Saturday, November 28, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I'm updating at nearly 6 in the morning from a swank little cabin out in the Korean wilderness. Hope everyone at home had a good Turkey Day. This is how I'm spending mine:

Not quite the same as being at home, but an acceptable substitute.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Things I've Learned About Teaching EFL

  1. I am far too much of a pushover for my own good. Back at home, Tesia likes to call me "Dante," as a reference to the character from Kevin Smith's Clerks. I am really bad at being assertive. I guess the underlying reason for that is I hate for other people to feel bad or uncomfortable, especially because of me. Suppose it's because I've got that "extraverted Feeling" function going on, in terms of MBTI. Net result being that my classroom management is, well, awful. Classes where I've come down a bit harder on the rules might mean an increase in temporary discomfort from time to time, but overall a net decrease in frustration and chaos.
  2. Preemptive strikes work: I've started taking kids' cellphones away at the beginning of some classes, and the difference is palpable. Though the kids then all tell me that they're angry when I ask how they're doing, heh.
  3. Little kids love running around.
  4. Teachers may not have eyes in the back of their head, but the white board makes a great mirror.
  5. Just about any sentiment can be expressed in Engrishee if you slow down and use illustrations and hand gestures.
  6. Kids also love throwing stuff.
  7. South Korean kids in particular have a very casual attitude about death and dying. Strange in a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world. If a student is absent, the standard reason is "______ die. Go to sky." Another girl threatens suicide with her scissors or x-acto (yeah, they carry x-actos!) every time I deduct a point from her team. Kids pretend to shoot each other (and me) in the head regularly. One of my classes constantly asks me to play hangman. How I usually play hangman is with multiple words, for points instead of drawing the gallows and stick figure, etc. But this class couldn't give two shits about points. They proceed to guess every crap letter in the alphabet, in hopes of condemning some poor stick figure to die. I, on the other hand, try to pick words to outsmart them, with surprise Ys and Ws and Qs.
  8. If it's not working, stop doing it, but if it IS working, keep doing it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Phrases I Want to Teach My Kids

...but don't think I'll be able to:

  • "This the world's smallest violin playing 'My Heart Bleeds For You.'"
  • "You can't always get what you want."
  • "It's a hard knock life."
  • "What's up?"
  • "Cry me a river."
  • "Deal with it."

Okay, "what's up?" they could probably handle. But otherwise, probably not going to happen.

And I just realized how sarcastic most of this list is. Hah. Things I miss about lecturing kids in English...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Subway Lessons and Flesh-Eating Fishies

One of the great things about NaNo is that it brings people together. Especially useful when you are a stranger in a strange new land. Today was a write-in in the trendy district of Gangnam. Gangnam is a bit of a hike from the 'bu, as it's all the way south of the Han. I had a great teacher moment on the way there:

A mom and her two kids were standing on the train next to me, a daughter and a son. They were already really freaking adorable and had caught my eye as soon as I got on, but then I heard the girl use English with her mother.

"Shut the mouth," she said. "Shut the mouth!"

Only the "th" dipthong is tricky here, and invariably beginners and small children say "s." One of the bartenders at a place I frequent, for example, calls me "Kasserine" and finds the resemblance of the first syllable of my name to one of the major Korean domestic beer brands (Cass) hilarious, to say the least. So what the girl was saying sounded much more like "shut the mouse, shut the mouse." Since I was feeling particularly extroverted today, I knelt down to her level and smiled.

"Th, th," I said, demonstrating how you put your tongue on your teeth. "Mouth. Go on, try!"

The girl gave it a few tries but wouldn't form her tongue in quite the right way. She got bashful and gave up, but the boy gave it the old college try and eventually nailed it.

"Very good!" I smiled and gave him the thumbs-up.

"English teacher?" the mother asked.

"Nae," I answered. She looked pleased as punch with all of this. She nudged the girl and goads her in Korean to speak with me. The girl obliged and asked: "Where are you going?"

And I was kind of flabbergasted because she was a small kid and the students I have who are that small wouldn't know how to ask me that or understand what that meant. But I'm sure she learned in a rote memorization drill, like my students learn anything. I'm sure there's another hagwon teacher out there who's come across one of mine and is equally surprised at their mastery of the weird sort of colloquial phrase of "What do you do?" as far as asking about careers is concerned. But I digress.

"Gangnam," I said.

The mother smiled and repeated my answer in Korean to her kids, then prodded them into asking some more questions.

"What's your name?"

"Kat." (One dipthong lesson is enough for now.) "What's your name?"

And bless their hearts, they gave me answers in Korean, no bullshit "English" names. I remember how they sound but I can't even begin to know how to spell them. The boy's sounding something like "Char-Mi(n)" and the girl's was "Seung-hee."

