Friday, October 29, 2010

In the meantime...

I've been posting about all the fun and exciting things that I do, but as I settle into life here, I'm finding that I do fewer and fewer exciting things. Rather than post less often, I'll just write about the mundane.

Last night, I made soup.

I'd been looking forward to Friday night all week. Not for the reason normal people look forward to Friday nights; I was planning to stay in, write some non-blog-related things, and watch a movie. Every single night for the last week and a half I've had something to do, and I was so excited to have a night to myself.

I stayed after school for a while to make sure everything was ready for Monday. Usually, I bolt out the door the second I'm allowed to on Friday afternoons, but that leaves me with a mess of a Monday morning. I took my time and finished my work before heading home.

When I got to my apartment, I threw on a chick flick on my laptop and decided I was going to make dinner. I've cooked in my kitchen an embarrassing number of times - like four in two months - so I thought I'd put on my domestic hat for an evening. I stared at the cupboard for a while. Cheetos? No. Granola bars? No. Oreos? Well, maybe as a cooking snack. Munching my cookies, I finally resigned myself to the fact that I would need to break into the one can of stupid expensive chicken noodle soup I had purchased "for an emergency." (I don't know what kind of emergency requires canned soup as a solution, but nonetheless, I was prepared.)

Turning on the gas stove is always an adventure; I never know if I'm about to blow myself up, but the flame started without issue. I set the pan on the burner to heat up and reached up into the cupboard. As my hand lifted in the air, a voice ran through my mind. "You don't have a can-opener, you dummy." It probably wasn't God since God doesn't call me a dummy, but I gripped the can and prayed for a pop-top. Hallelujah! When I pulled the little tab, only a small part of the can opened, like the opening on a can of pop. I looked inside, wondering how the noodles and vegetables would fit through the tiny hole before it hit me: I had bought a crazy expensive can of broth.

Opening the can set off a timer in my head. "I have to make something with this broth before it goes bad! And I bet I only have an hour!" The thought didn't occur to me to put the can in the refrigerator until I had more ingredients; I needed to make soup, and I needed to do it now. I pulled down a bag of macaroni noodles and started heating up some water. I'd make noodle soup! But I didn't have any chicken. I looked at the stove for a while, trying to decide if it was worth it to turn the darn thing off and go buy chicken. I finally conceded that it was, turned off the gas, and headed to the mart next door.

Ah, the mart. I purchase my milk there once a week, but other than that, I never really go inside. It's full of things I don't recognize, and while the man behind the counter is delightfully friendly, he doesn't speak a lot of English. I walked in and scanned the veggies first. "Chicken noodle soup needs carrots and celery!" I told myself. I found a massive carrot the size of my foot and a cucumber (because vegetables that start with the same letter all taste the same, apparently) and went down to the meat freezer. There was very little to choose from, and none of it looked like chicken. I pulled out the cheapest one and went to the man at the counter. "Chicken?" He shook his head no, so I went back and got another. "Chicken?" This time, he shook his head and waved his arms, as though my question had been the most serious thing he'd dealt with all day. Not having any other options, I held onto the meat and went back to the vegetable case, hoping this time there would be a magical bag of pre-chopped soup veggies I could just dump in a pan. That's when I heard some English.

Tiffany smiled and asked me what I was making. I proudly displayed my ingredients and told her I had a can of broth at home and was going to make soup. I could see her calculating in her mind whether I was serious. "So, you're gonna make soup with broth, a carrot, a cucumber, and some unidentified meat?" I debated for a second whether telling her that I planned to chop the carrot would make the "she's an idiot" expression go away, but I settled instead on saying that I also had macaroni at home to add. Tiff started taking things out of my hands and putting them away while she told me what I should do instead. She told me to walk to another mart, one that had a bigger selection, and get actual chicken, two potatoes, two packets of cream soup, and shredded cheese. After she ran through the recipe twice, I asked her where the other mart was. She was kind enough to not call me hopeless to my face, which I appreciate.

Remembering the open can of broth on my counter as a ticking time bomb, I practically ran to the other mart. I walked to the back and got my chicken then headed to the vegetable area to find potatoes. I know enough about cooking to know that red-skinned potatoes are better than regular ones, so I tried to find those first. There were three bins of grown-underground somethings: one held regular potatoes, and two held red blobs. Unfortunately, none of the red blobs were potato-shaped. I picked one up from each bin and considered them for a moment, imagining how disappointed I'd be if I got home and discovered I had purchased a radish or something equally not a potato. Choosing to be safe, I grabbed two plain potatoes and tossed them in a bag. I found the cheese and cream soup mix and headed home.

At home, I followed the directions just as Tiffany had given them to me, and after about an hour, I sat down on my bed with a steaming bowl of potato soup. I curled up with my blanket and finished How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, insanely proud of my ability to create something edible, even if it wasn't my own idea in the slightest. Tiff came up to check on me and my soup a little bit later, and I ended up heading down to her apartment to eat cookies and drink plum wine until we were both ready to pass out - about midnight.

And thus ends my thrilling Friday night in Korea.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wedding bells and beat-uhl-jeh

Last weekend, I got to attend my first Korean wedding! Hana tells me it was actually very Westernized, but it was still a stark contrast to any wedding I've witnessed in the past. Thus, it's going on the blog.

The wedding was scheduled to begin at 1 PM, but we had to arrive early to take pictures with the bride. We found the hotel with little trouble... okay, so Hana found the hotel while a line of foreigner ducklings trotted along behind her. When we got upstairs, the families of the bride and groom lined the entranceway, all dressed in their hanboks. I wish I could have taken a picture, but my goal is to insult the locals as little as possible, and photo-ops were a strict no-no. They stood in front of giant flower displays, not unlike the ones you see on gravestones on Memorial Day, and the flowers were draped with ribbons that had Korean letters all over them. I like to imagine that the flowers are symbolic of the way marriage kills your soul, and the ribbons were covered with warnings for the bride and groom, encouraging them to run away while they still had the chance. Unfortunately, one of the flower displays said "YBM" on it, which is the company I work for, so my guess is probably a tad off-base.

On the other side of the entranceway there were two tables; one for the bride's family and one for the groom's. At Korean weddings, there are no gifts and no registry. In fact, unless you sneak your card to the bride like you're passing off insider information on Watergate, nothing goes to the newlyweds. You choose the table whose family you more want to financially bless and leave your donation. Hana told me that most people try to figure out how much the dinner will be worth then leave a little more than that amount, but she also said our dinner was worth well over seventy dollars. The school had collected all of our gifts in advance to ensure that Sarah and her new hubby actually got to keep it, and I'm almost positive none of us gave seventy dollars.

We headed to the tiny room where Sarah sat on a stool waiting for people to come in and tell her she was beautiful. She looked insanely gorgeous, and she welcomed the cloud of blond girls graciously. The photographers fluttered around the room, snapping pictures from every direction like paparazzi at the Grammys. Had I been the one sitting on the stool, I'd have gotten annoyed and probably ripped of my dress and stomped out of the room (perhaps I have both commitment and anger issues), but Sarah just smiled and waved at her adoring friends and family as they paraded through the room to see her.

