Category Archives: south korea

Korea First Days, Bread

March 23, 2000

The student who got his head shaved over the weekend tracks me down after my conversation class.

“Professor, do you have class, Professor?”

“No, I just finished.”

“Oh Professor, thank you, Professor.  Later I will bring you bread.  Last night I baked bread.  By the way, Professor, I am hotel baker at my college.  Hotel baker.”  He beams.

“Right, I remember that.”

“Professor, let’s meet at twelve o’clock.  I will give you bread.”

I say okay, but I don’t know if I will eat the bread.  Yesterday when he showed up in my class with his head shaved,  I went to lunch with him because I had promised–even though I was feeling a little sick.  As we left my building to walk to the junior college cafeteria, he obliged me with an explanation of his shaved head:  “Dandruff, Professor.  Berry, berry bad dandruff.”

I ate cautiously, trying not to look at his head and what might be flying off it, into the air, across the table, into my soup.

The cafeteria, almost empty, was clean, each table decorated with an artificial rosebud drenched in dew.  At a nearby table, a sophisticated woman with a cap of dark hair, the signature dark lipstick, wearing a long, straight suit, sat eating alone.  She gave me a quiet smile.

The student did as other students do, served me the food.  Then he dug in himself.  He slurped his soup, and I was glad that I knew, from reading, that this was a common Korean habit.  So it didn’t gross me out as much as it could have.

We ate curried vegetables and rice, zucchini with sort of rubber chicken chunks, and piles of kimchi.  I said it was “delicious,” because it seems like Asians say that rather than just “good.”

“Oh, Professor, I am glad to hear you say ‘delicious.'”

I finally got away and began walking toward my apartment at the bottom of the hill, where I could take cold medicine and a nap, before it was time to return for evening classes.

He came up next to me in his strange, Chinese Communist-style uniform of black cotton shirt and pants.  “Professor, are you going to your home?  How can you get there?  I crave to help you, Professor.”

“Oh no,” I assured him.  “It’s very close, very easy.”

“Oh, Professor.  Well–”  He paused.  “Well, Professor, I would like to attend your class.  I really appreciate your lecture and dialog.”

I wouldn’t call it that, I thought.

“But Professor, tonight I have to bake bread.  I am hotel baker at my college.”

“Okay, well, I’ll see you tomorrow, maybe.”

“Professor!  Do you like bread?”

“Yes.”  I was thinking of dandruff, like gentle rain.  Barely perceptible.  White.  White as flour.

“I will bring you bread, Professor!  Tomorrow!  I will come to your office at twelve o’clock, Professor.”

*        *        *

He didn’t show up at noon the next day.  A relief.  I waited ten minutes, and then I left.  I had to eat lunch.

When I returned to my office, there was a big black plastic bag stuck in the transom above the door.  The bread.  I took it down.  I would take it home, and then I would decide what to do with it.

He was at my afternoon class, apologizing.  He had gotten there late, after his lunch.  Did I find the package?  I said I had.  I thanked him.

The class was terrible.  So big–forty-five students.  One boy talked constantly in Korean.  Three girls were gesturing wildly, saying things I couldn’t understand.  When one finally said, “Toilet!” I understood.  Then all three left together.  The class laughed.  I was embarrassed.

After that, two night classes–pronunciation, in which I boringly had them parrot vowel sounds, and another class called Language Practice, the purpose of which I have yet to discover.  I played a game with them and tried to learn their names.

Dear God, just let me get through this night, so I can go home and sleep.

Finally, the class ended.

“Davis, do you want to go eat something with us?” one of the students asked me.

“Oh, I–”  They were so nice, and cute.  But I was exhausted and wanted my bed, more than anything.

Interpreting my hesitation as lack of comprehension, he made the motion of eating rice from a bowl.  But of course I understood.  This was an advanced class; he was speaking English.

I thanked him, explained my tiredness and declined.

