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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Prescription Chocolate

Several years ago, when I was having heart palpitations due to stress, I went to see a cardiologist, who (after doing a full checkup, including a sonogram--it was really neat watching my heart beat on the screen) told me the next time I had similar symptoms I should have a cup of hot chocolate and just chill. (I should have gotten him to write it down as a prescription,  so I could laminate it and take it around with me at all times, or have it framed.)

Wednesday was most assuredly a prescription chocolate sort of day. My first two classes were awful.

I really do not enjoy teaching phonics to very small children (second graders and younger). I run out of energy shockingly fast, and I am not full of original ideas for clever and engaging games. Too, in my new class I have one little girl who has the attitude of a fourteen-year-old. She makes snide remarks, gets into arguments with the one little boy (who is painfully slow and needs special help to get through the lessons), and finishes all the assignments and projects (coloring pages, etc.) as quickly as she can, as if she's sitting on frying pan, and the minute she finishes she can get off the fire.  And then she sighs that that there is nothing to do. And meanwhile the little boy is himself sighing, plodding through the material she finished long before, and the other little girl is quietly, painstakingly shaping perfect letters in her workbook.

My second class, was the one that put me near tears. My third-graders are usually pretty well-behaved. There are a couple of bouncy ones, but as a general rule they focus well. I had even planned a game for them – I thought we would get through the required material quick enough to allow for this. But it was utter bedlam from start to finish. All four of the girls helped themselves to markers and started drawing on the board. They ignored my commands to sit down. When one girl wasn't crawling around on the floor looking for a missing eraser, she was scribbling directly on her desktop with her pencil. At one point, she and the little boy behind her engaged in a fierce Cold War staring standoff, both of them looking furious. I still don't know what had happened, but the boy eventually muttered an apology after I threatened outside intervention. Then my golden child – the boy who aces every test and knows all the answers when I call on him, though he's a year younger than everyone else – began flipping people off (he was using the wrong finger, but the intent was still there). Meantime, I was trying to fight my way through the grammar lesson, but five of the seven children continued talking nonstop, ignoring my efforts to get them to pipe down and pay attention to the material. Everything was just spinning out of control. I've never had this happen before – or felt that horrible drowning sensation of being sucked into a whirlpool. I've always been able to bring things back to a semblance of order, but it was as if the children had all been chewing pre-adolescent catnip or something, as they were deaf to discipline. Finally, I went next door and asked Kristen to come over and talk to them in Korean. She gave them an earful for a good five minutes. And so for the final five minutes of class, I could at least go around between the desks and look at what they had written – and all but one had major errors. I'm going to have to reteach the entire lesson. And, of course we didn't have time to play the game! I was so disgusted.

After five minutes back in the teachers' office rooms, feeling like doom had settled on me and despair was adding weight, I betook me to the nearby coffee shop for the hot chocolate, which I sipped for 45 minutes before returning to campus. The next two classes went fine.

Today, a fourth grader was terrified of the speckled pattern on my trousers.  She couldn't even look at me. I told her to focus on my face, but she was still viscerally unsettled by the print, and when will she wasn't diligently working, she was staring sideways at the wall to avoid seeing my clothes. I have bad reactions to some patterns myself, so I understood.

My new cappuccino ring has attracted a lot of comments and compliments.

Tomorrow, I'm sending the full book manuscript of the former Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands off to an American publisher who has said he is interested in looking at the whole. A couple of months ago I sent him a short sample along with a cover letter, and he said he was intrigued, but would be traveling in Russia for weeks, and I should send him the manuscript after September 15. We shall see whether the ides of September are happier than those of March. It has been a long wait.






Sunday, September 10, 2017

Rings, Swimming, & Invisible Spouses

Park Yoo-chun's body and face are now bloated by carnal excess, a far cry from the attractive character that he played in several of my favorite kdramas. His is not one of the many recognizable smiles one sees on posters advertising soju and beer; here, almost all celebrities do highly visible endorsements, from alcohol to health food, their images are on all sorts of products, product lines, and businesses. Famous faces are emblazoned on buildings and up and down the aisles at groceries and convenience stores.

Roxanne, Albert, and two other men and I went to lunch together Tuesday afternoon, then to coffee (tea for me). Then they asked me to come swimming with them Saturday morning. I cheerfully accepted, not knowing that this would interfere with my long-arranged afternoon plans and leave two colleagues wondering where I was!

People around here generally don't talk about their spouses. In fact, it's difficult for me to find out who single and who is married – though I suppose the default setting is to suppose most people are married – because few people discuss wives or husbands. It's strange – I'm used to an occasional mention of "my wife and I" or "my husband and I" in recollections, but for the most part Koreans are silent on the subject (there are exceptions, of course: there's one married pair who are taking my English class together, and they interact sweetly). One one fellow about my age joined my class several months ago, and whereas I recently learned that in the month after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – five years ago: he's one of the 1% of patients that has survived so long since diagnosis – he lost 40 kg, and that he spent the first six months unable to eat and unable to sleep from pain, it was not until yesterday when he was scrolling through photographs on his phone that I saw a picture of him with a pretty, petite woman, and I asked him who she was. "My wife," he answered. I asked if she were around, and why she hadn't come swimming with our group, if so. It turns out she doesn't like strangers to see her in a swimsuit. I commiserate. But all this time I've been operating under the presumption that he, like another fellow that was in our snorkeling group yesterday, were single. Are spouses part of the furniture, always doing their own thing? They seem to kind of be taken for granted. It's not that I expect someone to talk about their husband or wife all the time, but I think I'm used to them being spoken of with more frequency than many people do here. And so many married people don't wear rings!

