CUCUMBER BOKKEUM (오이 볶음)

This is my own version of “cucumber bokkeum,”, which is one of my favorites; it’s crunchy, fresh, and light, and in my opinion is an ideal side dish for oilier main dishes (jeon, donkatsu, etc). However, I eat it with rice and broth regularly as well. This is an easier one to make. It’s best eaten cold, so make ahead of time and give it plenty of time to refrigerate before serving.

You will need:
-2 big cucumbers
-1-2 tbsp salt
-sesame oil
-roasted sesame seeds
also:
-a big bowl
-a colander
-med/large frying pan

First, skin and cut the cucumbers into medallions, then place them in a big bowl. Add 1-2 tbsp of salt, mix well so all cucumbers are coated, and let sit for 20 minutes.

After the cucumbers have had their salt bath, drain them over a colander for five minutes. Then, squeeze the remaining water out (I put on plastic kitchen gloves and squeeze by hand) of the cucumbers before putting them aside.

In frying pan, heat 2-3 tbsp (?) of sesame oil until it’s very hot, but not smoking.

The trick with this dish is not to kill the cucumbers by overcooking, so your pan needs to be hot before you add them. Once oil is hot, stir fry the slices for 2-3 minutes, then top with roasted sesame seeds.

As I mentioned before, this dish is best enjoyed cool, so make sure you give it enough time to refrigerate before serving!

meal idea: other recipes to come soon!
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on closing my eyes so it’s impossible to roll them

The vice principal at my school used to be a Korean teacher–something that both surprised me and didn’t at the same time when I found out. She uses all kinds of special words that I’ve never heard before so I’m always like….um, wut…? when she’s talking, in a show of confusion that almost nobody else I have met in this country can reduce me to–but it turns out that’s not just because I don’t know a lot of words. It’s because she’s using words nobody else (except maybe other Korean teachers and … poets) uses. My coteacher (English teacher), who hates reading and doesn’t ever read for pleasure, and hasn’t ever in her life, also displayed wonder and a lack of knowledge of these words when we were gathered together at a vice-principal-mandated “English Tea Time” yesterday. Anyway, when I found out that the vice principal used to teach Korean (which is the equivalent of the “English” class that kids in English-speaking countries have), it made sense to me. I’d also be using words I learned from books in my daily speech if it didn’t mean that 100% of the people I was talking to wouldn’t be able to understand me.

The reason, however, that it surprised me was that I’ve always had the idea that people who study and then decide to dedicate their lives to literature tend to fall on the warm, compassionate, and somewhat politically/socially liberal side of the spectrum, but this is not really the impression I have of Ms. V.P. at all. She is a very friendly person and by some standards could be considered “warm,” but to me, warmth connotes an acceptance and a certain lack of judgement. Now, I’m saying this as someone whom she’s welcomed with open arms since she met me despite my multiple tattoos and my consistent pushing of Korean curriculum boundaries (though I’m not sure anyone pays attention to what I teach about in summer camps, the list includes gender theory, feminism, LGBTQA+, diversity, beauty-standards, etc). For those of you who don’t know, tattoos are kinda taboo for people with “respectable” careers in Korea, and teachers are pretty revered in this country. It’s only the English teachers who come from overseas who I’ve ever seen with tattoos teaching. It’s just kind of unheard of, a Korean person who’s a teacher who has tattoos.

I asked her permission before I got a nose piercing (re: the nose piercing that never happened but will someday) and she said I shouldn’t get one because I’m a “role-model” for students. I had expected this answer so I didn’t push her, but my department’s head teacher saw that I was frustrated so I told her about it. Why is it unacceptable for a role-model to have a nose ring? I asked and asked. Nobody could give me an answer. It’s just Korean culture, they’d say. And I said I know, but I want to know WHY. When I posted a status on that now-deleted language exchange app expressing my frustration, I got all kinds of comments including ones like “if you think that’s acceptable as a teacher then you just don’t understand Korean culture.” I asked these people the same question: “why is it bad?” and nobody could answer me (hint: it’s because there’s no good reason that’s it’s bad, there is actually NO reason). Instead of realizing they were avoiding the question and thereby becoming a sucker to the tyranny of tradition, they got mad at me, they assumed I was dumb, they assumed I never tried to think about it, and I heard this again and again: “you just don’t understand Korean culture.”

Understanding a culture is not mutually exclusive to questioning it. This should be common sense. The reasons for culture being the way it is are not always expressly clear. Inquiring as to the reasons that a culture is the way it is is one of the most powerful things we can do as citizens of this world. It’s not enough to simply accept things as they’re done and have always been done. This should be common sense. (I will admit that the fact that I am from a country without a collective, overriding sense of cultural identity is to thank / to blame for this point of view on my part. However I know people born and raised in Korea who have also, through their own personal growth, come to see these things the same way that I do.)

I need a good reason that having a nose ring is gonna harm those kids. (Obviously I know this: if they see me with one and then decide they want one, they’re gonna give their parents hell about it even though they can’t have one as a student [re: uniform rules]). I can accept that my actions will have unpleasant consequences for the parents of the students… so I can say you know what, fine, I’ll yield on this one, but it’s not because the part of Korean culture that says a nose ring is unacceptable on someone in a position of leadership and authority is right.

