Sunday, November 16, 2008

I’ve been a negligent little blogger. Today, I offer culture:

Pepito? Pepapo? No, Teacha…Pepero!

Two weeks ago, I began to notice massive displays of red-boxed candy and cute stuffed animals everywhere. I wondered if Koreans prepared for Valentine’s Day much like Americans prepare for Christmas: no less than four months in advance. Turns out, last Tuesday was Pepero (pay-pay-ro) Day—a uniquely Korean holiday. Took me all day to remember what this holiday was actually called. I kept saying “Pepito” and “Pepe le Pue”, but trust me, this was no skunk of an idea. You think Wal-Mart has power? Well, the high-end-shop juggernaut of South Korea is Lotte Department Store, and in 1983, it created it’s own holiday, simply to (gasp!) make a won or two off sugar-stick lovin’ Koreans. In 2006, Lotte made the equivalent of $47 million dollars off pepero sticks, alone. They deny premeditation, of course. And would we expect them to do otherwise?

The designated day is November 11th—11/11—and the month-day configuration symbolizes friendship and love and all that jazz. Get it? The ones—they’re like little people standing side-by-side. So Lotte manufactures, boxes, and sells long sticks of cookie candy that represent the ones, that represent the people, that represent—ahem—the love of the Korean people for one another. I’m telling you, for a country practically drowning in everything that is cute, this is a fabulous marketing idea.

The candy is fabulous. Tasty. Cheap. And the think tanks at Lotte solved that de facto profit-inhibiting factor of Valentine’s Day: pepero sticks are not just a between-lover exchange, but for friends, or family, or—lucky me—teachas! So the kids brought us teachas boxes and boxes of pepero. Crunchy pepero. Chocolate smothered pepero. Blueberry yogurt pepero (my favorite). Pepero dipped in nuts and sprinkles, and pepero with columns of fudge running through the center (they call this “nude” pepero). And for one day, the whole country was happy. Or, at least, our office was.

An article if you’re interested:

What else? My Korean skills are coming along. Skipped class Thursday due to a little head bug. The man who owns the corner store where I buy my eggs and Dr. You health bars teaches me a little each day. Learned how to say “diahhrea” the other day (the direct translation from Korean is basically “water-poop”) and threw it out there on the bus the other day, just to see what the Korean high school boys would do. They remained very serious. Perhaps saying “poop” ceases to be funny at a certain age? I know the elementary kids think it’s but-gusting hilarious.

Thursday was the national university exam test day. According to a couple of my coworkers, one of the highest suicide days in Korea. The other is the day the kids get their test results back. Clearly, this is an important test.

Everything academic or intellectual here is done by rank. Chloe, one of my fabulous co-workers, has a cousin who consistently scores #1 in the country on the annual MD boards (and she’s a woman). Similarly, the kids are ranked in class according to monthly or quarterly tests. Kind of like ranking by chair in band class, right? Well, the result is serious self-esteem deficits. Brains are everything here. Imagine if kids in the United States were each given an ordinal number ranking how beautiful or handsome they were in relation to the other kids in class, and if this number was posted on the wall for all to see? Anxiety. (I harbor a bit of disdain for the state of the American education system. Could ya’ tell?)

But the point is, is the eyes of Koreans, one’s entire future is determined by this one day of testing, and the number spit out by the grading machine. The goal is to score high enough to gain admission in a Seoul university—they are the best. Going anywhere else is humiliating and seriously debilitating to chasing one’s true ambition. Sad!

So on national testing day, business and government workers are required to go to work one hour later than usual, to avoid traffic jams that might prevent kids from reaching testing sites. People are asked to avoid honking their horns at all costs (hard, in this horn-happy country) to cut down on noise. And the kids are locked up all day, scribbling, filling in bubbles, possibly contemplating, “Rope?” or “Subway jump?” I repeat: sad! At least we’re allowed to take those big assessment exams eight times over, if we really want to. And go to school in some obscure state like Missouri and not feel like your life is over.

What else? I’m going to Seoul next weekend. Sooooo excited. I promise a little blurb about the city this time.

Friday, November 7, 2008

I Feel Pretty?

For some time now, I’ve been promising various parties a blurb on some major cultural differences between Americans and Koreans. Recent incidents have incited me to address this request immediately.

I’ll avoid a long digression into the psychology of self-esteem and mate competition (don’t want to use that hard-earned Mizzou degree too much) and, instead, simply present the obvious thesis: when your body ain’t lookin’ so good, your brain ain’t feelin’ so good. People are able—to varying degrees—to employ their powers of self-awareness and introspection in order to overcome whatever deficiencies might result from a decline in perceived physical attractiveness, right?

Okay, maybe this is sounding too much like a mid-semester paper…

Basically, I feel that I’m typically capable of drawing a sufficient stream of self-esteem from my mental prowess, and that—if I’ve so happened to pack on a couple pounds—I won’t feel any urges to slit my wrists.

But what happens to the brain when the body is afflicted with a trifecta of body maladies? Serious serotonin deficiency, my friends. Which is no fun for the brain.

Body malady #1: I was sick with a cold all last week, which somehow caused me to miss TWO weeks of running. This, like serious serotonin deficiency, is bad (partly because a decline in exercise causes the deficiency…) and whether or not the pounds have actually been gained, my eyes see them. And perception is everything.

Conclusion: I feel fat.

Body malady #2: My face has been breaking out like an adolescent school-girl’s. Seriously—I thought I was done with this stuff. And I’m not talking just a zit here and there. I’m talking prairie-dog town across the whole bottom of my face. And I can’t figure out what’s causing it. My diet, maybe? The air? The water? Soooo frustrating.

