Follow by Email - get notifications of new posts. :)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Dinner Obligations

Nick told me two weeks ago of his Very Important Department Dinner With Spouses (one spouse would even be coming All the Way from Seoul!). The subtext was, well, not very sub-tle:  I had to go. Nick had even written this event on the family calendar to forestall any line of excuses related to repressing forgetting my not knowing of the event ahead of time (he is maybe slightly familiar with my social anxieties and sad little means of avoiding them). Thus, as the fated evening arrived, my fearful inner five-year-old appeared right on schedule and kicked out my entire frontal lobe of rational thinking. What if I embarrassed Nick by saying or doing something dumb? What if I gagged on the food? What if I offended his department chair and Nick lost his job and our family had to wander forever? I know, I know: it isn't reasonable. But being shy means that just knowing there are no monsters in the closet isn't always enough to remove the heart-tentacles of fear.

So, after heroically getting my poop in a group getting ready for the "business casual" dinner despite wanting to throw up and/or maim my extroverted husband, we drove to the indicated location following the astonishingly inefficient indicated route (i.e., taking the Pohang IC to get to Hwanho area. It's like using your toes to text: do-able, but not pretty). We arrived at what was now revealed to be a fancy raw fish restaurant. I was duly introduced to the people around the table (yes, I've been here a year and I have only met four of Nick's nine colleagues). I noted with perhaps a wee bit of sulkiness that five of the professors (5!) had attended sans spouses and one professor was absent entirely. (You may now praise my maturity in refraining from mentioning these salient facts to Nick.  At least until afterwards.  We were almost to the car.) I was seated in the middle of the long dinner table in a long narrow room (worst seat for shy people: no escape), and directly across from the (spouse-absent) department chair.  Oh GREAT: best seat in the house for mortally embarrassing myself and Nick.  I knew we'd be homeless within the hour.  I did enjoy observing his retired-Hawaiian look though, with a shirt decidedly on the casual end of "business casual" and sporting very un-Korean "surfer hair" (this is a real thing. Just ask my friend, Wikipedia).  Happily, seated on my right was Professor N, a lovely Korean woman my age who lived in the US for 11 years.  (She snipped up my cold noodle soup last summer.  With scissors.  In a restaurant.  With Korean children ogling and giggling at me nearby.)

The Set-Up:
PSY advertising soju and beer.
Let me state up front that the evening was not a complete disaster. After all, we had chairs, so I could avoid awkward floor-sitting and the odd sounds that may accompany one's post-dinner standing-up process.  Despite the private room and comfy chairs, the wooden table wore a disposable plastic white tablecloth, unevenly cut and scotch-taped to the table's edges; to my Western eye, this seemed to contradict the restaurant's reputed "fancy" status. Each person was supplied with a rolled wet towel, a long metal spoon, a pair of metal chopsticks, and three tiny square bowls for different dipping sauces. (Small plates were provided well after we'd been dipping our chopsticks into the communal foods. I wondered whether this germ-swapping practice is a significant contributor to Korean longevity.)  We also had two small glasses each: a juice glass with a beer brand logo and a shot glass with a soju (roughly, Korean vodka) brand logo.  We had no alcohol (alas, poor Yorick); however, the plastic water bottles' had labels using pop-entertainer PSY to promote aforementioned beer brand in one hand and soju in the other, thus confirmed the apparently appropriate alcohol combo while eating raw fish.

The Unfolding Cluster Scene:
(a) The banchan (small side dishes) were served, and lots of chatting in Korean ensued around the table. I tried to look pleasantly attentive and was inordinately pleased to understand key concepts like "then" and "thank you" and "ha ha ha." Given my staggering facility with spoken Korean language, I completely missed that the department chair had begun prayer.  Oops. Then, head bowed and listening hard to the main prayer and all the side prayers (Koreans like to mumble along), I further failed to realize when prayer had ended.  Perhaps I earned a bonus point for my apparent extra piety.

(b) In what appears to be the Korean Way, the host (department chair) must have ordered all the food for the table (who knew that ordering my very own restaurant food would be something I'd miss from the US?). A veritable march of banchan and main dishes appeared over the next two hours (see Appendix for specifics).  Some items looked positively alarming; I noticed that Professor N also avoided a few things (raw abalone intestine, among them), and I avoided eating any raw fish, certain I would gag noisily and thus get Nick fired.  However, Professor N was quite insistent that I try some of the other items, using rhetorical approaches like "there is only one for each of us" and "they are very expensive." Ah, peer pressure. Just what I needed.

(c) Despite my reluctance to put oh-so-recently-living-things in my mouth under the heading of "food," I found plenty of other items to keep me happily fed and looking sociable.  At least, I thought so, until Professor N casually asked if I like abalone soup (uh, no, but I do love the pretty shells I find on the beach). Why do you ask, I wondered? Because the department chair had apparently noticed I wasn't partaking of the (expensive) raw fishes, so he had ordered that kind of soup for me.  Noting my ill-disguised alarm, Professor N told the chair that I don't like seafood and don't eat it (that Korean exchange I understood).  So, again without consulting me, he canceled the abalone soup and instead ordered a vegetarian noodle soup.  When it arrived, Professor N indicated this soup was made especially for me since this type normally has lots of raw fish bits floating on top, a specialty of this particular fancy-schmancy restaurant.  Ah, of course.  And now I knew for sure that the chair was watching me, despite his near-obsessive phone behavior and ripping of the table-plastic with his restless thumbnail.