Now, this denying me permission to get a nose-ring anecdote is just to show that Ms. V.P. is a conservative Korean woman. She’s older, maybe late fifties or early sixties–not sure–don’t tell her I said that just in case–and in somewhat typical fashion of women of this age of this culture, she has an air about her as though she’s very satisfied in her knowledge of the world around her and how it should be. I don’t see any angst in her, any desire for change. She is very comfortable. She knows how things should be in this life, and that’s how they are now. This is the impression I get from her that made me so surprised to find out she was a Korean teacher–there would be no literature in this world if this world was already exactly as it should be. After thinking about it, I decided she must just really like the Korean language itself, and perhaps she likes literature as intellectual fodder and not as a lifestyle.

I’m bringing her up because she has on several occasions made assumptions, and voiced them, that I believe arise out of her very complacent world view (which in Korean culture automatically includes the idea that Korean culture is doing this culture thing right). These are the things that more than anything else lately have been forcing me to close my eyes so I can’t roll them.

Situation #1: I have had gastroenteritis pretty consistently from the first week of June, and therefore, 1) the things it’s possible for me to eat constitute a small list indeed and so, 2) I have lost a LOT of weight. During one of our English Tea Times, she asked me why it’s going on for such a long time. I told her honestly, I think it’s stress. Then she asked me why I was stressed. I said simply, I’m living away from home in a culture that isn’t mine and doesn’t match well with me. Then she said how can I help you? I want to help your stress. So I told her, again honestly, I’m a very introverted person so there’s really nothing anybody ELSE can do to help me. She thought about it for a moment, then said, Korean people, we like to help each other. Don’t you want that? I realized maybe I had seemed rude to her. I said It’s not that I don’t want your help, and I’m really thankful that you want to help me. It’s just that there’s actually no method that you could enact that would actually help me. I have to solve certain things on my own. Certain things I can’t solve at all. I just have to endure it.

She turned to the other teacher at our Tea Time (admin lady, who I like) and observed, in Korean, I guess they are very independent in other countries. They don’t have (jeong: see “usage note”) like we do in our country.

First of all, the idea that through group effort any problem can be solved is very Korean. Look at the amazing things they have done as a people and as a country because of this kind of attitude: they bailed themselves, as a nation, out of bankruptcy after the IMF crisis in 1997, they rebuilt their entire country, government, and economy after being obliterated by the Japanese occupation from 1913-1945 and then the Korean War from 1950-1953. They’ve gone from nothing to super success. I think their never-give-up attitude is truly admirable.

But it has to be tempered by common sense, or perhaps even wisdom. A person’s heart is not a country. Again, this is something literature has basically defined for us: there’s no such thing as a simple person, and no such thing as a simple problem. Certain things cannot be “solved” by effort alone.

Then there’s the idea that Korean people are very affectionate and kind, an idea they refer to as “jeong.” I’m not going to say this isn’t true, but it’s not the kind of affection that someone from a more diverse nation would expect. As a person from a hugely diverse culture where not only tolerance but acceptance of otherness is a necessary trait in the virtuous, I see huge limitations to Korean jeong, but I don’t deny its existence. The hospitality of the older generation is especially stunning. They love to take care of each other and of strangers alike. They welcome everyone to their table, and take pains to make sure visitors and guests are comfortable. Through these somewhat superficial interactions, I see jeong. But I guess jeong doesn’t mean that they’re not going to think I’m wrong if I’m not doing something their way. Korea has been a completely homogeneous culture until the last 50 or 60 years or so and only recently, I’d say since the mid-nineties or so, is there any kind of sizable population of foreigners living among them. The traditional Korean value of jeong, therefore, is different in essence to what I consider to be true affection and kindness.

So, just because foreigners are not Korean and thereby lack “jeong” it means that when one person is suffering everyone just stands back and lets them fend for themselves? (This had been implied in Ms. V.P.’s observation.) In what world is this an actual assumption that can be made from what I said? Well, in the world of an older Korean lady who thinks she already understands how the world works. (And she does, because it’s her own. Not the one where all us regular people have to live.)

Situation #2: When I speak English with people who are not native speakers, I am taking constant pains to make myself clear to them–this includes “pains” such as flipping the correct grammatical order of certain phrases, leaving out prepositions and conjunctions, and speaking slowly, breaking up long thoughts into phrases, while emphasizing key words and acting out things with my body if I find it necessary. This is not how I usually communicate but I also don’t find it necessary to let someone know all the effort I’m going to for them, so in theory, I guess you could think this is how I am and this is how the English language is. (If someone asks me if I’m speaking slow I’ll tell them yes, I am. I had a language partner years ago notice I was speaking slowly and he asked me if I was doing that for his sake. I said yes and he asked me to speak normally, just so he could see how different that was. He was unable to understand about 90% of what I said and even then, he said he only knew the words, not what they meant strung together.)

When I teach English, of course I’m not going to teach something that’s grammatically incorrect, but I’m also not going to teach something that only someone with a university education would say. I’m going to relay the simplest possible, correct way to say what my student wants to say. I like to give the impression to students that English isn’t really hard and that you don’t need to be perfect (or complicated) to communicate well. I’m always telling them–“‘good English’ DOES NOT MEAN ‘perfect English’!” But when I meet Ms. V.P. for English Tea Time, while the same is true, I’m not constantly pointing out the fact that I’m making it simple and it doesn’t have to be perfect. I’m just having a conversation, choosing my words very carefully and offering very carefully considered translations when they’re required.

If you’re a complacent, older Korean woman who is by anyone’s estimation a master of her own language and fully aware of its complexities and art, I suppose it’s possible you could look at me, a mere child, speaking consistently and without deviation in a completely simple and easy manner, and come to the conclusion that English is a simple language. After all, this foreign child is the representative of her country and her culture and we’re able to extrapolate lifestyles and culture in America from her every action or preference, so why shouldn’t it be the same with language?

