Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Well, it took you long enough!

As I sit here polishing off the remains of a tomato and cucumber salad (left over from an impromptu cookout), I am put in mind of every single family barbeque I have ever attended. Memorial Day, Father's Day, the sweltering heat of July 4th, the final Labor Day get together, and others throughout the year. Accidentally over-cooked burgers, purposely-burned hot dogs, a pan of deliciously greasy fried potatoes, chips with at least two dips, and a bowl of this stuff. Staples of my family's culinary tradition. And always the best part was eating the leftover salad, after everyone was gone, and it had been sitting there marinating in its vinaigrette for about 4 hours. Having to fight my mom for the last bites of tomato... Interesting that something so basic as a salad could make me suddenly realize exactly how far I am from home, feel the distance in my heart, almost as though I caught a whiff of my grandma's spaghetti.

I haven't felt too homesick here, except for the food. I have decided, after roughly 100-odd Korean meals, that this cuisine is not--and never will be--one of my favorites. I find it to be tolerable to my taste buds. The flavors are fine, and usually inoffensive, but they don't excite me. Not half as much as the taste of homemade chicken pot pie or a spicy chili that's been simmering for hours. The scent of kimchi doesn't begin to make me salivate, unlike the very *idea* of my grandma's spaghetti and meatballs. I could be led blindfolded into a home, unaware of time and place, but if they were cooking Thanksgiving dinner, I would know it from smell alone, such is my dedication to that meal. Nothing that I have yet encountered here has moved me in that way. Of course, two months does not an expert make, so I am truly hoping to be eating these words (no pun intended) in short order. I will let you know, naturally.

I realize that I haven't posted on here in a good long while, and I do apologize for that. I have been grossly lazy and neglectful, unfortunately. But, I hope to get you all caught up tonight, and if not entirely tonight, then in very short order. I have actually created a list of things I want to update you on, so let's start with that, shall we?

First of all-the swimming pool. It was finally opened about two weeks ago, stirring up much excitement among the staff and students. Mystifyingly, they only filled up this 6 foot deep, near-Olympic size swimming pool with about 2 feet of water. Literally, when I stood up in it, it came to just about my knees. I could sit on my butt and have my head entirely above the water. We all thought it was temporary, but it hasn't changed yet. The debate is on about whether it's for safety reasons (little kids) or for financial reasons (pumping in so much water?). We still haven't figured it out. But, in shitty hot weather like this, if it were a foot deep, people wouldn't care.

I have been but one time, and here's why: the ladders are death traps. I have never had a problem with a swimming pool ladder in my LIFE, but these take the cake. They do not have flat steps, like an ordinary ladder would. No, they have round poles, like a piece of smooth piping. Consequently, when you're trying to go down or up one (and they're always wet), your feet are constantly slipping out from under you, ready to give way at any second! You have to have claws like an eagle to grip these poles, otherwise if your feet slip, your face is going to get mangled in the bars right before you fall about 4 feet down, tailbone first, into a mere puddle of water. No fucking thanks!!

Of course, I didn't discover this until I was on the steps and too terrified to turn back or keep going. I had a horrifying moment of paralysis, during which my arches were permanently injured by trying to grip the poles like an opossum clinging to a branch. Eventually, I kept going, until I got to about the 3rd step, after which I was sort of close to the water and just could not take it anymore. So I just let go and let God. My friends pissed themselves laughing at me as I landed ass-first in the water, but I didn't care. My only concern from that time forward was getting the hell back out!!

Eventually, my friends decided that they wanted to go on the water slides, even though they weren't turned on. These are like the type of slides that you see at the fair. Really high, you come down about halfway and it plateaus for a second, and then straight down. They all carted buckets of water to the top to get the slides wet so they could use them. Yours truly stayed in the main swimming pool (still calculating how to get the fuck out), but they were fun to watch. Eventually, I realized that I could not stay in the pool forever, so I went to the least-wet ladder, took a deep breath, and just did it. My arches still hurt to this day.

I sat with a couple people and watched everyone on the slides, cheering them on as they came flying down. It was so much fun! I felt young again, as they say. Here were the teachers, having as much, if not more, fun than the students. And I was part of it! This is big for me, since I usually have a hard time just living in the moment. And also, I don't know anyone at home who is as crazy as this lot of people! Damn Kiwis, I'm telling you!

