Sunday, November 30, 2008

A busy little Saturday

Every Friday afternoon, without fail, Yuna will ask me, "Do you have plans for this weekend?" I usually am unable to muster a response beyond, "well, I don't know maybe clean the ranch." It's at this point where I have to explain that by "ranch" I mean my tiny apartment and by "clean" I mean push the dirty clothes around the floor. Regardless, I usually don't have much, if anything, planned.

Tony, a native of Seattle, e-mailed me asking if I had any Friday evening plans early in the afternoon. Tony was one of the first people I met fresh off the boat and he has always been more than accomadating when it comes to answering my naive questions. In his e-mail he said he was hosting a Thanksgiving Day dinner and would like for me to attend. Since he works at the university, he has access to a complete kitchen with, gasp, an actual oven! Being a Korean ESL vet, he knew what strings to pull to find a turkey. It only took a train ride to Seoul and W90,000 to secure a bird straight from the USA.

When I showed up to the university kitchen, dinner was running a little late and the cooks preparing the feast were scampering about putting the finishing touches on while talking shop. Ex-pat talk typically revolves around fellow ex-pat gossip, "did you know where I can find this (insert product)", how crazy Korean women are, my boss is trying to screw me, and how the worthless Won would serve better as a wallpaper than a monetary currency. Everyone seems to have their own little quirk here that presumably keeps them from fitting in in their native country. One ex-pat pinned me down and talked my ear off for a straight hour. When I tried to escape by feigning urination, he followed me! Another guy smokes 2 packs a day. Nearly everyone has a drinking problem. Another upstanding purveyor of English, fed up by the tiny size of his kitchen sink, showers naked with his dishes and washes them at the same time while he bathes (no lie). Wtf?! Mine you ask? I'm judgemental. :)

Dinner was excellent. When I say excellent I truly mean excellent. The turkey was fantastic and the stuffing was sent straight from the heavens. The gravy, which was actually a salvaged version 2.0 because 1.0 was left scorched to a pan from neglect, was likely the best gravy I've ever drank. The handcrafted sourough bread, mash potatoes, and salad with gorzonzoa were all proof that god didn't want me to die in Korea an emmaciated, lest good looking, carcas. After dinner, I waddled back to the ranch with some turkey day leftovers in tow. The night was W20,000 well spent!

Saturday was my get-a-guitar-at-any-cost day. Remember I spotted the shop amidst the vast concrete urban jungle via a speeding taxi. Now I had to retrack my route from the previous week. I set to foot with a fist full of Won, a comfortable pair of walkin' shoes, and a mound of uncontainable determination. At the guitar shop, I wailed on 5 different axes and settled on the first one I played. It was a Korean made Crafter for W275,000. There was a Fender acoustic guitar in the mix and the sales woman in her limited English said, "Fender ... made in China ... bad". I was impressed with her knownledge. People have come to know Fender as an American brand but it has been years, if not decades, since they were made in the states. I suppose when your neighbor to the north has 20 times the amount of people you have, an insatiable need for precious natural resources, and is generally feared by the rest of the world, you tend to take notice.

I took a taxi back from the ranch chest puffed out to Busan with an inflated sense of self worth. I then hit the gym. Check. Cleaned the ranch. Check. Treated myself to some kimchi jeegae (ordered in Korean mind you). Double check. What could possibly make this day more special?

Since the first Korean that styled was so keen on fashioning a built in duck-butt into my hair, I had little choice but to go back a mere three weeks later. This time I chose a barber who advertised a W6,000 haircut. To sweeten the pot, he had an acoustic guitar propped in the window. After Mr. Chung finished my hair I asked him if he played guitar. He answered "a little" and walked over to grab the guitar. With the guitar on his hip and a song book flung open, he pointed to himself and said "christian" and began to play a christian song from a book called aptly "Christian guitar songs". The tip off should have been the Amy Grant, yes Amy Grant, playing on the stereo in the background while he cut my hair, but sometimes I can be a tad dense. The song he played was very nice and he had really some good pipes to back it up to. He then handed me the guitar and said "you".

How do I top that? What do I do to cap an almost perfect day? How about introduce another continent to the stylings of Hank Williams Jr.!? I don't know if it was the echo chamber that was the barber shop, the kimchi jeegay boiling in my veins, or perhaps I was channeling the living spirit of HW himself, but I sang it like I've never sang it before and Mr. Chung applauded me wildy for my efforts!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Norebang? Sure. But hands off my produce section please.

Every time someone asks me "do you have appointment later?", Korea's version of "Are you busy?", I end up drunk or naked. Friday was no exception.

While at Sam-jin middle school, Sam-jin was the scene of the crime to the blog post "Beatle mania", my Korean co-teacher, Jin Sun, pitched me the "do you have appointment later?" line. Since I was the invitee, and since this is Korea we are talking about, I knew I was in line for a free meal. "I'm actually free tonight," was my predicable response.

Dinner was a two pronged attack. First, they were wishing their best for a soon-to-be departing teacher. Second, it was to welcome me. Nothing says "hey, welcome to the gang" more than not being able to speak to anyone at a large dinner. That's where soju comes in.

Pitched as a cancer cure all, a social lubricator, a societal strengthener, and the eventual Achilles heel of the Korean people, soju offers a little of everything. More than anything, it's speech therapy in a bottle.

