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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Politics of a Korean Spring

Spring in Korea (pronounced "bohm," like a prim Brit's understated description of the flowery explosion) is truly stunning.  The plum trees have been showing their gentle whites for a couple of weeks (now there's a living room paint color: "Plum White"); the forsythia yellows are shouting out from the hedgerows; the camelias and magnolias (I HATE it when people say "man-golias") offer lush backdrops that attract students' selfies like mamas to chocolate.  I love these signs of renewal and hope.

The cherry trees--so many of them throughout the countryside and city-- are also blooming, but I have resisted loving their shy pink magnificence.

And, frankly, here's why I resist: They're Japanese.

"What?!? That's SO racist!" you may exclaim (or at least think quietly to yourself).  And, yes, I suppose it is. If there's one thing Americans are taught, it's to accept people of all races and places.  But, since coming to Korea, I've read many novels about Korean history that's bathed in tension with the powers of Japan, China, and Russia; I've visited history museums; I read the daily Korean newspaper (not in Korean, dear reader: the Joong-Ang Daily is in English).  And I've learned again and again that the Japanese have not been kind to Korea. So, as a Korean resident trying hard to appreciate the local language and culture, I just can't like the Japanese. Or the stuff they brought here, including the cherry trees.

"Now," you might well say, dear reader, "Japan invaded and colonized Korea a long time ago! That all ended the Korean war!!"  Well, yes. But the Japanese took a vast amount of Korean resources during that time from 1910 to 1950 or so; they required that Korea abandon its cultural traditions, and only allowed Japanese to be spoken or taught in schools during that long occupation.  Even today, the Japanese continue to claim a tiny but important set of Korean islands; to promote the label "Sea of Japan" instead of the historically correct "East Sea"; to downplay the sexual slavery that marked their colonization and which continues to mark the lives of now-elderly Korean women.  A local folk museum graphically depicts Koreans being tortured by the Japanese imperialists.

Folk Museum, Hyeunghae-eup, Pohang, South Korea
Now, to be fair, I met a very friendly Japanese student last week; further, Nick and Sam had a lovely time in Osaka and Kyoto (Japan) last month.  So perhaps I over-sympathize with the victims or romanticize a Korean past that is only in my imagination. Perhaps the Japanese did some good things during their colonization, like introducing tile roofs instead of thatched ones.  But the Japanese cherry trees, as lovely as they are, make me sad here in my adopted home, perhaps reminding me too much of my own follies as a bossy mama or an overbearing professor or a short-sighted administrator.  And perhaps my sympathy is misguided - even imperialist in its own way.

Thinking these thoughts, I asked my beloved Korean tutor "Why don't Koreans rip out the Japanese cherry trees given all the awful history with that country?"   She paused for a moment, thanked me for understanding Korean history in this way,  then she smiled and simply said "The trees are too beautiful to rip out."

Oh.  In that moment, I saw a new aspect of grace that made me see the cherry trees for what they are: a stunning collection of fleeting joy that showers upon us. Not a political symbol or a historical marker of oppression, but an expression of joy.  What a wonderful gift indeed.

P.S.  Apparently, both Koreans and Americans have some history of removing cherry trees from their respective capitals to protest the Japanese annexation (Korea) and the kamikaze bombings of Pearl Harbor (USA).  See Cherry Blossom Story  for succinct summary. (at

Monday, March 10, 2014

Sunday Shamanism

A few weeks ago, some friends-of-friends living in Seoul came to visit us over President's Day weekend (as a civilian working at the Air Force base, he gets all the US holidays plus the two big Korean ones). So, we visited some of our favorite places around Pohang, including the Dragon Ball Temple (my name for it), the Bouncy House (the kids' name for an inflated house of trampolines), and the beach. We also had an unplanned experience with shamanism after church on Sunday.
David poses for my after-church picture.

Now, our small congregation of internationals (teachers, profs, armed forces) holds services in a fancy 10th floor restaurant across the street from Bukbu Beach (ok, dear Pohang readers, I know it's now called Yongildae Beach). During our service, we could hear loud, traditional-sounding drumming all the way from the beach, which says something about how hard someone was whaling on those things.

