vegetarian doenjang jjigae (된장찌개)

One of my favorite Korean dishes is unsurprisingly a soup / stew, called Doenjang jjigae (pronounced: dwen-jahng jeegae), which is named after “doenjang,” which literally translates to “thick sauce.” Doenjang is fermented soybean paste. It has a salty, nutty, and—well—fermented flavor that I found slightly addicting as soon as I first tried it. As a vegetarian in a land of meat-eaters who don’t consider seafood to be meat at all, I often find myself shelling out the short-necked clams that usually come in the soup and piling them into the bowls of my eating companions, knowing that the broth is still made with anchovies. Because I’m here and I want to experience the culture as far as I feel I can, I don’t let these things bother me, but I still always feel much better eating something I know is completely meat-free.

That only happens when I eat my own cooking.

There aren’t many ingredients in doenjang jjigae, so after a while of suffering cravings, I finally decided to make it.

Doenjang is a very old part of Korean cuisine. Some of the earliest recorded varieties of kimchi were made by smearing a Korean radish in doenjang and letting it ferment that way. A poet whose name I forget described the flavor of that kimchi in the summer as sweet as a pear. But if poetic quality isn’t enough for you, doenjang is actually really healthy: it’s full of flavanoids, vitamins and minerals, phytoestrogens, and lysine, an ~essential~ amino acid you can’t find in rice. All of this survives boiling, by the way.

Traditionally, the base of the soup is made with anchovies and kelp, boiled for fifteen or twenty minutes, after which the fish and kelp are both extracted. It’s easy enough to substitute a premade, vegetable-based stock for the anchovies, although the flavor will admittedly be different from a true, traditional taste.

Here is the recipe I used to good results. I traded out the traditional ingredient of mu, or Korean radish, for enoki mushrooms, because mu are quite large and I didn’t want to try to store it after I cooked since I wasn’t about to make kkakdugi or anything with it afterwards. However, mu are a little bit spicy so I recommend using red pepper flakes if you don’t use mu to make up for the enoki mushrooms’ lack of flavor in that area.

You can find any of these ingredients at a Korean mart or you can substitute what you can find at your own supermarket for anything here… except the doenjang, of course. If you need help finding anything at the Korean mart, I’ve written the Korean words for the ingredients in parenthesis by the ingredient so you can show that to someone who can help you there!



– 1 tablespoon condensed vegetarian soup base

– 3 tablespoons doenjang (된장)

– 1/2 tablespoon red pepper flake (고추 가루)

– 2 tablespoons minced garlic (다진 마늘)

– 1/2 small white onion (양파)

– 1 or 2 green onions (파)

– 1 or 2 small bunches of enoki mushroom (팽이버섯) OR 1/4 Korean radish (무)*

– 1/3 Korean grey squash (애호박)

(you can use a regular zucchini for this because it’s basically the same)

– 1/3 package of mid-firm tofu (찌개용 두부)

– 1 Korean green pepper (풋고추)

*don’t mistake this for daikon! Korean radishes are round like potatoes rather than long and thin like a carrot (this is a daikon), although their coloring is almost the same.

1. Broth

– bring a small pot of water to a boil and add the condensed vegetarian soup base.

– let this simmer while you prepare the vegetables

2. Vegetables / Tofu

– cut the 1/3 Korean grey squash into thin rectangular pieces

– cut the bunches of enoki mushroom about halfway down the stalk (the bottoms can be discarded),

– or, if you use the Korean radish, cut it into similar sized pieces to the squash

– cut the 1/2 onion into small pieces (but don’t mince it)

– cut the tofu into small cubes

– cut the green pepper into thin, diagonal slices (don’t fear or remove the pith/seeds, they’re flavorful and not spicy!)

chopped vegetables on the world’s smallest cutting board

3. Seasoning

– add the doenjang to the soup base, and let boil for 3 minutes

– add the red pepper flakes

– add the minced garlic and enoki mushrooms

– boil till the mushrooms are cooked (~3 mins)

4. Add the Vegetables

– add the squash and onions

– boil for ~3-4 mins

5. Finishing

– add the tofu

– top with green onion and green pepper

everything added~


Serve with rice and side dishes (kimchi, kong-namul, miyeok-muchim, sigumchi-namul, and oi-sobagi are some of my favorites) if you want to experience a closer semblance of a Korean meal.


surgery in Korea

It is difficult to know how to begin this post.

In fact I’ve begun it and erased it a few times now.