Although my coteacher always makes it a point to tell other teachers (speaking in Korean, of course,) that I am making the English easy and I am making it simple and then teaching them, I guess that point didn’t manage to stick in Ms. V.P.’s mind. (Although the Tea Time ladies once asked me to recite a line of my favorite poem and I did, and they didn’t understand a single word… I guess she forgot about that, too.) Because at one point in our conversation a few days ago, after being surprised for the third or fourth time in a row at how simply they could express their thoughts in English upon hearing my translation of what they wanted to say, Ms. V.P. turned to admin lady and said, in Korean, “English is a simple language.”

There was slightly more nuance in her language: she said something more like, English tends to be simple. But she meant what she meant. She was comparing English to Korean, which, I will admit, is a language chock full of esoteric phrases and exceedingly specific vocabulary, to a baffling degree. However, this was a moment in which I was forced to close my eyes so I could not roll them. Do you honestly think anyone’s gonna get a tattoo of Shakespeare on their arm because he’s a master of the language whose peak of complexity is phrases like “that’s a relief!” or “I didn’t know that” ? I’m sorry, but just imagine being that sure of your own culture’s superiority.

imagine if he were famous for saying things like “you can do it! never give up!”

I had my chance to give them (or rather, Ms. V.P.) a little tiny piece of my mind somewhere later on in the same conversation: I said something like, “it’s not that English is a simple language. It’s not. It’s just that for conversation purposes, simple is best, so when I let you know something or translate something, I am making it as simple as possible. That is the best for English speaking.”

They seemed to understand, and perhaps even to accept what I was saying. I wonder how long Ms. V.P. will remember that I said that. I wonder what she thinks of my love for literature. She must think me an inferior being.

gray squash jeon (호박전)

These are one of the first Korean jeon I learned to make. They’re not the easiest to make and require careful attention, as each round of squash has to be floured and egged right before it goes into the pan, but they are delicious and light and one of my favorite Korean foods. Children also tend to love these as they’re mild in flavor. If you’d like to introduce someone to Korean food for the first time, this might not be a bad idea for the table.

This recipe is for 1-2 servings, depending on how much you’d like to eat.

You will need:
-flour (4-5 tablespoons) mixed with garlic salt & pepper
-1 egg, beaten
-1 Korean gray squash (애호박)
-vegetable oil, ideally one with a high smoke point (so no olive oil)
-1 medium-sized frying pan
-soy sauce (for dipping sauce)
-rice wine vinegar (for dipping sauce)

Slice the squash into thin medallions. The tricky thing about these jeon is that you need to cook the squash through at the same time it takes the outer coating to brown, but not burn the coating. That means slices should be about a half a centimeter thick, or thinner. Any thicker than that and it won’t cook all the way through before the coating burns.

I thinned down the slices that were uneven or too thick before cooking. I would suggest you do the same!

After slicing the squash, heat up oil to hot but not smoking over medium-high. (Don’t add any salt to the squash slices; this will make them “sweat,” or release moisture. Instead, rely on the salt in your flour mixture for seasoning.)

Take a slice of squash and evenly coat it with the flour mixture (I like to shake it around in the bowl for a light coating) before coating it in egg. After coating the slice in egg, add it to the pan. Repeat with a new slice and flip the ones in the pan as necessary. (The outer edges of the slice will become light brown; then you can flip it.)

Reduce heat to medium. Keep a close eye on the slices in the pan as you coat and add new slices. Don’t let them burn! Each slice will take 1-2 minutes depending on the level of heat you’re using. Remove from the pan and transfer to a plate.

I prefer to use chopsticks to flip the pieces but if you have small kitchen tongs that might work well, too. A spatula will probably bump around the other slices in the pan so it’s best to use a more precise tool.

After finishing the jeon, combine 2 tbsp soy sauce with 1-2 tbsp rice wine vinegar for dipping sauce. (You can adjust the ratio to suit your taste.) You should enjoy the jeon while they’re warm. For all the work it takes to make them, they do tend to disappear pretty quickly!

why i finally deleted that app

Recently I have had a lot of free time at work because it’s summer vacation; I’ve been at the office alone, which has been incredibly peaceful and satisfactory. I’ve started reading The Lord of the Rings again, which I’ve meant to do for some time; I’m re-reading King Lear (again) because of the Fool’s witty burns and Lear’s penchant for the dramatic (very entertaining); and I also made the mistake of deciding to use the language exchange app again that I’ve used in the past to learn/practice Korean. Usually, I delete all incoming messages after “reading” them so the other person can see they’re being ignored since my profile says (said) in no less than THREE PLACES “do not message me.” But this past week I thought I would give some extra attention to Korean, as I found myself without opportunity to really speak it in person (no coworkers), so I deleted the “do not message me” banners from my profile and instead made a status update announcing my freedom to “chat” for the week I’d be free. 

