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A Night of Panic in the Land of the Morning Calm

“Can I buy ye a green beer, or perhaps dance a jig with you on the dance floor, lovely lady?” asked a man dressed from head to toe in green.

“No thanks,” I politely responded.

“Oh, come on, darlin’,” the man continued in hist best Irish accent.

I looked into his bloodshot eyes. “It’s just us girls tonight,” I said.

He stared back at me, drool seeping from the sides of his mouth, sweat dripping down his overgrown sideburns–his feet planted into the ground.

I was disgusted. This was the third time I’d had this conversation in the past hour; someone had spilt whisky and Coke onto my dry-clean-only dress; and I was getting dirty looks from the girls across the bar wearing jeans and giant green beads.

So much for the highly anticipated “single and fabulous” night out I’d planned.

A week earlier, forgetting all about St. Patrick’s Day, I had sent a Facebook message to a handful of girlfriends, inviting them to a night of tapas and martinis, to help my sister mend her newly broken heart. “While some might see this breakup as a negative, I think we should see it as a celebration–an opportunity to experience new and different things–a chance to grab life by the balls,” I had written. The note ended with a reminder: “Dresses and lipstick required.” And a declaration, “Here’s to being single and fabulous!”

So here we were, in our frocks and pantyhose, surrounded by drunken, overgrown leprechauns–pink lipstick stains on our beer mugs.

It was time to leave.

“I’m gonna catch us a cab,” I told everyone. “We need to go somewhere fancy…somewhere fabulous!”

In a hurry to turn the night around, I left the bar and ran across the street to catch a cab. Determined to beat the couple heading for the same taxi, I did my best to sprint in 4-inch heels.

But I didn’t make it.

A few feet away from the cab, I lied face-down on the asphalt, crowded by people, blood streaming from my nose.

***

“You hit by autobike,” said the doctor in broken English. “Remember?”

“No, not really,” I muttered, trying to make sense of where I was, what had happened.

My sister came running to my hospital bed, tears flooding her face. She stood over me, too afraid to touch any part of my body. Her eyes were red, face full of worry. No more fancy lipstick.

“Everyone’s here, and your roommates are on their way,” she said. “Are you ok? I love you so much. I’m so sorry this happened. I just love you so much.”

She stood by me through the night, making sure I was ok–holding my hand as I walked to the bathroom, offering to wipe after I peed. My roommates and girlfriends fell asleep on the cold plastic chairs in the lobby.

This was definitely not the night I had in mind for my baby sister.

“Breakups are so hard,” I had told Carley a few days before. “I’m so sorry you have to go through this. Just know you’re not alone…I’m always here for you.”

***

It’s been a week since my accident, and Carley’s called and emailed me every day. She’s come over to cook me dinner; she’s done my dishes; she’s fed me medicine. She’s been my support system in a country 8,000 miles away from home.

Yesterday when we were watching movies, I asked her how she was doing with the breakup. “I don’t even want to talk about that, Jen,” she said. “The only thing I care about is that you’re okay.” Her blue-green eyes were filled with tears.

As I looked at her I thought, Carley didn’t need a night out to remind her to grab life by the balls. She’s a warrior.

And she made me believe that I’m one too.

 

Something’s Fishy

1915379_834575906082_4721189_nEvery weekend, my roommates and I try to do something “touristy.” And every weekend, we end up getting lost.

Not this time.

The moment we exited Noryangjin subway station, the smell of fish and saltwater guided us over a bridge and down two flights of stairs—into the largest seafood market in Seoul.

There, hundreds of fishmongers and women dressed in aprons and rubber boots greeted us in Korean and in English, trying to sell their fresh catches of the day.1915379_834575901092_65526_n

Flounder, snapper, squid, sea cucumbers, giant prawns, sea squirts, monster crabs and every kind of shellfish imaginable were displayed in neat little rows and pristine fish tanks. Some were even shoved in our faces—a sales tactic that didn’t fare too well with my vegan sister.

She wasn’t fond of the man who bludgeoned the fish we chose for lunch, either.

