Monday, November 26, 2007

Travelogue #14: A Nyum Nyum Thanksgiving

<---Travelogue #13: Eating SpongBob and His SquarePants, Too.
--->Travelogue #15: Hello Korean Women's Tennis League. Can I Play?

It's Thanksgiving weekend in Korea, which means it's an ordinary November weekend in Korea.

Friday night marked my one-month anniversary here, and I celebrated by chomping on nyum nyum chicken. "Nyum nyum" is spicy chunks of bird slathered in a mysterious sticky red sauce. A runny nose is a typical consequence of its flavors. Mike offered to order us the grub and have it delivered to my apartment. Since he was working late, it would be my responsibility to greet the delivery guy.

A half hour later, the guy rang and his image appeared on this panel on my apartment wall.

I opened the door. He smiled, bowed slightly, and handed over the box. "Hot, spicy!" he said.

I nodded and gave him a thumbs-up. "I like spicy!"

It's funny how the rule in Korea is not to tip, while the service via restaurants and delivery has often been warmer and more generous than the service I received back in the states. (This hasn't always been the case, but poor service in Korea so far has been the exception rather than the rule.)

Turning towards the kitchen with the goodies, I heard an "Ah! Ah!" behind me. What was it? I returned to the door and found the delivery man pointing down to where I had dropped my change. Another smile, another slight bow, and goodbye.

All I had to do was wait for Mike's arrival so the two of us could feast. That's when the panel chimed again, this time with a different guy on the video screen. Huh?

Now would be a good time to reveal that I don't really know how this video panel system works. You see, the apartments at the Royal Palace Housevill don't have peepholes; they have video surveillance systems, which would be cool, assuming I knew how to work the thing. I decided it'd be easier to just go to my door and talk to the guy there. One problem: he wasn't at my door.

I returned to the panel and clicked the button to hear the new guy's voice. Apparently the video was beaming from the lobby, where he was waiting to be let in. He then said, "Korean word korean word korean word question mark nyum nyum?"

Nyum Nyum! I understood Nyum Nyum! It was time to pull out some trusty Korean from my satchel. Since this night marked my one-month anniversary, you might imagine that I've absorbed an impressive amount of key words and phrases.

"Ney," I said, the Korean word for yes. "Ney."

He countered with more Korean words and "chicken." What did he want? It didn't look as if he was holding anything in his hands, so I guessed he had come to check if I had indeed received my Nyum Nyum chicken.
"Ney," I said again. "Chicken."
"Chicken!" he replied.
"Chicken," I said. "Ney."
He paused. Then he said more Korean.
"Anio?" I said, which means no. What I was telling this man was a steady, enthusiastic stream of, "yes yes, nyum nyum chicken, yes yes. No?" I also gestured with my hands, which was a little odd considering he couldn't see me.

There's a button on my panel to allow him through the doors into the elevator area, but I didn't know which button to select. If I'd press the wrong button, an alarm would blare. I was stumped.

I opted to do it the old-fashioned way: talk to the guy in person at the lobby door rather than through a multi-buttoned video system.

He had vanished.

Twenty minutes later, Mike arrived from work. I took the Nyum Nyum down to his apartment. "Get ready, man," he said, grinning as he opened the box.

The grin left his face. "This isn't what we ordered," he said.


Mike's Korean friend sprang into action; she phoned the restaurant and sorted out the miscommunication. The story was that the second guy had come to correct the first order, but he gave up when my cluelessness prevented him from entering the apartment.

The pieces of the great Nyum Nyum puzzle of Thanksgiving 07' fell into place, and after some verbal jousting, Mike's friend convinced them to send the right chicken, free of charge.

And so the first guy returned, apologetic, bowing, smiling. An hour and a half after the initial delivery, we had the food we ordered.

Though my idealization of the perfection of Korean service ran into a couple real-world problems, I couldn't feel anything but thankful:

Thankful for waking up every morning excited to start the day, for rolling up my blinds to see the big Lotte building and at its feet, a busy sea of pedestrians shuffling to and from bread shops and quick-Korean food joints. Thankful for a job that not only excites me but makes me laugh, a job where I can teach the meaning of various slang words and phrases and hear one of the kids playfully telling another to "hit the road!" and another joking about "B.O," words they hadn't heard much less understood prior to our lesson. Thankful for the smiles I get in the hallway from the Korean secretaries and for the reality-show-esque mix of personalities in my co-workers, which leads to deep conversations I haven't heard since I've been in a dorm room lounge. Thankful for David Ogles sending that random message on Facebook in July inviting me to Sunae-dong, Bundandg-gu, Korea. Thankful for my family and friends back home, and for the webcam/Gmail/AIM we use to stay in touch from opposite ends of the earth.

