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Monday, December 1, 2014

Small Adventures (or, Would you rather...)

November was an oddly busy month with lots of small adventures.  Pretty much anything one does outside one's apartment is an adventure, actually, because any expectations you might have are usually wrong.

(1) Roasted Coffee:  Apparently, our little town (well, ok, Pohang's the size of Omaha but relative to the size and self-declared sophistication of Seoul, it's like a distasteful relative who shows up empty-handed and vaguely smelly).  Where were we?  Oh, yes, Pohang apparently has some of the very best coffee roasters in Korea.  Not that I care in the least, because coffee is the substance that anchors our family's Awfulness Rating Scale. To wit: "Mama: would you rather jump off a cliff or drink coffee?" or "David: seaweed soup or coffee?"  And so on.  Nick, of course, chooses coffee every time, not really understanding the game.

The coffee roaster shop is called something like
"A Couple of Guys Who Really Like Coffee." I forget the exact
translation and I can't read "handwriting" yet.
I believe I have lost the thread of this post. Ah, here it is. My friend Grace (of Expat Lunch fame) had a beloved coffee snob relative in Seoul with an upcoming birthday and she wanted to get him The Best. She did her research and we found the gorgeous little roastery fairly easily (near the end of stream street).  The attached coffee shop was surprisingly cozy and had lots of informative posters on the makings of coffee; I might not drink the stuff but I enjoyed learning more about it. The cafe's little grass yard and quiet atmosphere were an unlikely retreat in such a busy area. A little shot of happiness, despite the smell of burning beans.

Stream Street (photo from friend and gifted photographer Zachary Thomas).
(2) Undergarments: Grace and I next hunted for a nearby shop rumored to sell items that fit, well, women with curves. After some unscheduled exercise along stream street (I love that landmark), we finally found Triumph. (Literally. That's the name of the store.)  Now you American readers need to stop imagining a mall-sized store. Stores here are closer to the size of a bucket of popcorn and nearly as crowded with merchandise. So upon entering we were immediately pressed all around with racks of lacy goods and plush piles on tables.  I had done my research and cleverly written down my calculated Korean size.  I'm not sure the saleswoman was terribly impressed with what I'd written on my hand; she barely glanced at my relevant parts before declaring (and I suspect Grace softened the blow in translation) that the number was, shall we say, understated.  Harrumph.  Why couldn't we have moved to a country of plumpies so I wasn't mortified every time I have to buy clothes?

Anyway, the lady found some sale items that might fit (clearly these were on the very far end of store's capabilities) and she ushered me into the fitting booth.  Alone, which I appreciated.  I appreciated somewhat less that this was actually a tiny hallway/stage of some sort, with 4 doors leading who knows where.  Ah, well. I found a couple of near-winners and resigned myself to devising some sort of system to lengthen the contraption. Happily,we discovered that the company offered alternations (!) - so for the sale price of $29 plus $5 to the seamstress to add an extension to the back, I am the proud-if-curvy owner of two new items that FIT.  So: coffee or bra shopping? Triumph, indeed.

PT guy checking Nick's shoulder.
(3) Physical Therapy: I went with Nick to an "orthopaedic" to look at his shoulder, which has been ailing since his marathon beach volleyball tournament and softball game at Pohang’s International Festival last month.  We walked in (remember: no appointments needed in Korea), Nick flashed his alien registration card, and we waited perhaps 2 minutes. A short 45 minutes later, we walked out and he was virtually healed.  Want to guess the cost for the consultation, two x-rays, and 30 minutes of physical therapy (with heat, massage, stretching, and electrical stimulation)?  The grand total was $11.00. I know: unbelievable. There's nothing fancy, private, or even comfortable about this place from a US perspective, but efficient and effective? Yup.  Two thumbs up.
Nick enjoys some heat on his shoulder.
 I waited until the guy in the bed next to him left before taking pictures.
Yes, the beds are really that close together. 

Can you find the red-headed Elisabeth?
(4) Concerts/Shows.  We attended Handong University’s orchestra concert (Elisabeth has been playing with them for the last several weeks) and the kids' school Variety Show (David was an emcee for his class presentation; Elisabeth sang in Korean).  We're very pleased to see them stretching in new ways; you sure wouldn't catch me on stage in front of, oh, 300+ people.  I won't miss the random schedule, though, like "oh, in 20 minutes we have a 2-hour rehearsal that will actually last 3.5 hours and SURPRISE you'll miss dinner AGAIN."  

