[Once again, dear Reader, I offer you a musty old email taken from the electronic shelf of my hard drive and served up with a cup of good cheer. I admit to fixing one typo this time, but no other changes. So let us go back, back, back to 2003. Oo-ooo-ooooh.]
Dear Friends, Family and Loved Ones:
When I was in university, the father of a friend of mine said, "Being sick is never fun, but being sick when you're away from home is misery." I've had a cold for a week now, and once again that truth has been brought home for me. And now that I'm getting over it, Horyon is coming down with it.
I pointed out to a friend of mine that I rarely got sick before I got married. He suggested that perhaps inherent in the wedding vows (you know, "In sickness and in health,") is the implication that you *must* spend a certain amount of time being sick.
At Christmastime I was healthy. We both were, actually. Well, Horyon is always a little sick, but for Christmas she managed to get in good shape. She only had Christmas day off. No Christmas Eve holiday. No Boxing Day (a Canadian holiday during which one celebrates all the new boxes one has acquired over Christmas, I believe). Just the one day.
I suck at buying presents. This year I bought my darling wife a CD of Christmas music by her favorite piano player, Andre Gagnon, (don't ask me what he's gaggin' on, I don't know,) a set of cast iron plates for cooking stuff in the oven, like fish or steak or whatever, and a Hormel canned ham. She argued that the cooking plates were actually for me. I countered with the sexy underwear argument: I may actually cook with the plates, but she gets to eat what's on the plates, thereby enjoying it (arguably) more than I do. We definitely shared the ham. Hard to get real ham in Korea, and that stuff made some pretty good sandwiches. But the CD was definitely for her. There were many, many CDs I would have bought before that one.
Okay. Like I said, I suck at buying presents. Fortunately, my parents sort of covered for me. Two weeks before Christmas we got a package from home full of presents. Now, Koreans don't really do Christmas presents. Kids usually get one or two presents, and that's it. On gift occasions, it is considered polite to give money. Don't you wish it were that easy in North America? That was something I hadn't really thought about much until I came home carrying a box full of presents and my wife went nuts.
"Presents! Wow! Let's open them!" she squealed.
"We can't open them now," I countered. "You don't open Christmas presents until Christmas."
Thus beginning the debate. Usually when we disagree, I let Horyon win. But we both seem to agree that in matters of culture we should defer to the person who has spent the longest time living in the culture in question. Korea and America both have Christmas, but I decided that Korea wasn't doing Christmas properly, so I stood my ground. There was a lot of whining and begging and even a few threats to open presents while I was not present. I quickly conceded that the presents already opened by the just and fair employees of Pusan Customs should be properly unwrapped and appreciated. This, however, proved to be like the "freebie" that drug dealers are so fond of distributing.
Eventually, I got Horyon to promise that we would open one present on Christmas Eve, and the rest on Christmas morning, just like my family used to do. We went to sleep that night peacefully in each others' arms. Okay, I was sort of restraining her, but it was a very loving sort of restraining. She just doesn't have the years of Christmas Present Patience built up like I do. I hope she can get used to it by the time we have children old enough to notice things like that.
The follow-up is New Year's Eve. When the first midnight of 2003 (or was it the last of 2002?) rolled into Pusan, Horyon and I were at her parents' church. I was struggling to stay awake through a long sermon in a language which I have no deep grasp of, under a hot air vent that was blowing right down on us. Pretty much the same as last year. We had had a lovely dinner at their home previously, which deserves a lot more exposition than the church service.
One of my favorite Korean foods is called shabuh-shabuh. Like many of my other favorites, much of its charm lies in the presentation, though the taste still packs a punch, too. First a large pot of boiling broth is put on a small grill on the table. Also on the table are bowls and plates with various ingredients, different kinds of leaves and mushrooms, and very, very thinly sliced raw beef. These ingredients are thrown at will into the pot, like uncooperative explorers at the mercy of a tribe of cannibals. And like the cannibals, we enjoy it very much. You can throw in whatever you like, but throwing something in doesn't give you dibs on fishing it out, dipping it in sauce, and eating it. Unless my metaphor fails me, it's a cannibal eat cannibal competition. And sitting next to my brother-in-law, Young-hwan, means the competition is pretty hungry.
But that's okay, because there is plenty to go around. After the plates of meat and veggies are empties, the soup left in the pot is very rich and flavorful. Ready for the second course.
Mandu are Chinese dumplings. The best ones can be purchased uncooked from Chinese restaurants. Horyon's mother had picked up some earlier that day, and these were put into the rich, bubbling soup. She also put in some Korean dduk. (Don't worry about how to pronounce it, you're bound to get it wrong.) Dduk is made of rice cooked beyond all recognition, formed into unnatural shapes, like inch thick cylinders, thinly sliced, then put into soups to function as a sort of eating speed bump. Once you bite into a piece of dduk, it takes some serious chewing to get to the other side. A small pile of dduk chips was thrown into the soup, too. They don't really change the taste, because they have no flavor. Well, actually they taste like rice.
Most Westerners agree that rice doesn't have any flavor by itself, but Koreans (and most Asians in my experience) disagree. My rebuttal involves two Korean street foods: dduk-boggi and ho-dduk. These are both served off of street carts by ajumas (older women with ‘tudes) who call to you to come try their tasty treats. As you might have guessed, dduk is the major ingredient in both dishes. In dduk-boggi, four-inch-long tubes of the stuff are heated up in a thick red sauce made of sugar and chilli pepper powder. Other things are thrown into the mix, too, like whole hard-boiled eggs, green onions, and o-dang (pronounced "oh' dang" which is the polite version of what you would say if you knew what it was made of). It varies from spicy-as-hell spicy all the way up to burn-a-hole-in-your-stomach-and-take-the-paint-off-the-wall-behind-you spicy.
