Friday, October 22, 2010

Korean Alcohols I Have Known And Loved

Korea loves to drink. Korea loves a good bargain. Therefore, Korean alcohol is cheap. This works out well if you're more interested in trying alcohol than enjoying it. In my two months here I have made it a point to try different alcohols. Here's what I've imbibed (in alphabetical order for no good reason):

Cafri is fake Corona. Or possibly fake San Miguel, which is the Philippines' fake Corona. It is drinkable like Corona and forgettable like Corona.

Cass 2X
There are three main beer companies in Korea, Hite, O.B. and Cass. This is Cass' 2X beer, which is pretty much a useless brew because it only has 2.9% alcohol while all other Korean beers sit in the 5% range. The text on the can says (in English): "Extreme and exclusive beer for the explosive minds." Perhaps my mind wasn't explosive enough to understand it.

Cass Fresh
As you can see from the picture, Cass Fresh is the "Sound of vitality." In this case, vitality is carbonation. Cass is highly carbonated. It's the Fresca of beers.

Cass Red
If Cass Fresh is the Fresca of beers, then Cass Red is the Mountain Dew. With an alcohol content of 6.9% and a surprisingly sweet flavor, it's designed for getting the job done as quickly as possible. Seemingly only available at convenient stories.

Hite is far and away the most popular beer in Korea. It's what most restaurants serve, either on tap or in bottles. It's bland like most Korean beers, which are brewed with rice as a main ingredient. That being said, Korean beer tastes really good when paired with Korean food, or when mixed with soju, Korea's answer to vodka. (Mixing beer and soju, called some in Korean, is not recommended for beginners and often results in hand-holding with your male co-teachers and dreams in which you've woken up from a black-out to find your arms covered with Korean prison tattoos.)

No, your eyes do not deceive you. That is beer in a plastic bottle. And yes, it tastes terrible that way.

Hite D
I'm actually drinking this right now. And not only because of the taste, which is strikingly similar to what you or I would call "beer." It's also because I prefer to "Refresh your spirits. Break away from the daily grind. Hite D is brewed with our exclusive Dry Finish process using the select dry yeast."

Foreigners like to joke that Hite rhymes with shite.

This is makgeoli, an unfiltered rice wine not unlike nigorizake, if you know what that is. It's cloudy and sweet and, well, comes in a plastic bottle. It's apparently popular with young people and farmers, and I read it's got a following in Tokyo as well (but then again what doesn't). This particular bottle was around $1.50, carbonated (not common) and nasty. I'm ready to be converted, really, but this brand isn't going to do it.

Max is a sub-brand of Hite. Foreigners seem to like it but there's something odd about Max to me. It tastes like they added some artificial citrus flavoring or something. That won't stop me from drinking it if I'm out and that's what they have on tap but you won't find me kicking it at the Family Mart with a 1000ml plastic bottle of Max. At least, not any more.

This, dear readers, is a pitcher of beer. It holds 5000ml of beer. That's 5 liters. It's almost too much. You're really working to get that last liter down.

Bokbunjaju Black Raspberry Wine
Koreans make alcohol out of all kinds of things, including black raspberries. This is actually really delicious and is a lot more like grape wine than I expected. It's sweet but not cloyingly so, like a dessert wine. (A friend warned me to stay away from this brand, the most common, as people have gotten sick from it. Oops.)

Here it is: soju, the national drink of Korea. What vodka is to Russia, sake is to Japan, and wine coolers are to teenage girls, this fine drink is to the Land of Morning Calm. It doesn't always come in a juice box but I'm partial to booze served in child-size portions. Man do I miss drinking Oni Koroshi sake from a juice box in Japan. Anyway, soju tastes like sweet, sweet lighter fluid and will knock you on your can. I avoid it as much as possible.

Style S
This is diet beer. With fiber in it. It tastes like liquid smoke. I bought a six pack of it. I'm an idiot.

Tesco Imported Premium Lager
My local grocery store is somehow related to Tesco, the UK supermarket chain. This is nice in that I have access to decent breakfast cereal and spaghetti sauce. I also have access to stuff like this. I bought it because it says, "Continental strength." So exotic. So forgettable. So Tesco.