Conclusion: Society might benefit from my wearing a mask.

Body malady #3: Over the weekend, I was attacked by a flock of mosquitoes. No, not a swarm. This was definitely a flock, like something right out of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Just the backside of my right arm has about fifteen bites. And they don’t look like typical mosquito bites. They look like the manifestation of some terrible, Korean, infectious disease.

Conclusion: I feel dirty and contagious.

So Tuesday. I’m at school. Walking to my second class. Acutely aware of a little belly protrusion beneath my shirt, which I’d tried that morning to conceal with some strategic sartorial decisions. I was reeling a bit already, because Anna Teacha had just commented on my lower-face inflammation, which I’d brushed off my mosquito-bite-ridden shoulder, because this is what they do, Koreans. They confront all of those things that, out of embarrassment, we avoid talking about in American culture.

So I walk into class, smiling anyway, and begin to take roll.
“Teacha!” Gina yells out in a whiny pitch. “Teacha!”
“Yes, Gina?”
“Uhhh, Teacha!” she grunts, and rubs her hands over her stomach.
“Bay-go-payo?” I ask her in Korean. Are you hungry?
“Uhhh, no Teacha,” she cries, and her face distorts as she continues to rub her belly. Then she points at me. “Very fat, Teacha!”
Little assholes, sometimes, I’m telling you.
“Me?” I ask incredulously. I mean, maybe a couple pounds, and I’d thrown around the “I feel fat” phrase several times in the last few days, but—really—this was kind of an exaggeration. Female drama.
“Yes, Teacha! Why so fat, Teacha?”
“Teacha has been sick,” I said meekly, maybe pleadingly, looking into a sea of ten-year-old faces for some kind of social understanding. There was none.

A little later, I texted some friends who teach downtown to see if they wanted to meet up after school for batting cages or football in the circle. Everybody was down. I was excited.

Fifth period, I walk into class of older kids. First off, I’m asking for the day, month, and year, writing on the board as the kids yell out answers.
“Uhhh, Teacha!” Donna yells out.
“Yes, Donna?” I ask, turning to face her.
“Uhh, Teacha!” she yells again, a disgusted look on her face, and makes a spinning motion with her finger. “Turn, Teacha!”
I am confused for a moment, but realize she’s seen the bites. I show the class my arm. “Mosquitos,” I explain, and mime something attacking my arm.
“Mogi!” David yells.
“Yes, Mogi,” I repeat, and attempt to draw a mosquito on the board, anything to draw attention away from my blighted arm.
“Teacha!” Donna shouts, raising her arm. She waves her hand around her chin, and then points to my face. “Mosquito bites?”
Oh no, she didn’t. A solid punch, right into my flabby gut.

As soon as my last class was over, I sent a text canceling those after-school plans. Ashley walked me to the pharmacy, and we picked up acne medication. And then I went to the gym and ran what I think was four miles (still working on the in-my-head kilometer-to-mile conversion). Take that, Korea.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Had my first work trip this weekend! The three Changwon Reading Town branches united for a day of Buddhist fun on Kajisan--Kaji Mountain. The trip was absolutely fabulous. Wish I had more time to write about it, but pictures will have to do for now.

The fall colors are beginning to change, here, and they are stunning.

Anna and Chloe--two of my fabulous Korean coworkers. They are incredibly helpful and generous: Anna has helped me with everything from working out my water heater and washing machine to helping me buy fish at the grocery store to taking me to the doctor last weekend for my little kidney stone (I think?) episode. Chloe recently helped me open my bank account, and we went to "Mamma Mia!" and lunch last Friday. Great gals.

Crazy tree!

That rocky section of the mountains reminded me so much of the mountains right above Tarryall. Oh, nostalgia!

Angele and Pierre: they're both simply fabulous. A very generous Canadian couple, and a ton of fun to be around. They take care of me :)

Helen and Mrs. Nam: Helen is my co-teacher for many of my classes (poor woman!), and this is good for me, because she is absolutely on top of the ball at every moment. She really is an inspiring person. And what can you say about Mrs. Nam, besides that she's fantastic? She doesn't speak as much English, so our "conversations" can be a little comical at times, but she is always telling me never to hesitate to ask her if I need help with anything. And she dresses so dang cute! Found out Saturday she has two teenage daughters, the elder of which has a boyfriend. Thing is, they're allowed to see each other two hours a week. Supervised. Oh, the Korean dating scene!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Pet peeves. Everybody’s got one, or two, or—if you’re über anal or wildly intolerant—three, four, five or six. I have three. In order:

Number one: I hate being late. The mere thought of being late causes me anxiety. I mean, it’s like my Dad always says: If you can be late, you can be early.

(Which, in truth, is nothing more than a pithy platitude, no more demonstrative than something I might say to my students: If you can Korean talk, you can speak English. Doesn’t really work like an adage, does it? When you really think about it? I've already brought this to Father's attention.)

Whoa, tangent.

Number two: I hate not knowing where I am. Or where I am supposed to be going. Because—because—this nearly always inevitably leads to what?

Being late.

Number three: I strongly dislike spontaneity. Which, actually, has little to do with this story.

This story is about my first day of school. Ah, regression: Kristen Teacha, so recently released from the clutches of studentdom, is back in class. Korean class.

Which I’ve actually been quite excited about, for some time now. Sarah Teacha, too. We were supposed to have began classes around a month ago, at Changwon College, every Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon, for ten weeks, and only 200,000 won! But we were apparently the only interested parties. The class was cancelled. I felt like crying, then. Doomed to never know just exactly what I was buying at the grocery store.

