Prologue: I’m really ill-equipped to get up on a soapbox here and tackle issues like body image and beauty and white people fucking things up, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you are in the wrooong place – we should agree now that this is a blog of the humorous variety. I’ve never been a very good activist, even with my shady liberal arts past. (I may have attended a rally or something once… I don’t know; I drank a lot in college.) Let’s just say that I’m white and female by accident, educated-ish, and contain the perfect storm of laziness & over confidence that can only result in complete disinterest in my own appearance and a (bad) habit of belittling people who give a shit about theirs. I have attempted to be sensitive here, but please, everyone, have your grains of salt at the ready.
“You have small face. I envy your small face.”
I could tell it was a compliment, what my coteacher said to me after class one afternoon, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out exactly what it meant. Small face? In comparison to … the size of my head? Is my face just scrunched and centered on the huge landscape of my head?!
Jesus, that can’t be right, that sounds bad. So… Maybe my entire head is small and then so is my face? Like this?
I was pretty certain a “lost in translation” moment had just occurred, so I went straight to the most credible source I knew on misunderstandings in Korea: Megan.
Megan: Your face isn’t that small.
Erin: I think my feelings might be hurt, but I can’t be sure.
Megan: Does your coteacher have a big face?
Erin: Not cool, man. I don’t judge people by the size of their face. I saw that movie Mask when I was a kid.
Erin: Totally shaped my moral code, dude. I don’t even see face size.
When Megan couldn’t help me, I turned to the internet. Come to find out, this “small face” thing is a Korean/Japanese/pan-Asian? lady craze. Now, I’ve seen some dubious beauty paraphernalia since I moved here – mostly related to eyelid surgeries, whitening creams and assorted eyelash goos; but this was special:
Small Face is a good thing here. So good and so desirable one could purchase a girdle to wear on one’s head to squeeze it into a more pleasing oval shape if one were so inclined. But it doesn’t stop there. There are things like this. And this. And, in case you were doubting the seriousness of this fascination, let us not forget that surgery is frequently the solution here – shave those cheekbones off ladies.
Do yourself a favor and Google this business. It’s something I never would have considered a pre req for being cute, anywhere in the world. And now I feel guilty. Guilty that in the Life Lottery, I ended up a squat, pale, short descendent of northern Europeans with tiny faces. In other words, I’m a total fox.
This week my 6th grade students finished a lesson called, “What do you want to do?” Those of you in Korea teaching 6th grade are familiar with this lesson, and may even know where I’m going with this post, as you might have had a similarly memorable experience with “What do you want to do?”.
One of the activities the students had to do was fill out a little questionairre and then share it with their partners. For whatever reason, this task had my students speaking more English and asking me more questions than they ever have before and it was awesome. It made me a happy Megan teacher. But beyond being sort of sentimental, this activity was also freakin hilarious. Here are the questions along with a few choice answers supplied by my students.
Q. What do you want to do this weekend?
Q. Where do you want to go?
Q. What do you want to buy?
Q. What do you want to learn?
Q. What do you want to eat?
Q. What do you want to be?
Q. Bucket list: What do you want to do before you die?
Wah Waaaah Waaaaaaaaaaah
That’s the sound of a sad trombone. Know why? Because it’s my birthday tomorrow. The ol’ sad trombone isn’t playing a lament for my lost youth – this face still says “I can’t buy cigarettes, card me please!” – I don’t care about that. What I care about is that on my birthday, this is what I like to do:
I just…I just really want some decent whisky. A lot of it. In a really dark dive bar with awesome beer on tap and a fucking jukebox and a bartender that looks like James Dean. In short, I want to be here:
Home sweet home.
