Some Updates

Since the time I published that last post in November 2017… well, a lot has been going on. You may recall what my mental state was like at that time and why I needed a break from everything by traveling to Busan over that weekend. It’s taken me some time to fully process what was going on in my mind at that time. But that is for another post and another time.

Shortly after making that post in early November I met the person who would later become my boyfriend, though I wasn’t sure how it would play out when we first met. He was a few years younger than me which made me very skeptical about anything happening between us (especially because he’s the same age as my younger sister and I couldn’t stop thinking about that). But pleasantly when we met, aside from him seeming very shy and a little bit quiet, he didn’t strike me as particularly immature. We ate noodles that he said were too spicy for him so he didn’t eat much, but later he told me that he didn’t eat a lot because he was too busy staring discreetly at me while I ate–something I COMPLETELY missed at that time. I like to think of myself as a little on the ball about those things.

Despite my missing his signals at that time, I enjoyed our time together. It was a Sunday night. We’d met that time because his day off was Monday. I also had that Thursday free, as the Korean SAT was scheduled for that day. We went to a cafe and chatted enough for me to discover that he liked reading and writing poetry, and that I enjoyed his quiet demeanor. He hesitantly asked me if he took the day off on Thursday I would like to do something with him that day, and I told him I would be fine to meet with him if he was able to get the day off. He was working at a restaurant in Gangnam at that time and his schedule was somewhat flexible.

When the cafe closed we went across the road to a game center where he taught me how to play darts, after which I very nearly beat his score on the first time. We tried (and failed) to win stuffed animals in the crane machines. Then we walked around outside for a while before parting at the bus stop from where I took a bus home.

We exchanged phone numbers and later that night after he had gotten home he texted me to tell me he wanted to meet me the next day (his day off). By that time I had caught the vibe. He said don’t you want to just go to a cafe together and read? So he’d clearly trapped me. We agreed to meet and he came to my area. I met him after school and we spent several hours chatting (no reading) in the cafe, after that getting dinner together, then going to a pub even though he couldn’t drink. At the pub he drank less than half a pint of Guinness before his face turned beet red (he had warned me about this before) and started spilling his guts to me. As we got to talking, things turned a bit more serious (as they often do when alcohol is involved with ME), and he told me at one point that there wasn’t anyone around him that felt the same way as him about some of these things, and that it was only me. The whole night he seemed to be, too, on the verge of saying something, before not saying anything, or saying–oh, I shouldn’t really say this–and then not saying anything. Of course that made me curious and I told him so, but he wouldn’t say it, even as he walked me home and we said goodbye.

I found out later he had walked me home in order to say the thing, but that because I had given him a hug before parting he’d basically gone braindead and just ended up leaving without saying anything. We were texting the next night while I was out with my coteachers for a drink, and after I got home he finally told me he’d been meaning to ask me to date him and that had been the thing.

So it progressed from there. Now about five months have passed. And although we have our disagreements and although he’s young and somewhat inexperienced, he has become my best friend. We do everything together, talk about everything, and he has turned out to be an emotional support for me, especially, and even, on my most pissy days (thanks PMS).

We’ve been able to travel together a few times–

Gangneung (강릉), his hometown, to see the sunrise on January 1st, 2018

Busan (부산), where we’d both been before (as you probably remember) but wanted to go again

and Sapporo, Japan, for a week at the end of February, which was his first trip outside of Korea in his entire life (and also his first time on an airplane)


also, of course, through all the nooks and crannies of Seoul as well.


Besides all this, I also travelled home to California for a few weeks in late January/early February.

In the meantime, in March I began a new school year after renewing my contract with the same school last December, so I’m still at the girls middle school and still enjoying my time here. I’m considering renewing again at the end of this school year as I save up money to go to graduate school, which has always been the plan, but after thinking more about the logistics of applying and having enough money, seems like I may need another year to finalize things.

So on the daily I spend several hours with a bunch of teenage girls while I try not to lose my mind, and then I meet Mingyu for several hours and try not to lose my mind (turns out he isn’t actually shy NOR quiet).

So things are okay for the moment. I’m still adjusting to the being back at school schedule which requires me to not only wake up early but also be able TEACH CHILDREN as early as 8.50AM, which still seems cruel and unusual to me. Add in the dealing with moodswings and body aches from my raging hormones and I’ve found myself unable to write. But time to time as I find moments of energy I hope to pick back up in a better place than where I left off last time.


Teacher Class

Every Wednesday afternoon various department teachers come to an English Speaking class, usually held in the meeting room beside the language department office. When I first started teaching and my coteacher told me I was going to have to teach other teachers, I was terrified. Although nobody had been unfriendly to me, the language barrier between adults is stronger and scarier, and at that time I was still envisioning a structured class time with lectures and grammar explanations…

During the first couple weeks we left applications open and about ten teachers applied. During the first class I lead a discussion about our hobbies and other introductions; all the teachers were friendly and better at English than I had expected. I was very relieved that it hadn’t been the ordeal I’d been imagining and after the first few classes I began to look forward every week to our 교사 수업.

A couple weeks ago some of the other teachers asked me if we could go outside to get a beer together during class time, so last Thursday (June 15th) we waited until work was over at 4.30 and went together to a chicken / beer restaurant between Gongdeok and Mapo station (and much closer to my home than I had realized).

I had hoped that I would get some photos of all of us together but after we’d had enough beers… we all forgot about that kind of thing. I did manage to get this shot of the Korean teacher who shares our Language dept. Office (who’s always giving me snacks and telling people I don’t eat enough) and the administration department teacher before I had my second beer and forgot about most things.

During the whole evening, teachers made an effort to speak English and we actually had great conversation. I’d been prepared with a discussion topic but we didn’t need it, since the alcohol loosened up everyone’s English. I taught them slang like “tipsy” and “lightweight” and they taught me some Korean in exchange–I spoke Korean in front of them for the first time (with the exception of Korean teacher with whom I regularly exchange snippets) and everyone was delighted, despite the fact that all I’d really done was translate words. They were surprised I knew things like 쟁이 and certain curse words, which was a little funny for me, because as a language student and also a language teacher it’s kind of always been a known to me that language learners gravitate to that kind of slang first, even as they’re forced to learn textbook, overly-formal and proper language.

