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I go Korea!

a travel blog by alli_ockinga

On Feb. 1, I arrive in Korea (yes, South Korea) for a year of teaching English in Incheon.

Why? How?

It started last summer, when I was sitting in the woods with my best friends, lamenting my lack of foreseeable future. Kim had great plans to move to Seattle, and Ellen was about to return to Asia for the third time--this time on her way to Korea. They had direction that I envied, as I popped the top on another PBR and sighed disconsolately at the idea of my upcoming student teaching. After that, I would be certified to teach, but then what?

"You could try to get a job around Boise," they said. At 23, was I already doomed to settle in a beat-up southern Idaho town, living for those Fridays I could escape to the urban bliss of Boise? Please, God, not yet!

"You could go to grad school," they said. I was much too poor for that, and lacked the focus after four years of undergrad.

"Maybe the Peace Corps," I said. It always seems like a good idea.

"Don't do that," Ellen said. "Come to Korea instead." I thought about it. Just for a year...and I'd still get to travel...and teach...and get PAID. I took another sip.

"Okay. I will." Six months later, here we go.
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Week one

Inch'on, South Korea

Tonight I write from the Love Motel in Inch'on, where I've been staying since I arrived Sunday. I got off my fourth day of work about an hour ago, although I have only been teaching on my own since Wednesday. Teaching itself is going reasonably well; I have learned not to expect more than that when it comes to employment. I have 15 classes that meet twice a week, ranging from kindergarteners up through about 8th grade. The good news is, none of my classes have more than 10 students apiece. Compared to my last teaching gig in Idaho, where I had about 30 teenagers in every class, this seems tame. But as it's only week one, perhaps I should reserve judgement. Typically, we focus on the lesson for 30-35 minutes, and spend the remaining 10 minutes playing a faux-educational game to reinforce vocabulary. For a job, it's not that bad.

Getting used to urban living has been a bit of an adjustment for me. In some ways, it's like any other big city--bright lights and loud noises compete for one's attention anywhere you look, and the driving laws seem to be more ambiguous suggestions than hard and fast rules. The biggest difference is, of course, the language barrier. I can say 'hello' and 'thank you' in Korean, but after that, I break into comically primitive sign language. Interestingly, I suddenly remember every word I ever learned of high school Spanish. As I stare helplessly at the cashier in the market who's holding up four oranges without a price tag, I think, "Cuatro naranjas cuestan dos dolares y cincuenta centavos!" Unless I come across a cashier with exceptionally broad linguistic skills, this is useless here.

Still, all is not lost. Four days in, I am hailing cabs like a true city girl, and have acquired at least minimal proficiency with chopsticks, which I consider a great personal victory. Tomorrow I get to move into an actual apartment and I'm looking forward to setting up some semblance of a home here in Korea.

permalink written by  alli_ockinga on February 5, 2009 from Inch'on, South Korea
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Aliens Exist!

Inch'on, South Korea

I am an Alien. I registered with immigration today, and should have my ARC by Saturday. In a way, it will be nice to have the card as justification for how I sometimes feel. Maybe during my next awkward cross-cultural situation, I can whip out my card by way of explanation for my ineptness: "It's okay! I'm an alien!" And all will be forgiven. This would have been helpful earlier this week, when a small but alarmingly animated security guard burst into my apartment at 9:30 am waving a card in my face, shouting Korean and gesturing wildly in a manner that suggested something really important had not yet happened. I would have been more than glad to comply, if only I had known what to do. (Turns out I hadn't registered to be living in my apartment, and he may have thought I was a squatter.)

It's not as if I can easily slip under the radar here, either. Even for someone who has spent the last five years in Idaho, I am surprised by the lack of diversity here. People are shamelessly curious about Westerners, and hanging out with Ellen all the time makes the staring matter worse. She and I command a lot of attention here. On some level, we always have, even back in college; that much do-what-I-want attitude gives most people pause. Toss Kim, our other best friend, into the mix and the world didn't stand a chance. But it is especially true here, where one brightly dressed white girl is cause for a semi-subtle sidelong glance on the elevator, but two--two! at once!--not only turns heads, but draws blatant finger-pointing. In Korea, we are the indisputable minority. It is an interesting experience, but not an altogether unpleasant one. I generally find it amusing. Complete strangers say "hello" at the market, giggling all the while as if they've just spoken to a lephrechaun. We had a similar experience last weekend at a coffee shop in Seoul, where a little girl actually jumped up and down in place, and then brought over her friend to look at the spectacle that was us drinking a latte.

