이비인후과 (ENT) visit

In my half a year here, I’ve seen enough perplexing things to be the thematic topic of a small set of encyclopedias. Among them is a spectacle I observe now: it’s been snowing consistently since midday and now, in the early evening as the sun begins to set, it stops, and the air clears. A man appears out of nowhere with a snow shovel and scrapes it lightly over the sidewalk, clearing away all the insulating slush and leaving behind only the thin, invisible layer of ice on which you can slip and probably crack your head open without ever knowing what it was that did you in.

 

Another one of my encounters with strange happenings / logic occurred this last Friday at Eulji Hospital, a big medical center down the road from my hagwon, where some of my coworkers have visited before without much problem.

Since a couple Fridays ago I’d had pretty notable pressure in my right ear. I’d neglected to visit the doctor on that first weekend because it’d happened once before that I’d had really painful pressure in one of my ears one night only to find that it disappeared on its own within a couple days. So I thought I’d spare myself the stress of going to the doctor and trying to relay my symptoms across the gigantic language barrier that everyone in Seoul seems to deny or rather never run into when they go to the doctor… Everyone I talk to says “yeah, the doctor spoke pretty good English,” but what I want to know is, do those doctors sprint out the door the moment they see me walking in?

Admittedly, before this last time at Eulji, I’d only gone to the doctor once… but it was a stressful experience and made quite an impression on me, most notably for the fact that even after three days of thrice-daily meds, I still wasn’t better… And that time I’d had help from the guy I was seeing at the time, who wrote out my symptoms for me, so all I had to do was show the note on my phone to the doctor saying I don’t feel good, I have a cold and my body’s sore, please give me an injection. I still didn’t even get an injection, and I was told afterwards that that’s why I didn’t shake the cold after all, but actually I think it’s because I’m around little germ bags all day every day so I have no chances of ever healing completely.

 

So it was with this experience in mind that I fervently avoided all thoughts of going to the doc again. But as the pressure failed to let up in my ear, I gradually became dizzy and more and more spacey. I texted with a friend from home who told me that one of her clients told her she had an ear infection and had no idea because there was no pain, her only symptoms were feeling a bit of pressure and an off-balance equilibrium. So I thought… okay… maybe… there is a chance… that I have an ear infection… but I’m still not going to go to the doctor!!! Nobody can make me!!! I’m an adult!! Which means I’m old enough to ignore my problems all by myself!!

I lived with a pressure-y ear and poor balance for a while, longer than most sane people would endure this. One night, I was only able to sleep three hours, and the next day, I entered and exited my classes like a ghost, pale, ghoulish-looking, and not really fully belonging to this earthly realm. Sometimes one of my middle school students will pull his shirt up over his face and try to take a nap discreetly, although the effect of pulling your shirt up over your face is nothing less than conspicuous—like a child trying to hide behind a lego. I often say to him—Hey! Come on, join the living! But I think that day even if someone had said those words to me nothing less than an incantation would have rescued me from the otherworldly forces pulling me out of concrete existence.

I was, in a word or two—completely out of it.

I rode the subway back to my station like a phantom, and I remember very little of what passed when I got to the station except for a fateful moment, walking up to B1, when I failed to lift one of my feet up high enough to successfully clear the last step onto the landing. I fell like in slow motion down to the floor, and of course right below me where my knees would land the were intersecting, differently-textured Tactile Ground Surface Indicators that band the city’s ground and stations prolifically. Meant to be used by blind people in order to walk the streets and transport stations safely, TGSI’s are textured differently depending on what they precede, and it just so happens that before a staircase there’s a horrible conjunction of stripes and dots that were extremely painful to land on. My knees landed first, then my hands, as my backpack carrying my laptop and some books slid up over my back and pulled my head down to the ground, too.

 

Public spills are not a new thing to me. I quite often tripped and fell at uni, and fateful encounters with the concrete and asphalt of Orange County pervade all my memories. So, stunned and motionless on the ground in the station, I thought—one of the first thoughts I’d had all day—hey, my first public spill in Seoul—and pulled myself upright, readjusting my backpack and trudging to the escalator that would (thankfully) transport me to street level.

I still have yellow and purple bruises on both knees.

 

It was after this that I began to admit to myself in isolated moments of lucidity that yes, I probably should go to the doctor. Although my coordination might not be the most impressive you’ve ever seen, I’d gone almost six months in this country without falling down—tripping is a matter of course, however—and so it seems like more than a coincidence that ear pressure would throw off my balance and I would take my first fall of consequence in a matter of a few days. In other words—something was wrong with my ear, and that’s why I fell. It wasn’t just for old times’ sake.

But then, I ran into the problem of not having any free time. My breaks at work were all a bit too short to be sure I’d make it in and out without missing some class time, and Thursday morning, when I usually didn’t have to be at work until ten after noon, I had to go in early for Kindy graduation. So it wasn’t until Friday, a week after I first noticed the pressure, that I could make it into the hospital, and this was only because I didn’t have classes until 3.30PM since kindergarten had just graduated.

I spent about an hour on Thursday night preparing notes diligently. I wrote a short paragraph in the best Korean I could muster, detailing all my symptoms—I caught a sinus cold. Also, since last Friday, I think I have an ear infection in my right ear. In that ear I feel a lot of pressure. But, the other ear also seems strange. Every day my head hurts and I’m a little dizzy.

I then wrote a paragraph trying to excuse myself for waiting so long—I know that it’s really late to see the doctor about this but until now I didn’t have any free time. Sorry, doc, please take care of me!

Then, this note and my fledgeling Korean skills my only weapons, I entered Eulji Hospital on Friday, midday.