The one single guy (not Albert, the divorced fellow, but Pat, a roundish man with a ponytail who is often hungover) in our group gave me a ring yesterday. There was much hilarity over the jokingly presumed proposal. I pointed out that it WAS actually a diamond...with an "S" in it (it was a metal Superman logo ring that he found while snorkeling in the swimming hole). Somebody else, thank God, found the goggles he'd lent me, which had popped off my head while I was floating comfortably, and gave them back. It's bad enough to lose your own things, but worse to lose other people's!

I had a wonderful time snorkeling (my first time – it took a while to get used to not being able to breathe through my nose) and then just paddling around in the clear ocean water. It's so much easier to swim in salt water than in a lake or chlorine pool! I didn't have to worry about sinking, as I bobbed like a cork and pushed quickly through the shallows using a pair of borrowed fins. For the most part, I stayed out of the surf, swimming in protected coves. The roped off swimming hole was delightful for the first several hours, as it wasn't crowded, but in the afternoon it gradually filled up with swimmers, snorkelers, and little kids and teenagers on floats until it was almost elbow to elbow, like the country club pool where we were members when I was a kid.

We had only planned to stay for two hours – I had scheduled to meet my colleague at 2 PM – but as I wasn't wearing a watch, nor was anyone else in the group, the time got away from us. It was almost two when I found out the time, and I quickly sent a message to my colleague, but I have no idea if she got it in time. I fear she didn't. Everyone wanted to keep playing in the water – the men went out into the waves to look for shells – and I was happy to, only I forgot that my 70 SPF sunscreen was probably wearing off. As a result, I crisped. My face is the color of a pomegranate, as are big splotches on my shoulders and back, delineating where my swimsuit was. That's something I never have to worry about normally, what with always wearing long sleeves and carrying a parasol. I feel like an idiot for forgetting about it at the beach, but I so seldom swim! 

I had wondered why my curriculum director kept commenting on my use of red ink when grading papers. I thought she was alluding to some presumed psychological damage it would inflict on small children to see their errors identified in red, but it turns out that there's a deeper cultural reason for avoiding the color. Koreans are highly superstitious about having their name written in red – they see it as a curse, that someone wants them to die. June actually had a small girl quit her class after another little boy wrote her name on the board in red marker. I do not doubt that I have cheerfully written children's names in red many times over, unaware of this cultural no-no. And, of course, immediately after hearing about the superstition, I felt it incumbent upon me to pull out my notebook and write my own name in crimson. 

June introduced me to a new coffee shop today, where there's a little art studio abutting on the same court yard. Inside, two jewelers were working at benches not unlike my own at home. I found the cutest silver ring – a miniature tea cup and saucer with a wee spoon mounted on an open shank band bearing the word "cappuccino" in all capitals. The tea cup is filled with coffee colored epoxy (it apparently has real grounds mixed in)--I didn't have the heart to point out that it looks nothing like cappuccino, since cappuccino contains milk and has a creamy froth on top. But it is a beautiful ring, and the closest I will get to enjoying coffee. This is the first real art I've been able to acquire here on Jeju.

June and I went to an art show Monday morning, and I loved the work. It was entirely comprised of paintings of Seogwipo, most if not all painted en plein air in the garden of the Lee Jung Seob museum, looking down on the harbor. Some of my favorites were about 18 cm x 22 cm – small enough to transport home after a year or more's display in my local apartment. Excited, I asked about prices, as it seemed they were 100,000 KRW  (about $100) from the notations on the tags--I really wanted to get more than one, and was wondering how many I could consider. I was wrong in my tag reading. It turned out that the pictures I was interested in were 700,000 KRW apiece--the "10" was some sort of size designation. The artist was willing to go down to 600,000 KRW each. That is absolutely obscene. I could have talked myself into spending a maximum of 250,000 KRW (they really were beautiful--almost a Gauguin impressionist style), but she wasn't budging. Korean art buyers must be filthy rich. My house is full of original art, but I have never spent more than $150 on a piece, and I usually average closer to $50. I do want to support living artists, but these were small works, not giant canvases. I just couldn't rationalize the cost. It was too bad. Heck, if Korean artists can command these prices, there ought to be painters everywhere. But I have yet to find them!





Saturday, September 02, 2017

Ants, Cafes & (Possible Romantic) Connections

I can't sleep. I have been awake all night. I know that my sweet Grandmommy has had problems with insomnia for a long time, and I have dreaded the approach of old age as it probably promises the same misery for me. But I didn't think that sleeplessness would hit me so hard, so frequently, so early in my life. I always wondered why insomniacs weren't more efficient – if you can't sleep, get up and do something else, I reasoned – but now I know that you're always hoping that somehow the next breath will drop you into unconsciousness, and you don't want to begin a project that involves a lot of mental energy when you have to report for duty at a workplace at a particular time, and you know you must get a modicum of rest before then. I suppose you could be madly productive in a creative way if you didn't have to worry about such things as a  regular paycheck and communal responsibilities, but in the meantime I fritter away my unwanted conscious hours and have nothing to show for them in terms of rest, relaxation, or accomplishment.

June is thinking about launching economic warfare against the fire ant colonies in her parents' yard. Various stratagems have been floated (like the ants themselves, which drift on floodwaters linked in indestructible living rafts) for getting rid of this perniciously persistent invasive species that leaves hillocks dotting pastures and lawns all across the American Southeast. Boiling water. Vinegar. Gasoline. Dynamite. Digging up a shovelful of one colony and dumping it on another, so that they wipe each other out in intra-species warfare. And of course, professional grade poison. But, as my mother has observed, all even poison seems to do is cause the colony to move; it never really eradicates the ants. In a postprandial conversation on a park bench yesterday (some inoffensive black ants were roaming around our feet) June mulled attacking the fire ants' economic livelihood. Since they raise and milk aphids, focus on these creatures. Ruin their cattle industry, in other words. Starve them out. The problem with the strategy is the other, less nasty ants also use aphids, and it is important to keep these other, milder insects happy. I fear employing the insecticide equivalent of weaponized corn smut. I am also leery of schemes that involve the introduction of new competing species – there are always unforeseen negative consequences with these ideas.

