Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On the Slopes Again (2 February)

We’re up before dawn has even thought about cracking.  Slightly bleary eyed, we get ready to leave the hostel and make our way to Hongik station.  KiwiKat has already left for the Express Bus Terminal which is second pick up site and the one where, as an AK staff member, she needs to help round up the foreigners and get them on the bus.  NZ2 is impatient and leaves for the station slightly earlier than Catfish and I.  As I’ve said before, someone always has to be last and I don’t mind volunteering for this position most of the time.

We arrive at Hongik station, cold and tired, to discover that we’re the first people there.  Fortunately, the bus is already there and we’re told to get on where it’s nice and warm.  As we wait for the bus to fill up, I realise that we never emailed Seokjin to let him know that we would be changing pick up sites: We’d originally planned to stay at the jimjilbang at the bus terminal before hearing that the Kiwis were also on the ski trip.  Catfish texts KiwiKat to let her know that we’ve changed sites and there’s a slight confusion with her response which we understand to mean that she’s not impressed with us.  We’re disappointed that we won’t be on the same bus as her for the four hour trip to Phoenix Park Ski Resort in Pyeongchang but we’re on the same bus as Seokjin and ByungMin who we first met on the DMZ trip a month ago.

The 'In' Crowd ^__^

Despite our best efforts, we fall asleep for the first half of the trip and wake up when we reach the rest stop.  Since we’ve been asleep for most of the trip so far, we haven’t seen the text messages from KiwiKat and NZ2 about us sharing a room.  We’d already assumed that the four of us would be sharing a room but we’re not sure of who the other three or four people in our room will be.  Catfish and I already know that we’re exceptions to most of the stereotypes governing foreigners so we don’t find it unusual that while most of the foreigners congregate with other foreigners only, we head for the group of AK staff members and all of the Koreans on the trip.  As we stand in the cold, warming our hands around hot drinks, we hear good news: We’re sharing a room with all of the AK staff! This really makes our day and, as we return to the buses, we know that this is going to be an amazing trip.

Traffic has been somewhat slow up to this point and we arrive at Phoenix Park after midday.  Our first stop is the ski rental place where we try on our ski boots, jackets and pants.  We’re not quite sure how to tell if the ski boots fit properly so we decide that if we can walk in them without too much pain, they must be the right size.  Hiring ski gear for three days is inexpensive as everything, including goggles, costs only 35 000 won.  Once we have our ski suits, goggles and boots, we’re told to check our skis/snowboards.  Again, we’re not quite sure what we’re meant to be looking for so Catfish and I pick up our skis, flip them over, shrug our shoulders and get back on the bus. 

From here, it’s a short bus ride to the actual resort where the rental shop will meet us with our skis and snowboards.  We struggle to balance our skis as we walk the short distance back to the buses to collect our bags and do an even greater juggling act as we attempt to cross the parking lot to the hotel without scratching all of the cars along the way.  By the time we make it into the lobby, we all but throw our things down as we wait for the room assignments.  We already know who we’re rooming with but have to wait for all of the keys to be handed out since the ‘staff’ room is always allocated last.

Learning to Ski

Once in our rooms, we quickly change into our ski outfits and head out to the Baby slope to learn how to ski.  I’ve only been skiing once and that was when I was an exchange student in France 15 years ago.  The experience did not end well so I’m a bit dubious about this weekend. Part of me is hoping that, somewhere over the past 15 years, my body has magically learned to co-operate with skis and I will be flying down the slopes in no time.  Before I can try flying down the slopes, however, I need to learn the one thing I never learned the first time: How to stop!

KiwiKat is our instructor and it’s interesting to see just how many adults are genuinely terrified of skiing when they first start.  It’s also a bit intimidating to watch small children as young as three or four years of age flying down slopes fearlessly while adults (mostly foreigners) peer at even the Bunny slopes with trepidation.  After two practise runs on the baby slope, Catfish disappears.  When she returns much later, she looks a little more patient and tells me that she’s just attempted the slope next to where we are standing which is actually an intermediate grading.  Although she fell down a lot on the slope, I admire her chutzpah for tackling such a slope within an hour of being on skis for the first time in her life.

Please Don't Run Over the Children!

Since I haven’t fallen down once yet, or run over any small children, I convince myself that I’m feeling confident enough to try out a proper Beginner’s slope.  There are almost no queues for the chair lift so we’re soon on our way up the slope and having lots of fun.  It’s only at the top of the slope that I suddenly realise that the only way to now get down the slope is to ski and I feel my confidence waiver for a moment.  I remember KiwiKat saying that the wider the inverted ‘V’ shape that we make with our skis, the slower we’ll go so I clench my knees together, stick out my butt as I bend my back to lean forward, spread my heels, take a deep breath and push away from the slope. 

As I slowly glide down the slope, I feel my confidence returning: I’m doing this! I’m coping well, I’m controlling my speed, I’m not falling over, I’m…picking up more speed than I’d like and, oh crap, I’m about to run over a child!  It’s this last part that scares me the most; after all, I probably weigh at least double that of the average Korean adult women so my running over a child would be the equivalent of someone being trampled by an elephant charging at 45 km per hour or more.  I attempt to swerve around the child and before I know it, I’m lying on my back with my arms above my head and knees still bent, sliding down the slope at the same speed.  I don’t panic because I know that, at some point, I’m going to stop; it’s just a matter of time even I never quite understand inertia and all the science talk about movement and stopping. 

It’s all good fun until I realise that my ski jacket has pulled halfway up my back and I’m actually sliding downhill bareback.  In addition, there’s a long orange fence that runs down the side of the slope to stop skiers from falling off the edge but it has mysteriously moved and is now directly in front of me.  The semi-conscious part of my brain registers that I need to stop myself so I lift my butt off the ground, pull my legs even further under me and turn my skis outward which has the same effect as a car using an emergency brake.  I’ve narrowly escaped potential injuries and can’t believe my dumb luck; when faced with situations I can’t fully process at once, my immediate reaction is either to cry or laugh hysterically so I burst into crazed laughter as I contemplate my narrow escape.  NZ2  appears behind me to ask if I’m okay and later tells me just how funny it was to watch me sliding and then do an emergency brake.