As you’d know if you’ve been reading my posts, I’ve had a bit of a rough time of it lately. While usually I’m a light drinker and one beer is enough to get me pleasantly chatty and tipsy, I kind of downed my first giant beer and then couldn’t refuse when they ordered a second round… which I also finished. By that time I was speaking freely and at ease and about half the table understood me and the other half had phased out into a beer-headed stupor, but would nod and “ah” if I met their eyes while I was talking.

I don’t know what time it was, maybe 7 or 7.15, but most people decided to go home. The P.E. teacher, music teacher, and I decided to go out for a second round and on the way to the bar, they showed me some places I might want to see–cafes, shops, restaurants. I doubt that I would be able to figure out exactly where that place was again without asking how to get there, but we ended up in a little sul-jib (pub) with friendly staff and a cute atmosphere. When we’d been at the restaurant planning where to go, the PE teacher asked me what kind of style I liked, and sober me would have said it didn’t matter, but tipsy me said “a place with no old men.” They thought this was hilarious, and P.E. teacher said she knew a place. The pub we ended up at fit the bill. Gradually more and more crowded, but no old men.

We talked about anything from renting bicycles, to which mascara to use, to which gym to sign up for, and were there until maybe 9, when we decided to go walk to the Han River Park, which I had always known was quite close to my house but had never known how to get to. They showed me the entrance to the park and we walked along the river for a while, and then they walked with me back to my apartment.

After all the stress I’ve been dealing with it was nice to loosen up a little and get to know my coworkers better. This was also the first time many coworkers became aware that I can understand a good percentage of spoken Korean although my speaking skills are wimpy in comparison, so it was nice to interact with them a bit more like friends.

summer pt. 1

I ventured into the teacher’s bathroom again yesterday to find that the toilet seat was warm. You may recall that the discovery of the heated toilet seat was a thing of great delight to me in the winter when I first arrived at the school, but it’s the first day of June, now, and the temperature outside is regularly peaking in the high seventies and mid-eighties with humidity levels in the higher end of percentages. Which reminds me. Sometimes, like yesterday, when I sit down on the toilet and I discover that it’s hot, I suddenly think to myself why don’t we have these in California? And then I remember it’s because there’s absolutely no need for it and what we need instead are portable humidifiers that preferably spray directly into your nostrils. So why don’t we have those in California?

The temperature is beginning its ascent into the unbearable. I recently complained to somebody about this in even less dramatic terms and his response was “but it’s not even proper summer yet.” Excuse me. I will decide when it’s proper summer, seeing as I come from the Kingdom of Summer, which might lend me a little more expertise on the subject. Is it hot? Yes? Am I suffering? Yes? Then it’s summer.

People sometimes ask me about the weather in California and when I say that it’s always hot, they ask then what about winter? No winter, I say. There’s just one season with variations that masquerade as other seasons. Summer, hotter summer, a little less hot summer…. 여름, 더 더운 여름, 조금 덜 더운 여름… I only wrote three because Spring seems to be a thing of the past in that place and no attempt seems to be made even to replicate it anymore. We only even had about a month of it here this year.

With the weather turning my wardrobe is beginning to thin out to the few pairs of slacks that I have, a couple dresses, and my limitless supply of t-shirts. When I wore shorts to work two days ago, the comments began in the morning: You look cool today, the language department head teacher told me as we entered the office together before the 8.30AM bell. Then, it was students, passing me in the hallway–teacher! Legs! As I walked into class after class, the sight of my legs continued to amaze and inspire students–one first year class immediately burst into excited twittering as soon as I walked in the door and were too excited to greet me with their usual “Hello, Teacher,” instead exclaiming amongst themselves–너무 멋있으셔! 다리 색깔은… 외국인이… –etc. While I teach, I usually pace around the front of the classroom so I can keep an eye on everyone and give all the students opportunity to hear my sonorous lectures, and I noticed a lot of the girls in the front with their eyes cast downwards towards my electric, LED white legs.

I’m always thinking about the beauty standards here–it’s often a cause of severe frustration for me and I often find myself fuming after small instances that I observe throughout my day. I read an article recently that explained the phenomena of commenting so candidly on the appearances of others, such as when a parent tells their son or daughter that they’re ugly and they need to get surgery later, as an instance of beauty having been dismantled into a set of objective standards which are either met or not met, with no scale to speak of. Parents see the beauty standards as another set of criteria which their child should meet and so feel no compunction upon dishing out statements that, however well-intended, I believe have damaging effects on their children’s self-esteem and, more than that, on the future of this country.

As I meet more and more Koreans and we discuss my opinions about their country’s culture, I always say the same thing: the beauty standards and gender roles are severe here. And without fail the answer to my comments is that things are changing. Sometimes I can agree. I work at a school, and so am in constant contact with young people and their thoughts, actions, and their cosmetic routines, their ideas about what it means to be a feminist or what it means to be a woman; I sometimes broach these issues where I find the opportunity, especially in my after school literature classes. I find that the girls have ideas more towards my line of thinking, but often are too shy to share them. We need to make an environment that’s safe for young people to dissent and to create the world that they believe in; parents speaking out of their children’s’ “best interest” to tell them that they just don’t match up and they need to change themselves to fit in in order to succeed is actually succeeding in the opposite: instead of opening up their children’s lives to the futures they want, they’re actually narrowing the realm of futures available for their children just by continuing to reinforce ideas that damage children’s belief that they are already full of all the potential they need to become their best selves.

I think about these young girls in the summer. It becomes too hot to cover up. Girls here are encouraged to show off their body; short shorts and skirts are the special culprit as the idea of showing off shoulder or chest is still considered racier than wearing booty-length bottoms. When I was in middle school the idea of showing my legs only felt safe if I modified my appearance–being very pale, even for an American, in a time when tan was the only shade of skin that wouldn’t draw unkind comments from classmates, I used to wear fake tanning lotion, building it up to an orangey sheen that fooled my four or five female classmates in the so-called “advanced” eighth grade class. When I was in high school changing for softball practice in the locker room, my teammates daily called out to me about my blinding shade of white down below though the rest of me (re: arms, face, chest) was usually tanned from our afternoons and weekends out on the field. Even into college I refused to wear short skirts or shorts without first applying a somewhat weaker fake-tan than the one of my middle-school days, the spray-on pantyhose variety that slightly livened me up. My friends said it removed the “I’ve been sleeping in coffins” sheen that I naturally wore. By that age I didn’t take comments like that to heart and recognized it as what it was; banter, a sign of affection. Occasionally friends still walk into a room where I am or meet me outside of the train station, gaze at me for a moment, and then say in amazement, “you are so white…”

