How To Read This Blog

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While posts can be read separately, threads, characters, and experiences will hold more weight if you start at the beginning.

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I stood in my tiny little kitchen with the leaky sink, making pour over coffee into the mug I painted on a field trip in Seoul two years ago, in an apartment in an small city crescented by mountains that overlooks the ocean on the southern coast of Korea, and then suddenly thought:

How odd that I ended up here. How unexpectedly routine. How serendipitous. How unbelievable.

How lucky.

And Suddenly

Well.

Speak of the devil.

In another Korean surprise, the aforementioned pothole that has been in existence since I moved here five months ago has been, all at once, fixed.

Do you think Changwon public works reads this blog?

Life is give and take, though: a pothole did quite literally appear at school this week, so perhaps the saying is not so figurative after all.

When Korea closes a pothole, it opens another somewhere else. Or something like that.

Land of Opposites

Sometimes I am surprised by the mundane familiarity that Korea offers. I drive a car, I go to Costco, I have insurance.

I know that it can be unintentionally condescending to feel shock at “Western” amenities but a lifetime of “foreign = exotic” still gives me surprise when any country operates at all like the US.

I drive my car with my postpaid toll card to and from department stores and automatic parking lots and feel wonder less and less at what are perfectly normal global occurrences.

And yet.

When it first started to get warm, I turned on my AC and later went to my veranda to put up laundry only to step in a giant puddle. I wondered if my gifted responsibility, I mean flower, from Jack was leaking and so I wiped the spill up. Only when I came back later, the puddle had somehow reformed and I realized that the seemingly innocuous clear tube sticking out of the wall was actually a drainage pipe for the air conditioner. The legitimate intention of the plumbing, by actual human design, was for water to drip onto the floor and drain into the grate 5 feet away.

Thus, I drive home in my little car with the technology to an apartment not ten years old with such Korean-aesthetic plumbing that I have to catch the water expelled from my AC into a sacrificial salad bowl and then physically empty that bowl into a floor drain five feet away once or twice a day like I live on an old farmhouse.

The pink bowl is my plumbing modification.

My bathroom sink is lacking a back cover as though someone is wearing an apron with no clothes underneath, and the sink hose dangles into an open black maw in the floor. A never ending stream of drain flies and horrific smells of decay waft up from the abyss below into my bathroom. I often wake up to dried moth flies littered over my floor and I curse my landlord’s cheap plumbing decisions.

I’m not actually sure why they’re dead. Was it the smell that killed them on their bid for freedom?

Luckily, I found a kit specifically for shoddy kitchen plumbing to “keep out smells and bugs”. The packaging promised installation that is “so easy anyone can do it”.

And then yesterday, after fighting with an Internet explorer plug-in, all the problems were solved at once and I easily booked an appointment for the first and second doses of the COVID vaccine.

I look at the drain on my veranda, or the open pipe in my bathroom that is the entrance to hell and the drain flies lair and I think to myself, Korea is a country that can hold two disparate, seemingly incongruous ideas in the same hand.

As you quickly learn in your first three months in Korea, industrialization and globalization hit the country like a high-speed train, which it also coincidentally has, to launch it from one of the world’s poorest countries to one of the world’s richest in less than 100 years. There are huge, amazing buildings. There are tiny, overrun fish markets.

Stores go in and out of business and seemingly swap places in a matter of days. Meanwhile, the pothole on the sidewalk out front remains for years.

Uh, this does not bode well for the blind person who relies on the yellow brick road.

There’s nowhere that I cannot receive data in Korea. And there’s also nowhere that has a bathroom where the shower is physically separated from the toilet. Do you want Wi-Fi? Do you also want everything in your bathroom to be wet all at once and forever? Because apparently you can’t have one without the other.

There are bathrooms with signage that sternly direct me to throw used toilet paper into the wastebasket and never the toilet itself. There are bathrooms with signs that scream at me to throw used toilet paper into the toilet and never into the wastebasket. (The conclusion is, Korean plumbing is the worst.)

In a way, I find it charming. Korea is modern but still has elements of Asia Time that excite and infuriate. It lacks a lot of the red tape of my home country, although red tape seems to show up in very unexpected and strange places. If you don’t like the answer whether it be from immigration or the bank, just try again another day and you’ll find that the reply has changed.

