Sunday, March 28, 2010

Birthday Burrito

March 28, 2010

My birthday had been a long but enjoyable day. One of the things that I had done that day between my classes was research a Mexican restaurant I had heard about here in Seoul. The night I had hung out with Ben and his friends one of them told Ben about this restaurant called TomaTillo and said it reminded her of Chipotle. That was all I needed to hear to give it a shot. There are three locations in Seoul the closest of which to me is a 67 minute train trip plus walking on both sides of the trip. I thought I would make the trek to go and find this place as a birthday present to myself. I mapped out the trains I needed to take and roughly where it was by the final train station. Before going out for the night with Grace and her friends I planned to get up a little early so I could get to TomaTillo for an early lunch, 11 or 11:30am. I wanted to avoid crowds assuming there are any crowds at a Mexican restaurant in Seoul. But once I got home at 2am after the bars I changed my mind and I made no demands upon myself to get up at a specific time on Saturday.

I slept in fairly late, around 11:30am and I woke up hungry. Of course the first thing I thought about was TomaTillo but that was at least an hour and a half away assuming I had no problems finding it and I just couldn't wait that long. So I ate a sandwich and tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my day. I intended to write about the night before so I sat down to write but then I just decided to leave. I did not know how many days I would have to myself as my circle of friends grew and as my school responsibilities increased so I set off to find my birthday burrito.

The second ride on the subway was easier than the first due to the simple fact that I knew what to expect. The trains still had a good amount of people on them but they were never as full as they were the night I met Ben. The ride itself took about an hour and 20 minutes. I had trouble finding one of the trains, which I needed to transfer to at one of the stations. But I got to my destination. I then found myself in a very large train station with stores and a food court. It was like a mall underground with a train station in it. My only real landmark for finding TomaTillo was a bookstore. I knew it was to the West of the bookstore. The first place I came up had a bookstore right next to it but it was not the same name I had written down for the bookstore. So I went back to one of the station maps and found the bookstore I was looking for, it was on the opposite side of the station. So I went there. The bookstore was large and had multiple exits. I just picked one and went up to the street. When I came out I looked around and I had no idea which way was west. Getting lost in an underground train station and randomly picking an exit near your only landmark makes it difficult to keep your bearings. On the street there was a map of the area. I looked at the map in confusion. Something seemed off from the picture I had in my head but I decided to follow how I understood the map and walked the direction I thought was west. After less than 5 steps I went back to the map. It just felt wrong. I finally saw in the corner of the map the directional compass. The top of the map was not north it was south. So I quickly understood that west was to my left not my right and so I changed my path and as I walked it felt right. I was surrounded by huge buildings and had no real idea of how I was going to find this place but as I pondered this I saw it. It was less than half a block from the bookstore exit I had come out of.

As I entered the first thing I saw was the menu posted on the wall very similar to the way Chipotle’s menu looks. It listed the items you could buy (burritos, tacos, enchiladas, nachos and salads) and what was included in each item. There was a cafeteria style line, just like Chipotle, where you order at the beginning and pay at the end. But even in my excitement I was worried about ordering. All the workers were Korean and I still had not been brave enough to go to any restaurant by myself except McDonalds where I could just say a number. But I had to get a burrito. As I approached the girl smiled at me. I smiled and said burrito. See grabbed a tortilla and asked me what meat I wanted. Her English was broken but clear. Now the first difference between TomaTillo and Chipotle was that the items you picked (burrito, taco, etc) came with set ingredients, like at a restaurant so if you did not want something on it you had to tell them. So even though it looked like I was going to be able to walk down the line and point at what I wanted that was not how it worked. You ordered and then they made it and gave it to you. So I told them no sour cream. Everything else looked fine even though I did not know exactly what I was getting. There were no choices concerning the types of beans or salsas or anything like that. It came with rice, beans, meat of your choice, lettuce, salsa, onions, cilantro, and cheese. They handed me the burrito wrapped beautifully in aluminum foil. As I sat down I actually had to hold back a tear of joy looking at what lay in front of me. Now it was not as large as Chipotle’s burrito, really none of the portions in Korea are as large as in America but that was fine. After a few more seconds of reveling in the moment I took my first bite and it was great. The rice in the burrito was Spanish rice like you might get as a side item or make at home. The beans were pinto beans, not my favorite but good all the same. The cheese was a mix of cheddar and jack cheese. And the salsa was quite spicy with a consistency very similar to the hot salsa at Chipotle. I tried to eat it slowly and I think I did, at least relatively slowly considering I was by myself and eating what was my favorite meal since arriving here. Now this was not a burrito as good as a Chipotle burrito but similar to the pizza I had at Mr. Pizza based simply upon the circumstances it was probably one of the best burritos I have ever had. In the end it had taken me 2 hours to get there due to missing a train and wondering around the station trying to figure out where the restaurant was and in total I ended up spending around 15 dollars for both the meal and travel. But as I sat there enjoying my coke I knew it was worth it. I was able to have free refills so I had a few cokes before I left and then headed back to the train station.

As I walked in I decided to go into the bookstore and look for a gift for Jong Woo. I had already been trying to decide what to get him and I was leaning towards a DVD or book. So I walked in. The first section I was in was called the foreign section which I quickly found out meant books in English. They had a huge teaching section filled with ESL books for students and teachers and a fairly large kids section. I started looking at the kids section in English. As I looked at all the books I realized how little knowledge I had of kids’ books anymore. I recognized some of the titles but none of them were ones I would pick out for Jong Woo. So many of the kids' books seemed too short and simplistic for Jong Woo who is ahead of the game not just with kids in Korea but also for kids his age in the US. So I looked through the teen section and ended up picking up a book called Artemis Fowl. It was book I had at least heard of. It looked fun and was a New York Times Best Seller so I thought those were all good signs. I then went over to the Korean kids section and tried looking around. I became lost fairly quickly. I had no idea what kind of books Jong Woo liked to read. I also looked at the comic book section because I had actually seen him reading comics before but I faced the same problems. I could not read any of the material and I had no idea what kind of comics he liked. So I decided to go with the English book. I looked it over some more and saw that it was likely going to be a difficult read but thought he would still like it. So I bought it and headed home.

I as walked up to my apartment I saw an orange sticky on the door knob. I grabbed it. It was a note from Seo. It said she had stopped by and that they were going to have dinner that night for Jong Woo at 7pm and asked me to come if I could. I looked at the clock and it was 6:45pm. I had left at 1:15pm that afternoon so my entire trip had taken five and a half hours. I admit part of me did not want to go. I had spent the train ride home preparing to write about the night before and thinking about watching a movie or just relaxing. I had not been able to do “nothing” since Thursday. But that feeling passed quickly and I turned right around and head back outside to Seo’s home.

I knocked on the door right at seven. Jong Woo answered and shouted, “You came!” He then told me that they had stopped by my apartment three times to invite me to the party that night. I apologized and then told them what I had been doing. As I came in I soon saw more people then I knew. Seo’s sister and her family had come. Seo’s mother-in-law smiled at me, Seo’s husband welcomed me in and Sally (Seo’s 4 year old daughter) jumped on my leg while saying, “Zach.” I was then introduced to Seo’s sister and her husband as well as their two children a boy the same age as Jong Woo and their older daughter Cindy who is 15.

They asked me more questions about my trip that day mostly about what a burrito was. I tried to explain it to them with some success. Seo and Jong Woo kind of knew what it was. Basically they knew the word tortilla and that food was then put inside of it. I described what went inside the tortilla and then tried to explain what salsa was with varying levels of success to the different listeners. Soon Jong Woo pulled out a board game for us to play while dinner was being finished. As they set it up it looked a lot like Monopoly but not quite. There were only four colors of properties, each side being one entire color instead of two different colors per side. So right away I was wondering how building things (houses and hotels) worked. I then received a yellow rocket ship for my piece. Everyone was a rocket ship and there was a space station in one of the corners. All the properties were city names. The funny part about that was just like in Monopoly the properties increased in price and value and I got to see what cities they equated with Baltic Ave. verses what was Park Place and Boardwalk. Cities like Manila, Istanbul and Hong Kong were all on the cheap side of the board and then on the expensive side you had European cities. The only American city was New York and it was what would be Park Place in Monopoly. And no surprise Seoul was Boardwalk. It took the boys quite a while to count out all the money so that we could even start. After about two times around the board we had to stop. I had ended up in their version of jail, landed on the space station and bought only one property by the time we had to stop. But my one property just happened to be New York City. Go America.

Dinner went by fairly smoothly. I got to have seaweed soup and like almost all the soups I have had here it was quite good. After dinner Jong Woo opened his presents. He got various toys, a globe, new shoes and my book. I explained to Jong Woo how I got the book and why I picked it and he said he liked it and that he would try to read it. I told him I wanted to read it too so maybe we could read it together. He liked that idea. Soon he was playing with his cousin and his new toys. Seo then looked at the book, opened it and tried to read some of it. She soon pointed at different words asking what they meant. Her sister was sitting there too and Seo would translate to her what I was saying. We also looked at the globe and talked about where different things were. After a while I talked with Cindy the daughter of Seo’s sister. She had only spoken in Korean up to that point but seemingly out of nowhere she spoke to me in English. It did not take long to realize she spoke English very well. She told me that she went to a foreign language school. What that means here is that she goes to a school where every subject is taught in English. So math, science, social studies, etc. are all in English. She said even in her Korean class all the directions are given in English.

