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.


  1. very, very cool .... and the kasserine thing reminds me of John-boy, no?

  2. that was more like Kaferine