Thursday, May 28, 2009

Intangible assets

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday at a "cultural experience program" designed for foreign English teachers living in Korea. We went up the coast to Gangneung for the Danoje festival. This is a festival of shamanic origin, where they have this awesome and hypnotic mask dance, and they march a tree and fire through the city to a designated location with a long line of lanterns following, each one with a wish paper attached. The lanterns are placed in a river where they float downstream together and are collected apparently by paddle boat and people in rubber overalls. The wishes are burned so that they might come true. I walked in the parade with a large group of other English teachers from all over Korea. We all wrote our wishes down on the wish papers. My friend Luke and I both wished for English teachers in Korea to not be assholes. I really hope this wish comes true because sometimes I feel ashamed to be associated with a lot of people who end up teaching in this country. Not that there aren't a decent amount of good people, but jesus christ sometimes it feels like they're few and far between.

The festival was pretty fun, overall. And there were half a dozen booths with Turkish people serving Turkish kabobs. They were delicious.

We watched a video as an introduction to the festival and the narrator kept talking about the "intangible cultural properties" of Korea. I thought this was a fascinating term to use to describe shamanic activity and beliefs. And later, I ended up being interviewed for television (I've learned it's fairly common to be interviewed by local television news people if you are a foreigner wandering around a festival in Korea). They asked me what my favorite part of the Danoje festival was, and I told them that I definitely found the intangible cultural properties a lot more interesting than any tangible ones, and that I had a personal interest in Siberian shamanic activity and it's dissemination across the Korean peninsula.

We stayed in a traditional Korean dwelling near Gyeongpo lake, which is a very peaceful lake located near Gyeongpo beach. Gyeongpo beach is very popular on the east coast, and it has a long strip of fresh seafood restaurants, with tanks of big and small crabs, fish, shellfish, and all manner of undefinable sea creatures (It's like one giant, edible aquarium, really; all you have to do is point and say "I want, I want"). It also has tons of small marts where you can purchase roman candles and other fireworks to go light off at the beach. I've spent many a fine night there having a few beers with friends and lighting off roman candles over the ocean and watching the sparks bounce off the sand. Last time we found a huge piece of plastic pipe about 20 feet tall that we played a couple rounds of caber toss with.

But the traditional Korean house was really beautiful, there was a lotus pond with a grass island, and houses with grass roofs. We were sitting under some trees until late at night and I had a really good conversation with one of the Korean coordinators of the culture experience program about the idea of family structure in Korea vs. much of the West. She said it was a very important part of life to live together, with family members of many generations; not just your parents and your siblings, but your grandparents, and perhaps even your own children. In this way, she said you are able to learn from all these people so many lessons about life and how to behave in society and whatnot. I do agree that Western culture places too much emphasis on getting away from the nest as soon as you can support yourself, and sleeping in a room with a door that locks. This comes at the consequence of making people who live with their parents until their late-twenties or later feel genuinely insufficient, and I don't think this is entirely right.

However, I do feel there is something to be said for the idea of individuality, occasional and much needed moments of solitude, as well as falling on your face a few times and making some mistakes on your own until you figure things out rather than just listening to your elders all the time. Many Koreans do not believe in or place the same value on this idea of individuality. It is a very collective culture here. Everything is meant to happen in groups and teams. Many restaurants do not have single serving portions available on the menu, and you will receive strange looks for walking into restaurants alone. It just isn't meant to happen. And I really like the communal nature of many elements of this culture. But this collectivity has the potential to inhibit one from becoming a free-thinker as well as restrict one's ability to transgress, and these are two freedoms in life I feel to be very important. So I don't know which way of life is ultimately better, I can only say which one I prefer.

This idea of collectivity in Korean culture flowed into another conversation about consumer buying patterns and the ways that corporations and chain stores function differently in Korea. Something that really hasn't caught on yet in Korea's consumer culture is the interest in anything vintage or secondhand. They have secondhand goods, but they're much more rare than in the States. People dump a lot more stuff here, in general. It's also rare to see older cars on the road. There's definitely not a car culture in the same sense. The vice principal at my school is part of a car club, but they just like Mercedes Benz and other new model luxury cars. I asked the coordinator what she thought about that, and she had a view point I hadn't really expected. Koreans tend to collect goods that are produced in Korea, and she said that if you buy secondhand, you are not contributing to the production of these goods, and doing something bad for the economy.

