Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Concerning cautious optimism

Well, if you are still reading this after the whiny rant of my last post, kudos. This blog will be a bit more cheerful, I promise. After writing that friday night (and despite how self-indulgent it seemed, I think it was good that I realized what was bugging me), I woke up saturday and headed off to Seoul for some teacher training. We found the building really easily, being the cosmopolitan Seoul veterans that we are, and strapped in for our 3 1/2 hour long presentation. The first section was really helpful, introducing a new type of class for our kindies which I am not, as of yet, teaching, but I am freely stealing some of its games to play with my kids. There were some really helpful videos of this guy teaching this particular lesson. Around break-time, my coffee perk deserted me so the second half kind of drudged by. It, too, was helpful in its own way and gave me some ideas to implement with my afternoon kids to help them do better on our company wide standard exams that monitor their progress. One of the best ideas was to turn the frequent dialogues that we go through in the book into a movie. This was a much needed development, because in one of my classes, I have become such an automaton that we mechanically went through the dialogue as usual and then just as I was about to say "Any questions? No? Are you sure? OK, workbook!", my students said it for me. Ahem. Time for a change, I'd say. They cracked up when I made a student curl their book into a tube to be "cameraman" and I, as the director, shouted out "Action!" and "Cut!" I usually try to be creative in my classes as it's waaaaaaaay more fun for both them and me but I had let this one slip through the cracks. My two oldest classes are less than thrilled that I purloined a "one minute speech" concept from the training as well, to be implemented at our next class, but they are a little more enthusiastic at the chocolate pie bribery that will await them upon completion. I think this will be really good, relaxed practice to help their fluency in stringing together sentences.

After the training, Asteria recognized two guys who went to Whitman (who are apparently not the two people from Whitman that I already knew about- my little college is slowly taking over South Korea, colonizing it one bottle of wine and onion at a time. Our old president, Tom Cronin, is also here. Weird.) so we talked to them for a second before moving on to my favorite portion of my day...shopping. We hopped a subway to Insadong, the touristy area of Seoul but also one of the best market streets ever. There were a lot of traditional Korean stuff like hamboks and painted paper things and antiques and jewelry and GORGEOUS ceramics. If I could think of any possible way to get the ceramics home with me, my bank account would be in trouble. Some of it was also not so genuine but I really really really liked walking around and beginning to accrue Christmas presents. There were also two guys giving free hugs so we hit them up before getting some cool traditional cookies called "Dragon's Beard." It's basically spun sugar in a spidery web around a mildly sweet nut mixture. Fun to eat. After, we went to Itaewon (the foreigner district) for an OK French dinner of mustard chicken and a mediocre waffle. I am so aware of how much of a snob this makes me....but you can't beet the Belgian waffles in France and, go figure, BELGIUM. But, it was good enough, and sent us on our way full and happy.

The next morning, I felt a little under the weather, so I redefined "Lazy Sunday" and didn't move from the same spot on the couch. For the whooooole day. Yep. Monday was a breezy day at work that went well because I was still riding on my wave of training motivation. I noticed that a grammar lesson for NYU was a little scanty on quotation marks so I wrote them a short Halloween story about all of them and had them all read their own parts, slyly reinforcing quotation marks as we went, and they ate it up. We even turned off the lights and pretended that it was a scary story, so that was fun. Yesterday, we had more teacher training, but it was only two hours in the morning here at school. After, Asteria and I went for really nice workout at our gym.

An aside on the gym: Korean gyms are bizarre. First off, the machines are really hyperbolic. There is either no resistance at all, or, if you increase the setting by even one, the machine magically transforms into a medieval torture device. Imagine that. They are pretty convenient, I will give them that, as they provide the workout clothes for you to wear. Most just go with that but I have also seen velvetine sparkly bell bottom jazz pants, panty hose, and even bare footed treadmilling so the fashion thing is a bit of a variable. I also got a peak at one of the three types of classes that they offer (yoga, jazzercise, and aerobics) and it looked great and difficult. I even saw a pilates move or two, so yay, though the instructor was a little scary-- a young musclely guy with shaved legs who moved around and physically made the women do the exercise who were too tired to finish themselves. Oh dear. Well, I'll get fit whether I am willing or not.

