One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” –Henry Miller

Sunday, December 26, 2010

7 Step Recipe for a Korean Christmas

I thought it would be unbearably hard to spend Christmas thousands of miles away from home in a country that doesn't really celebrate the holiday. (Korea has a fairly large Christian population as far as Asian countries are concerned.  However, Christmas is celebrated on a much smaller scale. I would say its a lot less commercialized.  For example: I asked my co-teacher if she was celebrating Christmas and, if so, what she was getting her (adorably cute) 3 year old daughter, Cherim. She said that she was getting her practice chopsticks (They're connected at the top to teach children learn how to use them. They're kind of like twisters.) and a pair of red shoes.  Christmas, I've learned is a much bigger holiday for couples than for families. It's a huge date night.)  So. Was it hard? Yeah, but I had a few things that made this season feel a little bit more like Christmas for me.

Korean Christmas Souffle Recipe
  • a sprinkle of snow
  • 3 teaspoons of gingerbread men cookies
  • a generous dose (roughly 1 cup) of a family substitute
  • a touch (5 grams) of Santa Claus
  • 4 tablespoons of holiday food
  • 1pack (250 grams) of skyping with friends and family
prep time: 1 month      cooking time: 20 minutes

Step 1: sprinkle a touch of snow (or more to your liking) in a medium sized mixing bowl.
With perfect seasonal timing, we experienced our first snow in Daejeon about 2 weeks ago.  Korea doesn't see much snow (no more than a few centimeters at a time and mostly melted by midday), but even the smallest amount seems to coax holiday songs from my lips.  What was that?  "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!" or "Dashing through the snow on a one horse open sleigh.." 

Admittedly, I was just as excited for the first snowfall as the kids were. During the 10 minute breaks between classes you could find (me and) dozens of the kids playing outside in the snow-- the girls were delicately crafting small snowmen while the boys taunted them with their increasing larger balls of snow with aims of either A) driving them away screaming, leaving no trace that a snow figure was ever there at all or B) provoking the girls to retaliate with their own equally large snow ball. I was there to capture evidence.

This is one of my first graders. I shouldn't have favorites, but inevitably, I do. Every time I see him in the hall he literally runs to me and yells "Jessica 선생님!" and grabs me around the waist.   선생님 translates to "teacher." Its romanization is "seon-saeng-nim," but for those who are not good at linguistics, myself included, to me it sounds like "sun-sang-nim."  Funny story about this boy. He peeped his head into the teachers office one day and saw that I was sitting at my desk. "Jessica seon-saeng-nim!" I motioned for him to come over. I keep candy in my desk for anytime the kids in class need extra incentive and I also keep stickers for letters. I placed both in his hand, "shhh,(motioning my finger to my mouth) It's a secret."  He scampered off. Twenty minutes later (like a modern day pied piper), he came back to my office with 4 others in toe.  I had to laugh. I gave them the same treatment. So much for secrecy.  
Step 2:  add 3 teaspoons of Gingerbread men cookies to your sprinkle of snow. Stir well.
Jella (my main co-teacher) and I held a party for class 5-8. (They've been our observation class for 2 open classes and have put in a lot of extra practice and hard work this semester). With it being close to Christmas, I was dying to make gingerbread cookies for the party.  Some of the women in the subject teachers office wanted to help make them. Pictures as follows:

From the left: Jella, Ms. Ahn, the Science subject teacher (I'm not sure on her name), Mrs. Kim, and Shi On. They are all leaving next year (Korean teachers rotate schools every 5 years. Sometimes more frequently than that.) I will miss them so much.

Note: I did Mrs. Kim's hair (back right). Sometimes we have hair shop in the office. We joke that we're going to open a hair and bakery shop.  "hair -10 dolla'! cookie- 2 dolla!'"

Gingerbread cookies!

None of them were familiar with gingerbread cookies prior to this, but they were all eager to cut the shapes and decorate them. It made me smile.

This is class 5-8s party. The next two photos are pictures of the presentation they made for Jella and I. It consisted of singing and dancing. I couldn't tell you what it was about though.

The girls from class 5-8

Having spent so much time with 5-8, I've gotten closer to these kids. Each student and I took a picture together in what Jella called the gingerbread man cookie ceremony. She insisted that each of them hold up their cookie for the picture. They later got copies.

Step 3: Add a generous dose (or roughly 1 cup) of a family substitute with whom to spend Christmas to your snow/gingerbread mixture.  Beat with an electric mixer until light, fluffy peaks form.
You can't spend Christmas alone and this year I spent it with a really wonderful group of EPIK teachers. We went to dinner on Christmas Eve at a traditional Korean restaurant (the kind where you sit on the floor and cook the food on burners on the table in front of you.) We went back to Megan and John's apartment, the couple that hosted the party, drank wine, played games, and eventually passed at around 4 in the morning. Megan, our expert chef, woke up early on Christmas to make everyone breakfast. I eased out of a comatose state with the sounds of a hushed conversation from the kitchen, a sizzling and popping sound and with the smell of bacon in the air.

Step 4: In a separate bowl add a touch (or roughly 5 grams) of Santa Claus.
Santa made it to Korea! We had planned to do a secret Santa gift exchange and stockings for Christmas. Everyone brought their own stocking and  bought a gift for another person and 11 small items to be stuffed into all of the stockings.  After breakfast everyone broke into their gifts from Santa.

