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Monday, August 25, 2014

Signs of This American Life (Michigan)

I'm finding that once you've lived in a new place for a year, what was once weird is now, if not quite normal, at least not surprising anymore.  We still see funny signs and strange behavior in Korea all the time, but it's more like quaint background now. Then we went to the US last month. And we got a fresh glimpse of "normal," a taste of what folks new to America might notice.  Some memorable examples follow.

In a ritzy little seasonal/tourist town along Lake Michigan, where we assumed the 97.2% Caucasian population (no kidding - I looked it up here) speaks English as a native language, we found an awkwardly punctuated sign at the public beach.  It is worth noting that "public" here means "approximately the size of a Snicker's bar," as it was wedged tightly between miles of adjoining private beaches duly warning against loitering.  And this in a town of 1200 people that has as its motto "The Village of Friendliness."
Ah, punctuation.  Let alone graphic design basics like font and alignment. 

At the top of the stairs descending to this selfsame Village of Friendliness beach, we found a frightening notice about ticks, which were apparently bigger than the beach itself.  Not until we got very close to read the fine print (and what self-respecting beachgoer wouldn't stop to learn more about a creepy-crawly the size of Nick's hand?) did we learn that the fearsome ticks are more like the size of, well, air molecules.  Tricksters.

Creepy sign suggest one may find Shelob and Aragog at the beach.
(see Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter for giant spider-y references) 

Oh, gosh, I should have brought my reading glasses to the beach.

Another sign caught my eye when we went to buy ammo for the shotgun.  (Um, yeah, ammo. Nick's brother had a clay pigeon set-up on the in-law's family farm and everyone 12 years and over tried it out.  We quickly tired of the tiny orange frisbees (they're not really pigeon-shaped) as they hurled themselves far away from where we were aiming, and so we set up ugly-Goodwill-clothes-scarecrows. True story.  If this is redneck fun, I want more).  ANYWAY.  We went to the ammo shop and saw this sign with local fishing news and promos for the store's fine wares.

"Meat rigs"??  Isn't that like zombie bait?
This was well beyond my understanding of hook + worm = fishing.
I was intrigued.

Then I kept reading.

Whoa there: WHAT kind of fly are they selling?
Aren't proctologists the doctors who..., well, enough said about THAT.
Fishing intrigue canceled.

In the very same Friendly Town, we noticed this painting on a family-owned grocery store. From a distance, this is a nice homey touch, illustrating three generations of hard-working folks who feed the local community.
Family grocery store.  Very nice.
 But then, upon closer examination, the painting was rather disturbing.

Grandpa looks a little creepy.
The son is not right, either.

And the scary gene was passed onto the next generation, too.
I think I'd rather face those enormous beach ticks than meet this family in the dairy aisle.

Thank you, Google.
And lest you think that strangeness is limited to small towns in Michigan, here's one from the Dallas airport. Waiting at the gate with hordes of Koreans for our 13.5 hour flight back to Seoul, a middle-aged, Caucasian woman's t-shirt caught my eye. A large camel was silhouetted against her grey shirt, centered beneath the large word HUMP. My mind refused to accept this, as advertising camel parts has no apparent market value and this woman did not appear to be the sort interested in soliciting what I had learned about in giggled middle-school whispers.  I did not have the nerve to ask for her picture as I could not think of a reasonable cover story ("Um, hi, I really like your hump"?). Only later, thanks to Google, did I realize her shirt probably had another word at the bottom.  Which did clarify the shirt's message but still did not explain why she chose this shirt in which to welcome Korea. And, no, we were not traveling on a Wednesday.

Ah, America.  Home of the free.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Education at the Korean Dentist

Now, not all Korean dental offices may be as educational, service-oriented, or reasonably priced as what we experienced recently, but if this is the standard, count me IN.
We've already grown to really enjoy and trust our orthodontist (see previous post): Dr. Kim's smile, twinkly eyes, timid (but capable) English, and prominent "Maximum Emotional Service" signs about the office are quite endearing. Elisabeth's earlier x-rays had shown a couple of permanent teeth ready to move in, but the baby teeth's (tooth's? toothes?) roots were not giving way. So after a recent office visit, Dr. Kim the orthodontist sent us upstairs to the dentist for a tooth extraction.

