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Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Week's Highlights

CNN has sunk to featuring clickbait headlines--yesterday's title of the feature was "South Korea in Turmoil," with a subtitle that two people had died in protests. There wasn't any turmoil hereabouts--a man did start singing loudly and melodiously in the street yesterday mid afternoon, but that was the extent of any public demonstration--at the news of the unanimous decision by the constitutional court that the president should be removed from office. The two people who died in Seoul were the unfortunate victims of accidents – one had a loudspeaker dropped on his or her head, and the other was an elderly person who fell from a police van, leading me to wonder why said elderly person was climbing on the police van to begin with. Of course there have been huge demonstrations in the capital (what is fascinating to me is not only the number of Korean flags in the pictures, but also the number of American flags which are being waved simultaneously), and Jeju is to a certain extent a backwater, but the primary danger to all protesters seems to be the sheer crush of human beings rather than any particular intent to wreak havoc. In fact, the ROK's seems to be a pretty healthy democratic system – investigative journalists found out that the president was involved in corrupt activities, many people lobbied peacefully (if fervently) for her removal, and she was removed by due process. New elections are scheduled within the next two months. I'm sure the voters are pretty preoccupied with questions about who's going to be the best choice to be the new president.

I went to my first Korean wedding reception this afternoon. The wedding itself is actually not for another week, and is to take place on the mainland in Busan. But it is an island tradition to have a daylong reception from about 9:30 AM to 7 PM where anyone who is acquainted with the bride or groom drops in (when they have time) to eat a full meal and present envelopes of cash to the parents as wedding gifts. I was not acquainted with the bride, but her mother works at our school, and she had extended the invitation to all the teachers. I went with one other western teacher and two Korean teachers to the modest hall, where the door was flanked with a pair of giant flower arrangements beribboned with congratulatory messages. The bride's mother and the bride herself were both in hanbok and looked like classic beauties, while the groom shrugged awkwardly in his own traditional wear. The left side of the hall was the traditional raised wood floor with low tables, where folks could sit in their stocking feet, and the other side was equipped with western style tables and chairs. Everybody was seated on the right side, and when we sat down the servers wheeled out a vast quantity of side dishes with soup and rice. There was eel and beef and pork and kimchi and spinach with garlic and oysters and perhaps half a dozen other things I didn't recognize. What I ate was delicious but required chopstick dexterity beyond my ken. The fish and the beef had bones, and the pork had fat, and while my Korean colleagues made the process look easy, I fumbled around ungracefully. The mother of the bride brought us each a bag full of wedding favors – the best favors I've ever gotten at any wedding, actually. Inside each black plastic bag was a large container of wet wipes, and a box of powdered laundry detergent. So practical.

Then I went home and did laundry, though not with my new soap, which I carefully stored under the sink in the kitchen. Due to the heavy schedule at work and some ongoing digestive issues that had sapped my energy, over the last two weeks my house had turned into a complete mess, with once-worn clothes covering the bed so thoroughly that I had been having to wiggle underneath them to sleep. So I sorted out two large loads, including my bedsheets, and put the whites on to wash before I set out for the grocery store. I met June near the grocery and we first went to a discount (a 5,000 won or less) store where I got some needful things, including plates (I only had two before, which limited my entertaining capabilities). I bought a 1kg wedge of parmesan cheese at the grocery store and then we went back to my house to leave the refrigerated items and nosh some pastries.

Afterwards, we walked a mile or so to see a seaside waterfall. The sidewalks on the main streets were thronged with students strolling in the sunshine. Many wore their school uniforms, and I noticed that the backs of the suit coats and trousers on some of the boys were polished from hours spent in desks. This week, one of my elementary school students told me that he leaves his house at 9 AM every day and doesn't get home until 8 PM. Several other children in another of my elementary school classes were clearly feverish, with flushed cheeks and glassy eyes. Although I appreciate their parents' determination that they shouldn't be truant, these kids ought to have been at home in bed, not out sharing their germs with their classmates and with me. And how much can you really learn when you are that ill?

One of my western colleagues is a former runway model who appeared in major magazines and one of the world capital fashion weeks. I had known her for two months and never suspected, not because Cindy isn't lovely, but because that sort of career is more foreign to me than being an astronaut! So now I know both a former fashion designer and a former model, both of whom are currently teachers. Teaching is less glamorous, but certainly quite interesting, and one needn't worry about changing trends all the time. Cindy is fun and cheerful, notwithstanding a fondness for Thomas Hardy, with a tender heart for fuzzy beasts. June and I had dinner at a great Chinese restaurant last night with her and her boyfriend, who put us in stitches several times with short vignettes about odd jobs he'd held back in his native Yorkshire. Laughing became painful after I ate about twice as much as I should have--we were so hungry we'd over-ordered and most restaurants here don't have takeaway containers for dine-in customers. But I felt great after the meal, because my body had clearly needed all the vegetables and meat. I had been subsisting on carbs in an effort to pinpoint a digestive cause for my stomach ailments.

Last Sunday after church I pulled chronological rank on two unfortunate Korean men (they are both in their twenties, and old-school enough to be too polite to reject an adjumma's earnest demands) and persuaded them to have coffee (or in my case, a smoothie) while we chatted and asked questions about the other's culture. Much to my embarrassment, they insisted on paying for my snacks. The conversation ranged over the reasons for the current international popularity of English to ideas of American's impressions of Korea. One fellow said he had read that Americans thought Koreans were obstreperous because of the chant of "hwighting!" (fighting) during sports games against Japan. I told him, honestly, that I had never thought so because I knew that "fighting" meant "you/we can do it!/let's go!" Although perhaps Americans might have had that impression of Korea 15 years ago when the soccer match in question happened, a lot has changed since then. His remarks reminded me of that book I read about Korean culture that had been drawn from experience in the country 25 years ago, and how much of it appears to be outdated. Which isn't to say that there aren't profound cultural differences still--I think one reason they haven't been as noticeable to me is that my school is a sort of independent social system. I don't have any close Korean friends yet, just friendly (and kind) acquaintances, and both of us are doubtless trying to put our best foot forward in our interactions. I am also oddly insulated by my lack of language. I simply can't understand all the behind the scenes commentary that goes on, and so I operate in my own ignorant bubble. I am sure there are things that would/will drive me nuts were I to know of them. Yet for the time being I am grateful for this period of grace, however misbegotten.

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