Now the same bodily feature that plagued me and that I hated so much as a youth in America is drawing me good attention in Korea. It’s no secret that Koreans (and many Asian cultures, as I’m told) prefer a lighter skin tone to a darker one, although the range of naturally-occurring skin tones in Korean people has a spectrum that ranges similar to how white people have a range of naturally occurring tones. You can barely find a cosmetic product here that doesn’t boast “whitening” or “brightening” properties (the latter is a thinly-veiled euphemism as I’m sure you’ll have no trouble ascertaining for yourself). People continually comment about my pale appearance–once, standing on the street corner across from the hill that the school sits on top of, waiting for the light to change so I could cross the street, a couple of first year students said hi to me and then, after debating about how best to say it in English (unaware that I could understand them anyway), approached me from the side and said “Teacher’s face is very ha-wha-eet,” and then asked me if my eye color was from circle lenses or if it were real.

This is just one example, but there are literally dozens more similar occurrences. One of my favorite memories is from last year in a kindergarten class when one boy–I’ve written about this before–looked me over carefully and unflinchingly and then said “I think Teacher drinks a lot of milk,” and when I asked him why he thought that he said it was because my skin is so pale. To Korean youth, I embody an objective criterium which they’re forcefully, almost violently taught to believe is the standard to which they should arise. Sometimes with the kindergarteners, I would say “well, I like the color of your skin,” but I haven’t figured out a way to respond to the middle-school aged girls, who in Korea are 14, 15, and 16 years old.

I’ve written about this so many times before, but comments on my appearance are just such a matter of daily life for me here that they’re also always on my mind. These days I’m particularly aware of the gazes of others; not that I’m ever not aware, but because it’s summer and I can’t cocoon in my safe layers of autumn or winter wear, my body is more and more available to interested eyes. Last week, while walking home from school, I was following a group of first year students out of the school gates and down the hill. Before them was another group of first years who occasionally turned around to shout to them in conversation. One of the girls in the front group saw me and began speaking in English, though none of the others knew I was there.

“Where is..uh…Kang Min Seo?” she called, in English, and one of the girls in the second group replied “I don’t know” in English before switching to Korean: why did English suddenly come out…?

By that time some of the other girls had spotted me and had burst out into self-conscious laughter.

“Hi, Teacher,” they said, and I greeted them back. By this time I had passed the second group and was levelling with the first. One of the girls, who always comments on my clothes when I walk into the classroom by screaming “TEACHER FASHION SO GOOD!” also paid her compliments to my fashion that day: “Teacher fashion good,” she said, throwing me a thumbs up. I thanked her and passed the first group.

One of the girls behind me said in Korean, teacher is so cute. Then one said in English, “cute!”

“Cute! Cute, cute, cute, cute!” The chorus rang out behind me. I hung my head, not knowing how to respond, and kept walking.

“Teacher…ongdongi!” 티쳐 엉덩이! My shirt was tucked into my slacks.

Oh, I thought, my god… and I hurried down the hill, holding a book over my backside. They thought it was funny and began to chatter too quickly for me to understand as the distance between us grew.

That same day as I waited to cross the street at a stoplight near my apartments, an old woman stared at me from across the street so intently that she even didn’t notice when her dog took a poop on the sidewalk next to her. Whenever I go out at nighttime the old men cluttering the street after their 회식 ends watch me openly. The other day while I was walking back from the post office a group of 3 twenty-something aged boys were walking slowly ahead of me, blocking the sidewalk. When one of them moved out of the way (by accident) I hurried up to pass them while the chance was open and one of them noticed me. One of the others started talking but the one who’d seen me cut him off, saying “잠깐만! 외국인!” (wait a sec! Foreigner!), probably thinking that I couldn’t understand him or didn’t hear him. But I did. I always do. As I walked to the cafe where I was headed I was quite aware that they were chattering about me and probably watching my back as I gained more and more distance on them, eager to get out of sight.

These days as I pass students in the hallway, I’m receiving more and more comments: the other day, I was walking up the staircase to the third floor and some students passing by on the second stopped to call up after me “선생님 완전 pretty! So pretty!” and today some students told me the same thing as I proceeded them out of the annex building on my way to the office after class. Two days ago when I wore the shorts, three different students confessed their love to me as we passed in the hallways–티쳐, 아이러브유, complete with Korean accent. I’ve said this before–I know that compliments from students aren’t a direct comment on my appearance, and are more of a sign of a desire to connect with me, which I take as a compliment itself. So while I appreciate the students’ effort to communicate and connect with me, and of course while the teacher in me loves that they’re using English outside of the classroom in a real, authentic way–I still can’t figure out how to respond.

Think about it: if standards of beauty are just another criteria that is either met or not met, then aren’t compliments on appearance just a roundabout way of saying “congratulations! You match this particular country’s set of desired and worshipped physical characteristics!” and if it is, how can you respond to that? Can you do it with a “thank you?” After all, meeting that criteria didn’t have anything to do with me or my choices (unless you count staying out of the sunlight as a personal choice but I view it more as a matter of survival).

I said before that comments to kids about how their appearance is lacking limits children’s ability to become their best selves. But there’s something worth mentioning that probably comes as no surprise by now: children aren’t taught that each of them has special talents that they have a duty to bring to the world. Children are taught that if they’re a man, they’re meant to grow up and fulfill one of a certain, limited number of acceptable roles, and if they’re a woman, likewise. Young people these days are looking at other cultures, are looking at other countries, and are listening. Distances are closing. Space-time has become so compressed that two people on opposite sides of the world can share the same now, through facetime, chatting, any number of internet-related activities. We don’t know how to wait for things anymore. In a country where same-mindedness has allowed the extremely rapid expansion and development of the national economy and where dissent has been systematically repressed as a tool for nation-building, instant and predictable gratification for individual action on behalf of the nation has become a traditional expectation. Korea is an incredible country. When their economy tanked in 1997 during the IMF crises, families donated their own gold and savings to banks to pay off the country’s loans. And they paid off their loans three years ahead of schedule (by 2001) and got the economy back on its feet so quickly that by this year it’s the 11th strongest economy in the world.

