Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sah Kyejole: Spring

My student Annie's response to her journal topic, "What does a teacher do?"

Springime came slowly for the inhabitants of the Land of the Morning Calm in 2010. Just as Brandon had predicted, it was still thick-coat-and-tall-boot weather the week I moved to Suwon at the beginning of March. Aside from the blossoming buds I began to notice around church, I was unaware of any real change in season as the weeks progressed. "The only difference between Korean winter and spring," I remember writing on Facebook three weeks after my move, "is that now the flowers are cold."

Though the mercury on the the thermometer changed little that season, creeping ever-so slowly towards warmth, many changes in my life were ushered in with the intervening months between winter and summer: Not only did I change jobs and cities in a foreign country; sign a second contract which extended my stay by four months; and leave the support base of friends that I had come to cherish. I also saw two of those friends, Andy and Laura, depart Korea for good shortly after I left. But even as they did, I began to see the LORD populating my life with a rich group of women from SIBC, and even at my workplace, who were strong in faith and steadfast in love.

"It's a good step for you," I remember Brandon commenting as we helped pack Laura's one-room apartment in the middle of March. "You'll be surrounded by like-minded people," he said. As I reflect on the manifold blessings the LORD has given me through the people I have come to cherish here, I can see he was right. If I really had wanted to stay in Korea, coming to Suwon was the best move I could have made.

* * *

Spring: Bome-cheol 봄철 2010

March saw Frankie and me settle into one apartment, only to have to transfer to another four weeks later. All in all, the move was convenient: it brought us closer to the station, within walking distance of a small Korean grocery store, and only three blocks away from the nearest bus stop.

In the middle of the month, I went to Seoul to see a friend from Chungju and was caught in a soggy winter storm. I didn't even have any stockings on underneath my pants because I thuought it would be warm! After leaving my friend, I stood an hour in line with the Koreans as we huddled at the station awaiting our turn to hail a cab.

The ladies of SIBC took me out one warmer Sunday afternoon for bokembab in Insadong, followed by a lovely chat at a nearby tea room, the Old Tea Shop, which was populated by tiny finches and sparrows. It was quite a romantic, relaxing day.

On the second of March, I started working with James (L) and Grace (R), among the other staff members of ILS Dongtan.

For St. Patrick's Day, the "Irish of the Orient" treated me to the best Patty's party I've ever attended: Green was in abundance, dancing was the flavor of the day, and St. Patrick (a.k.a. Our James Teacher) himself graced us with his celebrated presence.

On the fiftth of April, the day Koreans celebrate Arbor Day, my kindergarten students went for a short field trip to a local park to plant tree seeds. The air was fresh, the weather breezy, and the sun warm--the makings of a fine spring day by Texas standards. The Koreans, however, didn't seem to be expecting it: My students came dressed for the elements that day, complete with jackets, warm-up suits, and three layers underneath. My K-1 student, Harry, looked at me after he had just been running around in all those clothes and said, "Teacher, hot." Why, naturally.

A friend of mine and I went for a nature walk/hike through Dongtan's famed Central Park just weeks before I left for the States. It took an hour to traverse, but overall was quite a pleasant experience.

Springtime was also when I met my friend December, a Christian woman who lives near where I work. She invites me out to the movies or dinner from time to time. On this occasion, she introduced me to Pho Mein, an elegant Vietnamese-style chain whose cuisine is some of the tastiest I've had this side of the States.

Enter Daniel Barnett. He effectively replaced me as the other foreign teacher at Learning Well. Brandon introduced me to him during Easter weekend when they came up to Seoul to visit my church and he proved very instrumental in the LORD's direction later that summer.

Mounting Sajo

The first time I ever went skiing was in January 2003 with my church’s college ministry for a weeklong adventure in the snow and slopes of Colorado’s famed Durango Mountain Resort. Though I had taken ice skating lessons in sixth and seventh grades, I had yet to master balancing on two thin blades—let alone strapping flat, plastic sticks to my feet and pointing me down a mountain! I was non-too-prepared for the frightening speed I picked up as I barreled down the slopes of the Rocky Mountains that winter. At least with ice skates, you stay on level ground.