Ho-dduk is much more pleasant. The dduk is prepared a little differently, so it is soft and squishy like bread dough. A ball of the dduk is made around a core of cinnamon, brown sugar and nuts, then the ball is fried in butter. It is usually available in the winter, when you can see your breath. You stand shivering in the cold, pinching a light-brown pancake thing in a makeshift hotpad made of a couple of small pieces of card stock just folded together. You have to be careful how you eat it, because when it's hot the filling is liquid. It will burn your tongue, stain your shirt, and make sticky little circles where it drops on your shoes as you stand to eat it. Once piece usually sells for about 45 cents, though you can sometimes still find them at three for a dollar.
Of course, my argument is this: if dduk has flavor, then why the hell is it prepared with such overwhelmingly flavorful ingredients?
And that is why it takes me so long to write one of these letters. I start out talking about dinner, and end up out in the street eating ho-dduk.
Meanwhile, back at the Kang family dinner, I ate a lot of mandu, and quite of few of the dduk chips, too. In soup like that, they acquire enough flavor to be worth chewing through.
It was a fine dinner, worthy of song. Though it was many hours before the 11:30 p.m. New Years Eve service, it still fought a valiant battle to drag me into dreamland during that service.
At about 1:00 a.m. on New Years Day, Horyon and I caught a cab for home. We had had an offer to stay the night with the Kangs, but they were leaving early in the morning to go to my father-in-law's home town. I've done that once on a holiday. I will not do it again. I absolutely refuse. I won't.
Unless Horyon asks very nicely. Very, *very* nicely.
And now it is late January. This should be vacation, but once again I am working. (Am I turning Korean?) I'm teaching a reading class of 12 students. Their abilities are extremely varied. On my last test, the high score was 100%, and the low score was 26%. Some of the low grades are slackers, but some of them are working hard, if not necessarily doing their best. Fortunately for me, I have been teaching this class in a manner most unlike my usual style: every day we do exactly the same thing in class, except that on Fridays we take a test. So last Tuesday when I came to class unable to talk, I simply whispered that we should do what we usually do. Sujin (pronounced sue-JEAN) is the best student in the class, and she helped me out quite a bit.
Sujin has been in my class twice before. She is a vocal music major, but her conversational English is better than any student in the English department. She studied for a year or two at a music school in Cincinnati. I don't doubt that the music school improved her English, but she also made a little pocket money working at a TCBY. I would guess that that is where she sharpened her English, as well as her sense of humor. Nothing brightens my day like having a student actually laugh at my offhand jokes. She is going to get an "A" in my class, but she might not have the best grade.
Joy (a nickname, much easier to remember and pronounce than Hyoun-kyoung), has also been in my class a couple of times before. Joy doesn't speak or listen as well as Sujin, but Joy knows how to study. After getting 85% and 88% on the first two tests, she aced this one. As someone who used to take tests pretty well, I stand in awe of this. Granted, I have attempted to make my tests easier as I went, but she has once again proved to me that if you set a high standard, the students who care will make it. I just hope that the rest of them can figure out the trick before Thursday–the final exam.
As I finish this up, I have also finished my last pure teaching day at Kosin University. And today went out with a bit of a bang. A couple of weeks ago the professor in the office next to mine stopped me in the hall to complain. I had left my stereo on during my class, and he found it hard to work. I apologized, and made sure to not do that again. So today, after my class was finished, I was in my office with some of my students, and I had the music on. Not loud enough to hamper our conversations, but apparently loud enough to bother my neighbor. We heard him yelling, and banging on the wall. My students guessed that he was talking on the phone, and was mad enough to actually bang it against the wall. I turned the music down long enough to listen for a bit, then turned it back up. I didn't want to be party to listening in on someone else's conversation. A few minutes later, he stormed into my office and asked if this was a discotech. (Sorry, not sure how to spell that one, and my spell checker is more confused than I am.) We migrated out to the hall, three or four of my students and myself. The guy was tearing into my students. He wouldn't talk to me at all. He acted like I wasn't there, or like I was an overgrown child. I was so pissed off I could barely see straight. I finally left.
When my students caught up with me, they told me that he is an art professor, and therefore *sensitive*. I brought up a vocabulary word from earlier in the day: irritable. He ranted about how he had pounded on the wall, but I hadn't paid attention. I have grown fairly thick skin, living abroad these past seven years, but this shook me up pretty badly. This guy was angry. And he had never come and knocked on my door.
Things got better after that. I had lunch with my students (Pizza Hut delivery, yum!), then we sort of studied together for the final. At the end, I gave my last thank you and goodbye speech. I told them that I was sad to leave Kosin, but that incidents like the one today make me a little bit happy to leave. I don't expect that people will be nicer, or more fair in Kyoung-sung University, but at least they will not be constantly talking about being Christians, and doing Christian things, and how important Church is, as they attempt to stomp on me.
I am sad to leave Kosin. It has been a good job. It has provided our first home together as a husband and wife. It has brought me friends that I would not have even known how to ask for if I had gone to God with a request. And the students, with a very few exceptions, have been a blessing to me. And I choose to believe that the exceptions were blessings in disguise.
And to you, gentle reader, I hope that the coming New Year (January was just a warm-up month, you know) brings you sufficient challenges to make you grow, sufficient joy to warm your heart, and just enough sadness to make you appreciate how beautiful and wonderful it all is.