And I'm thankful for Nyum Nyum chicken, because it was delicious.

My nose didn't even run.

<---Travelogue #13: Eating SpongBob and His SquarePants, Too.
--->Travelogue #15: Hello Korean Women's Tennis League. Can I Play?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Travelogue #13: Eating SpongBob and His SquarePants, Too.

<---Travelogue #12: Hiking and Fooding in Namhansanseong
--->Travelogue #14: A Nyum Nyum Thanksgiving

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about my mild frustrations in remembering Korean names, whether they be of foods or folks. Little did I know what would happen after that posting.

Flashback to two Sundays ago. Me lazy and hungry, wanting to eat, and wanting to do so immediately. I could have called Ogles or one of the other fellas, but I was in the mood to be independent. My only prior solo eating experience had been at the hands of the odang lady-vendor, so I was ready to enter a real restaurant, to present my Omaha-born self to tables and tables of Korean natives.

Simple, right?

I remembered noshing on this dish once before; it was spicy chicken with rice and it tasted delicious. No need to worry about spitting clumsy Korean while ordering, for all I had to do was point at the image and smile. I could handle that with aplomb, thank you very much.

So. I selected the menu item and then I pointed outside. "Take-out?" she asked. "Yes," I said, excited. "Cum-som-knee-dah." (Thank you.)

I brought the windfall home.

I ripped open the carefully saran-wrapped bags of rice and chicken. Good lord this was going to be tasty.




What the hell was this? This was not spicy chicken; this was SpongeBob Squarepants in a bowl. I misread the picture. Badly. If I saw this meal on my parents' kitchen table, I would probably make the same scrunched-up disgusted face that my sister has imitated successfully every Thanksgiving since the mid-1990s.

But. I said in the beginning that I came to Korea for new experiences, for new "things." This, whatever it was, was definitely a new thing.

So I went for it. Chomp, squish, squish, squish.

Not only was the taste foreign, but so was the melody of my chewing, which sounded like basketball sneakers skating across a gymnasium floor. Rubbery. But still. I was hungry.

I chowed it all down, every single piece of whatever "it" was. Weeks later I discovered what I had eaten was, in fact, octopus. Octopus, that eight-legged creature you see in middle school science books.

This story might not seem remarkable to you, but I'm a guy who once upon a time ordered his tacos and hamburgers plain, and now I'm eating octopus.

Only in Korea.

<---Travelogue #12: Hiking and Fooding in Namhansanseong
--->Travelogue #14: A Nyum Nyum Thanksgiving

Monday, November 19, 2007

Travelogue #12: Hiking and Fooding in Namhansanseong

<---Travelogue #11: The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party
--->Travelogue #13: Eating SpongBob and His SquarePants, Too.

Wednesday November 14 2007

Three weeks down in Korea and forty-nine to go.

Maybe that's not the best way to phrase things, for it makes it sound as if I'm ticking down the days till my contract is over. Nothing could be further from the truth. Moment by moment I'm feeling more comfortable here, more at ease. Short days and long nights have changed into long days and shorter nights, meaning I've been spending my time not orienting myself in a beer-soju aftermath, but rather hiking mountains and walking yellow-leave splattered streets.

On Tuesday I join Emily and Jerry for a visit to Namhansanseong, a.k.a a place where we're the only non-Korean people in sight. Seriously. The three of us feel like celebrities, gawked at by kids, stared at by grown-ups. Jerry might very well by the only black person Namhansanseong has seen in months, and I might be the only Jew they've seen in years.

Our mission in Namhansanseong is to hike; I'm not much of a hiker. I did climb Mt. Masada when I visited Israel, but aside from that, my experience is limited. With that being said, Emily leaves Jerry and me in the dust. She keeps going and going, up and up and up and up along the trail, leaving Jerry and I pacing. I suck down a lemonade I bought from a quick shop. Lemonade has never tasted so good.

I contemplate how bad it would be if we somehow tumbled down the side, where all we see is haze and trees and a deep, precipitous slope. "Well...we are on a mountain," Emily says. Thanks, Emily.

