Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mr. Peter's Neighborhood: The Faces of Gocheok Dong

It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
It's a neighborly day in this beautywood,
A neighborly day for a beauty,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,
I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.
So let's make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we're together, we might as well say,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won't you be my neighbor?
Won't you please,
Please won't you be my neighbor?

Fred Rogers

Hi Internet neighbor, I'm glad we're together again.

Before we voyage into more tales of life in Korea, I'd like to tell you a little bit about my mom and dad. They are two lovely people, people who usually share similar stances on most issues, yet have polar opposite opinions on others.  One such difference is their respective approach to the neighborhood.

My father took a page from the Mr. Rogers book of community etiquette. He could be gushing blood and driving himself to the hospital, and, should he come across one of our neighbors, he would most likely pull over the car, roll down the window, and strike up a conversation. He may not even particularly like said neighbor, but because their house is within walking distance of our own, he feels a civic responsibility to make small talk.

My mother, on the other hand, has a finely crafted technique of neighborhood small talk avoidance, a technique that involves a smile, a wave, and pressing her foot down a bit harder on the gas pedal.

Before coming to Korea, I lived my life sharing my mother's approach to neighborly etiquette. And in defense of this stance, the avoidance of initiating a conversation is actually well intentioned. Often times, these small talk situations are successfully avoided because, with all likelihood, your neighbor is also hoping that they will not have to talk with you. I like being social, but on my own terms, and when I am on the go, I often prefer to be a bit anonymous...

Anonymity in the Gocheok-dong community, however, is next to impossible. Though at times this can be irksome, I have recently come to embrace the Mr Rogers approach to friendly neighborhood living. My relationships with my Korean neighbors are often unconventional, but I am a proud member of the Gocheok community. So, without further delay, I would like to take you on a tour of my neighborhood.

I'm a creature of habit, and one such habit is picking up a coffee every morning before work. One of the employees of this cafe is an old woman who is of the judgemental persuasion. She sighs and tisks because I don't speak Korean as well as she would like me to, and she thinks the extra shot of espresso that I order in my latte is unnecessary, an opinion which she shares with me thorough sighs and head shakes. But, underneath the layers of judgement, there is a big twinkle in her eye that tells me, no matter how much she may criticize, we are chingus (friends). The most recent me quirk I presented her with to judge came in the form of my newly crafted duct tape wallet. Upon seeing my bright green sticky wallet, her face lit up with the most judgement I have ever seen come from a single person. Elation. Twenty seconds of silence were followed but a very sudden burst of hysterical laughter. The laughter ended almost as quickly as it began and the lines on her forehead showed me that my wallet had made its way through her judgement filters, and the verdict came back that this was not an age appropriate wallet. She grabbed it from me, examined it thoroughly, sighed again, and returned it. That day I spent my lunch break purchasing a nice pleather wallet appropriate for a 25 year old who looks 40 to most Koreans, and got to work on doing what any normal person would do in this situation... I started making her a duct tape wallet of her very own.

I have had this wallet sitting in my locker at work for weeks, trying to build up the courage to present my cynical elderly friend with her new gift. Finally the time came, and in what was perhaps the most confusing two minutes of my life, I was able to explain to her that yes, this wallet was a gift, and no, I would not be taking it with me when I left the coffee shop. In my mental land of make believe, I like to think that she uses it and loves it and tells stories to her grandchildren of the nice foreigner who orders an unecessary extra shot of espresso in his daily latte. Next step, get this woman a facebook page. I have a feeling she would rock the poke feature.

Next door to the cafe is our friendly neighborhood Kimbap shop. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Kimbap, I will quickly provide you with the Wikipedia description of this great, cheap Korean food.

"Kimbap is a popular Korean dish made from steamed white rice (bap) and various other ingredients, rolled in kim (seaweed) and served in bite-sized pieces."

I often will grab a roll of Tuna/Kimchi Kimbap for my lunch, it is only $2 and tastes pretty great. The two middle aged women who work at this shop speak little to no English, and like to use the time they spend rolling my Kimbap to have mini English lessons. I have taught them classic words such as "Tuna", "Seaweed", "Delicious" and "Long Time No See." I go through phases of not going in for a few weeks at a time, but every time I pass the shop, they smile and wave, and sometimes chase me down to give me free bits of dried squid. Recently, after a particularly long period of no Kimbap for lunch, I decided to go and say hi to my friends. I walked in the door and instantly Kimpap lady #1 turned to me and said, "I love you!"
Pause pause pause... Kimbap lady number 2 bursts out laughing, "No! You like he! LIKE he!"
"Ohhhhh," nods K.L.#1. "I like he."

