A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Great Olympic Park Mystery

Today was a groin-grabbingly beautiful Sunday (a reference both to the Simpsons, and the fact that last time Shane and I visited the park on Christmas Day we saw an old man fondle the junk of several anatomically correct statues) so we headed to Jamsil to bask in the strange splendor of Olympic Park.

By and by, we came across the following exhibit, slightly off the beaten path, in a little copse of trees:


There was something immediately intriguing about this disconnected set of rusty door, chair and (behind the door) cage. Especially since it wasn't marked with a plaque of title and artist, like the others.


A side view gives a little more insight into how out of place this set-up was, which is a feat in a Park full of such strange art.


This was the only clue as to the identity of the mystery artist and their work.


On closer inspection we see a Merry-Go-Round pony trapped in a rusty cage in the second "room." We decided there must be more to this overall piece, so we did a little more poking around. Our first breakthrough was this:


Shane brushed away the leaves at the base of the chair to reveal a set of bare footprints. This especially piqued our curiosity when a strange old man, carrying a soundless white dog emerged from behind us as insinuated himself in our investigation.

"Ahhh," he said, apparently to us.

We kept staring at the footprints.

"What have you found?" he asked.

"Footprints," Shane said.

"Aha. And how did you find them?" he persisted.

"I brushed the leaves away with my foot," Shane recited from his detective handbook.

The man smiled strangely, and started walking as if to leave, only to turn around again and say:

"You are interested in this sculpture?"

"Yes," Shane said matter-of-factly. "It's interesting."

"Aha. Interesting," he said quietly and wandered off down the path with his tiny white dog in his arms.

We both sort of looked at each other in acknowledgement of this Twin Peaks moment that had just happened.

"Do you think he was the artist?" Shane asked me.

"No," I said. "I think the artist would be more like a guy solemnly standing next to his work, and when people looked from it over to him he'd just say 'yes, this is my fault.'"

That said, the old man was definitely an omen wrapped in a red herring, like "the cowboy" in Mulholland Drive.

We took a closer look at the pony cage:


A strange silver light bulb. Curious, but much more so after the next discovery:


An immovable switch attached to the seat of the chair! And look closer and you'll see a wire also half-buried under the leaves.


Shane uses his crack dusting skills to uncover the path of the wire...


Aha!! So the electric wire from the immovable switch feeds into the silver light bulb in the rusty pony cage... and... uh... uh... are we any closer to answering the aching question WHY?


In the end, the mysterious sculpture is a riddle best left unsolved. Again, like a David Lynch movie; the clues are there, but the closure can never be given. The rusty two room facade, with its pony cage, silver light-bulb and white face with closed eyes in one half, and through the half-cracked open door, the chair with the naked footprints, the immovable switch, and the powerless wire as the only thing linking the two disparate, yet indivisible halves.

And what of the old man?

A curious bystander? An architect of intrigue? A human key to a lock with no latch!?

Interpretations are appreciated...

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Burning Sensation

"Teacher!"

*ack* *gasp* *tears welling*

"W...water!"

Rarely a day goes by where I don't hear this forlorn cry, and the more sympathetic among you might say "Sam Teacher, for the love of God, let the children drink!"

But your cries would be for naught.

Not because I'm a sadist— quite the opposite— I'm trying to curb self-destructive behavior in the guise of innocent snacking.

The culprit? Ddeokbokki.

Photo: Galbijim

Rice cakes stir-fried in excruciating red pepper sauce, and a permanent fixture in the spasming, sweaty hands of school children throughout the country who are under its spell.

Ddeokbokki is spicy— virally spicy— in a way that masks all semblance of flavour, save burning.

I tried it unassumingly once, and was so overcome by the potency that I actually drank Korean tap water to calm the inferno. "That's the spiciest thing I've ever tasted," I thought, "and I once ate a big heaping bowl of spice!

(The latter being untrue.)

For some reason (possibly because it is cheap and everywhere... so really, forget "possibly") the kids can't get enough of it, despite the fact that it obviously causes them physical pain. Children clutch burning lips and cry out for a drink, but if you're going to sneak it into the class and munch in my blind spots, you're going to suffer smart guy.

I ask the kids why they eat it if it causes them such pain.

They shrug.

It's a fixture of Korean youth culture. You'd be a social leper if you didn't like ddeokbokki. One of my students (my favorite, You-jin) wrote in a journal entry:

"My favorite food is 떡볶이. It is a thin rice cake in spicy sauce. It is very, very ultra-good, but Sam does not like the taste... WHY???"

