Archive for August, 2007

Language

I read a poem recently which began,

“When everything is hieroglyphic,
the back of a cereal box,
the long advertisement on the side of a blue bus,
Teletubbies,

and even the road sign with the red arrow pointing to something I cannot read,….” (Carmen Acevedo, “The American in October,” The Korea Fulbright Review, Summer 2006, p. 59).

This is how I feel. Hangul, the Korean alphabet developed in the 1500s, is still mostly Greek to me. Last week I spent an hour translating the buttons on the washing machine. (Those of you who know me well will recognize I did this after I turned it on to see what would happen.)

At the supermarket, I buy food using Holmesian deduction and the occasional words in English. One box of “plum tea” turned out to contain long green packets of white powder. Ground, sweetened, instant tea maybe? I’m getting that one translated before I try any!

STores on my blockThe eye is assaulted in Korea by signage. Every possible urban space has a sign. Think working class liquor store in the United States and then plaster a few more signs for the right effect.

And the worst of it? I cannot read them. I am surrounded by an entire country trying to draw me in, inform me, tempt me, enlighten me and I am like a solid, unyielding wall. Slowly, slowly I begin to recognize patterns, like a child first understanding that c and a and t form that warm, fuzzy, purring thing that sleeps on their bed.

My business cards have my name in hangul. It is only slowly looking familiar. Most of your computers probably won’t read the next line, but here is Beth Salerno in hangul: 베스살레르노

I do not want to be an ugly American so I try to use my pitiful Korean at the supermarket and in restaurants. Usually I get a barrage of Korean in return and since I only understand a word or two, I have to fall back on pantomime. It is very isolating - how does one shop or go out to eat when you cannot read, speak, or understand? So each night I try to learn a few more words and constructions and I try to psyche myself up to take risks. Mostly I smile and nod, silently, as I walk through a linguistically incomprehensible world, excited when I see or hear something I know. It isn’t so bad though - it forces you to pay attention to what is happening, rather than what you are hearing or reading. Maybe that is the gift of being “other” for a while.

Add comment August 29, 2007

A Weekend of Shopping

All of us have been there before. You move to a new apartment and suddenly you need a bunch of things. So this weekend I spent most of my days shopping in a foreign world.First there was the bus. A colleague had driven me along the bus route and explained the process, so catching the bus was no problem. For a dollar I rode the entire 45 minute distance from one end of the line to the other. Kids as young as eight rode the bus alone (probably headed home from Saturday classes). I soon gave up watching out the front window since the bus cleared parked and passing cards with millimeters to spare. Ppalli ppalli - quick, quick - is the watchword in Korea.

E-martMy first stop was Songtang. This is a shopping district by Osan Air Force Base. They cater to American service personnel, and this Saturday it was hard to hear Korean spoken on the very busy streets. The shops were tucked into every possible building, so you stepped up or down or through archways to get in. Stores sold what you would expect - cigarettes, alcohol, military uniforms, souvenirs - and what you might not - puppies and “fiancé finery”. I bought a used cell phone (my very first!) and some calling cards. Now I just need to find a smart 10 year old to program the phone since it came without directions - and will only talk to me in Korean. [Sorry not to have pictures from here - it takes most of my focus to simply get from point A to B at the moment.]

My last stop was E-mart. Imagine a Walmart supercenter - two huge floors including a full supermarket, appliance section, and food court. The store was absolutely packed. The Korean tendency to leave the barest minimum of space between people in a crowd meant one could not be distracted by the amazing sights for an instant without crashing.

shopping carts at EmartHowever I was most amazed by the shopping carts.  In Korea, all shopping cart wheels go in the same direction - even moving sideways with perfect smoothness. I could even take the cart on the “escalator” up to the second floor. Think of the moving walkways in airports and then angle it upward. The cart wheels are magnetized so the cart held perfectly steady despite heading uphill.

I now have a fan (thank goodness - the weather is still in the 90s with 80% humidity). And I have a sense of accomplishment, having managed two major shopping trips without international incident. Now I can face the next task on the list - my first class meets on Wednesday.

2 comments August 27, 2007

Apartment living in Pyeongtaek

View from the porchIt is my second morning in Pyeongtaek. As I did yesterday, I am sitting on my “porch”, a small room divided from the bedroom by sliding glass doors and from the outside by glass, screens, and a barred railing. The view out the window is a microcosm of Korea. To my far right are the tall buildings of the university and downtown Pyeongtaek. Closer to the right are neatly divided fields of rice and an irrigation canal spanned by a small white bridge (see photo).

Each morning one or two men in Wellingtons and overalls have come and picked something from the truck garden bordering the rice fields, but from seven stories up I cannot tell what they are harvesting.

Apartment BulidingStraight ahead of me is a Presbyterian Church. At night the three crosses on top glow with bright red neon, a common sight across Korea. It is too hazy today for a picture, but far behind the church are two small mountains which I think mark the border of the province.