I take a moment to catch my breath as NZ2 continues down the slope.  Suddenly, a Korean man appears before me and offers me a hand to get up.  I tell him that he’ll end up sliding down the hill backwards if he pulls me up but he brushes this off with the assurance that he can ski backwards.  Show-off!  I’ve just slid halfway down the beginner’s slope on my back and here you are telling me that you can ski backwards.  Back on my feet, I’m once again on my way and, once again, sliding on my back when I attempt to dodge another child.  By the time I reach the bottom of the slope, I’m more than ready to call it a day and accept that I’ll never be a great athlete.  I head back to the room to change back into my own clothes and we’re soon heading off in search of dinner.

Down Time

There are several options for dinner and KiwiKat tells us that PopEye’s Chicken is the best so that’s where we devour our food in hunger.  Once again, we realise that lunch was forgotten in our excitement for the day’s trip.  After dinner, we explore the resort options and head to the Family Mart for some drinks which we end up drinking in the cafeteria while a resort employee stands near us and speaks randomly into his walkie-talkie.  We obviously don’t understand what he is saying and I’m not convinced that we’re actually allowed to drink alcohol in the cafeteria so we start making up comments like There are four waegooks drinking in the cafeteria and How do I say, “Please don’t drink here”?.  I’m constantly amazed at the things we do for self-entertainment.  In all honesty, and just to set the record straight, we only had ONE drink in the cafeteria; we were not drinking excessively.

We consider going bowling but discover that there’s an hour’s wait for a lane so we head to the noryaebang instead.  I’m excited by this as I haven’t yet been to a noryaebang in Korea.  There’s nothing quite like singing songs at the top of your voice, amplified by a microphone, with the misguided belief that being in Korea has mysteriously made you a talented singer.  Of course, this misguided belief and confidence only applies in Korea.  We end the noryaebang session an hour later, with rather hoarse throats, and make our way back to our room where we watch the night skiers on the slopes before us.  It’s inspiring and we go to bed dreaming of an entire day of gliding down the slopes gracefully.

Three Cocktails Not Three Koreans (1 February)

After five days of vacation spent in Gunsan, I am more than ready to head up to Seoul this morning in preparation for the ski trip that Catfish, NZ2, KiwiKat and I have signed up for through Adventure Korea.  Although we’re only leaving for the trip tomorrow, the pick up time is 7:00am so we’re spending the night at Hong Guesthouse in Hongdae which is only a five minute walk from the pick up site at Hongik station.  In addition, this long weekend is Lunar New Year (설날 – Seolnal) which, along with Chuseok (추석), is one of the two biggest holidays in Korea.  This is a time of mass migration on the roads of Korea as most people travel to their hometowns to celebrate the new year with their families.  There is a system as to who travels where (based on the hierarchal and patriarchal system of Korea) and there are various traditions associated with what actually happens at Seolnal but I won’t get into that here.

Getting to Seoul

Since we already knew that the roads would be busy, Catfish and I meet at the Gunsan Express Bus Terminal at 11:35am and manage to get onto the 11:40am bus – with only four other people.  We take this as a good sign that getting to Seoul this afternoon shouldn’t be too arduous and most people will be travelling later tonight or tomorrow.  The first two hours of the trip are great and we encounter no more traffic than usual in the two and a half hour trip. 

We’re excited to finally get to Seoul and know that we’re only approximately 1 km from the Gangnam Express Bus Terminal when we’re greeted with a sight so terrifying that only a picture can accurately describe it.  After making it to Seoul in the usual two and a half hours, we start to wonder just how long the final stretch is going to take.  We sit on the off-ramp for at least 30 minutes and watch as a passenger approaches the driver, has a hushed conversation with him and then gets off the bus.  I’m optimistic that this traffic can’t delay us for more than 45 minutes but when we’re barely off the highway 45 minutes after getting to Seoul, I’m starting to have doubts. 

Please Control the Waegooks

Catfish keeps sliding across the bus to take photos of the endless traffic and, frankly, we’re starting to go a little stir-crazy which encourages the two Korean passengers closest to us to move to the opposite end of the bus.  We’re meant to be meeting NZ2 in Itaewon after his five day trip to Japan where he proposed to his girlfriend.  We’re eager to catch up and run a few errands before heading to the hostel for the night but the traffic poses a serious obstacle.  Despite the driver’s valiant attempts to slay the many heads of this traffic dragon, it seems to keep multiplying and we’re soon in the thick of a war of vehicles that every possible police officer in Seoul is attempting to control.  It’s the first time we’ve seen so many police officers in one day and clustered in large groups – obviously for their protection from crazed travellers like ourselves.

After another 45 minutes on the bus, we can finally see the Central City sign for the bus terminal and we know that we’re just around the corner from our final stop.  However, we’ve been sitting in Seoul traffic for an hour and a half and just want to get off the bus at this point – if we only knew how to ask this in Korean!  Finally, the driver says something in Korean and the remaining two Korean passengers jump up so we take this as a sign that we’re being released back into the wilds of Seoul and race the other passengers off the bus, grab our bags and make our way across the road to the relative freedom of the subway.  After seeing the chaos on the roads, I’m reluctant to travel below ground where I once again anticipate the type of traffic experienced at Christmas Eve.  Fortunately, most people seem to be focusing their chaos-contributions above ground and the subway is no busier than usual so we’re soon in Itaewon where we hastily store our luggage in lockers and head to What the book? to meet NZ2.

We don’t spend too long at What the book? where Catfish buys a copy of Making Out in Korean to study a few essential terms to use with JH.  From there, we head to a store that does personalised stitching on beanies, t-shirts and other assorted personal goods.  NZ2 is in the market for a new beanie and Catfish and I are still debating t-shirts along the lines of “She made me do it” with arrows pointing to each other.  Standing in the shop, NZ2 chooses a beanie and asks for input as to what it should say.  Considering the speculation of our colleagues over the past month, I suggest it read “Engaged!” which makes both Catfish and NZ2 start laughing almost hysterically.  I even suggest getting one myself that reads “But not to me!” to wear to school on the same days as NZ2 which makes us all laugh even more.  Eventually, we decide to pass on this idea and NZ2 gets a beanie that reads “Too Cold :/” in Korean. By the time we leave the store, we’re starving but not in the mood for burgers so NZ2 suggests Gecko’s which apparently makes fantastic fish and chips so he leads the way to this new paradise.