It was as if I forced her to question the very fundamentals of being human:

1. Bipedal.
2. Tool-making/using.
3. Thinking (occasionally).
4. With Soul.
5. With ddeokbokki.

It may be a small step in a hopeless war, but my tiny effort in the fight against culinary masochism will at least leave a few reconsidering their position on going through 40 minutes of gochujang hell, for a sweet, forbidden nosh.

Sam-Sam: 1

Monday, April 23, 2007

Colour your palate patriotic

"Teacher! Canada is very clean?"

"Very." (TO? Tar Ponds? Forgetaboutit...)

"Teacher! Canada is very peaceful?"

"Very."

"Teacher! I want to be a Canadian and eat hamburgers for breakfast!"

...oh?

This is one Korean boy's vision of Canada: a great northern giant, full of clean air, wildlife, smiling people and... hamburgers on tap.

Is that an entirely flawed picture?

Coming from West to East, the most obvious difference is multiculturalism. We North Americans may be neophytes with regards to... well... civilization... but diversity is a real strength when it comes to cultural currency.

Korea has been here for thousands of years with a firm sense of national identity, tempered through umpteen invasions and subjugation from foreign nations. As a recovering(?) "Hermit Kingdom," the insular tendencies still remain.

When I'm asked about Canadian food I find it a little hard to give the kids original answers. What is fundamentally Canadian food? Everything "traditional" is borrowed from Ma Briton with a frontier bent, and most everything else is a spread of necessity and world cuisine. Korean food is Korean food, straight up; a rich tapestry of soups, rice and side-dishes to last until the end of time. After 150 years of just stuffing whatever was around into our faces, doesn't that just seem like an after-dinner belch in comparison to a cuisine that's been kicking around since majorly BCE?

I tell them about standard fare like fish, lobster, fruit and meat pies, stews, salads and potatoes of all persuasions. "Famous" offerings like Montreal smoked meat sandwiches, donairs, Lumberjack breakfasts and other iconic heaps (a uniquely North American form of presentation). Not to mention a table of diverse ethnic items which came as ingredients and wound up part of the greater stew.

We're free to eat a little of what everyone eats, with the benefit of it being prepared (generally) by those who hail from the food's country of origin. Greek food from a Greek family, Indian from 2nd-generation family secrets, a hodgepodge of flavors and cooks all fitting nicely into a microcosm of that "melting pot" to which we so frequently refer. That bias tends to draw attention to Korean-style Western food, which seems to generally be conceived from a picture, rather than a recipe. To those other expats who've shoveled in a mouthful of baked potato only to find the sour cream was in fact whipped cream— you fully appreciate what I mean.

That's not to say there aren't foreign restaurants in Korea. Far from it. But the majority of people's diets I'm sure is made up of traditional Korean fare, with some Western injections.

Sometimes kimchi comes off looking like a secondary flag; a symbol of national pride, albeit fermented. Time, patriotism, tight borders and shifty looks come together to spell out "I'm Korean, what else would I eat?"

I hope this isn't coming off judgmental or condescending. It's just a complete shift in perspective for me, coming from a country where we're all immigrants in one way or another, to one with, like, 99% ethnic homogeneity.

It's just a case of "you are what you eat" I suppose.

I'm eager to hear opinions though— those of you at home, if you were me, what food would you miss? To those here, would you (like myself) kill for good cheese?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Thanks John Williams...

So I have one student who is about 7 or 8, and at the most basic level of English possible. He barely knows his ABCs which frankly should the most basic prerequisite for getting into a hagwon.

Anyway, he's a bit of a challenge to keep occupied since most everything is over his head.

I've discovered the key however, to making him at least like me and not think I'm this pale ogre trying to beat him over the head with a club of knowledge twice a week.

Movie themes.

He knows 'em, he loves 'em.

I saw him doodling a shark on the corner of his worksheet.

"Jaws?" I asked, testing the waters.

His eyes lit up.

"Hahaha. JAWS!"

One afternoon I could tell he was spacing. There is only one other student in the class, so I have some liberty with diversions. I started to draw the iconic shark mouth on the white board.

"Da-na," I started.

"Da-na."

Again for good measure.

"Da-na, na-na, na-na, na-na, ahhhhh!" he happily chimed in, ending in a swimmer's untimely demise.