But then a glimmer of hope: the instructor sent us an email. There would be another go at it, she said, if we could get six students enrolled. Two down, we said. Four to go. We advertised. Talked people up at the bars in Changwon. Posted messages on Facebook. Learn Korean! we urged. The key to your expatriate happiness!

That didn’t work, but four more people ended up randomly signing up, nonetheless. We were ecstatic. Finally we could begin to erase the shame of living in a foreign country and being able to speak only a meager amount of the language. And maybe meet gorgeous expatriate men. Vanessa drew us a tidy map of where we needed to go, complete with the bus numbers that would take us to the college. We made copies, just in case the original was lost, or misplaced, or forgotten at school. Last night, I told Sarah Teacha that if she wasn’t at the bus stop at 9:15 a.m., I would leave without her. I wasn’t going to be late.

And so this morning, I hopped out of bed at 7:45 a.m. (had set the clock back, last minute, from 8—just in case). I thought about shooting Sarah a quick “wake-up” text (she had lamented for the previous few days about having to get up that un-Godly early) but decided I wasn’t her mommy, and that she probably didn’t want me to be her mommy, anyhow. Ate breakfast. Applied make-up somewhat more liberally than usual. Watched the clock. Time to go, and stepped out the door.

Shit. Forgot the map at school last night.

How would we know which bus to get on? Or where to get off, even if we knew? Or what building, or classroom, to go to, once we got there?

But wait, I said to myself. Sarah would have her map. She’s responsible. She’s not forgetful. But the anxiety had already rooted (late on our first day?). I made mental attempts at weeding it out. These didn’t work. I called Sarah.

No answer.

Shit. Sarah Teacha, who usually answers my phone calls before I’ve even realized I’ve pressed “call,” was not answering her phone. She’d slept in, I thought. In her dim, curtained room, the little shit is looking groggily at the fluorescent screen on her phone, saying to herself, “Oh, Kristen Teacha will be fine today on her own. I’ll catch class on Thursday…”

Or maybe she’s in the bathroom, I thought. That’s it: the bathroom. Primping. Or, you know. I wouldn’t answer either. And so I started walking up the street. Half-way up, I turned around, started walking back to my apartment. There’d been an email, I remembered. With the instructor’s phone number. That could help. I looked at my watch. Agh—no time! My head spun. I started walking back up the street, dialing Sarah. Still no answer. She was clearly still in bed, her phone now silenced.

I walked to the bus stop, not quite sure of what I would do when I got there. And then, behold: I spotted her. Sarah was there, holding a little Starbucks container, her hair straightened (potential boys, remember) and looking calm. I called you, I told her. She’d forgotten her phone at home, she said. Did you bring the map? I asked her. She’d forgotten it at school, she said.

Oh, problem.

You’d think that after eight years of cumulative university experience, one of us would have known to be more prepared than this. Especially in a foreign country. Had drinking the Korean water for so long squelched our foresight of potential barriers to getting to class on time? The anxiety was rather bad, now. We had no idea where Changwon College was. We had no phone numbers. No bus numbers. And forty minutes to get someplace we didn’t know where was. (That was a wildly ungrammatical sentence. But I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. Sad Kristen Teacha.)

We asked a woman. Changwon College? we asked. She pointed to a spot on the map. We figured out (we thought) the possible bus numbers. One of them showed up, and we hopped on. We didn’t know where we would be getting off, but Vanessa had said the ride was about half an hour. So we sat and stared out the window. About twenty minutes in, I told Sarah we might start thinking about asking somebody where the Changwon College stop was. Miraculously, a Korean woman interrupted us. Changwon College? she asked. Next stop! Kam-sa-ni-da! we said. Thank you! We got off the bus. Nothing all around. Long streets. No people. Finally a girl walked up to the bus stop, where we stood looking dumbly at the map. We asked her. Changwon College? She pointed to another place on the map, and then a bus number. It would take far too long, we decided. A taxi was our only option. The girl wrote, in Korean, Changwon College, so that we could show the taxi driver. Into the street we went.

We couldn’t hail a cab. The Native Americans would have called Korea today “Land of Many Taxis,” and now, when we most urgently needed one (our punctuality depended on it!) there was not one to be found. I tried not to look at my watch. I shouted expletives.

After ten minutes, this worked, because a cab rolled up. We hopped in. Drove for ten minutes. Got dropped off at a large school. Many students. I asked one where we could find a computer lab, to check that email and figure out where our class was. He didn’t know. We moseyed up to the gymnasium. Try again. Now into a bigger building. An office! With a window! Sarah asked the secretary lady is we could use her computer. She let us come behind the window. (Cool!) We somehow figured out we were at Changwon University. I was ready to go home. To give up. To run outside and hail a taxi and cry out Gay-Nah-Ri-Sacha! Back to my neighborhood! Back to where I know where I am, and where I’m going, and exactly how long it takes me to walk to work (seven minutes)!

Thank God Sarah Teacha was there to take charge. Somehow a boy who spoke a little English was summoned. He wrote down for us the bus number to get to Changwon College, and what we should say to a cabby if we took that route. His hands shook violently as he wrote. (The make-up had worked? American girls very beautiful, yes?)

Long story a little less long that it could be, we made it. Forty minutes late. And, in the end, I even let go of my time issue long enough for us to run into the bathroom before we crashed class.

I regret to report: no gorgeous expatriate boys.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I, too, have stared into the red eyes of the children...

Raise your hand if you’re sick of reading about how fabulous and phenomenal and fantastic South Korea is.

I’m picturing a classroom full of friends and family from the States (and London, Sean ☺ ) with fingertips pointed skyward. Therefore, I’ll toss aside this positivistic subterfuge (cant worry Mom and Dad, you know!) for a moment to report on an event happening right here, right now, in Changwon.

