Monday, October 6, 2008

Look Mom, I'm Famous!.. (Almost)

I'm savoring my moment of stardom with the discovery this morning that my photo was featured in the Korean Herald. No, not one that I took... that would have been ridiculously cool. One that I'm in. But still, a little limelight never hurts, right? Even if it happens to be only my dismembered head sitting atop Adam's monstrous backpack. Oh yes, I believe I see a hand in there as well...

The shot is a photo taken of me, and Adam Hawkins, a friend I made at the MaskDance Festival in Andong last weekend. We were stringing small flags bearing our hand-painted wishes on a rope of twisted hemp strung near the Mask Theater. One of my friends from home asked me recently what the significance of, or the history behind, this event was. I can't really say too much about either, other than that the writing and raising of wishes is something Koreans do during a part of a number of celebrations. Often the wishes are strung around a "Wishing Tree." Here at the MaskDance festival, we hung them near wooden effigies of Hahoe masked men... our "wish protectors"?

As for my newspaper moment of fame, some of you who aren't as fluent in Korean as me are probably wondering what it might say. Actually, as I'm not in the least bit fluent, I'm still waiting on the translation... so I'll get back to you on that :)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Drinking Vinegar, Sweet and Sassy (An Update)

I get a surprising number of hits on my piece about drinking vinegars, "Drinking Vinegar: It Does a Body Good,"which I posted a couple of weeks ago. Within just the past few days, however, several more references to this favorite Asian health tonic have popped up (the Law of Attraction is at work!). Maybe we're paving the way for this to become a new Western trend... ok, maybe not, but I'll take making a few ripples in the pond any day...

For those of you catching on to the hype about this sassy little sipper, here are a couple of sites worth noting:

The blog This Time in Seoul is run by a freelance photographer and writer (such as I aspire to be!) who has returned to Seoul after previously spending a year here. I'm already getting some great tips from her on places to explore for good drinks, eats, and haunts in and around the big city.

She did a piece last year on an unusual theme cafe, which, after my success in exposing you to the finer pleasures of drinking vinegar (wink), may be as tantalizing to you as it is to me. I, for one, would definitely like to check it out.
Vinegar Cafe: Vine Eau

And another blog, My Korean Diet, is written by a Korean native who has been living in L.A. for the past seven years. So you get the "insider's" perspective on this whole drinking thing. Even he/she (?) admits a healthy dose of skepticism at first hearing about the vinegar trend... and then being slowly swooned by its magnetic personality :) She gives some great info about the different types of vinegars available in Korea and what to look for on the label (if only I could read the darn things!) so that you know you're getting good quality. You can take a look here:
Drinking Vinegar, Gamsikcho, Hongcho, Heuckcho

Finally, Nyam Kitchen even offers a recipe for concocting your own pomegranate brew so that those not living in the land of the calm can take matters in your own hands. (As it turns out, it's not too complicated, so the only thing holding you back is your own preconceived notions of vinegar as anything other than palatable).
Check here for the scoop: Pomegranate Vinegar Drink

Want more? I'll keep it comin'...

Friday, October 3, 2008

Taking for a Test-Drive

I've just found a cool little site that whips up photo-montage slide shows in a jiffy, ready to be posted to your website, blog, Facebook page, or wherever suits your fancy. The site is called, and I gave it a test run to see how user-friendly it was.

After setting up your own account (fast and FREE), you simply upload photos from your computer (or directly import from Flickr, MySpace, Facebook, and a slew of others), arrange them to your heart's content, save, and you're good to go. You'll get an HTML code on the spot for posting it online, and it appears you can add music as well (though I think that's part of the paid service subscription).

Here's to spicing up your (virtual) social life!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Korean Superstitions and the Red Kiss of Death

It's always intriguing to me the superstitions that exists in different cultures and societies. Take, for instance, the Western notion of "Friday the 13th" as a veritably unlucky day, or walking under a ladder, which would most certainly result in some terrible kind of bad luck to befall you. Ever see a coin lying on the sidewalk and bent down to pick it up, only to notice that it wasn't heads-up... and kept walking? I know I have. Yes, superstitions are deeply rooted in our culture -- even the simple blowing out of one's birthday cake candles is the embodiment of a superstition: if you blow them all out, after all, you'll get your wish. And how about the tooth fairy... you can't tell me you never put a lost tooth underneath your pillow...

During my stint in Taiwan, I had a chance to observe the superstitions of an entirely new culture. The most iconic, at least for me, were the liberal swaths of red that drummed up quite a visual feast in temples, homes, and businesses. Red is the token color for good luck, prosperity, and happiness. Take, for instance, the highly celebrated Lunar New Year holiday, in which children are given red envelopes, filled with money, as gifts. For ceremonies of all kinds, including wedding ceremonies, it is only befitting that red be a part of the performance (red shoes for the bride, or a red tie for the groom, even).

