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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Tomato in a Tree

This June morning, I went up to putz around the community garden before the day's promised assault of heat.  First, though, I sat in the pergola and ate a choco muffin, looking around at the 10 plots filled with veggies and flowers.  As I did, my eye caught a red spot in a pine tree, about 10 feet above my garden.  Curious.  I inspected.  It looked like a plum tomato, but why would it be in a tree?  Only one garden is even growing a dwarf plum tomato plant this year, but those folks are in South Africa for the summer.  Maybe a roving child had illicitly picked a ripe fruit and then tossed it just so into the pines??  I looked again: no way it would have just landed there, balanced neatly on a branch. 

I set about tidying the garden, still pondering the red orb glowing in the early sunlight. Maybe a squirrel had put it there?  Probably not: I've only seen one squirrel this year, and I just don't think they do a lot of storing tomatoes on a tree branch.  Ok, maybe a bird?  Well, the few birds we have around here are either way too small to carry a tomato or they would have just pecked it in situ.  Maybe...?

An hour later, I had given up finding a sensible answer to the mystery.  As a delightful distraction, however, a Eurasian jay landed on the fence; I held very still, pleased to see this skittish bird so close up.  Her more brightly-colored mate joined her a minute later, confirming that I was still undetected behind the gaillardias and daylilies.  After looking around the garden for a moment, the female swooped down with practiced ease to the plum tomato plant, and... yup.  She neatly plucked a ripe tomato and flew away with it into the pine forest, conclusively solving my mystery but perhaps beginning a new one for another curious human.

Image result for eurasian jay korea
photo from

Friday, June 8, 2018

Gynecologist visit: Google Gone Wrong

I went to the doctor with E today.  We had all the usual Korean hospital drama because (a) we can't understand the signs and (b) the looks of dread exchanged by the receptionists' faces when they saw us were pretty obvious.  But today's visit was EXTRA special: it had the added drama potential of being a gynecologist clinic.  Yay!

For a country that prides itself on English education, this is ridiculous. 

Before seeing a Korean doctor, even one who speaks fluent English, one is interviewed by his/her nurse-type person who never, ever speaks English.

Whoever designed today's interview closet apparently believes that nurse-patient eye contact is dangerous. E was seated to my immediate left and with some awkward stretching could peek at the nurse's face.
Today's nurse believed that using a smartphone to translate sensitive questions for foreign patients is a good strategy.  Let me tell you something very clearly, dear reader: If you are at death's door in a foreign land and need phone translation to survive, just choose death and keep your dignity intact.

The nurse asked some basic questions by pointing to a laminated English cue card: name, age, etc. But as E's symptoms became more specific, the card options ran out and the nurse picked up her phone.  To call for a translator?  No: her hand snaked out from behind the computer to show us a question typed in Korean, followed by what she thought was an appropriate English translation.  Sensitive readers: you might not want to read further.  This gets awkward in a hurry.

Phone Screen English Reveal #1: "Do you have a lot of fancy during menstruation?"
Our gasps caused a quick retraction of the phone and then a revised (but not improved) translation: "Do you have a lot of fur during menstruation?"  Um. Not better.

E maturely decided to secretly read the questions in their original Korean while I craned my neck to read the English version and madly took notes.

PSER #2: "Do you have a lot of fingering and cramps?"  I again gasped; E explained that the Korean meant "heavy bleeding."  Not the same, Google.  Not even close.

PSER #3: "I'll see if there's something wrong with my uterus."  Wait: are we ALL checking our uteruses today?  Perhaps a "the more, the merrier" approach?

PSER #4: "Ultrasound without sexual experience is anal sonogram?"
E blanched at this, as the English translation was correct but she didn't quite understand what it meant.  I used my sternest voice to say AH-NEE-YO (that's "no" in Korean) and "AHB-DOM-IN-AL" (which is English for keep your scary probes away).

PSER #5: "Male doctor?"  Seriously?  After asking about anal probing?  NOT A CHANCE.  A firm AH-NEE-YO to that one. 

We were ushered out of the interview closet to a room where E got weighed next to a display of the parts of one's baby that could be bronzed.   Not bronzed baby SHOES, mind you:  baby parts.

The photo quality is terrible, but it's still proof:
someone out there has a job making casts/molds of babies' hands, feet, and...  boy parts. 

As we waited for the doctor to who we'd been assigned (not actually the one with whom we'd made the appointment), we exchanged laughs at the way E's name was displayed on the monitor (no privacy in Korea, folks:  TINGAELRIS.  Yup.  Our family name first (part of it, anyway) and an awkward "Konglish" version of part of E's given name.

We also shared horror-laughs at the giant posters/ads on the waiting room walls.
E made the mistake of translating these.
I did not want to know about plastic surgery options for a body part I hope to never see.
Perhaps the ads were for the benefit of the men waiting for the wives?