Listen Carefully Catfish

We’re soon seated and salivating over a menu that lists many mouth-watering options.  We’re all keen to have fish and chips but the quesadillas also sound delicious so Catfish and I decide to share one of these too.  Before you judge us too harshly, we had barely eaten breakfast before leaving this morning and we hadn’t had time to have lunch before getting on the bus so we were starving!

Our waiter places paper place mats in front of us and we notice that there is a picture to colour in on the back.  This is probably meant for children but Catfish is the baby in our group so she asks for crayons to colour in the picture much to the amusement of our waiter. When our dinner arrives, the food looks just like fish and chips in an English pub which is something of a novelty here in Korea so Catfish and I immediately pick up our cameras to document this auspicious moment.  We’re ravenous so conversation is limited as we attack our food with relish.  We make short work of most of our meal before the conversation once again becomes lively. 

Since NZ2 was in Japan for my actual birthday – and I was told at my surprise party that I could have a week long birthday – I tell him that he has to have a cocktail with us.  We can’t see our waiter so Catfish is dispatched to order drinks at the bar.  Within minutes, she returns to the table followed by three very eager and flirtatious waiters who vie to take our order much to Catfish’s embarrassment and our amusement.  With all three 20-something men fighting to take our orders, I lean over to Catfish and tell her that she seems to have only heard the first syllable of “cocktails”.

As we finish off our meal, we’re aware of the overly attentive waiters who seem to have taken a liking to Catfish.  They circle our table on a loop, constantly looking over until Catfish engages them in further conversation.  WanSu, at only (Korean) 20 years of age, is the youngest and has just finished high school as Dan, who is (Korean) 27 years of age quickly points out when we play the Guess How Old I Am game with them.  WanSu also tells us that his English name is Jack Sparrow which prompts Catfish to start humming the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: World’s End.  I don’t think he quite understood this response in all honesty which just added to the humour of the situation.  Clearly WanSu and Dan are having fun, however, and when they hear that we’re all English teachers, they teach us a Korean phrase to use in class when we have one boy who is not cooperating; Malicious Boy immediately springs to mind.  The phrase means something to the effect of: When I am kind to you, you be a good boy to me.

Engrish in Itaewon

We leave the pub still laughing and teasing Catfish about not getting their phone numbers and head back to Itaewon station to collect our luggage.  While unlocking the lockers, I notice the Engrish instructions that are on the screen when a locker door is open: 33 is the beginning of the locker, After you take the goods until you hear the door beep thrusting. We’re still not entirely sure what this actually means as we take the subway to Hongik station and walk to Hong Guesthouse where David, the manager on duty, seems very excited to finally have people arriving.  We get the impression it’s been a very slow day at the guesthouse and this seems to be confirmed when Charlie (another staff member) takes his time showing us around the guesthouse and finally to our room. 

Let's Play a Game or Two

We’re waiting for KiwiKat to arrive and NZ2 and I are still teasing Catfish about being a natural flirt. When he logs onto Skype to chat to his new fiancée, I join Catfish downstairs to check emails and we end up chatting to David and Charlie until KiwiKat arrives and we head back upstairs together.  Unfortunately, we’re quick to recount the Gecko’s story to KiwiKat who is laughing as much as we did so Catfish, tired of the teasing, excuses herself and heads back downstairs where she is invited to join a birthday party for David’s girlfriend/friend.  This is where we find her when KiwiKat and I head downstairs to go to the convenience store and we’re invited to join the party too.  We chat to the group for a few minutes and, once again, end up playing the Guess My Age game with this group of Koreans.  Koreans and Westerners find it rather difficult to guess each other’s ages so this game often provides great entertainment for both groups.

This game leads to the Guess how long I’ve been in Korea game between us and another English teacher.  He’s a bit pompous and tells us that he’s just renewed his contract which, of course, doesn’t impress any of us with KiwiKat by our side.  When he tries to guess how long KiwiKat’s been in Korea, he seems to find it hard to believe that someone would stay in Korea for eight and half years without: a) Being married to a Korean or b) Earning a ridiculously high salary.  OR c) Maybe we genuinely like our jobs and schools so that’s enough reason for KiwiKat to have stayed here so long which is, actually, the reason for KiwiKat’s long stay in Korea.  He can’t seem to understand this third option and we take this as our cue to leave. 

We’re all more than ready for an early night which means that, once again, we’re staying overnight in one of the biggest clubbing areas in Seoul and we have yet to even venture anywhere near these despite many invitations from David.  Maybe next time we’re in Hongdae, we’ll experience nightlife beyond just the local convenience store.

Curiouser and Curiouser (31 January)

Having spent the weekend in my apartment studying Korean phrases and talking myself up to chat to the cute doctor even more today, I arrive at the Oriental Medicine department feeling very confident.  When I text the translator to tell her that I’m at the right department, I even tell her that it’s okay if she needs to attend to other foreigners or paperwork because Dr Kim and I can understand each other.  Within minutes, she’s walking towards me with a big smile and greeting me.  A doctor stops her and asks her something while pointing at me, pointing towards Dr Kim’s office and then showing blushing cheeks while asking something in Korean with a wide grin – she’s asking if I’m the foreigner who made the cute doctor blush in December and Sunny affirms this with a broad grin. Apparently all of the doctors on the first floor have heard the story of how I made the cute doctor blush!  Sunny then sits beside me where she notices my nails and comments on them favourably before we move inside.

We Can Communicate!

We continue to chat while the nurse starts the first part of the treatment and then later while we wait for Dr Kim who is busy doing hospital rounds.  The nurse has already told me that it’s going to be a long wait which I don’t mind; I come from a country where waiting hours for a doctor is common practise and I’m chatting to the translator anyway about a variety of topics.  Just before Dr Kim arrives, the nurse pokes her head into the cubicle and says something to the translator who jumps up and excuses herself to use the restroom.  Within a few minutes of her departure, Dr Kim greets me with a big smile and seems far more relaxed today. He notices the book in my hand and makes a comment about my studying hard.  I place the book behind me with the rest of my things where he sees the cover and seems surprised that it’s a Korean phrase book.  He tells me that he studied English over the weekend and I take this bit of information as a good sign. 

