Saturday, March 28, 2009

International Diplomacy meets You Got Served

Last night, after watching the South Korean All-Star team beat Iraq 2-1 in soccer, we went into Suwon to get some drinks at an ex-pat bar called Crazy Duck.  The bar is a large place for foreigners to grab a drink and apparently, a large military bar.  Being so close to the military base in Suwon, it was not too surprising to see so many military guys walking about chatting with the locals and ex-pats and foreign teachers gyrating on the dance floor between dart boards and metal topped round tables.  What was surprising, however, was when the inevitable violence was about to spring up, which always happens in military bars once they've started drinking I've noticed, it was settled not through fist-a-cuffs, but breakdancing.  

First the setting: Crazy Duck is an oddly shaped and confined space with a huge fake oak tree in the middle of it separating the bar area form the dance floor.  It has brick walls with everything else painted black and lots of purple neon lights everywhere.  The staff wears large rectangular pins that scroll digital words across themselves and, to my delight, basically throw the subtext of their purpose right out for you to read in English.  The gorgeous bartenders for instance would have "I am a sexy Korean girl" scrolling over their breast while the bussers had their scrolls in Korean, though I imagined it said something to the effect of "may I get that?"  It looked a little bit like a set from a Joel Schumacher Batman movie.  

The clientele are mainly foreigners and local girls and Korean hipsters (who dress exactly like indie rockers in the States, haircuts included), and, eventually, military guys.  I am not trying to turn this into a bash because I do respect what these men and women do but I have noticed that, at least over here, once the military guys show up, and start ripping their shirts off and getting drunk and testy, someone is gonna get in a fight.  And it's usually started by the guy with his shirt off daring you to make eye contact.  After a couple hours I could feel the energy in the place boiling into some kind of dust-up.  Then, surprisingly, it came to a head in the best and most entertaining fashion possible.

By around 2:30AM the bar was still rather packed and I didn't get to see what started the event but suddenly the middle of the floor around the bar was opened up into a chanting circle and two Korean guys were taking turns doing their breakdancing moves while three military guys looked on with their girlfriends and everyone else cheering it on all around them.  The Koreans would tag team going in and out, one doing pop n lock moves and the other performing daring back-flips and amazing head spins.  The military guys had one move: take their shirts off, then on again, then off, and flinch at their breakdancing opponents menacingly then go back to their comrades for a reassuring backslap.  This tit for tat went on forever and every time, the better of the two Korean dancers would smile, came back into the open circle and start doing some of the best breakdancing I've seen since Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.  Finally, almost as the final nail in the coffin, a latino military guy, seemingly not even involved in the dance off at all, and wearing a Boston Red Sox Youkilis Jersey I might add, just steps into the circle, rips his jersey off and flexes letting out a scream.  Not a dance, or even a flinch, a scream.  The whole crowd, even the girls with the military guys, lets out a quiet whimper of embarrassment for the guy.  He shuffled back to the edge.  Not missing a beat, the back-flipping Korean dancer did a head spin over to his opponents, got up with a twist, and gave them a thumbs DOWN right in their faces.  Everyone cheered in approval.  The better dancers having won, the defeated left in a gruff, shirtless, and the music started back into a new song.  The bar floor filled back in immediately like nothing had happened.  

I haven't a clue what brought on this whole thing.  It could have been any single number of things considering all the different conversations and people in the bar/club.  What impressed me was how it was settled.  It was like international relations meets the set of You Got Served.  And honestly?  Why the hell not.  It's all energy expenditure, it serves the purpose of defining a clear winner and loser, and, the opposite sex (or same depending on your cup of tea) is thoroughly impressed.  It's just as good as a boxing match only ten times more fun, in this humble reporter's opinion, to watch.  Just imagine King Jong Il and President Lee Myung-bak meeting for a summit, putting on some Jurassic 5, and settling the differences between their two countries with a pop 'n' lock competition.  All the members of the inner circle and Korean Congress around them cheering them on.  If the US Congress debated bills like this, I would watch a lot more CSPAN.

I want to open the newspaper and see the headline that says: N. Korea tells S. Korea- You Got Served!  It could happen.  Anythings possible.  

Friday, March 27, 2009

C'mon Baby Light My..Basement?

Two days ago a random stranger decided to smoke a cigarette near the entrance to the garage that is in the bottom of the building I teach at.  The smoker, I assume, once finished, then discarded their cigarette in a probably absent minded manner and, also assuming on my part, guess that the cigarette rolled down the ramp leading into the garage and then found a nameless puddle of oil.  This cigarette then caused the puddle of oil to erupt into flame.  This lead to the garage being set on fire.  This fire then raged throughout the garage and was put out by firemen.  The firemen used lots of water to put it out and apparently this event was witnessed by some and broadcast over the news to others.

