Friday, May 28, 2004

May 2004.

My jacket smells like saltwater.

A long long time ago (for those who don't already know), my ancestors (on my father's side) were fishermen; many Ouwehand fishermen still live in the village Katwijk (the home of the original Ouwehand) even now. My uncle owns a boat, my dad wishes he did, and I'm never happier than standing on the deck of a boat, or piddling around a lake somewhere in a canoe. Lacking these, even wet grass on bare feet at least pleases me a little.

But last weekend I went on a ferry tour of Baekdo a remote island off the southern coast of Korea, with a group of forty other foreigners. This was WONDERFUL. It was a quiet town of 1200, suddenly filled up with a bunch of foreigners eager to have fun and excited to be on vacation (it was a three day weekend). So our excitement was reflected by their excitement and curiosity at having us, and basically, we spent the whole weekend feeling like celebrities or something. Kids followed me to the pier where I went fishing, asking me questions I couldn't understand, much less answer (though I made funny faces, and that seemed to suit them fine). I think they thought my name was Canada, until my friend called me crazy for making funny faces, and then they thought my name was crazy.

(No jokes about that later, please.)

So along with the language guesswork and funny communication attempts by some cute kids (who may have never seen a foreigner before; whitey doesn't often visit Gumundo or Baekdo), I had a gorgeous weekend in the fresh air. Korea's ocean is really beautiful -- the cold early mornings and ocean air make you feel alive, and the islands off the south of Korea, because of whatever geological quirk formed them, are often smoothed, as if they are very old, but very tall -- like the long canine teeth of a dog sticking up out of the ocean. They would be visitable, but only if you could put rock climbing gear on over your scuba gear. And there at the top are those grey-green scrub plants that sprout in such grey and green places, and the water sprays up on your face, causing what I can only call the ocean squint -- I don't think I squint quite the same way in any other place -- and later in the evening I lick the corner of my lip and taste salt from the seawater that dried onto my face.

I love the sea. If I liked seafood as much as I love the sea, I might end up in some port village, or as a fisherman myself. (Unfortunately, I don't have the patience for picking out bones.)

During the weekend, I met a girl who is, as JD Salinger once said, "A verbal stunt pilot" -- the kind of person who rewrites song lyrics to fit inside jokes. Her name was Edisa, and she was the first black woman I've spent time with in Korea (I've seen some, but there aren't many here; Korea remains surprisingly racist toward Africans and their descendants. Korea's a very appearance-oriented culture, and employers ask you to include a photo with your application is so they can avoid people who are ugly, overweight, overage, or coloured "wrong" (too dark). Sometimes schools won't even hire people with Asian background because it's not as "other" as having white teachers.) She was good with a comeback, and willing to let me talk out my random thoughts (of which I've been having many). Together, we came up with the dumbest idea for a restaurant ever. Worse than "so I can say I have", a place that sells all those foods you'd only eat on a dare, like prairie oysters, haggis and blood pancakes. How about this (isn't this ghastly?) -- "Poachers" - a restaurant specializing in dishes made from endangered species. The slogan (of course) is "Good to the last one!"

But before I can really set into this story, we need a bit of cultural background.

The older folks in Korea are called Ajumma (mature woman) and Ajashi (mature man). Ajumma can apply to any Korean woman over 30, and any man over 20, depending on who's addressing him/her. By the mid-fifties, because they've "paid their dues," I guess, some behave a little less politely than most other Koreans, and care a little less about the general courtesies that are either the grease that keeps the wheels of society turning, or the B-S- that keeps people from acting out who they really are.

Ajumma, especially, is also a personality type, and the personality connotations are not too positive. Unlike older ladies (50 and up) in North America (pardon my generalizations here), ajumma is the one most likely to shove you as she dives for a seat on the subway; she's the one most likely to be rude to you in a restaurant, to touch your white skin, poke your curly hair, grab your love handles (out of sheer curiousity -- look at how big those cheese-smelling foreigners get!), comment that you're writing in your journal with the wrong hand (I'm a lefty), and you'll sometimes do what they say, however unnecessary, just so they'll leave you alone. This is the impression many foreigners get of Korean ajummas. Some of us carry a downright bitterness and resentment of the mature set.

Here's a video showing how the mature set is often viewed here in Korea. Pay attention to the music style, and the over-the-top rudeness of the older folks.

Ajashis have a similar reputation; they, and young men, can be the harshest judges toward foreigners. The most negative image of an ajushi is a drunken, middle-aged man swearing at the top of his lungs, possibly starting fights with his belligerent talk, hacking up loogies and spitting in the street, ogling girls, and maybe propositioning blonde westerners by asking them if they're Russian (blonde Russians are often recruited to work in the profitable prostitution industry here). Here's a reflection on that kind of ajashi, from someone who's writes about Korea much better than me: just to show I'm not just blindly generalizing or being unfair.

Yeah, this is the most negative stereotype, but (I've discovered) it becomes really easy to judge people when you can't communicate with them and, by communicating, prove such judgements wrong. Judging goes both ways, let's not forget; once a group of ajashi ruined my day (and most of my week) by arguing over who had to sit next to the big-nose (me) on the subway car; one ultimately chose the other end of the car, away from his friends, over sitting by the stinky honky. That hurt, so I can understand how easy it would be to dismiss ajashis in return.