After the pictures, we headed into the reception hall to find a table. Although we were early, we were a little too late to get seats in the main room, so we ended up in the overflow room next door. For some reason, there were very few women in this room, but our table more than made up for the deficiency. We took pictures of the table and tried to sound out all the words in the program - effectively embarrassing the crap out of Hana.

The wedding occurs while you're already seated at the dinner table, and no one really pays attention. The ceremony was projected onto a screen in our room, but very few people actually turned to watch it. Five cell phones went off during the ceremony, and each owner took the call and chatted as though he were just hanging out at home. All the foreigners watched the screen intently, but Hana told us no one ever really cares about that part. People only come to weddings for the food. Once the food was served, I could see why.

I took pictures of each of the courses because they were just so daggone pretty. You should be jealous that you didn't get to eat any of this deliciousness.

Salmon appetizer that looked beautiful when it came out. Then I turned it into this:

Well hello little salmon man! ^^

Mmm, steak and mashed potatoes.

Definitely not wedding cake, but it had a layer of jello on top, which was cool.

While we were eating, the screen displayed fantastically beautiful pictures of Sarah and her new husband. Apparently, they have a photo shoot two weeks before the wedding so they can have a slide show that literally looked like it was taken from the pages of a bridal magazine. I wish I could just steal the powerpoint and upload it for you, but I'm not sure that's kosher. Imagine the prettiest and artsiest wedding pictures you've ever seen and that might be kind of close. It was spectacular.

They also played Korean love songs as the pictures flashed across the screen. My table didn't recognize anything until "All You Need Is Love" came over the speakers. Hana looked a little surprised. "You know this one?" We all nodded and told her The Beatles were very famous in America, but she just looked even more confused. "Who are 'Beatles'? This is Beat-uhl-jeh!" Oh Korea, you would prounounce the name of the best thing to come out of England since Shakespeare as "Beat-uhl-jeh". And I quite love you for it.

Sometime during the meal, we were called up to take pictures with the bride and groom. We were part of the "friends and coworkers" croud, and since we were the last to arrive for the picture, we were all huddled in the corner (because we didn't stand out enough in the picture already). Sarah tossed her bouquet, and the lucky girl who caught it is promised to not only be the next to get married, but she has to achieve it within six months. Before you ask, no, it wasn't me. :) In Korea, the garter is far too risque an object to be tossed about, so the groom flung his boutonniere into the air instead. The guy who caught it made me regret not trying harder for that darn bouquet.

By the time dessert was served (not wedding cake, as that's family-only), people were already flooding out of the room. Sarah and her husband disappeared to a special ceremony where they are formally married, and the guests just finished their food and left. No hugs, no dancing, no shouting "Don't Stop Believin'" into a stolen mic so neighboring continents can hear you. The whole event lasted just two hours, and we were released with an entire afternoon and evening ahead of us. I can say with certainty that I won't be planning a Korean-style wedding for myself, but it was a lot of fun nonetheless. When Sarah gets back on Monday, I'll see if I can get some details on Korean honeymoons for you. ;)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I never thought I'd see the day

My job is easy. I play with the most adorable kids in the country, the school makes all my lesson plans, and Hana deals with all the parent crap. I contractually can't work past five-thirty, my apartment is included in my salary, and I'm pretty sure Korea's never heard of No Child Left Behind. The other day, I was talking to a bunch of Korean friends about their jobs, and a tiny thrill of fear ran through me. I don't have a job! How will I pay my bills? ... then I realized that that thing I do Monday through Friday is, in fact, a job and my means by which to support myself.

Every few minutes, I change my mind on how long I'm planning to stay in this country and what I'm going to do after I leave. If you asked me - right now - what my plan is, I'd tell you that I want to finish out my year, couch-surf across southeast Asia, tour Israel and see all the places in the Bible that sound interesting, go home for Christmas, do a DTS in Africa (thanks, wifey), and find a non-profit that is just crazy enough to take me on staff. But that's right now. Usually I'm slightly more practical, and I think I'm leaning toward getting my master's and teaching elementary school back in the good ol' US of A (probably in the south, seeing as I've picked up more southern colloquialisms than I knew existed thanks to Jeanne and Tiffany). As an education major, I spent much of my time in college bashing the quality of the American education system and lamenting the fact that we've never taken a page out of Asia's smarty-pants textbooks to really teach our kids what they need to know. Like almost everything I thought I knew, though, I've changed my mind on this one.

I hate the Korean education system.

When I took my job here and started preparing to pack up my life, I had to explain Korea to a lot of people. My limited knowledge at the time told me that students went to regular school during the day then to a hagwon in the evenings. I always said it in a "bless-their-little-hearts-they-learn-so-much" kind of way, but the depravity of it never really hit me. Now that I'm in the thick of it, though, it's disgusting - and time isn't the worst part.

Education in Korea is really just about show. Korean parents want to get their kids into hagwons with "native English speakers" regardless of whether those speakers are actually good teachers. They pay insane amounts of money to parade a blonde white girl in front of their children for a few hours a week, and most of the parents can't speak enough English to actually confirm their children are learning something useful. Our school is slightly better in that we are all licensed teachers in our respective homelands, but still, it's all so focused on appearances that it makes me sick. The school provides all of our worksheets because none of us care to cover what we do in clip art. Everything the kids fill out has to have borders and pictures and everything must be printed in color. The content takes a backseat (think like the back of a greyhound bus) to the presentation. I made some extra math worksheets to use as time fillers, and I was instructed to never, ever send them home because the mommies would throw a fit. Right, because an accurate indicator of your child's progress is a starburst in the corner of the page.

Worksheets aren't the only things that have to look nice. We went on a field trip on Friday, and by the end of the day, I had forgotten every word in the English language except "WTF?" The kids were shuffled through the exhibits with hardly any time to look at anything, then we sat out in the blazing sun to have our picnic. (I had plenty to gripe about regarding the lunches, but when I typed it out it seemed kind of petty, so I deleted it.) After lunch, we were told to wander around and look at the exhibits again until it was time to take pictures. Pictures could be fun, right? Yeah, no. The school hired two professional photographers to document the trip. Each student was posed in various locations, staring off into the distance or pretending to enjoy a fountain. I watched with a combination of irritation and amusement until I was told I had to be in the pictures too. The photographer lined us up against a brick wall that stood on a slight slope. She placed me at the top then trotted down to the bottom and instructed the kids to step out one by one and pose. I tried to slink out of the picture, but she caught me. "Teacher, you must look lovingly at the child who is posing. No, more. Like you adore him." Uh, what? We did this over and over and over again until she thought I had achieved an expression that appropriately conveyed "the sun shines out this child's ass." I desperately tried to make eye contact with another foreigner to confirm that this was, in fact, completely psychotic, but all the other teachers had already loaded the bus. The photographer instructed us to pose in a handful of other ludicrous ways; the kids were having a blast, but I'd have rather been giving myself paper cuts. Finally, by the grace of God, she let us leave. On the way to the bus, I found Jeanne and asked her what the eff was up with the photo shoot. She smiled wryly. "Welcome to Korea, buddy."