(d)  I am proudly able to hold and use chopsticks for short periods of time to nab small, solid foods. However, when the soup arrived, I realized I could not possibly eat the coiled-up 1.32km long, thin noodles with just the slippery metal chopsticks, as the natives do. I did try, dear reader, splattering myself and who knows what else as I twisted the noodles around the chopsticks and around the spoon and around the chopsticks some more until my hand ached.  Being kind, Professor N asked the staff for a fork. (Yes, a fork, for noodle soup.) Now I had THREE implements with which to battle the noodles while trying to seem competent and polite and not a slob.

(e) Did I mention that earlier in the day I had dyed some t-shirts a lovely deep navy?  Well, lacking rubber gloves and the patience to go buy some, I instead used a plastic shopping bag that apparently leaked and thus my right hand was very, very blue during dinner. If nothing else, certainly that impressed Nick's colleagues. Maybe they all ran home and wrote their own blogs about the American Moron at dinner.

(f) A food piece managed to stick to a blowing strand of my my hair, of which I didn't know until said hair entered my mouth and I found it impossible to retrieve while looking attentive and interested and possibly desperate for any English conversation.  There were no napkins at the table to hide behind for an extraction process, and I was trapped seated at the middle of the table to prevent my leaving.  Arg. The hair was slowly consumed.

(g) Late in the meal, the department chair (via Professor N) asked if I wanted a cola.  I was paranoid: he knew I'd rejected the expensive fancy fish foods, he knew I didn't want the abalone soup, that I didn't eat much of the soup that did show up (it WAS tasty, I kept insisting; I just wasn't skilled enough to eat it politely), and now he was trying to appease me with soda.  No, no, I insisted.  I am fine, thank you so much.  Water is just fine.  Fine.  And moments later, out from the kitchen appeared glass bottles of Coke and Sprite for every person at the table...except me.  Because I just wanted water.  *sigh.*  I felt I should join "Dolly" and her friends on the Island of Misfit Toys.

During the meal, one of Nick's colleagues offered him some translation on his left, and Professor N provided intermittent summaries on my right.  These side conversations (and my attention-sucking food skirmishes) meant Nick and I didn't speak much during dinner.  Once, though, Nick asked how I was doing.  I had no way to respond honestly to him without utterly revealing myself to him and his entire department as a completely ridiculous person.  But later, in reflection, and in the process of many drafts of this essay, I realized something new.  Even as a shy person who undoubtedly will continue to struggle with social anxieties, I could see my great foolishness did not lay in raw-fish-squeamishness or sad chopstick etiquette, but in being frightened by a group of bumblers and sinners who are just as ridiculous as me.

If only I can remember this the next time something is written on the calendar.

Appendix of Foods:

Tortilla triangles (one each) topped with a maraschino cherry, bean sprouts, raw salmon, and (something chewy)

Dark, deep-fried sticky balls of sweet potato coated with sesame seeds

Breaded, deep-fried (BDF) something (tofu?) in crazy, jigsaw-like shapes

Plates of pickled something (pink), pickles, and pickled onions

Plates of shredded cabbage topped with BDF eel and pink yogurt sauce

Vegetable kimbap (bite-sized rolls of rice, seaweed, and veggies) (note: once the allotted one kimbap per person was gone, there wasn't another speck of rice to be found during the whole meal, which was a great pity as I had counted on that as a sure-fire filler).

Main Dishes:
Platters of transparently-sliced raw fish (I was reminded of how brains are sliced with microtomes for study under a microscope) with baskets of neatly-stacked red lettuce leaves and sesame leaves for wrapping the fish with some sauce.  Leaf-wrapped food seems to be the only thing Koreans eat with their hands.

Plates of raw abalone, abalone intestines, and sliced sea squirt (see here for a humorous description of a sane man's first (and only) sea squirt food encounter).

Bowls of cold noodle soup, which is served as a baseball-sized sphere of thin noodles in a bowl with some diced scallions, sliced cucumber, and crumbled, dried seaweed; you pour in the icy cold red broth from a separate pitcher (sort of like a V8 slushy).  This dish was served later to the whole table but they got all the raw fish that mine didn't have.  It was accompanied by its own side dishes of kimchi (fermented cabbage with salty red pepper paste) and other unidentified things (one bowl looked suspiciously like deep-fried crawfish legs).

Plates of tempura sweet potato slices and tempura shrimp.  The potatoes were fantastic; the shrimps pink/purples tails peeking out of the yellow/wheat tempura were scary.

Plates of a breaded, deep-fried fish-ish thing (bones still in) with some fruit cocktail arranged on the top.