My free time here is usually not occupied with such wild and crazy adventures as going for a swim. A typical night off might just be pizza and beer with friends, with maybe a movie thrown in for kicks. One night I hung out with Ryan and Emma (from England), and the primary form of entertainment was going through her iTunes collection to see which songs I (as the American) would recognize. I did not score well, sadly. But it was still a lot of fun.

One of the best improvements around here is that we've gotten better at scoring a pizza when the urge calls. There is a place near us called Mr. Pizza, and they do deliver (impossible for us to do over the phone as it's all in Korean), but they do a pretty fast take-out, too. For a total of $4 in cab fare, it's an easy choice. Their slogan is hilarious: "Mr. Pizza: Made for Women". What this was supposed to mean was beyond us, until the manager (who has great English) explained that it really is just a way for them to differentiate themselves from Pizza Hut and go after a different demographic. So, they wrap up your pizza box in a red bow! It's adorable!

Finding good western food here can be tricky (outside of fast food). I mean, if I want to spend $30 at the Outback, it's there, but what if I just want great hashed browns? Well, I make them myself, and it takes forever on my hotplate. Until a couple weeks ago, I thought this would forever be the case, but I was proved wrong. It turns out that there is a tiny café in Itaewon (the area near the base) that serves American breakfast foods, sandwiches, and smoothies!

Emma and I discovered this place after going to a nearby café where the Seoul Stitch 'n Bitch is held. (This is a meeting for people who do crafty shit like knitting and crochet. It started as an idea in a popular US book and spread around the world.) Anyway, this great café was just a couple doors down, serving such wonderful food! I actually had a hashed browns and bacon *sandwich* (which, upon eating, I decided I would not order again because it was just too weird, but the individual components were delicious). Emma tried a banana smoothie and was much impressed. Basically, it was a like a little bit of heaven right here in Seoul. I will definitely be going back.

The Stitch 'n Bitch itself was quite interesting. We showed up and there was only one other girl there (eventually another one showed up). It was sweltering hot, but the café wasn't serving any drinks. They appeared to be open, but since it was a Sunday, maybe they were just open as a courtesy to this group. So, it was back down the insanely steep stairs to get a drink at the American café. Back up the stairs, only one tiny fan. Sweating profusely. Still, it was a good time, once we got to talking and cooled down a bit. There was a cute little terrier puppy running around that Emma and I couldn't resist petting constantly. (We both had to leave our pets at home.) The girl who was there when we first arrived was a little weird. She was a definite bohemian, doesn't-shave-her-armpits type of chick. Plus, despite being very friendly, she had a strikingly ugly face that kept making me want to stare at her just to figure out what was wrong with it... It was unsettling! But she was interesting to talk to, and the other girl who came was totally normal, so it wasn't a complete loss. We didn't go back for the next meeting because we were exhausted from school, and the trip is longer than an hour by subway. I think we might go to the next meeting, though.

Our laundry finally got hooked up a couple weeks ago. It took me awhile to get over there and do my ever-increasing pile. Every time I stopped by to see if the machines were free, they were all occupied. (5 washers and *2* dryers, all tiny) Finally, I got a break during dinner time on a Wednesday. I was a little nervous to use them (all the directions are in Korean), but someone had posted up diagrams of what all the settings mean. So, I crossed my fingers and went for it. Luckily, it was fine and nothing turned out pink (unlike the last time we sent our laundry out with the laundry service).

Another, quite major, thing that has been going on since last we spoke is that I have been to the hospital to be checked for stomach problems. Some of you no doubt remember that I was having occasional stomach issues before I came here. My doctor at home said it was gastritis and gave me something like Prevacid to take for a month. Well, when I first got here (like the second week), I had a major attack and was unable to work for a day. I went to the international clinic at the hospital to get checked out. The American doctor there told me that I needed to have an ultrasound and endoscopy. (I can't remember if I've told this bit before!) Anyway, they weren't able to do the ultrasound because, as the Korean doctor told me, I was just too fat. Now, I have had 3 ultrasounds as a result of my surgeries for the ovarian cysts, with no problems. My friend Katie (a doctor) assures me that there would be no such problem. But still, the ladies in ultrasound refused to do it. So, I had him just set up the appointment for the endoscopy instead.

