I am like a homing pigeon. I rarely get turned around. My friend and colleague Amy, however, is considerably less comfortable navigating. As we left the Chinese restaurant at 10 PM last night by a different route than we’d arrived, she confessed, “I have a terrible sense of direction. I don’t know where I am. I mean, I know where I am at this moment, but I don’t know how to get away from here.” At which point we both started tittering on the street, even surrounded as we were by groups of chain-smoking men, who glanced at us curiously. We didn’t have any trouble getting to the coffee shop a mile away for cups of post-prandial hot chocolate. Today it has rained all day, so I’ve been forced to stay in and struggle with some of my postponed projects.
I guffawed Thursday night at the end of my last class. I did wait until the students had left to really let go, though I couldn’t restrain a few chuckles while they were still in their seats. I’m trying to get my sixth graders to recognize parts of speech; in particular that pronouns must have antecedents. Each short unit we read has a theme. This one was on homes in hot places, and the article briefly described subterranean houses in Tunisia: “They have more holes at the bottom that are used for store rooms….” “What is ‘they’?” I demanded of the class, pointing to the word. They started calling out all sorts of things, but the loudest and most persistent was “Tunisian people.” “Tunisian people don’t have any more holes in their bottoms than you do,” I pointed out, but this remark sailed right past their uncomprehending little heads. It was the end of the period and I gave up at that point.
I’ve had only a couple of nights of insomnia in the last month. Last Thursday night I was so tired: not only did my entire face sag, the underskin netting on my whole body felt like it was giving out. However, my nerves were still throbbing at a fever pitch that wouldn’t let me settle down and sleep. I tried melatonin, I tried Sonata, I tried various yoga poses, I tried eating carbs, I tried naproxen. But my bladder kept demanding to be emptied every five minutes – not that it needed to be!—in a nervous repetition of my usual pre-bed ritual. This lasted until past 10:15 in the morning. Thank God it was a holiday—Lunar New Year. It was a beautiful day outside. I hated to waste it. But by that time it had been 24 hours since I slept, and if I didn’t achieve unconsciousness, I felt I was going to burst into tears. Actually, I wished I really could burst into tears – it would have probably relaxed me to the point where I could doze off. But no such luck – I was in an emotional sober state, remarking on how my wall map of Jeju Island resembled a fried egg with a disturbingly green yolk in the middle—OK, I was crazy from lack of sleep, but calm. I wondered if maybe this is how people became morning alcoholics – they start to swill down whatever allows them to relax. But alcohol generally makes me twitchy, and I wryly considered that if I twitched any more rapidly at that point I’d look like a hummingbird. I did eventually get two hours of semi-unconsciousness.
The Korean conception of meat is not my conception of meat. Three Sundays ago, at the Korean church’s post-service meal, I eschewed a bowl of what looked like very thick cut very fat boiled bacon, preferring to limit myself to vegetable fare that I could recognize. Then a well-meaning lady came around with the bowl and a pair of chopsticks, saying that she had noticed that I hadn’t gotten any meat, and carefully placed two pieces on my plate. And there it stayed, untouched. Just because a piece of fat has been in the general vicinity of meat by sharing space in the same animal does not mean that it is magically transformed into protein. It was worse at the soup restaurant that Amy and I went to Friday a fortnight past – she ordered a bowl of soup so heavily spiced that it glowed red. The serving ladies couldn’t believe that a Westerner was eating this and kept anxiously coming back to check on her—this despite the fact that she had been to that restaurant and eaten the soup twice before. I had ordered what I hoped was the same vegetable content, but without the spice. What I got was a bowl of fat broth. It may have had a knuckle of something in it, but that was dwarfed by five large chunks of white fat. There wasn’t a shred of meat on them. The broth was bubbling furiously when it arrived at the table, steam rolling up. I considered what my options were and decided that adding most of the sliced chives and a good portion of the minced garlic that had come as side dishes were the best option. So I ended up with a decent bowl of onion soup. I just left the fat chunks sitting in a thin swill of broth at the bottom of the bowl at the end of my meal, like so many beached whales.
We’d been warned before New Year’s weekend to stock up on money and groceries, since little would be open—there was even a rumor that ATMs wouldn’t be in service! So Thursday night (before my insomnia) we went to Home+ for supplies. It was packed at almost 10 PM with people shopping, and they had specials on a lot of things (20¢ for a salad!) and several special New Years’ traditional sweets. I paid $12 for only 500g of Australian beef (real meat is quite expensive), and cooked it all day Friday wrapped up in aluminum foil with chopped carrots, broccoli, onions, and bell peppers. I don’t have an oven so I perched the foil packet on top of a metal vegetable steamer in my biggest pot, which I filled with water—basically creating a makeshift crockpot—and turned the gas flame as low as it would go. I refilled the underpot several times during the cooking process. The meal was delicious, and lasted Amy and me for two meals.