On a posititve note, it's kind of cool to be unique here. With my normal brown hair and average looks of mixed European descent, I've never really been considered exotic. Here, I get to be. But that doesn't mean I'm ready to try the stewed insects at the street market. Too soon, Korea. Too soon.

permalink written by  alli_ockinga on February 11, 2009 from Inch'on, South Korea
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Typical situation

Inch'on, South Korea

Today I had to pick up the results of my drug test/blood sample from the hospital so it can be submitted to immigration to solidify my legal alien status. Paperwork and hospitals aren't pleasant even at the best of times, so imagine my intimidation today as I tried to recall the name of the hospital and its neighborhood, as well as where I was supposed to go when/if I got there.

The adventure started, as usual, with me trying to negotiate a destination with a justifiably puzzled cab driver, to whom I am still unconsciously speaking Spanish.

Driver: "Ahn-yung ha-sey-o."*
Me: "Ahn-yung ha-sey-o. Um. Serim Hospital. Serim byung-wuhm."
Driver: "Serim okay."
Me: "Okay." (silently fist-pump in my head to congradulate self)
Driver: "[something something] Hangul?" He wants to know if I speak Korean.
Me: "Um...no. Un poco." Dammit. I hold up my thumb and index finger in the universal gesture "only a little bit" and smile apologetically.
Driver: "English teacher?"
Me: "Yes. Si. Um....ney." Third time's the charm.
Driver: (laughing) "Canada?"
Me: "No. Uh, ah-nee-yo. America."
Driver: "America where."
Me: "America...Idaho."
Driver: Blank stare. "America where."
Me: "Umm. North. Up. By Canada."
Driver: (delighted) "Ah! Canadian!"

I sigh. He is so pleased with our cross-cultural exchange that I figure, close enough. Plus, we have made it to the hospital, and a new set of challenges awaits. I walk inside. I've noticed that all hospitals and airports are essentially the same; just follow the question-mark signs and you can usually survive. This time, however, the plan backfired. I found a question mark sign, which did, of course, lead me to Information. And I'm certain there was a ton of incredibly useful info there, for those of us who speak Korean. I wandered through the halls aimlessly for about five minutes, trying to come up with a plan. The only thing I could see in English was the Ultrasound room. Thankfully, I don't need that. But what to do? The obvious answer was to call my boss, the principal of our school. I'm sure I could have put him on the phone with a nurse and hashed this whole thing out.

But I couldn't do that, because I have this thing about asking for help unnecessarily. I like to do things on my own. I like to be capable. Or, as one (ex)boyfriend put it, "You are frustratingly independent." Fair enough. I don't necessarily see this as a flaw, but I will concede that it sometimes makes things harder for me than they need to be.

So I went up to the nurse station, prepared to look like an idiot, once again. "Do you speak English?" A vain hope. No. Time to pantomime. Rather than go with my initial Mork-and-Mindy idea and hope they got "alien" out of my dance, I got out my passport, and made a motion with my thumb and left forearm that either communicated "blood test" or "mainlining heroin" to the nurse. Either way, after a ten-minute wait, I was redirected to someone important that spoke enough English to get me my required documentation. "You are very normal," she said. "You will be okay." I know she meant only that my tests came back clean, but God bless her nonetheless.

Inspired by my success, I went to the Lotte Mart (giant one-stop shopping complex a la Wal-Mart) and bought some real coffee and a French press. They generally only drink instant coffee here, which doesn't cut it, but I didn't know how to use a press. Time to learn.

  • Note: all my Korean dialogue is my mangled phonetic version of what I hear. It bears practically no resemblance to the actual language. I have to acknowledge this because the Hangul alphabet, to Koreans, is what the confederate flag is to Southerners. You just don't mess with it. Because God gave it to them.