Wow, I thought that was pretty intense, because I've never even considered what I might be doing to the economy when I buy secondhand, I'm just happy to save a little money when I can. I really wonder how common this type of thinking is in Korea.

But it seems like, in general, Koreans think about how their actions affect other Koreans a lot more, since the culture is so much more collective in nature. And I never thought about how this might make their buying patterns different. Except with clothing trends, as it's impossible to miss how thoroughly something like this one beige Burberry plaidlike fabric pattern has taken the country by storm for some reason. I wonder if it's because this population is so much closer genetically that trends spread and homoginize so rapidly.

Before, I just thought that the interest in secondhand and vintage goods was just a natural evolution of consumerism which hasn't occurred yet in Korea. Since their graduation into a culture of capitalist slap happy purchase excess happened so recently, I just figured it would be a while yet until the idea of thrift stores and thriftiness takes hold, and then an offshoot of this causing the vintage trend and the collecting of used and old goods. But perhaps this isn't the case at all. In any case, who am I to say?

Monday, May 25, 2009

The plot thickens

Man, I just downloaded the complete Ethiopiques discography. 25 albums of Ethiopian jazz and grooves to sort through. The plot thickens. I'm in trouble.

Saturday & Sunday

I am now officially lost in African music. It was a slippery slope and I have a long way to crawl out before I'm finished, I'm sure.

On Saturday I took a train up the coast with friends to Donghae. We walked across a good part of the small city, from the inter-city bus terminal to the beach, through downtown and up to the odd Russian area near the train station where we went to a Russian karaoke restaurant called Texas to eat. Luckily there was not karaoke transpiring. The food was excellent there, minus the blood sausage which wasn't worth writing home about, even though technically I'm writing home about it. I had a bowl of borscht for the first time with sour cream. My friend Andrew and his sister ordered meat and potatoes, and they weren't kidding, it was just a very generous serving of pork and mashed potatoes, no vegetables, and by that I mean not even a parsley flake to be found anywhere near the plate. The Russians definitely know how to eat.

While we were at the Russian joint, these Russian ladies were laid out on the couch watching a DVD of Eurovision 2009. Greece was so hilarious I had to attach the youtube for it below. You really have to see it to believe that there are people doing things you would never even imagine in places around the globe who actually have international followings. This is just one of those cases of someone going way, way, way too far. Enjoy, and remember: this guy is serious.

This video reminded me of this gem of the 80's that Korea, of all places, introduced me to: Modern Talking, the German band that some might say time should have forgotten long ago but instead is still going strong in obscure music video request bars named River Phoenix down narrow bar stacked and neon laden alleys in Shinchon, South Korea. But for maybe the same insane and inexplicable reasons that made the dude above famous, Modern Talking has a seemingly strong international following. So here they are. Head to head. Like a bunch of raving keytar playing and open chested megalomaniacs from across the span of almost three decades: Sakis Rouvas VS. Modern Talking. Who would claim victory in this epic clash of bands we can unfortunately only speculate, be cause if they did actually play together everything human and decent might actually implode in one violent convulsion.

Friday, May 22, 2009



When I listen to this music I feel like nothing can be that wrong as long as this music continues to exist.

When I think about this type of music being played during funerals in Congo, sometimes lasting more than 4 days, I only wish I could have a funeral this incredible.

When I hear this song at three minutes and twelve seconds into it, I am so into it. I think this is one of the best middle of the song change ups I've heard in recent memory.

When I read some of the back story behind the Congotronics albums, I am blown away.

Some musicians from the Congo countryside came to the city and the city noises around them were too loud for their traditional music to be heard properly. So they used what was around them to enhance their sound. What was around them were car parts and other such leftovers from the Belgium colonization. They amplified their music, but DIY, so it sounds very experimental, because it is.