The children are mutating.

Yes, the children. They know, and I’m serious, here: they’re mutating. They know it’s the month of Halloween, and they’re turning all ghoulish on me.


One of the little imps threw a book at me today. A book. No Korean talking, I had warned. English only. They Korean talked. Teacha hears Korean talking, minus five cents, I warned, again. (I generously warned! No?) Ben Korean talked. Bring me your bank book, I told Ben. From the back of the room, he held the book at arm’s length. Bring me the book, Ben, I said, my own eyes probably rolling to the back of my head. He threw the book at me. He threw the damn book at me. Devil boy. Vampire child, sucking the blood from my desire to teach. I subtracted five cents and chucked the book back at him like a rock skipping across water. I’d secretly hoped the impact would cause a minor injury, maybe even something requiring a band-aid, but the book simply slid across his desk and slinked to the floor, pages flapping wildly. The class grew calm, and Ben’s eyes grew wide, as if he thought I’d figured out his garlic. I could see the tears forming, the skin around his eyes puffing. Nobody puts baby in a corner, I thought. I mean: nobody throws a book at Kristen Teacha, I re-thought.

I wonder if he went home and cried, because about two weeks ago, we'd had another little episode, Ben and me, and he'd ended up bawling through the next class because he'd felt so guilty about it. And right now, I wish my tit-for-tat retribution made me feel better, like I'd won, like I was the big tough teacha, but it only made me feel like a bad teacher. Like because I could not keep these children corralled, because I could not cease their constant Korean bleating, I was a bad teacher. And maybe I am.

But children do need discipline. And doling it out is the most difficult part of teaching. My first couple weeks, they spoke constantly in Korean (“Korean talking,” we call it) and so I began threatening to take away cents from their bank books. If Kristen Teacha hears Korean talking, I warned, minus cents. I wrote their names on the board. I minused cents. This helped immensely with the Korean talking problem, but in a classroom of pre-adolescent pedants, created a whole new issue. Now, the children are constantly screaming, “Kristen Teacha! Joe Korean talking!” “Kristen Teacha! Gina Korean talking!” Tattle-tales to the core. Always trying to gain the upper-hand on one another, and in Reading Town world, that means having more cents in your bank book. I tried to explain that I don’t want to hear that, either, but they seem to forget by the time the next class rolls around. Not three minutes into class yesterday, before I’d even written their names on the board, one child was hollering: “Kristen Teacha! Harry Korean speaking!” I said to him: “Your mom is Korean speaking.”

Of course, they didn’t understand what exactly Kristen Teacha was speaking, at that point, and this comes in handy sometimes. The language divide, I mean. Today I was so fed up that I told two boys to stop being assholes. They knew not what I meant in the least. Convenient, when one’s patience is drained. Yesterday, two others were bullying. I asked them how old they were. I am twelve, Kristen Teacha. I am eleven, Kristen Teacha. Then stop acting like six-year-old jerks, Kristen Teacha said. Right over their cute little Korean heads.

Ahhh, sigh. The air is just about blown out of the vent. I love this teaching thing, I really do. The kids are usually fabulous. And their misdemeanors are rarely that serious. I think what frustrates me most is that I don’t know all the answers. What do I do when Alan doesn’t do his homework for the fourth class in a row, and then claims that he absolutely can not stay after class to do it? And then fails the midterm? What do I do when Frank cares nothing for his bank book balance, and even when I threaten with dividend docking, continues to mutter God-knows-what in Korean under his breath? What do I do when I hand out homework, to be done at home, and Jack sits there haphazardly circling bubbles and filling in blanks right under my nose? And then just scribbles more quickly when I tell him to put it in his backpack? I'm pleading, here--I'm begging: What do I do?

I know, I know. There’s a long, thick, tiresome book containing the answers to all these and infinite more “What do I do?” questions.

The title is “Live and Learn.” Audio version also available in Korean talking.

Monday, September 29, 2008

I know. I haven’t been writing. And now my editor—the fabulous Virginia Johnson (more commonly known in my circle as “Aunt Gin”)—is on my butt about it. A clip from an email she sent me today:

“Have you ever really been in to a good book and were fed simply pages at a time? No opportunity to keep reading and enjoy a marathon session. No opportunity to read until your eyes grew tired. But handed a mere page or two at a time. It is like smelling grandma's pie come out of the oven and you are allowed to pick a few crumbs from the edge. Or like letting someone else control your portion of M & M's at a sitting instead of holding the bag yourself......

I will be straight here. I know the above paragraph is talking around what I am trying to tell you. I clicked onto the blog and no new update. I know you are busy and you have a life to live … but is a weekly update too much to ask? I know, I your fan base will ask for bi weekly, and then daily, and......So I guess I understand you have to be out living what you are writing. I just had to let you know how I was feeling.”

So I suppose I better write something. Anything. Truth is, I’ve been wanting to. I have post-its stuck to nearly every surface of my apartment. “Write about the teaching experience,” one says. “Write about the food,” is scrawled on another. “Write about the sartorial fabulousness that is South Korean fashion,” and “Write about your fading aversion to kimchi.” Oh, and then there’s the Seoul trip from this weekend. Let me just preamble that upcoming blog: I heart Seoul.