  • permalink written by  alli_ockinga on February 15, 2009 from Inch'on, South Korea
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    The Secret

    Inch'on, South Korea

    When I was freaking out about my upcoming student teaching last August, a teacher friend of mine told me, "The secret to teaching is acting like you've known all your life what you just learned that morning." That cute little saying turned out to be frighteningly true. I won't tell you how many five a.m. google searches I performed in my apartment as I scrambled to decode obscure parts of speech for the day's grammar lesson. (But I will tell you that there is, in fact, an answer to the direct query 'what the hell is a participle?')

    Here in Korea, Lack of Planning strikes again, only this time it's not really my fault. In March, my hogwan is starting up a brand new curriculum. On one hand, this is a bummer, because having just arrived a month or so ago, I was just getting used to the now-defunct lessons. On the other, at least now we will all be confused together. So our director called me into his office this evening after my classes. I am still juvenile enough to be a little bit scared of the principal's office. And it turns out, the eight-year-old inside of me is right. Because Mr. Shin informed me that I "get" to be the native (white)teacher to present the brand new curriculum, of which I know nothing, to the Korean parents. In three days.

    I was really, really hoping he was kidding, but the nervous laughter died in my throat when he handed me a yellow textbook and said, "Learn this book. You are good teacher." How he knows this is a mystery, because neither he nor anyone else has so much as set foot inside my classroom so far. But it's okay, because he said, "I have a confidence in you." In conclusion, I get to teach a curriculum I don't know to parents who may or may not speak my language on SATURDAY. Bummer.

    permalink written by  alli_ockinga on February 25, 2009 from Inch'on, South Korea
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    Inch'on, South Korea

    At some point, my life choices led me to a place where I now attend work lunches with slick Asian businessmen who drive Mercedes' and keep .9mm's in the glove box. ASIA WHAT? So I was on the way to one such business lunch with my boss yesterday, and he asked what I would like for lunch.
    "Whatever you choose will be fine," I said, stupidly trying to be agreeable.
    "How about dog meat stew?"
    NO. NO NONONONONONONONONO. And in case you didn't get that, no. I think his ears are still ringing from the resounding refusal. He later professed to be joking, but these people eat octopus while it is still alive, so how was I supposed to know? And incidentally, I haven't seen many four-legged friends over here.

    Other than this instance, however, I have found Korean food very good. I sort of figured it would be along the lines of Chinese, but it's actually very unique. There are similar elements--lots of noodles, dumplings, vegetables--but Korea certainly has it's own distinct cuisine. The single greatest thing about Korea so far is the barbeque. Korean barbeque is delicious. Actually, the entire restaurant experience here is a beautiful thing. You usually sit on the floor, and you have to take your shoes off, so it's super comfy. When you are ready, you ring a little bell that's built into the table, and the waiter comes over to take care of you. I am still in the only-ordering-food-with-pictures phase, so I point to what I want, and then they fire up your own personal grill in the middle of the table. You get to see the food cooking in front of you, so you know it's trustworthy, and you can grill it as long or short as you want, which guarantees that it's delicious. Usually, there's some sort of dipping sauce and vegetables to go with, and then you wrap the whole thing up in a lettuce or sesame leaf and eat it like the world's healthiest taco. And tipping is nonexistant here! It is, as my uncle Chuck would say, the total package.

    And the side dishes. Every meal comes with about 8 side dishes, from soups and rice to vegetables, eggs and lots of things from the ocean. I have now expanded my definition of food to include about ten kinds of seaweed. It's actually quite good. And of course, there's the kimchi. Okay. I've been here a month, and it's time to talk about kimchi. When I said I was moving to Korea, the first thing everybody said was "Stay away from the kimchi!" Those people are wrong. Kimchi is good. It comes in many forms, but usually it's pickled cabbage or radishes in some kind of red spicy sauce. And yes, it's served with every meal.

