Wednesday, June 14, 2017

7 Years

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of Daddy's death. If I were a non-Christian Korean, I would have prepared a table full of his favorite food, and genuflected in front of his portrait, if not at his gravesite itself. However as I am a Christian and not Korean, and still recovering from last weekend's insomnia, I neither cooked nor bowed, but went to bed early.

We are in the throes of the second round of test preparation for the seventh graders. I only have 11 students in each class this time, which is a blessing. They have a vocabulary quizzes at the beginning of each session, and then we launch into review of their dialogue testing books. Both of my classes are from the local girl's school, and some are sillier than others. Earlier this week I had to make one girl put away her makeup--it turned out to be her friend's, not even hers!--the full kit of which she had spread out across her desk. I confess I would rather fuss at girls about makeup application than at boys about making ribald comments.

I have 19 adult students in my English III class, and nine in my English I class. The former class members are a great group, and most have been with me since February. The latter has three old faces, and six new ones, including a retired hedge fund manager, and a coffee appraiser.

I have signed up to be on the roll at the Korean language church, and may be meeting the pastor this Sunday. I'm not exactly sure how membership works here, or if you're just clerically associated by virtue of putting your name on the list. Kristen had to translate the sign-up form for me, and will definitely have to translate the conversation when I meet the pastor. I'm learning a few new Korean words each week, but it's hardly rapid language acquisition! Again, Sunday morning people smiled at me, and little old ladies gave me some sweets. A young high school science teacher sat with me and Kristen at lunch. He was genuinely puzzled by the fact that I had walked to church on my own. It's going to be a major personal cultural adjustment for me to go to church with someone – I ran into Kristen just outside the parking lot, and so we ended up sitting together. Over the past 15+ years, I've gotten used to going to church by myself, as well as doing many other things by myself. I told him this solitary behavior wasn't an American thing, it was just a "me" thing. Perhaps actually being included as part of a group is going to be more of a shock to me than being excluded!

I am really grateful for Kristen and for the several ladies in my adult class who have asked me to hang out with them.  Saturday afternoon I went to a calligraphy museum with Roxanne and another lady, whose father-in-law was the calligrapher. None of the captions were in English, and I asked, through Roxanne, if I could perhaps help translate anything. But the super enthusiastic docent  explained that since much of the calligraphy was in Chinese characters, they were already losing a great deal of meaning being translated into Korean, and he felt that they would be removed that much further from their original intent if an attempt was made to put the captions into English. The characters were beautiful, although I could not appreciate them fully. One was a sort of life motto, which read, basically, "Eat, Sleep, and Write." I would love to have a poster of it. The majority of the museum gallery space was dedicated to a photo exhibition about the artist, who lived from 1907 to 1997, despite a fondness for cognac and cigarettes. The old gentleman looked exactly like one of those sages one imagines lurks on cloud-shrouded mountaintops, as he always wore traditional clothes and had a long white mustache and goatee that reached almost to his waist. In the last few years of his life he leaned on a natural wood cane, though his hands were smooth and youthful looking, perhaps from decades of exercise wielding calligraphy brushes. In the summertime, he wore a woven wicker cooling frame between his body and his shirt--the rattan kept the cloth from sticking to his moist skin, while the stiff collar resembled a Victorian chair back.

After the museum--at the gift shop of which the daughter-in-law gave me a silk scarf--we went out for tea, and it took some fancy footwork for me to sneak up to the cashier and insist on having my card run for everyone's snacks before my companions could beat me to it! Such a wonderful afternoon.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Slouching Towards Slovenliness

South Korea is a society with superb posture. Even the little old ladies have backs that are ramrod straight. I am learning to stand taller here, as everyone walks around with his or her shoulders thrown back commandingly, and I don't want to be the one person who's slouching.

Taxis here operate the way I always thought taxis ought to operate. They are everywhere, ready to be hailed, and when you phone for one, they show up within two minutes. None of this D.C.-area nonsense about ordering a taxi an hour or more ahead! One of the ladies in my adult class is a massage therapist, and I made an appointment for last Wednesday morning. She even gave me a face pack while she worked on my legs. I felt thoroughly relaxed. After lunch (she whipped up homemade jjajangmyeon, which I wolfed down like a competitive eater, it was so tasty) she rang for a taxi and they said they'd arrive in two minutes. They were there within 45 seconds. And the base rate is only 2800 KRW.

I have been sleeping like a log at night for weeks and weeks and weeks. It's been wonderful. And Thursday night, insomnia sucker-punched me, following up the low blow with a right hook last last night. I've slept for less than seven hours in 48. I do not like waking up at 3 AM. In the wee hours today, I caught up on a bit of Kdrama watching (The Best Hit--the first two hours, which are all that have aired thus far, were hilarious, stuffed with cameos and meta references).

