Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last Entry of 2009

Happy New Year! I'm going to spend mine watching Sherlock Holmes and either jjimjilbanging or sleeping. No Chinese take-out for me.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pretend This Title is a Pun on "Seoul" and "Friends"

My good buddy Bov, the one who I visited in Indonesia, had a tremendous layover in Seoul on his way back to Indoland recently, and so naturally I did my best to show him the Seoul of Asia.

His flight got in at 6 pm yesterday evening, while I was still at Sherlock Academy. As soon as my last class finished, I booked it home, threw some stuff in a bag and—since I had just barely missed the last airport "limousine"—put down an ungodly amount of money on a cab to the airport.

We met, hugged, and then got out of the airport as fast as we could to get to Seodaemun. I figured Chris would have enough time in Seoul to eat, see one of the palaces, do one or two other things, and then leave, so that's more or less what we did. By the time we rolled into Seodaemun, it was probably about eleven, eleven-thirty. We grabbed a quick dinner at Gim Bap Heaven and wandered around the area a bit, trying to find a jjimjilbang. None to be found, sadly, and I have no Naver-fu to speak of, so we ended up staying at "Theme Hotel," a tremendously sketchy-looking love motel right across the street from Seodaemun station. God bless you, Seoul, and your abundance of cheap overnight housing.

This morning, we woke up at 7.30, got our stuff together, and headed out to see the city by day. A quick breakfast at Paris Baguette (where we bought some snazzy hats), and we were ready to tackle Gyeonguigung, one of the palaces in Seoul.

It wasn't all that much to speak of, aside from beautiful Joseon-era architecture and beautiful artwork. I was expecting more things; as it was, just one room was "set up" with any sort of historical context or informational bits. But hey, I'm not going to complain: pretty architecture is still pretty architecture.

The front gate to Gyeonghuigung.

Not sure what these guys are, or what they're doing, but they were all over.

Art detail.

Here there be dragons, where "here" = "the ceiling".

After we traipsed about the palace for a while, we went to a nearby history museum, which was easily the cheapest museum ticket I've ever purchased (or will purchase again), minus the free admission to the Chicago Art Institute in February: seven hundred won. Less than one dollar.

Hordes of small Korean children were also there, so we had to step over them, but in our short time (~45 minutes, an hour maybe) we managed to ogle a few neat historical Korean artifacts. A woman there informed us that there was an English audio tour available, which probably would have been tremendously helpful and informative, but alas we didn't have time to do much more than look around. Chris commented on similarities to Japanese culture; I shrugged and joked that Japan cribbed everything they have from China and Korea, they're just better marketers.

Woman's hanbuk

The lighting was too dim to really get any good pictures so hopefully Chris got some that turned out better than mine.

There was a decent art gallery as well, with a lot of old-school calligraphy and pastel water color type stuff, the stereotypical but nonetheless beautiful East Asian nature paintings:

And some very vividly-colored prints on screens, as well.

But soon it was time for me to roll on back to Uijeongbu, and for Chris to get back to the airport so as to make it to Jakarta in a timely manner (having already been delayed by about a day). As a parting gift, I bought him something very typically Korean: street food, to the tune of tteokbokki. A bit pricier than we do here in the 'dong, but still good.

We still didn't get to do everything I would have liked to do—no sam gyeop sal, no jjimjilbang, no soju—but enough that I would consider his time here sufficiently Korean—love motel, palace, Gim Bap Heaven, street food. Certainly a a fair sampling of the Land of the Morning Calm.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Luxury Jjimjilbang and Muk-Chi-Ba

By this point in my tenure here in Korea, I am no stranger to jjimjilbangs, though I will admit I got off to a late start.

Jjimjilbangs are public bathhouses/saunas, with a (clothed) co-ed hangout room. They're great to go and relax for a while. They're also handy if you've been out in Seoul past midnight, but you're too broke to hire a cab and too tired to party until 5 am, because you can just cough up seven thousand won and boom: a locker for your valuables, a hot shower, and a place to spend the night.

The one I've been to before, near Sejong University, is nice enough, small and basic. The one closest to me up here in Minlak-dong, however, is like...MEGA ULTRA SUPER LUXURY JJIMJILBANG. Or at least in comparison it is.

Either place you do the same thing: strip down, shower off, jump into the hot tub/cold tub for a while, and hop into your jjimjil clothes to head up to the co-ed part. There's a TV and a sauna, usually, as well as complimentary mats and pillows (for people staying the night).

The one here is part of a chain—Waterpia—and it's pretty swank. In addition to the saunas and TV, there's also a small gym, a "snack corner," a pool, massage chairs (1,500 won for fifteen minutes? Yes, please!), and other assorted goodies. And, of course, ondol heating in the floors.

This was my first time going with another foreign girl in tow, so the nudity was a bit more personal than it normally is, but when everyone else is buck naked it's no big thing. We lobstered out in the hot tubs, then went upstairs to the coed part to meet our male partner-in-crime.

A couple of small Korean boys seemed absolutely fascinated with us. They ran by us multiple times, giggling, occasionally managing a "hello." Kids are cuter when you're not teaching them.

"Come here," I waved them over. "Come on, muk-chi-ba!"

The younger of the two looked confused, but his older brother caught on pretty quickly. I schooled the other one and the younger one both the first time around, after which they giggled and ran off. A few minutes later they came back for round two. Their noona was with them too—they tried to get her to play me but she shook her head. I schooled the younger one, but the older one beat me. I held out my forearm and he dutifully raised two fingers, blew on them, and brought them down as fast as he could. He couldn't have been more than six or seven, so it wasn't much, but I exaggerated for comic relief.

"Ow!" I cried, grabbing my arm. "Ow! Wow, what muscles! Strong!"

The only bummer about going to a jjimjilbang on a Sunday night is having to work on Monday.

Better Late Than Never

I spoke too soon about not having a White Christmas here in Korea!

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Merry belated Christmas to loved ones, near and far!

I worked Christmas Eve, but had Christmas off. To celebrate, I went out for dinner with the Minlak-dong foreigner community and then out for drinks. Unfortunately, something I ate or drank put me out of commission and I crawled into bed at about 2 am, feeling quite ill. It mostly passed by noon on Christmas day (though I still refrained from eating anything, just in case) and now I feel normal again.

Anyway, not to pity party about my Christmas. It was a good one, and I got some nice presents—mittens, nail polish, chocolates. I've finished presents for coworkers as well, and word on the street is that my Christmas packages made it home. "Everything's coming up Milhouse!"

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Student Profile: Luke

Luke is one of what I affectionately refer to as "my big stupids." He started at Sherlock in the fifth grade, at the lowest possible level, so his English is pretty limited.

