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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Tap, tap, tap: Me vs. the Camera Weasel

Pohang City has only one Canon camera dealer, and when my camera is sick, to him I must go.  I do not like my camera man.  His middle-aged, slicked-back, jet-black died hair reflects his weasel-y soul far more accurately than his smiley little face.  But, alas, my camera died last week and even Google could not educate me enough to repair the SD card reader. So, with dread, I went to see the Canon camera guy.

When I went to his shop 2 years ago (see gory details here) with my first beloved TA, I was still a cowering American, not yet owning the full Authority of my Professorship and trying overly hard not to offend the natives.  This time, however, armed with my current beloved TA, a just-completed make-over at a pricey department store (blog to follow), a fancy English/Korean business card, and a far more hostile confident attitude, things were going to go differently. And they did.  Sort of.

Visit 1: Camera Drop Off
We walked into the little shop and I explained the SD card reader problem with my camera, speaking directly to Camera Man’s face (he’s older than me, so this was a bit rude), waiting for my TA to translate.  He looked at my camera and made some notes in a ratty spiral-bound notebook on the counter.  Figuring he'd need my name and phone number, I slapped down my business card, Korean side up. The word “kyo-soo-neem,” written right under my name, means something like Fear Me for My Professorship Trumps Whatever Puny Job You Have. Camera man offered eyebrow flashes at this. I felt I had scored a teeny tiny hit.  Then, seeing that I teach psychology, he quickly countered with a request to analyze him (ooh - good play, camera man).  I, not in the mood to explain the difference between the psychological domains of therapy (not me) and teaching/research (me), just stuck with something safe: You are a happy man.  More! he wanted.  No, I said (saying “no” in Korea, especially to someone older, is pretty rude.  But probably not as rude as what I really wanted to say.). Then he, in a crafty move, wanted to analyze me. And he did: Very beautiful! he said.  Ha, I thought to myself.  Last time I was here you told my TA that I was fat.  In my mental scorebook, we were tied at this point.

He fussed with my camera, writing more cryptic notes.  After an elaborate show of looking all over the camera, shaking his head and making little grunty noises (he’s not your more subtle actor), he confided in my TA that I had worn off the camera’s serial number; indeed, a more responsible camera owner would have protected this vital information with scotch tape (which, in Korean, sounds like suh-kawch-uh tay-puh).  Not a bit deterred by his shaming attempts, I offered to text him the serial number once I got home.  No, no, he replied.  Ha, ha -- I don’t really need it.  Harrumph.  He then fussed about the purple scarf I use instead of the uncomfortable and ugly advertisement strap that the manufacturer provides.   I refused to buy a new strap from him.  I remained perfectly calm; the score was even-steven.

It was his move.  He solidly tap tap tapped on my lens filter, eyebrows raised. Plastic! he chortled disparagingly, taking my filter off and flipping a brand new glass filter next to it onto the counter. I stared into his tiny eyes, my face a mask of deadly self-control. You, I said slowly, sold me that plastic filter two years ago.  Oh! he responded. Ha ha--glass filter is much better!  And he placed my plastic and his glass filter on some newspaper as if that would prove some superior quality. Ah, I said, pretending to consider this option.  I looked at him.  Is it free?  Oh!  No, no!  Ha ha, he said, it’s 30,000 (roughly $25).  Ah.  Not free? Then no. Plastic is fine, I said.  I might have gained some ground here, as he silently cleaned my filter and replaced it on the lens.  

So after this 20-some minutes of fussing and banter, he finally said he’d send the camera out for a repair estimate and would text my TA in 3-4 days.  Fine.  Today, I did not lose.  I stood up to Camera Man.

Intermission: The Negotiation
My TA heard nothing for 6 days, then she learned that the camera was repaired (!) and ready for pickup.  Those unauthorized repairs would cost 150,000won (about $128).  Tap tap tap, I thought. How to counter this move? Google showed I could get this same repair for $85 in the US, so I instructed my TA to negotiate: because he had not been authorized to go ahead with the repair, I would not pay more than 120,000 won (about $100).  To my surprise, he agreed.  This was unsettling.

Visit 2: Camera Pick-up
I returned to the shop without my TA, feeling confident that I could manage the exchange of repaired camera for payment.  He remembered me, got my lens-less camera out of a ziplock bag, and began playing with its buttons.  After several minutes of his fiddling silence and consultation with a computer, I realized he was setting the date on the camera.  Surely that could have been done earlier? That done, he grabbed a lens from his stock, clicked it into place, and took a couple of test pictures.  (Surely this could also have been done earlier, right?)   Apparently satisfied, he removed his lens and handed the camera over to me. Where is my lens? I asked.  You have? he asked, pointing at me with raised eyebrows.  No. I do not. You have it, I said, pointing at him (a little rudely).  Oh, he said.  Ha ha. He rummaged extravagantly about and found my lens, clicking it into place.  I did some test shots of my own to confirm that the camera worked and it was time to finish this distasteful business.

I pushed my Korean bank card across the counter to him.  No, no, he said. Korean money! I slowly stretched my hand over that thick glass counter: Tap Tap Tap!  This is HanaBank – Korean!  Oh! Ha ha, he said.  He rang up the sale: 132,000 won.  No, I said.  120,000 won.  Oh! he exclaimed. It's 120,000 won for repair plus 12,000 for…something. I could not understand him; I could not understand the tiny Korean print on the receipt.  I was trapped. Frustrated. Outplayed.  AGAIN.  By the camera weasel.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Too Much Probing

I read a daily English-language Korean newspaper -- the old-fashioned kind, made of paper.  It is delivered to our building lobby by an alien for all I know - in 3 years I have not once spotted the responsible person/truck/spaceship.  Most mornings my paper is then tossed into the elevator by a lovely Alabama couple who enjoys walking together in the hours before make-up and business suits are required.  Some time later the paper is then tossed/kicked out of the elevator onto our 5th floor, from whence my earliest-rising husband or children hurl/kick it down the hallway toward our apartment.

I love this social network that gets my folded paper and its trusty yellow rubber band across the country to my doorstep. Some mornings, though, the headlines are in rather poor taste.  For example, today's headline shouted that "{President} Park will cooperate with criminal probe." That particular word choice seems to be a favorite lately.  A few months ago, the day's top headline read, "Lotte's {CEO} Shin flies home to face a widening probe;" the poor man vowed to sincerely cooperate with this distasteful procedure. And on that same front page, another article about captured spies stated that "The two suspects are now in custody and being probed."  And on page 2 that day, this puzzling headline, "Vietnamese suspects tried to incite broader mutiny probe."