I was admittedly growing a little tired and was ready to go but then Seo pointed at their computer and asked me if I needed to use the internet. I thanked her and said I would like that. I told her that I thought I would have a lot of emails for my friends saying happy birthday because even though it was my birthday here in Korea on Friday at that time it was Thursday for most of my friends so they would have sent all their emails the next day when it was Saturday for me. I opened up my email and sure enough I had received numerous birthday congratulations and well wishes. I showed Seo and she laughed. I did not take the time to respond to them all rather I just took a quick read of them so as to enjoy them. I’ll respond on Monday. I also checked out some sports scores and saw that the Nuggets finally won and avoided a four game losing streak. I got off the computer and then thanked Seo and her entire family for allowing me to be a part of their night. I wished Jong Woo happy birthday again and he again promised that he would work hard and read the book. In a weird way I kind of felt bad. I wanted to get him a gift but in a way I just got him more homework. Sally grabbed my leg again and said good-bye and then I was off.

As I walked in the door it was about 10:45pm. I sat down looked at the computer and knew I was not going to be writing anything that night. I still had not documented Friday so I was falling behind especially knowing how long these entries would likely take. But I did not care I popped in the movie Gladiator and was soon lost in the story of a general who became a slave, a slave who became a gladiator and gladiator who defied an emperor. A striking story even when you already know how it ends. So just like the night before I was not actually falling asleep until around 3am. But even as I lay down to finally try and sleep I could not help but smile as I thought about my birthday burrito that I enjoyed but 12 hours earlier. Thank you TomaTillo

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Birthdays and Bars

March 28, 2010

My birthday came and went and it passed as well as I could have hoped. The day started out simply. I got to work early so I could work on some things for my new afternoon classes. This was going to be my first day teaching the 4th grade advanced class and also the class for the teachers. Around 8am Seo knocked on my door. She brought me two bottles of coke (roughly the 20 ounce size). She said she was sorry it was not more but I told her that her gift was perfect. I had brought one bottle from home so I had three in my little fridge and was excited because I would not have to bring anymore bottles from home for a couple of more days…assuming I stuck to my one a day plan. Seo then handed me a homemade card from Jong Woo. He had folded the paper into a shaped that looked like a box with a bow on it. It was really quite impressive and difficult to open. Inside he wished me happy birthday and told me that his birthday was also very near, on the 28th which is today. Then he told me he missed me and wanted to play again. At the end he included more Korean words and phrases for me to memorize, the longest of which was “nan chek illg-nen-gul joahe=I like reading books.” That made me laugh. I asked Seo what they were doing for Jong Woo’s birthday and she said they were going to try and go to her sister’s house, which is not nearby. I told her that if they had anytime this weekend it would be fun to see Jong Woo. She was not sure it would work out and said she would call me if they stayed here but then she immediately withdrew her comment remembering that I did not have a phone yet. I told her not to worry we would do something together sometime soon.

Seo asked me about birthdays in America and what we usually do and what we usually eat. I told her that what happens on a person’s birthday is usually up to the person whose birthday it was. There was no set type of food we eat or set type of activities that are performed. I mentioned that there is normally a birthday cake but that was still dependent on the person’s own tastes. She asked if I like cake and I told her that I prefer ice cream or cookies. She then laughed and said everything I like is cold, especially my drinks. I told her that was true I just do not like drinking many warm things. In Korea they drink a lot of warm or hot drinks, most of which I just do not enjoy. Even most of the water they drink is warm. She then pointed out that I hate being cold and I said that was also true so we just laughed trying to figure out why my mouth could not get along with my body. I also brought up surprise parties and shared how those typically work. She told me that in Korea they always had seaweed soup on people’s birthday and she emphasized always. I told her I had never had seaweed soup but maybe sometime I could try it. Choi then popped in and also wished me a happy birthday and then we started to get ready for our first class.

School went along just fine. My first class of 6th graders on Friday is one of my best classes. Almost a third of the class had done their voluntary dialogue journals. I had not received more than three from any other class. After lunch I finished preparing for my first 4th grade class. There were 12 students in the class and I had not met any of them before that day. As they entered they saw me and were a bit nervous and whispered among themselves. Part of me wanted to tell them that they did not have to whisper I could not understand Korean anyway but I restrained myself. I introduced myself and let them ask questions about me or America. It was very similar to my first days with each of my 5th and 6th grade classes. I then handed out a worksheet for them to fill in that contained personal questions about them, their family and school. After that I went around the room and allowed each child to introduce themselves and tell me about their family. This allowed me to see where the students were at with both their verbal and written skills. Similar to what I had discovered in my drama class the 4th graders had a strong English proficiency, easily exceeding the 5th and 6th grade “advance” class I had had early in the week. Right after class finished I moved over to Seo’s classroom for my first class with the adults and with me I took my third and final coke of the day; the one I had brought from home and the two Seo had given to me as a gift. Hey screw will power it was my birthday. I did try and drink them slowly and I spread them out over the course of the day. Okay back to class. There were seven teachers there and myself. The class was very laid back. We did introductions allowing me to practice their names and then talked about what they wanted to learn. I told them that I wanted to be a resource to help them learn about what they wanted to know. So after talking awhile we decided to make the classes topical instead of progressive and chaining ourselves to a textbook. I thought this was good because it would allow each class to be independent of the other ones so that if any of the teachers had to miss a class due to other obligations they would not have to worry about falling behind. I also thought this would allow us to combine learning English with learning about American culture. So we brain stormed various topics and came up with things such as entertainment, food, weather, family/friends, hobbies, sports, etc. Seo then said no philosophy and I just laughed. The other teachers looked and she then explained that I liked philosophy and most of the other teachers said they did not want to do that either because it was boring. I told them I liked boring things but not to worry we did not have to learn about anything they did not want to. So, on the list of things they do not want to learn about they threw philosophy, religion, politics and school (western educational system). I laughed again telling them that they took away all the things I know the most about but then admitted that it was probably a good idea not to worry about that stuff. I made it clear that this was going to be fun class not just to learn English but to get closer as friends. As I was getting ready to leave Seo handed me a bag and inside of it was a box of individually wrapped cookies from a bakery nearby. She told me that since I did not like cake she got me some cookies. I thanked her very much and yes they are very good.

Earlier in the day I had spoken with Grace, the girl I had met the day before during the time Seo and I were shopping for cell phones. Grace had offered to take me out that night with a group of her friends who were all native English speaking teachers. I said that would be great. So at 5:30pm Grace and her husband Paul (Paul is Korean but I do not know his Korean name) picked me up. Paul works in the IT world of computers and technology. So the first thing Grace said to me was let's get that cell phone thing taken care of. They had brought a cell phone with them that they said I could use then I showed them the phone the previous teacher had left in the apartment. They said both phones were pretty much the same thing. The one they had could get a little better coverage while the one I had was a newer phone with less wear and tear. They explained that neither phone was top of the line but both phones were so far ahead of anything I had ever owned that I would have never known. So far everything I had been told about how far ahead Korea is with in the world of technology and how much cheaper it all is here has been true. They started showing me cell phone plans all of which gave me great coverage for very little money. I just got the basic package. I also found out that I did not have to sign a contract but could leave anytime. So if one month I thought I could get a better deal I could merely switch. I doubt I ever will but it's nice to know I could. So I am paying about 11 dollars a month plus any charges over my limits. Now the phone's battery was basically dead so while they got it up and working I was unable to have Grace tutor me on how to use it. I have since found out that I have no idea how to make this phone work and the multiple times I have tried to call the US have been unsuccessful. All the Korean numbers work just fine. The other problems include a seemingly endless set of menus and all the voice directions and alerts are in Korean as well as a lot of the words on the screen. I'll get Grace to help me later and then I should be able to start actually talking to some people. Still the fact was that within one hour of hanging out with Grace for the first time I was able to get a cell phone plan in which I understood what my coverage was and what I was going to be spending. These were questions that I had not been able to get answered before even after hours of conversations. For anyone interested my phone number is 010-5795-4333.

Grace, Paul and I then headed over to the restaurant we were going to meet everyone at. As we went she told me that some of the people we were meeting had classes until around 9:30 so they would not be joining us until around 10pm. It was not even 7pm yet so I sheepishly said, “Oh, okay,” trying not to add how long are we going to be out? The restaurant we went to was a large bar style restaurant. It brewed its own beers so the drink menu was far larger than the food menu. There were about 12 food items all of which were fairly large portions meant for sharing. But the food was western; pizzas, bratwurst, barbeque and stuff like that. I ordered a plate that came with multiple brats and fries. When Grace, Paul and I walked in there was literally only two other people there and both of them were white, which surprised me. Grace told me this was a place a lot of foreigners come. (Side note: it is still weird hearing that word and knowing it applies to me) But I also could not believe that it was seven and there was no one in this bar yet. This was a large bar, they had a stage with a live band performing, actually two bands that alternated sets the entire time we were there. We sat in the largest seating area but they also had booths of exceeding levels of luxury to the point that there were sections with large sofa-like seats surrounding tables that were roped off from the rest of the bar. The point being that this was clearly a place lots of people came to but no one was there yet. This only drove home the point that this was going to be a long night whether I wanted it to be or not.