This happened late Thursday night.

Friday morning I got up, did my exercises, made some breakfast, wrote a weeks worth of daily reviews for my Kindergartner's parents while listening to Casey Driessen, and moseyed my way towards the school across the highway.    The building looked normal enough and when I got to the coffee shop on the first floor with it's entrance on the left side I noticed that an older woman was beating out cushions with a broom with the door wide open.  I went in and thought, wow, there's a rather strong musk here isn't there?  Probably the sewage coming up the pipes again, as they're known to do here.  The lady who owns the shop, Rem, saw me and instead of her normal exuberance looked like an animal caught in the headlights.  She seemed torn between wanting to help me and wanting to tell me the shop is closed.  All of this I had to infer though as she speaks barely a word of English.  

"Would you like me to leave?  Is everything okay?" I said.  She starts ranting in Korean much faster than normal and the only thing I could pick up was pul which I know means fire.  "Pul?" I ask, motioning around the shop and looking, not noticing any scorch marks anywhere.  "Like, pul pul?  Here?"  She nods her head up and down faster pointing to the ground and then ramps up into something with the words pul and base-ah-ment-ee being all I catch.  (When English words are used here they get an EE sound at the end.  It's not a mart, it's a mart-ee, and cheese is cheese-ee.  You get the idea.)  Once I opened the door leading from her shop to the lobby I saw what she meant.

The normally white walls were covered in black.  There was a waterfall of nasty water pouring down the staircase to my left.  The stone floor was a mess of soot and puddles.  The smell was pungent and the taste of the smoke still hung in air.  At this moment I heard the kids leaving a schoolbus come running up the hallway towards the elevator.  They ran into one another once reaching the lobby and we all stared around in astonishment; they at seeing what a fire can do and me knowing that there was no way the school was going to cancel today- fire or not.

Once I made it to the sixth floor and walked into the school I saw the smoke had made it into the office and classrooms and covered everything with a thin film.  It was here I was informed about the oil fire and the cigarette.  Walking around I saw that the brightly colored playing blocks were blackish with soot, the walls were greyish, the floor was blackish, the books were filmed.  My room was luckily less grey than others since I had closed my windows the end of the schoolday before but the ones that had central heating vents in their rooms or had left their windows open were a complete mess.  CD players were ruined.  The hallways and walls were filthy.  The play gyms and big gyms were filthy.  The place smelled horrible.  Despite all this though we knew we had to work in it no matter what.  The same country that wears surgical masks to go running and thinks drying your clothes in the sunlight is healthier was going to have a school day with hundreds of children and staff breathing in soot and mold.  Amazing.

So the morning was myself and my supervisor wiping down the walls and science kits and windows while the kinders did their own baskets and tried not to touch their faces with most failing miserably and scores of children running around looking like chimney-sweepers.  On top of this it was Eileen's, one of my kinders, birthday!  At 11:15am they brought in her birthday cake and we had her birthday party while the cleaning staff was taking a mop to the play mat in our room trying to make it look less black than before in hopes the kids can sit on it again.  We opened presents with an old Korean woman scrubbing the windows behind the children with a filthy wet rag that must have been used on all the classrooms before mine.  They had treats and tangerines and juice drinks and celebrated her birthday in a soot-smelling room with soot on each other's faces and white clothes.  On top of it all, Eileen is the poet of the group.  She has the most mature sense of self and artistic bent out of all the children, that these were the circumstances of her birthday party seemed strangely appropriate to me in some macabre way. 

The fire had been in the garage but the smoke had traveled throughout the building.  I felt lucky that the sprinklers had not gone off on our floor since that would have to have necessitated in the school being shut down for repairs, or at the worst, me losing my job because of the expense.  On the sixth floor from a garage fire, the smoke damage was this bad.  I can only imagine the closer floors.  So remember kids, smokers of all things green and brown, when you're done with your butt, PUT IT OUT.  Flicking it away is not cool and can almost lead to ruining a girl's birthday party!  This has been a public service announcement from the Council On Uncool Affairs.  

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thoughts On Realizing I'm Going To Be a Subject of My Student's Conversations Over Drinks In 20 Years.

