Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Waygookin’s first jesa

Before I jump into the whole complicated story, allow me to begin with some background: jesa is a Korean memorial service held on the anniversary of an ancestors’ death. As it’s been explained to me, this usually goes back for four generations — Abeoji and Eomeoni (father and mother); Harabeoji and Halmeoni (grandfather and grandmother); great-grandparents; and finally, great-great-grandparents.

If you’re keeping track, that translates to eight jesa a year. (No wonder Korean women avoid marrying eldest sons, as it’s the wife of the eldest son who’s in charge of preparing the extremely complicated and time-consuming jesa table.)

The ceremony is a very involved one, with many minute steps required to pull off the perfect jesa. (The Ask A Korean blog has an interesting and extremely detailed description of the process here.) The gist of it is this: once a year, on the anniversary of the departed’s death date, the surviving family members pay tribute to their forebears by preparing an enormous feast for the ancestor; by performing special rites (among them burning incense, pouring alcohol, and tapping chopsticks in a bowl three times).

Obviously, I’m a novice: jesa is still a mystery to me, but it’s an extraordinary insight into the importance of Korean traditions. After reading about it, I asked my friend and co-teacher a few details about the ceremony. She, in turn, invited me to her family’s next jesa. I was shocked. I didn’t think any non-family members were allowed, much less a clumsy white girl who can’t even do a proper jeol (an honorific bow).

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Life as a Korean public school teacher: winter camp and private piano concerts

The season is upon us: No, not the Christmas season (it’s barely registered with me this year) but the English Winter Camp season. Yes, while the other seonsaengnim enjoy a few months away from school and students, I’ll be here, warming this desk o’ mine. But I don’t mind (much). I need the time to learn more Korean. (Oh, and plan our 18-day vacation trip across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. We have the plane tickets. Now we need a plan …)

But this post isn’t really about the travails of life as a Native English Teacher (as we’re so formally referred to). I love my life here, and small moments like the one I had today are the reason why. After another typical cafeteria lunch — kimchi, “black” rice, budae jjigae, bulgogi and apples — my co-teacher invited me to an impromptu concert in the music room. (She’s been brushing up her ivory tickling skills with the music teacher’s guidance.)

The music seongsaengnim is teaching her Gummy‘s “Jugeo do Saranghae” (“I Love You Even If I Die” Sweet, huh?). This song has a special place in my heart because it was the first Korean song I could actually understand (some of) the lyrics to.  Since then, the love has worn off a little, because Korea has a tendency to blare the same 10 top hits from every club, restaurant and convenience store, and this is one of ’em. I’m getting off topic.

At any rate, the three of us went up to the (surprisingly well-equipped) music room, where the music teacher played “Jugeo Do Saranghae” for us on the piano. It was beautiful, and I swayed to the song as my co-teacher sang along. But this wasn’t good enough for the piano teacher, who decided to kick it up a notch and play some classical number I’ve heard before but can’t name (sorry, Beethoven buffs). It was jaw-droppingly awesome. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes as her fingers twirled across the keys. This lady is amazing, and she sits right next to me. It was a special moment.

To top it off, all this fancy-pants piano playing drew in one of our second-grade (14-year-old) students, who also gave us an impromptu piano concert. Of course, we all clapped for him and he looked thrilled.

These are the moments when I really love my life in Korea.

EDIT: Immediately following the writing of this post near the end of the school day, my school had pizza and wings delivered for the teachers. If that doesn’t say ‘Merry Christmas,” I don’t know what does. Happy holidays, folks!

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Korean kids are crazy for gonggi

You like that alliteration? I thought so. I want to weigh in on the school-wide — and, from what I can tell, Korea-wide obsession with gonggi (which also means “air”).

It’s like the Korean version of Jacks, and it goes something like this: Hold all five gonggitdol (colorful, round, plastic playing pieces) in your hand. Toss gonggi on the table/floor/friend’s back/any level playing surface in sight. Strategically choose one gonggi; pick it up. Toss chosen gonggi in the air while scooping up one gonggi; catch the tossed gonggi. On the next turn, scoop up two gonggi, then three, etc.