Granted, the subject matter is no more interesting now, but at least I've won him over to the fact that I'm not completely lame.

He knows "My Heart Will Go On" too.

I let that one alone.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

So say we all

The media is currently full of stories on Cho Seung-Hui, the South Korean resident alien who killed 30+ students at Virginia Tech in the US on Monday.

I hadn't read anything about the shooting until today, but both the Globe & Mail and the Korean media are inundated with new and breaking stories about the 23-year-old killer. Many of the kids at school are surprisingly aware of what happens in the media. When I was in junior high (older than almost all of my students) I wasn't the most socially aware kid, only vaguely understanding why the OJ verdict was announced on the radio in my computer class. But these kids are up on many grisly happenings, like guys chopping up their girlfriends in the news and such, so they were definitely aware of this.

Jeremy, the American teacher at our school even said some of the students apologised to him, as an American, on behalf the the country.

Reading some of the stories at the Korea Herald, it's interesting to see how this has really galvanized people. University students are holding memorials for the victims; people on the other side of the world whose lives they had no part in, but were taken away by one of their "countrymen."

Koreans take their cultural identity very seriously. They are very proud and nationalistic and eager to advertise their culture. Watching commercials for broadcasts of American reality TV like The Apprentice, or Survivor, they will always mention if a Korean-American is participating. The English TV Station Arirang regularly runs documentaries on Koreans who are involved in local politics all over the world (from New Brunswick to Hawaii). If a Korean is making good in the world, other Koreans want to know about it.

Fair enough. Most countries are the same.

Through the media coverage of the shooting in Virginia, as well as the general response from the students, it seems this cultural ownership goes both ways. If a Korean does something horrible out on the world stage, the government seems quick to respond and apologise and make sure it doesn't injure that image of Korea which they are trying to project. I'm not by any means saying that this is opportunistic or just empty politicking, but I think that Koreans are just generally concerned with how they are seen. Maybe this comes partly from notions of a collective society, where everyone is just part of a big family (hence the familiar honorifics). As such, if a member of your family commits a horrendous crime, though you yourself are not responsible, it still reflects badly on your family situation. A few rotten apples puts the bushel in question, so to speak.

Take this excerpt from an apologetic editorial in The Herald:

"The slayings were a crime committed by a member of the Korean community, one rotten apple. But the savage act was not sponsored by the Korean community or the Korean state. Nonetheless, there is no denying that the shocking incident will taint the good image that the Korean community and the Korean nation have strived to build among Americans."

It goes on to make some rather paranoid predictions:

"For example, it would be a good idea to send a delegation to Virginia Tech to express the condolences of the nation. It will also do well to consult closely with the Korean community in the United States on what they can do together to improve relations with the host country and avert another outbreak of racial conflict like the L.A. riots back in 1992."

I doubt this situation will degenerate into race riots, but again the concern is to look after (and own up to) one's own.

That said, there are always differences of opinion. An unfortunately named "netizen" was quoted in this article posting their concern on a Korean website:

"'As a Korean, I feel the need to apologize to the victims and family members. We should hold a nationwide candlelight vigil to show Korea's grief,' said user foxyfox26."

But maybe a younger demographic is less influenced by this older idea of National "responsibility":

"'The suspect is an American who spent most of his life in the U.S. I cannot understand why him being a Korean is suddenly the core of the issue," said 25-year-old college student Park Yu-ra. "We should lament what has happened, but this is not an ethnic issue that the whole Korean society should apologize for.'"

In any case, all notions of Nationhood aside, this is still a tragic loss of life and it is reassuring that so far away, people still feel for those lives senselessly lost.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Then again...

Oh, the bounties of YouTube...

Remember this bizarre Cherry Coke commercial from the 90's?

I guess we're not without absurdity and Eastern kitsch in advertising.

How strangee...

Hyundai Capital Prime Loan

Okay... so this commercial used to play NONSTOP on TV, and I thought it was strange and annoying, but now— oh boy— now they have new one which is even worse.

In stead of just one strange Children of the Corn/Betty Crocker bleach blond droning on about "Hyundai Capital Prime Loan" they have a whole family.

A coven of peroxide slick Australians are sitting at their antique dinner table and the son makes a solemn announcement:

"Dad... Prime Loan."

*gasp!*

"Prime... Loan?" the father replies with a pause as if to declare "you killed... HOW... many hookers with my car?"

