Archive for October, 2007

Interview with me now available as podcast

Recently a Saint Anselm College student, Lauren Weybrew, did a great job interviewing me by phone about my experiences in South Korea.  She has edited the interview into a podcast.  The first half of the interview is now available at .    You can play the file on your computer or download it to an MP3 player.    The second half of the interview will be available next week and I will post a link here. 

1 comment October 28, 2007

Fall in Pyeongtaek

Harvested Rice FieldFall has arrived here, and as in the U.S., I feel like it snuck up on me.  The days were long, hot, sticky and humid, and now there is a sharp crispness in the air and the nights are cold.  The rice fields which were bright green when I arrived are now brown and gold, and the rice stems are heavy with brown grains.  Harvesting machines and hand threshers are both in use here.  Slowly the fields are being transformed into mud flats full of rice straw.

On Soraksan the trees had already begun to turn, with bright red maples shimmering amid dark green pines.  Here in Pyeongtaek the change is just beginning.  The mornings are full of fog over the rice fields, so the colors in the trees slowly seep through the greyness until the sun comes out and turns everything golden.Rice Grains Ready to Harvest

The changing seasons are marked by changing foods.  The nearby town of Anseong is famous for grapes and during early October they were everywhere.  The little ones tasted like Concord grapes, but the bigger ones had a rich, complex taste.  I have also bought persimmons which I don’t think I’d ever seen before - at first I thought they were underripe tomatoes.  They are flattened on the top and bottom, and orange red when ripe.  Their flesh is incredibly soft and unlike anything else I have had - sweet but not too sweet, slightly spiced.  Chestnuts are also everywhere, at first in the size we get in the United States, and now smaller and smaller.  The “fall spring onions” are all harvested and women sit in large groups stripping off the browned outer layers so they can make vats of onion kimchee to last all year.  Just this week the Mandarin oranges ripened on Jeju Island, the southernmost part of Korea, and boxes of them have appeared in markets - local sweet versions of tangerines or Clementines.

Peppers at MarketThe peppers I saw drying everywhere in August are now in 3 foot high plastic bags on every market corner.  People have finished harvesting sweet potatoes (which are purple on the outside and white in the center here).  Pears which were carefully wrapped on the trees to protect them in August are now in the markets, brown-skinned, bigger and rounder than apples, and crunchy-sweet.  Bright yellow and white-striped, fist-sized melons have appeared and taste like underripe honeydew melons.

Fall Colors at SoraksanFall is the season of reaping what we sow.  We gather what we will need for the long length of winter and savor that which we have and might not have later.  I wonder if we glory in fall partly because we know winter is coming.  We are not afraid of it, but we recognize it will be quieter, a little harder, a little darker, and long.  We want every bit of sun and taste and movement we can find before then. 

Korea and New England share this glorious fall of color and taste and freedom.  Wherever you are, enjoy fall before it passes.

Add comment October 25, 2007

The Korean Baths

Waterfall in Soraksan National Park  [Important note:  Taking pictures in a room full of naked women would be a quick way to get my cultural ambassador title - and probably my visa - revoked.  So the pictures attached to this blog are not of the Korean baths.  Instead they are images from my recent hike to Soraksan, South Korea’s northernmost mountain range.  More pictures from that trip can be seen in the Soraksan set on flickr - including the endless metal stairways and stunning mountain views.  However the two topics, Soraksan and Korean baths, are not unrelated.  Hiking the first required a long visit to the second to soothe some aching muscles!]

For the Korean baths, imagine a temple to cleanliness.  Showers line one wall.  Another section has individual cleaning stations with a small stool, washbasin and mobile shower nozzle.   A long, narrow stone water basin ringed with a stone bench is available for those who want to dip their washbasins, pour water over themselves and then sit and soap up.  Take your pick and get clean, or try all three.

Once you are thoroughly clean, you can move on, but I do mean thoroughly clean.  When was the last time you washed behind your left ankle bone?  How about between your toes?  Did you use a long scrubbly cloth or brush to scrub your own back?  Or did you ask someone else to do it?  If you are done in less than 20 minutes (not including the time you just stood around in the hot water!) you are not Korean-style clean.Piryong Falls 

Moving on means making choices.  You can soak in the warm, medium hot, or broiling stone whirlpools in the center of the room, or try the medium hot wooden hot tub.  Splash some water over the edge and have a seat to get used to the heat, or just slide in up to your chin.  If you tend to be in a hurry when you brush your teeth, feel free to bring your brush and indulge in a 5 or 10 minute tooth cleaning.  Just do not drip into the pool.