Since my terrifying first experience, I have mounted skis four more times: once at Sugar Mountain in North Carolina, and now three times in Korea. By no means am I an expert, but now I consider myself a “comfortable novice”—still a newbie, just a little drier behind the ears. My progress on skis seems a vast improvement since my days at Durango when I was so out of control that I slid up an embankment to kiss a tree with my knee, and so mad at myself for not succeeding that I yelled at my college leader on the mountain for making me take a second ski lesson. Eight years later, I’m still nervous about dismounting the lift, but manage to stay upright far more than I am prone.
Considering my newfound skills in the sport, when Krista suggested we ring in the New Year with an adventure at Sajo Ski Resort near Chungju, I felt I was up for the challenge. She had never been skiing, she confessed, and with my four nearly successful attempts I knew I was confident enough to lead her through the basics. Never would I have thought on the bunnies of the Rockies that one day I could call myself an unofficial ski instructor. My, how my college group would have been proud!

“You put your boots on like this,” I told Krista once we had left my ARC (Korea’s rendition of a green card) and Krista’s camera as insurance for our skis and bibs. I pried open the plastic-coated lip and slipped my foot into a compartment one size too small. It was then that the enormity of the task I had just taken on hit me in the face: As I struggled with my footwear, my mind kept drawing blanks as to how to teach my companion the rules of a sport I barely had grasp of myself. I felt at that moment as ill fit for a ski instructor as my boots had been for my feet.

Returning the shoes for a larger pair, I discovered that the skis given to me weren’t fit correctly to my new set of footwear. As I showed Krista how to attach boot to ski, I stared at the gap on my right that should have been flush. “That’s problematic,” I thought to myself. “I’ll have to go back and have them readjust it.” But since we were so close to the ski lift—and by this time it was already 2:30, with just two hours to ski—I let the matter drop.

The two of us managed to scoot ourselves, cross-country style, from the entrance of the resort to a line for the bunny slope, which was twenty rows thick and three people wide. We chatted amiably while awaiting our turn up the slopes, adding our friendly English to the chorus of pleasant Korean clatter around us. As we stood there balanced on our rented skis, I desperately tried again to remember what came next, dread twisting in my stomach like a writhing snake: Now it was crunch time.

Soon the severity of my boot-ski situation bared its unpleasant head. While trying to show Krista how to “pop” snow off one ski by flipping it upwards, my right ski popped itself off my foot. Conditions only worsened when we caught the lift. Just as the two of us caught the lift up the mountainside, my lose ski popped off again and the Korean manning the ride had to run after us to hand it to me—exactly what I had been afraid of while in line. As there was no way to safely reattach my ski without losing something or falling off my seat, the only thing I could do was hold both poles and ski with one hand and the safety bar with the other. This meant, of course, that at the most crucial stage of Krista’s ski-learning thus far, I would out of commission.

“You have to scoot all the way to the edge of the seat,” I told her as we neared the dismount. “You have to ski down the small slope at the end of the lift.” Krista barely had time to ingest my descriptions before it was time for her to slide down the embankment by herself—and for me to helplessly round the pulley circuit heading back down the mountain.

Jam-shi-man-yo!” I called to the attendants. “Wait!” They hurriedly stopped the lift and quickly ran to my rescue as I sat there panting, mere inches from the slope’s drop-off.

Once on solid ground, I walked my skis close to where another attendant stood helping Krista to her feet. “Never point your skis down the mountain,” I instructed as she gathered her wits. “Always stay perpendicular. The goal is to make a zigzag.”

The ski lift had deposited us onto a small, nearly level feeder slope peopled with Sajo’s beginners, which led to the “real” bunnies—the last leg of an intermediate run higher up the mountain. Within a few feet of each other, Krista and I slowly crept our way from lift embankment to the feeder’s mouth, there to attempt crossing the fast-moving current of intermediate skiers.
This was the other thing I had dreaded while still on level ground: maneuvering into the flowing traffic of the bunny slope. Thus far I had been behind Krista, cheering her on while secretly trying to control my own somewhat uncontrollable skis. If I were going slow enough, and were on a flat enough run, I knew I could keep my speed an even pace. But out in the open, with faster moving obstacles, all bets were off.

“Can you cross over there?” I asked Krista when we had made it to the lip of the feeder; I pointed to an embankment on the far right side of the larger slope.

“You go ahead and I’ll follow you,” Krista replied. Exactly what I had hoped she wouldn't say. At her request, however, I slowly took the plunge.

