Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Strrrrranger Than Fiction!

In college, I took an International Relations class.  I don't remember much about it except for my professor's affection for commenting on certain elements of history (most memorably, Rasputin) by saying, "Strrrrrranger than fiction!"  And yes, he extended the "r" sound just like that.  Ever since that class, I've heard my old professor's voice narrating moments of my life with those words: "Strrrranger than fiction!"  Especially this past week in my kitchen.

Last night, as I was making dinner, I heard a loud "bang!" from very close to me,  similar to a balloon popping, but bigger.  Bolder.  I thought it was weird, since I hadn't seen any balloons in the kitchen.  As I poked around, I realized here was a very pungent odor filling the kitchen, and that's when it all made sense.  I remembered the bag of kimchi I'd bought over a month ago and mostly forgotten about.  Last week I'd come across it again, the bag hugely bloated, and thought, Huh! I guess this is what fermentation does! and also, I'd better eat this soon! but mentally set it aside again.  It had actually exploded, though it was in another bag, so the mess was easy to clean up.  

Exploding bags of kimchi, however, are by far not the strangest thing to happen in my kitchen this past week.

Ever since I moved in, my oven has caused me trouble.  I'd turn it on, wait for it to heat, turn back to put the food inside and find it had switched off.  Or another time, I erroneously left it on for 18 hours (!!!) because even though I had put the dial back to the "off" position, for some reason, it stayed on.  After turning off, it was always very hard to get it back on.  The kitchen would fill with the smell of gas as I tried time and time again to get it restarted.  I'd pray, intercede... consider calling an exorcist.  Finally, it would turn on again, and then (usually), stay on.

But Matt used it once, and it behaved in its normal psychotic way, and I told him nonchalantly, "Oh yeah,, it does that."

"Every time?"  

"Yup.  Every. Single. Time."  

Apparently, this isn't normal.  Apparently, in fact, it's dangerous.  So last week, I put in a call to our property manager.  He sent out a repairman, who deeming it beyond his skill level, sent for a manufacturer's technician.  This guy messed with it a little then said to me, "This oven... discontinued since ten years.  No parts.  But if no use, is okay. 15,000 won please."  

Ummmmm, no.  I wasn't going to pay a penny, let alone roughly $15, to have someone tell me that if I didn't use my oven, it would be okay.  I called the property manager.  He and the technician had a rather impassioned conversation, then the man left hurriedly as I was informed that the property manager would talk to the landlord, but getting the landlord to replace the oven...  "It's very difficult."  My heart sank.  In my six months here, I've learned these are the Korenglish words for no.

But on Saturday, he called me back.  The landlord had, as expected, refused to replace the faulty oven, but good news!  The property manager would himself pay to put in a new one! 

While leaving the old one in.

I was a little puzzled.  "Where will you put it?"  I asked.  My galley kitchen has just over three feet between the counters.  Wellllllll... He and another technician would come look at it in the afternoon.  

I didn't have a good feeling about this.

My bad feeling got worse as the two men stood in front of my current oven, examining, stepping back, crouching down, moving their arms around them to form a square.

"Okay," the property manager finally said, "we put oven here."  He indicated the space directly in front of my current oven.

"In the middle of the floor?!" He nodded.  "Like, right here?"  More nodding.  "But... how do I move around it?"  With his friend standing in for the oven, arms square, he showed how I could move around it, shimmying sideways with tummy sucked in and thinking skinny thoughts.  "But... how do I open the door?"  His friend (a.k.a. "the oven") showed how even if I opened the door there might still be an inch or two to spare.  

"OR! We put door this way!"  He indicated opening it at an angle perpendicular to its current one.

"Toward the dishwasher?"  He nodded.  "But then how do I open the dishwasher?"

He looked at me for a moment, and I could actually see pity in his eyes for my feeble mind.  He sighed and mimed me cooking and putting something in the oven, then into the dishwasher.  "Only have one open at a time.  No need cook and wash dishes together."  Well, obviously. I was just saying tto make a point.

"What about my young children?  My baby?  Is it safe?  Oven is hot, and in the middle of the kitchen."  Here, finally, there was some more discussion, some reluctant shrugging, but he still maintained, "Safe.  Is safe."  

