Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Night on Cafe Street

Or that's what I'll call it anyhow. Streets in Korea, well in Daegu at least, are named after what they offer. In this strange economic model where businesses are heavily concentrated in a small area and somehow manage to survive, it's a rather amusing naming mechanism. For example, on my walk to downtown, I pass Motorcycle Street, Towel Street, and Jewelry Street. A large sign indicates that you are about to embark upon a thoroughfare lined entirely in motorcycle shops. Other notable streets about town are Cell Phone Street, Car Parts Street, and Puppy Street. So I thought, what better name for a street over-saturated in coffee shops than Cafe Street? Make it so, Number One.

My favorite brunch spot, daily bread, is found on Cafe Street. Also on the street are multiple modern, artsy-looking coffee shops offering everything from simple cappuccinos to full meals. On this particular spring evening, I planned to dedicate a few hours to finishing a book I recently began. (It was David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day. No, I don't usually like Sedaris. And though I didn't love this particular selection, though a few of the anecdotes were entertaining, I set out to finish what I began.) After a few strolls back and forth down the length of the street, I settled on a particular cafe that I'd stopped into before on my Quest for Waffles, only to discover that there were, in fact, no waffles to be had. However, they did offer what I sought at the moment, which was an excellent cup of coffee.

Khaldi Coffee is the most legit coffee house I've seen in Korea. You enter through a glass door in an all-glass facade: very modern, very chic. The interior is dimly lit (which I found unfortunate for my reading, but found just the right spot where the light was sufficient.) Pretty perfect place for a date. The high vaulted ceiling is reminiscent of an old Western lodge, with large beams spanning the length of the roof and really opening up the interior. I sat down at a table near the window and in front on the roasting room (yes! they roast their own beans in house!). I was given a menu and perused through the copious offerings of hand drip coffee made with beans from around the world, a true rarity in Daegu.
Cafe interior.
In-house coffee bean roaster. It look a bit like K-9.
Being particularly inept at making any decision when it comes to comestibles, I asked the server which coffee he would recommend, which was the best. He pointed to a offering that cost a rather hefty 7,000 won. For a cup of coffee. That's like $6.50 for a cup of brewed coffee. "Smell is flower." "Ethiopia, you know?" "Koke, you know?" I didn't know, but nodded in understanding despite my ignorance. After all, he was rather cute. But I thought what the hell, I'm here to try what they do best. So I ponied up the won and returned to my table to await my coffee which better be sprinkled with gold shavings, or at least come with a damn cookie. While feeling the initial pangs of buyer's remorse, I read to pass the time until my joe arrived.
Koke Organic: Take One
It did so about 12 minutes later in a small but lovely orange tea cup with gold filigree decoration on the inside. It was a proper, beautiful tea cup filled with what I hoped would be the best coffee I'd ever tasted. The server awaited my response, reassuring me that the "smell is flower."  I feigned smelling the said notes of flowers (all I smelled was coffee and money). I took a sip. It was good coffee, not the best, but good. I sucked it up and returned to my book.

I tried earnestly to savor the precious few ounces of coffee before they got cold. As I reluctantly downed the last sip, I thought, well, I guess I can still hang here for awhile and finish my book. As I enjoyed my personal time, I noticed a man enter the roasting room behind my table and set to work crafting blends of coffee. After he got through a few batches, he stopped by my table and asked, "Refill?" I was stunned and relieved. I said, "OK!" And after a bit of confusion and consultation with a server who spoke partial English, I thought we were in business for some more coffee. I was going to get my money's worth! Well, sort of. About 15 minutes passed and still no more coffee in my little orange demitasse. Ten pages later, the server arrived with a large, red, gold-rimmed cup of hot coffee. Thank you, Coffee Gods! Happier with my investment, I set back into my book with a renewed spirit.
Refill of Sighs
After I finished my reading, I snapped a few photos of the establishment (which had quickly filled up with patrons seeking coffee touched by the hands of Midas himself, or at least which bore such a price tag), and left with every intention of returning. Only next time I'll be sure to go with a more affordable espresso.

Sharing Is Caring

My kids drive me crazy sometimes. Like when they won't stop chatting away in the middle of class or insist on following me home and begging to take a look around my apartment. But most of the time, they are complete gems.