At home, I put the plastic bag on the table, opened it.  There was a plump loaf of fresh bread, and a note, written in pencil:  “Professor, please take a bite!  I am sorry to be late!  Professor, I baked this bread.”

I set it on the cutting board.  Suddenly realizing I was famished, I sliced off a hunk with the very good knife the university had provided me.  I ate one piece, then sliced off another.

Fresh bread.  It was, in fact, delicious.

 

 

First Days in Korea–10

March 4, 2000

When you are in a foreign country and you want to learn the language, you have to do things.  I just do little things, though.  Yesterday, I had nothing to do at the office, so I walked around, looking for a post office or mailbox, to mail my letters.  I saw a convenience store behind a classroom building, just perched there behind it, on the hill, along with another small building that looked like apartments.  And it had outdoor tables.  I went in and just looked around at what they were selling–stationery, tea, chips, snacks, soups, noodles, banana milk, some office supplies.  I said to the woman working there, “Eol ma ye yo?” (How much is it?), and she could understand just eol ma (how much).  And I picked up a box that seemed to be tea, so I asked her in Korean, “Cha?”  “Ne.”  (Yes.)  It was.

Just very small things.

Shopping at the grocery store, on the other hand, is a trip, one that I do not like.  I can’t understand the food!  Everything looks different.  They don’t even have normal coffee.  Sorry.  I mean the kind I am used to.

I was waiting to have some apples weighed at the store, when a woman walked up and introduced herself as a Chinese professor at the university.  She helped me, told me the woman wanted me to add one more apple, so I did.  She asked where we were from.  Miguk (the United States) and Chungkuk (China).

The Chinese professor was friendly and nice.  She told me, then, where to pay.  I knew that, though.  I just didn’t know what most of the vegetables were, how to ask for meat, where to find parmesan, how to get coffee for brewing–not instant, and what lots and lots of things were.

Oh well.  I can’t get everything I’d like, but I’ve got food, a roof over my head, and electricity.  I’m going to live another week–and I did get delicious ginger tea, and Diet Coke!  (It’s lighter than ours, but good.)

 

March 5, 2000

Culture shock is a kind of not finding the usual grooves to slip into, so you feel kind of unclear, ambiguous, floating, hazy.

You really can’t walk into a grocery store expecting to find everything on your list.  You can bring a list, but don’t be set on it.  You will find some of the things, and some things that are similar, but not exactly the same.  In Korea, you can find bread easily.  But sometimes it will have corn in it.  I don’t care for that.  Koreans seem to put corn in strange things.  They love it on pizza.

Some things you won’t find.  Some things will look totally different or have a higher (or lower) price than you are used to.  Many things will be new to you, totally foreign.  But it’s all right.  You don’t have to understand everything now.  You don’t even have to have everything you think you need, not really.  Just make sure you have some things to eat and drink when you leave the store.  And for sure, something you really like, something special for yourself, to cheer you up, even if it costs a little.

I was in a rut.  And now my rut is gone!  I have no ruts to walk in.

Almost every time I ask what time or how much, I can’t understand the answer.  So it’s mostly an exercise.  I have to remember that, an exercise, a learning experience.

March 3, 2000

Yesterday we had to go to the President’s office, to get formal, bound copies of our contracts.  At first it was intimidating, all those men in rows, like government officials.  But then it was funny; instead of standing and waiting our turns, we all scooted along the benches.  When my turn came, the President pointed to my name in English, and smiled at me.  And he read Igor’s (the pianist who will be teaching music) name out loud, because he gets a kick out of those Russian names.

Then he spoke to the faculty, and he spoke warmly, like a father almost.  His voice was soft and very kind.  Once in a while there was, apparently, a little gentle humor.  I understood nothing, of course.  Afterward, I asked Professor Park what he’d said.  He said to be kind to the students, that their parents don’t love them.  Really? I said.  Well, they are a disappointment, because they couldn’t get into the really good universities, in Seoul.  I loved his attitude.