Yesterday, cab drivers had no interest in accepting me as a fare – on the way to my morning massage, I was waived off by one man, refused after I was actually in the taxi by another, and finally accepted by a Catholic gentleman on my third and final attempt. On the way back, I had planned to take a taxi either to my home or to Home Plus. However, summons on the Kakao app for either of these destinations resulted in no takers. So I walked back, taking a circuitous route along the seacliffs and up an oreum (more than 470 steps – I counted!) that eventually covered almost six miles. I needed the exercise, but I was ravenous afterward, so I met June at a cafe for a late lunch.

While the food is delicious,  this particular place is run singlehandedly by a stocky man who obviously resents our patronage. He practically flings the menus at us, and always stomps up to the table with our meals and drinks, delivering them with silent begrudging looks, as if he's appalled that such persons as we should dare to order in his establishment. I don't know if this is because we are foreigners, or because a few weeks ago I had the temerity to ask him to leave the sun-dried tomatoes off a cheese sandwich, which omission, he intimated, would ruin the flavor (it didn't).

Contrast this to the weekly welcome we get from the lean edges-and-elbows ex-bartender who manages the coffee shop where Kristen and I and our church group assemble for refreshments on Sunday afternoon. I've met several successful bartenders over the years (always outside their workplaces!), and they invariably have the gift of gab and a shrewd eye, able to access a character in a glance. And they also know everything. If you are lacking in local scuttlebutt, ask a hairdresser or a bartender. Of the two, I would think bartenders often know more, as their clients are more numerous, business is often discussed over drinks (whereas hair salons rarely cater to deliberate conversations), and they have chemical assistance in the promotion of gut-spilling.

Last week, our group was sitting out on the veranda overlooking the sea. One lady's great niece is visiting her for the summer. She's a lovely trilingual Korean Malaysian, who's working her first part time job as a hostess in a restaurant at a local hotel. (She was telling us about the practical enslavement of the Chinese staff there – they haven't been paid in months, but if they complain to the government, they will be deported without any hope of getting recompense–their visas are tied to this particular place of employment. So they keep working in hopes that they will eventually get paid. It's a horrible situation, but not one that she can do much other than listen sympathetically to the workers' miseries.)

The café manager came out and sat down with us – he never speaks English, but I know he understands some, as he was instantly able to peg me as an American Southerner – and asked the young lady how old she was. He has a nephew, a very handsome young nephew (he showed us a photo on his phone), that he would like her to meet. At this point, stirred by the sea breeze, I told him that in his past role as a bartender and in his present position as "a coffee impresario," he ought to be not only looking to match up the young and beautiful, but also the middle-aged and opinionated, such as me. Although Kristen allowed that there were only single men on Jeju in the 50+ range – I may have reconciled myself to being over 40, yet 50 seems to me like the realm of grandfathers! – the manager thought a bit, and then said he might know someone. A Yale-educated Christian businessman. He was going to see if he might come to the coffee shop this Sunday. He cautioned that I should approach this contact as a new member of my social network, not a romantic partner (which is what I was intending to do anyway). But this is promising!

And then, I couldn't sleep a wink last night. So, unless I walk to the coffee shop (it's about six miles) I'll miss today's potential setup. I missed church. I dozed on and off for a couple of hours this morning, after I sent a message to Kristen telling her I would not be needing a ride to the service, but still haven't really slept. And my general expression of peace, patience, kindness and other Spiritual fruits has been mediocre lately. Crumbs.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Improvement, Raw Meat, & Flesh Tones

Sunday evening June and I got dinner (I had hot bibimbap again—it’s delicious) and then descended to the waterfall, which we can visit free thanks to our resident cards. There were hundreds of people in the park. I had been told the place was lit up at night, and I had expected it to be as lovely as it is during the day, but I was severely disappointed, since the pathways were efficiently but inartistically illuminated, and the waterfall itself was spotlighted a dreadful rancid orange, rather than backlit with a pretty rainbow of colors which would have been so much more attractive. However, I will remain hopeful that they will correct this, as the motto of the area seems to be “continuous improvement.” Since I arrived, the snarls of telephone and electrical wires between the poles on my street have been sorted into neat bundles, and the bright and shiny new city hall has been completed and the landscaping installed. Even the trash and recycling area has been bettered, moved onto a new concrete pad made to fit the bins. Every few days in the mornings, a pair of women wearing long vinyl butcher aprons spray down the food recycling area with disinfectant, to curb proliferation of insects.

June and I stopped at her favorite coffee shop after our waterfall excursion. The appeal of the place is not only in the coffee itself (or the yogurt smoothies, in my case), but in the attractive face of the long-haired owner, either in person or emblazoned in cartoon form on the bags of selectly roasted beans on the crowded counter, or in the psychedelic silver sleeves that encase the to-go cups. A constant crowd of customers pushes into the narrow spaces between the mismatched chairs, oddly shaped tables, and the counter, the front of which bears the illegible Sharpie signature of a famous actor who once visited. The complicated machinery of coffeemaking makes the preparation area like the cockpit of a spacecraft, or the laboratory of a mad scientist. Everywhere are mysterious knobs and shiny valves and twisting tubes and glass carafes and dials and gauges, steam spitting up and hissing, and bubbling potions being mixed. Three or four busy baristas move nonstop, shaking cubes and coffee together into caffeinated cocktails, fiddling with the machines, and calling out orders. Steel dungeon chains hang down behind the slim digital screens displaying the menu. Behind the chains, a laptop plays interviews of the owner with famous Korean foodies. The only paintings on the forest green wall in the seating area are a small acrylic portrait of the owner in Andy Warhol style and a canvas Che Guevera print. There’s also an elderly black rubber gas mask and a California high school bomber jacket pinned up. Count yourself lucky if you can snag a seat, since “Face Coffee” (June’s name for it) is always jammed.

