Category Archives: Narratives

I’m also really good at giving directions to taxi drivers

Barely glancing the take out menu in my hand, I automatically dial the number I have so often dialed before.

This time it’s a man’s voice on the line. Sometimes a woman picks up, but today it’s some guy whose voice I also recognize.

Without my even saying anything he recites the address I am currently at.

Without my even thinking I say “재육덮밥 하나 주세요”

Without any response the man on the other end hangs up. I don’t mind. I know that soon someone will bring food directly to my office and I will pay him and he will leave and I will eat and place the dishes outside of my building and in an hour or so he, or someone else will come get them. The circle of lunch.

A Korean co-worker overhears my order and remarks “your Korean is improving”

“Well, it’s just my lunch order”

“Yes, but I can tell your intonation is very good”

This makes me laugh, “well, I order the same 3 or 4 things every day so I hope I’m good at it by now”

“So many foreigners don’t know how to order their own food, but you are very good”

“Thanks” I say, and we part ways to our respective work spaces.

In about 10 or 15 minutes someone will bring me food. He probably thinks I am fluent in Korean.

In the land of foreigners who often refuse to learn basic language skills to get by the foreigner who can order lunch is king.

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Filed under city life, Culture, Narratives, The foreigner experience, Uncategorized

Freedom

Just above my apartment, for the past few months, lives an elderly gentleman. Every time I am sitting outside my apartment, he seems to come outside at the same time. I have never spoken to him and he has never spoken to me. We always glance at each other, never acknowledge each other in any way, and eventually we both go back inside.

I sometimes wonder if that is my future, and does he conversely consider me as his past.

On the walkway next to my building there is a structure of garbage, and an elderly Korean man who continuously sorts it. Occasionally he takes a large bundle away, leaving the walkway to my house clear for a moment. He wears green camouflage cargo pants, a red t-shirt, and a black baseball cap…everyday. On cold days he wears a jacket, and occasionally he is a drinking. During the previous winter I considered bringing him one of my extra jackets that I no longer wear but didn’t. He might have felt obliged to speak to me the next time we see each other, and we see each other almost every day.

Across the slender alley from my apartment there is a pretty girl, seemingly in her mid-20s, who lives on the ground floor. I often see her enter her apartment later at night, around 12. Sometimes she is alone, sometimes she is accompanied by what I assume is her boyfriend. I’ve never really looked at him, but I think it’s the same guy.

Sometimes on the weekend there are children playing in front of my apartment in the alley way. They have taken the liberty of becoming my sporadic Saturday alarm clock; and if I hear them playing I can assume it is a nice day outside. One time I helped one of the smaller boys carry his bike up the stairs leading to his apartment. Mostly though I try to avoid the children on my way out.

Civility in a city is allowing people to live their lives without recognition, and without forcing upon them the requirement of having to recognize others.

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Monday the 11th

(Authors Note: This is my last post about Korea. I am moving to Mexico. I will probably start another blog, and when I do I will let you know. In the meantime I will continue to write for instablogs, if you want to read more of my work.)

Strange thoughts on this night in Seoul. It feels like just a year ago I was writing this exact same post. I like symmetry.

I’m not sure if I’m better or worse for this year in Seoul, but does it really matter? I’m different, maybe. I suppose that will have to be enough.

Last year my feelings could be summer up by her. That seems like an entire lifetime ago. Now my feelings can be summed up by a different her. Will this seem like a lifetime ago a year from now, or will it seem like a new beginning? I know what I plan, but plans never work out, which is why I don’t usually make them.

I’m not really sure what the point of this blog was, I know I started it simply because I like to write…but did it have a purpose beyond that? Was it to keep in touch with friends? Was it a way for me to meander and muddle through my own existence in a public forum? Was it simply a vehicle for my own subconscious desire to feel important? It’s probably a bit of each of those, but whatever reason there was behind the blog, I hope you enjoyed it.

For better or worse, it was what it was
and that’s not that bad

I leave you with this statement I wrote a few posts ago, at the end of the “Looking Past Korea” post because I think it applies here as well.

“Through this series, and this blog in general, I have tried to avoid telling people what to think with my writing. Instead of being a guide I have instead attempted to be a lamp. Hopefully I was able to shed enough light that you were able to find your own way.”

