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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Car Mechanic

Here's how the American car repair scenario goes:  get an appointment with a mechanic (maybe 2-5 days hence); drop off car at appointed time and pray the mechanic will not rip you off too badly; pick up car a day or five later and pay an expensive bill (perhaps with some wrangling) for uncertain quality of repairs.

In our small Iowa hometown, the scenario was a bit different.  If your car breaks, you call Mike's (the garage is actually owned/run by Roger, but all the locals know that, of course). They'll pick up your car at work or home (leave the keys in it), fix it, and return it to your workplace, home, etc. with a handwritten bill on the front seat.  Drop off the money when you can.  Roger might mention a few things that will need fixing eventually, but you can still drive for awhile without worrying.  Wave to Roger on your way to church or in the grocery store.

I knew that today's Korean Car Mechanic Scenario would probably be different than either of those versions, but that's where the cross-cultural fun comes in: mechanic vs. layman, Korean vs. American.  All sorts of potential for adventure.

Our van certainly needed some attention: the A/C screams its fool head off; the rear passenger fender got snagged, inverted and nearly torn off during the van's only visit to the car wash (Car Wash Guy, who insisted that our "free" car wash coupon was no longer useful on its own but must be accompanied by at least 3 other "free" tokens, used green duct-tape to advertise our mishap);  the van apparently backed itself into a wall and smashed up its tail-light; a headlight is out; and, oh, we haven't changed the oil since we bought the van. In August. 2013.

Wanting to be well-prepared, Nick wrote all these problems down and tucked the list safely away.  He consulted other ex-pats about a good mechanic, made an appointment with referred mechanic for 9am Friday morning, and even got a friend to loan us his car to make the drop-off.  Nick also made arrangements with his not-such-a-morning-person former TA to meet us in case of translation troubles.  I was impressed by Nick's steps but suspected we would still be surprised somehow.

We got to Hi-Car about 10 minutes late. Nick was met by a friendly ajeema. Apparently, Mechanic Man was still sleeping. Oh. I'm not sure why the shop was running on a "When I Feel Like It" schedule, but there it is.  Lots of Korean coffee shops and other places appear to run on this schedule, and it's NOT an early-morning kind of culture.  But with a 9am appointment I assumed, well, wrongly.

OK.  After going to wake Dear Mechanic (DM), the ajeema returned to the office, where we heard her chatting away with someone (perhaps the TV?) and roasting sweet potatoes on the home-made wood stove. Said stove was pouring smoke out of a rickety pipe at the front of the garage. On us, in other words, as we waited. I was reminded of childhood campfires and flaming marshmallows; I wondered if they had a fire escape plan. Piled around the small parking lot we noticed lumber, tree branches, bikes, bags of garbage, broken laundry racks, and many, many beer bottles. Taken together, these first impressions suggested that (a) DM is not a morning person; (b) DM is not particularly tidy; and (c) DM likes to party. We were not sure what these meant for his mechanical abilities.

After several minutes, DM emerged from the attached home, his salt-and-pepper bed-head blown about by the smoky wind.  I was quickly distracted from that sight (97.54% of older Koreans in Pohang dye their hair, so it's pretty unusual to see grey) by his bright green plastic sandals and seriously overgrown toenails. (I took a picture, but decided it would give this blog a PG-13 rating just for "general grossness" so didn't include it.)

Nick realized that his Safely Tucked List was, well, missing (strike 1), and Sleepy TA still wasnt responding (strike 2). Ever-resourceful, Nick called another student and put him on speakerphone to facilitate communication.  DM knew just enough English to affirm what he was hearing: "Nay, air con belt-eh; set-eh?" (this meant, "Yes, I understand that your van's air conditioning needs attention: would you like just 1 belt or both of them to be replaced?"). And so it went for the other needs, including "die-bah hayd-lye-eet-eh" which was accompanied by gestures to the van's front left section and we nodded vigorously, speaking with excessively big eyes (why? I don't know) and enunciated, exclamatory speech: "Yes!  Headlight!  Feeks!". The list conveyed, DM agreed to call Nick's handheld (the Korean term for cell phone) when the van was ready.  We did not know what to expect in terms of quality, timeline, or price.