He's kind of a portly kid, and very funny in his own little way. He's always very respectful of teacher and always has been, even when the other kids in his class could be jerks. He's also pretty sedate. Even when he gets distracted, as ten-year-olds do, he never gets hyperactive, which is something I can both relate to and appreciate. The first time I sat in and observed the class (back when I was training, and Michael was still teaching the class), he seemed utterly confused by my presence. He asked Michael what a foreigner was doing here.

"She's your teacher," he explained, and Luke looked at me askance.

Great, I thought, I guess I'm in for a treat with this one.

But no, as it turned out, I wasn't. Or I was, but as in, an actual treat. According to Mina, Luke really likes cooking. Early on in my contract she said he might bring in food for us, but that's never materialized.

I can't explain what it is that's so funny about's just his mannerisms and the way he talks. He gets very caught up in things, very serious about them. "Wait a minute, teacher, wait a minute," and you can see the gears in his head turning as he tries to think of an answer in a game. For a little boy he's already got a pretty deep voice, which I guess is part of what is so funny about him. He's kind of like an old man in a 10-year-old's body.

I named him after my friend Luke from Hamilton, who himself was named after Cool Hand Luke. So now there's a child in Korea with an English name that derives, partially, from Cool Hand Luke. Paul Newman lives on.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

I Know My Redeemer Liveth

Last night I went to Seoul City Hall to see a Korean-foreigner co-production of Handel's Messiah. I've become to accustomed seeing Trans-Siberian Orchestra at Christmas, so I figured I needed some kind of holiday spectacle. Plus I have been binging on classical lately, anyway—Mozart's Requiem has been on repeat in this apartment the last few days.

The Camarata Chorale is an amateur group (with professionals in their midst, so I guess the best description would be a "professional amateur group") that just started here in Seoul; Messiah was actually their first performance. They sang the entire thing and did a pretty good job of it. Bits of the orchestra were rough around the edges but a better job than I could have done, so I'm certainly not going to be a snob about it. The Korean tenor and the Korean mezzo-soprano were outstanding, as well—well, all of the soloists were, but they were my favorites, with a bit more power to their voices. The conductor was a bit distracting, he had this strange stiff-but-also-fluid way of moving. Like pop-locking, almost.

Chung-dong First Methodist hosted the concert. Check out those pipes—definitely a notch or two above the small rural churches I've been to at home.

The entire chorale, the image quality blows because it's a photo of the live video feed. But it's enough to give you an impression of the size of the group.

The soprano and the mezzo-soprano during a solo, towards the end of the concert. I neglected to get a picture of the male soloists. Oops.

It was probably the largest collection of foreigners in one place I've seen outside of Itaewon. The English-speaking pastor at Chung-Dong spoke during intermission and commented that the Koreans felt like the foreigners here tonight. Which reminded me why I sometimes want to punch the other foreigners here in the face: the group of Engrishee teachers next to me were all on their way to an ugly sweater party (Stuff White People Like #118, and one that I didn't know existed until I started reading the SWPL blog), the appeal of which I just can't understand because it smacks of the hipster irony that's become so trendy lately. Korea may have issues with misogyny and racism, but at least their young people aren't rampantly ironic.

It also baffled me that almost every foreigner I overheard on my way out the door was talking about going to drink at this or that party. A few mentioned Itaewon, even—Wolfhound, which is a nice enough pseudo-Irish pub but I fail to see the point of coming all the way to Korea to drink at a Western bar. The performance ended at about 10 pm. I had left the 'dong at about 5 to get here; I was simply too exhausted to do the usual "foreigner Saturday night." But I suppose most of them hadn't come all the way from North Korea, as it were.

Anyway, City Hall and the nearby area was also decked out for Christmas. Behold the tree:

and the Christmas lights at the Seoul Museum of Art, which is right next to the church (and where I see myself going before I leave, looks like they have a pretty neat pop art exhibition at the moment):

Yes, no snow to speak of—it certainly comes down (maybe three or four times already) but it doesn't seem to stick. Not even out here in the 'dong. White Christmas? Not very likely.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Big Deals

First of all, two of my coworkers wrote about a totally rockin' birthday party they went to over the weekend (I had already made a pirogi date and opted out), that there is some good culture reading.

But 'tis the season and all of that. In addition to doljanchis, we've got Christmas coming up. It's hard to believe that it's been a whole year since I put the wheels in motion to even come to Korea to begin with. Crazy, huh?

To make a long story short, Christmas is not a big deal here. And while Jesus Christ is pretty popular with Korean moms, he only enjoys a 25% mindshare with Korea at large. Buddha gives him a run for his money (also at about 25%), and the Siddhartha/Yeshua tag-team can barely contend with the remaining apathetic/agnostic 50%. You see signs for Buddhist temples just as often as you see tacky neon crosses. So their respective birthdays get equal amounts of attention.

"Christmas shopping" is just not a thing, here. Neither, then, is Christmas gift-giving. A weird shift in attitude from wondering what to get just about everyone and their brother for Christmas. I made some purchases for Koreans before I knew this—oops—but that's all right. I love gift-giving and finding the perfect gift for people, so Christmas shopping doesn't really stress me out. It's actually a little bit depressing to see it relegated to children and couples...though maybe that makes the gift-giving less commercial and more "from the heart."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Student Profile: Gina

I no longer have Gina as a student. The Korean school year (at least for this hagwon) ended on Friday; on Monday all the students will have advanced one grade. As a sixth grader, Gina has graduated from Sherlock Academy and moved on to its sister school, Watson Academy. She is probably the only sixth grader I will miss.

At first she didn't really participate in class. She sat towards the back of the room with her friend Sophia, and neither of them would really participate in class activities. It was frustrating. But then Sophia quit, and Gina became friends with another girl named Jenna, and started participating in class more. By the last three months or so, she would smile at me and say hello whereas before she would barely say a word.

She's freaking adorable and will grow into a pretty cute Korean woman some day. She has a great smile that just makes me want to smile, too. Especially when she's making a joke. She's also ridiculously smart. Even though in class exercises she always writes that English is the most difficult subject at school, or that she can't speak English well, she's really the best student in her class and probably that I have. Or had. Mina showed me her across-the-board placement test scores and they were all in the 90s. (Except English, she got in the 70s, but bear in mind that she was one of my "big stupids" and never got beyond the first level of textbooks.)

Gina has tiny, meticulous handwriting that's neater than mine. When she was taking her last "final exam" at Sherlock academy, I was the one administering it, and every second or third answer she would erase and re-write in slightly smaller, slightly neater letters. She ended up getting a 99%, by the way—the highest grade I've ever seen on any "final exam." She wrote "715" instead of "750," that was her only mistake.