Now, this is a reputable paper.  But somehow it has escaped these fine folks that legal investigations might be better called, oh, say, "investigations" or "inquiries."  At least in America, their particular word choice recalls lurid stories of aliens abducting humans and (inexplicably) proceeding with...probing.  Sometimes English just doesn't work across cultures.  Ah, Korea.  :)

Monday, October 3, 2016

Living in Community: A Bee Story






















Community gardening has come to mean a great deal more than veggies, flowers, and weed control (important as those are).  Indeed, it has become a significant avenue for learning.  Here is one story that captivated me this summer, beset as it is with gripping thematic elements of sex, violence, and deaths of thousands.

This spring, Joshua, a friend and science teacher at the kids’ international school, asked whether some of his students could start beehiving (of course that's a verb). Well... why not. Just make sure little kids can't jump on the hives or tease the little honey-makers but otherwise, go right ahead. So, his students researched bees and planned their project and ordered two hives.

The materials, virgin queen, and workers soon arrived by mail (yes, the Korean Post Office, like the USPS, will deliver bees) and the students installed them in our community garden and under the campus cell phone tower (it’s science, after all: they planned to study the effects of cell phone waves on hive health).  We (ok, “they” plus me) waited for action.  A couple of days.  And…the hives just didn’t take off: the bees huddled inside, rarely venturing out and apparently making no honey.  This was not good news for the science fair project.  Maybe the hives were too high off the ground? Maybe not enough sun? Maybe not enough flowers?  

Oh.  Oops.  After some additional research, the students got a very valuable lesson about the sex-ed idiom regarding "the birds and the bees.”  Dear readers with some life experience will not be surprised that virgin queen bee + female workers does NOT result in baby bees.  And with no baby bees, apparently there is no point in going to work each morning. Thus, the silent hives.

So, what to do.  Can you just order up some attractive boy bees?  Apparently not.  The students could order a non-virgin queen, but the existing bees/queen would likely resist the attempted coup and kill her.  So much for baby bees. Some part of my brain ran secret calculations and said “Aha! I have seen bee hives by Chilpo, a tiny village just north of us, best known for its sandy beaches! Perhaps the Chilpo hive owners can help!”

I, naturally, volunteered to drive as this was a potential adventure not to be missed. Joshua, his colleague John (a Korean-Tanzanian-Kenyan) and three bee students came, along with Elisabeth, who also decided this was not an adventure to be missed (I might possibly have bribed her by saying, “Hey!  There’s a horse! Bring an apple!”).  

Happily, someone was at the Hive Place.  Through John's translation, we learned that this place was not, as it appeared, a run-down 1950s-style motel, but... a Beekeeping Cooperative! This was excellent news indeed! 

This is BeeMan.  He is a hero.  Keep reading.
Mr. BeeMan gave us an impromptu tour of the many hives, opening some to show the students what drones look like: big, fuzzy, and a bit dopey (the boy bees, that is, not the girls).

Girls, meet drones.
Those boy wasps have a pretty important purpose,
even if they only work one day in their lives. 
During our tour, BeeMan's colleague brought out some delicious red honey for us to taste (harvested last fall).  And he brought out a jar housing a savage demon: a Giant Asian Hornet, which is rumored to love nothing better than eating honeybees.  

Demon Hornet.  Eeww.
After an explanation of the students' sexless hive situation, kind BeeMan offered to either loan or sell a couple of thriving hives with fertile queens, accommodating drones, and eager worker ladies.  The students opted to buy and a few evenings later, we drove the buzzing hives back to campus for installation (sorry, old bees, who were gently released.  May all your days be filled with bright flowers.)

So, after a day or two of resting and orienteering (sorry mom - I didn't get any pictures of their tiny maps and compasses), the new bees began working.  For several weeks I loved seeing them busily bouncing around the garden, shaking the flowers with their joyous humming.  Joshua and I (and Nick) talked endlessly about honey harvesting this fall, strategies for overwintering the bees in cozy luxury, and even expanding the hives next spring.

Honeybee, meet monarda.


We gradually noticed decreased bee activity.  And then some huge hornets hanging around the hives like our Chicago neighborhood gangs in the 1990s.  Indeed, these were the demonic GAHs.  I had naively assumed that these hornets, despite BeeMan's colleague's Jar of Doom,  were the stuff of fairy tales and urban legend (like the wild boars/warthogs that supposedly roam the woods around campus).  But, alas, I was wrong.  At first, a few GAHs lounged outside the hive entrances, apparently casing the joint; then they began chewing away the wood to enlarge the holes (the better to eat you, my dear).  Finally, they and their homeboys moved in to ruthlessly grab and bite any emerging honeybees. All day long, bees lost their heads either literally (eew) or figuratively (stumbling around aimlessly on the ground).  Then even more GAH gangsters (and a smaller species of hornet) swooped in, picked up the dazed/dead creatures, and buzzed away with their bee booty. (For some great close-up footage of this brutal war, check out this incredible youtube video here).

Various attempts were made to thwart the evil hornets.  Nick wielded a stick, knocking down and stepping on the GAHs.  Pest Removal Experts had been summoned to the high school dorms to remove hornet nests found near the eaves. 
Nick: Professor, Principal, Hornet Slayer

Anti-Hornet Expert with Equipment.
Or, slightly more accurately, Fireman with Badminton Set.

Time-tested technique: spray, whack, stomp, spray some more.
You just can't find better entertainment.
As the students we frantically tried to save the bees, we learned a great deal. We learned that bees’ stingers are useless against the hornets’ tough exoskeleton; we also learned that the hornets were quite uninterested in humans and let us approach quite closely without any sign of aggression (that is, they didn't hurt us; we tried to hurt them plenty).  And we learned that honeybees have adapted ways to defend their hives against marauding hornets.  In thermo-balling, honeybees will allow a hornet into their nest and then mob around it, basically heating it to death because the bees can tolerate higher temperatures than hornets.  We learned that in other regions, where the hornets have adapted to higher temperatures, the bees may engage in asphyxio-balling: they cover the legs of a hornet, thus cutting off its air supply (who knew that hornets breathe with their thighs?) and suffocating it.  Indeed, I got to see this latter defense, but it was a group of smaller hornets suffocating a GAH rather than honeybees.  

wait, what's this buzzing pile
in my garden?