Grace, Paul and I ended up eating and hanging out for almost an hour before anyone else got there. We were supposed to meet some of the other people at seven but they were all late. The first person to get there was a girl named Nash. She is from South Africa. She was very lively and interesting. Nash had been in Korea for 6 months. I enjoyed talking with her right off the bat. Next a guy named Tony showed up. I discovered Tony was from Toronto. He had been an urban planner there but decided he wanted to change careers so he got a teaching degree and then came to Korea. He had been in Korea for 7 months. It was not long before Tony and I begun talking about hockey. He plays fantasy hockey and had just picked up one of the Avs defensemen who I know, Kyle Cumiskey. A recurring theme through the night was as I met each new person they found out I had only been in Korea for three weeks and they offered reassurance that it gets better. Many of them had even resigned for another year with their schools. Of course, the other subject that came up with each new conversation was the question why I was not drinking. I still had no real answer except I was not a big fan. I had no moral qualms or religious issues with it but even when you tell people that you can still tell it makes people a little uncomfortable when you are not drinking with them. Now before everyone else got there and it was only Tony, Nash, Grace, Paul and I Grace told them it was my birthday. They all wished me happy birthday then Nash told us that it had been her birthday the day before, March 25th, and then Tony told us it was his birthday tomorrow, March 27th. So at a table of five people we had three birthdays sitting there separated by 12 hours on either side. (Actually 4 hours on one side and 20 hours on the other side but that just does not sound as cool. Either way it adds up to 24 hours) Needless to say this was an instant connection that was a source of fun for the rest of the night. (I also could not help but remember that Jong Woo’s birthday was going to be on the 28th. There are just a lot of special people born in March and yes that includes my mom, born on March 21st) As the night went on I met Cheena who is from Long Beach, CA, Bobby who is from Chicago, Andrew who is from Scotland, Perry who is also from Toronto and another girl whose name I cannot remember. The two of us never got to chat so I did not find out much about her.

Our group was very close to the stage so when the bands were playing it was difficult to hear anyone who was not in the chair next to you. But it was still fun. The bands sang both Korean and English songs and during one of the sets they mentioned that they had a birthday in the house and suddenly everyone at our table started cheering and my heart froze as everyone looked over at me and I tried to smile. I do not think I succeeded. After the band finished their set some of the singers came over and chatted with us, two girls and two guys. They were all from the Philippians. That explained why their English was so clear. When they sang their English was perfect. I only heard an accent when I spoke with them. The guys were named Ron and Sol, short for Solomon. They told us to look them up on Facebook so when I get a chance I’ll try to find them and bookmark them so people can look at them. Hopefully I will also get access to all the pictures that were being taken that night.

Around midnight a lot the group wanted to leave. They said it was too loud and they could not hear anyone talking. So as we got up I just assumed we were all getting ready to go home. But as we walked outside everyone started talking about what bar we should go to next. As we walked Grace told me I could go home if I wanted and she would help get me a taxi and make sure the driver knew where to take me. The taxis are actually pretty cheap here compared to what I had always thought taxis cost. The 15 minute ride home would only cost three or four dollars. A large part of me wanted to go home just because I was tired but I really was having a good time so I said I wanted to keep hanging out. Soon we were at another bar. This was a very small bar called Old Rock. It was called this because of the music it played. When you walk in behind the bar are large bookcases that span the length of the bar and on them are records filed like books. There must have been hundreds of records there. Now I do not believe any of the music they played was actually off of records rather they were there just for decoration but it still looked cool. At each table there were cards with pens with which you could write down requests for them to play. They would play more contemporary songs when asked. All the songs were English ones in fact there were not many Koreans in the bar. Finally the night wound down and people started getting up ready to leave. I was pretty much waiting for Grace and Paul. When they left would be when I left. They were ready and so we left. Grace said they would share a taxi with me and get me home first even though I was further away. I told her she did not have to do that but she said it was no problem and that she remembered what it was like when she first got here and did not know anyone or how to get around. I thanked her and we went home. I walked in to my apartment took of my jacket and looked at the clock. It was just past 2am.

So there it was. My birthday had passed and it was a mixture of the known and unknown. I did truly enjoy meeting a new group of people. It really is amazing what a strong bond can be created in a very short amount of time just by being able to speak the same language in a foreign place. In my short time here it has become very clear why ethnic and national groups stick together in the US and often create their own towns or neighborhoods. Since I have been here the few times I have met someone who speaks English I immediately talk to them, not even caring about what, and just enjoy each moment of understanding what is being said.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


March 25, 2010

It's official, I have been exposed. Within the past 3 days each of the Korean English teachers I work with has, for various reasons, told me, “don't worry, it will be okay.” I have tried so hard since I got here to relax, be patient and take things as they come but at the end of the day I have a certain worrisome nature that can only be hidden for so long. My outing was produced by three main points of stress; an increased class load, social and physical pains and finally the continuing nightmare that is the logistics of trying to live in Korea.

This week my class load began to change. I have been given four new classes that I am responsible for starting this week. Two of them are for students who are more advanced or at least that was what I was told. I have come to discover that they are actually classes for students who want to study harder and learn more. I certainly won't complain about that but many of the students still do not understand most of what I am saying. Last week I had asked Seo and Choi what the focus of the classes was supposed to be and they said speaking and communication. So I spent time brainstorming and working on lesson ideas to help the kids learn to be speak English better. It allowed me to ignore some of the grammar issues they face in their regular English classes. Then about 20 minutes before my first class I was introduced to one of the teachers who teaches the kids Korean (similar to what English class is for us in the US) and was told she was working with the same kids on their writing skills. I was then told that she would be looking at the progress the kids were making on their writing skills in my class. After she left Seo then told me that she had just been informed that they wanted me to focus more on their reading and writing skills but in particular their writing skills. I literally sat on the floor and just looked down. The kids were about to show up and I had nothing. Since it was the first class I just faked it by doing introductions, even though most of the kids were in my normal classes. Then I talked to them to gauge where their speaking skills were at. Seo apologized for the mix-up. I told her I knew it was not her fault but that it was confusing and thereby frustrating for me to have my instructions changed on me. Even the week before last they had first told me that the class was to focus on grammar skills but then changed to speaking skills and now it was back to grammar and writing. The next new class I have been given is a class where I teach the other teachers. I have not actually had that class yet it will be held after school on Fridays. This week it will just be an introduction meeting and I will be able to determine where the other teachers are at with their English skills and what they want to learn about. With the teachers I believe they want to focus more on speaking English. I have also found that they are very interested in American culture so I am going to try and figure out a way to introduce cultural elements into the lessons (TV, movies, music, newspapers, etc). The final class they asked me to be a part of was drama. When they asked me to do drama I think my jaw actually dropped to the floor. I questioned Seo a couple of times to see if I understood her correctly. She told me that this year the play was going to be in English. They tried to assuage my fears by telling me that there is a drama teacher and that he will still be the director. They want me there so I can help the students with their pronunciation but, of course, they quickly tact on the fact that my opinion concerning the students’ acting would be appreciated. Six weeks ago I was working at the Gap folding shirts and now I find myself teaching Korean children (3rd-6th grade) how to act in English. On Wednesday I met with the drama teacher and we held “auditions.” I say “auditions” because the first thing I discovered was that all the kids who came where going to be put into the play. The fact was they just did not have enough kids to cut anyone. The next thing I discovered was that the drama teacher did not speak English. I didn't ask my friend Seo at the time but I am still wondering how this is actually going to work. If he doesn't know what the kids are saying when they are speaking English how is he actually going to be able to direct them? On a pleasant note during the auditions I discovered that this class, the drama class, was the actual advanced class. Some of the third graders spoke as clearly as anyone in the school. It reminded me of the time I first met Jong Woo. So despite my continued apprehension about being responsible for the school's drama production I was glad to be around some of the more advanced students.