"Very nice names," I said to both of them. Which is such a trite, silly thing to say, but I couldn't think of anything else, and if I didn't say anything the conversation would have an awkward ending.

"How old are you?"

"Guess!" I put a finer to my forehead and looked puzzled. The mother, who either interpreted my goofy body language faster than her children, or spoke a bit of English, explained to her children in Korean what I meant, because they started guessing numbers. The girl was older and guessed in English (after struggling to remember the numbers); the boy guessed in Korean.

"Eighteen?" the girl asked. I frowned and pointed up.

"Sam ship?" the boy asked.

I laughed and pointed down. "Thirty? Nooooo, younger."


"Twenty? No. Higher." I pointed up again.

"" the boy asked: "twenty four?" And while according to Korean thinking, I am, I don't think Koreans expect foreigners to use the same method of age-counting as they do. But maybe they do?

"Ee-ship sam," I said. Twenty-three. They nodded.

Then it was time for their stop, and their mother hustled them off, smiling.

"Bye-bye!" they called to me, after more prompting from their mother.


That was the cutest thing that's ever happened to me on the subway, and perhaps ever will.

So I arrived in Gangnam in a good mood. After I bolstered my wordcount and met some other foreigners living and working in Seoul, we treated ourselves to Doctor Fish.

This is where the "Flesh-Eating Fishies" part of the title comes in.

Doctor Fish are a species of fish officially called "Reddish Log Suckers." Given the right circumstances (which seem to be basically no other food), they will nibble off dead skin. They originated in Turkey, but "fish spas" have opened all over the world; there's even a clinic in Virginia. The idea is you sit with your nasty calloused feet in the water, the fish have their way with your feet, and then after twenty minutes or half an hour or so, your feet are baby soft, baby smooth.

I loathe wearing shoes. In the warm weather I rock sandals as much as possible, and every month of the year I walk around barefoot indoors. So my feet are pretty disgusting, really—as my poor boyfriend can attest to, having offered me foot massages in the past.

Word-warring finished, me and three other women who showed up for the write-in paid an extra two thousand won for the privilege of letting our feet be the main course for a tank full of fish.

I left my camera at home so these aren't my feet...but you get the picture.

It tickled like all get out. Even after you got used to it, once in a while a fish would nibble on a really weird, really sensitive spot and you had to work really hard not to laugh. They also had a tendency to gravitate towards one of the five billion mosquito bites on my feet and ankles and chew off the scabs (ewww!). But when our time was up and I pulled my feet out of the water, they were surprisingly soft and smooth. My heels were still a bit of a wreck, and probably will be worse after I spend the next few hours barefoot in my apartment, but the little suckers had done a pretty good job on everything else. I figure, if I keep going on a semi-regular basis, by the time I leave Korea I'll have gorgeous feet.

K-Movies Part the Third: Park Chan-Wook

I haven't had one of these posts in a while. Or any posts—National Novel-Writing Month has taken over my life. But I'm taking a bit of a break from writing about zombies to talk about movies.

If there were one iconic, go-to director in the world of South Korean movies, it would probably be 박찬욱: Park Chan-Wook. Oldboy, the second installment in his so-called "vengeance trilogy," is invariably the one Korean movie people know about, if they know about any. (Or, well, that or My Sassy Girl. But I kind of hate My Sassy Girl so Oldboy it is.)

Unlike the other movies I've recommended so far, Park Chan-Wook's ouevre tends to be deeply disturbing, bloody, and not a little bit uncomfortable. This is stuff that will be painful to watch, at times—whether because of the story or what's on the screen. But it will be so, so worth it.

The Vengeance Trilogy

The "vengeance trilogy" consists of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (literally: Revenge is Mine), Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (literally: Kind-hearted Ms. Geum-ja). There's no common character or story element connecting them together, except that they all are stories of revenge and vengeance.

Mr. Vengeance tells the story of Ryu, deaf-mute, blue-haired factory worker working desperately to save up money for a kidney transplant for his sister (being unable to donate his own). After some missteps and losing his job at the factory, Ryu and his extremist revolutionary girlfriend come up with a plan to kidnap the daughter of one of the higher-ups at the factory and ransom her to cover the expenses of the surgery. Things escalate from there.

Oldboy needs no introduction. Based on a Japanese manga of the same name, this is probably the one Korean movie most people have seen.

Lady Vengeance is the only one of the trilogy I haven't seen, but it's high on my SK movies to watch list. The Wikipedia synopsis sounds pretty cool: "[Lady Vengeance] stars Lee Young Ae as Lee Geum-ja, a woman released from prison after serving the sentence for a murder she did not commit. The film tells her story of revenge against the real murderer."

