Sunday, January 27, 2008

Travelogue #23: The Day I Introduced Korean Kids to Fruit Loops

<---Travelogue #22: Busy Season/ A Look Back and A Look Ahead
--->Travelogue #24: Copied, Pasted, and Pissed: Plagiarism Gets Personal

It all started with the word "toucan."

Time 3B is the name of the class. I teach it twice a week, and its roster is filled with seven smart eleven year-olds. One afternoon we worked through the definition page in a chapter on illegal animal smuggling. That's when we found it: the word.

"Does anybody know what a toucan is?" I asked, wondering if I myself really knew the answer. I mean, it was a bird, right? That much I knew...that, and -

"Toucan Sam? Has anybody ever heard of Toucan Sam?"

I might as well have mumbled "Bueller? Bueller?" because nobody in the class was with me. I turned to the white board and began to draw. I sketched a cereal box and a looping beak.

"Teacher, is that an earthworm?"

No wonder I needed a tutor to pass third grade art.

"How about this," I said, "I'll bring in a box of Fruit Loops and you guys can see the toucan. How's that sound?"

They clearly listened to me, because when I arrived for the next class without the promised Loops, they branded me with the L word.

"Liar!" they shouted, smiles on their faces. "Liar teacher!"

"I didn't lie." I flashed them a black-and-white image of a Fruit Loops box that I had printed off the internet. "See?"

Disappointment hung in the air like a gray haze. I wasn't fooling anybody and I knew it. Next time, I thought, next time I would deliver.

And I did. Like a Kellogg's Santa Clause I swaggered into class with a bag of spoons, bowls, milk, and Fruit Loops. The students whispered to each other, crying "yes! and "thank you!" as I filled their bowls with the cereal. "Toucan," I said. "Toucan Sam!"

As they raised spoons to their mouths, they inspected the face of the box. They were eating and learning, learning and eating. None of them had ever before eaten Fruit Loops. In the past three months, Koreans had introduced me to a variety of exotic dishes, but this was a new day. Instead of just taking new experience after new experience, I was finally giving back....even if it was in the form of Fruit Loops.

"Delicious!" Jason said, later saying that he would ask his mom to buy a box.

Correct answers to the homework earned extra cereal. Hands shot up and I served the sugary treat. I even managed to videotape the action.

Thanks, Toucan Sam.

<---Travelogue #22: Busy Season/ A Look Back and A Look Ahead
--->Travelogue #24: Copied, Pasted, and Pissed: Plagiarism Gets Personal

Monday, January 21, 2008

Travelogue #22: Busy Season/ A Look Back and A Look Ahead

<---Travelogue #21: Misadventures in Seoul on New Year's Eve, Part 2
--->Travelogue #23: The Day I Introduced Korean Kids to Fruit Loops

It's hard to believe I've been in Korea for three months, but I'm believing it because I don't got time to be pre-emptively nostalgic. It's still "busy season", which means we teachers are spending eleven hours a day at the academy parting English lessons on to the kiddies. Busy busy busy. Last week was especially rough: an office-wide virus left the majority of my co-workers, myself included, drained and sick. Luckily there's only a week and a half until we're all back to our lax 4pm-11pm schedule. I'm excited for that return to routine.

Random notes:

- A Korean teacher at work has generously offered to give me Korean lessons. In addition, I've started studying a bit on my own, sounding out any random restaurant sign. I can now "read" in Korean, though I do so slowly and have little clue of the words that are coming out of my mouth. Still, just recognizing these once completely unfamiliar symbols is making me feel more settled in this country. That's a good feeling.

- I'm going to Beijing for Chinese New Year! Taking a full-fledged tour! I'm pumped, and looking forward to writing about the trip for this blog.

- The January rush caught up with me to the point where I don't have a new all-out story ready for this Sunday blog. As a result, I've decided to use this space for two glimpses of video from my time here, one from my first week in October,

the other from early January on the way to Itaewon.

I see most of the faces in these videos every day.

P.S. If it sounds like I'm being a jerk and teasing Koreans in the last line of the vid, that wasn't my intention. The girls I'm talking about are Janet ( a good friend) and EunJin (David's girlfriend). I was trying to be light-hearted! Right after I stopped filming though, David just shook his head at me. I guess the joke felt flat.

And now it's memorialized on my blog.

It's cool to speak Korean, people!

We're in Korea!

<---Travelogue #21: Misadventures in Seoul on New Year's Eve, Part 2
--->Travelogue #23: The Day I Introduced Korean Kids to Fruit Loops

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Travelogue #21: Misadventures in Seoul on New Year's Eve, Part 2

<----Travelogue #20: Misadventures in Seoul on New Year's Eve, Part 1
--->Travelogue #22: Busy Season/ A Look Back and A Look Ahead

I push my way through the swarming crowd. There's brushing, touching, warmth in the sea of strangers.

But where are my friends?

Trapped, I hop, like a little kid clamoring to look at the top of a rollercoaster. I hop, shouting the most unique last name I can think of that belongs to one lost buddy: "Gozelanczyk!" I scream. "Gozelanczyk!"