I've been thinking about L.A. a lot recently, but specifically what my life would be like now if I had stayed. I've been thinking about the art shows I may have participated in and what type of art I would be making there. Sometimes I think it was a mistake for me to leave, since I spent so much time and money to finish art school and I'm not really around any artists here. But other times I am really glad I have the challenge to live this way, as a person living a life first and an artist making art second. When I listen to this music, all the pressures of loans and careers dissipate and I realize how simple and lucid the act of making something and sharing it should be:

1. Work with only what is directly in front of you.
2. Don't complicate it with "isms" or concepts that you didn't invent yourself.
3. Get things out of your head through any material that makes the ideas flow the best.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sloth or tadpole?

I've been listening to this Van Morrison song from Astral Weeks. The lyrics are so beautiful:

"We shall walk and talk
In gardens all misty and wet with rain
And I will never, never, never
Grow so old again."

Walking and talking in gardens all misty and wet with rain is EXACTLY what I want to do pretty much all the time.

Also: "And I'll be satisfied not to read in between the lines." Man, that is an ideal and a half.

So it was Teacher's Day last week. Last year I was literally showered with gifts from my students. Some things I got included an expensive bottle of cologne, a large traditional scroll with a painting of a tiger and a dragon, a bouquet that was actually soap and every petal was a thin piece of soap, a bottle of wine, and a hundred-thousand won gift certificate for the Hyundae department store, among other things. However, I was teaching students with very rich parents in a very rich area in Seoul at the time. So I could tell the gifts probably came from the students' mothers for the most part, not that I wasn't VERY happy to receive them. This time around, I just got about 15 letters from my students, many of them with small folded paper origami flowers. In many ways, I actually appreciated these letters more than the lavish display of wealth thrown at me in Seoul, because they were actually from the students' hands, and their parents aren't paying heaploads of money for them to study English with me, and I could tell the students probably decided to write these letters on their own.

There's one letter in particular, though, that I feel really begs to be shared. It's potentially the best letter I've received from a student EVER. The girl who wrote it is probably the best English speaker in the entire school, although there's only 110 students where I teach. Regardless, her English ability is still extremely remarkable. Apparently she reads English newspaper articles and discusses them over the phone with someone from America.

Her vocabulary is crazy. Most of the other teachers took a crack at reading her letter and none of them, including Elvis who has extensively studied English for more than 20 years, could fully understand it. They all said the English was too difficult.

As a person this girl is so reserved and introverted though, and so it took forever for me to even find out that her English was this good. But here's the letter in full:

"Dear David.
I write you this letter to celerbrate teacher's day.
I feel sorry about day before yesterday. I wanted to greet you when we met by chance in front of our apartment. but I didn't want to use English because it was outdoor. I'm not as confidence as Hee-mang. So, let me use Korean when we meet at the outdoor.
David. Which animal do you like more? a tadpole or a sloth? I like tadpole more. I don't have any information regarding the life of a tadpole, but it is cute! There are many tadpoles near here because Taebaek is a rural area. In fact, tadpole is my nickname and sloth is my sister's nickname in my home, because I became potbelly when I eat much food, and my sister is such a lazy girl. I disliked my nickname at first, but I am acceptable it now.
Today is teacher's day in Korea. It is a day that is made to express thank to one's teacher. I want to express greatful to you, and I'm glad I am one of your pupils. I really enjoy talking with you and
Thank you very much David.
-from Ui-Joo (or Stephanie. this is my English name.)"

As for the question regarding my preference for the sloth or the tadpole (the most important part of the letter), I've put a little bit of thought into it before I write back to Ui-Joo with my answer. I immediately took the question as which animal would I want to be if I could permanently change form or begin again in a new life rather than which animal I just thought was more interesting. And I would definitely rather be a tadpole over a sloth.

When I was a young child my mom bought one of those books on 50 or 100 waterfalls around Los Angeles. She got it in her mind to take me to as many as she could. She even took me tadpole catching once. Rock hopping up all those creeks and streams I always thought it'd be so awesome if people were the size of tadpoles and we could live underwater like that. Some small dirty brown puddle in a rock crevice would be a palatial playground, a vast landscape for us to swim around in and explore while swinging our tails around.