Or you can go try the saunas - hot and dry, hot and moist or sometimes hot with earthen/clay floor for its health properties.  After each, come out and rinse off by pouring water over yourself and then take a plunge in the cold pool to bring your body temperature back down.  Like Scandinavians, Koreans believe in both the health and cleanliness value of purging the body through steam and the stimulating value of cold water.  The opening and closing of the pores is also supposed to create more beautiful skin.

Another falls at SoraksanIf you have made an appointment, you can get a full body scrub from one of the on-site massage technicians.  They will be sure to get any dry skin you missed while also stimulating circulation in every part of your body.    At fancier spas you can also arrange a dip in green tea tubs, pine needle infused tubs, ginseng tubs and many others.

It would be all too easy to make simple cultural comparisons based on Korean and American shower habits.  Do Americans have a lackadaisical, “good enough” attitude compared to Koreans’ careful, focused, and detail-oriented approach?  Or are Koreans too focused on appearance while Americans are eager to get past the basics to the important parts of a day’s agenda?  What about years of American mothers yelling “Stop getting water on the floor!” versus the Korean approach of putting a drain in the floor and simply allowing people to get water absolutely everywhere?

I will be sure to give these topics more thought over the coming weeks, preferably in the medium hot stone whirlpool at my local sauna.  

1 comment October 22, 2007

Teaching in Korea

After reading this blog, a few people have asked whether I am actually doing any teaching here in Korea! Yes I am, and I love it. Teaching students whose second language is English, or students from non-American cultures, was barely touched upon in my doctoral training. This was a major oversight given the makeup of the American population. I am learning many crucial lessons here that I will be able to apply back in the United States.

Teaching in Korea

In some ways, teaching here is no different than teaching in the U.S. There are some hard-working, diligent students with their eye on future success and there are some students with no clue why they are in college. Many students in Korea put in 15-18 hour school days from middle school onward (including Saturday classes) . Increasingly, children in wealthier families spend a year in the United States or Canada to master English. Since “school reputation” is the number one hiring criterion in Korea (60% of government officials and 70% of top company executives graduate from the “top 3″ universities), your score on the college entrance exam determines much of your future life. Pyeongtaek is not one of the top three. So my students are late-bloomers, bad test-takers, kids from less privileged schools and backgrounds or kids who simply wanted something other than the academic grind during their childhood.

Almost all of the students have studied English for 10 years, but most have only spoken it for 1 or 2 years and many have never spoken to a foreigner before. Their grasp of grammar is amazing, but also inhibiting to them as they deal with Americans’ highly ungrammatical common speech!

Teaching at a cafeI have one class and two study groups; the latter are informal weekly meetings to discuss culture and practice English. Here are some windows into my teaching here.

1) In one study group, a few students were too shy and nervous to get out a coherent sentence. Since some were urban planning majors, we headed out to the green where I asked them to describe to me their favorite building on campus. Soon we were discussing what buildings should be torn down, where to put athletic fields and whether to save an orchard or build a gym instead. Focusing on content enabled them to move past their embarrasment about their English, which consequently improved.

2) In another study group, I asked students to bring in debate questions. One student asked whether or not Koreans should be getting plastic surgery to improve their job prospects. Another asked whom should we blame : inviduals who forge their degrees or the society that values degrees over ability. A third asked why Koreans were buying so many high-priced luxury items - whether to show off for others, or reassure themselves. Each debate led to questions about values and to comparisons with American culture. Cross-cultural understanding is at the heart of what I do here.

3) My class is on Race and Gender in America. It is fascinating to teach about race to a nation that has long defined itself as mono-racial, but which is rapidly becoming multicultural and multiracial. In addition, I am teaching “Asian-American” history to people who question the concept of “Asian”. My students wonder how I can like America so much, yet also be so clear about our racial fault lines and injustices. Discussing such complexity would be hard enough with native speakers - making it accessible in simpler English is my greatest challenge.