Of course, there are finer points of the game, as well as different “versions” (which I think just refer to the skill level or style of the player). These include babo (stupid) gonggi (“Boy, you really suck.” This is the category of gonggi player I fall into); genius gonggi (“Damn, you are really good, and spend too much time playing gonggi instead of studying”); and ddalki (strawberry) gonggi (I have no idea what that could possibly mean, but the student who demonstrated did a particular sweeping motion when scooping up the gonggi).

After seeing the rabid gonggi consumption between classes, I decided to integrate them into one of my lessons. After each “level” completed in gonggi, the students had to answer a question about the lesson. This was particularly effective since many of the kids who rarely participate are in the “genius gonggi” category (like I said, too much gonggi, too little study). In this case, their gonggi skills became their downfall, and my victory, muahahahaha! Yes, that’s my evil seonsaengnim (teacher) laugh.

Incidentally, my biffle Kalynn introduced me to gonggi a couple of years ago back in the States, but I had no clue that it was a Korean game until I moved here. The more you know … (cue Reading Rainbow theme song).

Here’s a brief how-to on gonggi:

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

My on-court experience with Orions basketball: or, free stuff in exchange for public humiliation!

Readers of this blog (and anyone who’s been around me for more than 15 minutes in the past few weeks) know that I’m an increasingly huge fan of Daegu’s pro nun-gu (basketball) club, the Orions.

So far, I’ve settled for admiring the game (and the players) from afar. But last night, things got a little personal. My friend/Korean teacher/co-teacher HyunJeong and I arrived for the 7 o’clock game half an hour early and settled into our seats.

The Orions announcer was doing his usual comedy schtick down on the court when I heard him ask about waygookins (foreigners). As I tried to look inconspicuous, HyunJeong began waving wildly and, unfortunately, caught the emcee’s eye. In an effort to avoid public humiliation, I ducked down in my seat but, realizing there was no escape, I sheepishly lifted my head and decided to play along.

At first, I thought he just wanted me to stand up and show my Orions spirit. Okay, I can do that, I thought. But when he motioned for me to come down to the court, I realized I had made a mistake. Please don’t make me play an on-court game, I thought. I will die of sheer embarrassment. I cannot dribble a basketball, make a lay-up or run without falling over. Thank god all I had to do was stand on the court with the cheerleaders while the players were announced at the opening of the game. (Thought I felt pretty shabby standing next to all those pretty ladies in my oversized Orions t-shirt and jeans).

While the pain may seem minimal, I promise you I was cursing HyunJeong under my breath every moment I was on that court, and wishing nothing more than to be back in my spectator’s seat. But maybe (and that’s a strong maybe) it was worth it: I got a free basketball, a free trip to a upscale jjimjilbang and a free night’s stay at a fancy hotel, all for a few seconds worth of clapping. But the best Christmas Eve-Eve gift of all was getting to see Lee Dong-Jun in all his tall, muscly glory.

Actually, he looks kinda scrubby up close, and seems a little asshole-ish and indifferent to the fans. Just another reason I’d rather keep watching from my seat high in the stands.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

McDonald’s delivery to your door and other tales of Korea’s customer service craze

Since moving to Korea four months ago, I’ve experienced only minor difficulties with the communication barrier. Most people speak at least a little bit of English — though I admittedly feel guilty for expecting them to speak in my own language when I’m in their country. I’m working on it!

Things like asking for directions (or, conversely, giving a cabbie directions), shopping, and ordering food have posed little problem (though Alex and I once wound up with one stinker of an appetizer when we blindly ordered off the menu at our neighborhood hof. Wriggling octopus? We eat it. Pig’s anus sausage? Not nearly as bad as it sounds. Actually, quite tasty. But the dried squid “jerky” that we accidentally ordered is not at the top of my list of favorite Korean foods. I digress.)

My point is that customer service here — at least in my experience — is outta this world. So what if shop owners shadow me while I walk around the store? They’re more than happy to answer any questions. When the cable guy installed my service (hallelujah!), he realized I didn’t have a remote control. After motioning that he would be “right back,” he returned in under 10 minutes with a brand new remote, batteries and all.

McDonald’s has home delivery service here, for God’s sake. Don’t feel like getting outta your pajamas to enjoy a Big Mac? Don’t. Just order in and you will be enjoying greasy, MSG-laced burger goodness in a flash. In fact, all food delivery in Korea is spectacularly different from what I’m accustomed to in the States.

