Saturday, July 28, 2007

cheese custody

This will be a brief post. My brain is melting. But I wanted to share with you the kinds of interactions I am having with my host family.

host daughter: taste?
me: yes, ne ne.
me: mashi soyo (it tastes delicious)
host family: more eat

These people seem to eat every two hours. Not just my host family, but all of Korea. Three meals a day and lots of snacking. And any excuse for a ice cream bar, which, with this heat, I understand.

I learned that the inside a cloud phenomenon is a result of monsoon season. That has ended, but the clouds linger longer. Soon they will blow away and the skies will be clearer. It will also get to be about ten degrees hotter, throughout August. I'm not sure how I feel about that, to tell you the truth. And I like heat.

On my first day here, my host family stopped by a grocery store in Haenam to have me choose some food items to eat. I didn't know what for exactly, so I chose things, randomly, that I like: cucumbers, bell peppers, tofu. I was feeling like I needed some vegetable matter. They picked up a purple cabbage for me. I selected some eggs. They chose three kinds of breads. They wanted me to get cheese. the only non-kraft singles style cheese I could find was the brie and the Camembert, so I chose those. Breakfast has turned up all these items. And a strawberry salad sauce. It has been interesting, but good. Today, the cheese appeared.

host daughter, pointing to her phrase book: Can you show me how to eat it?

me: well, it's not usually eaten at breakfast, but sure. You slice it, like this, then you put it on some bread and eat it. (the bread is toasted white bread)

host daughter: [takes cheese and reaches for the strawberry-fig jam]

me: try it first without the jam, then try it with the jam.

host daughter and brother: [blank expressions]

host daughter: [wraps bread around cheese and takes a bite. wears odd expression.]

host brother: [laughs]

host daughter: [turns to computer translator, looking for the word she wants.]

host daughter: It tastes anything. [takes a second bite]

host daughter: Very good!

host brother: rapid fire Korean I don't know how to translate, even if I knew what was actually said.

You get the idea. After breakfast, Sinae turns to the computer again. She is searching for a word. Finding it, she turns around and asks me: "Cheese custody?"

I determine that she wants to know how to keep the cheese.

me: you store the cheese in the refrigerator. when you want to eat it, take it out of the fridge and let it warm up a little.

sinae: [blank expression. looks to brother.]
namho (brother): [blank expression]

me: when you eat the cheese, not cold. when you keep the cheese, cold, in the fridge.

sinae: Ah!

Just thought I'd share...

Friday, July 27, 2007

driving the point home, and the country

I don't know where to begin with this post... I feel I am at two opposite extremes with what I would like to convey. Do I begin with the sauna and the humorous encounter between eight nude American women and several of their Korean compatriots, or do I venture straight to the part where I am sitting in my homestay family's house wondering whether I will be able to avoid attending church four times a week with them?

Well, I'll start with yesterday evening, I suppose. Several of us decided that we'd rather skip dinner (if necessary) so that we could go to the second floor of the hotel to enjoy the sauna. There are two hot pools (one regular and one very hot one) and two dry saunas (again, one normal and one awesomely hot) and a cold pool. To either side are showering nooks, where you squat down on a very short stool, soap up and rinse off, before heading for the pools. The pools are lovely, with sulfur water I think, and very relaxing. We ended up doing yoga inside the hottest sauna-- talk about hot yoga!-- and alternating between the hot and the cold. The cold pool seemed to have something mentholated in the water; it was something we each felt in our lips and our lungs, but it felt good.

Toward the end we were wanting to scrub down, but didn't have anything. Missy saw a woman with some sort of scrub on her face and tried to ask her about it. The woman proceeded to smear this creamy mask-like substance (cleanser?) onto Missy's cheeks. She then brought the tube over to the rest of us and pointed it at each of us, then back at herself, saying, "mine" as if to indicate she'd like us to get it back to her. The women were quite friendly, actually, and animated. Cross-cultural communication facilitated through naked bathing. Not a bad practice, when you think about it, and it was nice because there was no sense of shame about bodies in that room. Very different from what one experiences in a girls' locker room back in the States. But perhaps the highlight, and certainly the most humorous moment, came when we were examining a strange platform over which red lights hung from the ceiling.