But, despite all the efforts of the bees and humans, the hornets won.  Both hives were dead.  And the science fair project also seemed dead. We had learned some fascinating new things but our spirits were still crushed.  The bad guys had won, and good was overcome.   This is not how the movie was supposed to end.

However, upon reflection (and perhaps a kick in the spiritual pants by friend Tracey), I realized that I had made certain assumptions.  I was rooting for the honeybees (and the students' planned project), so whatever hindered their well-being was The Enemy.  Thus, hornets were evil (and ugly and scary-looking) and were on my list of things to ask God about someday.  But, wait a minute.  I do love to watch an osprey gliding over calm water, snatching up a fish and carrying it home for a family lunch.  Or watching a cat stalk a grasshopper or mouse. So...how are those any different from the hornets and bees?  Nothing except the labels I've assigned. Who knew that beehiving would come with such insights?  

And - oh, look now.  Another teacher is wondering if she could possibly have a small chicken coop in the garden next spring.  Chickens.  Hmmm.  This could be a good learning experience. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

More Language Issues: Korean English <> English

I've been collecting little snippets and stories about the Korean language and decided it was high time I share these four short essays, below.


Idiom-ish

Native speakers of English probably don't even realize how cute (or strange) some of our words and idioms are.  Imagine trying to explain the meaning of "toadstool" to a new English learner, for example.  Korean has some similar sorts of words/idioms that I have enjoyed learning:

Fish = 물고기 = mool goh-ghee.  Which literally means "water meat." Is that perfect or what?  English could get more creative like this.  Cows would be "pasture meat" and chickens would be "coop meat"....  (Please feel free to add your own ideas in the comments below.  :) )

Runny nose = 콧물 = kote mool.  Which means, well, "nose water."  Which is admittedly more accurate than our English “runny nose.”

Extreme tiredness = 코피 = koh pee (NOT to be confused with 커피 = kaw pee, which is coffee).  This literally means "nose blood."  This has confused me.  A banner on campus has red blood spatter images all over it and says 코피가 터져도 새벽기도는 계속됀다. I could only read “nose blood” at the beginning and assumed this (rather tasteless) sign might be a health center announcement.  Even my TA's interpretation of the Korean was not entirely helpful: "Even though we get nosebleeds, early morning prayer meeting will continue.” Wait - what?? My curiosity was definitely not satisified, so I pushed further: how are nosebleeds connected to morning prayer???  Oh. "Nosebleed" is Korean slang for "extreme tiredness" or "stress."  Wow.  Idioms are tricky.


Working on the Language

A few times recently, I have found myself with something to say to Koreans and I worked hard to get the Korean sentence all worked out in my head. The situations did not go quite as I had imagined, however, much like any well-rehearsed conversations, I suppose.  In June our family was at the beach north of Chilpo (do not picture sand: it's rocks and gravel and cars and lots of Koreans in tents and fishing from the rocks but no one is in the water except the crazy Americans doing the season’s first snorkel and trying out our new kayaks).  I came into shore from snorkeling (wonderful, but very cold) and thus knew exactly where the big fish were (and were not) lurking. Said lurking area was not where our nearest beach neighbor guy was doing his fishing. So: I wanted to be a Good Samaritan (of sorts).  Thus, I quietly practiced with Elisabeth to fine-tune my earth-shattering Fish Location Knowledge into passable Korean. Then worked up the nerve to go tell him my big news. “Man!" (because that's what you say here). "Many fish! 20 meters!” And I pointed to the Great Fish Hangout. I was super proud that I could put this message together in Korean and actually communicate with a native, helping him to succeed in landing his lunch. In response, he smiled broadly at me, paused a second or two, and said, perfectly clearly, “Thank you.” In English. Without a trace of an accent. Arg.


Korean Accent
When I was a kid growing up in Michigan, our neighbors had family visiting from the southern U.S. and their kids came over to play. I had never heard a southern US accent before and I therefore understood very little of what they said. When I showed off my pet gerbils, the older girl kept asking me, “Dawzee baht?” I would shake my head in confusion and she would repeat this inexplicable question while pointing with increasing intensity to my pets.  This went on much too long and I just could not understand her.  Much, much later I finally realized she had been inquiring about the animal's proclivity to bite. Oh. Right. I hope she doesn't remember that.

The English and Korean languages have overlapping sets of sounds as well as their own unique sounds.  Thus, even English-fluent Koreans speak with an accent that reflects these language differences, so it can be hard for English speakers to figure out what a Korean is saying.  Here are some examples from our international church, which is led by a Korean pastor/missionary:

(1) The Biblical story of Jackie S.  You don't remember it either?  Here's a hint: he climbed a tree to better see Jee-juss.  (Korean doesn’t have a “z” sound so they substitute a “j” for English words with that sound.  As a result, I will probably say “pee-jah” forevermore when ordering a large pepperoni.)

(2) The cheap tax collector. I spent much of a sermon trying to figure out what Biblical character this.  Then I remembered that Korean lacks the “f” sound and often substitutes a "p." So...that would be Matthew.  That lesson was helpful when a later sermon referred to the “steep nekka” people of Israel.  :)

3) During prayer, God was praised for being warty.  So warty! What? Oh, yeah, no “th” sound in Korean. Got it. And it took me far, FAR too long to figure out that bee-leebers were, well, Christians, and that needing "face" to be saved was not actually about maintaining one's social reputation.

(4) Finally, the English distinction between “r” and “l” is not made in Korean.  (Instead, the comparable sound is like the Spanish “r” where the tongue hits mid-palate in preparation for a rolling sound.)  So what I heard in church sounded like “Lula” but was actually, well, referring to a rich young ruler.

Bad Google 
Sometimes, a memo from the kids' school or the university comes through that’s only in Korean and I ask Google to give me a sense of what’s going on. We had one a couple of years ago that described a school camping trip and the kids were "horseshit horseshit" (a terrible translation of the word for "nervous/excited"). A recent memo demonstrated another problem. After some comments about how parents can access students’ information via a Korean government website, this heading appeared:

성적 및 생활기록부 확인.  Hmmm.