After 15 minutes, the nurse approached us with a final PSER: "I have a few waiters in section 2 so you can go to section 2."  I was confused about the reference to restaurant staff until E interpreted: there are fewer people waiting for the doctor in room 2, so we had been re-assigned.  And, as it happens, it was the fluent-English doctor with whom we'd made the appointment.   The doctor was great - just your normal gyno visit.  :)

On the way out, we stopped in the Photo Zone to commemorate our gyno visit.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Roses and Rices: International Adventures

Tracey, a passionate lover of roses, took us to the Bukbu (Youngildae) Beach gardens in Pohang, South Korea.
I got myself educated on differences between tea roses and floribunda, etc.
And, in true Korean style, we were forced-ish to don headbands and pose for pictures in the "poto jone."

Climbing and bush roses near Pohang's landmark pier.

This ajumma chose an unusual semi-squatting selfie by the roses.

A garden volunteer was happy to answer all the questions Tracey didn't even have.
Then we escaped for some coffee and pastries.

The next day, friend Judy and I visited the local fields to watch farmers plant the rice seedlings, which are grown in local greenhouses.  (You may recall my earlier blog about rice harvesting.)   Judy did lots of chatting with the folks in Korean while I snuck pictures.

This family plants fields across the highway from our home, Handong University
(the campus power tower is on the far right horizon).

The man of the family always drives the plows and planters. 

The wife assists from the field edges by reloading the planter and shouting things at her husband.

Daughters/helpers also dress in colorful layers to guard against mud and sun;
they easily stand out against the muddy fields and green trees. 
Thanks to modern technology, there's always time for selfies in the rice paddies.

Rice planters are amazing machines - fingered wheels pluck
each plant from a horizontally sliding tray of seedlings and stuff them into the mud with a bit of fertilizer.

This man (brother/uncle?) said just one thing to Judy:  "Diet!"
Harrumph.  Now I have posted this unflattering picture of him.
Take that, rude beer-belly man.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

True Mac n Cheese ingredients: REVEALED

Yesterday's impulse buy at the campus convenience store: microwavable macaroni and cheese.  OH!  I miss Kraft.  Stop judging me.

I got home and searched for instructions on the little container. Nothing in English. I took a picture of the Korean and asked my Google Translate app to help me out, like you do.  And I was horrified at what I learned:  Either Google is doing a TERRIBLE job at translation or Korean food manufacturers are far scarier than I thought...

Ingredients of Penne's Raw Ingredients: Rich Cheese teanI Chihuahua 1982 Sushi RE) a Milk Milk Pork 1: 01 Made turtle Mail Peanut and prawns Peach Tomatoes Pickled shellfish International folie Mug egg Cooked or hot, 

Please note that this product may be injured by the jam of the surge arrester such as the one with the included product. 

Please keep this product in the refrigerator for as long as possible. You can get a testicle or a reward for a legitimate consumer. 

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Rice cakes: Sweet treats or dry as a desert?

This new shop got its big English sign right, if one wants a tasty sweet rice treat.  The sign on the door, though, suggested a rather different sort of experience waiting inside.

The old Bread in the Eye problem

It's a story that does not improve with length or details, so here is the version I'm telling.

Elisabeth whipped a very stale heel of a baguette at brother David, but it missed him and hit me RIGHT IN THE EYEBALL.  

The pain was real.  The bread crumbs I had to scrape off my eyeball were real.  Now, a day later, all I have to do is give her a meaningful look, open my eye wide to show the bloodshot spot, and she will do anything I ask.  

P.S.  Why didn't I go to the doctor for treatment of my corneal contusion?  Because it's hard enough talking to Korean medical staff about normal problems; how in the world could I possible "daughter - old bread - eyeball" and not be put into a mental hospital?  :)

Friday, April 13, 2018

Strange death pronouncement (AND a grand re-opening)

Beloved readers:  I am not really sure how I painted myself into the "blogs are fully researched documentaries" corner, but I no longer wish to write those.  So for now, I shall use this space for brief observations from daily life on a university-owned mountaintop in rural Korea.

The photo taken April 12, 2018, shows Coast Guard officials carrying out rescue work after a local fishing boat collided with a Tanzanian cargo ship in waters off the country's southwestern coast of Sinan, leaving one dead and five missing. (Yonhap)
Today's Korean newspaper reports that a small fishing boat hit a huge reefer ship in the night. In a strange decision by the writers (and editor), this little detail was reported:

"One sailor was found around 1:25am.  He was not breathing and did not have a pulse.  He died soon after."

Huh.  Yup.  Sounds dead to me.

P.S. I had to look up "reefer ship."  And, indeed, it is NOT a big old marijuana transportation device, but a refrigerated cargo ship.  Ah.