First, take-out isn’t relegated to crappy Chinese restaurants and pizza. You can get just about anything delivered here. And — here’s the kicker — there’s no delivery fee. How is that even possible?! This has lead to an overabundance of crazed delivery drivers on scooters tearing around the city at a breakneck speed to bring you your food while it’s still hot and fresh (and risking their own lives in the process). But damn, it’s worth it.

From phone call to feeding my lazy face in less than 10 minutes: that’s what I call service. If you order from McDonald’s or a fried chicken joint (yes, Koreans love fried chicken — I’m in heaven), you’ll get your run-of-the-mill paper and plastic accoutrements. But if you order from a sit-down restaurant, they’ll also bring you real china plates, silverware, napkins — the whole nine. When you’re done, just put the dirty dishes outside your door. They’ll pick it up later. The U.S. is gonna have to step up its game if it ever wants to see this expat again.

But all of this foodie fabulousness pales in comparison to the real inspiration for this post: NongHyup Bank. Yep, bank service is pretty miserable at the best of times, even when the teller and I speak a common language. But imagine trying to send money overseas in a country where you know next to nothing about bank-speak in the native language. The results could be catastrophic (to borrow a recent North Korean phrase).

Enter Seong-Mo. This unassuming dude works at my local bank, and he is a life saver. After hours of trying to figure out how to transfer money on my own (unfortunately, NongHyup Bank’s website is not as fantastic as their employees) I decided to bite the bullet and go to the bank by myself. I was prepared to do epic battle. Not only did I not have to wait in line (unheard of!), Seong-Mo spoke excellent English and told me exactly what I needed to make the transfer. He even got me a coffee while I waited. (Well, that’s a lie. He sent his secretary to get me a coffee.)

Unfortunately for Seong-Mo, I am babo (stupid) and wrote down an incomplete account number. Apparently, I also wrote down my phone number incorrectly, because the poor guy spent the whole next day trying to get in touch with me, to no avail. Fortunately, he was actually listening when I told him what school I worked at, so he called my school and explained the situation to them. I went back to the bank and he worked it all out. Another of my expat friends said that Seong-Mo actually came to her house to help her with internet banking. While I feel that this is borderline creepy (especially since he told me that my “students are so lucky to have such a beautiful teacher”) no one can deny that it’s some radical customer service.

So thanks, Seong-Mo, for making my life here in Korea even better.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Sa-gu, Korea’s popular alternative to pocket pool

I’ve been meaning to write about sa-gu since … well, since a couple of months ago, when I did a double-take while walking by one of Daegu’s many sparsely furnished but brightly lit pool halls. (If the description sounds like the antithesis of the average American billiards experience, that’s because it is.)

When I play pool (badly), there are a few things I want/require: dim lighting, so I can ignore the rednecks guzzling Bud Light at the next table; beer, and plenty of it (preferably a Yuengling, please); and a comfortable, well-worn bar, table or other manner of seating to rest my weary bones after a particularly grueling battle with the cue stick.

Here’s what I’ve seen in Korea: lighting that looks like you’ve entered the sterile, pristine confines of a dentist’s office; the offer of coffee or tea (although I’m certain that almost all billiards bars do serve beer); and a few plastic chairs that look like they might shatter into tiny pieces if I attempted to heave my full weight (read: under triple digits) onto them.

But that’s not what made me do a double-take. Most pool tables here have no pockets. And there are only four balls. That’s why it’s called sa-gu (사구). Sa is Korean for “four” and gu is “ball.” Pretty simple, huh?

Being epically bad at run-of-the-mill billiards myself, I have yet to try the doubly difficult sa-gu. But the basic rules are this: There are two cue balls, one for each player. Points are earned by hitting both of the other balls with your cue ball. I’m lucky if I can tap one little ball when I shoot the cue, forget trying to hit two in one shot. Fortunately, most pool halls I’ve seen have both sa-gu and the more familiar pocket billiard tables.

I thought this four-ball phenomenon was unique to Korea, but the ever-enlightening Ask-A-Korean says that this is called “straight carom billiards,” and variations of the game are played all over the world. Well I’ll be darned.