"Yes, Prime Loan," the son responds this time with confidence.

"Prime Loan..." the Grandfather says with wise resignation, that speaks "well, that's settled then isn't it?"

"HYUNDAI CAPITAL PRIME LOAN!" the mother says with such absurd celebration, as if a life-long metal rod has finally been removed from her "arse equator."

It is ridiculous!

Hyundai has some extremely strange advertising agents.

First the commercial with the Willy Wonka song and helicopters being built out of Lego in time-lapse, and now this bizarre emission with caricatures of blond, smiling white people saying the same words over and OVER.

It gets into my head, it does.

Sorries to other K-land readers if this now winds up whistling through your head too, like a nonstop bullet train to nowhere.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Where's my happy teacher?

Habit is an important crutch when it comes to learning a language. The difficulty is in learning to expect pragmatic answers. Ask any Korean how they are, and I swear even if their dog or grandmother just died they'd tell you: "I'm fine thank you. And you?"

My last class of the day (most days) is with Paul's little sister, and an adorable but uncontrollable 6-year-old named Young-Chang. They usually drive me a little nuts because it's late and they don't want to study, and I'm exhausted and starving and I don't want to wrangle them.

Today I got up to erase the board with the kind of silent gloom that spells out to them "uh-oh, we've done it this time." Sometimes if they know they've pissed me off they'll actually say they're sorry at the end of the class and hug my legs and I'll tell them "that's okay."

Today they tried the same scam and I just didn't say anything.

Young-Chang looked up at me with a sort of sad, confused face.

"Teacher... where is my 'that's okay'?"

How could you possibly stay angry after that?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Dung sleuthing

A quick internet search turned up this blog with further insight into the Korean children and their dung fetish. The author tells us of a fecal-friendly notebook character named Dongchimee, who's entire existence is made clear by the accompanying illustration.

Recently I was watching an online Flash cartoon with Paul's sister where a snooty girl who ignored her friends at the beach to work on her tan, is pooped on by a seagull (of course the dung dropped from the bird is a perfectly formed, iconic pile, rather unlike real bird shit...) and winds up with a severe tan, but for a pale patch of skin in the shape of the tell-tale dung.

Further investigation yielded the fact that the word "dung" itself is a false cognate with the Korean word for poop: 똥 "ttong."

This enlightens us as to why they all know the word, but the mystery of why it's the stuff of little girls' stationary, and an entire quarter of Paul's brain will never be explained.

Monday, April 09, 2007

-ing lot


At this point my tragic face has dissolved into something more like fighting the smile at Shane cracking up while taking the picture...

Lowdown on Yeouido

Sunday, Shane and I added our bodies to the hundreds of thousands of Koreans who descend on Yeouido for the inaugural Cherry Blossom Festival.

Yeoudio is an island in the middle of the Han River in Seoul, and is famous for two things: commerce and little pink flowers.

Called "the Manhattan of Seoul" or the "the Wall Street of Seoul" by those seeking cheap points of comparison, Yeoudio is the commercial heartbeat of the city, and is home to many of its most prominent skyscrapers, such as the 63 building.

Long before the thought of teaching in Korea ever ricocheted around in my brain, I had wanted to see the cherry blossoms of Asia. I'd seen Chinese and Japanese films where choreographed battles played out in lush copse of cherry blossoms like spastic butterflies having sex. To me it was such an exotic image— pagodas and temples aside, it was the picture of Asia.

Being a rural kid in Nova Scotia, and no stranger to orchards or the apple blossoms of the Annapolis Valley, I don't know why the image of the cherry blossoms struck me quite like it did, but as I set out for Yeouido on a crowded subway on Sunday, I was excited.

I knew it wouldn't be an afternoon as vividly rendered as the scenes in a film, but nonetheless I was determined to check out every single blossom the place had to offer me. With a map from my Lonely Planet Seoul City Guide, I plotted out the route to maximize ogling. We would follow the masses to Yeouido Park (I think Seoul's second largest after Olympic Park...) then along the Riverside Park by the Han, before heading west around through the Satkang Ecology Park, and culminating in a place listed on the map simply as "Cherry Blossom Park." This was to be the proverbial pollen in the blossom crown, since I imagined it to be a lush grove of pink and calm, and an antidote to the dirty, swollen weeks of the same old eyesores.

