Sunday, December 31, 2017

Year In Review 2017 / 2018 Year In Preview

Dreams realized and unrealized this past year:

1) I don’t know how good a job I did teaching this past year, but I was asked to stay on… Or at least not denied when I said I planned to re-up my contract!

2) Still haven’t met that good and Godly guy...or, if I have, it hasn’t occurred to either of us yet! 

3) Currently waiting to hear back about the market viability of the book translation...patience is a virtue, patience is a virtue, patience is a virtue! Argh.

4) I visited just one other country besides Korea this past year. I am scheduled to go to Taiwan this coming Saturday. I need to get a new iPhone battery at the store in Taipei 101, though that’s not the sole reason I am going...

5) One friend did indeed visit me here in 2017! No family members yet, but perhaps this year...

6) I definitely hiked dozens of miles on local trails (I don’t know if I broke the century mark), and I hiked on Hallasan, though I haven’t made it to the top yet!

7) I got more than five essays published (most co-authored academic reference works, but hey!) and was paid for them.

8) Do I have a real Korean friend? Roxanne is well on her way to that position, and has certainly acted as a true support, emotionally and logistically, this past year. My coworkers, too, have been particularly kind. Kristen introduced me to a good church and has translated portions of many sermons for me. Maxwell is a gem, but I don’t know if he considers me a friend yet, or merely a regular customer, and besides, he’s an American (albeit of Korean ancestry). Albert continues to flirt with me and actually back-hugged me the other evening while I was shivering outside waiting for a taxi (I hope he doesn't get the wrong idea because I permitted this--I was really cold!). I still don’t really know any local artists, though I have met several.

9) Faithful Bible reading...hah! Praying...daily, but mostly panicked, "Please, Lord, don't let me make these children miserable or let me do anything profoundly stupid," ones.

10) No novel have I written, just a fair number of blog posts.

For 2018, here are my dreams:

1) Learn at least enough Korean to carry on an ordinary conversation comfortably.

2) Round umpteen of: Meet a good and Godly guy and be happily married. (As if! But I am perpetually hopeful.) Incidentally, one of the ladies at church told me today that insomnia is a sign of the early stages of menopause. Oh, joy.

3) Year 8: Get the book translation published! It’s still under consideration by that publisher. I really would like to be able to send a copy to the Georgetown History Department for their “faculty and graduate publications” bookshelf. Thereafter, I can start drafting the Pirogov biography.

4) Visit a minimum of three other countries. I should be a third of the way to this goal soon!

5) Have family member(s) come visit me here on Jeju.

6) Hike at least 100 more miles of local trails, including to the top of Hallasan.

7) Get at least 10 essays/articles/stories published and get paid for them!

8) Establish several deep friendships with kindred spirits, wherever they hail from.

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

10) Save enough money to afford a significant down payment on my house.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Les Miserables, Les Delectables

There is nothing quite like the feeling in your stomach when you see the guy you have a crush on walk in to the wine bar where you’re sharing drinks and chat with you colleagues...and there’s a lovely young lady by his side.

It’s like you’ve just swallowed a large steel ball bearing.

 As the older woman, you feel every wrinkle in your skin as if it were acid-etched, and you immediately think: of course a good looking guy like him wouldn’t go for a ancient pudgy thing like you when he has such lissome beauties to choose from!

Resisting the temptation to stare enviously, you pretend you see nothing (how can she be engrossed in her phone when she’s with him!?) and devote yourself wholeheartedly to the fluffiest conversation near at hand. Once again, you note, you’ve proven unwinsome to the person to whom you are attracted (mentally calculating, how many is this now? Ten or a dozen in your life thus far?), but by golly, you’re determined you won’t bore your table mates! You run on adrenaline for the next hour, then go home to cry in frustration (and at your own stupidity), to pray for another round of solace, and to sleep. And you dream of a nuclear disaster unfolding near a city unaware of the enveloping fallout.

The school Christmas Party on Friday went well. Hundreds of waffles smeared with jam and ice cream were consumed. I saw one tiny girl eating a cloud of cotton candy bigger than her head. The students liked the photo scavenger hunt—my picture was snapped so many times I felt like a celebrity—and the crafts (Christmas card painting and paper wreath making) were reasonably attended. It wasn’t really cold until the sun set. And I got the opportunity to get to know the librarian better

In a year, we’d never exchanged more than a few words, and I was convinced she didn’t like me, because she always and only addressed me as “Teacher.” Friday she was working in the wreath-making room with me, and I discovered she’s actually really nice. She’s from the Philippines, and met her Korean husband a little more than a decade ago through a cousin. She said she prayed long and hard about accepting his offer of marriage, because leaving home meant not only adjusting to a new culture and learning a new language, but also giving up her career as a public school teacher. But she decided to come. She says her daughter corrects her language mistakes—the little girl (who looks Peruvian to me—when we pass on the stairs I always think she should wear a bright wool shawl and speak Spanish) was born and has grown up here, so Korean is her first language. My colleague’s church small group is conducted in English—the services, though, are in Korean—and her friends are mostly Philippino, with whom she speaks in Tagalog, so she still doesn’t consider herself fluent in Korean even after a decade here. She says that while she can carry on everyday conversations, going to the doctor and conducting official business are still a challenge.

