Living in ‘A Comfortable Place Under Heaven’

Monday I learned that Cheonan means ‘a comfortable place under heaven’ and I couldn’t agree more with that. If you wonder how such a complicated idea can be expressed in such a short word, Korean seems to be fond of dropping unnecessary words and just giving the bullet points, so you have to fill in the obvious blanks. Cheon means ‘heaven’ and an means ‘comfortable’ according to Mr. Lee, so cheonan can mean ‘a comfortable place under heaven’.

Other interesting words:

Last week when I was traveling to Daejon for the first time Mr. Lee pointed out an on-going joke in Korean about the word ‘digital’. Apparently, this is quite close to the word dwejital, which means ‘pig hair’. So it’s common for ads to say something like “dwejital? NO! Digital!” I got a kick out of it.

Monday after my first class I went back to Daejon, quite thankfully for the last time. All of my ARC issues have been taken care of, and I should be getting it back in the mail with my passport this week. This was largely the source of my anxiety I mentioned in the last post. Mr. Lee said last Friday it would be solved “in a month”, which confused and worried me, but I think he simply misspoke. I was worried about whether I would be paid if I couldn’t work, how I’d send money back to my US bank account to pay bills, etc… but now it’s a non-issue. Also, them having my passport made me feel a little trapped, cornered, etc… but when J said they have his too it made me feel better. Not like they were holding onto it so I couldn’t skip the country or something, haha.

Mr. Lee was in such a particularly good mood after leaving the immigration office that he took me for dinner. We had sundaegukbap. Guk is the native Korean word for ‘soup’, bap is Korean for ‘rice’, and sundae is ‘pig intestine’. Throw it all together and you get ‘pig intestine soup with rice’. It’s actually quite good. I’ve had it twice now and they were both at the same restaurant in Daejon, so I think Mr. Lee really likes it. During dinner I realized the enormity of a mistake a made earlier in the day.

I had called Michele and Jieun my sunbae, and they thought I was trying to say sundae. When they said something about sausage I was really confused, but Lawrence explained that I meant seonbae. That little vowel change makes quite the difference. I went from calling someone a ‘pig intestine’ to using the proper respectful term for someone at work more experienced than you are.

A quick lesson on Korean vowels:

A – always like A in ‘father’

EO – sounds like AW in ‘saw’

E – as in E in ‘set’

AE – sounds like A in ‘cape’

I – always the -EE sound

O – always a long O, as in ‘rope’

U – the O sound as in ‘moon’

EU – This is hard to describe. It’s not quite O or U, but more of a sound made in the throat. Kind of grunt-y.

As far as vowels go, Korean letters never change sound, so it’s much easier than English. In rare cases consonants will have slightly different sounds spoken than written, commonly switching a B/P to an M sound. However, for the most part, Korean is completely phonetic, the only exception being the -NG letter. No Korean syllable can be written starting with a vowel, so the -NG letter acts as a silent placeholder. For instance, an is written ngan in Korean and the -NG is simply unpronounced.

Anyway, after dinner he drove to Gongju, his hometown and the former capital of ancient Korea, due to its proximity to a large river. He showed me an apartment building he used to live in, the local Buddhist temple, the ancient king’s castle, a mountain he climbed, the Gongju National University, and the church he went to. When we finally got back to Cheonan he took me to meet his family. I talked with his wife for awhile over oranges, hard-boiled duck eggs, and some pretty delicious homemade wild strawberry wine. I met his youngest daughter (second grade) and his youngest son briefly (high school junior). His oldest daughter just started her first year in Seoul National University (the best university in the country), and his oldest son is in his first year of law school, so they both live away from home.

After meeting his family we we met a friend of his who adds the online content to the website we use to teach. He’s getting his doctorate in Mobile Media English Learning, (podcasts and such), so he spoke quite well. We went to Jjokki Jjokki, a local hof and had some beer and beer food. It was pretty good overall. I just had to walk home, which took like 15 minutes, but it wasn’t bad. It was a good idea in my first week to walk around a lot and get my bearings, otherwise I would’ve been screwed because I didn’t have any cash on me. I didn’t spend a dime all day and got essentially three meals, some beer, and Mr. Lee gave me a wind-breaker of his so I wouldn’t have to wear my shitty maroon jacket to school.

Korean compliments are often double-sided. For instance, on Friday on the way back to Cheonan from Daejon, out of nowhere, Mr. Lee said “In your picture to look fatter.” He then sucked in his cheeks and made an in motion, to signify that now I seem skinner. Thanks, I guess? He also always offers to buy me a suit/suit jacket because I need to ‘look good’ to teach, which kind of implies I look like shit now, but it’s still a kind notion.

On the drive to Daejon Monday, Mr. Lee said that the principal likes me. I’m really relieved to hear that. To be honest, the principal intimidates the shit out of me. Mr. Lee said that the principal said I’m a ‘good man, look like a gentleman, pure, look handsome/European (this is the most confusing to me), kind man,” etc… and that he thinks I’m a good teacher. That really takes the pressure off.

Today was pretty normal. I did something new with the kids. The website we use always reads the sentence on the screen first, so sometimes I wonder how much of their reading is just regurgitating what they hear. Today I left the sound off and had each kid take turns reading the lines on the screen. I was pleasantly surprised. Of course each class had one or two students that either can’t read well or were refusing to, but most of them were quite good at reading.

There’s a ton of stuff I want to talk about all the time. I want to dedicate a post to Korean currency, once I’m a bit more able to research it and take pictures. I want to talk about the scale of construction in Cheonan. Being from Ohio, something is always under construction, but it pales in comparison to what’s going on here. I want to go to the Independence Movement Museum this weekend, but Michele says it’s hard to get to and that I’ll get lost on my own. I’m not quite sure what I’m doing this weekend. Mr. Lee said there may be the regular once a month teacher training Saturday morning, or perhaps next weekend. He also invited me to Busan (second largest city in South Korea, the extreme SE corner of Korea) for a conference. It’d mean a chance to travel and avoid probably all the cost, so I don’t know if I can turn it down, though other things are higher on my priority list right now. Michele also said she could meet with me on the weekends to tutor me in Korean, which would really speed up my learning.

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