I haven’t been this nostalgic for Chicago since the first week I landed in Korea. But right now there are people that I want to see, drinks I want to drink, songs I want to sing, cold cold autumn wind I want to feel. But I’m afraid the damage is done. In my experience, the whole “you can never go home again” cliche is true. No exceptions. Already there are people that I considered family a few months ago that have fallen off the radar. And Chicago doesn’t belong to me now and most likely won’t again, though everytime I’m in a cab at night I expect to look out the east-facing windows to see the city lights and moon reflecting off Lake Michigan as we speed north on Lake Shore Drive.
It’s the thing that haunts us nomads: Would it have been better if I stayed? Would it be the same? What have I traded, unintentionally, for the life I’m living now? Pointless questions. Common sense leaps up and says you’ll never know, there is no answer. The brain retraces the last few months and reminds you why you decided to leave in the first place, how you started to stagnate. And I hesitate to call what I’m feeling homesickness, because Chicago wasn’t my home for very long. Nostalgia implies a wistfulness that I don’t feel. But whatever it is, whatever you call it, this is the grief that inevitably attends the shock of moving.
Watching tv in another language is fun. I used to do it in America because, obviously, it is entertaining to try to guess what is going on. And usually, you don’t have to try too hard. But since I arrived in Korea, I’ve come across a few things on Korean tv that leave me absolutely baffled. I mean just straight up lost, even though I want so badly to understand what is happening. Why is that man brushing an alligator’s teeth? In his house? Is he watching soap operas with his alligator? Did the alligator just piss on the floor? Did the man just drag him through it? Does his wife really have to clean it up? What the fuck is going on? (I watched this program for like 10 minutes and still no answers).
And so after months of talking about it, I bring you a new blog installment: Weird Shit on Korean TV.
Yesterday, for instance, I’m mindlessly flipping channels, avoiding studying Hanguel when I come across a fluffy little baby chicken and a chihuahua. Cuteness always makes me pause. Here’s how it plays out.
Human in a normal looking house has Chick in shoebox and lets the rambunctious Chihuahua smell Chick. Time passes, Human lets Chick out of box and lets Chihuahua in the room again. We’re not sure, is Chihuahua going to eat Chick or love Chick? Chick moves into cuddle with Chihuahua, Chihuahua likes it and licks Chick. Bond has been made. Lots of cuteness.
More bonding with Chihuahua and Chick. More cuteness. Chick likes to clean Chihuahua and playfully peck at him. Chihuahua likes to clean Chick too. They are besties. Will they grow together to be friends, even when Chick turns to Chicken?
Out of nowhere, Human enters again and picks up Chick. Human takes Chick to a big white sheet of butcher paper (!) and lets Chick stand there. Then, all of the sudden, there are five more Chicks!! Five more Chicks just hanging out on this butcher paper that we can now see is on the floor.
Cut to Chihuahua. Chihuahua is in the other room looking for Chick. But Chick is not his box. Chick is not under the newspapers. Chick is nowhere to be found. Chihuahua is obviously heartbroken.
Now Human comes back and lets Chihuahua into the Chick room. Chihuahua runs in but stops, confused (but clearly a little excited). SO MANY CHICKS! Chihuahua sniffs each Chick, but the cartoon arrow on the screen reminds us which is his Chick. Finally, Chihuahua identifies Chick, licks Chick and picks Chick up in his mouth and bolts out of the room.
END SEGMENT – Cut to new segment about a woman with a fake leg who is collecting lumber while maneuvering with her crutch. Woman is crying. Now we see it is because she has no teeth left and there are holes in her gums. There are no cute animals in this segment. There is nothing happy in this segment.
Now, what am I supposed to do with that? The chick and chihuahua were a bit weird on their own, but Koreans, hell everyone, likes cute. Even pointless cute. But they were so much easier to understand before they were followed by this sad, sad story about the disabled lady. Why does this appear to be all one show? Why?? WHY?!?
Take a good look at that face. Don’t be fooled by that smile, and for Christ’s sake don’t look into his eyes. He is neither god nor man. He has no name. He is known only as “The Principal”. He can achieve the unthinkable: he put the internet into my apartment.