Not a great photo of David (center) doing his emcee work.

Elisabeth just finished her Korean solo.

(5) Thanksgiving: Three apartments in our building hosted a potluck Thanksgiving dinner for about 100 expat faculty families and random Americans associated with Handong. I volunteered our apartment (again) this year because I want to be a better person than I actually am. I forget that I can't cope with being a conscientious food-provider AND a gracious conversationalist AND refrain from whapping kids jumping on my couch. Arg. (Coffee or party?  We're going with coffee on this one.)

I fancied up our balcony and put out borrowed tables/stools to feed the masses.

The living room was ready.

Then we added food and people: here we see Koreans, Americans, Canadians, and Australians. 

(6) Bonus: And now a bonus for the faithful reader.  Would you rather wear Korean farting duck socks or drink coffee? Yeah, me too.  :)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Graspers & Gawkers: Buying a Hanbok (Guest blog by Elisabeth)

There was a sale on hanboks (traditional Korean clothing) at Joyful Church's thrift shop, and I had been asking for one for a long time. So my mom and I decided to go and get one. When we arrived at the store, it was almost completely empty, except for a few shoppers (hint: a few shoppers). So my mom and I were looking at some hanboks, and found a few to try on that were the right color for someone my age. So we went to the front of the store to the ‘fitting room’. It was not, however, a room: merely a curtain that went up to my neck held up by a wire base. So I awkwardly ducked down while trying to figure out how to actually put a hanbok on. Finally, we thought we got it right, and stepped out to look in the mirror. As we were walking out, a group of ajeemas were walking by the store. They decided to take a look at this weird American girl trying on traditional Korean clothing. Apparently, my mom and I had the whole Hanbok on wrong. The ajeemas all had different ideas on how a Hanbok should fit perfectly. So while I just stood there, keeping my mouth shut while my "girls" were being fussed over by the ajeemas, who were only about up to my neck, wealthy, wearing heavy makeup, in their 50s, and no gray hair.  My mom, had been counting the swarm: about 9, in a space of about an elevator.

Koreans only wear a hanbok about 1 or 2 times a year. So, while being man-handled by others, a woman was figuring out how to tie the knot on the top. Finally, we were done! Nope; we were wrong. So very wrong. The top was apparently not the perfect size for me (not sure if it was too big or small, looked fine to me) so they picked out a different size, and had me try that on. Now start the man-handling again.  One of the ajeemas then told us in her broken English “No brah”. WOW! Do you know how airy the top is? If I bent over to pick something off the floor in a hanbok, then that would be, well, bad. Then one woman showed my mom how to do the traditional hairstyle. NOW we were done! I took the hanbok off, we paid for it (just $30!!  Much better than the normal $200+), and thanked all the ajeemas for giving demonstrations (on me….) of how a hanbok should be fitted
perfectly. On the drive home, my mom and I just laughed and said “No brah!” over and over. This was quite an unexpected experience, even for Korea!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Beasties, Bras, and a Winking Jesus: The Continuing Weirdness of Korea

We've gotten used to a lot in Korea that once seemed weird: the ubiquitous banners; the Hello Kitty and other cartoons used for everything from fashion statements to city mascots; the swastikas that indicate Buddhist temples (not Nazi conclaves). But some things still stand out.  Here are a few from the last couple of weeks.

Pop-Up Monster Garden:  This little open-air garden shop appeared overnight in an empty lot by the grocery store. The variety of displayed mums were really lovely, but some of the props were just inexplicable.

Even this Korean couple can't seem to figure out the giant fiberglass monsters or the life-size cow amid the mums.

American ex-pat friend Danica with baby E and ... a yellow guy.

Just herding the cow (nope, sorry, that's definitely a healthy bull) through the mums.

With a creepy face.

And I can't even begin to fathom the purpose of this set-up.
Bra Shopping:  Having lived in Korea for 1.5 years now, I have need of certain lingerie updates. However, the stores in Pohang appear to only sell bras that would fit a girl 10 minutes into puberty.   What I didn't find in my search was anything close to fitting my mature figure (let's just say that the letter A featured very prominently in the racks, with B making a rare appearance.  And that's about the end of the alphabet).  However, what I did find caused me to snort aloud, necessitating a rapid escape before the cruising ajummas found me out.

The tag asks "C cup, D cup?" and answers with "Big smile!"  I have some issues with this.
First, these bras were not actually offered in the indicated sizes.  
Second, the pictured woman does not actually offer a big smile.  
Third, this is just a weird slogan; I can't imagine chattily informing friends, 
"Hey, I bought a Big Smile bra today!"

