Monday, October 22, 2012

Chuseok and China: Part 2

So as I said entirely too long ago, I ended up going to Chuseok dinner with the Chinese teachers. The Chinese teachers I work with are part of a large education program sponsored by the Chinese government. This means that unlike the English teachers, the Chinese teachers are not paid by Korea. China pays them and other than giving them a place to stay, Korea pays nothing.

This system didn't make any sense the first time it was explained to me, but there are two reasons for China to sponsor such a program. Firstly, it is part of their teacher education program. Our teachers are undergoing their practicum. In fact, currently they are quite stressed out about writing their final papers. I tell them I would offer to help if I knew Chinese but I think that joke is getting stale. The other reason the Chinese government pays them is to spread culture. China has been around a long time and understands the multiple powers of cultural spread. It helps with understanding, trade and peace talks. It also helps with the long game. If you can get another people to think like you or speak your language, it becomes easier to influence them. It may not be surprising then that this program has been met with suspicion by various governments, including the United States.

Now, I can't speak for the program as a whole and I don't know what happens in their classrooms at our school, but I highly doubt our Chinese teachers are involved in any conspiratorial plot to whitewash Tienanmen Square or anything else like that. The two Chinese girls are super friendly and cute, and with the exception of this recent crunch time, constantly laughing. One is a Party member, but I get the idea it is kind of like joining a frat or a lodge in the States. It is something you do to make connections. That being said, I typically avoid politics with them, mostly because we would be on unequal ground since I don't know more than a word or two in Chinese and they know just enough English. It wouldn't be fair or productive. Nonetheless we have talked history before. Genghis Khan (whom they have a different name for) is a hero.

China has been enormously influential on Korean culture. It's all about the long game. I don't know much of the history, but from what I understand Japan has been brutal to Korea and other nations during every invasion. Each time they invaded Korea, their culture never stuck. Koreans consciously rebelled against their oppressors. Meanwhile, China has also invaded before. Their culture has stuck because they used a softer touch. Now, to get back to Chuseok in a roundabout sort of way, it just so happens to fall on the same day China celebrates their similar Thanksgiving feast. I doubt this is any sort of coincidence.

We met the Chinese teachers at the Confucius Institute on the Incheon University campus. The rest of their classmates are teaching and living at the university. Everyone was very friendly. Almost immediately they got to work. I think this was around 1 pm. Since we didn't have a whole lot to do being ignorant guests, we strolled around campus for a while. There was a building with a built-in rock climbing wall. I also got my picture on top of a lion.

After we got back we found some things to do. Mostly, we learned to make dumplings. I was awful at it, but I made a few. Cooking is truly an art and I was surrounded by artists.

Just look at what they produced! I had never seen a Thanksgiving dinner like this before.

I think it was almost 6pm by the time that we actually started eating. It had been a long day of preparation. The food was delicious and there was entirely too much of it, just like any great Thanksgiving. The company was great as well, even if I didn't know most of what was being said.

At some point after dinner, the singing began. One of the girls was nominated to sing. She sang a few verses, and then it was my turn. I sang some "Wagon Wheel" by Old Crow Medicine Show and the they clapped along and soon it was someone else's turn. Each person at the table had to take a turn. Most were really beautiful in one way or another. Some seemed to sing newer hits and some more traditional, older songs. Others, nursery rhymes. We had "Puff, the Magic Dragon" and a South African song as well from the non-Chinese crew. One gentleman did this great spoken word song/poem, but perhaps I liked it so much because he was raising his glass so I knew it was a drinking toast.

Afterwards we played a couple games. We played a Chinese version of Sam-Yook-Ku (3-6-9). This was a number game that I had only recently learned in English and involved counting and clapping on numbers that end in 3, 6, or 9. Simple, but easy to mess up. The penalty for screwing up was that you had to eat a piece of the ice cream cake in the table center. Most often the penalty is getting flicked in the ear or finger slapped on the wrist or some other token physical harm so this was a welcome change of pace. We also played a game in Chinese that translated in English essentially to "Double-O Seven Bang!" We are in a circle. One player says "0" and chooses another player. Then that player says "0" and chooses someone else. The third person says "7" and picks someone. The next points his finger at someone in the circle and says "Bang!" The person he shot has to say "Ahh!" but not move. The players adjacent to him raise their hands up in the air like they were shot and falling over. Whoever screws up loses. It then repeats. It's just a silly game that gets people laughing.