Culture shock list:

  1. In my apartment, there is a drain in the bathroom floor.
  2. In public places, often the toilets are in the floor.  Sometimes both kinds are available, and you can choose.  Also, toilet paper is a rare item in those bathrooms.  On the plus side, stall doors and walls usually go down to the floor, giving more privacy.
  3. Everyone has a cell phone, everywhere.*
  4. Many girls wear fancy shoes with heels, even climbling a mountain.
  5. There are so many outdoor markets, with vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, and various street foods.
  6. Coffee shops with odd English names–“People,” “Coffee and Tomato.”
  7. Driving is crazy, at least in my town.  People drive as if there are no rules.  Stop lights are not necessarily paid attention to.  Pedestrians beware!  If I see a monk crossing the street, I try to walk next to him or her.  Drivers respect monks!
  8. Shoes off indoors, including in restaurants.  People sit on floors, which are often the warmest places, due to ondol, the toasty heating system running under the floor.
  9. No tipping!  This is simply wonderful.  You don’t have to tip at restaurants, in taxis, anywhere.
  10. Newscasters on TV bow at the end of their show.  So do train conductors at the end of the trip, and they wear gloves.

_______________________

*In 2000, when they were rare in the U.S.

First Days in Korea–8

February 29, 2000

Yesterday Dan Lavelle took me to Taejon, to Immigration, to register.  Good thing he took me!  I would have been lost.

We take a taxi downtown, walk to yeok (train station), wait for the train.  The gate and time are posted, and the train is announced.  Car and seat numbers are printed on the tickets.  Lots of people are taking the train, even on Monday.

Trains have uniformed employees coming through with snack carts here:  crackers, cookies, oranges, various drinks, maybe dried fish.  It’s nice.  I try to listen for the announcement of our stop.  It’s better, Dan tells me, to check the time of arrival for your stop; the trains are on time here, so that really works.

We had to take two trains, changing at Ch’onan, a decent-sized city an hour away.  On the way home, we stopped there, and went to a store called Carrefour, a kind of French Wal Mart, as Dan described it.  There, I found out that my shoe size is 245.  It sounds big, and in fact, is probably the largest woman’s size.  I feel like an elephant here.

In Taejon, we were able to do our immigration business easily.  Then we ate lunch at a restaurant in the tiny but brim-full student village next to Chungnam University.  Outside, the place looked abandoned.  Inside, we were the only customers.  One room had low tables, for sitting on the floor.  We chose one of two tables with chairs in the other room.  A man put a small grill on the table, where he cooked pork.  He showed me how to take big lettuce leaves and small sesame leaves (rough-textured, with serrated edges and a sesame taste), then on top of these leaves to layer pork, onion, kimchi, sance, raw garlic and other raw vegetables, then fold it into a little package and pop it into my mouth.  Delicious!  And he was so kind.

Nothing is extremely difficult here, and people are so willing to help.  I make it through, one day at a time.

First Days in Korea–7

February 27, 2000, continued

Because of the no-shoes thing, you have to dress in a different order to go out–which feels weird, and really is disconcerting.  You can’t put your shoes on until you’re wearing your coat and hat.  Coming home, you remove your shoes, then take off your coat, then  put away your briefcase and the groceries.

I was doing email in my office for about two hours, and it got cold.  The wind was blowing noisily outside.  Before I left the building, I used one of the “eastern” toilets, in the floor, balancing with one hand on the tile.  I managed okay this time, but I don’t know how it could be done with a dress and pantyhose.  I’m not going to try it.

There was no toilet paper, but I had Kleenex.  And there were no hand towels, but I had my men’s handkerchief, thanks to Janet, who suggested buying a supply of them at Wal Mart before I left.  An excellent suggestion!