Just when I think I’ve seen it all, there’s another surprise. The Korean surprise, as some expats say. It’s a land that retains the best and worst of both the past and the future.

July 23, Summer Begins

I woke up after a bizarre series of dreams and was soothed by my return to brain jumbled madness after a season of atypical, boring, dreamless sleep. The first day of summer had started smoothly with exclamations from the daycare teachers that I had arrived.

I prepared for camp, and then hesitantly agreed to lunch with Jack.

“One more person will come.” He added.

I asked who.

“He’s the oldest man in this school.” I was surprised by this identifier; maybe he meant longest employed man, but it’s hard to tell with Jack. I remembered the ill-fated lunch with the admin staff back in Seoul and then decided whatever, I will move forward without fear.

It’s a new thing I’m trying: in potentially awkward social situations, I’ve started telling myself I’m not afraid and that I will stand tall and move forward regardless of other’s perceptions. There’s the bonus that I’m foreign and “she doesn’t know better” is built into my potential mistakes.

When the oldest man emerged, I cringed inside. He’s the one who eyes me strongly at lunch and is the one whose job I may have put in an awkward position after the spat with the post office.

Don’t be afraid! I greeted him warmly from the backseat of Jack’s van. He and Jack chattered in dialect and I was cool as a cucumber.

We got to “this famous noodle house” and Jack ordered three servings of 콩국수 for us. It’s a seasonal dish. I had no idea what to expect outside of noodles.

Various retirees and navy men filled the place. I thought about setting up the silverware, a polite Korean custom, and wondered if that would be weird since Jack and the man were sitting unmoving and in hungry silence.

Don’t be afraid! I started to set out the chopstick and spoons in napkins. Jack at first misinterpreted; he thought I was getting my own and then reached for his. In a tangle of hands we eventually figured it out and the oldest man commented to Jack that I have good manners (“she greets people well” were his words). I guess he’s not holding a grudge after all!

What was finally set before us was the least of all expectations: there were noodles in what looked to be a giant metal bowl of beige milk with ice cubes. The flavor was impossible to guess, and even after the first bite I still managed to feel surprise.

“This tastes like 미수” I commented to Jack who smiled and explained that the broth (paste?) is made from the same ground beans. In the old days it was hard to get protein during the summer months so Koreans ground beans and made a special broth for noodles.

“It’s a true folk food. But these days the beans come from China,” he smiled ruefully, “some people grow them on the farm here but only for their family. Other vegetables make more money.”

I imagined a mega bean farm spanning hundreds of acres across China.

I continued to eat the noodles which defy description in English. All I could think was 고소하다. Plain, mild, nutty. It was like eating chewy noodles in unsweetened iced almond milk.

The oldest man chuckled at me taking this photo.

Was it good? I honestly don’t know. I did find it easy to eat and weirdly homey. Jack said his grandma used to grind beans herself to make this dish. It did have the taste of something you might feed to malnourished kids or rehydrate in space as an astronaut.

I managed to finish ahead of the men for once because I did not have the stomach room for a giant bowl of bean milk.

“You have to drink it all,” Jack said while the oldest man heartily slurped all the contents down.

“No, I can’t.” I sat in a peaceful, full silence while Jack drained his bowl.

I waffled back and forth if I should offer to pay my share. I’m in Korea and it’s Korean custom for the inviter or the oldest person to pay. But Jack doesn’t understand how much Korean custom I know so maybe he expects me to pay? But I don’t always want to be seen as the token foreigner. Sometimes I just want to be the coworker, not the exotic implant from far away.

I thanked him for lunch as we got in the car and he seemed startled. Maybe he did expect me to offer.

But I figured if he really felt short $4 he could ask me. I opted out of being the foreign monkey and into just seeing myself as a Korean resident.

It turned out to be moot anyway because as soon as we returned he disappeared for three hours and then reappeared briefly only say he was leaving early. Did he apply for it? Or does he have seniority to duck out early during the summer?

Some light was shed in a potential answer when I went hunting for string in the fifth grade resource room. Behind the conference table was a perfectly centered stack of yoga mats that was not present when school was in session.