She has a great sense of humor, too. One of the units was about "Do you have any ____s?" I went around and asked people if they had a bunch of things: brothers, sisters, cars, arms, tigers. Basically to make sure that they would definitely have at least one and definitely NOT have at least one, to get used to "I have two ___s." and "I don't have any ___." When I asked Gina if she had any tigers, she grinned and said, "Yes, I have three." Or another assignment, they had to write about their best friend: where they were from, what they were like, their hobbies, etc. She wrote about the aforementioned Jenna, who by that time had quit: "Jenna is from India."

"What! Jenna's not from India!"

Again with the smile: "Yes she is! Jenna, India person!"

I don't know how long Gina will continue with English. I don't know if she likes it, even if she is good at it—she seems to be a girl who's smart in pretty much everything. She likes art the best and, based on her doodles, draws pretty well. That's probably why her handwriting is so neat and distinctive, too. Hopefully by the time she's an adult, feminism will have caught on a bit more so she won't feel like she has to marry and have babies to amount to anything. She has too much potential to get hung up on that.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Open Letter to Foreigners Teaching English in Korea,

Congratulations on accepting your new post, be it at a hagwon or public school or corporate training center or whatever else. Before you jet-set all the way over here, consider this list of items to bear in mind:

  1. You are a foreigner in a foreign country. Remember this. The same rules do not always apply. Things will be inconvenient for you at times; you will not be able to do some things as easily (or even at all). It's not because you're a foreigner, it's because you're not a citizen. There's a subtle difference. Bitching about racism in Korea has its time and place, but not because you don't always get your way all of the time.
  2. Learn to read Hangul before you get here. Your life will be that much easier.
  3. If you're feeling really ambitious, you can even learn some token phrases and keywords so you're not entirely screwed on your own. Numbers, too. I'd rather a clerk assume that I understand Korean numbers (correct assumption) and give me an accurate price than try to muddle through English and tell me fifteen thousand won instead of fifty thousand. Every bumbling foreigner he encounters just further reinforces the stereotype that we are fat hairy numbnuts without two braincells to rub together.
  4. Go places besides Itaewon.
  5. Give Korean food half a chance.

If you keep these suggestions at the front of your mind, your time (and mine!) in Korea will be a lot easier.

Katherine 코바

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What's doing at the hagwon.

Since I haven't talked about my actual job here in a while, I'll take a moment to get everyone up to speed.

The end of the school year is fast approaching; winter break begins December 14th or so. Now, that doesn't mean any time off for hagwons, of course—a hagwon's work is never done—but public schools have off (if I recall correctly). What that does mean, however, is that my sixth grade students "graduate" from Sherlock Academy and move up to the companion hagwon, Watson Academy. No more English classes with foreigners; now their classes are all with the Korean teachers of the sister school with whom we have little to no interaction. Some of them speak and teach English—I actually give them "conversation classes"—some of them do not. Schedules also get rotated around, students change classes and teachers...things get reset. Of course some of my classes stay the same, which is both good and bad. But even in the case of the bad, I now have less than three months left here. Three months! The light at the end of the tunnel approaches, for good or ill.

One of my classes, my students unanimously decided to abandon their English names. There are no words for how much that thrills me; while I understand that for us foreigners English names make life a lot easier, it smacks a bit of cultural imperialism. It's a small class, and committing everyone's names to memory took all of about one minute: Su-ji, Min-ji, Ji-hyun, Gun-hee, Joon-ho. The only one who didn't change his name—Isaac—has a Korean-ized version of an English name to begin with and just uses the English version of his real name since they're pretty close.

Mrs. Kim has also been coming down pretty hard on the Koreans lately. Apparently the Sherlock Academy kids didn't do so hot on their English placement exams for Watson Academy. Even though the scores are an improvement over last year's,(for the most part, one of my girls got like, 12%, but she's an insipid ditz who's more interested in Mean Girl shenanigans than academic pursuits) overall they were not spectacular. Mrs. Kim called them into a meeting to bring down the hammer and insist that they push the kids harder and challenge them more...never mind that probably about four or five months ago she sent out a memo saying that they should make classes fun and not too stressful so that kids won't want to quit.

Hagwon owners are not really the best school administrators. It's all about keeping warm bodies in the seats, about the bottom line—about the Benjamins, as it were. Or in the case of Korea, the Shin Saimdongs.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Forget Harvey Dent....

...I believe in Korean cab drivers.

Taxis are a different experience here in Korea, maybe even all of Asia (based on what Bov's told me about cabs in Indonesia). In one year I've taken more taxis than I have in my entire life. It's hard not to, though. They're so convenient and cheap.

Most of them are equipped with GPS devices and/or little portable televisions on the dashboard, in addition to their cellphone in a nearby cup holder. To say that they are aggressive drivers is a bit of an understatement, but I always feel perfectly safe in a Korean cab.

Sometimes you run into one who speaks English, and they try to strike up a conversation with you. Most of the time it goes something like this:

"English teacher?"

And that's about it. My cab driver last night was a bit more expressive. After I told him Uijeongbu station, he asked me, "Seoul?"

Panic! I didn't want to pay cab fare all the way to Seoul from Uijeongbu. Sometimes you run into a cabbie going back to Seoul from up here and they won't pick you up if you're not going that way.

"Eh? No, no. Uijeongbu Station."
"You take subway to Seoul?"
"Oh. Yes."
"Ew! No, no, no." I shook my head vigorously. The fact that he assumed that a white person going to Seoul must be going to Itaewon was pretty amusing, however.
"Seoul where?"
"Ah, Korea University! Are you a student?"
"No, I'm an English teacher."
"English teacher where?"
"Uh, Minlak-dong," I said, taken aback that he would ask about my hagwon.
"Where Minlak-dong?"
I told him the name of my hagwon and he laughed. I have no idea if it meant anything to him or not.
"You make a lot of money?"
"Eh." I waved my hand to indicate a middling amount. He laughed again. I think Koreans laugh when they can't think of anything else to say in a conversation.
"You from Canada?"
"Ah, America." Pause. "To me, America people, Canada people—same. You think?"
"Very similar," I said. Apologies to all my Canadian friends! "America, Canada...very similar. Same same."
Another laugh, and then we drove a bit in silence. As we turned on the main stretch of road that led to Uijeongbu station, he said, "I think you are 24, 25. How old are you?"
"In Korea, 24. In America, 23."
"Ah." He nodded and seemed pretty pleased with himself for getting it so close. "Are you married?"
I cringed. This wasn't the first time a cabbie had asked me if I was married. That had been another cab ride to Uijeongbu Station to get to Anam, and after the cab driver had told me I was "very beautiful." But this fellow seemed a bit less sketchy.
"No, no. I'm not."
And that was the end of our conversation for a while. Then his cellphone rang, and from the voice and the word "father" I figured it was a kid—son or daughter, I couldn't tell. They had a quick conversation, then my driver hung up.
"My son!" he informed me with glee. He told me his name but I can't remember it. "Five years old. My first son."
"Your oldest son? What about daughters? How many children do you have?"
"Two daughters, one son. First daughter, 22. Second daughter, 20. Son, 5." And he laughed.
Wow, I thought. Can we say, "second wife"?
"Are you first child?"
"Yes, yes. I'm the oldest," I replied. "I have one younger brother."
"My age, 51. How old is your father?"
"Uh." And sorry Dad, I can never remember off the top of my head how old you are; I always have to count back from the year you were born. The driver noticed my pause and laughed.
"You don't know?" he asked, in Korean.
"No, I know! He is 51, too."
By now we were at the station. "Right here is okay," I pointed out the window. I paid my fare and jumped out.
"Thank you! Good-bye!"