"American?" asks a bemused Korean to my right.

I chuckle and say yes, informing him that somewhere, in this mess of people I don't know, are people I do.

"Call them?" he says.

Can't. No cell phone.

"Have a number?"

No. I don't have anybody's phone number. Stupid. I'm stupid.

"Gozelanczyk!" I yell, hopping again.

From the corner of my eye I spy two girls in scarves laughing at me. "Picture?" one asks, revealing her camera.

The other positions herself tentatively next to me. These ladies are making me feel like a mid-level celebrity. John Stamos, watch your back.

As I explain to these girls my problem, I learn that they speak very little English. "Jin-Ah!" one says, interrupting me. "What?" I say. "My name," she says, " your name...what is?"

I introduce myself. With demonstrative fingers they tell me their age: seventeen.

These are high-school girls.

We're jostled hard by those around us. Somehow the crowd has thickened even further. Tick-tick-tick. The new year is no more than twenty minutes away and shouting Gozalencheyk is getting me nowhere.

"Ah!" Jin-Ah yelps. She's getting mashed by adults, so I intercept her arms and lock mine into hers. Ten minutes. Nine. Pushing, pulling, the crowd's not rowdy but it's got energy. Five. Four. Firecrackers hiss and spit overhead. We're still getting mashed. Three. Two. One.

Happy New Year! Or as the girls say: "새해 복 많이 받으세요!"("Say-hey-bok-ma-nee-ba-deu-se

More firecrackers pop and sizzle through the midnight sky. A concert roars on stage below the chiming bell. The girls are jumping and I'm jumping too, our arms interlocked as we revel in the sonic boom beginning of 2008. I shout one final "Gozelanczyk!", only to be hushed by a frowning Korean man. Hushed. Literally. Koreans must really disapprove of loud foreigners, even when everybody else's volume's turned to eleven.

By 1am, the cops break down their barricade and the crowd disperses. I'll find my friends now. I'm excited to see how they'll react when I introduce them to my fresh-faced companions.

"Jovan!" I yell. "Jovan!" I'm chanting a new name but my results are the same: I can't find anybody.

"Jo-van! Jo-van!" trill Jin-Ah and her friend in helpful chorus. I wonder what these girls really think of me: do they trust me just because I smile and nod in the right way? Are they aroused by the idea of a wandering night with a facial-haired foreigner? Or are they showing simple sympathy to a confused American? Maybe they're just plain sweet.

Starbucks. My friends got to be at Starbucks. Isn't the unspoken rule of getting lost that you have to return to the last central place where you saw everybody? For us that was Starbucks, where we ducked the cold earlier. They have to be at Starbucks, right?

They're not at Starbucks.

"Oh my God," I say, digging my knuckles into my forehead. "Don't worry! says Jin-Ah, patting my back. Cell phone. Why don't I have a cell phone? Why don't I have anybody's number? Why? "Don't worry!" Jin-Ah repeats with the same tap.

She's right. I might be low on cash, but there's a convenience store nearby. I can use the ATM and take a taxi...

...but I don't want to throw up my hands and go home! Not yet. Come on! For God's sake, it's New Years! The last thing I want to do is to shlump back to my apartment like a lost child on a failed field trip. I came to this country for adventure, and if that means roaming the shivering streets of Seoul with Korean high school girls, then that's what it means.

On Jongno, the thousands of partiers are gone, replaced by headlights swishing through a late night. The girls follow me into a GS35 convenience store, where another problem arises: the ATM instructions are in Korean. Like a lab monkey I punch random buttons, but Jin-Ah's friend steps in and directs me to the PIN number menu. "Pri-vacy! Pri-vacy" she and Jin-Ah chant, shielding their eyes and turning their backs as I enter my number. Wow, these girls are sweet.

Back into the cold we go. I'm losing hope of finding my buddies tonight...unless...unless...

That's it! A PC Bang! Three feet away from GS 35! If I race upstairs and grab a computer, maybe I can track down somebody online who knows my friends' phone numbers. That's it!

I point upstairs and explain to the girls my plan. Understandably, they appear a little confused. It's past 1am and I'm a strange man speaking a different language who's beckoning them to join me in a random computer cafe. I tell them they don't have to come, but they're already tailing me up the stairs. They want to help. All I can say is thank you, my tone half-apology, half-awe.

We find a computer.

Facebook. Gmail. Nothing. Nobody. What should I do? Jin-Ah gives me her phone number, and I jot down a quick email to a few colleagues with her number enclosed. "Please call," I type.


What now? The girls answer that question by claiming the keyboard and logging onto Cyworld, the Korean mySpace.
They want me to create an account so I can talk to them. This night is getting weird. How do they expect me to chat with them online if we're struggling to understand each other now?

A Korean message pops up. "Card? Card?" Jin-Ah asks me. What's she talking about? Card? She opens another window on the computer to Google translator. Korean to English. The clattering of fingers and then:

"alien registration card"

We're losing direction, Houston. Two hours ago I was waiting to ring in the new year with friends, an hour ago I was looking for those friends, and now? Now I'm flashing my alien registration card so that I can join an online Korean social network to keep in touch with two seventeen year old girls.