Why is a GUY saying the bra is comfortable (that's what the Korean says, too)?
 And what's with his grin? Is something funny about this bra or is he just embarrassed to be part of 
this dubious ad campaign?
Again - a guy.  Giving away the secret password "love syndrome" (the Korean letters say the same thing)?
What ad wizard came up with this one?
Wink, Wink: After the kids' orthodontist visit this week, we swung by the dermatologist's office to have David's persistent knee wart frozen off once and for all.  In the waiting room, the plasma TV showed us a range of procedures that could "improve" one's skin, including some mysterious process involving breasts with pixelated nipples.  Well, ok, that not something my teen-aged children are comfy watching.  But to make it much, much worse, the pictures were interspersed with Bible verses (in Korean) and a cartoon of Jesus. Who was winking.  I could not help but think of Monty Python's "wink wink, nudge nudge" routine that makes (inappropriate) innuendos out of everyday speech. Almost as though Cartoon Jesus recognized the irony of being stuck amid slides of pixelated parts. Ah, Korea.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Language Ambushes

I’m auditing the university's Korean 2 course this semester, along with my Australian friend Tracey (of Centipede Tapping and Horse Poo fame).  We generally hide behind the 10 students from Taiwan, the Philippines, China, Rwanda, Russian, Palestine and Holland.  It's a hard course. And I am not above admitting to an unseemly attitude toward the Chinese students who blithely ace the weekly quizzes despite their compulsive napping and texting during class. I am learning, but besides the teensy amount of Korean that manages to stick, I have also gained two strikingly unoriginal insights into the human condition.

First, brains are tricksy devils. I once owned an agreeable brain that kindly helped me learn without much required by my conscious bits. I thought we were fast friends, my brain and I, but now I realize that it did most of the work while I just reaped the good grades and winning scores in Boggle, Scrabble, and other pivotal life contests. Perhaps I did not thank the brain enough, for our relationship is no more. It's as though the band of happy brain elves has been decimated by petty secessions, leaving behind a huddled mass of downtroddens. What remains seems merely amused by my own floundering efforts to vacuum up new vocabulary or to distinguish between "mah-shee-dah" (tasty) and "maw-shee-dah" (handsome).  When I get called upon to recite aloud or answer questions, I fight the urge to plead for mercy. Yet at the very same time, I dread my young classmates' exchanged glances, the ones that say, "Isn't she cute, trying so hard to learn Korean at her age?"as though they are patting a frail old dog.

To add insult to the brain-rant, I cannot CANNOT follow my teacher's notes.  I believe she has, to put it as nicely as I can, poor board hygiene.  She uses just a small section of the board, writing over and under and through her earlier notes, sometimes adding underlines or new colors while rattling right along in Korean.  I would like to believe the resulting confusion is 95% her fault, but a tiny, irritating brain-elf voice suggests that I underrate my own mental sluggishness. Here is a picture--you be the judge:

The second unoriginal insight I have gained is this: English is a truly horrible language. (If one day I emerge from a coma not able to speak, please teach me Spanish. Or sign language. Or caveman grunting.)  English, that traitorous shark, likes to adopt any old made-up or foreign word that knocks on its door then bites the new learner with arbitrary usage and spelling rules.  (Brian Regan, one of my favorite comedians, makes much of this fact.) Even for highly-educated, native English speakers, clear communication is hard.  For example, a few weeks ago I was talking with an American friend/professor and got lost in a pretty simple conversation. “Wait," I interrupted, "you said students are stressed during Culture Week because they have a lot of booze??  Isn't this a dry campus?” No, no, he said, a little amused, “Not booze; I said boobs.”  What? WHAT??  In response to my puzzled astonishment, he barely refrained from stamping his foot: “Booths!  BOOTHS!”  Oh.  Of course. Culture week booths. Stupid English.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Out and about: Recent photos

Here are some photos of kids at Bukbu beach (downtown), Jukdo market sights, and glimpses of creatures on campus in recent weeks.

I love to watch young Korean families.  The Korean abortion rate is extremely high (some estimate 75% of pregnancies are aborted, despite its not being legal), so when babies are born into the right family situation, they are completely adored.  I have never, ever seen a Korean kid have a tantrum or scream at his/her parents.
This little one got cold, so her dad gave her his t-shirt and her mom continued the game of chase.

