Friday, January 31, 2014

You Win Some, You Lose Some

So far, I am not impressed with Tsagaan Sar.  Don't get me wrong, I understand it is family time, not a flashy festival involving wild and crazy stuff (unless you count sniffing one another's snuff bottles), but I was hoping for a little bit more.  Maybe it's Engrish's fault for suggesting earlier in the year that I might have students invite me to their homes.  I did try to hint to some of my classes that such an invitation would not go amiss - I even promised not to judge them if their buuz (mutton dumplings) were ugly, which is what Mongolians do - but, alas, none of them took the bait.  So I had resigned myself to a couple of quiet days before Sunday's more exciting events.

Then, I read this on InfoMongolia's upcoming events:
9:20 am Chief of Staff of the Office of the President of Mongolia P. Tsagaan and office officials to visit the Gandantechinlen monastery attending "Mandal" spiritual and ritual ceremony.

I've bitched before about how hard it is to find out what's going on in UB, and one of the things I've been wanting to see, ESPECIALLY since I didn't get to see it while I was in Tibet, was sand painting.  One of my students told me they'd seen it at Gandan once, so I made a wild guess, hoping that the ceremony in question was the painting of a mandala.
As I was leaving the apartment WAY too early (around 8, since I wasn't sure if the buses would run or if I could catch a taxi), I noticed that all the ovoos that I could see (quite a few, up here on the Hill) were surrounded by people.  I wanted to run up to the monument and see what was going on, but I was afraid that I would lose steam, and the game was afoot (yes, I may have watched the new season of Sherlock recently...)  I asked Enkhaa later what was going on, and he said that it's lucky to meet the first sunrise of the new year.  Damn it.  Well, I went on my way and found that the buses were, in fact running, and eventually made it to the monastery.
I poked my nose in a lot of places that I didn't see the first (and last) time I went to Gandan.  That time, I was on a city tour given by the school, and I was happy just exploring the main temple.  This time I was on a mission.  There was definitely something happening - there was a camera crew there - but I couldn't figure out exactly what.  However, it was kind of nice being there - it brought back memories of Tibet and Bhutan from this summer, and although the Energizer might be disappointed that the only thing I definitely  recognized were the protector gods, everything felt a lot more familiar, and that was nice.

I was giving up and headed for the exit when a Mongolian guy stopped me.  "Can I ask you a question?" he asked.  I passed over the well-worn response that he already had, and, since it was Tsagaan Sar, decided that I'd play nice.  "Sure, one question," I agreed.  He asked where I was from, and in the ensuing conversation I realized that he might be able to answer my question.  So I explained that I was there hoping to see them paint a mandala.  He went and found a monk to ask, and said, Wow, they're doing it today!  HA! - I thought - MY TREK UP HERE HAS NOT BEEN IN VAIN!!!  My new buddy Gampa told me it was supposed to be at 16clock (4pm), and he wasn't sure which building it was supposed to be in, but he showed me which one he thought the monk was talking about.  I chatted with him, happy about my decision not to be a bitch, and left for California (which was miraculously open) to have brunch, where I texted Enkhaa to see if he could drive me to Gandan that afternoon.
Well, part two was no more successful than part one, really.  I poked my nose into even more strange places, including this courtyard, which looked like it had been abandoned for decades and might be a good place to stage a zombie apocalypse film.  I wanted to leave no stone unturned, and I didn't, but I still didn't find any artistic monks.  The best clue I got was that the assembly hall that has the banners leaning against it in the above photo had monks chanting and banging drums and cymbals.  I stopped and listened, taking in the atmosphere (and warming up) for a while before calling Enkhaa, who told me he could come and take me home.  As I'm writing this, I have begun to wonder if perhaps that was the opening ceremony, as it were...according to Wikipedia, a cleansing ceremony including chanting and music is how the mandalas are started.  Unfortunately there is SO little in me right now that wants to go back to Gandan and see if they are working.  I'm going to start cleaning my apartment instead - usually about halfway through the process I want to do something else, so with any luck that will give me the motivation I need to get back out there...

The upshot to the whole fiasco is that, cold aside, there isn't a much better place to be during a holiday than a monastery.  Except possibly on top of the ridge behind my apartment, and since I can't cheat and drive up to the top, that probably wasn't going to happen, anyways.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A New New Year