Along the way we see a temple. Buddhist. I decide not to walk in. I feel like it's not my place; if anything, being at a sight somebody else considers holy serves principally to remind me of my own faith. I'm a Jew, not a regularly practicing one by any stretch of the imagination, but a Jew nonetheless. When I visited Israel I felt a sense of belonging; a traveler still, but something more than a tourist. I can see how a visitor would feel a similar connection to this temple, but that visitor is not me.

Clearly, this is no ordinary mountain. Full-scale workout equipment is arranged neatly along our path. Older men work the weights; older women twist wheels. The equipment presumably stays here through the winter. I wonder how it looks all covered in snow.
So we walk on. More huffing, puffing. I need to get into better shape. We enter a grassy expanse where women do the hula and a man with a New York Yankees cap sits on a bench eating gimbop, a sushi-like treat featuring rice, meats, and seasoning wrapped in seaweed. This man waves his chopsticks to Jerry. Jerry nods to him, and then nods to us. We walk towards the man, who silently offers us chopsticks. He points to the gimbop and grunts.

We maneuver our chopsticks around a piece here and a piece there, but he motions for us to continue.

While Jerry and I don't hide our hunger, Emily is a bit more shy. She says no thank you but she doesn't have a choice, for the man thrusts a piece of gimbop towards her mouth. She eats it. He repeats this twice more. She's slightly uncomfortable. Here we are, with this kindly Korean stranger feeding a twentysomething American girl gimbop amidst the haze of Namhansanseong on a November afternoon. We don't say much as we eat. Probably for the best. His little English and our little Korean brings me to the conclusion that food is our shared language, and there's nothing wrong with that.

This is not the only time we're offered grub, for later, a man with a smile offers us banana bread. Score. Being foreign in Namhansanseong = free food.

We conquer the mountain. Whew.

Back in the world below, we wait for our train to Sunae. I gnaw on hatuk, a delicious chocolate-peanut flavored patty bought off the street. A wrinkled old man approaches me and mumbles something in Korean. I smile, "hatuk!" I say. Without warning he seizes my wrist. Emily and Jerry just watch me, Emily smiling as if to say silly you, Alex. What? All I said was hatuk. Is he trying to arrest me? Why is this stranger's hand on my wrist and why is he gently turning my body around?

After realizing my perplexed expression, the stranger relents with the body contact. He says something to Jerry, and then he wanders off.

If only he'd offered me food, we would have understood each other.

<---Travelogue #11: The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party
--->Travelogue #13: Eating SpongBob and His SquarePants, Too.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Travelogue #11: The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party

<--- a="" href="">Travelogue #10: The Best Explanation of Spam in the History of Mankind
--->Travelogue #12: Hiking and Fooding in Namhansanseong

November 10 2007

On HBO's Jerry Seinfeld: The Comedian Award, the sitcom master claimed a peer-applauded prize for a lifetime of comedic success. "I really don't want to be up here," Seinfeld said in his acceptance speech, "I want to be in the back, over there somewhere, saying something funny to somebody about what a crock this whole thing is."

That's exactly how I felt in the precious moments before "The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party." A party named after me? Who the hell am I? I love being the observer, the watcher, but to be the main event? Will they want me to make jokes? When I try to "perform" outside my natural, conversational element, I flop. For evidence ask my mom, who endured my 2006 Kira Pollack Roast, where I used a remote control in lieu of a microphone to make anything-goes jokes at my mother's expense. I was merciless. "Mom, you're so short, " I said preparing for the sting of the punchline, "that you are practically a midget!" She sighed. "Alex, why?" I put the remote control down.

I was bad. Really, really bad.

But I digress. Let me explain the genesis behind "The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party." On Facebook, I received a random message from a stranger known only as Freddy Finebloke:

"I hope you're free this Saturday night. Be warned, a lot of people are going to give you free alcohol and you'll meet a lot of girls. I guess it's hard to be you these days..."

I checked my Facebook Event invitations, and there it was: a hundred or so people invited to a welcome-to-Korea party for, well, me.

"Do I know Alex Pollack? No. Do you know Alex Pollack? Probably not. Does Interpol know Alex Pollack? I sincerely hope not. Is Alex Pollack a cool dude who doesn't mind the fact that I've just thrown a party in his name when we haven't even met and everyone there is going to be a stranger?... I thought to myself, man it would've been great to have just arrived in Korea (as my facebook stalking of profiles has informed me of Alex) and had someone throw a party for me to meet people. That's what we do here at the Bundang Social Club, we make dreams come true."