 

On the first floor, there was a bank and a bunch of kiosks and a huge counter with screens above the desks showing numbers, so I assumed there was a number dispenser somewhere, but I couldn’t see it. There was also what was apparently a book sale happening to my right. The presence of the bank, several cafes, and the book sale on the first floor, plus the unexplained kiosks and the hiddenness of the number dispenser all together made me decide to skip this floor and go up the stairs.

I had no idea where I was going, but the second floor was a lot less crowded. To my immediate left on the landing there was a small desk. Although I knew there was a number dispenser somewhere and I should take a number, I walked straight up to the desk until I caught the eye of the lone lady sitting there and she was forced to acknowledge me and excuse me for what I didn’t know, seeing I was clearly foreign.

She greeted me and I said, in faltering Korean— “I’m sorry, but this is my first time. I don’t know what I should do, but I want to see a doctor. Where should I go?”

She asked me where I was sick, and I told her I thought I had an ear infection and a sinus cold. After that she asked me for my ARC card and registered me. I paid a small fee for this and she handed me my appointment card, on which she indicated that I should see the ENT (although, I thought this was written in Korean and tried a long time to read it before it struck me that it was English after all). She then gave me very complicated instructions to get to another part of the hospital, in which the ENT doctor was located. She took a look at my face and then said, “you understand, right?” And I nodded, although I’d only gotten about half of what she’d said, but in my opinion it was the important half. Then she said, “it’s lunch break right now, so you should come back after 1:30.” So I thanked her and left.

 

I went back around the right time and successfully followed the half-understood directions to the ENT offices. It’s lucky that I’d looked up what “ENT” was in Korean a few nights before I’d gone there, because otherwise I’d have had no idea where to go. But I made my way there, handed over my appointment card, and waited for about twenty minutes.

Most things about the doctor here seem very efficient—in the waiting area there were plenty of seats and there were screens outside the doctor’s rooms that showed the order of patients, so you’d know when it was your turn or how many people were before you in line. People were only ever in the room for maybe five minutes at most, so you could estimate how much the you’d wait based on how many names were before yours on the screen. The last letter block of each name there was punched out with an asterisk, apparently for privacy, although they called full names when they beckoned people to the rooms.

Most Koreans have three letter blocks in their names: first for last name, and last two for given name, such as Kim Yong-sub, which would be written 김용섭, and if it were on the screen at the doctor’s, it’d look like this: 김용*

My name was written everywhere—on my receipts, and on my appointment card in several places—just as “Lily,” I guess because my last name takes up too many letters. Lily transcribed to Hangeul is 릴리, so on the screen my name was just 릴*. I kept sniggering every time I looked at it, thinking, “lil, lil, lil”… I don’t know why I thought it was so funny. I could blame my ear, I suppose, or spending too much time with school kids.

When they called me, they called “Lily-nim!” and I sniggered again, but managed to get myself under control when I entered the room. I sat down and the doctor asked me what was wrong. I falteringly told him that I thought I had an ear infection in my right ear and I had a sinus cold. He asked me a series of questions and I answered until I couldn’t understand what he was saying anymore, at which point I pulled out my well-prepared note and handed it over. It seemed to do the trick. He looked at the calendar, repeating, “since last week…” and I stared down at my hands guiltily.

He took out a long wand-shaped thing with a bright light at one end and told me he was going to look in my ears. I was shocked to see that perfectly in my line of view was a monitor that showed footage from the camera, and looked on in a mixture of disgust and fascination as the camera travelled down my right ear canal, passing a few chunks of wax (which disturbed me for the rest of the day) and then coming to rest before a horrible, horrible sight—I later told Dad, “the part of a snail inside the shell… I don’t know what it looks like, but imagine that all covered with red blood vessels standing out in relief… clearly blocking the whole ear canal… it also looks a little like a white latex glove filled with some liquid substance.”

In short, it was horrifying, clearly infected.

The nurse took a photo and then they checked my left ear. A less-inflated latex glove, white all over, not sick-looking, but still something I never wished to see. The nurse took a photo of this too, and then displayed both photos next to each other on the monitor. The difference was so clear that I didn’t need any explanation, not even in Korean, but the doctor told me to look at the photos, explaining unnecessarily, “the right one is red, right? And the other one is white, it’s alright. But this one… it’s all red… it seems there’s an infection.”

I stared wordlessly at the ghastly photos on the screen. I could say nothing but, “yes, yes…” as the doctor spoke about it.

Then he asked me about my cold, asking if I had a stuffy nose (“yes”) and if my nose ran (“yes”) and then using the same wand contraption to look up my nose. This time I was prepared and stared up at the corner of the room rather than at the monitor as the camera poked around my nasal passages.

In the end, he asked me some more questions, the last of which were, “does that ear hurt?” (“yes”) and “can you hear well out of it?” (“um…uhm…”). Then he told me he was prescribing meds for a week, meds I’d take by mouth, and then I’d have to come back for another checkup. I was still in a daze and just chirped “yes, yes, yes” as he spoke to show I understood. He handed me back my note. The nurse stood and helped me up and I barely remembered to turn around and thank the doctor as I was being pushed out the door.

I waited a little while for the doctor and nurse to write the prescription and relay a message to the front desk. When they called me again the nurse there was asking me about my availabilities for my check-up, but I didn’t understand her at first. Luckily she barely saw my face as she checked her calendars and I finally caught on to what she was saying when she pointed on the wall calendar to next Friday and said, “one o’clock.” Then she gave me an appointment slip and directed me down to the first floor to somewhere mysterious, which I thought might be the pharmacy but was in fact billing.