First of all, Korean's are very surprised when I opt for soju over Hite, Korea's pride jewel. Anyone that has had Hite, deemed appropriately "Shite" by people in the know, understand that this wasn't the Rubix cube of conundrums. With that much said, we hoisted our glasses with whatever bitter brew we were drinking when the principal instructed us to do so. The principal Mr. Oh, who I can only describe as the theoretic love child conceived between Danny Devito, Chewy from the Chelsea Handler show and any male Soprano's cast member (seriously he looks Italian), is very eager to do a shot with me so I oblige much to his delight.

We continued to eat and drink, and for the record, it was my first time eating living octopus, and was obviously quite fresh, if not extremely chewy and partially alive. The Koreans laughed at my inability to operate stainless steel chop sticks (they're slick) and laughed even more heartily because the task was exacerbated by the animal's locomotion across the plate. Just when I finished the octopus, a man walked over and waved me over to his table giving me the international symbol for "drink." Who am I to say "no"?

I sat at the table with 4 men and Jin Sun. The first man, introduces himself as Tad. His English is pretty good and he mentions several times that he studied the subject in the Philippines. He is quite friendly and the needed linchpin for our group communication. Another of the men introduces himself, and when I have a hard time understanding his name, he says, "Yunggiver. Yung - Guy - Ver ... just like the very popular American television series." I got the feeling that he thought it was still popular and didn't want to tell him that the teenage girls weren't exactly swooning over Richard Dean Anderson anymore in case he'd just picked up the series on LaserDisc last month.

Long story short, the men, varrying in age from 35 to, shit I don't know, 60, looks like they had a head start on the soju. Glassy-bloodshot eyes, wobbeling cross legged sitting, and that beautiful slurred Korean-accented English was the best way to describe this table. These guys were hilarious just spouting off English sentences, so interspersed, I had to really concentrate on connecting the dots in my head with everything they said. We drank and by the end of our dinner, they wanted to make sure that I knew that I was their "brother".

With arms around each others shoulders, they staggered and I steered us down the narrow road to the Norebang; the Korean singing room.

They sang traditional Korean tunes while I hammered out cheesy rock staples of yesteryear such as Sweet Child o' Mine, Every Rose Has it's Thorn, Take it Easy and Desperado. For a guy that hates the fucking Eagles, I find it's interesting that I had, not one shitty Eagle's song, but two. Regardless, everyone sounds good at the norebang because of the steep echo and vocal enhancements. Shit, they could make Hellen Keller sound like Pavarotti.

By this time the men were blitzkrieg drunk, I mean just stammering about the place dancing around and holding everyone they could get there hands, including me. That's about the time that they got a case of the "grab ass" and I became their pinata. There were pinches from the back and pinches from the front. It was all in good hearted humor as they were laughing and having a good time but as you can guess, I was slightly bewildered. "Is this good?", "have I done something wrong?", "am I accepted now?", "is this the foreplay for some sort of sex repayment for dinner?" were all questions swirling about my hazy head.

Turns out I didn't have to have sex with anyone but the latter part of the night left me shaking my head. Norebang? Sure. But hands off my produce section please.

Nude gay art show

Chances are if you've ever drank too much, talked shit about someone being their back, been inolved in a love triangle or sold a lemon of a used car, then you have been the big white elephant in the room? But now I pose the question, have you ever been the big white trunked elephant in the locker room?

No workout session is routine at Vitamin Fitness. The front desk attendants know my membership number by memory and punch it in quickly when I step foot outside the elevators (when I asked for a membership card the lady said, "no, we know you face"). Aside from Koreans infatuation with weight lifting machines, see fear of free weights, and the presence of not one, but two, fat massagers, I'd say that Vitamin Fitness is an average place to get your pump on. Of course, it's the gym's clientele that sets the facility apart from any place on earth I've set foot in.

My first workout at Vitamin Fitness was what I considered to be operation don't-step-on-any-Korean-toes. What I failed to understand, or failed to consider, is there is no flying under the radar when you've got blond hair, blue eyes and more strength than the average bear.

I should have known the session was going to be bizarre when the gym master tried to spot me doing a bent over single-arm row. For the laymen, the single-arm bent over row is without a doubt a solo person exercise. Also, the head gym guy said I was too loud when I set the dead lifting weight on the floor. So now I must control the weight so it doesn't even touch the ground on the bottom of the lift. Again, not the end of the world just a stupid rule.

After my first workout, I was excited to get into the shower (not because I particularly enjoy showering with Asian men but because I hadn't figured out how to use my own shower at that time and it had been SEVERAL days) . Again, a man looks me shamelessly up and down an the first word, the only words, out of his mouth are "very ... nice ...". With slight pause he then mustered the word "body". Long story short, Cho Haut and I are now gym friends. By friends I mean we know one anothers name and exchange pleasantries. There's nothing like a hot gym shower to cement ever lasting international friendship!

Working the front desk is a young Korean man I presume to be about 20 years of age. He's works out there and has a good build to him. At first, he seemed to be kind of standoff-ish about my presence. About three sessions in, I asked him in Korean and hand gestures to spot me in on the bench press. Seeing the way he greats me now with a hefty bow you might mistake him for a friend of mine.