Just a few hours later, Nick got the call and we drove back to Hi-Car. DM had replaced his green sandals with orange sneakers and brightened when he sees us.  He suddenly knows much more English than he did this morning and proudly shows us around the van. He fixed the rear fender, tail-light, and headlight; replaced the A/C and alternator belts; changed the oil ("Chain-jee oh-eel moh shote!!" he proclaimed, which I roughly translated as "you are car-owning morons"); replaced the filthy A/C filter ("is white! Now so dirty!"); and filled the tires (pointing out one that will soon need replacing).  He took it for a test drive and it's ready to go.

We troop back to the office after more over-enunciated commentary and exaggerated facial expressions, and he jots down numbers on a dirty page already filled with numbers.  "Belt? 25,000.  A/C filter?  no. free...." and so one.  He mentally totals it up and it comes to... $150 (160,000 won).

We scored big time.  Home run for us.  :)

Korean Orthodontist: Take 2

David's cast (Dae-ee-bee-duh) on the left and
Elisabeth's (Eel-lee-jah-beet) on the right. 
Today was our follow-up visit to the MIR Dental Hospital to learn the good orthodontist's diagnosis and treatment plans for David and Elisabeth's jaws/teeth.  As you may remember from a few blogs ago, the kids got lots of x-rays and impressions last time, and we were asked to return today with a translator. So, we did.  A lovely Korean student, whom we shall call "Grace," was assigned by the international office on campus to accompany us.

Anyway, the kids' plaster casts sat on the table between us the whole time, but Dr. Kim didn't refer to them. (I was fascinated by them and took lots of pictures after he left.)  Instead, he showed us the kids' x-rays and photos on the computer, with an impressively complex array of measurements and lines all drawn in.  (They reminded me of a crime scene reconstruction of a gunfight, with bullet trajectories lasered all over). He talked at length to Grace, pointing out various teeth and angles and using lots of hand motions to demonstrate relative jaw size and bite angles. He got some sample appliances down from the shelf (with their accompanying plaster impressions from some anonymous soul) and continued explaining the treatment plan to Grace. After awhile, Dr. Kim seemed to realize that of the 6 of us packed around his small consultation table (in the Maximum Emotion Service room), Grace was about as useful as David and Elisabeth (but far less wiggly). As it turns out, our good Dr. Kim has about the same level of English skill as she does, but he also knows all the key orthodontic (orthodontal?) words in English. Relatively important things for a consultation, like, oh, say, "molars" and "permanent teeth." Grace's desperate, frantic references to her smart phone's translator slowly gave way to a despairing, vacant  look as she finally set the phone down and just nodded a lot. (Reminds me of the time I visited the women's clinic several months ago and my student translator was rather flustered by key words like "menstruation" and "mammogram."  I admire their tenacity and desperate attempts to be helpful and respectful--don't get me wrong.  But the translation situations are usually pretty darn funny.)

For some reason, perhaps from my own years of orthodontia or perhaps my love of learning about forensic anthropology (did you know I considered that as a career?), I understood most of what Dr. Kim was saying and he could clarify pretty well when I asked questions. (Nick had questions and took notes, too, but if you want his version of events he can write his own blog). So, for the grandparents or whoever else out there wondering about the actual CONTENT of what we learned today, read on.

David's custom dental mold.  See any problems? 

David has a small lower jaw relative to his upper jaw (pretty obvious in the side-view photo), resulting in a very deep overbite. (I suspect he inherited his lower jaw from me and his upper one from Nick. Poor kid.) The xrays show that all his wisdom teeth have formed and are tucked nicely into his jaws, though the ones crowded into the bottom jaw have a low chance of getting to stay around. According to the size of his hand's growth plates (remember those hand x-rays?), this boy is going to GROW--perhaps to the size of his father--over the next 3-4 years.  For some reason, this made the Koreans in the room perform a "Waah!" in unison to express their great awe of the boy's enormous Dutch heritage.  Anyway, back to orthodontia. David will get a plastic "activator" that will stimulate lower jaw growth by forcing him to have a more "jaw forward" bite. After a year or two, we'll see if braces or other treatments are needed. The good Dr. Kim said something about grinding down the sides of David's top teeth to create spaces, and perhaps inserting micro-screws into his molars, but I have chosen to selectively ignore that prognosis.