Before I knew that, I stood in front of the desk cluelessly for a while before realizing I had to scan my receipt barcode into the kiosk to get a number, which the desk lady then promptly called on her screen. I was still wondering what was going on but then I saw the signature pad flash a total at me and I realized this was billing for this part of the hospital. I paid and then, unexpectedly, the lady spoke to me in English and told me that next I needed to go to the pharmacy. I thanked her and headed in the direction she’d gestured toward, but there were only doors to outside.

I wandered around, up and down escalators, until I returned to those doors and went out, back around to the front of the hospital where I’d gone in at first, and up to the information desk. I asked the man there where the pharmacy was and he pointed me in a direction, and mumbled some things at me, so I followed his pointing and ended up walking up to the second floor again. I remembered having seen the pharmacy window at some point during my travels around the hospital, so I thought if I just retraced my steps, I’d come to it. But I didn’t, I just ended up back at the ENT office again. So I went back the way I came and then saw the sign for a pharmacy on the B1 level. So I went down, and followed the signs, till I came to what was clearly the back door of the pharmacy and a door I was clearly not supposed to be at as a patient. I wandered around back down the hall but then turned back around and figured, I should at least ask one of the pharmacists while I’m here, how to get to the front part… but when I shuffled up to the door and a lady saw me and took pity on me, she looked at my receipt and then pointed up, saying “this isn’t it,” so I went back up to the first floor and then found the pharmacy’s front window, directly across from the information desk I’d been at earlier…

I went up to the window and handed the man there my receipts, which he looked at and then back up at me hesitantly. He paused for a moment and then gave the receipts back to me, asking, “do you know Korean?”

I told him, a little bit.

So he told me, it’s not this pharmacy but it’s actually outside the hospital, if you turn left and then go through a parking lot, look for name of pharmacy there.

So I thanked him and headed out the doors, turned left, and turned left again into a parking lot, at the other side of which signs for the pharmacy were clearly visible. I looked down at the time on my phone. By this time it’d been about twenty minutes of wandering. Why had nobody but that pharmacist told me where to go?

I walked into the pharmacy, feeling wary, wanting to ask, “this is it, right?” but instead gazing around for the number dispenser since all the desks had number screens above them. But a young-looking girl at one of the desks caught my gaze and looked at me expectantly, so I walked up to her without pulling a number and handed over my receipts, holding my breath. Without saying anything she began punching things onto her keyboard at her computer, printing out receipts and stamping things in a practiced flurry. I paid for the meds and then sat down to wait to be called to the pick up counter. I couldn’t be relieved until I had the meds in hand. They called my name after about five minutes and the pharmacist asked me if I could speak Korean—to which I said, a little—before launching into a long explanation about when to take the pills. Three times a day, after breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for seven days. She pointed at 아침 (morning/breakfast) on one of the packets. “You know things like this, right,” she said in Korean, then flipped through and pointed at 점심 (lunch) and 저녁 (evening/dinner). I told her yes, then she told me about the meds—an antibiotic, cold meds, tylenol—and at last, I was free to return to the real world.

In a giant hospital which has its own pharmacy and several people capable of speaking English, how is it that I only found out after twenty minutes of wandering around and ending up in all the wrong places that my prescription had been sent to a pharmacy outside? Inquiring minds want to know.

 

Now it’s Sunday evening and I’ve taken meds since Friday afternoon. My ear feels a little better but is still distractingly blocked. My cold feels much better, on the other hand. The meds for the cold make me a bit sleepy, so after taking those and a melatonin last night, I slept for almost a whole twelve hours, which is something I haven’t done at night for a long time now. Granted—I did spend more than twelve hours out yesterday, for reasons I may detail in another post, the first of which was a morning training at Sogang University for teaching a new series of books at SLP. I attended with two other teachers and our two supervisors, and we ended up going to lunch afterwards, and then I went with one coworker to Korean class in Itaewon in the afternoon, after which we went grocery shopping and I did not return to the apartment until more than twelve hours after I had left it that morning. That is enough to exhaust even a chronic insomniac, I think.

 

Although I still need to go to a general practitioner to ask about possible treatments for my continued tiredness and chronic insomnia as well as a podiatrist for something that’s wrong with one of my feet, I feel that my second encounter with the Korean medical system was an overall success, despite the mystery of the pharmacy situation. I suppose an extended exposure to the language and some more attempts to self-study have paid off, as I was able to understand much more of the Korean spoken to me at the hospital than I’d been able to the first time I went to the doctor last November. That, and I’d done my research, which proved invaluable.

 

As I walked to the bus stop with my meds in hand, coming down off my stress-high and enjoying a few moments of sunshine before the clouds blocked the sun again, I thought—well, looks like my taking-a-spill-in-the-subway-station days are over, for now.

Korean in Class

As I entered my last class of the week on Friday evening two students looked over at me with a mildly guilty air from the corner of the whiteboard, capping a board marker one of them’d nicked from the trash bin after I threw it out a few months ago. I proceeded into the room as they backed from the board and resumed their studying as though they’d done nothing. I set my basket down on my desk and made my way to the whiteboard.

They’d written—

Homework:

  • 1)  놀기
  • 2) 죽지 않기
  • 3) 살기
  • 4) 공부하지 않기
  • 5) SLP에 가지 않기

One, play. Two, don’t die. Three, live. Four, don’t study. Five, don’t go to SLP.

