Tuesday, August 22, 2006

pishy out of water

I apologize for the wicky long post, but there's just so much going on. I know I should have broken it up...sorry.

So I've made it through 5 weeks of Fulbright Orientation Summer Camp-ness in Chuncheon, several days of playing in Seoul, and a trip to the DMZ. I'm finally at my placement, living in my homestay in Gongju. My host family (mom, dad, and two boys in elementary school) is really nice, although the language barrier is very much in effect. The boys have the best English...and sadly, it's not far off from my Korean. My host mom is working very hard to improve her English, and she's already gotten much better since I got here on Thursday. Most of our interactions involve charades, one word sentences in English and Korean, laughter followed by an unintellible stream of Korean, and then me being pulled somewhere by the arm with absolutely no idea what is happening. I spend most of my time smiling, laughing, and looking confused.

My host mom is a really nice lady, although I have to admit I feel frustrated with her on occasion (it's just a really hard situation for both of us and I feel bad about it, but still). I am a huge burden for her, and I'm reasonably certain she thinks I'm a freak. The sacrifices Korean mothers make for their kids are pretty amazing (it's pretty clear that the reason I'm living here is to help the boys improve their English). She feeds me breakfast and dinner every day, is mainly responsible for (futile attempts at) giving me an idea of what's going on, and has had to make room for me and my mountain of stuff in her tiny, jam-packed apartment. She studies English with me and on her own and gets really worried if I have to be left alone for even short amounts of time. She definitely gets a big kick out of me, as she laughs hysterically about almost every single thing that I do or say. My frustration really just comes down to the language barrier--many, many times a day my host mother will say something in Korean that I don't understand, and I will respond with "I don't understand" (in Korean). Then she will say the sentence again, look at me, and then say "Yongorul" (which means English). I will say again that I don't understand, and then she will say "Yongo" (English again...the 'rul' thing is just a particle that, believe me, you don't want to know about) in a louder voice. So I say again that I don't understand, and she will get very close to my face and say the word or sentence again really loudly and then say "YONG-O-RUL," and then "ENGRISHY," like that is the part I don't understand. This exchange happens many times a day and has never resulted in me figuring out what she is trying to say.

My host little brothers are both absolutely adorable. Their names are Kibom and Kiyeong, and I already feel really attached to them. They seem to like me a lot too, although it's mainly due to the fact that I can run faster than they can. According to the Korean age system they are 12 and 10 years old respectively, which means that in American they are 10-11 and 8-9. They are tiny though...I would probably have guessed Kiyeong's age at about 6. They are both hyper and full of enthusiasm about everything--they're always running and jumping and destroying things. They like to capture all the giant, nasty bugs that live around here and bring them to me to wonder at. They're not scared to try out every English word they can think of, usually at the tops of their lungs. They are both taekwondo blackbelts so they often do crazy things like run up and flip off walls or jump up, spin around, and then kick the other one in the face. It's a little like being in a video game. They also have to study more than I have ever studied in my life--school is not even in session for them right now, and they both spent 10 hours in the library on Saturday studying diligently. Kibom gets a lot of pressure from his mom to practice speaking English with me. She will say something in Korean and order him to say it to me in English. We also read two English books together every evening and sometimes in the morning too. He has a lot of responsibility in leading me around places and giving me information, and he takes this very seriously. Kiyeong is completely carefree and has the cutest smile I've ever seen. He is probably my favorite person ever. We communicate really well even though we can't really speak to each other at all. He likes holding my hand, coming and sitting with me in my room and playing with my mousepad, playing games with me (although he makes no attempt at telling me the rules), and making faces.

My host dad works all day, and has only been home for dinner once. He is this giant, muscular man, but seems pretty quiet and is really nice to me. He is affectionate, in sort of a rough way, with the two kids, and it is really cute to see. Every evening he comes home and rings the doorbell. The whole family, myself included, lines up at the door to insa him (bow and say hello formally). He then settles down in front of the T.V. and the rest of the family scrambles to bring him whatever he wants. His job is somewhat of a mystery. The little piece of paper that Fulbright gave us about our homestay families translates as "self-employed ironsmith," and my host mom, a dictionary, and I spent 45 minutes deciding that he is a "self-employed maker of doors."

Everyone at my school is really nice too, although most of them seem to be scared of me. The principal is a pretty laid back guy who cracks me up. He has two stock English phrases, "Hello," and "Numbah 1." This last is delivered right in my face with a big thumbs up. He doesn't let anyone at the school speak Korean to me, and will yell any any teacher who dares. Almost all of the teachers are too embarrassed to speak English, so they mainly just giggle at me and gesture. The vice principal is more formal, but very kind. He worked very hard to learn my last name and calls me "Chebuske," (not Cara Chebuske or Miss Chebuske or Chebuske teacher, just Chebuske), and worries a lot that I am not eating enough.

Food here ranges from delicious to difficult to gag down. This morning I woke up to a big pot of throat-scorchingly spicy fish soup, rice, little anchovy things with the heads and eyes still on, and kimchi (fermented cabbage covered in chili pepper). There was, of course, nothing to drink with this meal; the soup provided all necessary fluid intake. I also found out that yesterday the small, rubbery things I was smilingly told to ingest were actually snails from the local pond. Hooray schisto. Overall though, my host mom is a really good cook, if a little overly attached to seafood (her kimchi is wicked good, just not for breakfast).

I'm eating a ton here, mainly because no one, either at school or at my homestay--English levels at both places are very low, and my Korean is pretty much nonexistent--has any idea how to deal with me. They have all resorted to shoving food at me whenever I start to ask questions they don't understand. The result of this is that I have no idea when/what/who/how I'm teaching, I can't get my host family to let me unpack, and I drink about 20 cups of instant coffee a day--often one right after another. I'm also given tons of random meals and snacks. For example, yesterday in addition to all the coffee I had breakfast, two packages of nasty Ritz "cheese" crackers (they were sweet), lunch, lunch no. 2, ramen, a bag of disgusting shrimp-flavored crisps (I threw them away as soon as I was unmonitored), 3 popsicles, dinner, fruit, 3 marshmellow chocobars, a late night meal of fried chicken and pickled radishes, more fruit, and then (my fav) just before bed my host mom went to the fridge and pulled out a plastic bag that contained a mix of peanuts, lemon hard candies, and dried squid. She topped this off with some hot, sweetened fish skin. I am not kidding. Really.

My biggest problem here is definitely that, despite contractual stipulations, I have neither a bed nor a room of my own. I sleep on a yo (which is an upgrade from the first three nights when it was just me, blanket, floor) in a room that is communal space. I don't mind the floor thing--it's definitely preferable to kicking family members out of their beds, and the communal space thing has both ups and downs (I have to dress in terror, and I can't skype or use ichat whenever I want to. But, last night I was lying on my "bed" reading and Kiyeong just came right in and snuggled up next to me to show me his comic book and read next to me. It made me happy). The bad thing is that I can't unpack my stuff. It's driving me absolutely crazy to still be living out of my suitcase. I've tried talking about this to my host mom and teachers at my school, but so far all I've managed to get is 7 hangers and some space to hang them on. I want shelves! and drawers!

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