So while I’ve yet to find a pool hall with that stale-beer-and-day-old-vomit smell and the greasy, comfortable vibe that I crave, if you’re looking for a fun (and super cheap) way to spend a few hours in Korea, just walk out on to any semi-populated street. Look up and to your left; look up and to your right. Odds are you’ll see more than a few blazing neon sa-gu signs beckoning.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

And the deskwarming begins ….

Today is officially my first day of deskwarming.

For those of you unaware of the great deskwarming debate in Korean public schools, let me elaborate: Deskwarming is coming to school for seemingly no other reason than to warm that desk of yours.

Students are on vacation. Teachers are on vacation. All of your lesson plans are finished and the principal has approved them. You’ve cleaned your office, your classroom, some other random room just because you’re bored.

You. Have. Nothing. (School-related). To. Do.

And yet, you are still required to be at school for the full 8-hour day. There is no lunch served. There may or may not be heat. There’s a good chance you will not see another soul for the entire day. And still, you are sitting at your desk. Warming it.

Some foreign English teachers get really upset about deskwarming. “It’s unfair!” they shout to friends at bars during December and January. “Why do the other teachers get two months and we sit here for no damn reason?” Just the thought of “missing out” on another month of vacation time enrages them more.

I admit, I would love the extra time. But I signed a contract and knew what I was getting into. If I didn’t like it, I should’ve been a Fulbright Grantee or something. Or went to Vietnam.

Deskwarming is not so bad. Why, I just spent 10 minutes of it on this blog post!

In honor of my first deskwarming day, here’s a link to one of the newest blogs to join my blogroll: The Waygook Effect, which is one of the better expat blogs out there. The blogger has a hilarious video — featuring Hitler — all about deskwarming. Check it out!

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

“Are you busy?”: Our brush with Buddha’s Witnesses

Alex and I were in the harried midst of hanging our clothes to dry (yep, no dryers here in the good ol’ ROK) before setting out to downtown Daegu for another Orions basketball game when we heard a knock at the door.

Each time this has happened — a total of only three times in the 10+ weeks we’ve lived in Daegu — we exchange surprised glances before one of us goes to the door. The first time, it was a census lady (there’s no escaping them, trust us. Alex had to fill mine out while I was mid-Skype session with my family). The second time, it was a little lost ajumma who wandered into the wrong apartment. But this time might have been the most surprising of all.

“Could we have something to drink?” said the mid-30s, bespectacled Korean man when I opened the door. I glanced at his companion, a similarly outfitted woman in her late 20s. Both were wearing hiking gear. Maybe they just got of the nearby trail at Hamji Mountain, I mused.  Still, I couldn’t quite figure out how or why they got into my code-secure (or so I thought) apartment building. There’s a convenience store less than 15 yards away.

Nevertheless, I’m not one to turn down a couple of thirsty strangers, so I fumbled through some basic Korean and asked if they’d prefer water or juice. I couldn’t decide whether or not I should invite them in. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, I felt guilty leaving them in the cold hallway. I poured them each a glass of water.

Once they had gulped it down, they asked the questions we get almost daily in Korea. “Foreigners? Where are you from? How do you like Korea?” And then, one unexpected question: “Are you busy?” From our broken conversation, we gleaned that they were going up a nearby mountain. What they now told us is that they were visiting a Buddhist temple … and collecting offerings along the way. Yep, we were hit up by the Buddhist version of Jehovah’s Witnesses (with far less fire and brimstone, and no uncomfortable looking suits).

We politely declined, said we had to get going. They said they’d pray for us at the temple. Praying for my eternal soul in exchange for a glass of water? That’s a hell of a bargain.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Love and Basketball: Hello, Daegu Orions

Before I extrapolate on the wonders of basketball in Korea, let me take a moment to celebrate the fact that it’s Friday; that I saw my first Korean snow yesterday; that my ondol heating system is on full-blast; that my open class is over (observations suck);  that I’m drinking a beer (even if it is Hite); that I’m snacking on string cheese, courtesy of Daegu’s Costco; and that I’ve got Creedence Clearwater Revival’s greatest hits as a soundtrack. The neighbors are in for an impromptu norae bang treat when “Bad Mooon Rising” starts.