This is a subject I avoided for several months of my recent history and I suppose it’s maintained a resistance to my airing it. So, after a lot of effort and several revised drafts, here it is:

I recently had minor surgery to remove part of a toenail that had become ingrown. Details: I allowed it to be ingrown for several months, thinking I was avoiding the emotional trauma of visiting a doctor whom I barely understood and before whom I would have to stand ashamed and admit that I’d endured the occasionally severe pain of an infected digit for so long and then, on top of that, not even know how to say that…

So I was well and on my way to ignoring this forever… embarrassed by my own affliction, I guess, which might not be uncommon, I don’t know—but then my friend Kelsey and I planned a trip to Osaka and Kyoto for my summer vacation in July and August and my friend Gloria, freshly arrived in Gwangju, agreed to go with me to Seonyudo over Memorial Day weekend in June. Both trips which would involve extensive time on our feet (and on a bike, in the latter’s case), and I finally faced up to my reality: I couldn’t do that with my stupid, wounded toe. And I’d already booked tickets.

Timidly—and after several days of conveniently “forgetting” to—I asked my coteacher if she knew of a good podiatrist. When she asked me why, I told her something was wrong with my foot, and she suggested the “bone doctor.” Another coworker, in whom I had confided my horrible secret, piped up from her corner—“It’s not a bone problem…” When I subsequently  appeared to be incapable of explaining my own situation, this coworker continued: “It’s an infection on the toe.”

I covered my face in my hands and flopped back in my chair as if mimicking a dying fish would change the fact that now half the teachers in the teachers’ room were listening in on my well-guarded private problems.

My coteacher told me I should see a “skin doctor” and proceeded to look one up for me, finally locating one at Nowon Station and calling them to see if they could help me. She’d ask me questions while talking to them—where is it, exactly, is it bad? or not, and finally, how long has it been like that?—to which I had to ashamedly tell her it’d been something like five months and to which she promptly rolled her eyes at me before relaying this to the poor, poor soul on the other end of the line.

I managed to shuffle myself out of the teachers’ room after my coteacher told me to go in the next morning before work and I might have gone to sit by myself in one of the kiddy toilet stalls in the bathroom to be alone for a while, but I don’t actually really remember what I did, oxygen being in some little supply to my brain at the time.

I made my way to 이지함 피부과 (Ee-jee-ham Pee-boo-gwa) out of Nowon Station’s fourth exit the next morning.

I have become accustomed to being greeted by a certain facial expression accompanied by a sort of rigor-mortis-like stiffening of body when I walk in somewhere and someone realizes that they’re going to have to try to speak English. So when I walked into the “Skin Clinic” (which I quickly realized was more like a cosmetic-surgery / skin clinic) I was ready to be greeted nervously—judging by the average reaction to my entrances, I am probably a close relative of the Grim Reaper—but actually, I don’t recall any hyperbolic expressions. Only one receptionist / front desk girl approached me and asked me hesitantly if I spoke Korean.

“A little,” I told her, and then said in Korean that it was my first time so I wanted to register. She switched to English slightly falteringly to ask if I could read Hangeul, and even though I said I could, she still explained the form to me as I filled it out. She mistook me for a student—I don’t really resemble the average English teacher, I suppose, and my casual appearance has even sometimes elicited negative reactions from subway mothers—and wrote my address as “USA,” but I thought things were going quite well until she asked me what was wrong.

“There’s some problem with your skin?” she asked, gesturing to her face. I paused a moment and wondered what she must have thought of my complexion before shaking my head and figuring out how to say what I had to say in the least amount of words possible.

“My toe,” I said, “has an infection.”

She proceeded to ask me details that I was embarrassed to relay, and then finished up the interview by drawing a cartoonishly inflated toe on a tiny foot on my file and double-checking with me that it looked okay.

Then she tried to ask me what doctor I wanted to see, but she called them “teachers” —in Korean, you’d address or call a doctor the same word for “teacher” (선생님) so I was confused at first until I translated in my head and realized what she was asking. I told her in Korean that any doctor was fine and she told me I’d wait for thirty minutes.

I looked at the clock. That would put me late for work. So I texted my coteacher who offered to cover my first period, and sat to wait nervously.

In about the right amount of time the nurse called me—Lily님~—and I walked forward into 한희진’s office.

I met with a kind-faced, slightly graying woman with glasses and a very comfortable demeanor, and very natural and non-threatening-looking for someone who worked in a cosmetic surgery clinic. I greeted her in Korean, but she said “Good morning,” and asked me how I was doing, it was nice to meet me, and verified some details about my problem.