So I’ve been in Korea about two months now, right? After a series of hilarious, then frustrating, then maddening hiccups with the Office of Education (you know who you are, Charlie Brown…) I finally had the necessary documentation to get internet installed. Huzzah! Talking to my family and friends! Keeping up on celebrity gossip! All the “Mad Men” I could watch! All these very important things and more!
Only of course it wasn’t that easy.
The short version: so much Stupid happened. A great deal of this can be attributed to me and this douche language barrier and ineffective grunting and pointing and frowning. At least 4 people attempted to help me plug into whatever internet there was in my building and all of them failed and all I could do was accept the apologetic gifts of fruit from my landlady as I looked over their defeated shoulders, desperately hoping Google would rise out of the murky internet to my starving eyes. There seemed to be some agreement that my American computer was at fault, and I took offense to this attitude on principle and scowled everyone out of my apartment. General consternation. I shook my fists at God – why are you doing this to me?! All I want is to access my Itunes Store and buy the new Kings of Leon album and stream NPR and find out if my McSweeney’s newsletter arrived yet! I graduated from a liberal arts college! Gah!
Days passed with no improvement and I went about my business. One totally normal morning I got word that The Principal required me in his office. Til then, I’d really had no contact with him. I saw him from a distance at volleyball games, strolling the grounds of the school, etc. So of course I was instantly afraid – oh shit, can you see any of my tattoos? Are my boobs sticking out inappropriately? Did I get caught on Facebook at school? (Goddammit, if I had internet at my home I wouldn’t HAVE to be on Facebook at school..or have maybe streamed those Daily Show scenes that one Friday afternoon…grumble grumble…)
At the appointed time, my coteacher/translator and I entered the holiest of holies, The Principal’s office. I mean, this fool is legit. He keeps a fountain pen with a screw-top cap in his shirt pocket and frequently produces it to sign documents presented to him by quivering faculty members. (I’ve seen this happen. It’s extremely impressive.) This is what went down:
THE PRINCIPAL: <settling into armchair, steepling fingers> So, Erin, how are you finding Korea?
me: <nervous giggle>
THE PRINCIPAL: And the apartment? Is it to your liking?
me: ENTHUSIASTIC PRAISE OF APARTMENT <nervous giggle; vigorous nod>
THE PRINCIPAL: Any problems? Do you know how to use that thing on your wall that makes the water or floor hot depending on which buttons you push?
me: <hesitation> well, there is this problem with the internet…..
THE PRINCIPAL: ….what? <confers with vice principal, whose face suddenly drains of blood>
Then there was a whole scene that took place in Korean and I just sat there carefully tweaking my expression according to people’s tones. All I knew for certain is that The Principal was barely containing himself from pounding his fist in rage on the table. This had not been my intention, nor the reaction I expected. I was told to report back to the office at 1 pm. I did. There was an IT guy taking tea with The Principal. The Principal dismissed us to my apartment to sort out the problem. It took half an hour. HALF AN HOUR. What had taken, until then, almost 2 weeks. I skipped back to school, sought out The Principal and finally managed to snap my American I-bow-to-no-one posture! into a sweet 90 degree angle. Respect, sir. Like the badass that he is, he humbly nodded his head in acknowledgment of my gratitude, told me that if I had any other problems I should come to him immediately, and then strolled off down the hall with his hands folded behind his back. Ladies and gentlemen, The Principal is so fucking cool.
I spent the morning teaching a bunch of 6th graders how to say “I want to ____”. The dialogue from the cd-rom we use goes something like,
Jenny: Let’s talk about our show. What do you want to do?
Kevin: I want to sing!
Mike: I don’t want to sing. I want to dance.
Totally innocent on its own. Except I was once a college kid who listened to Dane Cook. And there is that one joke he does about chicks using dance as a cure all for heartbreak or whatever the hell. So this morning, as I repeated “I want to dance” no less than 30 times, I couldn’t get this out of my head. It is one of the few Dane Cook bits that remains funny to me.