Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Blog in 3 Parts: Korean Swimwear, Peter Teacher Plays Hero and My Boss is a Butthead

Here we are in October, and I, Peter West, can confidently say that I am not the same person I was 10 months ago when I arrived in Korea. With the end almost visible while wearing my new clunky yet fashionable Korean glasses (only $45! I highly recommend getting glasses in Korea, but that is a different story) I have begun to spend a good amount of time reflecting on what has made this year so different from the rest. During this period of reflection, I have come across several entertaining memories, memories which I never had the opportunity to share with you, my loyal readers (mom), in written form.

First, let me take you back to early January. Zoom in on Peter, newly arrived in Korea, wide eyed and slightly, yes only slightly, less cynical than the Peter of today.

It is maybe 3:30 AM on a week night and, in typical teacher in Korea fashion, I was at a bar with three of my friends, Jenny, my coworker Blake, and our Korean friend Daniel. While standing up to leave, we notice a table in the corner occupied by the supervisor of my academy (English name Andy, which, coincidentally, is possibly the only English word he knows) and a few Korean teachers from our school. We approached them with hopes of saying a quick hello and goodbye. Unfortunately, we did not quite get to the goodbye part. Instantly Andy, speaking in Korean, informed Daniel that he and Jenny should gracefully make their exit. This is how Blake and I found ourselves being force fed soju shots by our very drunk supervisor*. We took the obligatory shot of soju and then tried to explain that really, we couldn't drink more as we both had to teach the next day. You would think that our boss wouldn't want two of his teachers drinking soju until the early morning, but alas, in Korea this is simply not the case.

None of our new drinking buddies really spoke a word of English, which meant the entire time we drank with them, there was a lot of grunting, failed attempts to pronounce their Korean names, and screaming 'one shot' as we choked down more soju and chased it with cherry tomatoes. At 5:30 am, I found myself deliriously wondering when we would be able to make an exit, but was unable to stand up as the front desk guy was passed out on my shoulder and my boss was perfectly content with resting his head on my other shoulder and his hand high up on my leg**. When the night finally came to an end, our boss lined us up and, to our surprise, promptly head butted us both with the agility and composure of a big horned sheep who had just consumed several bottles of soju. Needless to say my work relationship with the occupants of this table on this fated evening has been a bit forced, but thankfully there have since been no bar run ins with boss Andy.

* http://www.teachenglishinasia.net/korean-drinking-culture
** Reference my previous post, 'The Korean Who Loved Me' for more information on potential personal boundary issues one might encounter on a night out in Korea.

Next, I will take you forward several months, on my second voyage to the beautiful beach city of Busan. This time I am joined by Linnea, a friend who I met while she was living in Colorado and attending my high school as a Swedish exchange student, and Linda, a good friend from college who spent 3 weeks visiting Korea in August.

We decided to join the millions of people taking up semi permanent residence on Haeundae Beach in Busan, South Korea. (On a side note... if you want to check out a really horrible yet entertaining Korean disaster movie, check out the movie 'Haeundae'.) I have never been surrounded by so many people in my life*, and this day will stand out as one of the most memorable experiences I have had in Korea. Most beach goers, regardless of nationality, have a similar view in what they are looking for in a day on the beach. There is, however, one major element of the Caucasian beach bum that opposites that of their Korean beach bum counterpart. Tanning. Most Koreans seem to want nothing to do with it, which is why 95% of suntan lotion in this country has skin bleach lotion mixed in with it, and the umbrellas sprawling across Haeundae make for an almost indoors beach experience**.

My favorite part of the beach was observing Korean swimwear, which seemed to either be one of two extremes. The young, very in shape and possibly surgically enhanced Koreans walked around in some of the skimpiest swimsuits I have ever seen, women in string bikinis and men in colorful and, at times, uncomfortably revealing speedos. The rest of the swimmers, however, were doing so fully clothed. Men dressed in nice business suits would join their fully clothed families as they completely immersed themselves in the ocean water. Later on in the day I observed something that was one of the oddest, sweetest family outings I have ever seen. A fully clothed mother, father and two teenage children, were in the water up to their necks, and positioned around an innertube. I made my way around to see what they were doing, and smiled as I saw an 85+ year old grandmother, also dressed as if she just got out of church, seated in the tube. Her face was a mixture of terror and elation as her family, supportively positioned around her, smiled happily as she timidly slapped the water with her wrinkled feet.