We went our separate ways from the coffee shop. It was well dark, but still fairly early. Plentiful streetlamps sprayed light downward. I could hear crickets and cicadas, and catch conversations through the open windows. On the way back home, I spotted what I thought was a group of drunken men celebrating on the street, but as they got closer it turned out to be four or five families with young children; the fathers were whooping cheerfully they swung giggling smiling children up in the air. Silent letters scrolled across neon sign boards, and security cameras turn in my direction upon detecting movement.

Although most single-family houses are shielded from the traffic and passersby by tall concrete walls and metal gates (here, these are not always closed, and you can see laundry drying on the racks on the porches, garden implements, potted plants, bicycles and children’s toys cluttering the paths to the front doors), other houses open directly onto the street, and occasionally their sliding doors are slightly ajar, and passersby can glimpse tiny entryways crowded with an assortment of shoes.

There are so many restaurants here that advertise with pictures of raw meat! All of these feature tables fitted with charcoal grills where you cook platefuls of beef, pork or lamb. I never thought that the sight of red slabs of flesh would come to be mouth-watering, but the notion of roasting sirloin appeals to my carnivorous side. I am still not tempted by photographs of pink-striped fat. It’s also fascinating to watch the fish gulping silently and the silvery eels circling slowly in the saltwater tanks in front of seafood restaurants. I do wonder, though, are American eateries so limited in their mealtime beverage choices? Here, it’s usually five options: water, Coke, Sprite, beer – only one brand – and soju – only one brand. Jeju folks do like iced tea, but it’s never to be found on regular restaurant menus.

I (again!) haven’t been sleeping well lately. I have absolutely no memory of Tuesday morning. I must have taught an English class to almost 30 adult students, because I found my signature testifying to this in the roll book today, but I do not know what I said or did. I could have spoken English, or Russian, or Klingon. There isn’t a shred of data in my brain to remind me. I do remember what I did afterwards—beg off from the weekly teachers’ meeting to go home to crash into bed for a nap—but the morning is a complete blank. Presumably even in my incoherent state I was entertaining, because the classroom was packed again this morning. Unfortunately, one of my students told me that a few parts of the material I included in today’s lesson I’d already covered the day before yesterday. I apologized to him and told the class at large we’d review a bit. At least I didn’t give the exact same lesson, verbatim, twice in a row—having a different title for successive PPTs assured me of that. As of tomorrow, my afternoon teaching schedule changes again—I’m getting a new phonics class of second-graders and two different fifth-grade classes. Just when I had learned everyone’s (English) names (it only took me half a year)!

Today, for the first time in two months, I was able to turn off my air conditioning. At the same time, the humidity has broken, and it's actually pleasant to walk outdoors. It’s been sunny, but without the oppressive glare that makes unfurling my parasol needful—I had observed that this is a required accessory for all adjummas, and I’ve used mine almost daily for the summer. Several of my students have tanned to a deep coffee brown, which they (sadly) compare unfavorably to my sickly pallor. I wish that I could convey to them that white is not de facto beautiful! If I could tan, instead of turning a painful scarlet and blistering, I would love to do so.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Rice Wine & Curved Unfortune Cookies

I really like makgeoli, the traditional rice wine here. It has about the alcohol content of beer – which I don't drink – and a slight fizz, since it has active cultures like yogurt which allow for only a two-week freshness period. It's sold in opaque white bottles because the rice sediment doesn't present a visually appealing picture (you shake it before serving); the milky slurry is traditionally poured out of brass kettles into drinking bowls.

At the same corner grocery where I found the makgeoli (the CU where I stopped had loads of soju and beer, but none of what was once the most popular adult beverage in Korea), I found a large package of curved pastry, which looked and tasted for all the world like unfolded fortune cookies, except for the addition of seaweed flecks. The sweetness is offset by the mild salty tang of the seaweed. They are odd, but good. The pastry and the makgeoli together cost 2400 KRW.

My sixth graders won third place in the bimonthly national speech contest! I was quite pleased. Because they passed this first round, they have the opportunity to memorize, film and submit a second skit sometime in the next several months in order to be invited to go to Seoul for the annual live competition. I hope that they will be interested in trying to do this. They worked very hard, and I would love to see them triumph on stage. Of course, this means that I have to compose another mini play (or a handful of speeches, if the kids want to compete individually). The annual academy wide writing contest (held last Friday) also went well – at least three of my students (including one of the aforementioned team of sixth graders) placed in their respective categories.

After much fatigue and procrastination, I submitted another book review to the DC area journal – this one on a Russia-related history monograph – and for the SC publisher I struggled through the editing of an entry on a filmmaker whose work sounds entirely unappealing (NC-17 rated material at the worst, peculiar postmodernist aesthetics at the best). Talk about flat and stale prose; it took every ounce of sense-of-duty to finish these assignments, and I am not sure that the respective establishments to which I presented the work will be breaking down my door anytime soon.