Although lounging about in trees eating leaves day in and day out sounds like it would be pretty sweet as well. And it would be a sort of rude awakening to start losing your tail and then all of a sudden start uncontrollably start hopping around, making weird noises with your throat and flicking your tongue out at flies all the time. Perhaps the ideal situation is to be a tadpole that metamorphosizes into a sloth once adulthood is reached. That would be awesome.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ajuma party on the rocks

The other week Lindsey's sister Laura was visiting and I was showing her some real beautiful spots around where I live. We travelled northeast about an hour by train to a coastal city named Donghae. The town is pretty interesting because it has a healthy Russian district known as Little Odessa because of all the Russian shipbuilders working around there. But there's also a place called 무릉 계곡 (Mureung Gyae Gok), that means "Paradise Valley". There's a a spot at the beginning where you can choose one of the two dozen some odd restaurants to eat a bowl of san chae be bim bap (mountain vegetables over rice with spicy sauce and a fried egg). We ate sitting on bamboo mats on the floor of a wooden platform that extended out on stilts a little over the river. They had a a special type of dong dong ju we drank, which is a very traditional milky rice wine. It comes in a big pot with a ladle you use to fill the bowl you drink out of. There were groups of ajuma (old Korean women) on both sides of us at adjacent restaurants tapping their stainless steel spoons and chopsticks and clapping while they sang together. Some of them even got up and danced and slowly waved their arms around in the air dressed in their colorful blouses. At first it was a cacophony, since they're old and drunk, so never quite on beat or in key, but the longer you listened, the cooler it sounded. I mean they were putting those of us like Laura and myself,who are in our twenties, completely to shame. All of these ladies had decades on us, some of them definitely tripled our ages, and they still had so much life inside of them.

After the mountain vegetables and rice and rice wine, we followed the trail by a temple and continued hopping rocks up river until we hit the twin waterfalls. So awesome and peaceful. That particular day was Parents Day, so there were heaploads of Ajuma plopped down on old newspapers they placed on rocks by the river. And the soju was running strong. Laura (Lindsey's sister) and I were invited to sit down with one group and share in their festivities. They told us they were celebrating Eomani Nal, which means mother's day. I guess their way of celebrating it was getting blasted on soju in the forest with their friends. They definitely picked the right place to do it as far as the scenery goes.

An 아주마 (Ajuma) literally translates to aunt, but it's generally how Koreans refer to women of age with respect. They also say there's three sexes in Korea: male, female, and ajuma. It's because many of these women are products of pretty hard lives. Sometimes bowlegged and bent over, they often have this strong wide legged squat, colorful and flowery attire, and smoke and spit and drink in public like it's going out of style. In contrast, at least in smaller country towns like the one I live in, it's very common for younger women to only smoke in restrooms or in private rather than risk harsh judgement from others. But for some reason, once a woman has become an ajuma, she transcends these constraints. In Korea, women are still definitely supposed to take the submissive role, not drink as much, and be more respectful and obedient to males. It's getting a lot better, especially in the larger cities, but I've seen many examples of this inequality in the area I live in. I've witnessed domestic violence a few times, which I've heard to be fairly commonplace, and you can tell that, glass ceilings firmly in place, the business world is set up for men, almost exclusively. They say an ajuma is the third sex because they literally don't give a fuck what anyone thinks about the place a woman is supposed to take in Korean society. And, in truth, they don't need to. They've already had their kids and watched them grow, or if they haven't had them, they're not going to and they've accepted it. In effect, there's no one else they need to impress. They are free. Free to plop down on the ground anywhere they like and drink and smoke while spitting watermelon seeds out right on the ground all over the place. And in most cases, no one is going to say a damn thing against them for it, as they shouldn't. I only hope that I can execute the same freedoms when I grow that old.

Some ajuma sell vegetables and half live half dead sea creatures on the streets. And I can't count the times I've been waiting in line for a bus ticket or something (usually on a time constraint), and a 4ft 9in ajuma shoulders me aside and walks up to the ticket counter before me like I wasn't even there. Either they're empowered from living a lifetime in an overtly male dominated culture or they just don't care. I don't know which. I've always wanted to do a photo series on ajuma. A lot of them REALLY don't like having their picture taken though, especially by a tall white man. Although I think I'm just never that motivated to make photographs of people that often though. The images are just always so loaded. But I hope another artist will someday do a series on them. It would make a strong statement on the expression of womanhood and female empowerment in Korea. Or, if nothing else, be pretty fascinating visually. I'd buy the book, at least.