The next stop on my tour of Gocheok Dong is the supermarket Dream Mart, just one door down from the Kimbap shop. Recently, Dream Mart hired a young guy to work the front cash register, a guy who hates his job and loves to talk. Conversations with him usually go like this...

"Ohhh! It's you!"
"Hi, how are you today?"
"Today is very very sucks." (the explanation is given in the form of a gesture indicating the cause of suck to be the whole of Dream Mart)

The initial greeting is always followed by an unrelated story, a story which, on a good day, I understand 7% of. One story went something like this...

"Angry. Very very angry old man Chinese. He the Chinese. I angry and he grandfather. He go Korea now and I very scary. Understand?"

"Yes." I reply. "See you tomorrow!"

Last week our encounter went as follows,

"Hi brother!"
"Hi, how are you today?"
"You handsome guy. I go your house?"
"Hmm. Not today."

Only in Korea would this not be a pickup line. That day, Dream Mart provided me with a bottle of water, Peanut M&Ms, and an ego boost.

The final stop on our tour today is an old woman who I have never spoken to, but see frequently. One of the first nights in my new apartment, I heard what sounded like a brutal poodle fight a few buildings over. This dog fight happens once or twice a week, only lasts about 15 minutes, and, is fought between a yard full of small dogs, and a tiny hunched over ancient Korean lady. This timid looking woman will hobble up to the fence, look the dogs in the eyes, and begin her 15 minutes of barking. She pays no attention to those of us who stop to watch, and when she has had her fill, she stops barking and continues on her way.

The venerable Mr. Rogers once said, "You always make each day a special day. By just you being you. There's only one person exactly like you in the whole world. And that's you yourself, and I like you. It's such a good feeling, a very good feeling, the feeling you know that we're friends."

So, to my neighbors, thank you for embracing this strange foreigner who refers to himself in the third person as Peter Teacher. I can't say for sure, but I think it is quite possible that Mr. Rogers spent some time in Gocheok Dong.