This is our first of six days off for the Mongolian celebration of Lunar New Year, Tsagaan Sar.  Last Year I was all about getting every bit of use out of my Chinese visa I could, starting with a trip to Harbin during Tsagaan Sar.  If the holiday falls for the right length at the right time next year, I will be off to Greece, so I figured this was the year for me to experience Tsagaan Sar, Mongolian style.
The days leading up to the break are just like such days in any school in America - a total (as Blondie says) "shit show."  Our food drive, which was a little late getting started this year, kept everyone a little bit focused, but by Wednesday, it was pretty futile trying to teach anything, although some of us tried.
The Mongolian teachers had no choice - Wednesday was their big event, the Mongolian culture fair.  There were a few students who set up booths about different cultures, but they were largely about aspects of Mongolian culture.  Since there are a lot more students participating than there are, really, things to research, there was a lot of overlap, but they did a really good job, and I always think it's cool to see the kids in their traditional gear.  I even found out something I've been wondering about.  Mongolians have silk scarves similar to the white ones used in other Tibetan Buddhist cultures, but there are many different colors - most commonly blue, but also white, yellow (for religion and education), green (for nature), and red (for fire).  I've seen a few black ones, and wondered what they meant, and one of my students was finally able to tell me that this is the color you tie to a tree if you are having lots of bad luck.
We also had a performance by our sister school, school 60.  It involved a lot of the usual suspects, and a few unusual ones (a trio of girls who lip-synced to K-Pop in gold sequined dresses, and a group who danced - if I read the styles right - a Bollywood number).  The boys who performed on moriin khuur, the horse head fiddle (an instrument whose story demonstrates why you should never make your woman jealous of your horse), were some of my favorites, and when the student behind me told me he used to play it, I told him he should pick it back up (mostly because smacking him wasn't an option).
The real show stopper, though, was their contortionist.  This girl couldn't have been more than ten years old, and she did pretty much everything I've seen any of the professionals do.  The best part, though, was watching my students flip out - the girl sitting in front of me kept covering her eyes.  It freaked them out that she could bend like that.
The staff dinner was not as great as last year, but I went and had some buuz with Engrish, Champ, and Wallflower anyways.  Teachers are encouraged to dress up in national dress, as well, but since American national dress (t-shirt and jeans) is boring (if comfortable), I wore my eagle hunter coat.  I was on my way out the door when Peppermint told me she wanted to come and participate, too, and after a little discussion we decided she could dress up as my eagle, made possible by the feathers I brought back from the festival.  My students pointed out that I could have used my longer feathers for her tail feathers, and she wanted to kick my ass for not thinking of it myself.  Oh well, maybe next year.

More to come....

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Throw Down

For Mongolians, the most wonderful time of the year is NOT Christmas, it's actually Tsagaan Sar - Mongolian New Year.  It's the time when you...well, you're going to find out more in the coming week, but you can read what I wrote about it last year to tide you over, if you like.  What you need to know for now is that there are wrestling tournaments as part of the celebration, and on a whim, Engrish and I decided we needed to go today.  We planned to meet at the Wrestling Palace after I finished church, and since I got there a few minutes before she did, I went ahead and bought the tickets.  This was a bit of a maneuver, because when I went to the KACC office on the side of the building, where tickets are sold, the guy didn't understand me, and sent me to the entrance, where they promptly sent me back to the side.  Eventually I got things sorted out, and ended up with one of the security guys, who was so eager to show me where to sit that he almost missed the fact that I had two tickets and was waiting for minii nites (my friend).
She had mentioned our desire to see some wrestling to our fearless driver, Enkhaa, at some point in the past, and he was bemused.  Why would a couple of white girls want to go watch wrestling?  To which I must say why WOULDN'T we???  To quote my recent Expats Blog contest entry:  "Beautiful strong men in tiny underpants...need I say more?  (See more at: http://www.expatsblog.com/contests/746/n-is-for-nomads)  Apparently it's something men are more into ogli....er, spectating...than women, but that's never been something to stop me.  Of course, I don't think we really realized what a treat we were in for.  I should have - I've recently been fighting with one of my seventh grade girls about changing in the hallway, because she doesn't see anything wrong with changing her clothes in front of God and the whole world.  Well, neither did the wrestlers.  There were strapping young lads in nearly every stage of undress scattered around the palace, and it did my poor, very single heart a WORLD of good!
We wanted to go to the wrestling palace last year, but the opportunity never presented itself.  I actually got to see some wrestling at Naadam, but it was hot and sunny and I'd just had my back messed up by a bunch of Mongolian women forcing themselves onto our bench, so I didn't stay long.  But even if I had, it wouldn't be the same.  The wrestling palace is a much smaller venue than the Naadam stadium, so you feel much closer to the action.  There's a great deal of pageantry involved in a Mongolian wrestling tournament.  When things were finally ready to start, some of the lamas chanted, after which the referees and wrestlers came out onto the "mat" - a round green carpet that covered the floor of the palace.
The names of the wrestlers and their home aimags was announced, if Engrish can be trusted (and since she's practically Mongolian, she generally can).  The wrestlers left the floor, some of them to go back and change into their deel for a later match, and some to merely come back in a few minutes.  Before they start, they "salute" the referees and the Mongolian flag.  Or salute is the best description I can come up with for it - it's actually more graceful, and involves more of the body, as they walk or kind of skip around, gently flapping their arms like an eagle.