Anyway, that's the background; sorry for so much explanation. Now the tour group was on a ferry, heading out to Baekdo, the scenic islands, and foreigners were scattered around the rear section of the ferry, so that a few ajumma and ajashi had to sit beside foreigners. One ajumma took it upon herself to propose a series of seat trades that would clump all the foreigners together in the middle section of the seats. (I also noticed that one of the LEAST desirable seats was next to the African-American woman I mentioned earlier;) I started to wonder whether this wasn't a racially motivated attempt at micro-segregation. Then, just as she was getting more emphatic (she put her hand on my arm and rocked me sideways, as if to roll me out of my seat), and I was getting quite annoyed, this music came on over the speakers. It was ajumma music; I can't even describe it to you except that if you took the sample music on an average three keyboards/synthesizers, played them at the same time as a karaoke song track, faster, to a disco beat, and then added shrill Korean vocals with echo effects, you might have something a little quieter. It haunts the foreigners; we just can't understand it, verbally, musically, OR culturally, but somehow the mature folks in Korea LOVE it.

Here's an (inexplicable) sample.

So that kind of music comes on, and suddenly, this same Ajumma who was starting to annoy most of us is in the aisle, DANCING! Not only that, she pulls her neighbour up to dance with her, and then, gets one of the foreigners up there with her, too! The rest of the ferry ride was one long dance party, with fifty and sixtysomething Korean men and women doing silly dances (point your fingers and shake your shoulders and knees kind of stuff) with a bunch of twenty and thirtysomething North American (and Irish) English teachers dancing along. Add into this the hilarity of the bad music and the fact we're boogieing with people our parents' or grandparents' ages, and the TERRIBLE dancing ('cause there's no other way to dance to music like that except badly), and mix in the excitement of the fact NOBODY in the room had EVER seen anything even remotely as odd and unexpected as white kids dancing with old Asians to terrible music on a scenic boat tour, and it was enough to make me smile for a week.

And wow, those ajumma are energetic! The lady who started it all hauled just about every single foreigner out of their seat for at least a little while. My friend took a lot of photos with her digital camera; I hope I can send a few along to you.

And the best part is this: now, next time a drunken ajashi sits next to me smelling of Korean alcohol and dried squid snacks, and brays about George Bush and growls, "Yankee go home", or an ajumma behind me in line pushes, even though I have nowhere to go and can't get HER on the bus any faster by pushing the people ahead of ME (happens), or butts ahead in line (ALL the time), instead of silently resenting them, I can smile, because hey, I've seen the other side of that coin, and it's pretty fun.

So it was a perspective I think I needed.

(ever notice how if you look at the cut on one five-year-old's hand, suddenly everyone has a scrape to show you? Or if you wake one up with a short tickle, suddenly you have seven sleeping kids? Kindergarten's so much fun. It's really fascinating dealing with kids that age.)

There's this funny quirk in speaking Korean to Koreans; when one gets into a taxi or in most other situations, one says a few Korean phrases (most often something like "how much is it?" "I'll have two, please, to go" or "take me to the Hongdai district, please" and then, the Korean will answer. Conversations with Koreans always involve a lot of context guessing, body-language reading and general "usually they say this next" experience, but after a foreigner shows that they speak a little Korean, Koreans always answer with one of two things:

"Do you speak Korean."
"Your Korean is very good."

Both phrases involve the phrase "hangug-mal" (literally, Korea speak), but it's difficult (other than by learning more of the language) to read which of the two phrases the Korean is saying, so one invariably guesses wrong, and the conversation either goes

"Do you speak Korean?"
"Thank you."


"Your Korean is very good."
"Only a very little bit."

Anyway, I'm enjoying my school, mostly; a few people are a little more curt and blunt than I'm used to dealing with (which requires more sensitivity and grace than I sometimes have to spare after telling a class to shush a hundred times in forty minutes.) I've been tired lately, so I think my students are getting to me more than they normally do. My patience reserves are low, as is my annoyance threshhold. I'll be OK once I kick this long-running, low-grade cold, and sleep some, I'm sure.

I had a student ask if, at the end of the month, if all the students in the class did all their homework, we could do something special -- I said "What kind of special thing?" "Go into the playroom" (Our school has play room equipment like in a MacDonalds for the preschool kids). "You can't do that," I say, "you're too big to play on that."

"Teacher, not to play on it -- just to break stuff." I howled. Absolutely howled.

Seen on the spelling section of a multiple choice test:

"Canada's national sport is _______"
A: ********* B: **********
C: ********* D: Hokey.

The preschool students also laugh hysterically every time they see me blink. I'm enjoying work, though I find myself staying late a little more often than I think I'd prefer. (though that's as much my choice as anyone else's; I didn't realize how long I was staying at school until I commented to my boss, who looked exhausted, "It's been a long day for you -- you've been at school almost since I got here this morning!")

Yesterday I went out with my friend Colleen (the one I met in the snowstorm of my last e-mail). She really surprised me by asking me what I was angling for in our friendship. After nearly choking on an apple slice, I took about a full minute to compose my thoughts (I realize how unfair such long silences are to my friends when they ask such loaded questions -- a sixty second pause allows people who ask me important questions just enough time to imagine I'm about to give the worst possible answer, but that's how I am, so deal with it. I like to choose my words on touchy topics.)

But fortunately what could have been a can of worms (had we had different ideas about the friendship) was instead a simple, "I enjoy being your friend and I'm very content to leave it at that."

Such topics, even when they are cleanly defused, are still risky, and feelings can be hurt accidentally by wording something wrong, or seeming too relieved (or not relieved enough) that the other isn't interested.

Take care, all.

Much love and ocean sprays on all your faces (hopefully the real thing, and not just the aftershave flavour). Thanks for reading this whole long thing; I hope it was worth the time for you, and worth the typing for me.


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