Source: and

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Bums, Bosoms, and Bellies: Korean Bathhouse

Dedication: To Sonia, who quite nakedly shook me awake for our first day of college orientation and introduced me to the idea of, well, nudity.

In December, an expat friend finally convinced me to get naked at a Korean bathhouse and stroll casually around like, “hey, this is cool. Wanna scrub my back?”

A jjimjilbang (찜 질 방; literally "heated room) Korean bathhouse, which includes a gender-segregated naked section (showers, hot tubs, saunas, snacks) and non-segregated clothed-in-provided-pajamas section (sleeping areas, more saunas, and a restaurant).  These are very popular in Korea; most are open 24/7.

Short version for readers who really don't want details:  Judy and I were the largest and whitest naked women among 80+ naked Korean women in a public bathhouse.  After a near-debilitating attack of the panics, I shocked myself by loving the experience. 

Here is the much longer version (rated PG-13 for the stock photos showing ladies' bums).

Photo from
Backstory: I was raised as a conservative, mid-western Caucasian-American to believe that body privacy was probably more important than life itself.  Proper women, I learned well, do not sweat, burp, poop, fart, spit, or have any other revolting bodily functions.  Proper women are very modest when changing clothes, using the toilet (any potential smelly business should be done in the furthest bathroom), and bathing; no one should see your bits unless they have a validated marriage license.
Finally: If a proper woman DID accidentally reveal revolting behavior or other private bodily business, it would be better to die than admit to it. 

Culture shock.  Koreans (as a generalization) place a high value on bathing (and scrubbing the top layers of skin off their bodies) for hours with lots of equally naked friends, family, and strangers.  So there’s a little source of tension for me.  Add to that the fact that I’m living among people built like chopsticks, people who believe “round” (like, for example, my traditionally-built, German-English-American, sedentary middle-aged self) is at least a serious moral flaw if not quite a deadly sin.  Thus, the likelihood of me EVER visiting a Korean bathhouse has hovered at or below -40%. 

But…  I made a new expat friend this year (also a middle-aged Caucasian but Canadian) who loves the Korean bath experience despite her own traditionally-built self.  And she’s very, very persuasive. 
On the plus side, this is one of the only Korean activities that requires no equipment beyond one’s birthday suit and some cash.  On the down side, this activity is extremely risky for one’s social-emotional health.  It did not help matters that the Saturday morning parking lot was overflowing.  In the bustling lobby, similar to a nice hotel, I paid 16,000 won (about $15) for BOTH of us. Judy pointed to the stacked rolls of clothing and said “Big!”; the desk woman (she had all her clothes on) laughed kindly, having already perceived our non-Korean builds. She handed us our numbered receipts, cotton sauna shirts and shorts, and two hand towels each.

Deep breath.  We removed our shoes at the edge of the lobby and stored them in the nearby section adorably labeled “Rocker Room.”  We then went up to the women’s bathhouse on the 2nd floor (the men’s area was on the 3rd floor).  Judy chatted about the décor while I faked being calm as we turned the corner and HOLY COW THERE ARE TOTALLY NAKED LADIES EVERYWHERE.  We, of course, were still wearing our winter coats and sock-feet, so WE looked like the weirdos in this context.  Back to the women.  They were sitting on wooden platforms, walking around buying drinks or little packets of shampoo at the front counter, chatting with each other, putting on make-up in front of giant mirrors….  Like you do, apparently, when you’re in a room of naked people.

Ok.  I had to take more deep breaths that were tinged with shades of panic.  Judy, meanwhile, pointed out the various single-use packets of soaps and other shower/bath supplies for sale at the counter, where a friendly woman WHO WAS THE ONLY ONE BESIDES US WITH CLOTHES ON IN THE ROOM answered Judy’s questions. I did not CARE about particular scents or flavors or costs or whatever so I just handed over some money, nearly dropping my change into the fuzzy slipper display.

We went to find our assigned lockers, which by a miracle were in different rows, so a tiny shred of privacy remained before our friendship faced, well, you know. Lots of new information about each other.

I found my locker and stripped.  Taking the tiny towels (Korean bath towels are about the size of a business card) and new-bought packets of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, I met Judy back in the main area.  I wore only my ponytail elastic; she wore only her eyeglasses.   Well then.  Our friendship had reached a new level. 

As expected, we were the only white people and were certainly the largest.  But no one seemed to care.  Only the American (that would be me) even seemed to NOTICE all the different body bits walking about.  Bigger and smaller; flatter and rounder; firmer and saggier; darker and lighter; older and younger; scarred and smooth.  The oldest among us was perhaps 70 years old; the youngest was around two.  And did I mention this already?  No. One. Cared That I Have a Misfit Body.  Suddenly, my heart was calm.  I could do this. 

