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!"