Tag: Korea

Canadian pride in unlikely places

Canadian pride in unlikely places

“You’re not going to waste those on the kids are you?” Shauna says at school on Canada Day. Looking at the stack of temporary tattoos on my desk, I shrug. I was going to use them as rewards in my classes today, but I have ‘Canada’ pencils, too.

My students are always much more excited about Canada stuff than I am. They know about “ice” hockey, and that we have lots of snow, and that Kim Yuna’s coach is Canadian.

Shauna’s also more excited than me about our shared homeland, so I decide that if it’s important to her, I’ll save the tattoos. I stuff them in my purse to bring to the bar in Bupyeong later.

That night, wearing a T-shirt that says “Canadian Celebrity” and red shorts and shoes, I feel ready to pretend I’m excited about being from Canada, too. Setting aside a table at Underground, I put down the ‘Canada’ tattoos, a pair of kitchen scissors I’ll never see again, and a small cup of water.

“I’m not wearing a Canada tattoo,” Mike says when he arrives. He’s very proud to be American, and I see no reason to force anyone to wear a maple leaf on their face if they don’t want to. Others also seem hesitant, walking near the table, eyeing the tattoos, then moving on to the bathroom or the electronic dart board.

The first non-Canadians we convert are Kiwis wearing red shirts. Then South Africans join us. Soon, we’re all posing in front of a Canadian flag as J-Man, the bar owner turns on Canadian music: Joel Plaskett, Tragically Hip, Shania Twain, Justin Bieber.

More people arrive and the neat rectangular sheets of tattoos are cut into lopsided paper snowflakes. There’s a small crowd of people trying to find the perfect one to complement their outfits.

It’s unlike any Canada Day spent watching fireworks and slapping at mosquitoes in Timmins, Ont. The bar is already out of Moosehead, the only Canadian beer I’ve ever seen in Korea. No big loss, in my opinion. The Littlest Hobo is projected onto the back wall of the bar and I explain to an Englishman what it is, if not why it’s playing. There’s barely room to move in between the waves of red and white clothing and tattoos. Even Mike has a maple leaf on his cheek now.

A warm glow of beer-drinking (spreads) out through the bar, along with the tattoos, and so does a kind of pride in being Canadian. Never expecting to find it here, I’m even proud to sing every word of ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman.’

I’m happy I didn’t waste the tattoos on the kids, happy I came to Korea, and happy I’m Canadian. And although I’m not sure the Founding Fathers would approve, I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate Canada Day than in Korea, in a basement bar with friends from all over the world.

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Of kittens and hagwons

Of kittens and hagwons

Turning my iPod up as loud as I can stand, I’m ignoring everyone else in the staffroom. Realizing that both of my coworkers are staring at me with wide eyes and raised eyebrows, I start in surprise.

“Sabrina,” Kyung-Ha says, “is there a cat?”

Looking from my co-teachers to the cardboard box under Shauna’s desk and back again, I realize that the jig is up.

* * *

“No, Sabrina,” my mom says on the phone. “Don’t do this to me. No. No. No.”

Watching me make my overseas phone call, Shauna’s eyes are round and worried. Not wanting to be involved, Maria and Clare have gone home early. It’s just Shauna, Asia, Emile and me shifting and pacing in a loose huddle. Strangers are barely looking at us as they run up and down the stairs, going in and out of the batting cages.

Just under the steps, someone has laid out a newspaper. There’s a carton of milk and a spoon with just a dribble in it. Not paying the least bit of attention to the spoon or the milk is a tiny orange kitten, no bigger than a ball of yarn, meowing as loud as it can. With distorted K-pop music blaring at each carnival ride, glaring lights flashing and cheap fireworks going off the side of the pier, most people find it easy to ignore.

Before leaving Canada, I promised my mom I wouldn’t acquire any pets. She already has two cats and a dog and she heard a story about a girl who spent hundreds of dollars bringing a dog home from China. Under no circumstances am I to bring this cat home.

“Mom, it’s so small,” I say. “And I’m not bringing it home to you. Shauna’s bringing it home to her mom.”

My mom once nurtured a kitten back from near-death when the mother abandoned it, so I’m sure she can recommend a strategy for saving this one. She says that if we absolutely can’t find the mother, we should check out a pet store and find something called “kitten milk” and feed it slowly with an eye-dropper.

A girl working at the 7-11 generously donates an empty box to our cause and we find a taxi to take us to HomePlus: it’s after nine on a Tuesday and most pet stores are already closed. The kitten mews all through the ride and Emile tries to cover the sound with his own mewing.

