Thursday, December 31, 2009


Me: “What would you do if you were a doctor and a patient had blue skin?”

Mr. Song: “I would hit his cheek.”

Me: “What?”

Mr. Song: “Then he would be red.”

If it were one year ago, I would be barfing in the shrubbery of a hospital with a Korean nurse smacking me on the back. In the morning, I would board a plane to Jeju Island, the hottest vacation spot in Korea. I can’t believe that was already a whole year ago. Okhee liked to say, “When you are twenty, life goes 20 miles per hour. When you are thirty, it goes 30 miles per hour. When you are forty, 40 miles per hour.” Coming home from Korea was like applying a little pressure to the brake pedal, which was really nice and, I think, a little necessary.

For me, the only adjusting to home required was overcoming jetlag. I wasn’t hit with a wave of nostalgia, nor was I bogged down with reverse culture shock. As soon as our car left the airport, everything felt oddly normal. The best part of coming home was the moment I walked in my basement door and my dog looked up at me in wonder, as if I had risen from the dead. I spent the next few months getting a fix of delicious home cooked meals, holding my year old nephews upside-down, fruitlessly job searching and consoling myself with minesweeper, and going out, or staying in, with my closest friends both at home and elsewhere. There was no catching up period with them, it felt immediately like old times except for the occasional moment when I wondered if I was annoying when I couldn’t stop bringing up Korea in conversations. But because I know how quickly the past can decay into blotchy memory, I have been trying to keep Korea fresh in my mind. Post-it notes covered in Korean vocabulary surround the toilet paper holder, so that the more frequently I use the restroom, the better my Korean. I cooked a Korean meal for my friends, and overestimating the noodles, ended up eating kkongkuksu leftovers twice a day for the rest of the week. I even dream I am in Korea every now and then, although half the time they are nightmares that I forgot to lesson plan for my middle school class.

This year, instead of Jeju Island, I am getting ready to embark on a new adventure. Apparently the job searching and minesweeper paid off, because I was accepted to an Americorps position with a non-profit that helps Mexican immigrants. In February, I will head to Burnsville, North Carolina to start. I hear that it is one of the most beautiful areas along the Appalachian Trail, with hiking and white water rafting, small town folk with a friendly southern drawl, and the hip city of Asheville a short drive away. Another draw, though, is that home will not be too far either, so if a holiday should come along, or if I should start missing my Springer Spaniel, this time I won’t be in a different hemisphere. I will be a hemisphere away from Korea, though, and I will have to postpone my visit until my one year commitment ends. The old, green mountains in Burnsville might look a bit like Korea’s, although I’m sure I will be hard-pressed to find kimchi in a 50-mile radius, not to mention a train with karaoke rooms or middle schoolers calling out my name on the sidewalk. One thing that is like Korea – I have very little idea of what I’m getting into. I’m hoping that, like Korea, I’ll be very glad I did.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The End

“Oh no! I forgot to have children!”

-Korean T-Shirt

I am a sucker for emotional goodbyes, and I like going out with a bang, so when I realized that my end of the school year was an entire two months before I would be leaving the country, I was a little disappointed. As much as I love Korea, I wasn’t crazy about the idea of lingering past my welcome, teaching English camp to students from other schools and loitering in Waegwan while my ex-patriot friends were on trips. This way, though, I managed to get two endings out of the deal, and being in Korea, I even managed to get two dramatic endings.

