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Shouting Korea! June 28, 2010

Filed under: Travel Blog — olgathered @ 2:50 am

Watching the Koreans watch soccer is very similar to watching fat, white Americans watch Ohio State Football in Columbus. Everyone is wearing red, drunk, and cheering as a group. Of course there are some glaring differences. First, we say, “Go! Go! Go!” They say, “Ka! Ka! Ka!” We wear buckeyes. They wear devil horns. While the Koreans are more enthusiastic, they are less obnoxious and belligerent. Their cheers are far more well rehearsed. It is much more involved than drunkenly calling back “I-O.” Once they’ve settled down after the cheering, they clap politely, golf style. They are far more invested in their team. They are in this together. They win together and lose together. Last night as the Uruguay game was playing out, the people filling the bars and streets cheered together. As we walked past, Korea scored a goal, and a stranger jumped up and hugged Doug.

Koreans are fiercely proud of their World Cup soccer team, but then again they are fiercely proud of Korea. Americans, on the other hand, have been on top so long that we take for granted our little victories, hell even our major victories don’t seem to make headline news. Each Korean has a team playing in South Africa. Everyone shares that one team. That team is representing every single South Korean. We haven’t had that feeling at home since the Miracle on Ice in 1980, and we needed a Cold War to heat up our interest for that one. Koreans get excited when anyone from Korea succeeds. Famous Korean athletes are referred to as national heroes. People are personally proud of these famous Koreans, as though those athletes trained just for them.

I’ve never felt this sense of unity as an American. The one thing that makes Americans different from the rest of the world (since we are made up of the rest of the world) is our individuality. We never do anything together. We don’t tread on each other. Our national motto is, “You aren’t the boss of me.” This is great in so many ways. Our individuality drives our creativity and ingenuity, but it leaves us each on our own. We are so big and so powerful that we take our success for granted. We don’t even notice when we set metal winning records at the Olympics. We don’t care how our schools are ranked in the world. We aren’t cheering our victories as a group.

Koreans stick together. They even cheer on the North Korean soccer team, because they are Korean. I’ve wondered what drives this fierce patriotism. I knew that smaller nations rout for their teams harder, because they need the routing more than a superpower that can just pay for the finest sports teams around. I knew that as one of the most homogeneous societies in the world, they are proud of their heritage, their unique history and ancestry. I knew that as one of the fastest developed countries of the past one hundred years they are proud of the economy they have built in a single generation.

Then today, I visited Seodaemun Prison History Hall. The Robin Island of Korea, located in the heart of Seoul it is where the Japanese imprisoned, tortured and killed Korean patriots during the imperial occupancy that lasted from 1908 until Korean independence, and division, in 1945. This would turn out to be a short-lived moment of peace as a mere 5 years later, the Korean War would begin (60 years ago this week).

No wonder Koreans are so bound together. Korea is not a country that has gone out and conquered other people, like the U.S., England, Spain, Japan, and China. They are a small nation which has been dealt a lot of hard times to power through, and they have powered through with the best of them. This scrappy country, in the past 100 years, has not only won its independence from Japan and battled to save its self from Communist rule (with a little help from her friends) but it has built one of the fastest growing economies in the world. South Korea is, so far, the only nation that once received aid from foreign nations to now give aid to developing nations. They outrank the U.S. in education hands down. They are investing in and working toward their future. Not their individual futures, but the future of their nation. Each individual success builds a stronger Korea. Every goal that is scored validates the 50 hour work week and the endless hours of study.

You cannot keep Korea down. Like Texas, it’s best not to be messed with.


So all I needed was a good job? June 25, 2010

Filed under: Travel Blog — olgathered @ 6:31 pm

Feeling beaten down from a week of 8 year olds, I just lied down in bed with my laptop and killed a half hour dicking around on all of the internets. As I thought to myself, “Don’t waste any more time in bed. You’ve got to get to the gym, clean up the house, sit outside and enjoy the weather, take a walk, and get some shopping done. If you want to go to Seoul tonight you’d better get gussied up, so Go Go Go!” I realized, I’m not in a rut anymore.

