Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Singing, Celebrating, and Running

Last week we celebrated Irene's birthday at school!! This is already my fourth kindergarten birthday party in as many months as I've been teaching...and I'm kind of over them. It's unbelievable what a big deal they make out of the whole thing! I'm all for celebrating birthdays (anybody's but my own!), and especially Irene's (she is my favorite, after all!), but the whole principle of it is just ridiculous. Really, a $30 double layer chocolate mousse cake for a 5 year old and all her classmates, is that necessary?? Plus look at all that other food- the kids literally eat themselves sick, get on a massive sugar high, run around and destroy the classroom, and then crash and refuse to do any classwork. All the makings of a very productive day!

Right before Irene's birthday was another birthday celebration...mine! We decided to go out in Itaewon, which is one of the big foreign districts in Seoul. The U.S. Army base is right near there, so are many American soldiers and other Westerners living and working in the area. After dinner at a Thai restaurant, we met up with some other teachers at a big bar/restaurant nearby to start off the night! It was a FREEZING cold night- thus my fur hood and jacket in every picture. I hadn't been out in Itaewon on a Saturday night like that, so it was very exciting!! The last place we went to is called Grand Ol' Opry...picture a Country-Western imitation bar in the middle of Seoul, and then picture Ricky Bobby and basically the whole cast of "Talledega Nights." An interesting mix! Oh and don't forget the dance floor in the middle that is used especially for line dancing...lets just say there were lots of American men with crew cuts, cowboy boots, cut-off t-shirts, and big belt buckles. America's finest!! And a fine way to celebrate a 23rd birthday in Asia :)