Finally, heavy stone bowls of still-boiling tofu/seafood soup.  I don't know if this was intended to be dessert or it's just a healthy send-off dish.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A year later: It's still weird

Over the last year of living in Korea, I have occasionally called Nick and the kids to the window and, once they have quieted, I say to them, in a serious, deeply meaningful voice:

"We live in South Korea."

And then I giggle like a crazy woman and walk away, shaking my head.

I just can't believe it.  I went from being a painfully shy girl to an awkward grownup who still leaves social events early (or just doesn't show up).  I have never, ever been adventurous; my favorite food groups are pasta, potatoes, and popcorn, mostly because those are great vehicles for butter and salt.

But here I am.  I moved across the world.  With my family.  I still can't believe it.

But a year on, even with all my learning and adjustments and maturation, I'm still finding lots to gape at. Signs are still funny, squatting ajummas are still amazing (but not as scary), and the views are still stunning.  So, for your own enjoyment, here are a few pictures from just this week in a land that still makes me wonder.  And laugh.  And shake my head.

"English" signs: Using English apparently adds status to a  store or product,
even if the English doesn't quite make sense.
So, clockwise from top left: A women's clothing store; an ice-cream shop; a music studio; a shoe store. 

Beach life (Sunday afternoon at Bukbu beach):
Koreans typically cover lots of skin, even at the beach;
Westerners do not seem to fear the sun, skin cancer or Korean opinion;
an adorable Korean girl carrying her own (very wet) underwear  as she strolls with her mom down the sidewalk.

Some of the creatures I enjoyed this week:
a (non-native, very lost) red golden pheasant in the woods near my garden;
a great white egret strolling down a pier;
a heron/egret rookery near PosTech University;
and at the PosTech pond (ok, Burger King), I watched a honeybee clambering around a water lily
and a dragonfly resting on an unopened lily.

The land near Handong's campus, which is north of the city:
rice fields near sunset; a mountain view over the highway;
burial mounds along a campus woodland path. (just someone's parents or grandparents, nothing to worry about) 

Technology surprises:
A resting animated mannequin;
a car wash (the car stands still while the car wash moves over it along rails);
a mini-bulldozer gutting a shop while the site supervisor stands on the pile of debris, holding overhead wires out of the way with a stick (ah, safety). 

Street scenes:
A fashionable young woman outside a bridal shop and nail salon buys fruit from an elderly vendor's wooden cart;
A uniformed employee (banker?) buying veggies from a squatting street vendor;
A monk rhythmically tapping a gourd while chanting on a busy street corner across from Jukdo Market.
Inexplicable store items:

At a Jukdo sewing shop with friend Tracey today, we noticed a dried blowfish hanging above the check-out table among the buttons and lace reels and other notions.   Not even Google can explain what that was doing there.

At the moon-gu ("everything store") yesterday, Nick and I discovered some adorable butterfly costumes alongside some very realistic rubber bosoms and buttocks.  They are apparently meant to be worn over one's clothing.

And, at the ArtBox store, we found a variety of odd cosmetic devices, including these eyebrow templates intended to guide one's trimming and shaving.  We did not buy them, but I did sneak some pictures.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Lunch & Shopping: Korea vs. the US

Three American women and I had a lunch date yesterday, and I realized how used to Korean I have become in just a year. Thus, here's my version of our four hours together, trying to highlight the ways in which a basic shopping/lunch date in Korea differs from one in the US (well, Iowa, as I really can't speak for the whole darn country).

Dramatis personæ:

Grace (Korean-American; lived in Korea for last 12 years) (speaks Korean fluently)
Charlene (Korean-American, in Korea for last 1.5 years) (speaks conversational Korean)
Sherri (American mixed breed; in Korea for 1.2 years) (understands super basic Korean)
Elizabeth (Dutch-American, frequent visitor to Korea) (knows many Korean food-words)

We're all middle-aged-ish (no surprise to those who know me, but every time I look in the mirror, I am surprised at the old-looking 32-year-old I think I am), we all have professional/graduate degrees, and we've all taught college/university at some point.  Grace and I met Elizabeth for the first time today; Charlene met her last week while she and her daughter are visiting Korea this month.

The Plan:

We wanted to visit a pottery shop that Grace found last week, which was having a going-out-of-business sale, and we wanted to have lunch together.  We left at 10:45am and planned to be back around 2.

The Story:

(1) Grace drives because (a) she knows where things are and (b) doesn't have to consult the map/GPS constantly while (c) dodging scooters, taxis, buses, ajummas, parked cars, and crazy drivers.  More importantly, Grace is an experienced rural Korean driver and thus knows that red lights serve only an advisory function. (For readers who enjoy foreshadowing but just might have missed it here, reread the previous sentence.  There shall be other hints, but I shall not annoy my dear readers by pointing them out).

(2) We arrive at the pottery shop, which is named something happily still in business (30% off!) but no lights are on even though 11am seems to be a reasonable business hour, even by Korean standards (coffee shops here rarely open before 9). As with most Korean businesses, the owner's cell phone (pronounced "han-deh-pone-eh") is posted, so Grace calls and the owner arrives soon to open the shop for us.