My 20’s really didn’t play out the way I dreamed that they would. When I was in high school in the prosperous 90’s I assumed that smart, hard-working people went to college and then got good jobs that they found fulfilling and that contributed to society in someway. 5 years after my college graduation, I learned how wrong I had been. I understand that a lot of it was bad timing and bad location. I graduated just in time for the economy to tank and then lived in Dayton, Ohio. There just weren’t any jobs to be had. I lowered my bar from wanting to work at a non-profit where I could better my community to wanting to work anywhere that would give me health insurance and allow me to keep my other two jobs. In my little bit of time off I would get stuck, deeply stuck. I could waste an entire day in bed too overwhelmed by a combination of over work, poverty and the pressing disappointment of being young in the new millenium.

I dragged myself home from class this beautiful Friday afternoon after a long week of satisfying work that I am pretty darn good at. I crawled up and wasted about an hour doing nothing. That’s when I realized how long it has been since I wasted time. No Farmville. Far less TV and movies. I’m even sleeping every night without medicine. I never need to a self induced pep talk to get out of bed in the morning. It is amazing what having good work will do for a person’s well-being.


Take a deep breath Mom. You’re not going to like this one. June 17, 2010

Filed under: Travel Blog — olgathered @ 2:22 am

My freshly minted gym membership got me my first workout in months. After some key confusion I went into the locker room to change from Teacher Mary into sweaty foreigner.

A few rules you should know…

Leave your member card, take a locker key
Shoes off just inside the locker room door
People will look at you funny if you laugh out loud to This American Life on the treadmill, so just go ahead and do it
Keep your key with you
The gym provides clothes, but only if you pay extra each month
There is no spray and wipe policy on equipment so if you get the heeby geebies from other people’s stank wipe down before and after
In the locker rooms, we are naked. That’s something we do here, being naked.

I now know why American women have such distorted images of our own bodies. We have no idea what a naked woman looks like. To the best of our knowledge normal women look like strippers and porn stars. If what you see in the mirror in the privacy of your own home is different from a porn star who, by the way, has had 10’s of thousands of dollars of surgery to look that way, then I guess you must not be normal.

Don’t get me wrong. Korean women are not empowered. They don’t love themselves more than we do. They’ve got their own bag of nuts to sort through. The difference is that Korean women are under huge, crushing pressure to be beautiful. About 76% of Korean women between the ages of 20 and 40 have had plastic surgery. Most of those women paid about $2000 to have a fold put in their eyelid. American women are under pressure to be sexy, so much so that we can’t be naked without it being sexy, which is stupid. Of course naked isn’t always sexy. Didn’t you see that episode of Seinfeld? There are pickle jars to be opened. This pressure to be sexy moves American women to get the far more disturbing and far less trivial cosmetic surgery known as a labiaplasty. Use your Latin root words to figure out what that snips away.

I was on the young end of things in this locker room. This is not where people go to lose weight. This is where people go to stay healthy. Maybe a quarter of the people in the room wore clothes, anything more than either a bra, underwear or socks. Most people were naked. I mean, as the day you were born. I could see it all. Every curve. Every bulge. Every stretch mark. Every hair. And they just stood there! Going about their business as if they weren’t doing some thing totally weird and gross and embarrassing and wrong.

As I called it a night I braced myself for the onslaught of womanly flesh. I opened my locker and surrounded by the honesty of the room, I remembered that my mother, who hasn’t been naked since 1952, wasn’t there. She wasn’t even in this hemisphere. I could do what I wanted and what I wanted to do is fix my soggy gym hair naked. Even though I am 10 lbs overweight. Even though I am an exotic oddity. Even though my students tell me that my butt is big like a duck’s. Even though the skin covering my belly hasn’t seen daylight since 1999. There I stood, honest, true, me.


Washing my mouth out with soup June 15, 2010

Filed under: Travel Blog — olgathered @ 1:21 pm
Tags: , ,

It is time you were introduced to two important people in my Korean life. Their names are… well… um… Their names aren’t important. The husband and wife who own my favorite restaurant here in Namyangju are officially as of tonight, my Korean mom and dad.

The restaurant, which we call Angry Sperm’s because the logo looks like a red sperm cell wearing a crown, is always my favorite meal. That moment before a meal, when you are accessing all of the possibilities, that is where I often find myself fully saturated in thoughts of, “rice or noodles? fish or pork? soup or BBQ?” In my pre-meal thoughts I often think, “anything that isn’t Korean.” I’m sure many Americans can sympathize. I love Korean food. I love Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Mexican, Indian, French and Greek food, but none of them for every meal. Even though I often feel like this, I can always go for Angry Sperm.

