Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Korean Coffee Conundrum

I like coffee. I suppose I could also say that I need coffee. But let's not get into whether I am or am not addicted to coffee (am) but rather get into the meat of this thing: the coffee in Korea sucks. It's not like there's a lack of it either. There's actually a surprising surfeit of coffee. No matter where you go, no matter how small the hamlet, there will be coffee at every turn. And all of it will be swill.

Surely I'm exaggerating, you say. I wish to God that I were. The situation is incredibly dire. No, really. I don't often use words like "dire" but it describes the coffee situation in Korea perfectly, I believe.

Allow me to explain.

Although you might think of Korea as being primarily a tea-drinking country, being part of Asia and all that, the country has taken to coffee in a big way. There are coffee shops and cafes everywhere. Even my small town of Jeomchon has at least five places that I can think of that serve coffee. Go to a big city like Seoul and you can't stumble 10 feet without passing another coffee joint. So what's my beef, with so much coffee around? The coffee is invariably going to be bad.

Let's start with the big cities. Seoul has seemingly billions of variations on Starbucks, all with circular logos and frothy lattes and all that other unnecessary coffee claptrap. I don't drink that stuff. I like drip coffee, and I like it black. That means that I actually taste the coffee, not the syrup and the whipped cream and the fireworks and whatever else they're going to dump in there. I want a cup of coffee, not another meal. And when Starbucks is considered the top of the line, it goes downhill quickly.

This is assuming I can find drip coffee at all. Most places don't serve drip; they only serve espresso. This means I usually have to resort to drinking an Americano if I want something resembling a cup of coffee. Even coffee places that profess to serve drip, and have the hardware to do so, often don't even brew it. I can recall asking for a cup of drip in Seoul at 8 in the morning and being told they were "sold out." Right. You never even bothered to brew it. In my town there are exactly zero places that will brew a cup of coffee. Aside from my kitchen, of course.

But far and away, the majority of coffee consumed in Korea is of the instant variety. Pretty much any business has a small machine that, with the press of a button, will fill a Dixie cup with coffee, milk and sugar. Always with milk and sugar. Anytime you have the occasion to wait for some service—at the bank, while getting a prescription filled, at the mechanic—a cup of this "coffee" will invariably be pressed into your hand.

My school used to have one of these machines but it has recently been replaced with packets of instant coffee that also contains milk and sugar. My fellow teachers have given up offering it to me, as they do to everyone else, because I am lactose intolerant and thus can't drink it. This is always embarrassing at a business because it appears I am refusing their hospitality when I don't drink the instant coffee. For that is really what this is about, hospitality. It's a small symbol of the bond that unites the people in a community. I would love to partake of this bond. I would happily do my part and drink this sour, so-called coffee if it weren't for the built-in milk. I tried it a few times. The results were catastrophic.

I hope and pray that single press coffee will make it to Korea in a big and affordable way ($10 for a cup at a Seoul hotel doesn't count). In the meantime I will drink Americanos and politely refuse the instant coffee, bonds be damned.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


From the NY Times.
It's been a rough week. But not nearly as rough a week as it has been for the millions of Japanese affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster still unfolding in Japan's north east. For me, it's been tough watching the footage of all the devastation, reading tweets and Facebook updates and looking at pictures online. It's a mixture of sadness, helplessness and, I have to say, a little bit of relief, because I very well could have been right there where the tsunami hit.

I applied to JET last year, as readers of this blog will know. My top choice was Sendai, what turned out to be one of the hardest hit cities. I could have been there when the earthquake and tsunami hit. I could have lost my apartment and all my possessions, like one JET teacher apparently did. But, had things gone differently, I would also be there right now, possibly helping in the relief effort. It's hard to look at pictures from so far away and not be able to help out. I donated to the Japan Society Relief Fund (and I encourage you to do the same; the box to the right of this story will take you to their site) but it still doesn't feel like enough.

I had pretty much decided I'd be staying in Korea for another year before this disaster struck. But I for sure won't be going to Japan for any length of time for awhile. Japanese nationals are being sent to foreign branches of companies to work. Friends of mine who were scheduled to go to Japan to teach English or go to school have been told to stay home. Of course, not all of Japan has been affected by this disaster but I imagine that ESL positions will suffer nation-wide. Priorities rightly will be shifted for probably years.