This app is ALWAYS a bad idea, and a little part of me was thinking that even as I posted the status; sure enough, messages poured in at a higher rate than usual, though I have no idea what it is about me that attracts people to want to talk with me. I am more candid than usual in my online speech than I am in person (though I’m thinking it all in my head, it doesn’t all make it out) and so on this app I have posted several feminist, and what would be in Korea politically/socially subversive statuses in my time on the site; I have also used it as a diary, writing of my horrible breakup, my experiences with the trauma and grief of that relationship, my daily life, even posting pictures of my vegetarian meals (to the eternal delight and confusion of the people viewing it); I am not afraid to engage in arguments, calling out misogynist language and the perpetuation of toxic gender stereotypes whenever I see them posted, despite the commentary that unfailingly comes my way— it was just a joke, you’re reading into it too much, you need to calm down. I’ve been called a bitch (to which I replied I know I am, and I love being one), I’ve been continually “put in my place” by millennial men—re: they maintain the illusion that they can teach me anything—to which I never back down but continue the conversation until they cease engaging… People continually annoy me, anger me, infuriate me, dazzle me with their unthinkingness, and yet, I asked this public to send me messages; though I promised I couldn’t “be friends” with everyone who asked me to be, and included the disclaimer that I would reply slowly, we all can easily predict the outcome of this scenario.

Included on my profile’s self introduction was and had been for a long time the disclaimer that I have absolutely NO interest in dating, so if someone were using the app as a dating app, they’d better not message me. Of course, all I can do is say it, I can’t filter out people with that intention, but it doesn’t take a genius to recognize who’s got it and who doesn’t after chatting for a while. (Though, this is a learned skill. I didn’t used to have it, much to my detriment.)

The app’s actual function is to connect language learners to each other—you have a home page where the status updates of native speakers of the language you’re learning appear, and your status updates appear to those who are learning your language. So, Koreans who want to meet foreigners have easy access to them, whatever their motivations may be. I’d used the app for four or five years and I’d seen and learned plenty in my time—many of the men I would end up meeting for language exchange, with whom I’d had the conversation of “I’m looking for language exchange partners ONLY, not a boyfriend” BEFORE even meeting them, clearly had a romantic agenda which only became clear to me once I’d met them in person and wasted my time and energy on them; several of them had outright lied to me and had even made me feel bad for questioning their motives; one of them assaulted me when we met in person, forcing me into a kiss before I escaped him—so needless to say, at this point in my life and experience, I’m never meeting someone from that app again and I’m never trusting a man who says he’s not looking for love or sex, because words are meaningless, and I know this from experience. 

Now, that being said, I do tend to judge men on that app by that stereotype. I have a hatred of this behavior–that is, judging by stereotype–in other circumstances, but the way I see it is I am LITERALLY just trying to stay safe. The very minute a man says something that triggers my alarm, I give him a piece of my mind and then block him, feeling in this case the worst that occurs due to my stereotype is they get butthurt and never get to talk to me again. If they’re truly as honorable as they pretend to be, that’s the end of it. Unfortunately, if they did truly have ulterior motives, they’re just going to move on to another, more naive target. I cannot stop the cycle, but I can keep myself somewhat protected from it.

You can probably imagine the anger this incurs. I am pretty candid—so as soon as I say what I want to say, nobody’s wondering what I meant. This male anger at being doubted or slighted means nothing to me anymore. Let them be angry. It’s a small price to pay from my point of view. And I tend to believe that those who truly were not attempting to deceive me in any way would quickly get over their anger. (Not that I would know it cause they’re still on my blacklist.) 

And let me just say this–if you’re so angry, if you’re so good that I’ve insulted your honor simply by doubting you–why don’t you do something about it? Why don’t you do something about it other than sitting on your rear in your masturbatory anger and self-righteousness? Instead of doubting me and my reasons for my reactions, why don’t you get up and help fix the problem? Why don’t you confront the men who are the way they are and so who have made me how I am? They’re your bros, they’re your buddies; they’re this world’s ordinary stock of man. You already know they won’t listen to anything I say–look at your own reaction! It’s on men who believe they’re good to call out the dishonorable behavior of their peers. If a good man doubts and vilifies a woman just for doubting him, imagine how little a bad man thinks of her or will respect her opinions.

Anyway, all this to introduce the story that is the reason I finally deleted this cursed application. 

It was maybe 10 in the morning on Tuesday when someone messaged me saying he was excited to meet a vegetarian in Korea because they weren’t easy to find here. Naturally, I assumed that meant he was a vegetarian or vegan, too, so I asked—oh, are you a vegetarian too?—to which he said no, I’m just usually sticking to the vegetarian diet. He had no idea that I would be less than impressed by this—from my honest point of view, I don’t have a lot of respect for someone who incidentally doesn’t eat meat every day; that’s not a triumph of willpower, in my opinion, but rather a conflation of circumstances—but I didn’t know this guy so I just said oh, that’s interesting. And he continued to talk about it, asked me my reasons for being a vegetarian (I gave him a quick overview), then asked me details like whether I ate cheese, eggs, or dairy. I politely told him I’m lactose intolerant but I’m not vegan so I do eat those things in moderation, except the things I absolutely cannot. He was full of compliments and praise—and thereby he’d raised my hackles from the start. Over the course of an hour, in which I checked the app maybe every 20 minutes or so, we exchanged about 10 messages before he suddenly said “Actually, I met a foreign vegetarian on this app a while ago and we dated, but I never had a problem with the vegetarianness. I like eggs a lot and she ate eggs and dairy a lot.” 

To which I thought, well whoop-de-effing-doo, but to which I said, “oh, well now I guess I understand why you’re interested in the vegetarian diet.” Even less impressed than before.

He then said something like—and I’m still so angry I can’t remember exactly what he said but it was to this effect—“I read the statuses you’ve posted about your ex, and it’s really similar to what happened to me, so I want to get closer with you.”