“This would be a lot more convincing,” I said, turning around and regarding the boys with a face meant to relay some of the patheticness of their attempt, “if it weren’t written in Korean…”

 

Earlier that day one of the “kitchen teachers” (cooks) had come knocking at the kindergarten classroom door with one of the students from another class, holding out their empty dish that was empty now save some crumbs, but which had once held over-baked breaded fish filet, in what was quite likely an insufficient amount for a class of ten. Kitchen teachers don’t speak English. She asked me if we had any more fish—I looked down at our dish which only held three more pieces which I’d already promised to the three in my class who could finish all their food first—and thought of that coupled with the fact that I’d already given up our last measly portions of mystery meat to the same class the day before. So I lifted my fingers, indicating a small amount, and made an apologetic face, replying “조금만” without much thought.

“Lily Teacher spoke KOreeeeeeeannnnNNnNnnnn!” one of my students screeched, as the kitchen teacher made her retreat with the pitiful Uranus class student, and closed the door, leaving me alone to deal with the repercussions of my thoughtless actions.

 

I always insist, vocally, at least, to the kids that I don’t speak any Korean, when in fact, in action, I have proved this to be at least a little untrue on several occasions, the first of which was while I was helping kindergarten prepare for a speaking test and trying to explain the idea of a “family name.”

I’d asked them in English several times what name their family members shared, but since this works a little different in Korean families (in which women retain their own family name although the children inherit theirs from their father), I gave up and asked the class, who stared at me afterwards blank faced and astonished, to tell me their Korean names.

Nobody would speak up, so I chose a student as an example.

“Ato,” I said, pointing him out, at which his face twitched into a semi-pleased smile, “your Korean name is Shin Woo-bin.”

The kids were dumbfounded, and quiet—they’d never told me their Korean names before and aren’t allowed to speak Korean in the classroom at all, and so they probably thought I was a magician for even knowing that even though their Korean names are quite obviously written on their backpacks and shoe bags and I’d have been a moron if I hadn’t noticed that—until I pulled out my board marker and wrote his name in Korean on the whiteboard.

“Teacher can write Korean!” they said, and then erupted into excited babbling. I shushed them down with appropriate difficulty, considering I was a wizard in their eyes.

I circled the “Shin” of Shin Woo-bin and tried to explain that this was Ato’s family name. Funnily enough, “shin” as a common word also bears the meaning of “god” so, Ato stood up in his chair and held his arms out, shaking regally and providing his own divine soundtrack—a high-pitched, sky-splitting, sunbeam-fetching, “ahhhhhhhhh!

I repeated this with the rest of the students, writing their Korean names on the board and circling their family names. They were awed and pleased that I knew their Korean names at all, but much more so as I scribbled their names in Korean on the board. They grew agitated with delight as I wrote 김채원 Kim Chae-won, 최정원 Choi Jung-won, 정승호 Jeong Seung-ho, 이지원 Lee Ji-won, 서동환 Seo Dong-hwan, and 문정언 Moon Jeong-eon. They asked me to repeat and repeat their names. We talked about their names for forty minutes, a whole class period.

And yet, only two of them were able to answer the question, “what is your family name?” on the speaking test, which was actually only a matter of hours later, correctly.

 

And I’ve been able to fool them time and time again by saying the simple words, which must carry a sort of performative, magical quality, “No, I don’t speak Korean” if they happen, during one of their bouts of outstanding and disarming randomness, to ask me if I can. They simply believe me. I keep saying no partly because I don’t want to encourage their use of Korean in the classroom, and partly out of amazement at their transformation into memory-less infants. It’s like when, having been at kindergarten for just under a year now, they ask me, “Teacher, how do you spell corn,” or some other hyperbolically simple and phonetically accurate word. Where’d your brain go? What kind of thing are you?

 

One of my elementary classes is made up of the nastiest combination of age and gender any elementary teacher can hope for—twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys. Rude, disrespectful, crude, loud, smelly, unpredictably moody, and seemingly fixated on taking apart everything inside their pencil cases and then either launching them across the classroom, beaning their classmates’ heads with them, or sticking them up a nostril, these boys are the biggest challenge I’ve yet faced as a teacher in all my years of experience with tricky students.

For a while, I pretended not to know when they were using crude language in Korean or when they were saying English words in a nonsensical grammatical progression for the sole purpose of replicating Korean sounds. They also constantly said words in English whose direct translation was something crude in Korean—my favorite of which is “fire-egg”—a translation of each word then stuck together resulting in a rather slangy and uncouth word for “testicle.”

They’d use these nonsense English phrases at nonsensical times. While my kindergarteners use words like “gochi” (childish slang [and a mispronunciation, besides] for penis) simply to tell me a story about how they banged theirs into something on accident while they were running around like the foolish six-year-olds they are, or they accidentally saw their classmates’ in the bathroom, these elementary hoodlums would just insert the phrase into sentences, otherwise in English and seemingly coherent, where this word and others like it could never belong. I often felt like shouting “If you keep that up I’ll cut off your gochi with my kiddy-scissors!” and brandishing these threateningly, but I have parental retribution to think about… . There is undeniably something about spending so much time weekly with these immature kids that rubs off on you, to be fair to myself.

Besides, it takes methods more crafty than that to really scare kids that age, who, although they themselves lack the precision of subtlety, and whose only weapon is seemingly obvious, childish humor and overbearing, brute volume, miraculously respond to the unexpected.

So, sometimes, when they’d be writing their speeches and they’d ask each other—with my permission, which I insisted they ask with the threat of detention if they didn’t—a great triumph of mine in the classroom, if you ask me—for the English translation of something in Korean they meant to write, I’d interject my own translation. The first time this happened, the boy whose word I’d translated stared at me open-mouthed, clearly horrified that I’d understood correctly and probably realizing that my past, mysterious insistences that “I know what that means” were actually true.