The translator is gone for quite a while but cute doctor and I manage to communicate fairly successfully with one another.  He even mentions that my birthday of the previous week and wishes me a belated happy birthday.  I’m slightly disappointed when the translator returns and I expect the conversation to return to Korean entirely as the two of them chat over me.  Surprisingly, the cute doctor continues to alternate between English and Korean which I appreciate.  When he proceeds to give me an injection in my elbow, he pauses long enough to warn me that it may hurt slightly since there’s very little space in this particular part of the body.  I anticipated that it would hurt but the pain is worse than I imagined.  I don’t have a high pain tolerance and I cry fairly easily.  My ego won’t allow me to cry in front of this doctor so I start laughing which is what I do when I can’t cry. 

My arm feels like it’s on fire!  As I move my other hand to massage my arm slightly, cute doctor takes my arm and does it for me.  He then positions the needles in my back and asks where I’m going skiing – everything I’ve told Sunny has been relayed to the cute doctor.  He chats to me briefly about where I’m going skiing and then tells me to enjoy my trip and “take care” before he leaves again.  I struggle to hide my disappointment as I say goodbye thinking that this is probably the last time I’ll see him.  Within minutes, he’s back and eager to chat some more. 

So...Let's Chat

He asks if I had a birthday party so I tell him of the surprise party that my friends held for me a week before my birthday.  He then gleefully tells me that he’s slightly older than me which I proceed to tease him about.  Had I been able to think quicker on my feet, I would probably have commented that I have to do everything he says on account of his being older than me but that doesn’t come to me at the time.  He then asks if he may look at my Korean book and pages through it with interest, asking if I can read the Hangeul or if I only read the romanization of each phrase.  I can read Hangeul and actually find it easier to decipher the pronunciation.  I watch as he seems to look for something in the book before he turns to me with a cheeky grin and says that he thinks I’ve only read the first 30 pages.  Conveniently, he’s opened the book to a page that has an old bus ticket as a book mark although that’s not a true reflection of what I’ve read in the book.  When I respond that I’ve actually read through the book three times already, he nonchalantly tells me that I still need to read it 97 times.

The cute doctor seems quite content to just sit and chat to me and the translator despite the fact that my appointment is pretty much over.  Eventually I’m told to change back into my clothes so that he can do the final, and my favourite, part.  The other doctor is busy finishing the treatment of a patient so we wait a few minutes and continue chatting about nothing in particular.  During the final part, the translator once again leaves the room and the cute doctor tells me to be careful skiing because he doesn’t want me to get hurt.  I somehow manage to maintain a calm exterior while my heart thuds in my chest.  By the time he finishes the spine and neck adjustment, the translator has returned and it’s time to leave.  However, the cute doctor seems eager to continue the conversation and keeps asking questions like why I came to Korea and how long I’ve been here.  When I tell him that I’ve been in Korea for four months, he asks why he hadn’t seen me in the first three months.  What answer do I give?  Eventually, it is time for me to leave having been at this appointment for over two and a half hours!

I leave the Medical Centre in a giddy delight and hurry to Catfish’s apartment to tell her of my morning’s adventures.  We have lunch together at the Kimbap restaurant near Lotte mart before I have to head back to the Medical Centre for the nerve test that I was referred for to assess the numbness I’ve been experiencing for the past month in my left hand.

Nerve Test and a Sadistic Doctor

The first part of the nerve test involves an electromagnetic pulse stimulation that feels a little strange but generally does not hurt.  Since the first part of the test goes so well, and the doctor is very kind and considerate, I don’t really give much thought to the second part of the test until I’m lying on the bed with my hand stretched toward the doctor brandishing an ominous looking needle.  I ask if there will be only one needle in this test but I’m out of luck – it involves three needles.  I’m not quite sure of what to expect in this part of the test since it’s not common practice to question doctors or ask for explanations of medical things in Korea; everyone simply trusts that doctor’s know better. 

The first needle is pushed into the muscle at the base of my thumb.  Not only is it pushed in hard, but the doctor then proceeds to dig it even further into the muscle while wriggling it around.  Anyone who has had a needle moved while it is partially inserted into any part of your body will know just how painful this can be – in a muscle, it feels even worse!  The pain is incredible and I can feel tears welling in my eyes.  This is not a very friendly or sympathetic doctor and I don’t quite know what to expect next.

The second needle is jabbed into the muscle on the side of my hand in line with my little finger.  Again, it is dug deeper and deeper into my hand while this sadistic doctor makes wide arcs with the needle.  I look at him in terror as I anticipate the third needle and I can’t help sobbing in pain as he grinds the needle into the muscle of an already aching hand.  The third needle is just as bad and I now know that he’ll be just as ruthless so I find myself clenching my body while he tells me to relax.  I can’t help thinking, Here’s an idea: Let ME ruthlessly dig needles into YOUR hand muscle like I’m attempting to uproot a rather old tree and see if you can relax!  I’ve never been more relieved to have a procedure over as I am when this torture ends.  Without a word, the doctor gets up and leaves and the translator enters just in time to see me sobbing slightly hysterically in pain.  My hand is throbbing painfully!

You Pass

I’m told to go back to the first doctor who will do the first part of the test on my right hand to compare the results.  The sadistic doctor will then give me the test results.  I pass this particular test as he tells me, “Everything normal” before returning to his paperwork.  With only two words, he’s done his job in conveying the test results to me, made it clear that I’m not worth much of his time (less than the three minutes Korean doctors usually spend with patients) and dismissed me like a naughty schoolgirl.  Sadistic bastard! is all that I can think of as I leave the Medical Centre wishing I could go back for more acupuncture, and a chat with the cute doctor, to make myself feel better!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Don’t Leave Me… (28 January)

After one too many late nights and busy days, I allow myself to sleep in until 10:00.  When I finally do get up, I’m still thinking about the confusing conversation that took place on Wednesday morning.  I’m tired of feeling confused about everything so I’m determined to ask the translator to clarify a few things for me when I see her this afternoon for my acupuncture appointment.  In the meantime, I try to learn a few essential Korean phrases that I should probably have learnt months ago.  KiwiKat has suggested that being able to use a few Korean words or phrases might also make the cute doctor feel a bit more relaxed with me as a patient since clearly having to try to speak English is stressful.