Which brings me to Korea. Nearly every day that I'm at work, I find myself red in hand, in the middle of grading papers, and stumbling upon one with no name. I'll do my detective work to find out which student the paper belongs to, poise my hand to write his or her name at the top, and then, in a moment which I can only credit to Korean deities watching from above, I realize the pen I'm holding is RED. I have sidestepped once again the heinous act of writing a person's name in red, which as everybody knows, is equal to giving them the kiss of death.

Wait a minute, you're saying, RED is RED, right? Red in Taiwan is good luck and prosperity, and red in Korea is... death and destruction? Yes, my friend, that's exactly right. The Koreans, for as far back as I imagine we white people have been sidestepping ladders (no, I take that back -- much, MUCH longer), have been writing the names of the dead in red ink. A couple of times I've nearly slipped in front of my students, and have been met with sighs and snorts of terror, signaling to me that I am about to make a grave (pardon the pun) mistake.

So if you're ever in mixed company with Koreans, do yourself a favor, and refrain from pulling that red pen out of your briefcase or purse of backpack when it comes time to swap contact info. A name writ in red might get you blacklisted :)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Creating in the Kitchen: Connecting to the World Through Food

I ran across the weblog today of a self-taught amateur "world chef" and backyard gardener (such as I aspire to be) who has dedicated his cyberspace to sharing cooking adventures of a predominantly Asian kind. Though he currently resides in the deserts of California, he spent several years of his life living abroad, including a stint in Tokyo where his first exposures to Korean cuisine bloomed into a full-fledged love affair with Asian-inspired cooking.

His background struck a chord with me, as my first experience living abroad -- teaching in central Taiwan --introduced me to foods and preparations I had never heard of before, and which tempted my curiosities unendingly. I sampled the smoke-scented of street vendors, sipped exotic teas, slurped authentic chao mian noodles and spicy chicken innards, and began peeling off the layers of Eastern gastronomy one morsel at a time. For me, my year in Asia was the beginning of what has now grown into a deep passion and appreciation for all things Eastern... not the least of which is food.

I scrolled through the pages of sumptuous photos and straight-forward narratives so carefully archived by Mr. "Evil Jungle Prince", eagerly recognizing names of Korean dishes I've sampled and beginning a mental list of others I want to try. Kimchi, for instance, has been high on my agenda of foods to prepare with my own two hands, and seeing the at least half-dozen renditions of kimchis presented on this site was encouraging, and somewhat demystifying. His version of Cubed Radish Kimchi (kkaktugi), for example, looks particularly appealing.

Mostly, however, I think I was attracted to this site not for the pretty pictures or the down-to-earth descriptions. It was a paragraph I read in his "About Me" section that seemed to echo -- almost eerily -- most own sentimentalities about food and cooking and sharing my thoughts with the world:
"...Cooking for me is... an escape of sorts. After having spent many years of my life living outside the United States, 'growing up' has meant settling down a bit. And while settling in a particular place in the world comes with it so many joys, it also means giving up one's freedom to roam around the world at will. Cooking allows me to have it both ways.

"...The act of cooking is also a form of therapy. In a world which is largely out of our control, cooking allows one to cultivate beauty and perfection... [To] prepare food with one's own hands is to exert control over an otherwise chaotic world."

Amen to self-therapy and complete creative control in the kitchen. Amen to the simplicity of wielding common ingredients to an uncommon end. And although I'm fortunate to be living abroad at the moment -- an experience which I truly am savoring, I know I won't always be so fortunate as to be immersed in the sights, sounds, and flavors of another culture. Preparing a dish from other parts of the world roots me to journeys from my past that are infused with an exotic blend of unforgettable impressions and fond memories. And perhaps that explains my fascination with not just seeing the world, but tasting it.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On Wounded Pride and Cryptic English

I don't know what's more discouraging-- watching one of my students rip her exam into shreds right before my eyes, or reading the almost cryptic writing that they hand in for their homework...

Today I handed the freshly graded exams back to my students and tried to temper their collectively wounded pride with a reminder that it's not the grade that counts, it's the effort you make. And if you truly tried your hardest, then that's what matters most. Erin, a slightly tempestuous teenager who usually keeps her lips too tightly pursed to allow a word of actual English to slip past them during class, surprised me today when she pulled what appeared to be an exacto-knife out of her innocent pencil case and began slicing her test score from the top page of her exam. She then proceeded to tear it into miniscule pieces, prompted no doubt by a duty to guard her sensitive ego from the bruising of classmates who ousted her with higher marks.

I slaved, I tell you -- slaved -- over preparing those exams. Couldn't she have had a modicum of respect and at least waited until after class to rip it up, instead of making a grand display of it on her desktop during class today? Forget her ego; what about mine?? (calm down, everybody, that's sarcasm.) That pretty much cements the deal that I struck with myself late Friday night after tearing through more paperwork than I've seen since my days working in the Human Resources department of a high-turnover company. Melanie, overzealousness is not thy friend. Time to take it down a notch and do thy job with a little less heart.