This Friday puts a close on my first three weeks teaching at the Hogawon I moved from Boston to work at.  As the real teachers reading this will attest, teaching weeks seem to be like dog years: for every one week done you have experienced about seven years worth of trauma and joy.  In just this short amount of time my rookie-self has been face to face with the best and worst Nature has to offer us.  As a substitute teacher in Kentucky I thought I had seen kids at their very worst but finally being able to chart these children's lives, to see them everyday in their best and worst moods, to feel them cry and laugh, it shows me what little I know about myself and human nature in general, while at the same time, confirms everything I DO know with an almost thunderous applause.  

Here are the things that I have observed in my short time.

1. Kindergarden is a microcosm of society in general.  In kindergarden there is every single component and facet of the society that nurtures it miniaturized and compacted and expressed through the social interactions, needs, fears, and actions of the tiny women and men running around arguing over odd shaped blocks they name inappropriate labels like "telephone."  There are the leaders, the artists, the engineers, the grunts, the police-persons, the anarchists, the dreamers, the regimented, and the blindly faithful- all expressed serendipitously in the thoughtless actions of the creatures who embody them.  It makes me wonder if we are not pre-wired to be a certain way upon birth.  Or if perhaps the way in which we are raised, carrying forward from the way our parents were raised, in some way predisposes us to some important function in the great cog-wheel of society.  Yet in these nine children from another society I see the great universal truths that I have noticed in every single social setting I'd been able to observe and participate in my thirty-one years on this planet.  Some people, despite their age or their culture are just plain assholes.  Some people, despite said circumstances, are the anti-thesis of said assholes.  Like negative and positive magnetic forces, it's almost as though nature has a plan and for every bully there is a cop.  For every dreamer there is a humorless engineer mystified by the other's flightiness.  For every questioning philosopher there is a pragmatic "yes-man" more concerned with being left alone than understanding the reasons why.  All this is encapsulated in classroom eight on the sixth floor of the Gunjang Building in downtown Suji, and I am the lucky guy that gets to play God with these forces of nature and tell them to sit on their BUTTS with their FEET ON THE GROUND and OPEN THIER BOOKS to PAGE 13.  PLEASE!

2. Its not what you say, it's how you say it.  Never was a movie more accurate than that scene in Three Men and a Baby, but it couldn't be truer.  It's not what you say to them that matters as how much the delivery pierces through their defenses and lays a mark square on the ground zero of their own insecurities.  Most of the children I teach range from ages 7 (6 actually in Western aging) to 9 in my elementary classes (8 then, here you are counted as one years old the minute you're born since they count the time in the womb).  Therefore, despite their varying ranges of English level, which for the most part is staggering in a 6 year old, they are little little kids who make each other cry at the drop of a hat.  And over, to my senses having dealt with primarily adults these last odd 15 years, the stupidest things.  For example, one will start weeping, I'll go over, why are you crying?  "Bee'CUZ *sob* To-NY said I DO my homeWORK fAST and gOOD *choke, sob, choke* and..and..*sniff* pEN is rED."  To which I think, logically, well what the holy hell is wrong with that?  You just received a COMPLIMENT kid, Tony is a freaking prick who writes like a stroke victim, enjoy it while you can.  Wait till the real problems hit like heartbreak and taxes.  But then again I have to realize, wait, these are children, and most importantly, as my brother Christian pointed out when little Cam came about, logic goes out the window with children and it's how Tony said it.  He made it sound like being smart and fastidious and possessing of a red pen was something to be ashamed of, and then I think back on when wearing a pair of Reeboks over Nikes was the ending of all existence and take a deep breath and tell the offender to apologize, NOW.  [Note:  In Korean, most of the stress in the words is placed on the second syllable or end of a sentence so when the kids get exited or are just learning how to speak English they tEND to strESS the seCOND syllaBLES a LOT.  This makes important matters of litigating between two waring six year olds over the matter of who possessed the "telephone" first an amazingly funny yet gravely serious event.]

I have little patience.  You know, before this job I thought I was one of the most liberal, patient, compassionate, caring men this side of Alan Alda but being around children for almost nine hours out of the day, with half of them being absolute bastards bent on hurting other kids by kicking and slapping and poking and pinching and demeaning, I have come in contact with my mean voice and it is a very, VERY loud and mean voice.  I do NOT suffer fools.  Despite the language barrier, despite them being young, despite the social difference, if I see a bully being a bully I will kick that kid out of my room and make them stand out in the hall for a half hour if need be without a moment's hesitation- a jerk is a jerk.  I think it's better to nip sociopathic tendencies in the bud then try to understand them at this point and a couple, not many, but a couple of the kids I govern are absolute jerks who, if they were older, would have facilitated a dust-up by now.  

