Sunday, September 26, 2010

A tracking device that squeaks

Parents occasionally lose children and children parents. They get separated in stores and markets for various reasons. Usually the consumer goods and marketing surrounding parents and children pull them apart. So far this seems to be universal. Kids get lost, it happens. The difference between cultures seems to be how to prevent this … In Moscow, the solution seemed to be to leave children at home or hold their hand tightly. In the States, one solution is the ridiculous contraption of a child leash, which securely tethers a parent to their child via a “cute” backpack that the child wants to wear. In Korea, I have yet to see how most parents prevent losing children, but one solution made me laugh.

As I sat with the director of my school, eating fastfood/junk from Korea’s version of McDonald’s, Lotteria, waiting for my passport photos to develop, I heard a slightly obnoxious ‘squeaky, squeak, squeeak’. I thought, what in the world is that?! It sounded like someone had a dog toy and was just trying to be annoying with it. I looked up and saw a small boy bouncing on his shoes … ‘squeak, squeak’ with each step he took, this squeak occurred. I couldn’t help but giggle. At first I thought this must have been a cruel joke played by a family friend. Give the child some squeaky shoes to aggravate his parents. Then, as I talked to my director, and she made the comment that you sure wouldn’t lose your child that way, I realized she was right. What a hilarious tracking device.

The boy especially enjoyed the amused faces of people around him when they noticed he was making the noise. Looks of surprise, smiles, and laughter were the reaction, and he responded to this amusement accordingly by making louder squeaks, longer squeaks, and running around more than needed. While in some circumstances this noise would have caused much annoyance, the idea that this little kid squeaked with every step continued to make me laugh. Something tickled a funny bone, and I couldn’t help but laughing the entire time the child was around. What a great solution to keeping track of a wandering child. Though I guess the parent would need to be prepared to endure performances of squeaking!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Life as a foreigner

The first couple days I was here, I definitely was in the honeymoon stage. The people at my school are super nice, my apartment is amazing, and being an “obvious” foreigner makes it easy for people to understand that I didn’t know any Korean, so they have been willing to accommodate. Yet, being an obvious foreigner also has its drawbacks, and my first experience of being considered something other than human was when the honeymoon stage began to wear off.

After my Starbucks, internet outing yesterday, I wandered around to explore the area of the city around it, called Samsan-dong. It’s across the river from where I live and is has two huge malls similar to Gum or Tzum (Гум или Цум) in Moscow. Because it is Chuseok, the Korean harvest festival, many of the smaller boutiques I found were closed, which is probably a good thing since I need to wait until I get paid to go shopping. After wandering this part of town with people staring but otherwise being generally polite, I wandered back over to the Lotte Department Store (one of the Gum type places, where they sell Dior, Chanel, etc.) At the main entrance of the building is a large courtyard, and I walked out to the courtyard, found a bench, and sat down. Something interesting had popped into my head that I just needed to write down, and the courtyard seemed inviting enough.

I had not been sitting there for two minutes when a man sat next to me. I didn’t even look up, because in Moscow people do this because there is no other place to sit and looking up may attract unwanted attention. Why shouldn’t he be able to sit on the same bench as me? It’s not MY bench. Anyway, I soon heard the distinct sound of an SLR click, so I looked up and realized this man had sat next to me, not because of a lack of other places to sit, but because he wanted his friend to take a picture of him with this white foreigner. He quickly left the bench after the photograph was taken and headed back over to his group of friends chuckling. It did not take me long to stop making notes, change my tone, and feel a bit violated. Would it have been different if he had asked my permission? Probably not. But in this circumstance I felt as though I were a tourist attraction, not a person. I should have shouted at them about how rude it was – even if they didn’t know English. I should have stood my ground so as to hopefully prevent this from happening to another unsuspecting foreigner, but I didn’t. I just got up a bit flustered and walked away.

Funny how the age of the man made an impression – if he were young, I might have blown it off as some kids having fun. If I were in a social mood, I might even have insisted that I pose with them instead of being bent over writing. But because the man was middle aged, maybe even close to forty, I just thought it was plain rude. I guess I have some tolerance to build and some standing out to get used to. In Moscow, I was usually assumed to be Russian until I opened my mouth, especially after having adjusted my dress and style.