Google told me this meant: “And sexual life record check”

Um, WHAT? I continued reading and was not comforted:

"Sexual and life record of service after parents sign up students can be found on the menu.

"Nice Parent Services ( http://par.gbe.kr/ )> Student Performance> Grades

"Nice Parent Services ( http://par.gbe.kr/ )> Student Life> Living Record"

WHOA! My kids have performance grades given for their sexual activity? I THOUGHT THIS WAS KOREA! I THOUGHT THIS WAS A CHRISTIAN SCHOOL!

I turned to my new TA, begging for clarification. As it turns out, the same Korean word can be translated as either “sexual” or “grades.” Oh. Thanks, Google, for leaping to the worst possible interpretation there.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Strange and Wonderful Creatures: Snorkeling at Odo

It has been nearly one whole year since I started snorkeling at Jeju Island and we bought gear to continue our ocean adventures locally.  Of course, we couldn't snorkel here in Pohang during the cold season (roughly October to June), but now we're BACK. It's not the Philippines (snorkeling heaven in January; shoutout to Justin and Leanne at Paniolo Guesthouse), but even the home of South Korea's steel industry (a larger and less smelly version of Gary, IN) has some interesting sea life, which is really the purpose of putting one's body into maritime danger.

Kristina:  Texan, friend, photographer, snorkel buddy.
Today I ended up snorkeling with Kristina (you may remember her here). She's 20 years my junior, which means Koreans assume we're a mother/daughter duo; they are very, VERY confused when we say no, we're friends.  (In Korea, the word "friend" really means "age mate."  You can't be friends with people older or younger because of status and language differences based on age).  I kind of like keeping folks on their toes.  :)

ANYWAY. Last season, Nick and I cataloged about 20 species of fish who swam with us at local beaches, plus other creatures like sea hares, spiny urchins, anemones, crabs, eels, jellyfish and a bunch of different mollusks (whelks, mussels, periwinkles, etc.).  Once we saw two baby shrimp, which may be the cutest things in the sea: just imagine swimming in a Pixar movie.  After several trips, we saw the same few kinds of creatures again and again and again which is like visiting old friends: comforting but rarely exciting.  Then after our Philippines trip, I was a little hesitant/reluctant to go back into the (boring) waters of Steel City.  (Then again, this is WAY better than any snorkeling in Iowa.)

But today.... Ah, today.  Today, Kristina and I scored THREE ENTIRELY NEW (to us) sea creatures. Allow me to set the scene.  I know it's taking forever to get to the point, but be patient.

We originally set out to photograph fishing villages; these quaint traditional areas are fast being abandoned for high-rise apartments in the city (eew.). After stopping at a few places, we soon realized that the ocean was flat...FLAT. We'd never seen anything like it: it was perfect for snorkeling and we could do photos on land any old time.  A quick trip home to get our gear and back we went to the beach at Odo-ri.

Look at that glassy water.  And the anachronistic Mondrian-style building decor in the harbor.
And these sassy ladies cleaning fishing nets.  


In our rush, we forgot to grab some anti-fog agent (a.k.a. travel-sized shampoo), and I'm reluctant to spit in my goggles (I know it works, but still.  Yuck.).  I remembered that the snorkel guy in Jeju picked sook for us; this common Korean plant (a.k.a. mugwort; a.k.a. stubborn garden weed) has miraculous anti-fog properties. So we picked some growing by the road, rubbed it on our goggles, and into the glassy water we finally went.

Spring time in the ocean apparently means everything is having sex and babies. Wow - slimy eggs sacs waved about like spiderwebby purses; orange egg ribbons dotted the plants; giant schools of baby fish just hung out, waiting to grow up. (You can swim right through schools of 10,000+ fish and not touch a single one - their flock mentality is pretty amazing.)
Sea hare photo from sci-news.com
We saw some sea hares (think giant slugs made passably cute by their long "ears"), some larger fish, and spiny urchins among the rocks (being collected by some young men for their beach lunch. Eew.).  We were happy to see a relatively large crab (at 6" across, it was far larger than the common 1-inch versions that skitter along the beach) but respectfully left it and its claws alone.

As Kristina and I swam along (have I mentioned the joy of a buoyant body?  I am an effortless athlete in this briny arena), we spotted an inexplicable object near the surface.  About 5" long, this completely transparent and somewhat flattened rectangular object had, well, a set of electrified rainbows inside of it.  I mentally ruled out the reasonable explanations (e.g., tiny neon signs in a ziploc bag) and was left with, well, nothing.  What in the world could this be?  Was it even alive? We spent some time looking at it, having enough wisdom not to touch a mysterious electrical thing while swimming (hey - childhood safety education WORKS), when we suddenly realized it was moving deliberately toward us (where "us" here means "my face"); I noticed its weird head, vaguely shaped like a plenaria (thanks, biology class) or a hammerhead shark (no thanks, Shark Week).  We quickly (and perhaps a tiny bit hysterically) whooshed it (snorkel jargon for "madly pushed water to re-establish a comfortable zone of personal space").  Later, after much research ("neon baggie ocean" might not have been the most efficient Google search phrase), I finally identified this as a comb jellyfish.  Which was kind of a disappointing name.  As though someone thought this creature was as common and as boring as a pocket comb.  Thus, I shall recommend to the International Jellyfish Naming Association some better options, like "Prism Jelly" or "Rainbow Glory" or maybe even "Rock-a-jelly." Anything, really, would be better.  Comb jelly.  Harummph.

A "comb jelly."  Photo from montereybayaquarium
A short time later I noticed some unusual movement about 10' below me, among the rocks. And then I saw, for the first time ever in the wild (rather than at a grocery store or market stall or public aquarium), an octopus. He/she was absolutely camouflaged against a rock but had been detected by the neighboring fish, who acted like crows harassing a hawk.  Kristina and I dove to get closer looks; its head was a bit smaller than a softball and its fish-smacking tentacles were maybe 10" long.  It was completely unimpressed with us, even when we tossed some shells near it and when I moved its rock (which might or might not have accidentally rolled over its head).  Even close up, knowing exactly where it was, my brain could not see this thing until it moved.  Finally tiring of all the harassment, he (she?) finally escaped under another rock, either out of reach or out of sight.  It was hard to tell.