    So I've been trying to remain open minded and expand my edible horizons. I think I am coming along fairly well. At bars, instead of peanuts or popcorn, they serve dried fish or squid. Squid is really chewy. I had to chew it for what felt like hours, as if it were a piece of the worst gum ever. The best thing I can say about eating squid is that it's a life experience I've now had. And at least it's better than tofu.

    permalink written by  alli_ockinga on March 4, 2009 from Inch'on, South Korea
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    Inch'on, South Korea

    When I defaulted to an education emphasis within my English degree in college, I had only the vaguest idea of what it really means to be a teacher. There are a lot of surprises that I am still figuring out, but the best is this: I had no idea how hilarious kids can be. I mean, I sort of did. I've worked with children in some capacity through coaching, babysitting, and for two summers, getting paid to play with them in a park. But having them in the classroom is a whole different experience. Here's a sampling:

    Our students aren't supposed to speak Korean at the school, so they get to choose their own English names. Most of them are young enough that their only real exposure to English is through Hollywood, which is kind of sad, but mostly funny. I have an entire class that is Star Wars themed. It sounds like I'm disciplining on the Death Star: "Darth Vader, stop talking or you've earned a time out." Or, "Skywalker, do you have your vocabulary?" And my own personal favorite, "I'm sorry, Yoda, that's incorrect." Nobody ever got to say that in the movie.

    The middle classes write diaries three times a week to work on writing. On my first day, one seven-or eight-year-old girl wrote, "Today is English school stranger change. Stranger name is Alli. She's eyeglasses and sky color t shirt. Alli teacher is so so scary. But so pretty!" That diary is currently taped to my fridge.

    Another class has seven eleven-year-old boys, and one annoyed girl. Eight students is a pretty typical class size, although a few have just one student, and some as many as twelve. Yesterday I was trying to explain 'castle' so I drew a cartoon on the board. Teaching here is like getting paid to play pictionary for seven hours. ("Teacher, draw is what? Angry cat?" "Very very big mouse!" "Tiger!" It was actually a weasel.) But anyway, I draw a castle, and as one, in perfect harmony, the boys begin to sing: "Do-do-do-dodo-DO-do..." It was the Super Mario Bros. theme song. So I guess they got the point.

    These guys are fun, but hands down, my favorite student is the Monster Kid. He's one of my younger students, about six, and we're making ABC books in his class. Each page has a large bubble-letter (Aa) and three words that begin with the letter of the day (alligator, apple, ax). They're supposed to color the letter, and draw pictures of the words. And every single day, this kid transforms the bubble letters into some kind of monster, or as he says it, MONsterrrrrrrrrrr. It has become the highlight of my day. "Tell me about your 'H' picture, John."
    "Teacher. H is House MONsterrrrrr." Sure enough, there is a roof over the capital H, and the little h is a garage with a car inside.
    "What are these?" I ask, pointing at two red and blue spikes protruding from the roof.
    "Wait. So, if the House Monster bites me, am I on fire or poisoned?"
    "POISON FIRE! and Teacher! Teacher!"
    "Feet." The House Monster can walk. "And Teacher...human. Bloooooood." A stick figure covered in red scribbles lies prostrate on the ground.
    "What happened to the human?"
    "Feet, crush. And poison...FIRE...teeth crush! Bloooood."
    If I ever have children, I hope they are exactly as creative as John, with maybe slightly fewer violent impulses.

    Off to work. I can only imagine what the Ii will become today. Ice monster, perhaps?

    permalink written by  alli_ockinga on March 19, 2009 from Inch'on, South Korea
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    International Pick-up Lines

    Seoul, South Korea

    Love is supposed to be the international language, and to some extent I guess that’s true. Kisses are kisses. But still, getting to the point where kissing is not only a likely activity, but an acceptable one, takes some work. What I’m saying is international pick-up lines are hilarious. The combination of imprecise translations and the brutal honesty used to convey a point is often no less appalling than it is entertaining.