Beyond just my class load increasing I found that my social activities (often more like duties) were also increasing. On Wednesday after I met with the drama students I had to run off to the gym of another designated volleyball game. When I got to the gym I discovered that, unlike last time, all the teachers of the school were coming and we would not just be playing volleyball. They split all the teachers up into two teams with the odd grades (1st, 3rd and 5th) on one team and the even grades (2nd, 4th and 6th) on the other team. They decided to put Choi and I on the odd numbered team even though we teach 5th and 6th graders. Then before I knew it bases were being set up and I figured out that we were about to play some form of kick ball. I say some form because so far every game we had played had different rules then I was used to from the US. I found myself on the team kicking first. But as I looked out at the “field” (a basic size school gym) I saw 15 to 20 teachers filling the entire space. There was simply nowhere to kick the ball where it wouldn't fall right into someone's hands. They made us alternate boy girl, boy girl. I was at the front of the line far too quickly for as of yet none of the six people ahead of me had made it to first base. (I discovered that they were not playing with three outs but simply letting everyone on the team kick once and then switching) Now as I came up my heart rate was needlessly high as I wanted to impress the other teachers because as everyone knows besides actually talking to a person the best way to make friends is to help them win games. And since talking was not an option all I had to give them was my amazing athletic prowess. As I approached home plate I noticed two things. First I saw all the guys started moving backwards for my kick preparing for some sort of big hit and then I saw that there was no catcher behind the plate. So I did what I thought was smart and “bunted.” The ball came racing at me and I absorbed most of it into the side of my foot basically stopping the ball right in front of the plate and started running. As I got to first base there was all sorts of shouting and laughing. Soon Choi came over to the base and told me to kick again. I asked why and he really did not have a clear answer but told me to just kick it for real. Besides not knowing what anyone was saying the most difficult part of playing any game has been the fact that I never understand what the rules are until it is too late. As I walked back to the plate I felt a mixture of embarrassment and irritation. But it was the irritation that was the force behind my next kick. I simply kicked the ball as hard as I could. It smashed into one of the walls behind everyone and bounced back hard and fast. It came almost half the way back to home plate and hit the ground before anyone could get there. By the time someone got to the ball they pinned it right by home plate and I made it to second base. My first thought was, “you should have let me bunted” but quickly that thought vanished as almost everyone on both teams cheered and clapped for me. Several of the guys playing defense came over and gave me a high fives. So at that moment embarrassment once again took over my mind as I could help but feel silly for my sarcastic thought and needless frustration at what was clearly just meant to be a fun time. Next we played dodgeball…sort of. When Choi told me we were going to play dodgeball I said, “Really?” I then explained what I understood dodgeball to be and he said yeah that is the same game. But I soon found out that Korean dodgeball was not quite the same. They created boundaries (boxes) in which they placed half of each team and then they took the other half of each team and placed them around the outside of the boundaries of the opposing team. I had been chosen to be inside of my team’s box. So inside the box I was looking at the people I was throwing at and ignoring the half of them that was behind me. They only used one ball and when the game started the other side got it and immediately threw it to a person on their team behind me and all of a sudden as I looked they threw the ball and hit me. I was the first one out. I had tried to ask but no one told me why those people where behind us. I knew now. I left and went and sat down but soon they grabbed me and put me behind the other team’s side. Similarly each person who was hit came and lined up behind the other team. So as the game progressed the number of the people inside the boxes decreased while the number of people behind the boxes increased. It actually was a pretty fun way to play I just wish I had understood it before we started. I also found out that when you catch a ball thrown at you the person who threw it is not out it just means you are not out. Finally it was time. They rolled out the volleyball nets and all I could think was how are we going to play volleyball with this many people? But before I knew it most of the teachers were sitting down and seven people were chosen to play for each side. I was chosen to play and was placed in the exact same spot as last time. In my head I thought maybe this time it would be different and the ball will get to me a little more. Well it was different but only in that the ball got to me even less. During two full matches I touched the ball twice and both times were because it was my turn to serve and my team lost possession on both of my serves. I almost sat down at one point but knew that would be wrong so I stayed standing trying to look like I was “ready” for the ball to come at any time. My team won. So the odd grade teachers had won kickball and volleyball while the even number teachers had won dodgeball.

Like all school functions we all soon headed off for dinner. Before we left I asked where we were going and Choi told me “not to worry” and that it was a good place to eat. I tried to explain to him that I was not asking because I was worried about the food but rather I wanted to know how far away it was to see if I could get home on my own. I told him I did not want to be out late. Ever since I got to Korea I have been battling a cold. It seems to come in waves. About a week ago I thought it was gone and then Sunday morning I woke up and was as plugged up as I had ever been and was coughing again. In three weeks I have gone through three and a half boxes of Kleenex. The night before I had only got 4 or 5 hours of sleep and woke up constantly suffocating in my own mucous. I told him that I was tired and not feeling good so I wanted to make sure I could get home early. He told me it was too far away for me to walk home so he called Seo who had already left and found out that I would be able to get a ride back with one of the teachers. The meal progressed like all the others. I got there and all the people around me focused on me for a bit with Choi interpreting for them and then fairly quickly they moved on to other conversations and I sat there eating by myself in a large crowd. But the meal moved quickly compared to the other ones I had been to and soon one of my fellow English teachers was leaving and ready to take me home. I said good-bye to Choi and told him I would see him tomorrow. I got home around 7:30pm and as I walked in I felt like I was going to fall over. Multiple times during dinner I had the bad feeling that I was going to have a seizure. Now while I cannot know for sure if I had one I don’t think I did because I continued to feel those sensations all night. When I got home I actually felt like my head was spinning and I almost lost my balance. I made it to my bed and sat for a minute. I undressed quickly and drank a big glass of water. As I continued blowing my nose I soon found my stomach did not feel great and before I knew it I was in the bathroom for a looooong time. I think everything in my body came out one way or another. I laid down and tried to sleep but kept getting back up and running to the bathroom. Finally I feel asleep. I did sleep better than the night before but I still woke up in the morning with a headache. I genuinely did not want to go to school today. But I did. When I talked to Choi he told me that he and a lot of the other teachers stayed out till midnight. Apparently after staying at the restaurant for a few more hours they went to a karaoke bar. Needless to say I was not sorry I missed it.

And lastly I just cannot escape the painful logistical nightmares that seem to be never ending. I did finally get my ARC (Alien Residency Card), which is supposed to allow me to get a bank account, cell phone, Internet and other services. After I got the card Choi wanted to take me to the bank to open an account. I said okay and asked him which bank we were going to. He did not have a quick answer but rather named multiple banks asking me which one I wanted. I told him I have no clue what banks were good or not. I tried to explain what I wanted as far as services go specifically a bank that can do currency exchanges and transfer money to US banks. As we drove he pointed out a few banks and told me about them but even as he told me I became more and more aware that he did not really have any clear idea of the actually difference between the banks. Finally we picked a bank and we pulled in and tried to find parking. Choi is an odd driver who cannot seem to do any turn that is less than 7 points and Korean parking is chaotic at best. So there was no place to park. Now I just assumed we were going to go over one more street and walk. But he was clearly frustrated and pulled out of the parking lot and said forget it we will just go to another bank. I did not hold back very well as I asked why. He told me it did not matter where I put my money. I snapped back that it mattered a lot to me and that I did not want to be picking my bank based on parking. I finally told him to just go back to the school and that I would get a banking account later. Based on what had happened I wanted to do my own research on banks online since it had become clear that Choi had no real information about each bank. He was confused as to why I did not still want to get my bank account and when I tried to explain to him that I wanted to know more information about the banks he thought I was just worried about the banks being safe. I know that because the next day Seo and a few other teachers told me how safe Korean banks are. So with each new person I had to try and explain that I understood that the banks were safe and was not worried about that. Half of the “do not worries” I received this week were connected to that misunderstanding. So maybe I should not count those “don’t worries” against myself since that (bank safety) was truly something I was not worried about.

So, today Seo and I went to open my bank account. I had done research and read various websites about Korean banks and which ones work best for foreigners. I picked a bank and talked to Seo about it. She told me that was the bank she used and has been using for the past 15 years. That fact made me feel good about my choice. Once we got to the bank the process of getting the bank account took almost an hour. It took so long because Seo had to try and explain things to me that she didn't really know how to say in English. Banking can be hard enough to understand when it is in English so once they turned all the fine print into Korean I really had to just trust that this was a good decision despite the limited information I was being given. Now there are many parts about Korean banking that I do not understand yet and I can't even really elaborate since I just got exposed to it today, so maybe later I can get more into that. Then we went cell phone shopping and it did not take long before I wanted to stop. It was clear that my questions were just not making sense. I still do not know how much of the confusion was due to the language barrier and how much of it was due to the fact that cell phone companies don't operate the same way in Korea as they do in the US. Seo could see my frustration. I tried to make sure to tell her more than once that I was not upset with her but just upset about the situation and not being able to understand what was going on. Seo decided to call a friend of hers named Grace. Grace is a Korean-American who had lived in San Jose. Grace worked at a near-by school and when Seo called she was still there so Seo and I grabbed a taxi and went over. Seo had other friends at the school and she went to go talk to them so that Grace and I could talk. Grace and I chatted about school and Korea. She has been in Korea for three years and is married to a Korean man. See just signed a new contract for another year but admitted that she does not think she wants to live in Korea the rest of her life. I finally decided to ask her about the phone situation and internet. She was immediately surprised to find out that I did not have a phone or internet yet. She explained that the school was supposed to provide those things. I told her that was what I had thought before I came but when I got here the school had told me it does not work that way. She then explained how the school is supposed to have the phone and internet placed in its own name and then I am only responsible for paying the school whatever the bill is each month. I couldn't help but laugh. I explained to Grace that Seo and Choi were new to the school just like I was so all of these things were new for them too. Grace talked to Seo about it and Seo explained what the school had told her. By this time I admit I was just tired; tired of not having internet, tired of not having a phone, tired of not having banking services (or as of now no idea of to use them) and most of all tired of having no one who really understood how to change any of it. Despite my frustrations I know I am lucky to have Seo here, she works very hard on my behalf. She has talked to different cell phone people, called internet companies and is constantly talking to the school about me and my needs.

So as the day comes to a close it is clear that I have exposed myself fully to my co-workers as one who is not particularly social and is far too worrisome about things, justifiably or not.

-new day-

I wrote this blog yesterday. Today is my birthday and yet I can't help but think that if I was at home it wouldn't be my birthday. I would still be 28 in the US, weird. As far as my plans I might get to go out tonight with Grace and some of her friends so we'll see how that goes otherwise it is head home maybe buy some ice cream and watch a movie.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Perfect Night…Again

Written on March 21, 2010

So Saturday night was, well…perfect. I know, know I said that about Thursday night and truly what are the odds that two perfect nights could exist within 2 days of each other? I just don’t know but perhaps one of the great things about perfection is it does not so much need to be fully understood as fully experienced and fully appreciated. And so it was…again.