I have to admit that I haven't seen much wrestling in my life.  As a band geek, I played at football games and basketball games, but we didn't go to wrestling meets, so the sum of my experience with wrestling comes down to when I couldn't get Shaggy to change the channel as a child and had to watch Hulk Hogan duke it out with Randy Roddy Piper.  This was NOTHING like that (obviously).

For starters, while Mongolian wrestlers have muscles and then some (the shoulders and the legs on these guys!  I swear!), but quite a lot of them had a lot of fat on them, too.  And they weren't paired up according to size - there were very big wrestlers in matches against much more wiry guys.  Engrish and I both wondered how the matches were decided.
The technique seemed different, too - really intense.  They would grapple with each other for what seemed like a really long time, in some matches.  For long periods, their heads would be locked, like a couple of stags, and then they would start spinning, trying to lock a leg around their opponent or simply just throw them off balance.  It truly was "no holds barred;" they had a hold of each others' tops (open fronted, because once upon a time a woman decided to compete - although some of these guys had more boobage than a couple of my girls...) and bottoms.  I was hoping for a wardrobe malfunction at some point, but Engrish pointed out that most of them seemed to be wearing bloomers under their...bloomers.
Then there was the fact that there were LOTS of matches going on at the same time.  It was hard to know where to look.  Engrish and I would pick a couple to watch - occasionally the same one - but it became harder to keep track of them as they moved around the floor.  Wrestlers were constantly hitting the mat.  I found it amazing that nobody got hurt - tribute, I guess, to the refs' hard work (and occasional ass smacking).
The lamas who did the chanting earlier in the afternoon were also the keepers of the winners' brew - airag (fermented mare's milk) - and these fried dough things that you always get served when you visit a ger.  The wrestlers tossed these up into the crowd.  Engrish suggested that it might be lucky to get a treat from the winner.  I suggested that it would have been MORE lucky for them to lay a big wet one on a ginger girl (I've read somewhere that being fire-kissed brings luck), but unfortunately we were sitting in the wrong section to find out.
The truly incongruous thing seemed to me their boots.  Mongolians wrestle in big, ass-kicker boots, which seems funny with their teeny tiny costumes.  It was especially funny to see them walking down the stairs for their next match in just their underpants and boots.  Not that I'm complaining.

Well, we made it to nearly 5 o'clock before Engrish asked if I'd gotten enough photos and 5,000 tugrugs worth of entertainment.  I'd just been thinking to myself that it seemed like the matches were going to go on ALL NIGHT, and since I hadn't had lunch, I was ready to go try my student's restaurant, Korea House (conveniently located behind the wrestling palace).  But I wouldn't hesitate to go again.
The End.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Grub Club: Joe's Corner

Squeaker picked Joe's Corner last week, when we were all broke.  Then we all got paid, but you know what?  Hot dogs are forever.  Also, a cheap meal is a great thing no matter how much money you've got.  Especially if you go buy a Mongolian pearl headdress at the State Department Store first.
Why did I need a pearl headdress?  Not that you need a reason, but if you do, there's the fact that next week we have a dress-up day for Tsagaan Sar, and since American "National Dress" is boring as hell, a girl could do worse than Mongolian.  I keep hoping that if I tell my students I won't judge them for their ugly buuz (Mongolian dumplings) one of them will invite me to their house for Tsagaan Sar.  It hasn't happened yet, but what can I say?  I'm an optimist.
Anyways - the food.  Joe's Corner is some incredibly tasty, yet simple, fare.  They serve a few other things - such as hot dogs (their wifi code is hotdogsforever) - but I have yet to get anything but the burger.  Usually I go for the double, but since today I killed some time in the state department store by mowing down on a Cinnabon, this time I went for the single.  Pretty much everyone had some variation on this - either a double, or a cheeseburger.  Engrish did too, but for some unfathomable reason she also ordered a salad.  The salad looked good, and she enjoyed it, but suggested next time she would ask for the dressing on the side, as it was a little too much dressing.

Joe's Corner is north from the State Department Store, up the street that has the Adidas.  Watch for the building on the left that has "TATTOO" painted on its wall, because you're going to have to duck behind there to find the best burger value for your money in UB.  It's a little tricky to find, but if you keep your eyes open, you'll find it.  After all, I did.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Middle Earth for Modern Earthlings

I finally got to watch The Desolation of Smaug over the holiday.  It filled me with a longing for things that I don't have and can't be.  I can't be an elf, and I can't visit Erebor because it doesn't exist, and neither Legolas or Kili can be my boyfriends because they're not real.  And all of those facts just plain suck.  I was several days into a spiraling depression fueled by Mt. Dew and whatever Mexican food I could get my hands on when I asked myself if, perhaps, the previous premises were actually correct.
Premise 1: I can't be an elf.
Genetically?  Nope, not happening.  However, I just wrote a sorta award-winning blog that pointed out that archery is one of the things that Mongolia does, and I think I could probably find someplace to teach me how to shoot.  And I'm kinda tall, for a chick, so there's that.  On the negative side, I'm kinda fat as well, but I've been doing some thinking over the holiday, and I realized that my weight is the one thing in my life at the moment that I'm not satisfied with, and yet, it is completely within my power to actually DO something about that.  I hate that I figured this out now because I don't believe in New Year's Resolutions, but that is what my determination here is going to look like.  However I'm not going to let that stand in the way of turning myself into being an elf inasmuch as it is possible.  I'll have to let you know how that works out for me.