The third and final chapter of this three part blog post occurs only days after the trip to Busan.

Not only was it great to see Linda on her recent voyage to Korea, it was bizarrely refreshing to experience Korea, once again, through the eyes of someone seeing it for the first time. I was only able to take a week off of work during her 3 week stay, so her visit included a lot of entertain yourself time. We tried to fill the weekends with a lot of Korean experience to makeup for the full time work schedule I hold during the week. This means staying out very late on weekend nights (which, in Korea, land of never closing bars, usually means 6 or 7 am) and getting up early (ish. very ish.) on Saturday and Sunday to journey out and see what Seoul has to offer.

On one of these weekend days, we found ourselves fighting off a hangover and attempting to make our way to Suwon Station to catch a train to Seoul. With an hour before our train departed, we decided the best way to cure our hot, hungover exhaustion was to spend some quality time in the air conditioned Kraze Burger restaurant in the station. With a burger to cure the hangover, naturally a carbonated caffinated beverage was the key ticket to curing the heat and exhaustion. As we waited for our food and drinks, we noticed that we seemed to be completely surrounded by giggling Korean toddlers. Literally every table around us was occupied by families and their sickeningly cute offspring, which, in a hungover state, brings with it a mixed bag of emotions. Though pretty hilarious to observe, we noticed that we were playing less a role of observer and more a role of observed. I have before expressed the fact that I actually have grown very fond of being stared at wherever I go, it turns a sweaty hangover state of being is one such exception to this new found narcissistic love of being a stared at foreigner in Asia.

The burgers finally came, and we entered the wordless period of the dining dead that typically comes after your food arrives. Out of the corner of my eye, I began to notice the baby next to me awkwardly stand up on her toddler chair. Her family, deeply engrossed in their greasy Western food, did not seem to notice as their baby started to totter back in forth in what appeared to be the before part of a really bad humpty dumptyesque incident. Though I would consider myself to be a somewhat of a hero on a regular day, I challenge you to find any hero with a hangover who is able to perform to their fullest ability. With the purest of intentions, I quickly flung my arm to the right with hopes of catching a tumbling tot. Instead, my flinging hand brought with it my totally full cup of pepsi, which landed, in full, all over the sweet little Korean family. The baby, shocked at being baptized with Pepsi by a hungover American, quickly returned to the sitting position in her high chair. The family did recognize my noble intentions and excused their new found need for a shower with polite nods letting me know that it was okay, and we all finished or meals in silence. Though this was a pretty awkward way to begin a day, I saw this as a win win situation. The first win is a baby with a saved life, the second being Linda having a unique Korean memory to add to the list.

Today I began my 2 month countdown to my departure from Korea, and I have very mixed feelings about my booked plane ticket. To read about these feelings and how I end up spending my remaining 2 months here, be sure to check back often for more adventures of an English teacher in Korea.

Until Next Time,

Peter Teecha

Friday, October 1, 2010

Seroaksan, Validation in Background Checks and John Wilkes Booth

This post primarily focuses on my recent vacation to the Gangwon-do province during the Chusak holiday, but in order to fully appreciate the events that unfolded in the less than splendid town of Seokcho, I must first give you a bit of back story.

Many of the foreigners who spend time teaching in Korea are truly amazing individuals. Having said that, there is also a very long history of really freaky Westerners (mostly American) who have done their part scarring the reputation of English teachers in Korea. (Please refer to my February 19th post, The Best Outing of a Dick Since Watergate) My school in particular has been known to hire some real jewels of humanity, and at times will rely on their current foreign teachers to sniff out traces of severe mental instability existing in potential new employees. In my February post I told the tail of Rich Teecha. What I didn't mention is that he was a last minute replacement for an even freakier individual.