When we arrived at the brand-new dental clinic, it was nigh unto bursting with bouncing, shouting little people rolling down brightly-colored vinyl bleachers, quite ignoring the shiny new board books and the giant TV.  A veritable herd of women also occupied the reception/waiting area: some were mothers, occasionally shouting at the kids; some were dental nurses/hygienists in lavender uniforms; and some seemed to be dental students, dressed identically in tacky uniforms that may have been worn by low-budget airline attendants 30+ years ago. 

As we approached the reception desk, every adult turned to stare. There is something about being a rare white person, turning heads whenever we're in public, of which one could grow fond. I confidently strode to the counter, smiled brightly, bowed slightly, and said, "Ay-leesh-ah-bay-tah Lahn-teen-gah?" in Korean-accented English while pointing to Elisabeth.  The woman nodded, smiled back, and handed me two forms to complete, both in Korean. I pointed at them and shrugged helplessly, again with a big smile; she pointed to a line on one form and asked me something, but in response to my blank look (and dumb smile) she took back the forms and just waved us to the cushy vinyl seats. It occurred to me that I was acting just like the stereotypical Asians on TV from 30+ years ago: bowing, smiling, blank looks.  Oh. 

Sitting now, trying to tune out the noisy kids ricocheting off the walls and each other on the cushy playground area, I watched the mighty-sized Samsung TV. We couldn't understand the show's young man, dressed for fishing, or his life-sized plush orange friend (a tele-tubby knock-off?), but we could follow the basic idea: showing a group of adorable Korean kids the varied creatures in the low-tide zone.  After delightedly catching some crabs in their (of course) gloved hands, the kids and the host/fisherman laughingly dabbed each others' faces with the gooey gray silt (the plushie must have been contractually exempted from dirty play). I was impressed with their self-restraint: my own kids would have definitely engaged in muddy stomping and smooshing and hurling.

Then, amid all this near-dainty play, the plushie turned its sizable bum to the camera and...farted. Many times. Accompanied by canned children's laughter. And cloud graphics that visually depicted the gaseous fumes--sometimes white, sometimes green, sometimes turning into butterflies.  I fear that my mouth hung open, perhaps indicating that sudden agony within needed urgent dental attention. I was stunned; none of the Koreans even seemed to notice. The show blessedly cut to a commercial, and my mouth closed as I began processing what I had just seen.  And then, in the ad, other cartoon-ish characters farted.  To more canned laughter.

I had no idea Korean culture was so open (celebratory?) about this bodily function that Americans (exempting males aged 2-25) go to great pains to conceal.  Who would have predicted that I would gain this distressing cultural knowledge while sitting in a shiny-new dentist's office?  Not able to let it rest, when I got home, I consulted my research assistants (ok, Google and Youtube), who informed me that Korean culture not only thinks farting is funny, but Korea sells farting dolls. I kid you not: see the ad here, (the dolly comes complete with smiling poop in her port-a-potty).  I know that Americans have peeing and pooping dolls, but that's weird, too.

Well, to my great relief, Elisabeth was motioned back to the patient room (picture it: nurse/hygienist prances into waiting room, extends arm at near-shoulder height, flaps limp hand at us while smiling a small, nervous smile). We quickly discovered that the dental nurses knew even less English that show at the orthodontist, and we hadn't brought a translator. After trying to communicate a few times, one nurse got a book apparently written for just such a situation (the title might or might not have been "Speaking Dentist to Stupid Foreigners Who Won't or Can't Speak Korean").  She looked up key dental phrases and read the English translation out loud for me: "You have an x-ray?" (no - it's on the computer from the orthodontist; she quickly pulls it up on this amazing system). "We will pull tooth now. We will give to her, ah, on..onesh..onesh thesha?"  She pointed to the word and I slowly pronounced "anesthesia" a few times to help her learn it. I don't think that bit of education was on her to-do list for the day, but there you have it.