What an amazing morning. Tired, happy, and getting cold, we headed back toward the beach to find a coffee shop (kaw-pee, as it's pronounced here). Moving out of the rock zone back to the shallower sandy area, I spotted a strange blob amid the grasses waving below us.  At first I took it to be a large sea hare until some part of my mind realized that it was vibrating.  Like a football-sized hovercraft on a doily, with rapidly undulating edges. Oh. Oh my.  It was a cuttlefish, which is the cuddly cousin of the octopus.  I had only seen these in videos (not counting the cuttlebones I'd found while beachcombing).  I dove for a closer look and as I got within arm's reach, it turned its strange, huge eyes toward me.  It is an unsettling feeling indeed to be an intruder in an alien's land (oops - an alien's waters) and then to be noticed by said alien, who looks into your eyes and then makes a decision of some sort. I think we both held our breaths for that instant (literally AND figuratively) before Cuttlefish shot away, instantly changing his/her color and texture to precisely match the sandy bottom it now glided above.  I was astonished at its quick-change: like clicking a new filter option on a digital photo. What a stunning creature.

cuttlefish photo from darwinsreef pbworks
Well, what did we learn today, dear readers?  Perhaps you've concluded that Pohang's waters are well worth continued exploration. I would tend to agree.  However, for those who've read this far, you might share some of my caution once you see what our sassy fisher ladies pulled out of their nets...:
That is an anglerfish.  With sharp pointy teeth.
And a strong trigger for instant panic upon which was based
the scariest movie scene in animation history...:



P.S. If you might enjoy some hilarious (if sometimes crude) science videos about the octopus, cuttlefish, anglerfish, and other creatures, check out Ze Frank's "True Facts" video series.   You'll learn far more (in a far shorter time) than you ever did in biology class.  :)

Sunday, July 3, 2016

West vs. East: Scaring the Ajummas

You may remember, dear reader, that upon moving to Korea I most feared the ajummas. These flocks of stern, middle-aged ladies of floral prints and short-haired perms control the campus and the nation. Hidden behind their summer visors, scarves, and arm sleeves, I was nervous about their wrath should I violate Korean rules from grass-walking to the size of my belly.  I recently learned the Korean phrase to describe their attitude:  “oh jee rahb” (오지랍) roughly means “what you’re doing is not my business but I will offer my opinion anyway.”  Humph.

But the tables have apparently turned. And thus I share 3 stories.

(1) Community Gardening: An ex-pat friend has told her husband’s Korean office staff that they could pick herbs and veggies in her community garden plot while their family is away. One morning, two ajummas had come up to the garden to check out the plants. And they reported back to my friend: “two scary Western ladies” were up there and they were too afraid to come into the garden. Oh. Oh my. I blame Tracey. 

Is it her scary hat?


Or my scary XL Cheerios t-shirt?
















(2) Nature:
Elisabeth and I went out one morning to install an in-ground bug trap for a school project. While digging a hole for her near the laundry building, I discovered worms – WORMS! – of Iowan size and extreme wiggle energy. These are rare finds in this limestone mountain clime! I had to have them. Grabbing them up in one hand, I noticed an ajumma walking by in her grounds-keeping uniform and wanted to know the Korean word for “worm.” So I gestured with my writhing hand and politely asked “mo-wah ai-oh?” She took one look, squealed, and pranced away. Hee hee hee….

(3) Hallway: In the mornings, I often walk with the kids to school or go down to the lobby to get my newspaper. Sometimes one of the kids wins the “get ready” race and darts down the hall to summon the elevator; if I’m running too far behind, I might just shout “I love you!” down the echoing hallway and away they go. Sometimes, if I’m feeling especially perky, I will catch our door then silently race after the kids (my robe flapping and hair flying) for a surprise hug just before they step onto the elevator. A few days ago, I did the latter. And as I ran like the wind down the hall, my bare feet lightly smacking the tile floor (it’s my story, I can imagine it the way I want to), I heard an odd sound behind me. Impossible: we live at the end of the hall our neighbors are out of the country, and Nick had long since gone to work. So my body hurtled silently down the hall and around the corner to surprise Elisabeth, my head swiveled and my eyes saw that behind me, just emerging from behind our apartment door where I had thrown it wide and nearly trapped her against the wall, was a very shocked ajumma. She had apparently been sweeping outside our apartment when I burst out, oblivious to her eyewitness perspective. And as I hugged Elisabeth, I could hear quiet giggling from the direction of my apartment, so I just smiled as I passed her on my return trip.

I am Western Woman! Fear me, ajummas!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Oh, Australia: Re-Learning English

You may recall my friend Tracey from previous posts (e.g., Australian culturegardening). Even after 3 years of friendship, I am still startled by the things that come out of her mouth. Here are some recent examples. 

The Amazing Cake.
And The Amazing Tracey.
The forest is being cut down all around our campus for upcoming city developments (boo!). During a leisurely walk through said woods to nose about more closely, I learned a record-breaking 3 new Australianisms in a single outing.  

(a) As we stealthily approached the edge of the cutting zone, Tracey nervously noted that our “sticky beaks” might get us into trouble. 

(b)  Specifically, she was concerned that our hiking may elicit unwanted attention from nearby chainsaw men, one of whom was taking a break and “smoking a fag.” My goodness - I didn't know people actually said that aloud in this day and age.  

(c)  As she led us along one narrow path, she looked back and cautioned me against the “wait-a-whiles.” At first I assumed I misheard her, and then I was sure she was making things up.  Alas!  Later research confirmed that "wait-a-while" is ACTUALLY the name of a grabby vine named for its annoying habit of slowing down passing hikers.  Now I want to plant one in the garden just so I can use that delightful name. 

Later in the week, we stopped to chat with Canadian friend (and lettuce-growing fiend) John.  Tracey, a rather conservative and careful woman, shocked us both by referring to a chat she’d had with the pastor on the “bitch-you-men.” Umm, the what?  She said it again. John and I exchanged glances, wondering whether we were seeing a new side of Tracey.  Indeed, this startling expression stopped all further conversation until she explain that Australians say "bitumen" (right out loud!  in polite company!) to refer to a pavement (blacktop, or asphalt).  Oh. Not nearly as exciting as it seemed.