This afternoon June had unexpectedly the need to replace her glasses. It took fifteen minutes, including the selection of new frames and the installation of the prescription lenses. There may be aspects of the local culture that are frustrating, but speed and quality of service in glasses stores isn’t one of them. And they cost $65, total. I am going to get new ones myself next week. Hopefully they can do the ”progressive lenses” thing without too much extra expense. Most of the adults at school have had eye surgery so they don’t have to wear contacts or glasses. I just can’t bear the idea of having my eyes lasered while I am conscious. And besides, given that I’m now in bifocals, I would have to have reading “cheaters” anyway.

I have had two great meals on two consecutive evenings. After the cleanup from the Christmas party, the school director took us all to shabu shabu. I had already spilled ice cream down my front at the party, and at dinner I managed to dip my sleeve in my neighbor’s mustard sauce and then spill half a glass of sweet postprandial plum juice over my lap. I was totally sticky. But wearing black concealed most of my mistakes, and I did smell pleasantly fruity. We had a “pick a number, choose a present or steal someone else’s” gift exchange, then retired to the aforementioned wine bar.

Saturday, I made another sweet potato soufflé and the freshly bespectacled June came over to make a salad. She had bought an extremely sharp paring knife and made it most of the way through the ingredients without harming herself. And then we were talking and she cut her finger “almost to the bone,” as she put it. It bled heavily, and she clutched a paper towel around it and went out to the nearest pharmacy—I don’t have any super glue; I need to buy some for such cases! Meanwhile, I figured I would finish the salad. And I did complete the chopping job, but at the cost of two of my own fingers with that same bloody knife! I didn’t gouge them as deeply as June’s—it was still dripping hours later when she changed the bandage—but they bled nicely and throb now. What was even more painful was remembering after all this agony that I had just bought a new apple peeler-corer-slicer that would probably have eliminated at least part of the opportunity for bloodshed.

Then we went to a party at a Korean coworker’s house. Our fellow teacher’s husband grilled ribs outside while our male colleague held the tongs and the plates and they downed the first of many convivial beers. The ribs were fantastic. My soufflé disappeared, and half of June’s salad also (the other half is promised to a meal tomorrow). There was loads of other food, too, and we ate until we were immobile. We talked until 12:30. It was a lovely evening.

I had wanted to go on a hike on Christmas day, but I think I’m getting a cold. I should probably stay in and read the unabridged copy of Les Miserables that I borrowed from Maxwell last week.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Another Long Walk

City workers have been out ruthlessly pruning the trees again. There are limbs with their ends amputated all over the city. I don’t understand the motive in most cases.

What started out as an impromptu meet up for lunch and a scenic walk ended up as a 9.4 mile hike along the sea coast Saturday: beautiful views, but bone chillingly cold at the end.

June finished her morning Korean lesson with Kristen, then returned my call, and agreed to lunch. I came downstairs to confront snow flurries and briskly marched through the side streets past several scenes of construction — from digging up or installing roads to hammering away on the concrete bones of buildings (not easy work outside, no matter how well you’re bundled up!). On my way, I passed the first of the day’s peculiar sculptures: a pair of faux bronze-gilt rearing stallions. I always think of St. Petersburg’s Anichkov Bridge when I see them, and sigh. These two are such dreadful perversions of equine beauty. Not like the horse I attempted to draw in first grade, which looked more like a kitchen table than a thoroughbred; these are actually ghastly—like the mounts of the Ringwraiths in the Peter Jackson trilogy—but blessedly small. Pinkie toe-ringwraths?

We had soup and cheese sandwiches at the restaurant—the owner/chef remembered my anti-tomato preference—and then strolled toward Oedolgae to find that the vegetation atop the cliffs had been recently clear cut. As a result, we could see all three of the entrances to the small caves near the tide line that were once used by Japanese forces. In the swimming hole, the intensely Caribbean blue seawater looked like a faceted cut of an ancient glacier. Of course, a phone camera can’t capture the color.

A bit further on, there was a tall free-standing pillar of stone in the ocean that local lore has the Japanese once mistook for a giant. “They must’ve been hitting the saki pretty hard.” I said. “It’s only a legend,” June responded, practically. She had more immediate concerns: “Look at the sky!” A vast dark cloud was silently sliding in from the west. Avoiding a sudden flood of selfie snapping senior citizens, who seemed to be on a weekend bus tour, we continued around the cliff top and found that the path continued down a long slope towards the beach. We were soon pelted with slow and freezing rain. If we’d either of us thought to bring our umbrellas, they would have been useless since the gusts were so strong.

A coffee shop by the trail stairs had a garden full of questionable statuary, from granite sisters linking arms back-to-back to French-kissing koi. The proportions of those two pieces were all wrong. But I did like another stone image: a large disembodied hand playing a gigantic saxophone. It didn’t really go with the two Randolph Rose bronzes nearby of children playing leapfrog and jumping rope, though.

Next to the shore, the wind flung the flurries at us horizontally, head-on, which chapped our faces and turned June’s long, fine hair into a violent snarl of witchy tangles. My scarf kept my neck warm, but my nose and chin burned from the constant exposure to the damp cold air. "I needed a large clothespin," I mumbled, holding my hood together right under lips.

Treading on the round stones along the seaside was an exercise in avoiding ankle breakage. Many people apparently had successfully traversed the ground, however, because other stones—from little pebbles small enough to skip on the surface of a pond, to big round rocks large as dinosaur eggs—were balanced everywhere on the tiniest irregularities in the cliff face on the landward side, an exercise in magical physics.

Hardy wild yellow flowers covered the ground, and the feathery tasseled tops of reeds tossed in the wind.

The colors were intense against the grey stones and water.

