From diary: THURSDAY
Chicken and beer from Two Two Chicken. Oh yes. I know where to go to get my western fix without actually eating western food. Brant ordered a whole fried chicken to go, and they asked us to sit down while it was being cooked. This is a tiny restaurant that serves chicken and beer, at least that was what I was able to translate from the menu. Brant and I make a good pair since he speaks a good bit of Korean but can’t read hangul, and I can read hangul. So I read what signs say, and he tells me what they mean. He said he likes it that I’m working at the school because all of the other foreigners could care less about Korean culture.
The chicken was finished, and the ajumma (mature lady, or “aunt”) cut it into bite-sized pieces and put it into a bag. On the way to Brant’s apartment above the school, we stopped by the school and invited everyone up for chicken and beer. When we got up, Brant dished out some kimchi and made a beer run across the street while I watched a Korean sitcom (Friendly Tenants) with English subtitles. I tried the chicken and fell in love with it. It’s free-range chicken, so it’s bonier, but the meat has more flavor. There’s a light breading with what I think is a hint of Chinese five spice. The chicken comes with a packet of sesame salt and a sweet hot dipping sauce. Since we were expecting Koreans to join us, Brant bought a bag of dried squid (ojingo). Disgusting, you say. I did too when I saw bags of this stuff next to snacks and candy at the Asian aisles in U.S. supermarkets. Brant opened the bag, and I got hit by a cloud of fish odor. Oh well, might as well try it. I took a piece and dipped it in its accompanying hot dipping sauce. You know what? It was pretty darn good. Sweet, salty, little ocean flavor. Like seafood jerky. I took a sip of beer and figured out why this is a drinking snack. I don’t know what it is, but the dried squid brought out a lot of subtle flavors in the beer.
Brant said that the Koreans usually come up to hang out, especially if there’s free beer, but he was afraid we were too spontaneous. Two had the courtesy to call and say they couldn’t make it. Only one showed up, Tally. She supposedly is a Korean who prides herself on how westernized she is. She walked in and asked if she had to take off her shoes. “You’re in Korea! Of course you do!”
She only stayed for a little while. Had to meet her Canadian boyfriend. So Brant and I stayed up, finished the chicken and ojingo while watching Korean pop singers on TV. I’m already hooked on this one cheesy pop song, and I want the CD. Anastasia would love it. One cool thing about Brant’s apartment is that he has a large window facing a building with a sword dojo in it. So sometimes you can watch people sword fighting from his place.
Valentine’s Day. At least at the school. In Korea, only girls give presents on V-Day. In March, there’s a White Day where the men give presents. I arrived to find three packages of chocolate on my desk. One from my supervisor, one from the kindergarten department head (Trisha, who brant has the hots for), and one from one of the front desk girls. The kids started arriving, and one little girl from Brant’s class gave me a chocolate heart on a stick.
My first two classes of the day are the rowdy Venus group. All boys and one girl, and even the girl misbehaves. I grabbed a set of food magnets to use as a game. I’d hold a picture of bananas up, and they raise their hands. Whoever answers correctly gets to put the magnet on the board. The kids made it an extra challenge by seeing who could put the magnet up the highest. Funny, Sally was able to put the magnet up the highest, and it riled up the boys, who come from a very male chauvinistic culture. Brant also likes pissing off the boys by letting the girls answer first or whatever. Interesting things I noted about them while playing this game. Tomatoes are persimmons. They have a hard time identifying a slice of pie. And when I hold up a picture of pancakes, they yell, “Hotcakes!”
“Yes, they’re also called pancakes. What is on the pancakes?”
“No, that is syrup. Maple syrup. What is this yellow square on top of the pancakes?”
My next two classes were my beloved girls from Bacchus. Tammy, the nerdy girl, gave me a beautiful silver box of chocolates. Soo Teach-a told m I had to give each of the girls a listening and speaking exam, so I did. All three made perfect scores. The first girl I took out to test was Sally, the slightly chunky outgoing one who giggles. I gave the other two girls markers to play with while I tested Sally. When I returned, there was this huge mural on the board with a heart. In the middle of the heart was, “Joe Teacher & Sally.”
Part of lunch consisted of reconstituted dried squid. Funny that the past two lunches have consisted of the same stuff I’ve had the night before.
Brant held a pizza party for one of his classes, and he called me over for a slice. Every country has its uniquely favorite pizza toppings. In Korea, it’s corn. I kid you not. they love corn… and mayonnaise. The corn and onion pizza actually tasted good, especially with the side of hot sauce. The trouble is that I temporarily abandoned my class to grab a bite. They insisted on pizza. I said that our class will have one, but they have to reach a few goals first. To pacify them, I shared some of my Valentine’s Day candy.
Friday nights from 6:30-8:00, I have my super-advanced conversational English class. Three boys Dante’s age. One was wearing a Taekwondo outfit with a black belt. I told him that Dante was a green belt. The topic of the day was ordering fast food. Seriously. That was the chapter. So we role played where I was the guy behind the counter taking their orders. Went well. During break they took out their Yu-gi-oh cards and played a game. Looked interesting. Will have to get Dante some of those.