On Friday I was once more playing e-mail tag with Ben trying to get all the information about where the group was going to be meeting up. Now the group that was going to meet up was made up of many of Ben’s friends and they did not all know each other. That meant there was going to be a lot of new introductions, not just me. It also meant that people were coming from all over the Seoul metropolitan area so Ben was trying to figure out a good place to meet that everyone could get to and was somewhat centrally located between everyone. As I mentioned in my last blog the city I am living in called Ilsan is not located very closely to Seoul so I was one of the one's making it difficult to find a good spot but once all the decisions had been made Ben sent me an e-mail with all the information. Ben also provided me with links to an English version of the map for Seoul’s subway system. Using the English version of the website I was able to chart the course I would need to take from Ilsan to the subway station we were all going to meet at. According to the website I would need to make two transfers (meaning ride on three trains) to get to the station the group would be at and the approximate time of the trip would be 67 minutes.

Now the meeting time at been set for 6pm that night still Ben said the group would wait until 6:15 just in case anyone missed a train or two. So taking into account the 20 to 25 minute walk to the closest train station plus the 67 minute trip on the trains I would need to leave my apartment no later than 4:30pm. Now I’m not the type of person who assumes everything will go smoothly so I usually insert a little extra time into any of my travel plans. But on top of my normal cautiousness I was also going to a place I had never been too on a transportation system I had never used. So there was no way I was going to be leaving my house at 4:30pm. Now if I were completely rational I would have likely left around 4pm giving myself an extra half hour in case I missed a stop or missed one of the trains. But I am not completely rational, even if I would like to be, so I left an hour and a half early at 3pm. Basically, I gave myself enough time to make the trip twice. I remember my first trip on the Metro system in Los Angeles and my first ride on the Light Rail in Denver and even there it was not always simple to know where your were and where you we supposed to get off and how to transfer to a different train. So here I was convinced that it would be even more difficult as I would be taking more trains then I even had to in either LA or Denver and because most of the signs and announcements were in Korean. Ben had told me that they also made announcements in English but I still wanted to give myself an unnecessarily long amount of time to get there.

I spent the early afternoon reading, specifically about Buddhism and some of Buddha’s teachings. And yes that time was part of the perfection that was Saturday but that is a topic for another blog. So around 2:45pm I got fidgety and started just watching the clock. It seemed that once I had decided that 3pm was when I needed to leave my mind then wanted to leave a little before 3 since I always leave a little earlier than I need to. But I held off until 2:55pm and then I bolted out the door. Now I certainly did not speed walk to the station but I walked as one with an intended destination. I got to the station in about 25 minutes and walked right over to the automated ticket machines, which Ben had shown me how to use Thursday night. Just like he promised I did not have to speak to anyone to get my ticket. It actually is not a ticket but a plastic card, like a credit card that you have to scan to get through the gate and then scan again to get out at the chosen destination. I walked swiftly to the turn stiles and placed the plastic card where I thought it went and slammed right into the unmoving turn stiles as a loud noise sounded off and a red light flashed. Uniformed men across the gallery heard the noise and began to come towards me but then a woman next to me took my hand and showed me how or I should say where to scan the card. A green light flash and the turn stile moved. She laughed a little as she showed me or I felt like she was laughing but either way her kindness spoke clearly and I thanked her. At least I hope I thanked her. There seem to be numerous ways to say thank you and for some reason more than any of the other phrases I have learned so far it Thank You is the one I am always the most fearful to use. I always feel like I am saying it wrong and of course it is the phrase that I want to use most often when I am around others. So right off the bat my confidence took a bit of hit. I tried not worry about it as I walked down to the platform. Then I saw the signs listing the stops that the trains were headed for. They were written quite large in Korean and then with a smaller font in English. I had printed out the map from online in black and white but all the lines are color coded as well as numbered. I used markers to color my own path hoping that it would help. After triple checking my map I stood on the side of the platform I thought was right.

The train pulled in fairly quickly after I had arrived and as I entered I found that it was not as crowded as I thought it was going to be. I found a seat easily and sat down. As the train moved on I looked around and found it to be a very nice train. It had electronic signs informing you of the next stop and an electronic map displaying the entire subway line and showing you exactly where you were on it. And just like Ben had said the announcements were made both in Korean and English and they were made loud and clear. My confidence steadily grew. After about 25 minutes I came to my first transfer station. I was ready to get off because at each stop more and more people had boarded to the point that I had a man’s crotch in a place I would consider far to close to my face. Part of me really wanted him to turn around but I wasn't sure if having his backside in my face would be any better. I quickly made the decision that I would not be sitting down for the rest of the trip.

The transfer station was quite large and had multiple lines going through it. First I simply followed the heard out of the train and up the stairs but then similar to an airport I was surrounded by signs in various colors all pointing in different directions and displaying different destination cities on them. So as an example there would be two different signs for the orange line pointing to a different set of stairs with different destination points listed on them. I came to find that the destination points that were listed on the signs were not the next stop but rather one of the larger stops or sites that came much further down the line, often being the last stop of the line. I had my map of the subway system so figuring out where I needed to be was doable but not easy, at first. The real difficultly was trying to figure out a speed that I could walk, which would allow me to read my map but also make it appear like I already knew where I was going. I tried to keep the map low to my body, often holding it under my I-Pod so I could pretend I was merely looking at the I-Pod and not reading a map. And if you are wondering why I would care at all if people saw me looking at a map I honestly can’t tell you why. It is all connect in some weird way in my fear of looking dumb or ignorant. I did similar things in the US when trying to find my way around but in the US I had the advantage of everything being written in English and no body looking at me simply for being a white guy with blond hair.

*On a quick side note I think I am starting to get used to people staring at me whether they are looking at me from their cars while I wait for the light to change or watching me and everything I pick up as I walk through a store or having every head rise as I walk by them in a restaurant. My coping mechanism is that since I have had fair amount of my kids say to me or write in their English journals that I am handsome/pretty I have just told myself that my good looks are the real reason everyone is staring at me. I am just that attractive and I must be looked at…right?

Back to the trains, I got on my second train and the first thing I noticed is that the electronic map was gone and that the announcements about the upcoming stops were far more difficult to hear. There was still a sign that had the next stop showing so I didn't really worry about it that much. True to my previous decision I did not sit down though when I entered there were only a few scattered seats all of which were in-between other people and those did not last long. But as I stood I soon found a new problem. It was very difficult to find anywhere to stand without myself becoming the man whose front or backside was in someone else’s face. I found this to be almost as uncomfortable as actually being the one with the pelvis of another person being far to close to your eyes, nose and mouth. The advantage being that while standing I was able to just look up and pretend like I didn't realize someone was so close to me that they could read the word Dockers stamped on the button of my fly. I quickly got off that train despite having to fight my way through a crowd of people who were not getting off the train just to get close to the door and find myself battling a new wave of people streaming into the train. It was like trying to swim against a strong current but worse because I didn't want to touch any of the water (people). Moving through the next station was easier than the first as it was set up fairly similarly and I was getting the hang of it. I found my train and got on. As I looked around I found that this train had nothing electronic in it at all. There was no map or even a sign telling you what the next stop was. Further the announcements were impossible for me to hear both because they were not as loud as in the other trains and because it was so loud in the train car from all the people. I stood in this train like the last but did not have my mid-section near anyone else's face instead I was stuck in the middle of the car completely surround by people who, as I had been warned, had no hesitation squeezing up against me and sharing airspace that I had previously thought to be mine alone. I was on this train the longest, lucky me. But I finally got to my stop and gladly jumped out of the train. I looked at the time and it had taken just over an hour and a half to get there, closer to an hour and forty minutes. So this put me there almost an hour an a half early.

Now Ben said we would meet at the bottom of the stairs on the way out to the street at exit seven. Now when I got there I looked at the map of the station itself and I soon found that there were four sets of stair cases that lead up to the main station with 8 different exits to various streets. So I got a bit nervous about where I was supposed to be because what I had not understood was that when Ben said meet at exit seven that was a number for one of the staircases leading out to the street. I had simply thought the train station itself was exit 7 (exit from the train). But I had an hour and a half so I just sat down and practiced my Korean alphabet. Once it was about 15 minutes before 6pm I started pacing round the platform trying to figure out a way I could see all the staircases at once hoping to see Ben if he got off the train and went up one of the staircases. But there was no way for me to see all the staircases so I just started pacing around. I had gone up all the stairs but they all lead to places where if I exited I would not be able to re-enter. So I thought my best chance was to walk around the platform and keep my eyes open. As each train came floods of people would exit and run up the stairs and I could never see more than two staircases at any given point. It was not long before it was 6pm, then 6:05 came and I was truly starting to worry, then 6:10 and then by 6:15 I was in full panic mode. I knew I had missed something that I wasn't where I was supposed to be but I didn't know where to go. All I could think about was that I was going to end up having to buy a new card and turn right back around and miss my chance to see Ben again.

I had to exit to buy a new card so I just decided to leave the platform. I ran up one of the flights of stairs and placed my card on the scan point but the gate did not open. The right light flashed and the electronic gate said error. I tried four different gates but I could not get through any of them. No one stopped to help this time. I thought about just jumping over but I didn't want to get into to trouble especially since I knew I wouldn't be able to explain myself to anyone. So I ran back down to the platform and up a different set of stairs to a different set of exit gates. The same thing happened but I just didn't care this time and cut through and moved along as quickly as I could. Then right as I came around the corner to the closet exit I saw Ben and a large group standing there. My panic/anger simply vanished. I couldn't believe that he was there. At this point it was 6:20 but they were waiting for me. I found out that Ben and Jinah had come there early and where walking around outside so they were never on the platform at the same time I was. Ben then explained to me how each set of stairs in the main station after exiting from the platform was numbered 1 through 8 and when he said exit 7 he was taking about one of the street exits not the station number itself. I was so glad I had found him that I didn't really worry about feeling as silly as I did.