There are two version of Lady Vengeance, actually: one that stays full color throughout the film, and one that fades to black and white. Pretty neat trick; makes me want to see it even more.

(Almost) Everything Else

JSA: A whodunnit about a shooting at the Joint Security Area in the DMZ. President Roh actually gave a copy of this movie to Kim Jung-Il during one of his visits to North Korea.

Thirst: Vampire Catholic priest. Need I say more? This one actually got a decent release in the US thanks to the recent vampire phenomenon: one of two good things to happen because of Twilight. (The other good thing is the Twilight RiffTrax.)

I'm A Cyborg, But That's Okay: A romantic comedy (of all things), Cyborg is the story of the relationship between two patients in a mental hospital: Cha Young-Goon, who thinks she's a cyborg, and Park Il-Sun, institutionalized for schizophrenia and anti-social behavior. Park Il-Sun is played by K-Pop sensation Rain, who actually made it to the top of TIME Magazine's "100 Most Influential People of the Year" of 2007, beating out Stephen Colbert. I don't understand that—is K-pop really that big back home?—but so it goes.

I'll leave you with a few trailers so you can see for yourself. They all have English subtitles, so no worries about language.

Oldboy trailer

Lady Vengeance trailer

JSA trailer

Cyborg trailer

Thirst trailer

Friday, November 13, 2009

Student Profile: Kyle

Kyle is probably one of my favorites. He's a short, baby-faced third-grader. Mina doesn't like him as much—he can be kind of an arrogant little punk—but his arrogance is lost on me. It's one of the things that the Engrishee filters out.

Kyle is smart, first of all. He's at the top of his class and so he's the easiest for me to talk to out of all of the other students. Second, he also tries to have conversations with me, or at least responds to my attempts to initiate conversations with him. He seems curious about America, too, and sometimes asks questions about how we do things. Kyle also can be pretty funny, and is really expressive in terms of personality. No dead-panned, stony-faced Korean is he. Beyond that, he's just really adorable.

Last week, when I went to class after the Phils gave up game 6, the first thing he said to me was: "Philadelphia LOSE! New York Yankees champions!" It was hard to tell if the glee with which he informed me of the news was a bit of malicious schadenfreude, or just enthusiasm about being able to talk to me about baseball. Probably both.

"I know! Very sad." I mimed crying.

"You, me, same," he offered by way of comforting. "SK Wyverns"—out came a fist—"Kia Tigers"—another fist—"go go go go go" and with each go he punched a fist successively higher, to indicate their rise to the top—"SK Wyverns lose"—he dropped the SK Wyverns fist—"my sad. Same."

Kyle can be a bit fussy, though. He has a strong sense of justice and fairness, and if he thinks I don't call on him enough, or that the other team is cheating at games, he gets pretty vocal about it.

It's just nice to have a student who's not entirely burned out on work and life as a student in South Korea. Any older than third or fourth graders and they start being miserable and tired and can't be arsed to do anything at all related to English—even if I ignore the textbook and try to talk to them about other stuff I'm interested in. (Case in point: I tried to ask my students today about Friday the 13th and bad luck and superstitions in Korea, and they either looked at me blankly or gave half-assed answers.) It's kind of a tragedy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

빼빼로 day 2, Electric Boogaloo


Not really, but holy God, today I received more 빼빼로 than I could possibly eat in one sitting. I also shared some with my students but now I'm wired and will never, ever sleep.

In my last two classes, I tried to explain that today is a much more serious day at home. My sixth grade class couldn't care less; my fifth grade class was astonished.

"No 빼빼로?!" they cried incredulously.
"Nope. We don't eat 빼빼로 in America [minus the people who buy Pocky from Suncoast Video]. There is no 빼빼로 day."
"America, black day?"
"No, no Black Day."
"No White Day?"
And since White Day is 3/14, I tried to explain Pi Day to them, but nothing doing. "No, no White Day," I finished lamely.
There was a growing amount of concern on the girls' faces. "Valentine's Day?!"
"Yes, yes, we have Valentine's Day."
"Phew!" They looked relieved. "What day Valentine's Day?"
"Same as in Korea."
"Ah, okay."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Because I should be working on my project for NaNo, I'm updating here. Makes perfect sense!

Tomorrow (November 11th) is Veterans Day. Many places in America will observe the holiday with reduced business hours, a moment of silence, or a sale. Places in Canada, the UK, Australia, and so on will also no doubt practice similar customs.

In Korea, people celebrate by giving each other Pocky knock-offs.

"Peppero" is a product of the Korean megacorporation "Lotte." They deny instigating the holiday, but frankly, I call shenanigans.