Specifically, I will not tolerate meanness in my classes.  It's one thing to be so young you don't realize you're hurting someone else by just being unintentionally rude but if they start being sassy to me or others like imitating in a mocking way, or like I've seen too much of, actually kicking other kids in the shins or punching them when my back is turned, I do the 7 year old equivalent of putting them in the public square in chains as a deterrent.  I will call them out, point out what they're doing, then kick them out of the room, all without laying a hand on them, but somewhere this insanely scary voice comes out of me from the deep recesses of my soul and everyone's attention is arrested by it.  The guilty know who they are and strangely, despite what I thought would happen at first having wanted to be their friend and be "the cool guy," they LOVE me for it.  Every problem child I have had so far that I've yelled at and made to stand outside are the ones that bring me gifts everyday and do their work and wanna be the first to show it to me.  Machiavelli was right, it is so much better to be feared than loved cuz when I reward them with play gym, or play time, or stickers, or a compliment, the genuine excitement on their faces is breathtaking.  Their parents write me thank you notes already and give me care packages full of Tommy Hillfinger after-shave and muffins and the kids love to hug me goodbye and hello.  And the irony of yelling at them is that it's all just because I hate yelling in general, I don't tolerate conscious meanness, and I HATE bullies, no matter how old they are.  The way I see it, along with teaching them how to read and write, we're also teaching them how to get along successfully in society and a simple "may I borrow your eraser?" over a knock on the head and a quick grab are some of the most important lessons these kids need to learn along with pronouns and syntax right now.  Unfortunately, at this point, fear seems to be the only way to shake some of them out of the habit of being so vicious.  But just like anything in society, it's the few bad apples that outshine the rest and draw our focus, so, through team sticker systems and the lovely power of shame, I will take a sticker away from everyone when just one or a few of the bad kids act up and let the rest of the class yell at that kid till they shape up instead of having to do the hard work now.  This has been proving the most effective since I've established that Alan Teacher can be a scary guy if he has to be.  

So that's basically it for just three weeks.  I have learned a lot of things that I have been doing wrong.  The supervisors at my Hogawon range from flighty to very precise but all have given me great tips on my technique and rooms for improvement.  It's always a tough pill to swallow to hear what you're doing wrong but I'm mature enough to realize that I'm going to be what my teachers were to me when I was this age, either a source for warm memories or a reason to drink.  I do believe in quality over quantity and want the best for this kids, even the bad ones, because I understand that deep down all they want is attention.  

It's a rewarding job when, like today, one of the shin-kickers, Andy, not surprisingly one of the brightest kids in the class, after being called outside to the hallway, AGAIN, was able to say to me in perfect honesty after I asked him directly why he always had to hit people, "I don't know Teacher, I'm just so angry all the time.  I really don't want to be angry all the time."  Finally we were able to go back into the classroom and I explained that Andy doesn't mean to kick and hit, he can't control it and is sorry.  Let's all work together with him on this.  The other kids completely understood and the ones he hit even said it's okay, we're sorry if we made you so mad.  And I get paid to teach them how to read English.

Now, after three weeks, we finally have a start.  

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Quick Stumblers Guide to Itaewon in 30 Seconds

The air and germs on the children finally got to me this week and I have spent the last two days recovering my voice so instead of showing what I did this weekend, which would bore a shut-in, let's take a look at my quick trip in Itaewon after the soccer game last weekend.  Hardly an inclusive expose into the city but definitely an honest first person accounting of the adventure.

Itaewon is a city district of Seoul and one of the closest to Suji.  It's home to about 22,000 people and is a huge tourist spot for Americans.  There are 30,000 American military troops stationed in South Korea and Yongsan Garrison, the U.S. military base, is located very close to Itaewon so the amount of soldiers that party and relax there is considerable.  This has lead to a few differences in Itaewon from the other city districts that comprise the vast urban umbrella that is Seoul.  For one, the highest amount of crime exists in and around the U.S. military base and surrounding areas such as Itaewon.  Also, there is a strict 3AM curfew on all businesses here to curb the violence that usually erupts from the soldiers and the drinking.  There is also a list of various establishments whereby no soldiers are allowed in for various reasons, not the least of which is open prostitution.  Conversely, in this rather conservative country, there is a large growing gay and lesbian population that has emerged in Itaewon over the last decade.  In a country where people do not admit to homosexuality even existing, that's rather progressive.  You can find all manner of counterfeit goods including DVD's and jewelry, but Itaewon is also known for it's cheap well made suits that are custom fit for the customer.  