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.

Friday, October 30, 2009

South Korea OST

Songs that I would put on a CD to sum up my experience in South Korea. In no particular order:

1. It's Five O'Clock Somewhere (Allan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett)
2. To The Left (Beyonce) [The joke being that Koreans default to passing people on the left when they walk, despite driving on the right. The government actually just launched a "pass on the right" campaign. I'll post pictures of the signs sometime.]
3. Alcohol (BNL)
4. Take This Job And Shove It (Johnny Paycheck)
5. Just Dance (Lady Gaga)
6. Changeless (Carbon Leaf)
7. So Far Away (Carole King)
8. Ana Ng (TMBG)
9. Carpe Diem Baby (Metallica)
10. Suicide is Painless (the theme from M.A.S.H.) (preferably the version by The Ventures)
11. Take Me Home, Country Roads (John Denver)
12. I Got A Feeling (Black Eyed Peas)
13. Fight For Your Right to Party (Beastie Boys)
14. It's A Hard Knock Life (the original from Annie, not the "Ghetto Anthem" Jay-Z remix)
15. Who Needs Sleep? (BNL) (Korean students probably get about 4 - 5 hours of sleep a night on average; it's not unusual to see some of them doze off in class.)

Also more songs that would go on the album I would ideally write and record about being an Engrishee teacher:

Gimbap (to the tune of "Mmmbop")
One Night in Hongdae (ref. "One Night in Bangkok")
Seoul Man

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Take me out to the ball game...

I like to talk about baseball with my students. My preferences in American baseball are a bit more accessible to them than they might be otherwise, since one of their own superstars pitches for the Phillies. Apparently Maddie ran into a cab driver who wanted to talk to her about the World Series when he found out that she hailed from Colorado, whose team we had knocked out earlier in the playoffs.

"World Series!" I cried in one of my classes, It's a small class, only five students, and one of them is a baseball nut. His name is Kyle. "Phillies and Yankees!"

"No no no," he said. "SK Wyverns and [some other team, I can't remember]."

"America," I said. "American championship game: my Phillies and Yankees."

"Teacher, who champions now?"

"2008 champions, Phillies. 2009? Game right now."

"Ah," he nodded. "Yankees win, teacher Yankees fan?"

"No way!" I made a face. "Teacher hates the Yankees. Teacher Phillies fan...forever." I made a big gesture with my arms.

A look of understanding crossed Kyle's face. "Ahhh. My SK Wyverns fan...forever." He repeated the gesture.

I've come to the conclusion that the SK Wyverns are the Korean equivalent of the Yankees: a giant powerhouse of a team with lots of money to buy lots of talent for lots of championships. I mentioned this to Jong-min and he agreed.

"So what would be the equivalent of the Phillies, then?" I asked while I was out with him and another friend on Thursday. "Not as much money, not many championships, more working-class city, really dedicated and passionate fans."

They both had an answer for me immediately. "Busan Lotte Giants," they laughed. "Definitely the Giants."

So there you go, family: there's your South Korean team to root for.

Also, Wikipedia tells me that the starting times for the games will be at about 8 in the evening. This makes it very inconvenient for me to watch any of the games: either I watch them in the morning by myself in my apartment, or I try to find a sports bar with the games on tape delay at night. Either way, if anyone spoils any part of the game for me, I'll be pissed. I'm swearing off of Facebook and Google for the next few days as a preventive measure.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Some days are not what you expect.

Thursday, for example, was a great day. Phillies clinch the pennant, my mom's care package arrived, a friend of mine came into some windfall cash...but my day at work was mediocre at best.

Friday I arrived at work feeling less than stellar. Exhausted from lack of sleep, I thought there was no way I could make it through the day and thanked the schedule gods that I had my short day that day. But as it turned out, Friday was a good day. My kids had a lot of energy but also a lot of enthusiasm for class.

Even so, I called it a day pretty early and crashed as soon as I got home from work. Eleven hours of sleep for the win.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

This October keeps getting better and better.

  1. Quentin Tarantino's latest movie will soon be out (one week to go!)
  2. NaNoWriMo is fast approaching.
  3. The Phillies are going to the World Series (again!).
  4. Halloween is coming up soon, one of my favorite holidays.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lost in Transition

I no longer teach middle school listening classes. There are no words for how thrilled I am about that. Instead, I now give conversation "classes" to two of the middle school teachers four days a week. I use "classes" in the loosest sense of the word; most of the time it's just 45 minutes to chat and have tea and get my nails done. Free manicures? Win! It's much easier for me to deal with adults—I imagine most people would say the same thing. Were I to stay in Korea, I think I would bounce the hagwon business and look for adult classes.

One reason I prefer these classes is because "Christina" and "Victor" (I really hate the idea of "English names," I really do) obviously have a much better command of the language than even the smartest of my students. They can speak to me in sentences and understand English enough that I can explain words or phrases they don't already know in English. Because of that, I can pry a bit deeper into Korean culture than I can with my students and ask more complicated questions. I've learned that while I can be pretty patient and tolerant with children being, well, children, I have zero tolerance for the language barrier. You need to be able to break your explanations down to very simple words and exaggerated facial expressions and body language; to slow down. I have such a hard time slowing down. Such a hard time.

While Christina was painting my nails on Thursday, she asked me what kind of music I liked. I'm pretty sure she's asked me before; I don't know if it's because she forgot or because she didn't know what else to talk about. In any case, I said that I liked all kinds of music: hip-hop, rock, classical, get the idea. (My playlist just jumped from Meat Beat Manifesto to Maynard Ferguson to confirm my eclectic tastes.) "Anything that's energetic and happy," I said, to sum up. It doesn't quite cover all the bases but close enough.

"My personality is very happy, optimistic," Christina replied, "but I like sad music. Blue music."

Ah hah! Here was a chance to do a little cultural digging.

"One of my favorite singers is Janis Joplin," I told Christina. "Do you know her?"