I never pictured myself teaching elementary school children. Most of those who know me were likely shocked when they heard I was to be an English teacher for small children. "Erin, children? Really?" But I've grown to love it, despite the occasional bad lunch and smelly classroom. One thing in particular never fails to brighten up my day.

Sharing is an intrinsic part of Korean culture, something anyone who has sat down to a proper Korean meal will realize. Small gifts, usual snacks, are commonplace. The classroom is no exception to this cultural trait. My students love to share with me, whether it's a small piece of candy or a bite from the partially-nibbled tubed ham they happen to be snacking on. I can't even begin to count the number of times I've been offered partially chewed upon cookies, but the thought is still sweet. I've received numerous drawings, slips of papers saying they love me, small cookies, candies, stickers, and even vitamins.

Found this on my desk during Winter Camp. From a lovely little 1st grade girl.

These little tokens are usually offered out of the grubby palm of a 4th grader and it presents me with a sanitary dilemma. Kids love to stick their fingers up their nose, in their mouth, back up their nose, into other people's noses, and highly dislike washing their hands. This is not an assumption, but a fact based on extensive observation. When presented with a vitamin chew from a starry-eyed 6th sixth grader, I graciously accept the gift and place it on my desk, making it seem I will save it for a later occasion. To the extensive illnesses I've caught while working down at the 초 등학교 (cho dung hakyo), I cannot risk ingesting the precious presents given to me by my adoring students. Regardless of the fact that I cannot enjoy most of these gifts, their generosity and sincerity always lifts my spirits, even if they have sunk into the depths of "squid and dried fish for lunch" depression. I've fallen into the habit of depositing each snack into the middle drawer of my filing cabinet, which now bursts a rainbow plethora of sugary snacks and Konglish notes. I only have to slide it open to remember why I am here in Korea, and that people here really do care.
Translation: Wavy hair hair shop. Erin Teacher I love you. From one of my 4th graders, Miss Yu Bin.
I will always remember these students as the kindest and most generous I've yet encountered. Though many of them despise the study of English, they have managed to get past the fact that I am the harbinger of phonics lessons and see me as as the "Sam" (teacher) they love despite my inability to understand their words.

Never underestimate the meaning of a half-eaten cookie.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Daegu-BETTER, Always

Here in Daegu, at least among many of my friends, we have a superiority complex. A very well-founded superiority complex, to be sure. Daegu is in the center of Korea, the hub of transportation. This makes it easy to travel anywhere in the country with extreme ease. We are an hour from multiple beaches! Daegu is in a valley surrounded by lovely mountains providing excellent hiking and touring. We have a thriving downtown with bars and restaurants galore. If you want a change of scenery, we have 2 uni areas to explore. And we have all this at a cheaper price than Seoul or Busan. Things are, from what I've found, a bit more affordable in Daegu. And did I mention our transit system is pretty excellent? Bus and metro fare is 950won with a transit card - that's less than dollar a ride! With free transfers! We have a great mix of the old and the new.

Really I could continue on forever on why I think Daegu is the best. This is, after all, Daegu-Better. What I want to highlight here, though, is my appreciation toward the city of Daegu, the Daegu Sports Council, and the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation, hosting their World Championships in Daegu this August). From a tipsy conversation outside the Viniroo cocktail-to-go stand when I agreed to run the Daegu 10k, to this past Sunday, I finally made the journey to my first real running race. And it was amazing.
That picture is exactly how I felt on race day. (The Korean says: Daegu Marathon Club)
After months of training, and then letting all of that work go to waste due to a month-long illness, the Daegu 10k on Sunday, April 10th 2011 came. I am not a runner and I kind of hate running but I stuck to my goal and ran this race with my best friends in Korea (couldn't have done without you guys). My personal goal was to finish the race under the 1.5 hour time limit. I did, although not by much but I am happy enough. There is always next time.

But my appreciation for the people who ran this race came about 2 weeks before game day. I was hanging around my apartment on a Saturday morning, sipping my coffee when I got a call from an unknown cell phone number. I answered and could hear the Korean spoken through my receiver coming form my hallway. I hesitantly opened my door to find a delivery man outside clutching a silvery package. I hadn't ordered anything to my house. Was this a mistake? The man, seeing my confusion, made some running gestures and said "maraton!" Ah, this was stuff for the run!