Until Next Time,

Peter Teacher

Saturday, June 2, 2012

... But My Friends Call Me Peter Teacher

I think I read somewhere once, probably in one of the countless scientific journals that I subscribe to, that all people come to a point in life when they realize that they have taken on the mindset of a 7 year old Korean child. They then take this realization a step further, and begin to understand that communication occurs more naturally with like-minded people. This then brings on the dawning of yet another groundbreaking realization, as you look around you and notice that you really don't have any friends who are your own age, and that your peer group is full of nose picking, pant wetting Rilakkuma fanatics who begin 90% of conversations with the words, "Angry Birds." This healthy dose of self reflection and realization comes with an important decision. Do you leave your life in Korea behind, head home and enroll in a rigorous therapy schedule, or do you sign on for another year of fun with your baby friends?
Today is the first day of my third year in Korea, and as I look back on the past two years, I truly cannot believe how quickly it has gone and how much I have changed. Making the decision to stay on for a third year was not an easy one to make, and I am still not convinced that it was the right thing to do. Going home after year one was really tough, I can only imagine that readjusting after year three will be even more difficult. Fingers crossed that my friends and therapists will humor my new 7 year old Korean-isms.
I haven't posted in 6 months. During the past 6 months not much has changed. During the past 6 months a lot has changed. Here is what has been happening in the ROK.
My family spent two weeks in Korea over the holidays. There is truly nothing like watching your parents sing Elton John at norebang on New Years eve to put things in perspective. The busy holiday bustle in busy busy Seoul, the freezing weather, the non-vegetarian friendly Korean culinary offerings... traveling as a group can be difficult, but I still wouldn't change a thing. It was a really touching thing to be able to share my life here with family and friends, and I am so happy to hear that my family will be making a return trip to Korea in the not too distant future. One of the best moments of the trip was a holiday show my dad did for my students. Having a chance to watch my parents interact with these kids I have grown to love over the past year was the best gift I received this Christmas.
In March our Kindergarten opened its doors once again, this time we have only two students enrolled. Little David from Kindergarten round one is back, this time he is joined by 3 year old Toby. Boogers, poop, and that same minute and 14 second song that goes along with The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and The Big Hungry Bear that has been on repeat every day for the past two months... there are elements of the Kindergarten experience that could be confused for torture methods, but these kids make me smile, and when you are lucky enough to have a job that you look forward to going to each morning, you have to give thanks where it is deserved, and I would like to say thank you to David and Toby.
In April I saw Lady Gaga's opening concert in Seoul for her epic 2 year Born This Way Tour. I do not at all regret dishing out the 80 bucks for tickets, she is a top notch entertainer, and it was a very enjoyable two hours... but there was nothing that stood out as very memorable from Gaga herself. She was loud in just the way I expected her to be, weird in the same way she is always weird, and it felt kind of short. The stories I have to tell from the show are all from the people who attended and everything going on around Seoul Olympic Stadium that night. It is amazing to me how much hate and anger people have towards someone who is spreading a message of acceptance, a very poppy meat dress megabuck earning message, but a message of love nonetheless. Upon exiting the subway I was greeted by an old white man, holding a sign asking Gaga to please go home so as to not negatively influence the sexual purity of the 50 thousandish people inside the stadium. These old  gentlemen were scattered throughout the crowd, but politely posed for pictures, so thank you for that, strange sirs. Closer to venue we came across a big circle of young Koreans speaking in tongues in protest... this is without a doubt one of the strangest things I have ever seen. I thought speaking in tongues only existed inside Netflix documentaries... turns out it is actually a real thing!
A few weeks before the show, thinking Gaga to be too pornographic, the Korean government decided to make the show an 18+ event, a newsworthy decision in itself due to the thousands of young people who had already purchased tickets to the show months before. Lady Gaga addressed this saying, "Your government decided to make this show 18+... well let's make it 18+... Korea, remember, you are as free as you want to be!" In typical Gaga quote fashion, I laughed, paused, and a question mark floated above my head for a brief moment of time until it was popped by a glow stick behind me.
The people watching in this stadium was extraordinary. I like Gaga's music, it is fun and catchy, and I think it is really impressive that she has been able to spread a great message to so many millions of people, but I am not jumping up and down with a 'Little Monster' name tag, don't call me a monster please Lady Gaga. I am just Peter. But in looking around the stadium, I was able to see how Lady Gaga personally connects with so many of her fans, and she connects in a way that other pop stars often can't. Again, not identifying as a Gaga Monster, but for that two hours, I was happy to be a part of the very diverse and undefinable crowd.
There was the stern looking German woman sitting in front of us who attended the show on her own, did not crack a smile the entire time and left before the encore, yet you could somehow tell that she was having the time of her life. There were goths, hipsters, queens, old drunk Korean men, families... My personal favorite among the monster mash, however, was a really striking looking woman sitting two rows behind us. She was dressed in a sheep costume and was wearing atiara. I was intrigued, and couldn't stop making awkward eye contact throughout the show, which led to introductions after it ended. Her name is Angel, she is from England but is half Russian half Korean, and has an accent that sounds like a weird hybrid of Ozzy Osbourne, Russel Brand, a lot of vodka, and something that was uniquely her own. Angel told us that she had just come from a lunch with her friend, Lee Myung-bak, who is the president of South Korea. She then proceeded to tell us that she was here for a month, and would be moving to North Korea in May. When she asked where we were from, Jenny said that she is half Indian. Angel squealed, pressed her face against Jenny's and pulled her hair, saying, "I KNEW IT! I COULD TELL! I KNEW IT!" I of course saw this as an opportunity to contribute to the blatant lie session I was currently in the middle of, and told her that I am from Sweden. "I KNEW IT! I KNEW IT!" she squealed as she pressed her face against mine and pulled my hair. Of three things I was absolutely certain. One, Angel is a liar. Two, Angel is a bit crazy. And three, I am hopelessly and irrevocably in love with her.
The Monday following the concert, I moved apartments. I could not be happier in my new place. It took leaving my old apartment to realize how much I did not like living there. It was old, dark, dirty, drafty, and even though I was one of the few lucky foreign teachers to end up in a multiple room apartment, it wasn't a good place to be. I am now in a really bright studio apartment with a sliding glass door and a giant private balcony. I am a two minute walk from my school, am doing grown up things like buying couches on the Internet, and am cooking, writing and painting, things which I didn't have the motivation or kitchen space to do in my old place. Things are looking up.
I always end posts with promises that I will write again soon. Seeing as my last blog update was in November, I have decided that this post will not end with a promise of more posts. So, instead, I will end it with a link to a music video to an English song from a Korean indie band that I really like. Like Angel, it doesn't make much sense, but is really fun.
Peace Love and Glow Sticks
Peter Teacher