Christina looked puzzled. "Janis Joplin? No."

I wrote down her name on the notepad Christina brought with her. "Janis Joplin was a singer from the 60s. She died in...1970? 1971? Too many drugs. But she sang the blues. Sad music. I listened to her a lot in high school, when I was depressed about my boyfriend leaving me. And I listen to her now, too, but it's not the same. I enjoy sad music more when I'm sad, too."

That blew my mind a little bit. I'm well aware that countries are capable of producing their own music and don't need to import Western acts, but I rank Janis up there with The Beatles and Michael Jackson in terms of international appeal (at least to people of a certain age group). And typing that up, I realize how silly and naive that is, but still, that's what I tend to expect. Especially from adults who have studied English for quite some time.

So my new mission is to put together a custom CD, this time for Christina and Victor (and Jong-min, since he has gaping holes in his music library). School of Rock, take two.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Kids Are Weird

I mean, that's sort of a given. But I forget. Sometimes I let myself get distracted by my students—Jane Goodall among the chimpanzees sort of thing.

Yesterday, I had my most rambunctious student. I've mentioned him before, he's the one we call PM. He had left the classroom to take a call from his mother right before class, and pranced back inside. He gave the door a good solid slam to announce his entrance as theatrically as possible.

Unfortunately, another student happened to be in the way. June, a tiny little thing whose backpack is nearly as big as he is, got a door handle right in the face. So naturally, he started crying.

And immediately students descended upon him: PM and two of the girls crowded him and asked if he was okay. For a while he stood sniffling, unable to talk, while his friends just hovered. PM squatted down to June's level and put his hands on his shoulders, face full of fraternal concern.

June is a bit dumb, but very cute, and by far the smallest in his class. I think he may be a year younger than everyone else there. The collective opinion seems to be that June is fun to play with and to sometimes tease, but you don't actually hurt him or yell at him because he's just too adorable. To see PM—usually a hyperactive, ADD, attention-whoring mess—slow down and show a surprisingly mature amount of concern and regret was quite endearing. Since I didn't know what else to do, I let the scene play out and just watched the kids in their natural state, without a teacher hanging around telling them what to do.

One of the girls broke away from June and asked, "Mina-teacher?" As in, "Should I go get Mina-teacher?" I shook my head; PM hadn't meant to give June a faceful of doorknob and didn't really need scolding.

"June fighting," I said in my best Konglish accents, fists raised. A small giggle rippled through the classroom. June sniffled a bit more, wiped his eyes, and sat back down. Five minutes later he was back to his old self.

Kids are weird. They're also pretty tough.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A guide to Asian photos


Also my new favorite, the nyan nyan~ or "catgirl" pose:

Saturday, October 10, 2009


And no, not the kind with LeVar Burton.

Wherever I live, I love. I put down roots. I could comfortably call any number of places "home," really; Minlak-dong is one of them. My job might stress me out sometimes, and I might gnash my teeth a bit at things like lack of good bread or reliable American movie releases, but I still love Korea just as much as when I got here. I love the country but also I've made friends here, not just temporary "I need company in a foreign country" friends but friends. I'm over the halfway mark at my contract and the thought that I will have to leave this place and these people soon is depressing (much as I look forward to the familiarities of home).

This song has been in my skull all day, so I'm sharing it with the rest of you. The lyrics are a perfect encapsulation of how I think of my relationships and all of the friendships I've cultivated with people I may only see a limited number of times in my life:

Call my friends to share some wine.
To share some laughs, and last goodbyes.
My photographs of these years
Will make me laugh through the tears.
What are the odds, what are the odds
This ends and we don't meet again?
What are the odds, what are the odds
That I will miss your smile?

Take a while! Take a while! Take care and
Fly away and see the world.
Take a while! Take a while! Take time and
If you need rest, I'll keep your nest

Let fondness be our souvenir
To keep it warm, we'll keep it near.
Otherwise, with no heart to recall,
A memory's just a memory after all.
I will not leave this pulse alone
Though it may take the long way home.
I will not wait until the end
For my applause for you, my friend.

What are the odds, what are the odds
This ends and we don't meet again?
What are the odds, what are the odds
That I will miss your smile?

Take a while! Take a while! Take care and
Fly away and see the world.
Take a while! Take a while! Take time and
If you need rest, I'll keep your nest

The music is beautiful, too. If you're reading this on Facebook, I've posted the video on my wall. Otherwise, watch here:

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fat Girl in Korea (Pretend this post is about Chuseok)

Obligatory: yesterday was Chuseok, but instead of doing a really bland write-up about it, I'm going to be lazy and link to the Wikipedia article. And if that's TL;DR, here's the short version: Chuseok is almost (but not really) like Thanksgiving; a more apt comparison would be to the old school Celtic/new school Wiccan concept of Samhain, but that remains too obscure a reference for most Americans so the Thanksgiving comparison stays. If nothing else, the comparison to Thanksgiving does work well when you consider that both days are notoriously bad travel days, as tradition dictates you spend said holiday with your family. I tried to do the next best thing to going home, and that was have something appropiately ethnic for dinner, but my usual Uzbek haunt was closed for the holiday.

And that's all I have to say about Chuseok. What's prompting me to write is a desire to write about being a fat girl in Korea, after seeing this article from Glamour linked in multiple places.

I should preface this by saying that I call myself a "fat girl in Korea" with the greatest possible affection. Fat is not an inherently negative word for me. I generally consider it to be pretty neutral (as opposed to "lardass," "slob," "pig," and other pejorative terms based around weight). So don't read it as depressed self-deprecation, because that's not how I intend it.

To say that most of the time I'm okay with being fat girl in Korea would approach the truth, but not quite. Right before I left, I was more than okay with being a fat girl in the US, being that I was in better physical (and mental) shape than I had been in previous years. It was a good attitude to bolster me through the fact that I was going to Korea where I knew the average was no longer a size 16.

Nonetheless, you do notice things. I can't buy any bottoms except men's pants in the department store—and even then, just barely—even before I gained a sort of "freshman Korean fifteen" (remember how I said Koreans like to eat and drink a lot? yeah). Because I'm a bit bottom-heavy, I can make do with tops from the women's section, but again—barely. Which is strange when at home I was rocking the 12/14 range, easy enough to find in an American department store of LotteMart's caliber (as well as Goodwill and Salvation Army, where I do an equal amount of clothes shopping). But in Minlak-dong, a poor neighborhood in a country where fat, not thin, is linked to wealth and money, there's no market for anything that big. And even at my "ideal" weight (ideal in terms of where I want to be, not according to whatever medical authority), I don't think I could squeeze my ass into any but the tippy-top end of the size range, if that. I can't imagine doing that even if I were skin and bones; I think my bones there are just too big. And yeah I dig having hips and not looking "like a 12-year-old boy" (as my own boy would say), but sometimes I need a new pair of pants!