After the games, we started cleanup. It didn't take long with everybody helping, especially since this was an area where I knew what I was doing. We all thanked them for their tremendous hospitality, said our goodbyes, and took the bus ride home. And full of food, I slept like a rock that night.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

American Food and Chuseok: Part 1

For some sort of project, I was asked by a teacher a few days ago to identify America's "traditional" food. For instance, China, despite being a nation with many regional differences, has Peking duck as their official food. I had no idea what to say. My first thought was hamburgers and pizza, both of which are not really American but in my opinion "perfected" by America. Nachos came to mind. I thought they were invented in a Texas bar, but according to Wikipedia it was a restaurant just across the border in Mexico. Apple pie seems like an obvious choice but it turns out the phrase "American as apple pie" really started as an ad campaign. Apple pie has been around for ages and we don't even produce the most apples, China does. One website that listed American foods listed the American style chinese food. Innovative, but too culturally specific, and nothing to be proud of either. Philly cheese steak, pasties, gumbo? All too regional. I was at a loss.

Then it occurred to me: Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, was this weekend. Thanksgiving! That's it! American Thanksgiving is celebrated almost exclusively by eating turkey, an exclusively American bird on an exclusively American holiday. By the way, a teacher told me that in Korean, the turkey is called chilmyeonjo (칠면조 ), which translates literally as "seven-faced bird". Wikipedia says "This is said to reflect the ability of the bird, particularly the male, to change the form of its face depending on its mood." I seem to remember the teacher giving me another explanation, but I cannot remember what it was.

Researching food in the office lead me to show one of the Chinese teachers what American Chinese food is like. She was horrified. I showed her a video of a large Chinese buffet on YouTube. I told her this was one of the better buffets. Also, I love how every Chinese buffet has awful looking pizza that is apparently there only to punish picky eaters. I had some difficulty describing fortune cookies as well.

As I said, Chuseok was this weekend. Since I didn't have any plans, the Chinese teachers invited us to their Thanksgiving dinner to have authentic homemade Chinese food. It turns out China and Korea celebrate on the same day. However, I'm going to save the dinner for a different post. Right now I would like to focus again just on the Chuseok holiday.

Chuseok is a pretty big deal in Korea. We get Saturday through Wednesday off from work, with the actual dinner held on Sunday. Chuseok I was told is a celebration of the full moon being its largest, but I am not sure that is entirely true. Either way, it is the beginning of Fall and a harvest feast. I was not told of any legend or story about the founding of their holiday like we have, but there are plenty of ancient traditions. Generally families go back to their parents' house to eat and often spend the night. Many families will pray to their ancestors to show respect and give thanks on this day. Christian Koreans do not typically do this. A Korean teacher friend offered to serve us songpyeon, the traditional holiday rice cake as well, but unfortunately she did not have time. For further information, check out this website.

We recently talked in class about the word "oblivious." As an example, I told the students that I was rather oblivious to Chuseok for a while. One day, I walked into HomePlus to find that the grocery aisle was filled with gift boxes of various kinds. There were shampoos, mixed nuts, fruits, wines, and Spam to name a few examples. These boxes were all rather pricey. I learned that this all had to do with Chuseok tradition. For the most part, these boxes were given by employers to their employees. However, children give their parents these as well. One teacher told me it is common to just re-gift the box that your employer gave you to your parents.

Of all the gift boxes, Spam seemed to be the most common. I asked the students about these. Most of them loved Spam and laughed when I brought up the amount of Spam in the store for the holiday. In one class it occurred to me that they didn't know Spam was American! Spam was such a staple in Korea and so associated with Chuseok that this was quite surprising to them. To be fair, I told them I didn't know Samsung was Korean until I got here.

This lead to an interesting discussion. We talked about how Spam is American but Americans by and large don't like Spam. Most of us, myself an exception, find it disgusting and either hate the taste or refuse to even try it. They found this pretty funny. I told them about the Spam Museum in Minnesota, how there is a lady that walks around giving out free samples.

I am guessing Spam's success in Asia has a lot to do with the American military presence after World War II. For instance, Korea has a food called Army soup that includes Spam and a lot of cheap, delicious ingredients that were available during the Korean War. It is still popular today, but I have not had the chance to try it yet.