The dreaded moment arrived—when I’d take off my shoe and reveal the wound. While I was unlacing, I hesitated, wondering if she’d find it extremely odd if I suddenly bolted—but instead, I simply apologized and warned her it was not pretty.

“It’s okay. I’m a doctor,” she said, amused. But I knew that smile would not last long. Guiltily I peeled off my bandaid.

She gazed at it, inspected it, poked at it, asked me if this or that hurt (it did), asking me how long it’d been that way—looking at me an extra second when I told her and then composing herself professionally, but not before I could tell she was wondering if she heard me right or not—and then finally looked up at me with something like—sympathy? pity?—before observing pithily, “there is some….severe….swelling here.”

“Yes,” I said.

She told me we’d treat it in stages. Start with a week of antibiotics, pain meds, and ointment. She asked me to come back in a week and she would decide if I needed surgery or not. If I needed it, she’d have to remove part of the nail itself, but if surgery was unnecessary, she’d just remove the dead tissue from the area. At that point—I was so relieved she spoke perfect English and was kind and not grossed out by my grossness—I would have said OK if she’d said, let’s amputate!, so I happily accepted her advice and made my way out to the waiting room again. Before I was called up to pay, Doctor Han came out of her room to find me and told me that the antibiotics were quite strong (which she had already told me) so I needed to take yogurt with them. I just include this detail to show how she went out of her way to help me, which she would continue to do throughout my stint there.

So I took antibiotics for a week. After a few days I could tell the swelling had gone down, but not as much as I’d thought it would. After a week, I had a feeling that I’d need surgery. I went back to see Dr. Han again and she let me know, with kind of a sad look on her face, that I’d need surgery after all. She apologized—no, no, I said. I could have said thank u please take it all. She leaned down and felt my shoes, wondering if there was enough room in there…and I realized, she’d be doing the surgery that day.

Back in the waiting room, I began to get nervous. I was glad it would be over with and in healing mode from that point forward, but, well, I think nobody likes to wait for their own surgery.

But then, a receptionist called me up—I paid, and she gave me my prescription and I thought, oh, maybe they scheduled the surgery for some other time, so I walked out to the elevator and had just pressed the call button when I see Dr. Han running towards me, gesturing me inside.

“Today!” she said, seeming flustered. “We will do the surgery today.”

I apologized and returned to my seat. The receptionist apologized but I shook my head and smiled. Twilight zone-ish. So I went back to being nervous.

Doesn’t help, either, that the only other surgery I’ve undergone, I also had to be awake through, and it was extremely traumatic—wisdom teeth removal. They gave me a sedative which made my body hard to control but which did nothing to ease my mental or emotional discomfort, and being awake while people mine through your mouth for things that are attached to your bones isn’t exactly what I’d call a good time. I remember crying and mumbling nonsense at the dentists and then crying when Mom bought me a smoothie after the surgery and I couldn’t keep it in my mouth—it just kept dribbling out and everything was numb and swollen. I mean—extremely swollen. I already have round cheeks, so think bowling-ball-sized-cheeks swollen. 

And it wouldn’t go unswollen for two weeks. Some people I know recovered in a couple days from theirs…but me? No, two weeks of vegetable stock. I remember I cried (a theme with me) when I ate my first Pillsbury croissant (aka the softest solid food in the world) after two weeks of chewing only air and Vicodin dreams—and my memories of these dreams are interspersed with hazy flashes of the two-AM, thirty-minute infomercials my medicated, delirious self became extremely interested in during that dark time…

Anyway, I was nervous about the surgery. I still had to go to work in like an hour and I was by myself and I was about to get cut open and here we were dealing with something that I had tried to ignore for almost half a year, something I had tried hard not to acknowledge, something that embarrassed me and plagued me and was painful, something I’d tried to keep hidden being dragged up and addressed in a big way. Since the new year—actually, since before then, maybe the end of December—I’ve been what can be properly called an emotional wreck—I went through a painful breakup and resurgences of panic attacks, bouts of my usual, but super amplified depression and anxiety, sadness, restlessness, tiredness, sleeplessness—just things I’d been living with, like I’d been living with this infection. As I waited in the surgery room, and the nurses quietly prepared for the operation, I remembered what it felt like to stop denying myself, to stop ignoring myself, to stop denying and shaming my own needs, to stop ignoring my health, and what it felt like to do something good for me—things which people like me, who suffer emotional disorders, might find it hard to remember to do.