The party a week ago went well. Four other foreign teachers and three of our Korean colleagues came, and everyone stuffed themselves. Of course, there were loads of leftovers. I froze four double portions of bean soup and half the vegetable-beef casserole, and turned the rice into a sweet pudding. I've been snacking on the baklava (which tore up and looked terrible, but certainly tastes delicious) for a week – the salad took me four days to finish, while I managed to devour the pesto pasta bowties in three.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Manikins, Food, & Music

There is a traditional Korean medicine shop a couple of doors down from the McDonald’s near my house that has four ginseng roots in glass vials in the window. They look like little shrunken men. They remind me of the wizened, formaldehyde-preserved fetuses representing each month of prenatal human development which used to be on display in the old Richmond County Museum. We’d go to that old grey stucco building on elementary school trips in the early 1980s, and the eclectic mix of everything from Native American artifacts to prehistoric bones, from unfortunate butterflies to Civil War relics, and other odds and ends fascinated me at first, although the unchanging exhibits got a little tiresome after a while. The two-story building was topped with a crenelated parapet, so it looked like a miniature castle, or a folly from the Victorian era when it was constructed. The floors were wood planks, and they creaked irregularly as throngs of children trailed from room to room, peeking in the ancient glass cases and reading the fading type on the yellowed cards next to each item. The rooms had a peculiar pungent order of decay which I have always associated with old relics, antique shops, and poor memories.

My children have their academy essay contest today. The younger grades are making little booklets about themselves, and the older ones are writing and illustrating manhwa-like stories derived in part from examples in their textbooks. My seventh graders are creating posters about their recent reading assignments. I’m having a party for my fellow teachers this evening. I made brownies and baklava, but singed the latter badly this afternoon when I switched on the overhead heating element in my oven and went off to clean out the drain in the bathroom. The next thing I know, there’s a burnt smell coming from the kitchen, and the top of the filo in the pan is the color of the brownies I’d just baked. I was sick. It’s still edible, but nowhere near as pretty as originally intended. The whole cloves securing the top layer of pastry are all charred. All that work and money!

I had to order the filo at great expense through Gmarket. There are no glass baking dishes to be had anywhere, so I had to improvise with a shallow metal pan. The nuts (walnuts, pecans, and almonds) and butter also cost a fortune. I already had plenty of honey and sugar and orange juice to make the syrup. I made black bean soup last night, and assembled a vegetable-beef casserole, for which I had to concoct cream of chicken soup from scratch. Thank God for internet recipes! I also plan to bake chicken tikka masala and pesto pasta. And I need to make rice, and a salad. One of my guests is a vegetarian. The leftovers should last me for a while.

I’m still undecided about what to do for Chuseok holiday. It’s six weeks away, and I learned recently that June is taking off a few extra days to go home for the first time in a year and a half. I can’t get extra days and I have no desire to go home for such a short stay—I would barely be recovered from the jetlag going over when I would have to return and suffer it again. Plus, with all the vitriol that is being reported stateside, I think it’s almost more restful on the other side of the planet. I’ve thought about visiting Vietnam, China, and Hong Kong. I’ve even (the horror!) considered package tours. It’s just a short hop to Japan. I need to make some arrangements this weekend.

This past Tuesday was Korean Independence (from Japanese occupation) Day, one of the few federal holidays here. I stayed indoors most of the day and then went to a free classical music concert in the evening. I felt like a celebrity walking in, as a group of people started calling out my name excitedly—it was a quartet of ladies from my adult English class. June and I sat on a bench next to the manager of the Jeju United soccer team. The director of the chamber orchestra was a funny and dynamic fellow who established an instant rapport with the audience. He also noticed a couple of us Westerners in the audience and effortlessly inserted English phrases here and there in his introductory monologues so that we knew basically what was going on. He also gave me one of the door prizes—I think merely because I was foreign and he wanted me to be happy, as the trivia question he asked me to win it was easy—which was a box full of fresh pastry from the seaside café where the concert was being held. The musicians were excellent; most had doctorates in the performance of their instrument, and they played everything from eighteenth to twentieth-century pieces. There were two encores from the packed house. I love classical music. And getting gaze out through floor-to-ceiling windows at a ship slowly sailing along the horizon and darkness falling over the ocean while listening to such well-made music was one of the lovelier experiences of my life.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Lunatics & Fools

There were 31 students in my adult English class yesterday morning. One of them asked me whether I was proud to be an American. I said I was. I said that I think my country has done many good things, but that I thought our great weakness was not being willing to listen to other people. I also said that I didn't think my pride in my country excluded anyone else's being proud of theirs. God made us all different, and each culture should have some strength that it can point to and say, "You know, I'm really proud of being ___ because of that."

Our American founding documents are superb, and many of our founders were admirable people. Some, however, notoriously did not practice the ideals they preached. And anyone who knows the stories of history can numerous examples of American hubris over the centuries, and intentional and unintentional exploitation and abuse on the federal, state, and local levels. Of course, these sorts of instances and behaviors are certainly not limited to Americans. And one would wonder whether (if not already know that) many other countries were guilty of worse at the time. But the very fact that we had documents that expressed such good and right ideals, and that we failed to live up to them makes us the more guilty. Where there is no law, there is no recognition of sin. But where there are high standards, their selective application or pervasive violation becomes more starkly apparent. I think that a proper sense of national satisfaction and pride ought always to be tempered with a realistic understanding of past personal and collective failings, and an equally strong present determination to stand up for the weak against all doctrines of death at home and abroad. 