They, like many places, serve meat that you then wrap up in lettuce with garlic, red pepper paste, and any of the side dishes that they bring you. I am assured that the side dishes are all healthy as Pop points to them, flexes his arms and says, “Strong. Health.” The meat here is better and cheaper. It isn’t BBQ, like a lot of places. I don’t have to cook it myself at the table. It is seasoned, almost gristle free, and sweet. They also, like most places, serve boiling hot soup. Ah, but the soup here is, as I tell Pop, “This soup. Best soup. All Korea. So good.” It has tofu, what I think might be zucchini and these teeny tiny mushrooms. My favorite thing about this soup? It in no way tastes as though it has been flavored by a fish. Since I’ve caught my first Korean cold, it’s all I want to eat. Move over chicken noodle, there’s a new soup in my life and I can’t love you both.

Tonight I get out of class before the rest of the teachers and since I’m all plugged up, stuffy, and generally fussy I made a b-line straight from work to my favorite bowl of soup. As I walked there I tried to think of how to ask for what I wanted, just one bowl of soup to go. No, not here. To go. Soup. Hot. Bowl. (insert pantomime of eating soup with a spoon and saying “mmmm soup” here) Not here. No friend. Working. Teaching. One. Soup. Like what that guy has. There. Me. Same. To go.

That did it.

Pop beckoned me to sit down while I wait. I asked the young man working there, “English?” He gave me the arms crossed in an X to show “No.” Then Mom came out and both Mom and Pop gave me a quick lesson on the Korean word for soup. Which is deongjang. Now she tells me.

I got out my wallet to pay and Mom said no and showed me the arms X, took my wallet out of my hands and put it in my purse. I said “Kamsamneeda. So kind.” and bowed.

Then Pop told me, in not so many words, that since the time that I ate there wearing pigtails that my nickname at the restaurant has remained Pippi. Very old school roller girls and my real mom should understand why this is awesome.

No matter where I go in life, I am always someone’s Pippi.

Quick update: Deongjang is the flavor of soup I like so damn much. Cheegae is soup. Deongjang is spicy red pepper paste.


More tears than a bookclub reading a Nicholas Sparks novel June 8, 2010

Filed under: Travel Blog — olgathered @ 11:17 pm

Those who are in my charge both love and fear me, which is a useful skill to have as either a benevolent dictator or as a teacher. A cold stare is all it takes to calm a crowd. The promise of a smile has them vying for my approval.

This is usually a good thing, but today was different. As I handed out the review test 2 minutes into class a little girl started crying uncontrollably and saying “Teacher, please. Please, teacher.” I stepped her out of the room and asked her what was wrong. This only turned up the water works.

Thankfully one of the Korean staff members walked by and scooped her away. A few minutes later, the head of the school brought her back to the room. My broken bird of a student seemed to be feeling better. I couldn’t help but think about what could have happened to this poor child earlier in her day that had made her so upset.

During a five-minute break, the Korean staffer asked if I had a moment. She opened with, “We think that you are a great teacher in many ways.” Oh shit. In what ways am I so terrible that I reduced a little girl to tears?

Apparently my voice is so loud and so high that mere thought of it makes very shy Asian children weep.


Itaewonderful June 6, 2010

Filed under: Travel Blog — olgathered @ 11:02 pm

New York keeps it foreigners divided into neighborhoods: Chinatown, Little Italy, Spanish Harlem. Seoul just lumps them all together in one glorious subway stop off line 6, Itaewon.

Immediately upon leaving the subway system I was delighted to finally find kitschy crap that says Korea on it! I’ve been longing for a snow globe, magnet, anything that looks Korea-ish. Things here look like stuff. Just the way stuff looks at home. But in Itaewon, I could find more crap than I could carry. I got key chains, magnets and pens to send back home. (Get ready for a bunch of crap you don’t need Mom and Dad!)

There were plenty of restaurants and shops catering to the homesick westerner and some more specifically to Americans. We started off our day with breakfast! BREAKFAST! Can you even imagine dear reader? The last time I had breakfast was at Golden Nugget on April 22nd. At Richard’s Copycat All American Diner I laid 2 buttermilk pancakes (with maple syrup), 2 strips of bacon, home fried potatoes, and some of Doug’s sausage to waste. It was glorious. Most importantly, Doug had his first glass of fountain Diet Coke since we flew out of San Fransisco. It was a little like walking in on an intimate moment between too long separated lovers. I thought about excusing myself to give Doug and his drink some alone time, but then they brought me my food and all bets were off.