So there it was. I didn't know what to expect, but I was ready to party.

Until I got a cold.

Aleve. Cold medicine. More Aleve. More cold medicine. Long naps. Saturday afternoon. Damn. Was I in any mood to party? This shindig was in my name; what would happen if I just plain didn't show up?

I gathered myself together. I would go, though I was in no physical shape for sweat-drop-down-my-balls partying.

The event was at Barbosa's, and I came flanked with ladies from work who offered to be my "hoes" for appearance's sake. If only I could wear Kanye's ridiculous shuttered glasses, I'd really be set for a silky entrance.

Strutting into Barbosas, we found a long table decked with strangers and pitchers of beer. Freddy Finebloke (whose name actually is Daniel, but I guess Finebloke reveals his true Aussieness) gave me an enthusiastic handshake. I started to greet his friends, a mish-mash of Canadians and Australians. "Is this Alex Pollack?" they asked, incredulous. Yes, yes it is. I shook hands and heard names that I forgot by the next handshake. There was a Korean girl in the mix, and the fellas tried to convince her that I was an American pop star, that my face was plastered on posters and billboards. She smiled shyly but they kept going. One said I was responsible for the lyrics of "Hey, Jude." Thanks man.

I met more people and shook more hands. When a pitcher was served, the mild hubbub of my arrival subsided and I was back to being me. Observing. Watching. Listening. A good conversation here and there. It was intriguing to hear how these Canadians ended up in Korea. One used to teach Taekwando in Vancouver. Another used to be a grocery store manager in Toronto. They came because they wanted a change and they figured...why not? A reason not so dissimilar from my own. Cool.

The grocery store manager ended our conversation awkwardly, shaking my hand and saying nice to meet you when neither one of us was really going anywhere. I almost felt like I was rushing a fraternity, ordered to meet and greet and impress strangers. But that feeling too vanished eventually.

I guess my point is that, like Seinfeld, I like being in the back of the party, thinking up wisecracks about whoever's the center of attention. When the Canadians argued passionately with an American about the virtues of the two countries ("We got hockey and healthcare!," said the Canadian. "We got better sports!" said the American), I sat back and watched, grinning.

I didn't need to be Kanye to have a good time.

<--- a="" href="">Travelogue #10: The Best Explanation of Spam in the History of Mankind
--->Travelogue #12: Hiking and Fooding in Namhansanseong

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Travelogue #10: The Best Explanation of Spam in the History of Mankind

<---Travelogue #9: Bike-Riding Through Chuncheon
--->Travelogue #11: The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party

November 10 2007

My second full week of teaching is over and I feel as if I'm officially part of the fraternity.

Every day has been its own rite of passage. On Tuesday, I raised my voice for the first time. I'm talking RAISED IT. The reason for my volume was Bill, this crazy little booger with an oblong head and a propensity to shout, "It's-a-me, Mario!" in the middle of class. He's ten, maybe eleven. Kid can't stop turning his head around and around, like a Korean-kid-version of Linda Blair, looking at the desk behind him to talk to Daniel, another booger who thinks it's funny to peck his head as if he's a rooster. It's not funny.

I teach this class twice a week, and both times I've had to move Bill to the front of the room. On Thursday, I catch him eating Pepero, this cookie stick. He slips one to me and I accept it, until realizing, wait, he shouldn't be eating in class. Why am I turning into a character that would be the evil teacher in Dead Poet's Society? Because this class gets rowdy and won't pay attention, that's why. I tell Bill to stop eating, but right at that moment, he stuffs about seven candy sticks into his mouth. I tell him to spit it out into a wrapper. The class laughs, disbelieving, waiting. He coughs up the evidence.

I let him take his soggy cookie sticks after class ends. Until next week, Wild Bill.

In another class I teach, the kids are a little older, thirteen or fourteen. Last week we go over internet-related words and definitions:

"Alright guys, does anybody know what "spam mail" means?"

Kevin raises his hand. He's got the typical middle-schooler half-mustache, a trend that apparently transcends oceans. He's big-boned and serious-looking. I like him; he participates the most among a very subdued class.

"Spam mail is...factory that creates kind of ham and..."