There was no string to be found so I happily closed out the day testing camp crafts for next week. Oreo moon phases, sticker constellations, and even faux stained glass planets are all to come. With disappointment I realized I didn’t recognize any names on the attendance sheet. Then again, I don’t know most of my students names. There are quite a few from 5-5 and 5-6 so my fingers are crossed that they are not the trio who regularly fist fight in the bathroom.

But we know how my luck is!

In any case, I hope my group of nineteen 12 and 13 year olds will delay their moody onset of puberty enough to still enjoy arts and crafts! Not that they have a choice, this teacher has high expectations and too many years with brothers to tolerate any mean-spirited tom-foolery.

Countdown to my final form, Ms. Frizzle, in 3 days.

July 17, Emergency Room 2.0

My friend and I committed to another surfing lesson, and I privately committed to not flirting with anyone lest I be let down again. It looked like it wouldn’t be a problem this time. Our instructor of the day looked serious and responsible, as though he had taken a brief respite from being a military officer to teach surfing.

It was hard to think of him too severely what with the comical white cast of intense sunscreen on his face. All the surf boys have gotten dark, as evidenced by their casual shirtlessness around the shop– a fact of which I’m extremely jealous. I wish I tanned as easily as Koreans but I’m cursed to a pasty existence.

But the General said the magic words as I pushed myself against the extremely strong tide again and again, tiring myself out.

“Let me help you.”

On the exceedingly rare occasion I hear this sentence, I am struck. It’s at the precise intersection of what I need and what I want.

My Korean teacher pointed out as much as I claim to have outgrown my perfectionist tendencies, I have not. I realized this during this second surf lesson. I thought I had outgrown it somewhere along my string of Cs in college chemistry but I was wrong.

I feel I must do everything alone while secretly, desperately wanting assistance.

I stopped for a moment, feeling defeated by the ceaseless waves, and asked myself if I even liked surfing.

Grimly, I realized my drive to catch a wave came from the need to do it right rather than enjoyment. But then I shrugged. The end result would be the same: I still battled the tide to get one good ride, and the joy came from accomplishment.

During our break time between hour one and two, I felt my (pasty) face stinging. I had left everything back at the surf shop and looked around at who I could ask for sunscreen.

The two separate foreign women lounging by their surfboards didn’t have any. I looked towards the trio of men next to them. They had been filming what I can only assume was not a parody rap video; two of the guys hopped around waving hand gestures while us beginner surfers had fallen off our boards time and again in the background. Not sure this is the “coolest” look for aspiring rappers.

But this is a situation I know well, so I walked up to the trio who had since finished their video and were lounging, fishing cans of beer out of a huge beach bag.

I asked in Korean, “sorry to bother you but do you have any sunscreen?”

The videographer stared at me. I repeated myself; this is a common occurrence when a Korean doesn’t expect Korean to come out of my mouth. He answered in English. I confirmed with him in Korean then said thanks and went on my way.

They certainly didn’t seem to have much swag in this situation…

My friend commented in surprise, “in that huge beach bag, really all they have is beer??” She’s a responsible adult and their lack of preparation was unbelievable.

Our group eventually made it back to the surf shop and my friend and I, plus another young woman from South Africa showered. But Ellie hurriedly told me that the other woman had injured her foot and needed to go to the clinic.

“I think we should go with her,” she whispered in sympathy. Ellie, once again a responsible adult.

I wholeheartedly agreed, remembering every time I’ve almost cried in a Korean hospital, and offered to drive us there. Our patient Niki was in a lot more pain than I had realized, and Ellie and I told our most embarrassing stories to keep her mind off of the fact that her big toe nail had been almost fully ripped off by some hidden rocks.

I missed the hospital entrance twice and then pulled up to the emergency doors like a taxi driver. “I’ll meet you after I park!”

The waiting room was tiny but much less battered-looking than the emergency room in Changwon where I spent half the night. Three young security guards in stiff leather shoes, no good for running after escapees, allowed me to sign in as her guardian.

Niki and I entered the emergency room through the sliding doors, leaving Ellie behind to wait what would turn out to be nearly five hours.

Right past the doors were three chairs. Another waiting “room”. We could see the strip of desks in the middle where all the nurses and doctors sat. On our side were a series of doors and hallways, and on the other side of the desks was the rest of the emergency room with curtained partitions.

