Tag: Shauna

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.

…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.

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?”

The giant blue balloon

The giant blue balloon

Marcelle, Shauna and I are walking together without talking, texting furiously and reading and texting again. Where is everyone? In the Park, still on line two, still on the number one, still sitting in Goose Goose, still somewhere, not answering.

Jill and Asia arrive and we’re surrounded by hipster students and English teaching foreigners wearing skinny jeans and short skirts, tight, flowing, multicoloured arrays of sleek, shiny black to blinding electric yellow and gold mesh, leather, latex, denim, spandex.

I can’t believe I met Jill only a week ago and already we’re hugging and posing for photos like we’re old friends, talking about how we’ll miss one another when she heads back to the States next week.

We’re making summer plans with Asia, the girl who was just a name I hadn’t yet deleted from my phone two weeks ago. She’s smiling and talking to Marcelle by the mojito man and I’m glad it’s such a beautiful, clear spring night.

* * *

On a rainy evening two weeks before, a phone call interrupts the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

“Hi, is this Sabrina?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Could you do me a favour?”

The name on my cell phone screen is ‘Asia’ and I kind of remember who that is. Her number’s been in my phone since we met in a bar last winter and we both promised to hang out. It’s the middle of May, and it’s the first time either of us has called.

Asia says her friend arrived from the US tonight and she’s lost somewhere in Incheon. Her friend has an American cell phone with her, but Asia’s phone won’t call internationally. She wants me to call her friend using Skype.

Typing the phone number into a word document on my laptop, I realize there’s no name to go with this phone number and Asia hangs up before I can ask. The sky outside my apartment is grey and dark.

Paranoid that I’ll type the wrong number in and call a random American at 5am, I cringe, hoping for the best, “Um, hi, is this Asia’s friend?”

Not knowing the person you’re calling’s name turns out not to be important. Asia’s friend tries explaining where she is as the rain starts pouring down on the roof of the supermarket next door.

“The sign says ‘Ganseok Market’ and there’s a Face Shop right here,” she says. Ganseok has a few entrances and Face Shops are everywhere. A Korean couple is helping her, speaking slowly in the background, and she repeats their words back to me.

“Gun. Suck. Shee. Chong,” she says a few times for me. I type this out on my computer in English letters. Reading the location over a few times, I don’t know, at first, what it means.

Gun. Suck. Shee. Chong.

Gunsock shechong

Ganseok si-jang.

Oh.

The name of the market.

In Korean.

I call Asia back and report what I’ve found out, even telling her about the Face Shop.

“I think I know where she is,” Asia says and I wonder if I’ll ever hear from her again.

* * *

Tonight we’re with a group of foreigners from Incheon drinking sojitos, mojitos and other mixed drinks and then we’re in the club drinking buckets of vodka lemonade. We’re dancing, laughing, hugging for hours and then we’re outside, warm without the hot stickiness of summer.

Jill, Asia, Shauna, Marcelle and I arrive in a more deserted version of The Park. Arms are linked together in an act of friendship and to hold one another up.

Shauna is suddenly holding a giant blue balloon.

“Where did you get the balloon?” we ask Shauna and she bounces it in the air.

“It just appeared,” she says, smiling. We all nod and laugh and dance with the balloon and each other.