I was soon being introduced to multiple people. Soon I met Joe and Sarah. Now I had exchanged e-mails with Joe a few times. Ben had connected us because they went to the same church back in LA but we had not met yet. Now before I met Joe I assumed he was from Korea but when I met him the second he spoke he had no accent and was speaking English as clearly as Ben or I. I quickly found out that his parents were Korean but he had been born in the US and while he had lived many places in America he considered LA to be home, mostly because it was the city he had lived in most recently. Sarah was Joe’s friend. Ben did not know her before Saturday. Now Sarah had been born in Korea but her family moved to the US when she was six and she grew up in LA. I found out that both Joe and Sarah had only been in Korea for a month. Joe works in graphic design and Sarah came to teach English similar to me. She works in what is called a Hagwon, which is a private academy where kids go specifically for English training. As the night went on the three of us (Joe, Sarah and I) talked more and more while the rest of the group talked about other things. There were 10 people and we went to T.G.I. Fridays. I ordered the cheeseburger without any real hesitation. As the waiter took our orders most of them got things off the menu with a more Korean bent to them but both Ben and I, the two white guys, just ordered cheeseburgers. There were some laughs. And just like at Mr. Pizza, I was able to get free refills so I downed 5 or 6 glasses of Coke Zero. It had an odd lemon after taste as if the glass had just had lemonade in it before the soda. But I know that was not the case because every soda he brought me had the same after taste and it didn't stop me from drinking it so who cares.

Joe, Sarah and I talked a lot about our impressions of Korea and the things we missed about the US, in particular LA. Sarah and I then talked quite a bit about our schools and the kids we were teaching. Unlike me Sarah speaks Korean but many of the kids she teaches don’t know that because in the Hagwon they do not want any of the teachers to speak Korean, it is English only. Similarly I have found out that my school does not want me to say even the few phrases I have learned in Korean. I am only to speak in English. My co-teacher has been showing me the plans for the upcoming weeks and basically the idea is that the teaching is supposed to shift from predominately being done by him to being predominately done by me. Anyway Sarah really wasn't sure she wanted to be here and I admitted some of my reservations as well but one thing we both knew and agreed about was the pay was great. We didn't exchanged salary information so I have no idea what she makes but I know for me the money I am getting paid here coupled with the low living costs give me a net income far higher than anything I have ever had in my life. I might actually be able to pay some of my bills.

Soon we talked about lighter subjects like American movies and TV and just a bunch of random stuff. Both Joe and Sarah were hilarious and I found myself laughing more than I have in months. Not to say that previous months have been bad or particularly sad or anything like that but just that I had not had laughed out loud this much in a conversation in a long time and the fact that is was with people I just met was amazing. Similar to Thursday with Ben and Jinah the night passed far too quickly. We had arrived at the restaurant right after 6:30 and before I knew it, it was almost 10 and people had to start leaving. We all walked back to the trains and I discovered there were two groups going two different directions and they just happened to be the exact same groups that had developed at the table. Joe, Sarah and I were going one direction while Ben, Jinah and everyone else were going to other direction. I said good-bye to Ben and told him how great it had been to see him and then boarded the train with Joe and Sarah.

We continued talking and enjoying ourselves and then at one of the stops all the lights in the train went out and suddenly everyone was exiting the train. Joe explained that they did this sometimes especially as it got later. It meant the train was being taken out of the rotation and going to be serviced. We were about half way to the stop where I had to get off and transfer while they were going to be staying on the same train. Now the train we were on, the green line had an odd quirk in that at one point the track splits into two going different directions but both are still considered the green line. So if you are not careful you can get on the wrong green train even through it appears to be headed the way you want to be going. So as you can probably guess we got on the wrong train and before we knew it were had gone 3 or 4 stops the wrong way. I had been looking at my map and told Joe I was a little confused then he looked and heard the announcement, he also speaks Korean and he knew what had happened. So we jumped off at the next stop. Now I thought the solution would be as easy as jumping on the train back and getting the right one but we quickly found out that the station we got off was not one with a platform in the middle on which you could catch either train. Instead at the top where you bought your tickets you had entrance gates at two separate sets of stairs one going the direction we wanted and one going down to the direction we just got off from. This meant we would have to exit the station and re-enter. When we got to the top of the stair we saw the problem. Now the card you pay for knows what stop you paid to get off at so if you try to go somewhere else it won't work. I immediately got tense and looked at Joe and Sarah asking what we should do. Now they both had only been there a month and Sarah had never been on the subway before so we were all kind of new to this. But Joe looked and saw that there was a handicap entrance. It was merely a gate that swung both ways. He looked around and said, “Quick.” So we ran through without anyone noticing. I sighed for about a second until I realized we had to do it again to get down the other staircase to the train we needed. Again Joe looked around and then pushed open the gate. We slipped through and ran down the stairs. Now while I was worried I was far less worried then I would have been if I were alone. First of all they both spoke Korean but also for some reason it is just easier to do certain things, like break the law, when you are in a group. Soon we were on the right train and laughing again.

Then it was over. I actually enjoyed the mistaken side trip just because it gave me some more time with Joe and Sarah. So I said good-bye and got off the train. I already had Joe's e-mail and I got Sarah’s so I told them we would have to get together again. The rest of the ride home was simple and contained few people. I got to the station and walked home. It was about a quarter to midnight and the wind was bitterly cold. So unlike my first walk to the station this walk was far more expedient. I got home in about 16 or 17 minutes and walked in just after midnight. I jumped into my sleep wear sat on my bed and just thought about the night. I almost got on the computer to write but I knew that would take a long time and I wasn't really up for it. So I just sat and enjoyed the day I had had. It was late but I was not tired at all. So after just lounging for a while I threw on a movie and tried to fall asleep. Instead I ended up watching the Fugitive from beginning to end. As the credits rolled I looked over and found it to be 3am. I still didn't really feel that tired so I actually took some sleep aid pills and laid back and finally fell asleep.

It really was the perfect night…again.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Perfect Night

March 18, 2010

I just got home from a night out with Ben and Jinah and it was…perfect.

Ben had flown into Korea last weekend to spend time with his fiance Jinah. I knew he was coming to Korea even before I had left the US so we had already made plans to hang out. After exchanging multiple e-mails this week we decided to hang out on Thursday night. Due to my continued ignorance of where I am Ben and Jinah made the trip up from Jinah's place to my place. I had started to become aware of how far away my place was from Seoul itself. Ben and Jinah's trip merely confirmed this fact as I found out it took an hour to get to the closest subway station just from City Hall at the center of the city and Jinah's place was even further away.

Anyway, I woke up this morning around 6:30am over half an hour before my alarm was set to go off and I couldn't get back to sleep. All I could think about was that today was the day I was going to get to see Ben. After staring at the ceiling (actually staring into my thoughts thinking about all the stuff I wanted to talk to Ben about) I got up and started getting ready for school. Now I have never really enjoyed taking showers except on a few occasions mostly when I am frozen and need to warm up. But here in my apartment I particularly don't like taking showers. It really is the thing I like least about each of my days. The water seems to have only two temperatures. It goes from man I wish I were are a polar bear to so this is what God is going to do to me after I die; that's cold and hot for any who didn't follow that or simply thought it was stupid. I am actually starting to get the hang of the shower but it is amazingly sensitive and for no apparent reason. Maybe it has to do with other people in the apartment using their hot water or maybe it is just connected to the lunar phases of the moon. Whatever it is that shower sees fit to change temperatures at any given time I am standing there. But the shower this morning went by fairly quickly as I wondered what the three of us where going to have for dinner. Ben and Jinah had said it could be anything I wanted and I admit what I wanted was “American” food. I never thought of that as a kind of food the way I think of Mexican or Italian as types of food but here in Korea I have come to see that it is a type of food and it's a type I miss. I basically ran to school stopping along the way to grab a bagel. I hurried up to my office and turned on the computer and went straight to my e-mail. Sure enough there was an e-mail from Ben. It had more details about where to meet. We had to be exact in our plan because, again, not having a cell phone made meeting up with people far more difficult and required more planning. We settled on meeting at a library near where I lived around 5:30pm. I read that e-mail at 8:12, yes I remember, so that meant I had to tolerate 9 hours and 18 minutes before I got to see Ben.

My classes today seemed to drag on endlessly. My first class of kids just appeared to have no interest in being there of course today neither did I. I don't think there was ever a stretch of more than 10 minutes passing without me looking up at the clock. I felt like I was a student again back in high school biology. After each half hour I made a new mental note of how long it was before I got to see Ben. Okay only 8 and half hours, okay only 7 and a half hours, and so on and so on. During lunch I told my co-workers about my friend coming from America and they were genuinely happy for me. They wanted to know what we were going to do and I told them I didn't know but we would probably just hang out. They all began giving me the names of places I should go many of which were actually down near Seoul. I tried to explain to them that we would probably be staying around here since they were traveling up from Seoul to see me here. They then came up with numerous shopping areas I could go to around here. I just listened and said okay knowing full well that Ben, Jinah and I were not going to end up at a karaoke bar or pool hall. Even as I was talking with them I realized that the whole day that I have been thinking about getting to see Ben all I had been thinking about was what are we were going to talk about not what are we going to do?

