Year's yet, that still counts as being on time with my annual review and preview, right? I am thrilled to report that not just one or two but several of my reach-for-the-stars hopes for last year were realized:

A nice cat to whom I am not allergic did, in fact, become mine. My friend Bella reports that Trixie is doing well at home, but seems to be suffering some separation anxiety this past week, as she has been displaying remarkable emotional neediness. I miss her. Fuzzy beasts are harder to keep in touch with than humans. I am pretty sure the restaurant in the building next to my apartment serves fresh dog meat--there were an assortment of dogs barking in cages in the back, and why else would a restaurant have them in quantity? There are several boutique pet emporiums/veterinary treatment centers just a few blocks away. Around here there are two extremes of animal husbandry--outright cruelty and over-the-top coddling.

I did like my new job, my employer and coworkers did like me, and I got a nice bonus (not a raise per se, but close) at the end of the year!

I got to go abroad again, do something useful (surely visiting friends is useful, and now teaching is more so), and have a great and bloggable adventure.

I was able to erase the fiscal debt that I had long owed my mother. My car is still functional, but should it eventually need replacing, I now have enough in savings to replace it with a newer used model.

For 2017, here are my dreams:

1) Really do a good job teaching and be asked to stay on.

2) Meet a good and Godly guy and be happily married. (And have Amy be similarly settled at the same time--I don't want to be the only one affectionately engaged, especially as we're friends away on the other side of the world together, and I know she would love to be married and have children.)

3) Get the book translation published! Surely I've achieved the requisite quota of rejection letters now...

4) Visit three other countries in Southeast Asia.

5) Have at least one friend and one family member come visit me here on Jeju.

6) Hike at least 100 miles of local trails (cumulatively, not at one go!), including Hallasan, which I can see from my apartment building (there is snow on the top right now).

7) Get at least 5 essays/articles/stories published and get paid for them!

8) Befriend at least one local artist and make at least one real Korean friend (these two are not mutually exclusive).

9) Be faithful with my Bible reading and pray regularly for myself and others.

10) Write that novel (or non-fiction book, for which my skills are frankly better suited) about which I keep talking, but which I haven't yet drafted.

This morning, I went back to the same church which I visited when I was here in September, and I recognized several of the people at the service, including the fellow who's a drummer and aspiring chef. Amy said he was impressed by my recall. The only reason I remembered the details is because I blogged about them almost immediately and later reread the post several times. This blog is my brain's external hard drive. We also ran into the young naval officer, but other than a cordial greeting, didn't have time for conversation. Perhaps next Sunday?

Did I mention that I'm 44 years old by Korean reckoning? In less than 6 weeks I've gone from being aged 41 to 44. It's like being in a wormhole. And the Biblical stories of Abraham and Sarah, Ruth and Boaz, Elizabeth and Zechariah are becoming more and more comforting, as I unexpectedly find myself in a childless (and spouseless) middle age. At least I haven't had any hot flashes lately, just precipitous drops in blood sugar levels. And the latter is nothing that a fresh fruit smoothie can't fix.