Wondering briefly what the taxi driver thinks of foreigners who meow, I remember that my friend Yuri once told me that many Koreans don’t want pet cats because they are considered bad luck. This makes me worry that we won’t be able to find what we want, so I call Chris to see if he can do a Google search on what to feed unweaned kittens. He gives us a short list of ingredients and we head inside.

We quickly learn that HomePlus is not equipped to deal with the rescue of abandoned street cats: there is no kitten milk. Buying the ingredients Chris suggests, Shauna and I wish our friends goodnight and head back to our apartment building. The kitten’s mews are frantic now, but this time neither of us bothers to try and cover the sound for the driver.

It turns out that taking care of a kitten this young isn’t that different from caring for a newborn baby. She needs to be fed every few hours and this presents both the challenge of uninterrupted sleep and going to work. We’ve never explicitly been told we can’t bring pets to school, but it doesn’t seem likely that the kitten, newly named Frankie, will be welcome.

Our office is a narrow room with desks lining the walls. Serving as an irritating obstacle course, a “craft” table and ten chairs fill the rest of the room, forcing seven teachers and the occasional student to navigate with flexibility and gentle pushing. Shauna brings Frankie in a cardboard box and tucks her under her desk without anyone noticing.

For the first part of the day, Shauna manages to time her feedings so that Frankie is asleep while she’s teaching. Once the kindergarteners go home though, she starts teaching her six hour stretch with no real break.

She tries to feed her in the short interval between classes, but it must not be enough because some time after I put my headphones on, Frankie wakes up hungry and probably unimpressed by her cardboard prison. When my coworkers ask if there’s a cat and I hear her mewing, I don’t see how I can deny it.

Kyung-Ha and Helena take turns holding and petting Frankie, who fits comfortably in one hand. When Shauna walks in between classes, she stops, but everyone else coos over the kitten: it’s hard to dislike something so adorable.

For all the problems I have with my hagwon, this is probably the moment when I most appreciate our lack of clear communication. They comment that there is a cat, but no one tells Shauna to take Frankie home. They simply accept Shauna as a working cat-mother, bringing her baby to work when she can’t get a sitter and we simply accept their weirdly progressive views on cat-mother workplace policy.

Art courtesy of Shauna Smith.

Fighting the cockroach invasion

Fighting the cockroach invasion

It’s the biggest cockroach I’ve ever seen. Its black body and wriggling antennae jolt me out of the stupor of taking a two am pee.

I can’t scream. If I scream, it’ll scuttle away into my apartment and I might never see it again. But I’ll know it’s there, watching me.

I need to finish peeing and not make any sudden movements. Not taking my eyes off of it as I stand slowly and pull my pyjama bottoms back up, I watch it walk on the edge of my bookcase, just past the bathroom doorway.

It must be aware of me, but contentedly moves its feelers about, possibly eating the press board at the back of my bookcase: apparently they eat everything. Pressing myself against the opposite side of the door frame, I move as fluidly as I can to get out of the bathroom.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen cockroaches in my apartment. From what I understand – and in Korea, this sometimes isn’t much – the building is infested. Before this, however, the sightings were rare and the bugs were tiny and yellowish.

Tonight though, this bug is as long as my thumb and looks capable of biting or procreating. Wanting to keep the biting and the procreating in my apartment to a minimum, something will have to be done.

Once through the doorway, I walk quickly toward the bottle of RAID that Michael, the teacher who lived here before me, thoughtfully left behind. I creep back to the cockroach, half-afraid it’ll be gone.

It isn’t.

I shudder, then aim the RAID and spray. The body drops to the ground, its legs moving wildly and I shriek once, but keep spraying. I don’t stop until its legs stop twitching.

Its overturned body appears half the size it did two minutes ago. Staring in disgust, I can’t bring myself to pick it up, not even with tissues. It could be playing dead. Hesitating, I leave the light on as I go back to bed.

Spending the rest of the night reading about the habits and life cycle of Asian cockroaches, I go back every twenty minutes to make sure it’s still there.

It is.

After the sun comes up, I finally fall asleep, exhausted. Letting it serve as a warning to others, I decide to leave the body there. Let all cockroaches know: if we’re going to share this apartment, they’d better be a lot better at hiding than this fool.

Photo used under Creative Commons from Anil Jadhav.

…And then there’s bravery

…And then there’s bravery

Tentacles are writhing in the plate in front of us and we’re going to have to eat them.

Actually, we’ve been looking all evening for a live octopus. It’s just that the reality is a little more alive than I expected.