No time now, though, to devote the time that these topics demand. Just got a gift package from Mom and Dad (Um, I love you guys, like, more than is humanly possible? Splenda? Cinnamon? Clif bars, Orbit, spices and Poptarts a gogo? I almost started crying. Seriously.) and am therefore in too high an emotional state to concentrate on anything else. But in the meantime, a teaser, something new I’m trying. A column-style bit that I’ll call Encounters. Because there are many that deserve at least a word or two. Here goes:

A couple weeks ago, I jumped into a cab and recited the formula for getting back to my neighborhood: Gay-nah-ri-sah-cha. Pulled the door shut, cab now moving. The driver said something to me, and I did the hands palm-up, shoulders raised, “I don’t understand” shake of the head. He said something again. “No speak Korean,” I said. “Where are you from,” he said slowly. “Ah,” I said, feeling a bit of an ass. “United States.” He had been there, he said. I asked when. During the Korean War. Knowing that many Koreans hold ill feelings toward us Americanos in regards to that whole Korean war deal, I decided to change the subject. “I’m here teaching English,” I offered. Our eyes met in the rear-view mirror. “Koreans do not need English,” he said, rather caustically, I felt, and then really caustically, he added, “or Americans.” I said: “Oh. Okay,” and stared out the window for the rest of the ride.

Last Sunday, Sarah and I challenged a couple of our Western friends to a tennis match. What I love about Korea is that you can walk ten minutes in any direction, and you’re bound to find a tennis court. We planned to meet the gentlemen at a court we’d never been to, right across from a Christian church. We walked through the entry gate, and a Korean man was upon us immediately, motioning for us to follow him across two occupied courts to a vacant one. There were a man and woman sitting on the side. Sarah and I were directed to one side, and the man and woman rose and walked to the other side. We volleyed with them, half-court, for about ten minutes, and they were very good. The boys soon arrived, and we thanked our new Korean friends for the warm-up. After dinking around for about half-an-hour, a Korean man hurried up to me and Sarah and pointed to our feet. “Tennis shoes,” he said. “Yes,” I said. “Tennis shoes.” “No, running shoes,” he said, clearly irritated. “You need tennis shoes.” Busted. I used to palms-up, shoulder raise “I don’t know” look again. It worked. He left. We played. Then a man brought us four cups and a bottle of water. Were we paying for this? I wondered, in between I love Korea thoughts. A little while later, a man brought over a large bottle of beer. He tossed the water out of our cups, and refilled them with Hite. We weren’t sure what was happening, but we knew that—whatever it was—we liked it. Then the man motioned me out onto the court, and showed me a few maneuvers. Free. Gratis. I love Korea.

Last Friday, I ventured up the mountain again. It hurt much more than it did the first and second times. This is not good. Anyway, on the way down, I met an army of children, marching up the muddy incline, leaving barely any room for those in descent to pass. I became nervous that I might see children from my classes. I don’t know why I was nervous, really, but I was. The first familiar face I spotted in the throng belonged to Jack, a boy who had failed one of my tests two days earlier. I smiled at him, waved, and said, “Hello.” He ignored my greeting. Looked through me. I felt silly. I decided no more kiddie acknowledgment. Three minutes later I spotted Mike, who I’d recently had to move to the back of the classroom for being disruptive. I buckled and smiled. He ignored me. Looked through me. I was hurt. No more, I said to myself. They’re too cool for me, then I’m too cool for them. I averted my gaze to the trees. Who knows how many of them I passed during the last five minutes down. At the bottom, I began to run, and saw Kelly twenty feet ahead. That week, I’d told my Korean co-worker that Kelly was developing an attitude, and the Korean teacher had told Kelly to stop. I hadn’t meant for the Korean teacher to say anything. I wouldn’t say hello to Kelly, I decided, because she wouldn’t say anything back. I passed her, and she shot me a bewildered look, said nothing, no smile. Sad teacha.

Friday as I left my apartment for work, my neighbors were leaving, too. I’d never seen them face-to-face before, but I’d heard them plenty, and was sure that they’d heard me, too. Every morning, and every night. You see, I have this thing about silence, and I usually fix it by singing. Loudly. I hadn’t felt bad about it until seeing this cute, little old couple, smiling at me, motioning toward me window, trying to ask if I was the girl who’d moved in next door. Their warmness made me want to apologize. I pointed to my ears and asked, “Me too loud? Too loud?” The woman laughed, and the man turned away and started walking up the street. I laughed with the woman, and then walked past them up the street. I thought about asking one of the Korean teachers to write a note. Is my singing too loud? it would say, and at the bottom would be two penciled boxes, labeled Ne and Ani-yo. Yes or no. Please check.

This blog ended up being far lengthier that I had intended. I hope my editor is pleased. ☺

Thursday, September 18, 2008

More Songpyeon, Please!

Not even a month after I've arrived in Korea, a major holiday has passed: Chuseok (pronounced chew-sock). Chuseok is a celebration of the Harvest Moon, the equivalent of our Thanksgiving. And boy, am I glad I made it in time for this one: four-day weekend, camping in Jirisan National Park, and a giant bag heavy with songpyeon--a traditional, half-moon-shaped Korean rice cake, filled with either a sesame or chestnut paste. They're cooked over pine needles for a subtle sylvan infusion, and I'm telling you, they are ridiculously delicious. I just found out that I can get them at E-Mart any time of year. Danger.

So yes, Chuseok. A celebration of the bounty of the Earth. During this time, the 15th day of the 8th lunar moon, Korean families travel (or they're supposed to, at least) from all over Korea to return to their ancestral homes. Ideally, this puts them present at the gravesites of their ancestors, where they might pay deference to the spirits of those long-dead spirits that--legend goes--still play a hand in the fleshy happenings in Earth. 

What I found out, though--from talking to the undeniably reliable student resources at Reading Town--is that Chuseok is primarily about visiting the grandparents. Because on Chuseok, the grandparents become rather liberal with their won, and one can never accumulate too many won. But such is the nature of any currency.