Premise 2: I can't visit Erebor, or any of those other fantastic Middle Earth Places.
Well, everyone knows that Tolkien was, in fact, inspired by actual places.  Let me think about this and get back to you.

Premise 3: Neither Orlando Bloom nor Aidan Turner are going to be my boyfriends.
Sadly, this is a resounding no.  It is an unfortunate fact that art teachers living in Mongolia don't get much play from hot actors (...or anyone, for that matter).  Since I can't do anything about that, I did a little more research about Premise 2, in hopes that I'd be able to figure out how to have some fantastic Middle Earth experiences.  To that end, I give you:
Middle Earth for Modern Earthlings
Also known as "New Zealand is for Sissies."  Because let's face it - visiting the places where the movies were made is just cheating.  I aimed for sites in Europe, because that's the geography Tolkien was most familiar with and it would just be awesome to do one big Middle Earth trek (quite possibly all geeked out in elvish attire, because realistically by the time this itinerary works its way forward in my travel queue, I'll have totally achieved my goal from premise 1), but sometimes reality just refused to go along with me.

The Realms of Men:
Those colossal statues they float past in Fellowship of the Ring: A variety of colossi exist in the world, although sadly the most famous, The Colossus of Rhodes, has not for a very long time.  If I had to pick a colossus that I think most fits the spirit of the ones in FOTR, I'd probably go for the Leshan Buddha (and not just because I've already been there).  It's not a perfect fit - there's only one, for example - but he is freaking huge, you can float past him on the river, and it's got a pretty kickass story to go along with it.
I saw the floating islands while I was in Peru (ostensibly visiting the Evil One).  While an argument could be made for Venice (or one of the cities claiming to be the Venice of some other part of the world) being the Laketown of the real world, I like casting the Uros isles of Lake Titicaca for Laketown because of the fragility of them.  Dragonfire could totally snuff them out.  Also, they actually are on a lake, rather than a part of the ocean, and the people living there are lovely.

Peter Jackson's take on the Rohan reminds me of Vikings (except, obviously, without ships).  If you are longing to walk the halls of Edoras, I'll point you to some of Denmark's Viking era sites.  Trelleborg is a generic term used to refer to Viking ring castles, but is also a specific site, the Trelleborg Museum of the Viking Age.  If that doesn't satisfy you, you can also visit Fyrkat, another reconstructed settlement along the same lines.

If the men of Gondor are more your thing, you might like to visit Mont Saint-Michel, in Normandy, France.  As far as I've been able to find, it's just about as close as you're going to get to climbing the streets of Minas Tirith.  It isn't build on the edge of a mountain, but the fact that depending on the tides it may or may not be an island is pretty cool.

Dwarvish Dwellings:
If you want to get the feeling of underground grandeur, you'd have a hard time finding a better semblance to Erebor or Moria than the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  I'm not going to do it justice, so I'll let you click on the link...trust me on this one.
If you're looking for the dwarves' Art Deco stylings, but aren't so worried about actually being "Under the Mountain," I suggest hopping the next plane to New York.  Would dwarvish architecture really resemble what we know as Art Deco?  Not sure, but this is how Jackson interpreted it, and New York is - in my experience - the best place to get your fill of it.

Elvish Environs
Likewise, if you want to see the Art Nouveau trappings that Jackson uses to express the elves' close ties to nature, but aren't hung up on the fresh air and natural surroundings, Paris is the place to go.  I mean, hell, it's Paris; they're halfway to being elves just by virtue of being French.  I may have been spurned by a French boy last year, but their looks and their attitude (not to mention the decor) make them just about as close to being elves as I reckon you're going to find in Modern Earth.
Via Wikipedia
The unfortunate fact is that I had a hard time finding a place in the real world that actually encapsulated the dwellings of the elves.  They're just a little too fantastic.  Rivendell is the only really good one, and that's because Tolkien actually based it on a valley in Switzerland, the Lauterbrunnental.  For the Mirkwood, I thought the Bialowieza Forest, stretching over Belarus and Poland was more the mark.  It's a primeval forest, a little rough, and has a darker feel to it.  Finally, there's Lothlorien - and the thing that would make me feel like I'm in there is walkways between trees.  I initially came up with Finca Bellavista, in Costa Rica, as my Lothlorien-in-the-real-world, but just yesterday I found out about a rainforest canopy walkway in Borneo, which also looks pretty kickass.  So take your pick.