The last weekend of my school year coincided with the most anticipated festival of my entire year in Korea. It also coincided with the obligatory wrap-up meeting for the hundreds of foreign teachers in my program, but I assured my provincial education officer that no one would be going since every foreigner I had met planned on attending this festival. It is worth a tangent here to discuss Korean festivals in general. As you could probably gather from my last entry, Koreans don’t only work hard, and they will take any excuse they can get, especially if the moon is involved, to create a festival. Unfortunately, I missed the annual Body Painting Festival, but I hit up a performance at the Daegu Opera Festival and a really strange break dance theatrical performance involving a black light musical number from Ghost Busters and a really sad marionette at the Daegu in Motion festival. I traveled to Jinju for the Lantern Festival, where larger than life cloth reliefs of samurai fighters, Disney characters, and lotus flowers lit the river, an actual size temple lantern stood adjacent to the bridge and a lantern dragon on the shore turned his head from side to side breathing fire. The bonfire as high as my house that my friends and I stumbled upon on the shore of the Nakdong River was accompanied by fireworks, traditional Korean drumming, and a roast pig to celebrate the first full moon of the lunar new year, and the Korean government dismissed me from school for a two day festival of Chamanism in Gangneung where we drank unlimited ladle-fuls of free makoli and hammered our own rice cake and the only thing they asked in return was that we march in the featured foreigner section of the parade swinging lanterns that we later sent floating down the river.

The festival that took place on the last weekend of my school year was the Boryeong Mud Festival. My friend, self-appointed foreigner liaison, arranged four busloads of foreigners, and a handful of Koreans, to ride the six hours to Boryeong. The rain was no hindrance to our frolicking in the mud, which was rumored to be naturally healthy. We smothered ourselves in it and crawled into the mud fight ring where strangers were shoving each other full force like a slippery mosh pit. At one point, someone grabbed my ankles out from under me so that I almost ended up sitting on some poor boy’s face. The rain was a hindrance when we tried to watch the girl pop sensation, Son Ya Shi Dae, perform on the stage set up on the beach that evening. By the time they rambled through the typical opening ceremonies, we were soaked to the bone and shivering and gave in on the band that apparently never showed anyways. As we were darting through the puddles back to the beach house, we were surprised with the most grandiose fireworks show I had ever seen. Because ‘face’ is so important in Korean culture, I have read that Koreans will dig themselves into debt to impress. As we watched millions of Korean won exploding colorfully through the curtain of rain, we were definitely impressed.

The beach house doubled as a time machine back to college life. Over two hundred people were drinking and dancing, and the DJ kept up until six in the morning. Meanwhile, the open doors of the unairconditioned condo let in a battalion of mosquitoes that easily defeated the exposed sleeping foreigners wedged into the rooms like puzzle pieces. After fighting for pillows and square feet of floor, I ended up curled between a boy’s feet and a snoring man with my arm for a pillow and my extra T-shirt for a blanket. After cleaning up the wreckage in the morning, it was a weary ride back to where we would be teaching the next day.

My last week of teaching was going great. I prepared a class party with a game, a cheesy goodbye speech that I wrote in Korean, a class photo, and 4 watermelons to serve to each of my twenty classes. The students were showering me with cards that, according to the music teacher, they had made in music class, as well as candy and little stuffed animals. One class even asked me to go out of the room, and when I returned they were blasting Auld Lang Syne and poster they had all signed.

All went very smoothly at my main school. My final two days would be at Yangmok, my second school. While I loved my Yangmok students, I wasn’t crazy about teaching there because it was always a little more chaotic. Instead of my own English room, I had to move from classroom to classroom with my armful of teaching materials, and I usually didn’t find out about schedule changes until the last minute. The previous week, I had showed up to Yangmok to several surprises. Yangmok was about to rebuild the middle school, and when I showed up that Wednesday, they were in the process of moving their entire school into a different building so that their old school could be demolished. As soon as they settled into their new (actually very old) classrooms, I had to go in to teach. I found that my Korean co-teacher, who had been a long term substitute, had quit and for the last two weeks of school I was working with a brand new teacher the students had never met. Additionally, the computers were not yet set up in the classrooms, and with my lesson plan revolving around a PowerPoint presentation, I had to create a new lesson on the spot.

I was slightly worried about throwing the party at Yangmok with the hectic disorganization and with 16 watermelons getting delivered each day. Hyo Jin and some of the teacher’s assistants helped me order and slice the watermelons, and my first class went great. During my second class, though, the head English teacher called me out into the hallway.