Maybe when I look back at this past year I’ll have shed enough light that I’ll remember where I was, how it felt, and subsequently figure out where I’m going next.

Stay tuned…it can only get better

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The Last Shot

For the final discussion I’d ever have with my co-teacher we decided to drink a little bit. Obviously. Already a few bottles of Cass littered the table and steam rose off the grill as we placed another slice of meat on the kalbi grill. She was telling me I did a good job.

“Foreign teachers need to be excited and happy to teach, you did that very much this year,” she told me.

I wonder, what sorts of teachers aren’t excited to teach? Teaching isn’t a profession that lends itself to large sums of money so it seems that the people who would do it would do it out of love. When I first decided to be a teacher, I told myself that if I ever felt bored with teaching that I should quit. Students deserve teachers who care.

“Yes, but I felt like I should have done more. I’m not sure the students learned that much from me.”

“No, you can not do more. Hey, you only have very little time to teach students and you have over 1000. You can not teach them everything. We need foreign teachers so students feel excited about English and so that they can get used to being around foreigners. You did this, even when you were tired you still acted excited”

“But couldn’t you hire any foreigner for that? Who cares if they’re qualified teachers?” I queried.

I was beginning to feel that my college degree was going to waste. You don’t need to be a real teacher to do this job. In fact, that’s one of the education systems favorite marketing points ‘Teach English in Korea! Travel the World! You don’t need a teaching degree!’ The only qualification we need is to be born in an English speaking country. I guess I’m qualified then, congratulations to me. I took another sip of the Cass and felt just a little bit more numb.

“Yes, but that is a difficult job. Hey, there are not many teachers who can keep attention of students for forty minutes.”

She was trying to make me feel better. I didn’t really need it, but I guess it was appreciated. Nickelodeon programming also does a decent job keeping a child’s attention for forty minutes to an hour.

She continued “The students liked you and I could see that they became very comfortable with you. Two years ago when we have no foreign teacher the students were very scared to speak English. Now they speak lots.”

“Yah, but only really easy sentences, and most of the time they don’t even do it correctly.”

For example, ‘hello, nice to meet you,’ when I’ve met them twenty times before. Another bottle of Cass down.

“But we are very poor school. Students are excited to have foreign teacher. Especially guy teacher, it makes us think we are very special. The students are more prideful of themselves and think English is fun.”

Some people talk about fighting the good fight. Sticking it out when times are tough. But if I wanted to fight the good fight I’d move to Africa, or New Orleans. Besides, the kids who are smart learn English by studying themselves and by attending hogwans and the lower level students don’t care…who exactly am I teaching then?

“The students are sad that you are leaving,” she said as she tried to grab one of the waitresses as she ran by. I guess she had a point. Maybe I was just trying to convince myself to the contrary.

“I still don’t think I did anything that special.”

And with that we ordered one last bottle of soju.

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Filed under Culture, Education, Narratives, The foreigner experience

Looking Past Korea: Series Wrap Up

Well, it’s time to wrap up the “Looking Past Korea” series. If you want to check out all the posts I did for the series, simply click the link on the top of the page. During this series I wrote about things that, although superficial, I thought were important; I wrote about things that I thought were overrated by foreigners living in Korea; I wrote about things that I thought were truly important cultural differences. I made lots of generalizations.

The one thing we have to remember is that, while I write about my time in Korea and about my observations of the culture, the people who live here are still people. As a whole they make up the culture, but as individuals they have hopes and dreams and love and hate just like any other person and they are uniquely themselves within their own cultural setting. This was the main purpose of the series. I wanted to finalize what I thought were differences so that I could finally begin to focus on what really matters, our similarities.

With that said, I have one more sweeping generalization of Korea. Korea is the middle brother of Eastern Asia. It is stuck between the power of older brother China and the baby brother celebrity of Japan. These other two countries are so powerful and noticeable that Korea, many times, is caught between them when it may be the most successful of them all given the circumstances. I’m not entirely sure.

Through this series, and this blog in general, I have tried to avoid telling people what to think with my writing. Instead of being a guide I have instead attempted to be a lamp. Hopefully I was able to shed enough light that you were able to find your own way.