It only really became weird, and when I say "weird" I mean more weird, when I went into the locker room to jump in the shower. Keep in the mind the changing room MIGHT be 120 sq. foot and when you've got 6 or 7 dudes engaged in a costume change, there isn't anything hiding from anyone. When I change, I try to keep to the perimeter (no sense in bringing added attention to myself putting my foot up on the sink and shoot a grin and wink across the room) and my main preoccupation is making sure my sword doesn't go banging against anybodies armor. So there I was standing ass naked and one by one the talking turns to whispers and I can see one man elbow another and their attention turned to me. I'm not sure which part of me the infatuation is guided towards and that's what is the most uncomfortable part of the situation.

I made my way into the shower and tried to carry on as much as a guy who has just been visually raped can. After my shower, and on my way out the door, the 20 something Korean front desk worker said to me,"very nice body" as he threw me a bow. If I was John Holmes, or Arnold Schwarzenegger for that matter, I could understand the attention, but back in the US, I'm just another average swingin' dick. Pun intended.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Soju shits; vol. 1

The second rule of Korea club; never let your guard down.

It was my first evening of truly restful slumber. I moved the bed across the room far, roughly 12 feet, from the raucous street noise that encumbered the window and its immediate vicinity. As satisfying as the deep sleep was, it was promptly extinguished by the cold, harsh reality of an alarm clock, the real world and the thought of children.

I walked to school unprepared that the weather had shifted a stark 15 degress Fahrenheit down the mercury. Really, it was like someone flipped a switch from Sunday where, save for Hawaii, I experienced the warmest birthday weather my life has known.

While in the teachers lounge, I was "talking" to Moank, the P.E teacher impressed by my volleyball prowess and lean build, through third party interpretation and theater styled gestures. Moank had mentioned something about a "sauna" and asked if I wanted to go. Apparently there are a couple of different types of "sauna" themed activities to engage in here in Korea so I wanted to make sure I got the right one, so in an exaggerated over the top manner, I gestured like I was taking my shirt off; the international symbol for nakedness. He got the hint, mistook my charade for unbridled enthusiasm, and determined that instant that we were going to the sauna. Unbknownst to me, taking my sauna virginity was paramount on his action-item list because we were going to be going to the sauna that day ... as soon as our last class finished ... in 1 hour!

Being one not traditionally nervous about nudity, I couldn't wait to channel misplaced exhibitionism at the sauna. Wrinkle reducing fountain of youth? Maybe. A circus of nude flesh and queer looks? Possibly. A great blog write up? You bet your ass. It has been 11 days since I've touched down in country, so you can't exactly say I've really been dragging my feet to get down there. Moank and I took a taxi down to the sauna near his apartment. We picked up the locker keys and proceeded barefoot into the locker room via the guiding warmth of the ondol heated floor. When a guy doesn't know the native language, nor does he know anything in regards to cultural norms and general civilized behavior, it seems logical to operate by the "monkey see, monkey do" credo. Moank strips down. I strip down. Moank hits the shower. I hit the shower.

The sauna was a huge room with showers, steam rooms, a swimming area and pools of varying tempered troughs of water. The men in there were decent enough not to stare or shall I say reserved their staring for more discreet times. All and all, Moank and I put in about an hour in the relaxing sauna.

Next we took to foot to the local convenience store where Moank had to make a pit stop for three bottles of soju and a pack of smokes (he's a real health nut apparently). After picking up those bare essentials for Korean survival, we made it to his apartment where his wife had some Korean chow waiting for us.

There was the obligatory kimchee, black rice, bean soup and various other dishes I couldn't name. The food was so exceptional compared to the cafeteria fare that I think I may have over indulged. I say that because I was most definitely the last one eating, which when I checked my "Korea" book, was a bad thing (elders should be last). I running with the fact that Moank has mentioned several times that I am very lean as an invitation to eat. With the amount of comments I am getting on not being a fat ass, it makes me wonder how on earth us American got such a poor reputation? :)

After dinner Moank's wife prepared us some Korean BBQ (felt like a second large meal) and fruits for desert. That's when the soju reared her ugly head.

I saw her because I truly beleive soju is female. A mistress. An 18 year old seductress of will.
Soju is always there, looks good at night (not so good in the morning), and never says no. I'll stop there but the similarities go on for days. Besides being INSANELY cheap, it's actually quite drinkable. Moank, as per the testimony of another teacher, likes the soju ... a lot and that I should be "careful" when drinking with him. In Korea, being able to drink a lot is kind of the mark of a man, since I can barely out drink a 100 lb Beta Thi sorority girl on anti-depressants back home, I figured here was my chance to prove my international worth. Worth you say? You didn't think I was going to win them over with my work ethic did ya?

While we talked with his son's and his wife, Moank and I went back and forth with the soju bottle filling each other's glass. One bottle turned into two and then Moank decided he wanted to share some whiskey he had from his liquor cabinet. He's really trying to take the waegood by the horns on this one. The Ballentine's went down really smooth and good times were had by all. Moank threw in the towel first and said he was done. I claimed victory on his home turf in his preferred event. Can't you hear them cheering, Gladiator? I intrinsically rejoiced though the victory was bitter sweet as I started thinking about the fact that I defeated a 47 year old, 140 lb pound Asian man .... at drinking. The funny thing was I wasn't even drunk. I wasn't even close. That hard alcohol is no match for knock down power of a well crafted beer I reckon.