So wandering through the clothing aisles, walking down the street on the way to school, spending all of my time around Korean begin to feel like a whale in a country full of sardines. You do occasionally see chunkier Korean women out here, but they are few and far between. And I still don't know what society thinks about them. As for obese? Out and out unhealthy? I can count on one hand the number of obese Koreans I've run into, man or woman, and still have fingers left over.

One of my former students (who since moved to another hagwon, unfortunately) was a sixth grade girl named Julie, on the tall side and also a bit heavy-set. She was one of my favorites in a class that I largely despise, and the rest of the class seemed to like her just as much. She was outgoing and commanding of attention (not in a bitchy way, but in a natural leader sort of way), and she had a really cute sense of style. I can't tell if she ever felt insecure about her body, and I can't tell what the students said about her when she wasn't around (if they even said anything), but from what interaction I could witness she was really quite popular.

Another one of my students is a fifth grade boy, Jack. He's a bit fatter than Julie; outside of "oh, he's just big-boned" range into full-on fat. Jack is the class pariah. It's hard to tell if it's because he's a fat kid (Mina thinks it is) or because he's just a generally bizarre child who sort of thrives on being the weird kid, but whatever the reason the other students make no bones about their dislike of him. Some days, I'll admit, they play nice, and if he gets upset they apologize, but other days they legitimately give him a hard time.

As for me, I've gotten some amount of ribbing from students because of my weight. I've also gotten an equal (probably greater) amount of compliments, from students and from adults, so it all balances out.

Nonetheless it's one thing to be okay with yourself when you see a fair amount of women who look (more or less) like you. It's another thing to be okay with yourself in a country full of stick figures. It's incredibly frustrating to realize that I can't just run out to the store and get a new tank top or a new pair of shorts if I need one. It's frustrating to feel like I'm a giant clumsy blob who's always in the way. It's hard to love yourself when you don't see anyone like you.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Places I will visit as soon as I get home:

  • Mama Nina's
  • The Q-mart
  • The Chicken Lounge
  • The Steelgaarden
  • the cave
  • Earl Bowl
  • John's Plain & Fancy

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I'm pissed off a little bit (yeah), I'm pissed off a little bit (yeah), actually I'm pissed. off. a lot.

Relevant video is relevant, and totally inappropriate and probably offensive. You've been warned:

I try not to post all my personal, gushy feelings here because that is hardly of interest to anyone besides myself. But I am in a foul, foul mood, and so rather than just sort of vaguely talk about some totally neutral topic, I'm going to let off some vitriolic steam. Get ready and....go.

I realize kids will be kids and that:

  • A) it's been at least ten years since I was my students' age and
  • B) even if I could remember what it was like to be 10, 11, or 12 years old, I was never a 10 year old Korean boy, anyway. Also
  • C) as far as kids go I would rank myself as pretty sedate. While I would occassionally sass an elder (I remember my fifth grade teacher using the word "defiant" to describe me during the one and only altercation I remember having with her; this may be a false memory), it was never a battle of getting me to stop running around. Quite the reverse; I'm sure by my parents' standards (mostly Dad's) (I love you, Dad!) I didn't run around enough.

And some days, I don't know what it is, a full moon or biorhythms or too much sugar or impending holidays (추석, more on that later), but they never sit down and I want to break something over their heads and all I can do is stand there and feel incompetent. And then impose martial law and, instead of playing a game that they'd enjoy, be a total bitch and make them do busywork for the rest of class. But most of the time I just feel totally incompetent.

Or they get older and instead of running around like loons all day, sass you in Korean and act like pieces of shit. Obviously a language barrier is frustrating for anyone; it's especially frustrating for me because I'm used to employing a variety of verbal subtleties (and not-so-subtleties) like irony, puns, and sarcasm. The last one there is my weapon of choice in my other life as a cave tour guide, whether to entertain or to discipline, and when you're dealing with 13 year olds who can barely string together a sentence...they don't really pick up on it. I crack jokes in English all the time in class, but of course they don't understand—it's mostly for my sanity. And while I have no way of knowing whether this is true or not, I feel like those all trump body language and facial expressions when I try to communicate. Obviously I can't watch myself talk, but I sense that I often have a pretty deadpan expression, and even if my hands move a lot, they don't move in a way that necessarily illustrates what I'm saying. But facial expressions and body language are exactly what you need to employ when words fail; slapstick is perhaps the only universal humor. It's also the form of humor I hate the most.

In one of my classes, overwhelmingly female, I decided to bring in Twilight. I can't think of anything in recent years that's offended my feminist sensibilities more, but it's English and at least a third of said class has expressed interest in it by actually initiating conversations with me about it, so I thought "Hey! Great way to practice listening skills and kill time in a unit that drags on for far too long!"

And while my Google-fu is pretty strong, it wasn't quite strong enough to get my media player to successfully communicate with the Korean subtitle file. And there are few things in the world more frustrating than almost getting something...but not quite. I'm sure, given a few extra days/weeks of tweaking my media player, I'll get them to work flawlessly together...but of course by then it'll be too late.

So that went over...not as well as I had hoped, but not as bad as it could have been. Then my last class was absolutely off-the-wall bonkers, and I about snapped. Everything was coming together to be a Beowulf clusterfuck of fuck-ups.

I went home, raged a bit to my boyfriend over AIM, and then put on my running shoes and hit the pavement. Fuming the whole time, I inadvertently ran my fastest mile ever, which took the edge off but not quite the whole thing. And now instead of whatever I was going to do tonight (work on designing some jewelry using materials another English teacher here gifted me), I proceeded to bitch about my day on the Internet. Productive!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I hope I don't inadvertently jinx Obama by tagging this post as "dead presidents."

I had an interesting political discussion with one of my sixth grade classes yesterday.

I forget why, but the topic of presidents came up. "Obama is very clever," one boy said. "Very smart. Face is very ugly. Dirty. Very old. I look at Obama, I see grandfather."

"Good president? Or bad president?"

"Good president," the class replied. "Lee Myoung-bak is bad president."

"Bad? Why?"

"Crazy cow in Korea."

"Mad cow disease?"

"Yes! Yes. Lee Myoung-bak bring crazy cows to Korea."

They then quizzed me on South Korean presidents, and to my shame, I only knew of the ones who had recently died.

"Yi Seungman?"


"Number one president of Korea."


"Yes, yes. First."

"Park Chung-hee?" (The dictator who ran the country for 18 years, from 1961 to 1979.)


"Chun Doo-hawn?" (Another dictatorial president, this one with only an 8 year term.)

"Kim Dae-jung?"