4) In class, the students discuss the reading in small groups. Small group discussion is rare in Korea, so the students love the chance to help each other with translation, debate the main points, and answer my discussion questions. In order to enable deeper discussion of content, I allow the students to discuss in Korean. This is a bit of a problem for me though - how do I tell if they are on track or getting the right answer if I cannot understand the conversation?! I have been amazed to discover that a little Korean and careful observation makes this perfectly feasible - a timely intervention here or there works perfectly. The students then present their answers in English, so I have a second chance to check and correct their work, just in case I misgauged the small group!

Dr. Fish on my feet5) I try to get out with my students when I can, so I have taken one group to dinner and another to a cafe in town. As always the students teach me as much as I teach them. One group has two exchange students from Mexico in addition to my Korean students, so our cultural sharing takes on different depths. Once we went to a cafe to experience the hot new Korean fad - Dr. Fish. These little fish eat the dead skin off your feet and massage the capillaries. Not your usual history class, but we all learned a fair bit about China where the fish come from and Korea’s passion for the new.

Overall, teaching has been the easiest thing I have done here - I have years of practice and I love experimenting with teaching styles. But at times cultural differences are an issue. Professors are both elders (by age) and superiors (by status) and thus there are extensive rules for faculty-student interaction - none of which are obvious to me. Being a foreigner means those rules are modified for me, but the students are not sure how much or when. Even the question of name is an issue - am I Professor Salerno (American style), Salerno Professor (Korean style), Salerno Kyosu-nim (Korean words) or just Beth (as some other American professors are)? I opted for Professor Salerno. It is my American title (I am teaching American Studies after all) and I thought a little formality might make up for my complete ignorance of the other formal rules. It hasn’t. However, not knowing the rules has forced the students to articulate them. This allows us to discuss the differences between American and Korean universities.

Sometimes I do not know about the cultural issue until it is too late. In a lecture about the evils of plagiarism, I joked that I would flog students who copy from the internet. After students looked up the word in their electronic dictionaries I got very respectful and amazed looks. I later discovered corporal punishment is still legal in Korean schools (though it usually involves a ruler, not a cat o nine tails!). So once again I got to explain the differences between American and Korean schools.

In the end, that is the essence of my teaching style - even my ignorance is a teachable moment. Having humility and a willingness to listen have been the biggest assets I bring to my teaching (my friends will tell you I’m still working on the humility). As one student told me after class “I have learned a lot about America and a lot about Korea. This is really interesting.” Another slightly tipsy student told me at a recent department dinner, “You give me pride in my English and my thoughts - you listen, you understand, and you reply. Thank you.” I cannot ask for any more than this.

1 comment October 14, 2007

Lessons Learned in Bukhansan National Park

Bukhansan viewThis past weekend I took the bus to Seoul, the subway across Seoul, and a second bus into Bukhansan National Park.  I thought I would share a few crucial Korean hiking lessons and a few photographs.  For more photographs, you can click on the photo to the left and see the Bhukansan set on flickr.  For more lessons, you have to hike yourself.

1) When almost every person you see has hiking boots, a full pack, and a hiking stick, it is fine to think “Wow, Koreans take their hiking so much more seriously than most Americans.  These are my kind of people, prepared for the worst on the mountain.” It is good however to have the follow up thought - I wonder how serious a mountain this is?

2) When maps do not have contour lines, it is helpful to ask “how high” as well as “how far” when asking directions. It also helps to have studied HOW to ask these questions prior to arriving at the mountain.headed up

3) Do not accept hiking suggestions from rock climbers - their concepts of “flat” and “downhill” are seriously problematic.

4) Counting steps is a serious mistake, even if you are trying to practice your Korean numbers. The hike goes much better if you don’t realize you just passed your 2000th step and it has only been 20 minutes.

5) When you start seeing steel cables lining the path to keep people from falling off the mountain or sliding down it, it is time to think about turning around - even if the grandmother and three year old who just passed you are doing fine.

6) Being seriously tired is no excuse for not remembering how to translate a typical Korean accent. When a Buddhist monk has kindly answered your questions in English and asks “Do you like play?” do not answer “Yes I do like plays - are you putting on a play?” Instead translate the accent into American English: “Would you like to pray?” Otherwise you find yourself in the middle of a Buddhist Temple prayer service trying to keep up.