Still, I had yet to impact the rest of the class—this boy and the other hapless observer were only two of seven. So, one day, while trying to explain the word “unusual” with a limited and basic English vocabulary, I gave up despairingly and took out my board marker, standing up and writing the Korean translation on the board. At first, they were clueless, but as I wrote one block of text after another, they exclaimed in increasing tenors of surprise and alarm—oh! ohh! oooohhhhhh! ooOOOOOOOHHH!—as a whole, and I sat down with a feeling of ebullient satisfaction that I can admit I had never before thought I’d be feeling in the midst of these hooligans.

They proceeded to barrage me with interrogations—Teacher can speak Korean? Teacher sometimes speaks in Korean? Teacher knows Korean? Then can you say ___? —whose flow I staunchly interrupted by shouting, “do you think I’m an idiot? I live here… I have to live here… of course I know a bit of Korean… I have to live…”

For a while after that, they settled down, seeming to believe my ability to understand more than I’d previously let on. But, as it seems is the trend with short-memoried SLP students… they eventually picked up the habit again, at which point I made several short and to-the-point pleas to be relieved of my duties as their teacher to my boss, who did not, alas, grant me my wish. However, I now go to her every time the class is particularly pugnacious and she “takes care of it” for me. I go to her not hoping that anything will change in the boys’ behavior, but in the hopes that I annoy her enough that she finally relents and switches me out of the class. Boys of this age are uselessly, wretchedly self-renewing in their abilities to get up to trouble and find new ways to be perverse / peevish / petulant, so the only real way to take care of it is to get them a teacher who can, excuse my language, scare the shit out of them in a way I cannot ever hope to do. The tallest of them is only an inch or two shorter than me and louder by miles, after all.

 

After my initial frenzy of Korean-script writing on the board that family-name day in Kindergarten, I gradually opened up to my other students about my fledgeling Korean capacities. Occasionally I’d write a translation of a difficult word up on the board in Korean, and sometimes I’d even give a stab at speaking the words out loud, though mostly my pronunciation was so bad that I might as well have spoken Spanish or, as I often realized in hindsight, not at all.

One notable experience which immediately and long afterwards filled me with regret took place at lunch with Saturn class, who were busy debating about the English names of various cuts of pork. Although I happen to be the teacher least suited to engage six-year-olds (or anyone, for that matter) in a discussion about the wide and wonderful world of the meat-related, I accepted my fate and hesitantly joined the verbal fray in the case that it got heated, with hopes of preventing any number of tantrums.

They’d started it all by asking me what to call samgyeopsal in English, and I, not knowing anything exact or even what part of the pig that came from—upon a little research, I find that it’s thick-cut pork belly—said tentatively, “it’s pork,” at sound of which one student shook his head vehemently and said, “no, pork is 돼지고기.”

So I’d attempted to explain that that was just the general name for all meats that came from a pig. (By the way, I have no idea if this is true.) This seemed to be marvelously astounding to the whole class. They were all silent for a minute, perhaps pondering this piece of information, but a six-year-old’s ability to ponder is somewhat under debate, I suppose. In any case, they soon after—too soon after—began to converse, gradually picking up speed and urgency. But pig meat is not samgyeopsal. We know this as fact. They have different names, which is of course how one knows this to be true. So Teacher’s attempt to educate us has, once again, completely and utterly failed. We, the six-year-olds, must clearly be the only competent thinkers in the proximity of this classroom. How else would it be that…

So this is where I burst into the scene.

“Guys, you know, there are many types of meat that come from a pig. Bacon, ham…um…other parts…like…Canadian bacon, too… oh, and pig’s trotters…”

I was about to mention scrapple when one of the kids asked, “what’s pig’s trotters?”

I thought a moment. “족발,” I said. This was followed by a marked silence. They clearly didn’t understand what I had said.

The boy who’d asked me suddenly shot out of his seat like a rocket and fell to the floor laughing so hard he could barely breathe.

“ 족….발…!” he gasped, again and again. I gathered from this that I’d pronounced the word so incorrectly that he’d been moved to this display of heightened emotion once he finally figured out what I’d been trying to say. I coaxed him back into his seat and sat for the rest of the lunch period hunched over, holding my chin in my hands, properly humiliated.

Other occasions such as these never elicited such elaborate responses but often left me questioning my rights to be involved in the education of young minds.

 

However, as painful and humbling as it is to be laughed at by infants, startling in their disregard for my somewhat fragile Korean-speaking confidence, I’ve learned a lot of new words through my willingness to be incorrect in front of them.

For example, I’m often quizzed at unpredictable moments. Students seem to have an unquenchable thirst to hear me butcher their native language—either that, or to see me mildly uncomfortable with the possibility—probability, rather—of becoming embarrassed. Oh, how the tables have turned, they are probably thinking, rubbing their hands together with devilish anticipation in their imaginations…

During one of these quizzes, I correctly translated teeth, cow, welcome, bicycle, and hello as said to elders, but faltered at the rather innocuous pencil case. 

“연필…장,” I said, putting together the word for “pencil” and the suffix that seems to be attached to many compound words for the places you keep things, like wardrobe (옷장6) and shoebox (신발장7). I was immediately berated by the three seven-year-old girls who comprise the class and who were administering the quiz.

“Noo-oo-oo!” they said, seeming to be simultaneously exasperated and delighted. They laughed at me properly for a few minutes before I beseeched them for the correct answer.

“필통,” they said, after which I repeated many times until my pronunciation was, apparently, somehow, despite all odds, passable.