"What?" I ask. No way is this happening. No way.

"It is factory that creates kind of ham, and mails advertisements about kind of ham to customers."

I can't help it. I try covering my mouth. I try to look somber. I can't. I laugh. I laugh.

Luckily the other kids don't really get on Kevin's case, and Kevin himself smiles good-naturedly when I explain the difference between spam mail and spam meat. Before the bell chimes, he articulates the different definitions. Well-done, man.

I will never look at spam the same way again.

<---Travelogue #9: Bike-Riding Through Chuncheon
--->Travelogue #11: The Alex Pollack Welcoming Party


Thursday, November 8, 2007

Travelogue #9: Bike-Riding Through Chuncheon

<---Travelogue #8: Come, Norebang with Me
--->Travelogue #10: The Best Explanation of Spam in the History of Mankind

Note: This article was featured in the Autumn 2008 edition of Emory Magazine.

November 7 2007

I haven't successfully ridden a bicycle since "Hanging with Mr. Cooper" was on TGIF. That's fourteen years. Maybe fifteen. I'm not sure, but I do know it's been a long time since I've pedaled outside an exercise room.

When I was eight years old, I powered up and down the sloped driveways and curvy cul-de-sacs of suburbia. I lost the training wheels but I didn't get cocky. No twisty-tire tricks from me, just steady-eddie riding before mom would call me back for chicken nuggets.

It was fun, but there came a moment when I just, well, stopped riding bikes. I think it happened sometime after my next-door neighbor kicked me in the testicles while scrambling for a football. The nut-kick was a cheap shot; I remember how his eyes narrowed and how his leg swung towards my groin like a dart to its target. He meant to kick me in the balls. That's how I feel to this very day.

Once upon a time he had been my bike-ridding buddy. We'd round the neighborhoods, sometimes just us, sometimes with his family. But after that kick, I didn't really want to hang out with him anymore. With that, biking gradually slipped away from my life, replaced by Taekwondo, soccer, basketball, and later, tennis. I didn't think too much about it until years later, when older and supposedly wiser, I was ready to hop a banana seat and ride with a pack of friends to Baskin Robbins.

But there were problems.

The seat felt high, the brakes felt impossible, the steering felt unpredictable. I dragged my feet against the ground. What was happening?

"Dude, you don't forget how to ride a bike."

"Nobody forgets how to ride a bike."

They were wrong.

I had forgotten how to ride a bike.

So I ran to Baskin Robbins. My friends rode bikes, and I ran. They beat me there by fifteen minutes, and my buddy's dad drove me back.

Not my proudest moment.

More years passed. When I told people I didn't remember how to ride a bike, they would gasp, as if I'd just told them I had six toes. "You don't know how to ride a bike?" they'd ask, eyes wide, jaws dropped. I'd try to laugh it off, but they'd be reluctant to laugh with me. Did they think I was a freak? Did I need to start a support group of brothers and sisters for We-Can't-Ride-Bikes Anonymous? Forget pink ribbons; we'd sport pink helmets.

Now I'm in Korea for a year. New foods, new people, new sights, new sounds? I'm ready for all that, but the last thing I expected to accomplish here was re-learning how to ride a bicycle.

Until Sunday, when I went to Chuncheon.

Chuncheon is a small, mountainous town in the Korean countryside. This time of year its landscape calls to mind east Tennessee, all lush greenery and dense slopes, but come winter, it's a hotspot for skiers and snowboarders. The town's a few hours outside Seoul, so I made the trip by train, bus, and car with a group of female teachers from work. The plan was to ride ATVs and bikes. Obviously, my plan was to ride an ATV, but the girls had other ideas.

"Alex, you're going to ride a bike," Janet told me, surrounded by four other teachers, their hands on handlebars, waiting for me at the side of a moderately busy country road. "Come on, guys," I said, waving them off, "I'm fine riding this."

The "this" I was speaking of was not an ATV, but a bizarre buggy-style machine from another century.

I'd decided to pilot these clunky wheels and I was cool with the decision, though I had to pedal like mad to reach a speed of 2 miles an hour. Cars buzzed by me and whatever poor soul who joined me at the passenger seat; incredulous Korean faces gaped at us from car windows. Yes, we were crazies riding a 19th century buggy through Chuncheon.