Additionally, I've gotten in trouble at work multiple times the past two weeks:
- One of the mommies (who is really more of a caricature of a human being) was upset that I was sitting behind my desk when her son entered the room. I did greet him, but my enthusiasm level clearly stated that I thought preparing for the morning's lesson was more important than kissing his feet, which is unacceptable. She complained to the principal who promptly told me that I'm no longer allowed to sit in the mornings.
- That same mommy (it's safe to assume all "wtf" stories include her) had a long chat with me about how I did not scold her son enough in class. She told me that scolding is the way love is shown to children in Korea and that her son cries after school every day because I scold the other boys more than I scold him. I got the distinct impression that she told her son to cause trouble to rectify this horrendous issue because she insisted that I punish him, sometimes even if he doesn't deserve it.
- In Korea, the standard form of discipline is to have the children stand against a wall with their hands above their head. I've never in my life seen this kind of punishment in a school setting (or any other setting for that matter), so obviously I didn't bring the idea with me. One of the normal mommies insisted that we use this method on her son (only her son) to prepare him for public school, but word got back to psycho mommy and she ran to the principal. Moments later, the principal was explaining to me that even though that may be how we punish children in America, it is unacceptable in Korea and I need to stop immediately. She politely told me that it was clearly my lack of knowledge about the culture that led to this honest mistake, and that I should use other forms of discipline. I asked her what would be the preferred method of disciplining the kids and she replied, "Oh, you'll come up with something."
- Yesterday, I printed out my weekly letter to the parents where I had mentioned that we were coloring Halloween pictures during snack time to decorate the classroom. At least that's what I thought I typed; unbeknownst to me, I must have written something about teaching the kids a barrage of curse words while forcing them to take illegal drugs based on the way the principal came running down to my room, waving the blasphemous letter over her head. She breathlessly asked me why the children were coloring. Because... they're five? She explained that if the parents found out the kids were coloring in class, they'd be furious and pull their children out instantly. Aside from the fact that coloring is the number one way children develop fine motor skills, it's just plain messed up to not let kids color pictures during free time. They're children.

Kids here really aren't allowed to be kids, and it's incredibly painful to watch. During the "free time" we had on the field trip, Hana and I snuck the kids around to a little courtyard and let the kids play in a patch of dirt. The space was no bigger than a standard driveway, but the kids went nuts. They'd pick up rocks like they were made of gold, and every single one of them seemed shocked that the leaves on the ground were colors other than green. You could tell these kids never, ever got to play outside by the way they were genuinely amazed that there were sticks and bugs in the dirt.

At home, I used to whine about how America needs year-round schooling. It was partly because I was bitter that I had chosen to not go into the field that provides three months off in the summer; okay, so it was pretty much all because of that. But now that I've seen what school looks like on the other side of the world, I think I'd lead a protest against changing the laws. The three months in the summer aren't for teachers to drink mai tais by the pool (although that's a sweet benefit); summer vacation gives kids time to be kids. Yes, my five-year-olds know the definition of "onomatopoeia." But they don't know how to select the best stick for a sword fight, and honestly, that's more important.

*In other news, I've finally figured out how to link my blog to my facebook profile. There's an application called "Networked Blogs" and mine is now officially listed on there. You can "follow" it with your facebook account through the link on the right. I have no idea what special benefits this provides seeing as my posts arrive in your news feed anyway, but I'm currently the only one following my blog via facebook, and that's just sad. Make me feel loved. :)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Culture shock

I recently skimmed down my blog, looking at all my most recent posts, and I was a little disappointed. People keep sending me messages about how much they enjoy reading about my adventures and my exciting life, but most of my most recent posts are kind of depressing, or at the very least, really deep and thoughtful. I haven't written about phallic-shaped soap or impromptu adventures in flea markets for a couple of weeks now, and I don't feel like my blog is much "fun" right now. In fact, I'm in the middle of writing a post about how Korea's education system actually makes me miss Dubya's horrendous excuse for a learning plan, and it occurred to me that I might be hitting a bit of culture shock. That's fine; I knew it was coming, and my frustrations with the school definitely count as being "shocked by the culture." But I was reading a friend's blog this afternoon, and she mentioned hitting the negotiation stage of culture shock, and I got confused. A quick search on Wikipedia provided me with something, well, shocking.

There are stages of culture shock.

Like, documented, and stuff.

Like, other people follow the same pattern I'm going through.

(It never ceases to amaze me to discover that I am, in fact, normal.)

I really shouldn't be writing this post right now; I'm supposed to be making lesson plans for a project my kids are doing next week, but I'm so flabbergasted that I had to write about it. I thought culture shock was just that moment when you see a dog wearing boots or cough drops sold as candy, but it turns out it's a whole process! Mind. Blown.

According to Wikipedia, culture shock occurs in four phases:

Honeymoon phase: There's certainly no argument that I experienced this one. From the second I got here, I fell in love with Korea and all its quirks. I loved the over-priced coffee, the smelly and confusing subway, the kimbap... everything. I loved it all, and it loved me. Korea and I seemed made for each other, and it was beautiful.

Negotiation phase: This is when the rose-colored glasses come off and you realize that things aren't the way you're used to. It's when you go to the grocery store and can't find any normal looking eggs or soup without fish parts, and it starts to annoy you. I think I'm hitting this phase, even though it's early (according to wikiwisdom). The school was cute, but now it feels stupid and obnoxious. I'd literally fight someone for access to a Wendy's, and if I accidentally walk into one more of those damn hole-in-the-floor bathrooms, my head might explode.

Adjustment phase: Apparently this is the next one I have to look forward to, and trust me, I am. This is where life starts to feel normal - not over-the-moon exciting, but not pull-my-hair-out frustrating either. I'm just hoping I hit it sooner than six months in; I don't know if I can be grumpy that long.

Mastery phase: I may not be here long enough to actually reach this nirvana-like state, but it's the end goal. It's the phase where you really feel like you belong, like you understand the culture and it understands you and you fit together.

Hopefully my blog posts remain somewhat entertaining as I stumble my way through learning a new culture. You can rest assured I'll document it all - the good and the bad - with astounding exaggeration and as many pictures as I can.

(Random thought: I wonder if marriage follows these same phases? It certainly sounds plausible. Just wait til I get married, folks. The blog's going to be hilarious... and probably the cause of my divorce.)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Vitamin drinks at Seoul Station

I'm really hesitant about posting this story because I know it will make some people uncomfortable, and I hate doing that. But I've adamantly avoided this aspect of my life thus far in the blog for fear of coming across a certain way or alienating people who don't believe the way I do, and I've decided recently that's not fair, not to me and not to God. This is what my life is about, more than the adventures and hilarity, and I'd really like to write about it.