In the sport of skiing a term is used when a skier falls fantastically down the mountain, leaving a trail of gear and valuables behind him: a yard sale. I was famous for my yard sales at Durango—and this was no exception. I had picked up too much speed and found myself slipping out of control. My rented equipment littered the snow as I tumbled stomach-first one hundred yards down the bunnies. Thanks to my right ski’s gap, it landed several tens of yards above me.

As I was falling down the mountain, Krista courageously tried to follow my lead, met with another fall of her own. I watched from farther below as members of the Korean ski patrol came by one-at-a-time to help Krista back onto her feet. Each in turn silently pantomimed a ski lesson for her: Pull yourself up like this. No, no, don’t pop your ski off. Point your skis like this. “Edg-ee,” one of them had said. Use your edges to turn.

I was feeling less and less like a ski instructor, unofficial or not, the longer I stayed on the mountain. Words continued to fail me and I was unsure how to avoid another demonstration of my limited skills. “I hope my instructions have been helpful,” I told Krista as soon as she rejoined me.

“You just forgot the part about the edges,” she sighed. “You’re supposed to push on your edges to turn.” I nodded my understanding and slowly, quietly, we began yet another descent down the slopes, me trailing behind to help her in the event of another fall.

After another string of falls and subsequent successful attempts to pull her back onto her feet, my pupil stopped. “I’m terrified, Jenn,” she said. She stood there perpendicular to the bunny’s incline, paralyzed in her ski boots.

It was like watching my own thoughts from eight years ago play out on someone else’s lips. “I’m mad at myself and exhausted from all of my falls,” she confessed. “I want to just take off my skis and slide down the mountain.” I told her that she certainly had a right to feel that way, yet needn't give up quite yet. She might not forgive herself if she didn't try at least one last time. Deliberately, she formed her skis into a wide A and started her run.

It was her last run of the day--and arguably the most successful. One hundred yards from the end of the bunny slopes, she took control of her skis and coasted all the way to level ground. Assah! 아싸! I stood on a side embankment watching proudly as she glided safely off the mountain.
Her face was beaming as I approached her moments later, herself exhausted but triumphant. “I’ll do this again in about a month,” she told me. “It'll take that long to fully recover.” Confidently we scooted to the edge of the snow, popped off our skis, and deposited them back with Sajo's attendants. This had been a glorious day.

There was another reason that made the day distinguished: Attempting to ski had been on “The List,” a group of personal goals for Krista to accomplish. It was only after we were tucked safely back in her apartment and I read The List on her wall that I realized the importance of the day. I may not have been the most well-versed ski instructor, but going skiing with her had thus helped my friend fulfill something purposeful in her life. And that felt better than any sort of accolade from friends back home.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Chef Jenn

Three weeks ago, my TR8 class read a recipe for traditional Irish soda bread as part of their TIME for Kids nonfiction reading curriculum. Months before I had collected the ingredients for another ethnic dish taken from the magazine, a fruit salad from from Pakistan, and led the class in preparing the food. Remembering our culinary experiment, Betty piped up, "Teacher, can we make this?"

I was a bit caught off guard. I had none of the ingredients in which to make the recipe that day, having had only the shortest sliver of time between morning and afternoon classes to prepare. However, I did agree with her: I thought it sad that my students could only read about such an exciting activity as bread-making instead of participating in it. "I'll ask Teacher Grace about it," I intoned. "Maybe next Wednesday or Friday."

"Teacher," Ben asked excitedly the following Wednesday. "Today...? You said we make bread next Wednesday or Friday." I smiled at his exuberance and told him that Teacher Grace had said we could do it for the activity day scheduled at the end of the month. And thus Irish Bread Cooking Day with Teacher Jennifer was born.

As long as we were making bread with the elementary students, Grace suggested we do it a week early with the kindergarten as our last cooking day of the school year. I thought that was a great idea and assured her it would be fairly simple to make with the kids, provided that all the ingredients were present and students listened well; it could even be fun. "I can find caraway seeds and baking soda in Seoul," I told her. "The only thing we can't find in Korea is [the] buttermilk, but I can make that."

"You put it together," Grace said calmly, "and I will support you."

The afternoon of the kindergarten's cooking adventure, for the first time since starting to eat lunch with them last March, I left three of my pre-kinder students to finish their meal on their own while I made preparations for class. During my break earlier in the day, I had arranged the six thigh-high tables in K-2's room to look like a long, anvil-shaped workbench, and moved in a larger waist-high table to act as kitchen countertop.

