Wednesday, March 30, 2011

This post is nothing more than a complaint and is honestly a rather tedious read.

Though my school pays my rent, I have to pay for "maintenance" each month.  "Maintenance" covers my electricity and water consumption and also a slew of miscellaneous fees that don't make sense when Google Translated but always add up to around 80,000 won.  This maintenance bill is ridiculously hard to pay and has vexed me since the beginning.  I've always managed to pay it on time, often just barely, but this month it will certainly be late.  I feel my grievances on this occasion are best presented as a dialogue:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Further proof race is a social construct:

I wanted a picture of a running woman for a lesson.  I was sure most students would know the verb "to run" and confident at least a few of them would be able to say "she likes running" if prompted.  I chose this one:

Looks like she's flying.  Thanks, Google Images.
Most of my students were able to say "she likes running" as predicted.  However, when I asked "Where do you think she's from?" things got a bit weird.  I asked this question re this random woman in 10 classes last week and in every one someone immediately called out "Kenya!"

Perhaps you're thinking the worldwide fame of Kenyan distance runners has penetrated Korean pop culture to such an extent that here running itself is associated with Kenya and Kenyans.  I assure you this is not the case.  My students think this woman is from Kenya because Kenya is the only African country they can name.  I know this because my follow-up question in each class was "Why Kenya?" and the answer was always "black" or "black skin" or the ungrammatical slap in the face "she is black people."

You may consider this misidentification of a tanned woman as a black African a product of ignorance, and that's fair.  These students have probably never seen a "black" person in real life, much less met one.  The only non-Asians they know are the English teachers they've had the last 3 years:  probably 2 or 3 waygooks total, and they met me only last week.

But I don't want to dwell on the ignorance here, not when there's a far more instructive observation to be made:  the difference between a "white" person with a tan and a "black" person is not immediately clear to Korean children because it isn't obvious.

Monday, March 21, 2011

I ate something nasty.

Specifically, Styela clava.  Two weeks ago I encountered a new soup at lunch.  It was red, like it had a tomato base, and smelled questionable.  I fished around in the cauldron with the ladle and discovered it contained something I could not identify.  Something that looked kind of like an eyeball with warts all over it.  I thought "probably an animal?", couldn't get any further into the taxonomy, and decided not to eat it.  I asked a coworker what it was and she couldn't tell me more than that it came from the ocean.  She insisted it isn't an animal.  She also told me you have to be careful when eating it because it's full of fluid that squirts out when you bite it, possibly scalding the inside of your mouth.  I gagged a little.

This is Styela clava fresh from the sea.  I do not want to eat that.

Last week the same soup was served again.  Word had gone round that I was put off by the warty sea creature.  Worse, I was in line next to Chortle, and as it happens this vile thing is not just a Korean delicacy:  it's also Chortle's favorite food.  I sighed inwardly and resigned myself to eating one in order to score Culture Points.

A pile of Styela clava ready for cooking.  This is turning my stomach right now.
In Korea this tumescent abomination is called 미더덕 and the favored English translation is "warty sea squirt," a thoroughly apt label that efficiently summarizes arguments against eating the knobby thing.  An onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like what it represents.  What do you call a name that tastes like what it names?  I don't know, but let me just say that "warty sea squirt" is definitely one of those.

Boiling makes it no more appetizing.  This could only be less sexy if it were fermented and/or pickled.
You don't really eat the warty sea squirt.  It's too leathery to masticate.  You just bite it and swallow the juices that blast out.  Chortle drained like 10 of them, pausing to savor the viscous flavor explosion of each one before adding its flaccid husk to the carcass pile on her tray. 

One was sufficient for myself.  What did it taste like?  Hard to say; it's like trying to define replace without saying replace.  I'll just say it tasted like a hermaphroditic tunicate filled with fluid and something hard in the middle, so if you're curious you can just imagine trying to eat a waterlogged human thumb what's been tanned and boiled to shoe-leather.

Quail eggs and kimchi pancakes for lunch today, though.  Not bad.

Monday, March 7, 2011

I am a proud member of the "I Like Tea" club.

So apropos of nothing Chortle slapped this sheet of paper all spattered with Korean down on my desk and asked me which after-school club I wanted to join.  At first I thought this surely was a trap because "after-school club" sounds like "extra work" to me and I consequently enjoyed a terrifying premonition of getting roped into herding naughty children who don't understand any English through a museum in my spare time.  No thanks, Korea:  the overtime rate you are contractually obligated to pay me is insufficient compensation for field trips through the fires of hell.