Renewed in spirit, I strode through the glass doors into the bathing area.  Dozens more naked women were showering in mirrored rows; Judy and I washed our hair and rinsed off our bodies in preparation for the next step.  We then walked down the long aisle, every bit of us open to potential scrutiny, to find adjacent scrubbing areas.  We sat on low, plastic stools by a flexible nozzle where one commences to scrubbing oneself from this near-squatting position.  This is not a rushed, whap-some-soap-around-and-dash-to-work kind of bathing.  Nope.  This is a luxuriously long self-scrub (with a cloth comparable to those green kitchen scrubbies), taking all day if one so wanted to use various emollients.  Judy offered to scrub my back, but I drew a firm line right there. Back-scrubbing is a sign of closeness in Korea, and we saw it happening among friends or mothers and daughters of all ages, but shaving one’s pits and legs while chatting with one’s naked friend just inches away in an echoing, steamy room of naked ladies is quite far enough for one day, thank you.)

Scrubbing done, we rinsed off and went into the hot baths (which here means “shockingly hot 3’ deep cement pools into which one gingerly lowers one’s naked private regions to set by steaming strangers”).  I adjusted quickly to the 40 degree Celsius water (104 F) and sat on the bottom, my head just above the surface.  From there I was a crocodile, peering around the central concrete sculpture (baby Buddha riding a concrete fish-- why??) to covertly observe ladies sharing gossip and scrubs, their thin gold chains or earrings catching the light.  I enjoyed watching a little girl of about 3 years; her mom set out a small blue plastic tub, filled it with water, and tossed in Barbie, her incongruous blond hair floating in a wide circle. I skipped the various milk and tea and “event” (?) baths and next opted for the enclosed “open air” with steamy windows open to the pine hillsides.  Some women quietly chatted while perched on the side, with just their feet in the water; another woman helped her elderly mother (mother-in-law?) out of the steep bath.  (Wow.  I cannot imagine doing a naked mother-daughter outing.)

Imagine 5-10 naked people in each tub.  And another dozen wandering around, towel-less. Yup.
Photo from

At this point, I was a tiny bit drowsy.  The cold bath woke me right up though; the sign above it said “No mask or flippers/fins” (as if one carries those in one's birthday suit pocket.)  From there we observed several women, laying fully uncovered on tables, getting vigorous full-body scrubs (some call it massage and some call it exfoliation) and periodic hosing from ajummas wearing uniforms.  If you want to call black panties and bralets a uniform.  Our next stop was a steamy sauna, where my very eyeballs seemed to fog; on the plus side, I couldn't even see the woman sitting next to me.

After a final rinsing shower, we returned to the locker room to blot our hair and faces with the tiny towels then stand in front of fans to dry the rest of our selves.  As we walked past a weight scale, Judy firmly exclaimed “HA! No!”  as though she was training a bad dog.

So that was the bathing part of the bathhouse (often called the "mogyoktang").  Next we prepared for the dry sauna/sleeping/eating area by donning underpants and the provided short/shirts. We descended to the basement, which is not gender-segregated.  Thin vinyl sleeping pads were dotted about the floor with men, women, children, and couples snacking, snoozing, watching the big-screen TV, or playing on their phones (people can stay here overnight – that $15 goes a long, long ways).  A quick tour of the shellacked-crystal hallways led us past dark sleeping rooms; a salt-block sauna (a woman checked her phone while her husband dozed next to her, his head support by a brick-sized cushion); and a red clay sauna.  We visited the 85C sauna (185F), entering a tiny hobbit-door into a small clay hut that's basically a pizza oven.  Several sweaty, giggling women with giant jugs of iced coffee welcomed us in and gestured for us to sit with them on the bamboo mat.  We could barely communicate, but our shared sweat and giggles (and interacting while semi-dressed) was delightful.  After just a few moments, we escaped back through the hobbit hole to find some food.

At the little restaurant, we ordered sweet and sour pork, seating ourselves on the floor in traditional style while wearing the pajamas.  After eating our fill (and more), we returned to the bath area to get dressed, toss our towels and cotton clothes in the laundry bin, and return to the cold winter air.

I felt completely clean and relaxed by this strange (to me) experience.  The entire place was meticulously clean – not a speck of dust or dirt anywhere – and I felt very safe despite the utter lack of privacy.  I will long remember the sounds of water splashing, people talking, the hollow clank of plastic stools and bowls being moved; the smell of something rich and old underneath the shampoos and body/facial scrubs.  I was excited enough to convince Elisabeth to go with me again in January; perhaps a mother-daughter ajumma scrub is next, or even spending the night soaking up the healing powers of salt and clay.  

Sweating with Elisabeth in the clay sauna pizza oven (85C).

Elisabeth and I sweating (and snoozing) in the salt sauna room.

Waiting for lunch in the traditional Korean restaurant.  Do you love our matching cotton sauna outfits?  :)