The taxi ride to the Medical Centre is yet another bizarre one.  Finding a taxi when it’s slightly colder than usual or snowing is almost impossible.  When a taxi finally stops for me, I notice that there is already (presumably) a passenger in the front seat. It’s fairly common for drivers to take more than one passenger if they’re both going in the same direction so I assume that this is what’s happening as I get in.  On the way to the Medical Centre, I’m asked the usual five questions: Age, nationality, am I an English teacher, how long have I been in Korea, do I have a husband / boyfriend.  I feel very proud of myself as I manage to answer most of these questions in Korean and my study time this morning seems to have paid off.  It also boosts my confidence in speaking Korean and I’m certain that this confidence will carry me through my acupuncture appointment. 

On My Own

As we round the last corner to the Medical Centre, my phone rings: It’s the translator; she’s ill and isn’t at work today so I’ll be alone with the cute doctor.  Gulp! If Sunny had phoned me before I left my apartment, I would probably have just re-scheduled the appointment but I’m already here so I step forward purposefully and with false bravado.  I’m not feeling quite as confident as I enter the Medical Centre and head to the Oriental Medicine Department.  Clearly this news has already reached the department because the nurse looks at, grins and says, “This is going to be fun!” as she ushers me to a cubicle and sets up the initial part of the treatment.  I take out my phrase book that I’ve thankfully brought with me and start frantically attempting to memorize vocabulary and phrases that I think I might need to use today.

By the time Dr Kim arrives, I’m feeling a little more confident and smile encouragingly when he greets me: I can do this! He then tells me that the translator is not in today which I already know and half-jokingly follows this with a rather stressed yet comical, “Oh my god” and I can feel my confidence waiver slightly.  I’d like to think that I’m fairly perceptive and good at reading people but I don’t know what to make of this particular doctor.  He seems a little unnerved too at the prospect of having to deal with me by himself and keeps excusing himself to fetch things he’s left in his office.  This makes me feel even more self-conscious and I wish I had re-scheduled the appointment because I really feel sorry for the guy.  I wish I knew enough Korean to be able to communicate with him so that he wouldn’t have to use only English with me. 

Somehow we manage to get through the appointment with me writing down a lot of things and using lots of gestures accompanied by very simple sentences.  As I move to the chiropractic bench for the final part of the treatment, I’m actually relieved that the appointment is almost over and I conclude that I’ve seriously misunderstood Wednesday’s conversation.  I’m relieved that I didn’t embarrass myself on Wednesday on clarifying what I thought (and hoped) might be happening.  There’s a mutual silence as Dr Kim starts the final part of the treatment which is my favourite part because it’s relaxing. 

Conversation Time

The slightly awkward silence is broken by him asking me if I’m satisfied with the treatment I’ve received.  He seems slightly bashful when I confirm that I am and that I think he is a very kind and nice doctor.  He seems to be thinking very hard about something and I’m trying my best to understand why he’s suddenly talking to me; is he relieved to have survived this appointment without a translator?  He then asks me if I’ve had a particular Korean dish; I’ve never even heard of this dish much less know what it is.  He tries to explain and then stands up to face me and tells me that he had this dish for lunch so he hopes his breath doesn’t smell.  I can’t help laughing at this unexpected conversation and his expression which seems to ease some of the tension – apparently he wants to chat!  

I ask if he’s from Gunsan and he tells me that he’s originally from Seoul but has been in Gunsan for nearly two years.  I then tell him that Seoul is too busy for me and that I like Gunsan because it’s quiet.  He agrees that it’s quiet and tells me that, now, he likes Gunsan.  We chat about a few inconsequential things and the appointment is soon over.  We seem to have got into a routine of thanking each other at the end of each appointment and he waits a few moments while I say thank you and goodbye.  I then surprise him by wishing him a good weekend in Korean and he matches this in English before finally bidding me farewell.  As he leaves the room, he murmurs something to the nurse who looks at me and smiles.  She asks me to take a seat while she quickly assists another patient before turning to me with a broad smile and saying that she has to try to get me back here on Monday.  We schedule a time and I ask her to write down the code that I need in order to pay for the appointment on the second floor.

As I leave the Medical Centre, I’m elated that I’ve managed to get through the entire appointment without a translator and realise that things aren’t quite as hard as they may have seemed at the time.  I’m in a good mood and lost in my own thoughts.  As I start walking towards Catfish’s apartment, I hear a very enthusiastic English “Hello” and turn to see three high school, or possibly university students, sitting on a flight of stairs and waving at me.  I return their greeting thinking that this is probably the extent of their repertoire when they surprise me by asking me where I’m going.  Unsure as to how to answer this question, I grin and tell them I’m visiting a friend at which they express their disappointment and ask me to sit and chat to them for a while.  I decline with the excuse that I’m late and wave goodbye – if they only knew just how much older than them I actually am!

Pamper Time

Catfish and I have finally managed to secure an appointment to have our nails done and we’re looking forward to some girly salon time.  I can’t help but feel ashamed of the condition of my nails and hands in general as the manicurist gets to work on my cuticles and all of the grooming things that need to happen before the actual paint job.  I’m relieved that Catfish’s nails seem to take just as long and relax to enjoy being pampered.  It’s a lot of fun choosing different colours to try out and I can’t resist admiring my nails as they visibly improve with each step of the manicure. 

Our salon experience runs into dinner time and we merrily make our way back to Lotte mart and Hoa Binh, the Vietnamese restaurant that I’ve come to love.  Instead of our usual platter and rice wraps, however, we choose individual dishes that come with some complications for me.  The fried rice on pineapple looks mouth-wateringly delicious but contains shrimp to which I’m allergic.  I’m not in the mood for a possibly allergic reaction even if we are just down the road from the local hospital so I ask if I can order the dish without the shrimp – our server is familiar with us by now, automatically understands my request and assures me that this won’t be a problem.  Catfish decides on a seafood pho and we sit back to chat while we wait for dinner. 