The point being: due to a mass ancestral-home-returning scramble, what should have been less than a three-hour car ride to wonderful and fabulous Jirisan National Park turned into a five-hour study of variance within the conditions of bumpers of Korean-driven cars. And my prior hypothesis was unequivocally correct: Koreans are Krazy drivers. Yes. Krazy with a capital K.

But we made it. And it was definitely beautiful. Before we had all left work Friday, Mrs. Lee had told me that for years after the Korean war ended, scattered sprinklings of North Korean soldiers hid within the forests of Jirisan. According to my Korean guidebook, eventually the squatters were, well, flushed out--which Sarah and I didn't take to mean they were shooed back across the DMZ by broomstick-wielding Koreans. The rumor is that of the large wildlife that once roamed them thar hills, two bears remain. I suggested that unflushed North Koreans might prove a larger threat to our food stashes.

From camp, I could see the mountain I was destined to climb, and curbed the first-night boozing, specifically, so that I could cover serious ground the next day. The others expressed a desire to lay lazily in the adjacent river all day, but what I wanted was to walk. Forever and ever.

The next day, the ever-helpful Anna walked to the campsite director man's office to inquire about the trailhead leading to the top of my mountain. They exchanged quite a few words as I stood there gazing across the road, across the river, up the forested slopes and to the pinnacle where--I was sure--the very best supplemental blog pictures await taking (always thinking about the blog, always, always). The man and Anna fell silent, and as soon as she turned her face to me, I knew.
"He says there are no trails."
"No trails?" I repeated.
"Mmm, yes. There are no trails."
I hadn't expected this. I hadn't expected this at all. All day laying in the river? By the river?Might as well be under the river. My father understands.
Not proud, but I pouted a little. A lot. I pouted a lot. And then I waded into the river, onto a rock, where I cursed my decision to leave my book at home (No time! There were mountains to climb!). The others were having fun in the water, and so me and myself walked the pity party upstream a ways, sat on a rock, and polished off about twenty serving's worth of pity-party trail mix.
Then I decided to be a big girl, and rejoined civilization. The trip was actually quite fun, a good opportunity to get to know everyone a little better, sit around the camp fire and take turns showcasing guitar skills, a little beer, a little more trail mix. Good people. Good mountains. Good times.


Monday, September 8, 2008

Oh, where to begin!

Chronologically, and—I apologize—hastily:

A couple weeks ago, Angéle expressed some interest in doing a little jogging, and I’m always looking for people to run with, so we made plans to meet at this great new park near Reading Town. The place is fabulous: quarter-mile rubber-based track, badminton courts, soccer field, skate rink, and these rudimentary, archaic-looking (but actually fairly new) weight machines. Yeah, outside. Check it out:

Instead of adjusting the weight, each machine is rigged so 
that as you—for example—sit and push the metal bars away from you to 
work your triceps, you push your own body weight. Rather ingenious, right? And free! (My favorite part). So at 7:30 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Angéle and I run a couple laps. Walk a couple laps. Do a few stretches. Lift our body weight a few times. Think about doing abs, talk about doing abs, and usually pass on doing abs. And all before the other teachers have rolled out of bed, we’re pretty sure. This is good for me, this having somebody waiting at the track three times a week. Because you can’t roll over, press snooze, and let your running buddy down. You just can’t.

That said, I think I’ve gained about five pounds in the last week. I love U-Dong noodles. I love them. And they’re so bad for you, too.

Next: the weekend! Friday night, we had a company dinner to celebrate (I was 
told) my coming to Korea. More Korean barbeque, which is quite frankly far more work that I’m accustomed to while going out to dinner, but this might have been my favorite yet. We had duck, instead of the fat-laden pork slices, and a type of kimchi I really liked. I sat next to Helen, who told me there are over 400 types of kimchi, although only a few are made regularly. She makes a few types every fall, and I think I might ask her if I can help this season. So Grandma while you’re canning jams, and Aunt Gin, salsa, I may be filling vats of vinegar with cabbage and spices. Who’s jealous?

Mr. Kim was so kind as to drive Angele, Sarah, Vanessa and I back to our apartments, and as we walked through the busy, downtown Changwon streets, our steps slightly swervy from a couple bottles of Hite (the Korean equivalent of Bud, or Miller, or—for us Colorado kids—Coors) some Korean men trailed us, calling out, “Hello! How are you! Hello!” Apparently, my judgment was slightly swervy, too, and I said hello back, because I didn’t want to be that rude American, you know? The girls shushed me, told me to ignore them, because, they said, wayward Russian women often roam the Korean streets looking to turn a trick or two. And with my incriminating blonde hair…

Next: Andrew Bishop came to town! Bishop is one of the fellows I bombarded with my battery of “What’s Korea like?” questions for the few months before I arrived. We had mutual friends at Mizzou, had been to a few of the same parties, and—the most special—I once walked in on him in a single, unisex bathroom on the Mizzou campus. Luckily, at this point, he was to the hand-washing stage. His own fault, really. Didn’t lock the door.

Anywho, he was in Changwon for a training seminar, and so we met up Saturday evening when that was finished. We wanted to find him a new bag, because, he says, Korea is the bag killer. Two of his bags have spontaneously fallen apart here, for no good reason whatsoever. We searched the Lotte department stores, but decided it was too expensive for teachers of English. Next the E-Mart, but they had nothing to his liking. So we decided to drink, instead, and were forced to jaywalk a rather busy street to do so, during which Bishop risked his life to save 
his pack of cigarettes. But in the end, we got our Hite.