“Did you know about the swine flu?” he asked. My heart sank. I knew exactly what was about to happen. One of three other foreign English teachers in my town, who had slept in the same beach house as me and hundreds of others, had caught the swine flu at that miserable Mud Festival. I was told to go home immediately. I asked if I could at least say goodbye to my students, so I went from classroom to classroom repeating my goodbye speech and writing my email on the board. My poor students were just torn between feeling awkward at seeing their teacher cry and germophobic. Still, they managed to scribble some really sweet goodbye notes for me to read over during my five day quarantine in my one room apartment.

Summer went by quicker than I expected. The remainder of July I taught English camps, first to a group of sixth graders from around the county and then to a group of elementary school teachers. Instead of one big farewell party, I spent the beginning of August spreading out individual goodbyes to my traveling friends, and in my final two weeks when I thought I might feel lonely and bored, I divided my time between packing up my things and constant adventures with ‘Anchovy Poop.’

Although I studied some on my own, Okhee was my main source for learning Korean. Every day, she would teach me a word or two in Korean in exchange for a word of Spanish, which she wanted to learn in hopes of visiting Spain one day. Whenever I impressed her with my Korean, putting together a difficult phrase or slipping in some provincial dialect, she would tell me “Hasan haseyo” – come down from the mountain. This saying comes from when Korean monks were said to isolate themselves in the mountaintops for intense study and meditation. When they felt learned and enlightened, they came down from the mountain to put their wisdom to use. Therefore, it was especially appropriate that our final excursion was in the mountains.

Seorak Mountain is among the highest peaks in South Korea, at 1,700 meters, so when I was told that we were taking a three day trip, I imagined two or three days of serious hiking from the bottom of the mountain to the top and back down, probably sleeping in a lodge, but possibly even camping. I should have known better. I was traveling with a group of 4 ajumas – the strong married woman type, not the bow-legged ancients. We drove about five hours to the mountain and then continued to drive 1,100 meters into the mountainside. We stayed at a temple where we ate delicious food and frolicked in the stream, where I fell in fully clothed after chasing Okhee’s flip flop downstream. That was the extent of our first day’s work.

The next morning, we rose with the sun and began our hike at seven. In the beginning, it was a nearly flat leisurely walk, and I was getting a kick out of all the ajumas decked out in walking sticks and visors. Okhee had even bought new pants for the occasion. People descending, though, began to tell us that the temple we were headed for would stop serving lunch soon. Because one of our partners was struggling, Okhee and I raced ahead up what had become a steep and strenuous climb to the temple to save lunches. After a hearty monk lunch, I realized that this was our planned turn-around point. Their idea of climbing a mountain was to drive up the first kilometer, hike up to not the peak, turn around and head back. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, Okhee was an adventurous spirit like myself.

The two of us pushed forward to the top. The trail was labeled with three summits, and the first of the summits, we were told, was only an hour uphill. But the peak turned out to be a bit of a tease. After reaching this first peak, which did not end up being much of a peak at all, we decided it would be worth the extra 600 meters to the second peak, which ended up being only a snack shop along a ridge toward the actual peak. We finally reached the true top of the mountain two hours after lunch. Beyond the Koreans posing with the altitude sign, the view was unbelievable. In one direction, I counted thirteen layers of tan rocky peaks; in another I saw the East Sea spreading into the horizon; in another, a peak rose into view from the communistic expanse of North Korea.

Assuming that the descent would take about half the time as the climb, we figured that we would return to the temple just as it started to get dark. We stumbled down the steep slopes on sore knees, making good time. As the grade lessened, though, so did our speed. What we forgot to take into account that the first half of the hike had been practically flat, and would take just as long in the opposite direction. We would not make it back to the temple in daylight, not to mention before the temple dinner. We tried to call our companions to ask them to save us some food, as we had done for them at lunch, but we weren’t getting reception on the mountain. While Okhee was beginning to panic on the quickly dimming trail, we were sure the others were twice as worried. With Okhee limping on an arthritic joint and leaning on my shoulder, we lit the rocky path directly in front of us with our cell phones. We finally hobbled back to the temple, stinking and starving, under a sky illuminated with stars. What we never expected to find was an empty room awaiting us.