Anyway, after doing some free weights, we hit up the spa area which I liked even more than Yuseong Hotel. It was pretty nice (not the least so because it's completely included in our gym package...) because there were frog fountains around the pools and a big Aphrodite statue in the middle. Sounds kitch, and it is, but nice in a yay femininity kind of way. There were also more massage jets, and the temperatures were less extreme so I could take advantage of more of the areas. There was even a sauna that I could brave that had a really pretty mosaic of semi-precious stones AND some hot tile bed cave thingies that you could lie in. True, they had stone pillows that reminded me uncomfortably of Memoirs of a Geisha but it was veeeeery relaxing. The only slight hiccup was the low grade anxiety of being naked in public so close to the school...I've heard horror stories of some of the younger kindie boys accompanying their mothers only to jump out in the locker room to say hi to their teachers. Having a spa less than a block from work has its convenience but exacts its pound of flesh in a distinct hyperawareness when in the women-only areas.

Once fully steamed, soaked, heated, and scrubbed, we got some quick groceries and a snack of popcorn chicken and mandu, watched HP 6 and then Asteria made me tell her the entirety of HP 7 right after. That, of course, ate up the rest of the day right there and it was a pretty good one. So...still trying to change my mentality with regards to where I am and taking advantage of it but I have lowered my voice a few octaves below shrill panic and enjoying a nice few days. OH, and mom and dad left for their 3 month cruise a few days ago and, despite an early technology snaggle that made me think I might not be able to talk to them voice to voice for those whole 3 months, are happily sailing the Panama Canal tomorrow. Exciting! My family has never been so all over the place. But, it was really adorable because the parents sent me a Christmas package that will dutifully stay in the deepest darkest corner of my little wardrobe until December 25th. I had to take some food care package stuff and saw the carefully wrapped presents with the little tags "To Becky, From Mom" and all right yeah I cried (JUST a little) but it was a very sweet and welcome reminder of home.

So, sappiness aside, I'm have a relatively quiet weekend here in Daejeon. The big highlight is...COSTCO. I kid you not....neither that there is a Costco here, nor that it is actually the anticipated highlight of my weekend. I think all will be explained when I reveal that not only does it have cheese (a hot commodity here), but PIE which I will be investigating for Thanksgiving purposes. That's about it for now, KEEP THE EMAILS and COMMENTS coming and miss you all!

Love, me.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Concerning a mental roadblock

I'm in the mood to give voice to some random thoughts and since you are a somewhat captive audience, buckle your seatbelt. I am starting to get a little frustrated at the process of establishing my life in Korea. Actually, that sentence was kind of my case and point- I feel like I should not still be establishing and transitioning but actually living out this year. I have now been here 7 weeks and am in this weird place where I have been here long enough to get more comfortable and familiar enough to branch out and yet, I'd still rather be in my apartment watching Glee (and in no way is this a bad thing in and of itself, Glee is fabulous) than going out and learning something. I gave myself some leeway of comfort and familiarity in the first few weeks when I was legitimately getting my feet here, but my self-imposed grace period is wearing thin. I feel conflicted because my rational side absolutely knows that it is crazy not to take advantage of the opportunities I have here; I am privileged to be in such a position to understand a people so foreign to my own. Does that mean that I am taking advantage of it? Not really. I have gone on 1 hike, I have shopped around Seoul a few times, I went to see a Greek movie in Busan and have displayed an impressive amount of determination in seeking out each and every foreign restaurant and English language book store. I am not learning the language, trying the food much (that drive has been really diminished after my culinarily traumatic first week), meeting or spending time with anyone save my coworkers or feeling much excitement about getting to know Korea. Granted, it is not like I don't enjoy work or where I am living, there are a lot of really great things here, but that "great" is more tepidly pleasant than wow-ing. I just feel frustrated that I'm not that engaged here yet when I assumed that, by now, I would be secure enough to take more risks. This could easily be the Unfair First Love Syndrome where nothing will ever or could ever live up to what I had in England, I could very well have inflated expectations of how I would find Korea. I guess I feel overwhelmingly apathetic and wish that was not the case. When I talk to people about what I am doing, there is a glamorous expectation of picking up and schlepping to Asia for a crazy, unpredictable year. In reality, Korea is polite, really really homogeneous, and crawling with people. It is the country where I sleep, eat, and go to work. I just gotta ask...where is the romance?