My appointment was on the 16th. I was nervous to go alone, but needed to have it done regardless. I got to the international clinic and they had a volunteer escort me to the correct place. They checked me in with no trouble. A nurse gave me some "bubbles for my stomach" medicine and a shot in the ass. She took me to a hallway waiting area and advised me to sit there until I was called into an exam room. Well, the seat she plunked me in was *directly* across from a large sign on the wall that said "Anorectal Disease Clinic-Endoanal and Endorectal Ultrasonography Department" HOLY SHIT! Wrong end!! But, the people in this hallway didn't appear to speak much English, so I decided to wait until I was called to start asking questions.

Turns out that I was in the right place, they just also did endoscopies there, too. I should maybe explain what one is for those of you who are young and/or healthy. An endoscopy is when they thread a camera on a tube down into your stomach so that they can take pictures and see what the hell is going on with you.

Let us just say that this is not a pleasant procedure under the best of circumstances. I won't go into detail here because my grandma is reading this and I don't want to upset her, but suffice to say that I felt like Nazi doctors were performing experiments on me. It was torture. It was horrifying. I felt violated like I have never felt in my life. I wanted to cry for my mommy.

I have since been told by Katie that my experience in the States would have been substantially different. I was not put under in any way here; at home I would have been nearly or totally out of it, with no recollection of the procedure when it was over. This would have made all the difference, I must say.

At any rate, the doctor did not find anything very much wrong with me. Some mild stomach irritation, that's it. I'm to keep taking medicine and hope it gets better. If not, who knows?

On a lighter note, I now have cheese. This is not as small an accomplishment as one might think! In Korea, adults rarely eat cheese, so most of what's available in grocery stores (and even the Carrefour) is horribly fake plastic orange cheese slices that don't even hold a candle to fake orange cheese slices in America! I made a grilled cheese sandwich with them one day and ended up throwing away not only the sandwich, but also the rest of the cheese. Everything else in the stores is grossly overpriced and just not worth it. Plus, it's like Brie, when what I really want is a bag of shredded cheddar and something basic to put on a cracker!

The foreign teachers had heard a rumor that there was real cheese at CostCo, but only a couple people had ventured out to one. Finally, Emma and Ryan had had enough and went out to see if it was true (Emma was desperate to make her beloved "cheese toast"). Sweet Jesus! They had Cheddar AND Colby Jack. She got the former, and bought the latter for me. A really nice 2 pound block of Tillamook, nonetheless, for only $10!!

Also at the CostCo, she bought a 2 pack of Old El Paso taco making kits, despite never having had a taco in her life. And 2 pounds of ground beef for the shockingly low price of $10. (I had previously purchased ¼ pound for $7, if you will recall.) We made them over in her room that night for dinner. They were better than any "taco kit" had the right to be! Of course, this might be more a reflection of the length of time I have been taco-free than of their authenticity, but who cares? They were amazing...

Another amazing thing is that our boss finally came through with the cell phones we were promised when we first got here. Honestly, I never thought we'd get them! I won't bother giving you the number because it would cost you international charges to call it; you're much better off calling my US Skype number for free.

It's so nice now to be back to normal, with a cell phone constantly on me. I was beginning to feel naked without one! Of course, the foreign teachers basically only have each other to talk to on them, which sucks. As we get to know other people in Seoul, it'll be more interesting. For right now, I mostly just text with my friends during the day.

This past month, I've been the "Talk Show" teacher. (I started being the "Weather Report" teacher today, but it sucks.) Talk Show started out as a gigantic pain in the ass, but by the end I really liked it. Once I started bribing the kids with "Excellent" stamps (the one on their team with the most gets an award at the end of the week), it picked right up.

The basic premise is to go over vocab with them, show them the sample questions on the wall, and then get volunteers to come sit behind the anchor desk with me, whereupon myself and their classmates will ask them questions. The sample questions are like: "Who is your hero?" "When are you happiest?" "What's your favorite food?" and "Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?" Without doubt, the boyfriend/girlfriend question was the most popular, as anyone with half a brain could guess. In fact, it was the catalyst to several hilarious moments.

One time, there was a boy up as guest and he got asked that question by a friend of his in the "audience." He answered, "No, I don't have a girlfriend." His friend stood up, pointed his finger at him and *shouted*, "YOU A LIAR!! TELL ME HER NAME!!" It was quite an authentic moment...very Jerry Springer. Another time, a 12 year old librarian look-alike shocked the whole room by calmly stating that she had *16* boyfriends. (When someone else asked her, "What's your hobby?" I answered for her, "Having boyfriends." Big laugh.) My favorite was when a girl who had very good English (along with the rest of her team) started explaining that she had one boyfriend her own age because he was very handsome, and a boyfriend older than her who was ugly, but also very rich. The kids kept asking her why she would date him if he was ugly, and she just kept saying, "Because I like money. I like nice things!" All I could say was, "You go girl!"