The three other ajumas had taken an alternative route home, and similarly had no reception on the trail. Although the map had shown the other path to take only an extra hour, it had taken them up and down ridges until 10:30 at night when they finally showed up to the room where a worried Okhee and I were ravenously chowing down dried fruit and nuts. Compared to them, our excursion to the peak and the five hour trek back had been a shortcut.

Despite meeting multiple times over the last couple weeks, ‘Anchovy Poop,’ who usually united only once a month, came together once more for my last night in Korea. We ate Korean barbecue and drank soju in a mud-walled charcoal sauna as a final send-off, and in the morning a couple members even surprised me for one more farewell at the bus station.

I came to Korea with an open mind, knowing nearly nothing about it, hoping to like it, and expecting some adventures. I never foresaw, as a middle school English teacher, just how adventurous my life would be, and I definitely could not have known that I would fall in love with the country. I am sure that there was infinitely more for me to learn and love if I had stayed, but I felt ready to come down from the mountain. If my metaphorical coming down from the mountain is anything like my literal one was, then I am looking forward to a lot of challenges and laughter in the days ahead.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry


“Very delicious milk (God’s blessing). Let’s drink this milk. If you eat this, you’ll never die. This milk is made of God’s tears. You must believe it because believing God.”

– Tyler, 6th grade English Camp student

I will start by getting this off the table. Koreans eat dogs. It is probably my number one on my list of things I hate about Korea, beating out banks that open for a mysterious few hours a day, a baffling absence of public trashcans, and the beating of students. But it’s not all Koreans and it’s not all dogs. Supposedly, the law restricts boilable dogs to a particular breed, so the stew that you might order in a restaurant is not the lapdog with a ruffled dress and pink dyed ears that you saw a Korean girl in high heels walking down the sidewalk. Except in rural areas, where it might actually be that dog. At least, as my friend’s student pointed out, Koreans don’t eat monkey brains and insects like Chinese people. Oh wait, unless you count the silkworm larvae that street vendors sell by the cupful.

Now that that is out of the way, Korean cuisine as a whole is very near the top of my list of things I love about Korea. While I had my moments of yearning for peanut butter, home made brownies, and real cheese that melts when heated, I am now sitting at home craving a plate of hot ttukpokki. The defining characteristic of Korean food is spiciness, and among the first words I learned to say in Korean was, “It’s hot!” Koreans were always surprised to see an American able to devour the red pepper laced food, but what made it particularly difficult to eat was not the spiciness in and of itself, which I found to be delicious. What was difficult was that they did not usually drink anything with their spicy meals. The hot, sometimes spicy soup was meant to be thirst quenching. Furthermore, nose blowing is a strict cultural taboo, which can be an embarrassing dilemma if you are not accustomed to eating a food named “tear noodles.” The teachers once took me for some exceptionally spicy tear noodles during our lunch break and we managed to slurp them all down, grunting, red-faced, and sniffling back our runny noses.

The national food, which should also probably be the image on the Korean flag, is kimchi. Kimchi is spicy pickled cabbage, and Koreans eat it with every meal. The first time I tasted kimchi, I was not particularly excited at the prospect of eating it every day, but the more I sampled the fonder I grew until I couldn’t fathom cooking without it. Okhee told me that as a little girl, her greatest desire was to travel to America. Then one night, she dreamt that there would be no kimchi in America, and she was sure she would never survive without it. Koreans have proudly claimed kimchi as a (unproven) preventative of stomach cancer and the avian flu, and they had high hopes for kimchi to fight the swine flu, but it seems to have run away with its tail between its legs. According to the Kimchi Field Museum in Seoul, there are 187 varieties of kimchi, which were traditionally fermented in ceramic pots, but are now mainly stored in kimchi refrigerators if not imported, embarrassingly, from China. Because Koreans consume such vast quantities of kimchi, they are recognized internationally for having bad breath. They brush their teeth after every meal, and students and teachers even keep spare toothbrushes at school. Despite their infamous breath, they have yet to develop an effective toothpaste. Although they have an array of flavors, including mint, pine, and green tea, my “2080 Toothpaste” was marketed with the slogan “keeps the 20 teeth healthy til 80 years old.” Needless to say, I obtained my first three cavities in Korea.