To answer myself, as you have licence to do in an angsty blog, I know that it is largely self-created and that your happiness is most often completely in your own hands. I also know that life would be equally stagnant (at least at times) at home, but it would be offset by the comforting familiarity of what I know. I am just disappointed in my constant impulse to override anything I see with that familiarity and trick myself, with the onslaught of foreign restaurants and English language bookstores, into making Korea into an imitation United States instead of letting it be what it is. Well, long-winded soliloquies (as this is beginning to feel like one) are part of my process of working through the slightly down days to crush meaning out of this experience whether it is forthcoming or no. At least, at the end of the day, I have complete and total faith in my stubbornness. I want to have the year that people (and I) expect so much that it will happen in some way or another. Huh- random memory. I didn't like tea when I first got to Norwich. I just kept trying it until my taste buds were used to it and I was accustomed to the bitterness. Then, I liked the taste and experience enough to genuinely enjoy the whole thing. Well, Toto, we're not in Earl Grey anymore, more like green tea, but this cup will go down the hatch, gosh darn it, and I will eventually appreciate it too, whether I like it or not.

News-wise, as you might expect from the indulgent venting you just waded through, this week was a tad scanty. Work is fine, NYU (my class of 6 yr olds) already has 5 little pumpkins down flat and Columbia (my class of 5 yr olds) can aaaaaalmost hold up the right amount of fingers in each part of the song. We're getting there. I joined a gym, so that's good news, and as it's right between work and home, it couldn't really be more convenient. Tuesday night, the girls and I checked out a new Thai Restaurant (more evidence of my unfortunate and very bad Korean Avoidance Plan) which had some yummy mild yellow coconut curry (lots o adjectives, I know) and we sat on fun pillows on the floor, eating off of coffee tables. Tomorrow, we have some mandatory teacher training in Seoul for a few hours, and after, more shopping and then probably a French restaurant in the foreigner district...I mean a very authentic and fulfilling Korean dining experience....cough. Anyway, more soon! Love from a mostly fine Becks.

PS- I still really look forward to hearing from you all, it helps keep the slightly grayer days in perspective. HINT. Conveniently enough, I am very easily reached via skype (endresba), email (beckyaendres@gmail.com), facebook, or even by pushing the clever and innocuous "comment" button at the end of this blog. You all should give it a try sometime.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Concerning pumpkins, film, and fish

"Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate...the first one said, 'Oh my, it's getting late!'" Halloween has exploded throughout the school in all of its orange and black splendor. Though Koreans don't really celebrate it that much, work is making a big deal of it to culture the students on American traditions...one sugar induced coma or jack-o-lantern at a time, it would seem. And just in case you are curious, the ever so clever and witty opener is from my favorite Halloween chant (to be faithfully reproduced below) taught to me by my mother and dutifully repeated lots and lots and LOTS of times come every October. I plan to ruthlessly drill it into the heads of my little 5 and 6 year olds until they know it better than I do, with hand motions of course. As it is, I had a fun week of making various odds and ends to put up in my two kindie classes. I made: a very well crafted "Happy Halloween" sign out of black letters to hang from the ceiling in Columbia, two spiders to hang from a web in the hall, colored trick or treating and witch pictures with both NYU and Columbia, and made construction paper jack-o-lanterns with NYU. If that wasn't enough, I also had my 11 year old students write me a Halloween story in their journal. Can anyone tell that I like the holidays or is it too subtle? The receptionists also put up balloons on all available ceiling real estate and covered the walls with more decals and added a dancing skeleton on the 3rd floor desk that is the constant delight of the kindies. My work is like walking into a Halloween supply store and we still have three weeks to go until the actual holiday. Anyone who so much as dares to be unfestive should gird their loins before coming within a mile.

So, not a bad week. We also got our first month's paycheck so I'm a millionaire! OK fine, in won. Saturday, Asteria, Laura and I headed south for the Busan International Film Festival. It sounds very promising and professional, doesn't it bring to mind red carpets and enlightening perspectives on post-modern cinematography? Mmmm, well. We hopped the KTX bullet train and was there in time, unfortunately, to catch our 11:00 AM movie, "The Dust of Time." Yes, it was as bad as the title. After two hours of incoherent statements on historic memory and angles, we made a grateful escape to some much needed Mexican Restaurant (one of about three in the whole of Korea). I had a decent burrito and some yummy drinks before heading back to the film festival area just in time to miss our second movie. This may have been for the best, as it was a very light and heartening chronicle of how African countries find safety and comfort in the tradition of killing Albinos. Your average breezy movie, clearly. Instead, we went to a noribong for some karaoke. I figured this was inevitable given where I am, so I gave in and we rented a room (here, noribongs rent individual rooms so you only sing with your party) for an hour and poured out our hearts with some Kelly Clarkson, some Beyonce, some Jason Mraz, some Backstreet Boys and yes Caitlin, some Bonnie Wright (and Celine but not Sam's song...). Interesting hour, I had a little too much fun with the strobe light and echo features that came with the room. Then, we got home and crashed.

