Friday, March 26, 2010

Yellow Dust

Pollution in China wreaks havoc on people in Japan and Korea. Every year in March, the yellow dust - pollutants from Chinese factories - blows down to cover the sky of other countries. Last week I had to use my inhaler. I wondered what was going on.

The next day I saw this story:

The following is a direct quote from the paper:

The worst-recorded yellow dust storm hit the nation on Saturday, causing the weather agency to issue its first nationwide warning, according to the Korea Meteorological Administration.
The KMA lifted the yellow dust warning at 4 a.m. yesterday as the storm weakened overnight.

In the afternoon, the yellow dust moved out of the country following the low-pressure system that was quickly moving eastward, the KMA said. Yellow dust in China's northern region also quickly weakened and became less likely to affect the peninsula.

"With the wind blowing from the southwest, the possibility is that the density of fine dust in the western coastal region and some inland areas can get thicker on Monday. Thus, extra caution needs to be taken to take care of your health," a KMA official said.

The sandstorm, which scientists blame on China's industrialization and deforestation, hit the nation Saturday for the fifth time this year.


On Saturday, the Chinese capital of Beijing was blanketed with the yellow dust, as a sandstorm caused by a severe drought in the north and in Mongolia swept into the city, according to news reports.

The storm, which earlier buffeted parts of northeastern China, brought strong winds and cut visibility in Beijing.

Authorities issued a rare level-five pollution warning, signaling hazardous conditions, and urged residents to stay indoors.

Sandstorms frequently hit the arid north of China in the spring, when temperatures start to rise, stirring up clouds of dust that can travel across China, to Korea and Japan and even as far as the United States.

Sounds to me like somebody needs to plant a tree or ten thousand...

*photos from the internet... but that one of the earth is pretty cool, huh?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Subway... and I don't mean the Sammich

Hey everybody,

I had a rough kind of day today, and rather than pretend everything is hunky dory, I thought I would share it here.

I was on the subway and had sat down (it was a 2 hour subway ride and my feet hurt). And as people filled up the train, eventually, I got up so an older gentleman could sit down. Another man offered to let me sit next to him, and slid over to make room. Ok, so subway seats for Asians are just about big enough for half of me. So I smiled and pantomimed "big hips" and "no thank you" and everyone was really smiley about it. When a spot opened they said to sit down, which I declined, and they were talking about me, telling the new person who had just entered the car about me and my big hips. I know this is what was said because the teller copied the pantomime I had done. They were all good natured about it and friendly, and I detected not even an iota of malice toward me. Just a simple acknowledgement. (Like how Latinos call people Gordito - which means Fatty - but it's very affectionate and no malice there either)... well... after a couple of stops, I moved further down the car and found myself crying.

I felt like those people didn't see me, they didn't see a friendly foreigner. They saw me as fat. And that just cut right to the quick. *Now, I know they also saw the friendly part and they saw me being respectful to an older person, and in that way I was a good will ambassador, but something about the interaction just kind of broke my heart. My face was flushed in shame and my tears actually dripped off my face.

The weird thing for me is that I almost never feel this way. I know I'm a big woman. I know that I have a thyroid issue. I know that I'm pretty healthy - eat mostly really well, exercise daily (not as much as before, but HEY, I'm working now). I know that people love me, are attracted to me, I'm a sexy, sensual woman...I usually feel ok about my body - I love it... or at least I enjoy it. But something about today and those tiny little people, and my big hips. I felt like a beached whale.

Because the people on the subway were 100% pleasant and positive and kind even, I can not say anything bad about them - I was not a victim of cruelty or mean spirited ribbing. Every bit of shame and upset that I had came from inside me.