The restaurant's "romantic" theme includes some statues,
leading my dad to call this "The Church of the Naked Ladies."  :)
Bukbu Beach from the window of our church.  Jealous?  :)

A look out the window showed the source of the drumming: a small stage with colorful banners and women dancing in traditional hanboks.  Our Korean pastor rolled his eyes when we pointed it out, describing it as a pagan ritual about the god of the sea. Weird. But well worth checking into.

Three drummers drumming, many banners flying, piles of fruit a-waiting,
and a bald shaman lady... shamaning. 

So, after descending the glass elevator and crossing to the beach, we stood alongside the gathering of curious Koreans. I snuck closer to take pictures, envying my friend her telephoto lens. 

Video man and a rub-down lady.
I then saw a traditionally-dressed Korean man taking extensive video with his smartphone, which gave me the confidence to creep closer (and hey, I'm a curious American and it's a public place, so what're they gonna do?). During one part of the ritual, two women in bright robes used long strips of white cloth to vigorously rub down women in line for such treatment. After every few people, the ladies shook out the cloths, perhaps to get rid of the accumulated illness or evil spirits.

I was especially fascinated by the 100 or so women attending the ritual; nearly all were middle-aged or elderly and none were particularly dressed up - their colors were decidedly dull relative to the festive display

This was clearly a religious ritual given all the fruit offerings, candles, chants
and praying hands, but folks were dressed pretty casually.

Later research (ok, mostly Wikipedia) told me that these women hoped for healing and for good fortune during the upcoming fishing season.  This shamanism "dates back to pre-historic times and centers on the belief that all things in the universe have a soul" (Guile, 2004) The shamen/priests, usually women, are called mudang.

The last people in line were men: perhaps fishermen?
They also got the rub-down, but tended to laugh a lot more than
the women receiving the treatment.
I snuck behind the hanging dragon/boat thing to get a picture of women in line
for the rub-down.  I believe the dragon symbolizes the spirit of the sea.
Which I think is the "good guy" in this whole deal.

Upon reflection, I started to wonder about the contrasts and similarities of the shamanism to the Christian worship service we had just left.  I suppose a snapshot view of our own church rituals would befuddle outsiders, too; I can only imagine how the early customers at the restaurant last week viewed our congregation's songs, prayers, and other elements of worship (against the backdrop of the cushy couches, months-old balloons, and naked ladies, of course).  Our mixed group of people from North America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa would be puzzling, too (and far less easy to research on Wikipedia). I also wondered what gave these shamen rituals such staying power, but given the lack of young people present, I sense this is a dying religion that will become a quaint memory of the olden days.  And that makes me sad, somehow, though I feel somewhat guilty for not rejoicing in the dying of a pagan religion.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"Thank you for not killing me": Orthodontist visits #3a & 3b

Perhaps the end is the best place to start this story.
I left the orthodontist's office today (visit 3b) with a lovely gift box presented after the young Korean woman at the desk read from her handwritten English script, "Thank you for not killing me."

This story began yesterday when I took David and Elisabeth to get their orthodontic appliances (visit 3a). I did not bring a translator along this time; as you may remember, dear reader, the good doctor's grasp of English and my grasp of dental stuff meant we communicated pretty well without one.  I thought so, anyway.

Here is a snippet of our dialogue-pantomime.  Imagine me hunched forward across a small table, (again in the "Maximum Emotion Service" consultation room), staring intently at the good doctor's face to match his sounds with his lips and gestures. I nodded frequently, and my near-permanent smile and wide eyes were intended to seem encouraging.  I felt like a game show contestant trying to guess the right words so I could win the grand prize.  He, on the other hand, is a few years younger than me (and in this culture, I therefore win the status game), lacks confidence in his English, and is certainly not used to so much direct eye contact (considered to be rude in this culture).  I don't know that he appreciated his role in this game show; I hear that Koreans smile regardless of their actual feelings.