We stopped once at a nice restroom, where there was toilet paper and soap (as usual), but where June noticed big streaks of dried blood on the top of the electric hand dryer. We both immediately looked at the ceiling to see if there were a suspicious dark stain on the tiles, but the severed head or whatever that had dripped on the dryer was long gone.

The fairy lights festooning coffee shops by the sea brightened as the darkness and cold intensified. The potted chrysanthemums on the fences were frostbitten. June’s feet hurt. My right arm ached—in the press of the weather, I had resorted to my old poor posture of thrusting my chin forward like a cow-catcher to clear my tracks, and the resulting pressure on my nerve was painful. We passed the now-shuttered 9-oz Burger building (it shut down a couple of weeks ago, inexplicably, and sadly, since it was the only place that served decent hamburgers hereabouts), and we slowly trudged the kilometer up a hill to eMart. No taxis responded to our numb waves—most were already in service, and the two or three that were actually available probably couldn’t see us stumbling along on the unlit sidewalk.

From eMart we rode a bus back to town, where I overindulged on sweet and sour pork at the Chinese restaurant. I still managed to approximate a military jog on the way home—full stomach or not, I was too tired and too cold to care about anything but getting into a hot shower as soon as possible. Other creatures, too, were trying desperately to keep warm: a mass of eels in the front corner of a lighted glass tank outside one restaurant were twisted into a huge immobile Gordian knot, coal black. I half expected to see the glowing red eyes of Medusa shining out from underneath, they were so still. Like Sam McGee, they’ll probably only feel alive once they’ve been dropped into the boiling pots that inevitably await them.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Korean Quiddities, Including Cuisine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moonpies & Manuscripts

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 09, 2017

From The Base To The Sacred

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Bugs In The Cold

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 04, 2017

Class Parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathing Bliss & Coffee Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Good Housekeeping

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Happy Belated Thanksgiving

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

You Are What You Eat?

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

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

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017


I thought I was immune to most Korean cultural differences, or at least able to cope silently, but I couldn’t suppress an audible gasp of shock this afternoon at a late lunch hosted by the local church elders for newcomers like me.

We were seated at a long row of picnic tables on the plastic-enclosed porch of a restaurant overlooking the ocean. It’s gotten quite chilly here in the last few days, and though a big heater was warming the porch, many people left their coats buttoned. First, the restaurant owners brought out big brown earthenware cauldrons of boiling broth with whole chickens (minus the head, feathers and innards) bobbing under stacks of fresh chives. They put these on little gas stoves in the center of the tables, one for every three people, next to a selection of standard side dishes—kimchi, spicy bean sprouts, spiced fresh tofu, fried tofu strips, anchovies, etc. Several people handed out utensils and poured up water (Koreans don’t usually drink more than one small cup during a meal, unlike Americans like me, who drink even more than usual to cope with the local seasonings). The blessing was said and the last of the people were stepping over the benches to seat themselves when the restaurant owner approached each cauldron in succession with a large white plate, dropping the contents—fresh abalone and a large octopus—into the boiling liquid.

The octopus was still alive.

It writhed, clinging onto the hot sides of the pot in front of me, trying to escape. One of my fellow diners cheerfully seized the creature with a pair of metal tongs and forced it under until it stopped struggling, and the pale body turned rosy and the thin tips of the long, fat tentacles curled into painfully tight spirals. The creature was then efficiently chopped up into bite-sized pieces using the ever-present table scissors. The inside was bright white.

I ate the chicken, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat any of the octopus. The rice in the soup was tinted pink.

I may have mentioned already in a previous post that they have octopus-ink bread here at one of the local coffee shops—at first glance, it looks like marbled chocolate and vanilla, and then you notice upon closer inspection that the “chocolate” is actually a really dark green. It doesn’t taste particularly odd, and Jeju people consider it quite healthy. I prefer chocolate, though.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Strange Dreams, Pleasant Company

It's a terrible thing when your apartment smells like donuts at 4 AM. All you can think of is, "I really, really want a donut. A deep-fried, chocolate glazed donut." Except deep-fried stuff upsets my stomach, if I eat any more sweets I will have a permanent donut around my middle, and there are no proper donuts to be had at 4 AM in South Korea. The local Dunkin' keeps bankers' hours. And the pre-packaged pastries at the CU are just sad.

There was no reasonable explanation for the donut aroma. It was likely due to the same subconscious mischief that caused me to dream that strands of my hair were encased in Caribbean blue pistachio jello. I also dreamed that I was half-asleep and talking to my mother on the phone about a fender-bender in a parking garage at an unnamed airport. In my dream I'd been offered scrap value for my car on the spot and declined, my car had been hauled away and impounded, and I'd forgotten about it for months, with the consequence that I now owed vastly more in impound fees than the vehicle was worth. I also dreamed I was taking a shower and people kept abruptly walking into the shared bathroom, while I attempted to hide behind the mostly translucent shower curtain and wash the jello out of my hair. It was not a restful night.

Tomorrow I hope to arrange to meet a Russian artist who is also an avid animal rescuer--she's a friend of my British former coworker. I spent half an hour this evening watching Edouard the stripey adolescent orange cat bouncing under and around the edges of my skirt while I made awkward small talk with his master and swigged a strawberry yogurt smoothie. I need more feline time. And I would really like to take some concrete steps towards getting my children's story series about a particularly winsome Russian cat illustrated and into print. I still haven't heard anything about the fate of Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands. How much longer do I have to wait for good news?

