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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tall clams and onomatopoeia

I really wish I had brought my camera with me to work today, because I happened to have a pretty good time with some of the adult students after finishing class. Lately we've been going for coffee after class on Thursday nights, but tonight one lady said she really wanted some fried chicken. I, however, had been a fairly successful vegetarian since Saturday - eating only a few bites of chicken and whatever fake meat is found in dumplings and kimbap - so I asked if we could get something else. We wound up going to a 조개구이 (jo-gay gooey, grilled clam) restaurant. I was kind of excited to try something new, and happy to continue my ovo-pescetarian streak, but I wasn't too sure what to expect.

We went to the restaurant - 4 of us, at first - and ordered a 40 dollar helping. They came out with a tray about 2 feet in diameter, covered with different kinds of clams, with one half of the shell torn off. There were some small ones that looked just like I expected, some small ones that were a little more on the odd side, and then some really big "tall clams," the likes of which I had never seen. You set them (in the half shell) on the grill, meat facing up, and let them roast/boil in their own juices. Then you use the tongs and scissors to cut them up, after which you can dip them in red pepper paste or soy sauce and wasabi or just eat them plain. To be honest, I didn't like it as much as I hoped, but I was happy to have a nice night out without eating vile bi/quadriped flesh.

The coolest thing was that one of the huge clams came with a mountain of red pepper bean paste and chives on top, which, when grilled, cooked down to a really awesome sauce, though maybe it was just awesome because it covered and obscured the little appendages and organs that were ligamentally attached to the clam meat. Anyway, I feel a little remiss for not having taken loads of awesome food pictures here - you know, squiggly octopus, chicken feet and anus, sea penis, chicken kalbi, samgyeopsal (korean bacon), etc - and this meal was visually pretty impressive, especially with all the clams sort of shriveling up in their own shell over the fire.

The onomatopoeia comes in because somehow someone mentioned some sound or something. Maybe clams sizzling in their own juice? Anyway, an odd confluence of events occurred over the previous 10 days or so: 1) a conversation with my Korean-speaking WU alum friend Chris about Korean onomatopoeia; 2) a borrowed book from my friend, called "have you ever seen your poop?" which had lots of onomatopoeia and mimetic words about poop sounds and shapes; 3) a section in my study book about such words, though not so foul; and 4) a long-standing interest in such words in Korean, since they almost invariably have the odd habit of repeating the same sound over and over again (whereas, in English, we have a tendency to alter just one vowel, e.g. clickity-clack or pitter-patter). Korean O and M almost always take up 4 syllables, as well. Quite weird. I'm working on a list now, which I may post to the blog in the coming days.

Anyhow, sensing a good segue opportunity, and having mostly finished eating (and having downed a bottle of soju each), I pulled out the poop book, illustrations and all, showed it to the Koreans, and then translated it for George. It starts like this: "I am the poop professor. There's nothing I don't know about poop. Have any of you ever taken a close look at your poop? If you look closely, you'll notice: several smells, several colors, several shapes." The book goes on to describe diarrhea, watery poo, healthy poo, and constipated poo, with lots of nice, colorful, childish illustrations.

Beware, no segue for the next part:

And something interesting about eating the clams: being small creatures, with the organs and the meat all attached, you couldn't really separate them into "clean parts" and "dirty parts." Whereas when eating (pig/cow/chicken) meat I usually can't help but think about farm conditions, animal pain, and environmental effects, while eating the clams, I experienced a much more natural, stress-free feeling. It was almost like awe, looking at the little dudes, seeing their whole little being bubbling away in the shell, how it all fit together, and how nutritious and painless and (hopefully) rather harmless on the environmental-impact scale it all was.

So, despite all the talking about poop, it actually turned out to be a pretty wholesome night. Hurrah!

Just over two weeks left? But I'm having such a good time! ㅠㅠ

Monday, November 10, 2008

It's the little things,

like this silly little elevator conversation I just had, that make my life in Korea so fun.

The scene: 10 minutes ago, just around midnight. I had returned to my apartment from the gym and came upon two folks (no relation) in their 60s waiting for the elevator.

Old lady, before I made eye contact: Hello.
Me: Oh, hi. You think we can all fit in? (Motion to my bike)
(Elevator comes. Dude and lady go in.)
Lady: Yeah, come on in. What floor?
Me: 13 please.
Lady: Ah, you live on the 13th floor.
Lady: Were you drinking before you came? (Not accusingly, actually in a pretty friendly manner)
Me: Huh? No I was ..uh..ex...ex...exercising. (Stuttering because of the oddness of the question, but also worried that the stuttering would make it look like I had been drinking)
Lady: Hrm. Smells like booze.
Man: Oh. I guess that's me. Cracks a smile. (I smell the booze now.) Chuckle chuckle.
Lady: Ah, so the old man has been out drinking.
(The elevator stops and the man leaves. Then the woman on the next floor).
Lady: (Some weird dialect I can't understand)
Me: Uh...goodnight.

Despite the banality of the conversation, there are two things that made me feel like it was a sort of special event. First is a little twinge of success - it still hasn't worn off - that arises after a conversation with a stranger in a foreign languages goes off smoothly. More importantly, though, was the good-naturedness that pervaded the whole thing. I think, in another time and place, I would have been likely to take her comment as a sort of affront, an intrusion into my little private realm. But Koreans have different ideas about personal space, and I've found that they're less likely to worry about bothering others or being bothered by them. If you don't know Korean, it's obviously easy to get really defensive about this, and I bet most foreigners don't appreciate it. But, if you give yourself a chance to get acclimated to it, it's actually really pleasant. Plus, the old dude had such a wily grin on his face. What an awesome guy.

Another example comes to mind. Just a few nights ago, I was returning home from somewhere, at I can't quite recall what time of night, and a middle-aged couple walked up to me. The conversation started with them saying "wow, that's a big lock you have on your bike," and ended with them inviting me over to their house to meet their 20-something daughter and have dinner together. If they hadn't broached the religion topic in between, and if they hadn't invited me to their church, and if I had more than 3 weekends left to spend with my friends, then I might have actually taken them up on it.