Another trait of the Korean diet is that it is very healthy and balanced. A Korean would probably never grab a chocolate Poptart for breakfast. Every meal includes rice, soup, kimchi, and a smattering of other side dishes along with the main dish, including breakfast. There were days when my favorite part of the day was school lunch. Even on days when it was spent sitting in awkward silence amongst the teachers, the cafeteria food would fill my stomach and brighten my mood. If one side dish was unappetizing, dried anchovies with almond or pig blood sausage (on special occasions), it would be balanced with a hearty curry rice or seafood and noodles. With the tray divided into five sections for rice, soup, and three sides, you could always count on something good. Since recuperating from financial depression, Koreans proudly serve side dishes as a reminder that they have the luxury to do so. Often, a fancy meal for a large group will be an entire table spread with 20 or 30 different side dishes, people reaching over each other to the opposite end of the table in order to try all of the foods presented. Even the cheapest restaurants with menus made up of ramen noodles and fried rice set out a serving of kimchi and sweet radish. When I wasn’t whisked away to group dinners, which was often, I frequented these restaurants, where gimbap – rice and vegetables rolled in seaweed – sold for under a dollar.

Korea does not offer the array of ethnic cuisines that the U.S. does, and I took opportunities to eat Indian or Mexican food as a rare treat. The most prominent foreign cuisine was American food. Because the majority of Koreans are of the belief that Americans eat only hamburgers, fried chicken, and pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the restaurants that popped up the most were McDonalds, Popeye’s Chickens, and Pizza Huts, and Korean takeoffs of them. While I found the Korean McDonalds slightly improved from ours, offering shrimp burgers and green tea McFlurries, they botched pizza in every possible way. After demolishing a perfectly good cheese pizza with onions, canned corn, sweet potato paste, and hot dogs, they would charge $25 for a small pie. For the more cultured, there were T.G.I.Fridays where a steak cost more than a pair of XL skinny jeans, but in Korea, I preferred to eat as the Koreans eat, including a Dunkin Donut every now and again.

The set-up of Korean restaurants varies as much from America as the food. When you walk into a restaurant, the first thing you might notice is that everyone is probably sitting on the floor around a foot-high table. The next thing you might notice is that they are most likely eating from a communal bowl. My favorite thing about a group-centered society is that they share everything, no questions asked. If you are sitting in the teacher’s lounge and you want to eat a cookie, you had better have a cookie to offer everyone around you. If everyone is given a tangerine, each person will open the tangerine and split it into sections to pass around, despite everyone already having their own. Once, my friend and I were in a bus at a red light with our windows down. The bus driver in the lane beside us tossed us a tangerine through his window. Another thing you will quickly pick up on in a Korean restaurant is that the waitress will not come to you until she is summoned. When you are ready to order or need a refill, some restaurants are equipped with a buzzer on the table to alert her. Otherwise, you can simply call out “Yogio!” across the restaurant, which politely means, “Over here!” Even though the waitress is at your beckon call, there is no need to leave a tip on that meal that probably cost under five dollars. When you splatter black noodle sauce all over yourself or let a piece of pork slip through your fumbling chopsticks, you will notice that there are no napkins. There is usually a box of thin tissues, or if not, a roll of toilet paper. And if you order barbecue, which is my favorite thing to eat out as it cooks over hot coals in the middle of your dinner table before you wrap it in a sesame leaf and pop it into your mouth, you will notice that in place of knives there is a handy pair of kitchen scissors to cut your meat.