I did not see any of this however.  By the time I got to Itaewon it has three and a half hours after riding the subway system all over the damn place, because we got lost, and when we arrived I just wanted food to curb my aching head.  Luckily, or perhaps unfortunately, the fights and the DVD's passed me by on this particular outing.  Instead I got some delicious fish n' chips in an Irish Bar, but I'm getting ahead of myself.  

After a terribly long bus ride from the game, due to directions given by a local who misunderstood us, we finally hit the subway station at Anyang.  I bought my first subway pass (similar to a Charlie Card for our Boston readers) and set with the group towards what was supposed to be a short subway ride, relatively.  [Due to the bum directions we didn't realize we were at Anyang but thought we were at another stop entirely.  Oh well, live and learn right?]

The subway "under-city" is quite large and has everything from cell-phone stores to clothing shops to 7-11 style kiosks called "Family Mart."  Here you get food, toiletries, and even beer for the train since there is no open container law in South Korea.  You can safely drink a beer walking down the street without so much as a ticket.  That will not stop you from getting looks by the locals of course who are noticeably not drinking on the street but I have seen westerners on a Friday or Saturday night talking and chugging as they pass-by.  Being so close to having left the game and knowing we are going to have a 40 minute subway ride or so (so equalling 3 more hours) we grabbed a beer for the subway and set off.  

One beer lead to many as the stops and the switches and double backs and general lost-ness began to rack the minutes up towards hours but eventually we did arrive long after sunset and once emerged from the underground rail I was greeted with what has been called the "least" busy of the Seoul city districts.  

Busy enough for me, but no more so than Boston or New York or even Louisville around 4th Street Live on a Saturday.  The thing though is that everything was in constant motion.  I pulled out my camera to take pictures but the throng of people were pushing and moving like a river towards some interesting lake and I was swept up with the current.  What I could see immediately however was the American influence around me mixed with the local flavor.

There were new languages being spoken that I hadn't heard yet since my arrival.  I noticed African dialects behind me and saw a huge group of Africans with one wearing a soccer jersey from Trinidad.  Spanish, French, and English were being spoken.  The shopkeepers were Indian and there were homeless people peddling for change all around us.  Women of the evening were winking as we swept by propelled by the social current and a few yelled "handsome man!  handsome man!" as I floated by.  It was far from the suburban technicolor that I had come to expect in Suji and it was slightly overwhelming.  

As always though, one of the experienced veteran teachers read my expression and said, "this is nothing."  You have to understand, Seoul is a city in the way that L.A. is a city.  It is a huge vast expanse made up of 25 city districts that totals 24.5 million inhabitants when combined.  Beyond downtown Seoul there really is no "Seoul" proper, so Itaewon, with it's piddly 22, 000 souls is considered a minor blip on the Seoul Milky Way.  It's also far from the Seoul downtown nucleus if you will, so, by some people's standards, it's not really experiencing Seoul necessarily.  That's fine by me, I thought.  I'll take baby-steps towards the center.  I got nothing if not loads of time here.

Suji is where I live.  It's on the Southeast portion of the map.  Suwon was where the soccer game was and Anyang was where we grabbed the subway.  Yongsan was where we finally got off hours later and I dare you to find it on this map in under one minute.  Ready?  GO!

So it's not the BIGGEST and BEST representation of Seoul but it's pretty busy nonetheless.  Everywhere I looked there was motion and traffic.

Also, when we first arrived, I had been on a train for hours drinking beer so the first 20 minutes or so, combined with being swept up by the movement of everyone, kind of looked and felt like this:

Friends don't let friends ride drunk.

But the "fresh" air and knowledge we were all STARVING and with a headache sobered us up really quickly on our way to the Irish Pub that a couple of the other teachers, Ryann and Joelene, frequented and recommended.  On the way there I was able to grab a few images, despite the rush, that caught my eye.  Like the "Big American Downtown District" building or BADD Building for short as I called it. 

Flash Fact: ColdStone Ice Cream gives me an upset stomach, Quiznos Subs is wicked gross, and I can't remember what the Coffee Bean tastes like.  The three together must equal one hell of a fun night for the locals though, they were PACKED.

Want fruit?  There's truck beds full of it on almost every corner for really great prices.  The fruit here is quite lush I must say.  The vegetables however, like brocoli for instance, are hit and miss.  You get 10 tangerines for 1,000 won.  As of this writing that's .65 cents!  Huge bushels of strawberries for 3,000 won (2 bucks), and by huge I mean over 40 strawberries in a container.  The mushrooms, leaks, and carrots or other ground grown vegetables are usually delicious but anything off a stalk is hit or miss.  Except the corn.  They love corn here and put it on everything from pizza to sushi.  