But my intuition was incorrect.  Chortle explained that on two Fridays of each month the sticklers in administration allow teachers to knock off one hour early so they can enjoy some bonding time with other teachers who share their interests.  It's a team-building thing.  Teachers have to register officially with a club to enjoy this privilege.  I definitely wanted to spare myself all those hours of looking busy, so I needed to join a club.  Here's a list of my options as translated by Chortle:
  1. The "Educational Culture" club.  Chortle didn't know how to express the name of this one in English, but she made it seem boring and didn't want to try to explain.
  2. The "I Like God" club.  Self-explanatory.
  3. The "Traditional Korean Music" club.  Apparently its members form an ensemble.
  4. The "Western Music" club.  Similar to #3 above, I gather, but with guitars.
  5. "ELF (Enjoy Life & Food)".  Curiously, this one has an English-only name.  It meets at fancy restaurants.
  6. The "Trekking" club.  Chortle consented to "walking" as a better translation.
  7. "Mountain Hiking."
  8. The "I Like Movies" club.
  9. The "I Like Tea" club.
Note that there's no "I Speak English" club and imagine joining a club full of strangers you can't risk offending who conduct all their business in a language you don't understand.  I wanted to claim those glorious hours off, but the path was perilous.

I hemmed and hawed.  Chortle mentioned she was joining the "I Like Tea" club and wrote her name in its box.  She was the third signer and none of the other clubs had a member yet.  I asked about the movie club:  all Korean movies, or subtitled American ones?  Chortle didn't know.  I looked thoughtful.  I tentatively offered that I'd enjoyed some teas in the past.  There was a pause.  Chortle leaned in close and in a conspiratorial whisper told me the "I Like Tea" club is a front organization for going home early.  It meets once each semester for an evening meal at a decent restaurant, just for fun, and otherwise does nothing.  There is no tea.  It ought to be called the I Like Going Home Early club.  I knew at once this was the outfit for me.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I attended a school assembly.

I've already mentioned the unpredictability of my schedule last semester.  Informed you of the days on which I obediently trundled up to my classroom and awaited, in utter solitude and eerie silence, students who came 35 minutes late bearing a sheet of paper with the day's new schedule, leading me to wonder what had caused the delay and why no one ever told me about these things in advance.  I may also have mentioned this happened often enough that I placed a book in my classroom to facilitate productive use of these unexpected segments of quiet time.  I forget.

If during these eerily silent periods I stuck my head into the hall to look for signs of life, I'd hear faint but definitely amplified speechery, as if some unseen somebody somewhere down some corridors on the other side of several concrete walls were delivering a lecture via megaphone.  I also noticed that I routinely heard the ghostly warblings of an anthemy tune shortly before students started filtering in.  I therefore hypothesized these odd, lonely times must involve school assemblies of some sort.  I did ask people what had transpired after the first few such happenings but nobody had enough English to fill me in so I let it go and have since considered the unannounced delays on these special days and the shortening (by 10 whole minutes!) of my subsequent classes on said days as accidental, though blessed, gifts from the pitiless educationing machine that is my school.

Today I learned these events are in fact assemblies, held on what is probably best called the "playground" even though it lacks the most meagre shreds of whimsy necessary for play and is honestly just a big flat square of dirt, to which I have heretofore never been invited.  Blessedly.  Some foreigners would feel slighted by such exclusion from community functions but for my part I greatly prefer sitting alone for 35 minutes to standing in front of the school staring eastward into the sun and exposed to the bitterness of the morning elements while the principal exhorts the student body to learn really hard in math class so the nation can finally overcome the shame of being a Japanese colony 100 years ago.  I mean, take your pick:  attend the local potentate's incomprehensible ceremony or enjoy some surprise you-time. 

This morning's occasion for speechmaking was a ceremony marking the first day of the semester for incoming first grade students.  Chortle told me about the gathering and my compulsory attendance thereof roughly 50 seconds before the show started, so we had to run to our places.  I'm glad she was there to direct me through the motions everyone else has learned by rote.  "The flag," she said, as the teachers flanking the concrete podium in front of the big dirt square turned to face the flag.  A kid climbed onto the podium, stood in front of the lectern and, for the benefit of his 600 assembled peers--none of whom sang along--beat 3/4 through the national anthem in the most textbook style imaginable.  "Turn around," she said, as the teachers turned to present a unified front to the incoming first grade and the student conductor quit his post.

Next came the speechmaking.  There were three microphones:  one in possession of the P.E. teacher acting as drill sergeant, loudly demanding silence from the increasingly restive student body; one malfunctioning at the lectern when the principal began his oration and one hastily-brought replacement for same.  I can't testify to the contents of the speeches, what with the low quality audio, the distracting blasts of static and feedback and it all being in Korean, but I can tell you the high point of my bemusement came when the teachers departing for other schools (e.g. Stealth Korean) were formally introduced to students who will never see them again.  That was a puzzler.

The ceremony ended with the student conductor beating 4/4 through a replaying of the school song from--I'm speculating here--a wax cylinder.  None of new students sang along, perhaps because they'd never heard their new school's theme song before but maybe because they're lazy or weren't in a singing mood after half an hour of standing at attention.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bukchon, I think.

I paid a visit to Bukchon (I think that's what it's called, anyway), a residential neighborhood set in the hills north of the city center.  It's a famous area because its homes somewhat resemble traditional Korean structures.  I went on a Saturday afternoon and found the place crawling with Korean tourists taking pictures of the way their ancestors might have lived had they enjoyed access to concrete, high-quality masonry, reliable carpenters, the printing press, electricity, interior decorators, etc.