Of course, in this situation, single-mindedness and the respect of national value over personal value is what saved the country’s future. What I’m saying is that beauty is a separate issue and needs to be treated as such.

But with such rapid success and such predictable results all occurring within an instant built into the national way of thinking, added to the increasing intolerance for delayed results caused by the easy access to internet-stored information, SOMEBODY needs to slow down, reevaluate. Desire for your children to succeed in this world cannot override loving language. Where will children learn tenderness and acceptance if not in the home? And if parents continually submit their child to derogatory remarks concerning appearance or performance and tell them they say these things out of love, won’t children grow up a little bit confused about what love is? And when these girls grow up and meet a man who mistreats them and is violent towards them and tells them it’s because he loves them, won’t they believe him? Because they grew up learning that that’s what love looks like? It isn’t love. It’s single-mindedness. When single-mindedness of a country’s national prerogative overrides love and affection and affirmation in individual relationships, children become trapped in a cycle that doesn’t respect their potential.

People say it’s not my culture and I shouldn’t have an opinion. But I think it’s irresponsible not to try to help students make a better world, make the world they want. So when I can, I expose them to other ways of thinking; never telling them what to think or what I personally believe, I simply expose them to as many ways of thinking as I can. I use literature to do this. In a world that is dry-heaving with conflict, that is over-saturated with information, literature can provide a grounding to work from: the exposition of human relationships, which can often get forgotten in the chaos. The body is one medium through which we form and maintain relationships with others: through physical interaction, but also through gaze. As long as the gaze is critical rather than curious, we’re just–as one Welsh poet put it–teaching kids to walk into the trees, rather than climb the branches and look up at the stars.


This is just a quick update to say that I’m about a third of the way through composing a draft detailing my Suncheon / Namhae solo trip and should be posting it within the next week or so.

I caught a cold last Thursday that completely devastated my body and my coherent language abilities. In most of my free time since then I’ve been sleeping or watching TV, incapable of any real thought. I’ve barely regained an appetite in the last couple days… when I walked into my first period class this morning one of the students immediately exclaimed (in Korean, so I pretended I couldn’t understand)–wow, Teacher has lost weight!

I also forgot to put on lipstick this morning before I left the house, something I haven’t done since starting work here. My co-teacher asked me–today you’re not wearing lipstick? And I realized my mistake. It looks very… innocent, she said, and I knew what she meant. Young. Last year, while teaching kindergarten, when a similar illness caused me to forget to apply lipstick, my students told me I needed to go to the hospital right away. Another one made me pinky-promise her that I would never to forget to put on lipstick again.

So today while I was applying it in the office after my co-teacher’s remark, some first year students walked in and saw me. Oh, so pretty Teacher, they said, and swarmed around my desk, peering over the divider at me. You wear glasses? They asked. Just for reading, I said. Oh, Teacher. 갑자기 고백하고 싶다. Teacher. I like you. Sooooo much. I love you. See you today. We are class six. Your third class today.

Despite the impromptu compliments of students, and despite my condition having improved dramatically since the weekend, I know I’m actually still sick. I’m slowly accepting the fact that I’ll have to make a hospital visit and try to coax the doctor into prescribing me something for a sinus infection. I’ve found in the past that asking specifically for certain treatments is often more effective than trusting them to figure out what’s wrong with me if my ailment in any way diverges from what the majority of other patients are suffering from. I’ve been doubling up on cold meds and migraine pills, but the pressure in there is so bad that sometimes my face spontaneously aches, or my teeth hurt like they did when I was wearing braces.

In any case, I’m much improved and will post about my trip down south as soon as I can find the time to finish writing.


My first experience teaching English in Korea was at a 학원 (hag-won, academy) and I didn’t really have a co-teacher or anyone at work for that matter who was willing and able to help me adjust into life as a foreigner here. When I asked my boss, who was the direct supervisor of the foreign teachers but who was also just the general manager of the whole academy (I believe), for help setting up an internet contract, for example, she said I just had to call their help line and set it up that way. Although I could read and write Korean alright at that time, I could barely speak it and understand it, so calling by myself to set up a contract seemed too daunting a task to perform and I gave up and went two or three months without any internet in my apartment. I’d set up a phone beforehand through a service that let you do a temporary SIM card before you got to Korea so I had some data to use at home, but other than that I was pretty much just reading the pre-downloaded e-books I’d had on my kindle e-reader at the time (Aesop’s Fables… can u say boring???) and one of the novels I’d brought with me–A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, which thankfully, in contrast to the fables, proved to be quite entertaining.

There were other things I needed help with, but I bet you can imagine the kind of responses I received when I asked for help from my boss. And I bet your imagination wouldn’t be wrong.

This year, my experience has been 100% different in every way I can think of. The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE) is the actual entity who hired me, and they not only provided all their new hires with a little booklet about life in Seoul and a week-long orientation before that (which I’ve also written about previously here, here, and here), but they gave us actual contact information which we were told we can freely utilize in case we need help AND they gave us their address and invited us to visit them in their office. They’re the people who pay my salary (I think) and they’ve made themselves this available? Shocking.

Beyond this, my actual school and my coworkers and superiors here are completely different. I co-teach classes with about five different Korean teachers total, moving from class to class and pairing up with a different one each time (and sometimes two at once), but the language department head teacher (Ms. Jang)  and contact teacher (Carrie) share an office with me and are my main spokespeople when it comes to interloping with the other teachers or administration. They’re the ones who picked me up from orientation, took me to the school, introduced me to the principal and VP, and took me to my new home for the first time; they’re also the ones in charge of helping me with all aspects of my life here, down to where I can get what for my apartment, opening phone contracts, helping me make haircut appointments, etc.

My apartment’s landlady provided me wifi to use in the apartment, so I didn’t need to bother with trying to set up a contract for home internet, but other problems still arose: when SMOE would pay me my settlement allowance, and getting a cell phone contract, mainly.