In any case, these women we joined passed over some newspaper pages for us to sit on, and offered us paper cups first to share soju and mango juice chaser, then after the alcohol customs were out of the way, we could fully sit and they gave us rice cakes and hard boiled eggs and fruit slices.

Generally Koreans are very generous and warm people to foreigners in my experience, but after soju, their generosity really goes beyond measure. There's a VERY common custom in Korea in which you give your glass or cup to another person at your table using both hands, and then fill it for them with soju (or a non-alcohol substitute). Once they drink it, they're supposedly obligated to return it to you and also return the filling favor with fresh drink. Go germs! When my principal took me out for BBQ pig belly the first week I arrived in town he told me to give him my glass, and then told me to fill it with soju for him. After he drank it he gave it to the person sitting next to him and told me "This is not your glass. This is OUR glass." The glass eventually came back to me after doing a full circuit of the table. I really like that part of the culture (even though it may be the reason I get sick so often here...)

These ajuma had mouths filled with fillings and gaps and golds and blacks and browns and purples. So of course one of the ladies held out her paper disposable cup for me to accept and drink from it. However, the cup was by this point a little more than half-crushed by her badly calloused ancient death grip hands and sopped wet and half-gummed by her badly aged and mangy grill. I definitely wasn't overjoyed, but I accepted it anyways, tipped my head back and gulped down the soju as quick as I could without looking or thinking about it and then offered the cup back to her.

I wanted to stay longer than just half an hour with them, but the sun was dipping and valleys tend to get dark fast. It was cool to sit with them while they were singing and clapping and laughing.

I was looking at a picture of the last time I was invited to an ajuma party, which was on a mountain trail in Seoul.

There's a little more money in Seoul, so these ajumas were a lot better outfitted for their climbing club. But man, I've gained a ton of weight since then! I sit at my desk so long during the day here like a sack of potatoes. So I'm thinking of buying a folding bike. Never imagined myself owning a folding bike before. But my friend Aaron has been researching this company named Montague who makes these bang up folding bikes. One particular model is called the Paratrooper. It's named so because it has apparently been used by the special forces and dropped out of planes on the back of soldiers while on various covert ops. So it's a full size 24 speed mountain bike that folds up to 3ft X 3ft and is light enough to strap on my back. It'll be perfect for throwing in the storage area in buses and trains so I can hit cool riding spots all over the country. here's a description from the Montague website about it:

"The Paratrooper® is a full size, 24 speed mountain bike designed to endure any terrain at high speed in silence with no heat signature. In addition to the high performance feature, the bike folds simply without the use of tools.

By turning one quick lever, the Paratrooper® folds in less than 30 seconds into 3' x 3' pack that can be dropped from a plane, strapped to the side of an LAV or thrown in the back of a trunk."

What can be better than riding around knowing that you are emitting ZERO heat signature? I'm not even fully sure what that means...

Well, apparently, I just found out what it means -- a guy from a bike website (see comments) was kind enough to expand on/correct the bike-related addendum to this post. And even more fascinating, I thought, was what he wrote about the Paratrooper actually being used in active missions on the DMZ.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

water is forever

Alex, one of my best friends (Familiar Stone!), showed me this crazy and fascinating relationship between two Chinese characters. It was quite a long time ago, but since then it keeps reoccurring in my mind. The character on the left means water and the character on the right means forever. And I mean it's pretty obvious that it's no coincidence they are so close in shape. Chinese characters are at many times pictographic and they tend to have a close resemblance to how the word would look if it were not a word at all, but a picture. Here's three more examples:

What made the ancient peoples who invented these characters decide that forever was an extension of water? The written language of China is said to go back 5000 years. And 5000 years ago, it was more than probable that most people, when standing on an ocean beach, would really have had NO idea what was beyond the horizon. That massive bowl of water would have, at least in their minds, gone on forever.

I've also heard that panels of experts do agree that most life on land, including humans, originated in the oceans. Did the ancient Chinese have a natural inclination or insight to believe this? Just think: once we were fish.