Seoul7) Although it is good to have brought food, it is ok not to eat your peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This mountain had two noodle houses just on my one trail. I did not envy the poor guys who were hauling boxes of food up the mountain - they reminded me of AMC hut workers in the NH White Mountains. But I did envy the people downing noodle soup, spiced tofu and iced lemon tea.

8) Despite giving up on the peak itself (it involved holding onto steel cables and climbing straight up!), the views were amazing. As you enjoy them, send up a prayer for my hamstrings. My next hiking trip is in less than two weeks - and the mountain is higher.

Add comment October 8, 2007

The real meaning of culture shock

Me at Jonggak BellSomewhere in my preparations for Korea I read the odd statement that culture shock is not what happens when you arrive in a country, it is what happens six weeks later when you have not yet left.  Now I understand.  When I arrived, all the differences from home were part of the adventure.  There were difficulties, but I could deal with them because that was part of the excitement of living abroad.  I missed home, but there was so much to do that I did not have time or need for the familiar.

Now that I have been here longer, the pull of the familiar grows stronger.  I have seen and done an amazing number of things, so everything is not new and fascinating.  

SignpostIt is not that I am unhappy - I am still glad to be here and I will not be on a plane tomorrow.  It is just that the desire to hop on a plane has finally hit me.  The truth is I am not going home any time soon.  There simply is no way to make lasagna without mozzarella and an oven.  My language skills are not going to improve magically.  And despite my efforts to see the best in everything, there are a few pieces of Korean life I am having trouble accepting.

First the smells.  Korea smells different than anywhere I have lived before.  Maybe this is the famous fermenting kimchee smell that many American writers complain about.  I doubt it - I actually like the smell of most kimchee.  To me the odor is the smell of wet clay full of anaerobic bacteria and centuries of human waste used as fertilizer.  It is too many people in too little space with insufficient trash pickup and a huge amount of food waste sitting in open trash bins.  It is the smell of a culture that cares deeply and sensitively about its personal environment, but much less for public, common areas. 

Second, the poverty.  Koreans have achieved first world status in terms of average wealth, (and the wealth of luxury goods here shames Rodeo Drive) but the people living in the rice fields around me share more with rural Arkansas than urban Seoul - at least as far as I can tell from the outside of their houses. 

Third is the disregard of others.  People answer their cell phones in concert halls and have loud conversations; parents allow their small children to do just about anything; bus drivers regularly run red lights and drive up the wrong side of the road to make a schedule.

Seeing a little piece of KoreaLet me stress - none of these issues is unique to Korea.  I recognize America has exactly the same problems in one place or another.  And many Koreans are concerned about the same problems - this is the only place I have ever been where some people cover their mouths when they talk on cell phones in public places.  But it is not the specific issues that cause the culture shock.  It is that they come on top of the uncertainties and insecurities of living in another culture, not understanding the language, and never being quite sure I am acting appropriately.  When one is off balance or lonely, everything rankles more.  Importantly, unlike in America, I cannot really complain to the people involved.  I am a guest, and I am determined to be a good guest.  Even a polite comment to a mother about manners would be a major insult from a visiting American - as writing this blog entry may be.

But in the end this blog entry is about me, not Korea.  There are only two cures for this kind of culture shock:  going home or going on.  Since I’m not going home, I’m working on bringing home to me - Tod has plane tickets, I have more calling cards, and I’m headed to the USO canteen for lasagna.   I’m also working hard on making my own place in Korea.  I try to walk every day, past the sections that smell, past the poor houses, and out into the rice paddies.  I smile at my neighbors, I stop to inspect the gardens, I wander paths to see where they go.  I try hard not to isolate myself in my moments of frustration or become the kind of complaining, bitter American foreigners rightly dislike.  Koreans have reciprocated with warmth and enthusiasm, taking me places and showing me things I would never find on my own. 

Silworks are bottom centerThis week it was acorn “jelly” which is really more like acorn jello, but without the sugar.  And yes, it is brown and wiggly and made from acorns.  It tastes like….jello without sugar, mostly.   Also boiled silkworms, which despite the moisture of the broth taste positively dusty (bottom center in this picture of Chinese medicine ingredients).  And paper cups full of black and white spiral shells, out of which one sucks tasty little morsels of salty marine life.  One student called them Korean popcorn.  So the adventure continues.

2 comments October 3, 2007


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