And there you have it. Quantity over quality. Power over finesse. Me over the toilet bowl. Thank you and good night.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

DJ's Take Control

I like teaching. For the most part. I have one class that's been a real challenge. All of my classes have their share of class clowns but, for the most part, I'm in on the joke. I think their antics are hilarious and as long as it doesn't derail the class, I love it. But that one class, oh man. There are two kids who sit in the back and run things. I'm not in on the joke—I'm the butt of the joke. And for 6 weeks I've been putting up with it because I didn't really know what to do was intimidated.

Standing in that class, my high school days came rushing back to me. Suddenly there I was, powerless to stop some cool kid from stepping on my shoes or making fun of me in the halls. All I could do was smile like a chump and hope he went away. And that's what I was doing in this class, and as long as I kept it up they would never respect me.

So today I decided it was time to take control.

All morning, I started chanting "I'm the boss" in my head. Pretty soon it had a backing beat, a steady house kick and Chicago acid house bass line. The voice dropped an octave and started to sound pretty scary. There was no way these punks could mess with a song like this.

It's the same tactic I would take when DJing and I was losing the crowd. Did I flounder around, worried that I was losing control and hope they would come back to me? Sometimes. But usually I would grow a pair, throw on a kick-ass record and command the crowd to come back.

Here's how I did it with my class:

The first thing I did was make everyone stand up. Now they were awake. I made them say what their favorite song was and wouldn't let them sit until they had said it. Power was thus transferred back to me.

Next, I made sure my Korean co-teacher was very involved. My first-grade high school classes are organized by ability. This class isn't the lowest but they act like it, and I'm pretty sure the other teachers treat them like it too. So I made sure my co-teacher did a lot of translating. The kids stayed more interested. I mean, it makes sense. You'd get bored and start goofing off too after 10 minutes of not understanding what was being said. The teacher seemed to like being involved too.

Third, I tried to make the lesson interesting. The topic was idioms in pop music, so I showed a few music videos, including a Korean one (Wonder Girls' "Nobody") and one that has been turned into a Korean song and is currently a huge hit (B.o.B's "Nothin' On You"). I had a game in the middle of the lesson and a few group activities. They stayed active and focused and then the class was over.

I don't know if I have their respect yet but I certainly have my self-respect back. And if they step out of line again I won't be afraid to discipline them. First, those two clowns are getting separated. Next, they have to stand in the hall. And if that doesn't work, well, there are Korean teachers ready to discipline them who are a hell of a lot meaner than I am.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Nana Everywhere

My grandmother, whom we called Nana, was one of a kind. She grew up on a farm in the Ozarks in Missouri, near the Alabama border, the daughter of a Scottish immigrant and a Cherokee woman. As long as I knew her (she died in 2004) she favored the same style: bold print polyester shirts and slacks, her hair cut short, permed and dyed black. She didn't really look like anyone else's grandmother. She had her own style. Nana style.

Nana with my brother and I in the late '90s. By this time she had pretty much stopped dying her hair.
So imagine my surprise when I arrived in Korea and found that my Nana's style was the style for old ladies. And when I say the style, I mean it. There is no variation. All of the halmoni (grandmothers) here dye their hair black and wear it short and permed, and they favor bold print shirts and slacks. They're even her same size: tiny! My Nana is everywhere.

Nana style at the bus stop.
I really miss my Nana. She and my grandfather, whom we called Joe, lived nearby, so my brother and I often stayed with them while my parents went out of town. We were pretty close, and since she passed there's been a Nana-shaped hole in my life. But now I can see her everyday.

It's wonderful.

Signs That Signify Nothing

So there I was, waiting for the bus to take me school. I almost didn't see it, the English writing on the back of the person in front of me. English is so ubiquitous on clothes here I don't even bother to read it any more, funny though it can be in a nonsensical way. But this was not nonsensical. This made a whole lot of sense. Here's what it said:

H.R. – Throat
Dr. Know – Guitar
Darryl – Bass
Earl – Drums

In case you don't know, this is the credits text from a Bad Brains album. And in case you don't know, Bad Brains are an incredibly influential black, Rastafarian hardcore punk band from D.C. who released albums in the early '80s. What is a twentysomething Korean out in the boonies doing with a Bad Brains shirt? What, indeed.

Here's the shirt.