I don't know if this is me "bottoming out" as they say in AA, or whether it is just a singular incident in my life, but this much I do know. It was 3 p.m. and I hadn't had lunch. I finished the errand that had taken me on a 2 hour subway ride, and decided to get some lunch before I left to face rush hour traffic (you don't know traffic until you are stuffed in a kimchi smelling subway, unable to move because of the press of bodies against you... ahem)... So I walked around - Japanese Restaurant NOPE, Korean restaurant NOPE, McDonald's HECK NO, and then I saw a place that was a coffee / sandwich shop. It was called Momma's Diner or something like that. So I went there, got a strawberry banana juice, a turkey sandwich (on amazing black bread) and ate my meal. I drank some water, and I ate the pickles and salad that came with the sandwich, then I read my book for a bit. I relaxed.

Dinner was some soup (I've caught a cold), and a bit of humble pie I suppose.

That was my rough day... in the midst of eating generally really wonderful, healthy, yummy food, I needed to be reminded to stop and take care of myself.

My shame still lingers around the edges, 5 hours later. I still feel sad, but I know that tomorrow morning I will go to my gimbop shop (where I have an account now!), and I will have a healthy breakfast of gimbop, soup, and two veggie dishes and a liter of water. I know that I will go to work, and I will eat a healthy lunch in the cafeteria like every day. And then when I return home, I will get some apples and yogurt at the store (I just ran out a few days ago), and I will continue on as I do. There is some comfort in knowing what will happen tomorrow, and that I don't have to beat myself up for some presumed failure on my part.

But this I commit for just 24 hours. No sugar. That is all.

Love to you all.

*map is (of course) from the internet

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Brew Suede Shoos

In Korea there is a sound that is a combination of "l" and "r". The front of the tongue is pointed like the "l" sound but made further back in the mouth like our "r" sound and the back of the tongue is cupped also like the "r" sound. This sound is difficult for foreigners (like myself) to make, and it is also why so many Asians have difficulty with phrases like "shrimp fried rice" or "a loyal royal follower". It can in fact lead to some serious misunderstandings as I found out this weekend.


It's always good to meet with old friends, seasoned friends if you will, and hang out. My dear friend Ray and I have seen each other several times in both Peru and here in Korea. We have taught together and separately. He is quite a charming fellow – smart, funny, interesting. He has what he calls the FOR club – Friends Of Ray. One must be an eccentric, quirky person to make it to the club. Yes, I am in the club.

We had dinner at a wonderful vegetarian place – squash with hot cinnamon sauce yum! – and then walked about, past a palace, a museum, art galleries, and so on. We meandered with no direction in mind.

Looking up, I see an exhibit that I wanted to go to. The sign says this is the gallery, and so we decide to go to it. Serendipity! We are stopped by a well-dressed man in a dark coat and asked, "Where are you from?" This is not an uncommon occurrence. People are always asking that of foreigners. No "Hi, how are you?" Instead they say "Where from?" Fishwives to businessmen, the question is always the same. "The USA," I tell him, and he asks where we are going. I tell him the gallery over there. He says, "You go to Brew House?" A brew house?! It's four o'clock in the afternoon! This guy is sending us to a bar?! Harrumph. I shoo him away and continue on our walk toward the gallery. I was offended.

Ray and I talk a bit about the rules in Korea, jaywalking and such (don't do it), and I mention I'm irritated that this guy is trying to get business for a bar. I hate that. Why does he want us to go to a pub so early? Seems odd to me. Evidently it was odd to him as well because Ray stops in his tracks and starts laughing. "Is that why you shooed him?" Yes of course it is! Ray proceeds to tell me that the "brew house" is the BLUE house and is the President's (as in President of Korea) residence. It is the Korean version of the White House. "That's it right up there," he tells me. It's half a block away, there are police all over. "You shooed the Secret Service." Blink. Oh. Dear.

Well, hell.

We are doubled over with laughter at my misunderstanding. *How was I supposed to know?* And at how rude I must look to them. *I'm so sorry!* And how only I could shoo a Presidential detail (with aplomb, I might add). Hell.

Thankfully, I have not created an international incident. But I have redoubled my intention to teach my students the difference between "l" and "r".


And by the way, the exhibit was quite fun – Renaissance paintings reworked into cartoon caricatures by a Japanese artist. You know, the combining of two cultures. *Sigh* Seems like just the right exhibit to see after my brew shoo incident.