There were also some very awkward moments in that class. One time, a girl with exceptionally good English was asked by a teammate what kind of person she hated. Without hesitation, the girl answered, "My father." Needless to say, not the answer everyone was expecting. One time a boy was asked, "What is your father's name?" and mysteriously answered, "I will not say." OK... What is he, a gangster or something?

Korean culture is such a tricky thing. You sometimes just never know how someone is going to react to a situation. I like to watch this show on Korean tv, mostly just because it contradicts every impression I get of grown Korean people in my daily life. It is called something that sounds like "Ewchasa" and is basically a variety show, similar to Saturday Night Live. The difference is that there aren't really any special sets. Every skit is performed on a big stage with only a few props and a costume change, like a play. It is one of the funniest things I have ever seen, even considering the fact that I can't understand a damn thing they're saying. It's just that the actors/actresses really GO for the laugh. It's slapstick on a level that I just did not think Koreans capable of. The women, especially.

There is one skit involving "The Monkey Brothers". (The kids told me their name.) They do say, in English, "One, two, Monkey three! One, two, Monkey five!" Etc... They are funny because they are the gayest thing I have possibly ever seen in my life, and yet are not supposed to be gay (according to the Korean teacher I asked-she recoiled in horror at my even thinking such a thing). Get this: these are two guys who run around with pom-poms hanging off their butts. They are tiny and femme-y, they pout, they jump on each other's backs and pick nits off each other. They do a great impression of the "Ambiguously Gay Duo" on SNL. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt, is all I'm saying. :-)

Another thing that's a little crazy is how much time I spent on the computer with my mom last week, just trying to get her damn webcam to work so that I could see my fucking cats! What a loser I am turning out to be... We must have tried a million configurations, and her picture kept flipping upside down! Not to mention the blurriness and darkness. And this was if we could get it to go at all. Still, by the end of the weekend I had seen each of the cats, and felt much better. It really is like having children I've left behind, the main difference being that they're not driving my car and hosting keggers.

We just got done with our month of two-week long programs, and I am exhausted. Having the same kids around for two weeks is just too much! They start to feel like they really know you, so you have less time to yourself as they now want to talk to you whenever you walk by. By the end of week one, they started asking us to sign things. I would walk down the hallway and be assaulted by children begging me to sign their notebooks. I now have a small understanding of fame, and it sucks. Well, at first it's flattering. But then they bug you even when you're racing to the bathroom, and that's not quite so charming.

Graduation was last Friday night. It was a high-energy, rollicking affair up until the very end, when all the kids were told to say goodbye to their friends and teachers. They put the sad music on, and everything. (I told them to play "Friends are Friends Forever" to get even more tears, but no one listened to me!) Kids were walking around the gym, bawling their eyes out, boys and girls. Coming up to us and clinging to our necks. It was interesting to be cried on by the kids, a lot of them just looking for a reassuring pat on the back from anyone, and others sad to say goodbye to me, personally.

I was really enjoying myself up to this point, because Kyle had put on some music for the kids to dance to. We were all dancing like maniacs to "YMCA", "Twist and Shout", and "La Bamba". Some of the teachers let loose quite a bit more than they should have, nearly spraining their backs trying to twist down to the floor. Kyle led kids around the room in a big conga line. It was mayhem, and so much fun. Until they put on the *sad* music, that is. :-)

It reminded me so much of my own youthful experiences at CYC (Catholic Youth Camp), that I almost started crying along with the kids. In my head I was saying, "Keep it together, girl! You're on the other side of it now!" But it was still sad. And really interesting to see how many boys were just losing it, and that no one cared. I can't help but feel that it might have been different in the States. I should ask Stephan, since he is the camp afficianado!

After graduation, the teachers lined the steps up out of the gym, and we clapped at each team as they walked up from the gym and out of the building. It seemed a little cruel to be clapping at them as they were stumbling up the steps, crying their eyes out so that they could barely see where they were going. I started just waving goodbye to them instead. Seemed less horrible.