I recently joined the homeless ministry at Jubilee, Jehoveh Jireh. My natural instinct was to run to the children's ministry, but I was afraid that I'd get burnt out on children if I had to work with them on Sundays too, so I found another place to serve. I missed the soup kitchen excursion last weekend because I was at Everland, but yesterday morning, they had a prayer walk at Seoul Station. I'd done prayer walks in college, and they always consisted of a group of people wandering around in circles talking to God and each other. Pretty non-threatening activity, really. When I got to the station, the Jehoveh Jireh ministry divided up the group into teams, and each team had a Korean speaker. I thought that was kind of odd, but it turns out I had misunderstood the whole game. We each took two vitamin drink things (they're a huge deal here, but I honestly can't figure out why) and set out in teams of three to hand them out. This was still a good plan; I like having something tangible to say "God loves you in a practical way" (which is why the Vineyard and I got along so well). The instructions were to wait for God's prompting and ask people if they wanted us to pray for them when we gave them the drinks. I was honestly pretty relieved; no matter who I picked to give my drink to, Miji would be the one doing the talking since she was the one who spoke Korean. My reluctance toward being faithful is such a shame.

We walked down the street and handed out a few of our drinks, but when we passed a guy sleeping on a curb, all three of us knew that we wanted to go talk to him. Miji gently shook him, but the guy was out. An ajuma (a middle-aged Korean woman, typically found wearing work-out gear and a large visor) stepped up and grabbed his arm, shouting "they have something for you!" in Korean. The man woke up confused, and Miji proudly offered him a drink, confusing him even more. As he came to grips with his surroundings, Miji asked him if there was anything he'd like prayer for. This is where I always start to become uncomfortable. Prayer is such an important part of my life, and the lives of so many of my friends, but I've somehow convinced myself that unless you're "crazy Christian" like we are, prayer is offensive. I have no idea where this idea came from, and I'm completely embarrassed to admit it, but there it is. So this man told us that he hadn't seen his parents in years, and he was worried that they were no longer alive. He asked us to pray that his family was safe and that one day he would be reunited with them. This is where Korean style of prayer is convenient; we all prayed for him at the same time, so I didn't have that awkward moment where I tried to come up with the floweriest words to impress the other Christians (are we all this insecure, I wonder?). After we finished, Dan said he felt like we should lead the man through the sinner's prayer.

If offering prayer makes me uncomfortable, offering the sinner's prayer makes me want to dig a hole and hide in it. For those of you reading who aren't familiar with Christian lingo, the sinner's prayer is essentially a declaration of faith. You admit that God loves you but that you have sinned, and that the only way to reconcile yourself with God is through the sacrifice of Christ. It's really simple, and the words themselves don't matter as much as the heart behind them. I've never had anyone throw daggers at me for offering the sinner's prayer, so I don't really know why I'm so afraid of it, but when Dan suggested it, the first thing that went through my mind was "oh man, why'd you have to go and ruin it?" I waited for the man to jump up and storm off, shouting Korean curses at the Christians who were too pushy in their faith... instead, his eyes lit up and he nodded, like we had offered him the thing he had been missing his whole life. Miji directed him in what to say, and even though I didn't understand the language, I knew exactly what she was telling him. When he finished, he reached up and took off the black hood he had kept wrapped around his head the whole time we were talking, almost as if he knew the beauty in the symbolism of the act. We talked with him a few more minutes, and my one regret is that we didn't leave him with a connection point - a church, a shelter, a something where he could learn more about the God he had just professed faith in. But even though we forgot, God won't, and he's taking care of that man today too.

The moment we got to our feet, another man approached us. He told Miji that he saw we were praying and wanted us to pray for him as well. He walked into the shade and knelt down with his hands pressed together in front of his chest like a little child and waited for us to pray for him. It was almost surreal.

I don't know where I got the idea that only Christians are interested in God. In the years leading up to my becoming a Christian, my journals are full of desperate cries that there must be more to this life than what I was seeing. I remember writing poem after poem (I was really into poetry in high school - and terrible at it) about needing there to be something else to live for, something more than money or popularity or grades. I remember begging the universe for some kind of sign that there was something out there to make life worthwhile. When did I forget how desperately I needed God before I found him? I'm not naive enough to believe that everyone I know is sitting around writing poorly constructed poetry to the night sky, but I also shouldn't think that everyone who wants to know God already does. If it weren't for the people who patiently listened while I pompously explained how their God is a fairy tale but whined that life had no meaning, I wouldn't be where I am today. I think I've become so consumed with wanting to seem "normal" even though I love God that I've tucked that part of my life into a little folder for Sunday mornings. I've convinced myself that no one ever wants to talk about God with a Christian (and sadly, sometimes that is true) because I don't want to seem pushy or turn someone off. But every single person, whether they declare it proudly or keep it bottled up, has wrestled with the "God" issue and come to some kind of conclusion, and most people like to talk about things they've decided on. I don't believe at all in the US Government, but I'll talk about it, even with a politician should the opportunity arise. So why wouldn't people feel the same way about God?

I guess I'm learning that God is moving in everyone's life, even the ones that don't know it yet. I'm not going to turn my blog into some kind of sermon series, but I'm also not going to ignore the ways I see God working anymore. The other day, I was talking with a guy, and I asked him what he was passionate about. He started talking about healthy foods, how he believes that if you eat the right combination of foods, you'll find inner peace. I listened politely, but all I could think was "Keep your carrot sticks, baby. I've got a living God."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

An entire week in a single post

Last night, I tried to post half of this so that it wouldn't be so unbearably long tonight, but blogger refused to upload the video I wanted. I very rationally threw a hissy fit and deleted the whole post.

On an unrelated note, it's probably about time I found out whether Korea sells Midol.

This week I've experienced emotions the way Ohio experiences weather - every extreme you can possibly imagine within the span of about thirty minutes. Feeling things is positively exhausting, and I'm sort of resenting God for not making me a robot. R2D2 never had this problem.

Anyway, I'm going to spare you all the depressing details and skip right through to the joyful moments. Don't worry; I'm not bottling up everything negative. I completely fell apart at church last night, crying, shaking, the whole nine yards, and I'm feeling a million times better now (Quick shout out to Kristen, who held my hand and listened to the melodramatic exaggerations of trouble I completely brought upon myself. God was showing off when he gave me you as a friend.)

I spent most of last weekend with Hana, who is easily one of my favorite people in all of Asia. Her parents invited me over for dinner at their, ahem, second home in the country, and I was beyond honored. It's a really big deal here for people to invite you into their homes, so being asked over for dinner was huge. Don't worry, America, I represented you well.

The whole way there, Hana was musing about what English her parents would try on me. They both know tons more English than I know Korean, but Hana said they were both really shy about talking to foreigners. When we arrived, Hana's dad threw the door open and declared, "Welcome to our home!" with a huge grin on his face. Hana nearly died laughing, and he looked so ridiculously proud of himself that I couldn't help but smile too. He presented me with some slippers to wear in the house and promptly disappeared.

Hana took me around for a tour, and oh my gosh is their house gorgeous. They only live there on the weekends, so I suppose that helps keep it tidy, but it looked like a model home. There were no knick-knacks anywhere, and they hardly had any pictures hanging up. There wasn't a single item out of place on any of the three floors, and I kind of felt like I needed to be more dressed up just to be there. And they had two of the biggest tvs I've ever seen in my life.