Under the Sea

When the food arrives, I’m touched to discover that they’ve substituted the shrimp in my meal with chicken; we’d ask for something like this to be done in our own countries but trying to make such a request in Korean is just too difficult so it’s impressive to see that this has automatically been done at this restaurant and I really appreciate it.  Catfish’s dinner is a little too ‘under the sea’ with whole shrimp that stare accusingly from the plate, and she seems less than impressed to discover what she calls “an alien” (baby octopus) on her plate.  The staff probably think she’s crazy for not eating most of the seafood in this dish!

As is customary, dinner is followed by coffee at Doctor’s Coffee which serves the most amazing white hot chocolate.  We can’t help but laugh at the decorative topping that Catfish’s coffee receives and immediately reach for cameras to document this amusing sight.  We’re not at Doctor’s Coffee for long, talking about JH, when Catfish decides to text him to confirm their meeting place tonight.  It’s nearly 21:00 and she suddenly recalls arranging to meet him at Angel-in-us coffee which is further down the road so we say a quick goodbye, promise not to meet over the weekend so that we can have a break from each other before she runs to the next coffee shop where JH is already waiting, and I head home for the weekend. 

Happy (Korean) 30th Birthday! (27 January)

Today is my Korean 30th birthday.  In the real world, I’m only 29 years old today but Koreans (and the Japanese apparently) believe that you are already a year old when you are born.  In addition, everyone gets a year older on New Year’s Day.  Whether it’s New Year’s Day according to the solar (Western) calendar or the lunar calendar seems debateable.  Before you start panicking and wondering if Koreans who report their age as 126 years old are really only about 35 years old in reality, let me clarify…

Korean Age

Basically, everyone celebrates their birthday each year at the same time – your actual birthday is rather inconsequential – unlike western countries where we celebrate individual birthdays.  I’ll give you a personal example to illustrate just how confusing this approach to age can be: A colleague of mine recently had twins.  They were only due in early February but, as with most twins, were born approximately six weeks earlier than anticipated.  When a baby is born, it is already considered to be a year old so these twins were automatically a year old at their birth.  However, they were born in the week after Christmas which means that by 1 January, they were already considered to be two years of age. 

When I think of a two year old child, I picture someone who can walk and talk not babies who were actually born prematurely and are still catching up on the six weeks of womb time that they’ve missed thanks to their early arrival!  Ironically, as Koreans get older (especially women), they seem to favour their real ages more than the Korean ages as a last ditch attempt to hang onto their fading youth.  This explains how, since I currently live in Korea, my 29th birthday turned into a ‘dry-run’ for actual 30th birthday in 2012.  Fortunately, I can see the humour in this system and find it quite exciting that I get to celebrate two ‘30th’ birthdays. 

Saengil Chukahaeyo

I spend the morning with my Canadian friends in Jeonju where we run a few errands and they help me out by taking me to a few useful places in Jeonju.  They then take me to lunch at TGI Friday’s which, apparently, is an American restaurant and one I’ve never been to.  There, we order the most amazing chicken sandwiches for lunch and it’s good to eat food that doesn’t involve kimchi for a change.  At the end of our meal, their daughter runs to the staff to tell them that it’s my birthday and soon our table is surrounded by all of the staff with a variety of instruments - guitar, tambourine, maracas and hand drums - who proceed to sing me a birthday song in Korean.  I feel my cheeks warming as a blush slowly rises in the embarrassment of all of this attention but it’s interesting having a Korean style birthday.  They actually sing very well so it’s nowhere near as painful an experience as having staff at Spur or Steers in South Africa sing happy birthday can be.  We then make our way back to Gunsan where we got to Coldstone for ice-cream and a chat before I go home.

I then meet Catfish at Lotte mart where there is a skincare and massage shop.  The idea is for both of us to get massages but they can only fit in one of us.  I finally have the massage that everyone keeps telling me to do and, combined with a facial, it’s so relaxing that it doesn’t take long for me to fall asleep.  Catfish, meanwhile, entertains herself at the pet store opposite the salon. 

Swimming With Catfish

Since the facial was unexpected, and I’m rather vain and insecure, our first stop after leaving the salon is Skin Food where I buy basic cosmetics to re-apply some of the make-up that was removed for the facial treatment.  We then head to the restroom where I quickly apply some foundation, mascara and eye shadow before heading out again to go for dinner.  Catfish is just busy telling me about the guy she spoke to this morning at the mobile phone counter in Lotte mart when she walked past after having her eye examine when we pass this particular counter.  She points out the guy who quickly turns away in what we presume is shyness before turning back and calling her over to say hello, gives her a high five and slips a piece of paper into her hand.  We walk away in laughter as Catfish unfolds the piece of paper that contains his name and number. 

Dinner involves pizza at Mr Pizza followed by coffee at a coffee shop around the corner from the pizzeria, Holly’s Coffee.  Here, I am presented with my first Korean coupon card which I can’t help but admire since everyone I know gets given coupon cards all the time and I always seem to be missed over.  Catfish and I have a rather philosophical discussion about ourselves and come to the general consensus that we’ve spent far too much time together over the past seven days – we need a break from each other!  Before we know it, it’s nearly 23:00.  We walk about halfway to Lotte mart together before parting ways for the night: Catfish to her apartment and I to Lotte mart. 

As I walk to Lotte mart, I’m just starting to wonder if my family is actually going to phone me for my birthday when my phone rings.  Listening to my seven year old nephew sing his version of Happy Birthday over the phone and playing 49 questions with my nine year old niece whose favourite questions are “Why?” and “What ya doing?”, I realise just how much I miss having them around and a momentary pang of homesickness hangs over me.  It’s been a great birthday but now it’s really time for bed. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Remember Me? (26 January)

I have five days of vacation starting today.  Thanks to a administrative mix up, I had three months worth of pension payments deducted from my December salary so I’m not able to go to Japan for my vacation as I’d hoped.  Instead, I’m staying in Gunsan until 1 February when I’ll go to Seoul for a ski trip.  Until then, I’m just going to use the time to catch up on blog entries and relax.  To kickstart this vacation, I have an acupuncture appointment.