Good Doctor: "Ah... today?  Appliances?  Ah... David is 'bionator.' Is... plastique?  Why-ah? When clean, ah... ah... no hot... ah... Tap water?  Shan-eet-eyes? Ah... drugs? den-too?  water in bowl? Ah... wait...20 minute? Ah... Little circles?"

Me: "Yes!  Appliances!  David's is called a 'Bionator!' Yes!  Made of plastic and wire!  Ah... no boiling water - it would melt plastic!  Use... hot tap water? No? Ah, denture tablets in warm water?  Yes!" I turn to David and Elisabeth to review the instructions in my Uber-Mama voice (they have been distracted by Sam making faces at them from the hallway).  "To sanitize your new appliances, put one of these tablets and your appliance in a bowl of warm water; the water will fizz for about 15 minutes."   And so on, while the doctor and I took turns acting and listening and either affirming or correcting each others' statements. Sounds. Whatever.

After about 20 minutes, which included the kids putting in their appliances and a review of their fit, the good doctor brought out a sheet of instructions written in Korean; he read these to himself and carefully crossed out many lines with his mechanical pencil.  Then he (roughly) translated the remaining instructions that repeated most of what he'd already told us about usage, cleaning, and storage.  This whole session was utterly hilarious to me, but I realized it was stressful for him: "Please bring translator.  Ah... next time.  One month."  I agreed, if only to make him feel better.  Surely I can find a student interested in an adventure with us.

So out we went, stopping at the desk to make our next appointment (a communication cluster as the desk woman knows far less English than our good doctor).  I also offered to pay for the services, as we've not been asked to do that yet.  After some consultation with the charts and two other women at the counter (I was also aware of three giggling technicians peeking out at us), she wrote down the total amount we owed (2,600,000 won - about $2500) and I handed over my debit card.

Thus ended visit 3a.  Later in the day, my husband called to say he'd gotten a text (in Korean) from someone about something regarding 2.8 million won.  We conferred, concluded this must be about the orthodontist's office, and his TA called the office to figure out what happened.  Sum: They overcharged me and needed me to bring back my debit card ASAP so they could cancel that transaction and charge us the correct amount.

I was not very happy about making the trek back: the lack of a GPS, absence of standard road names and house addresses, and of course the mismatch between any google/printed maps and the actual roads make travel very challenging for me. I wanted to just wait until we returned next month, but that was not an option. They were desperate to fix this ASAP.

So this morning, Sam and I went back.  As we stepped off the elevator, the three ladies at the desk looked up and began giggling behind their hands, exchanging wide-eyes glances.  We approached the desk, smiling and giving a proper greeting.  The same woman we worked with yesterday stood and said in perfect English, "Thank you for coming back today.  I am sorry for our mistake.  May I have your card?"

As I handed it to her, pondering her new-found English ability, I noticed a paper on her desk with a list of neatly-written, perfect English sentences.  Someone made her a cheat sheet for this little scenario.

She re-did the transaction, glanced at her script, and recited, "We are sorry for our mistake. This is for you."

I took the offered gift box with both hands and a non-eye-contact bow of my head, but I did not open it (it's rude here to open a gift in front of the giver).  This was a lovely gesture and I imagined it might contain, well, I don't know. Perhaps something shiny?  Perhaps a traditional Korean inlaid abalone box?  I had no idea.

I was surprised when she took back the box and silently opened it to show me the gifts inside: toothbrushes, toothpaste, a plaque remover tool (?), and a strange tiny bottle-brush thing.  Not quite what I imagined, but still a very nice gesture.  I thanked her again as she took a breath to deliver her second-to-last line, not knowing that I had already read her script, upside-down, and was anxiously waiting to see if she would actually carry through with her task.

She did a marvelous job as her co-workers burst into giggles, delivering her last lines with an almost-straight face:

"Thank you for not killing me."

"Please accept our apologies."

I couldn't help it.  I laughed and clapped my hands with that inner child who peeks out when I'm utterly delighted. I didn't win a vacation cruise or a shiny new knick-knack from this game show, but you just can't buy adventure like this.