This morning, I talked to my family for a while on skype and all of my old neighbors who happened to be visiting (yay Beards and Highlands), it was very comforting to hear lots of familiar voices and everyone's well wishes. It makes this immeasurably easier to feel my support system. Anyway, I watched some more bad TV in my PJs (this morning was Vampire Diaries and So You Think You Can Dance) before heading out with some of the girls at work to a coffee place. I had wild rose tea which was pretty good before taking advantage of a little special feature that came with this particular cafe...after having a drink, you can soak your feet in a tub and have little minnows eat all of the dead skin off. It was actually very relaxing and after I got over being ticklish, it felt sort of good, like a stream of gentle bubbles or when your foot falls asleep and it tingles as it begins to regain sensation. I still twinged every time they nibbled a really tickly area, like between my toes, but it was a very weird and unexpectedly fun thing to do. So here I am, another week gone! I still miss everyone though and I am putting out another plea for comments and emails! It's always important to me to stay in touch. Anyways, love to all!


Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate...
The first one said, "Oh my, it's getting late!"
The second one said, "There are witches in the air..."
The third one said, "Oh, we don't care!"
The fourth one said, "Let's run and run and run!"
The fifth one said, "It's just Halloween fun!"
And oooooooo went the wind, and OUT went the light...
And the five little pumpkins rolled out of sight.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Concerning Chuseok

Last Wednesday was the last day of school before our little Chuseok holiday. Chuseok is apparently the Korean answer to Thanksgiving, inasmuch as it is a very family oriented day that involves a lot o' food. Traditionally, the entire extended clan goes to the house of the eldest son of the eldest couple in the family-- usually the grandparents. They play lots of games and bow a lot (the kids to the elders, usually repaid by money) and then they go to the cemetary where their ancestors are buried and in a very Confucian gesture, bow to them as well for good measure. After, the family (or the kids as the case may be) makes a wish on the full moon.

In school, the kids came all dre
ssed up in their hambok finest and looked adorable enough to eat. I settled with devouring them with my camera. As you can see in the pictures, the girls where a very short little vest with long sleeves and a long skirt/dress that starts a little bit underneath their throat. The boys wear long tunics over poofy pants that are gathered at the ankles. Most were gorgeous and very bright fabrics-- pink being a favored choice for both girls and boys-- and they made the school look like a menagerie of little exotic birds. My activity with NYU, my 6 year old kids who have been studying English for 3 years already, was to make son peun. We basically shaped rice dough into balls, pressed them out into bowls, scooped a sesame seed-brown sugar mixture inside, and pinched them into crescents like mandu (fine, pot stickers for all you Americans...haha). We had fun with that and then running around the class taking pictures afterward. Then, I made jeghee with my 5 year olds that have been studying for about 7 months now. They're essentially yoyo hackey saks made out of brightly colored crepe paper that they could kick around so clearly, they loved them. I also got some fantastic pictures there, I have really freaking adorable kids if I do say so myself.

So, for real Chuseok, Asteria and I went to Seoul yet again but finally started to see what was in the city. We found our very cheerful hostel right away wednesday night and started thursday morning with a trip to Namdaemun Market. It's the biggest traditional Korean market in the country which basically means any stall you can think of-- lots of shoes, headbands, fake designer accessories, and clothes. It was a mess of people. Then, we went in search of Dongdaemun which is this huge wholesale jewelry market but only found lots of bolts of fabric and buttons. On our way to a yummy lunch at Taj (Indian place as subtlely referenced in the name), we discovered an oasis of western commercialism topped off with (and this made our jaws drop in joy)...a Forever 21. Yay. So we know at least, somewhere out there, western sizes theoretically exist for us. After getting a dress and some earrings, we schlepped back to the hostel to lie down before our evening. An hour later saw us dressed in our theater finest on our very confusing way to an Italian restaurant for dinner. I made the mistake of ordering Neopolitan pizza...which came with whole mini squid on it and what I suspect to be shark. That was not a pleasant surprise. Food wise, I feel like I am still easing into Korean food and still relying on my western places for comfort. I think that especially in Seoul, where we had so many international options, we did end up taking more advantage of them than the local places but it is my goal to be more adventurous and eventually come around to more Korean cuisine. What has been frustrating, however, is that very often you simply can't get away from it, ready or not. My Italian pizza still came with kimchi on the side, an entire ocean full of weird crustaceans on it and our garlic bread still had grains of sugar. I know that the US does Americanize a lot of foreign food as well but I still didn't anticipate how much the Korean taste palate permeates everything here, even when it is very very incompatible with what it is mixed with.