Elisabeth's custom dental mold.  It faces left, if you're wondering.
Elisabeth also has a small lower jaw, but it's vertically short (not very tall), especially in the moral regions. Oops: that's molar regions. Big difference. Apparently, teeth grow until they meet their partner teeth in the opposing jaw, which is a "stop growing now" signal. I never knew that and was thus distracted by the mental image of beavers chewing on trees to keep their teeth of manageable length and wondered if THAT would be today's recommended treatment. I was quickly returned to the discussion by Dr. Kim's show-and-tell with a "bite plate."  Basically, this removable plastic appliance for her top jaw will let her bottom front teeth "think" they've hit their upper companions and pause their desire for growth while the bottom molars will say "Hey! We got lots of room here!  Let's get growing!" or something like that. (Of course, I don't really know what they say, since I don't speak molar or Korean Orthodontist.)  Her hand x-rays confirmed our insightful conclusions about Elisabeth's pubertal progress by showing that her growth plates have started filling in: she has some room for growth, but not a whole lot more--just a couple of years, tops. (I am still doomed to be the shortest one in our family, but at least the average difference will be reduced by Elisabeth). As she grows and her remaining 2 baby teeth are replaced by permanent teeth (the x-rays showed them waiting politely backstage), we'll re-assess her treatment needs in a couple of years.  Oh yes: her teeny wisdom teeth were ever-so-cute on the x-ray.

At this point, dear Grace needed to get back to campus for (something) and the kids needed to offer their mouths to the goddesses of orthodontia for yet more dental impressions.  So while Nick drove Grace back, I dashed between the kids' rooms to embarrass them with photos and to shock the lovely technicians with my camera antics and running commentary.  I really must remember that most Koreans under the age of, oh, 70, understand far more English than they let on. For example, I teased David that the goo oozing out of the holes of the impression device looked a lot like Play-Doh (remember the toys that pump out hair?).  He just rolled his eyes; the technician got wide-eyed and giggled.  Oops. 

Finally, Dr. Kim made "reconstruction" impressions for both kids, which was sort of like molding a mouth guard for hockey. After watching, I figured out that these are the ideal alignments of their jaws; for example, David had to thrust his lower jaw way forward before biting down.  Dr. Kim will build their appliances based on these.  I think.  We'll know more in 2 weeks.  As long as I bring a translator, I guess.  :)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Korean Fire Drill

Since we moved to our 5th floor campus apartment in August, I have chuckled over the "descending life line" contraption next to our balcony windows.  (Elisabeth wonderfully dubbed this system as "jumper cables.") All the instructions and warning labels on the steel bars were in Korean, and we live in a cement-and-steel building that is unlikely to burn down. So we quickly learned to ignore this little oddity.

A paint-splattered plastic box on the wall below seemed to be related to the lifeline, but again, a quick glance showed a lot of  fine print (undoubtedly in Korean).  This system would have to be fool-proof anyway, as it's intended for panicking people. So, imagining ourselves to be reasonable people, we put a (found) dresser next to it for storing craft supplies and seashells; we stuck the folding beach grill in that handy little space; and I arranged lots of plants in the sliding windows' warm southern light.  

But while waiting for the kids' procedures at the dentist's office a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a similar fire escape contraption and was impressed to see it had clear instructions in English and a few other languages (though the warnings were only in Korean).
What you can learn at the dentist's office.

Now, as the daughter of a 20+ year volunteer fireman and a 10+ year volunteer fire department photographer, I began to feel a wee bit guilty that I had no fire escape plan for my family.  And for some reason, despite my list of other things to do, today I decided was The Day to do a trial run of our fire escape system.

I gave the kids fair warning:  "We are having a fire drill in 2 minutes. Listen for the bell."  They were rather confused and perhaps concerned about their mother's sanity. In the meantime, I unpacked the box and figured out how the stupid thing worked, squinting at the instructions (yes, ok, they were in English) and making a mental note to grab my reading glasses in case of fire.

