Taejon, South Korea
Letter to the South Korean Minister of Education
Dear Mr. Kim,
To begin with, I am writing to bring to your attention to what I consider a serious error in my recent selection as Foreign Teacher of the Year in South Korea. As I valiantly tried to point out to the awards committee, I was only visiting this country for a month and was simply helping a few of the Sisters at the St. Mary’s High School with their English. Teaching a class of nuns does not strike me as being worthy of any kind of special recognition. For one thing, I had no discipline problems at all. And yes, I refrained from becoming romantically involved with any of them, but it wasn’t as difficult as it sounds.
I will admit that during this time I was working without a salary, but the committee’s declaration of this as a shining example for other foreign in-structors here to aspire to strikes me as misguided.
In any event, I have reluctantly decided to accept the award: a round-trip ticket to Tacoma, Washington (also known as “The Paris of South Puget Sound”). Strange that the second place winner will receive two round-trip tickets. But I will try to use them as soon as I receive them.
Now, at the risk of causing an international incident, I must nevertheless continue to protest your decision to present the award next week at St. Mary’s school. The 8:00 a.m. time in particular strikes me as especially inappropriate. I mean, have you ever actually SEEN an early morning Korean high school class? Some of the students (most of whom study four to five hours a night before leaving the school at ten) wobble in like twelfth-step alcoholics following an all night binge. Others lie sprawled across their desks, semi-conscious. An ambulance team presented with this scene would find itself performing emergency triage.
May I ask what, exactly, are you preparing your students for, extended POW internment? High School should be one of the best and happiest times of our lives (and would have been in my case if it wasn’t for the acne attack my junior year). From what I have seen of your educational system, it’s only a matter of time before President Bush sends over a hostage rescue team, then orders a follow-up air strike. Do you really want to visit Guantanamo Bay that badly?
I know, I know. Foreign teachers in Korea, like small children, should be seen and not heard (and maybe not even paid). I just felt it my place to use my brief, exalted status to speak my mind. And having the Education Ministry Police confiscate my passport will not change my views nor my plans to escape. For I, along with a dedicated group of seventeen-year-old freedom fighters (who, by the way, have permission from their par-ents), are determined to break out of this educational hellhole, bound for a place where we can teach and learn in genuine harmony. Under the co-ver of darkness we will boldly strike forth…for the Worker’s Paradise of North Korea!
With Best Wishes for Your Health,
A Determined Foreigner
Pusan, South Korea
Hello Boys & Girls!
Today we are going to have lunch in a Pusan restaurant in Korea. Can you say “Pusan”? If you are unable, don’t worry as that is going to be the least of your problems.
The area of the city we will have our meal in is called Hae-undae Beach. Because of its popularity with foreign tourists, most of the restaurants have pictures of their dishes posted outside. As an aid to understanding what you are going to eat, the names often have Japanese subtitles. A big help for those of you who can read Japanese (and what red-blooded Am-erican cannot?).
As you scan the photos, you will notice that red is the predominant color. Meaning spicy. Meaning be careful! The Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do actually utilizes some of the local cuisine as a means of attack, so it will behoove us to make our choices with care.
Your first impulse will probably be to try and figure out what the hell the dishes are. This would also be your first mistake. If you by chance end up ordering something like octopus tentacles in eel sauce, ignorance is bliss.
OK, we’ve selected a restaurant and have pointed out the meal we want. Usually this will be some kind of stew or soup. While waiting for the or-der to arrive, you will notice the waiter bringing half a dozen small plates of various colored organic materials to our table, little of which resem-bles food as we know it. These petri dish arrangements are in side dishes, intended to be enjoyed with the main course.
Let’s get to work! Choose the dish that appears to be the most appetizing and use your chopsticks to dig out a small portion. Quickly put this in your mouth and begin chewing. Do not stop to think about what you are eating! We are simply trying to get some of this stuff out of the way with-out offending the waiter through gagging or involuntary regurgitation. Once you’ve got the first bite or two down the hatch, move on to another selection and repeat the process.