My discouragement and loneliness was nicely offset this evening by three friendly female colleagues coming over for snacks after work. It was a direct answer to prayer, as I had been wandering the dark and rainy streets after my smoothie and silently lamenting my lack of energy and social life. The fact that so many businesses that are usually open later were already shuttered for the evening reflected my feelings of isolation and boredom. The ladies' smiling company was like warmth and sunshine--I hope they'll come over again soon! But before they do, I need to buy more cheese.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Features, Fish & Fabric of Korean Life

The Korean Peninsula looks like a westward-facing silhouette of the face of character actor Brion James as Leon Kowalski in the original Blade Runner movie—scruffy bearded, with deeply hooded eyes, and mouth agape in dumb disbelief (or a howl of frustration), a splash of either sweat or blood falling from the long chin. The blood, sweat, or tear is the island of Jeju, where I live.

Wednesday last week I walked to HomePlus for milk and Swiss Miss—I was buying the latter for my fifth grade advanced class, who were supposed to read the scary stories they had team-written (the hot chocolate was a hit; the stories weren’t as successful). Across from the store is a large elementary school. At 2 PM there was long uninterrupted line of yellow hakwon minivans waiting to collect students—all the small school buses were identical except for the logos which indicated the assortment of academies (English, music, martial arts) they represented. I suppose it beats the American parental car line in some respects, but it indicates another half-day of schooling for the young students.

On my latest Olle trail hike, I was struck by how many water treatment plants—long low buildings covered in heavy evergreen-colored plastic fabric that muffled the sound of roaring water inside—there seemed to be along the coast. Mark told me that they are in fact fish farms. All those flounder and eels swimming in the tanks outside local restaurants are not ocean-caught as I had assumed. The big fleshy-pink shellfish sliding along the glass water cases are likewise commercially grown. Fish farms occupy some of the most attractive real estate on the southern shore of the island—the industry took off in the 1980s, after the collapse of the banana plantations which had been a major cash crop, before developers realized that hotels and other buildings could capitalize on the views. At least some of the farms are owned by the huge conglomerates which dominate the national economy: some had the eMart logo on the signs.

Dark green and blue woven synthetic fabric covers not only the fisheries, but also many of the tangerine packing plants here. It’s pulled and stitched tight over the curved buildings, a heavy skin that muffles sound and light. Jeju people use natural and manmade cloth in many other novel ways. The rotating drums on concrete trucks here are laced into tight cement-colored canvas corsets. Scaffolding on buildings under construction is festooned with ruffles of sky blue scrim to prevent debris from falling onto people’s heads, and the ground from which pavement has been torn is usually covered with blankets to prevent mud from being tracked hither and yon. In previous posts I’ve already mentioned the thick hemp matting that is laid down over many of the local walking trails, cushioning the feet and preventing erosion. And all Korea still uses big swatches of solid-colored satin to wrap gift boxes—why bother with unrecyclable ribbons and single-use paper when knotting up a simple opaque cloth will do?

One thing that’s remarkable to me is how fast construction and reconstruction proceeds here. The Baskin Robbins down the street from my house was open for business until almost midnight one day, and by mid-morning of the next the store had been professionally gutted by workmen, and the only indication of its former life was the sign that remained on the front. And that, too, quickly disappeared. I’m a bit bummed—I did not go often, but I did like to walk down occasionally for a scoop, and now the closest ice cream store is half a mile away, and not as nice as this one. That's definitely one of those First World problems...oh dear, a kilometer for an ice cream cone?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Musical & Medical Equipment

Maxwell has a vintage Technics SL-D1 turntable. That turntable has some of my happy childhood memories wrapped like a thread around the spindle. Daddy bought ours when we were still living in middle Georgia, when I was five. He played his Russian records on it. He played the Michael Jackson Thriller album on it. He played Segovia, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and other classical composers on it. And, every Fourth of July, he played our John Phillip Sousa records on it, cranked up to maximum volume, the bass so strong the walls, the windows, and our blood vibrated with the sound. I listened to Willy Nelson's Stardust over and over, flipping the big thin black disk and carefully dropping the needle just inside the grooved edge. The split silver and charcoal design on the side of the plate spun into a mesmerizing blur, and a scratchy bumping came out of the speakers before and after the music played. Daddy changed the stereo system only a few years before his death--the turntable and all the records ended up in one of my closets and stayed there until we were cleaning up the house for sale. My brother Nate took it to Atlanta. I doubt he still has it. For all I know, Maxwell's turntable could really be ours--the key evidence would be Daddy's SSN carved into the bottom, as he used to do with all the family valuables in the age before the internet and wholesale identity theft.

Of course, this sentimental encounter with my childhood sent me home to YouTube for hours of Michael Jackson and other Eighties videos. I should be writing about a Chinese author (because I'm in South Korea, my contract employer seems to assume I know all about Asian subjects--everything about this author is in Chinese, so even with Google Translate it's taking me a while to cobble together basic information), but I'm still listening to Cyndi Lauper and Jackson--that man wrote and sang an incredible number of songs! And what a great performer, even with his ever-shrinking nose and paling skin. I'd only ever watched the Thriller video before; he had amazing stage presence.