Yes, life in Korea is good. Especially since I’ve discovered the Orions, Daegu’s very own, very crappy, basketball club. No one can ever call me a fairweather fan, though. I’ve already got a branded t-shirt, noise makers, and even a cell phone charm (so sue me) repping my new hometown b-ballers. But big ballers they are not.

I officially became a fan at my first-ever professional basketball game last Sunday, when we played the Incheon Elephants. Since then, I’ve learned a few interesting facts about Korea’s most under-appreciated sport. First off, to call this a pro club is technically accurate, but is misleading for fans of American ball. Daegu Gymnasium can host a whopping crowd of just over 5,000 — and it’s rarely half-full. I’ve seen high school games with more crowd enthusiasm. Also, there are a few club rules that are unfamiliar for US fans: teams can have only two foreign players (usually, two of their starters) and one Korean-American player. This is to prevent clubs from importing their entire team from abroad.

There are nine teams in  Korea’s pro league. Currently, Daegu is ranked eighth. Le sigh. Despite losing both games I’ve seen, the Orions are entertaining nonetheless. Their stars are Glen McGowan (who was injured in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game against Jeonju); Otis George (Crowd chants: Oh-ti-suh!); and my personal favorite…Number 40…it’s Lee…Dong…Juuuuuuuun! Yes, Lee Dong-Jun is a lanky, long-haired Korean-American (given name: Daniel Sandrin) who dominates in the paint and behind the 3-point line. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also modeled in Nike fashion shows.

So I’ve got the fan gear. I’ve got a favorite player. I’ve got plans to see many more games. What I don’t got is a winning team. The Orions were up by more than 20 points — yes, 20 — and still managed to lose to the Elephants last Sunday. I had hopes for Tuesday’s game against lower-ranked Jeonju’s KCC Egis. Alas, despite a rousing back-and-forth lead, we fell just five points short of a W.

You can’t blame the cheerleaders for the loss, though. Those gals were shakin’, poppin’, lockin’ and costume-changing as if the win and their adorable little lives depended on it. I also have warm-and-fuzzies for these ladies because, although I haven’t won any (yet), they give out free gear — from signed balls and jerseys to pizza and Pocari Sweat — throughout the game. Another +1 for Korean ball: the mascots breakdance. Take that, stateside b-ball fans.

Worth mentioning is that, with tickets at 9,000 won a pop (about $8), supporting the home team is extremely affordable. Nosh outside the stadium before the game at one of many street food stands (I always recommend a sugar-dipped, double-battered corn dog) or bring your own snacks into the stadium. Yep, I was spoiled by my hometown Tampa Bay Rays open policy on bringing your own food to the game, but the happy tradition continues, halfway across the world. Except that my now my game time snacks include dried squid.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Welcome to Korea: Another Sunday, another tub of fish eating your foot’s dead skin

Yes, that’s right. We’ve really been enjoying the bounty of seafood that Korea has to offer, from live octopus to giant clams, fish and squid in various states of dessication and more. So, Alex and I decided to give a little back: We went to Doctor Fish.

These are tiny fish — a little bigger than a minnow, maybe? — that eat the dead skin off your feet. It was originally used to treat eczema and other skin problems, but now it’s mostly used as a spa treatment. I’ve been wanting to try this this I came to Korea (If I’m being honest, since I saw it on the Tyra Show a couple years ago. Full disclosure).

On Sunday, I found  Namu Story, (for Korea peeps: it’s across from the UniQlo in downtown Daegu) and convinced Alex to go with me. Just as interesting as the experience itself is where the Doctor Fish are: in a a big cafe. Yes, a tank of fish sunk into a raised platform at one end of a large, posh, second-story cafe. So while people are drinking their coffee and eating their pastries, Alex and I (okay, mostly me) were giggling in a corner while tickly little fish ate dead skin off our feet. I thought it would take a while to get used to, but in a matter of minutes I was able to stop laughing and enjoy. It’s like a little massage!

The best part is this: there’s a $3 entrance fee to get into the cafe, but it’s all-you-can-eat croissants and coffee, and the Doctor Fish treatment is less than $2. It was a great way to spend a relaxing Sunday afternoon.

UPDATE (3/8/11): Namu Story, the coffeeshop where we first experienced Dr. Fish, is no longer offering the service. Check back here for updates on other nearby Dr. Fish proprietors.