On the first day I went to work my contact teacher took me to immigration to apply for my Alien Registration Card (ARC) which is basically necessary to do anything you need to do ever, including setting up any kind of contract or accessing insurance, such as health insurance, so no going to the doctor for cheap until your ARC comes, basically. Thankfully, although I did catch a cold within my first week and my first day teaching was a bit interesting because I was a little hoarse and sniffly (still sniffly), there’s a school nurse who gave me pills–I don’t know what they were but I want to stockpile them because they made me happily sleepy and comfortable, which is a combo of feelings I could go for any time, including when I am not high with a cold–and a Korean herbal medicine / tea called Ssang-hwa-tang, which is a Korean herbal medicine / tea that I thought I already wrote about (I am reasonably sure I did) but cannot find right now but when I can find it I will post a link to that writing here…. So I managed to get by without going to the doctor, which probably blew the mind of all my Korean friends and colleagues–for some reason, even for little things, whenever I express any symptom of any kind, including, I coughed once yesterday, everyone here always asks me “are you going to go to the hospital?”

While in the States and pretty much anywhere else in the world “hospital” is a word reserved for the giant buildings you only get admitted to if you’re on death’s doorstep, here it’s a general term that means any kind of medical clinic, and the translation kind of loses that general meaning because of the strong association foreigners have for the hospital experience. However, I am dull to the shock of the question by now, so I just answer with a smile that they probably can’t understand: no, I think I’m gonna be okay.

My ARC arrived at the school last Friday, about a week after I applied for it. Because I was here last year on the same visa, they gave me the same ARC number  as last year, and perhaps that expedited the processing time, because last year it took a month to get the card back after applying. Everyone in the office celebrated with me as I opened it up, offering congrats and telling me to take a picture of it because it was such a happy occasion. Unfortunately, my picture on the ARC is less than flattering and I absolutely refuse to show it to you.

But I was happy to receive it because it’s like the key to my freedom. I can buy bus tickets online, I can open a cell phone, I can go to the hospital… I can do anything.

Yesterday (Thursday, 16 March) my contact teacher Carrie and I had to take an official trip to the bank, so we left work a bit early. When we finished up all our official things, she decided to come with me to the KT store to help me open up a phone number there. I brought my phone with me, so I had the option of getting a contract that was shorter than 2 years. Actually, I’d called the KT  English help line and had been told that because I had my own phone and because I didn’t want the 2 year contract I’d have to do a prepaid, month-to-month type service.

I can do that for a year? I asked, because I don’t trust anyone, especially phone customer service people. And it’s better than a contract?

Yes, you can do that for a year, and it’s better than a contract, the guy said, so I thanked him and believed him.

But when we got to the KT store yesterday, we discussed the various levels of data plans available for me to choose from and suddenly Carrie turned to me and asked if I’d like to do a contract or pre-paid. I was surprised, but also not surprised, because phone customer service people never know anything and in the research I had done before calling that KT “expert” I’d been able to see that it was possible to contract a mobile plan for 12 months. So I said that if the contract were cheaper than month-to-month I’d rather do that, and it turns out that you get a 20% discount off the monthly rate for opening a contract, so… is that really a question? I suppose for people who aren’t sure how long they’ll be staying in Korea (and why don’t they know? Because they’re on the lamb? Just a thought), a month-to-month plan makes sense, but to someone like me, who has a legal and binding you-must-stay-in-Korea-for-a-year workplace contract, the question doesn’t even make sense. Do you want to pay more money or pay less money? Um…let me think about that…

So I managed to make a 12 month contract for just about under half of what I was paying monthly last year for my month-to-month plan, and even better than that is the discount for the first month. Because we’re already halfway through the month, they prorate the cost, and even plus the 8,000 won fee for the SIM card, my first bill is only about 30,000 won.

They tried to give me the same phone number I’d used last year, but apparently it’s being used or is otherwise unavailable, so I had to choose a new number. They managed to find one that was only one digit different from last year’s, so I guess someone who knew me then could even still accidentally call me now.

(Note: if you need my new contact information and we know each other, please feel free to contact me and ask for it.)

I would have been able to open a contract without my co-teacher, because everyone here speaks a few words of English and my Korean is passable, but the point is that she was willing and happy to go with me. During my first week at work, she also showed me the way to Daiso, went with me to Olive Young, and helped me make a haircut appointment at a place near my apartment. After we opened the contract together she accompanied me shopping again, and offered advice about which products to purchase. I’ve been able to talk with her about a whole variety of things that I never would have imagined I’d be able to speak with a coworker about: my love life (more like my love history lol), my worries, concerns, my plans for the future, things like that. We know each other’s favorite alcohols and we often talk about clothes or skin care products. She feels like a line of support that branches beyond the workplace, and because of that I feel safe, comfortable, and happy in my new situation.

The whole language department office has been so kind to me. Sometimes the Korean language teacher will give me snacks or give me advice, and we chat a bit despite her low level of English and my low level of Korean. When I had to cancel a weekend trip out of town for embarrassing reasons and told them why, they were surprisingly sympathetic and supportive, even when I myself was giving myself a hard time about it and trying to brush off my feelings as unreasonable or insignificant. They often compliment me on something I’m wearing and today when I curled my hair for the first time in an attempt to shorten it, they all noticed and said it looked nice.

Even the Vice Principal sometimes brings me gifts– “Lily, 선물,” (soan-mool, gift) he’ll say, and drop me something over the desk barrier: a yogurt, a piece of fruit, or even once, a loaf of bread. Perhaps I mentioned this before, but he also noticed that I bring my lunch to school and frequently ventured into the main teachers’ room to use the microwave, and decided to buy the language department their own microwave so I could use it more easily. Considering that last year our whole academy had one mini fridge for all thirty something teachers to use and about two-thirds of the way into the year they took it away from us to use to store student rewards (re: ice cream), this new situation, in which I didn’t even ask for something but someone noticed that there was something they could do for me and did it freely, just out of consideration, is almost unbelievable to me.

I realize as I write this that these things are just the gears and cogs of daily life, and probably occur the world over to a lot of people. But to me, these little things about my interactions with my co-teachers and superiors here make my days enjoyable (and sometimes, when I have a lot of ~~~emotions~~~, just make them bearable), and I continue to feel lucky about my placement. Although last year looking at all the things that were going wrong and imagining ways to improve them in my dream world quickly became a hobby of mine, here, I can’t imagine a different situation in which things could have worked out better, and that is quite amazing to me.

As I’m writing this, the bell rings for lunch time. The cafeteria is down the hall from the teacher’s room, so the girls line up in the hallway and make quite a racket out there: yelling, singing, sometimes even dancing. Today a lively chorus of “The Three Bears” rings out in the hallway in front of the language department door, but I hear other things: shouts of “얘들아 버스킹 클럽에 가입하자!” (guys, let’s join the busking club!), and, among other shouting, “Lily Teacher, Lily Teacher,” in several different sing-song voices, together rising above the din in almost bell-like tones.

