Monday, September 17, 2012

The Korean Compliment

I've always has an ample supply of fleshy parts on my face. I'm not saying I'm fat. I just mean if I were in some kind of "stranded with others and food is all gone and dang we're gonna have to each each other now," people would start to see big ol' pork chops where my cheeks are. In fact, much to my mother's horror, I wrote about the very thing on another blog a few years ago.  If you've known me long enough, I've probably make the "okay" sign with my fingers, smiled, and put one of my doughy cheeks in the okay hole, daring you to poke it. I don't know why. It's just one of my semi anti-climatic party tricks. 
My cheeks are big.

So, imagine my surprise here in Korea when I was told for the first time (and it has happened several times since then) that I have a "small face":  "Teacher! You! Small face!" This is what I pictured--->, and as you may imagine, I began to argue that my face was not only normal-sized, but a little on the fuller side.
I didn't get it. Small face? Look. A student even wrote it down. (And, as a side-note, I'm also 5'4". Not exactly an amazon teacher.)
I came home and asked the former English teacher what in God's name it could mean to be told I have a small face. "Oh. Yeah. That's a compliment," she explained. "Korean people think they have big faces, so to be told you have a small face is a good thing." Really? Wait. What? Korean faces aren't big. And my face isn't small. What's going on here?

I was told to prepare myself for being told "You're pretty" and "You're beautiful" throughout the day. By students. Coworkers. The principal. Strangers on the street. 

And that does happen. It's kind of nice, actually. This kind of thing only happens at home when one steps foot into a nursing home. If the residents aren't stroked out or blind, mind you. Otherwise, it's easy to go around feeling pretty invisible or judged in the U.S. of A. Not here. 

But, then there's that other level of Korean compliments. The ones I don't really understand. The best I can do is assume it's something nice and reply with a Korean "thank you," which is one of the few things I know how to say. 

I just worry that maybe the conversation could sound a little like this:

Korean person (in Korean): Man. You are one white-ass honkey of a foreigner.
Me: Thank you.
Korean person: And dumb. 
Me (bowing): Thank you.
Korean person: And you've got bug-eyes.
Me: Thank you.

I've been told I have big eyes. Apparently, that's a common compliment, too. I picture this---->

 But that's not what it means, I'm told. 

The other day, I was sitting at a table of 6 students, helping one with an assignment. Before long, I was aware that one of the students, a girl, was gently but persistently pulling at my arm hair. 

"Um," I said, "what are you doing there?"
"Hair!" she replied. "Pan-TAS-tic!" Then she squinted and got within millimeters of my face. "Face hair! Oh! Pan-TAS-tic!"


Again...I pictured this. I heard ghoulish hairy-faced freak. But that's not what it meant. At least I think it wasn't. Dang it. 

I did a lesson where introduced kids to my life and my hobbies. Afterwards, I asked them to list 4 things they learned about me. Some of them did. "My teacher likes to hike." "My teacher has a sister." That kind of thing. But then there were a few others. Compliments, I think. It's hard to tell. I'll let you be the judge:
 "My new teacher is look like gohst."
Translation: You are one white-ass muthaf*****."
 "My new teacher is wonder woman."
Translation: She is scantily clad and has large bracelets on."
 "My new teacher looks like spokefast. My new teacher is strange."
Translation: I speak fast. No compliment there. And I'm strange.

 Wait a second..
 "My new teacher look like mouse 
+ My new teacher look like monkey."
I'm going to take that as a compliment here.
 I do like hiking. 
I'm not tall. I mean, maybe you're thinking "But she's taller than most Koreans." I'm not. By a long-shot.
 A compliment, albeit a slightly weird one.
 "My teacher is funny."
"My teacher is sexy." 
Stop at "funny," kid. Because the other is just plain creepy. 

A couple of nights ago I was passing a little shop on the way home from getting coffee. 

A certain pink nightgown caught my eye.

 It was a treasure of Engrish and nonsensical magic. I eyeballed it a bit, and then went into the shop. 

Once inside, the owner and I exchanged pleasantries and then he followed me a bit. "You are bery bea-YOU-tee-pul," he said. 

"Thank you." I bowed a little. Coming up from the bow, I spied another nightgown. This one was for children. It had little rabbit whiskers on the belly and some print above. I moved a little closer and read: 

"Little Pussy- My cute little animals are a treasure house of the most intimate and best"

I. was. horrified. My eyes widened like two spinning saucers. 
"Ah!" said the shop owner. "Your eyes! So beau-tee-pul! So

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Korean "SURPRISE!"

This is Adam. 