As I arrive at Gunsan Medical Centre, I can’t help wondering if the cute doctor will remember me after nearly a month.  I corner the translator before we get to the Oriental Medicine Department and ask her if she remembers that I made the cute doctor blush in December; she immediately starts laughing and comments on how amusing it was so I ask her if I offended him at all.  I’m pretty sure that I didn’t offend him – only embarrassed him – but I want to make sure that this is not an issue in Korea where hierarchy, respect and saving face are all highly valued.  She assures me that there’s nothing to worry about and tells me that he blushed because he’d said I was beautiful and kind.  Such a Korean answer!

Uh Oh...

When we arrive at the department, he doesn’t look very happy to see me and I again start to wonder if I inadvertently offended him in addition to embarrassing him.  The nurse, however, is as friendly as always.  I’m rather quiet as Dr Kim tries to work out the best approach for today’s treatment and I understand a few words of the ongoing conversation between him and the translator.  Soon, we’re joking around and I start to relax as I realise that he’s probably just very shy and not comfortable speaking English.  He doesn’t seem in a hurry to leave either despite there being numerous patients at the time.  Instead, he and the translator seem to be discussing something (me) at great length and I’m starting to get very curious about what’s being said. 

I Don't Understand (Again!)

Eventually, the translator turns to me with a serious expression and I can see she’s thinking very carefully of how to phrase something.  She proceeds to tell me that he didn’t have much reason to speak English until now so he and I should spend a lot of time together.  As she’s speaking to me, I notice Dr Kim watching me very carefully from the furthest corner where he is fidgeting with various things.  He’s seems slightly embarrassed when she finishes conveying everything and tells me, “just joking” with an embarrassed smile.  I’m confused.  Is he asking for English lessons or does he want to be friends?

This doesn’t dissuade him from spending a lot more time with me in this appointment than is perhaps necessary.  The nurse comes in several times to relay information to him in Korean and he sounds fairly dismissive with each “Ne, Ne”.  Each time it happens, the nurse looks at me and laughs and I’m even more confused as to what is happening.  He’s seems overly attentive in this appointment and I get the impression he definitely remembers me from my last appointments at the end of December.  He’s also telling me that I need to come back the next day.  I ask if I can rather return on Friday since I don’t really want to have a doctor’s appointment on my birthday even if it is the cute doctor. 

Trying To Work It Out

I leave the Medical Centre even more confused than I was in December and meet Catfish at Angel-in-us where we spend several hours discussing the events of the last 24 hours under the pretext of working on our respective blogs in the coffee shop.  Naturally, there leads to dinner at the Galbi restaurant where, once again, we’re treated to very attentive servers who seem to dote on as we continue, unsuccessfully, to try to puzzle out Korean men. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Catfish Gets Hooked (25 January)

It’s another slow day at school but thankfully my last day before my winter vacation.  My co-teacher is on vacation for the next two weeks and most of the teachers in my office seem to be working flexi-time at the moment so it’s very isolating sitting at my desk at the moment.  NZ1 has just returned from a month long vacation period so I head upstairs to the International Office where I spend several hours chatting to the Kiwis in an attempt to pass the morning more quickly. 

Did You Know...

By lunchtime, I’m starving but I haven’t brought any lunch with me.  As ridiculous as it sounds, I’m too shy to go to the school cafeteria alone so yesterday, with my co-teacher not at school, I actually went back to my apartment during lunch instead of facing the cafeteria alone.  Today, I’m determined to have lunch in the cafeteria again since simply eating school lunches has already significantly improved my relationship with several Korean teachers already.  I muster the courage to invite another English teacher, Jean, to join me for lunch; she tells me she’s busy working on something.  I must look as rejected as I feel because a few minutes later, she says that she just needs a few more minutes to finish the document she’s working on and then we can go to lunch.  Now I feel guilty for making her apparently feel obliged to accept the lunch invitation but so be it. 

We chat freely as we head to the cafeteria and she tells me about herself and a couple of the other teachers at school.  As we chat, I realise that I don’t know much about her aside from the fact that she studied in Toronto for two years and is the same age as me – her birthday is actually two weeks before mine.  Over lunch, she also volunteers a lot of information about Six-pack.  From her, I learn that they both attended Jeonbuk National University – where a lot of teachers seem to have studied – and that he was two years ahead of her.  I also learn that he had a reputation at university for being a bit of a player, is currently single, 32 years old and looking to settle down.  Considering the cheeky and flirtatious expression that he usually wears around school, I find most of this very easy to believe.  I text Catfish with this latest update and we immediately agree to meet for dinner.  Jean also tells me about spas and resorts and gives me a list of websites to look through for places that she thinks I might enjoy in both this province and the one above Jeollabuk-do.

Guess What Happened

Traffic across town is a nightmare and it takes me 40 minutes to get from Soryong-dong to Lotte mart instead of the usual 15 minutes.  As a result, Catfish is already at the Italian restaurant we’ve decided on for dinner and texts me with a teasing message about having “lots to report”.  It’s clear that we both have exciting news to share and we take turns talking about everything that’s happened today.  Catfish then tells me about her latest experience.  While walking past the OZ cellphone store tonight on her way to the restaurant, one of the staff members spoke to her in English.  Since it’s so unusual to have Korean people outside of school speak to us in English, she immediately went over to him to chat.  He then introduced her to another person working in the store and told her that he is only 27 years old and single and apparently tried to convince them to exchange telephone numbers which Catfish declined in embarrassment.

You Will Go Back For That Number!

We chat at length about this latest encounter and something tells me that she wishes she had had taken his number.  We silently contemplate the situation for a few minutes before I tell her that she’s an idiot – she simply laughs.  I then tell her that straight after dinner, we’re going to go to the store and she’s going to ask for the number of the 27 year old whom she’s admitted is cute.  After dinner, this is exactly what we do: I talk her up to going to the store and we enter the store together.  The moment everyone realises that Catfish has returned to the store, there’s a buzz of chatter.  JH immediately comes over to her and asks what she wants and how he can help her.  He seems as tongue-tied as Catfish who is quietly and demurely attempting to ask for his telephone number while I stand awkwardly at the door and watch the show.  They exchange numbers, Catfish flirts a little and then we’re on our way again laughing about what has just happened.  Catfish is quieter than usual and looks simultaneously shocked, embarrassed and happy with what has just happened.