Teaching: Week 1

Sometimes when I walk into the classroom for the first time all of them go silent, watching me sharply–I look out at them and smile. About thirty two of them in each class, more grown than most students whose gazes I’ve held in the past. Sometimes they talk with their friends about me as I enter–I hear pretty, cute, clothes, among other whispers, and am relieved; first impressions in this country are written in stone. Sometimes the students cheer loudly, standing at their desks, waving their books and pencils in the air. What must they think of America now? I wonder, and me someone from that country, and them so excited to see me? Politics must skate a bit over their heads; after all, they’re thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old. As a week passes and I teach eighteen classes and meet almost the entire student body of just over 600 girls, I start to realize we have a lot of the same concerns: which color lipstick to wear today, when is the next album from an artist I like going to release, what stores are having a sale this weekend, does he like me back or not. Yes–I think this will work out.

But some of my old tricks have in one shot lost their usefulness. When a student bursts into tears in the middle of class, rather than finding my impromptu rendition of “The Three Bears” endearing or comforting, these new students are likely to take offense or more probably assign me to a category in their social reckoning saved for the sort of old men who hawk a loogie right in front of them on the sidewalk. Similarly, when students misbehave, pulling them outside into the hall and getting into their face and unleashing my choice few words–a disciplinary habit of mine which last year earned me the nickname “gangster teacher” from some of my older students who repeatedly witnessed this event–is probably going to result in me getting beat up rather than the usual response: either tears or fear and a pitiful retreat to their seat while their friends help them catch up on the work they missed while we were outside and I was teaching them the real lesson.

Thankfully, although stripped of my ready-made arsenal of “scary teacher” tactics, I still have a powerful weapon up my sleeve: my co-teacher(s). In each class, though I may teach the lesson material alone, roaming the desks with his or her hawk eyes and air of superior authority and experience is my Korean co-teacher, or in some cases, my Korean co-teacher + a bonus, second co-teacher. During my first week I teach 18 classes, each of which is organized by English level (though I gather this is self-assessed): advanced, upper-intermediate, intermediate, pre-intermediate, and first years. The bulk of intermediate leveled classes are mixed (upper and pre, inter and pre, even advanced and pre), meaning that there will always be a few smiling faces out there and a few rolling sets of eyes, a few sleepers, a few note-takers, etc. There are benefits and not-so-benefits of teaching leveled classes, but a constant benefit no matter the class is that the co-teacher is there, understands me and the students, and has the authority required to instil a bit of fear and respect into students who are less than thrilled that they’re now to speak English with me for forty-five minutes a week.

As mentioned, first years are not separated into levels but are lumped together by year regardless of English ability–the result being that there are some students in each class who could easily join the third year advanced level without any problems and some who not only cannot understand a single word I say (and I usually adopt a speech pattern in these classes similar to the one I used with kindergarten last year until I receive feedback that suggests I can pick up the pace), but who have no interest in understanding me. The English is dumb, I don’t like it, it’s too hard, the teacher speaks too fast, this has nothing to do with me and also all adults are incapable of understanding me sentiment that one could reasonably assume middle schoolers to adopt–I’ve felt that most so far in first year classes.

However, I have also had some of my most delightful interactions with first years–while setting up one of my classes, I look up from my paperwork to see the student sitting directly in front of me staring straight at me. Upon catching my eye, she immediately launches into flawless English–“um, the blackboard over there, you can pull it out so there’s more room to write”–I stare at her in shock for a moment before I remember to thank her for her advice, and throughout the lesson she continues to listen very carefully and ask clarifying questions. Other than this, there are a couple other students who’ve clearly lived abroad; I’d been told on the first day there were about five students who’d lived abroad who’d come here to study. One of them in the same class as the board advice student speaks in a thick but properly posh English accent, and asks me questions that other students with less understanding won’t have been able to ask for lack of clarity on my lesson–another student in a second year advanced class today says she lived in Canada, and I’m pretty sure I could locate the other two students among my other second year classes as well. Overall, first years are still interested in English and haven’t resigned themselves to not understanding, so at least are paying attention to me while I’m speaking even if they don’t understand. And attitude counts for a lot.

My very first class is with a third year upper-intermediate level class. They understand me a bit better than I’ve expected, and occasionally react in a natural way to something I’ve relayed, which indicates to me that beyond a language level, I’ve made some sort of connection. From that point forward, any smile, any question, any laugh, any “awww,” any emotional response at all from the classes become anchors for me, a good indication of whether or not students have apprehended, and whether or not I have successfully relayed, my intended message. Third year advanced students are on the whole as tall as or taller than me, so when they’re sitting down they’re just students to me, but when I pass them in the hallways I’m forced to confront the fact that these are pubescent teens I’ve been charged with: emotional, mostly quite happy-seeming, but sensitive nonetheless. Different to young children, who say this and that often without capability of gauging the reactions of anyone to anything they say, teenagers are calculating in both what they hear and what they say. Of course this differs between personalities–some third years I’ve met so far and for that matter second years as well–seem like conversation machines, incapable of staying quiet for more than a few minutes even if they are actually interested in what I have to say–and some have hardly spoken a word, even during class speaking exercises with provided answers–but the biggest difference I notice between things these girls say to me (and want to know about me) and the things younger kids have to say to me is that the things girls say are often positives about my appearance (although I did hear a second year today get excited about a picture of me that was so white I looked like a ghost), and their questions are almost all exclusively about my love life and inner thoughts.

Compare for yourself, if you’d like, some real questions I’ve received in my life as a teacher in Korea:

Kindergarten Middle School
“Teacher has a mom?” “Do you have a boyfriend? / Do you have a Korean boyfriend?”
“Teacher eats meat…Teacher will die?” “Why did you start not eating meat?”
“Teacher’s favorite color is blue?” “What’s your ideal type (in a man)?”