When Dr. Han entered the room, she asked me if I was nervous.

“A little,” I said.

My friend and Dad had been texting me their well-wishes. My phone vibrated on the table behind me.

I watched as Dr. Han prepared the area and disinfected it, but I turned away when she pulled out the syringe—the needle was uncomfortably large, as all local-anesthetic needles are, I suppose. I declined to watch as she administered the injection—I’m sensitive, but I also think my pain tolerance is reasonable—but this really hurt. I think I stopped breathing until everything was numb. Then Dr. Han looked up at me, surprised. I hadn’t made a sound.

“Oh… good patient,” she said, then the nurse said—but her face is a bit…—so Dr. Han told me I could lay down if I wanted.

“I will do that,” I announced, and then did it. They put a pillow under me and then handed me a stuffed panda bear wearing an American-flag patterned, knit sweater. I wrapped my arms around it as Dr. Han told me she was starting the operation.

Of course—if you’ve had surgery like this, you know. It’s numb, so it doesn’t hurt, per se, but you can feel it. It’s not…comfortable, but it’s not uncomfortable. Two nurses were in the room now, and they all three were making comments in Korean, not knowing I could understand them, about how much it was bleeding—I was glad again I’d opted to lay down. Thinking too much for the moment, feeling too much for the moment, thinking this was a big metaphor for something when it was in fact one of the most physical of physical, actual things that can happen to a body—I was strangely emotional, but I managed to hold back tears. I’m pretty good at doing that, as a kindergarten teacher can’t let the leak drip just any time she wants.

But suddenly—it was almost silent in the room—Dr. Han started humming, just a simple, somehow sweet tune—and I lost control, tears falling out a couple at a time at first, but I had a good cry in private, the stuffed bear hiding my face from view. One of the nurses looked up to check on me—tears still rolling slowly down my face—I nodded, I’m not sure why, maybe to acknowledge what we both knew, that I was crying, an adult who maybe didn’t feel like one clutching a stuffed bear to her chest on the operating table. Her grip tightened on my leg slightly for a moment.

The surgery was over quickly. It lasted maybe ten minutes. Afterwards, when Dr. Han was going to put stitches in, the anesthetic had worn off a bit, so it was painful—I didn’t know if it should hurt or not (dumb…I know), so I didn’t say anything, but at one point I think I flinched hard enough for her to notice.

“It’s painful?” she asked, surprised.

“Yes,” I said. She put in more anesthetic, and continued. It hurt a couple times, but nothing like before. She told me afterwards that she’d changed her mind and instead of suture had opted for a “chemical” sealant. Then they wrapped me up and I shoved my club toe into my running shoes and then Dr. Han brought a box of chocolate into the room and shared it with the nurses and me. I wondered how they could eat that after what they just witnessed… but kept these thoughts to myself as I exited for real this time and made my way to work.

I had to return the next few days to have the post-op wound examined and dressed, but they told me it was healing well and eventually told me I could self-dress. Dr. Han had been coming in on her off-days because she “knew my file,” and wanted to make sure I was doing okay. Whenever I thanked her for taking such good care of me, she’d waive it off and say something like, “it’s my job,” but actually, it wasn’t. At one point, she told me that her husband is Korean-American—ah, I thought. Your English. I now know.—and on my last visit up, I went up to the clinic in the same elevator as Dr. Han, and caught a glimpse of her husband through the closing elevator doors as he waved goodbye to her. He had the same genuinely kind, peaceful expression and same gray hair—I realized with a start, that man drops his wife off at work. This woman came in on her days off to take care of me. What a special, unusual, enviable couple.

My nail is growing back. I’m putting on this stuff called “medifoam” to protect the bare skin where nail should be, and I’ll do that until it’s fully regrown. I can wear any pair of my extensive shoe collection these days and I’m much more mobile now, my whole five-foot-one frame zooming around at unnecessary speeds just because it can. Someone less riddled with social anxiety and generally better at taking care of themselves might not have waited as long as I did to address this problem, but I’m healing as well as that person would—which, for me, is a little bit incredible.

I’m finishing writing this up after one-AM on a workday, and I’ve got to—as it happens—go to the doctor tomorrow morning to try to get a bad cough sorted…  and certain chronic problems persist… insomnia, amongst others—but now I can wear my Y-3 boots again, kids aren’t stepping on my open wound anymore, I’m not limping around all the time, and I’ve met perhaps the nicest doctor in Korea. So things are on the up.

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—


  • 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.