It was put out by an American skateboard clothing company called Supreme a few years ago. The brand is popular in Japan, where it has more stores than in the US. Apparently it's also popular in Korea. I've noticed a lot of my students wearing the brand. Supreme is legit, and chooses bands and artists like Bad Brains and The Clash that it considers important for its clothes. The bands themselves often supply the artwork.

The choice of Bad Brains for a skateboard company is obvious. That it should be popular in rural Korea, where no one skates, let alone listens to early '80s hardcore punk, is not so obvious. And here's where the bizarre part of globalization comes in: the brand itself is popular, no matter what is on the shirt. A brand that specializes in repurposing classic album art and band logos as a kind of homage has become popular with people who have no idea who these bands are. It's like buying a painting—an expensive painting—because you like the frame.

For someone like me, who is familiar with Bad Brains, seeing a piece of their album replicated on the back of a T-shirt invokes a very specific reaction. But for the person who bought the shirt because of the brand? There is no reaction. To them, it's a sign that signifies nothing. It's just another part of the riot of meaningless English that swirls before them every day. I would have a hard time paying a premium price for what amounts to a fake Bad Brains shirt when I know I could get a cheaper version elsewhere. But to pay a lot of money for something that you don't even understand, with no emotional attachment to at all? That just boggles my mind.

Now if you'll excuse me I've just seen a cool shirt with Chinese characters on it that I want to buy.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Changing The Way I Look At Things

One of my reasons for coming to Korea was to have my perceptions challenged. Living in a country as different from America as Korea is a great way to challenge the way I think about things. On paper. When you're actually living through such an experience it's like having your teeth pulled—you recognize on some level that it's good for you but it's hard to see that through the blinding pain.

I recently had an issue with an ingrown toenail. It's been an ongoing issue, actually, but I didn't have time to take care of it before leaving the US. That's a shame because I had been seeing a really good podiatrist for bunion surgery. Actually, I think it's because of the bunion surgery, and having limited mobility for almost 4 months, that when I arrived in Korea and started walking a lot the toenail problem came back with a vengeance. I won't disgust you with the nasty, infected details but after a month of walking around in pain, waiting for my health insurance to be processed, by the time I was able to see a doctor things had gotten pretty bad.

The bus terminal, where my new doctor's office is.
I asked an English-speaking co-teacher to take me to the big new hospital by my house to have this taken care of. I assumed it would require surgery, having had a similar problem on the left side 15 or so years ago. But my co-teacher insisted on taking me to see his doctor, who, it turns out, practices in a dimly lit office above the bus station down the street from our school. Privacy is a concept not familiar to Koreans and so all during my consultation other patients traipsed in and out of the examination room, which was more of a wide hallway than anything else. I put my feet up on a table, the doctor said I didn't need surgery, his nurse swabbed it with iodine and wrapped it in gauze and they sent me on my way.

A few days later it started to bleed. After taking a look at my toe, which I was asked to display in the teacher's office, everyone agreed that I should get that nastiness taken care of. My co-teacher asked if I wanted to go back to his doctor and, assuming I now needed surgery and remembering the office and the Grand Central Station approach to privacy, I said I wanted to go to the big new hospital. "But my doctor has a lot of experience," my co-teacher insisted. "Hospital doctors are young." No, no, I thought. I don't want some horse doctor yanking on my toenail in barn-like darkness. Big new hospitals are better.

At the big new hospital, under bright lights and in complete privacy, a young doctor looked at my foot, thought for a few moments and then asked me if I wanted surgery. "Why are you asking me?" I sputtered out. "You're the doctor." He then had a long conversation with my co-teacher in Korean, which could be summed up as, "Let's wait and see." I did not feel comforted in the least bit, and my co-teacher doubted this youngster's skills as an MD, so back we went to the country doctor. There, in the half-light of his hallway examination room, the country doctor explained to me that prevention was the best medicine, and that even if I had surgery the problem could recur again in as little as a month. His English was pretty good but I wanted to make sure I absolutely understood what he was saying so I asked him the same questions repeatedly in different ways, and he patiently answered them all. "The bleeding is a sign that the toenail is healing," he explained. That's all I needed to hear. My fears were allayed.

When I got back to school, my toe once again swabbed in iodine and wrapped in gauze, I relayed to my co-teacher what the doctor had said. "You were right," I told him. "That doctor is great. He really made me feel at ease." And as my co-teacher headed off to his next class, I added, "From now on, he's my doctor too."