    Episode One: I hadn’t been here long, and Ellen was taking me out to experience some of the legendary Korean night life. We’d come up with some interesting outfit choices that night, which I will gracefully call ‘daring.’ We were not subtly clad. But we’re in Korea. Who’s going to know? While in the backseat of our cab, discussing various directions the night could take, our driver interrupted us. “You are Russian?” he asked. I looked at Ellen. It seemed to me quite clear that we were speaking English. Before I could ask, she told him, in no uncertain terms, that we were American. “He just asked if we were prostitutes,” she explained. “That’s what ‘Russian’ means.” Maybe I should have rethought the boots.

    Episode Two: We are at another Korean watering hole called the Jail Bar. There are a few Western bars around, but I find they are usually not as funny as Korean bars. Jail Bar, as the name implies, is prison-themed. Iron bars separate smoke-filled booths, and the chairs and tables are made of unpolished steel. I’ve never found anything even remotely close to love in a bar, and here it seemed especially unlikely. Still, when a young Asian man leaned towards Ellen, reaching his hand through the bars and chains between our tables, I thought maybe she had a chance. He and his posse came over to talk to her. “Hello. Your face,” he said, gesturing at her, “beautiful.” Limited language proficiency produces an almost endearing directness. None of that Did-it-hurt-when-you-fell-from-Heaven nonsense that plagues seedy American bars. Then he motioned towards himself. “You like my face?” How do you answer that? “Yes, it’s a nice face,” she said. Two hours later, we were at a norae-bang (private karaoke room) with the young Koreans, and he confessed the words every girl wants to hear: “You make me the very happiness.” Aw.

    Episode Three: This time, we were at one of the aforementioned Western bars in downtown Seoul, waiting to meet up with an acquaintance from home who’d just gotten to Korea. Another young Korean approached me, staggering. They are big drinkers here. “You are very beautiful,” he said, leaning in. He shamelessly appraised Ellen, as well. “You beautiful also. But she, more beautiful.” Ellen shrugged. You win some, you lose some. He told me I looked exactly like Sara from Prison Break. I have never seen the show, but I googled it later, and the resemblance is actually less than minimal. Still, I suppose I was flattered. Ellen saw an opportunity for entertainment in the man’s admiration. “That’s because she IS Sara from Prison Break,” she told him. “Tell him, Alli.” I looked at her. “It’s okay,” she encouraged. “You don’t have to be shy.” So I told him all about how difficult it is to be a celebrity when people are constantly recognizing you. It’s a tough life. He nodded understandingly. I sincerely hope that somewhere, he too is writing a blog about meeting an American TV star in the most unlikely of places. Finally, my friend from home called. “Your famous American boyfriend is calling,” said Cameron the Korean. Yes he is.

    Instances like this abound. I’ve had a cab driver use his Korean-English dictionary (while driving) to demand that I “marriage” him, and the men are endlessly curious about our lives. “Do you have baby? Marry? Boyfriend?” Nope. Nope. Nope. “Why?” Because underneath my clothing, I am covered in scales. I would hate to tell them the truth, which is that I am extremely disinclined towards Korean men’s fashion. I can’t get behind men that carry Prada handbags which put my gypsy purse to shame, or sparkly cell phone charms bigger than the phone itself. But I’ve only been here two months, and a year is a long time. You never know how your standards will change…

    permalink written by  alli_ockinga on March 31, 2009 from Seoul, South Korea
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    Korean Baseball

    Inch'on, South Korea

    What with Opening Day this week, it’s time to say a few words about the globalization of America’s National Pastime. I’ll say this for Koreans: they love their baseball. My first week, upon learning that I was American, several of the boys I teach asked if I had ever met Chan Ho Park. Um…I stumbled over the vaguely familiar name. “Teacher, L.A. Dodgers!” Ah, right, the Korean pitcher. I didn’t want to tell them that the last time I thought about the Dodgers was when Mike Piazza caught for them. So I made an even bigger mistake. “No, I don’t know Chan Ho Park. I’m from Seattle,” I said. “We have Ichiro.”