In Korea, with eating often comes drinking, and with drinking always comes eating. They go hand in hand, Koreans preferring to sit on a restaurant floor for several hours picking at spicy food and throwing back soju with friends rather than spend a night barhopping. Perhaps it’s because of this combination with food, or maybe it’s in their Korean blood, but Koreans can drink like fish. While Korean beer is nothing to brag about, soju is a much more popular alcohol. Soju is a rice alcohol that tastes like slightly sweetened vodka, with about 20% alcohol content. A half liter bottle costs about a dollar, and when you ask any Korean, from a frail old man to the skinniest young lady how many bottles they can drink, the answer usually ranges between 3 and 10. They typically drink soju as a shot, and the majority of our orientation was dedicated to teaching us proper drinking etiquette and preparing us for the huge dinners we were expected to attend with our school staff. I ended up going to dinner with the entire school staff once or twice a month, and it was common practice for one person, usually the principal, to go around to each person, pour them a shot, and have them pour him a shot of soju in return. For the person making rounds, that is a lot of shots. I even witnessed my principal and female vice principal exchange a ‘love shot,’ their arms linked as they downed a shot of soju in front of all of the teachers.

I was lucky enough to go to two weddings while I was in Korea, a traditional Korean wedding, which was beautiful, and a ‘modern’ wedding. Modern weddings, attempting the grandiosity and refinement of Western weddings that they have seen in the movies, take place in wedding halls. Often with the façade of a white European castle, these wedding halls host multiple weddings on each of its multiple floors simultaneously so that, as Okhee put it, “it is like a vending machine that spits out a married couple every twenty minutes.” On top of the cheesy photo op with the bride beforehand, the announcer narrating the quick walk down the 20 meter aisle while the laptop played an mp3 of Here Comes the Bride, and the audience, half of whom were standing in back due to a lack of chairs, chattering throughout the ceremony, they managed to Koreanize the traditional wedding grand finale. Instead of “You may now kiss the bride,” a dry ice steaming tower of mini champagne glasses was wheeled down the aisle as the announcer called out, “Love shot!”

Just because Koreans can drink their weight in soju doesn’t mean that they can hold their liquor. Ranking immediately behind dog eating on my list of things I hate about Korea is street barf. For some reason, it is not built into Korean etiquette that vomit should be confined to bathrooms, nor are there many shrubs or trash cans available in the city. Therefore, every time I went into the city for a Friday or Saturday night, I inevitably passed a drunken Korean crouching along the street while their supportive friend smacked them on the back as they regurgitated. On Sundays, I often had to sidestep around dried puke on the sidewalk. Fortunately, I never encountered vomit on the trains or subways. Ingeniously, Koreans have turned designated drivers into a business. Rather than drive home tipsy or call a cab while leaving your car in the downtown parking lot, you can call an official DD, who magically appears and disappears when needed, to drive you and your car home for you.

One nice thing about the custom of eating with alcohol is that, since most Koreans drink in restaurants, there is no need for an open container law. I have fond memories of running to the corner store for a bottle of makoli before a long bus ride and of drinking fiber beers with friends on the bank of the Nakdong River in Waegwan, a couple stars poking through the polluted sky. Cocktails in a bag became a popular niche market for foreigners, and for $5 you could carry a Ziploc of mango margarita as you window shopped through Daegu. Although not nearly as hip as bagged cocktails or ‘So-mek,’ a mixture of soju and beer, my drink of choice in Korea was makoli. Makoli, as well as its close relative, dong dong ju, is an opaque, milky rice wine and naturally sweet. Although it can be bought by the bottle in 7-11 or Family Mart, it is best served in certain restaurants in a pot with a ladle. Another item high on the Things I Love about Korea list is its mountains, and what makes them remarkable is not their size, but how pristine they are. Despite South Korea being a crowded country with high rises piled into the valleys, only maples and pines spring up from the mountainsides. Nevertheless, the popular hiking trails are stocked with public restrooms and makoli restaurants. I was at the top of a mountain notorious for its tall, golden wild grass, and as my friends and I wandered the path through the six foot high grass reeds, I came upon a lady trying to help her friend stand up off the ground. At first, I thought naively that her friend had been hurt and tried to help. As it turned out, she had just overdosed on makoli. I have no idea how she ever got down from the mountain.