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The Gum Lady

If you don’t concentrate enough the monotonous clunk of the tracks harmonizes with the sighs of the weary worker after a long day at work, melodies with the hum of the fluorescent lights, and is occasionally supplemented by the percussion of a door opening and closing as an elderly woman walks from car to car singing and selling gum.

A fluorescent light vibrates at a frequency that would make a hummingbird’s wings jealous. Their light reflected off of her and back into my eyes where my brain processed the primary colors. So it was that I saw her just an instant before I heard her off key wailing as she trudged through my subway car. She did not hear me, but she saw me.

Her eyes locked on me and I tried to look away. Her Medusa gaze was too powerful and I couldn’t help but look on, curiously stoned. The woman moved through the subway car the way a cherry rolls through honey. When she walked by me she stopped. She turned. She threw a pack of gum at me and stretched out her hand. Did I have bad breath?

She would not leave till I gave her money, even after I tried to give her back her gum she just sang louder and started to poke me.

This was my first experience with the Gum Lady of Line 1.

Since that first experience I am afraid to look at her, lest she notice me. My only hope is that she turns her attention towards some other unsuspecting bad breathed soul, because once she notices you, you will buy some gum. She usually only stops at one person per subway car. Sometimes I point to people who I think she should try to sell gum to, and sometimes she takes my advice.

Despite my fear of looking at her I’ve caught enough glimpses. Her face is weathered and tanned the way only fluorescent lighting can do. Her back is bent and arched from too many days of carrying bags of rice on her head to and from various locations before the creation of the subway. She may have been beautiful once. Can beauty ever die? Also, I’m pretty sure she wears the same thing every day.

The Gum Lady is always there, haunting the passengers of line 1. Always staring at you, singing off key, forcing you to buy her gum. Her life is intrinsically linked to the subway and the subway to her. It would not surprise me to discover she secretly lived there.

She is not a beggar. Beggars offer you nothing for your money besides a guilty shot at redemption. She offers you that and then some gum. I wonder how much money she makes in a day. Hopefully more than the cost of a train ticket.

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South Korea Battle Royale: “Red Bean Paste” vs. “Things That Don’t Taste like Adhesives”

The woman handed me a small cake like ball. It was bread on the outside with a bit of cinnamon dashed on the top. Upon receiving it I felt that there was a small hole in the middle, presumably where some cream or custard like substance would be stored, which would provide a savory goodness.

I popped the whole thing in my mouth. But what to my wondering taste buds do appear, but an awful taste and a chewy, gooish mixture.

It’s bad form to spit out food that you were given by somebody in any culture, but I had to know. What the hell was in my mouth?

Upon a quick excusal to the bathroom I found that within my mouth was a reddish substance. I guess it tasted kind of sweet, but the texture was thick and I found it hard to swallow. When I returned I asked the woman what it was. She told me “it is delicious.” I doubted that “delicious” was the name of what I was eating so I set out on a mission. It was not long before I discovered that the reddish substance was “red bean paste.” It is a popular dessert filling, and I can see why kids like it. Children are, after all, the same demographic that enjoys eating glue.

This was 10 months ago.

Fast forward to today and I still have not acquired a taste for the paste. I’m the same person who once referred to kimchi as similar to the seaweed found between the baleen plates of blue whales, and now I have a tupperware container filled with it in my refrigerator. Red bean paste has yet to find a way to my heart.

So I approach every dessert with a new trepidation. Every time there’s a fifty percent chance that what I will eat will be delicious chocolate or custard filling and a fifty percent chance that I’ll immediately want to remove it from my mouth and throw it at the person who gave it to me.

The astute observer could point out that I could simply open up the confection before eating. That way I’d know what I’m getting into. However, once I have opened up the dessert and put my hands all over it I am left with the three options of either eating it, putting it back, or throwing it out. Two of these three things are not kosher. The third one is simply undesired by me.

So, instead I guess. Four out of five rice cakes that contain something contain red bean paste, which is like injecting rubber cement with red glue. Little bread cakes are a different story. With them I have no idea.

If this is what Russian Roulette feels like

then pass me a glock.

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Filed under Culture, Narratives, The foreigner experience