Archive for December, 2007

Moving Mysteries

Moving MysteryThis morning I woke up to find this sight out of my seventh story window - a large metal “ladder” but without anywhere to put feet.  After staring at it a few moments, a flat platform went up past my view.  A few moments later the platform came back down, bearing a kitchen table!  OK, now I’m willing to brave the cold on the porch to see what is going on.  I open the sliding glass doors and screen, lean over the bust high metal railing, and look down. 

There below, is a blue truck to which the long metal structure is attached.  Next to it is a moving van.  The men stop the platform at exactly the height of the moving van, move the kitchen table from the platform into the van, and send the platform back up.  Over the course of two hours, it moves an 8 foot tall clothing cabinet, old wooden Chinese chests, boxes and boxes and boxes, and an amazingly large television.  I assume six or seven floors above me men are cleaning out an apartment, loading the platform via the same large sliding glass doors I just opened in my apartment. 

Moving Mystery SolvedSo after spending a couple of months wondering how dozens of people manage to move in and out of my apartment building without ever carrying a single piece of furniture down the stairs or elevator, or always doing it while I’m somewhere else, now I know - they move it out the windows while I am someplace else!  What an amazing labor saving device!

While staring out the window I solve another mystery - why we had such a spectacular lightning storm last night without any thunder or rain.  Turns out workers are arc welding on the roof of the church next door and the light bounces spectacularly off all the glass on my building.

Pierson Hall lit for ChristmasThe mysteries of the Christmas season are not so easily explained and perhaps that is one reason why they appeal to millions of people.  Christmas is a “new” holiday in Korea, with Catholicism about 200 years old here and Protestantism about 125.  (For comparison, Buddhism, the other major religion, is at least 2500 years old in Korea).  Christians make up about 40% of the Korean population and that number is growing rapidly.  However, Christmas remains a church-based holiday; only about ½ the subway stations in Seoul had Christmas trees last week and stores began their Christmas sales a full week after Thanksgiving.  Even in the second week of December the Pyeongtaek market had very few signs of Christmas.  Pyeongtaek University is a Christian college, however, so it has been lit up with wreaths since before Thanksgiving.

Seoraksan BuddhaAfter the holidays I will post a few blog entries on religion in Korea.  In early January I plan to stay overnight at a Buddhist Temple in the southeastern mountains and visit a Catholic monastery with connections to Saint Anselm College.  I have also found an active Quaker meeting in central Seoul and I want to attend First Day meeting.  In the meantime, I will enjoy a long-awaited visit from my husband!  Showing him “my Korea” will likely mean I won’t post any blog entries for a couple of weeks. 

Whatever your religion, I wish you joy in the lengthening of the days marked by the winter solstice, the promise of peace and forgiveness brought by Christmas, and the celebration of a fresh new year.   I will spend six months of that new year here in Korea and I look forward to sharing it with you.

Add comment December 17, 2007

The Western Coast

Birds on SticksI am not sure what news about Korea makes it into American newspapers.  Right now Korea is dealing with a terrible oil spill on its west coast.  10,500 tons of oil have leaked and are landing on some of the most pristine beaches in the country.  Abalone and oyster farms, raw seafood restaurants, little maritime communities and large tourist enclaves have all been equally damaged.  Thousands of people have already applied for economic relief since their livelihoods have been utterly destroyed.

After seeing pictures of blackened shores, birds dripping oil, and rafts of belly-up crabs, I realized I have actually been to that coast.  Of course I had no idea then that it would be my only chance to see one of the most beautiful parts of Korea.  Here is a description of my trip, with sights, tastes and smells.

Eunsook Lee Zeilfelder and meThree friends and I drove west and south from Pyeongtaek through miles and miles of rice fields.  After about 2 hours we reached the coast and began driving south.  In this area the road often becomes a very long bridge between peninsulas or even onto and off islands and the entire area is what I think of as a “beach town”.  There are lots of motels close to the shore and acres and acres of oyster “shacks” (inexpensive restaurants serving fresh oysters in a half dozen simple ways).

I am not sure at which beach we finally stopped, though I think we were on Anmyeondo Island.  This is the southern part of the Taean Haean National Marine Park which is the epicenter of the oil damage.  We were greeted by wooden and metal birds on sticks lining the shore, an art form I have seen in many places in Korea.  We arrived right around sunset and the islands off the shore already had a touch of red and gold behind them.  It was very windy!

Eating on the BeachAs we walked along the beach we passed dozens of older women with large bowls.  Peeking in I saw live baby octopi, fresh oysters, and a half dozen types of sea life I could not identify.  My companions stopped near a set of tables protected by umbrellas and ordered -  raw shelled oysters, sea “ginseng” (sea cucumber or sea slug), and a red, pulsing thing that looked like a human heart but was clearly some kind of sea urchin.