And then the thing that literally makes it hard for me to breathe:

“Since you said on your profile you’re not interested at all in dating, it’s okay if we just become friends^^” 

(Y’all. My heart is pounding as I’m writing this. The effing nerve.)

So I wrote, “you mean that you only sent me a message because you’re interested in dating?”

And then, “If I happen to meet someone through this app that I match well with, then it’d be possible to become friends with them, but simply because you said ‘let’s be friends’ it doesn’t mean I’m going to be friends with you.” 

To which he replied, “well, I do want to date, but if only I say it’s good and you don’t want to then there’s no way to do it, so if we match well then just becoming friends is good.^^ I’m the kind of person who’s always careful in the face of love and because I hate cheating, I always have faith in [my partner and she in me].” 

Reader, I could have unleashed my wrath then and there, but I must have been in a good mood that day. Instead, I replied: 

“‘It’s okay if we just become friends’ are dangerous words to me. If you originally want to date, just because I say no it doesn’t change your feelings. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me, and if we keep in contact I already know what’s going to happen, and I don’t want to be in the middle of that kind of situation again. So thanks for being honest but we’re not going to be able to get any closer than this.” 

That should have been the end of it, but alas. He said,

“then, can I ask you something?” And I foolishly said okay. So he asked:

“I didn’t even say I’m going to date you, so why don’t you want to keep in contact? And, since I’ve read your writing on your profile, I know you’ve dated a lot before so why is it that you suddenly hate dating and have no interest in it?”

Keep in mind this guy sent his first message to me a mere HOUR before asking these questions; the fact that anyone could be so utterly entitled, that anyone could think that just by virtue of HIS creepy interest in ME I would EVER answer these extremely personal questions, is absolutely abhorrent and sickening to me. It was then that I realized I have to delete the application, but not before giving him a piece of my mind.

I told him I already answered his first question and I wasn’t going to waste my breath explaining yet another thing he wouldn’t even take the time to understand, and as for the second question, it was extremely personal and I wasn’t going to answer something he felt he could ask simply because he was interested in me. 

I also told him he knew nothing about me, that just because he read my profile doesn’t mean he knows anything about my dating life or what that means about the kind of person I am and who I will and won’t date. And that the fact that he thinks that just because I dated “a lot” before means I’m gonna be open to advances from any effing nobody who takes an interest in me is insulting and disgusting and I hope he never had the chance to date anyone ever again. 

I wrote that last bit in English, which he clearly didn’t understand, because he apologized (for what I’m not sure) and then said “it wasn’t something you had to get your feelings hurt over,” and THEN SAID, “then always be happy and pay attention to your health!” 

I took screenshots of the conversation, blocked him, and then put him on blast on my page (after blocking out his pic and name because I do have some sense of etiquette, unlike him), ranting in Korean as my final act on the app. I got a lot of sympathy but you know what? There’s always going to be some fat-headed creep like him, and all the power of all my rage and horror is never going to touch them. The only thing that will stop people like him from being how they are is if they can’t get in touch with their would-be victims. Cut off these people. Don’t give them the benefit of the doubt. They don’t deserve it. And nobody but you is going to teach them a lesson. The longer we tolerate this kind of behavior the more it will continue. Don’t let yourself get hurt out of the feeling of pressure to be kind or give people chances. Nine times out of ten, they do not deserve you. 

why i like to eat lunch alone

So the maintenance guy at our school is pretty old, and in my opinion, not the politest of dudes. Once, when a screw fell out of the bottom of my chair, instead of just putting the screw back in, he went and got me a new chair. That would have been fine, except he’d dragged the new chair out of storage so it was completely coated in not only 1) dust but also, somehow, inexplicably and mysteriously and also, yes, disgustingly—2) dog hair. Can’t explain it and didn’t ask. What I can explain is that it should have been perfectly clear the moment the guy laid eyes on that thing in storage that he should just give up and do the easier thing by just repairing my original chair. Instead he dragged it all the way over here from wherever that closet was, and by the fuss he was making about huffing and puffing, I don’t think it was close by. After he dragged it in front of my desk and made me test it out (don’t remember what I was wearing but those clothes were forever ruined), I had the pleasure of informing him that it was uncomfortable, and that I was allergic to dogs (also to dust like any normal person but I didn’t tell him that), and I asked him if he could just repair my actual chair. I had this entire conversation in Korean. So he said in Korean, the original’s always the best, huh, before making a display of wheeling off the cursed chair, before coming back and screwing the screw back into my original chair. It took about two minutes.

Now this guy is the one who takes care of pretty much any broken thing or malfunctioning thing in the school, which can range from broken chairs to flickering lightbulbs. But something I’ve noticed is that whenever he has something he has to do or that someone has asked him to do, whenever he gets around to deciding to do it, it has to become a top priority to everyone involved, including the teacher who asked for the favor. I have seen him interrupt conversations to announce that he’s going to go upstairs to fix the lightbulb and then come back down after fixing the lightbulb, interrupt another conversation just to whine about how hard it was to do it and to give instructions on how to behave around a lightbulb so that this doesn’t happen again. I’ve seen him interrupt phone calls, rip teachers away from their class preparations or grading, all because if he has to wait a single minute or two to say what he wants to say, the whole world is gonna end. He stops by the office whenever he does some routine maintenance in one of our classrooms just to let us know that he’s done it, with an air of what seems to be a need for recognition and undying gratitude. Once he did something in my co-teacher’s classroom that was taking longer than he thought because it was “hard” (his words) and he asked me to tell her that the next time I saw her, even though I was (and am) 100% sure my co-teacher didn’t care that he was even doing what he was doing. Yet, on my best behavior, I promised to tell her. I have seen these things with my own two eyes and experienced them as well. In Korean culture you are forced to hide the fact that you don’t like someone by treating people who are rude the same as everyone else, but I don’t think that’s fair, and I will give him only the peremptory nod / bow when we pass in the hallways. In my world, people have to earn my being nice to them.

