changing characters

After a payday dinner out (this time I realized that my bi bim bop place served jap chae, so I ordered that and it was yummy) heading home when I noticed some fellow Baekyoung teachers sitting at a corner convenience store, so I stopped and said hello.

About four guys, sitting but strangely not doing much talking and not drinking. I asked if they were sitting there to watch the dancing girls. (every opening of any establishment seems to have two or more scantily clad girls badly dancing hip hop to Kpop songs, one of whom’s voice is screeching over the music, along with lots of balloons and things…but the girls had thankfully taken a break. They said no, they were just waiting for others to get there. I asked about the drinking, and they said, “later.” So they motioned for me to join them and I pulled up a chair.

I guess I caught them on the only one or two times a year they get together. This seems to be common among all the Baekyoung teachers – they’re too busy, live too far away, and they’re all settled down. Long story short, I ended up hanging out with seven of them for the rest of evening. We checked out the newly (badly) remodeled place the girls were advertising (we all got sports towels as gifts) and had makkolli and soju, then moved on to a sushi bar, (Korean style, which means sashimi and drinks) and then on to noraebang. Like all of the teachers all of the time, many of them were upset about the vice principal.

Shop talk aside, I was really glad to be there, mostly because of Sang Chil. The others joke that Sang Chil’s head is too big. The restaurant serves head cheese along with the makkolli, and they ask me if I know what it is. They tell me it is pressed pig head – like pressed Sang Chil head…Sang Chil just laughs about this – his head is height weight proportionate, but let’s just say he could lose ten or fifteen pounds. He’s taken to riding 30 km every day to school to try to trim down. (like all the other bikers in Korea, he dons full spandex for his ride every day.  He says the seat is very uncomfortable, so I tell him about the blue men riding naked in Seattle, and he tells everyone else in Korean) I tell him that big head means big brain, and they’re just jealous. Sang Chil says I always seem happy, but really it’s because he’s just so good-natured and always making light of everything, that I can’t help but smile around him. It’s really rare for me to be able to say that about anyone: I hate jokes, I hate clowns, I barely have a sense of humor, and whereas I can appreciate wit and sarcasm, etc., it doesn’t really make me smile…but an easy sunny outlook does, and he’s got that in spades.

Had an awesome time and learned a lot…such as, it’s unusual the restaurant I went to had Jap Chae on the menu, since it’s a special treat usually reserved for holidays.  I heard for the second time that the clear liquid from the top of the makkolli is the best, and that thick makkolli is undesirable.  (Mr. S. told me it gives a person gas)  “So why do you shake the bottle then?”  Sang Chil looked at me like he’d been bonked on the head, then started cracking up.  His reply:  “I DON’T KNOW!!!  Ha ha ha ha ha!!!!  Bad habit?  Eh!  Korean custom.”

This reminds me of the time Y was struggling to get her shoes off inside my door.  “Why don’t you sit on the stool?  That’s why I bought it.”  She sat.  A look of wonder crossed her face.  The idea that removing shoes is easier when you’re not standing on your feet hadn’t occurred to her before.  “This is amazing!  I should buy a stool!”

I’ve never been in a Korean home with a stool or chair by the door…It used to be that the floor was quite a bit higher than the entry portion where you took your shoes off – at least a full step higher or more and you could sit comfortably on the edge while removing your shoes.  But now that the modern ondol heating system is just heated tubes of water, the step is only about three inches high.

In an effort to still relate what might be new info for you, before I forget what’s new…

If you come visit Korea, you’ll see many people break the counter of their shoes (the portion which covers your heel) on purpose, stepping on them to make them more slipper-like for easy on and off.  Many women walk around with their high heel sandals unstrapped, and I’m not sure if this is because of the difficulty of always taking them on and putting them off, or because they have so many layers of blisters from wearing bad shoes they think makes them look sexier. And house slippers, (which most homes have at least one pair available for guests to keep them from contaminating the floor the adjumma washes on her hands and knees and which is swept obsessively all day) bathroom slippers (which, if you share a bathroom without a shower enclosure, they help keep your feet dry when you walk to the toilet after someone else has showered – they’re about 5/8 of an inch high and have perforations throughout the plastic sole) and the common sporty plastic slippers most people own and which are di rigeur for students school, are a little wide so they can accommodate a wide range of people, and thus it’s easy to lose one as they slip off too easily. So I’m sure this accounts for the shuffling or skating kind of motion many Koreans exhibit when walking, especially when they are in a hurry.

Also, if you go to a traditional restaurant, there will typically be one of those hand-operated mechanical arms resting by the shoe shelves.  The waitress or cashier will move the pairs of shoes around and put them on the shelves with the mechanical arm.  At some restaurants, too, there will be aprons hanging on pegs for the customers, so you don’t splash soup and kimchi and pepper paste on your clothing.