The oysters were great, the red thing was hard and salty, but the slug was slimy and cartilaginous at the same time and is the first food I have had I will definitely not repeat.  It is hard to believe it was a staple of the medieval East Asian trade routes!   It was clear why beer and soju (pine-needle vodka, with half the alcohol) were necessary accompaniments, along with hot peppers, hot pepper sauce and garlic.

fresh raw fishWe then drove briefly to a fresh fish warehouse, chose our dinner from the tanks, and walked it next door.  Butchers killed, cleaned and sliced our fish in front of us. (Koreans like to watch this process since it ensures that the fish they chose is the fish they actually eat, without substitution of lower quality fish).  Then we walked next door one more time to a restaurant, which gave us a place to eat our huge pile of fresh, raw fish.  The restaurant also cooked the heads, skin and bones into a rich stew with vegetables and spices (this is called maemultang).  The raw fish was just like sashimi, except in amazing quantity.

Afterward we went out for norebang and then back to the car, looking out over the ocean under the stars.  I wish I had inhaled deeply of the salty air, which is now thick with nausea- producing oil fumes. 

IslandsKnowing my time here is limited, I have tried to do as many things as I can, while at the same time remembering I am on sabbatical and sheer exhaustion defeats the point!  I had the tail end of a terrible cold when my friends decided to go to the coast, and I agreed to come reluctantly and a bit resentfully - I really just wanted to sleep.  Now I am, as I often am here in Korea, grateful I went and tried something new.  Sometimes events like the oil spill highlight how much can change in an instant and how precious time and place can be.  As the New Year approaches that seems like a good reminder for all of us.

1 comment December 12, 2007

Fingernails and Cultural Difference

Fingernail cultureSince I have been in Korea I have grown out my fingernails.  This was not an intentional action.  I have always chewed my fingernails when I read or grade and I have done far less of both of those here than at home.  So my nails grew.  And I have discovered an important fact - fingernails are incredibly difficult to manage if you do not have a lot of experience with them.  I cracked one off trying to open a pistachio nut.  I caught another putting on my socks.  I actually got one stuck between the keys of my laptop keyboard.  Completely unconsciously I had developed a “short fingernail” culture.  I am finding it very hard to adapt to “long fingernail” culture. 

Some cultural differences between America and Korea are similarly small and seemingly unimportant, but they take some getting used to.  I continue to be surprised by how many of our ordinary actions are actually set by our culture.  Here is a list of some small things I have noticed now that I have learned to manage the larger differences.

Action 1:  Buying eggs.  Eggs in Korea come in multiples of 5 rather than 6.  Eggs can be found near the vegetables in an unrefrigerated section, not near the dairy in a refrigerated case.

Action 2:  Tallying up votes.  In America, when we tally up anything on paper, we tend to write vertical slash, vertical slash, vertical slash, vertical slash, diagonal slash through all four.  We count this as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  At the end, we count groups of 5 to get the total.  In Korea, they write vertical slash, horizontal line to make a T, little horizontal line to make an F, vertical line to the left of the first one and a little lower, horizontal line to make an upside down T.  They count this as 1, 2, 3 4, 5 and at the end, count groups of 5.  Why such an exotic looking set of 5 lines?  It is the Chinese character for rightness or justice.  A fine 5-lined character to use when counting votes!

U.V. Sterilizing CabinetAction 3:  Getting water in a restaurant.  In many restaurants here, water is “self-serve.”  You get little stainless steel cups out of Ultraviolet Sterilizing Cabinets and hot or cold water from the water “cooler”.  The futuristic-looking UV cabinets are everywhere, and seem to be used after washing the cups.  Most Korean students will finish their meal and then go get a cup of water; many believe drinking water with a meal makes it harder to digest your food properly.

Action 4:  Walking in crowds.  Both Koreans and Americans drive on the right-hand side of the road.  Americans and Koreans also stand on the right-side and walk on the left-side of escalators in subway stations.  So it is pretty strange that given the option, Koreans will walk on the left-hand side of any crowded area.  Imagine a large number of people walking toward you.  If you move to the right, you are American.  If you move left, you are Korean.  If it depends on where there are more people, you are in a hurry - that works in both cultures!

Action 5:  Counting on your fingers.  Put up your hand and count on your fingers - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  If you started with your fist closed and counted by putting your forefinger up, then middle, ring, pinky and thumb, you are American.  If you started with your hand open and put your pinky down first and then your ring, middle, forefinger and thumb, you are Korean. 

Action 6:  Eating Take-Out Food:  In American cities and towns, you can call up the local restaurant and have food delivered to your house.  This is also true in Korea. Deliveries arrive via scooters that defy all traffic laws and some of the laws of gravity. However in Korea the delivery person comes twice - once to deliver your meal and once to pick up the dishes!  Thus the University and apartment hallways are lined with dirty dishes covered by a newspaper, waiting for pickup.  Few restaurants provide “take out” containers.

Action 7:   Dealing with Leftovers:  Koreans assume that only the very poor would need to save food from a restaurant meal.  No matter how good your main course was, if you cannot finish it, you throw it out.  There are no “doggy bags”.  Korea thus has the highest level of food waste in the world.  On the other hand, at some restaurants uneaten side dishes are saved by the staff and put out for other diners.  As usual, food is the most cultural item of all.

1 comment December 4, 2007


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