Then, City Seven with Anna and Daniel for din-din. City Seven is a new shopping district 
in Changwon, and let me just say: amazing. After a little Italiano cuisine, we wandered to the top 
floor, which lays open under the daunting presence of some massive skyscraper-like apartment buildings, and which
houses a classy restaurant and stellar fountain-light show. We 
drank cheap beers and discussed things like: If we could have three superpowers, what would they be? Very intellectual.

Later, a little roof-top party at Sarah’s place. More games and deep conversations. We walked home at some point, and two minutes into my apartment, I saw my first live cockroach. Upside down near the drain on my bathroom floor, little legs twitching. Disgusting. I felt dirty. But we were feeling rather adventurous at this point, and wondered just what a cockroach tasted like (who hasn't?), and mused at what an incredible Facebook-profile picture us eating a cockroach would be, and so we each grabbed a pair of chopsticks from my kitchen and…

And, my creative license has run out. Actually, Bishop promptly flushed him down the toilet, and spent five minutes quelling my anxiety that I have a filthy apartment.

On Sunday, Anna and Daniel invited a bunch of work kids over for a spectacular Sunday dinner, with sweet-potato noodles and sautéed beef and sliced peaches and fettuccine alfredo and chips 
and salsa and a wonderful cake baked in—yes, baked in—an oven. I’d almost forgotten what an 
oven looked like. We also played Scrabble (Scrabble, Mom! Scrabble!) during which I convinced my opponents not to challenge me on fatso, but made up for it with the triple-letter hitting, thirty-something-point-scoring quaint. Mother would have been proud. Sarah did inform us that advanced Scrabble players should expect to score somewhere around 400 points a game. None of us even flirted with 100. But we did have fun warming up. Click on the 
picture at the right to check out some of our fabulous Scrabble-letter concoctions.

On our way out of Anna and Daniel's apartment, the strap on Bishop's bag tore and snapped. Korea the Bag Killer. 

And den—I slept. The end!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Gaps We Bridge With Music

"After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music." ~Alduous Huxley

At Home Plus the other day, Sarah and I were exploring the various levels, and near the top was a tiny music store, the floor crammed with pianos and the walls lined with guitars. The man who worked there was very nice, and his English consisted of: "I do not speak good English," "I like the blues music," and then of course the names of his favorite Western musicians and lyrics of their best songs. He played "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton, and even sang, which was wildly entertaining in his Korean accent.

He offered to unwrap and tune a guitar I was looking at so that I might play, and I did, and he urged me to sing, which I did, terribly. My claim is that the strings were very flat, because my voice just couldn't pick up the tune of "Wicked Game" by Chris Isaak, which I've probably played and sang more than any other song. However, perhaps I'm just that out of practice. He must have though that I needed much more practice, because he offered to take 20,000 won off the price tag!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Wowza, the weekend flew by! Teaching last week was rather exhausting, and I think all of us were ready for a couple days without reciting “cat, hat, hug, and bug,” and various other three-letter words, in front of ten confused-looking children. Actually, they’re rather smart, the kids, and we do more than just recitation, but by Friday, ready for rest.

Friday evening, Anna, the Korean teacher I sit next to in the office invited me and a couple others out for dinner—LATE dinner, as our last class ended at 9:30. We discussed what we were in the mood for, and eventually decided on “meat,” which is basically Korean grill. The way it works is your party sits at a table with some type of grilling mechanism—the grill at this particular restaurant was sunken into the center of the table, with a stainless steel cover with numerous slits for fat to drain through—and you order a large plate of very uniformly sliced beef or pork cuts for the table to share. Side dishes are brought out, like kimchi (growing on me) and soybean sprouts (love them) and bean paste (delicious) and—my new favorite—green radishes. I believe they were marinated in some type of vinegar, but Sarah described them perfectly as having a watermelon/sour apple Smirnoff type taste. Absolutely delicious. And of course we ordered a couple bottles of Hite, which seems to be the official beer of Korea. So you grill the pork, which is actually very little pork and giant chunks of fat (how do they stay so slender? This is a mystery to me…), grab it off the grill with chopsticks (I’m getting better, ate eggs with ‘em the other morning!), wrap it in a some type of leaf with all the other fixings, and voila! Korean cuisine. Quite good. Way too much work, but good in the end.

Went shopping this morning at E-Mart—the equivalent of Wal-Mart, but better—located about ten minutes by bus from my apartment. It lays on the edge of what Changwonians call The Roundabout, and has five levels: grocery store, electronics and home stuff, clothing, and two parking floors. The Lotte department store is across the roundabout, and has a movie theater and nice clothing stores. Pictures!

I thought it hilarious that this boy was riding a pink floral moped. And that he wore socks with his sandals. But everybody here does.

There just may be more squid in the grocery stores of Changwon than in the all the waters of the oceans—gross. Actually, if I knew how to cook it, I’d probably get some.

After shopping, I thought I’d try the mountain again. Turns out, I’d only been about ten minutes from the top the first time, but sooooo glad I saved it for today, because the view was absolutely amazing, just mountains in every direction. There seemed to be quite a few connecting trails, and a Korean man I chatted with on the way down the mountain said it was possible to backpack to Busan and many other places—so that’s the plan, if I can recruit some coworkers to go with me!

Just a few pictures:

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Totally forgot to put up my pics from Hyundai beach! My first time ever seeing the ocean while actually grounded. I hate to admit this, but it was incredibly anticlimactic. Fun for a little while--yes--but one can only lay in the sun for so long and wander out to sea so far before longing for a nice mountain to trek up :)

But here are the pictures. Sara was oh-so-sweet as to invite me, and several other people, but they declined the invitation. We met two gentlemen at the beach--Cam and Anthony--whom she had met at one of the international bars some weeks ago in downtown Changwon.