Call me inhumane, but the sight of blood running down the flounder’s scales didn’t stop me from watching the monger slice it into sashimi. Nor did it stop me from dipping it into a homemade garlic chili sauce and picking its bones out of the soup they made with its carcass.

Barbaric? A tad. But boy, was it delicious.

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Welcome to the Circus

“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen… I have a special treat for you this evening. All the way from Florida, U.S.A., I bring you (insert drum roll) not one, but two, blond-haired, green-eyed white people!”

I imagined the Korean man with his face pressed against the window of Starbucks would have said this if he spoke English.

But instead, just a deer-in-the-headlights stare—from him and about 20 others walking the streets of Myeong-dong.

My sister and I tried to focus our attention on each other, and our soy lattes, as cameras flashed and fingers pointed. But being a pseudo-celebrity is not as easy as US Weekly would have you believe.

So we laughed. Uncontrollably.

Three months of ogling and I still can’t get used to it. Nor can I understand why Koreans find it so unbelievable that a white American woman would take up residence in their country.

But it’s flattering, really. Well, besides the whole feeling-like-a-sideshow-freak thing.

I just need to remember to smile the next time a camera goes off…soy foam dripping from my nose is not a good look.

Does this country make me look fat?

Tales of a travel addict

Photo courtesy of Tales of a Travel Addict.

“You are very beautiful, Jennifer teacher, but you are fat.”

I wanted to end class then and there. I wanted to run home, bury my face in my pillow and cry. But the tears wouldn’t wait. I dropped my scissors, put down the construction paper turkey and cried.

I suddenly missed America—the land where a size six was normal—a place where every retail store sold clothes and shoes to fit my body. But alas, I live in Korea, where normal is a size 0 and a 6 is, well, apparently fat.

Last weekend I finally visited a jjimjilbang, or a public bathhouse. For two months I had heard nothing but amazing things about these hot spots—how the large baths contained healing ingredients like ginseng, green tea and clay, how some of the saunas reached up to 160 degrees. One of my Korean friends even told me about a special kind of egg you could only get at one of these places.

I couldn’t wait to rip off my clothes and relax.

But it’s hard to relax when hundreds of chopstick-thin women are eyeballing your naked body—watching your thighs rub together with every step.

It was humiliating.

There was, however, a bright spot…like a moth to a flame, a heavy-set American woman swam up to me as I was cowering in the corner of the carbonic acid pool. “I hated my first jjimjilbang experience,” she said. “But now I can’t get enough. Trust me, you’ll get over the whole being naked thing and learn to love it.”

She shot me a reassuring smile and walked toward the green tea hot tub.

Her butt jiggled the whole way.

This is Only a Test

“What’s that sound?” one of my students asked, pulling on my shirt. I quickly answered, “It’s probably an ambulance—you know, taking someone to the hospital.”

It wasn’t until I got back to the apartment that my roommate clued me in. “So, did you hear the practice alarms today?”

Once a month, the city of Seoul sounds its sirens—making sure they work for when North Korea decides to attack again. It’s been more than 50 years since the last shot was fired on South Korean soil, but to some, it feels like only yesterday.

A few days before hearing the alarms I visited Seoul Tower, the highest point in all of Seoul, to view its expansive skyline—a sea of grey apartment buildings and office complexes, surrounded by moss green mountains. A stable ominous fog hung over the concrete empire, making the fantastic scene more haunting than beautiful.

Through the lens of the binoculars I saw a modern metropolis—a technologically advanced, thriving city. In my mind I pictured what my grandfather might have seen while he was stationed here. I imagined how the South Koreans felt when they decided to rebuild Seoul. A tear fell from my eye.

The experience gave me a new respect for these people. It made me look at the hardworking produce man down the street a little differently. It made me notice how strong the owner of my school seems, despite her small, delicate frame. The old woman selling seafood pancakes on the corner never stops smiling.

And I smile right back.