I met up with Shane at Yeoudio station and we bought some delicious dried fruit (a real variety too: apricots, kiwi, pear, figs, Chinese dates, and many indistinguishable) for a snack in one of the many parks on the agenda. We followed a throng of weekenders out and across to Yeoudio Park, past many street vendors selling cotton candy, chestnuts and small cream cakes.

The entrance to the park was fairly congested with kids and young couples renting bikes to take out on the red cycling paths. We reached the open middle area and headed to where the trees began. Since it's only early April, we were denied the full effect of the thick, falling blossoms, but the touch of pink was enough to lift my spirits. The hills were covered by families enjoying picnics of kimbab and other favorites. Many women were out with their toy dogs, and old folks took naps under trees despite all the noise of the day. I even noticed a couple sort of passed out on each other with a few empty Budweiser bottles next to them.

We took turns posing for photos by the giant statue of King Sejong the Great, one of the most important figures of Korean history and the face of the 10,000 won bill (it's all about the Sejongs...)

We walked the course of the park and came up alongside the Han, and the festivities that were going on there. By this point the smell of the bondaegi carts every 10 feet or so was starting to take its toll, plus the congestion was starting to reach critical mass. If the sidewalk was a nose, you'd be pounding the Sinutab, or perhaps enjoying the immunity to the bondaegi perfume. Regardless, we had reached the river and were trying to scout out the locations used in the Korean monster movie "The Host."

We made our way along the riverside where thousands of more families were having picnics, flying kites and riding bikes. The sun was shining despite the haze of smog along the mountains and building tops on the other side of the river. We walked past a Exhibition-type carnival of giant inflatable rides for kids, most of which generally involved the children being flung out out of somethings mouth: a shark, dragon, palm tree, Titanic.

Up a sleep flight of stone steps near the Seogang bridge, with bright yellow hyacinth blooms on either side, we were met by yet another dense pack of pedestrians, as well as a man selling coconuts to drink from. I will never, ever, be surprised by what I might be able to buy on the streets of Korea. The next bit of walking saw us backtrack through the busiest sidewalk I've ever traversed in my life (see yesterday's photos) and through Yeouido Park again, to reach the Ecology Park on the other side.

By now my feet hurt, but I just imagined the pink tranquility of our final destination.

The Ecology Park was very bland, but a welcome slice of peaceful. We scaled down a stone incline and walked along the boardwalk over the river with no fish, and shitty magpies that I could swear were mocking me. The dry reeds and the 4:00 sun had a nice warm sepia tone, made even nicer by the saxophonist who had parked his motorcycle on the street-side of the park, and was camped out playing mellow tunes for no one in particular.

After emerging from Satkang, we checked the map; not far from the Cherry Blossom Park, and my fantasies fulfilled. First however, we stumbled into a small square with a statue of two nude women, and a large plaque informing us that this was the Ankara Park in appreciation for the Turks who were sent to help fight in the Korean War. We made our way through the surprise bonus park, passing a re-creation of a traditional Turkish chateau-type house, and a sad looking guy in a fatigue jacket, smoking in an open pavilion. We climbed back up to the road and saw a street lined with cherry trees.

"It must be on the other side of that hill," I said to Shane, and we jay-walked to our mission objective. I scouted over the thicket, expecting to see an orchard type field of cherry trees nestled between the river and the hill.

It was a heavy machinery plant.

"Maybe it's a little further down?"

We walked.

A dirt soccer field.

We walked.

A parking lot.

Needless to say, as we walked the sidewalk itself was lined with cherry trees, and the horrible realization dawned on both of us. Is this sidewalk the park? No... that would be cruel to label an entire portion of the map as a Cherry Blossom Park, only to have the park be a stretch of
sidewalk with cherry trees every bit as present as they are on pretty much every sidewalk on this goddamn island... right?


That was, in fact, the case.

Perhaps the "-ing lot" portion was cut off by the printers?

Shane took a great photo of me looking crushed next to the lot (see above).

Despite being let down by my grand imagination, the afternoon and the blossoms we did see, were lovely. We got a little lost trying to make it back to the subway, but all prevailed and we soon found ourselves in the familiar environs of O'Kim's Brauhaus, sharing a big plate of sausage with German microbrew, just as Jesus would have wanted us to do, had he the means to say so.

