Monday, August 21, 2006


Korean social gatherings inspire famous quotes

There are many lessons in life we have to learn through experience. For example, “Clutching live electric fences is not a good source of recreation” is a lesson most small boys in rural environments learn by age 6 (though standardized test scores throughout the South might suggest that some learned the lesson later than others).

Also, “Western intervention in the Middle East often suffers from our inability to understand the complex relationships that the different peoples such as Sunnis, Kurds and Persians have with one another.” This lesson was learned once the Ottoman empire had to be divided up after World War I, and fortunately, the mistake has not been made by a Western power ever since.

One lesson I’ve learned the hard way in this last year can be summed by a paraphrase of the great Confucius: “If a Korean invites you out on a Sunday morning, clear your schedule until Monday” (the actual quote was “I don’t know what a Korean is, that name won’t be used until centuries after I die, genius”). This phrase is just as true today.

The first Sunday I spent in Suncheon last September began with an invitation to the birthday party of the young son of one of our church members. I distinctly remember telling a friend over the phone that morning that after the party I would get some more sleep, they spend the rest of the afternoon preparing lessons for the coming week, sincerely hoping that more practice would somehow make me more gregarious, instead of the boy named “most bashful” in eighth grade.

Well, to paraphrase a traditional maxim, “The best laid plans of mice and men turn into drawn out tours of all of the Suncheon area’s mountains, temples and rivers.” Soon, a morning spent trying to eat vegetables covered in sauce with a flavor akin to lit rocket fuel turned into a visit to the Suncheon dam, to a Buddhist temple at the top of a mountain, then to another church member’s house for dinner. Between these visits were endless minutes spent in a bus listening to co-workers, one a middle-aged woman from the Caribbean, another an elderly maven from South Africa, as they made conversation about people they saw on the sidewalk looking for a taxi.

Elderly Maven from South Africa: They’re looking for a lift!
Middle-Aged Woman from the Caribbean: Dey’re looking for a lift?
EMFSA: Yes, they want a lift!
MAWFTC: I wonder if dey gonna get one!
EMFSA: Oh, look, they got a lift!
MAWFTC: Dey got a lift???!

And this perpetuated from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. By 5:30 I began to ask the bus driver, “Can I get out and lie under the bus wheels? Please?” Of course, he didn’t understand me. Later on, I discovered the correct Korean translation is “Can I get out and lie under the bus wheels, ju seh oh?

Now it’s almost a year later and I’m far more familiar with Korean customs, and their traditional lunches don’t usually taste like the surface of Venus in August. However, I’m still caught off-guard sometimes, such as in July, when my friend, a student named Julie, asked me to accompany her while she auditioned to become an interpreter during Chuncheon’s annual puppet festival. I was there to provide moral support while she waited, rehearsing lines such as “Chuncheon is the most beautiful city in Korea” and “Chuncheon is a full of youth and romance!” while occasionally nodding and saying, “No really, you speak English quite splendidly.”

At 3 p.m. our friend Catherine arrived to meet us, and soon my afternoon spent helping a friend before catching up on grading papers turned into a visit to a waterfall, and then an amusement park ride, and then dinner. I suppose I could have told them I had work to do, but the choice between spending an afternoon with ladies my age who drive me places and insist on buying dinner or counting missing prepositions in my students’ papers is really no choice at all.

So, that evening we had a dish of ludicrously hot chicken called takalbi before I returned to my apartment to turn in. I had done little constructive with my day, but as Thomas Edison once said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, and you can achieve that through some ludicrously hot chicken.”

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