Nick and I enjoyed watching a man tease delighted children with his carefully piloted kite.  This little girl was shy at first, and finally "caught" the kite as the pilot walked it across the sand.
More kids got into the fun, with a feisty "Frozen" fan in the lead.

The big open-air market (Jukdo) never fails to amaze and delight me.

This woman used the same knife to scratch her eyebrow and peel the garlic she was selling.
Men don't usually carry fans, but this guy may have been preventing sunburn on his bald spot.  Note that he is wearing gloves (and the food seller does not).  Ah, Korea.
And, if you owned a clothing store, why wouldn't you name it Man Shopping and sit out front with friends?
I love that Koreans value English, even if its annoying nuances get lost in translation.  

Finally, some creatures within a 3-minute walk of our building:

This lovely thrush must have just smacked a window and broken its neck.  It was heart-breakingly soft.
The thrush, that is, not the window.

We think these are chestnuts, will prickles that make sewing needles seem dull as yarn.  

This fat guy and his many friends live happily in our garden's compost pile.
Tracey, my Australian friend, believes it's the grub of what she calls a Christmas Beetle and what I grew up calling a June Bug (though I have NEVER seen grubs this big in the US).
For daring readers interested in the lifestyle of this edible nightmare, just check Wikipedia under the entry
"cockchafers."  Which itself may crack you up for days to come.  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Corporate Customer Service: Mistakes were Made

Perhaps you can imagine the challenges of effective customer service and persuasive marketing strategies in a second language, especially when that language is English (what a horrible language that adopts any old word that comes along instead of following things like RULES) and when the intended audience is mostly native English speakers hired by the government to teach English. Though valiant attempts at such service and marketing are made, they can go badly wrong, as demonstrated here, in a document we received from our Korean car insurance company.

Now, I love that they're eager to communicate with English-speaking customers.  I truly do.  But when a company is pleased to semi-annually remove significant chunks of money from my bank account, I expect something along the lines of glossy, proofread, tri-fold brochures.  Or at least something more self-respecting than a document written by underpaid and unsupervised interns during happy hour. Let's take a look. 

Here is an overview of the front and back side of the (cheaply printed) document.  Even without reading the fine print (we'll get to that shortly), one might wonder about the credibility of a company still addicted to 1990s clip art.

Ok, let's take a look at the details now, shall we?

This is a promising start in cheerful colors and readable fonts.
It suggests that Korean insurance folks may be more friendly and laid back than
the lawyers running the fine print show back home.

Now for a summary of their services:

These benefits seem like good ideas for US companies to adopt.
Then one begins to notice a few writing errors. And upside-down clip art.
And tiny little seeds of doubt may be planted about the credibility of folks providing these benefits.
Accessing the services is described next:

 I like their thoughtfulness in anticipating customer questions.
But. why is a tiny mushroom smiling in one graphic while a tortured man is screaming?
Are either of these the "other korean" to which I should change my call?

Ok, that was the first page.  Here is the flip side, where things move past endearingly strange.

So, if I'm not at fault then I make a call but don't take pictures.
But if the accident IS my fault then I should ...take a selfie? with the guy I hit?
Note that the word DRUNKEN was on a sticker pasted over the word "Drinking." Either way, it appears to describe the condition of the writer. 
Gentle reader, have you forgotten this is a document from my car insurance agency, whom I trust to have my back? Here is their final bit of advice:

Taxi and Bus chasing? Illegal parking is ok if the hood is open?  WHAT?
This section was surely scratched onto a napkin over a late-night bottle
on a binge, and the boss didn't bother to look it over.
And, no, I did not add the thought bubble above the woman’s head.
There you have it: Korean car insurance as as presented to foreign customer. As their motto says, this piece of paper will "make the difference between carelessness and security."  I couldn’t have drunken it better myself.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Field trip to Uljin Cave

On Sunday afternoon we decided to head about 90 minutes north along the coast to visit the well-reputed cave in Uljin.  Along the way, we stopped at a convenience store for beverages (even the remote villages have convenience stores with iced coffees, yogurt drinks, Coke, Fanta, and Sprite - though diet drinks are rare as cassette tapes in a college dorm). While waiting for Nick to pay, the kids and I decoded the Korean writing on next-door apartment building: “Kahn Doe Bill.” Which may disappoint those dear readers looking for deep meaning as we realized it just means, well, "Condo Building,"  Ah, English in disguise.  Tricksters.

When meandering along the coast, we noticed an unusually large sculpture.  Needing to stretch our legs anyway, we went to check it out via the strangely-labeled "Whale and Clean Beach Road."

