Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Image Is Everything... And Everything is...

One thing is perfectly clear to me: in Korea, image is everything. Literally the way things look/appear/are perceived is what matters. I've now been to Seoul twice. There, people wear two kinds of clothes: 1) sheik, sophisticated, pressed business/casual wear (you will not find old or tattered looking clothing here) or 2) those t-shirts I wrote about last time with meaningless/absurd english words and phrases smothering the front. A westerner who's been here awhile told me Koreans don't care what the words say. They love the design and look of the lettering and the prestige associated with "using" the english language. I believe it. On TV, most of the channels are MTV and E! ripoffs (On a side note, we all get CNN, but NONE OF US GET THE SOUND--VIDEO ONLY. I forget, am I in North or South Korea?). The music videos and generation X programming are hilarious and disturbing. I was watching a break dancing competition show today. They called it "Black Battle". Yes, that's right. That's really what they called it. They actually, no foolin', as-a-matter-of-fact, called it "Black" Battle. Needless to say, the race of each contestant was Asian... But you have to remember, they truly pay no attention to the meanings of western culture trends, practices or symbols. They just want to emulate it all. And only on the surface. Its all based on what they see, not what they understand.

Korea has extensive public transportation. There are trains, buses and cabs everywhere. I can take a bus 45 mins to Seoul. From there, it seems best to use the subway. Seoul's subway system is clean, convenient and almost as extensive as New York City's. Subways are often packed. Most people are forced to stand, somewhat bunched. Elders are revered in Korea and it is customary to give an elder your seat if they're standing. No one says thank you (or "kamsummnida") if you do. It is expected.

When you walk around you quickly notice people walk through people. No one says excuse me or pardon me. If you bump someone, you just keep on truckin' and you don't look back. At first, I was put off by this. Now, I kind of appreciate the sparing of formalities. Let's face it, those can add up.

I've now been working at Gyeonggi (a Korean province) English Village (EV) for 9 days. To fill in some gaps from my first post, EV is an educational theme park built 2.5 years ago by the Korean government to pre-assimilate Korean Kids into western culture before they apply for jobs and schools in the western world. They have various practical classes ranging from basic written and spoken english to robotics to cooking to "going to the bank", etc. In addition to the teachers they've hired to hold these classes, they have about 20 or so "Edutainers". That's where I come in. I'm an Edutainer. I edutain. Edutainingly. Myself and the other edutainers, create, write, direct, and produce children's musicals aimed at entertaining the kids while we educate them on western culture and the english language. As a result, the shows are written and acted out in a very "in your face" way. Everything is, sometimes quite literally, spelled out to the audience. We also do game shows and various activites like line dancing and storytelling with kids at different places around EV.

You ever feel like a celebrity for no good reason? That's what its like for a westerner working at EV. Kids (average age between 5-15) will randomly ask to have their picture taken with you, have a "real, live" english conversation with you and sometimes, they even want your autograph. Keep it hush-hush, but some of them have actually met
Bea Arthur... or Nicholas Copernicus ;) Of course, any traveler whose been to asia knows westerners are generally placed on a pedestal. They want to be like us. Just like us. Thankfully, they don't understand us well enough to see us a bit more clearly.

... Ooh, random tidbit before I forget. In Korea, one eats most things with chopsticks, of course. However, its considered "unsophisticated and childlike" to eat RICE with chopsticks. You're supposed to use a spoon! No one seems to tell me why Koreans feel this way. From what I gather, this is a uniqely Korean quirk among the Asian countries. Just thought you'd like to know...

Back to EV... last week I had the delightful pleasure of being one of three judges for EV idol. Yes, they held a live American Idol knock-off show in a large concert hall filled to capacity with screaming kids. THIS WAS A TRIP. Some acts were solo, most were groups. Oh, and the names were wonderfully zany and meaningless (keeping in mind the discussion at the beginning of this post) ... the only one I can remember at the moment was "Narnia Cake". I think you get the picture. Most acts were cute but a bit boring. Each stood up on stage, semi-motion and expressionless, reading the lyrics off index cards. They sang everything from kelly clarkson to the beatles to metallica (there was a kid who actually sang metallica's "enter sandman" AND did a guitar solo in the middle of the song. he won.). One 3-boy, "boy band" group sang the backstreet boys classic "how deep is your love?". In mid-song, s
hamelessly trying to win favor with the judges, the boys shimmied off the stage to the front row where I was sitting with the other two judges and presented each of us with a necklace, attached to the bottom of which was a big heart with words written on the front. To the female judge, they gave a heart that simply read, "I love you". Well, no mincing words there. To myself and the other male judge, they gave hearts that asked the eternal question, "How Deep?". I never, in my whole life, thought the day would come when a 10 year old korean boy, singing the backstreet boys just South of North Korea, would present me with a cut out paper heart necklace donning the words "How Deep?". But, as remarkable as that moment was, my favorite moment of EV idol came sometime in an otherwise pedestrian period of the show. Two adorable 7 or 8 year old girls were singing some cheesy duet. I forget the song. One of them had cute little pigtails and glasses. I looked at her thinking, "What a little cutie. You sing it, little cutie!" Then, I noticed her shirt. I don't think I'll every stop noticing these shirts in Korea. I think they'll always be insanely funny to me. So what did it say? Ready? In big, bold, can't miss letters were the words, "EVERYTHING IS SHIT". Game. Set. Match.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

You Studio Me

I've been here 26 hours and my balls haven't stopped sweating. That's Korea--at least this time of year. Its 31 deg. C. (abt 86 deg. F) and humid. Not the worst humidity I've ever experienced (that would be anywhere in florida or louisiana) but in the world of competitive high humidity areas, this place is a contender.