Natural Wonders
I may get some flack for my next idea, but I imagine Muir Woods, near San Francisco being a lot like Fangorn Forest.  I'm very slightly familiar with it because I LOVE Seanan McGuire's October Daye series, and that's lent a sense of mystery and magic to it.  The national parks' website calls it a "Tree Lover's Monument," and Legolas, Tolkien's number one tree lover, was so taken with Fangorn that I can easily imagine him falling in love with the Redwoods.

Gimli was likewise taken with the Glittering Caves, which he found under Helm's Deep.  Here's how he described them:
“And, Legolas, when the torches are kindled and men walk on the sandy floors under the echoing domes, ah! then Legolas, gems and crystals and veins of precious ore glint in the polished walls; and the light flows through folded marbles, shell-like, translucent as the living hands of Queen Galadriel. There are columns of white and saffron and dawn-rose, Legolas, fluted and twisted into dreamlike forms; they spring up from many-coloured floors to meet the glistening pendants of the roof: wings, ropes, curtains fine as frozen clouds; spears, banners, pinnacles of suspended palaces! Still lakes mirror them: a glimmering world looks up from the dark pools covered with clear glass; cities, such as the mind of Durin could scarce have imagined in his sleep, stretch on through avenues and pillared courts, on into the dark recesses where no light can come. And plink! a silver drop falls, and the round wrinkles in the glass make all the towers bend and waver like weeds and corals in a grotto of the sea.”
I suppose the closest thing I've ever heard of something like this is the Cave of the Crystals, in Naica, Mexico.  Not a perfect representation, but pretty amazing.
Also Via Wikipedia
Darker Middle Earth
As far as Middle Earth's darker places go, Dol Guldur and Mount Doom stand out the most to me.  There is no shortage of castle ruins in Europe, but I felt that Gýmeš Castle in Slovakia was the most similar to how Jackson portrayed it - not too small, not totally ruined.  Then there's Mount Doom.  Any volcano will really work, I suppose, but since I started out looking for sites in Europe, I came up with Eyjafjallajokull on Iceland, and Mt. Etna, on Sicily.  If I had my choice between the two, though, I'd probably visit Mt. Etna for my Mount Doom experience, simply because the book always mentions Mordor as being in the south, and we all know the reputation that Sicilians have.

Finally - last but not least - I would be completely remiss if I didn't talk about the Shire.  Just about anywhere in the world could be the Shire, as long as you've got good food and good friends.  But for that Bag End aesthetic, I suggest building a house like Simon Dale's.  I first saw this place in, I wanna say, 2010 or so, and it's incredible.  Someday I may finally end up settling down somewhere (stranger things have happened), and this is the kind of house I would want - cozy, low-impact, architecturally interesting, and just big enough for me.

Did I miss an important place?  Totally disagree with me?  Feel free to leave me a comment.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sarang-heyo!

Due to illness and birthdays, our regularly scheduled Grub Club got cancelled tonight, and rather than leave you without anything to read, I thought I'd tell you about one of the things I love the most about Mongolia:

The fact that there's a shitload of Koreans here.

Now, I realize this was also why I loved my neighborhood in Shanghai (and why I was able to tolerate it there as well as I did).  Based on that experience, I also realize this is a helluva bad reason to live somewhere.  Fortunately in Mongolia there are a ton of other reasons why I'm happy here BUT the fact remains that I'm a little happier, a little more well-adjusted because "my people" are here.  So I'm going to wrap up what has apparently turned into Korea Love Week at Defying Gravity with some of the things I miss the most about Korea.
The Food
Oh, hells yes, the food.  It took me a while to get into Korean food, because everything was strange, I couldn't read the menu, and I was a lot less outgoing (and thus, less likely to look around the room until I saw someone eating something that looked appetizing to me and tell the waiter to bring me that), but eventually I got over that.  I've waxed poetic about the food - via Korean restaurants in UB - a lot here, so let me leave you with the dish I miss more than any other: dalkgalbi.  It's spicy stir-fried chicken and cabbage cooked right at your table, and it is my personal mission to find someplace that serves it for a grub club this year.
NORAEBANG!