Besides the trucks of fruit there's trucks of jewelry as well.  I don't think these wears would put Seng Jewelers out of business anytime soon but they have a market.  I have a feeling the shine comes more from cubic zirconia than Sierra Leone but that's not a bad thing as far as I'm concerned.  

Blurriness due to motion and lack of being able to stop.  I do apologize for the quality.

Or maybe you wanna grab a chicken for the road?  They got trucks for that too.  I named it The Rotisserie Mobile and it smelled delicious but having the meat that close to the tailpipe spells trouble in the morning to me.

They only get 7 of the herbs and spices over here.  The other's are kept in a vault under the Rio Grande next to the launch codes and captured aliens.

We finally made it to the pub.  I was famished and our general weariness was overwhelming.  The atmosphere was very familiar though and it surprised me how soothing that was.  The music was one of the first things that caught my attention.  As soon as we sat down they were playing Temptation by New Order.  This was a noticeable shift from the music I have been listening to everywhere else up to this point.  The pub played Oasis, Bowie, basically mostly English bands with a Kings of Leon song thrown in there amidst the Manchester.  I couldn't believe how much I needed to hear that kind of music in a public place after hearing K-Pop everywhere from a clothing store to a family restaurant, no matter the age difference in the cliental.  They don't have indie rock here of any kind and no college radio stations to broadcast it even if they do.  

The place was crowded with ex-pats drinking hard and army guys wearing really tight shirts walking around menacingly staring at everything with exposed legs while herded together in self-conscious clusters.  The atmosphere felt very familiar and the food was greasy and delicious.  Still not a Kings of Leon fan though, just can't get into them.

Oh, and if you're like me I bet you've been asking yourself, hey, what happened to Sylvester Stallone?  Well have no fear, he's alive and well and full of plastic and hocking Russian Vodka in countries outside the United States.  Now I will defend to anyone that Sly is one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation despite watering down his ability as a writer/director with star turns in films such as Cobra or Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot.  Okay, so he directed Staying Alive but he did write Rhinestone after all which is a post modern masterpiece, but I digress.  

The thing I love most about Sly is that he always gets to the root of the matter, no matter if the root is repulsive or not.  Just look at the truth in this advertisement.  If this vodka is like any of the Russian vodka I have had before then Tango's body language couldn't be more appropriate.  It's like Sly's saying: "'Eyy, if y'uz like voud'kah then drink this voud'kah.  Cuz it'll be like getting punched in the face by me."

You sold me Sly.  And to think, your character was fighting communism in that country for years before this.  What a world.

No Human Growth Hormone was consumed in the making of this poster.

So we made it home a lot quicker than we came by grabbing the bus and 40 minutes later arrived in bright and colorful Suji, dropped off right between the Dunkin Donuts and the KFC.  My first toe-dip into the deep-end that is Seoul was harmless and interesting.  More to come as the weeks go by and it finally warms up here.  But until then I'm going to get my immune system used to being around the kids coughing in my face without covering their mouths as I'm sure the other teachers reading this can understand.  Maybe I'll grab a bus back into Itaewon and stop by one of those fruit trucks again for some cheap Vitamin C.  Or, I could just grab some of that Stallone Vodka and sweat it all out.   I'm not sure which'll come first but until then I'm on the mend with a Monday morning looming over the horizon.

Thanks for stopping by!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Suwon Blue Wings

This weekend I got to experience my very first professional soccer game.  Growing up in America, a country that has no use for soccer, and specifically in Kentucky, a state that's in the heart of basketball country, I've gone to a handful of soccer matches in my life and, to quote my English friend here James from Manchester, cared "fuck all" for the sport.  That is, until I was able to be inside an actual stadium and experience the kind of fervor I thought only reserved for NFL Monday Night Football games.  But just like football, which I didn't care much for either until having a friend explain to me the rules and tactics of the game, hearing a commentary on what I was seeing while listening to the roaring crowd made me a believer.  Saturday's match was between the Suwon Blue Wings (South Korea's best soccer team) and the Pohang Steelers .  

To confess, going to the soccer game was not the original journey for the day but once we went to the movie theater and saw that Watchmen wasn't playing for another 2 hours phone calls were made and a fellow teacher at the Hogawon told us about the game starting at 3PM.  This excited another teacher with us, said James from Manchester, who lives and breathes soccer,  and our plan was set.  We had to grab the 720-2 city bus towards Suwon with 27 minutes to spare before kick-off.  The bus ride takes about 20 minutes.

Hard to tell from this picture but this is Saturday and half the bus is full of schoolgirls in private school uniforms.  They go to school 6 days a week here.