Afterwards, the teachers sat outside for a bit so that the kids could have more time to say goodbye. They wanted our email addresses, phone numbers, and everything. I didn't give my phone number, but I did give out some email addresses. Maybe their parents will email me with a lucrative, yet illegal, proposition to privately tutor their kid. Hmmmm...

After all the kiddies were put to bed, the teachers gathered together to drink beer and forget the past two weeks. It was so nice just to hang out with everyone. Kane, the guy from New Zealand, brought his guitar and sang for us. He sounds a lot like Jack Johnson, so that was awesome. And he was able to take requests, which was even better. One of the guys had procured some Beck's Dark beer, and was nice enough to let me have one. It was miles beyond the shitty Nat Ice-esque Cass beer that I had been drinking out of an enormous jug. I was pretty tipsy by the time I went home at 1am. Needless to say, the morning light was not kind to me, or my headache.

So, that just about catches you up on the three weeks I woefully neglected my blog duties. Again, I'm so sorry about that! I didn't intend to be so lazy or forgetful...it just kind of happened. Let's hope it doesn't happen again. :-)

Anyway, life is good here, and I hope it is where you are, too. Drop me a line, leave me a comment, or catch me on Skype. (I'm working days again so this might be tricky, but something can always be arranged.) I hope to hear from you all soon! Take care!

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Hot shit

In retrospect, ordering something called "Fire Chicken" was probably not an overly wise decision. Sunday night, Daniel and I went to "Mr. Chicken", a favorite haunt of the Korean teachers. He had been there before with some other teachers, and stories of the spicy chicken quickly spread. One of the teachers, Siamak, who's a little crazy on a good day, actually got up and left the restaurant to get some fresh air because the chicken was so hot.

Still--I like a challenge.

We each ordered the Fire Chicken. Based on the picture, I was expecting it to be chunks of chicken, breaded, fried, and coated in sauce. Turns out, they roast a chicken, hack it to bits, and then put the sauce on. This leaves quite a bit of the chicken covered in fat and looking very unappetizing, I must say. You know how picky I am when it comes to stuff like that.

So, the chicken arrives. Two bites in, and I'm already sweating. I start eating the free cubes of pickled radish that came with the chicken. It helps a little, but not much. "Excuse me, but do you have milk??" No luck. I try the coleslaw-type dish they brought out earlier. It just makes it worse. "More water, please!" The waitress brings out a dish of rice for each of us. It helps a little. Eventually, I discover that chewing the chicken only on the sides of my mouth and not letting it touch my tongue is the only way I will be able to eat this chicken and maintain any shred of dignity.

Daniel, for his part, took three bites and just could not eat any more. (He was the only one who finished a whole plate of it the last time they went out.) So, he ordered a plate of regular fried chicken. But even then, he could hardly eat it because the heat activated the left-over spice on his tongue. It was a rough night for both of us!

After this self-induced torture, we decided to treat ourselves to some soothing Baskin Robbins. It was insanely delicious! However, it was a little unnerving to watch one of the sales girls washing used cups and spoons. See picture for further detail on that one!

Speaking of food, I am posting a picture of a typical dinner tray that we get in the cafeteria. It's not the worst, but it's generally representative. Also, there are some more pics of the foreign staff. Not the best, but they will do for now. More video clips, too. As a tip on those, if you're having problems downloading them, make sure that you're giving it enough time. When I tested it, it took about 3-5 minutes for each one. So, give it enough time, and I promise they'll be worth it.

Update on my schedule: I am now on day shift. This means that I won't be available for chatting on the phone when it's evening back in Iowa. I will be online (unless out and about) between 4am CST and 9am CST. I know this is limiting, but it's what I will have to work with for the entire month of August. (For this very busy month, they are not doing a new schedule every two weeks.) So, if you want to chat at a specific time, leave me a voicemail and I will do my best to make it happen. I don't have a lot of free time this week, but I do have some here and there.

Anyway, I hope everyone is doing well. I've been keeping an eye on the weather at home, and I am quite happy to be missing out on it. Although, I would make the case that I am suffering more. :-) Our temps are in the 80s, but with very high humidity. The difference between here and home being that here I have to be outside quite a bit. Doing anything, going anywhere, involves walking outside for long periods of time, often up dozens of stairs (which are no fun at all for a fat lady in 100% humidity). At home, you spend 1 minute walking from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned car, and another 2 minutes walking from your air-conditioned car to your air-conditioned place of employment. You're only outside when you want to be. It's an altogether easier existence, and I miss it like hell. :-)