This year may be challenging—learning the language, adapting to the culture, being thousands of miles away from my friends and family. But each time I hear those sirens sound, I’ll think of all the challenges the South Koreans have faced, and just how far they’ve come.

Korea by the Numbers

In the U.S., numbers make me crazy. In Korea, well, they just don’t make sense.

Take my apartment building…101. The building to my right, 113. To the left, 104. Don’t try to look for a pattern or make sense of this; addresses weren’t assigned based on location. The buildings are labeled in the order in which they were constructed. So if you don’t feel like getting lost in the second biggest city in the world, make a Korean friend. They’re your only hope, as mapquest and google maps do not exist here.

Once you reach your destination, if you decide to take the elevator, the buttons on the door will read: 1, 2, 3, F, 5, and so on. The number four in Korean reads exactly the same as the word death, so it’s not present in elevators. Many Asians have actually developed such a strong aversion to the number that the ailment has a name: Tetraphobia.

Oh, and, by the way, I live on floor F.

Something else I’ve learned: the kids I teach are really six years old, not seven as I was told. No, the school’s director didn’t lie to me; the moment a person is born in Korea they’re considered to be one year old.

That means I’m 28 here.

Better yet, when January hits, I’ll be 29. Koreans don’t wait for your birthday to slap another year onto your age.

I knew there was a reason I hated numbers.

You Want me to Pee Where?


Going to the bathroom in Korea is like receiving a box of Russel Stover chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.

Day two in Korea, still jetlagged, I had a 9:30am health check appointment at the hospital. A vision test, hearing test, lung X-ray and four vials of blood later, it was time to pee in a cup.

After being pricked and poked in front of what seemed like half of Seoul, a little urine sample sounded relatively painless.

I was wrong. My first public peeing experience—in a hospital mind you—ended up being in a ceramic hole in the ground.

What way do I face? Do I take my pants off? And if so, where do I put them? How am I going to pee in this damn cup with my skinny jeans around my ankles?

So many questions and so little time. My new boss was waiting for me outside the bathroom. So I planted my feet around the hole in the ground, shimmied my way-too-tight pants down to my knees and peed.

And not a drop of misplaced urine.

After the hospital I was off to see the school for the first time. And somehow, by the time we reached the building, I had to pee again. No ceramic holes, just miniature western-style toilets built for 5-year-olds and a few pairs of shower shoes placed at the entrance. I’m still not sure what they want me to do with these.

A few more facts about the bathrooms in Korea: There is no liquid hand soap. That’s right, these people wear masks everywhere they go and don’t allow outside shoes even at a gym, but they’ll happily share a piece of bar soap at their local watering hole. Sometimes you’ll even see it attached to a metal stick protruding from the bathroom wall.

Toilet paper, if there is any, is usually available outside of the stall. I’ve learned to carry tissue paper with me just in case. I’ve also learned that no matter what the bathroom may be like, sometimes you just gotta go.

Food, Glorious Food

Andrew Zimmern taught me that Korea is a soup culture, that its people eat squid while it’s still squirming. Anthony Bourdain gave me a taste of Korea’s street food and an introduction to soju. A 200-some-odd-page book told me all I needed to know about the different types of kimchi.

I had a laundry list of food items I wanted to try the minute I landed in Seoul. But twenty-three hours of traveling will make you do crazy things—my first meal ended up being a cheese pizza and a bottle of Coca Cola Classic.

Day two consisted of processed fish squares, fermented bean and cabbage soup, kimchi, Korean BBQ and a whole lotta white rice. Since then I’ve eaten jelly fish, seafood pancakes, octopus jerky, mandu, spicy rice balls, peppers so hot I couldn’t speak for 20 minutes, shaved ice topped with red beans and condensed milk, and more spicy cabbage and noodles than you can imagine.

Did I mention I’ve been here less than three weeks?

Other than the first night, and a few necessary MacDonald’s runs, eating in Seoul has been, in a word, interesting. I never know what the school lunch will bring, nor do I know what half the items are until already ingested, but it’s all part of the fun.

I’m just trying to figure out how these Korean women stay so damn skinny.

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