He's been in Korea for almost two weeks and has just completed his training in Jeonju, along with a couple hundred other teachers. He is now on his way to his designated province to sign some paperwork and then settle into his new life for a year. 

He, like me and the other 3 teachers on the bus, had no idea where or what he'd be teaching just 1 day prior to this photo being taken, even though he packed up and moved thousands of miles from everything he knows. 

He, like me, probably had concerned friends and family at home frequently asking, up until the day of his departure, "But....but...don't you know WHERE you'll be living? Do you know what age you'll be teaching? Haven't they even told you that?" I remember the lady at the luggage store nearly having a panic attack when I wasn't able to give her details about my placement. Must be hard for you, lady.

Here's the deal. We didn't know squat. None of us did. And it's not like it was being kept a big old secret. Maybe it was. It's just...the Korean way, it seems. Information is spotty, at best. And as teachers here to teach English for a year or more, we seem to be a group of people who are okay with the not knowing. Okay with having things explained at the last-minute. Or not explained at all. Okay with plans changing on a dime.

It's what I call The Korean "SURPRISE!"

Case in point-

Here Adam is at the Gyeongsangnam-do Office of Education. We were excited to sign our papers, meet our co-teachers, and separately head out to our new living spaces. I had just found out I'd be teaching at three *gulp* middle schools in a small town called Hadong. Adam would be an hour or so away in another town. At two schools.

While all five of us sat at a long boardroom-type table signing papers, our coordinator left the room and came back with an announcement. Adam's placement was changing. He would now be in another town. With another grade level. "SURPRISE!"

A few minutes later, the man left the room again. He came back with another announcement. Adam's placement had changed again. "SURPRISE!' He would now be in yet another city. "Better for you. Closer to Busan." Different schools. "SURPRISE!" Adam took it in stride and went with the flow. It's what you do here in Korea if you want to keep your blood pressure down and not get your traveling panties in a bunch.

I got my first big dose of the Korean SURPRISE! in my second week on the job. I was at my tiny rural school that I go to on Thursdays. I see the entire school in three class periods- no class larger than 9 students. It's a cushie job. I'm not gonna lie. I get there about 9:40 and don't teach until 11:15. A break. Another class. Lunch. A long break. My final class. And that's it. Sweet.

I had done it once before, so I was in the groove by week two. Having navigated the bus route by myself and hopped off in the middle of the otherwise barren road, I walked across the field to my school, thinking of what I good life I have.

When I entered the building and swapped out my street shoes for my school slippers, I was met by my co-teacher, Mr. Kang, a nice if not somewhat reserved man.

"Ah. Bridget," he side-whispers to me. "There is a...ah...schedule change today."

"No problem!" I grin. I am a happy person who doesn't mind going with the flow. My great uncle has given me the nickname "La-Di-Da" as a result. I can do this.

"Yes," he continues."Your...ah...afternoon class has....ah...moved to the morning."

"Oh!" (SURPRISE!) "No problem. Thank you for telling me." 

"And it is okay? You also have extra class at 4:15?" (SURPRISE!)

"Extra class?"

"Yes, yes. Extra class. Conversation class. is....ah...okay?"

"Okay. Sure. No problem!" I smile again. I have no idea what an extra conversation class is, but I'll teach it. I can probably figure something out. "Until when?"


"When is the extra class over?"

"Ah! 5....ah....5:15." (SURPRISE!)

Dang. That's a late day. But, I do have the easiest schedule in the world, so I can't complain. Alright. I'm in. I'll just walk to my classroom and get set up for the class I have to teach in 2-ish hours....

(SUPRISE!) There are kids in my classroom waiting for me to teach! Right then! (SURPRISE!) The schedule change he was hinting at refers to the fact that my afternoon was currently IN my classroom and had been waiting there for me to show up. 

True, I could have been called the night before or even that morning so I could get to school earlier. But that would ruin the SURPRISE! And who, really, likes to ruin a SURPRISE? No one. At least, not Koreans. 

During that SURPRISE class, Mr. Kang again approached me with a side-whisper. "Ah...your period 4 class. It is...ah...canceled." This happens quite a bit. If you're lucky, you'll be told in advance. 

Otherwise, you may find yourself at the front of the class, powerpoint loaded and ready to go, worksheets copied, and ten minutes past the time your class is supposed to start, you classroom looks like this:

Where are your students? No idea. 

Will someone come tell you about it? Probably not. Will your students be coming at another unexpected time in the day? Could be. Not sure.

They may be on a field trip. They may have a special listening test somewhere else in the building. There may be no school, and you were the last to find out about it. SURPRISE! Go with it. Why not?