Well, enough of that, here's a jammin song from western Africa in the 70's:
Orchestre Poly_Rythmo de Cotonou - Mi Ni Non Kpo


Man, this song is so very very dope. Been listening to it on the bus lately while hopping around the country. Amped and electified thumb pianos? Are they serious? Genius. And the distortions and those harmonics created by the amplification blending into each other to create further polyrhythms. I'm glad they called that song paradiso.

So perhaps the sudden advent of spring sweeping across the landscape here is the main catalyst for the revival of this blog. In any case, it is so green, and becoming so lush, and flowers are coating the ground all the way up Taebaek mountain to its summit. There's just so much that was not there before that is there now. And the transition was also so fast and mind blowing. I feel very privaleged to live here and look out my window every morning at the green mountains. Taebaek rests in a narrow valley, the mountains are never out of sight. Living in LA, it's so easy to take the green for granted. It's so easy to forget about things like foliage and leaves when they're mostly there all year. Just like in most other aspects of life, temporary absences bring so much more attention and focus. When something has returned that was away, the wake of it's absence creates so much more impact.

"You are up and down."

I was just remembering another example of culture clash in the cafeteria. Quite a few months back. There were about 5 or 6 other teachers and administrators sitting at the same lunch table as me, and I noticed they were all having a conversation about me in Korean. It's never hard to tell when this is happening, since they always end up saying "David'uh-shee" over and over again for some reason (the "shee" being an attachment to indicate respect, almost like "Mr."). I couldn't understand their words, but by their gestures and completely unveiled finger pointing, it seemed like they were talking about my stainless steel food tray. I hadn't even noticed until then, but mine was upside down.

School lunch trays have two sides: one side with three small bowls meant for panchan (korean side dishes), and the other side with two larger bowls for soup and for rice. The soup and the rice side is always and at all times supposed to be closest to you. Deviation from this apparently causes a great stir at my school. Check out my friend Andrew's blog: He has a picture of one of the trays.

As soon as I realized how much my deviation stunned and confused the other teachers (and made some of them chuckle), I really felt good inside. This was kind of liberating and this was an awesome thing for them to observe. It became clear to me that it was very possible none of these teachers or administrators had ever eaten with their trays turned the other way. Or at least since they were admonished for it early on in childhood. And until that moment, I hadn't even realized that this was a trangressional or backwards thing to do at all.

I could tell that Elvis (the school accountant) was trying to formulate and connect the right English words in his head to explain what I was doing wrong. He always looks down at the floor and appears to be concentrating very hard when he's doing this. He finally looked up at me and pointed to my tray and said "You are up and down." Wow. What I was doing sounded so much cooler when he put it like that. I told him I was OK. I preferred to be "up and down" today. Because I didn't show any embarrassment or even hint at wanting to flip my tray around, he took that as my misunderstanding of what he said. So, failing to think of a more accurate English expression he actually reached over and started to turn my tray around for me. No way was this happening, I thought. So I stopped his hands and told him I liked it that way. And again told him, with a little more force this time, I was OK. Now they never say anything when I eat with my tray is "up and down."

Sometimes I just like the side dishes way better. Panchan is my favorite thing about Korean cuisine. Every dish comes with a multitude of small dishes of all sorts of pickled or unpickled vegetables, meat, pancakes, or whatnot. And if you want more, all you have to do is ask. So they're like bottomless little bowls of delicious (and occasionally things like raw clam or snail salad that I don't like). And so when I turn my try around it is because I am focusing on the panchan, rather than the rice and the soup. It's definitely not a purposeless deviance. It's just sometimes they serve things like "fish bone soup." What would be a psychotic health hazard in any elementary school in North America is commonplace here, they couldn't find a fish with more tiny bones, or have figured out a better way to make sure more bones end up in the soup. Not one piece of fishmeat left untarnished. And I can't mix it with the rice either that way, so there's really nothing for me on that side of the tray except plain rice and mouthfuls of esophagus piercing fishbones. And that's why I flip it around sometimes.