In another conversation, Tracey asked me what I thought of a particular man's clothing style. "He's a bit of a boffin, don't you think?"  What came immediately to my mind was a cross between a buffoon and a puffin, which didn't seem related to clothing whatsoever. Upon further inquiry, I learned that "boffin" is a old Brit term for science nerds (think computer geek). Interestingly, according to loyal assistant Google,  this term is typically used today as an "affectionate term, but with some practical/fighting man’s scorn for the academic brain worker."  Well, then.  Yes, indeed.  The man in question certainly exemplifies the style of a boffin.

Tracey and our Korean-American friend Grace (known also for gardening and other adventures) treated me to an amazing picnic lunch at a rural cafe overlooking a reservoir.  While enjoying Tracey's made-from-scratch chocolate cake and commenting on the beauty of the day and reveling in the joy of our friendship (let's just say that the coffee shop served more than latte), Tracey sat back with a sigh and said, "This is the ants’ pants.”   Grace and I burst out laughing with delight (and I might have clapped my hands like a toddler discovering fireflies).  I guess the American version is just as silly (“the bees’ knees”) but still. I nearly choked on my delicious cake just imagining tiny insects in khakis, streaming across the outback.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Korean Awesomeness: Pay attention, America

Over the last 3 years I have expressed shock, dismay, disgust, and lots of laughter about Korean culture. But all is not bad here – indeed, here I list 10 Very Cool Things (America: are you paying attention?) in no particular order:

(1) Washing machine lint traps: Because most Koreans neither own nor use dryers, the washers have built-in lint filters. I love that.

(2) Keyless entry: Nobody has keys for their buildings or offices or apartments here. Swipe a card or enter a code or dangle a dongle. Keys are so 18th century.

(3) Perforated straw wrappers: Instead of pounding the life out of your fast-food straws to get the darn wrappers off, just gently pull on one end: it snaps off easily because of the built-in perforations. So elegant.


(4) No checks: Checks? Korea skipped that stage of financial evolution. All is electronic. Need to pay your tithe? Reimburse a friend? Pay a bill? Just transfer the money to their bank account on your smartphone or at an ATM. LOVE. IT.

(5) Folding car mirrors: People are smaller in Korean than in the US, which means smaller cars and smaller parking places. And in some place, very very narrow roads/alleys/paths. Thus: At the touch of a button the driver can fold in the side mirrors to enable closer passing and parking. In fact, it’s rude here to park without folding your mirrors.

(6) Built-in dish drying rack: The classic American home has a window over the sink and a dishwasher. Koreans might have dishwashers, but they all seem to have over-the-sink drying racks and a small window that is more about air flow than a view. This system saves counter space and the dishes drip right into the sink while God dries them. Nice. (The astute reader might wonder whether Koreans have a built-in drying rack for clothing. Most folks have a guy come install a drying rack on the ceiling of the balcony or laundry room.  It works on a pulley system and stores nearly flat against the ceiling when not in use.)

(7) Kitchen sink basket: Koreans ferociously sort their recycling; even food scraps are put in a separate bin. Thus, kitchen sinks have a mesh basket built into the drain that is easy to remove after scraping or washing dishes for easy dumping into a household scrap bucket. Which scraps then get put into a special recycling bin. Which then goes I don’t know where exactly, but I know our city has a food scrap facility. I must tour.


(8) Bathroom floor basket. This is similar to the kitchen sink device, but it more about catching hair and other junk on the floor. Of course, you need some backstory. Korean bathrooms are entirely tiled: the whole idea of carpet (or drywall) in a bathroom is downright insane. Here, you have no tub (go to the public bath if you want to soak) and showers drain into the floor with a cool built-in trap/cup. Shower doors or curtains are optional and special covers protect the outlets and toilet paper from water spray if your shower spray hose goes awry or you want to hose down the whole bathroom. The downside? the floor is usually wet, which explains why most Korean bathrooms provide a pair of plastic slippers (and why socks are the last thing I put on before leaving the house).

(9) Fast food take-out cup bags: At least at our Burger King (there are TWO in our city now!!), take-out cups are placed in pouched plastic bags – making it very easy to carry several cups in a bag slung over your thumb while you enter your doorcode. (And, yes, there are some "weird" sandwiches on the menu, but I always order this: Lone-geh cheek-een sahn-weech sate-eh; coca-cola jeero. Can you decode the Korean pronunciation of English words? :) ).

(10) Tunes instead of bells or buzzers: You never hear buzzers or bells here. Instead, you hear little tunes. Our washing machine sings a tune when the cycle is finished. The kids school has 5-7 second tunes instead of bells to signal each period. The trains and subway use nice little tunes to announce stops. So soothing. And absolutely perfect for a country where each city has cartoon city logos and cartoon safety videos, etc.

So, dear readers:  which invention do you like the best?  Which ones did I miss?  :)

Monday, May 16, 2016

Inexplicable: More Signs

Many of the things I laughed and laughed at 3 years ago, I don't even notice anymore: the ubiquitous work gloves, arm sleeves, and ajumma visors; twig brooms; prancing, etc.  But I still find things that catch my attention and make me laugh as I continue exploring and learning about this culture.  Enjoy these with me.

In a coffee shop.  At the most popular surfing beach in Pohang.
Where no elk has ever, ever walked, let alone strutted with some baseless self-confidence.
(Google tells me this is part of a set sold by a Japanese interior design company.)
At a pet supply store.  I don't even know what this is, let alone which "goog frinds"
I might give it to.

I know that "canola" is also called "rapeseed."  I know that.
But COME ON, FOLKS!!  A rape blossom candle?  NOT OK.
(Amidst my horror-noises, the redundant "scented aroma" cracked me up though). 

This Busan Aquarium sign delighted me - its tone is so much warmer than
the objective, scientific tone of signs at U.S. zoos and aquariums.
But, of course, POOP is included in the drawing.  Ah, Korea. 

On the front of a dentist's office in Busan.
Not exactly the catchiest logo I've seen
(and it's impossible to memorize because it makes NO SENSE).
Fishing line. With a jaunty cartoon Duck Fisherman.  And a random band of cartoon fish.
I don't have a clue what this is about.

This sign on a university department's office door was a real problem for me
until I worked up the nerve to ask my beloved TA about it.  This was before I knew
of Kakao-talk friends and so I saw the drawing from the perspective of my
own sex-saturated culture. And I'M SORRY but in NO WAY did this look like a respectfully
bowing bunny with his bowing green friend.  Nope.  It sure looked liked a porno cartoon.  And how that related to manners at the office I could NOT imagine. Oh boy.