Diatribe aside, after our disappointing dinner, we went to see this really cool traditional
Korean performance called Miso. It sort of resembled opera with Korean dance thrown in, telling the story of a couple who falls in love, is separated, reconciled, and then married, through the four seasons. They all wore really pretty hamboks and the singing and traditional instruments were really cool to see. We were in the front row as well, and the stage came about to our rib cage, so in the winter snow flake dance, fog literally poured off into our laps. They also had some really great drumming and I appreciated the subtlety of the dance- it consisted of a lot of spinning and hand work; the fingers especially were really expressive. So, that was a nice glimpse of Korean culture and helps me put the hectic day to day side that I see into a little bit of perspective as far as the historical and artistic sides of this people.

Next morning, Asteria and I checked out Gyeongbokgong Palace. We spent the whole morning wondering through the series
of courtyards. Similarly to the temples we went to, the rooves and eaves of the buildings were may favorite part. I am beginning to see this as a sadly neglected area of western architecture, haha. It has been renovated fairly recently, so all of the paint was very bright and the details very ornate. I also liked the little train of mystical animals that was put onto every gable on top of the buildings. While walking around, we saw a reenactment of a cabinet meeting where the nobility all filed out, proceeded by the king and his attendants. It was pretty coordinated as the attendants had to put everyone's shoes on for them. I am still learning the significance of shoes here- for instance, we even had to remove ours to enter some of the palace buildings. After walking around for a while and seeing a lot of courtyards that blurred together (except the two storied pavilion in the pond where the king entertained dignitaries...that was quite pretty), we briefly walked through two museums. What struck me about them was how interesting a country can be about its history. In a timeline flanking the foyer of the first museum, it talked at length of the glory days (the Joseon Dynasty where Korea still owned part of China) and then had only one entry between 1700 and 1920. And also, apparently one of the most popular kings of this dynasty invented the sundial around 1300. So silly of me to think that it was the Romans two thousand years before that....huh. The museum also had some hamboks from the more recent royalty on display, very pretty. The last thing of interest was a really traditional painting of five mountains, the sun, and the moon. This caught my attention as it was the backdrop for Miso. Apparently, it is historically pretty big here. It symbolized the perfect universe, and the king's throne was exactly in front of the middle, so the symmetry of this perfectly ordered universe hinged upon him. Very interesting.

After that, we had a great lunch at Buddha's Belly, a Thai place in the foreigne
r district of Seoul. Dad- it's pad thai approached yours, it was that good. After, we lingered in a bookstore and then happened upon a random cricket game. It was a bunch of Muslim men just hanging around but it was fascinating to see. For how many European, American, African and Korean people there were in the district, to be watching what was presumably an Indian group of friends kind of boggled my mind. I don't agree with Jack Sparrow that there is less and less in the world to see, on the contrary, there seems more and more, but the world does feel smaller in its accessibility. It was a reflective moment. After, we got dinner and had a drink with some people from the hostel in a nearby bar. We met and lost in pool to a very fun group of New Zealanders and hopped home the next day. Now, I have one more day of blissful nothing (of course meaning hours and hours of uninterrupted bad TV from the internet...ah what joy is mine) before back to work, though only a 4 day workweek.

I forgot to mention that I have already been here almost a month and a half. As I get more comfortable with the routine of the school, the days are flying by and with our little getaways on the weekends, I can never quite place where all of the time seems to go. I think that is a good thing, it gives me hope that this year won't drag but will still be the fun experience that it is promising to grow into. Just now, I am enjoying beginning to be a proper tourist and really see what Korea is about but to be honest, I am also dreading the holidays a bit. I am (affectionately) known as the Christmas Nazi at home for very good reason, I deify tradition big and small and have never had a single Thanksgiving or Christmas without my family. I do have some fun things planned, we're having a big foreigner potluck on Thanksgiving with Costco pies and specially imported Stovetop stuffing (thanks mom!) so I am determined to make the best of it, but it is not something I am really looking forward to. Oh well. Still plugging along and despite my bouts of whining, doing pretty darn well. Next up: back to work and then, this weekend, the Busan International Film Festival and feeling all superior and cultured. Haha.

Love from me!