Of course, the girls also ask me how old I am or what’s my favorite Korean food, but more often they ask for the reasons behind things they know about me: why did I come to Korea, why did I become a teacher, etc. Otherwise questions are almost exclusively whether I got married or whether I’ve dated Korean guys before. Often when I tell them I’m not married, I don’t have a boyfriend, or something like that, they all go awww like how sad for you, but I wonder how many of them have actually had a boyfriend before…? Not because of their age, but because of their reaction. Could it be that some of them have had the experience of a boyfriend who didn’t turn out to be a disappointing experience in summary? If they have…well, they’ve got me beat. It’s difficult for me to even imagine any romantically-related interaction with a guy without wanting to curl into a ball and go to sleep forever, or else throw up, but I guess I do like to believe there’s a world in which not every young girl has such violent associations for the male kind. Perhaps these girls are my window into that world.

Second years are the most comfortable of the three years for me so far. I don’t know that there’s any specific reason, or rather, even if there is, I can’t quite identify it. Even the mixed classes still seem interested in what I have to say, or at least bother to be polite enough to act like they’re paying attention. There are of course some students who have just resigned themselves to not understanding English, who don’t even bother to watch me as I lecture…and this first week of lectures has been about ME, so I can hardly imagine that later they’ll be more interested in their textbook lessons than they are in their new foreign teacher. The second year advanced students have a big interest in interacting with me and without fail react to my jokes, puns, et al, and so win real favor with me, but all second year classes have a good attitude, want to participate, and at least pretend they’re listening to me for the duration of the lesson. Their questions are some of the most interesting–for example, I receive the question about my ideal type in a second year class.

She asks in Korean so my co-teacher can translate, but I know the term, and my mind begins to reel as I wait for the translation to come… not having given much thought to my ideal type, I find I’m a bit put on the spot, and I catch a case of the giggles from the girls in the front row as soon as my co-teacher provides the translation for me.

“My ideal type?!” I say, bidding for time. The students all smile expectantly.

“Kind…funny…and stylish,” I say after a moment of thought, ticking off on my fingers, and with the last word gesturing to my own body so they know I’m talking about clothes. It goes over well; everyone understands and seems to enjoy my answer.

Also, while I’m thinking about it, let me just interject on an important subject–bidets. In the time I spent travelling in Korea last year staying in hotels or more usually motels, I came across a good deal of bidets, but my fear of getting sprayed with water from a part of the machine I didn’t know how to use had paralysed me from pressing even the most clearly-labeled buttons. Sometimes I even tried to lift up the bidet seat to see if I could just use the regular toilet underneath–thinking about it now that probably put me in more danger of being showered than anything else I could have done in my fear… Anyway I never tried to use them and never believed in them BUT let me tell you something I have learned about bidets: they have … um… seat heaters? Not being a bidet person I couldn’t tell you the exact term, but in any case with whatever name, this is probably my favorite bathroom discovery so far in Korea except for the first time I remembered to take toilet tissue inside the stall with me when there was none inside.

It’s cold in Korea now, getting warmer, but schools don’t really use heating in the hallways or rooms that aren’t receiving a regular flow of traffic, so the teacher’s bathroom on the second floor isn’t heated. And I don’t need to detail the experience of having to bare your skin to the cold to use the toilet, you all know what that’s like, so you can also imagine the happy surprise to find that instead of icy cold plastic down there it’s pleasantly warm plastic and the shock you’d prepared your body to sustain dies on impact…

You’re welcome for that short story.

During my last day of teaching my self-introduction, a student who’s been smiling at me throughout the entire class comes up to me after it’s over and I’m packing up and tells me she’s so happy to meet me. Her sincerity is palpable; I tell her I’m happy to meet her, too, and she asks my co-teacher to translate something so she can tell me. My co-teacher tells her how to say what she wants to say.

“See you next time,” she says to me, smiling widely, and bows to me the whole way out of the classroom.

EPIK Orientation Feb 2017: Days 7-8 and Meeting Co-Teachers

Day 7

The last day of lectures includes a quite enjoyable class on Storytelling and, after lunch, a whole long set time to work with our lesson demo groups on our lesson. I honestly can’t even remember the specifics of what we do during this time besides clarifying the roles that we will each perform in the demo and we run out of time so we will have to go back to the classroom after dinner and practice again.

But before that and after dinner there’s the SMOE meeting. Seoul teachers sign their contracts at this meeting and find out their exact placement (school name, level, and location). Seoul teachers all know that we’ll have an elementary school placement and have known that for several months. We’ve been told to dress very nicely; in other words, I can wear what I’ve been wearing all day but pyjama boy should change.

I don’t know what to expect at this meeting; who I’ll meet or how nervous I should be, so I settle on a level of nervous that causes me to forget to bring a pen. To a contract signing meeting. So… a not-lethal but still definitely damaging level of nervousness.

When we get there it’s set up just like a classroom with the contracts all piled neatly at individual spaces; imaginings I’d had of being led into a small room by myself and forced to read the contract together fizzled away into a whispy nothing. The SMOE people are less scary than I had imagined they would be and the whole ordeal was less formal and…um…less Korean than I had imagined and feared. We sign our contracts on the assumption that we’d read them before signing them in the past (which we had done as part of the application process) and then are instructed to make two lines in order to hand in one of the three copies we’d just signed.

This is a slightly disorganized affair, and we stand  in line for what must be  ten minutes before we start moving toward the destination: desks at the back of the classroom. During this waiting time some people decide to check the posted lists on the wall to see what their school assignment is. A girl in line next to me offers to hold my spot while I go to check but the squeeze through others and tables to see the closest list does not appeal to me so I thank her anyway and stay in line. I already know where I’m going to be placed, so unless that is actually a mistake like I feared upon learning it, there’s really no surprises waiting for me over there.

I make my way through the line and ask the SMOE guy what the second and third contracts are for. He exclaims “I knew I forgot to say something!” and then “you know, sometimes when you’re getting all prepped to leave a place you do your best but…” (His last day is the next day.) I commiserate with him and he tells me one is for immigration and the other is just for me (which he has already mentioned, but his last day is tomorrow). He gives me an envelope to hold everything together. I move to the end of the table where two EPIK staff members (one of whom is my kind Class 1 teacher, Ellie) give me my certificate of completion and my sealed medical exam results, which I should give to my school.

Now I’m free to  check my assignment. Sure enough, in a list of dozens and dozens of people assigned to elementary schools, there I am smack in the middle of the list, “middle” listed under the level section. I stand in shock for a moment. Middle school… I read the school name. Seoul-yeo-jung. Seoul Girls Middle School.