At every restaurant they hand you a sanitizing pre-packaged wet towel to wash your hands with prior to eating.  Which, as a westerner I’ve always found amusing – since nobody eats with their fingers, and everyone sticks their already contaminated chopsticks into the community side dish bowls.

Rice, you may have heard, is eaten with a spoon.  This isn’t an exclusive rule, but kind of makes sense because Koreans tend to mix everything together, and once the rice has met a sauce, it no longer sticks together, making chopstick retrieval nearly impossible.  Meals start with a soup, and it’s common to add some of your rice to the soup, or any of the side-dishes, etc.

Rice must have 400 iterations in Korea.  It’s ground into flour and made into pasta and pastries, rolled into ropes, cut up and boiled like dumplings, called dduk, it’s beaten into a paste and made into cakes both sweet and nutty, fluffy and refined or rustic, dropped into soups like dumplings, pressed into the broth itself to thicken it, the crispy remains at the bottom of the rice crock have barley tea or water added to create a tea or pudding for dessert, sugar is added for a punch, and then there is the fermented makkolli rice wine.

When Sang Chil asked what I thought of the kids, I told him the boys were animals.   He told me all the native English speakers have said that. He told me Michael, the Canadian who preceded me two years earlier came to class with his HOCKEY STICK. omg! I felt so much better after hearing that!

The PE teacher, who is probably the most handsome man in Korea, is also the most unpretentious, unconceited handsome man in Korea, and his wife is Korea’s most famous female archer, a gold-medalist at the Olympics. And he’s a total goofball singing. It’s interesting to compare what Koreans choose to sing, as opposed to Americans (migooks). You know: some songs just become anthems to a culture or an era, and it was weird and nice to be pulled into a pile of all of them swaying to some anthem and singing at the top of their lungs. It was a huge group hug kind of thing.


All week Seven Star has been eating lunch with me.  He and this other girl. (I need to learn her name) He’s the only one I told, and I feel bad because English is difficult for him and because he and Y are such good friends – but if he is, then he knows how she can be as well.

Seven Star, with his comb-over and crooked smile…the kids are always making portraits of him and giving them to him. There is currently a portrait of him on his cubicle, which is made entirely of junk food from the student snack shop.  At Easter time, there was an egg decorating contest, and someone made a Seven Star egg head with a comb-over. When I asked the girls in my class what they valued most in life; what would they take with them into space if the earth could no longer support life, one of them wrote down Seven Star. On another occasion, when I asked the students to tell me their best or worst summer vacation experience, one girl relayed how she ran into Seven Star at a bus stop, so it was the best experience. But it was very hot and the girl wanted ice cream, so she suggested that Seven Star buy them both ice cream. Seven Star pulls out his wallet and shows her (he shows EVERYBODY this) how his wallet has no money, because his wife won’t give him any money. (Seven Star thinks this is a riot and loves to tell everyone why he doesn’t have any money.  With all his stories, one can just imagine her as the old battle axe…) So then the girl finishes her story by saying that, at that point, both she and Seven Star cried for ice cream, and then dramatically told us how it then became the saddest day of summer.

The other girl is this funny creature. She has a really high-pitched squeaky voice and everyone pokes fun about it. She is bow-legged, and not very graceful. Her clothes range from dowdy to trendy, and everyone jokes about her behind her back, because she asks people’s opinions about how she looks all the time. (I try and compliment her when it’s a hit, but most of the time it’s a miss) People also wonder why she stays at school at night when she doesn’t have a class…

Anyway, for the last six months she could never get the nerve up to even say hello to me in English, even though people would push her to. But I think something about it just being Seven Star and me has made it safer, and a freaking floodgate has opened up. She’s absolutely giddy about English now, and she tries to talk my ear off all lunch. I learned she’s from Pusan, that she lives on her own! (this is REALLY unusual in Korea) and that she moved here last year specifically to be free. She misses everyone she knows, but she also knows everyone there, and wants more choices in men to date. So that’s why she’s come to Seoul – to blossom, to find a mate. And she dreams of getting out of Korea, and moving to Japan or America. She is almost fluent in Japanese now and that’s what she’s doing every time she stays late at school, she’s studying Japanese. I’m really starting to like her: she’s sweet.


For some reason, I’m beginning to feel like a would-be Amelie. All these characters: Seven Star, the bow-legged girl, Gestapo, Mr. Moon (who the kids call “Mr. Bean”) who left to study more English, the teachers in my adult class, The vice principal, (whose name means “spot” and everyone howls in laughter calling him that) Y, are as compelling as in that movie. Sometimes I feel like they all want me to manipulate their lives in some way. Like they all wish I were as mischievous and meddling as Amelie.  Because I am so unusual here, because in the few months I’ve been here so many atypical things have happened surrounding me, I think they think I have something they don’t.  Like I will do and be outrageous like Amelie and get results.  And they want some of that.  Y just took it too far.  And just like in the movie, Korean ideas about love and life seem really superficial to me. And yet they are horribly sentimental and absorbed with philosophizing about their own lives and Korea, and it stems from self pity.  Just like in the movie, the message is that time is running out for love, so get it while you can or you’ll miss out – it doesn’t matter if it’s superficial, just do whatever you have to do to not end up alone.  I think I’m the only person on the planet that hated the message of that movie.  The characters are endearing, but we must shoot higher, we must not sell ourselves short.