This special was featured right on the front of our Pizza Hut menu.
We selected another option.

Just in case you thought that was a typo in the previous picture, here it is again
INSIDE the menu. With a bizarre explanation of how many people
are ALSO topped on the pizza.  Which is rather horrible.
And also un-memorizable.

Well, dear reader, that's today's batch of signs.  Do you have a favorite?  Comments or explanations?  Write in the space below!  :)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Is it me? The culture? Or are these people crazy?

Today I present you with four short stories of Weird Stuff that I have a hard time explaining. :)

(1) A Korean woman mentioned to me that her one-year-old likes to visit her in the bathroom. He enjoys pushing the buttons on the bidet because they make such fun noises. And that is too much information right there, folks.

(2) On a warm sunny day at the Bukbu beach boardwalk last fall, I saw a Korean mother stop with her young daughter, take off the girl's plastic sandals, and put rain boots on her feet before allowing her onto the sand. Wait, what? I have no place in my mind for fun time at beach = rain boots. Nope.

(3) Many (most?) Koreans are painfully shy about their English abilities and try to avoid talking to foreigners. Many times we have seen staff at restaurants, clothing stores, and even the orthodontist argue about who has to deal with us (sometimes resorting to the Korean version of rock-paper-scissors to select a "winner.") So having an older Korean man shout at Elisabeth and I while we were walking along "stream street" (a car-free shopping area downtown), took us rather by surprise at first.

Man: You American? From America? You English teacher?

Me: Yes, hi. Oh - you must be Tailor Joe. I have heard about you from other foreigners {the guy has a reputation for approaching ex-pats}.

Joe: Yes! Tailor Joe! You hear of me? I fix all your clothes! I make you new housecoat! Comforter set! Matching curtains! I make very cheap! Many American military like me!

Me: Um, ok, thanks.  That's good to know. I don't need anything right now, though, but thank you.

Joe: I very cheap! Want to come see my shop - very close! I can fix anything!

Me: Well... ok. {I'm a sucker for adventures like this.  We walked several blocks, Elisabeth's eyes getting larger and her hands clinging tighter to my arm as the neighborhood quality quickly descended from glam to ghetto.}

Joe (who never stops talking): So maybe you need new housecoat? I do embroidering - any design! How about you need a sexy lady thong?  You married? I make thong for your husband, too!

And so it went until we entered his smoky "Oriental Secret" shop, filled with barely-clad mannequins sporting silky dragon-embroidered robes along with various, ah, shall we say, "leather goods." Well. Well. I refused his offer of coffee and tea, and we escaped quickly, never feeling terribly unsafe but certainly feeling rather unclean.

(4) Last week I stopped at our hardware store to get a hose for the community garden. Perhaps I've mentioned "our" hardware store before - once you choose a store and get to know the owner over several visits, a certain trust/loyalty builds up. We have come to love "our" hardware guy, who always stops whatever he is doing when we show up (normally, he throws down his cigarette), says OOH! in a happy voice, and greets us with a smile.

Anyway, Tracey and I were so greeted (OOH! plus drop-and-stomp cigarette routine) and we explained what we needed. His English is better than our Korean and we quickly selected the hose. He measured out the 20 meters we wanted plus 3 meters of "service" (pronounced "saw-bee-suh" and meant to convey "free stuff I give you because of our mutual loyalty"). Then, quite out of nowhere, he asked if we needed a husband.

Whoa. Now that was a whole new twist to the hardware store routine. Um. Well. NO, neither of us needs a husband. But he insisted. This was weird. No, no husbands! We are married. We backed away a little nervously, wondering what crazy world we had entered and what we had agreed to by accepting those extra 3 meters of hose. He sighed with some exasperation, stalked down a tiny aisles, and returned with a clamp. A hose clamp. AHA! A HOSE BAND! ahahahaha! Well, that sure was awkward.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Wall Art: Happy Public Life

Traditional Korean villages were walled and although most people in cities now live in high-rises instead of homes, you can still find little alleys (and villages) with 5-10 foot cement walls surrounding houses and their dooryards.  Those walls are for family privacy and for securing one's drying peppers, laundry, tiny garden, and kimchi pots.  At first, the walls make a neighborhood look unfriendly (and darn hard to drive though, as they were designed with walking in mind.). But increasingly we have noticed that many walls are regularly painted with brightly colored depictions of nature, people, traditional village life, etc.  And I have come to love exploring new areas to see what public artwork they might hold.  Here are some examples.

From Yeongdeok, a coastal city 45 minutes north of Pohang, known for its fishing (especially crabs).
Happy crabs. 

This appears to be an angry whale confronting a crab at dusk.
With a mountain village and rainbow on the next wall. 


This is probably my favorite Korean wall art ever.

These artworks are from Jukcheon-ri, a tiny nearby village which decided to feature the "Kakao Friends" emoticons from KakaoTalk (the Korean version of Skype; photo credits to Sam Lantinga):
Here we see Neo (a blue cat), Muzi (rabbit?), Tube (duck), Frodo (bear), and
APeach (which is, well, a blushing butt). 

In case you're interested, APeach (The Butt) is quite popular and has been marketed on socks, car fresheners, pencils, etc.  Butts everywhere.  

On a rather different wall in Jukcheon-ri, a gorgeously rendered but rather confusing message about war and peace:
Dove + olive branch + Kevlar vest.  

And some from a tiny alley of coffee shops off "stream street," a pedestrian mall in downtown Pohang.

A nice combination of fine art reproduction, a cheesy "Photo Zone" directive, and other artwork.

Did I mention "and other artwork"?  Ah, yes.  The grossly overestimated allure
of using English to attract the sophisticated coffee drinker....

Monday, April 18, 2016

Assumptions from another planet

On the surface, Koreans look and act just like Americans - they walk around and use smartphones and laugh and hail taxis, etc.  Even all the things I've learned about this culture still fail to prepare me for surprises, though. Here is a recent sampling.