I don’t like him.

Now that it’s summer vacation, the staff who come out to the school are very few in number. They include myself, my co-teacher, the administration staff, the maintenance staff, and the principal and vice principal. Now that there’s so few of us here, someone has gotten it into their heads that it’d be great if we all ate together, so I have been forced into a couple group lunches with people that made me regret I even know how to hear. When I was learning Korean, I never stopped to consider that I might regret understanding everything people were saying around me. I should have.

I’m an introverted person, and I don’t like spending my time, which is precious to me, with people I don’t like. Unfortunately, after four years in a culture that just sucks the life out of me, the list of people I dislike is only growing. There are people in any given situation that surround me that I would pay money to get away from, but it’s really bad for me when I’m at work and I have to mingle.

Firstly, they constantly hurt my feelings without realizing it or meaning to. It’s not hard to hurt my feelings, since I’m probably one of the world’s most sensitive beings, but they’re just kinda clueless. For example, they consistently refer to me as “the foreigner” in front of me, I mean when I’m literally sitting at the same table as them, and just the sight of my face is enough to launch them into tales of their travels in exotic lands. Then, when I reveal a preference of mine that happens to not be a Korean preference, they always then talk amongst themselves about how it be like that in other lands and that’s the reason I am the weird way that I am. (They don’t use the word weird but I know they’re saying it in their hearts.) I am constantly viewed as other (not that I wanna be viewed as one of them) and constantly talked about as other. All of my beliefs, words, preferences, are boiled down to me being foreign and not just me being me. Even my extreme independence is taken as a sign that people don’t take care of each other in America and don’t care about each other and that you just have to learn to fend for yourself (actually heard these words today [in Korean], couldn’t even make it up). In these situations, I think about speaking up, and explaining listen, I’m not Miss America, I don’t represent every single person who is not Korean, I am myself because I am me, not because I came out of the America Factory. But then I remember, these are all adults and they should already know that. If I did choose to actually say anything, it’d just be a pearls-before-swine situation.

Secondly, they always talk about me in front of me, and by that I mean they always talk about how amazed they are that I speak Korean. Last Friday I was invited to lunch (forced into going, more like) and there’s a new administration lady who has never really spent time with me before, and she was sitting next to me. The cook, who is one of the admin ladies I’m closer to, knew I’ve had enteritis for a while so she told the table to feed me from the “not spicy” plate. Of course, everyone assumed it was because I’m white and I therefore can’t eat spicy food despite the fact that I can and do (when I don’t have enteritis). I’m not exaggerating when I say that every single time a Korean person (who is not my close friend) eats spicy food around me they either 1) tell me I can’t eat it or 2) ask me “won’t it be too hot for you?” instead of asking me if I 1) like spicy food, 2) can eat spicy food, or 3) want to try it, like a normal person would. I mean every. single. time. (I’m getting mad just writing about it lol.) So, it came as no surprise to me that the entire table then began telling me which side dishes to eat and which ones not to.

Let’s come back to the maintenance guy. Unfortunately, and depressingly, he was sitting on my right side (I was at the short end of the very long table, in which the short end had room for only me to sit, so I had new admin lady on my left and maintenance guy on my right). Despite the fact that everyone had heard the cook (cause she screamed it) saying to feed me the non-spicy food, the maintenance guy pointed at one plate and said “hot” and at the other and said “no hot.” So I said, “no hot” and took a piece from that plate. He was actually staring at me the entire time I ate; not sure if I amazed him by being able to use chopsticks, or what. We were eating 부침개, a Korean-style chive pancake, which is traditionally eaten with soy sauce-vinegar dip, a fact that I know well, seeing as I have eaten it for four years and even cooked it at home. But, you know, I’m not Korean, so the admin ladies on my left were giving me instructions on how to eat: dip the pancake in the soy sauce and then eat it, and also eat these side dishes. As they were pointing out the tiny baby anchovies and peppers side dish (which I would normally NEVER EVER EVER eat –they still have their eyes 😦 –), the maintenance guy on my right said no, she can’t eat that, that’s spicy. So the admin ladies said it’s not that spicy, to which the maintenance guy goes well to us it’s not spicy but to HER it will be.

At this point I was doing my best not to burst into real live flames, so I didn’t say anything. The vice principal, on the other side of the admin ladies, heard our conversation and turned to me and asked, in Korean, because she actually remembers that I can speak it, “is it too spicy, Lily?” I took my chance. I said—in what, I might add, is perfect Korean— “I didn’t try it, so I don’t know. And you know, I actually eat spicy food really well, but right now I have enteritis so I shouldn’t.”

I didn’t even have time to feel satisfied at having defended myself when the new admin lady on my left yelped “oh my god, she speaks Korean,” and then she turned to me and said “you speak it so well.”