Another time, I was in a park with a group of friends in the middle of the morning. We were smiling at a group of older men and women singing in a nearby shelter when they called us over. They poured us a cup of makoli and fed us kimchi and before we knew it they were singing and dancing and clapping around us, red faced and making jokes that we couldn’t understand.

Food brought me closer to a lot of Koreans. Even as I attempted to learn Korean and the rules of Korean culture, nothing I did was appreciated more than eating Korean food with vigor. In the school cafeteria, Jang would coach me on how to eat meat with bones still in them and the proper way to mix bibimbap while my food vocabulary expanded faster than all of the rest of my Korean words together. Although it doesn’t make for stories quite like playing Frisbee on an island or traveling across the country to see a park of penises, many of my greatest memories in Korea involve eating and drinking. And in a country that is wrapped up in a high-pressure world of academics and quickly advancing business, there is something moving in watching a ragtag crew of elderly folks passing around a bottle of rice wine and dancing through the morning.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Add-On Story, adult ESL class:

“His girlfriend broke up with him.
He was very sad.
So I bought him a pet cow.
I think a pig is better than a cow.
I think a cow is better than a pig, because beef is more expensive.”

“Sexy,” or in Korean, “Sek-shee,” is a new and elusive concept in South Korea. Much more popular and achievable is “cute.” I think that one of the phrases I found myself uttering the most was, “That’s so cute and Korean.” Fuzzy sheep and monkey hats that tie under the chin, socks with babies whose lips purse out of the fabric, smiling ice cream cone fans, and sunny side up post-it notes are the norm. Baskin Robbins servers wearing little white elf hats are cute. Pop songs and music videos are cute. Young couples are sickeningly cute.

Because sexiness is so new in Korea, it is taboo for couples to kiss or walk with their arms around each others’ waists in public. They don’t gaze lustily into each others’ eyes. Instead, they just walk around being cute. They hold hands. They flirt. The boy makes fun of the girl and then she pouts in a squeaky voice. I don’t know how Korea gets away with this one, but matching couple shirts are cool. They are omnipresent – couples wearing T-shirts with matching corny love quips, couples wearing matching polo shirts, couples wearing matching winter coats, couples wearing matching sneakers. It was horrifyingly cute. Sexuality is a funny thing, though, and it would spring up in places and in ways I never expected in Korea.

For a woman to bear shoulders in Korea is scorned, although some youth can probably pull it off. They do not wear low cut shirts or tank tops, even if they are exercising outdoors. Once, I was spending the night in traditional Korean housing with my friends, ‘Anchovy Poop,’ and they were joking that with Okhee’s perm all mussed up and the fake long eyelashes she had glued on for the month she was looking pretty sexy. To complete the picture, I reached over and pulled her T-shirt collar down over one shoulder, and one of the younger women shrieked and grabbed her friend’s arm in disbelief. They had a good laugh about it, but it was something they would have never considered doing. Before I knew that shoulders were such a faux-pas, I went exploring my town in a tank top. A Korean pulled over and tried to take me home, not because he thought I was a good catch, but because he was an old man thinking I was a prostitute. Woops. And yet, mini-skirts are A-OK. While a shoulder might imply prostitution, a skirt ending just below where the cheek meets the thigh means a chic young lady.

That prostitution is so acceptable also seems a contradiction to the taboo of sexuality in Korea. Although every little kiss is hidden from the public eye, everyone knows that the buildings with double-striped spinning barber shop poles along highly trafficked streets are not actually barber shops. It is understood that many young men pay for a prostitute before entering the army for two years after high school where it might be hard to meet a nice girl. Even some singing rooms have pretty ladies that men can rent to sing with and enjoy.