I then tried to explain (ok, pantomime) Elisabeth's great fear of needles (years ago, an ER doctor didn't wait for the local anesthesia to kick in before putting stitches in her chin).  I gestured hopefully to the nitrous oxide system in the corner.  No, no, she motioned, making the classic "X" sign with her index fingers. Two shots, no gas.  Darn.  Elisabeth was shaking with fear, so I was pleased that the nurse applied a liberal amount of numbing cream around the tooth and waited several long minutes for it to take effect.  Then she rolled a small machine over by Elisabeth head; she attached a narrow, flexible tube to the machine and the other end to a small needle.  She gently slid the needle into Elisabeth's gum and held it still for two minutes while the machine delivered the anesthetic; she repeated this on the other side of the tooth.  To our great surprise, Elisabeth didn't feel a thing.  She watched the needle go in, knew it was in her jaw for a few minutes, and it didn't hurt.  And just like that, she lost her fear of needles. It was a wonderful moment.

People began gathering in the small room: another nurse came in; at least four students shyly distributed themselves around the walls, peeking at me and staring at Elisabeth; then the dentist strode in.  He was apparently the only male on staff, and it appeared that he was so important he didn't even need to speak to anyone.  He sat on the rolling stool by Elisabeth's head, grabbed a pair of shiny pliers, pulled the tooth and popped it into a tiny plastic case that a nurse handed me, and then left the room.  One minute. Hardly long enough for the poor students to crane their necks or for me to practice my Korean greeting and American smile.

So our half hour adventure included learning an important aspect of Korean culture, educating a nurse about a key dental word in English, overcoming a needle phobia and getting a tooth pull.  Just how much do you think we paid?  Come on, guess. Nope, you're wrong. We paid 7200 won ($7.05). Less than you'd pay for a movie (or a bucket of popcorn).  Now that's a good deal.  :)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Making fun: Korea & the US

We spent 4 weeks in the US for our summer vacation, and it was filled with surprises. One surprise was learning that FAR more folks read this blog than I thought (you lurkers out there!). Oh. And to think that I was writing it for my mother. Well, I am so pleased that most folks appear to enjoy the posts, finding humor or new ideas that brighten their day. But a few honest folks mentioned that I seem to be making fun of Koreans, such as when I post signs with incomprehensible English. I felt a little defensive at that feedback, but it got me to thinking. After being away from the US for a year, I was glimpsing my home culture almost as a foreigner and was already noticing all kinds of crazy stuff. Thus, I offer a pair of stories, separated by half a world but just a few days, that suggest funny isn't limited to Korea.  :)

Ok, here's story #1.  The night before we left for the US, we hadn't the energy to create anything edible from the refrigerator's sad offerings. Thus, we went to eat at VIPS (pronounced "beeps" -- Koreans have no "v" sound; see a fantastic ex-pat photo/review here), which is a steakhouse known also for its extravagant western/Asian buffet. We waited awhile to be seated then edged into a table just off the reserved section that was loudly hosting a traditional Korean birthday party for an adorable little boy.

We selected an array of foods (Nick being adventurous; the kids and I going for the Italian, Mexican, and American comfort foods) and returned to our table, where we noticed a green, rubber "coaster." It wasn't one of the call buttons that some restaurants have to summon a waitress. It was probably not a drink coaster as (a) it's rubber and (b) every table we could see only had one each.  We weren't in a Brazilian steakhouse where colored disks signal "more meat please" and "no more right now."  Well, I do love puzzles, and this mystery was bugging me.  We pieced together the few English words on the coaster and the few Korean words we could figure out: "VIPS," "please give"; and "together loving green.” Oh.  This little language analysis made the coaster even more mysterious. Well, because we couldn't communicate with the waitress to ask the meaning of the coaster, I resigned myself to not solving this mystery.