I spoke with a publishing coworker this evening who said that folks around in her area on the other side of the globe were anticipating imminent nuclear holocaust. I told her that people here were more concerned with whether or not the government was going to give us an extra day for Thanksgiving  holiday. It's so weird to be just an hour's flight from the border of North Korea, whence missiles (at least on days when the weather is fine) are launched, and yet so far removed from paying serious mind to potential mayhem. I pray that leaders who pursue dangerous ends will be soon removed from office. For all the military buildup of China and Russia worldwide over the last decade, and their respective beliefs in their own international manifest destinies, I would think it highly disadvantageous to everyone to have a penny-ante potentate like Kim Jun Un push large actors into positions of confrontation. It's a pity that just as these sleeping giants are awakening, and the United States is in intense need of wisdom at all levels of its leadership, that we should be helmed by someone whose obvious lack of tact seems to evidence profound underlying ignorance. 

On a certain level, the American president is calling a spade a spade, which has not been done in similarly blunt language by his predecessors (of both parties) who have fruitlessly sanctioned the PRK. On the other hand, one should try to calm a suicidal hostage-taker, not encourage him to begin pressing explosive buttons, just because you can and will ultimately defeat him. The goal is to remove the threat to civilians, promise the bad guy pizza and a getaway car, and then gradually move in so the subject can be neutralized, cuffed, and carted away without incident. Sanctions clearly haven't done this, as Kim has been unswervingly dedicated to his atom-splitting ambitions, whatever the cost to his people otherwise. And now instead of a tense but progressing negotiation we have a Nord-Ost theater standoff, a Beslan school siege; although the terrorists may ultimately be killed, it is possible that many innocents will die in the meantime. Yet, just as a confirmed China opponent like Nixon made vital steps towards normalizing diplomatic relations with the PRC, maybe it'll take someone as unabashedly bombastic as Mr. Trump to call North Korea's long-range bluff. 

In the meantime, one of my fifth-grade students told me today that if his sister does well in her classes, the whole family will be going to Europe in the winter break as her reward. She's already been to France and the U.K., so this trip may be to Germany. Another of my students, in the same class, just got back from a week in Paris. Others speak fondly of past and future vacations in Japan and Cambodia, or their recent "space camp" in Seoul (an experience which seems to have consisted almost entirely of going to amusement parks). Many of my adult students are also widely travelled, and several were shocked that I haven't been to Hawaii (they have), and recommended Australia and New Zealand. Maybe I should spend Chuseok in China proper, instead of just Hong Kong. If I will have nine days, I could go on an extensive package tour [for even though I loathe such tours, my Chinese is wholly limited to 謝謝 and 對不起 (thank you and I'm sorry), and GoogleTranslate doesn't work there!]

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Threats From Overhead, Utilities & Rest

The highlight of yesterday for me was talking to Susan, with whom I have been playing phone and message tag for months. While she went to tend to her smaller boy, four-year-old Theo got on the phone and painstakingly read me a book. It was so sweet hearing his little voice on the other end of the line. He's such a bright little penny. And he reads so well, carefully sounding out the words he didn't know, and boldly declaiming the ones he did.

Speaking of bold and, on the other hand, reckless declamations, CNN's current front page treatment of possible American war with North Korea smacks of hysteria. And, of course, its intimations that the US would take as long to get ready for conflict with the fat, obstreperous, and oddly tonsured Mr. Kim as imperial Russia did to mobilize for World War I are not encouraging. I do hope that the president of South Korea, who seems more diplomatically inclined, can pour oil on the frothing rhetorical waters stirred by the decidedly unfiltered leaders of the north and of the United States.

I was terrified yesterday at lunch by reports from several of my colleagues that they had found tarantula size spiders in their houses. Apparently these things are called water spiders, and one girl I work with told me she woke up last year to find one on the ceiling above her bed. I have just invested in a new mosquito net. I have no desire to be visited by arachnids of any description, and particularly not the size of bread plates. It could be that my expensive dehumidifiers are doubling as spider repellents, if these things like water. I'm far more arachnophobic than scared of rumors of war.

Roxanne and I went on another walk this evening. I told her about my recent interaction with the local gas company--I'd left my house to find a bill for over 100,000 KRW tucked in my door. The neighbors' bill was only 16,000 KRW. My previous bill had been 20,000. Clearly something was amiss. However, they had my apartment number correct. A Korean friend sweetly called the company for me, and they told her that according to the account number on the bill I had not paid since March. Which was nonsense. I faithfully pay every bill that appears in my mailbox or on my doorstep. Being the good little packrat I am, I marshalled my receipts to prove the company's error. And in so doing, I noticed that the street address on the bill was different from the ones I had previously received, with the exception of one which I had already paid a month or so back, thinking it was my electric bill. It turns out, that they had not only given me the wrong bill--same apartment number, different building!--but they had done the same a few months earlier, and I had unwittingly paid that one. So, my boss called them, they did a search of their records, and within a few hours I was not only vindicated but assured of a quick refund of the almost $100 that I had overpaid on someone else's behalf. They wired the money to my bank account yesterday. I am totally impressed by the swift resolution. Would that American utility companies were so easy to deal with!

The typhoon that we were expecting to hit on Sunday took a turn for Japan, and so all we got was a bit of wind and rain. Americans would have already freaked out in advance and cleaned the grocery stores of milk, toilet paper, and bread. I told a Korean coworker about this odd pre-storm tradition, asking her if people hereabouts did something similar. No, they don't. The farmers, of course, have some damage prevention preparation to do, but there is apparently no grocery-oriented civilian panic in response to dire forecasts.