Perhaps I claimed the gold medal at the special Olympics a little prematurely as it took about eight hours to hit me in another fashion. I'm not sure if it was the bean soup, spiced meat, black rice, spicy kimchee, Asian pear, fish, seaweed, sprouts, kom, whiskey or soju but I had the most wickedly flaming BM ever recorded in the history of BM's! Word cannot describe it, a picture wouldn't do it justice, but poetry in the form of a haiku might just give it artistic merit.

"soju shit" welcome, stranger
Flaming shit, why you hurt me? You are
Asian cousin to "beer shit"

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Happy birthday ... to me.

Yep, I turn 28 today. If you had told me three years ago that I'd be living in a foreign country teaching English, I would have laughed at you. It's kind of funny how this life thing shakes down. Small steps, lead to bigger steps that eventually lead to giant leaps. Butterflys consumed my stomach when I moved from my college town of Missoula, MT to student teach in neighboring Spokane, WA. While it was only three hours away I thought, "man, I'm really going to miss my friends." But as time has a tendency of doing, it healed me and consequently made me stronger. That three hour commute then stretched into a six hour plane ride when I moved to Hawaii. Again, I'd miss my friends and family but would never give up in a heartbeat the new expereiences and strentgh I gained. My next adventure put me into uncharted territory ... Asian. Why Asia? Because I honestly can't thing of a place more foreign. I really wanted to test myself. For whatever reason there are three quotes that really stick out in my head when it comes to this new adventure bussiness. They are as follows;

1. How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight? - Fight Club
2. I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions. Facing the blind death stone alone, with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head. - Into the Wild
3. The core of mans' spirit comes from new experiences - Into the Wild

I have to give Ma and Pa! credit, for if it weren't for our move to Montana, I would have definitely lacked the courage to leave lowly ole Pinckney, Michigan, let alone move across the country, and then finally, across the world. It's quite humorous when you think about it. My mother said when she held me when I was first born she wondered what her son would be like when he was 20. I'm sure even in her wildest imagination she never what thought I'd be living overseas. Hell, up until the day I booked the airline ticket to S Korea, I'd never thought I'd live overseas. If someone is looking for a gut check, I'd recommend hovering the cursor over the "purchase" button for a one-way ticket to Asia. It's your life. If there is something you want ... reach out and grab it.

So here I sit typing with the warm ondol heating eminating warmth beneath my feet, sipping on soju wondering what birthday #29 will have in store for me.

My locations for birthdays past.
24 - Missoula, Montana
25 - Spokane, Washinghton
26 - Kihei, Hawaii
27 - Paris, France
28 - Masan, South Korea
29 - The moon?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Beatle mania

As part of my schedule, I teach at two different public schools. It was supposed to be 3 but the Principal of the school I am at Monday, Tuesday and Thursday says he likes me and I should be there Monday-Thursday. I suppose this is fine as I only have a ten minute walk to school and it's pretty much the only activity I've engage in the last week that has felt quasi-familiar. This leaves us with Friday. Friday is my journey out into the sticks for a little rural teaching.

Yuna told me yesterday that I would be picked up promptly at 7:50 a.m outside of an Optometry business by my rural co-teacher Kang Jin Seon. True to form, Jin Seon showed up at precisely 7:50 and quickly we whisked away to the school. The windy 20 minute ride from Masan to wherever was mildly scenic, and was the closest to "the old country" I have seen since I set foot on Asian shore. We apparently arrived before most students as their presence was pretty sparse. This school looked much like every other school I've been in but nothing could prepare me for what would happen inside.

Jin Seon brought me to first meet the vice principal. His ear-to-ear smile was trumped only by the Principal's. Through translation I was asked the obligatory do you like Korea, do you like my school questions. After about 1 minute of exchange, the principal told me that I he liked my face and I will be a good teacher here. After my meeting with the principal I was brought into the teacher's lounge. Now this was actually a pleasant experience as I didn't feel overwhelmed because there might be all of 15 teachers here. The principal asked me introduce myself on the microphone to which I was aided by Jin Seon with translation. They clapped, we bowed and the rest was Korean business as usually.

Scott had told me previously that he really enjoys his girl classes. He says they are less jittery and they "are complete Angels (it helps to imagine it in his robust English accent). My first class was girls so I considered myself fortunate. After the initial screams, yes screams, had subsided from my classroom entry, the girls were indeed angelic. They paid strict attention, there was no hitting of one another, and they asked many questions. I don't think the euthanizer at the pound has seen so many pairs of puppy dog eyes. When class ended, some of the girls (about 10) stayed and wanted to shake my hand to which promptly they began to scream after they did.

I thought I had escaped the situation relatively unscathed. No, this was just the beginning. This group of 10 took it as their responsibility to escort me to the teachers lounge all the while screaming, telling others not in the entourage to move. A couple of students even went as far as to try and walk arm in arm with me. I politely thwarted their attempts while the only thought it my head was "I've only got to make it to the teachers lounge."

My next class were with the boys, and of course, the proved to be more noisy, more aggressive and just generally less pleasant than the girl classes. By this time it was lunch, I had pretty much forgotten about the antics that had previously transpired. That was short-lived. First rule of Korean Club: Never let your gaurd down.