As I thought back through my experience of the day, I realized that maybe I am being a bit strange. Most foreigners I have seen, in fact, most people I have seen are not wandering around alone. They are with someone else. They are protected by the oblivion of social interaction.

– As far as the staring goes, I also stare at foreigners … but my motivation is, I wonder if they are nice? I wonder if we could be friends?

Ridiculous comparison number three: Parking

In the U.S. we are used to organized, orderly parking. In fact, we are near obsessed with it. We have meter maids whose sole job is to make sure no one’s car has overstayed its welcome in a particular parking space or even a particular block. Nearly everyone has a story about themselves or someone they know who has parked temporarily in a place they shouldn’t have, gone inside for “just a second” only to find their car gone (towed and impounded) when they return.

In Moscow parking seemed to be a competitive, nerve-racking sport. Who can be the most creative with their parking? Who can squeeze into that last little bit of curb, even if it is on the corner of an intersection. Who can take up just the right amount of the sidewalk? How long can you double park? Multiple times I had students tell me at the beginning of class that they may have to leave to go move their car if they get a phone call. And when a car accident was heard outside, my students would jump to the window and look down to see if their car had survived. Aside from accidents which are unpredictable and a part of everyday life in Moscow, the policy was, if you don’t want a dent or worse in your car from double parking, leave your number on the windshield of your car. That way you can easily be contacted. What did people do before cell phones?!

So far in Ulsan, parking has impressed me. Not only are people fairly courteous to drivers who are waiting for a parking place, but even “scary” drivers seem to be able to squeeze into the smallest parking places. Parking spaces in parking lots are smaller than in Russia and the U.S. and maybe they have to be. Korea does have a relatively small landmass. It makes me wonder how the parking section of driver’s ed goes in Korea … if there even is driver’s ed! While there seem to be slight differences between parking in Moscow and in Ulsan, the surprising thing is that leaving a phone number is fairly common practice … only Koreas have come up with a twist on leaving a phone number.

When I got picked up from the airport, I noticed a funny little cross-stitched pillow on the driver’s side of the dash board. It was visible from the road and all around, and I thought, “Huh, that’s sort of a silly little pillow.” It reminded me of cars in the U.S. that are decorated with all sorts of things inside, from fuzzy dice to dancing hoola ladies to expensive, collectable stickers. Only, this pillow stood out because it was the only kitschy thing inside this van. Other than the pillow, there wasn’t any collection of things or junk on the dashboard or elsewhere in the van. I took a small mental note, and didn’t consider it again until I went out to find the bus the next morning. That’s when I saw another car with a small pillow on the driver’s side of the dashboard. When I got closer, I noticed it had a phone number. I thought, “Brilliant! Rather than leaving a crumby handwritten note that could be washed away by the rain or easily dismissed as an advertisement, Korean drivers have embroidered pillows with their phone number.” Wow. While the presentation isn’t something I would prefer, the idea is fabulous. After that, I kept noticing these “contact pillows” everyone’s was unique and some had “Sorry”, yes, written in English on them.

Perhaps we should adapt this practice of double parking and leaving a number in the U.S. Of course you would have to convince the government that there may be a better way to spend public funds than meter maids, and you definitely would have to be in a larger city than Blackfoot … but it’s an idea ;)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Comparing chicken in three countries


Russia: Small, lean, whole chickens

America: Giant, fatty, hormone injected chickens

Korea: ?? I have yet to find out. So far, I have only been able to find precut, prepackaged chicken breasts or thighs.

When I got back to Idaho in June and went grocery shopping with my father, one aspect of reverse culture shock began to sink in, and it had to do with chicken. This shock is continuing in Ulsan.

In Moscow, I ate a lot of chicken. So much so, that the when I visited my parents the first summer after living in Moscow, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I didn’t want to look at it and didn’t want to taste it. After another year of living in Moscow, where I developed fond memories connected to purchasing chicken, and learned how to butcher a whole chicken, I had gotten used to the size of chickens in Moscow, the freshness, how much fat they usually had on them, and so forth.