After the brigand known as Patenaude and I parted ways, I made my achingly long subway ride back home. When I finally scored a seat it was next to a pretty girl, much to my delight, but one who stayed only two more stops before getting up and spilling the soju wino who was sleeping on her shoulder. He spilled right off her and into the now empty seat space beside me. The guy reeked of booze and had seemingly little control over himself. He stumbled awake, and straight-up, but soon fell again to dozing and leaning closer and closer to me. I was pressed for dear life against the metal rail at the end of the seat. His ball cap fell off and he didn't notice. A man in the other set of seats picked it up and balanced it on his knee. The wino himself was the next to fall— on me.

He let out a contended sleepy sigh and flipped over onto his back, letting his head flop into my lap like a teething baby, drunk on rum.

I poked him a few times in the head.

"Ya... ya..." I said in a drawn out way to get his attention.

He was perfectly content not to move.

I slapped his forehead a few good ones, and he grunted but didn't budge.

Everyone on the train found this terribly amusing, and I couldn't help but laugh myself as I put both my arms under the wino and none too softly shoved him into an upright position, not unlike an airline tray.

He grumbled himself awake only to pass out again in the opposite direction. Now he was the auburn haired kid in the cream-coloured Converse's problem.

The kid quickly changed seats.

When I finally arrived at my station, I got in line for a taxi outside. I was cold because my jacket was put to use sensibly preventing the salsa bottles in my shoulder-bag from smashing together. It was a good 10 minute wait before I opened the door to a yellow cab and was immediately struck by two things:

Thing the first: "This cab smells like butterscotch... or a butter-toffee cappuccino of incredible potency."

Thing the second: "Holy shit, does that cab driver look exactly like a Korean version of Bruce Campbell!"

It was true.

He had the long, pronounced face and chin, cock-sure grin, and all the chutzpah the Army of Darkness could handle.

It was weird.

We had a few short exchanges in simple English, and Bruce offered me some cigarettes because I was Canadian. He lit up himself because, frankly, he was way too cool to not be smoking and driving at the same time. Oh, and he was chewing gum too.

Butterscotch.

After recklessly driving the swerving back roads to just under the big neon sign for the Hotel Bellagio, I paid Bruce the $5 and change the 15 min. drive had cost me, but before I got out of the cab, he put his hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eye and said: "Shop smart, shop S-mart."

...

Not really, though.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter & Cherry Blossoms in Yeouido

Today Shane and I walked the entire perimeter of Yeoudio island in Seoul, looking at the cherry blossoms.

I am very tired.

Tonight pictures, tomorrow words.


Bondaegi: a Korean snack of silkworm pupa, boiled in their own juices at busy pedestrian thoroughfares. What could go better with ice cream? At first I thought the cones were for serving the silkworms and, all cultural differences aside, that is just malevolent.


Me and the Great King Sejong. We were pretty much just chillin'.


Fish.


The 63 Building: a landmark Korean structure, famous for having... 63 floors.


Pretty flowers with urban haze.


A sidewalk crushingly packed with people all eager to see the first cherry blossoms. Casualties are largely overlooked.


Another shot of the cherry trees lining the sidewalk. There's a story to be told about this diabolical stretch of Yeouido, but that will have to wait for tomorrow.

As will the tale of the sleepy soju wino and Bruce Campbell's Butterscotch Taxi.

Happy Easter!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Seek Salivation... OKAY!?

On Tuesdays and Thursdays Paul and I eat dinner together at a little kimbap shop down the street.

I had finished shoveling down my dolsot bimbimbap, and Paul was transfixed by the TV in the corner playing Yu-Gi-Oh, so I said "hello" to the Korean man who had been desperately trying to make eye contact with me while I ate.

He and his lady companion gave out a little cry of delight, and asked me if I spoke Korean... in Korean.

"Anio."

They proceeded to explain to me in very limited English, that they worked at a church nearby (they gave a admiring gasp when I said I was from Canada) and they'd like to have me come by after work to have a coffee and a short talk. Now, usually there would be alarms triggered when someone from the Church offers you beverages and conversation in their place of worship, but being generally lonely as I am here, and always curious what it might be like to have someone attempt to "save" me in a second language, I took them up on their offer. Since I'm a foreigner I figured they wouldn't try any funny business, and I could pretty much bugger off whenever I felt strained.

So after work I met with the two clean cut, if pleasantly desperate looking (missionary types do tend to have a look do they?) and walked with them to the "church" which I'd passed by a million times before but didn't register. From looking at the little complex it was in, the place could have been any number of PC Bangs or shitty billiard halls, if not for the small letters that spelled out "World Mission Society" on the threshold.