I was really encouraged on Thursday evening by getting to have dinner with a woman and her daughter from Atlanta. The guy who brings me tea in my adult class runs several Airbnb apartments, and he contacted me Wednesday to see if I'd be interested in meeting them. We went out immediately after I left work for shabu shabu, and talked for hours. It was so good. The mom, a newish Christian, works in healthcare, and her high-school age daughter, who is a longtime Kdrama and Kpop fan (she described herself as having practically hyperventilated when BTS won the Billboard Music award a week or so ago), are on an almost month-long Korean tour, covering most of the country. They've had a great trip, and I was impressed both by their enthusiasm for travel and by their kind willingness to listen to me ramble on. I was a bit confused when I had first heard the mom's voice on the phone, because she sounds exactly like my aunt (who also spent years living Atlanta, and works in healthcare…), though she's a generation younger. It was refreshing getting to talk about Christian things, and the pluses and minuses of living in Korea as a foreigner, with people who are genuinely interested. They were a Godsend.

I wish the dishwashing fairy would make a visit to my house. On Tuesday, which was a holiday--and praise God it rained all day, because I was behind on editing, and that gave me time and inclination to catch up!--I attempted to clarify the beeswax that my colleague's parents had given us the previous Friday. It was absolutely full of bee debris. All of my pots and pans are now speckled and smeared with wax and apiary dirt. I hate not having a dishwasher. We're planning to have a student camp in the fall, and one of the little projects that has been floated is having the students make candles. I had thought that the beeswax would be perfect for the project. But I ultimately had shockingly little clean wax once all was said and done, and half a week later I still have a sink full of dirty dishes. Maybe that's the reason I can't sleep.

Or, maybe it's my fifth graders. Every other month, my school asks the teachers to choose one class from among the assortment that we are teaching to create a textbook-based skit to be entered in a nationwide speech competition. Last month was the first time I had done this. I carefully composed a script--geared toward the personalities of the children involved, and approved by the curriculum coordinator and my Korean co-teacher--and gave it to the fifth grade kids. We read through it. I had them practice it. I impressed upon them that they needed to memorize their lines. I told them weeks ahead of time when we would be filming, and got them to bring props. I collected more than an hour and 20 minutes of footage for a four-minute video. The one girl was the only one to commit her lines firmly to memory. One of the boys almost, almost had his lines down. Two other boys were less conversant in their roles (their intonation was terrible, and despite my physically moving them into the camera frame, and telling them where to look and how to act, they just didn't get it down, or loosen up), but the remaining kid hadn't bothered in the least, and ended up reading his lines off a paper on the floor. The video, which my curriculum coordinator spent more than three hours editing (making a silk purse out of a sow's ear!) was good, given the content I had sent her, but not good enough to be entered into the competition. And, I found out yesterday, not really good enough to be presented to the children's parents. I think my fatigue made me even more vocally unhappy about the prospect of having to re-shoot than I would have been; venting to the school director's daughter, I described the sensation of working with that unmotivated group of kids as akin to pouring money down a sinkhole. My next group of speech contest students are much more enthusiastic about the effort. They are one of my my sixth-grade classes, and I have already written a script tailored to them and had them read through it and suggest amendments. And a pair of them waylaid me in the hall yesterday to ask excitedly if the changes had been made. I am giving them weeks and weeks to learn their lines, and no special props are needed.

I've started my round of daily adult classes, and had 19 people show up for my first advanced English session on Friday. I don't know how many will return – the first day tends to be more well attended than any other– but it's a good group, with some new faces. Instead of tea, the fellow who supplies me with beverages brought a strange cereal slurry, best described as like Honey Nut Cheerios that had been allowed to dissolve in the bowl. I liked it, once I adjusted to the texture. It's called misugaru, and is a traditional milky multi-grain beverage. I hope he brings it again!

Theoretically, I'm supposed to go on a walk with Roxanne today, but I need to get some sleep…

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Bread & Beast Mode

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

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

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

Church Change

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Golden Evenings, Mornings, & Maids

Tuesday night I was invited over for dinner by Roxanne, the Korean lady with whom I went on a walk two weekends ago. She had told me that her brother-in-law was a fabulous cook, and he and her sister and their little girl happened to be visiting this week. The little girl, Korean age 5, was struck by shyness upon my arrival, but while her parents cooked and her uncle watched the World Cup qualifying game between South Korea and Portugal, she ran around happily. She was clearly invested in the soccer match as well, as when Portugal made the second of its three goals, she wailed "an-dae!" (Nooo!). We all sat on a quilt on top of another blanket on top of a mat at the low table, which would've collapsed under the weight of all the food if it hadn't been constructed of solid wood. It was a huge spread. There was spaghetti with freshly made sauce, and salad topped with fried tofu and Jeju tangerine vinaigrette. There was kimchi and pickled garlic and hashbrowns, and scrambled eggs with peppers and rice. And more. And when I had finally stuffed myself to the point of pain, they brought out the soup! It was really, really good. The Koreans must have the world's highest metabolisms. How can you eat so much – admittedly good, healthy things – and still remain thin? Last week, I got a health assessment at the City Hall, which informed me that I needed to lose 10 kg. Now, if I lost 10 kg – not that that is likely to happen in this lifetime – I would be exactly the weight I was in college. But how am I supposed to lose any weight when I keep being fed all of this gloriously delicious food? And I don't walk enough. Roxanne and I did walk around her neighborhood for about an hour after supper, before she took me home; we're supposed to go on another long walk next weekend.