Dinner was served shortly after I got there. Hana's mom had been worrying all week about what to cook for me, and I tried to assure her that I would gladly try absolutely anything put in front of me. She was still really eager to please me, so she made all the foods Hana had told her that I liked, which I'm betting didn't really go together at all. Everything I eat feels 100% random (they serve pickles with pizza here, like as a side dish), so I didn't know any better, but I kind of wonder if our meal was the equivalent of having tuna casserole, pancakes, and cole slaw at the same time. Since the meal had been prepared for me, I loved everything on the table - especially the potato soup (remember this fact). Every time I'd finish my soup, Hana's dad would pop up out of his chair and refill my bowl. I'm pretty sure I ate a gallon of the stuff by the time the night was over. Additionally, about halfway through the meal, Hana remembered that I drink an embarrassing amount of water and told her parents about our restaurant excursions. Hana's dad took Hana's glass and gave it to me instead, then he slid the pitcher over in front of me with a huge smile on his face.

Hana worked as a translator to somebody super-fancy before she came to work at Gate, so she had no trouble keeping up conversation. It was so much fun talking to her parents; her mom is precious and soft-spoken, and her dad is hilarious. Out of nowhere, he would tell me that I'm beautiful, but then he'd point to Hana's mom and say, "but not as much as my wife." Hana's mom apologized that her English is "too broken for using," and she mainly just listened to the rest of us talk. Every once in a while, she'd lean over to Hana and whisper something. Hana always translated for me (despite the fact that her mom clearly didn't want me to know what she was saying), and it was always the same: "Are you sure she is American? She is too skinny!" Le sigh.

After dinner, Hana and I went to the basement to watch an English movie (hooray!). As soon as we got the movie started, Hana's mom appeared in the doorway and told Hana that we needed to come upstairs. We whined and moaned, having just made ourselves comfortable, but obliged. When we got to the top of the stairs, Hana's dad looked right at me and said, "You are VIP guest! No basement for you!" before heading off into the basement himself.

Hanging out with Hana's parents might have been one of my favorite nights in Korea thus far. True, her parents and I had a hard time making conversation, but the evening as a whole felt so ridiculously normal. I was curled up on a couch (I don't think I've been on a couch in over six weeks) watching a movie and eating snacks with my friend, and I felt so relaxed. I've had a lot of really fun adventures, but there's just something about having a sleepover at a friend's parents' house that makes me feel safe and happy.

In the morning, Hana's mom made breakfast and her dad set the table. This is what I found at my seat:

Yeah, that's two plastic jugs of milk, a bottle of juice, a pitcher of water, and three glasses. I couldn't stop laughing, but he just walked away like serving a guest every liquid in the refrigerator is standard practice. His jokes made me a little sad... they reminded me very much of my own daddy's sense of humor, and my daddy's a million miles away. Nevertheless, it was hysterical and the sentiment behind it was very kind.

Also, please note that there's a clear bowl sitting behind the drinks. That's a bowl of potato soup, made especially for my enjoyment since I had consumed so much of it at dinner. Hana's dad set the bowl in front of me like it was a crown jewel, and every time I'd finish what I had in my little bowl, he'd hop right up and refill it. I had four bowls of potato soup for breakfast, along with a million other things on the table. I think Hana's mom made it her personal mission to get me to look more properly American.

Hana and I packed up all of our things to head to Everland. On our way out the door, Hana's dad threw his arms out in the air and said, "I hope you will come back every day! You make my house smile!"

Note: This post is really, really long. Maybe you should go make yourself a snack and come back. I'll wait for you.

So, Everland. Everland is basically the Korean version of Disney World, so obviously I was excited out of my mind. We got there pretty soon after they opened, and Hana practically had us running to the roller coaster in the back of the park. When we got there, the line was hours and hours long, so we waited for a Q Pass (think Disney Fast Pass) so we could come back later and skip the line. Once our Q Passes were safely stowed in Hana's purse, we headed out to explore the park.

This place was so stinkin' cute it's not even funny.

We spent a whole day there, and I'm already kind of going cross-eyed from staring at my computer for so long, so you're going to only get the highlights.

I'm a pretty obvious foreigner. I'm way too tall, my clothes are ridiculously bright, and my hair is blond and curly as all get out. I've gotten used to all the attention, but Hana isn't at all. About once every hour, a bold little boy would run up to me and shout "helllllll-oooooo!" I'd smile and ask his name or how he was doing, and he'd respond either "good marning!" or "good ap-ter-noon!" depending solely on which was his favorite phrase, not at all on the time of day. I'd repeat it back to him, and he'd giggle uncontrollably and run back to his friends. This happens to me all the time, but Hana's never seen it before; every time it occurred, she'd just watch the exchange and shake her head. Finally, she asked me why my powers don't draw in any boys over the age of ten. Sweetheart, if I knew that, I wouldn't be paying for my own dinners all the time.

The roller coaster (which I affectionally called T-Money because it had the orange and red T on the side of it), was the absolute greatest roller coaster I've been on in my life. It has an 80-degree drop, and I read somewhere that it's the tallest roller coaster in the world. Hana was shaking almost the whole way up to it, and I thought she was going to throw up before it even started moving. By the end, I was bouncing in my seat, yelling "again! again!" and she had tears running down her face. She looked me right in the eye and said, very seriously, "Do you see how deep our friendship is?" I tilted my head to the side. "Again?" I thought her head might explode.

At the end of the night, we were both exhausted. Hana's parents had offered to pick us up and drive us back into Seoul, but we had to wait for them to fight through traffic to get to the gate. We sat down and talked about (what else?) boys and relationships, and she taught me about Korean boyfriends. Apparently, they all carry their girlfriends' bags. If they don't, she claimed, they're not a very good guy and not worth dating. I told her that in America, you can walk down the street with a couch strapped to your back, and it'd be a miracle if a guy offered to help. (Obviously I'm kidding here. I'm already planning a post about how much I miss chivalry in a culture where men are valued way above their stiletto-wearing counterparts.) We watched all the couples who walked by and assessed the state of their relationship based on whether the girl had ahold of her own purse. Also, I counted ELEVEN couples outfits. I'm pretty sure making fun of that particular fad will never get old.

Overall, the weekend was incredible. I have a ton more pictures that I'll eventually post on facebook, but I'm lazy tonight. :)

Before I go, I have one more thing I've been dying to post. My kids have "Good Neighbors" lessons once a week. The school provides powerpoints on random things about being a good human, from generosity to non-profits to interacting with people with disabilities. Last week, we learned about Braille, and my kids memorized the alphabet so fast it was disgusting. I resorted to writing Spanish sentences in Braille on the board just to try to trip them up, but to no avail. My kids are intellectual monsters and sometimes I'm afraid they'll realize they're infinitely smarter than their college-educated teacher and fully execute a well-designed coup. Actually, that'd be the greatest story ever and I kind of hope it happens.