One of the side dishes will be a kind of cabbage in a red sauce with red sprinkles. This is called kimchi and is a Korean favorite. It is made by burying the cabbage with spices and letting the concoction ferment (as in rot) for a few weeks before finally digging it up and…you know, on sec-ond thought, let’s skip the kimchi preparation details until well after the meal.
At last the stew or soup arrives… But wait a minute! It doesn’t look at all like the picture. Where are all the scrumptious vegetables? And what is that big white thing floating on top? Are they breaking in a new cook to-day?
Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do. The contest has come down to you and the stew, and only one of you is getting out alive.
Begin the attack by deploying the bowl of rice that came along with the other side dishes. For Koreans, this is almost always eaten separately. But not for you! Take the small metal bowl the rice comes in and scrape some of it into the soup/stew. Do this in jerky, clumsy motions to make it look like an accident. What we are attempting here is to mix in the rice to di-lute the napalm-like potency of the stew. Even then you must eat cau-tiously, following every spoonful with almost waterboarding-level self-dowsing.
Determining when you are done is a tough call. The table will look like a food fight has taken place, with enough left over to go into hibernation with. But set aside your mother’s admonitions about cleaning your plate. There are no extra points for neatness here. If you are full, call it a night.
As you pay your bill, be sure to smile at the waitress (who has to clean up your mess) and the cashier as your stomach prepares to re-enact the erup-tion of Mt. Vesuvius. As you wander out onto the street, begin looking for your next destination: a pharmacy that sells Pepto-Bismol.
Taejon, South Korea
Saint Mary’s is the name of an all-girls Catholic high school in Taejon where I taught English for three months way back in 1996 before abrupt-ly departing. As part of my Round the World Trip, I decided it would be interesting to return there.
The main character in the teaching drama I endured was the difficult and rather disagreeable principal, Sister Park. In hindsight, it’s clear she did not really trust foreign instructors and had her own ideas about how the language should be taught. Having her looking over my shoulder while trying to deal with classrooms of often unruly girls ultimately proved be too much. During my final weeks of working there I sometimes harbored fantasies of splashing her with water, causing her to melt.
To my surprise, Sister Park is now the Spiritual Director of the Convent! The day I stopped by she had just left for a conference up in Seoul, so I ended up drinking the bottle of mineral water I had carefully concealed in anticipation of a confrontation. However Sister Jang, the nearest thing I had to a friend amongst the Korean staff, was still teaching at the school and we enjoyed a pleasant reunion. She had retained some of her pret-tiness and my first words to her were, “You are still nice looking!”
The fact that I was flirting with a nun suggested I had not fully made the transition from Thailand Decadence to Korean Catholic Abstention. This is particularly strange since my sex life had closely resembled that of the Sisters until about five weeks ago. Perhaps I enjoy the challenge. In Pat-taya, I could hardly get my pickup line out of my mouth before the lady was taking me by the hand out of the bar. So nowadays I welcome situ-ations where one’s chances of success can be measured in fractions of a percent.
Sister Jang and I had non-romantic lunch in the school’s cafeteria, whose nondescript food had remained unchanged. It was there I received a shock when one of the Sisters at first glance appeared to be my old Kor-ean girlfriend of a dozen years before. What a blow to my masculinity, the knowledge that I had driven a woman into the Catholic Sisterhood! On closer examination, however, I concluded the lady was too young to have been my “ex”.
To have some fun and help out at the school, I taught Sister Jang’s En-glish classes for three days, regaling the students with stories from my recent travels plus my special rendition of the Beatle’s “Yesterday”. They got a big kick out of my theatrics. After the final class on Friday, Sister Jang took me to a small, pleasant restaurant near my motel and ordered a scrumptious Korean dinner for me, explaining that she could not stay because of the Good Friday Worship Service that night. It was at that point I began to realize the effort that would be required attempting to make a dinner date with a nun during Easter Holy Week.
Sister Jang has promised to email me when the cherry blossoms come out in Taejon, giving me a reason to return in another week or two after I’ve finished seeing a bit of the country. She also says that next time she will join me for dinner, which I take as a sign of progress. Having for a few unsettling moments thought I had lost my old Korean girlfriend to the Catholics, it’s time to even the score by trying to steal one back!