(3)We delightedly wander the shop, picking up and touching the bowls, plates, tea sets, etc., exclaiming to each other over the lovely glazes and designs. (Our touchy-feely approach is definitely American: Koreans don't touch the goods). The owner asks Grace where we are all from, as we laugh a lot (not a Korean trait, apparently) and Grace and Charlene's Korean sound foreign (ooh... a little foreshad-).  "You have so much joy!" she exclaim, and I wonder whether government funding is available for spreading American cheer. I digress. We gradually gather best-loved pieces to our respective bosoms (ok, we put them on the front table, but that's not poetic) and justify our growing piles by appealing to Father's Day and gifts for family and friends back home (dear US readers: assume nothing). Happily, the owner gives us a deal even beyond her 30% sale. While waiting to pay (assisted by the ever-present shop calculator) we notice a golf club in one corner, which really seems out of place in a pottery shop, and a roll of toilet paper on the counter, which does not seem out of place at all (Koreans commonly use this instead of Kleenex).  The two Caucasians in our group receive small presents from the owner: leather cord necklaces with hand-made clay pendants; it's not uncommon to receive a "service" if you spend a certain amount of money at a Korean store, but it's at the discretion of the owner. (Today, though, the gifts weren't related to how much we'd spent, as Charlene spent more than Elizabeth. Maybe it's because the owner assumed the white folks were just visiting and the Koreans would visit her other store?  I don't know.  Sorry, Grace and Charlene.)

(4) We next drive to a Korean restaurant Grace knew about. After parking down the very narrow street (lined with cars, bars, weeds, and piles of small garbage bags), we pick our way to the restaurant.  Before anything else, we first take off our shoes and put them on the restaurant's entryway shelves, making sure to then stand only on the provided board path instead of on the cement floor (which is considered unclean as it touched our shoes which touched the ground which is more unclean than a gentile lobster). We walk in sock-feet to a table (even in summer, one must bring along some sort of socks), distribute the (very flat) floor pillows, and sit on those. Grace orders for us from the menu on the wall (which only lists 6 items), and we wipe our hands with the wet rolled towels (about the size of a postcard, which is not much smaller than an Korean shower towel.  I kid you not.).

Using the table's rubbermaid-style water bottle, Charlene nicely fills our tiny metal cups; she also opens the box in the table's center to distribute spoons and chopsticks (there are no forks or knives at traditional Korean restaurants - sometimes scissors are provided for cutting).
Typical container for
Korean restaurant water.
The complimentary plate of hot green peppers and dipping sauce arrives, Elizabeth takes a daringly large bite, and though she declares them "not too hot" I notice that no more of that dish is eaten by any of us. (I have seen Nick blanch, flush, and tear up over those innocent-looking green lovelies. No way is my tender tongue trying them). Our order soon arrives. Jjin-mandu (찐만두) is a steamed, bite-sized dumpling with a rice-paper wrapping and filled with minced pork, green onions and I don't know what else. Our 10 jjin-mandu arrive on a platter; we pick them up with chopsticks, dip into the soy/sesame sauce, and eat. I, being less gustatorily less adventurous than your average bear, did not expect to like these weird-looking things.  But I was wrong - they're a bit sticky but certainly inoffensive in flavor.

food photo credits: The Web.  See postscript, below, for an explanation.
Our noodle soup arrives in giant bowls for each of us (I can imagine serving one bowl to a husky family of four). This soup, called kalguksu (칼국수) has wheat noodles in a pork-based broth with scallions, zucchini, and a dried seaweed garnish.  Korean noodle soups are supposed to be eaten with chopsticks; the spoon is only for sipping the broth or supporting dangling noodles. Now I am a slob under the best of dining conditions, and my skill with chopsticks makes 2-year-olds laugh.  Thus, today I mostly stick to surreptitiously cutting the noodles with the side of my spoon and eating them that way.  My friends politely say nothing about my gauche behavior as they gracefully wield their shiny silver utensils (Korean chopsticks are metal; Japanese ones are wooden).  I (to my internal censor's great surprise) really like the soup, which is similar to potato soup (though I do pick around the dried seaweed garnish, which flavor I can only compare to dry, salty pond scum).

Of course, no Korean meal (including breakfast) is complete without kimchi (김치), a side dish of fermented cabbage (or sometimes Korean-style radish) heavily seasoned with hot pepper flakes and a variety of salty/fishy flavorings (e.g., soy sauce, anchovies, oysters).  This is also to be eaten with chopsticks, but when one is faced with great flaps of dripping red saucy cabbage and one has poor chopstick etiquette, one doesn't eat much cabbage kimchi.  The one tiny piece I risk eating today was pretty tasty, though.  (See here for a great article on learning to eat/like kimchi and a short review of Nothing to Envy, an excellent book about conditions in North Korea.)