The idea behind Peppero Day is that you give peppero candy to your spouse, friends, teachers, boy/girlfriend, etc. Why November eleventh? Because the written date (11/11) looks like a bunch of Peppero sticks. Some people buy them, some people make their own.

Peppero day has quickly become another romance-oriented "Hallmark holiday." Bakeries and convenience stores all have temporary Peppero displays, and some brands have special "Peppero Day" packaging with hearts, ribbons, and frills printed on them. That makes not one, not two, but three couples' days in the calendar year in Korea: Valentine's Day (February 14th), White Day (March 14th) and Peppero Day (November 11th).

I got two boxes of pepperos today from students I won't have tomorrow; with any luck some more will share their leftovers with me on Thursday. But my classes tomorrow are my crappier, less affectionate classes (by and large), so I don't expect anything from them.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Check In

NaNoWriMo has taken over my life, so I've been a bit absent when it comes to keeping in touch with you guys. HEEEEEEY YOOOOOOOU GUYS /goonies reference And no, my novel isn't about Korea. Maybe it will be in 2010.

The other bit of that is that my life here has been rather uneventful. I did see Inglourious Basterds—finally—and next on the list is District 9 and Where the Wild Things Are.

For lack of anything else, I'm leaving myself a list here of songs I need to find and sing in a noraebong if at all possible. Hopefully consciously compiling it while sober will make it easier for me to remember while drunk:

  1. Doesn't Remind Me (Audioslave)
  2. Me & Bobby McGee (Janis Joplin) (I saw this one in a songbook last night! But it wasn't my turn to pick and then we ran out of time.)
  3. Digsy's Dinner (Oasis)
  4. Allentown (Billy Joel)
  5. Eight Easy Steps (Alanis Morisette)
  6. Total Eclipse of the Heart (Bonnie Tyler)
  7. I Would Do Anything For Love (Meatloaf)
  8. I Don't Feel Like Dancing (The Scissor Sisters)

List to be edited as I think of things.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Give me candy!

First of all, happy November everyone. Second of all, I'm trying not to think about the fact that the Phillies are 1 and 2 in the series right now.

English education is very America-centric in Korea. The children learn American spellings, American vocabulary, American pronunciation. They also get a small smattering of American holidays, especially the ones that translate fairly easily into Korean culture (Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, for example, don't really have a place here). Friday my hagwon unofficially observed Halloween with management-sanctioned snack parties and completely irrelevant activities/arts and crafts. Me and the kids were bugged out on candy all day. Which worked out well for me because I then went to the 11.30 PM showing of Inlgourious Basterds and generally stayed out far too late.

We handed out candy as part of the festivities. Mina got the idea to send the smaller of our classes "trick-or-treating" on our floor. Which was cute with the smaller children, then quickly degenerated into madness, especially with the older ones (I had one of my best, brightest, and most well-behaved sixth grade students absolutely manhandle me for some extra candy, holy God!).

Halloween isn't particularly big here. I think some neighborhoods/apartment complexes do the trick-or-treating thing, but otherwise Halloween is a non-event. So students didn't really get the social nuances of "trick-or-treat." Like: You don't say "Give me candy!". Not even "Give me candy, please!". Like: you don't go trick-or-treating at your own house. Like: you don't go to a house (or classroom) more than once. Or like: you receive the candy as a gesture of some amount of kindness and goodwill on the part of the trick-or-treatee, and that no one is obligated to give you anything just because you said "trick-or-treat."

I don't really suffer from homesickness all that badly. But seeing absolutely no no decorations, no one in broke my heart, a little bit. And the same must have been true for other foreigners as well, because Breda (mayor of Uijeongbu!) put together a massive Halloween shindig. More foreigners than I would have ever expected in one place this far from Seoul, with balloons and candy and COSTUMES!

I love Halloween because of the costumes. I guess that makes me pretty Caucasian according Christian Lander but I don't care. Halloween costumes are fun. They're a chance to be creative and clever and cool and all sorts of other words that begin with "C." A brief history of some of my favorite Halloween costumes in recent years:

  • Blue Screen of Death
  • Silent Bob
  • Link
  • Velma
  • Harpo Marx
  • Janis Joplin

This year I was coked-out Uma Thurman from Pulp Fiction (which ties into the Tarantino movie I saw Friday night: it all comes together!). I should have gotten a haircut to spruce up my bob a bit, but I give myself incredible clever points for my use of gochujang as fake blood.

And Maddie as Betty Draper from Mad Men.

There were some choice costumes at the party, since coming out of costume was out of the question. There was a coked-out Billy Mays, a Korean comedian, a "rock/scissors/paper" trio, the Unabomber (in poor taste? perhaps), as well as my fellow Minlak-dongers.

If only Halloween and costume parties had the same international selling power as McDonald's.