    “AHHHH!” they screamed at me, in horror. “Ichiro is Japan!” They hate Ichiro. I have actually heard one boy call another ‘Ichiro’ as an insult. After Korea lost that heartbreaker to Japan in the World Baseball Classic (for which more than forty percent of the nation tuned in), it’s all I heard about in my students’ diaries for weeks. “Korea is ranking number two at WBC. Korea, Japan. 5-3 is outcome. Korea team is lose. Japans is team win. My very sad.” They are supposed to write five lines, but some, apparently, were too heartbroken to go on. As a lifetime Mariners fan, I sympathize. (But maybe this year…and the cycle continues.)

    As I lived at a lake the past few summers, I’ve missed a lot of baseball. But now that I’m in Korea, with more free time than I’ve had since I was eleven, it’s time to get back in it. But there’s a catch. There are a limited number of English channels available here, but perhaps unsurprisingly, FSN is not one of them. Instead, I spent this evening watching the Korean Baseball Organization, this country’s answer to MLB. There are eight teams in the league, which is nothing to scoff at when you consider how small this country is. It turns out my city, Incheon, has its own team.

    We are the SK Wyverns. SK is a cell phone company here, a la Sprint. In an homage to Korean Consumerism, their baseball teams are all named after the companies that sponsor them. I suppose it’s no worse than Busch Stadium or Coors Field; Americans have beer, Koreans have technology. That aside, you may be asking, what on earth is a wyvern? As did I. I did some googling, and twenty minutes of fascinated clicking later, found out that wyvern is not, as I had supposed, some Asian word in need of translation. No, no. A wyvern is “a fire-breathing dragon used in medieval heraldry; [it] had the head of a dragon and the tail of a snake and a body with wings and two avian legs.” Wow. Couldn’t just be the Lions like Daegu, huh, Incheon? But don’t kid yourself. I totally want an Incheon Wyverns tee shirt.

    So I’ve been watching Korean baseball. There are some minor differences that threw me at first. For instance, if the count is one ball, two strikes, we would say it’s 1-2. They switch it around so it’s strikes first, or 2-1. This was initially quite confusing for me. I thought the ump had a very creative interpretation of the strike zone for about two innings, until finally the count became 1-3, and at last, I understood. Other that that, though, it’s pretty much the same as baseball everywhere, which is one of the beauties of the game. The commentators even use a lot of English terminology, which I find comforting. Amidst the Hangul, which I still can’t make much sense of, I’ll hear a breathless “back-to-back homerun!” Out is still out, and foul is still foul. And, having grown up on baseball, both on the diamond and the radio, I have a pretty solid intuitive grasp of what the announcer is probably saying. “He’s got a rocket of an arm, that one,” I guess, as the left fielder nails someone trying to stretch out a double. Or, “Byun Hai is getting a little greedy over there on first. Might want to cut that lead a step or two.” Even the after-game interview with the losing manager is the same. His mouth is saying some variation of we-played-hard-and-I’m-sure-proud-of-the-boys-but-you-can’t-win-em-all-that’s-just-the-game; his eyes are saying ‘one more question about our on-base percentage, and I will rip that headset right off your head.’ It’s nice to know that a world away, some things stay the same.

    Go Wyverns.

    permalink written by  alli_ockinga on April 7, 2009 from Inch'on, South Korea
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    Black Belt Test

    Inch'on, South Korea

    Ellen has convinced me to become a ninja, and so I am taking hapkido with her. Hapkido is a Korean martial art that's kind of like akido plus judo (I think. You might want to wikipedia that.) Anyway, it combines both attack and defensive techniques, utilizing hand-to-hand combat and weapons, although I haven't been allowed to touch any of them yet. It sounds kind of intimidating, but it's a lot of fun, and it's been a long time since I've been graded on my ability to do somersaults. I just traded in my rookie white belt for a yellow belt, which is the first ranked one. I like it because the color matches the writing on my ninja suit, and is thus more aesthetically pleasing.

    So I'm a beginner, but some of the others in my class--Ellen, Suddar and Seamus--have been here since last summer, and are way better ninjas than me. A couple weeks ago, they took their black belt test, and I tagged along to watch. Come along with me.