So, very pleased with my own culinary sophistication (if not my utensil usage), we end our meal (picture these creaky ladies trying to stand without too much awkward groaning), pad over to the register where Elizabeth snags the bill from Charlene, collect our shoes, and return to the car. (The observant non-Korean reader might infer we'd cheated these poor restaurateurs out of a generous tip.  Nope: Koreans don't tip at restaurants, in taxis, at the hair salon, nowhere.  No sales tax, either; the listed price is what you pay.  It's so, so nice for math morons like me.)

(5) Reluctant to part ways just yet, we decide that dessert is in order (note: Korean restaurants don't serve dessert. Coffee shops do.  And waffle stands, because waffles are dessert here, which is a truly fantastic idea.). We decide where to go, and Grace turns left from the narrow street onto the main road.  Uh oh...: a cop car signals her to pull over. None of us has ever been pulled over in Korea or even known someone who has been pulled over in Korea: traffic policing is done almost entirely with cameras so there is none of the paranoid fear of cops that we learn in the U.S. (I shall not mention here how many camera-based speeding tickets Nick has gotten in the last year but the number might possibly rhyme with "heaven").  Confused, Grace pulls over, the young cop with sticky-up hair comes to her window, and he speaks rapid Korean.  She cannot understand his thick Pohang accent (maybe comparable to a deep Southern accent in the US, incomprehensible to anyone outside Jasper, Alabama), and she asks him three times what he's saying.  He gets more and more frustrated (his hair swishing around faster), Charlene jumps in to help figure out what's going on, and finally after yet more vigorousmuch hair swishing we learn that Grace has illegally crossed a double-yellow line (she should KNOW that is illegal, he sputters, maybe not realizing that even though Korean and US road rules are different, we're allowed to just trade in our US license for a Korean one, no test needed).  He demands her license.  She obeys, talking all the while (I love Grace - she's not afraid of anything), and he tries to enter her license on his hand-held computer.  But it won't compute because she's not a Korean citizen (and I think oh, the hair is really going to go wild now) and suddenly he pauses, his hair still, and looks into the car.  He sees two Caucasian women in the back and the two Korean-looking women in front with foreign accents, and he appears to just give up.  He returns Grace's license and mumbles that she should not cross double-yellow lines anymore.  Poor Grace was a little angry and a little embarrassed, but we were secretly delighted by this virtually painless peek into Korean culture.
The Double Yellow Line that Grace Illegally Crossed;
the location where we got pulled over;
the Korean mascot for police (which, to me, looks like a defective cross between Porky the Pig and a rat).
(6) At last we arrive at the coffee shop that serves bingsu (빙수): this wondrous miracle is a shaved-frozen-yogurt dessert with all kinds of sweet topping options. We order two bowls (again: these are huge, for maximum sharing or serious binging), one with cheesecake chunks and almonds and one with strawberries. Oh, my. There is no better summer dessert anywhere outside of heaven. As with any Korean coffee shop, we order and pay at the counter (not actually signing the debit card machine thing as English signatures apparently take way too long - just a line or a scribble or even a smiley face will do), receive a pager/buzzer, and relax at the table.  Charlene graciously gets us water (from a central keg) and retrieves our order when we get buzzed (so to speak).

This isn't the EXACT bingu we ate today - it's a picture from a few weeks ago, with strawberries and blueberries and a little pot of condensed milk to pour over it.  Are you drooling yet?  :)

You know, for an introvert I had a fantastic time getting to know these women and Korea a little better.  I could get used to hanging out with people more often.  Especially if they are willing to drive.  :)

P.S. Why did I use some web photos (or a few after-the-fact ones) instead of taking my own?  Mostly because I didn't want my camera to get in the way of our interactions. And because I only had my telephoto lens along, which is no good when sitting nose-to-nose with your food or friends.  Or a wild-haired cop. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Spirit Week: Sports Day and Festival

More Spirit Week activities at David and Elisabeth's school.  For Sports Day, each middle-and high-school student was assigned to either the Red or the Blue team (and for $15 each got a nice knock-off soccer uniform in the corresponding color). I was surprised that even these randomized teams got pretty competitive with each. Happily, David and Elisabeth were on opposite teams so it was fun to see them compete.  Fun for me, at least. :)

David and Elisabeth's personalities are obvious on the basketball court:
Elisabeth doesn't care as much about the game but has a rather offense-oriented style;
David cares deeply about the game but is more of a natural defense guy.
(Low picture quality due to pre-telephoto shots from our 5th floor balcony.)
Waiting for middle-school baseball to begin, David intently watches the high school game
while Elisabeth messes around with friends (Josie V is here for a month from Grand Rapids
--and in a near-impossible coincidence, is great friends with Elisabeth's closest cousin.)
Middle-school baseball, where David and Elisabeth's teams played each other.
David had some nice hits and his team's first run (of 2).
Elisabeth seemed to enjoy people watching, though she had a fantastic catch/throw.

Elisabeth volunteered for the 40-on-40 tug-of-war and was right near the front line.  She's not shy, folks.

(For about 10 other pictures of the day, including 2 of David, see Aleksey Yoo's site.)