June and I went to the city's best cake shop today after a late lunch of udon. In  the curved glass case was a special confection for Pepero Day, chocolate cake layered with cream, topped with big dark chocolate shavings, and fenced with assorted Pepero--strawberry, cookies and cream, green tea, etc. I got a piece to go with my glass cup of hot jasmine tea. It was delicious. Perched atop the artfully swirled stack of paper napkins on a side table was what resembled a giant seal for making wax impressions. I lifted the heavy thing by its wooden handle and saw that the thick round steel disk was smooth on the bottom. What was it? Later, when I stopped by Maxwell's shop to get a takeaway smoothie, I observed him using the same curious implement. It's for tamping coffee grounds into the basket of an espresso machine portafilter so that their level surface will absorb the hot water evenly. We agreed that in case of attack, both it and the portafilter would made excellent weapons.

On the wall of his shop, behind the counter, is a device that looks a lot like an antique anesthesia machine, only it's missing the rubber bulb for manual ventilation. When I was eleven, Daddy took me on a medical mission trip. When we arrived in the Podunk town in southern Jamaica, he looked at the hospital equipment in horror, saying he hadn't seen anything that antique since medical school. There were tall rusty cylinders of oxygen and other gasses lying in the weeds outside the operating theater--the team had to hook them up to see which had anything in them. Daddy was always resourceful, and he managed to get the old machines to work; I remember watching him carefully squeezing the rubber bulb, "breathing" for the unconscious patients in the crowded operating theater, where the surgeons were performing two procedures elbow to elbow (there were two rooms, and each had two operations proceeding simultaneously). I asked Maxwell what his device did--it's a water purifier, so his espresso machine and other equipment don't develop mineral scale.

Koreans believe in replaceable gas cylinders--every business and many homes have battered metal tubes of gas hooked to the outside, tucked into spaces between, behind, or underneath the buildings. My apartment building doesn't have a central gas tank, but instead individual ones for each apartment. And here in Korea they also have cylinders, not kegs, of beer--I saw a delivery truck filled with them. Beer is the beverage of choice to accompany chicken. June orders chicken (without the beer) all the time, and I'd been wondering why until last Sunday, when I went to her tiny efficiency for lunch and an afternoon of relaxing jigsaw-puzzle assembly. I was stuffed to bursting from the midday meal, but immediately started salivating at the aroma of roast meat that drifted up enticingly from the restaurant downstairs. I'd be hungry all the time if I lived in her building.


Before he enrolled in medical school, my cousin (he who died in Peru earlier this year) worked in Spain as an English teacher. The last month he was in the country he spent hiking the northern route of El Camino de Santiago, seeing the Spanish coastline countryside, and meeting an assortment of entertaining international wanderers like himself. On Saturday, I met a woman who had also hiked El Camino, and had been inspired by the experience to create the Olle trail system by which pedestrians can circumnavigate Jeju.

As with most good ideas, the olle system seems so natural to me and other visitors that I had presumed it had been in place for scores of years. It turns out, it is only a decade old, and the brainchild of this one lady, a former political journalist who had been born and raised on the island, but who, like many, had gone away for university and a career. She told me that at age 50 she had decided that she wanted to do something different with her life (to her mother’s horror—the older woman could not understand why her daughter would leave a successful and lucrative job to do something that paid nothing), and she decided to return to the island and create the trails (despite the system’s Spanish inspiration, “olle”, rather than a bullfighting crowd’s encouragement to the matador, means “lane” in the local Jeju dialect). And, according to one of my students, whom I encountered as we were hiking, she met a lot of local resistance to the idea in the beginning—people didn’t want strangers trekking on or alongside their land. But in the ten years since the first olle trail’s creation, local attitudes toward the system have completely reversed, as it has brought unforeseen economic benefits: coffee shops and pensions and other small enterprises have sprung up along the trails, and now people beg to have the routes near them.

Saturday a week ago was the last day of the annual International Olle Festival (the “international” bit was supplied by me and three other foreigners among the hundreds and hundreds of Koreans, all kitted out in bright outdoor clothing like REI catalog models), and took place along Olle 4, from Namwon Port to Pyoseon Haevichi Beach. Albert and his sidekick Mark had invited me to go with them, and we set out walking about 10:30. We finished the course when the sun was setting about 6 PM, at a cluster of uniform white tents flanking a bandstand, from which a husky-voiced singer was belting out James Brown’s “I Feel Good.”

We’d stopped for lunch at a midpoint along the 12-mile trek, at a school where the sunny soccer pitch was full of hiking groups sitting on the close-cropped grass and eating bibimbap out of metal bowls. You had to pre-order the main course, and Albert had considered it too expensive, opting to buy several Styrofoam trays of kimbap instead (the wind was fierce, and I had to chase a getaway tray across the field, and later watched a napkin and other items take wing). You could buy makeoli and sweet potato pancakes outright, though, so the three of us split a bottle and a plateful. I rented three pairs of metal chopsticks for 100W (about 10 cents) each, and we drank the makeoli out of metal bowls, then carried our washables and recycling over to  the collection point. Plastic was being tossed into a gigantic black container shaped like a flower pot, five feet high and at least that broad.

I saw my first Kdrama star in the flesh! It was someone I recognized immediately: Jung In-Gi, a character actor who has been in at least nine series I’ve watched. He was sitting on a folding chair just a few meters away, playing the guitar with a younger bleach-haired fellow, and singing a song about hyenas, complete with animal noises. I would have liked to have gotten a picture with him, but I was too intent on lunch (and not embarrassing myself in front of the camera which was taking my “token foreigner” picture) to try, and by the time I’d eaten he’d been replaced by a young musical group and had vanished. He was thereby spared from my adjumma-age fangirling.