We watched old man after old man be wheeled in and wondered what on earth was happening. One man in a faraway place made the most horrific retching sounds, as if he was possessed by a demon.

A young male nurse, who later said he was an EMT, crouched down to Niki’s toe, ignoring the chaos around us, and poked at her toenail while she clutched hard at my hand. A few moments later, he led us through the door to the immediate left of our pleather office chairs.

There were two surgery rooms, or not quite surgery rooms as there was no sterile barrier. The second room was through the back two double doors of the first. I thought of the Lizzie Borden house with no hallways.

He sat her down on a rolling stool and placed her foot over a metal bucket. I tried not to laugh, it just seemed so primitive.

He washed her toe with an entire quart of saline while she hissed in pain, wrapped it up, then directed us back outside to the chairs. Niki asked him for his name, and then if he was single.

“What are you doing??” I whispered.

“I’m trying to find a man for Ellie,” she replied.

The EMT told us he was 27 and single, and then, because everything was already absurd, I asked to take a picture of the EMT rolling Niki out on a wheelchair. He obliged and now she has a photo in her phone.

Later, two doctors directed us back to the surgery room, and we walked past an old man getting treatment in the first room to the second room. I shrugged; Asia Time. I guess I can just go wherever?

Niki asked for their names, ages, and single status. I’ve also asked for the names of people treating me, and was touched that she and I have similar pain coping mechanisms. Not that relationship status was a part of my coping, but maybe it should be going forward. A relationship isn’t going to match make itself!

However, she called them by their first name as soon as they answered and I could feel the automatic flinch. Calling a stranger by their first name in Korea is a big no no, especially if they’re a doctor, but acceptable if you’re inviting someone to fight you in an alley. Their forced humbling was still kind of funny.

The shorter doctor with smoother English explained that he would numb her foot with local anesthetic and then take the nail off completely to clean the sand and debris out from the nail bed. After x-rays confirmed that all the sand had been removed, he would place the nail back on her nail bed and stitch it l to her toe to protect the new nail as it started to grow back.

The two doctors looked at me, standing tall and holding her hand.

“You don’t have to watch.” They told me.

I looked them right in their eyes and said, “No, I’m going to.”

Niki was in a lot of pain and I suspect that the doctors should have waited at least five more minutes for the anesthetic to set in before digging around at her dislodged toenail.

I held on to her hand with my right, and her shoes with my left. We had a running joke that I was her guardian, her daddy.

The slightly older doctor, 29 in Korean age and therefore still younger than me, wheeled her to the x-ray room where a jolly technician gently pushed me out of the room and got to it.

When she was wheeled out a moment later, she told me that he was 35 and single. The other two doctors were dating and had met their pharmacist girlfriends through blind dates.

The tech confirmed there was still sand and the slightly older doctor wheeled her back to surgery room number two to keep digging it out. The sheet covering the bed, was dribbled with brown iodine and I idly wondered how they get stains out.

Moments later she was wheeled back to the x-ray room by a jolly older gentleman who exclaimed that her Korean was very good.

The x-ray tech said, “ah, we meet again,” and I appreciated his subscription into our little bubble of whimsy.

The two doctors updated me on the procedure while she was away and I asked them for the Korean word for “doctor’s note” so we could be sure to get one on our way out for her employer.

I repeated after them and typed into my notes app. I heard the two quietly comment on my good Korean and I puffed up in pride.

I felt like a real guardian and an equal. When Niki was in pain, they explained what was happening to me. I asked them clarifying questions and also helped when they didn’t understand certain words.

“I’m on birth control.” She mentioned. The younger doctor looked puzzled.

“What do you mean by that?” He asked.

“피임약” I supplied and he immediately understood.

The pain shot had finally started to settle in and the subsequent sand removal had her sitting up and taking pictures of her mangled toe to send in her family’s group chat. I complimented the doctor on his smooth English. I also asked them if they used the products from the first medical company I worked for.

“Yes, we use their suture kits,” he commented. When I explained I used to be an engineer there the information didn’t seem to compute.

What’s a girl like me doing in a place like this? Was the vibe.