The school's festival took place on Saturday.  I was deeply delighted to learn that the kids were in charge: set-up, selling tickets, entertainment, and running the booths.  Each class had an activity booth and a food booth that reflected the country they'd studied earlier in the week for International Day.  Kids also did much of the take-down and clean-up. Teachers did some casual oversight while parents and siblings kids enjoyed the music, activities, and food. This approach is far better than parent-run carnivals.  Not sure my kids would agree, but that's ok.

Elisabeth's classroom activity booth was a human whack-a-mole.  The paying whackers loved hitting the human pop-up volunteer "moles" with a toy hammer, though the "moles" didn't have quite so much fun.

David's booth had a "catch and hold" activity:
grab and hold 3 loaches (not leaches, mind you, these were fish) within one minute for a free cotton candy.
I loved it: the Winnie the Pooh inflatable pool (WHERE did they get this in Korea?) plus eely fish on a hot day.
 It was a challenge for everyone except a Korean woman who must be a master fish-catcher:
she had no trouble at all grabbing those slippery monsters.
Nick was in the US during Spirit Week and I was tiring of single-parenting, so when I saw the HIS Festival's schedule,
I was especially intrigued by the 12:15 slot: 10 Husbands!
However, later investigation showed this was a colossal typo:
it should have read HIS Band (10th grade).  Not husband.  Alas.

What David learned during Spirit Week:
Running around barefoot on the hot plastic playground causes giant blisters.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Spirit Week: A Korean Folk Tale

The last week of May was "Spirit Week" at David and Elisabeth's school (a 12-grade, mostly-English-speaking, Christian school that's happily located below our apartment balcony), and instead of having "pajama day" or "wear your clothes backwards day" like I remember from homecoming weeks of my youth, these folks do it up right. For example, Tuesday was Korea Day: many kids wore gorgeous traditional clothing and a school-wide lecture was given about Korea. 

I caught two of Elisabeth's friends (a Korean-Canadian and a Korean-American)
and some high school boys dressed in hanbok playing soccer before school;
the lecture hall was filled with Korean heads, making it easy whenever I need to find my red-heads.
After the lecture, the school's international faculty (from the US, Canada, China, and New Guinea) enacted a traditional Korean folk story; David and Elisabeth were also required to participate by their Korean teacher (let's just say that Elisabeth was less unhappy than David about this).  I suspect the single rehearsal, held the previous afternoon, contributed to the near-slapstick acting style.  In addition, none of the actors is a native Korean speaker, so the audience (who knew the story well) had a GREAT time laughing at the delightful old tale told in truly terrible Korean.  I enjoyed the audience nearly as much as the play. 

So here's the story, as I picked up from the skit, the powerpoint slides, and my faithful assistant, Wikipedia (note: several of these pictures were taken by Aleksey Yoo (David's Russian teacher and a member of our church).

A wise old father divides his estate between his two adult sons, realizing that the evil/crafty Nolbu would otherwise leave nothing for kind Heungbu.  However, after the father's (over-the-top, butt-in-the-air) death, the greedy Nolbu steals his brother's inheritance, leaving his family destitute (thus the plain-spun hanbok rather than the bright silky clothing).

The father wisely divides his estate between his sons, dies,
and one brother still gets screwed by the other.  
Poor Heungbu's family (including Elisabeth as wife and David as child) beg for help from Nolbu's wife.  At first she gives them a small pittance, but when Heungbu returns to beg for more, she beats him and chases him away.  
I love David's look of surprise when Nolbu's wife whacks Heungbu.
Later, Heungbu notices a swallow (inexplicably dressed as a penguin in this production) with a broken leg; his family cares for the bird until it is well, when it gratefully brings them a seed that grows into a huge gourd.  When the gourd is opened (by a surprisingly sturdy cardboard saw), it is filled with riches and the family is in need of nothing.

This Canadian was a highly demonstrative swallow.  Penguin.  Whatever.

The Gourd of Abundance.
Of course, evil brother Nolbu learns of Heungbu's windfall, so he finds the swallow, breaks its leg, then sets it to heal in hopes of similar fortune. When healed, the swallow does give him a seed which produces a huge gourd.  But, when this gourd is opened, it contains not riches but a fierce goblin who beats Nolbu and his wife.  

Nolbu breaks the swallows leg, hoping to be awarded a gourd of riches
but gets a club-wielding goblin instead.
The brothers (inexplicably) reconcile and apparently live happily ever after, giggling their way off the stage.   

The cast returns to take a bow.

P.S. It ends up that the school's version of this tale was fairly tame.  For some alternatives, see these sites:

Rice Farming (more pix than info)

I grew up in a rural, mid-Michigan subdivision where a large field abutted our back yard.  Each spring I saw the corn (or beans, in alternate years) get planted by huge tractors; each summer my sister and I played near or among the growing crops (mature corn is a great place to hide, though its leaves give some nasty "paper cuts" and we always feared The Tractor coming); the crops were harvested each September by the huge combines and then the field was plowed for a long winter's rest.  All of the farming was done by machine; I don't remember ever seeing a farmer out there.