Other times you may be walking into what you think will be your empty classroom because you don't teach for several hours, only to find this:

I've had a student pop into my room and I'll think, "Aw. That's cute. They must just want to visit." A few minutes later, another student enters. Then a few more trickle in. By the time 30 are in my room, sitting at their desks, looking at me expectedly, I get the gist that there was a schedule change. This is my class. I'm supposed to be teaching it now. SURPRISE!

Back to that Thursday with my SURPRISE morning class and my SURPRISE added conversation class. The day also had a canceled class. (SUPRISE!), a class show up 2 hours early (SURPRISE!), and a teacher remove an entire class from my room 15 minutes into the lesson (SURPRISE!) for God knows what.

Maybe a year from now, this will really piss me off. Maybe I'll pull my hair and curse at what could be perceived as a complete and utter disregard of professionalism. That's possible. 

But for now, I like the Korean SURPRISE! It's like a little jolt of "Whoa!" in the middle of the day. A reminder that I have little control over what is happening around me.

But isn't that the case all the time? Isn't the SURPRISE! really that control is an illusion, at best? I think so. 

Next time I'm expecting class and 15 minutes later I poke my head into the halls and see this:
I'm throwing myself a little SURPRISE party in my head. Why not.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Engrish 101

When I first arrived in Korea, I went looking for a little notebook to use as a journal. In a scavenger hunt type storefront shop, I found a notebook hidden among various non-related things crammed in a shelf. 

I wasn't so surprised to see English on it. English words and phrases can often be found on signs and products. But this was an entire poem! 

I held it up and did my best to give it a heart-felt reading, right there in the store;

Dew of light

Throw light on a time  
(Do what now?)
Be on the rolls
(Be ON them? What?)
The lights rolls well  
(Lights...plural? I'm so confused.)

Come to light 
(Are you using your vampire voice?)

The light lifts its spire
The tide rolls lights smooth
(I don' what??)
Lift a passage from the light
(If I knew how, but what?)
Roll the light into a ball
(Roll. the light. Roll it into a...ball?)

Roll a ball along the light
(Now you're just talkin' crazy talk right there.)
Roll down
(That I can do. I think)
Roll out the red carpet
Roll on

A roll of light closed by
(This is trippy.)
Roll oneself
(Case in point.)
Lights are rolling in
(I'm still a little stuck on how light rolls, exactly.)
Roll up
(I'm rolling this notebook up and buying it, I am!)

I had never read anything so incredibly confusing and awesome in my entire life. I purchased the notebook, and proceeded to both read it to people and ask them to read it, so I could hear it again and again.

I knew then that I would make it my part-time job to look for and enjoy all things "Engrish"- a term used for the magical and beautiful things that can happen to the English language when used by our Asian friends. 

When I settled into my little town of Hadong, I zig-zagged my way through the crowded market streets, keeping an eye out for English print.

Highly disappointed and critical when I found words that were spelled correctly and phrases that made sense, I was reminded that I am here to help non-English speakers have better command of my native language. So, I should be happy to see it used correctly. But I'm not there yet.

You know where I am? I'm at picking up this purse on the left and saying out loud, "How do you today? I do. How do you? You do too?" And looking for someone to share my Engrish joy. If I'm alone, I just mutter a little, "That's excellent. Truly, truly fantastic" and keep on my way.

 Play up. It's all have. Enough said.

Multi Stoking your beautiful body.  
I had no idea Korea was this racy. 
These are stockings, by the way.

If it weren't for Engrish, then I would have never known that "strawberry is made from love." That strawberry heart is happy fresh 100%. It's my goal in life to be happy fresh 100%, so I found this to be a little inspiring. It's also nice to know there is one strawberry out there made from love. Wonder where it is.

A 2013 calendar. I mean, carendar. 
I'm not gonna lie. I have trouble spelling that word, too. 
The a's and e's throw me.

Okay. Let's you and me try to figure out these directions on the back of a cushion. 

"This product is manufactured with the body theory."
 I'd love to know what that is. Hope it doesn't have to do with multi-stoking your beautiful body.
"The appearance is waved with air inside."

"It is convenient and comfortable. It is the best product for tour and advisement."
 That's awesome. Because when I came into the store, I asked the clerk, "Hey, do you have something that's really good for tour and advisement?" And she led me right here.
"Cautions: squeeze the valve when you puff or discharge." 
 I think you really need to see a doctor if this is happening.
"Keep far from fire; avoid heavy load and pointed articles. A pair of holes on the wing can allow a cord to go through."

I should say so. Wait...what was that?

Here's my favorite so far, found in an E-Mart (like a Wal-Mart) in Jinju.