I eagerly accepted my swag and ran back into my apartment to tear open the pack like a kid on Christmas Day. Inside held my race number and tracking chip, a program for the event, and a backpack! Nice!

Fast-forward to race day. I met up with my friends and fellow runners before the race bright and early Sunday morning. The area was packed with people! Although the other runners were mainly Korean, I've never felt more welcome in such a big setting in my life. People left and right wanted to snap pictures with us and spirits soared high the whole day. As a very novice runner, I lagged behind my better trained friends and footed the race alone. Or so I thought. The entire race course was lined with Koreans holding up hands for high fives, offering encouraging cheers, snapping photos, screaming "fighting!," and a wealth of other encouragements. These guys definitely kept me going when I felt down and out.

Also to my rescue were the random Korean men who would run up beside me and try to keep me running their pace. As a foreigner in Korea it's usually hard to feel part of something bigger besides the expat community. During the race, we were all people just running together. It was a welcome unparalleled to any I've experienced in Korea thus far. The cheers and encouragement lasted all the way to the end of the race, when an ajumma pushed her way through people crowding the water table to hand me a bottle of water.

Once I reconnected with my friends, the welcome continued! At the snack stand, we got our snacks along with a participant medal (I was extremely excited about this, I haven't gotten a medal since college!) which I eagerly hung around my neck. After we were all be-medaled the guys and gals manning the snack area, a self-proclaimed ajusshi, an adorable middle schooler from Ulsan we met at the start of the race, and other various race-goers were so excited to snap pictures with us. I felt like I belonged there, that I wasn't some crazy foreigner but I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Photo courtesy of Miss Bridgette, my inspiration for running and the one who got me to run in the first place.
With the cool boy from Ulsan. He found us after the race!
So thank you Daegu and everyone involved in the 2011 Daegu International Marathon Race for making this waygook feel not so waygooky. I didn't know I could be so happy after running that far, but you made it possible. And I will never forget it. Daegu-Better, all the way.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I love my 6th graders. They are my oldest students, meaning that they've been with me since the beginning. They've witnessed my awkward transition into elementary education, let alone into Korea. They've also become my one-stop shop for answers on Korean culture. Of course my co-teachers can help me out with issues regarding daily life and language, but pop culture is an entirely different story.

I have a bit of a crush (as does every female in Korea) on the Big Bang rapper/"singer" T.O.P.
This guy. Is so hot.

So anyhow, he launched a solo-ish career with fellow Big Bang-er, GD (or G-Dragon). This KHip-Hop duo pumps out some excellent beats that you literally cannot escape in Korea. For example, while shopping for an hour on Saturday, I heard their song "High High" literally 8 times in different stores.

But my favorite release is their more recent "Knock Out," or 뻑이가요. It has an awesome beat and the video is wonderfully hilarious (Segways, puppies, and tanks!). However, I had no freaking clue what 뻑이가요 meant. Sure, the translation was "knock out" but what exactly does that entail? I posed the question to my co-teacher and was met by a blank stare. This needed to be handed over to the students.

So, after 5th period English class, I asked a gaggle of 6th grade girls about my linguistic query. They debated for a moment, giggled ferociously, then began to explain what it meant. "First time meet, love, big!" Ah yes. But in order to convey the meaning more accurately, they formed hearts with their hands, placed their hands in front of their faces, and began to move the heart forward and backward. Kind of like this:


And now I know, thanks to my very with-it, in-the-know 6th graders, I now know that 뻑이가요 means, essentially, "love struck," that a person a total "knock out" and you become instantly smitten. So pretty much my feeling when I first saw T.O.P. at that YG Family concert back in December...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Costco: An Adventure in Side Dishes

Koreans adore their side dishes. No Korean meal is complete without at least a couple tiny dishes of pickles, kimchi, and myriad other salty/fishes selections. Anyone who has sat down to a traditional Korean meal (usually sitting on the floor), is well versed in the art of side dishes. It is not uncommon to have a tiny table completely packed with an army of little white, plastic dishes filled with at least 3 kinds of kimchi, hot peppers, some sort of fermented fish, some sort of dried fish, bean sprouts, pickled radishes, pickled cucumbers, japchae, onions, and on and on and on. So it makes perfect sense that when Koreans are faced with a dining experience sans side dishes, they will improvise and find some way to make those side dishes happen.