    Master picks us up in the bright yellow hapkido van, which is like a mini school bus covered with silhouettes of ninjas kicking and punching at around two o'clock, and we go to the hapkido room to change and pick up the other black belt hopefuls, most of whom are eleven-year-old Korean boys. I am merely here to witness and photograph the event, which leaves a bit of time for chatting with Master. He cooly assesses me in the rear view mirror. “Elly, wow! Beautifu!” he says. Most Koreans think my name is Elly. Close enough. Master pats his face, indicating that I am wearing makeup today, and as such, my appearance is vastly improved.

    “Thank you, Master. When I’m not a sweaty ninja, I look better.”
    “Alli has a date tonight,” Ellen says, further clarifying.
    Master laughs. “Guro station?”
    “Yep.” I grin. A couple weeks ago, I met this Korean guy when I was hopelessly lost at the subway station, and we're having dinner this evening. I got caught texting Subway Station Boyfriend at a hapkido party the other night, and the Koreans are all endlessly amused by it.
    “Oh, are you seeing the subway fellow?” Seamus asks. I nod. “I’m a bit worried about that, to tell the truth.”
    “I don’t think you need to be.”
    “Where are you meeting him?”
    “Seoul, somewhere.”
    “Is he a decent sort?”
    “I wouldn’t know, would I? It’s our first date.” [I did go on this date. It was okay. Cross-cultural dating is hard.]
    “Yeah. True. I’d feel better if you were with someone. Perhaps I feel like I should fight him for your honor.” I am almost touched by his concern, but not quite.
    "I’ll be fine, Seamus. Besides, you don't have your black belt just yet.”

    Master is laughing in the front of the van. Today, Master is wearing a suit, which emphasizes the fact that he used to be the body guard for the president of Korea, or at least some important political figure. Really. Master can kill a person with his pinky finger. We leave the studio, now crammed into the bus with Master’s teenaged apprentices, and the seven red belts surround us, silent and afraid. We still get a little waegook fame, just by being foreigners. The smallest of them doesn't even reach Seamus’ waist.

    We pile out of the van to join the throng of miniature would-be ninjas heading into the testing gym. Bemused, I observe the various levels of enthusiasm displayed by all the participants. Like any youth sporting event, there’s the he-man kids that clearly dominate; they are practicing handsprings in the corner, and doing one armed pushups as warm up. We are afraid of them. There are the average kids, who look a little scared, and mostly just don’t want to mess up in front of their Master. I can see right away that we are lucky to have such a patient and understanding Master; many of the other Masters look like Asian versions of Mr. T. Then there are the kids who don’t care now and probably never did. They are only doing this for their dad, and one of them has a comic book tucked into his red belt that he keeps peeking at during roll call. About one in five competitors are girls, and most of them are wearing sparkly barrettes and Chuck Taylors. I silently root for them to beat the boys. In the middle of it all, my friends tower above the rest. Our ragtag hapkido class could not stand out more: Suddah is of Indian descent, but with an Aussie accent; Ellen is an almost-blonde white girl, and Seamus looks like an Irish Goliath.

    Finally, the test begins. I don’t understand a thing after the national anthem, and even then, I’m not sure what to do. Hand over heart seems a cheap gesture, but I don’t know what else to do. I feel like I’m cheating on the Stars and Stripes. Then it’s three hours of pre-teen Koreans—and my friends—kicking and throwing each other to the ground. Several small children want a picture with me ("why yes, I am friends with Brad Pitt"), so I acquiesce to pass the time. Master keeps having to grab Seamus by the shoulders and redirect him, but from where I sit on the sideline, I don't think we're embarrassing Master too much. Ellen does particularly well. I wish I could do half the things she can.

    As we leave, Master stops me. “Elly,” he said, holding an imaginary knotted belt around his waist. “Ten month. You, black belt.”
    I looked at him in surprise. “You think I can get a black belt?”
    “Yea. Black belt, okay.”

    permalink written by  alli_ockinga on April 29, 2009 from Inch'on, South Korea
    from the travel blog: I go Korea!
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    Wading through Hangul

    Inch'on, South Korea

    “Adios,” I say to the traveling melon man in my parking lot. Thursday is market day, when I stock up my fridge with all sorts of freshly grown delights. “I mean, ahnyung-hee…” Curses. What is the second half? “Um…bye bye,” I finish lamely, packing my cantaloupes home in shame.

