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 ├╝ber 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.