There we arrived at the Suwon World Cup Stadium built in 2002.  A scalper outside the massive complex sold us tickets for 10,000 won each and we went through the gates into our section and grabbed a seat in the shade on a chilly afternoon.  Once inside I heard deafening roars from the fans doing chants for their home-team and saw PEOPLE

lots and lots of PEOPLE.  This was by no means a packed house with the away team's section being a handful of shivering die-hards wearing red but the amount of noise that this stadium produced was incredible to me.

I mean just look at the scope of the place.  I've never been able to go to an NFL game but imaging this stadium full and chanting must be something else.

Flags were everywhere.

Once the initial shock wore off I looked around and noticed some things that remained similar to any stadium I've been in and some that were different.  For example, people waved stuff in the air and banged their chairs but instead of being big foam hands they have asian style fans that they would use to block the sunlight and slam into their palms during chants.  And what sporting event isn't complete without snacks?  But here they passed up on the hot dogs and nachos in favor of sushi, dried squid! and beer.  The beer of choice in Korea is Cass, produced by Oriental Brewery or OB for short, and tastes halfway between a Budweiser and swept-up fermented sawdust.  After the first one it's not so bad, plus they're super cheap.  But watching a couple eat dried squid like it was jerky and share a sushi roll then wash it down with crappy beer was something else.

These things get very loud when collapsed and smacked together.

Thanks to the camera my mother bought me before heading over I was able to utilize the video feature and capture some footage of the place during the first half.  Describing it is one thing but you really have to hear the scope of how loud it was inside.  All the while this was going on, James was offering play by play insight for myself and the others who knew next to nothing about soccer tactics.  I have to say, if you're going to go to your first real Professional soccer match, make sure you go with a European, they know their football.  I mean soccer.  Whatever.

So in the end the Blue Wings lost 3-2.  The crowd was very sportsman like to the opposing team and everyone had a good time.  This stadium being so close to me and really missing having professional sports all around me (something I took for granted in the USA), I'll be making a habit of visiting this place more often.  I got to go to a professional game, get a few beers, buy some sushi, and I spent less than 15 US dollars doing it.  Crazy.  The conversion rate here still blows my mind.  And I got to learn all kind of new put-downs from James, like calling someone a cutesy flagger or a weekend tosser.  I have no idea what they mean but rest assured if you do a bad play somewhere in a soccer game, you qualify as one of those.

More to come, and, as always, thanks for stopping by!

Monday, March 2, 2009

My Living Situation

As I said before when I arrived into Suji it was snowing and wet and my driver spoke less English than I do Korean so when we pulled up onto this street and unloaded my bags my first thought was, "Oh boy.."

I was in the 21 Hotel.

Then I looked directly to my left and saw this pseudo-stripclub/motel including that pink neon sign in the shape of a woman and thought "Ohhh man.."

Buawh, buawh, BUAWH!  I've been really tttrrRRYYYIInngg bay-Beh! Buawh, buawh, BU-BRAWH..

Then I saw my room and thought, "Ohh gross!"  At this point I thought this was where I was going to living for my entire stay with the Hogwan.  I mean besides looking like Liberace's underwear the place was very humid and cramped.  Also, please note the clear plastic zip-pouch next to the yellow folder- that's where the lotion, razor, toothbrush, and condom was. And note the box of kleenex, this will come into perspective in a second.   This, major jetlag, not understanding anything being said to me, and the slight sleaziness of it all made me terribly anxious that I had made a very bad decision.  

Remember the kleenex box?  There's another one.  How much kleenex does ones room need!?  Right about when this photo was taken did the walls start throbbing with animal noises.  Then I turned that T.V. on to unwind and it was pre-set to channel 2- the softcore porn channel.  Nothing is worse than asian softcore porn.  I mean porn is not something to really ENJOY necessarily but asian porn is like watching really young looking girls being taken advantage of since they have an incredibly creepy young-girls fetish here.  Is this paragraph making you uncomfortable yet?  Then imagine how I felt at this point.  It was here that exhaustion took over and after a long shower I was never happier to find an episode of Law and Order (in English with Korean subtitles) in my entire life.  (It was the one I always seem to find when I turn on L&O though, the Neo-nazi one where they kill the schoolchildren on the playground. At this point however I could have watched Nash Bridges dubbed into Turkish and felt less sleazy.) 

So the night came and went with fitful sleep and after going to the school the next morning I found at that I wasn't going to be stuck in the Park'n'Pork for much longer- just another week.  I was waiting for the term to end and the teacher in my apartment to leave so that I could move in.  So after seven days of Channel 2 and hooded carports I left the now surprisingly comfy surroundings of my Joytel Motel for my new apartment...