*photo is off the internet

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Turk Men in a Stand

Itaewon. Even the name sounds mysterious. Eeee tay wan....It is the tourist part of Seoul where the dark and dank meet the glamorous sparkle of night life. It is all that we fear and all that we embrace. Salsa clubs and French bakeries, the old peddlers and fancy shops, Starbucks and Gim Bop Jang Kuk. It is a mixture of this and of that.

Here, in this place, taking Metro Line 6 to the center of somewhere, the people push and bump into you until you are a top spinning about, anxious for the escalators that travel up and up and up. Stepping out, there is the dark musky scent of grilling silk worm larvae over here and the aromatherapy of patchouli over there. Indians and Saudis and Americans and Koreans all have staked a claim in this little part of town. Walking along, the sounds of a dozen languages roll over your ears or tap staccato like against your head. An oasis for strangers, there are foreign markets where the thrill of finding Hershey's or panak paneer or digestivos can be heard in the squeal of those dozen languages.

The second hand book store is here, a quiet place, well lit in a basement on Hooker Hill. It is a salve from the crying out of the vendors and the college students calling out to one another. It is in this room that an almost sacred quiet descends, punctuated by the ding ding ding of the cash register. That $5 Smithsonian magazine is double here. But a second hand fiction paperback is just a few thousand won (three or four US Dollars). It is a quiet place to steady your mind before stepping outside to the "custor tailoring" shop across the street and the Mexican restaurant down the road.

That night I had promised myself something other than Korean food, but my feet hurt. I was tired and grumpy. My bag is heavy with books (and peanut butter and oatmeal if I'm honest here). It's dark, and a one hour subway ride, complete with two transfers, awaits me. I want to go home. I want to whine. I want to stomp my feet and kick somebody. But I promised myself... and my stomach growls. Sigh. Standing at the steps to the subway a simple little shop 5 feet in front of me. There, right there, is a flag, the blood red backdrop enveloping a bright yellow star and moon. It is the Turkish flag, the men inside all dark eyed and curly haired charm. Well, at least I won't have to walk any further. And eye candy is always welcome.

I stand in line, my nose in a book when I realize there is a man behind me, an American even! He tells me this is the best kabob place in town, we begin to chat, and my feet don't hurt anymore. I am lulled by the moonlight, the sizzle of the meat, the chatter of a dozen words, all meaning "delicious" around me and my very own next to me. It is now my turn to order. "Do you want to cry or do you want to die?" the man behind the counter asks. "Ohhhh," I laugh, "I want to cry, I'm not ready to die just yet," I tell him. And his grin tells of hidden stories that I am wishing to tease from him, but instead he brushes my pita with peppers, and yogurt, and with a devilish grin, more peppers, some greens, some more yogurt, and voila! instant karma! I have evidently done something. "Don't take it out of the paper," they all tell me as the juice drips down into a tiny waxy paper. No, no. No, I won't.

I sit on a little plastic red stool, take a bite or two or three and soon my eyes are blinking, my nose is running, my entire mouth is on fire. It is heaven! Or maybe it is hell. I don't know for sure, but it seems right in this place of opposites. It fills my belly as the night turns colder, and I suck on my water bottle, suck on the chill night air, and suck on a piece of peppermint gum hoping to douse the flames that burn my lips and tongue.

"Are you crying yet?" the dark eyed Turk asks me, passing a napkin across the counter. "Mmmm hmmm" is all I can mutter as the others laugh and I smile, taking another big bite. Tears brimming in my eyes. The American man who rescued me with a bottle of water has left, and I am alone and one of the group of a dozen languages all united in the heat of the moment, the heat of the peppers. It is a moment of extremes and synergy.

Here in this area of seedy prostitution and arrogant swaggering of soldiers there is a place to find friendship if even for a moment. Open to something new, adverturing within the plan, there is room for something exciting and new. One just has to be open to it. And of course be willing to cry to find it... or die.