"Alex, get on the bike!" she repeated. With years of embarrassment and petty rationalizations seeping from my mind, I left my perch on the buggy and wandered towards the bike. Was I really going to do this? In Korea, of all places? This was not a straight multi-laned shoot to Baskin Robbins; this was a winding, unseen foreign road.

I got on the bike.

The girls were patient, supportive, but insistent. "If you fall," one said, "fall into the bushes, don't fall into the traffic. That would be bad."


"Keep pedaling," they said, "faster, faster!" I felt myself give way so I braked. "It's okay, keep going!" I appreciated their unironic words. While my male friends were all "Dude, just ride it, man," the girls were literally teaching me how. I felt like their little brother but I didn't mind, because, somehow, I was doing it.

Faster. Steering. Faster. The girls laughed at me because while they soaked up the gorgeous mountain scenery, all I could stare at were my handlebars and the pavement in front of me. "Stay steady stay steady stay steady," I muttered as I weaved around a hand-in-hand walking couple. When cars hovered behind me, I braked at the side. Whoo. I was doing it! I was riding a bike!

I felt like a little kid struck with the pang of a new discovery. I broke from the group and spent several minutes riding alone. I peered up at the mountains. The cool air nipped my cheeks. Usually I'm the kind of guy who analyzes a moment too much, who thinks of it too hard, who weighs it down until it can't breathe on its own. But this time, with the green mountains on the horizon, with me pedaling and staying steady, all I could think was: wow.


<---Travelogue #8: Come, Norebang with Me

--->Travelogue #10: The Best Explanation of Spam in the History of Mankind


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Travelogue #8: Come, Norebang with Me

<---Travelogue #7: Say My Name, Say My Name!
--->Travelogue #9: Bike-Riding Through Chuncheon

November 2 2007

Irony just doesn't cut it at a norebang (private karaoke room).

Forget your so-bad-it's-good rendition of "Strawberry Wine" and bring your funk and bring it good. Be earnest. Be passionate. Want it. It's not a joke if you bumble through your lines; it's a defeat. Six or seven of your friends, friends-of-friends, and drinking mates watch your every move not because they really want to hear you sing; no, they're watching because they're waiting for their turn. They want it, and when they get the chance, they won't hold back. And neither should you.

Last night this girl and I wanted it. I don't quite remember her name, but I remember her voice: what it lacked in range, it made up for in volume. She smelled like smoke. Her friend was a guy in a suit with a funky-cool hairstyle. I think he had earrings. He looked like the guy who arranges concert dates for The Bravery. These two characters formed part of my Norebang company; the rest of the veritable barbershop quartet were fellow teachers and a Korean-American guy who sunk his vibrato into Dookie-era Green Day.

The room was all shiny tiles, huge speakers, illuminate tambourines, microphones, and a widescreen tv featuring ever-so-on-message videos featuring Korean actors dancing in the snow and doing acrobatic moves in a bed of flowers. On a coffee table lay cans of beer, bottles of soju, and a remote panel where you get to dial in your tunes.

My tune was Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Otherside," a song I previously performed in the year 2000 to an ecstactic crowd at Lausanne Collegiate School.

How long, how long, will I slide! Separate my side!

I nailed it. I gave my new female friend a high five, even though her voice got a little fuzzy in the third verse. No matter. We weren't shy. We weren't bashful.

That's how you do Norebang right.

And that's why nobody does norebang sober.

<---Travelogue #7: Say My Name, Say My Name!
--->Travelogue #9: Bike-Riding Through Chuncheon

Travelogue #7: Say My Name, Say My Name!

<---Travelogue #6: Scary Stories for Korean Halloween
--->Travelogue #8: Come, Norebang with Me

November 1 2007

"Hey, Alex."

"Hey, Korean person who works with me. I know your name. You told me your name three times. I should remember'"

"Is this your first time in Korea?"

"Yeah, it is. Shit. Jaehun...Jah-hun...Hi-won...God, think think think."

"Is it going well, Alex?"

"It's awesome so far. And I get it. You know my name and you know I don't know yours. You win."

"Great. I have to go to class now. See you soon."


"Bye, Alex!"

I'm trying. I'm trying to remember. It's my second week in Korea and I've got so many new names of people and places and foods in my head that I can't keep them all straight. I wear my ignorance every time I mutter what I had for lunch, "Soon-day....guk-bop? I don't know, it's a soup."