Friday morning June and our curriculum coordinator (a tall thin muscular girl I'll call Mel, who reminds me a lot of my sister) and I went with Kristen, a Korean teacher, to see her family's beekeeping operation. Her parents have beehives partway up Hallasan, where the air is fresh, and are purists in that they don't feed the bees sugar water, which is common practice to boost production even here. Instead, during the months when there are no blossoms, my colleague's father makes his bees their own special rice cake (they are Korean bees after all!) which includes pollen and honey (Kristen grumped "he loves his bees more than he loves me!"). Right now, however, there are blooms on the trees, and the bees can busy themselves conventionally. We had to wake up ungodly early (6 AM) in order to see the honey harvest in action; Kristen told us that her mom usually gets up at 4:30 AM so that they can be finished by nine, before it gets hot.

We drove up the winding 531 Road until we came upon a whiff of smoke and a blue farm truck parked in a gap in the trees. There were two small fires burning in the grass near a tent where three older ladies in boots, hats, gloves, and kerchiefs were industriously processing rectangular wooden frames of honeycomb. A man with a netted hat trundled the frames in from the hives on a wheelbarrow, and the women loaded them into a huge aluminum centrifuge, which spun them first one way, then another, causing golden honey to leak from a spigot at the bottom through a sieve and into giant semi-translucent white plastic containers that were sitting in a depression dug into the ground and lined with a tarp.

The shady clearing on the other side of the tent was full of white hives. There were hundreds of bees in the air, but they were lulled by the smoke from the smudge fires and the little bellows-powered smoke dispenser that the three men (the husbands of the ladies in the tent) used when they lifted the lids off the boxes. I noticed that the men dunked each frame in water before they stacked it on the wheelbarrow. Perhaps to discourage clinging bees? A few insects still rode into the tent, but only one or two remained when the centrifuge turned on; they were destined to be drowned in their own honey. I was impressed by how few bees were harmed in the process--there was a small pile of bodies in the honey sieve, but the spinning doesn't affect the larva sealed in their hexagonal incubation chambers, and most of the adults had decamped before the machine activated. We caught the honey drizzling from the tap with a spoon and ate it.

Before the frames were returned to the hives, a woman pulled a large knife from a pot of boiling water on a small gas camp stove and quickly tidied them by scraping off excess beeswax into a gargantuan plastic strainer--they later bagged this and gave it to us. They also presented us with an entire liter of fresh honey, and treated us to a huge breakfast at a lowland restaurant owned by the parents of one of Kristen's friends--the restaurant actually isn't open that early, but they served us anyway. We told Kristen that we should have been the ones doing the treating, but she just smiled and shrugged it off. Beekeeping is an extremely hard job. When her parents aren't minding their bees, they are working in their tangerine orchard. Her dad doesn't look his seventy-five years. He claims that bee pollen and stings are medicine. Mel got inoculated on the inside of her cheek when she fished fresh honeycomb from the strainer and popped it in her mouth--it contained a bee. She was a tough girl and a good sport, pulled the stinger out, and kept smiling. Surprisingly, she didn't swell up. Maybe if you're eating the honey of the bee that stung you, you're ok! I did check my own piece of honeycomb carefully after that, though.

I had already bought two liters of her parents' honey from Kristen two weeks ago--one for myself, one to be sent back to Grandmommy via Susanna when she visits at the end of this month. It was nice to meet the bees it came from. A middle aged man stopped by during the morning to buy several hundred thousand wons' worth; her parents don't advertise, but he's a regular customer. He asked us if we could drink--that's a sort of "getting to know you" sally around here. Neither he nor Kristen's parents and their friends speak any English, but I was able to discern from my minimal Korean that they were harassing her about not being married – she's in her mid 30s, and beautiful. She told us that she wanted to be a "gold maid" rather than an old maid. If you are a "gold maid" you are accomplished and single. Therefore, you are perceived as unwed by choice rather than otherwise.

Oh, a while back I just wrote about a lady in my adult class who is taking care of her elderly parents. I had simply assumed she was married (as that generation of Koreans usually is), but I have since have longer conversations with her and discovered she's also single. She's an impressive woman. And her spoken English has improved remarkably over the last several months. She claims she doesn't see a difference, but I do; her confidence is much greater. My Russian, on the other hand, continues to deteriorate. June, Mel, and I ate at my house Friday night (Kristen and the other teachers were invited, but they declined, primarily because my dinner wasn't announced until the last minute!) and spent the postprandial period chatting in Russian – or rather, Mel spoke beautifully, June concretely, and I stuttered painfully. I understood everything, but listening is a passive skill. I have lost so much facility. Мой язык как камень. I continue to pray that Irina's and my book will find a publisher.