It was time to start the fire drill.  I found Elisabeth's distressingly-loud Indian bell and mercilessly clanged away. Sam took at least 2 minutes to get out of bed (hey - it's nearly noon and I did give a 2-minute warning, which actually lasted closer to 5 minutes. This is not an ACLU-worthy incident). When he emerged (grumbling about just wanting to roast marshmallows in the fire), I play-shrieked about the "grease fire" in the kitchen!  Oh no!  And the door out of our apartment was blocked by the fire and smoke! To the balcony we must go! Sam rolled his eyes and moseyed to the balcony, harried by bouncing siblings who were far more eager to try this out.   

David affixed the pulley to the steel bar via a giant locking carabiner,
which was not-so-nicely packed at the bottom of the box, just as I found it originally.
He then secured the padded seat belt thing in compliance with the instruction to
"Take the belt under your arm."

David prepares to mimic heaving the rope "rill" out the window.
Which got us to wondering how the next person would escape. 

David is all-too-ready to rappel.
Sam took 2 minutes; we made some adjustments to the default set up, leaving the pulley affixed to the steel bar, and David and Elisabeth each took about 30 seconds.  So, from fire alarm to full escape, it will take the 5 of us 2.5 minutes to get out of the building.  We adjust the plan to include closing the sliding doors to delay the fire getting to us.  

By now, the kids were really getting into this.  They insisted that they REALLY test the system by rappelling down the wall and meeting at our designated meeting place.  No, I say.  Not gonna happen.  I am firm.  Clear.  Authoritative.  But I know, deep in my denial-loving heart, they may decide to try it out when I'm not home.... Ah, well.  They could be playing video games.  :)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Home Furnishing

When Nick and I moved to Chicago in 1989 (before some of you dear readers were born, I know), we rented an apartment in a 3-story brick building.  The landlord, Martin Pomp (I am not kidding), was a middle-aged, gay anesthesiologist whose property was an investment opportunity rather than a public service. A series of "janitors" were happy to bring their hammers to fix problems in the apartments, all the while complaining in broken English about their poor pay and disrespect for Pomp.

photo by
Both Nick and I came to our marriage with a toolbox, so we began doing some of our own repairs. Besides, we preferred screwing our broken blinds back up, gluing down unstuck tiles, and replacing the toilet's flush mechanism to asking the poor janitor to come beat more nails into the aged window frames or pound the floor and toilet with his hammer. Someone must have told Pomp about our fix-it attitude, as he asked us to manage the building for a discount in our rent (a welcome exchange for graduate students seeking distractions from library study). The best part of the whole endeavor was the Clark-Devon True Value Hardware store, located just a couple of gang-ridden blocks away. At the hands of the hardware men, we learned more about plumbing (e.g., how to unclog a toilet into which an unattended child had poured kitty litter), the powers of Kilz (defeater of smoke, mildew, and cooking grease buildup), and the wonders of having the right tool for the job. We refinished hardwood floors, installed new sink cut-offs, and scraped/painted the three-story staircase that connected the building's back porches. Happily, every purchase was charged to Pomp's tab, and he thereby supported our DIY education.

Then I got a job at Dordt College in 1997.  We bought our first house and were thrilled with all its possibilities for renovation.  Our realtor had been pretty patient with our suspicious, big-city questions; at the closing, we asked, "What's under the really ugly, grey kitchen carpet?"  We hoped for original, 1915 hardwood floors akin to those we'd cherished in Chicago. Alas, he was tired of us and responded dryly, "Well, I think there's padding under there."

We quickly found the local hardware store, again staffed by men and women eager to help us fix up our salmon-pink kitchen. We removed the carpet, the paneling, and 9 layers of ceiling wallpaper; with Nick's folks we removed much of the ceiling, strengthened the joists, and built skylights out of windshield safety glass. As the years passed, we ripped out and restored, adding wiring, lights, drywall, and paint room by room. I remember this chaos with warm fondness, but I know there was a lot of sweating and sneezing and maybe even a few extra holes pounded into walls as we screwed up or disagreed about how to move forward or fussed about the kids getting in the way.  But over time, working and learning together through successes and failures became part of our lives.