After a stint in Grand Rapids for college and then time in Chicago for graduate school, moving to Iowa was like going home: corn and beans everywhere.  Now living in Korea, where the garden-raised corn tastes like corrugated bark (I'm not sure Iowans would feed it to their cows) and the soybean fields are invisible (I have no idea where they grow enough to make the amount of soy sauce consumed here). As the campus is surrounded by rice fields, I've been curiously observing the seasons of farming.  And I quickly discovered that my dreamy vision of hand-planting rice fields in the dawning mist was a bunch of romantic crap, but, still, Korean farming is nothing like what I saw in the US. Thus, here is a selection of rice field photos and some ignorant commentary from my year here.

Early Spring:

Spring starts out bare and brown. The empty fields are plowed;
stacks of fertilizer arrive along roadsides (I assume they got put into the fields when I wasn't looking;
the fields get flooded through an elaborate, low-tech system of plastic tubing;
and flats of rice seedlings appear along field edges to grow for a couple of weeks under plastic.


Planting time! The flats of seedlings get loaded onto the planter, which has little fingers
that pop out each rice plant and stick them in rows  across the muddy fields.
Even with an engine-powered planter, the farmers work hard to guide it in reasonably straight lines.

Late Spring:

Once the seedlings have grown for a couple of weeks, men walk about with leaf-blower-looking things that appear to spray chemicals from their backpacks.  I hope it's herbicide rather than pesticide, but I don't know.
 I loved seeing one farmer find a dry place to rest - this kind of tractor is a rare sight here.


Summertime is for growing.  The gorgeously lush green waves are punctuated by great white herons who enjoy catching frogs and nesting in pine tree tops (looking ridiculously awkward).


In October, fields of golden rice get harvested by small machines, then poured and transported
in giant tote bags to the grain elevators.
Sometimes hand-tied bundles of rice marked where ajummas made way for tractors entering the field.

Early Winter:

The rice stems are baled, usually into huge rolls;
some farmers have nearly-naked bales in the field for awhile, and some wrap them in white plastic
that looks a lot like giant marshmallows (or ghost poop, as one friend calls them).

Late Winter:

The shorn winter rice fields look as sad and lifeless as those in Iowa and Michigan - but without the snow!
These were taken mid-January.  :)
And, as a bonus for you faithful readers, a final picture from this week's spring rice field foray.  Too bad for the frog, I suppose.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Sewing Lessons from a Canoe

For some reason, I took Home Economics in 7th grade, and that's where I really learned how to sew. My mom certainly owned a sewing machine, but I don't remember using it before that point (I do remember that in order to shoot my dad's bow, I had to be able to lift 40 pounds, which was supposedly the equivalent of that sewing machine).  Far more memorable was mom's sewing box, which I loved to organize (I alphabetized my books as a child, too.  And had a tidy bedroom).  The clear plastic sewing bin was the size of a small microwave (you old timers can compare it to a bread box); the spools of thread fit neatly onto the specially-made plastic spindles affixed to the removable top tray; buttons and other notions fit neatly into the square bins; scrap fabrics were folded into the bottom of the box. Everything had a place.  And I adore that concept enough to (a) repeat it: "Everything had a place" and to (b) again request God to put it in His next edition of the Bible (I've not heard back on that). 

My first sewing project.
But I digress. In Home Ec, I learned how to thread a sewing machine and use its basic knobs and buttons and foot pedal (yes, they were electric machines, you sassy reader). We then learned to use patterns by making a stuffed animal.  (To this day I hate patterns: horrible rippy tissue paper with strange symbols and way too many lines and options).  I chose to make an octopus, for which I bought green gingham fabric (I don't know why), and followed the 3-legged pattern as closely as I could (why did it have 3 legs? A google search for today's patterns show tons of cute 8-legged versions and a few 4 legged and even 5-legged ones, but never 3. Ever.).  I vaguely remember my parents leaking snorts and giggles upon first seeing the creature.  Perhaps because the seams weren't very good and the stupid Styrofoam pellets leaked out for years hence.  Or, in retrospect, because it had three legs and looked, well, like a weird male creature.

Upon completion of that project (nightmare) I had earned Expert Seamstress Status.  At least in my own mind.  I next made a Totally Cool vest from off-white linen that was even reversible (I pause here for your admiring gasp), but ... this extra work was totally pointless as BOTH SIDES were the same fabric and color.  All the work I did to hide seams, yet utterly failed to think ahead about oh, say, DIFFERENT fabrics on the two sides. And I bought a cute buckle for the back (one side only), but it was cheap, tarnished quickly, and the stupid thing never stayed together. And the cute little pockets were so stingy as to barely admit a quarter.  But I wore the stupid thing because I am proud. Which brings us to the theme of today's essay.