    This is getting ridiculous. I need to start learning Korean.

    Probably the most effective way to go about this would be to attend some real language classes, or meet up with a private tutor, but I don’t see that in the bank account. I’m still broke from surviving student teaching back in Boise, plus, my credit cards took a substantial hit from a New Years visit to the mountains which was financially ill-advised, but there are some people you just have to see before you up and move to Asia.

    So I’m going to have to approach this acquisition of language from a more grassroots standpoint. For Christmas, my older brother got me a book called Say it Right In Korean. I gave it a cursory glance on the plane—there were fourteen hours to kill, after all—but I was quickly discouraged by it. Korean is easily the most foreign-sounding language with which I have ever come in contact. Not only is there an overwhelming amount of syllables in every word, none of the sounds seem to fit right together. Everything seems so choppy, as if the words themselves are being diced in the air as they leave the speaker’s mouth.

    Before I can try reading it, much less attempt speaking, I need to figure out what the Hangul alphabet is all about. This is probably what I should have been doing while unemployed for the month of January. Additionally, the guy here before me left two books in the apartment: Korean through English and Romanized Korean. I am least frightened by the Say it Right book, but there’s no correlating alphabet in that one, so I pick up the Romanized one, since it’s smaller.

    I quickly discern an underlying logic to the system that I can appreciate. The English language has been through many major overhauls, influenced over the centuries by a picnic spread of Western languages, suffering mass identity crises every several hundred years on the heels of this invasion or that migration. Speaking English competently is a bit like being in a codependent relationship with a schizophrenic. One moment, things are going swimmingly and everything makes a quirky kind of sense. Take gh, for example. English used to want the ghs pronounced way back in the throat (as in the ch of the Scottish loch), and so it was done. And then, for reasons too complex to understand without a PhD in Linguistics, English decides that we’re dropping that rule, it’s all just crap, and from now on we’ll be saying it just like a normal g, like ghost.

    “Well…okay,” you think. “If you really think that’s best.” You’re pretty sure you love English, and besides, it’s all you know. Too late to switch to Dutch now. And just as you’re getting used to this new side of English, he rounds on you again. Now, he claims you’re supposed to say gh like it’s an f. Like in cough.

    “But what about the new ‘g’ rule?”
    “I never said that.”
    “Yes you did!”
    “Well, not at the end of a word.”
    You sigh. “Okay, I guess. So what you’re saying is you want me to start saying 'through' like ‘thruff’?”
    “Well, no, not this time.”

    So English can be exasperating, and symbolically, it probably should just be scrapped and rebuilt according to the International Phonetic Alphabet, which equates exactly one sound to one symbol with little cheek and much refreshing honesty. Oprah would definitely tell us to end this confusing relationship with a language that doesn’t know what it wants, but deep down, I think we all know we’ll never really leave our mad, deranged language. It would take so long to rebuild. But that’s exactly what the Koreans have done, or more accurately, did—back in the fifteenth century, when the difficulty of Chinese script meant high rates of illiteracy, which in turn spurred a reinvention of the written word. I am delighted with the straightforwardness of the Hangul alphabet.

    There are still a few overlapping sounds that trip me up. For instance, [g] often sounds like [k], as with [b] / [p], and [l] / [r]. But those are similar enough sounds, even in English, and I’m willing to forgive Hangul for the minor inconsistencies. It keeps our newfound relationship interesting.

    So it doesn’t take all that long to figure out the phonetics of Korean. Within a week of study, I can stumble through the names of places on the subway, and even read a menu haltingly. It sounds exactly like when my kindergarteners try to read English, and I vow to remain patient with them. And it is time to stop speaking Spanish to the melon man.

    permalink written by  alli_ockinga on May 7, 2009 from Inch'on, South Korea
    from the travel blog: I go Korea!
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    Hey everyone! In February 2009 I left the Pac Northwest for South Korea to teach English for a year. This is what I'm up to! Keep in touch!

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