Step 5: Mix 4 tablespoons of holiday food into the Santa bowl. Fold Holiday and Santa mixture into the snow/gingerbread/family substitute mixture. Start on the outside and fold inwards.
We had a really delicious Christmas meal around midday. Our master chef provided us with all of the holiday essentials: ham, stuffing, cooked carrots, corn pudding, cooked cabbage, and roasted potatoes.

Step 6: Pour the souffle mixture into a pan and bake at 350 for 20 minutes.  While the souffle is baking, melt a pack (250 grams) of Skyping family and friends in a medium sauce pan. Once the souffle has cooled, drizzle over the top.
I got to call my family on Christmas Eve and skype them on Christmas day. They weren't expecting the call on Christmas Eve. My dad answered the phone. "Hey Dad" pause "Hey baby!" Then came my tears. I can be a pretty emotional person (I've always been this way, I accept it now), but something about that man can melt my heart and make me cry more than any person I know. He's aware that it embarrasses me when I have these spells. We have an unspoken agreement that he doesn't draw attention to it.  My mom and sister jumped on the other phone lines and we talked for a good hour. (I'll be curious to see that phone bill. yikes!)

The next day for them (that evening for me) they skyped me in for presenting "opening."  Why is "opening" in quotes you ask?  Isn't that what you do with presents? You open them.  Well, yes, for most families, that is what you do; but mine, bless them, is special. Non-traditionalists, non-conformists, .. call them what you will.  They explained that not one of them actually wrapped anything this year. They put the presents on the kitchen table (because they didn't put up the tree) and threw a blanket over the top. Then when it was time for gift giving, like a magician ripping a table cloth off a set table, surprise! There are the presents!  I'd be lying if I said that I didn't love them for this quark. I've already threatened them with a very festive Christmas next year to make up for the one this year.

Step 7: Cut into the Korean Christmas Souffle and enjoy. Repeat.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bend it like... a Yoga Guru

Yoga leaves me flat on my face like a lifetime of running never has. If you've ever had a friend, girlfriend, brother, or mother tell you it's hard-- it's hard! If you've never done yoga, then you're probably wondering what the fuss is about.  It has a way of pushing you into impossible, back bending, joint twisting, inverted, muscle burning, positions.  Yoga has proved to be a combination of the most dichotomous practices. You have to be incredibly strong and yet incredibly flexible. You have to keep your core rigidly straight while turning your limbs in every direction. You must twist your body one way, but look another.  Lets not forget that you must maintain your balance while controlling your motion and breath.  It's as exhausting physically as it is mentally.

I've been practicing yoga for 7 weeks now. I started classes after my co-teacher told me that she was taking yoga at the center by my apartment.  I had hoped to start yoga while I was here, but an opportunity presented itself when that same co-teacher asked if I wanted to take classes with her and another teacher. There was a discount if 3 people signed up at the same time for 3 months. Now I go 3 times a week for an hour.  I wish that I could tell you that I've now taken on the quality of Gumby, his horse Pokey, or Mr. Fantastic, but, sadly, very sadly, I haven't.  It's still just as hard as it was day 1.  Though, I might look a little less like a fool.  I can now put myself into the positions (that's more than I can say about 7 seven weeks ago..or even 3 weeks ago)-- even if I'm not turned into same extreme angles as some of the other women.

One of my Yoginis is an older woman.  I would call her a Guru.  She's been practicing yoga for a long time--it's her studio. The other instructor, I found out recently, is a year younger than me. She is also very good, but probably not a Guru yet.  My yoginis don't speak English, though the younger one and I have tried to talk on occasion. 

The language barrier made class in the beginning a challenge. I spent more time looking at other people than i did practicing yoga. I sat towards the middle of the class so that I could see the instructor well, but not in the front so that I could follow others in the class. It's different for me now. I don't have to follow so much anymore. I lot of the class has become routine and because of that I've been passively learning Korean. I don't know exactly what the words translate to, but after hearing them repetitively, I know that I do certain motions after certain phrases. 

Some days I'm thankful that I don't understand what my Yogini is saying. I'd probably like her a little less.  (keep in mind that her tone is always so peaceful and she has the most serene look on her face while asking us to do, what feels like, the most impossible positions and that would become frustrating.). I imagine she says something like this:  "Bend backwards. Now, in an upside down position, control your breath. Wrap one arm around your leg. Lift the other leg in the air with mindfulness. Keep a firm footing. You are planted to the floor-- you are a tree. Now reach your other hand to the sky with gratitude. Find your chi." She's never asked us to do anything like this, but some days I feel as though she might as well have.

At this point I've become a regular. The women there recognize my face and know my name (I'm the only westerner in my yoga center. I know this for a fact because in our dressing room we're given a little cubby with our names on them. A romanized name like Jessica stands out ).  I don't know names, but I recognize most of the women and I know them through quirky mental notes: mrs. bendy (she could be a yoga guru herself), ms. nicetown (she lives in my building), smiley woman.. etc.  Only a handful of the women speak enough English to get by (and I speak minimal Korean), but we say hello and goodbye, and exchange knowing looks after a particularly hard class.  One woman and her daughter live on my street. The three of us walk back home after class together. The daughter knows a little English, but doesn't always come to class. Even on days that it's just the mother and I we some how manage to have a conversation with only a few words. 

I have to say, I like the feeling.  It's nice to feel like part of a Korean community, one that's separate from my school. 75% of the time I don't understand them and they don't understand me, but I feel a sense of belonging there and that is just as valuable as the yoga itself.