Now we're living in a small, semi-furnished Korean university apartment in a building finished just before after we moved in.  It's a cement-and-steel building with fresh beige wallpaper on all the walls and ceilings; the ceramic tiles covering the bathrooms and the vinyl flooring are very easy to clean; the wiring, appliances and plumbing are all new. But we have found ourselves longing for a wall to knock down or a fence to build together or even a room to paint in a non-neutral color. I am grateful we're no longer responsible for the quirks of an old house or deciduous trees that whirl their leaves and branches about the yard or dandelions who scare the local lawn snobs. But I find myself restlessly haunting the local places where furniture goes to die so I can fix something.

And so, here are a few projects we've done so far.  These little accomplishments help my heart somehow, making this place feel more like home (and perhaps appeasing my inner control freak) and helping us connect through the work of our hands.

(1) Building a bunk bed for the boys out of broken bed scraps at the campus dumpster:

Sam drills holes for bolts that will hold the top bunk in place.

Nick bolts the bed to the cement wall.  We've learned a few
things over the years as parents of active boys.

(2) Making shelves from the doors of a discarded wardrobe (see picture above).  Most Korean furniture is made of pressboard: sawdust with a wood-grain plastic laminate; the wardrobe doors included some actual wood trim that would support a shelf:

Our coatroom/entry floor is also our workbench. At least the
tiles are easy to clean up.

However, the nearest outlet for our "workshop" is two rooms away,
in the bathroom.  (Why is the only outlet behind the toilet, you ask?
So your shower spray doesn't electrocute you. Obviously.  :)

Our bedroom shelf for family pictures means less drilling into the cement walls.
The steel brackets were actually brought from Iowa - left over from a shelf project in our first house.
(3) Making a tabletop of plywood found at the "dead bed" pile on campus:

Sam masterfully measures before wielding the circular saw.
Ah... my very own corner office (on our bedroom balcony).
Used frequently for sewing and editing.

(4) Re-finishing an old stool reclaimed from a ditch behind a baseball field in Hyeunghae:

 (5) Repairing our broken bed supports:

A paint can (yes, a dumpster find) had been sorely pressed into service
as a temporary bed support these last few months.  

Sam and Nick use scrap pieces from the shelf project
to build new bed supports.
(6) And my favorite project to date, which nicely brings us full circle on our handyman history: re-finishing the wardrobe we bought in 1990 from Chicago's Naked Furniture:

Before: mostly naked (and filthy!) with
green that matched our old living room.
After: A happy sea-glass blue.  Still looking for
new knobs at the Dead Furniture piles.

What's next?  I'm not sure.  I really need to slipcover two armless chairs we found (their vinyl has seen better days); or fix the drawers on the found dresser that stores crafts and seashell; or paint the naked bookshelf Nick built for his Iowa basement office, which now serves as a living room bookcase and room divider.  Or maybe I'll wait for more furniture to show up at the Dead Furniture drop sites and find some clever way to get Nick or Sam to work with me.  

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

To the Orthodontist: Korean Style

Nick and I have long known that David and Elisabeth's big overbites would need some sort of orthodontic work. We debated doing this in the US but decided to wait until we'd settled in here (and Elisabeth lost more baby teeth).  I got some ex-pat recommendations about English-speaking orthodontists in Pohang and we picked the MIR Dental Clinic.  Today we went during the time we were told the English-speaking orthodontist was on staff (remember: appointments are not typical for medical offices here - you just show up and wait).

My American readers shall now imagine a waiting room, a clipboard of forms to complete, the dance regarding payments and insurance, and a be-gloved guy examining the children's teeth and talking about possible treatment plans.

And you wouldn't be far wrong.  But it's the ten thousand myriad ways that expectations are not quite right that can wear out the foreigner (but today that came only after a period of giddy silliness, which you'll see shortly).

We found the MIR Dental Clinic fairly easily--a minor miracle in itself given the challenging address system in this city.  I vaguely remembered hearing that the office was on the 5th floor, which was a fortunate guess as the building and elevator directories were completely in Korean and my reading level is still slow to abysmal.    

At the reception desk, Nick, being Nick, gave a full explanation of our desires vis-a-vis David and Elisabeth's orthodontic needs.  She looked blankly at him.  I said "Foreign. English.  Doctor."  She nodded and pointed to the waiting area.  