We got upstairs, and walked into a very open, slightly chilly hall which looked pretty much exactly like any church hall you've ever been to in your life. I would have felt like I was going to a Cub Scout meeting to play soccer baseball, only I wasn't allowed to wear shoes.

I was greeted by an incredibly enthusiastic man (the right reverend whatever he calls himself) who had a fairly good command of English and urged me to sit on a cushion in the middle of the floor. He pulled up a small table that had a painting of the Last Supper laminated on it with some Korean text. The room was very bright, and there was a noticeable presence of nothing-in-particular. Halls like this tend to be built for capacity, so for small gatherings the stretch of teaky laminate floor from the cheesy vestibule to the obligatory kitchenette seems almost universally bland. It's the same in Korea as it was at your Sunday School or the Strawberry Suppers at the United halls down on the Shore.

As it turned out, there was no coffee.

A clever ploy O Lord...

But even better (since it would have been Maxim anyway...) was some wonderful sweet lemon and orange rind tea one of the young woman brought me.

The whole thing turned out to be quite an unexpected speech. The man was incredibly animated, so I had a hard time keeping my composure. More than once I had to stifle a chuckle into my teacup, which was graciously deep. He kept ending his sentences with an enthusiastic "OKAY!?" as if to make absolutely sure I was drinking long and deep of the truth.

Then the scrapbook came out, and with it the pictures of Kim Jong-Il and Roman Catholic conspiracy theories.

The yarn that was spun for me, and subsequently flossed through one ear and out the other, was that an impending clash between the U.S. and North Korea will bring about a nuclear apocalypse and the End of Days, as it were. This is the reason why there are almost no American teachers compared to Canadians these days (which I think is blatantly false). Apparently it's because "Bushey" (he says it too!) is planning his attack.

To prepare for this, I must find the facts of "salivation" (I had to fight down my snicker) and speak to the Mother God.

"OKAY!?"

He flipped through his bi-lingual Bible from Revelations to Isaiah to Ezekiel, showing me all of the meticulously highlighted (in 3 different colours, mind) words to backup his claim that the Second Coming would be the decent of this secondary Mother God, and that it would happen in Korea: the land "far in the East" and "at the end of the Earth" as it is in a direct line from Jerusalem.

By this point my delicious tea was long gone, and I had been sitting on my feet for about a half hour. I started passive-aggressively looking at my watch, because I was still interested in his strange ideas, but I wanted the guy to cut to the chase.


"You know who the Devil is?" he asked me.

"Who?"

"I know."

"You know?"

"I know."

"Who?"

"I know."

"..."

"Let's find it."

This is where he got to the conspiracy stuff about the Pope and how his "wonderful, expensive cap" and the latin "Vicarius Filii Dei" if seen as roman numerals ads up to 666, and that the crimson, purple and gold of the Catholic robes also describe the Whore of Babylon in Revelations, and a whole lot of other strange sectarian sputtering which I had heard tell of before, but never in a setting so strange.

So the Pope is the Devil, and Bush is going to end the world, and God is a woman? Tell me something I don't know man...

At this point I declined the offer to be Baptized in "only 3 minutes!" thanked the folks sincerely for the tea, which really cleared up my lingering sore throat, and went on my way, cheerfully declining a ride home since I really won't want them to know where I live.

An interesting evening.

Back home I used to deflect wandering Jehova's Witnesses by telling them I was a Scientologist. For Korea I think I need a new one...

Something along the lines of: "Seek salivation? No thanks, I just ate."

Monday, April 02, 2007

Mind your Ps and Qs

It's hard sometimes to shake unplanned native expressions when you're teaching.

You want to be as informal as possible when you speak of course, to get the kids accustomed to how English is spoken naturally, but every now and then you break out the idioms or abbreviations without realizing it.

"Teacher! Come here please!" (this is something I had to vigorously drive into their heads through a steady process of instructing the proper expression, while ignoring anyone who said simply, "Teacher! Coming!" or "Come on!")

"Just a sec," I said to the student.

"Huh!?"

"A sec, just a sec," I said absentmindedly, trying to finish writing on the board.

"What is that?" she asked.

"Oh..." I clued in, "Sorry... Ahh... "sec" sec is short for second, like smaller than a minute— a very short time."

There was single beat of what sometimes feels like precise comic silence, since I always end up laughing over what is said next.

"Sex?" she asked innocently.