"Yes, yes. Kim Dae-jung good president? Or bad?"

"Good, good." They gave the thumbs up.

"What about President Roh?"

"Good president."

I wish they spoke better English, if only so I could have more conversations with them like this, but oh well.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pins and Needles

Today I went with a coworker, Maddie, to Mangwolsa to get acupuncture done.

The different attitudes about medicine across the hemispheres surprised me, although I don't know why it did. I guess in my imperialist American paradigm, Western medicine prevailed across all of the developed nations and that only poor, backwoods cultures and/or old, superstitious people clung to more traditional medicine.

But no, here acupuncture is totally legitimate and covered under my state-sponsored insurance, so my visit cost all of 5,300 won. That's about $4.50 (currency rates changed when I wasn't looking). Let me repeat that: I paid less than $5 to see a doctor. Wrapping my mind around that is taking some adjustment, never mind that this doctor was a practitioner of what would be "alternative" medicine in the US.

We hopped the bus to Mangwolsa and loitered in front of the entrance until it opened at 9.30. Maddie had been before and so had records; I had to fill out a little slip of paper with my name, marital status, birthday, and blood type. You could see a kitchen from the lobby, where nurses were mixing up traditional Chinese medicine. Whatever they were using triggered my asthma at one point, and I started coughing and wheezing rather noticeably. The granny sitting next to me smiled and asked me something in Korean, and I felt like a big dumb foreigner.

The asthma attack passed, and eventually I went in to see the doctor (who spoke fairly good English) to explain what was going on. I told him that my shoulders and upper back were still a bit tense from an incident a few months ago where I tried to lift a heavy table. Between that and stress at the hagwon tensing me up from time to time, I could start to feel my muscles scrunching in unnatural ways. He nodded and made a few circles on a chart showing the different meridians, notes to himself. The doctor squeezed my shoulder and back in a few places, asking what hurt and what felt fine. Then he took both of my wrists in his hands and spent a few minutes listening to my pulse. All this was enough to prescribe a course of action.

He led me to another room, very sterile and hi-tech looking. There were a few hospital style beds hooked up to machinery. The nurse pulled the privacy curtain and told me to take my shirt off. Face down on the bed (comfy pillow included!), I nearly fell asleep—I had been up since 7:00 in the morning.

Before the needles came what the nurses called "physical therapy," better known among the ESL teachers as "the cups." They look really gross so I'm not going to embed an image, but if you check Google image search for "acupuncture cups" you'll find it easily enough. The idea is—I think—to draw out the bad blood, Like Medieval leeches, but not as gross. I'm not entirely convinced they actually sucked any blood any out of me, but my arm went kind of tingly like when I give blood, so maybe. In any case, the cups lasted for a few eternities. Sometimes it felt good, like a massage, but other times it almost hurt. Once in a while in must have it some kind of pressure point (I had three, or four, all along my upper back), because my right arm would start twitching and shaking uncontrollably.

If the cups were the opening act, then the needles were the headliner. Compared to the cups, the needles were no big thing at all—though I have years of allergy shots to thank for my relative apathy towards needles. I could barely feel them. The doctor came in after the nurse cleared off the cups and stuck me like a pin cushion: a handful of needles scattered across my upper back, one each on the back of my knees, and one each by my elbows. Once he was finished, he turned on a heat lamp and left me to bake for a while. I zoned out, enjoying the warmth on my bare skin, barely registering the mellow nature sounds and muzak in the background.

After a while, the doctor came back for his needles and informed me that my session was over. He left me to put a shirt back on and suggested I come in this Saturday for a follow-up session. I said sure.

So, the burning question: did it help my back at all? The answer is: uncertain. The rest of the day I was certainly more conscious of my back and made sure to keep it from tensing up. I didn't feel magically better. But during the process I felt a weird buzzing in places throughout my body, mostly up and down my left side, so I don't know what that was all about. We'll see how the follow-up session goes.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bong Hits

There are a few different kinds of bongs here in South Korea:

1. Noraebong

Number one past time of drunk foreigners and Koreans alike, noraebongs are all the fun of a karaoke bar with the added bonus that instead of embarrassing yourself in front of an unknown number of strangers, it's just in front of your trusted friends and drinking buddies.

Alex, looking classy and Korean at the Luxury Noraebong near Sherlock Academy. Note the random Korean music video in the background that has nothing to do with whatever song we'll eventually sing.

You can usually get mediocre Korean beer to keep your buzz going, as well. At the end of each song, you get graded on a scale from (presumably) 0 to 100. The scores are always a bit inflated. Anything less than a 90 and you should really be deeply ashamed.

2. PC bong

There's this thing called Starcraft, maybe you've heard of it? MMOs in general are pretty big in Korea, and so PC bongs are just as omnipresent as noraebongs. They're also handy when you're out and need to quick email someone, or double-check directions in a message someone sent you on Facebook, which I've had to do on more than one occasion. PC bongs are the reason that Koreans don't really use their hi-tech gadgety cell phones to cruise the Internet or use instant messaging programs: the fees to do so on a cell phone are outrageous and it's just cheaper to find a PC bong while you're out and about.

"Bong" translates to something like "room" or so. In that respect, calling a PC bong a "bong" is kind of misleading since, unlike the noraebong, you don't get the privacy of your own room. It's just one giant cubicle farm.

3. DVD bong

DVD bongs are the sketchiest out of the three; quite often they're a front for amorous Korean couples and other sorts of illicit rendezvouses. Like the noraebong, you pay for the privilege of privacy, as well as the entertainment—though this time it's a DVD instead of a karaoke machine. But if a cuddly-looking couple shows up and checks out the extended edition of Fellowship of the Ring, well, they might not be interested in hobbits.

4. Jjimjilbong

This is Korea's take on a sauna, though a bit more extensive. They're cheap, open 24-hours, and the large ones often include amenities like PC bongs, making them the perfect "staycation" option for lots of Korean families. They're segregated by sex, but there's a co-ed section as well (clothed, of course). I have yet to go to one of these but I'd like to try it out sometime.

To everything there is a season / And a time for every purpose under heaven.

I don't know what it is about me, but I seem to give off the "I need the healing power of Christ!" pheromones. I have been approached on the street—rather aggressively—by evangelical Christians more times here in Korea than I have ever before in my life. I have quite the assortment of English handouts about the Heavenly Mother, "Comfort for the Depressed," and also a Watchtower booklet. Awesome.

The title up there is doing double duty, as it's about that time to note that fall is in the air. The weather hasn't really gone from boiling hot to gradually cooler as much as from boiling hot days and nights to boiling hot days and freezing nights. This makes dressing for work something of a puzzle, as I begin work during the hottest part of the day and leave well after the sun has gone down.