So, we waited.  She eventually brought us clipboards with paperwork for each child, and she asked their ages.  Which, of course, depends on whose cultural context we're working in:  David is 14 in America, but he's 15 in Korea or possibly 16, depending on whether we count this year's "birthday" as happening over last week's Lunar New Year.  I think.  So Elisabeth is 11 or 12 or maybe even 13.  And I couldn't remember how to say any of those numbers in Korean so I just assumed she knew more English than she had been letting on.  So, after fumbling though this conversation, we turned to the clipboarded forms.  

The shortest medical form ever.
The forms were--blessedly--in English. But so brief that I wondered whether we were missing something. (Being a foreigner makes you suspicious about such things.)  In the US, we'd fill out pages of information about each kids' medical history, insurance, payment plans, consent for treatment, HIPPA, etc.  Here it's just a 1/2 page medical checklist and very little demographic information. None, in fact.  

Dr. Kim, center white-coat-guy, surrounded by an
astonishingly attractive array of hygienists.

We were then motioned to come to a private consultation room (this motion was done Korean-style, with an odd hand-flap, fingers down, which in the US might mean "shoo!). A lab-coated man entered, bowed briefly, explained that "My English not so good" and motioned for David to get into the examination chair. Dr. Kim (I proudly read his Korean nametag) donned a single latex glove (right hand), looked at David's profile and in his mouth, then wrote some notes.  He removed his glove, washed his hands, put on a new glove before repeating the process with Elisabeth.  He returns to our little table and explains what he sees. Which sounds simple, but it's a 20-minute, stop-and-start, fill-in-the-blank, nodding-and-smiling-induced headache of a conversation about possible outcomes and treatments.  Bottom line: both kids' lower jaws are smaller than their upper jaws; treatment will depend on x-rays of their mouths and hands.

Wait a minute: hand x-rays?  Yes, for... (much pausing, gesturing toward wrists).. Growth plates?  I ask. He nods.  Ok.  Let's do this.

The kids were escorted down the hall to another plush waiting area.  I went to sit with them and Nick followed, only to discover that a hygienist has more questions for us in the consultation room.  I pretended ignorance and remained with the kids, a little frustrated that it's hard to know when and where we're supposed to be.  I did get to ponder the odd sign in the consultation room across from us:  "Maximum Emotion Service" sounds more like a bad counseling approach rather than orthodontistry. I also wondered about the intended audience, as the sign is only in English and it's clear the MIR clinic doesn't engage in a lot of English fluency.

Elisabeth stands in the jaw-alignment-x-ray machine.
No lead aprons or other protection for  her, though the
technician leaves the room and closes the door.
Anyway, Elisabeth was called in for a panoramic x-ray, then sat back in the waiting area while the technicians (all ungloved) checked the hallway computer to see if the image had turned out.  Then she was called in for a "supplemental" x-ray, and sat back down to wait.  Finally, she got her hand x-rayed.  Meantime, David was called down the hall to get dental impressions (bright pink goo) and photographs. Then Elisabeth and David switched places. The only gloves anyone used were for mixing the goo.

I am not sure what caused Nick and I to start getting silly, but our surreptitious picture-taking got more and more obvious. At least four technicians were actually working with the kids but others occasionally pranced down the hall to visit with their co-workers and point and giggle at us.  I love, love the Korean prance: straight, stiff arms; head down; light-footed trotting with knees barely bent.  Korean males and females both run this way, and sometimes, in my more adolescent moments in the grocery store or elsewhere, I will try it.  Somehow, it makes me happy, like the swings at the park.

I couldn't help laughing at David's plight:
he used plastic tools to pull his lips/cheeks out of the way
so one technician could insert a hand mirror and another could take close-ups.

David then gets his x-rays, following the pantomimed directions
for proper positioning.

At this point, we're obnoxiously taking photos. 

Finally, after all the x-rays and impressions and pictures are done, a woman brings Nick a card with our follow-up appointment.  And she shows us her phone, where she has entered a message for us to see. Despite the translation from Korean to English, we are not entirely sure of what's being asked of us besides "bring a translator next time."  So much for an English-speaking orthodontist clinic.

Bottom line for today: for about $220, we got 6 sets of x-rays, 2 sets of dental impressions, dozens of digital photos, and 2 individual exams by an orthodontist.  Not bad in terms of money, but downright exhausting in terms of social/emotional energy.  I took a long nap when we got home.  The next appointment is in 2 weeks....