Three weeks

Three weeks ago at this moment I was just barely off an airplane and sound asleep in the back of a minivan on the way to the countryside in Central Korea. It seems like a century ago, yet it also seems like yesterday Janelle and I were driving in her Ford Focus listening to Brit Pop.

I am fresh from a hot shower after a day of walking around in the rain. Despite the tragic disaster which beset my hair, I have never had more fun out in the rain. Seas of people with colorful umbrellas straight out of a more vibrant & less tragic Merchant Ivory film. I met friends from my training in Sinchon, a University neighborhood on the polar opposite side of the city from where I live, a full hour by subway. We had coffee over our Korean phrasebooks, trying to learn Hangul and expand our Korean vocabulary word by word. Today’s word: hotteok.

{March 4} Hotteok

It is entirely possible that I will leave Korea with language skills only qualifying me to write a cookbook. A cookbook about Korean food. OK, not a cookbook at all. A book about ordering Korean food.

After our coffees and comparing notes on our respective schools, we wandered the neighborhood, explored tiny side streets and shared a delicious lunch of dakgalbi. Our group included two Koreans, which makes eating out so much easier and builds my confidence for future solo outings. One dish at a time, I am able to better navigate the Korean dining experience. All said and done, my day totalled $12 USD, including the very nice grass green umbrella I bought for $3. My latte cost more.

Yes, Liz, yes you can really eat out for $5. And it’s more food than you can possibly eat.

Last night I also ventured out of my neighborhood and went to Hyewha, a “theatre district” of sorts that is buzzing with bright lights, restaurants, clubs, coffeeshops, street vendors and of course, theatres. It was my first glimpse of what I had imagined Seoul to be like…lights and signs that run up the sides of buildings, throngs of people, modern everything. We had galbi at a little Mom and Pop place — marinated pork ribs that are cooked at your table (I’ve not yet had a meal that wasn’t) and is eaten with red chile sauce & rice wrapped in lettuce or sesame leaves. As with all meals out, it’s served with several “banchan” (sidedishes) and everything is typically eaten communally. Even soup is shared which admittedly takes some getting used to. So if you have issues with cooties, you should plan on dining alone when visiting Korea.

This week I began teaching at my school, and I am learning a new kind of tired. I will, I’m told, get used to it and for that I am grateful. My students are bright and have a good working knowledge of English already, so we are not talking alphabets. We are talking subject-verb agreement. I am teaching 5 classes and each class meets twice a week. Unlike most English academies, my school has 3-month terms instead of the standard month-long program. This means a little more time to really develop a relationship with each student, to see progress or problems and address them. It is much easier than I thought. Not to say that it’s easy or without its challenges, but I am discovering the natural teacher within me. I guess all those years of playing school in my parents’ basement paid off. I always thought that was practice for film directing, as I was much more interested in the props, set decoration and character development in my version of “school”. And as you can imagine, I like my version of school much better.

I have some exceptionally cute students and some exceptionally quiet ones, some exceptionally distracted students and some exceptionally zitty ones, as we move from elementary to middle school levels. I have a student who chose Madonna as an English name and another named Stella. While I have a difficult time taking these students seriously with names like that, I thoroughly appreciate this flair for the dramatic. I have a student named Sam with A.D.D. who I’d like to strangle most of the time and no amount of irony has been lost on me. I have a student named Tim who repeats my “Excellent!” every time I shower accolades on another student, making me uncomfortably aware of how often I use the word. But I can’t refuse a man in glasses, even if he is 10. I find it absolutely charming.

The other day when doing a vocabulary lesson on the word “often”, explaining the difference between Always, Often, Sometimes and Never, the students were asked to finish the sentence “I often go to eat at…” Most students said things like “my grandmother’s house” or the generic “a restaurant”. One little boy kept finishing the sentence with something I could not understand “outapuck”. Outapuck. WTF is he talking about? Other kids, sensing my confusion, began enthusiastically helping: Outapuck, Otapuck. I finally got it.

Outback. Outback Steakhouse.

I give a daily lesson on the use of “ph” in the English language, as I prefer not to be called Step-hunny. This begins first as a conversation about the fact that my name is not “Teacher! Teacher!”

ME: Is my name “Teacher”?
CHORUS OF STUDENTS: No! Step hunny! Step-a…ahhhh, a-hunny.
ME: Step? Is that how you say it?
STUDENTS: No, no! Ffffffff. Stepfanie.

The “p” never goes away entirely, but it’s a vast improvement over being likened to a staircase.

More tiny observations:

* Train (and bus) drivers make announcements with a voice that is like they are trying to get the entire train into bed. It is entirely too seductive.

* My favorite thing so far is seeing friends and families all linked up arm in arm on the streets. Whether a mother & daughter out shopping, a bunch of old men walking home from a bar, two young boys or a pack of high school girls, it is quite common to walk down the street arm in arm, arms draped over shoulders or holding hands. I love love love it and wish we did that more often at home.

* Lining up for subways is so insanely orderly and efficient. There are footprints imbedded in the platform floor which tell you where to stand and people form lines to wait for the train. By the time the train arrives, two straight lines have formed to either side of each door. The people get off the train straight through the middle and then the two lines file on after. Quite remarkable.

* I read a website before coming to Korea that described it as “a nation of boozers”. I have to say I did not expect this of Korea. In so many other ways it can be very conservative. But I am here to say yes, indeed they are a nation of boozers. Soju is passed like water at meals. While Parisian subways smell of body odor and New York subways smell of piss, to ride Seoul’s subway is to smell what everyone did last night. It emanates from the pores of every man I pass on the street like teenage boys reeked of Polo in the 80′s. Everyone I know who’s been here for some time tells me of seeing 60-year old men barfing on the streets at 2 in the morning. And for being a nation of boozers, they’ve got some pretty crappy options for getting hammered. Bad beer or bad soju…your choice.

* Seoul is unbelievably & absolutely friggin ginormous.

Last week, I took a two-day trip to Fukuoka, Japan to obtain my work visa. It was magical. I will write more later about the trip, but for now you can see the photos here.

More about Japan, more about my love for Korean Air, more about my school in the coming days.

For now, sleep trumps just about everything.

3 Responses to “Three weeks”

  1. Mary says:

    ahhhh step–ahhhny, take comfort in the fact that even my parents, after some 3 decades of living in the states, and perhaps for the rest of their lives, will call you step-ahhny. but alas, with the young there is hope. and for that i am grateful to you. but on a more delicious note, how wonderful it is to read about my mother country through your lyrical passages. your positive, humorous perspective is what i wish everyone travelling there would be like. it’s an utter joy to experience the streets of seoul everyday, even from rainy hongcouver. even though we have some great korean eateries here, i’d give just about anything to be sitting cross-legged with you at a chjim-chjil bang cafeteria eating bibbibbap after 6 hours of sauna and bathing. ahhh korea. all love my dear.

  2. eshu says:

    oh god… that was hilarious. and descriptive! and envy-provoking.

    so glad you posted, cannot wait to hear more!!!

    until then teacher

  3. meeralee says:

    You really are a wonderful human being, Steph. You are lucky to be so open to everything you’re experiencing, and damn are we lucky to be able to read about it!

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