I think I am going to like it here–except the young people are so well dressed, sleek, thin, feminine women with beautiful hair and long fitted jackets.  And the ubiquitous cell phones.  Yes, I should have invested in them, as that investment broker at home suggested.

I went to the coffee shop again today.  I love it–a couch to sit on, coffee, nice relaxing atmosphere (except the rock music), people to watch, be with, and a great place to read.

My young waiter spoke English shyly, and it was sweet.  He said, “May I please have your order,” or something; I couldn’t quite hear him.  When I said excuse me, he quickly switched to Korean, something ending in “chuseyo”  (please).  I didn’t understand, so he went back to English.  I said thank you when he brought it.  Smiling, he ventured, “You’re welcome.”

When I left, I decided I had to be brave and try Korean, so  I bought a loaf of bread at the bakery on the corner.  I said “Kamsa hamnida” (thank you) and “Anyong hi keseyo” (goodbye).   This is fun!

I miss my daughter though.

 

First Days in Korea–6

February 27, 2000

Yesterday Dan, the other American professor, took me downtown.  We can get the bus right in front of our apartment.  It stops about every ten minutes, and costs 540 won, about 50 cents.  Arriving downtown in about ten minutes, it goes to the station, which is a big parking lot with a tiny little old building for buying tickets.  It is peopled with old women with bent backs, sitting on their heels; students in uniforms; children;  just everybody.  One man seems to direct the buses and tell them where to pull in, but you have to be careful; it’s so crowded and active there; a bus might back into you if you’re not watching.

We went to the Korea Exchange Bank, where Dan has an account, and opened one for me.  He showed me how to work the ATM.  Then we went for train tickets, passing the outdoor market.  Dan bought fresh strawberries.

The train station was upstairs, in a dark old building with a 1940s movie atmosphere.  Dan pulled out his schedule card, wrote dates and times on paper.  When the clerk took a while and got confused, he blew up and started ranting loudly.  Men came and watched.  It was embarrassing.  He got results, though.    A younger woman took over from the muddling older one.

This place–downtown, etc.–seems ramshackle, haphazard, the buildings stacked together without a plan.  Roads and cars come out from nowhere.  Every time I’ve been in a vehicle so far, I’ve thought, we will be in an accident.

We got tickets to Taejon for our trip to the immigration office.  Then Dan took me to a shop for the pictures I will need to give there.  It was a fun experience, a tiny photo studio up the back stairs, with a nice young guy about twenty-two or so.  He told me–in English–to have a “little smile,” “soft smile.”   He brushed my hair back.

While we waited for the pictures, we went to a coffee shop down the street, upstairs.  It had a nice, quiet atmosphere, with spacious upholstered booths by the window.  I had a Coke, and Dan ordered coffee.  But they give us each a free cup of barley tea, and crackers at first.  With our drinks they brought a little pack of pretzel sticks dipped in chocolate, free.  They served us, but there’s no tipping in Korea!  Our server didn’t speak any English.  She was sweet, though.

We went to the grocery store.  It was pretty confusing, but I got rice, cups, soy sauce, Oreos, etc.  Dan blew up again, at the checkout counter. It was because the girl mistakenly rang up our orders together.   A perfectly understandable mistake.  I saw a girl laugh, embarrassed.  I was freaked out.  But they stayed calm and checked us out separately, and we got a taxi outside, 3,000 won (about $3), and went home.

He’s been helpful to me, and I’m grateful.  But he’s really a hothead; you never know when he’s going to erupt.

First Days in Korea–5

February 27, 2000

Last night, the maintenance guy came to fix my heat. I was so glad! I was rolled up in the fancy bedspread I’d dragged into the living room.  I was watching TV–mostly CNN, but also a Korean game show that featured kids being given clues by adults, and a very strange English lesson that repeated a dialogue:  “Why are you in a hurry?  Because I’m late for work.  Why are you late for work?  Because I couldn’t get up.  Why couldn’t you get up?  Because I worked late last night.  Why did you work late last night?  Because I was late for work yesterday morning.”  The people were British or American, but their  intonation was unnatural, robotic.  The man who was late for work looked like a chronic alcoholic, complete with red, blotchy face.