The only thing that I bought preparatory to any storm was a case of water. I went into the store near my house, and I thought the gentleman who runs it was coming out to give me a hand with it, but instead he slung his arm all chummy over my shoulders and escorted me inside. I was too shocked to do anything, not to mention encumbered by water and work materials in both hands. His wife just laughed at us, while a male pal who was sitting by the register visiting asked him (in Korean) why he had his arm around me. I was wondering this myself. The shopkeeper announced that we were friends. He is a friendly guy. I don't want him hugging me--but he may be under the common misapprehension that this is a usual American practice. I just looked at his wife and rolled my eyes.

I have two glorious sequential days of no morning classes – the summer set has ended and the single fall season class, which I'll be teaching two days a week come Tuesday, has not yet begun. My brain responded last night by allowing me to have the best sleep I've had in months and months and months. I didn't wake up at 3 or 4 or 5 AM thinking of ways to improve the PowerPoint presentation for that morning's class. I didn't have weird dreams. I didn't lie awake for hours trying to doze off. I just lay down, went to sleep without chemical assistance, and slept deeply and thoroughly until mid morning. Then I got up, ate a light breakfast, and went back to bed for a delightful three hour nap. And two people later, separately, commented that I looked great today. What magical ointment was I using  on my skin? Had I lost weight? A good sleep really does wonders.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Food & Marketing

I helped to prepare lunch for about 100 Vacation Bible School kids on Monday at the church. I chopped golden slices of pickled radish into quarters and cut shallow vents into the skins of scores of mini hot dogs, and stirred a huge pot of dukkboki simmering on the industrial size stove. The other twelve ladies worked much harder than I did, washing dishes, prepping vegetables and fruit. There were two enormous tubs full of cubes of fresh watermelon, apples and pineapple into which we poured "cider" (Sprite) and sparkling water. And then the head prep lady decided the mixtures needed to be sweeter and added several cupfuls of white sugar to each. I was aghast at the sugar addition--it was like syrup. And, I have to admit, popular with the small fry. I only saw one of my students – it was a combined VBS for nine local churches, and I thought I would spot more.

Daddy has been on my mind a lot the last day or so. I think I'm more homesick for heaven that I am for any place on earth. It's both a blessing and a curse also to have all one's friends scattered around the globe. My plan right now is to go alone to Hong Kong for Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) in October, but the Korean government won't make a decision until September about whether it's giving us the Monday of the week off. If they do, that'll make an eight-day trip possible, and doubtless June will want to try to go to Siberia to visit her friends there (there's one flight every seven days to the town where she spent a year, so at least a week's holiday is needed). And I would be sorely tempted to go with her, if only to say that I had been to that part of Russia, and to practice the language. The other night, I dreamed that I mispronounced most Russian words I tried to say. Some people actually dream in other languages. I always dream that I am translating from English into other languages, one word or phrase at a time. It's like a vocabulary review. I have learned 10 new Korean words in the past few days.

My sleep continues to be irregular and insufficient. The heat certainly might be playing a role – my air-conditioning unit is in the common room, and I am using a floor fan to move this cooler air into my bedroom, but it's not as comfortable as I would like. I paid almost $100 for electricity last month, which didn't surprise me given how many appliances I am running – two dehumidifiers, two air purifiers, and the AC unit pretty much constantly and the fan at night. I am looking forward to fall.

Last night I went out for meat-filled lettuce wraps with June and a Korean friend. On the wall near our table there was a TV showing the Korean variety program Infinite Challenge, a special featuring NBA star Stephen Curry and his brother opposite a team of assorted Korean hosts and celebrities. It was really cute show, and Curry acquitted himself as a good sport and superior athlete. I wonder if he is borrowing, so to speak, from Kobe Bryant's international playbook? Bryant is the most popular player in China thanks to his regular visits to the country, participation on Chinese TV shows, sponsorship of basketball camps around the PRC, and so forth. If Curry captures the Korean market, it will assure him of a fervent fan base and, provided his image remains clean, financial possibilities that will probably endure for years after his playing career has ended. Kim Jung Un is not the only person on the peninsula who enjoys the game. After our meal, the restaurant owners asked us to help them by proofing and editing their English menu. I made fairly short work of it with my friends' (and their smartphones') help: "sirloin" sounds so much more appealing than "piece of meat attached to spleen."

Tomorrow and Tuesday are, respectively, my last English III and English I classes for the summer. I think a new session of adult study starts at the end of August, but I'm not sure what level of class I will be teaching.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Compatriots, Politicians & Language

The plant life here on Jeju is very similar to that in Georgia. There are pine trees (albeit not tall ones) and camillia bushes, honeysuckle and azaleas, magnolias and kudzu. The city beautification committee plants petunias and marigolds. And palm trees. It's much more humid here than in Augusta. The streets are largely deserted of pedestrians these days during daylight hours because it feels so incredibly hot--of course, there are the office workers going out at lunchtime, and the ladies walking around under parasols (mine just arrived in the mail last week), but considerably more folks are out and about on foot only after dark--otherwise, the roads are clogged with vehicular traffic, just like at home, with everyone rolling around in their own little air conditioned pod. I've been walking with Roxanne at the local high school track from 9-10:15 some evenings, and it's always crowded with middle-aged folks like ourselves getting in exercise after sunset.

I ran into two young Korean Americans at church last Sunday. Kristen encouraged me to ask them where they were from--my natural inclination is to remain shyly silent. Columbus, GA, it turned out. We're almost neighbors. They were really nice. The brother was still in high school and the sister had just graduated. It was  good to talk to compatriots--no worries about my talking too fast or using incomprehensible slang--particularly folks from the same state who didn't feel any nervousness about talking to me even though I was older than they were! The young man confessed that while they had learned basic Korean at a Korean language church in the US, they were largely at sea linguistically, and everyone expected them to be fluent. Also, they were to be helping out with a vacation Bible school on the mainland, and had just been told that it was going to be operating double shifts daily--not only one program in the morning, but an identical one in the evening as well. "Welcome to Korea!" I told them. Americans are for the most part not workaholics, and even those who consider themselves such are not workaholic to the level that most ordinary Koreans consider just conventional working hours.