Although it is not discussed, men are not the only ones who have fun before tying the knot. When I asked a co-teacher if she’d had sex before marriage, she replied, “Of course!” It seems to be a little bit more rare than in the U.S., though, and I’m not sure if this more traditional thinking about sex or if it’s simply because they tend to live with their parents until marriage. There is a solution to this problem, however, for those youngsters who wish to do the deed, or even for those who wish to cheat on their spouses. It’s called a ‘love motel.’

When I traveled to another town for a week in the winter to teach an English camp, the Korean government put me up in a lovely motel. It had red mood lighting, plastic ivy in the overhead light fixture, a pornography channel on the television, and a spotty couch. There were even ropes hanging down over the entrance of the parking garage to conceal the license plates of the men parked there from their wives! When my parents came to visit me, I was sure to find them an equally accommodating place to stay. Before they arrived, I tried to make a reservation at the Mirage (pronounced Miragy), but when I told the receptionist that I needed a room for 5 nights, she simply said “OK” without typing or writing anything down. Apparently, not very many people book the Mirage in advance, or for five days straight. Although it lacked the ivy and the spots on the couch, I had no doubts what the Mirage was. When I was walking down the alley to the entrance, three of my students from the previous school year saw me and waved. As I turned red and waved back, they stifled a giggle as they hurried past.

Even prostitution and love motels are a fairly contained space for sex in Korean culture. What really shocked me was the school talent show. Any form of sexual expression, or really any expression, is jailed up by the long gray skirts and pants of the school uniform, the dress code limiting hair length and banning makeup or accessories, and, in some classes, separation of girls’ and boys’ seating. At the school festival, though, no uniforms were required. And they were allowed to dance. After the initial shock of watching my naïve middle school girls undulating in cut-off skirts and heels, I went on stage for a cheesy performance, with eight cavalier 6th graders as my back-up singers, of “Where Is the Love?” (which was nowhere in the league of embarrassment that I felt at the 8th grade graduation ceremony in which my co-teachers dressed me in too-small red bellbottoms, a sequined scarf, and a fro and made me sing ‘Dancing Queen’). Following my act was Ms. Lee, the notoriously strict P.E. teacher who sat next to me in the teacher’s lounge in an Adidas sweatsuit reviewing her dance moves when the other teachers weren’t around. She walked onto the stage in a hot pink, midriff flaunting belly dance outfit. Every student began to cheer as she started to shake her hips. Before the song was over, she had shimmied, writhed, and gotten down on all fours to pelvic thrust. For the grand finale, eight gussied up students joined her onstage.

By far the most absurd outlet of Korean sexuality I was fortunate enough to witness was Hyesindang Park. For my birthday, four of my friends joined me for the excursion to Samcheok. Even though Samcheok is a small remote area in the northeast province, it is well-known for its beaches, a cave, and most notoriously... the Penis Park. According to the legend, a virgin drowned off of the coast of Samcheok. Since her death, the fishermen were bringing up empty hooks. After they urinated, though, they found that the fish were abundant. In order to please the virgin and sustain their luck, they dedicated a park to the girl. A park full of penises. Hyesindang Park was a pinnacle of masculinity and sex. Immense wooden penises sprouted from the ground in traditional and abstract forms, sometimes with Zodiac animals carved into the staff or nails hammered into it or even a fetus resting inside attached by an umbilical rope. You could sit on penis benches, hit a penis gong, and of course, gawk at the giant phallus cannon that bobbed up and down over a trickle of a waterfall. We frolicked among the erect statues until we found ourselves standing on the coast in awe. Suddenly, not a penis was in sight, except for a questionable lighthouse. We dove into the crisp water, dodging sea urchins and scrambling over rocks and accepting a plate of freshly caught sushi from the only others enjoying the scene, a group of teenagers fishing and cooking ramen on a hotpot. In a way, Hyesindang Penis Park seemed like the least Korean place I had ever seen, so out of place in the land of innocent monkey hats and ice cream fans. But in a way, it fit perfectly in the country that never failed to surprise me with its randomness and absurdity.