First of all, lady, you’re new so I’m trying hard not to be mad, but don’t you think I, who have personally spent all those hours studying and speaking this language, know that I can speak it well? I will never understand the amazement of Korean people when a foreigner speaks their language at any level above the snippets you can easily pick up watching K-dramas or listening to K-pop (and yeah I’m allowed to make a dig because I’ve spent about six years teaching myself to speak Korean without either of those things and I can actually do it). How is it so hard to understand that people learn other languages and then speak them? AND ALSO I’M LIVING IN YOUR COUNTRY, I NEED KOREAN TO LIVE. Sure, I’m a bit touchy. Hard not to be when you’re living in the hell so horrible even Dante couldn’t imagine it.

This is a constant, nearly daily experience for me. Someone new finds out I speak Korean and then gets all amazed about it and talks about it to everyone around them. So that’s fine, because eventually the moment passes and everyone goes back to their normal lives (except me, because every time someone says “you’re so good at Korean” I lose a brain cell). But leave it to Mr. Maintenance Man to drag the moment out for As Long As Possible. After new admin lady had her exclamation and I had responded by politely smiling at my plate, he decides to speak up on the same topic.

That morning, I had been outside of the classroom preparing a side room for some one-on-one interviews with the kids, and while I was going back to the classroom the maintenance guy was passing by and asked me, in Korean, if my coteacher had come yet. I told him, in the most respectful Korean possible, that she hadn’t come yet. (Her car was having trouble and she had to walk from the repair shop. Didn’t tell him that. Doesn’t deserve to know.) He then pointed at the locked door to the P.E. department’s office and asked me if I knew the passcode for the lock. I, me, an English teacher, who appears not to ever have exercised a day in her life, do not know the passcode, so I told him I didn’t.

In Korean, there’s two ways to say “I don’t know.” One of them could be translated in tone and meaning to “I’m sorry, I wouldn’t know that,” and the other could be translated in tone and meaning to “i dunno” and I, in a moment I did not know would later prove fatal to me, answered him “i dunno.” (I was still using polite language; for those of you who speak Korean you probably know that what I’m talking about is the difference between saying “잘 모르겠어요” and “잘 몰라요.” I said the latter, and actually, the exact words I said were “저는 잘 몰라요.”) He seemed slightly amused but also upset that I didn’t know (AND WHY WOULD I KNOW????????) but I didn’t pay it any mind and went on with my day.

Now, we’re all at the table together and this guy is talking which means he’s gotta have everyone’s attention (and somehow, he does), and he says, “now, I speak English” (he basically knows vocabulary but I’ve never heard him make a sentence), “but this morning I asked her what the passcode on the PE office door was and she said ‘나는 몰라요!’” (“i dunno.”) He looked at me, slightly smiling, with another kind of expression that I thought might have been admiration and might have been him wanting me to be impressed with his being impressed (cause his opinion is a Big Deal). A couple listening teachers laughed—he basically just told them I said “i dunno” and on top of that, that I used the informal word for “I” which I did NOT use. So not only did he ONLY tell them that and not tell them about my prior, perfectly polite and proper sentence (that my coteacher didn’t come yet), but he also told them all I had been improperly informal with him. But I just let it go.

Unfortunately, Mr. Maintenance Man was not done. He went on, “never, in all my years at this school, have I ever seen a foreign teacher who could speak Korean. Never.” And then he looked at me again and I pinned the expression down: it was a look that said that in his Opinion, the entire culmination of my learning Korean—of my years of hours and hours of daily study, my stretches out of my comfort zone to meet language partners and practice speaking, my constant naver dictionary searches, my daily Korean-language-diary writing, my one-year relationship with a Korean man in which we spoke exclusively in Korean with no exceptions—the culmination of all of this was that he would be impressed with me. That was the be all and end all of my Korean learning journey. I was now successful and my journey was now meaningful, and it was all because he was impressed with my skill.

No matter where I am in the world, people are consistently and without fail severely overestimating the extent to which their opinion or regard of me actually matters to me. By giving me their approval, if they’re not my close friend, they’re basically giving me monopoly money. It’s not anything personal; it’s just that I honestly couldn’t care less. I couldn’t care less whether anyone knows I speak Korean, whether anyone respects the fact that I learned it by myself through my own determination, whether anyone’s impressed by the fact I actually know how to make sentences and express my opinion, or whether someone thinks I’m the best foreigner they’ve ever met. I just. don’t. care. I’m like that about most things; if you’re not my friend (and ESPECIALLY IF YOU’RE AN OLD MAN!!!!!!) I really honestly don’t care what you think of me. I was just out here being me and I was gonna be me whether you were ever aware of me or not; the fact that you noticed me is incidental and could never be the motivation for my doing anything, ever. When I wrote a novel in 11 months during university, I told my manager at the library what I’d done (mostly because I spent most of my time at the loan desk writing it) and he told me I should get it published. Just assumed that’s the natural progression of things. A lot of people say that to me when they find out how much writing is taking up space on my hard drive.

Listen, I’m not doing what I’m doing for anyone else but me. I was going to do it anyway and I’m going to keep doing it anyway. Why can’t anyone understand that? I was awarded three separate awards at UCI when I was there, but wouldn’t let my dad put that information on my graduation announcements because I felt like yeah, it’s lovely to get confirmation that I’m doing something well, but I didn’t set out to get those awards—I didn’t even know they existed. I was just living my life, studying because I love studying, writing stories and poems because I love writing stories and poems. I was always going to do those things whether or not someone noticed I was doing them. The awards—I felt like if they were on my graduation announcements it would make it look like I had tried in some way to get recognition for what I was doing and that something of my performance was dependent on that recognition. I understand this is hard for people to understand in this case—but my dad respected my decision and therefore, most of my extended family is blissfully unaware that I received awards for my writing and work ethic in college.