While my students ate, I organized and collected my supplies: seven bowls for each student to add his respective ingredient; a larger bowl for the eight cups of flour needed for the dough; and a great big bowl for mixing. I then divvied up the bread's raw materials into the smaller bowls and waited for my students. After the bell rang, I asked the kids to wash their hands and don their aprons and hair scarves, then to sit in front of the different bowls spread out on the table. I wasn't caught off guard this time. And this cooking class was gonna rock!

For our first item of business after the students settled in, I asked Julia to plop a tablespoon of flour onto the cutting board. After she spread it around ineffectively with the back of the tablespoon, I took my fingers to it and massaged it over the board. "Teacher, it is messy," I heard Christine assert.

"That's okay," I smiled her as I patted my flour-dusted hands on my jeans. "I'll get messier."

One by one, starting with Jake to my left and going around the table counter-clockwise, each student had the chance to add their ingredient to the mixture: Jake and Rachel, four bowl-fulls of flour; Julia, sugar; Lisa, baking powder; Irene, the caraway seeds. As I stirred the tiny dark green grains into the smooth white texture, I smiled to myself. "They look like ants," I told my students. Elena brought me slightly larger ants, the raisins.

Next came Christine's buttermilk, Julia's and Rachel's eggs, and the baking soda, wet ingredients to be mixed in a separate bowl and folded into the flour. "Simon," I bellowed, trying to be just harsh enough to be obeyed. "Bring your bowl." His was the last ingredient to be added, as he had spent the last several minutes sitting outside the room because of his inattention. Yet even naughty boys needed second chances: He picked up his bowl absently and wandered to the inverted V-shape of the front end of the table, dumping his baking soda into the sticky liquid mixture.

After everything had been added, my students and I went to work congealing the milky substance into bread. I called each student by name to help mix the wet and dry ingredients together with their elbow grease, not wanting anyone to miss out on the fun part. When the dough was firm enough and each had had his chance to stir, I pulled the moist lump apart with my hands to form two sizable loaves; these would in turn be shaped into smaller balls of muffin-sized soda bread for them to take home. One by one, the students stood at the thick, wooden cutting board to knead the large lumps, what would become their own little peice of bread dough.

"We should open a bakery," Grace told me at the close of class while we oversaw the last of the Irish buscuits baking in the oven.

I smiled to myself at her comment. It wasn't so unheard of, I knew: Earlier this year, my oldest students had read a fictionalized account, inspired by true events, of a girl doing just that during the California Gold Rush of the 1840s. A waegukin like myself might have a lucrative niche selling plump, grainy bread in a place whose only idea of it is more like Mexico's pan dulce [sweet bread] than Nature's Own whole- or honey-wheat.

Still, with as much fun as baking with the kids had turned out to be, perhaps in the end I'm better off just teaching them. I had quite a reaction from my K-2 students when they'd finally had a chance to taste their creation. "Teacher, the bread is not yummy," Rachel said the following morning. "My sister and my mother and my baby brother eat it, but I don't eat. Not good smell."

"Because of ants," Christine chimed.

As I listened to my students' critiques, I remembered Cook Jane's advice as she sampled a piece of the bread before taking the students home the previous day. "Sonsangnim," she had told Grace in Korean, "if it's for the kids, it needs more sugar." To my developed, adult palate, the half cup it already contained was sweetener enough--surely, it couldn't have needed more than that.

Yet, if being sweet is what they understand bread to be, sugar was precisely what the soda bread lacked for my students. The thing that will make or break a bakery--and indeed, a recipe--is the tastes of its customers. Perhaps what I really need to be in tuned with is not my own palate, but a Korean one.

Three's a Crowd

Sunday, January 16, my friend Young Sook (far left) brought me to her small church for a time of prayer, fellowship, and worship, Korean style. The coldest day of the year at -17 degrees Celcius (1.4 degrees F), we huddled warmly on the ondol floor in an apartment at the back of the sanctuary. It was in this tiny space, presumably the pastor and his wife's parsonage, that I met Jimin (center) and Jihyun (right), sisters five and seven years my junior, respectively.

As we prepared for a second service in the afternoon, Jimin started the list of polite questions that I've come to expect from Koreans: Where are you from? How old are you? and the like. Then I asked her one. "What kind of American food do you like?"