We’re heading to Doctor’s Coffee which is just around the corner when Catfish does an emergency stop in her step: She’s just realised that she forgot to tell him her name!  If she doesn’t turn around right now and go back to the store to tell him her name, he might never call and then the evening’s events would all have been for nought.  She does a 180 degree turn and determinedly starts walking back to the store where, this time, I stand outside and watch the proceedings through the window.  Upon seeing her re-enter the store a second time, the person who instigated this exchange of numbers originally steps forward to ensure no further mistakes are made as Catfish heads over to JH to tell him her name.  He takes both phones, checks that the information is completely and correctly entered and then tries to tell them to for a drink then and there.  Catfish re-emerges and we’re once again on our way with her looking more bashful than I’ve ever seen her.

Setting the Scene For a Date

We finally reach Doctor’s Coffee where we are still debating the matter.  I convince her to text him then and there and invite him to coffee tonight since we’re just around the corner from where they met.  I’m feeling more mischievous than usual so I grab the phone from her and type in a text message while she procrastinates.  I send off a message before she has a change to veto it and the response is almost immediate.  Korean dating rules states that women should always be accompanied by their best friend on a first date; if she is alone on a first date, it suggests that she is easy.  We’re in the perfect set-up for a first date: We’re nearby, Catfish is not alone for the date and it’s a coffee shop – she couldn’t ask for a more perfect moment than this.  JH, it seems, is just as keen as can be seen in the following text conversation:

Catfish’s phone:  My friend and I are at Doctor’s Coffee if you’d like to join us. 

JH: OK! But, I’ll finish 9:00PM A U OK??

Catfish’s phone:  Not a problem. We’ll be here for a while ^^


We start preparing Catfish for JH’s arrival.  She’s a little nervous but also excited it seems ; my role tonight is simply that of chaperone in accordance with Korean dating customs.  At 20:30, however, JH texts her: NOW I’ll go there^^.  Since he’s 30 minutes early, it’s obvious that he’s been let off work early in order to meet Catfish for coffee.  That he alternates between upper and lower case and the amount of punctuation that he uses in each message also suggests that he is rather excited and that his English is fairly good.  When he arrives, Catfish is still in the restroom so I greet him and we chat briefly until Catfish returns and the ‘date’ begins.  Conversation between the two flows easily and I simply sit back and observe the two of them interact with one another.  It’s an entertaining evening that, unfortunately, lasts only an hour but ends on a positive note.  JH is witty and fairly fluent in English considering that he is able to hold a conversation with us in a language that is not his home language. 

He seems a bit reluctant to leave but has family obligations to fulfil. They bid each other goodbye and I take out my camera to capture the image of Catfish looking more and more like the Cheshire Cat!  Within five minutes of his departure, he texts her once more: Today, I’m very happy to see U^^.  Catfish still looks like she’s in a bit of a dreamlike state so I text a reply on her behalf.  I have a feeling this is only the beginning of a very interesting story….

Well That Was Unexpected (24 January)

Today is our Kiwi-mom’s birthday.  Catfish and I wanted to organise a surprise birthday party for her but this hasn’t quite worked out.  After a very quiet day at school and lots of snow throughout the day, Catfish and I meet for dinner at the Vietnamese restaurant in a final attempt to formulate some sort of decent plan. Unfortunately, the cute guy at the Vietnamese restaurant provides more distraction than we can afford as time slowly runs out.

We order the same delicious platter we had on Saturday and attempt to discuss the best approach for today’s birthday.  The cute guy, about whom Catfish commented on Saturday seems to have either heard the comment or heard about the comment because he smiles every time he looks at our table.  When we agree that we would like another Cola each, he gets shooed in our direction and approaches us shyly.  Catfish knows how to say “Two more ______” in Korean so she is tasked with communicating our order to him – and pretty much everywhere else in all honesty.  His shy smile turns into a grin that almost seems to say I can understand what they’re saying as he hurries off to fetch two Colas for us.  A natural flirt, Catfish can’t resist asking him his name and introducing herself as we prepare to leave.  We think his name is Kim Jong Som or something close to that but we do know that he’s friendly.

Elevator Encounters

We arrive at our Kiwi-mom’s apartment building still chatting about the cute guy.  A Korean guy enters the building just ahead of us and is waiting for the elevator when we arrive.  He greets us with an eager, and English, “Hello” which Catfish matches with an equally enthusiastic, “Annyeong haseyo”.  He seems slightly taken aback at the Korean response and replies with a rather awe-filled and surprised, “Ooh, Good Korean!”  Apparently we’ve run into a Korean guy who is eager to speak English – or a university student who believes the stereotype that Western women are easy – because he doesn’t hesitate very long before asking if we know TLC on Bar Street.  Yes, we do know TLC although we’ve never actually been there; we prefer The ROK although we don’t really spend much time on Bar Street.  He tells us that he and his friends like TLC and laughs in genuine surprise and incredulity when we tell him that we’ve heard that TLC is popular with the military guys so that’s why we avoid it; in fact, we avoid Bar Street in general because there are simply too many foreigners there. 

By now the elevator has arrived and we’re on our way to our respective floors.  It’s clear that this guy is working and is delivering something to someone in the building.  Catfish prods the large bag on his shoulder which turns out to be rice; she tells him that she thought it was dirt – this is the largest bag of rice that either of us have ever seen!  Slightly redundant at this stage, he tells us that this is his job and follows it with the question of whether or not we like Korean food. Absolutely! Kimchi? Erm…Catfish eats kimchi but it’s not a favourite although I genuinely like it a lot.  Again, we seem to have surprised him with this information: Foreigners who don’t only hang out on Bar Street, speak a little bit of Korean and like Korean food – we’ve probably confused him sufficiently by the time the World’s Slowest Elevator reaches the eighth floor where he gets off and we look at each other with slightly confused expressions of our own. 

On the 15th floor, Catfish knocks sharply on the door of our friend’s apartment.  Her husband opens the door surprised to see us standing there, saying “Happy Birthday!” to the wrong person – our Kiwi-mom’s sitting inside so we hurry to take off our shoes and wish her a happy birthday pleased to see that we’ve managed some element of surprise.  She immediately invites us to join her for tea and a game of 10 Days in Europe while her husband works on assignments for his Masters degree.  It’s a pleasant evening with lots of laughter as Catfish and I recount our adventures of the past hour and a half. How we love Korea!