But then, I run across the seriously disjointed and almost altogether incomprehensible garble submitted by another student, Annie, later today. The handwriting was perfect, as was her spelling. But the rest of it sent me somewhere between guffaws and giggles. I will say one thing about my Korean students: for the most part, they are excellent spellers. Along with the study skills they've perfected in their Korean school system, they are more or less masters of repetition and memorization. But as I read (or tried to read) through her almost-too-short-to-qualify-as-a-paragraph paragraph, I had the funny feeling that I was reading something churned out from the "Korean to English" button on a web-based translation mill, such as BabelFish, or WordLingo:
Today with the moms and the bosom friends does a silt experience went together. Watch to shrimp, caught the clam and a beat from the silt and took the picture. And ate the lunch rice, made and did. Truth was fun. ~ ~ happy
Bosom friends. Lunch rice. This is good stuff, Annie. Just one thing -- what the hell is a silt experience?? ;) So I suppose I can't bring myself to do my job with less heart after all. These kids, snotty, sensitive, silly and everything in between, need good English like I need air to breathe. It's their ticket to a future filled with promise. Besides, at the end of the day, what matters most is that I'm making a difference, that my students are happy, and that they know they matter in this big world. I think my student Max sums it up quite memorably:
A school is funny so happy school but, school is sad too but, I Love school
On the bright side, I think it's safe to say I've got pretty good job security here in Korea... my students are going to be needing me for quite some time...

Monday, September 29, 2008

Seosanites Unite -- Foreigners on Facebook

Last Thursday night, I rode my bicycle to the Family Mart (Korea's version of the ubiquitous 7-Eleven) near Seosan's movie theater, to meet my good friend Chetty for a mid-week drink and chat. I had sent out an invite to several of the other foreigners that I've befriended in my few months here, and was expecting to see at least a couple of familiar faces sitting under the big, blue, plastic umbrellas on the corner when I pulled up. But I was bemused and surprised to instead find nearly a dozen strangers, including a couple of fresher-than-fresh recruits -- a cute young couple from the U.K., who had literally just arrived in Korea the day prior.

Over the next hour or so of laidback chatter, I realized how much things have changed since I arrived here nearly 3 1/2 months ago... And how my perceptions of Seosan as a small-town, off-the-beaten-path kind of place -- where I'd scarce cross paths with another foreigner for perhaps weeks on end -- has changed as well. I chose to come to Seosan for more reasons, obviously, than a high-rolling social life -- its charms (for me, at least) lay in its supreme accessibility to mountains and the coast, and its decent proximity to the action in Seoul (1h40 by bus isn't bad). Here, I thought, I'll have time to contemplate, meditate, and make progress on a number of personal projects that really don't require involvement by anyone other than myself. And I figured I could live with that, at least for a contract-length year. If I found myself going stir-crazy by that time, I'd just pick up and move on.

As time has passed, though, and as fate has led me smack-dab into the path of one foreigner after another, I've realized that living in Seosan really isn't quite as solitary as I had once imagined. Which isn't a bad thing, at all. It's been an education in human psychology to see how social boundaries that would exist under normal circumstances seem to all but completely fold when members of an absolute minority (such as the foreigners working as English teachers here) meet. It's almost as if we create our own little network not so much for friendship and comraderie, as for support and sanity. Getting together for a late-night conversation in the middle of the work-week, sitting on a street corner amid the trailing taillights of taxi-cabs and neon signs of nearby storefronts, we bond almost without consciousness, as if reaching out to others who also don't "fit" somehow restores our sense of belonging.

After getting home that night, I decided it was time to create an "official network" for all of us Seosan folks, especially so that the new people coming here could have a resource to tap to ease their adjustment. I've lived overseas before, and I know it can be a roller-coaster of a ride, trying to adjust to a new culture, strange foods, an incomprehensible language, and the hundreds of instances, large and small, that separate you from your former world and your place in it. It can all be quite overwhelming. Thanks to Facebook, anyone living in or around Seosan, South Korea, can find, with one click of a button, 25 other instant friends (and surely more to be found, as we get pulled into one another's paths).

And tonight, after connecting via our new Facebook group, "I Live in Seosan (and Surrounds)", about a dozen of us met together for a few rounds of bowling in Seosan's nightlife district. It was again a treat to just unwind and be social without the need to navigate language or cultural boundaries. Even if I do suck at bowling.

And I'm eager to see where this little social experiment of a foreigner community will go over time.... Will we organize activities and meet-ups more regularly? Will our numbers continue to grow? Will we find among ourselves the solution to one of the largest hurdles foreigners face while living abroad: finding a niche and filling social needs? Or will involvement in our own "exclusive foreigner circle" extricate ourselves even more from fitting in to our surroundings? Time will tell... in the meantime, I guess I better start learning a thing or two about bowling!