During my planning periods I couldn't focus at all on the things I should have been. I have an online seminar I have to get through on teaching English in Korea and it is about 15 hours of lessons and tests and it has to be completed by next week but I didn't bother even trying to do any of it today. I knew nothing was going to stick in my head with my complete lack of focus. So I spent most of the time reading sports articles, checking my e-mail over and over and playing mahjong online.

It was finally 4:30 and my 15 minute walk home only took about 10. I came into my apartment and started straitening everything out, in case they came over, by throwing things (mostly clothes) under the bed and into the draws and into the laundry room. Then I sat down at my desk and fidgeted for the next 20 minutes trying to figure how soon was too soon for heading over to the library. I finally bolted out the door 15 minutes before I was supposed to be at the library. Now the library is about a block and a half from my apartment so the walk took less than 5 minutes. Still when I got there I circled the entire building just in case they happened hidden behind a bush. They weren't so I just sat there looking out the window and waited. 5:30 came and as it passed I become more and more concerned that perhaps we had made some sort of mix up on the map and we were at different libraries or that they may have gotten off at the wrong stop or any number of things. It is amazing how little time it takes to create a list of terrible things that could have happened whether through miscalculations, misunderstandings or just mishaps. Every 5 minutes I would get up and walk around the library again to see if perhaps they were somewhere else then the front door. I did that about 3 times. Finally down the road I saw a couple walking towards the building and it didn't take long for me to realize that it had to be Ben and Jinah. They were all of 15 minutes late but at the time it felt like much longer than that to me probably because I had arrived 10 minutes early.

After exchanging our hellos we talked about what we were going to do. We decided on going out for pizza. They had looked around on the map and had seen that there was a pizza chain Jinah likes nearby called Mr. Pizza. They asked where the E-Mart was and I told them it was back from where they had come from. We kind of chuckled about it but I said we could go that way since they had to go back to the train station anyway and I would just walk home on my own. Before we went though I showed them my apartment since it was so close. Ben said it was pretty nice and Jinah thought is very well kept. Thankfully she didn't look in the laundry room. But we didn't stay long, quickly we were back onto the street and headed down the road they had just walked up. As we walked I soon found out that Jinah was not a big fan of walking and even suggested we try to get a cab. It was not simply because she was tired but also because it was cold and on that point I could not argue with her. The wind was especially piercing today. The high was only 39 degrees. Seoul was actually not that different then Denver as far as weather was concerned. It would snow and then be sunny two days later and the temperature was always in the 30s or 40s. Earlier that day I had decided to look at the weather in Pasadena. It was 65 degrees when I looked and that was at midnight there. The high had been in the lower 80s. California may be hurting financially but it is never hurting from the weather. So Ben gave Jinah his scarf (she already had one of her own so she got to double up) and the walk continued. Walking goes quite swiftly when you are talking with someone and before I knew it we were at the McDonalds, which by now had become one of the most important landmarks on my mental map. On Sunday when I went out wondering around I had come to this McDonalds and then headed east but if I had just crossed the street to the south and gone a block I would have seen the subway station. Now I knew the E-Mart was on the other side of the subway line and they knew that the Mr. Pizza was near the E-Mart so we went into the station and crossed over to the other side and started heading east towards the E-Mart. The walk seemed to be growing somewhat long (it always feels longer when you don’t know where you are going) but then we saw a Pizza Hut. Ben pointed it out and I was quite surprised. First because it was a Pizza Hut second because of how nice it looked. It was two stories with large glass windows and filled with people. Now Jinah was torn because while she did not want to walk anymore but it was clear she did not like Pizza Hut as much as Mr. Pizza. Much like being cold, food preferences are not something that has to be explained to me. So I said we should just keep going. Then when we got right next to the Pizza Hut we could see the E-Mart about another block away. So we continued but did not see the Mr. Pizza anywhere on the street. Jinah asked a few random people, unlike me she seemed to have no issue with walking up to strangers and asking for help but also unlike me she knew how to speak Korean. We soon found out that the Mr. Pizza was on the other side of the E-Mart but as we walked around all we saw was the subway line with a road going under it. There were other people walking on a path under the subway so we followed and as we emerged from under the subway back onto the side we had begun from Ben spotted the Mr. Pizza towards the west. We found that if was just a couple blocks east of the McDonalds. But I admit that I was glad we found it the hard way because it gave me a great picture of city that I just didn't have before.

As we walked into the Mr. Pizza it smelled great and just looked like any nice, simple pizza place back home. We were promptly seated and I opened my menu. The menu was in Korea but it was filled with pictures, which I know how to read. I became a little concerned as each picture I saw seemed to be of some strange type of pizza that bared no resemblance to anything I knew. There were numerous sea food pizzas like crab pizza and shrimp pizza (no thank you) and there was their extremely popular potato pizza. Now I have nothing against trying potato pizza sometime, while it sounds odd the two items together seems like it would work. But tonight I just wanted to go for something I knew something from home. So we found and ordered a New York special. It turned out to just be a supreme pizza and I had no complaints. I also ordered a Coke Zero and found out to my surprise, thanks to Jinah, that there were free refills. Really!!!!!!!!!!!?????????? I couldn't believe it and so my first glass was gone in about a minute. Jinah looked up from the menu and saw my empty glass and was shocked that I had finished it already. I just shrugged. To be fair they had also given me a lot of ice, which I also loved there wasn't a lot of ice here. Most people like warm or hot drinks not cold ones. Now back home I would try to make it somewhat obvious to my server that I needed a refill by moving my glass to the edge of the table or waiting until I knew they were nearby and move around in my seat a bit to try to catch their attention but I would rarely call out to them but this is Korea. When Jinah saw my glass was empty she called out to the closest serve (who was not that close) and got me a refill. Ben and Jinah explained that here when you want something you just shout out to one of the servers. The tables do not have one specific server who is your waiter or waitress instead it is just whoever is the closest to you. I also found out that in Korea there are no tips and you get your bill right after you order at the beginning of the meal not at the end. Sometimes it is the simplest things that seem the most odd. The pizza showed up and just looking at it was great. I recognized everything that was on it. The only noticeable difference was that they did not have any pepperoni they used ham instead but hey that's okay I like ham. And while it was not the greatest pizza I have ever had in a literal sense it was a great pizza based simply on the fact that it was the first real “American” food I had had in Korea and I was sharing it with my best friend.

The three of us talked about many things. I told them both about my job, my kids and my co-workers. Jinah asked me about how I liked Korea, how my Korean was coming along and many other questions. Her English was quite clear. But fairly often Ben and I would go off on tangents mostly humorous ones. It was weird being at a table again where I always knew what was being said. There were clearly times when Jinah did not understand what Ben and I were talking about both because of our use of English and simply due to inside jokes and experiences Ben and I have had. And while I could write a lot about our conversations I do not feel so inclined at the moment honestly but I will say every second of it was great.

After we paid the bill we headed for the door and that is when I saw the restaurant’s big sign with their slogan and it said “Mr. Pizza: Pizza made for women.” I couldn't help but laugh and Ben already knew about the slogan but still laughed with me. Now just the idea of there being a pizza made specifically for women was funny to me. Second the fact that the pizza made for women was made by “Mr. Pizza” was particularly hilarious. Lastly I loved the fact that if this really was pizza made for women that I had just eaten it and enjoyed it.

So we walked back to the subway station and I tried soak up every second knowing it was almost over. Unlike the tortuously long day at school the 3 hours we had together just vanished. At the train station Ben showed me how to buy tickets at the automated machines so I wouldn't have to talk to any of the tellers to get a ticket. Jinah just laughed at my excitement about that fact. Then Ben told me that on Saturday he and Jinah were meeting up with a lot of his other friends and I could come down and meet them if I wanted. Now part of me had said yes even before he finished the question but as always part of me was apprehensive about the idea. For this to work I was going to need to be able to figure out not only where everyone was meeting (probably near a subway station) but how many trains I would need to take and where I would need to get off at each of those trains since most of the names are in Korean. Based on their guesses about where they were going to meet it would take me anywhere between an hour to an hour and a half to get to them. Ben, aware of my anxieties, walked me through it all the while saying that it was easier than I thought and I would be able to do it if I wanted. The other minor concern I had was the weather. The forecast for that day included rain/snow and I admit long walks in the rain are just not something I enjoy but how often am I going to get to see Ben? Not only that if I go I will get to meet multiple friends of Ben's who live here in Korea. Basically I would probably make some friends. As Ben and Jinah left Ben told me he would e-mail tomorrow with all the plans for Saturday. I told him I would look at them but not to count on me being there. My worries were in control of my words at the time. As I walked away I checked the time, turned on my I-Pod and headed for home.

As I walked home I became more and more confused with myself and how there would be anyway I wouldn't go to hang out with Ben on Saturday. Each my fears, while somewhat valid, seemed so minor in light of what lay at the other end of the journey. There would be more laughs, more stories, more English in short more time with my friend. The night was not warm so I know I was walking fairly quickly but I arrived home 22 minutes after I had left the subway station so really it is not that far away. Basically to catch the subway I would just need to leave around 40 minute before it would be there. So as I sat down to write I was certain I was going on Saturday or I should say I am certain I am going on Saturday but if there is one thing I know about myself it is that the worrywart inside of me is always hiding behind the corner and could grab me at any time. So I've made my mental defenses ready but hopefully there will be no need for them. It really was the perfect night.