As we walked into the cafeteria, each girl table turned towards me until I could literally feel retinas burning the fabric of my shirt into my skin as I ate. I sat facing towards a co-teacher mindful not to look back at the minions heeding strict amorous attention towards me. After lunch my co-teacher took me to the teacher's lounge via an out door route. Why not walk through a narrow corridor while the German's shoot down on us? It was an onslaught, an absolute massacre of the highest proportions. There must have been 40 girls waiting for those doors to swing open, and after they did, they took no auricular mercy.

I couldn't bear to look up. It was one of the most uncomfortable situations in my life. It would have been different if I'd scored a Game 7 goal, received a purple heart, or cured cancer but this was solely because I was a westerner. I felt like a movie star leaving a night club. The only thing I was missing was a coat draped over my head and a cocked left fist sighted in on a nosey paparazzi. Looking at the concrete made me uncomfortable but looking up only added fuel to the fire. I was stuck and I knew it and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it. I made the terribly horrific mistake of thinking about how ridiculously funny this situation was with the screaming, the fanning of the faces, and the gah-gah eyes. It was then in a brief moment of weakness I cracked a smile and it was all pandemonium from there on out ...

T.I.K - This is Korea

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Busan and beyond

I had today off. Apparently it was a test taking day today for the students so to the foreign teachers, it was an unannounced day off. Unnanounced time off is one of the perks to the public school gig. I made my way down the stairs and I ran into a Australian woman from the apartment building who I saw at the gym briefly. Our small talk slowed me up enough to see Scott, the Englishman. He was stopping by to see if I wanted to go sightseeing today. It was nearly pure coincidence that we ran into each other because I don't have a cell phone and I barely have internet.

Strangely enough one of the best chicken sandwiches I have had in my life. The plain chicken breast was lackluster however.

Scott said we should go check out Busan. Busan is about 50 minutes away by bus. After we arrived we determined that we couldn't go on until we satieted our hunger. I'm not sure how we determined it but KFC was the winner of our business. Sadly, it took me all of a week to cave to the addictive powers that are western food.

A street vendor

Whilst in Busan we checked out Haeundai beach, visited a PC bang for 3 minutes and just generally perused.
Haeundai beach

Haeundai beach

Busan subway - See any fimiliar faces? We're not in Kansas anymore, Todo.

Some familiar sights in the land of unfimiliarity.

This server was nice enough to allow me to take a picture without tainting it with the peace sign.

Some good grinds we endulged back in little Masan. Otherwise known as "the sticks"

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

This foreigner's day at work

The shoe depot is going out of business! Just kidding, it's 800 pairs of used tennis shoes worn by pubescent males. I heard Britney is making it the flagship fragreance in her new perfume line. Gross!

Today was a special holiday of sorts here in Korea. 11/11. It has something to do with the linear-ness of the actual number 1. One of my students scurried up to my desk when I was barely paying attention, slipped these over, threw a quick bow and bolted before I could thank him.

The coolest thing ever. Kids are put to work over here! It's about damn time we start utilizing slave labor!

More cheap labor.

Front of the middle school. It has a nice athletic facility. Mr. Kim, the principal, told me that it is the only artifically grassed field in Masan Public Schools. That may have been Korea, I'm having a hard time remembering now. Today I walked to work on my own and didn't get lost. Just like a big boy would. It's been amazing weather thus far. Yuna, the same woman who told me this is normal recanted this afternoon and said this is unseasonably warm.

Lunch - I can only identify 2/5's pf this plate. Upper left corner we have bean soup. Upright right is purple rice. I finished the bean soup not because I wanted to but because just like the fellow from the movie "Alive!", he knew biting into that ass-cheek was the only thing that was gonna keep his starving carcass living.

Me in action

Notice the picture on the screen. I will give this presentation about 18 times this week about Montana. The students are impressed with how big and beautiful the state is. Consider this a state wide heads up for an Asian tourist invasion!

Monday, November 10, 2008

The gym debacle

Everything is a task over here. I'm not complaining at all. I'm just saying that the traditionally routine becomes the exceedingly extraordinary pain-in-the-ass. Take signing up for the gym for instance. A traditional in-and-out-quicker-than-a-bank-robber procedure, well at least when you side step the dodgy membership fees, left me shaking my head yesterday. I'm admitting full blame on this one. It's definitely time to brush up on some survival Korean.

I had already went to the gym to take care of this, but because it was Sunday, they were closed. According to Yuna, all gyms are closed on Sunday though she couldn't tell me why. So at 5pm on Monday, presumably when most people are itching to get back in to get their sweat on, I headed up to the gym (remember it's 75 feet away).

The doors of the elevator swing open and I'm greeted with "ahnyueng heyseyo" and a big smile. I point to the advertisement that says 3 month for W110,000. It's a decent price for being so close, but from the 3 gyms I have toured in town, they all suck with high degrees of success. So when a gym determines it is going to suck, it needs to be cheap and within close proximity. "Vitamin Fitness" definitely fits the bill.