Last night was a farewell party for one of the Korean teachers, the first to leave since I've arrived and probably the one who's been here the longest. We went out for samgyupsal (the bacon-like-but-not-really-bacon dish) and tried to pretend that we didn't have to work the next day.

Mina, my partner teacher; Alex, Mark, and Michael, our manager

Krystafre and Irene. Scissors are cooking utensils here.

And there's me. And Brendan, tending the meat.

Earlier in the week I went out to dinner with my friend Jong-min. In need of comfort food after a major work crisis, he suggested 곱창구이 —gobchang gui. Stuffed intestines.

It was a bit unnerving at first, but really the thought of eating intestines is more repulsive than the actual act. It seems that there's a variety ways to prepare it (if a Google Image Search is to be believed); I had it in the form of a chigae-type stew with bits of cow gut floating around that you could eat or not eat at your whim. Kind of like this:

It's a bit fatty but otherwise pretty good. (Fat seems to be a recurring theme when it comes to Korean meat, unless of course it's SPAM. More on Spam in another post, though.) That's one bizarre food down on my checklist. The next is 보신탕: dog meat soup.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Obligatory Korean Tourist Spot #2: The DMZ

The DMZ is actually a huge tourist destination in South Korea. The only other time I've been in such a large group of foreigners was at the Irish pub in Itaewon a few months ago. You have a variety of options (lots of private Korean tour groups offer trips) but we (me, two coworkers, and another foreign friend of ours) opted for the USO tour.

The process to get in was a bit arduous. You have to submit your full name and passport number (for a passport check) a couple weeks in advance. You also have to bring it with you the day of, to confirm you are who you say you are.

So my day started at about 4.40 in the morning; I woke up and got dressed, since we had to be in Seoul by 7.30 AM. We filed in to the USO office and milled around for a few minutes before they told us to queue up, passports open to the picture page.

We piled on to two coach buses, where a tiny Asian grandfather gave us the rundown of the day: first we'd take the bus to Fort Bonifas, where we received a short briefing on the history of the Korean war and the basic rules to follow while in and around the DMZ.

The entrance to Fort Bonifas.

We piled back on the bus and there we were, tourists at the world's most militarized border. We had an American military escort/tour guide with us on the bus, who answered questions about the DMZ and also pointed out various sites of interest along the way (there's a one-hole golf course, for example). We got to see one of the buildings where the North and South held peace talks after the war, which technically involved stepping in North Korean territory.

Our tour guide.

North Korea also brings tourists to the DMZ. But not nearly as many and not nearly as often.

That's right, I was in North Korea.

This was probably the number one photo op on the tour, since this is the closest most foreigners will ever get to North Korea. Plus, the ROK soldiers look like such badasses that it's hard not to get your photo with them.

Then back on to the bus to the souvenir shop (yes, a souvenir shop, I got a t-shirt), after which our military guide/escort was relieved of his duty with us. We went to a lookout tower afterwards, largely unremarkable because it was foggy and you couldn't see all that much of North Korea.

Those buildings and hills you can kind of see in the distance are North Korea. That's the most of the DPRK you or I will ever see.

After we gawked at the North, we piled back on to the bus and had mediocre, mass-produced Korean food for lunch at a "restaurant" that seems to exist for the sole purpose of feeding tourists. Usually Korean food is made fresh and right for you (if it doesn't actually cook right at your table); this was like the high school cafeteria version of Korean food. Unimpressed and unsatisfied, I bought a snack bar and some biscuits at the pseudo-grocer's attached to the eatery.

Our last stop was one of the incursion tunnels that the North tried to dig under the DMZ. South Korea has found four of them so far, there might be more. Ideally, the tunnels would lead directly to or near Seoul and could deploy infantry from the North into Southern territory in one hour. A comforting thought, living out here in Uijeongbu. First was a movie about the DMZ, then a small, two-room museum, and then the tunnel itself.

The entrance of the Incursion Tunnel.

The entrance was walkable, but steep, and we had to don hard hats to enter. Interesting note: the tunnels were blasted through granite, of all rocks. (Which I noticed with my keen cave eye and then confirmed on Wikipedia. Go team geology!) It was, for the most part, just a giant tunnel, without any sort of signage or displays to spice it up. We walked for a while and then it just terminated at a small steel door, through which we could see light on the other side. Then we turned around and walked out the way we came.

Rice grown in the fields at Daeseong-dong, a village within the DMZ.

North Korean soju.

The whole trip was surreal. Here's a busload of big fat foreign tourists, and on either side of the road there's minefields. There are strict rules about where we can take pictures and where we can't, and they don't hesitate to confiscate cameras if they catch you being sneaky. South Korean guards were posted everywhere, looking very serious, and we weren't allowed to attempt any sort of communication with them, not even pointing. A lot of us laughed and joked around, since there are actually funny stories about the DMZ, but we had to sign a waiver before we left saying that we understood we were entering into "hostile territory" and ran the risk of "injury or death."

Was the Berlin Wall ever as big a tourist attraction?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

All You White People Look the Same, Part 2

The listening class I gripe so much about here has been put on hold for a month. Instead, I spend 45 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday giving an informal conversation class to one of the Korean hagwon teachers. The legality of this is fuzzy, but I'm pretty sure there's no word for "labor law" in Korean.

She didn't give me her real name, just her English name—Christina. She's very sweet and teaches English grammar at the hagwon. I'm 90% sure I have her son in one of my classes (embarrassingly enough, he's a rather poor student of English). It's pretty fun, all told, and while I do kind of miss some of my middle school students, this gig is much easier and much more enjoyable.

I sometimes get the feeling she thinks of me as some kind of...Barbie doll?...a bit. I coined a phrase talking to my friend Jong-min: "OMG White Girl" syndrome, or OMGWGS for short. Mostly it applies to Korean men, but once in a while it works for Korean women as well. Our first lesson she said she thought I was "so cute" and insisted on painting my nails next time. The second lesson she did, indeed, follow through on her promise of nail art and commented on how small my hands are ("like baby hands!"). My third lesson with her was this past Tuesday. We were talking about bacon flu and I did an impression of Mrs. Kim wigging out because another foreign teacher had a bit of a cough. Christina thought this was hilarious and commented that I resembled the girl from Gremlins, Phoebe Cates. A refresher: that we both have brown eyes and brown hair? Yes. But other than that I don't see much resemblance. Koreans don't always have a sense for what passes as resemblance among white people, same as most white people don't have a sense for what passes as resemblance among Koreans (and other East Asians). I'd like to think I've gotten a bit better at it, but they've had a whole lifetime of comparing and contrasting Korean faces. I've only had six months.

Today promises more nail art (yes, I am indeed getting my nails done by a Korean while in Korea) and also some hot tea. Perfect for my sore throat.