I slur jibberish, as if I know Korean so well I don't even need to be bothered to form actual words. When well-meaning friends teach me a few phrases, I recite them silently, like a mantra, only to have them slip away into a morass of "bops."

I do the nod and little bow and smile routine, but hopefully I can pick up a little more of the language. And by little, I mean something beyond hello and thank you.

<---Travelogue #6: Scary Stories for Korean Halloween
--->Travelogue #8: Come, Norebang with Me


Travelogue #6: Scary Stories for Korean Halloween

<---Travelogue #5: Let the Leaves Crunch Under Your Feet
--->Travelogue #7: Say My Name, Say My Name!

October 31 2007

Koreans are not crazy about Halloween.

The kids know "trick or treat" and the whole theme of candy, but the celebration is benign. On my walk to work, I do not spot any women dressed as sexy teachers or Catholic schoolgirls. But that's okay. I bring Halloween into my classroom, or more accurately, my kids bring Halloween to me.

Scary stories. That's what I'm talking about. Since I'm still getting a feel for the writing and speaking levels for my classes, I figure it'd be a decent idea to have them write a scary story involving our class. Anything can happen, I say in the prompt. Anything. "It can be scary, weird, or just silly."

Some of the kids struggle, but others really run with it. Three twelve-year old boys join forces to write a story that flatters me and mildly disturbs me.

"Mr. Pollack" is what they call it.

Its uncensored text follows:

"Today we saw Mr. Pollack. He is human-being. We got shock because he is handsome. He has high nose, big eyes. Especially. He is very tall. He is perfect person. We got shock because he didn't look like a human. He has face of god. (Editor's note: uh...) In men, he is very handsome. (Editor's note: uncomfortable...)

The day is go, finally it became halloween. We say "trick or treat." Then Mr. Pollack give to us most cheap and yuk candy. We eat it. Finally we go to hospital one month."

I read this story. I smile. I laugh. But I want more. "What happens next?" I ask the guys. "Do you die in the hospital? What happens?"

They go ooh and ahh and they put their heads back towards the desks.

"Mr. Pollack come to the hospital and he force to eat yuk, cheap candy.
So we die."

I ask them is that it. Or...does something...happen...with ghosts...

Ooh! Ahh! Their pencils start scribbling.

"We become ghost and killed him."

So this pattern continues. Back and forth we go. This is fun.

Here is their new, final ending:

"he fell in the hell.
he pulled us so we fell in the hell
We were in fire."

Rearrange those words a bit and you got postmodern poetry fit for some San Francisco literary journal. Let's give it up for our little Korean geniuses.

<---Travelogue #5: Let the Leaves Crunch Under Your Feet
--->Travelogue #7: Say My Name, Say My Name!

Travelogue #5: Let the Leaves Crunch Under Your Feet

October 30 2007

Maybe it's just the time of year, but I'm loving the walk to school each afternoon.

I love the crunch of leaves under my feet and I love how I can practically smell the mountains, even though they're miles away. Korean students in black vests zip around on their bicycles and I snap pictures, but I try to do so covertly. Last thing I want to be is "that guy," that tourist, that dude who's trampling through another place solely for his own product. Sure, I want to chronicle the day-to-day sights of my Bundang life, but I don't want to do so the point where I'm a watcher rather than a participant.

In the name of participation, I bought "odang" from a street vendor yesterday. This incident is noteworthy because it's the first time I've bought something without the help of my fellow teachers. I was solo. The vendor smiled as if she was my auntie, demonstratively pouring the soupsh liquid into a little paper cup and sticking an accordion-shaped dumpling, or at least it looked like a dumpling, into the liquid. With a peculiar mixture of cluelessness and confidence, I offered her a bill worth 10,000 won (roughly equivalent to $10). She gave me back change. Alot of change. Oops. Apparently the "odang" cost 500 won (50 cents). I overshot a bit.

I need to learn how to say numbers in Korean.

Anyway, "odang" tasted good, refreshing, hot. I'd like it on a cold day. But because I was stoked by its 50 cent price tag, I overdid it. I bought four cups. Only by the fourth did somebody tell me what I was eating- something to do with fish. Fish soup? Kind of exotic for me, but I'm learning as long as I don't know what I'm eating here, I'll try anything.

The odang vendor sets up her shop right next to our school, so I'll be seeing more of her.

And I won't lie. Despite this talk of participation, I wouldn't mind taking a picture of her.