The poor girl that was trying to sign me up was over come with a case of the Korean giggles and, through use of an internet translator, signed me up in about 10 minutes. Afterward, she paced back and forth trying to think of how she was going to tell me something while holding a combination lock. Right about then the manager walked in, and she was instantly relieved (she was trying to figure how to tell me how to use the locker in the men's area). The manager dude shows me where to stash the shoes I wore on the street (not suitable to wear inside in Asia). I got a key for a small shoe locker during this exchange. For those keeping track at home, that makes for 1 key. Then he showed me another locker where I will keep my shoes dedicated specifically FOR the gym. I am issued a combination lock. This combination will be the second item I will need to remember. Third, we pass by a clothes rack, blue for men and orange for women. I wear size 2 (out of 3). Then he takes me into the changing room where I am issued, you guessed it, another key to stash the clothes that I wore TO the gym (i wore workout clothes ironically).

The box score is as follows;

Garrett - 3 lockers, size 2, 2 keys, 1 combination, 1 confused journey on the way out.

For the record, those gym issued shorts have the built in"panties (his usage not mine)" in them. Korean's use of the word "panties" is gender non-specific. While I appreciate someone else providing me gym wear on their dime (I, more times than not, have wore ripe clothes to the gym), I'm not sure how comfortable I am with the thought of my coin purse setting up shop where other coin purses have been only hours previous. Turns out this should have been the least of my concerns.

The manager waits for me to disrobe outside of the the lockeroom. When I emerge, he takes me over to the treadmill and shows me how to use it. The oddity here is that a) every button was in English b) why did he think I wanted to hop on the treadmill? I appease the Vitamin Fitness gods and lazily tread down the treadmill. About a minute and a half in, he signals to me that I am running to loud. I'm having a hard time figuring this one out so I scale back the speed to a slow saunter and disengage from the treadmill. I was only on there to make him happy in the first place.

When I visited the gym on Friday to tour it, I noticed both benched had plates on both side that were 2 thick. In the states, 2 thick on each side is 4 x 45lbs + the bar which is another 45. This equates to 225 lbs. I thought to myself, "damn, while a diminutive breed, these dudes are strong." It turns out that it's a charade to end all charades. Korean's version of "operation fortitude". Each of these plates was the diameter of a 45 lber but were different colors signifying lesser weight; 10kg (22 lbs), 15kg (33 lbs) and 20kg (44lbs). So what I thought was 225 lbs, has the potential to be only 133lbs. The jig is up, Korea.

Their selection of free weights constitutes a bunch of lowly weight dumbbells strewn about haphazardly in a pile. There is no free form squat rack. A dead lifting platform is MIA. All of those short comings go by the wayside when you heed the fact that they have, not one, but two of those crazy fat giggling machines! After my workout, and think I had seen it all when it comes to bass ackwards gym-ing, I went into the locker room.

Wait for it ... wait for it ... Yep, it happened. I stripped down and grabbed my dish-rag sized towel and headed for the shower. I was in the shower next to this old man and I thought the only way for this guy to get a better look is for him to take a knee and bust out the bi-focals. It was pretty shameless. I can't say I'm surprised with the amount of text I've read on this very situation. I hope I made his day.

After the locker room I went on one hell of a scavenger hunt trying to procure all of my belongings. I thought someone pilfered my shoes as I was looking in unlocked stalls for them but it turns out I forgot that I had the key in my pocket. And they were indeed in their designated holding cell. Too many keys, so little brain!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Death of a dream

I'd like to take this moment to mourn a dear friend of mine. Though spurratic in presence, with some tenures longer then others, he was also there for me. Would you please lift your glass or tip your hat to the memory of, the one and only, "Unemployment."

R.I.P "Unemployment"
June 9th, 2007 - November 10th, 2008
Age:17 months

Unemployment, you were a dear friend of mine, perhaps even my soul mate. What you lacked in ambition and drive, you more than made up for in companionship. You died so suddenly and before your time. I was looking forward to a healthy long term relationship with you but "Employment" had malevolent plans. I hope sitting on your ass in the afterlife is everything you had hoped for and more.


Current mood: Denial

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Neighborhood exploration

I'm glad that I arrived when I did. Friday was good for me to get to see some students without having to teach. It's nice to ease into the whole thing fairly slowly. Saturday and Sunday allowed me to walk freely about the neighbor. As I was on the cusp of a mullet, like I am about every 2 months, I decided that I would get a haircut.

I'm happy with the haircut I got. I mean, without knowing the language and all, it turned out really well. Through a charade of hand gestures, we negotiated that the haircut would be W8,000 (about 6.50 USD) and that my hair cut would be "toe-gum." I was proud that that was my contribute. It's Korean translation is "a little." I suppose it could be taken two ways. First being take a little hair away. This is what I meant. Second could be that I only wanted "a little" hair. I think she took it to mean the latter, but regardless, I'm happy with the result.

After walking around the block and trying to get familiar with the area, I was traversing through a crosswalk eyes peeled because pedestrians certainly don't hold the right away here, and what did I see? Another "foreigner!" Sweet Jesus! We sparked up conversation immediately. Scott, a well versed English bloke who was on his way to "see a couple of Chinese bird's", showed me around Masan. We had traditional Korean chow, Garbi, at a restaurant downtown. He should me Kyangnam University before we eventually went down to a ex-pat bar, one of the two in Masan, called "All That Jazz". He says the crowds there are very hit or miss. Saturday night it was a definite "miss." But it was good to see that, if a guy needed a reasonably priced (W3,000) mediocre beer on tap, he could find one.

Long story short, it looks as though I have my first friend in Korea.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Enter the twilight zone.

I'll have to admit that absolutely everything feels different here. Today was one of the more bizarre days I've had in recent recollect.