Noraebang is a Korean word that means "singing room," and it's their way of doing karaoke.  Each group gets their own room to sing their (drunken...unless you go with the Mormon kids, and I often did) little hearts out in.  It may start with cheesy solos, but by the end of the night everyone will be dancing and screaming, "SO YOU THINK YOU CAN STOP ME AND SPIT IN MY EYE?" along with Freddie Mercury.  Noraebang is how send-offs for leaving teachers often ended (with the barbecued galbi pictured above being how they started), which is good, because it kept me from getting too soppy.  There are plenty of places to do karaoke in UB - the school even purchased a karaoke machine for the Commie Center - but alas, my friends these days aren't really that type (if I've underestimated you, friends, please feel free to set the record straight, and we'll make some Bohemian Rhapsody happen!)
The Sauna
My first couple of months in Korea I missed my bathtub.  Most apartments there don't have bathtubs, or hell, even a shower stall...they simply make everything in the bathroom water resistant and spray the water from a nozzle attached to the wall, making the whole room the shower.  My friend Ange (she's the Korean one in the photo above), invited all the singles in our congregation to go to the bathhouse with her one Friday night in October, and while I admit that it seems a little weird getting naked in front of women you don't know (and possibly even weirder in front of ones that you DO!) I went along.  Within 5 minutes in the sauna, it was not a big deal.  Yep, we were friends hanging out on a Friday night....naked.  The totally indulgent hot baths aren't the only reason I love the jjimjjilbang, though.  Most of them have a co-ed area, where you put on their uniforms and hang out in different hot and cold sauna rooms, oxygen rooms, and even have restaurants.  My favorite is a 5-story monster behind Seoul Station called Silloam Sauna, and the last time I stayed there they had sleeping rooms, karaoke, an internet cafe, not to mention wifi (although, c'mon - in Korea EVERYWHERE has wifi).  There are saunas in Mongolia, but they're far enough out of the way that I still haven't been to one.  However, the most promising one, in the Sunjin Hotel, is on the way into town from the orphanage, so maybe this is the weekend when I will finally give it a try...
Kids so ridiculously adorable it makes my heart hurt
One particular class of mine has started teasing/accusing me of having a favorite student.  I want to state unequivocally that I don't have A favorite student...they are ALL my favorites (as mentioned last fall).  However, three years with Korean kids has predispositioned me to like them.  Quite possibly a lot.  They are funny.  They are smart.  They like nerdy stuff.  And did I mention ridiculously adorable?  Since last year's (Korean) music teacher convinced most of the high school's Korean population that they are future K-Pop stars (with possibly some truth to it), you can understand how the single, solitary Korean kid in art class might seem to be singled out.  Right???
Belly Dancing

My Dark Lord and Master is always glad to point out how ass-backwardly I do things.  Most recently it was when I admitted I started liking sushi in Mongolia ("IN A LANDLOCKED COUNTRY?!?"), but the original moment came in a little restaurant on Itaewon's Homo Hill, when he said, "I'm in an Egyptian restaurant in Korea watching an American belly dance who's been taught by an Australian.  I don't know where the hell I am!"  Belly dancing has never been as kickass (in more ways than one) for me as it was when I was taking lessons from Azhaar.  She's an amazing teacher, and a pretty fantastic friend, too.  I get disgustingly jealous whenever I think about the girls in Korea taking lessons with her; I hope they know exactly how damned lucky they are.  As for me, I've found a couple of possibilities for classes here, but a.) my feet are problematic (long story) and b.) it just won't be the same.  If I get my feet straightened out, I'll let you know how it goes.

What really made Korea fantastic, though, were the people I knew there.  Some of them were really, truly crazy (like the guy who was my partner teacher for a week and a half, who smuggled pot into the country in his sock), but most of them really fun, hilarious people.  I wouldn't have met any of them if I'd never left the states, and if by chance I had, I probably wouldn't have liked most of them (my homegirl Sara being the exception...I like to think we would have been chingus no matter what).  But thanks to Korea, I did meet them, and I liked more of them than not, and while it's arguable whether or not I've been changed for the better, I DEFINITELY have been changed for good by knowing them.  And while those people are mostly gone from my life, with one or two exceptions. I feel a connection to people who shared that experience - it's one of the (many) reasons I loved Five so much.  Here's hoping I get to see a few of those people in DC this summer.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Long Way Home

I'm not a nervous flier, but I AM a bitchy one.  I HATE being crammed into a tiny seat behind someone who feels justified in leaning their seat back into MY legroom.  I'm not a huge fan of putting my backpack under my seat, but I also hate not knowing exactly where my gear is.  And - so help me! - if you get in the way of me leaving the plane and getting to immigration AFTER all the homeslice whities who don't know how to fill out a bloody form, you're gonna have a bad time.

But I feel a lot better about putting up with all those things if I'm on Korean air.  For starters, the majority of people on the flight will be Korean, which means they're less likely to be morons, and even when they are, I'm more tolerant of it, because Koreans in general are about as cute as buttons. Another advantage is the long layovers in Korea.  Live there long enough, and eventually you'll know people who stay.  Live there long enough, and you'll be able to hop off a flight and take a jaunt into town without even needing a subway map.  Also, you'll know how to amuse yourself on your 20 hour layovers.