Brant took me for samgyeopsal. There’s a metal plate on your table that is tilted slantwise into a basin. After they give you side dishes, they come out with mushrooms, veggies, kimchi, and these monster slices of unsalted bacon. You fry all this stuff at the table. After it’s done, you use the scissors to cut everything up, place the ingredients on a lettuce leaf, and stuff it in your mouth with gusto. Very Atkins-friendly meal. Lots of peddlers tour the tables in the restaurants. Brant got a bottle of ginseng extract. Big fan of it. And Korea is where the world gets its ginseng. Another girl gave us free sample packets of cigarettes with cool lighters inside. The cigarettes themselves were stale and awful. Brant lit one, and half the cigarette caught on fire.
We then went to the foreigner bar, Habana, to see if any waygooks were there. As usual, the place was dead. We sat for a while with some beer. Brant insisted on playing pool. We both suck. While playing, a Korean guy asked if he and his friend could play teams with us. They beat us every time, but it was close. One of the Koreans really liked hanging out with us. He gave me his card. Dehyoung Choe. He works for a BBQ chicken franchise, one of which is below the bar. We agreed to have dinner at his restaurant Tuesday and to hang out anytime we’re at Habana together. Also turned out that one of the barmaids was dating one of them, and Dehyoung had eyes for the other one. I gave him the chocolate heart on a stick that I got from one of the students and told him to give it to her. “No, in Korea, Balentine Day, girl give boy gift.”
“Ah, give it to her. Break tradition. You never know if you’ll be alive tomorrow. Live today.”
So he gave her the heart. Don’t know if it worked.
I decided to walk some more around my neighborhood. Beautiful day but a chilly wind. In the States, we’re used to the weatherman warning us of cold air coming from Canada. Somehow it just seems colder when they tell you the cold air is coming from Siberia.
Despite some gaffes like ordering anju (snacks that they try to make you order when you drink) at a bar, I’ve been able to save some money this week.
Christina and Glen came by with my mattress. I’m gonna have to figure how to get rid of the old one. It’s very comfortable. We went out for bulgolgi (BBQ beef) for lunch at one of the traditional sit-on-the-floor restaurants. As always, they gave us more exotic food than we could eat. And yes, one of the side dishes was a corn and mayonnaise salad. It tasted better than it sounds. We decided to meet up later that night in Pyongchon, their stomping grounds.
Around 5 PM, I walked down to Brant’s and called Christina. We took the subway and a cab to meet them at a Pizza Hut in Pyeongchon. Pizza Hut Korea has a new promotion: “Sweet Potatoes and Cheese come together!”
Yes! At long last! It’s about time!
Sarcasm aside, yes, they have a new sweet potato pizza. I saw the family behind us order one of them. We didn’t do much. We went to Christina and Glen’s apartment and watched Homestar Runner cartoons on the computer. Oh yeah, we did see a kid pull down his pants and water a tree while facing the street.
Nice quiet morning. Well, except for the vendor yelling about his fresh apples on the loudspeaker outside. I did laundry today and came up with a pretty decent system for air drying them, wrinkle-free. The washing machine, like everything else in Korea, it seems, doesn’t just beep, it plays a melody. The bells at school play a melody, there are melodies signifying different things on the subway, and the other day I passed by the local public school, and I could swear I heard the school’s bell play “Jingle Bells.”
After laundry and lunch, I trekked over to Brant’s. On the way there, I heard a grocery store blaring Toybox’s “Tarzan Song” out its speakers. Those who know my eccentric taste in music would know how floored I was to hear this obscure Danish pop music played in public.
Brant and I went for a light kimbap snack and played pool most of the afternoon until pool fatigue set in. I also boufht a pair of nice comfortable Marco Polo black slippers in my size for work. My new shoes from Denver still haven’t completely broken in. At Brant’s, I noticed a small patch of blood seeping through the Achilles heel of my sock.
Brant’s friend Derek came by, and we watched some TV. We then went out for chicken kalbi. It’s another one of those meals cooked at the table that your wrap in lettuce or sesame leaves. The kalbi’s sauce was red, creamy and garlicky. Reminded me of a sweeter version of Ben’s vodka sauce. Speaking of vodka, there’s a Russian restaurant in our area. We’ll have to check it out sometime.
We went to Habana Bar, and our new Korean friend, Dehyoung, was there with his roommate. We played pool again with Dehyoung. This time, he introduced me to the matron of the establishment. So now we’re on a familiar basis with the bar’s familial staff. That gives us a leg up on the other foreigners. The matron was amused when Dehyoung was struggling with Brant’s name, and Brant suggested he call him “Babo Songsaengnim” instead, which means “Stupid Teacher, ” or “Mr. Stupid.” We had a good time playing pool. I have finally found a pocket of Korean culture that makes uncomfortable. In the west, if you are giving someone a hearty handshake, you’d grasp the arm with the other hand. In Korea, I have found in an embarrassingly surprising way that men pat the other’s butt with the other hand instead. I don’t think I’ll return that gesture in kind.