Let's backtrack a bit, about 39 hours ago--that's when I boarded my delta/continental/aeromexico/korean air flight to Incheon, South Korea (Incheon is a port city located on the western coast of the country sitting at edge of the yellow sea. That's really all I know abt it at this time.) My experience on the flight consisted of three things: Boogers, B.O. and Bowels (we all know how I love my Bowels). The guy sitting in front of me had THE WORST B.O. I HAVE EVER SMELLED AND I HAD TO ENDURE IT FOR OVER 12 HOURS. The woman next to me kept sneezing and blowing her nose. I was under-rested, bloated and gassy. I had a middle seat. The guy in the aisle seat slept virtually the whole time and I kept not wanting to wake him (he looked like he needed to rest) so my gas just kept building and building. I needed a release, if you will. Finally, I woke the guy up and went to the bathroom only find a long line. I really needed to flat out fart but the flight attendants on korean air never leave your side when you're waiting for something or need something so it was either fart right at her at that moment or basically explode a minute later. I farted. I kept it quiet. But... it did not smell fresh. Still, sweet relief was mine. I moved my bowels shortly after. Anyway, needless to say, between the bloating, boogers and B.O., I didn't sleep. I did watch FIVE movies though! None were any good so I won't mention any of them.

At the Incheon airport, it took all of two minutes to go through immigration and customs. I was picked up by a car service and driven to Gyeonggi English Village (the place I'll working as an "Edutainer" for elementary and middle school kids). A few things jumped out at me on the trip up to English Village (EV). 1) Korea is SO GREEN. Everywhere. Lush. Green. Farms. Chlorophyll loves it here. 2) Korea is so hilly and mountainous. 3) Traffic, which I was warned abt ahead of time, is indeed awful. We sat at one intersection 15 minutes as a result of the combined effects of congestion, poor drivers and long lights. We arrived at EV, which is located in Paju (emphasis on the -ju... I'll refrain from jew jokes/puns :) around 7p local time. One of the first things I heard, faintly and at a distance, after I got out of the car, was gunfire. That's North Korea--any time of the year. You can actually see North Korea from various points close to where I'm living (there's even an observatory from which you can view it). Btw, I only heard the gunfire a few times. By no means do I feel unsafe or threatened. In fact, the Demilitarized Zone aka DMZ (ironically, a highly militarized area) buffers/separates South from North Korea, protecting the people of South Korea from their reclusive, hostile brethren to the north.

My friend and fellow edutainer, Christian, who I know from back in L.A. met me and my heavy ass luggage when I arrived. He took me to my new bachelor apt. Its small--not that I'm complaining--but, I'd say in total its no more than 200 sq. ft. It comes with a really wide sink, small fridge, a water cooler, a DVD/VCR player, a 21" TV, a desk, a clothes washer (everyone air drys their clothes her on racks), a microwave, free internet and cable, a small closet, a bathroom (no tub), and a full size bed that can be lifted up and slid into the shelving to which its attached, saving floor space when ur not sleeping.

I unpacked and settled in. Then I fell asleep. It was dead quiet at night. I like that. Being a little off, I woke up at 4:30a. I read for an hour and fell back alseep until 9a. Christian picked me up at 11a. We took a 15 min ride on a shuttle bus from EV to Daehwa where we caught the subway and took it to "La Festa". That's where I had my first meal in Korea--mozzarella-smothered chicken and mushroom risotto. Uh, yeah. We spent the rest of the day at Lotte Mart, a store a lot like another store here called E-mart. E-mart is basically Wal-Mart. I bought lots of little things from food to a fan to voltage transformers so I can plug in things from back home. Costco is also here. I may go there soon.

Tomorrow is wednesday, my first real day on the job. It will be an orientation day. I'm looking forward to meeting my fellow edutainers. Currently there are 17 of us total. From now through the end of august I get mondays and tuesdays off so I'll be starting my first five day work week tomorrow. I'm still really tired. My muscles are killing me from many days of packing/unpacking/carrying stuff. Oh yeah, when I woke up this morning I watched 10 mins of an episode of sex and the city. It was the one where charlotte dresses up like a man for a photographer who she then hooks up with but never speaks to again because of her embarassment over being too forward with him and miranda decides she doesn't wanna lose steve so she moves in with him... People seem to love wearing shirts here that have english written on them--the words making sense is but an option. I saw one shirt today that simply read, "You Studio Me". Ok, now my heads tired too. I can't believe I just moved to Korea.