There’s English and Korean music TV, maybe even French.  One show features dancing that looks Indonesian.  And there are several sitcoms in Korean, which I don’t understand at all.  I watched an Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny DeVito movie dubbed in Korean–if you can imagine!  Later, an old black-and-white British movie in English with subtitles in Korean hangul.

But back to me, and my problem of freezing to death in my apartment, not wanting to bother Dan.  (He might be drunk or get mad; I’ve seen his temper flare up; no thanks.)  I didn’t want to bother Professor Park either.  But I was thinking I was going to get sick, maybe get pneumonia and die in Korea.

So I’m rolled up in the bedspread in front of the TV, thinking maybe I can survive the night this way.   I think of campers, of Jack London.  I’m an adventurer!  But then, tomorrow’s going to be another day of freezing; why do I have to wait?

I start dozing off, falling forward.  I’m in two straight-back office-type chairs, one to sit in, the other for feet.  It’s my only living-room furniture.  The phone rings.  It’s Professor Park!  She’s calling from her home near Seoul, to ask if everything is okay.  No, I say.  It’s cold.  I’m afraid I’m going to get sick.

Oh no, she says.  What to do?  What to do?

Maybe nothing can be done, I say, regretting my words immediately.

Oh no, what can we do, she continues, thinking out loud.  And by the way, her English is perfect.  Then she comes up with a plan.  Find Korean people in the building (oh my God).  Knock on doors upstairs and down until they answer.  She even gives me the exact words to say in Korean, “Munjeh-ga itsumnida.”  It means “There is a problem.”  She’s terrific!  She tells me to get the man of the house to come and look at it.

Are you sure? I say skeptically.  Yes.  Then call her back.

Gingerly I go downstairs, ring bells.  No one answers.  I come back to my next-door neighbor.  I’ve never seen who lives here.  A woman answers.  She seems nice, lets me in.  I give my message.  She calls Park.

This woman is studying or working.  She appears to be a professor.  Everything is neat and square in her place–stacks of copies on the table, bed, bookcases, and books, almost all in Korean.  These don’t seem real to me, somehow.  But of course they are; I just have no clue what they’re about.

She comes over in her slippers, calls someone, calls someone else–on her little cell phone; I guess everyone here has one.*   She has a little address book with pictures.  She writes down for me, Min Ju Baek, with a number.

I thank her and she leaves.  I think he’s coming but no one comes.  Was I supposed to call him?  I call Park.  In the middle of our conversation, he comes.  Knock, knock, knock.  “School!” he says.

“Min Ju Baek?”  I say, opening the door.  He responds with what appears to be the Korean equivalent of yeah.

He is a far cry from the maintenance men I know at home, with their torn jeans, dirty caps and swaggers.  This guy is well dressed, for one thing. He wears clean, brand-name-embossed sweats, pure white sneakers.   Also, their is no indication that he might be on drugs or hung over.  And he is in such good shape!  He jumps onto the heater with an animal grace.  He moves to the floor where the heat is supposed to be, works sitting back on his heels, then stands up in one graceful motion.  He zooms around my apartment,  paying me no mind.  He sings to himself a little.

We communicate with very few words, me throwing a couple Korean ones at him, he using some English, some Korean.  It’s amazing that we can talk in this way.  When he lapses into Korean sentences and paragraphs, though, I lead him to the phone, and Park.

Everyone is happy–especially me; I finally have heat. And Ji Yeon Park is very relieved.  She’s so nice, sweet, smart–and a really good problem-solver.  I’m so lucky to have her.

 

_______________________

* In the year 2000, very few people that I knew in the U.S.  had cell phones.  In South Korea, everyone did–except me.  But I had a land line in my apartment.