There's so much good going on right there, it's hard to know where to start. 

I'll leave you with this bit of information about vocabulary English, sent to me by my friend in a neighboring province. 

"A lot of things that you undergo tests
Only two made their way to fight that can get you.
Beat up! Beotieo up! NOT ONLY FOR ME
Punch force is created.
People will see me out a lot of important."

Exactly. That's it, exactly. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

My History with Kimchee

I'm not going to lie. The first time I tasted kimchee (also spelled kimchi), I thought I was going to die. I don't mean it was nasty, which it most certainly was, I mean I thought a violent death preceded by massive amounts of vomiting and diarrhea would happen as a
                                                             result of the one tiny bite I
                                                             managed to take.

This was at U. City Grill, a tiny diner-in my hometown of St. Louis. Unlike the runny eggs and greasy hashbrowns which are usually slid down the counters to the patrons of most diners of this type, this one serves Korean dishes only. Here you can get your bibimbap, bulgogi, and a side of kimchee prepared by a grimacing Korean man in his 40s, the sole owner and employee.

It was here that my friend Helena suggested I come to taste Korean cuisine for the first time. This in preparation for my upcoming trip to Korea where I'd be teaching for one year. I was terrified of what I imagined to be the spiciest food on the planet, my gut still reeling from putting my tongue on the pepper juice dispenser at Steak n- Shake 25 years earlier in a dare.

Helena assured me I'd be okay. And I thought I might. Until the kimchee was served.

It looked like ass. It smelled like assier-ass. And I was afraid. I don't mean I didn't feel like eating it. I mean I was full of terror.

The thing is- I really want to fit in in Korea. I want to eat what's served to me and I want to like it. Genuinely like it. I want the Korean people to smile and nod their heads and take me in as one of their own, albeit a freckly, red-headed, fuzzy-armed one of their own. So I decided then and there I'd force myself to like kimchee. I'd just FORCE it to happen, one little bite at a time.

Have you ever decided to take some cabbage and put it in the ground to ferment and then add a shitload of spicy stuff to it until it's nearly inedible? Yes? Then you've made yourself some kimchee.  At least, that's how I felt about it at first. My first impressions of my first tiny bite? It was like a cold, spicy, hard-to-chew insole of the nasty kid in gym class. I was screwed. The Korean people would never like me.

A few nights before leaving for Korea, I tried it again. This time I was with a host of good friends and felt like I had moral support. 

Conclusion: it still tasted like ass. 
But I kept my thoughts to myself. Progress.

When I got to Korea, I spent the first week or so at a University in Jeonju with a few hundred other teachers. Here, kimchee was served with every meal- breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Considering all of the meals were about the same, the photo on the right could be either of the above. Near my spoon, I'd like you to notice, is a sizeable bit of kimchee. I considered this my kimchee basic training, and I'd be damned if I wouldn't be able to eat it in front of my Korean co-workers by the time our orientation was over.

First meal at school. I teach in 3 middle schools and all use these prison-esque trays. You can bet your kimchee-butt that one of those little compartments at the top will be filled with kimchee, as the middle one is in this photo. Guess who ate the shit out of that kimchee? I did. Being giggled about and told my face was red like an apple was just part of the process. I was doing it, I was. BOO-YAH, KIMCHEE! Take that!

By several school meals in, I was not only managing to make the kimchee go down, I was enjoying the mouth-burning, nose-running sensation I got after every lunch. I felt alive, somehow. Not in the I'm about to have explosive diarrhea alive, but the good kind. The my-insides-feel-all-healthy-and-this-kimchee-is-doing-miracles kind of alive. Could it be? I think I'm beginning to like kimchee!

When eating out, especially with a group, it's typical to be served many little sides with your meal. Lots of pickled things, some questionably-sized mini bird eggs, kimchee pancackes, fish cakes, all types of business. I willingly go for the kimchee and it's kimchee buddies, such as the pancakes. I don't sweat and turn red like I used to, and I think kimchee is pretty darned yummy.

I recently went exploring in a nearby city about an hour away. Although it took me going to 4 restaurants before I could find one to serve me (lost in translastion?) I finally got seated in a little mom and pop restaurant owned by a wonderful couple who didn't speak much English. When they set the little bowl of kimchee on my table, I willingly gobbled it up. They brought out more kimchee. I ate that, too. This time, the wife sat at my table and watched me eat it, smiling warmly the entire time.

I can't believe I like kimchee. And the Korean people? Well, I feel like Sally Field over here. "[They] like me! [They] really, really like me!"And I like their kimchee. Go figure.