In other news: the last week or so has been a great running week for me!! Yes, you heard right: a GREAT RUNNING WEEK! I'm still afraid that just by admitting this, it will all backfire on me...and reverse itself back into something horrible again. I had taken a bit of time off from running (or maybe I should even say "trying to run," since it wasn't going so well) while I was sick and feeling so overwhelmed and exhausted every day. That was tough- I had gotten into a nice little routine, and it seemed much easier to just forgo the whole exhaustive process of trying to get back into that routine. I had to start running on the treadmill at the gym, which is just about the most dreadful form of exercise I can imagine. I hated it...20 minutes of absolutely painful (and painfully boring) jogging. The worst part is the view from the gym: sure, there are wall-to-wall windows, but what view do they provide us with? Oh, just block after block of high-rise apartments buildings, of course. Not the most stimulating of sceneries, to say the least. I tried to keep at it, though...especially after considering just how much I've gone through up to this point to even make it onto the treadmill. I realized I owed it to myself, to my PT, to my family, and to everyone else who had to deal with my body problems in the past 4 years. Why NOT try my hardest to run while in Korea?? This is the time for trying the unexpected, the most difficult, and the most adventurous things. Surprising as it may sound, running has been at the top of that list here. It's such a scary experience for me- being so afraid that my body will fall back into its old habits, but having to trust myself enough and find the mental willpower to continue.
And last week, I feel like I was finally rewarded for some of that! I had a few really wonderful runs outside, later at night, along the stream in the city. The weather was perfectly fall, cool and windy. And cool weather meant that I couldn't even smell that old stench of sewage and pollution rising from the water next to me! I couldn't believe how good it felt- strong, swift, and energized- for a whole 50 minutes. Since then, I have done a few more longer runs like that...and I am still amazed that my body is holding up so far. And no need for the words of caution you are about to throw at me: I am still being smart about running! No overdoing it, I know my limits :)
One more story from the past week, titled "Britney Unexpectedly Becomes a Choir Member." Here's how it goes...I finally got to attend a Catholic church last Sunday. I was so excited to partake in an English mass, to meet other foreigners (and possibly Koreans) there, and to become involved in a church community again. My supervisor from school, Lucy, offered to pick me up and drive me to the church she attends- she had tried to give me directions a while ago, but I was never able to find it. She had been so excited when she found out I was Catholic, too, and she felt bad that I hadn't been able to make it to an English mass yet! The church is in Jeong-ja, which is 3 subway stops away from Suji...that is, 3 subway stops after first riding a bus from Suji to the subway station in Jukjeon, the next town over...and after then crossing a bridge and walking 10 minutes, upon exiting the Jeong-ja subway station. Sound confusing? It's really not...but it is quite a trek for 9 am Sunday mass!
Lucy drove me to the church and showed me where to go inside for the English mass: in a "chapel" 3 floors below the basement level. It was definitely an odd layout of a church, with no actual church on the ground level, and an even odder setup within the basement chapel for mass. Instead of pews, there were long rows of tables and plastic chairs. I took a seat cautiously, feeling as though I was back in school and choosing a seat in a large lecture hall. The only difference was, this large hall was completely filled with Koreans! I counted two other foreigners besides myself...both of whom were about 30 years my senior or older. My first impression: not exactly the atmosphere I had been hoping for...
The mass was alright- poor English translations in the worship guide (which I'm used to by now) and an co-mingling of Korean and English phrases by the lectors, choir, and priest alike. It was difficult for me to really feel as though I was at a mass- with the absence of a real altar, pulpit, pews, and all the other parts of the church. And I was disappointed at not seeing other foreigners, let alone anyone under the age of 60. During announcements at the end of mass, a lector asked if there were any visitors or newcomers. I timidly raised my hand a bit, lowering it and feeling relieved when the lector didn't see me. But of course, the two elderly Korean couples sitting on either side of me quickly jumped up and pointed to me, yelling out, "her! her! her!" (not making that up- I think every eye in the room turned toward me at that moment). I reluctantly stood up and said good morning, my name, and that I was an English teacher in Suji. I heard the murmur of "ahhh..." throughout the room, as that is such a common murmuring for every Korean to utter when they understand something in English (I hear this from my students every day, when they understand something, the very exaggerated "ahhh...")
Well, this little introduction sure got everyone's attention, because they all hounded me right after mass with welcomes and invitations and business cards and requests for my email and phone number...and of course, a cup of instant coffee and several toothpicks of dak (the traditional Korean sticky-rice snacks, usually filled with sweet bean paste and sesame seeds). I talked to a few of them at length, pleasantly surprised by how nice and friendly they were. Many nodded vigorously and murmured their "ahhhh...." when I said I was from Minnesota: "ahhh yes, Min-nee-soh-tah, very many waters there...ah, how do you say, lakes? Many lakes? And very cold, ahh yes very cold there!" I could tell they were excited to practice their English with me, and to see a non-Korean English speaker there...and apparently they were very eager to keep me there, because a lector immediately took down my name, number, and email, affirming briskly, "okay, yes, we see you here every Sunday now." And then they all kept saying that to me: "see you next weekend, and every weekend! Yes, see you every weekend here!"
So not only did I somehow get myself bound to the obligatory 9 am English mass at St. Matthews Church every Sunday...but I also somehow found myself agreeing to become the newest (and youngest, by a good 40 years) member of the St. Matthews English choir! Apparently, the choir director heard me talking with another choir member, and she thought I had a "very nice voice" she assumed (wrongly assumed!) that I must also have a very nice singing voice and would be a great addition to the choir! I honestly tried to say no, but then all these women came over and urged me to join! I felt so obligated to say yes, especially after they had just fed me instant coffee and sticky glutinous rice balls and were so nice!
This was a good learning experience in how to say NO to people- I tend to have problems with that. However, that doesn't translate the same in Korean culture; it can be extremely offensive to turn down help, compliments, or invitations when someone offers them to you. And since these church members had already offered me food, conversation, and an invitation to join their church, I felt that it would not sit too well with them if I kept denying their choir invitation. So, lo and behold, I was rushed off to choir practice for the next half hour (still with my instant coffee and glutinous rice snacks in hand). All the women were like, "ahhh you are the youngest one here!" Well, yes...and not by choice! I was so afraid they'd ask me to sing something by myself- and I was mentally preparing myself to flat-out refuse that! It was their decision to beg me to join- I wasn't volunteering some spectacular singing voice!!
When practice was over, the women tried to arrange for a ride home for me. Apparently, "Harry," one of two men in the English choir, lives somewhat closer to Suji. The women said, "okay Harry drive you home now. Then Sunday, Harry pick you up for church and choir practice. Practice at 8 am Sunday. See you then!"
Well.....that was the end of it for me, I had to step up and mumble something about "trying to travel a lot on the weekends..." Translation: if I'm not at choir practice at 8 am every Sunday (which I WON'T be!), or even at 9 am church there every Sunday (which I'm not planning on- not when there's other churches here to try), then just assume I'm out of town!
I figured that was better to say than to mention something along the lines of, "hmmm if I'm not there early on Sunday, it's probably because I was out at the bars and then doing noraebong karaoke until 4 am."
We shall see how this weekend pans out...and if I will indeed attend choir practice, as it is already planned by my new friends at St. Matthews Church, Jeong-ja.

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