After killing a few hours on poached Internet (I was up at 6 a.m for no apparent reason), I looked out of my window to enjoy the wonders that is Masan's city scape to witness a sight for the sorest of eyes; a gym! Even better, this gym was nary a stone throw away. I'm not joking when I say that the building was less than 75 feet away. I quickly strapped into my britches and made my way over there to investigate.

Since the 4th floor was only accessible by elevator, I was greeted by the sounds of Korean Pop and overwhelmingly bright neon lights when the doors opened. The front desk girl was nice enough to show me around, only after I committed the faux paus of wearing shows past the special line, the premises and did here best in broken English to explain the pricing. The membership shakes down to be about 30 dollars a month when paid for in 3 month increments. While there were a plethora of treadmills, their free weight section was severely lacking. I will investigate more tomorrow.

I made it back to the ranch at about 10 a.m were my Korean co-teacher Yuna was waiting for me with a man that coaches Judo. Yuna's English is decent but the Judo coach speaks none. Well he spoke enough to give me the now seemingly mandatory "you very handsome!." From here on out, Judo coach he will be known as only "Coach". Coach escorts Yuna and I stealthily trough the traffic laden street of Masan to the neighboring city of Changwon. In Changwon, I met up with education officials to verify documents and provide additional signatures.

Coach and Yuna then insisted on taking me out to a traditional Korean eatery. There wasn't any complaints from me because I think the last sustenance I had was the dollar banana I bought in Vancouver a day prior. We walked into the establishment and take our shoes off and sit cross legged while Galbi is cooked right in front of us on the grill. Keep in mind that this was my first Korean meal, and coupled with the fact that I enjoy the taste of plain oatmeal, I am clearly no expert in fine cuisine but this food was amazing! We had beef Galbi with a plethora of sides including various types of Kimchee, a bean sauce and a spiced crab called, if I remember correctly, kay-tong. The only thing I didn't care for was, surprisingly enough, the bean soup. I just wasn't prepared to see one of those gigantic sea shrimps with its shriveled eyes looked straight back into my soul.

Coach and Yuna dropped me off at my apartment. Coach came back an hour later unannounced, though I don't necesarily think "unannounced" is the correct term because I can't be reached by traditional methods (land line, cell phone, smoke signals). Coach determined that this would be a good time for me to meet the principal although he didn't exactly say that because, well, he can't. He just rang my doorbell and gestured with his hands that I needed to follow him. This is where things become bizarre. I should have been tipped of by the seemingly innocuous events such as a three little, I'm guessing 6 years old, Korean girls dangling out of the window of a speeding bus to wave and yell emphatically "hi teacher!" Let's not forget that in the thousand or so people I have seen here walking the streets, I have yet to encounter another foreigner. Coach and I proceeded to walk down to the school about a mile away. Keep in mind that there is no English exchanged so I really don't know where I am going or what I am walking into. We walk through town and make our way to a clearing. This clearing, as we approach and it becomes strikingly unmistakable, is none other then a middle school. Masan Seo middle school to be exact.

We walk up on the track where there are P.E classes taking place. One by one students stop running to start staring. Children standing in near proximity nudge other students to sire their attention in my direction. Quickly I become the center of attention.

Coach brings me into the school, sans shoes mind you, to meet with the principal. I sit down from across the table with him, and shit you not the first thing out of his mouth is, "you are very handsome." Of course, the conversation goes other places such as why I chose Korea, where I am from, do I like my apartment and weather I have a girlfriend or not. In between questioning, a women scurries in with a cup of delicious hot tea for me. The principal, whose name I have since forgotten, tells me that I have to come up to the teachers' lounge, he says that he wants to introduce me to some of the staff. I didn't know "some of the staff" meant "all of the staff" because of student recess. So there I am, lead into the teachers lounge with roughly 40 Korean teachers watching me as the principal talks into a microphone. His speech is an introduction of yours truly I know this as I hear the words Montana, United States, and "delicious Korean food (he mentions this because I told him I thought the food was really good moments earlier). Students are congregating outside of the frosted glass to try and get a peak at the "foreigner." It about this time that the principal hands me the microphone. "What do I say?" is what I asked of Yuna. "Just tell them about yourself," she said. So I told them in the most simple English that I was able to muster that I was indeed from Montana, lived in Hawaii and thought Korean food is delicious. Yuna waited until I was finished to translate.

Coach and I walk downstairs to the track field where a fresh session of P.E is taking place. It's the same scenario only this time not only are the P.E students all looking at me, students are hanging out of the windows of the school, from the 4th story in some places, yelling things like "you very handsome!" and "hey teacher!" Coach sires me over to play volleyball and all the kids think it's the greatest thing in the world; a not-fat American. We play Volleyball for the hour and then Coach gesture that I am going to play him in Badminton. We walk out back where Coach enjoys a cigarette while dry mopping the wrestling-matt lined "Badminton court" barely dry. Thinking about it now, with how wet the slippery court was and the fact that Coach and I were in dress shoes, it was recipe for a torn ACL. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Coach and I play for a half hour and then he tags out for another P.E teacher who plays me for another half hour. Both men were extremely complimentary to my athletic prowess (just can't let them see me playing basketball I guess) and Coach, through interpeation, says that he "would like very much to drink with me". In fact, the principal came out to watch us and has also taken a liking to me. It seems that the previous foreign teacher was very quiet and introverted. "I find you quite enjoyable, I'd like to soon take you to my house for dinner soon," said the principal. "Thank you sir, that sounds nice," was my response. We then exchanged bows and parted ways.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Eagle has landed .. again!