One last thing for now about American food. My mom sent me cookies and root beer a while ago. She sent root beer because for some reason root beer is not popular in many places around the world, including Korea. After having so many cultural experiences here, I felt obligated to give back and expose my co-workers to root beer. I decided to buy some ice cream and make root beer floats the Friday before Chuseok. The reactions to root beer were interesting. Many were initially nervous because of the word "beer" and wondered why I brought alcohol to school. One thought it tasted kind of like Dr. Pepper. My head teacher was disappointed no one introduced root beer to her when she was in the United States for college. Some felt it tasted an awful lot like a Chinese traditional cold medicine, which is interesting considering root beer's history as a medicine. Most of them really enjoyed it I think, but one of the Chinese teachers did describe it as "not so bad." I'm guessing she really associated it strongly with medicine flavor. Either way, it was a great time. The principal and vice principal even came up to give it a try.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Learning the Language

I have not posted in a while and it is actually only recently that several different small topics for writing have emerged. For this first short post, I would like to focus on learning the language.

For the past several months I have not read much at all in Korean. I was not taking language learning seriously. Once I learned the absolute, most basic phrases and numbers I mostly stopped. Only recently have I started to make an effort outside of picking up words here and there. I think I started again because it sank in that I am going to be here for a while. 

Not knowing how to read takes me way back to when I was young. I have that same lost feeling I had as a child, guessing at what things could mean, making up my own sort of folk language and names for things because I didn't know how to read. For example, when I was young I remember seeing an advertisement for Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I knew what 2 meant, but could read nothing else. I remembered the first game only had one "kitty" on it, but now the second game had two "kitties" on it, and I recall thinking that must be why the 2 was in the title. My first few weeks here I did something similar; I started renaming local streets after landmarks so that I could memorize directions better. I hate feeling so lost, especially when I can do something about it.

I joined a language exchange in Bupyeong called "Culcom." Foreigners can join for free and pair with a Korean, typically a college student. It has been a great way to meet cool Koreans and I have been to the baseball game and the city park so far with friends I have made from this organization. Partners meet twice a week for two hours each time. One hour is for learning English and the other for Korean. I recently had to switch partners because she got busy with a graphic design project, but I was supposed to teach her verb phrases and idioms, while she started teaching me the basics of reading and vocabulary. I now know most of the alphabet. It takes me a long time to read Korean, but I can do it. Each Korean character still feels like three characters to me. I will show a picture from Homeplus grocery store to explain. 

You can see above how each character of hangul is three pieces. The Lotte off-brand, it turns out, spells "luncheon meat." Each character reads from left to right and then top to bottom. This is a fairly basic example. I'm really just starting, but it's interesting how many things, especially American products, are actually in English. By the way, Spam is fairly expensive in Korea, over 4,000 won ($4) a can. (More on Spam later)

I think you can see how this language can be slow for reading until you start internalizing each character combination. However, I was looking for a restaurant with a friend from the U.K. the other night who has been here a few years and he noticed the hangul  restaurant sign before the English!

I have also had some difficulty with pronunciation. I have lot of trouble with the "s" sounding character. There are actually different "s" sounds. One is supposed to be soft and the other hard. I can't articulate the difference yet. My last couple meetings I probably spent about fifteen minutes with my partner literally like this:

Me: Sa
Her: No, sa.
Me: Sa.
Her: Sa.
Me: Saa?
Her: Saa.
Me: Sa.
Her: No, sa.
Me: Sa.
Her: Yes, that's right. Sa.
Me: Sa.
Her: No, sa. Say it like you said it last time.

The same happened for the "ga" and "ka" sound. There is actually a consonant in Korean that seems to exist somewhere between the two and I haven't quite got the hang of that yet.

One of the greatest boons so far to learning hangul has been my ability to read the class roster. I know, it's ridiculous and sad, but I do not know all of my students' names. I am embarrassed. It's great to finally be able to work at memorizing names. I have an app now to help me do that. It has been good practice for reading and for learning names. And the students really do appreciate it, even though I know they find it frustrating. For instance, one class, after I struggled with a few names, suggested that I give up and use their English names instead. I refused. They cheered! I really think knowing names is crucial in so many ways, I just wish my actions better reflected my beliefs. That being said, I have made a lot of progress in the last couple of weeks. I have told my students to harass me about it. Ask me what their name is outside of class. Get a little impatient. This has helped so far. Last time a student asked me their name I said, "Let me guess, it has two syllables right?"

This whole experience has given me quite a bit of humility. I understand from experience things like when they pronounce a word like "zoo" as "joo." Some have difficulty telling the difference between "r" and "l" because often there is no difference in Korean. Learning hangul has given me a little bit more insight into their pronunciations issues as well as my own.