So this week we learned ASL (side note, I think it's funny that I was supposed to teach the kids about American Sign Language, but the powerpoint never once mentioned Korean Sign Language. I mean, they have one too, and it's completely different. I feel like it deserves at least some attention.) I know a fair bit of ASL; I'm not nearly as good as I was junior year of college, but I'm certainly better than the tiny ones. I taught them the alphabet, their names, and some basic phrases. They looked a little like their muscles were spasming out of control, but we were laughing and having a great time. It took less than two seconds for me to decide I wanted to show them this:

Seriously, you have to watch that video or the rest of the post won't make a bit of sense. Also, how can you not watch? Stephen Torrence is hands down (hehe, get it? because he signs!) the cutest boy on the planet. My life mission is to find and marry him asap. For reals.

The first time the kids saw the video, they stared in awe. My signing is nowhere near as fast as his (nor am I as charming to watch), so they were completely blown out of the water by the whole thing. When it ended, they demanded to see it again. Okay-twist-my-arm... let's watch it five more times. By time class was over, the kids had picked up some of the signs and were starting to sing along. You don't even have to ask - here's the video:

(Note: I know it starts out slow, but I promise you that around the eighteen second mark, 
your life is going to get infinitely better. Seriously.)

No matter how many ups and downs I've had in my week, it's nearly impossible to throw myself a pity party when that's what I get to come to work to every single day. Yesterday during lunch, Brian climbed up in my lap and snuggled into me. Evelyn yelled over to him to tell him to come play with everyone else, but he shouted back, "I can't play right now. I'm sitting with Miss Nikki because she's my favorite girl."

That's joy, friends.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I'm on an adventure, you know.

Every time I post something, I find myself thinking, "Well, that's it. That will be the last interesting thing I have to say about Korea. Everything will be smooth sailing from here on out."

I'm so glad I'm always wrong.

Today I'm feeling ridiculously reflective, and I've been examining my life through a microscopic lens all afternoon. I haven't sorted it all out just yet, but I think I'm coherent enough for the stream-of-consciousness babble that has so often overtaken my posts recently.

After my kids left, I took a little break to catch up on all things internet before working on my lesson plans (which I never did finish, if you're wondering). So many of my friends are very talented writers who lead awfully interesting lives, so catching up on blogs is one of my favorite pastimes. Today, my friend Angie posted something on her blog that referenced me - and started this whole mess of introspection (thanks, dear!). In her post today, Angie talked about a few of her friends that she is particularly proud of because they are living out their dreams, and she included me in that list.

Me. Nikki Raasch.

And you know what? She just might be right.

Angie's post got me thinking about what my dreams really are. In high school, I wanted to be successful, and I meant it in the most superficial way you can mean the word. I wanted to have a college degree people would envy, a job I could describe while looking down my nose, and so much money the president would look to me for bail-outs. In fact, I was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" my senior year, and the yearbook picture that accompanied it was me laying in a pile of fake money. I can remember daydreaming that Harvard had "heard" of me and would do anything to win the honor of my presence. (On a side note, I kind of wonder how I had any friends in high school.)

College changed me, though. Most of it is thanks to the community that loved me while I was there, and of course, to the God who didn't give up on me even when I was basically a shallow embarrassment to humanity. Not even a month into my freshman year, I changed my major from prestigious "pre-med" to not-so-envied "education", and by junior year, I was living in a house full of girls who frequently had to remind each other why we were in college in the first place. The fantastic ladies I am lucky to call my friends were crazy passionate about loving people, and it rubbed off on me. We watched Invisible Children and wanted to move to Uganda; we read Irresistible Revolution and wanted to move to the slums. In high school, my only dreams of visiting far-off lands consisted of beach resorts and exotic mixed drinks, but by the time I hit my senior year of college, my plans were drastically different. Before I went to college, I knew what I wanted to do with my life, but by the time Miami was ready to send me off, I had gone through so many dreams I wasn't even sure what was real anymore. As graduation drew nearer, people asked more and more what I wanted to be. I stopped trying to come up with a career choice and started just telling people I wanted to be happy. It was pretty much just a cop-out, but I'm realizing now how much I meant it.

At some point in the last three years, I've wanted to live in nearly every country I can name, but I don't know that I ever thought I'd actually do it. I regretted having not studied abroad, but that was about the extent of my wishes. I think I may have surprised myself the most when I actually started taking steps toward moving here. Korea was never my dream. The 10/40 window always pulled me, but I never once sat around plotting how I could get to Korea. Honestly, I knew there were two Koreas and one of them was bad, but I didn't really even know which one that was. All I knew was that I wanted to go on an adventure. I really liked my life in Cincinnati, but it suddenly struck me that middle-class suburbia would be all there was if I didn't force myself to do something else. I don't think I came to Korea because I was afraid of growing up. I think I was afraid of not really living. I was afraid of getting to my next big milestone (what's that? 25?), looking back, and wondering what I had accomplished. I was afraid of making the easy choice all the time and not getting to see what life could be. I think, in my mind, traveling the world was the epitome of adventure, and that word - adventure - was what I was sure I was missing.

Here's the thing, though. Adventures aren't really all that sexy. Yeah, I live in Asia, and yeah, some of my life is more blog-worthy than it was two months ago. People back home are jealous that I live such an exciting life now, and sometimes I understand why. Sometimes, I eat soup that I think has mushrooms in it, then find out I've been eating snails. Sometimes, a guy comes to my apartment to fix my refrigerator and doesn't speak a bit of English and we stare at each other awkwardly for a whole minute. But sometimes, it's just life. Back when this whole Korea thing was just a crazy suggestion from a friend, Ben said something I can't shake. I was getting myself all worked up about how hard it would be and how I didn't know if I could handle everything, and Ben said, "Yeah, but even in Korea, I'm just me. I mean, I still like ice cream and stuff." Okay, so it doesn't seem as profound typed out, and maybe that's the beauty of it. I'm on this wild adventure and people I haven't talked to in years are stalking my life, but you know what? I haven't changed who I am. True, things about me have changed, and I'm learning things about myself that I never expected to discover, but in the middle of the night in Seoul, South Korea, I'm still just me, and I still like ice cream.

So today when I read on Angie's blog that I'm one of the girls she's proud to know because I'm living out my dreams, I was actually kind of startled. Am I really living out my dreams? Do I even really know what my dreams are? If I dreamt of adventure, and now I'm sitting in my apartment eating oreos and watching Glee, then have I succeeded? I like to think I have.

I think I'm learning that adventure isn't about the big things (Kirsten tried to teach me this months ago, but I'm a slow learner). Adventure doesn't mean getting lost on the subway or letting fish eat your toes, although neither of those things is bad. I think I'm realizing that the biggest adventure, and the only one that really matters, is trying to find yourself. It sounds trite and cheesy, I know, but maybe there's a reason it's so overused. My favorite thing about Korea isn't the flashy signs or the tourist spots or the bizarre foods or the whiny language. My favorite thing about Korea is me. I feel like I'm an entirely different person than I was a month ago, and at the same time I feel like I haven't changed at all. I know it doesn't make the slightest bit of sense, and I wish I had better words to explain it. I feel like the person I am here is the same person I always was, but I never really let myself be her. Maybe I was afraid of failure, rejection, disappointment, something, but I'm not really afraid of those things anymore. I'm comfortable knowing that I'm worth something and that I matter, and life is simple because of it. I kind of wonder if everyone else already knows this about themselves and if I'm just the last one on that particular self-esteem bandwagon, but even that doesn't really bother me anymore. I came to this realization on my own time, and I'm happy with the results.