I started my journey. The haas from Vancouver to Seoul was on time at a stealthy 11 hours and five minutes. The plane ride from Seoul to Busan, a terse 55 minutes, was delayed by 20. My "I'm not in Kansas anymore" moment came when this little Korean fellow passed by me in the aisle on the air plane and dropped his jaw as if he saw a pasty white ghost. Not to be outdone by his buddy, who passed me a suspicious 30 seconds later, walked past me slowly then turned back in an every-so-calculated manner. If this wasn't enough, watching his face turn from persed lips to the shittiest of shit eating grins as quite priceless. These Asian kids are pretty damn cute. So I suppose if a guy was convinced he needed one, he should probably pick one of Asian decent.

My recruiter, Mary, was unable to pick me up from Busan but sent her husband, Jerry, in her absence. After I procured my luggage (isn't it always true that when you are stressed out your luggage is NEVER in the first round of bags leading you to think that it was lost) I walked out to the greetings area. There were several signs with different names, and then lastly, my name. Jerry was talking on the phone, which seems to Korea's national pastime. When he saw me acknoledge him he quickly handed me the phone after we exchanged brief bows. Mary was on the line to welcome me to Korea, apologize that she was unable to pick me up as well debrief me to the fact that Jerry didn't speak English. Jerry and I stashed my luggage into the back of his car and off we sped on the highway to Masan.

While in the car, he began to use the limited English he presumably picked up from oft encounters such as this one. "American?" he said to me. "Yes" I responded. "You very handsome" was his response. That was it. For the next hour I had that statement to hang on while I absorded the conrete jungle that is Korea.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Journey of 365 days begins with a single 11 hour flight

It's 7:30 a.m. Wednesday. While the rest of America gets dressed, packs its lunch and prepares for meetings and presentations in a severely calculated manner, I've got a different agenda. I've lived through 27 years of Wednesdays but something tells me this will be the last normal hump-day I will have for quite some time. Every glimpse of the bedroom, the hallway, the car, the airport become single frames packed into a miniature picture book. Snapshots of a life that will shortly seem like a life lived a lifetime ago. Colette, the apartment, the dog all become permanent images etched in memory to be referenced many times down the road. Take it in. Soak it up. This is my journey and it's ending, or beginning, one minute at a time.

It seems that memory can be very sharp at pivotal times or completely lackluster for others. If I ran into a student I had last year, there is a 95% chance I wouldn't be able to remember their name, but ask me the emotions evoked by certain monumental moments in my life, and you'll get a vivid recount. First minute of the first day at Darby High School in Montana? Easy. I remember a coal-sized lump lodged firmly in my throat standing outside of Mr. Rennaker's classroom. The sense of satisfaction that overwhelms you as you leave your absolute last college class. I have to rate my Maui relocation plane ride because of the utter disbelief that a) I was going to be paid to live in paradise and b) I was deemed employable. Each successful moment makes you stronger. Becoming stronger makes you strive for more successful moments. When was the last time you had one of these moments? When was the last time you took a brief second while in the moment to enjoy the true significance of that moment? Didn't it make you feel alive?

The last time I had one of these so-called "moments" was November 4th, 2007. Colette's parents dropped us off at the Greyhound station for our 3 hour jaunt to Seattle. Clad with only our backpacks and passports, the journey began, as for the very next day, we'd be airborne over the Atlantic to traverse new international lands. Exchanged US dollars to Euros ... check. Loose grasp of foreign language ... check. Rough idea where we were going to sleep the next day in London ... check. The journey, as with every journey began with an idea, a plan, and then ultimately, a single step forward. One foot in front of the other down the jetway. Did it make us feel alive? You bet.

My luggage and I; 1 suitcase, 1 duffel bag, 1 backpack, 1 laptop, 1 dude. I figure if I practice the "peace sign" long enough, I'll be able to assimilate into Korean culture without notice.

So here I am again exactly one year to the day since my last character building exercise. I've got a destination, a ticket, and several nearly non-nonsensical e-mails from a Korean woman named "Mary" that says she will be at the airport to pick me up in Busan in 15 hours. Precipice of a disaster? Maybe. Single greatest adventure of my life? Possibly. But like any other move such as a relocation to Maui, first day of school, or last college class, I won't know until I get there.

All the mental cataloging, the hours of research and near endless errands tying up the loose ends domestically won't begin to prepare me for the adventures I will incur internationally. My expectations are that I don't have any. No matter how many times you do it, it's the same butterflies, the same painful good byes, the same "finalness" that comes from ending one chapter of your life and beginning another. Passport ... check. Both suitcases ... check. Converted Won ... check. This journey, as with every journey I embarked on before, began with an idea, a plan, and then ultimately, a single step forward. One foot in front of the other down the Jetway. Do you think I feel alive?

But like I said before, to most people out there right now, it's just another Wednesday :)

Signing off from America ... Garrett

I'd really like to thank my wonderful Colette, for if it weren't for her unbridled support, I would have never had the courage to even think about attempting this.