At the far left is an apartment building exactly like mine. There are 21 stories in each building and there are 15 or 20 of the buildings in this complex. In the courtyards are arbor-covered picnic tables and playgrounds, little nooks of green that turn cramped quarters into friendly spaces.

KitchenThere are 45 million people in South Korea, which is the size of the state of Indiana. That so many rice fields, truck farms and pear orchards continue to exist speaks both to how recently Korea has urbanized and how little physical space each person needs to live. My apartment is spacious by traditional Korean standards.

Three feet inside the front door there is a step which symbolizes the entry to the house. Everyone takes off their shoes before climbing this step (I of course completely forgot when I got here - I was carrying luggage - and I was politely reminded). From there one can turn left into a little “front room” which at the moment is mostly empty except for the microwave, toaster oven and rice cooker (I think the first two were provided specifically for the American).

apartment bathroomIf one heads straight from the door you walk through the galley kitchen. It includes a double sink, three burner stove and refrigerator, and plenty of storage space. A small alcove has a table and two chairs (again I think provided specifically for the American).

At this point you can turn left into a tiny divided room. The front half has a washing machine. Sliding frosted glass doors allow entry to the bathroom.

A brief explanation of the bathroom is necessary since it helps explain a great deal about Korea. Look at the pictures.

You will notice that the medicine cabinet has a glass front - there seem to be few secrets in a Korean bathroom. The sink is only about 5 inches above my knee, a reminder that until very recently average Koreans were far shorter than Americans. Note that the electrical outlet and toilet paper holder are covered.

Note the soap dishWhen you combine these odd facts with the frosted doors and the thus far complete lack of mention of a shower, you will have the dawning awareness I did my first evening here - the bathroom IS the shower. There is a drain in the floor and a nozzle with cord on the wall and one learns VERY QUICKLY not to leave anything on the bathroom counter that cannot get wet.

Straight through from the kitchen is the bedroom, the largest room in the house. In a typical Korean home the beds would be rolled up every morning and the room used as workroom, playroom, and living room. In my case there are two western style beds and a low table.

Drying rackThe far bedroom “wall” is glass and leads to the porch, which contains two fascinating features. First a spigot and sprayer which I at first thought was the shower, but the large bank of windows suggested not. It turns out to be a version of the American utility sink, used for cleaning plants, kim chee pots, muddy shoes. The water simply swirls across the tiled floor and down the drain! Near the ceiling is a fascinating contraption which turns out to be the clothes drying rack. It can be lowered for use and raised up out of the way. The doors in the photo can be used to shut the bedroom off from the kitchen but I have not chosen to install them.

The apartment came furnished with sheets, pots, plates and bowls, Korean metal chopstick and spoon sets, and (for the American) two forks. There are no towels however so I am off today with dictionary in hand to see what I can manage. So far it is amazing what one can do with a little polite Korean, a little mangled English and a whole lot of pantomime and good will. The adventure continues….

2 comments August 22, 2007

I’ve Arrived!

It is 3:30 Tuesday morning in the center of Seoul, but my body thinks it is time to be up. In New Hampshire it is 4:30 pm (correction: 2:30 pm - Korea is 13 hours ahead) and many of you are thinking about what is for dinner, while I am wondering whether I’m having kimchee and rice for breakfast! Someday I may get there, but right now a blueberry muffin, a glass of milk and some yogurt sound awfully good.

It was a long trip “yesterday” which actually began at 3 am Sunday when I got up. My travel schedule included a 4 am trip to Manchester airport (I didn’t even know they opened that early!); 6:10 flight to JFK airport in New York (people are remarkably friendly when they share a 6 am flight); 6 hour layover in JFK (what an amazingly HUGE airport); and a 14 1/2 hour flight from JFK to Incheon International Airport outside Seoul.

I can highly recommend Korea Air to anyone who wishes to travel to Asia. When I recently traveled to Hawaii on an American low cost airline, pillows, blankets, headsets, meals and even snacks had to be paid for a la carte. On Korea Air I had a blanket, pillow, headset, access to 37 movies, 100 music channels, televisions shows, news, games and other options in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese - all on demand with my own personal screen. On what other flight could I watch a traditional Korean melodrama and Casablanca back to back? Not to mention being fed about every three hours with food that was actually worth eating and for those who wished, regular infusions of white or red wine.

I am currently housed in the Fulbright Building. The Korean American Educational Commission is the only bi-national Fulbright Commission to own its own building. I expect tomorrow to be busy as I meet the staff and fill out paperwork (with a highly likely middday nap!). By late afternoon, I and my four suitcases (how do you pack a year of your life into 137 pounds?!) will be on the train to Pyeongtaek, my final destination.

With luck once I am settled in I will post some pictures of the area and apartment. Today I just wanted to reassure all friends and family that I have arrived and the adventure continues.

Add comment August 20, 2007


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