I do care about all these people, and it is maddening to see what they will accept.  Can you say jaded?  And I know that I have no concept of the consequences were they to assert themselves, so I try not to judge them individually.  But as a society?  When the vast majority are living parallel lives of quiet desperation, then the lunacy of not coming together for change is crazy-making.


Sang Chil tells me there is blood in my eye. Alarmed, I realize he means my eyes are bloodshot. I tell him that’s what happens when I wear contacts all day, drink coffee, and follow it with makkolli. Several hours later, as I am leaving the noraebang and we’re saying adieu, he finishes by telling me there’s blood in my eye again. I start to get PTSD flashes of Y telling me you have a spot on your face, your sink needs scrubbing, you look older today, your hair is different, I never see you brush your teeth, you should be more careful with your ID card, you can’t afford that, you must eat this…

I know much of this is cultural, yet I also see the pathology of this constant criticism, and how it affects people: it affects THEM. DEEPLY. Yet they continue to do it to each other and press everyone around them to do the same.   Is the obsessive dieting, skin whitening, mirror-checking, exercising, etc. image consciousness to be better people, or to put an end to the same kind of criticism they dish out so easily?

Y’s doctor told her she needed to gain a couple kilos, so her response was (I watched her) to eat even less and control her portions even more each day.  Anorexia means never having to hear you’re fat in Korea.  It’s a wonder it isn’t even more prevalent than it is, given the climate here.  The climate here.  The everybody’s business is your business, critical, stress-filled climate.

Part of me really wants to stay at this school and not just run away from it.  I want to see if I’m a good teacher.  I want to have a year without celebrity and incident.  I want to be able to say I weathered a long trial and came out stronger, instead of bailing when I see a greener pasture.

But another part of me wants to move somewhere more lively and cultural.  But in many ways, that’s a thing of the quickly disappearing past – and this sterile apartment and high rise new city living IS becoming the reality of Korea today.  And this is not really the memory I want to keep.

But really, I’d just like to be visiting.  Have a blast partying with Koreans, enjoy their goofy sense of humor, but opt out of all the anguish that truly feeling the anthemic bonding requires.  Picture Russians stupid on vodka singing a ballad about suffering and surviving.  Now just replace that with Koreans today stupid on soju singing a pop song about suffering and surviving.  I watched another old movie the other night, and a man had returned home after a tragedy.  All the men were sitting around a table drinking, and the man was crying.  Soon everyone was crying.  And one of the men started singing a traditional song – it was really beautiful and I could tell it was about suffering, and everyone started singing and bellowing out this song from the bottom of their toes.  The solidarity of shared fates, tragedy, defeat, despair is something Americans have never known.  Maybe it’s this whole Asian continent.  Maybe it’s any oppressed society in the world.

I can try and understand, but I can’t relate.  There’s a little of this in the adoptee community as well.  Again, I can try and understand, but I can’t relate.  Maybe my isolation has been greater, or maybe my wall is higher, my fear of vulnerability paralyzing, I don’t know.  I know my privilege is probably the same.

Tonight I sit alone in my apartment, and I’m strangely really really happy.

4 thoughts on “changing characters

  1. I would almost think that the peer pressure is an offhand way of showing appreciation for your uniqueness.

    I keep thinking I see more and more of this group think in our (American) culture. Less tolerance of eccentricity. Something I am myself.

  2. Made me smile, too! Love it.
    I also love the part “to keep them from contaminating the floor the adjumma washes on her hands and knees and which is swept obsessively all day”… so true! haha…
    and the part about why your eyes are bloodshot,”that’s what happens when I wear contacts all day, drink coffee, and follow it with makkolli.” brill.

  3. Nah, the peer pressure is because I look Korean.

    Their attention is (was) due to looking Korean yet not putting up with any bullshit because I’m a foreigner, but I don’t act like any foreigner they’ve ever known before, and I don’t look like any foreigner they’ve ever known before.

    I’ve been living the past twenty years in Seattle, where eccentricity is the goal, so that’s what I am used to and it was sad I didn’t pack that in my suitcase knowing I would be coming to Asia. Now, I just want it back.

    I think winter break is a good time to reinvent myself…

    Glad for the opportunity to make you all smile!

    p.s. nice to hear from you Kelly! less blogging must = more life, so I’m glad for you. :)

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