P.S. An ex-pat consulted her Korean husband about this situation.  He suspects that the receptionist was trying to say (no thanks to Google translation) "Thank you for not getting me in big trouble with my boss."  Which does make much more sense.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Korean Class #1

I decided last week that I really need to do something about learning Korean.  I don't really use Korean in everyday life - after all, living in an ex-pat community on a global campus in a town where I can find the "foreign" food aisles and most Koreans know enough English for us to cobble together some mutual understanding means... I've gotten away with being lazy.  And I've lived here for 9 months already. Get a grip.  Learn the language.

Ok.  Wanting to be self-sufficient, I accessed the Handong Global University's intranet, using Nick's id.  I clicked on the English version of the website, which changed, well, a few things from Korean to English, and I managed to find the link to Courses.  But beyond the pull-down Year and Semester selection boxes, everything else was in Korean.  Oh. Yet another good reason I should learn the local language.  Nick's TA kindly found the class info for me and today was scheduled to be the first day of Korean 1.

I did not sleep well last night.  I haven't been this nervous since, well, my professor days.  Even after years of teaching, I always had bad dreams for a couple of nights before the semester began - I would show up in the wrong room, or would have prepared the wrong class, or the students wouldn't pay any attention. Now I was on the other side of the lectern and scared that I would be the dumbest kid in the class (let alone the oldest).  I nearly chickened out - after all, I could still get a Korean tutor!  (Not that my tutor worked out so well last time).  I could study on my own! (yeah, like that has been effective.)  I could....  Ok. Enough excuses.  Get to class already.

I was a couple of minutes late, puffing hard from all the stairs, and the room was nearly filled with young, energetic people.  I felt old.  Out of shape.  One student stood as I entered the room, then he bowed slightly and asked if I'm also teaching the Korean 3 class. Ah, no, I'm actually a student in this class. The other students laughed, but not in a mean way - gentle, almost.

I dashed to the back of the room, reverting to my shy student self, and found a chair behind the other students.  After forever and a half, the teacher entered: a lovely Korean young woman with a bounce in her step and smile on her face.  What a difference that first impression makes - the classroom filled with "ohhh!," a common Korean sound to demonstrate affirmation.

After some introductory greetings ("ahn-yong-ha-say-yo!"), she took roll (only 12 of the 20 of us were actually registered) and passed out a sheet of paper requesting some basic information, most of which I couldn't answer (handheld phone number; college major; student id number) or felt dumb because I "only" know English: it's my mother tongue, both my parents's mother tongues, and I have no experience with Korean in the home.  Quickly though, the fun began.  We're instructed to draw a circle on the back of our page.  "WAN!" she said, smiling and encircling her own face.  WAN!  And she writes this word in Hangul (the Korean language) on the board - happily, I can read Korean fairly well already - and she explains that "wan" means "circle." We spontaneously repeat after her, trying out this word on our tongues and peering at the strange letters.  Then we drew eyebrows in our circles ("noon-sub!"), eyes ("noon!"), lips ("ko!") and so on.  The students were remarkably responsive: drawing, seeing, hearing, repeating.  No one was called on individually and we all repeated her sounds as best we could, with a range of American, Spanish, Chinese, and other accents.  We then wrote three characteristics about ourselves and she asked a volunteer to stand, state his/her name, home country, and the three characteristics.  As each student did so, she wrote his/her name and characteristics in Korean on the board. The rest of the class--people from Burma, Indonesia, Ghana, Rwanda, etc.--murmured these names and applauded as each person finished.

Conclusion? This woman can teach.  We were involved right away, felt welcomed and supported (lots of gentle laughter as we shared our pretty ugly "faces"), learned a little about each other, and learned new words and how to spell our own names already. She used strategies that taught both the complete novice and more advanced learners.  Wow - this is a woman I can study hard for.  And I can learn some things about teaching, despite the fact that her "day job" is as an elementary school teacher.  Very, very impressive.

P.S.  After class, I asked an American student where she's from in the US.  She said South Dakota - Sioux Falls, to be exact, from Sioux Falls University. No. Way. I've been to her college campus and she has friends at Dordt College, where I taught for 16 years.  Ah....  who would have thought that my Siouxland Bingo skills would come in handy in Korea?