In the same way I learned from them the words for jacket and a few others which I promptly forgot. In any case, none of them fell on the ground laughing at me and I learned words I can actually use in conversation, in contrast to the words I learned from that vile group of prepubescent boys and the mystery words my kindergarteners mouth at me as supposed translations of random words that more often than not have nothing to do with our lessons.

 

At the end of the last class of the week on Friday, I added my own bullet to the list of weekend homework: half of the next unit completed thoroughly and not in ten seconds like they often scribbled it up in. As I turned to look at all of them paying more or less no attention to me, I said, with a certain feeling of inevitable doom, “well, if you’re only going to do one assignment this weekend, I think we can agree that ‘don’t die’ is the most important.”

They looked up, mildly amused, and then the bell rang and I commenced my own weekend, in which most of my homework matched up with theirs.

 

 

 

Year of the Monkey

If we walk outside and our eyelashes happen to freeze solid on contact with the outside air or the chapstick we newly applied on the fourth floor turns to ice on our mouths upon leaving the building from the first, sometimes my coworker and I will opt to take a cab back to the apartment after work rather than choosing to endure the ten-minute wait for a bus that will take us three stops down in the wrong direction to the nearest subway station, where we then train up and ride five stops up (passing the hagwon again on our way) to the station we live at. The coldest cold I have felt so far in Seoul has been at that bus stop, hopping around and trying not to let my flailing limbs crash into any innocent bystanders in an attempt not to get frostbite or let my clothes, which have now frozen too, touch my icy skin. Usually when that occurred it’d still be a toasty 18-21 degrees Fahrenheit out. I say toasty not completely out of derision and an exhausted attempt at irony—one weekend it was actually purported to be -2 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but of course, I was inside wearing three coats under three blankets in bed that day.

While, previously, whilst travelling abroad or even up to the bay area in California, I took on a peculiar fondness for underground public transportation, especially London’s tube, in Seoul I feel busses but especially cabs are preferable to the underground. In my nearly half a year here, I’ve often thought about why it might be that the Seoul subway lacks the same appeal to me that the London tube, BART, and Paris Metro hold; perhaps it’s that here the general public is much less flavorful (read: strange) than the public that could be found other places, or perhaps that’s just the culture barrier… but one big reason that I was able to identify right away, riding back from the Jongro (pronounced jong-no) immigration center to Haggye-dong in a cab around midday last September, was that there’s no other way to get to know the city than to see it riding at ground-level like this. A view from a distance always provides a kind of romantic blur; this city that lacks, almost willfully, any romanticism whatsoever for me in any other encounter, can sometimes still muster a rosy luster when seen from the inside of a cab. I saw the first snows of both 2015’s and 2016’s winters from the backseat of a cab, after all.

During our cold-night cab drives back to the apartment, on several occasions a tall, glass-window-faced building caught my attention; especially the large, spacious-looking cafe on the first floor that always seemed to be open. It took a few rides to pinpoint its exact location but it turns out it was right outside the third exit of the subway station I live above.

It’s Monday now, the Lunar New Year, and our hagwon gave us a two-day break for the holiday. Knowing I’d have a couple days to do whatever, and knowing that I shouldn’t stay inside for four days straight, I thought I’d go out to try some reading and writing, and only this morning did I work up the courage to head out to this new place after researching its holiday hours online and seeing that unlike my usual haunt, a big Starbucks by Nowon station, it was open today. I admit that, even when walking by it and seeing it more than halfway full with patrons, I almost kept walking by, but somehow scraped up the resolve to enter. I glanced over the menu and pastry case and immediately forgot what was there. The young man who was at the register when I walked up had disappeared and in his place was an older man smiling widely and speaking English even as I was halfway through my Korean greeting.

“Hello, hi,” he said.

“Ahnyeonnnnnnunugggg—hgh—hhello,” I said.

I ordered an Americano and he asked me if it was okay if he gave me a stamp card, calling it a coupon, so I said yes with secret plans to return soon anyway. As soon as I left the counter the young man returned and was whispering thankfully to the man who’d taken my order—I gathered he’d not been up to speaking English and had goaded the other guy into dealing with me. Amusing, seeing as I’m quite capable of ordering a drink in Korean and even answering questions like, do you need a receipt… but why put himself through the trauma of the possibility that I speak no Korean at all, I guess. In my time here I’ve noticed nearly every time I enter a new space where the people don’t recognize me to order food or buy stationery or groceries or coffee, whoever’s about to have to talk to me looks like they’re steeling themselves for some suffering and hardship as soon as they realize I’m a foreigner.

I sat down on an armchair—from which I have not moved—close to the counter in the corner and when my drink was ready the same English-speaking man delivered it to me here instead of calling me to the pickup counter.

When I walked outside my apartment about an hour and a half ago, the streets were especially full of traffic—something I’d been able to ascertain even from the fifth floor without even a glance outside because of all the honking. Probably people headed to and from their relatives’ houses. I don’t know exactly how people celebrate Lunar New Year’s here—when I asked my students, they said they’d go to their grandmother’s houses, go to E-mart, play with their friends, study, and—one thirteen-year-old boy told me without reservation—“I’ll get money.” In the “old days” (i.e. as recently as thirty years ago) the holiday was celebrated by travelling to one’s hometown to visit family, but that was when a lot of Seoul and surrounding areas were newly-inhabited by first-generation migrants who’d come from other parts of the country and had a hometown to travel back to. Today, perhaps people go to visit their hometowns or their grandparents / relatives in other parts of the country. I don’t really know. I’ve fallen out of touch, miraculously, with all of my Korean friends, for different reasons, so I can only gather what they’re up to from the little I see on social media. One went to the beach, and it can’t be the West Sea from the looks of it—so I imagine people travel, whether with friends or family.