Waves! Sand! Water as far as the eye could see! One can only imagine how astonished I was that these things existed in such tangible tandem, and not merely in pictures and television.

Couldn't think of any better way to express my feelings at that moment. Like I said: anticlimactic.

Some ways down the beach was this fabulous mermaid statue, and just before that, strange Korean disciplinary action. Perhap this child had failed to complete his hagwon homework the week before.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Now Introducing: Kristen Teacha!

After three days of observing Angele and various other teachers conduct classes, I was let loose—and Lordy, was I sweating it. Summer session ended yesterday, and so a new schedule was handed out. Everybody was stressed. Everybody was bustling. I had no idea how to read the schedule. Daniel, a foreign teacher from New Zealand, was leaving, and so I was re-colonizing his desk, and a few of his classes. But I didn’t know which ones. And he didn’t seem to know which ones. And I couldn’t figure out how to tell who had previously taught my other classes (very important; some classes were transferred in the middle of their session, so they might be on lesson 17 on my first day with them) even though somebody had already explained it. I couldn’t ask again—stupid people aren’t allowed to be teachers, right?—and so I spent two hours trying to reference one schedule alongside a second schedule alongside a list of class rosters. Impossible. And even then, I doubted if I had done it correctly. Finally, close to tears, I asked Angele is there were simply an easier way. Flash the rosters around, she said. See if anybody recognizes old classes. I did that, but still three mystery classes—no paper trail at all. Turns out, they were brand new classes. No paper trail to find.

Any new job is rather stressful, as anyone knows, because not only are there so many new things you must bother busy people to explain to you, but there are also those questions you don’t know to ask. These, to me, are more stressful than anything. They’re like phantom limbs, right? Itching, itching, itching, while they may not really be there at all. That was a horrific simile—phantom limbs? Truly horrific. Am I seriously still harboring these dreams of writing?

But it ended up working out. My first class was at 3:30 this afternoon, and I showed up at the school at 11:30—only Mr. Kim and a cleaning woman were there—to hash out my lesson plans and familiarize myself with the books. The other teachers were super supportive and offered lots of help. Angele showed me how to use the copy machine—very important. As 3:30 approached, I was strangely calm. I felt like I should be nervous, but I couldn’t talk myself into it. Class wouldn’t be perfect. I wouldn’t be perfect. And it would all be okay. I spent the last minutes leading up to class convincing myself of this.

And then the bell was ringing, and I was gathering my supply basket and books, and eight faces made that “Huh?” look as a short blonde American walked into the classroom instead of Daniel, their old teacher. I introduced myself, and asked their names, and started talking about I don’t remember what, and they all stared at me with wide eys, and then began chattering to each other in Korean. Some of them laughed. I asked what was funny, and Newt (yes, Newt; they each pick an English “name” as they begin classes at Reading Town) said to me, “Teacha, you talk too fast!” My dad says this to me nearly every conversation we have, and my rejoinder is typically: “You listen too slowly,” but I thought this might confuse the children. So I told them that the next time I lost control of my jaw, they should raise both hands and yell: “Slow down, teacha!”

But the class went very well, and we were joking around as far as the language barrier would allow, and mid-way through, one of the boys told me I looked funny. I laughed, and told him that was not very nice, and he and another boy looked at each other with confused expressions, and then laughed themselves. “No, teacha!” the other boy said. “You funny!” I’m tellin’ ya: Made. My. Day.

I’m sitting here at my apartment trying to remember the funny things that they all said today, because there were so, so many funny things, and in such cute little Asian accents, but my mind is drawing a blank. One day while I was sitting in on one of Angele’s book library classes, the class had to write a book report together, and she asked the children what a “summary” was. They all thought a moment, and then one boy began to fan his face and said, “Very hot.” Many have tremendous difficulty pronouncing the letter L. The letters R and L are basically interchangeable in Korean, and so when they’re reading the word “small,” they pronounce it “smarll.” Hilarious. Call? Carl. People? Peorple. Definitive articles do not exist in Korean grammar, so I’m told, and so to them, I am new English teacher. And Newt is loudest boy in class. Many Korean words end in a vowel sound, and so the children often add “ee” or “uh” to the ends of consonant-ending words. Handa-me-downs. Kristen Teacha. So very cute, and it sometimes takes all you have not to laugh in the middle of class. During my last class today, I was walking around with a red pen checking sentences they were writing, and Steven had his grammar a bit mixed up—and they HATE getting red marks on their papers, because Mom will see them later—and he yelled, “Shit!” I was very startled, and expected the class to erupt in titters, but nobody said anything, and I thought maybe I had heard him wrong, and so I said, “What did you say, Steven?” and he looked up at me through is glasses and smiled. “Uh, shit!” he repeated. I couldn’t help but laugh, and I said, “Bad word. Don’t say.” Heard it at least twice more before the end of class.

I’m going to start carrying my little writing notebook with me everywhere, and recording the hilarious things they say, because they’re too good to pass up. Wish I had done it today.

Hey, here are some pictures of my apartment:

View from the front door

Ahh, the kitchen, in which lives the pot in which I boil every ounce of tap water I drink, in which--apparently--live some real bad things.

Nice big living room

The "office." It houses only a desk. Rather depressing.

The bathroom. That corner is where I point my shower nozzle when I hose myself down.

The right half of my bedroom...

And the left. Spacious, no?

The funny park across the street from my place

And the sad converter box that I somehow melted. Lucky I didn't kill myself, really.

And possibly the coolest front door I've ever seen. Yup, it's mine.