"Cream suh-pah-get-ty," she told me, beaming. "I love cream spaghetti."

I remembered the ample supply of spaghetti noodles in my pantry that I had inherited from a friend who had recently emigrated back to the States. "Would you like to come over for dinner this week? Tuesday?"

As soon as she heard my offer, Young Sook instantly wanted to come along. This also meant Jihyun would like an invitation, too. I briefly pictured my postage-stamp apartment in my head and shuddered to think how extra people might fit. "But I only have room for one other, maybe two other people," I protested.

My friend stood up in mock defiance and held up her hand as if she were pledging loyalties. "I'll stand!" she proclaimed.

"But what about Frankie?" I asked her, knowing how much she disliked him. She hadn't come over during the holidays just for that reason.

"Oh," Young Sook said sadly. "Fooh-rank-y."

"It's okay. I can put him away in the laundry room. He'll be fine." After a few more minutes to work out the details, everything was set: a dinner party at 7:30 P.M., Tuesday, the 18th for a place setting of four; the menu, cream spaghetti, spinach salad, and pan-fried hobak (호박)--a soft, neon green, zuccini-like squash that Koreans call "sweet pumpkin." It would be the first time so many people had come to visit my apartment in Korea.

I had just enough plates and bowls for each of us, if you counted the one oddly shaped, ivory-colored plate amid its porcelain white companions, and my collection of mismatched bowls. But I only had two pair of chopsticks, one knife, and two forks and spoons each. I also lacked sufficient glassware, possessing just two cups and three mugs. Making the entree and side dishes for four would be easy enough; however, my lack of adequate tableware posed a bit of a problem. As I served tea later that night, my three guests were given the mugs, while I happily sipped from my last clean bowl.

The night of the 18 arrived, expectation scenting the air of my apartment as I entered. After putting away my things from school and petting Frankie, I quickly dusted my cubby-hole bookshelf, cleared away the electronics from the T.V. stand that served as my dresser, and positioned my computer atop my short refrigerator. I then moved the stand to the middle of the room and arranged my four "chairs" around it--the corner of my bed, a small living room armchair, a gray and black folding chair, and my plastic red stool used for reaching the bar in my closet. A small space about a two feet wide was left open to the right of my huddled furniture, what could be used to squeeze in and out of. Provided that no one wanted to get up during the meal, we might have just enough room.

Once my guests arrived, Young Sook claimed the the corner of the bed; Jihyun, the folding chair across from me. Jimin sank into the armchair across from Young Sook and I took the remaining seat, my red stool. Situated as I was, I had only to twist to my right and take two steps to be in the kitchen stirring the food. If I twisted left, I could conveniently stack used plates and bowls on a portion of my bookshelf. If I needed something from the refrigerator across the room, I had only to ask Jihyun to find it. My apartment could fit a party of four, it seemed--though just barely.

L to R: Young Sook, Jimin, and me.

I knew how much Koreans savored tasty food, particularly how highly they valued the Western variety. This in mind, I had done my best to present an elegant, American-style dinner to my guests that evening, complete with homemade honey mustard dressing for the salad and store-bought flan (incorrectly labeled "pudding" on the package) as dessert's finishing touch.

Of my three friends, Jihyun was the most vocal in her reaction. "Mashisoyo!" she declared as we began the meal. It's so delicious! "Oh-tooh-keh?" What should I do? She was so impressed with the salad dressing that she asked which bottle it came from. When I confessed it had none, at Young Sook's sugestion she searched my refrigerator and cabinet for the deli mustard and sweet honey I had used, to take pictures of them for future reference. I hadn't the heart to tell her that the mustard had actually come from the States.

L to R: Jimin and Jihyun

Though I enjoyed the whole evening and its pleasant conversation, the thing I found most delicious was what came with our tea after dessert: lavender-colored blueberry roll cake from Paris Baughette, one of the foremost bakery's of the country. Its texture was spoungey-soft, with bits of blueberry in the batter and a light purple cream between the layers to hold it all together. Its flavor was tangy-sweet, berry-like yet buttery and fluffy. It felt as if I were eating my favorite color. Amazed at the delicacy in front of me, I declared, "It tastes like purple!"

I was happy the girls had brought the cake as a house-gift, yet much more happy to have them as guests in my home. If the adage is that "two's company [but] three's a crowd," four must double the camaraderie. I will gladly welcome their fellowship again, whatever spacial issues may come.