And I like it that way. I like sharing information with people close to me, who care about me, and who would get to know me whether or not I was good at what I loved.

 When I was walking out from my office exiting the school that day of the “cursed lunch,” I passed Mr. Maintenance in the hallway. He was smiling at me before I even looked at him. He greeted me not with a return of the curt nod that I gave him, but with a completely Korean salutation—“you worked hard today.” I continued on by, thinking, oh, you have no idea.

don’t talk to me

As I was walking to the bus stop to go home I saw a man turn and watch me for a moment before asking, in English, if I knew where Myeongdong Cathedral was. “Have you seen it while walking around here?” he asked me. He was watching me intently, almost smiling. I assumed he was a tourist and thought what the hell, I’ll help him out. I tried to remember where it was but it’s been over two years since I’ve been there, so I looked it up on my phone’s map application and gave him directions. He then wanted to chat. You don’t live around here, he asked, and I said no, I live in another part of Seoul—as vague an answer as I could manage. I was getting uncomfortable now, and slightly angry. He said Oh well, I’m Korean actually, I’m from Busan—my anger dissipated and instead I felt a small thrill of fear as I realized oh, he’s from Busan, oh, he’s Korean, that means his phone must work here and he could have stopped anyone on this street but he chose me and spoke in English instead of Korean—so I said “oh, here for vacation, huh?” and started walking away. I could almost see the red light flashing in my peripheral vision. He looked like he would have chatted more, but I said “well, I hope you find your way, I’ve gotta go,” and I ran away, past the bus stop and around the corner of the nearest street, peeking around the corner every thirty seconds or so for a couple minutes until I was sure he was gone and my heartbeat had returned to normal. 

He had looked friendly enough, and I kept trying to convince myself that it’s possible he just wanted to practice his English (though he sounded fluent and had had no accent), or that maybe he just likes to talk to strangers, that maybe he’d say “I prefer human contact to using my phone to find directions,” but another awareness was telling me things like it’s good you got away as fast as you did, he probably wasn’t even looking for the cathedral at all. 

I have never lived my life in as much fear and suspicion as I have since I was raped two years ago. I’ve found myself walking in the middle of the street to avoid gaggles of laughing, drunken men on the sidewalks as I go back home at night; their laughter grates on me, makes me angry and upset, despite the knowledge that they’re probably harmless. But I can’t be convinced that it’s a sin to protect myself; no god intervened to save me from what happened to me before. I do not trust men. I do not trust Korean men. There’s some mechanism in this society that allows them to behave without responsibility, without responsibility to women, there’s a reason that when I studied women’s studies about this country I found out the rate of domestic abuse is as high as it is, there’s a reason that the rates of college date rape are as high as they are, there’s a reason over half of college-aged men on an anonymous survey said they’d date rape if they had the chance to do it and were guaranteed to get away with it. (I read this report during my first year in Korea—I couldn’t find it again. I can’t give sources as to its accuracy, but from personal experience, I have no trouble believing it.)

To men—Do not talk to me. I’m not being rude. I’m saving my own life. That’s truly how I see it. And if you can’t see it that way you’d better thank your god that you don’t have a reason to. 

Unpopular Opinion: Learning Korean Edition

You absolutely need to learn honorifics as a beginner. 

Every beginner’s textbook or website that I consulted when I began to teach myself Korean (in 2013) mentioned that you don’t really need to learn honorifics as a beginner Korean student. They focus instead on the “social polite” form of verbs, which is on the lowest end of polite speech, but in general will work in most social situations. (You’re not gonna wow anyone, but you’ll be able to say things like “I’m American” or “I like soup” just fine.) 

However, having moved to Korea and experienced the acute disadvantage of being clueless about honorifics firsthand, I’m gonna let you in on something no textbook ever warned me about: I was unable to understand most of what anybody ever said to me in my public social life because I wasn’t familiar with basic honorific form, and the thing is, I didn’t even KNOW what it was I didn’t know. 

Sure, I could declare most anything I wanted in the “social polite” (~해요), but I couldn’t order coffee, I couldn’t understand what the lady at the supermarket checkout was asking me as she pointed to the plastic bags (though I could guess what she was asking, I couldn’t even begin to understand the actual words she used). It took me months of listening extremely carefully (and embarrassedly) to what people were saying to me (even though I couldn’t understand it well) to figure out that there was a pattern to the verb conjugations, and I heard enough finally to be able to type a search query into Google. 

My entire understanding of the Korean language and my ability to communicate in most social situations completely changed as soon as I learned of the existence of the honorific conjugations. I’m talking paradigm-shift level change. I could now confidently order coffee in the most polite language possible, I could now understand the question the supermarket cashier ladies were asking me (“do you need a bag?” / “do you have a membership?” gah! so simple after all), and my Korean studies became much smoother and less frustrating.

The thing is, Korean people speak in honorifics to everyone they don’t know. Meeting someone new? They’re gonna address you in the honorific form (and although they’ll probably be very understanding of your lack of knowledge of the language, it’s technically rude not to reciprocate this lofty language). Ordering anything at a restaurant or store? Trying on shoes at the shoe store? Being approached by a clerk in a makeup store? You’re gonna need to know honorifics. Not to reply to their questions, but to understand what the heck they’re even asking you in the first place.

Now, I’m going to break down the basics of honorific form assuming that you already know how to read hangeul (the Korean “alphabet”) and have a basic knowledge of common verbs and vocabulary.