Enter the Costco cafeteria.

Anyone who has paid a visit to a Costco or Sam's Club in the US knows that the price clubs also feature small cafeterias selling cheap, but delicious, American favorites like pizza and hot dogs. Costco in Korea is no exception. No trip to the Daegu Costco would be complete without a visit to the cafeteria for a slice or two of large, hot, American pizza.

You enter the dining area and are greeted by hordes of Koreans chomping down on reasonably priced pizza, hot dogs, chicken/beef bakes (giant breadsticks stuffed with cheese and beef or chicken), and clam chowder (I still don't know about this one). But something seems strange. At first I couldn't put my finger on it. However, after I ordered my slice of combo pizza and filled up my 500 won Coke Zero, I realized what was off kilter.

As I passed the condiments station (you know, the place where you gets onions, ketchup, and mustard for your hot dogs), I noticed a queue for the onion dispenser and a young high school girl grappling with the metal container. She was struggling to make the dispenser give her more onions to augment her already veritable mountain of diced condiments. After she was satisfied with the amount of onions, she moved on to the ketchup and mustard containers and proceeded to douse her onion Everest in sodium-packed condiments. This was strange to me. Did she and her friends order a bunch of hot dogs and want to bypass individually dressing them? Surely this was the reason.

The pile of onions, ketchup, and mustard. Um, where are the hot dogs?
I was wrong. Oh but was I wrong!

Fighting my way into the only empty seat left in the dining area, I noticed the diners to either side of me also sported their very own dunes of reddish-yellowish onions. And they were tucking right into these. I had to stop myself from visibly gagging but I forced myself to finish off my pizza with blinders on to avoid the salty gaze of those horrible hillocks. After an intensely uncomfortable meal, I headed toward the trash bins to dispose of my plate and on the way saw that every single person in the establishment laid claim to their very own plate piled high with hot dog dressings. And they were devouring every morsel.
The side dish from hell!
And thus ends the story of Korean ingenuity in the face of a complete dearth of side dishes. Although I personally cannot even fathom how disgusting shoveling spoonfuls upon spoonfuls of the stuff into my mouth would taste (let alone the aftertaste - onions stick with you!), the Korean patrons of the Daegu Costco see it as a treat of sorts. Perhaps they didn't notice the way the onion dispenser disallowed them from building their pile of onions with ease (it's a crank shaft dispenser that allows only a small amount of diced toppings out at a time - perfect for hot dogs!). And maybe this is what they think is commonplace for price club dining across America (Western cuisine is extremely fashionable). I just hope this trend never catches on in the US. Ever.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Washing Machine Story: Part Deux

I am having a very hard time coming to terms with the wealth of talking washing machine stories in my 6th grade English book. Ok, so the first installation of "A Washing Machine Story" was fine. Although intensely bizarre and entirely unrelated to the curriculum in any way, I could tolerate it. But then flipping to today's lesson and discovering this was yet another story about a talking washing machine giving positive reinforcement to the family's laboring was just too much for this waygook to take!

Here is our riveting sequel:

"My dad's socks are in the washing machine.
My dad's socks smell really bad. I know why.
He works hard every day for our family.
He puts his socks in the washing machine.
It smiles and says, 'Thank you for working hard.'"

Is this washing machine a cheeky bastard or what? Also, how does this kid just know
why his dad's socks are in the washer. Maybe he stepped in mud? Maybe he went on a run? There are myriad options that could explain the reason behind his sullied socks. But beyond the kid's implied psychic abilities and the washer's insolent attitude, why are we concentrating so very much on smelly socks in a chapter entitled, "Where is York Street?" This chapter focuses on giving and understanding directions (i.e.- The bank is behind the school. Turn left at the corner and go straight. The hospital is next to the Korean restaurant.)

Once again, I am entirely baffled by the obsession with a singular talking appliance. Now, if they were to switch it up a bit and concentrate on perhaps a talking oven or talking rice cooker or talking toaster (a la The Brave Little Toaster, a fantastic movie) these authors are so lazy that they can't even come up with another common household appliance! Needless to say, I am dreading Chapter 3's Story Time. I just looked. There are 4 washing machine stories. FOUR.