(1) Magnet schools.  I like the idea of magnet or alternative schools.  Truly I do.  In Korea such schools might incorporate a Chinese or English curriculum or have special opportunities in music or golf.  No problem there.  And then I read about an elementary school that "started a mission for curing atopic dermatitis." What is THAT, you might wonder.  Well, dear reader, I researched it for you.  It's eczema: dry, itchy cracking skin.  Yuck.  How does one cure it?  Well, in the US we'd provide moisturizers, anti-histamines, and perhaps UV light therapy.  Nothing of the kind here.  Nope: at this school, the kids take a daily 20-minute walk through a hinoki cypress grove (dressed head to toe to avoid the sun or any possible benefits of the tree oil rubbing on their skin).  Further, kids with especially severe cases take baths in cypress tubs. Yup - baths.  At school.  In wooden tubs.  Sometimes I think I have left the planet I grew up on. (source)

(2) Melon Rules: A brief article noted a change of rules regarding watermelon sales.  Ooh, I thought!.  Korean watermelon is delicious but is rather smaller than US melons and is way WAY more expensive (a $10 melon is a steal).  So I read on, hoping for news of subsidies or possibly free melons for Americans wanting a taste of home. But no. Instead: "The government changed regulations to allow stalkless watermelons to be sold."  Wait - what?  Apparently, some Koreans believe that the "t-shaped stalk" previously required was a valid means of evaluating melon freshness.  And, since the farmers were totally annoyed by the challenges created by this utterly baseless belief, the government had mercy.  Farmers may now sell melons without stalks.  I suspect the price will be the same, however.  (source

(3) Art lounging: A nearly 500-foot long traditional landscape painting was installed recently in Seoul.  Along with the painting, I read, specially-designed chairs were also installed.  And this is where I had to re-read the words several times because I had no place in my brain for comprehending this:  "Visitors can view the painting while reclining on the chairs...to follow the tradition of wayu which means "'traveling in nature while lying down in a room.'"  Yeah, I still can't figure it out. (source)


(4) Panda World:  The Chinese government recently bestowed upon Korea a generous gift of 2 panda bears.  The habitat/enclosure has been completed and the bears are nearly ready for the expected mass of visitors as Panda World opens next week.  To drum up excitement, one article exclaimed, "If lucky, the visitors will get to see the pandas gorging on bamboo leaves, climbing to the end of a branch that almost looks too thin to support their weight, and even pooping."   Pooping.  Ah, Korea. (source)

(5) Typo: The Korean government recently changed its emblem to much public uproar.  An article defending the decision looked to how other countries use their official emblems.  We learn that Germany and the United Kingdom have effectively used traditional symbols on their coat of arms insignia, and then we learn that government departments in the United States have several logos but "many of them have an American bold eagle."   Good for you, America, in selecting a sassy bird: none of those shy (poopy!) pandas for you. (source)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

I'll be brief: 5 snippets from Korean life

I suppose that most people have quirky little happenings all around them.  So in that way, today's post is not exceptional or necessarily Korean.  But it's still funny.  So enjoy.

(1) While shopping online for a keyboard cover/skin for my laptop, I ran across this delightful description: "Dustproof and anti-dirty design may avoid the dust, the cigarette ash, the biscuit filings and so on falls into the keyboard to affect the keyboard life."  You have to love their specificity.  I received my cover/skin in the mail and was bemused at the product's motto:


Displaying IMG_6755.JPG
(2) I happened to be invited to a meeting with an Important Person (IP) along with some foreign faculty and Korean staff regarding health/repair issues in our apartments.  The IP's staff presented each of us with a gorgeous gourmet-style fruit plate and tiny fruit fork.  We waited respectfully, of course, for the IP to begin eating before we could touch our own food.  He did not.  And, thus, we did not.  End of meeting: table dotted with 15+ pristine fruit plates.  I hope the staff got to enjoy them....

(3) From a conversation with a student discussing the aggravating sound of Chinese opera: he aptly noted that  "some traditional Korean songs also sound anal.  Um. I mean, nasal."  Yeah, that's an important distinction.

(4) A foreign faculty family built a great fort out of used pallets and a horde of children happily commenced to playing.  Within one day, the kids decided there needed to be a president of the fort, decided the basis for elections, held speeches, and the winner was judged by an older sibling.  A precocious 8-year-old won, solemnly telling my friend Tracey that "I am here to serve."   (P.S.: The president was summarily impeached by her mother and no formal government is allowed at the fort).

(5) And our last story for today.  Elisabeth and I were out walking on campus and she popped into the communal laundry room (the 2 dryers serve roughly 30 families and 25+ international graduate students) to see what was on the "free" rack.  To her great horror, the office door for the maintenance staff was wide open, and there stood three ajoshees (middle-aged Korean men), clad only in their tighty whiteys.  She fled, quite unwilling to wonder with me about these briefly clad men.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Signs Gone Wrong

After living in Korea for nearly 3 years, it's become hard to discern what's uniquely Korean and what might be something Korea has adopted from the US since I've been gone (and therefore isn't funny to anyone but me).  But I don't care.  Here are signs that made me laugh in delight or horror.  I'll warn you before we get to R-rated ones.  :)

Posted at the construction site for a new dorm on campus.
 I don't know what the Korean means, but the English is downright charming.
If you can't find the babe of the fire, you might want to call 911.

Worst. Slogan. Ever. 

Don't indeed.

Food-related signs:
Why one would choose a food name so similar to a poop-related swear is just inexplicable.

Well, thank you for your honesty, Dunkin'' Donuts.  

I can't decide if it's the appearance of this (fancy) Dunkin' Donut pastry or its description that turned me off.
Is your food too cold?  Add some of this to warm it right up.

I have no idea what this restaurant intends to convey. 

Moving into PG-13 signs now.  The sheer variety of Korean signs for restrooms continue to make me laugh like an eight-year-old.

Wondering what the Korean says?  Make a hearty grunting sound and you've nailed it.


Don't judge - we've all had to go this badly. 

This seems less about proper gender segregation than positional preference.


I really want to believe that "beauty" was the intended translation here.


And now for the R-rated signs, courtesy of an ex-pat friend visiting a local hospital for a COMPLETELY different procedure.

Public waiting area with typical blood pressure monitor and a sign about...?
Oh.  Oh no.  Oh no no no.
My beloved TA later translated for me:
Above "return the virgin" it says "a winking woman is attractive",
which I honestly can't connect to the rest of this plastic surgery ad...

And there you have it, dear reader.  Let me know which you liked best or any insights you might have about these signs.  :)