I love organizing; I love weeding gardens; I love editing.  But when I get into "blank slate" kinds of situations (whether it's sewing, being a dean, or any other creative endeavor), I freeze.  I veer wildly between "The Expert is In the House" and "This is Impossible," which leads to piles of projects in various stages of not-being-done. Once I actually decide to start a creative project, I often quit in frustration, blaming the infuriatingly vague project/plan or the inadequate tools or the intrusive children or even the weather for being so...stupid. 
Nick & I on the Eleven-Point River (southern Missouri)

We must turn momentarily to the illuminating Canoe Incident of 1994 that was important in my mental, marital, and spiritual development. Nick and I went on a canoe tip with friends to southern Missouri. Now, I had canoed rivers PLENTY as a kid, thanks to my dad. Therefore, of course, I certainly knew how to canoe: Stick paddle in water, pull it back, canoe goes forward. Easy peasy.  What I did NOT know, however, was that I was never on the business end of the canoe. All those years of sitting in the front, on a slow backyard river, paddling away and imagining myself to be a Canoe Master, my dad (in the back) assessed the river and constantly made adjustments to our speed and direction.  But I didn't know any of that before our Missouri trip, where we were on a fast, winding, rapid-filled river in the middle of NOWHERE (an outfitter agreed to pick us up 4 days downriver, in Arkansas). Further, and to my imminent shame, this Canoe Master believed her husband, who had some vague experience canoeing in swamps or something (!), was a Canoe Moron.  

For the sake of time and embarrassment, let us just say that after a certain number of hours of intra-canoe tension, Nick took me to a quiet part of the river downstream (well away from our friends) and taught me how canoeing is actually done.  Just pulling a paddle does not make a canoe go straight. Instead, you have to correct for the pulling force by making more of a J or L pattern with the (stupid) paddle  And you always have to read the (stupid) river to judge its current direction and speed, etc, and make adjustments all the time.  To sum up:  Canoeing had always seemed easy not because I was so skilled, but because, well, someone smarter had quietly paid attention to all the details and had done most of the work.  I wasn't a master at all; just a prideful child with grand visions and too little motivation to pay attention to learning the basic skills.  Ouch.   

Back to sewing (you thought I'd lost the thread there, didn't you?  And hey - a sewing pun!).  Today when I was internet surfing and greedily pinning away (I shall not name That Site of Evil Goodness) I suddenly realized just how many Undone Projects I had going.  And some part of my brain quietly but quite firmly said, "ENOUGH.."

Oh. So I drafted a list of all the projects I already had underway (organizing again enables procrastination) and decided to tackle the stack of sewing, mostly involving tailoring clothes for Elisabeth.  

This was a mighty fine machine 30 years ago
(8 whole stitch options!)
As you know from above, I was An Expert Seamstress, and therefore knew how easy it is to sew: set up machine, sew, and away you go with your beautiful curtains or clothes or whatever.  But, if you're paying any attention, you already know I have a wee little problem related to assumptions. To add to the fun had by the devil on my behalf today, let's add my 30-year-old sewing machine that was roughed up in transit to Korea last year (the tension knob broke off and empathic sewing friend Tracey took me to a place to get it fixed; the guy didn't have the exact part, but he built one out of spare parts - very impressive, but temperamental (the knob, not the guy)).  Listening to that part of my brain that had said "ENOUGH.," I sat my backside down and worked on sewing.  I tried to be open to new lessons and googled my questions often, looking closely at pictures and consulting lots of "how to" sites. Along the way I may have stomped about and grumbled and perhaps even swore, and I certainly had to do a lot of things over (and over) again, but I learned a lot.  Of pretty basic stuff.  For example: 

(1) Cheap. Thread. Breaks. Often.  (And using scraps of thread gleaned from hotel sewing kits? Not worth the hassle on a machine.)
(2) Tension knobs actually do matter (oh, sure, you can ignore them if all is well, like canoeing in the front with an experienced partner in back, but if all is not well, what a snarled MESS). Corollary: testing on scrap fabric is actually worth the extra time and the "cost" of thread.  Yup. Took me a few times to learn that little lesson.
(3) Reading glasses are very useful for threading needles and picking out snarled messes.  (I'm sorry, eyes, just face it; you're not what you used to be.)
(4) Google and Pinterest are very patient teachers (though they really slowed me down from that strong inner drive to be DONE already). Careful and frequent measuring; pinning and basting; and even ironing (horrors) are keys for successful sewing.  Even if they ARE time consuming and drag the simplest project out forever, these new practices did help me feel good about my work. 

Elisabeth was incredibly patient with me, even when she got poked with pins or tried on the same thing for the tenth time.  Today I had to learn (AGAIN) that life isn't about just sticking your paddle in the water and expecting that minimum contribution to guarantee smooth sailing (just to mess with the metaphors).  Nope: good canoeing and good sewing (and probably a ten ka-billion other things) require time spent gaining lots of basic knowledge; constant attention to current conditions and needs; and the patience to deal with troubles.  

Arg.  It's so much work to be prideful and then have to re-learn everything.  Why can't I remember that?

P.S. I saw this sewing manual advice on Facebook today and had to include it here.  The first paragraph bowled me over given my above reflections; the second paragraph made me want to slap somebody.  :)