The mid-fortyish Mark himself, otherwise a nice guy, behaves not a little like the typical male kDrama character in some ways. He’s subjected me to wrist-grabbing—“c’mon, let’s do this!—and Saturday he also physically moved me out of what he considered to be unfeminine situations (walking right next to the road, for example). I’ve discovered I HATE this. It’s incredibly condescending, no matter how well-meant. If you want to be gallant, do it in an unnoticeable way that doesn’t interfere with my personal agency. Ask me where I want to walk. Don’t crowd my personal space. Simply offer help—if I need it, I’ll be happy to accept it. I pettishly retaliated to his chauvinistic behaviors by treating him exactly the same way—I moved him over (grabbing the loop on his backpack and pulling) from the roadside several times, when he was arguably too close to cars or bicycles--considerably closer than I had been earlier, I might add, and distracted by looking at his phone as well. I don’t know that he grasped the larger implications of my actions.

Despite the bright sun and clear skies, it was cool all day, and when the sun went down I zipped up my coat and pulled on my leather gloves. Thankfully, Albert had forewarned me that it was going to be chilly. Given my overdressing for my Dulegil hike the previous fortnight, I would have gone to the opposite extreme and been woefully underdressed for this one.

The leafy citrus orchards are full of bright orange fruit, and at one point Mark hopped down a low stone wall and retrieved a newly fallen tangerine (you shouldn’t pick, but you can pick up) from the ground. It was cold and fresh and delicious. My dad told me that we he was growing up in Florida he could walk outside and pick fresh oranges—now I know what this feels and tastes like.
It was so restfully quiet on the trail. The sea itself was as flat and unperturbed as a pond. The ocean-roar came from the swish of the wind behind us as it jostled the needles of short shore-side green pine trees and tossed the soft creamy fronds of the tall reeds. The ocean was silent, stirred only by gentle currents underneath the surface. We saw several haenyeo at work, their signature orange floats bobbing a hundred meters or more from shore. At one point, a round sweet faced woman wearing an old fashioned bonnet tied under her chin and a thick black rubber diving suit passed us on a motorbike. Many of these ladies are middle-aged, even elderly, but they still pick their way deftly across the rocks and wade into the water with their knives and nets to pull food from the sea.

Although there are (exceptionally clean) public toilets along the olle trail (the ones by the sea are programmed to play classical music from the moment you open the door to go in), as was to be expected, the nearest ladies’ room after the lunch location was packed. Albert graciously kept an eye out for alternatives, and we happened upon a building that was being renovated into a café. There was a vintage white Jaguar parked out front, and the owner cheerfully allowed me to used the men’s room, which alone probably cost more than my apartment. Such nice fixtures. And a choice of hand soap. In the café, I spotted an exquisite carved oak breakfront cabinet set with beveled glass mirrors and commented on it. The owner had lived in California until 2003 (apparently he’d done well there, or after, since besides the car, the bathroom, and the cabinet there was a shiny big Harley, with custom saddlebags, parked inside near the bar), and he and I chatted for a while. The guys admired an old German Army helmet (it looked almost exactly like my Swiss Army helmet, but this was actually from World War II), and I noticed the set of three heavy grey metal and glass nautical lanterns, which the owner casually admitted to having had imported from a dealer in England (there are cheaper, less attractive versions on 1stdibs right now for a minimum of $750 each). The man must have money to burn. He did have a Georgia license plate on the wall, which with the other vintage accessories made me feel right at home—it looked a bit like one of the estate sales I sorely miss. He says he plans to open sometime before Christmas. I shall have to return once he does.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Spelling Bee

Today was the fall festival at my academy. For the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, there were a series of “Golden Bell” style group challenges after an individual winner spelling bee. The winner’s class was awarded points for the triumph, but as many were to be had by the class whose spelling-challenged members had spent the rest of the bee diligently making “Thankful Leaves”: construction paper maple leaves on which they had written things they were thankful for. The class that won the most points from these and the Bell tasks got boxes of Pepero as a prize. Pepero Day is November 11.

The seventh graders had a locked-room style series of challenges that involved logic and word puzzles and finding hidden clues. My girls (I was in charge of a subset of the seventh grade classes I have at test prep time) won a large pizza, which they consumed in about two minutes flat.

I had planned to go out with the rest of the teachers after work, but I had some time before the others finished and went home. And then, in classic middle-aged person fashion, I didn’t want to go out again once I had my shoes off, had supped on pieces of the second and third graders’ leftover Trader Joe’s gingerbread turkey kits (a visitor had brought them from the US for the occasion), and had done some editing. I have regretted not joining them since—I went to bed and slept for only three hours, then came awake and have been alert now for four. I had planned to go hiking tomorrow with my new coworker, but he forgot that his climbing instructor had already scheduled an early morning practice. However, some of my adult students also had asked me to go walking with them, so I messaged Albert about the late cancellation and asked if I could still join the group. We’ll see. He said it was “early.” How much so, I don’t know.

My student Jeff is resting up in a Seoul hospital. In typical American fashion, I was highly concerned about the hospitalization; after all, he does have pancreatic cancer! But my other students and Maxwell (to whose shop I rushed, thinking he might have more information) assured me that it was nothing serious, that he’d just overexerted himself—everyone expects him to be back here in a few days. Because Koreans work so hard, and have basic universal public healthcare, they don’t regard hospitalization as a big deal—nor is it that big an expense—but rather a fairly common recourse for exhaustion. It’s not that unusual, I gather, for people to check themselves in for a pajama-clad break from the daily hurly-burly. Of course, there are truly ill people in hospital, too. And given his diagnosis, I am surely not unreasonable in expressing worry about Jeff. Maxwell just listened to my disjointed jabbering with equanimity, fixed me a cup of thyme tea (which I immediately spilled, so he calmly brewed me another), and remarked in his usual unruffled way that in a recent text the patient had assured him he was fine and had used a smiling emoji, so he was truly OK.