This is the same itinerary I had last year, and it made the process of repatriation so much more enjoyable that I had to do it again.  Getting this ticket at a decent price took some finagling, but by purchasing the UB-Chicago portion through Korean Air's website and the Chicago to Omaha part separately on Kayak, I ended up paying less than I did last year.  I was worried that I would have to pay to check my bags when I left Omaha, since it was a separate and domestic flight to begin with, but I managed to dodge that bullet, too.  Go me.
So the evening of December 14th found me abandoning Champ and Wallflower, who were also on my flight, before they could even get off the plane.  Azhaar was meeting me at the airport, and we were an hour late getting away from UB.  We didn't get to have doner kebab this year, but instead chowed down on Macca's while sitting on the train into town (like a homeless person).  She got a good laugh from the scare I gave a transit workman when I went up to the machine and said, "Yang-o, chuseyo!" (English, please).  Of course, that was about the time I realized I had to sleep on the floor with her devil rabbit, Doog.  She swears Doog's mellowed in her old age.  I don't believe it for a minute, and when I woke in the morning, I said a prayer of gratitude that the evil beast hadn't fluffocated me while I slept.

(What the heck does that mean?  It's a new word I made up - it's when you get suffocated by fluff, such as that of the adorable bunny wabbit pictured above.)

So I called my Dark Lord and Master when I got into town.  At first, I didn't get through, because some dumbass (ahem, me) reversed the first and second part of the number when she wrote it down - so I was a little confused when a Korean woman other than his wife answered the phone and told me I had the wrong number.  I was saved by the incredibly good wifi at Incheon, which allowed me to send a message to Diablo's spawn, who straightened me out.  Since he wouldn't be available for another 4 hours, I had some of the aforementioned time to kill.

I went to COEX because they used to have an On the Border Restaurant there, and while I had a shitload of Mexican food while I was home, Omaha, sadly, does not have an OtB. As I was wandering though, trying to figure out why nothing looked right, the realization that they were renovating the whole damn mall slowly dawned on me, and it sucked.  So instead, I went to Butterfinger Pancakes.  This was originally my plan for Sunday morning, but luckily for me, I can improvise.

I set out for their Apgujeong location in a taxi.  It was a balmy spring evening (by Mongolian standards) and if it weren't for the facts that a.) my back was absolutely KILLING ME (a combination of my way-too-soft bed and 13 hours on a plane) and b.) I was lugging Blondie's brand new cement MacBook in my carry-on, I would have hoofed it.  As it was, I had to scramble to remember the words for directions in Korean (eetzhezhou and chigadei flashed through my head before I finally remembered that chichin is "straight" in Korean).  But it was all worth it.  Butterfinger's gingerbread pecan pancakes have been the stuff of my dreams since I last went there with Dougie Poo, two years back.  Free refills on coke are nothing to sneeze at, either, especially considering they are an unheard-of thing, here in the hinterlands.
I killed a little more time at a coffee shop before heading down to Bundang to meet the devil himself.  I couldn't believe how grown up the little spawn was - she is the same age as my darling 11th graders, which pretty much blew my mind.  The best moment was when, in response to something Diablo said, all three of us simultaneously responded with his catch-phrase, "DETAILS, DETAILS!"  Being a Korean kid, she had to go home and study, but Diablo and I sat in the Jeongja Tom-n-Tom's and caught up til the wee small hours, when he dumped me at a jjimjjilbang, for a much needed hot bath and sleep on a piping hot floor, which pretty much made everything right with my back again.

People who know me wonder why I haven't gone back to Korea to live.  I talk about it a lot, and while most of the people who made it the amazing experience it was are gone, Diablo and Azhaar kind of keep the torch burning for me.  My Korean students are some of my favorites, and I could eat Korean nearly as often as I can eat Mexican.  I guess the truth is that I see Korea as a place to come back to after my wanderlust has run its course.  Until then, the world is a big place, and Korea is perfectly positioned between the States and Mongolia.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Grub Club: SuRa

SuRa is a Korean restaurant in the Blue Mon Building, which is a fairly glitzy locale, but in spite of all its shininess it utterly failed to impress.  This was Wallflower's first grub club pick, and it pains me to have to tear it up.  It should have been a good pick - and it smelled like it would be when we first got there - but it wasn't.  This is not just me being a hardass because I spent 3 years living in Bundang and eating some truly fantastic food (although I did), nor is it because I can cook Korean better than they can (although it would appear that I can).  It was just not as great as it should have been for the price and presentation.
I am a sucker for the foods Koreans serve in their snack bars.  I ate a lot of dolsot bibimbap (hot pot rice and vegetables) and gun mandu (fried dumplings) over those three years; in fact, these were the first two Korean foods I tried.   So my mouth was watering when our food finally got to the table.  I didn't even stop to stir up the egg so it could start cooking before I grabbed one of those delicious looking dumplings and took a big bite...of green stuff and clear glass noodles.  Seriously.  I've had mandu with kimchi, and mandu with just meat, and Bronte even taught me to add tofu to them, which somehow makes a perfect thing even better, but I have never had them with green stuff (presumably spinach).  Several of us shared orders - Geek, Blondie, Engrish, Squeaker - and not one of us ate more than a couple.  Blondie thinks the gyoza at Oishi Ramen have spoiled us.