After eating back all the weight I’ve lost since getting here, we made our way up the street to the “foreign store.” You learn pretty quick when living in Asia that the world does not revolve around the good old U.S. of A. The foreign store is not an American store. Oh, sure, it has an American section, but it also has Indian, Mexican, African, British, Thai, and Chinese to make room for. I bought Quaker Oats, maple syrup, salt & vinegar chips, salsa, tortillas, and 2 lbs of cheese.

Then it was off to “What the Book?” the English book store. As great as it was to see so many books that I long to read, I let Doug do all the shopping here. He found some rare used books that he hasn’t ever seen back home: The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a book I don’t care about, and a book by someone he actually knows. He can send the author an e-mail and tell him that he bought his book in Seoul!

Walking up and down the allies, I noticed right away that there were more African-Americans here than anywhere I’d seen so far. While this is true, there are far more Africans in Itaewon than African-Americans. So there were the Americans (who you could spot because no matter what race we are, we are all fat) there were the Africans, and that’s only the beginning. There were Russians, which isn’t terribly surprising considering they share a small sliver of border with North Korea. I now know where to get my food soaked in vinegar fix. There were Greeks which we noticed first by their delicious Greekie smell. Something smelled an awful lot like gyros and then there it was, a huge rotating hunk of meat. There were Germans, French, Brits, Aussies, Thai, Chinese, and wouldn’t you know it, we ran into my favorite Kiwi at the foreign store. Amber found us because she heard someone proclaim “Dear sweet god. Look at all that cheese”
If you or someone you know is a leather daddy, send them to Itaewon. There is leather everything. Doug pissed all over himself when we found a shop that custom makes cowboy boots. To be fair, the boots were a thing of beauty. In fact, one Mr. Bill Clinton had a pair of boots made by this store. Apparently, his giant feet require custom shoes. It made me feel at home to see a framed letter from a president in a clothing store. Price Brothers back home has a framed letter from Kennedy.

At the end of the day we went to Amigos… guess what kind of food they serve. I had a chimichanga and Doug had an enchilada and a burrito. It was good, expensive, but good. (For the American in Korea longing for a Mexican fix, I much prefer Dos Tacos in Hongdae) It was good to have refried beans again even though they were not pinto, nor were they black, but red beans. Work with what you’ve got I guess.

We passed a bar that sells Makers Mark, the first I’ve seen since the duty-free shops. At 70,000 won a bottle, I know where I’ll head for a very special occasion.

Everyone in Itaewon speaks English. It was more difficult to adjust to this than the lack of English in Namyangju. I kept saying kamsamneyda and annyanghaseyo and getting “aren’t you a cute tourist” looks. I also had my camera out constantly. Look, I’m too old to be cool. Yes, I’m a tourist. Yes, this is awesome. Yes, I have a travel book in my purse. Yes, I’m going to take pictures of the food in the grocery store. Deal with it.

I went into an antique shop, my very last stop of the day. It was cramped and didn’t look like it got as much traffic as the other stores on the street. Honestly, it looked a little like I might find a gremlin and the old woman sitting alone in the shop would tell me all the rules of its care. Instead she showed me these beautiful jade lions that I feel in love with and emptied what was left in my wallet for. They are the kind of thing that I will keep forever. Long after I’ve dealt with Doug and he’s no longer around and my kids have thrown me in a second-rate nursing home, I’ll still have these little jade lions. I’ll tell the girl who changes my Depends that I got them when I was young and lived in South Korea.


A Little Beautiful June 1, 2010

Filed under: Travel Blog — olgathered @ 11:42 pm

My painfully honest students told me that they missed Teacher Amber because she is very beautiful and very nice. They said, upon meeting me, that I am a little beautiful.

So there you have it. I’m not hard on the eyes. I’m no Amber, but I’m a little beautiful. I take it as a compliment. Amber is stunning. I’m honored to come in second place to her.

The older students said that my husbands beard looks dirty. Just so you know, my husband doesn’t have a beard. He has sideburns, and they are hot.

I may not be the prettiest teacher, but some of my students from last term seemed genuinely disapointed that I wouldn’t be teaching their class this term. It felt really good to hear students wish that they had me as their teacher, especially the ones that I was so hard on.


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