Matt was in Seoul for the day, and I couldn't get ahold of him. Everything in me was saying "No", but somehow, the strangest thing had happened.  I had started to think I was the one taking crazy pills for thinking it was dumb to put a working oven in the middle of my kitchen in front of the broken one.   And so it was that I found myself agreeing to a time early in the week to have the new oven installed.  

As soon as the men left, though, I came to and thought, Wait, what?!  Did I really just agree to that?  It was just like Jafar with the sultan in Aladdin. I'm pretty sure my eyes had gone swirly and everything.  I texted a couple of my close friends here, basically saying, "Does this sound completely ridiculous?!" and suggested maybe I didn't need an oven after all.

Both affirmed that the idea (not me) was completely whacked, and one suggested I get an air oven.  Have you seen these?  This actually seems like a great plan.  The other came back with the words, "Okay.  So obviously you COULD survive [without an oven].  You could eat sandwiches and stovetop meals and miserably dream of your oven churning out enchiladas and brownies and lasagna and cookies, etc.  Or you could embrace the absurdity of the working oven shoved in front of the broken one." Then she wrote, "This could be a great metaphor... definitely a future blog post!!!"

She was right on both accounts.  I mean, well... voila! Blog post!  And, I can think of at least a couple metaphors.

1) Sometimes in life, we pretend we are perfect, shoving things that look right in front of the messy and broken things, and even if it's ridiculous, we try to call it good.  And really, where does that get us?

2) Sometimes in life, we're presented with two options, and neither one is particularly good.  Then it's up to us, with prayers for serenity and grace, to make the most of one of them.  

But thankfully, after a series of texts to the property manager, he agreed! 
 That's right! I stood by my guns and insisted I wasn't completely crazy, and today I'm happy to report that there is a brand new working oven where the old, broken one was! (See picture at top of post) What I was told wasn't possible actually, somehow, became possible. 

Strrrrrrrrrranger than fiction!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Lost in Translation

The Far Side by Gary Larson(Image source: The Far Side by Gary Larson)

 The other day my phone rang.  It always makes my heart stop for a moment when this happens and my kids are at school, because my honestly my first reaction is, Oh no! Which of the kids is sick?! Or, What did my son do now

But once I've determined that either the school is calling me with something benign, like informing me I forgot to put 10,000 won ($10 or so) into the envelope for one kid's school pictures and could I please send the full amount? (um, yes, that just happened), or someone other than the school is calling, my heart resumes its regular rhythm and I answer confidently.  

This time, however, the man on the other end yelled.  He did not start his rant with the usual "Anyeonghaseo," as do most people, but he rattled off a string of rapid-fire Korean words.  

"I... ah... speak English?" I replied when he finally paused for breath. 

More yelling.  

"Sorry, no, I don't understand."  I hung up.  Two seconds later, the phone rang again and the man yelled some more.  I was truly scared.  Had I done something wrong without realizing it?  Entirely possible, but I couldn't think of anything! Was he some kind of hired kneebreaker and this was a case of mistaken identity?  I was glad it was my mobile phone and not a landline connected to my apartment.

I hung up again, and after his third call, I was actually shaking a little, so I texted Matt.  His office assistant called the man to ask if there was something wrong, and determined, finally, it was just a wrong number.

You'd think he might have caught on a little sooner?

Anyway.  Most of the time, with my conversations here in Korea, I'm rather astonished at how two individuals can speak totally different languages to each other, and still, at least to some level, communicate.  Buying vegetables, for instance, is amazingly easy.  I point to the vegetable and ask -- yes in English -- "How much?"  The produce vendor rattles something off in Korean and as I stand there with a blank look on my face, slowly racking my brain for the numbers I know, she holds up certain fingers and I then act like I knew that's what she was saying all along, present the money, and the transaction is made.  Piece of cake!

Other times, I think it should be easy -- like buying a subway card for my mom at the convenience store.  I bought my card and cards for my kids at convenience stores, but when I was in a hurry, of course, and went to buy my mom, the cashier and I ended up at impasse, with me shrugging and walking away, telling Mom I'd just buy it for her in the station.  