I found my way to the second basement, out of four, to pick up her prescriptions from the night pharmacy. Inexplicably, the security man with bleached hair that was just in reception somehow ended up at a desk on this abandoned basement floor.

Was he a ghost? Maybe those leather shoes were faster than I thought.

He politely guided me to a young woman in a large room who didn’t ask for ID. Niki’s prescription paper was enough. Asia Time giving us a boost!

Niki peered up at me at the end when all was left was to wait on the follow up appointment confirmation.

“You know, I get it. I see the daddy aspect.” She concluded.

I’ve never been a fan of the term, at least how it’s used in awkward tik tok prank videos, but I found it rather fitting.

I liked being an advocate for someone. I like protecting people. I like being tall and big and having a physical presence to throw around. I like being an equal. I am at your eye level, both figuratively and literally. I am unavoidable.

I liked talking with the doctors, asking them if they use the products from the company I designed for, being the one they look at first to impart updates because my charge is in pain and without shoes.

It was not how I expected to spend Saturday night but exhilarating nonetheless. For me, not Niki.

None of us had eaten since noon and now it was 9:30. I realized in the earlier rush my bikini had been left behind at the surf shop and we had to return to a group of shirtless boys, and manager, before closing to pick it up. The General seemed surprised but pleased to see us, and the instructor from our first go round cracked some jokes. I held up the bikini as explanation and he laughed.

We three were hungry and exhausted and made our way to a pizza shop in Haeundae. Just our luck, though, the usual midnight closing hours had been capped at 10pm due to new Covid measures. Luckily, takeout was allowed and while we sat in the restaurant waiting along with other groups, a famous rapper came by.

The starstruck employee asked him to sign a pizza box and I peered in interest at the signature. Nope, still don’t know who that is.

We eventually took our steaming pizzas and breadsticks to an abstract statue on a dais and claimed a quadrant to eat. The other quadrants were occupied by Korean groups doing the same. I hoped that the Covid monitors patrolling the beach not twenty feet away couldn’t spot us. Foreigners would be the first to be made an example of.

Our night ended with us laying on this marble dais like human sacrifices until Niki declared it was time to take a taxi home. Ellie agreed, and suddenly the adventure was over.

I still had to drive an hour home and as it was already midnight, I decided to get road snacks. Ellie had bought skittles earlier in the day and my craving came back; I hit up four convenience stores in a row only to find them sold out.

Luckily, some dudes at the first store taught me the Korean word for skittles, “suh kee tull juh”, and we had a laugh about the wildly different pronunciation. I eventually found sour skittles at one place and even though it was nearing one, there were still people out wandering with 7-11 coffees or looking for friends.

The day was not over, according to Naver maps, which took me on a wild and incorrect path across Gwangan bridge, the star of many of my photos when I lived in Busan. I circled the same highway exit three times before I resorted to my car GPS which clarified I had to take the ramp on the far right, not the middle right.

Finally at my apartment, I passed out in bed, only barely changing into pajamas. I thought, I must tell my Korean teacher this as she’s always delighted by my range of experiences.

Anything can be an adventure, though maybe it’s not always what I had planned!

July 15, Sign Hae Juseyo

Jennie stopped by the elementary school in the afternoon to pick up the final student evaluations and update me on the debate teacher seminar.

“Some teachers have high level students and other teachers said they also have low level students. They recommended doing smaller group or pair work, like mini debates with you, to get the students talking.”

We agreed that was a good idea. She said the teachers also discussed making debate less intense and treating the class more casually. I thought of the disastrous Myanmar debate and silently agreed.

The local taekwondo coach, cute but very young, led out a line of little uniformed ducklings and looked at us in curiosity. Jennie patted me on the hand then danced off to her illegally parked car while I returned back to the office for the final stretch of the day. Neither coworker asked why I had disappeared for ten minutes and returned with an iced latte.

Earlier in the day, the girls of 4-2 asked for their characteristic high fives which I happily gave, until they leveled up and asked for my autograph.

O…kay? Just don’t try to steal my identity.

Not do be outdone, the other students hopped on the bandwagon and soon I had a literal line of kids asking for my autograph. One girl pet the hair on my arm in wonder while I clamored to attend to the crowd.

“What is happening? This is weird,” I commented, while two boys not in line giggled at the absurdity of it all.