This striking whale sculpture inexplicably featured  a very naked, and very well-endowed (non-Korean) 
bronze lady on its snout.

Inside the whale, looking toward its mouth.
David's hiding from the naked lady AND the camera.

Adjacent to the whale sculpture were a pair of intriguing blue ships.
Which were, on closer inspection, confusingly-signed bathrooms. 

The Uljin cave (named Seongryugul for historical mountain-god-worship and Buddha statue storage reasons) is a typical Korean tourist site, at least for this side of the country. Brown highway signs in Korean, Chinese, and English (never Japanese - they're the bad guys) pointed us most of the way and then abruptly stopped once we got sort of close (we've done this enough not to be surprised anymore).  We paid our parking fee (well before reaching the site or the gravel-covered parking lot) to a dentally-challenged older guy in a ramshackle shed, behind which several friends were animatedly squatting and chatting.  We parked, wisely anticipated restroom needs given our empty beverage bottles, and brought paper from the van (we have learned the hard way that public restrooms are only guaranteed to provide some for of toilet.  Paper, sinks, soap, and lights are all optional).  Happily, we found TP hanging about 20 feet outside the bathrooms amid the informal market's displays of dried fish, tiny heaps of grains, and Korean pumpkins.  (Keep in mind this place is a national monument.  Can you imagine going to, say, Mt. Rushmore and having to step through and around an open-air grocery/gift shop?  No, you cannot. But here, it's normal.  And you'll read more about this market later.)

Hooray!  TP provided!

After a stroll through the market, we found the cave ticket booth overlooking the 
beautiful dammed river near a pair of spewing stone turtles.  

The historical marker includes a jab at the Japanese for starving 500 Koreans to death here.  Not recently, mind you: this is after Columbus' time but round about Sir Francis Drake was doing his thing for Queen Elisabeth and Roanoke Island was getting deserted (and the Taj Mahal was being built).  Wow: Koreans know how to hold a grudge.
We gave our tickets to another man stationed near racks of white hard helmets.  We couldn't read any of the Korean signs but obediently donned and adjusted the helmets, assuming these were required safely gear.  Silly Americans - we were almost the only ones in the cave who bothered.  We located the tiny cave entrance (Sioux Center residents: picture the children's door at Pizza Hut) and I was suddenly grateful for being the shortest one in our family.
Nick's bottom half entering the cave; we are warmly welcomed in bat language.

The cave held a stunning variety of limestone formations and bat-shaped labels, and I wished for a flashlight stronger than Nick's cell phone to see more than what was revealed by the stingy lights.

Besides the tourists (and a dead rat we spied, splayed high up on a craggy wall), 
there was not a sign of life, not even a spider web or bit of bat poop.  
That said, much of the cave reminded us strongly of Alien.
After our 45-minute self-guided tour along the well-marked if sometimes sideways- or crawling-only paths, we walked along the reservoir path before heading back.  As we wandered toward the van, we had to pass through the market again. The tiny shops and restaurants lined along the road/path sold drinks, traditional Korean foods, cigarettes, plastic crap (anyone want a white baby doll dress in jungle camouflage?), traditional crafts, and sometimes sidewalk-squatting sellers with fresh fruit, veggies, and fish.  Everything is cheap from a US perspective, but not much is attractive.

A wide range of kitchy and fine products for sale in the market.
Some shops also sell (and boldly display) penis-themed items.  For the sake of our PG-13 audience, I shall not offer pictures here, but suffice it to say that a larger-than-oh-my-gosh-large water fountain formation and a table of variously shaped and positioned tchotchkes elicited rather different responses from our little group's members: disdainful frowning, embarrassed horror, snickering wonder, and amused curiosity.  I shall not reveal which names accompanied which responses, but you may wish to refer to my earlier "Fertility Park" post.

We bought bottled water from one woman, who pointed to David, asked (in Korean) if he was my son, then chortled about him being so big! and handsome!  (both words in my vocab list this week).  David gave his great shy smile and turned away to lurch along the path.  As we neared the parking area, the background music became louder and we discovered several ajummas dressed in Hiking Gear (this is a fashion category here) and dancing like drunken lunatics.  We had never seen this kind of Korean behavior before so I fear we stared, and David managed to record a few seconds on his tablet.

It was a very satisfying journey, capped off with a mis-printed highway sign on the way home: "Snow Crap Mountain."  Sounds like an adventure for another weekend.