On a side note I have to mention the high schools here. As I walked home a little after nine the streets where not empty but rather fairly full with kids coming home from school. The other night when I had gone to Costco with my co-teacher, Choi we were shopping and around 8:30pm he said we needed to finish up and go because he had to pick up his daughter at 9pm. I asked him where he was picking her up from (I expected music lessons or dance or something like that) but he looked at me with a smile and said from school of course. I discovered that while elementary school kids had what I considered a normal day of school (8:30am-3pm) most of the high schoolers where in class from 7:30am until 9pm. Some schools even went to 10. They had both lunch and dinner at school. Further they also had school on Saturdays. Sunday is their only day off. The elementary school kids have school on two Saturdays a month, which I already thought was tough. I have explained to some of the kids the American school schedule and they couldn't believe how little we had to go to school. I couldn't help but laugh and told them I couldn't believe how much they have to go to school. I guess it is no wonder why so many Koreans go on to become so successful in whatever profession they pursue. I mean I like school but can’t fathom 13 and a half hour school days.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why ask why?

As my second week in Korea comes to a close I find many of my fears dying away but I also find that a certain level of frustration is taking its place. Whether because of the logistics of work, lack of services I had grown accustomed to in the US or simple communication issues I find myself needing to take small timeouts to remind myself that everything is fine (or at least I hope it will be).

I think my greatest frustration centers around the simple question of "why?" Since moving here I have grown better at being able to communicate with others around me by using my body language, my almost non existent Korean or, most normally, their limited English. I have become better at speaking more slowly and using simpler vocabulary in order to be better understood. (It is weird hearing myself talk here because I just don't sound like myself) Likewise I have become better at understanding what my co-workers are trying to tell me because I have become more accustomed to their pronunciation of English, the way they structure their sentences and basic words they use that although they are English are used in a Korean way. Basically a co-worker and I can be using the exact same words but mean something completely different. But what has not changed is the simple fact that I just never, or rarely, get to know "why". I am told what places I have to be, what papers I must sign, what classes I must attend, what social events I am going to and so much more but every time I ask why I almost always get a kind of blank stare and they say they do not know how to say the answer.

The questions "what," "when," "where" and "how" have all maintained some level of existence in my life here in Korea but the "why" has been lost and that is both upsetting and frustrating for three reasons. First is the simple fact that I never really have a clue of why I am doing what I am doing and it makes it very difficult for me to plan ahead or set proper expectations for the events unfolding around me. Second and more bothersome is the fact that when you can't learn why something is happening it becomes very difficult to learn from what is happening. Why do we use certain games in one of the 5th grade classes but not in the next class of 5th graders even though they are learning the same lessons? Why do I need to go to one meeting for all the teachers but not another especially since both are in Korean and I have no idea what is happening in either. And lastly I'm just curious. I always like to know why that's just who I am.

But these frustrations do not offer any solutions so instead I simply struggle to find relief. I have basically just stopped asking why whenever I am told to do something. It seems to be a fruitless exercise that only leaves me wanting. I am trying to not worry about it so much and just stop caring about understanding every little thing but so far that just hasn't worked. I wonder why that is?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Just some random thoughts and observations.

Having been in this school for a week I have been amazed at the amount of Simpson's merchandise the kids have. I have ten different classes of kids all with around 30 students and at least 25 percent of them have some sort of Simpson's item. There are pencil/pen bags, t-shirts, sweatshirts, pencils, erasers, notebooks and so on. It reminded me a little of when I was in elementary school and the show first came out and everyone had Bart Simpson stuff. I just can't imagine that any of these kids actually watch the show and if they did they wouldn't really understand most of the humor. It just seemed odd to me.

The lessons we use in class have multiple parts; workbook exercises, videos, songs, cartoons, games, etc. In all these parts the material uses examples from different countries. There will be a cartoon with a kid from Korea talking to a kid from Singapore and a kid from Australia. I have noticed that every time the United States comes up (cartoon, flash cards, video) there is almost always a cowboy theme. Today we were practicing naming the flags of different countries and saying something famous that came from there. The American flash card had a cowboy and Indian (Native American) on it and the kids yelled out “The US and they are cowboys.” I just couldn't’t help but laugh. Some of the kids looked at me and I just smiled and said they were doing well. Also every American has blonde hair. So while I may not be a cowboy I guess that I fall into that category.

In my apartment I have a washing machine. I have never had a washing machine in the apartment I lived. I have always had to go to a laundry room of some sort. And the washing machine they gave me seems brand new and is by far nicer than any of the washing machines I have had at my other apartments. The only thing was I did have to get one of my work friends to come over and translate all the buttons on the machine since they were all written in Korean. But despite this nice washing machine there was no dryer. I guess they don't use dryers in Korea but just air dry everything. So Sunday morning I did my first load of laundry and hung everything up to dry. It took two days for everything to dry and all I washed was a load of whites (undershirts, boxers, socks) nothing heavy. I couldn't believe how horribly inefficient air drying was. I just can't understand why a place that has such nice washing machines doesn't also make dryers? It seems like an obvious progression to me. It is the first thing I have really been annoyed by since moving here.

Lastly I still love all the English writing the kids wear on the clothes. Today one of the boys had a shirt that said I hate polar bears and I couldn't help but wonder if he knew what it said. I never asked.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pride and Humility-Means and Ends


This blog is not about Korea so do not read if you are interested only in my experiences in Korea or if you do not want to read about my religious/philosophical/personal concepts and ideas.

March 13, 2010

I was talking with an old friend of mine recently and she was asking me about pride, in particular mine. Back in high school I had told her how I struggled with pride and how I sought to be humble in all my relationships but especially in my relationship with God. She then asked if my current disbelief in the Christian God wasn't simply a matter of my pride. Basically who am I to judge God? I wrote her back fairly quickly but have not stopped thinking about her questions and new thoughts have come to me that I want to catalogue.

I knew instantly that my friend was right that it took pride to reject the God of my youth and to find him morally lacking but I also knew it took a certain kind of pride. It was the type of pride that questioned everything it was told unwilling to accept anything based solely upon faith. A pride that did not recognize any authority that was propped up merely by its own self-validation. A pride that demanded evidence for physical and metaphysical claims and accountability for how those claims were lived out. And a pride that spoke loudly and openly about its own thoughts and ideas. Now this is a pride that is very visible to the world especially those who demand faith and it is a pride I do carry but when examined closely this pride leads to an amazing place. It ultimately led me to a place of humility. It led me to a place where I can now openly say “I don’t know but this is what I think” and add with honesty “there is a good chance I am wrong so please look for yourself.”

Then as I examined my previous Christian beliefs I saw that they did, in fact, require a great deal of humility but it was a certain kind of humility. It was the type of humility that said even though I don’t understand I will trust in you because I know you are right. This humility recognized its place (and others) in the world and God’s place in the world. It acknowledged that God was greater and worthy of trust and praise because God said so. Having this humility meant accepting the mysteries that accompanied the nature and workings of God and knowing that we could not expect to understand all of God’s ways but we must trust him anyway. So ultimately humility meant putting God above all else in one’s life but when examined closely this humility leads to a dangerous place. It ultimately led me to a place of pride. A place where I openly said “I don’t know” yet always added (or implied) “but I know I am right so just trust me.”

It sounds odd but just lining up what I use to believe next to what I currently believe I think it becomes quite clear. Previously I knew what happened to everyone after we died. We would either go to heaven or hell. Currently I say I do not know what happens after we die but I think we merely cease to exist. Previously I knew not only where we went after we die but I knew who went where. I knew who (generally speaking) would get into heaven and who would go to hell. Those who believed in Christ (the right way of course) would be allowed into heaven while those who “rejected” him would be sent to hell. Currently I again say I don't know what happens to us after we die but I believe whatever does happen to us it will likely be the same for us all. Previously I believed that there was only one way to truth and that was through God's special revelation (the bible), which I just happened to have. Currently I believe that truth is open to all. No one holds a special key to truth that everyone else must blindly believe in. Previously I was aware that other religions had different beliefs and had their own sacred texts but knew that only the bible was God's word and that they needed to read it to understand. Currently I believe that all religions have wisdom to share with this world and that one certainly shouldn't judge a text that one hasn't even bothered to read. Previously I knew that God's revelation had to be properly understood and interpreted otherwise it would lead to errors and sin and I, of course, knew those proper interpretations, particularly the important ones. Currently I believe that through the use of our reason and experience we can all move towards truth and can be held accountable by one another. Previously I always adapted any new information I learned to fit into the conclusions I had already made. If something did not fit into the Christian worldview properly then it must either be wrong or simply a mystery but either way I knew I still held the truth. It was never a matter of saying I was wrong but rather matter of saying I (and you) merely did not understand. Currently I allow the evidence to speak for itself. I am no longer afraid to change my beliefs based on what I learn and to openly admit that I was wrong. Previously I never pretended to understand but always maintained I was right. Currently I never pretend to understand but always maintain I could be wrong.

So we are left with an odd picture of two lives that both contain pride and humility. One contains an openly visible pride that is loud and often obnoxious but serves as a path to an often unnoticed humility. What I would call a prideful humility. The other contains an openly visible humility that is markedly submissive but serves as a path to a routinely unacknowledged pride. What I would call a humble pride. Neither path is easy, neither path produces only good people and neither path is perfect. So what path should one choose? It seems it comes down to a question of humble means or humble ends? Well my friend was right about my desire for humility so in the end I would rather end up in a place of humility even if it is a prideful humility then end up in a place of pride no matter how humble or unnoticed that pride may be…but the great thing is I could be wrong.