For now, I will continue to enjoy living in and exploring Korea, and I will continue to hope that the Japanese people are able to overcome this tragedy quickly.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A New Semester

Today is one of my periodic desk-warming days. I don't have any classes to teach (they're giving mock college entrance exams all day) but I still have to come to school, so I'm just wearing a groove in my chair and looking for things to do on the computer. I brought the book I'm currently working through, "The Museum of Innocence," but despite a strong start I'm having trouble with the long, slow middle part. I'm even contemplating giving up on it but I don't have another book waiting in the wings. Let's see, today I've already looked over the lessons for next week, gone to the school store for an orange juice, drank honey water with some other teachers in my office, ordered some books from What the Book? to replace the one I'm tired of, and even updated my bookmarks in Firefox.

Hence the blog post.

It's a new semester here at Hamchang Middle and High School. I made it through the first week with no real problems to speak of. This is a far cry from my first week last semester, which involved technical difficulties, student difficulties and general difficulties related to working again after years of being in school. Now I have all around Teacher Confidence. I can navigate my way around the in-class video and audio systems, I can effectively teach, control and entertain students of all ages, and no longer get tired after a day of teaching. I do have a cold, but that's to be expected as I get one pretty much every month.

My schedule this semester is a bit different from last semester. I'm not teaching the third-year high school students at all. The first-year high school students are not broken up by ability this year, and to fill out my schedule I'm teaching each of the four first-year classes twice a week. I don't really mind as I like this group of students. I had a number of them over the break in my "winter camp" so I already know some of them as well. The other big change this semester is I'm teaching two teacher classes. Twice a week I'm teaching English conversation to any teacher that wants to learn to speak English. I've had one class already and am really looking forward to working with people who want to learn, rather than have to learn. I'm also going to be teaching evening and Saturday classes for overtime. It's going to be physically demanding, with long hours doing the week and the loss of every other Saturday, but the money will be good, and I think the added time with students and other teachers will be good for my own feeling of belonging, something I struggle with.

Overall, I'm feeling really good about this semester. I've been given a little more autonomy, now that I have some experience, and with all of the new teachers that arrived this term I'm not the newbie anymore. Some of the new, young teachers even defer to me as a senior, which goes a long way in reinforcing in myself a sense a confidence. I don't feel like the useless foreigner in the corner anymore. I feel like the useful foreigner in the corner.

And you know what? I may just sign up for a second year after all.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Noraebang Insanity

Friday night was the first teacher dinner of the new semester. I've been to enough teacher dinners now that I know what to expect, and know how to navigate all of the little rituals that transpire. If you've never been to a traditional Korean restaurant, you might not know that you sit on the floor in front of a low table, and you usually cook your own food over a gas burner. This time we had pork and duck, the latter of which was really spicy and rich. There's also a lot of drinking, of course, and although everyone encourages you to drink a lot, if you're not in the mood to drink they'll understand if you refuse politely.

Friday night I was drinking beer. I was enjoying myself but not "going for it" like I did at the previous teacher dinner, when I was drinking both beer and soju, the local rice wine. That night was fun but I really paid for it the next day. This dinner, like the dinner before, ended early and most everyone headed to the noraebang after.

Noraebang means "sing room," and from that you can probably guess that it's karaoke. Noraebangs are extremely popular in Korea. They're everywhere. In fact, there are so many that often the owners will hire touts to drive around, looking for revelers, and offer to drive them to their noraebang. You get a private room with couches, food and drink, two microphones, plenty of tambourines, and of course ear-splitting music.

This semester, our school got 11 new teachers, most of whom are under 30. This has resulted in a fantastic influx of young energy into the school, which can be a little on the "mature" side (yours truly included, of course). At dinner they shouted when they clinked glasses, and at the noraebang they quickly took control, cramming into the small space in front of the video monitor that displays the song lyrics and going crazy.

Come on feel the norae.
This is not to say that the older teachers don't get into it. This is my third time going to a noraebang with my school and people get down every time. Last time, I was twisting with an English teacher while the other teachers were pretty much moshing down front. Case in point: that's our school principle right at the center of the mosh pit in the above picture. But these new teachers, well, they know how to party.

Having been to a few of these events before, I knew I was expected to sing a song. I chose "Girl" by The Beatles, not the best song for my (horrible) voice but the perfect song for the situation. I had noticed that the four new female teachers were all lined up against the wall, so when I grabbed the mic and took my place down front I essentially had four back-up singers at my side. So when I sang the chorus, "Ah girl..." I would motion to them with my hand, and they would sing harmony.

I hung around for another hour or so and then, tired of drinking and the loud music, I walked home. It was a 45-minute walk through the fields but the stars were out and it wasn't too cold. A very nice night here in rural Korea.