Happily, as we were finishing, some Korean-speaking friends arrived and I couldn't pass up the coaster question.  They obligingly examined their coaster and despite their fluency, the words made no sense to them, either: "Please put your clean plate here to help us save the environment." What?  How can putting plates on a green coaster save the environment? Now their curiosity was aroused, too, and we proposed various hypotheses.  Maybe the green-coaster-plate-stack saves waitress energy? No, that's silly and doesn't explain the "clean" concept.  Or, maybe, we're supposed to stack unused dishes separately from used ones to save energy in washing already-clean plates? No, that can't be it - why would someone bring an empty plate from the buffet? We were all stumped, and our friends vowed to ask their waitress about the meaning of this.

As it turns out, their waitress had also puzzled over the coaster's message and was quite pleased to finally have a reason to broach her manager for an explanation. I felt much better - this wasn't just a language barrier or a cultural ignorance problem.  Are you ready for the coaster's real meaning?  Here it is: "Please eat all your food (give only cleaned plates) so nothing is wasted and we together help the environment."  Ah, Koreans, I thought.  Their communication style is so indirect that not even Koreans always get the message.  Insert head shake and bemused smile here.

Now for story #2, which takes place just a few days later in the US. When my sister-in-law asked if I'd like to get groceries with her, I jumped at the chance although I rarely buy our family's groceries (Nick has done the shopping and cooking for roughly 98.92% of our marriage). As I walked the aisles of the local Family Fare, I swooned over the vast array of choices and the English written on every single package. My jaw dropped at the rows of shelves devoted just to chips: potato and corn; regular and baked; wavy and ruffled; sour cream and vinegar and BBQ.  Ah, the joyous agony of choice made me drool.

My Korean store's wine section.
Then my eyes welled with tears as I discovered the aisle devoted just to wine.  My beloved grocery store in Korea has a shelf with five varieties, of which we like one.  Finally, I gasped and froze in place as I entered the holy of holies: an entire wall of cheeses from every civilized country of the world.  Oh, oh... I had forgotten such luxuries, such abundance.
A US store's wine section.

As I wandered, alone now as Melissa had actual shopping to do, I also noticed a number of perplexing signs. Many shelves had signs like “$6.99 (or $5.50 with yes!)” What?? What was this magical yes?  A discount password to be softly whispered to the waiting cashier?  No, that can't be; "yes" is surely no secret given its abundant signage in every aisle. Maybe I need to perform a rousing Family Fare cheer, saying "yes!" to affirm their smart retailing and thus access the promised lower prices?  A peek at the registers showed no one cheering (or whispering sweet "yeses" to the cashiers).  Aha! Maybe "yes" is a smartphone app that promotes bargains?  Surely not--what a stupid name for an app, after all.

I was completely baffled.  (You, dear reader, are probably a savvy shopper and are way, way ahead of me.) By the end of my very satisfactory store tour, I resigned myself to asking about yes, fearing that I would be thought very stupid.  After all, asking dumb questions in Korea just marks me as a "way-gook" (foreigner), which I am.  To ask dumb questions in the US, where I sound and look like an American, marks me as, well, dumb.  Bravely, I asked anyway.  Oh, Melissa said breezily, completely unaware of my compulsive curiosity and bright fear of shame, "Yes is just the store's loyalty card--you swipe it at the checkout for automatic discounts."   Oh. Duh. Yes.  (But to my credit, the wording of this yes marketing gimmick is just bad. Say "yes CARD" or something understandable.  Really.)

So. Do I make fun of Koreans? Yes, I have to admit that I do enjoy bringing foibles to light. But I'm an equal-opportunity fun-maker, just as happy to point out Korean quirks as American ones. After all, people everywhere are funny.  And fallible. Myself included.