Missy and I stood there debating whether or not to press the shiny red button... who knew what would happen? We hesitated quite a bit, until finally, an older Korean woman came over to show us how to use it. She pressed the button, the lights came on, and she gestured for us to get onto the platform, which we did. But the three of us (because Claire had joined us by then) didn't want to lie down, so we sort of crouched there. This was apparently silly business, because it didn't take long for another Korean woman to come over to show us how to do it correctly. She put three towels down on the platform and gestured to us to lie down, which we did. But she kept gesticulating, mostly emphasizing whatever it was she war trying to tell us. She looked at Tara, who was standing nearby, as if she could somehow translate the message, which seemed urgent. Blank exchanges circulated among us. We had no idea what the woman was trying to tell us.

This seemed to frustrate the woman a little. She was standing, hips tilted forward, crouching ever so slightly, while still upright. She was very dramatic, insistent in whatever it was she wanted us to know that we were not understanding. Finally, exasperated with is, she reached out her open hand and slapped herself, but not in the face; she slapped herself directly on the mound of her vagina. Hard. The sound reverberated through the platform chamber. Missy looked for a moment as though she were considering whether or not we were being asked to mimic this gesture. When we still had confused expressions, the woman again turned to Tara, dumbfounded as to why we could not understand and why Tara could not make things clear. Tara gave it her best guess, given the action that had just occurred. "I think she wants you to turn around to that you are facing the wall and not the room," she said. So we did. This appeased the woman; finally we had understood that our naughty bits should not be exposed to the room as such.

Of course, once we figured this out we couldn't stop laughing. Was there really no other gesture that would have sufficed? Did we really all just experience a grown naked woman slapping her vagina at us? Certainly this is an experience I will never have again. We lay there, Claire, Missy and I, on the towels, under the red light, giggling uncontrollably. After a while, we decided that we had no idea what the benefit was of being under those lights. We weren't any drier, and we weren't quite close enough to be warmed by them. So, apart from looking fabulously like the cover of a 60s album, we weren't sure what the point of that particular experience was, so we got up to rinse off and leave. You can imagine this made for quite an entertaining dinner experience right afterward, when we relayed the entire event in detail.

So, now, today, I have met with my homestay family: Mr. Jo, Mrs. Koh, and their daughter Sinae (Shin-ay) and they are all very nice, though each of us has our nose in a dictionary trying to communicate. My Korean is obviously terrible, and the daughter's English is minimal, while her parents' is non-existent. She plays the piano and the drums, and her father is learning to play the drums. They all seem very sweet and their house is in the countryside of Haenam. The surrounding area is rice paddy fields as far as the eye can see. And the attend church four times a week. I am curious how this will unfold over the next two weeks.

I have told them I am agnostic and that half my family is catholic and episcopalian while the other half is atheist. I have not told them that the atheists tend to make more sense to me. But, I respect everyone's traditions and they seem good people, so I am keeping an open mind. I am hoping to use their church time to either write, or do yoga, things I feel a bit awkward doing around them. I am staying in their son's room, who is older that Sinae, but I don't know by how much; he doesn't appear to live at home any longer. I think dinner is almost ready, so I will be cutting this post short. Ad if this beast could be considered short. I hope you all are well. More to come later.

Monday, July 23, 2007

post from inside a cloud

Well, it only took three planes, four airports, and two bus rides to get here, but we've arrived and are staying in the Park Meudung Hotel in Gwanju (though, each city I've seen has an average of three different spellings, depending on the map, so don't take any of my spellings as fact) and have begun our orientation with the Jeollanamdo English Training Institute. It has become quite clear that our being here is actually a very big deal. We knew this, to a point, since our airfare was something like $1,500 a piece and there are 35 of us and the provincial government is picking up the tab. But, we had no idea how big a deal.