Sometimes the cafeteria offers sights to remind me that I'm living in a place that is really different from where I grew up. After living here for over a year, it's really easy to start taking things for granted, day in and day out. But the other day we had pig bone soup, and there wasn't much meat on the bones, although it did have a good flavor. I looked up and saw this third grade girl with no front teeth trying her best to dilligently suck all the marrow out of one of the pig bones. You would definitely not see that in a cafeteria in the States that often.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Eat everything Wednesdays

Today at lunch I realized too late that one of the lunch ladies was scooping a suspicious looking salad with red sauce onto my tray. The salad was at the end of the line, but usually greens are somewhere in the middle of the line of steel food tubs. And when I sat down and started poking at it, I noticed some even more suspicious globs of slimy dark colored not-vegetable or salad-worthy possible unidentifiable raw sea creature parts floating about. It just looked very suspect of something I might not eat. When the school nurse noticed my uncertainty, I asked her in Korean what it was and she said "gol bang ee." Damnit. Cold snail salad. Man, I eat a lot of strange food, excessively strange foods. I've covered Korean specialty cuisines to an extent that I'm sure would satisfy those guys from No Reservations or Bizarre Foods. In fact, I've had a chance to try more barely edible oddities than they did in their respective South Korean episodes. Of course, I do live here, and also, I live in the countryside where you have to eat these types of things sometimes by default, or just not eat at all or face looking like a weirdo for not eating them. But in the middle of the average work day I don't normally get the urge to eat cold snail salad.

I'm usually able to spot things like this and just tell them in Korean to withhold it to save the troubles at the end of the meal. Today was a "no waste day." Every Wednesday at the elementary school I work for everyone is supposedly obligated to finish every last speck of food off their stainless steel trays before leaving the cafeteria. The lunch ladies place an upside down steel tray over the hole we usually throw our unfinished food into to help make sure we follow this barbaric custom. I learned this a while back when one day I was placing my tray down on top of the stack with maybe one-third of the plain rice left uneaten (that day there was nothing to mix it with, and eating plain rice is another barbaric custom in any culture in my eyes): as I placed the tray down a third grade girl, who usually follows me around school and calls my name over and over again, reached both her arms out in some pleading shock gesture and said "teacher!", as if to tell me that I had accidentally stabbed her mother or something. At this same moment the head nutritionist was just walking out and saw what I had done. She shook her head at me like I was a disgrace to everything she cherished in life and muttered a Korean expression of exasperation under her breath as she walked by. She would have confronted my outright defiance more strongly but we already had a confrontation similar to this one last semester, and I made it abundantly clear to her that they would have to deport me from this country if they wanted to make me finish food I didn't want to eat.

At first I was sort of taken aback by this behavior, but now I really enjoy this type of conflict when it happens. And sometimes (although I don't normally admit it) whenever I have food left over on a "no waste day" I even try to time my exit of the cafeteria to when the nutritionist is walking out to clean up the excess trays left by the other students. That way she may see my food that I did not eat and realize that she is powerless in this situation to stop me. She is powerless because of certain freedoms in my life that I not only embrace but choose to freely execute at every chance possible. I am an adult. We are forced to eat all manner of foods we don't want when we are children, and one of the great things about being an adult is that we don't have to do that anymore. The other teachers who follow this barbaric custom and shovel unwanted food down their throats are choosing not to execute some of the basic freedoms that come with adulthood, and sometimes this bothers me. Although it probably happens in every institution in every country in the world. But, in any case, the mindset of Koreans living in the countryside being largely conservative and traditional, I feel it's important for the ladies in the lunch room as well as the other teachers to observe my defiance sometimes. I am in this country not only to teach English, but to teach my culture. And culture has a lot to do with how a language is shaped and how it flows. And being able to choose freely what I will eat or not eat or waste is a part of my culture.

There is a fine line, somewhere, though. I don't agree with the mindset of wasting freely and openly and excessively just because you can, or just out of apathy. And that would not be the part of my culture that I would want to spread, or give the impression that I am a part of. I guess I just don't want to eat cold snail salad or feel bad about wasting it some days. That's all.

What's also interesting is that Koreans would sooner leave half a steak behind than not finish nearly every grain of rice served to them. I mean rice is what has kept this culture from starving when it was going through hard times, so it's not surprising that they look at it this way. I have heard people in the states who grew up during the depression with poor families behave in similar ways (although they might go for the steak before the rice). In fact, you don't ask someone "How are you?" in Korean, you ask them "Have you eaten rice?" Although to them, the word "rice" is synonymous with meal. So they're actually just asking each other whether they've eaten or not.