But I’m here at think cafe which boasts to be New York style. I admit their Americano is stronger than any other I’ve tried in Korea and it does smell American in here, like they’re making deli sandwiches at the counter behind me. I thought I even caught a whiff of pepperoncini, something I never expected to miss as much as I do. Every once in a while the rumble of the underground trains passing beneath us shakes the floor gently, its noise strangely comforting.

It’s the year of the monkey this year, starting now. I’ve had a bit of a rough time of it, lately. On top of everything, I’m going through it by myself. I guess that’s my way, though. And I recognize it as the consequence of a decision I made, to come here, to be here, to do this alone and start my life in this way. But just knowing that doesn’t make it easier.

It’s the year of the monkey—that means it’s my year, right? On the first of January, people kept telling me I was going to have a good year. They said other things, too, things that I’d scoff at now. There have been a few times in my life when everything about my life seemed so lightless and unknowable to myself, when the me other people knew became mysterious and impenetrable to me myself, and I just had to trust those people. Your writing’s good, you’re good, there’s a reason you’re here. You’re not selfish, you’re not a bad person. Things like that. I couldn’t believe or see those things myself. So I tried to trust blindly in others who said those things and seemed to mean them. But in the end belief in others wasn’t enough and I did some things I’m not proud of and I almost didn’t make it. But when I got better, I was able to see some things I hadn’t before, and without my future becoming any clearer on its own, I decided to make a future, at least a short-term future, for myself. I left home. I came to Seoul. For a while things seemed clear, here—I’d get to know the country and the culture. But I wasn’t happy. This life doesn’t suit me. I’m not well-suited to be a teacher for young students—it’s all one-way exchange. Some things again happened that made me question my value and my place in the world and my place in this part of the world.

Quite soon after I got here, I somehow shed the semi-delusional hopes I had for my future—life is bleak here, quite real, somehow, and not beautiful. I’ve seen parents with their small children all over the city, and quite often, they’re sobering encounters—parents on their phones while the children amuse themselves somehow or ask for their parents’ attention without much return. Once, while I was waiting for a pizza in the shop on the first floor of the apartment building, a small girl entered seemingly alone and shouted that she wanted a shrimp pizza and sat down at a table. Not long after, a man came in, and the girl started talking to him and he ordered what she wanted. He sat down next to her, pulled out his phone, made a call—the whole time the girl, maybe four or even three, chattered at him unceasingly—and then left the building for a smoke. The girl watched him go and then through the window called to him—Daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy—for five, maybe ten minutes. I watched her watch him through the window—I wondered, is this what children have to look forward to? Children don’t ask to be born, to be brought into whatever life their parents have made. Parents make that choice. Who could bring a child into this world just to leave them in a pizza shop? Just because it’s the thing that people do? Because it’s a step that tradition and thoughtless progression have encouraged? The irresponsibility of that frightens me. And yet—how many lives have been brought into the world that way…

For all that—Korean culture seems to me, on the other hand, to be extremely affectionate. Friends hold hands and link arms, couples seem sweet and genuine, parents and grandparents go hand-in-hand with children and grand-children. It’s a traditionally filial society that at times also restores my faith in family, though perhaps that faith is only referentially available to me.

As for growing up—there’s so much to learn. I admit the traits I learned and the relationships I learned while I was growing up have made me afraid of my own chances at being happy with someone else or my ability to provide in a human way. I can barely step outside my apartment these days for fear of strangers—irrational, insidious anxiety that I can fully apprehend but to which I’m helpless, anyway. I can’t even imagine raising a family. For as long as I remember, whenever other girls my age dreamed of their weddings and their futures as wives and mothers, I was just pushing thoughts of that away into the great big blackness that was my future because I was too afraid—and too unbelieving that that would be me at all—to think about it. That kind of stuff is for other people. I’ve always had that thought. I’ve known I’m different for almost my whole life and there have been periods of months and even years in which I’m the only one who really believes in me. Marriage, child-rearing…maybe they’re not for me. Maybe I wasn’t equipped to do that. Who knows? I don’t worry about it.

Instead, I build my future in knowable advances. For a while, I was entirely concentrated on getting myself to Korea. I admit—I always imagined I’d be happy here. That was a bit silly, considering my track record. After Korea, I had no idea where my life would go. There was the hazy outline of my return to education somewhere beyond that, but I didn’t know where, what, when. These days I’ve picked a concentration and am planning to research / revise some previous research I did in undergrad, with the goal of making it into an M.Phil course in Medieval literature at some good university in the UK.

When I went home over the break and spoke with a friend who’s teaching high school English, she told me she’s made a plan to pursue a PhD in sociology. At that time, work was wearing her out. She was exhausted and disappointed, but excited about her academic future; she’d even already picked her research topic and seemed to know a lot about it. She is putting money away diligently—even plans to visit me here sometime in summer—working at the high school and living at home with her parents, although they’re also not exactly a happy family, either. I stared at her in wonder and admiration as she told me all this and the hardships she’s going through—but she said, using her hands to parse the air over the table between us into small sections—I’m setting the table. And later, I’ll eat my meal.