My classes are changing slightly come Monday. I am going to be with the accelerated fifth graders again, trading in my slow group to the curriculum coordinator. The balance is shifting, too. Some days I will have seven teaching hours, others I will have only three. I hope I can rest well on the light days.

It’s finally gotten cool enough to justify a coat here, though I’ve been wearing one, and a scarf besides, for a couple of weeks just because it was the end of October, for crying out loud, so it ought to be cold! Certain sartorial standards must be observed. My cough and runny nose have mostly cleared, and my voice is no longer a growling bass. The gauges on my dehumidifiers and my own skin tell me that the water content of the air has dropped, and altogether the atmosphere is quite pleasant. The sunshine on these shorter days feels like a caress rather than a burning torch, and I’ve hung up both my parasols for the winter. But I have somehow, somewhere mislaid my hat, so I am in the process of searching for a new one.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Drawing A Blank

Recently, there have been many days when I wonder whether I am even barely competent in my teaching role, particularly when I am dealing with less gifted classes. As my mother pointed out, it takes a smart teacher to get through to duller students, and I've been despairing of my functional intelligence, as they seemed to absorb nothing, but instead gaze at me with glazed eyes in mute incomprehension. Then, there are other moments when, despite the gnashing of juvenile and early  adolescent teeth over worksheets and actual assignments (rather than games, which are much begged for), I know that some information, no matter how rudimentary, has trickled through the cracks in their carapaces of confusion and lodged itself in their brains.

And then there are the intense bouts of loneliness. It's finally occurred to me that June has been dealing with something along the same lines, but she has been much less vocal and demonstrative than I. She is a person who always puts others first, and is of a retiring nature, and so the extremity of her condition didn't filter quickly through my own thick cloud of self-absorption. I'm not sure what I can do to help, however--I've gone home every night this week and simply collapsed. Knocking back shots of Vitamin C drinks has only allowed me to cope so much with the waning daylight, cooler temperatures, and fresh serving of debilitating germs so kindly shared with me by my students.

On the other hand, there's nothing like sheer exhaustion and a bad cold to curb the romantic cravings of an old maid's heart. I just can't be bothered to walk over and admire Maxwell's rugged profile over a cup of tea. I'm just too tired. I've got two entries to compose for the academic publisher this weekend, and more to edit. My ears are stuffy and my nose is running. I'm pickled to the gills on NyQuil, and pushing through the school day (afternoon/evening?) is a one-hour-at-a-time pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps come-on-honey-you-got-this sort of effort.

A new little boy has joined my phonics class. We're all the way to STUV and he hadn't learned ABC as of Wednesday. However, he does seem to be an enthusiastic sort, and one of the precocious girls has taken it upon herself to mentor him, so he should be able to catch up in short order. I'm ready and willing to take advantage of peer-to-peer teaching when it's available and useful!

My adults continue to treat me with extreme kindness. One of the men went to Japan with his wife and brought me back a packet of cantaloupe-flavored KitKats. Surprisingly good. The whole class gave me a gift certificate to HomePlus for Chuseok, which was a boon as my dairy habit continues unabated. Roxanne went with me to the hospital Tuesday morning for more sleeping medication, which should see me through the short term, at least. I do wish I had someone to walk or hike with on a regular basis--June's been having some leg and foot pain, so she can't commit to excursions. Also (and I am sure that she feels similarly) it would be nice to have someone else to talk to.

More than a month ago, stinging from sticker shock from visiting the painting exhibition on Art Street, I went out and bought two drawing pads--what I can't afford, but can make, I ought to make. Both drawing pads are still in plastic on my desk, slowing sinking under successive layers of sediment: medicine bottles, makeup, half-dirty shirts, etc. I need to dig them out and actually use them for their intended purpose. Sunsets here have been stunning purple and orange affairs lately, with the palm trees silhouetted black against the darkening sky. And electric signs in foreign languages always enhance ordinary nighttime cityscapes.  Perhaps when I'm not craving a hot shower and soft sheets so earnestly, I will sit down and sketch. Meantime, I'm following June's advice and taking "pictures" with my brain, so that when I'm a little old lady who can't see properly, I can remember views that my aged eyeballs aren't able to register. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Health, Brain Fitness, and Hiking

My sole objection to my fancy liquid bath soap is that it strongly resembles the slurry of blood and fat that oozes into the pan when one is cooking a boneless skinless chicken breast. It’s a deep semitransluscent orange red, with a thick head of opaque pale yellow stuff floating on top, and though it smells divine and lathers richly, it looks disgusting when I squeeze it onto my bath sponge. And no, it’s not expired, and it’s also not made from animal products. Perhaps your average vegetarian wouldn’t make the connection, but it reminds the carnivorous me of the unpleasant pudge lurking underneath my own plucked chicken legs.