Walking by the sea, we’re surrounded by young Korean soldiers, couples lighting fireworks off the rocks and cheap plastic inflatables that you pull around on a string. Ignoring all of them, we walk from restaurant to restaurant asking for sanakji.

Coming off the high of surviving a terrifying Viking Ship ride, we’re all confident that not only will there be live octopus, we will want to eat it when we find it. At least, I’m confident.

Three times, owners nod and smile, ushering us into their restaurants with promises of sanakji. Three times they then tell us there isn’t any octopus on a Tuesday, and maybe they hope we’ll be hungry enough to stay and eat at their restaurant anyway. But this has nothing to do with hunger.

When we finally climb the stairs of the first restaurant on the dodgy end, we’ve decided that if they don’t have octopus, we’ll just eat something else. The adrenaline of our near-death experience is wearing off and hunger is starting to encroach on the desire to eat something weird.

But for once, there actually is an octopus in one of their tanks and they’re going to chop it up for us. While sanakji is referred to as “live octopus”, it’s more of a “recently dead octopus.” When ordered, the octopus is chopped up alive and served on a plate, its muscles still jerking.

Crawling over itself, the oil-covered pieces of tentacle are hard to pick up with metal chopsticks. They resist and pull away or slide off, back onto the plate.

Shauna is watching me when I finally get a piece into my mouth. I remember that Asia told me to be sure to chew it thoroughly because the suckers can attach themselves to your throat and choke you.

I bite down hard and I feel the muscle tense and the suckers grip the inside of my cheek. Shauna winces. I chew again until the muscle relaxes and the tentacle is in smaller, deader pieces. I swallow. I try a smile and look back at the plate. There’s an awful lot left.

Picking up a pair of chopsticks, Shauna pokes them onto the plate. The first tentacle she tries to pick up crawls away from her. She pulls her hand back and puts the chopsticks down, “I can’t. I can’t eat that.”

Maybe if we’d found the octopus right away, that sense of bravery from surviving the Viking Ship would have carried us all through this meal. Instead, Maria also shakes her head. She’ll stick with the soup.

But I persist: this octopus did not die so that I could take one bite and waste the rest. Asia and I eat as much as we can, each bite a fight against a small piece of octopus. It seems to fight for its life, even with its life already over. The experience is primal and carnivorous and totally weird.

At the end of the meal, we step outside into the glow of a nighttime carnival and go immediately toward the carts of street food. My act of bravery complete, hunger is coming on strong and those tentacles were not particularly filling. What I need now is a fried potato on a stick. Or ice cream. Nothing with any sentience, please.

There’s bravery…

There’s bravery…

We’re on a mission requiring bravery in the face of both terror and disgust and not everyone is going to make it. But I intend to last to the bitter, slimy end.

We arrive at Wolmido after work on a Tuesday evening, and other people rush to the flashier, better-painted Viking ships. But we know better. The one closest to the water, the ugliest of the the three is the one to go and test your mettle. We head there immediately.

Facing each other from across the ship, we fill the seats on either end. Purses placed on the side, lights are starting to come on as the sun goes down. Slinging the strap over our shoulders as an extra safety precaution, we pull the metal bar down over our laps.

Slowly the ship starts to swing, and we smile. The first time I get butterflies in my stomach on a downward swing, I cry out laughing.

This is the carnival ride I remember from teenage years, finding some excitement in a place eight hours from the nearest amusement park. I let go of the bar for an extra thrill.

When the ship is completely vertical, I hold the bar with one hand. I’m glad the strap is on, but I wish I’d checked to make sure that it wasn’t frayed or loose before the ride started.

The bar wobbles, though it never lets go. I imagine the faces of my friends on the opposite side if it did, our bodies flying toward their terrified grins.

The Vikings brutally killed their enemies and I can hear a sadistic edge to the carnie’s voice as he calls out in Korean words I can’t understand. We scream as the ship goes past vertical and tilts us upside down.

Gripping the bar with both hands while we’re frozen in the air, Emile starts screaming in real terror. Our fear is only blunted by the pure joy of survival. If this bar lets go, I hope I’ll be unconscious before I hit anything on the downward swing.

Swinging down and back up, we watch our friends’ frozen smiles above us as they hang from their straps.

Slowing down, the ride returns to vertical and gradually horizontal positions, filling us with relief and disappointment. I both want to do it again right away and never again in my entire life.

Pulling the strap off me, my legs wobbling, I’m still stunned as we walk past the batting cages to the water. We made it through this first challenge, but I’m not sure if we can all live up to the next. Still reeling, muscles shaking, we begin our search for a restaurant serving live octopus.