So, at the grocery store in Blackfoot, Idaho I was surprised to find, it’s nearly impossible to find a fresh, whole chicken. In Moscow the stores seemed to get daily shipments of fresh whole chickens, weighed them, bagged them and put them on the shelf. It actually could be a bit appalling how many chickens where on the shelf early in the day. In Blackfoot, a whole chicken could be found, but it would have been prepackaged and frozen, then shipped to the store. Additionally, I was shocked, disgusted and blown away by the mere SIZE of the chicken in the United States. They are huge!! Twice the size of a Russian chicken, they made me think of a small turkey with a lot more fat.

Chicken breasts are back to a reasonable size here in Ulsan, but I have yet to find a whole chicken. When I bought chicken at the giant hypermarket, which was larger than a Super Wal*Mart, all I could find was a package of about 12 pre-cut, pre-packaged, previously frozen chicken breasts or thighs … I will keep looking, but perhaps chicken isn’t big here or people prefer not to cut their own meat.

New location, new blog

Because I am now teaching English in Korea, not Russia, I've created a new blog. You can find "Idaho to Russia to Korea" at

Anyong haseyo from Ulsan, Korea

I landed in Busan and settled in Ulsan three days ago. I am currently without internet at home and without a cell phone - relatively minor glitches in an over pleasant experience. In fact, the situation might actually be a blessing because if I had internet, I may not have come up with an excuse to figure out the bus system.

Talking to the co-director and current native English teacher at the school, one would think the bus system must be incredibly inconvenient or complicated. When I asked each of them separately about it, my co-director told me she has no idea because she drives everywhere, and the native teacher said he simply took taxis. After this conversation and the name of my home and school written in Korean in a notebook (so I could get home). I decided that in my first venture to find internet at Starbucks, I would take a taxi.

I woke up in the morning, walked to the main road where I thought I could easily catch a taxi, didn't see any, so I started walking in the direction of where I wanted to go. Ahead of me I saw a bus stop, but it looked a little abandoned. When I got closer, I realized there was no map or schedule, nothing to tell me where the buses go and when they arrive. So, I stood at the bus stop for a bit, thinking perhaps a taxi will pass by and see that I need a ride.

Not very patient, I waited a total of one or two minutes before thinking, "Maybe I'll just walk. It can't really be that far." Perhaps because of the temperature or because I really had no idea where I was headed, I stopped at the next bus stop. Here there were people waiting for the bus, which is always a good sign, and I realized this bus stop had a computerized schedule for the buses. Yet, I thought, I still don't know what bus to take, maybe I'll just take a taxi.

But one did not come very quickly and those that did pass were no where near my side of the road, so much for trying to flag one down. I'd have to stand in the road .... so thinking I need to buck up and practice my tiny bit of Korean, I approached one of the people at the bus stop to try and ask where I could catch a taxi. Well, in English my Korean would have sounded something like this, "Do you know English?" but apparently muddled beyond comprehension because the woman just looked at me like she didn't understand. "English?" I tried. She made a motion to say sort of, so I said, "Taxi?" She didn't understand that word, so I repeated, but the pronunciation of the word must be a bit different in Korean. Finally I said, "Lotte Hotel?" Which is what the native English teacher and my co-director told me everyone will understand, and it was where I needed to go anyway. She lit up and started slowly saying numbers. I'm still not sure how I realized they were numbers as I don't know any numbers in Korean. I stopped her, pulled out a pen and paper and had her write them down. When the right bus came, she got on with me and even helped me get off at the right stop! It was fabulous.

In Russia, this may have happened. Though more than likely I would have had to find an old woman, a babushka, to ask a question like this and she probably wouldn't have followed up to make sure I found the right stop. Oh, and I would have needed to know the language ...

After I got off the bus, I walked to Starbucks and found the internet. I can't believe how dependent I am on this technology ... Great, great, you are thinking, but you may be wondering, how in the world did I get back? Well, I tried to figure out what bus to take, but ended up getting impatient and taking a taxi. I was hungry and needed to get over to the school. Taxis are a bit simpler than buses because I just showed the driver the address my co-director had written down, go to the place, looked at the meter and paid the money. Simple, but expensive -- about 5 times what the bus cost. I will be taking the bus most times. (Since then I have figured out the same numbers head back the same direction, so in the future this will be easy.)