I vaguely recall someone asking me how it went and my own soft-spoken reply… “I got placed at a middle school…” which draws the attention of the male EPIK staff member who’d just a moment earlier been telling someone higher up in line that she would be teaching at his school, so I think for a split second–could it be? But it turns out my school isn’t his and he was just overhearing.

The rest of the night I feel a strange sense of elation to know my placement and to see that it’s not been a mistake, that I am in Mapo-gu. I don’t have experience teaching Middle School, but I do have a lot of knowledge in my subject and perhaps this is an opportunity for me to work at a slightly higher level than I’ve been able to so far. I’m hopeful on the whole, and a bit intimidated, but overall, pleased.

We move our luggage down to the room where we completed registration. Now all that’s left with me in the room are my carryon and backpack and the clothes I’ll wear the next day.

My lesson demo team meets up again in the classroom to practice. Two EPIK teachers sit in on the class before we’ve practiced at all, so we tell them and they come back later and participate in our class as if they’re students. We run past 10.00PM and move to the conference room in the dorm building to practice again. It might be 10.30 or 11.00PM by the time we go back to our rooms. I know I should be sleeping but I stay up reading articles on the NY Times to ease my nerves and go to bed after midnight.

Day 8

Breakfast starts at 6.30. Because lesson demos start at 8.00 sharp I shower before breakfast for the first time all week and run to the cafeteria with wet hair.

Lesson demonstrations go okay. Our group is fourth to present. Some members forget when it’s their turn or what to do. Overall we have a successful demonstration with some necessary tweaks. I’m just relieved it’s over and I’ve done all that I could do bar doing it all by myself.

After our lesson demos Seoul teachers have to take the bus up to the “meeting point” at a Seoul High School where our co-teachers will meet us and take us first to our schools to meet our principals and vice principals and then to our new homes. I drag my luggage to the bus and as the driver catches sight of me from a slight distance he does a double take and exclaims 오! 한국인거같네. (Oh! [It appears] You look like a Korean.) I laugh, surprised, and shake my head no, boarding the bus and wondering if I heard him wrong.

I manage to get a seat by myself in the bus and spread out my many things onto the seat next to me. I zone out until we reach the rest stop where I buy a bagel and coffee and help one of the other teachers placed at a middle school make his order. We sit in the sunlight outside the food court until we have to board our busses again. It’s about two hours left until we reach the meeting point from the rest stop. I think I may even fall asleep on the bus for a while, but as we were told to dress formally because we’d be meeting the principal, my clothes aren’t comfortable enough to conk out completely.

We’ve been told that our co-teachers may be quite late to the meeting point, but that they know which bus we’re on and will be holding signs with our names and the names of our schools. Only about five or ten minutes after we’ve pulled into the lot I spot two women walking towards our bus with a sign with my name on it, so I wave to them and exchange greetings in Korean, though I quickly figure out that’s not necessary as they’re speaking English to me. As they deliberate in Korean about which luggage to help me with, I hear them wondering about the biggest one and offer to take it myself. They’re shocked that I’ve understood them and responded, but later quickly become relieved when they realize that this will make communication a bit easier between us.

They take me to their car where the head language teacher’s husband is waiting. He says “nice to meet you” in English and loads my (very heavy) luggage into the car by himself. They drive me to the school–our meeting point is in Gangnam so we have to cross the river and head west to Mapo-gu. It takes about half an hour. During that time we chat about my background and the principal, who has worked zealously to get a native speaker  to his school, which hasn’t had a native English speaking teacher for four years now. His major was English in college so he speaks English. In addition to working hard to bring me to his school, he also went out himself to find a good apartment for the new teacher, walking in the cold on his own time. I begin to feel like I have fallen into a lucky situation; the co-teachers are friendly and the school is glad to have me.

When we arrive at the school, we go to the principal’s office and are joined by the VP. The principal’s English is good, excellent, even, as expected. He tells me my co-teacher prepared a lot for me and the co-teachers counter that he also did a lot. I do my best to show my appreciation and to appear friendly. The co-teachers tell the principal and vice principal that I can speak a bit of Korean and can listen to it well and some other things about me. They tell the principal that I studied Korean by myself and with the help of friends. She has Korean friends, they say. The principal says “any girlfriend or boyfriend?” I smile. No, just friends, I say, and the VP says 사람친구 (“person” friend as opposed to “girl” friend or “boy” friend).

We take a brief tour of some facilities and I meet some others. The other male English teacher who introduces himself as “Dean. You know James Dean? Well, I’m Dean, Kim Dean” and the administration ladies and a very young, shy looking male maths teacher. Until now I’ve spoken with most teachers in Korean but the math teacher pipes up, “nice to meet you!”

After loading a school chair into the front seat of the car to take to the apartment, they drive me to my new home. The neighborhood is residential with smaller, older-style apartment buildings that cap off at seven or eight stories, most shorter than that. My building has five floors and I’m on the third. We struggle to get the luggage into the elevator but when we land on the third floor, the landlady is there waiting and takes us on a short tour of the house, explaining how to use appliances and how to take out the trash, etc. The school has provided me brand new almost everything down to house and shower shoes and the first toilet paper roll. The apartment is big, two rooms, and spacious, with clean white walls, large tinted windows, and light wood floors. The furniture is white and clean. All in all, it’s definitely my style and I feel more than lucky to have been placed here.

After they help me move the luggage in and make sure I know how to use everything, the head teacher and her husband leave and my contact teacher Carrie walks me back to the school so I can know how to get there the next morning. The school is almost a straight shot from my home, so I remember the way back with no trouble. We chat along the way and get to know each other a bit. She says I like you because you speak Korean and English.

She drops me off at home and we say goodnight and see you later.

I’m exhausted by now, but I have to wait up for the previous tenant to come and collect his luggage. While I wait I use google maps to find out where exactly I am in relation to areas I know. I’m extremely close to the Han River, about a five or ten minute walk from the park–I’m about a ten minute bus ride from Sinchon Station (and Sinchon is one stop away from Hongdae)–I’m a ten minute walk from Mapo Station–and there are plenty of restaurants, coffee shops, hair salons, pharmacies, etc, in my immediate neighborhood. I’m feeling quite relieved and a little high on my luck.

After the previous tenant comes to collect his things, I have little to no recollection of what I did. I believe I made a run to the nearby HomePlus Express to buy some groceries, ate dinner, and went to bed. In any case, I had the next day, March 1st, off, so I didn’t need to worry about getting up early the next morning to go to work.