Yesterday, we met the Jeollanam-do Governor, a Mister Park Junior if I've got that correct, and there were news cameras and lots of photography. We have become the defacto ambassadors of Portland, Oregon and we are slowly discovering what exactly we are to do here. And, it's turning out, we are to be much more involved in the teaching than we were led to believe. We will be running one booth for the duration of our work at the Jeollanamdo English Camp, which means we will teach lessons on art, music, nature, science, math, etc. to elementary and middle school students every day. We think they have lessons planned and supplies, but we don't know for cerrtain yet. I know they thought we would have chosen which booth we would be working in, which we have not, because we didn't know. Obviously, the language barrier is presenting a bit of confusion, but they are taking this whole thing very seriously and are otherwise very organized, so I don't think it will be a problem. Besides, this will not be the first time I've had to do any sort of improvisational teaching. Still, wish me luck.

I've almost adjusted to the time change (16 hours ahead of home, so most of the time, I'm on a different day than most of you) and the weather is hot and sticky. We are literally walking around inside a cloud most of the time. Looking out at the sky, through the air out in front of me, it reminds me a bit of Ireland, in that the air is just different, thicker. You can see it and feel it in a way we don't usually. You can feel it as you inhale it through your nose. Looking out over the city at night, one might think it is a smoggy haze, but it's not. They are clouds. I'd seen paintings that give this sort of dreamlike impression, which I mistook for artistic license, but this is actually what the surrounding countryside looks like. We are almost always inside a cloud. Even when it is sunny. And, did I mention it is hot? It will get hotter in August. By about 10 degrees I think. I will be glistening and sticky for weeks yet.

Last night Abbye (one of the other girls here) and I were in the hotel gym looking at the back of the TV to see if I could plug B's iPod into it to do some yoga (thank you again for that B, I have already used it!) and then we caught sight of something interesting outside the window: a snack shack with moving chairlifts shooting out of the back. We decided to explore. Of course, not speaking much, or really any (hello and thank you are very limited in their use, but we've used them a lot) Korean, it took a while to figure out what the deal was. After much charades and broken questioning (imagine me waving my hands in a circular motion, then pointing up the mountain and making "look out at the view" motions, saying the Korean word for "where") we determinied that the chairlift took us up to the top of the mountain and back. Of course, we missed the part about us being able to get off at the top and look out at the view from up there, so we stayed on and came right back down. It was still an amazing view.

We traveled up through the trees, the sun had just set, and the higher we went, the more incredible the view of the city lights spread out behind us in the distance. A large bird flew out in front of us and the trees were alive with the singing of what I think are cicadas. So loud. The Koreans call this sound crying. Birds cry, crickets cry; they do not sing. South Korea is also a very philosophical sort of place. We had visited a garden earlier and were told to discard our pragmatic thinking and to use our imagination. They believe that to cultivate the mind is one of the highest and most important pursuits. We also happen to be in the province best known for it's cultural heritage, specifically for it's poetry and literature. I learned about sijo (short form poetry) and gasa (long form prose poetry and/or novels) at the Museum of Literature yesterday. So, as you might imagine, I am enjoying myself quite a bit. We find out what city we are going to today when we meet our Korean teacher/partners. We meet our host families this weekend and will stay with them for two weeks and two days before being transferred back to hotels in our respective cities. I am still hoping to make a weekend trip to Jeju-do, off the southwestern-most coast, near Haenam, which is said to be the Hawaii of Korea. I am also considering doing a temple-stay one weekend and living like and among Buddhist monks for a spell. It will surely all be interesting.

There is more, of course, and I'm still digesting it all. They call the vegetarians among us "the different ones" and assume that this means we eat fish. I am doing better than others in this regard, since I am no longer a strict vegetarian, but it has been interesting. I'm feeling sorry for the meat eaters, because apparently the rest of the world thinks Americans are extremely fond of beef, and so far they've been served it twice in one day, once as something resembling salisbury steak, and again as what we think may have been chicken fried steak. The meat eaters are wishing they'd get Korean food and not the Denny's special as the Koreans here have interpreted it. In any case, I am off to discover what we are having for breakfast today and then to begin our training.

Much love to you all.