Whatever the case may be, I moved on to my bibimbap and didn't look back.  Unfortunately, it fared little better.  They served it with some kind of runny red sauce.  It was spicy, but it wasn't the right sauce, gochu jjang.  I asked our waiter to bring me the correct sauce.  When he finally came back, he communicated that this was the only sauce they had.  I told him I needed a box then.  It's pretty sad when you are eating at a Korean restaurant that doesn't have an essential condiment in their kitchen, but you do.  I'm planning on eating it today for lunch.  He does get credit for bringing an English speaker over to figure out what I wanted, but when she came back again from the kitchen, all she could give me was ssam jjang, which is closer, but still definitely NOT the right thing.
It's a good thing I decided to be a pig and order kimchi stew as well, because otherwise I would have gone home hungry Wednesday night.  This, at least, was right, although Wallflower ordered it because I suggested it, and she had to have me taste it to be sure it was supposed to taste that way.  Someone ordered kimbap, which seemed to go over alright, while Squeaker ordered bulgogi, which apparently her new fiance suggested when she was home getting herself engaged.  The big winner of the night was Blondie, who ordered their spicy pork and tofu stir-fry, which she gave a 9, because she's easy like that.

Honestly, I was in Seoul five days ago.  If I wanted great Korean food, I should have had it then.  I take 100% of the blame for not doing so.  I should have made a beeline on December 4th to Gangnam and wandered its alleys until I found a dalkgalbi restaurant, because I would just about kill for a hit of this spicy deliciousness.  But you'll see why I didn't in my next post.  In the meantime, if you want to check out SuRa to be sure I'm not just being a Korean food snob, the Blue Mon building, where they're located, is at the corner of Baga Toiruu where it intersects with Beijing St.  If you are going from Sukhbaatar Square, walk north along the east side until you get to the street that runs along the back of the government palace garden, and go to the first major intersection.  It's next to Urgoo Cinema.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Ode to Shaggy

I couldn’t be more proud of my older brother. 
Shaggy is a character.  I mean, we all are in my family, but Shaggy is truly interesting.  When I was very little, I loved him SO much and wanted to be just like him.  When I got a little bigger, I changed my mind.  I still loved him, but he was all, “Ooh, Outdoor Survival Skills (Read: Grubs have lots of protein!),” whereas I was Ms. Artsy-Fartsy.  Also, he may or may not have gotten into trouble from time to time.

Well, things change.  The outdoorsy kid got accepted to the University of Missouri at Rolla where he was going to study engineering, but the band geek (that’s me) failed to get into UMKC’s conservatory.  I stayed at UMKC anyways, but eventually switched over to art education, which came as a surprise to pretty much no one.  He hung in at Rolla for two years, but the second year was one of the few students studying history at an engineering school.  Let’s just say it’s a much harder program when you’re in a fraternity, and leave it at that.

In spite of that, Shaggy grew up pretty well.  He came back to the Omaha area, where he started studying geology (again, this came as a surprise to pretty much no one – he was the one always lugging big rocks home from vacation) and met his wife while working for an outdoor adventure company.  He later started working for a local sporting goods store, and he turned out to be really good at what he was doing.  He’s knowledgeable and passionate about gear.  He’s really good at making connections with people, and he’s worked his way up in the sporting goods world, until he landed a really good job with a national company.  His wife just had their third child (time will tell whether or not Monkey is sweet or hornery), and during this vacation we helped them move into a big, beautiful house.  He may or may not still get in trouble once in a while, but…I mean, c’mon – who doesn’t?
If I had to guess, I'd say hornery...
The reason I’m telling you about Shaggy and not Babysis (who is also fabulously successful with a beautiful house and husband and baby) is because I’m sure it never even crossed anyone’s mind to question whether or not Babysis would make good.  She has always been focused and directed and she didn’t make all the mistakes Shaggy and I did.  She never got caught hiding under a van in a cemetery drunk or hit a utility wire with that same van, taking out power to half our town of 5,000 people (I’ll let you try to figure out which of those stories apply to which of her older siblings).  Shaggy, on the other hand, listed his aspiration for senior awards night as, “To become a mercenary.”  People didn’t always know what to make of him.

As a teacher, I have kids who don’t always know what to make of themselves.  Maybe they have an older sibling to try to live up to, or parents with unrealistic expectations.  I hope one day they can look back with hindsight’s 20/20 vision, and everything makes sense.  But until then, I would tell them:

Be who you are.  Make it work for you. 


That, at the end of the day, is the most important of all the things I’ve learned from my brother.  Although the protein value of grubs is right up there.