But, why?

But, why?

We’ve just thrown a French-fry covered hot dog in the gutter and I’m not sure if we should be more ashamed by our wastefulness or our cultural insensitivity.

“Do you want to walk to McDonald’s?” I offer.

“No, it’s fine,” Shauna says, her face still contorted. “I think we should just go home.”

Ten Minutes Earlier

Following the smell of fried food through narrow streets we walk over a carpet of night club fliers and cards for call girls. It’s too cold to walk to McDonalds and we made a pact to eat more healthily. Also, the taxi stand is closer.

Stepping onto the sidewalk on the main road, the cold wind slices through our winter jackets. A middle-aged woman is manning a food stand right in front of us. She’s the only one still open.

Shauna pulls her blue pea coat tighter and turns to me, “I’ll be just a minute.”

The light and steam from the food cart make it seem like a warm place to stand, but as we move farther away from the protection of the buildings on the side street, my teeth are actually chattering. The woman is wearing a puffy jacket, a fleece headband and warm-looking gloves. She isn’t shivering.

Shauna points to the last hot-dog-on-a-stick, the kind battered in French fries, “Hot dog, juseyo.”

Not wanting to take my hands out of my pockets, I don’t choose anything.

The woman puts the hot dog into a vat of hot oil and lets it sit and warm up. She holds up a bottle of ketchup and Shauna nods, “Ney.”

She holds up a shaker and Shauna nods again, “Ney.”

Pulling the hot dog out of the oil, the woman wraps a napkin around the stick and pours toppings over the French fries. She hands it over with a quick, “Gamsahamnida.”

At the crosswalk, Shauna takes a bite, stops, and looks at me.

“The other thing she asked me. I didn’t know what it was so I just said yes,” she says, her mouth still full. She chews, then swallows. “It was sugar.”

She takes another bite as we cross the street. Sugar covers every bit of ketchup. Ketchup covers every bit of French fry. Chewing one slow bite at a time, Shauna swallows and stops again, “I can’t eat this.”

We look back at the woman. We ‘re the only ones on the street tonight besides the taxi drivers. Neither one of us wants her to see us throw the food away: we come here all the time.

Public trash bins are hard to find in South Korea so walking up past a phone booth, Shauna tosses the remains into the gutter.

“Sugar,” I say, coming to the question that all expats ask themselves at some point, “But, why?”

Teddy bears vs dinosaurs

Teddy bears vs dinosaurs

The bus passes a billboard for a Teddy Bear museum featuring dinosaurs. Turning to Alex, I catch him just before he puts his headphones in. I wonder aloud what the deal is with Teddy Bear museums in Korea. They’re everywhere, from Seoul to Jeju and cover various time periods. Alex listens, resting his iPod on his leg, but not putting it away.

“Are they suggesting that Teddy Bears were there?” I say. Alex hasn’t said much during this rant, but I don’t feel like going to sleep and I don’t want to sit quietly for the next six hours as we drive through Sunday traffic to get back to Incheon. “Who do you think would have won in a battle between Teddy Bears and dinosaurs?”

Now he raises his eyebrows, “Obviously, it would have to be dinosaurs. Is that even a question?”

“But they can’t die,” I say. “Teddy Bears are like really cute zombies.”

“Sabrina, they can’t die because they’re not alive,” he says, but doesn’t pick up his MP3 player.

“You only think they aren’t alive because of the Teddy Bear Law,” I say. “They can’t let humans see them move. And there weren’t any people when dinosaurs were around.”

“I don’t think there were any Teddy Bears around, either.”

“I don’t know, that billboard seems to show differently,” he picks up his iPod at this and starts flipping through songs.

“Dinosaurs are bigger and stronger.”

“But Teddy Bears can’t die.”

“Because they’re not alive,” he says, putting one headphone in. “And even if they were, they’re not big enough to fight dinosaurs.”

“But they could create a Teddy Bear army. Sew themselves back together when they get ripped apart. Even a big dinosaur couldn’t fight off an endless horde.”

“I don’t think you understand how big dinosaurs are, Sabrina.”

Mike walks up the aisle, stepping over stray bags and feet.

“What are you talking about?” he asks, leaning against the seat in front of us.

“Whether Teddy Bears or dinosaurs would win in an epic battle,” I say.

“It has to be dinosaurs, right?” he says, looking from one of us to the other.

“Exactly,” Alex says.

“But Teddy Bears can’t die,” I start.

Mike raises an eyebrow, nods, then stands and walks back up the bus.