At church this Sunday, the governor of the island was sitting in the pew behind me. He's up for reelection and is making the rounds. My Bible study group and I got a picture with him at lunch downstairs afterwards, as one of the ladies was intent on complaining to him about the hiring situation at her school. And then our group went out for coffee, and ran into an assemblyman (congressman), so I got a picture with him, too. This unfortunately guarantees that neither of these men will ever be elected to the highest office in the land, because no one I've ever gotten a picture with has had any major success electorally. Or perhaps that only holds true for American politicians. I was able to answer the first four questions the assemblyman asked me in Korean, but then I got stuck, so he switched to English. I wish our officials were so adept in foreign languages.

Oh, I told some of my fifth-graders that Americans often call air conditioning "AC" (The Korean shorthand for it is "air-con"). They thought this was beyond  hilarious because "AC" sounds to their ears like "아이씨" (aish), which is Korean slang meaning basically "oh crap"! I use "aish" a lot. However, I have had to flag even small children for calling each other "개새끼" (son of a bitch). In fact, any juvenile conversation with the word "dog" in it automatically makes me prick up my ears. I am in the process of learning a number of other profanities and euphemisms so I can curb their use among my seventh graders. I don't like taffy (yeot) anyway, but now I know that just as one should be careful about inviting men in to "eat ramen" one does not want to invite someone carelessly or to "eat yeot" ! Oh, the fun and pitfalls of slang!

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…

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Bread & Beast Mode

I haven't made this many baked goods since college – or "university" as one must be careful to call it hereabouts, given that the word "college" seems to imply a two-year vocational program, which for all its practicality is not something that Koreans tend to respect. For all that I should be trying to reduce my carbohydrate intake, I made four loaves of bread this weekend, and this afternoon I'm taking in one – possibly two – to share with my fellow teachers. We need something on which to spread the fresh honeycomb! And my oven is so nice, it would be a shame not to use it. I miss my Morocco-bound colleague, who left last week, but I am loving the crockpot and the rice cooker I bought from her. I made a vast quantity of lentil stew, which the bread does well sopping out of my bowls.

I baked cookies on Friday for my seventh graders – the good seventh graders with whom I did a bread making demonstration (they were up to their elbows in dough). I couldn't find any chocolate chips so I used M&Ms instead. I also brought in bottles of milk, because the consumption of cookies requires it. The students were happy. They all did well on their tests, too.

The guy at the minimart down the street thinks I am some sort of weightlifter, because I bought two two-liter sixpacks of water at one go. He insisted on feeling my puny arm muscles. I pulled out my phone and showed him a video of my mom doing pull-ups, insisting that I was a marshmallow and the beast in the family was my mother, not me, but I don't know what he understood. Every time since that we cross paths on the street, he holds out his hand for a low five.

Church Change

I think I'm going to start going only to the Korean language church (the one I attended last week), simply because I feel much more welcome there. The English language service at the other church, where I went for the last time today, is isolated in the basement. We may be able to understand the words of the service, but we are never invited to participate in other activities, including lunch, which the whole Korean congregation eats together. Nowadays, there are only two Non-Koreans there: me and June. We've been effectively quarantined in our own language isolation cell. I am tired of it. Not one person in the halls smiled at me on my way into the building--it's like I'm a hostile alien. It's so lonely, I spent half the sermon today wiping tears from my eyes and contemplating just walking out abruptly. Which I didn't, because that would have left June alone, unable to explain why I had left.

I believe I can worship Jesus more directly and enthusiastically with people who are singing comfortably in church in their own language, even if I don't understand much of it. Particularly if they smile at me, and I can follow the order of service in the hymnal and Bible, I know we share the same heart. I want to feel like I am part of a family – a family of Christians – rather than an experimental control group with carefully selected staff members sacrificing their comfort to interact awkwardly with me during a designated interval and then metaphorically disinfecting their hands and returning to their regular lives away from us peculiar foreign folk.

The Navy guy didn't say anything to me today, nor did the drummer guy. (I had joked a month or so ago that I had made them have coffee with me, but I had no idea how true to the facts that was. They have made no attempt to talk to me of their own accord then or since, only speaking when spoken to.) The girl who was in charge of the PowerPoint presentation smiled briefly. The man who gave the sermon seemed mildly irritated, perhaps because I was less attentive than usual. The wife of the ruling elder (he is the one person who earnestly tries on an ongoing basis to make us feel welcome) did ask if there was something wrong, but I didn't spill. Once I have been vulnerable to people whom I have later felt to be on a different comprehension wavelength, I don't repeat the mistake. And what would an emotional burst have solved? It's not like this can be "fixed" by my input, and I don't believe that I am supposed to be staying there anyway.

Always well before this point in Russia, I had found a good church, with solid fellowship. I had established a relationship with at least one other Christian local. Of course, my language abilities in Russian, however minimal, certainly exceed my Korean skills. Still, Korea is an intercultural challenge. On one level I had expected this, and have been forewarned by others who had lived here. But I am severely handicapped in ways I didn't anticipate by the language barrier, and by the seeming unwillingness of many people to try to make gestures of goodwill. It's a learning experience, certainly. It has made me wonder how many people I have similarly excluded by not proactively smiling and speaking at home. How important it is to ask people of all ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds to join you for meals and even small social activities! And how essential to the life of the church is moving beyond a nominal "friendship" on social media to real, in-person relationships!