Because of a recent online connection with said individual, I will not mention him by name. His name, however, does sound reminiscent of the type of guy who would assassinate a president, so we will refer to him fondly as John Wilkes Booth, or, for the sake of expediency, JWB.

I was put in contact with JWB shortly after he was hired to come join the team at Lee's English Academy. As is the case with most people who are in the final preparatory stages of a year long relocation to Asia, he had many questions. My affinity for talking about myself meant that I was more than happy to be the one to provide him with answers. His emails struck me as a bit odd, and a simple google search of his email address was all it took to come across his blog. In this blog I stumbled upon quirky quips such as, "that was the first time I took a girl by the throat", "on that day I began the habit of slashing my wrists" and "last year, when I was knee deep in the adult film industry." After a bit of explaining what it means exactly to be knee deep in the adult film industry, my boss thankfully agreed with me that JWB was possibly not the best candidate for a position as a teacher in an elementary school. JWB's contract was effectively cancelled, with a clear understanding on his part that his premature termination was thanks to narc named Peter West who handed over his blog to his future boss. Months have passed and during that time, the memories of my brief online interactions with throat grabbin' wrist slashin' adult film industry wadin' JWB had all but faded from my memory.

Fast forward to the middle of September, and I found myself with a surprise week off of work for the Chusak holiday, which is the Korean equivalent to Thanksgiving.

This seemed like the perfect opportunity to see more of Korea and have a cheapish vacation to Seroaksan National Park. We booked a room for two nights in the seaside town of Seokcho, and headed to the park the following day. Seroksan is truly spectacular and was a convenient 4 hour bus ride from Suwon. We took the cable car to the top of the mountain and took far too many pictures of the breathtaking cliffs drenched in mist. The park covers 4 provinces and stretches into North Korea. 2,000 species of animals live in the park including panthers and the Korean black bear. Needless to say, we saw neither of these animals. We returned to the base of the mountain to explore the less challenging trails, and took some time to climb around the rocks in the river. Here we saw species of insects that I have only seen dead and pinned to boards in museums. The time in the river really reached a high point when I made a failed attempt at being funny and spider crawled down a rock, during which time my new digital camera worked its way out of my pocket and fell into the river. Fantastic.

Our day at the park came to an end, and we decided it was time to explore the town of Seokcho. This city seems to be undergoing a bit of an identity crisis as its antiquated buildings and businesses attempt to catch up with the newly technologically savvy country of South Korea. The town is said to be much better when weather permits a day on the beach, but the rains of September brought us no such opportunity. Not wishing to repeat our fish bits dinner from the night before, we found a bar advertising hamburgers, and settled in for the evening. Burgers can only mean one thing, this being that we were soon joined by the friendly ESL teachers from Seokcho. They all seemed incredibly suited to the seclusion of their respective province, but cheap drafts can make conversation with anyone flow a bit more smoothly. The first person to introduce himself was a pretty awkward 29 year old guy from Detroit, who sat at our table and proceeded to give far too much information about himself and his angsty adventures through life. Jenny is a much kinder person that I am apparently, and wasn't completely disengaged with conversation with this guy, I took an opposite stance and was happy to end contact with our new friend.

The following morning Jenny retrieved a scrap of paper from her pocket and laughed as she realized it was the name of the freaky individual from the previous night, who left his name hoping to get an add on Facebook. In yet another instance of small world syndrome, the name turned out to be none other than JWB, who, after being let go from his position in Suwon, found a school in Seokcho who didn't think to do a google search. I found myself suddenly grateful that in conversations with JWB he hadn't closed his mouth long enough for me to give my full name.

I returned to Suwon the following day, happy to have seen Seroaksan, and with a new found conviction in my previous decision to hand over JWB's blog to my supervisor.

That is all for today.

Until Next Time,

Peter Teecha

Our seafood dinner which later served as a perfume covering our hands for several days post consumption.

One of the many spectacular views of Seroaksan.