Angie also referenced a few of her other friends who are living out their dreams, and she linked to her friend Ally's blog. Ally is taking six months to travel all fifty states with a friend, and she's documenting every step of the journey. I adored stalking this girl I've never met, and I think I want to duplicate her adventure whenever life leads me back to the States, but my favorite thing about her blog is here. Ally is living her dream too, but she's already realized what I'm coming to learn - that the adventure isn't just in the big things. Even on the adventure of a lifetime, it's still just life, and we all still like ice cream.

This entire blog post can be summed up with a quote I've had on my facebook for as long as I can remember: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." I can't help but think that God's delighted with my discovery - that being alive and being me is the greatest adventure I could hope for.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I just did a terrible thing.

I punched a hobo.

Okay, that's a lie. I absolutely did not punch a hobo.

I have a new student in my class. Today was only her second day, and she's never been in school before, so she's still getting accustomed to it. The thing is (this sounds awful and I know it) I didn't like her from the beginning. Not because of anything she did. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, the principal brought me into her office and told me that I might be getting a new student. The little girl had taken the entrance test and just barely passed it, so they were interviewing her to see if she could handle the work. I had been told when I got here that sometimes the school lets in students who aren't actually "gifted and talented" just for their tuition money, so I was skeptical from the beginning. But I did as I was told and interviewed Bella.

Bella is perfectly adorable. She's soft-spoken and polite and so darling. She could read everything I put in front of her, but she didn't understand a word of it. I'd ask her a simple question about the book she read, even point to the word that was the answer, and she had no clue what I was saying. She'd just smile at me and say "yes". After the interview, I told the principal that I didn't think her comprehension skills were as high as they needed to be and that perhaps she wasn't a good fit for the school. The principal thanked me and sent me back to class.

A few days later, the principal returned and told me that Bella's mommy had called, crying, and was desperate to get Bella into Gate School. She begged for another interview, and the principal wanted to know if I'd be willing to give her another chance. I like kids, so I agreed.

This time, I brought a math book down. Math is the same no matter what language you learned it in, so I thought maybe I was helping the kid out. I showed her the page my kids had just finished, and she started coloring. Just scribbled all over the page. I tried to teach her how to add by using dots and counting them all up, but all she ever said was "yes". It took nearly half an hour to complete five questions, and I told the principal that as sweet as Bella is, she really can't handle the work. The principal nodded and apologized for wasting my time.

A week later, Bella started in my class.

So from the second I saw her, I was angry. It irritated me that the school had asked for my recommendation then blatantly ignored it, and I realized for the first time how much this place really is a business more than a school. How can you put a little girl who doesn't speak English in a class with kids who read at a third grade level? My kids are flippin smart. They fly through the workbook pages, and their vocabulary is off the charts. Bella is precious, but not "gifted", so I was frustrated by her presence right from the start.

Friday was a mess of a day because we had all kinds of activities that shuffled the kids from class to class, so today was my first real experience trying to teach Bella. I taught the lessons the way I usually do; I'll read the questions and before I'm even finished, the kids are shouting the answers at me. I write the words on the board, and sometimes I draw funny pictures just to amuse myself, but we get through the workbook pages crazy fast. I'd keep an eye on Bella, and mostly she just colored on her workbook. I'd try to get her attention and tell her to write the answers down, but she'd only be one or two words in before I erased what I had written and started on the next sentence. Occasionally, I'd go over to her workbook and point at it and tell her she needed to pay attention, but other than that, I basically ignored her. Near the end of the lesson, I stomped over and pointed at her empty page, prepared to tell her off for not copying anything down, but when she looked up at me, my heart absolutely broke.

It's not her fault she's in this mess. Thanks to her overly dramatic mother, she's stuck in a school where she doesn't speak the language with a teacher who hates her for no reason. Where the hell did I get the idea that just because the kid didn't speak English, she deserved to be treated so terribly? In that moment (and this moment too, actually), I was incredibly disgusted with myself. I knelt down next to her and walked her through the questions, totally ignoring the other kids in the class. I obviously can't give her my undivided attention all day long, and school is going to be very challenging for her, but I absolutely refuse to let myself be angry with a five-year-old who is merely an unfortunate pawn in a pathetically unethical educational system. I'm mad at her mother for forcing this on her, and I'm mad at the administration for only wanting her tuition money, but most of all, I'm mad at myself for letting my frustrations get in the way of loving an innocent little kid. The silver lining is that tomorrow is another day, and tomorrow I can choose to do things differently.

Watch out ladies and gentlemen - it looks like this Korea thing is going to turn me into a better person, and that is not the girl you fell in love with!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A million things

Okay, okay, okay, so I know it's been nearly a week since I posted, and you're all absolutely beside yourselves wondering what I've been up to. I was waiting all week because I knew I was going to a Silent Disco tonight, and I wanted to be able to post videos and pictures of the hilarity... then my disco got rained out. Don't worry, it's been rescheduled for next weekend, and I have plenty of other things to talk about.

WARNING: I'm crazy in love with Korea right now. Like the way I loved Justin Timberlake in the seventh grade or Boy Meets World reruns, um, always. If Korea were a guy, he'd totally have a restraining order against me. I feel exactly like Jessica in her affirmation video - I like my friends! I like my church! I like my city! I like my kimbap! I like my subway! I like my apartment!

I know, I need a tranquilizer. But you don't have to read these, you know.

I realized that there have been some events in the past few weeks that I totally forgot to blog about, so I'm going to start with those. This is going to be a hodge-podge of all things Seoul, likely ending with a reflection on how I'm so happy I might pee myself. Let's begin.

First, I can't even believe that I haven't written about Dr. Fish. As soon as I got here, people started telling me that I needed to check it out asap, but no one seemed to want to accompany me. One of Courtney's friends from OSU is here, and we decided to meet up one afternoon for coffee. As soon as I found Jill at the subway station, she suggested we go to Dr. Fish, and I was thrilled. What's Dr. Fish? you're asking. It's a little cafe where you put your feet in a tiny pond and fish nibble the dead skin off your toes. NO JOKE. My uncle had done this disgusting yet hilarious thing when he was on business in Asia once, and I couldn't have been more excited that there is a cafe like that just down the street from my house. Jill and I went to the cafe, ordered drinks, and waited to be called over to the fish tank.

Once it was our turn, we stepped up onto the little platform and took off our shoes. We had to wash our feet (apparently the fish are super picky about dirt and germs), then the cafe worker pointed at the tanks: "Five minute little fish. Ten minute big fish." Alrighty. We can do that! I crawled over to the "little fish" tank and peeked inside. The fish were about the size of guppies, and there were easily over a hundred of them. Jill politely waited for me to go first, and I was feeling all kinds of brave, so I dropped my feet in.