Saturday Amy and I went on a hike to the top of an oreum, which is what they call hills hereabouts. There are lots of oreumdal (hills) on Jeju, but only the one “yolk” of Hallasan. On our trek we passed the leavings of male litterbugs—green soju bottles and orange peels. We sat on top of the hill in a large concrete gazebo surrounded by a pebbled Buddhist meditation path—apparently supposed to massage your feet in some sort of holistic way if you walk on it barefoot. Nearby, in the woods between the gazebo and the Korean Broadcasting System tower, there was an impressive assortment of exercise equipment, which I prefer to think of as playground toys for seniors, since they are not weighted or adjustable, and so their value as muscle building machinery is considerably limited. But if one thinks of them as playground toys they immediately become more fun! There were contraptions to massage your back with, others that you could twist and turn on using your heels and your hips, more that you could use to do pull ups and sit ups. There was even a set of heavy duty monkeybars. Whereas I have loved jungle gyms since childhood, I have never mastered the monkeybars or been able to swing more than one or two rungs before falling off. To me, they are a concussion or a broken arm waiting to happen. But the other toys on the old folks playground were fun—and dizzying. I got off one thing that rocked me back-and-forth and felt like I was back on dry land after being onboard a ship for days: the ground rolled beneath my feet and it took a minute before I could walk straight. I’m not sure that’s a very good thing for a little old lady!
Sunday, with another Christian girl from school, we went across the island to a different church. The bus did not take the most direct route, and turned one way, then another, as it wound up and then down the mountain. It didn’t bother me so much going over on an empty stomach, but coming back about three hours after shoveling in a big Indian meal I was profoundly nauseated. Church was really good, with 70-90 people at the service, including an older Korean man who told me that he’d spent months in Roanoke, VA, back in 1979. The restrooms, though, were the first in Korea where I’ve not been able to find soap! The toilets did have heated seats and bidets built in, but I’m distinctly ambivalent about sitting directly on public toilets, much less letting them spritz my undercarriage with water from an unknown source, and so I forewent this particular amenity. The restroom at the DVD bang where we watched Il Postino after lunch had a similarly hi-tech toilet, but not enough room for the knees if you were even disposed to sit down. Clearly a woman had not been consulted on the design. A DVD bang consists of rental mini-theater rooms with big screens, surround sound and lounge chairs where you can bring your own snacks, and they are apparently quite popular among dating teenagers. We four girls (another Peace Corps friend of a friend of a friend had joined us at lunch) stopped at the CU—that’s a “CVS for You” minimart—before we climbed the stairs to look at the bang’s DVD collection. I liked Il Postino, of which I had only before seen the final five minutes.
The Indian restaurant displayed a document in English saying the restaurant was Muslim safe. It was signed by an academic associated with the local Islamic center. I imagine in a place as pork-belly-centric as Korea, it’s hard to find halal food. The lone server was a young man with beautiful faceted features who was probably a mixture of Korean and Arab/north African. I remarked to my companions that my elementary language skills might be improved by the male version of what the old European misogynists used to call “a sleeping dictionary” (their local mistresses), not that I was proposing untoward activities... One of my dinner companions reflected that she had had a Moroccan boyfriend while living in that country but they had always ended up talking in English. She also told us about her experience as an extra on the set of “Game of Thrones”—the producers paid the western extras three times what they paid the natives. She said it was fascinating, but that the experience also de-glamorized acting: various key characters had to repeat the same short scenes time and time and time again until the director felt the perfect shot had been filmed.
I had forgotten my anti-nausea wrist bands, and on the bus back across the island I pressed my wrist pressure points, but since I’m not double jointed, I couldn’t do both at the same time, and mashing one at a time didn’t seem to help matters much. I pushed my nose out the window as far as I could to gulp fresh air. At the upper elevations, there were little scrubby trees, small patches of snow in the grass by the roadside, and the rocky streams were dull with ice. Closer to the sea, the island’s beautification committee has imported and installed palm trees, in order to push the perception that Jeju is tropical. They are beautiful and I don’t think we need to fear a plague of palm trees, but one unwelcome and potentially troublesome import has been the magpies—basically large crows with white patches on their bodies and wings—which somehow made their way to the island a few years ago and are now proliferating without limit, as they have no native enemies.
I’m starting to run into people I know around town: at Emart Monday night, there were three faculty and staff from school (a teacher, the computer guru, and the housekeeper). The other evening, when Amy and I went out to Baskin-Robbins for a late night ice cream (I had green tea chocolate), one of my students was there. She didn’t actually say anything—it was her older brother who asked if I were a teacher at the hagwon while she attempted to hide. Her mother and I smiled and bobbed cordially at one another.
My evening adult conversation class ended on Tuesday. Thursday I began teaching an adult introductory English class in the morning. Thirty people were there my first day—a Korean instructor is leading it Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and I have Tuesdays and Thursdays. The two-hour class being funded by the government and is free for participants. I am quite nervous, as while it is fairly easy to carry on conversation with a small group, encouraging conversation among bigger groups is something I have to work on. Too, the skill levels of the participants (mostly female, but ranging in age from 25 to 75+) are immensely varied, from those who are thoroughly conversant in English (such as the lady from my old evening class—I was so happy to see her there!), to others who can barely introduce themselves. I went around and met everyone the first day. The vast majority consists of individuals newly arrived in Jeju—within the last five years, most of them, from Seoul or Busan. There’s even one lady from China. This is a real test of my CELTA training—I must limit my teacher talking time (TTT), one of my main instructional weaknesses!—and fill two consecutive hours without boring everyone’s socks off…