HalleluJAH!  HalleluJAH!!


Now THIS is what I'm talking about.  It's sunny and bright, clean, and loaded with fast internet and cable TV with no Channel 2 (I checked).  I mean there's a decorative samurai sword next to my bed!  How much better can it get than that?  Plus that great oak table.  This place is the bee's-knee's and I'm not paying any rent.  It's all included in my contract with the school.  Korea will hook you up.  This is better than any of my places in L.A. or Boston and without the psycho roommates.  Plus it has a fairly nice kitchen:

Granted the sink drain stinks but it'll work.  And next to the sink is the washing machine:

They don't have dryers for most of the general populations here, it's a major status symbol.  And that's fine with me, I don't mind using the drying rack that's leaning against the wall in front of the washer but the downside is that they didn't tell me that the drain-hose wasn't secured into the drainpipe so after I did my first load water went EVERYWHERE in the kitchen and now besides the already funky smelling kitchen sink the floor smells good and moldy.  I was able to clean up the puddles with rolls of toilet paper since, ironically enough, the load I was doing was TOWELS but until I figure out the Korean symbol for and location of Duct Tape to better secure that hose into the drainpipe, I'm gonna be avoiding using that washer and actively pursuing a good mop instead.

Now to the one downfall of my living situation- the bathroom.  It looks innocent enough, and it's all functional including hot water so that's a huge plus and one for which I'm grateful.  It is however not built for human beings over six feet tall.   I cannot fully stand inside of it and have to be in a crouch the whole time.  That wouldn't be such an issue if the shower wasn't the actual bathroom itself.  See that metal hose that's connected to the hand held shower nozzle that's in the sink?  THAT, my friends, is the shower.  Let me explain:

The entire floor of the bathroom slopes down into this little drain.  So when I need to shower I close the bathroom door, turn on the sink, wait till the water heats up, then twist the dial on the front of the spout to direct the water into that handheld shower nozzle and go to town.  At this point the entire bathroom becomes the shower getting water all over the walls, the ceiling, the toilet, and me.  When it's over everything in the room is wet and once I towel off I leave that tiny window open to direct the moisture outside and leave the room to dry.  Including the toilet.  That last part I don't mind but having to perform this entire operation while HUNCHED OVER is painful and causing me to get sharp pins in my lower back if I stay like that for too long.  So I have learned to take military showers where I turn the water on, then off, lather up, wash off, and get out all within a minute and a half.  Being 6'2'' in this country is interesting and a colossal pain in the ass at the same time.  The same goes for the kitchen, I can't stand up in there either, but the main room is just fine.  

So besides the interesting bathroom, all in all I have it really well for my living situation now.  And not without it's share of anxiety along the way.  But for every morning I'm hunched over like the bell-ringer of Notre Dame I count my blessings that this place does not carry Channel 2.  And for the price of rent I think I can learn to deal with it just fine. 

A Typical Day in Suji

Suji is a very nice introduction into the asian world.  It is very different from where I grew up but at the same time it's rather familiar.  Like smog for instance:

That is the grey-blue haze of a sunny day in Suji.  There is a constant slightly yellowish tint to the horizon here that comes from China and is apparently quite poisonous.  Oh, and that dirty waterless aqueduct that's right next to the running path?  It smells twice as bad as it looks.  But for those of you who have ever visited L.A.:

Super busy and unless you know where you're going, good luck finding anything.  But how about where to go:

So America adopted the interstate from Germany's autobahn right?  I would go out on a limb and say that South Korea adopted their interstate system from America. 

Funny side note, it was right in front of this digital clock that a total Korean stranger wearing an A's ball cap stopped me and asked if I was American.  Once I told him yes he shook my hand vigorously then put his arms over his head in a heart shape and screamed, "I love Obama!"  Well we do too pal, believe me.

Some of us do anyway..*cough*..moving on..

Finally, it's been a long day on your feet, you need to eat, you hit the 7-11.  Only in Suji instead of corn nuts or surprisingly not that bad turkey sandwiches for only $3.50, you get sushi rolls for 1,000 won which translates to about .56 cents.  This stuff is quite tasty and for the price AWESOME.  One thing about living here is that there is hardly any protein to find unless you're willing to spend a bunch of money, instead it's tons of carbs.  And seaweed.  So my body feels good, I'm losing weight, but I'm sure a lot of it is muscle mass though I still exercise regularly.  It's just hard to pack on muscle when most of your diet is rice, seaweed, kimchi, and white bread sandwiches.