I know it's really blurry, but you can see the teeny tiny fish. I could hardly feel them scooting across my feet; it felt more like I had put my feet in a bottle of pop and bubbles were everywhere. I giggled and we took tons of pictures and the fish wiggled around between my toes. All good stuff. Then I decided it was time for the "big fish" tank. Jill had told me right from the beginning that she wasn't going to do big fish, but I knew I'd totally regret it if I didn't at least try it, so I crawled on over. Here's what was in the other tank:

Okay, not really. But it did look like this:

Pardon my language, but those are some BIG ASS FISH. As soon as I sat down beside the tank, my heart started racing. I'm pretty sure I would have been less nervous being chased by a bear (Okay, that's a lie because Michelle and I almost got eaten by a bear once and I was so scared I thought my heart would stop). I sat next to the tank for a good two or three minutes, staring down at the fish while they stared back up at me. Some of them were pushing their terrible little faces up out of the water, trying to get at me and gnaw of my entire legs. The longer I sat, the more terrified I became, but I knew that I'd regret it if I walked away. I made Jill count to three and I splashed my feet in the tank.

My feet stayed in there long enough to take this picture, then I yanked them out like the water was on fire. I swear those fish were trying to KILL me! The other tank felt like little bubbles, but this tank felt like when a cat bites you - not bad enough to draw blood, but not something anyone really enjoys. And there were DOZENS of them! A few of them actually came up out of the water because I pulled my feet out so fast and they were still stuck to me. I think I might have a heart attack just reliving the experience.

I went back to the little fish tank to let my heart slow back to its normal pace. Jill and I chatted and took a few more pictures, and everything ended smoothly.

Next story...

I told you about my rain excursion on Tuesday of Chuseok and my birthday shenanigans on Thursday, but I never told you what I did on the actual holiday. A girl in my small group, Angie, invited me to visit some palaces and temples with some of her friends, and I had been wanting to see those anyway. The day started off very well; I bought these in the subway station:

That's a waffle in the shape of a tiny ear of corn and filled with some kind of pudding-like cream. Weird? Totally. Delicious? Absolutely.

I don't know any of the history of any of the places we visited, but the buildings were really pretty, so I'll show you some pictures :)

In case you're wondering, that's not a swastika. Apparently those face the other direction, and this is actually an Eastern sign for peace. Also, these palaces/temples/shrines are really cool because they're just right in the middle of the city. You can see regular buildings in the background; modern-day Seoul just grew up right around all the history. It's neat to be in a place where some of the buildings are significantly older than the country I grew up in.


(This is completely disjointed and random, but it's getting really late and I just don't have the energy to make appropriate transitions. I'm pretty much just looking through all the pictures from the last two weeks and posting interesting/funny things)

Here's a video of the little Asian boy who has stolen the hearts of all my friends back home. He brought his workbook up to my desk the other day, and he had written his name funny. I asked him to read it to me...

This is doubly hilarious because it reminds me of this.

And next...

Yesterday was my friend Kristen's birthday. She had a little party Friday night at a coffee shop, and yesterday we went to Hongdae. I hadn't been there yet, but I heard it was really artsy and fun; the girls from the women's ministry had planned an outing to go there for some art market, so I jumped on board. The market was closed due to that silly rainstorm, but we wandered around the streets and I took some pictures that I'm sure you'll love.

That's where I really work. The teaching thing's a cover.

"Look at this charming pouch and FLAMES WILL SHOOT OUT OF YOUR EYES!"

I don't wanna be your friend on facebook either, fool.

After the women's ministry event was officially over, Kristen, Jo, Jillian, and I decided to hang out a little while longer. Kristen got to pick our destination since it was her birthday...

I knew she was a good choice for a friend.

I have a million pictures from inside, and I'll upload them to facebook sometime tomorrow (promise!). For now, here's a sampling:

That's my pretty Kristen friend. The sign says "Oh yay! Happy party!" :)

Cutest. Drinks. Ever.

The ceilings were Asian-sized :)

And here's the part of the post where it gets really sappy. You should probably get a barf bag.

My three new friends and I sat at the coffee shop for a few hours just talking about life. We joked about our kids, told stories about boys we left behind, and just enjoyed life together. Jo and I have both been here about a month, so we're still in the honeymoon phase of life here, but even Kristen and Jill are delighted with their lives in the ROK. It blows my mind that an average Saturday night consists of a Hello Kitty Cafe in a place called Hongdae with two Canadians and two Americans. I feel like this can't possibly be real; this can't just be life here, this can't just be a regular Saturday night in a regular coffee shop. My new friends are wonderful and hilarious and so perfect for me, and I wonder what on earth I did to deserve such joy. I just really feel like I belong here, maybe more than I did in Cincinnati. The people and the place fit me. On the surface, I don't fit in at all - I talk too loudly on the subway and I'm the only one wearing pink anywhere I go - but my heart fits life here, and that's all that really matters in the end.

One of the things we talked about last night was how freeing life is here. From the beginning of high school, all I can remember is being asked what my next step was. Where are you going to college? What are you going to study? What will you do after graduation? Where will you live? Are you worried about your pension plan? There were so many questions about life that's far out in the distance and I always tried my hardest to answer them. I think I've imagined thirty different lives for myself in the last ten years, ranging from pediatrician to missionary to writer to teacher to hobo, and I wholeheartedly wanted all of those things in the moments that I wanted them. But here, no one makes me decide what job I'm going to retire from. No one asks what the next step is or how what I'm doing fits into my overall life plan. All people care about here is where you're from and who you are in this moment. People want to know your story, and your story only goes up until today. You don't have to worry about whether you know what tomorrow's going to be, let alone where your kids will go to school. All through high school and college, I felt like I needed to be focused on what I wanted my whole life to become, like I needed to know what my plan was and chase after it with focused ambition. But here, I don't know what life is going to look like in the next step. I know I'm in this step, and I'm living each day one by one without wondering what comes next. Sure, I think about the future. I know I don't want to live here forever, but I haven't yet decided whether I'll move to Georgia the state or Georgia the country when I leave. I love imagining the future without feeling any pressure to strive for it. In college, I nearly dropped out every time I found a new African country I thought couldn't possibly survive another day without me. But here, I'm already living an adventure, so that part of me is being fulfilled. I'm free to dream without worrying I'll miss out on something if I don't start now. I'm here at least eleven more months; I'm not going anywhere else. I'm not trying to find a better job or get a nicer car or move to a different part of town. I'm going to be right here in this tiny apartment until September 1, 2011, so I'm free to dream without the need to pursue it immediately. I was always afraid I'd miss out on life if I didn't get to the next step as quickly as possible. Now it feels like someone paused my life - just made everything freeze for a moment - so I could actually stop and enjoy where and who I am. I feel like I'm really living every day instead of just gliding into tomorrow. My heart is full and I'm content and God is so very good.