And Korean is not an easy language to learn.  I'm trying, but I don't know if my brain is getting old or it's just that hard.  At the Christmas party, I mildly bragged to one of the kids that I was learning Korean.  He speaks fairly good English, so he suggested I try out what I know.  I did, and he cocked his head to one side and said, "What?" several times before finally shaking his head and saying, "I'm sorry.  I don't understand."  Ugh, how embarrassing. 

So instead, I rely on:

1) The International Language of Smile, or ILS. I smile a lot anyway, anywhere, but I think it's especially useful outside my homeland.  Sometimes (okay, often) it's the I'm an Idiot Smile, a sheepish grin accompanied by a shrug that says, "Sorry, I just don't know better."  Or sometimes it's Pleading Smile, the showing-all-my-teeth slightly-desperate smile, accompanied by Praying Hands.  Or sometimes it's the Soulful Smile that I hope conveys all the warmth and goodwill in my heart.  Or sometimes it's the Don't Mess With This Smile, the plastered-on smile that should be read as, "I'm smiling, but it doesn't mean I'm happy.  Trust me, you do not want to push me over the edge. I'm thisclose to crazy mad."  

2) Charades.  Or miming.  I'm getting really good at this.  In fact, if Charades ever becomes an Olympic sport, I just might be a gold medal contender.

3) When Charades fails, I move on to interpretive dance.  Sometimes, when I know I'm going to have to communicate something particularly difficult, I just lead with this.  For instance, I took my car to get the oil changed.  I could not even imagine using Charades, so instead I began to choreograph an elaborate Interpretive Dance.  Not only was I asking for an oil change, I was taking in my only-one-in-Busan Odyssey, a Japanese car in the land of Hyundai and Kia.  My palms were sweating and my heart was pounding about my upcoming performance as I walked into the repair shop, so I decided -- against my better judgment -- to try English and The ILS.  "Oil Change?" I asked, with Pleading Smile.  "Honda Odyssey?  Is possible?"  To my utter relief and delight, the man replied, "Hone-dah?  Ode-dish-shay?  Okay."  I seriously almost kissed him.  However, I did end up paying $150 for it, because I think I agreed to some kind of tune-up package.  Matt wasn't thrilled, but as I pointed out, I'd gone in for an oil change and come out with an oil change -- did the price even matter???

Now, some of you tech-savvy types are probably reading this and thinking, Why not use Google Translate?

*Sigh.* I'll tell you why.  I don't trust it at all.  Yes, whenever I have a label or sign I need to read, I do try the app first.  At best, it's confusing.  At worst, it makes me think a tiny psychopath is living in my phone.  For instance, we bought one of my kids an alarm clock and were trying to set it up, but the instructions were only in Korean.  Our first try rendered the words, "..Kill the Killer 'Killer's Killer: Kill the Killer'".   
Well if that's not a little scary!  We tried again.  "And the ark. Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh."  
Nope.  Not particularly helpful.  I was dealing with an alarm clock, not a Bible story.

Other times it seems to have a bit of a dirty mind.   When I first arrived, I purchased some soy milk.  It was weird, though, because there was a picture of black beans as well, and it had an almost mauve color to it as well as a... different taste.  Not bad, per se, just different.  

Matt, itching to try Google Translate, scanned the label.  Most of the translation was gobbledegoop that didn't make sense, but there was also something about "twisted black beans", which I decided will be the name of my alternative rock band someday.  And then it said, "BlahblahblahTESTICLESblahblahblah."

Say WHAT?!?!  Of course, my dear husband found this uproariously funny.  I felt unsettled and not just a little queasy.  Whose "blahblahblahtesticles" was it talking about and what did they have to do with my soy milk?!  For better or worse, though, the more I got to know the app, the more common I found this kind of error.  One of my friends used it on a thermostat setting that translated to "Remove sex."  Yikes!  A scan of the ingredients in an orange-flavored vitamin drink I'd bought for the kids when they were sick translated to something about "your manhood".

So thank you very much, I will stick to my methods, however faulty they may be.  I've also started a new Korean course (this one) and will continue to annoy my Korean friends with tips for how to say... well, everything.  And maybe, hopefully, one of these days, I will not be quite so scared, queasy, confused, or lost in translation any more.