What is going on?

I click on the Google translator. English to Korean. I type out a carefully worded message thanking Jin-Ah and her friend for their above-and-beyond charity, and what the hell, I also offer to buy them dinner. I'm hungry, and I don't want to let their good deeds go unrewarded. I click on TRANSLATE.

Back outside, I see the glowing golden arch of McDonalds on the horizon, but the girls nudge me to a traditional Korean joint. We share a feast and dig into it with late-night-at-the-Waffle-House-like zeal. "Dutch pay?" they ask.

"I got it," I say, insisting.

They call me a "gentleman." In between bites, Jin-Ah asks me if I have a girlfriend. "No," I say, making my fists into binoculars over my eyes, "but I'm looking!" Jin-Ah points to her friend. "Boyfriend, she has, but me looking, looking." Jin-Ah imitates my binocular move.

Her friend sneakily types on a cell phone, which doubles as a translator. She brings the phone close to me so that only I can read its screen:

adj. lone·li·er, lone·li·est

She tilts her head towards Jin-Ah.


Poor Jin-Ah.

Into the cold go the three of us again, arms hooked together like a bizzaro Wizard of Oz troupe. Music. That's what we need to warm us up. I ask the girls if they know any American tunes. "Justin Timberlake?" I ask. " Sexyback!" they say. I fight the chattering of my teeth to deliver a high-pitched "take it to the bridge!" Jin-Ah's friend takes out a camera and films me shaking my moneymaker along the crosswalk. I wonder what they'll say if they come across this video in ten years. Remember that crazy American? I wonder if he ever found his friends?

We step into Lotteria, the Asian spin of McDonalds. The girls want to buy me dessert. This time they're the ones who insist, so I accept a milkshake.

It's almost 3am. They won't go home till the subways start running at 6. That's their plan but it's not mine. As I polish off my milkshake, I realize my friends might be worried. To them, I might as well have just disappeared. It's time to hail a taxi.

It's time to go home.

No hugs. Maybe that would be too much. "Call me!" Jin-Ah says as I slide into the rear of the cab. Thank you, I tell the girls. Thank you, thank you, thank you.


Happy New Year!

"Doesn't this tell you that you need a cell phone?" my friend David says the next day.
"Maybe," I say with a smile. "Maybe."

<----Travelogue #20: Misadventures in Seoul on New Year's Eve, Part 1
--->Travelogue #22: Busy Season/ A Look Back and A Look Ahead


Monday, January 7, 2008

Travelogue #20: Misadventures in Seoul on New Year's Eve, Part 1

<----Travelogue #19: Disconnected on Christmas
--->Travelogue #21: Misadventures in Seoul on New Year's Eve, Part 2

God. It's freezing and I have to pee.

I'm standing in one of the world's biggest cities in the heart of its biggest party of the year. This is New Year's Eve in Seoul and there's me in a growing, shivering crowd of revelers in coats and Shreklike blankets. We're packed close and tight at the heels of the Bell Tower (Bosingak) on Jongno, with tens of thousands of Koreans and giddy foreigners waiting for the pop concerts, the fireworks, and the ceremonial midnight ringing of the bell.

* photo courtesy of

God. I really have to pee.

"How much longer till midnight?" I ask Emily, one of a group of eight who with me descended from Bundang into this large but tempered crowd. "How much longer?"

"Um," she says, checking her watch. "We're about an hour away."

An hour? Is she joking?

"You should probably just hold it."

Damnit. I should not have downed those bottles of KGB Vodka and Lemon. What was I doing drinking carbonated alcohol anyway? Who did I think I was, a blonde girl on prom night?

Around us the crowd is increasing in size and density. If I leave my group, there's an outside chance that I'll have difficulty finding them through the throngs of celebrating strangers. But the bathroom is right there, in that building, no more than a two minute walk even through foot traffic.

I make a run for it.

"Hurry back," Emily says.

I make it quickly to that building, only to discover that it closed minutes ago. Shit. Time is ticking. I don't think about New Year's Eve anymore. I don't think about finding my friends anymore. I have to pee I have to pee God have mercy I have to pee!

I race down to the subway stop on Jonggak. I don't walk like a normal person,; I hop by the tips of my toes. This subway doesn't run on New Year's but its hallways are full with people going somewhere, some place I don't care I'm hopping hopping hopping looking for signs signs signs no signs.

Oh man.

Wrong way.

I walked the wrong way, to the very end of the subway station, where I find a big red and blue restroom symbol pointing the opposite direction.

No time to think. Hop hop hop. 100 meters to go the sign says. Hop hop hop. 75 meters. Hop hop hop. 50 meters.

Long line. Of course there's a long line, but I'm here. I'm here!

I exit that bathroom and then the subway as an energized man, a new man. I'm ready to meet 2008.


Dozens of thousands more people have converged on Jongno. Cops are holding hands, barricading certain sections of the road:

Where the hell are my friends?

<----Travelogue #19: Disconnected on Christmas
--->Travelogue #21: Misadventures in Seoul on New Year's Eve, Part 2