Setting the table. I think I think those words every day, these days. Looking at the financial costs of attending university in the UK as a US citizen is somewhat—no, entirely—depressing and disheartening. I’m not happy here—work is mediocre, I’m not intellectually engaged in any way, my social anxiety is back so I can’t go out or meet anyone, and I’m often so exhausted that I can’t muster up energy to do anything anyway, much less write—but, I am saving money. Actually, last night, while trying to withdraw 100,000 won in cash from an ATM, I inadvertently withdrew 1,000,000 won in bank checks and was unable to deposit them back into my account, so they’re sitting in a hidden envelope in my room until I can figure out how to get them back in there or what to do with them at all… so I guess I unwittingly opened a savings account in my apartment bookshelf already, too. I’m setting the table, saving up, paying off my loans. I can’t save like this anywhere else, except perhaps if I’d stayed at home and found a full-time job in an office somewhere. But I needed to leave the house. So there’s nowhere I could live on my own like this and save this much—it’s not expensive to live here, and I even splurge occasionally on clothes and cosmetics and still always have more than I need to cover living costs.

When I first got here, I thought to myself, you know, it’s just one year, think of it as studying abroad if you need to. So when I got nervous or lonely, I thought, well, it’s just one year. But I got to know and treasure my life away from my house, despite loneliness… so then I started to think, well, let’s stay here a few years. Then, I dated someone for a while, and I thought I could stay in Korea indefinitely. When that ended, I still thought well, I have to stay here to save money. I can’t go home after that, so I’ll just go to college.

Per year, it’s about 40,000USD in university fees to study at Oxford / Cambridge / King’s College London in the graduate programs I’m interested in. Of course, I think I can’t save up 80,000USD while I’m here—the won has lost strength compared to the USD lately and I need to pay back on my loans while I’m here—but I plan to save around $800-$1000 each month while I’m here. Because I had to buy a lot of winter clothes and my first paycheck was only for a week’s worth of training (at 80% of my regular pay), I didn’t save for a few months when I first got here. But if I stay here for two years and put away $1000/month, I can save $19,000. If I stay for three years, I can save $31,000. I don’t think I want to stay here for three years, but definitely two. If, at that point, I can get financial aid and be accepted into one of the one- or two-year programs that I’m interested in, I’d have a savings big enough to afford another degree. After that, I have no idea what I’d do—go right into a PhD program or try to work and save again… but at least, I can look forward to a Master’s program as the meal that I can eat after this long period of setting the table is over.

One of my coworkers caught me reading an article on Shakespeare’s relative location in the medieval/renaissance literary scenes during a break at work and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was doing some research for my eventual application to graduate school. He’s been teaching at English hagwons for nine years—most of the other teachers who do this kind of settle into this job. In the day-to-day operation of trying to survive my kindergarteners’ energetic outbursts and squabbles and the scariness of my elementary students, trying to get by on caffeine and effervescent multi-vitamin-and-mineral tablets dropped into my water, sometimes I forget the bigger picture. It’s silly! How could I? Someone who loved school as much as me, how could I forget my return to that scene…? Habit, I guess. But remembering myself—like with a deep breath returning to my own life after a meaningless jaunt into ill-suited territory—is what I think is going to save me, here.

This year, the year of the monkey—when my immediate future seems dense, dark, and impenetrable, with the same trust I used to put in my friends who encouraged me during my darkest, most difficult times, I’m trusting in the year of the monkey. A few of the other foreign teachers at work were born in the same year, and we often joked it’s our year! when we first found out this year’s sign. (Interestingly, one of my elementary classes are all Monkeys as well and when I found that out, first I was shocked because of their birth year and felt very very old, but then I thought it made sense that I got on with them so well). And although it still seems like that to me—a joke—I have no friends here to tell me the things I can’t tell myself or which I tell myself without conviction. I know myself well enough to know my brain’s gone somewhere it needs some helping out of—without the method that got me out of it last time available to me here, and with some more knowledge about myself up my sleeve, I blindly trust the energy of whatever out there that moves here, too, to get me out of whatever this is. Unlike love, hope doesn’t need an object—it is the object, the body’s reaction to something else.

This day feels more like the first day of the year than the first of January did, for some reason. The company that fills the coffee shop seems pleasant—middle-aged ladies meeting in groups of three or four, a young couple with a baby, parents and their mid-twenties daughter, other groups of pleasant-faced people—even the men swearing loudly at the other side of the shop seem jovial. I’m probably the only downer here. But that seems to be my eternal, international role, anyway. Even my kids know that.

One day a couple months ago, I was reviewing a unit on free time activities with one of my very smart elementary classes of three seven/eight-year-old, high-energy boys who, when I first inherited the class, never used to sit still or listen but who miraculously reformed themselves over the course of my months with them and are now quite pleasant and cute. I would never say this to anyone, but I think it was all the positive reinforcement and my patience with them—sitting next to them and spelling out words, all the “you’re almost done! just keep going”s and “if you can finish your workbook page in five minutes, I’ll give you five stickers”s…. Anyway, that day, I was asking them what they did in their free time when one of them raised his hand and said, “Teacher, what do you do in your free time?” So I paused, pretended to think about it, and then closed my eyes and folded my hands next to my head.

“In my free time, I sleep,” I said, as they erupted in pitying laughter upon hearing my pathetic free time activity. “I sleep aalllllllllll day! And yet I’m always tired! But that is what I do in my free time.”

Jamkkureogi,” one of the boys muttered in a low voice, pointing at me with one finger accusingly. “Teacher is a jamkkureogi!

I met his eyes with only a tiny tingle of self-consciousness, and shrugged.

“In English, you can say ‘sleepy-head,’” I told him, and he immediately adopted the term.

“Teacher is a sleepy-head!” he shouted, and repeated it in several variations that embroiled many different body parts.

“And Louis is a loud kid,” I said, before promising them twenty stickers if they could finish their writing assignment by the time the bell rang.