Maxwell got his cat neutered. I went into the shop for a cup of lavender tea Monday afternoon and was impressed how quickly he’d acted on my advice. I think the operation was harder for human than animal (as the small fuzzy beast was running around happily); June had spent two hours at the shop Saturday and later reported that Maxwell remarked how guilty he’d felt, as he would hate it if someone had done the same to him. “Is Maxwell going around peeing in the corners, fighting over lady cats, and fathering litters of street kittens that will either starve to death, get run over by cars, or be put down in the shelter?” I muttered rhetorically, though I do sympathize with his identification with his pet. One of my colleagues told me Jeju has the highest animal euthanasia rate in South Korea. Little Eduardo should have a much longer, healthier, and more peaceful life this way.

Employers can access health records of their workers (and applicants) here. It’s no wonder the suicide rate is astronomical, if you cannot quietly get help—getting treatment for mental issues hereabouts is much more taboo than in the US, where it is much more a cause for shame, social ostracism and legal restrictions than it ought to be. If you are not actively harming other people, your mental condition is nobody’s business, frankly, except those who care about and for you, who treat you like a human being even at those times when you may not be capable of treating yourself like one. I am grateful that my employers are not bothered by my medical situation, and in fact kindly released me from the obligation of attending the weekly faculty meeting today when I texted in about having a migraine. I slept for two hours, dosed up on aspirin, and felt completely refreshed, which made a huge difference in my afternoon classes. Last Friday, the end of a thoroughly sleep-deprived week, was left an unpleasant and quickly fading memory.

Saturday night I actually got a great night’s rest—but I had gone to extremes to tire myself out, hiking more than 12 miles on Hallasan’s Doneko Trail. According to my pedometer, I also climbed more than 100 stories’ worth of elevation – all rocks! Ed, the new teacher from Oregon, Nell, and her boyfriend and I got to the trail head at 9:15, and finally made it to another paved road where we hailed a taxi a little before sunset at 6. The weather was perfect—cool, no bugs (a fair number of large spiders had to be avoided, though, and we saw one short, thick-bodied snake with a pointed nose), and sunny. I will never go on a hike again without a trekking cane. It helped me so much—not only when clambering up steep hillsides, but also when I was staggering over random loose cobblestones that occasionally served as the trail. I walk like an inebriated salaryman on flat pavement, so I looked like a two-legged cat with severe cerebellar hypoplaysia on the uneven and unstable ground. Ed took some good and intensely colored pictures of our excursion—the whole day, we encountered a total of six other people, all heading in the opposite direction. The only noises were birdsong and the wind in the trees (whose leaves have only just begun to blush)...

And the sound of me embarrassing myself. I alleged it was Moses’s staff (it was Aaron’s—the brothers were together, but I got the rod owner wrong!) that swallowed the Egyptian magicians’ staffs (one of my companions was raised by a relative who was a Jehovah’s Witness, and he recalled the Old Testament stories; I’m ashamed that it had been so long since I’d read Exodus I got the detail wrong). At one juncture, Nell’s boyfriend mistook my description of his ancestral pirate with a cutlass between his teeth for a swashbuckling privateer with an “atlas” between his teeth. Which is a rather dissimilar image, and gives a new interpretation to the term “scurvy dog.” While we were sitting on the front steps of a brightly painted, but padlocked temple at the end of the trail, Nell became fascinated by the progress of a determined ant hauling the half-desiccated body of a worm across the paving stones. “There is nothing on earth that works harder than a Korean ant,” her sweetheart observed. It had almost reached its nest with its plunder in tow when when began descending the mountain. And at that point, the air was finally chilly enough to make the longjohns I’d been sweating in all day comfortable!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Case Of Miseries

Sometimes being alone just gets you right in the gut. Being tired doesn’t help matters. I’ve been coming home every night immediately after work, eating supper, taking a shower, and collapsing into bed. I’m still waking each morning feeling frazzled, as usually I have had a bout of insomnia in the wee hours. In addition to my teaching load (which resumes full force tomorrow morning) I’ve completed one editing assignment and am in the midst of another—far from overwhelming, these latter tasks have been a real psychological salve. Although there is nothing like hard work to prevent too much despondency, my whole outlook for the last week has been Decidedly Grim. My sixth graders shouldn’t have cause to discuss the possibility of their immediate northern neighbor and the US getting into an active nuclear exchange, for one. For another, despite the publisher’s having expressed his interest in the TMTF manuscript, there’s no assurance yet that it’s going to be accepted. And, finally, I haven’t received any subsequent indication that my last Friday evening’s suggestion about Scrabble playing was met with anything beyond perfunctory cordiality—if there were genuine interest, some message surely would have established an acceptable date and time. Given that I’ve been too tired to venture more than three blocks from my house for the past 4-5 days, this should be a relief, but I imagine that if I knew my company were craved, I might be able to gin up more energy!

If I ever get a book contract, I think I will probably greet it with the same enthusiasm with which typical people welcome a marriage proposal. The publisher I approached five weeks ago is still considering whether the manuscript is marketable. In the email I read today, he said I should hear something by December. I am earnestly praying that this effort won’t end with the literary equivalent of “he’s just not that into you.” If I cannot be lucky in love, I hope to be a successful writer. Frankly, it would be nice to find satisfaction in both areas, but no one’s beating down my door with offers.

I hope that the long hike planned for Saturday with Nell, her boyfriend, and June (provided her feet aren’t aching too sorely) will give me a fresh perspective and plenty of the exercise I’ve missed in the last fortnight. I walked 46 miles the week I was in Hong Kong, and I slept beautifully each night there. In the ten days since, I have walked less than 13 miles. This, too, may account for my despondent mood. I should also pray that I find a daily walking partner—I get bored wandering the same pattern of streets, and would venture farther afield only if I had someone to talk to.