When I had finally escaped from my contracted desk time in the afternoon, I ran into a sixth grader on my shortcut.

Her crocs were appallingly blue.

“Are these new?” I asked her. She confirmed.

She told me she was on her way to ballet class.

“Where is it?”

“Go straight and then uh…” We both broke down into giggles when she used the lesson five directions vocabulary. She also demonstrated two split jumps for me, in crocs no less, before she split down the other path. It was a nice moment to clear away some of the weird vibes that have been going on in the English office lately.

Are my coworkers sick? Tired? Sick and tired of me? I don’t know, but the end of the semester cannot come fast enough.

“어디든 가치가 있는 곳으로 가려면 지름길은 없다.”

There are no short cuts to any place worth going.

July 10, Last Debate Class of Spring Semester

Boy 3, sensitive and clever and consequentially my favorite student, pulled up an image to aid his scriptless presentation of an artwork.

“This is The Scream by Edvard Munch.”

This is why I like him.

“I first saw it in kindergarten,” he started.

Excuse me?

He clarified: he had seen it at his kindergarten where the painting had been hung on the wall. I cannot think of a less appropriate painting for a school of five year olds.

He said that it made him scared then and while it doesn’t scare him now, he still has dreams about the screaming bald subject.

Jennie asked him if there’s anything in his life that has made him feel like the person in the painting.

“Well I broke up with my girlfriend,” he started, and I immediately became concerned. He was the boy who said that his favorite person was his girlfriend, that love was most important to him. He also wore a couple ring every day, though it was absent today.

He quickly tacked on that exams last week were hard and Jennie, having seemed to miss the first utterance, asked if he hadn’t studied.

I could see that he took long to answer, probably trying to steady his voice, and his eyes started to shine.

Oh no. I’ve seen this look a hundred times from my fifth grade boys when they lose a game or when their classmates unfairly berate them. The study of stages of crying boys is not a subject I expected to learn in elementary school but alas, here I am.

In any case, I was not about to let him cry while standing in front of the class, albeit small, and quickly jumped on the first thought I had.

“You know, we say he’s scared looking in this painting but really to me he looks mesmerized by the sunset colors. Maybe we’re all the weird ones for thinking this character is afraid.”

Jennie chimed in and had the girls discuss what had them feeling frustrated. They all got the lowest grades of their student careers this semester. I thought about Boy 3 and how a breakup in the middle of exams could devastate his term grades.

Being a student is not easy.

At the end of the debate class, Jennie asked them what they had liked. Predictably, they were silent, so I expected criticism: it was too hard, it wasn’t enjoyable, I can’t do this…

But eventually they answered it was fun and they had a nice time, even though they were nervous.

I was surprised; in an earlier period one girl, her first time coming, asked if she could just present her chosen artwork in Korean.

You elected to come to a voluntary English debate class for English, and you’re really asking that? I had to keep the offense off my face. Lucky for the mask.

Aside from Boy 3, all the girls had written their presentation in Korean and then clearly run the paragraphs of text through an online translator.

It was frustrating, and part of the root why they can’t string a sentence together without either help from me or Papago. The reliance on an aid is far too much.

I understand the realities of English education in Korea. But that doesn’t stop my frustration with kids who’ve had seven years of English class being unable to answer a question that my sixth graders can without being given 30 seconds or more to think. The high schoolers often had to whip out phone dictionaries just to tell me an ultimately unimpressive sentence like “art makes you feel many things”.

I wish this was a conversation class instead of a debate class. They really need to practice responding on the fly.

I asked the class before they headed out for the weekend if they were nervous. They all said yes. I asked if they were frustrated. They stared at me. I asked in Korean if they were frustrated. They all said no. I was confused but elected to parse their responses later.

When I was their age, I studied Spanish and attended language competitions. I could have full discourse with my teacher and classmates. The judges at one competition asked if I was mistaken and should actually be in the “native speaker” category.

I want my kids to do their best, but our starting points are so vastly different. I want to see them every week and mold them into confident speakers. I want them to put nearly a decade of English study to practical use. I want high school to actually practice speaking.

But the system is rigged for test prep and I don’t have the time or opportunity to impart the importance of language as communication. I’ll just have to give them good memories and hope they don’t fear English in the future when they inevitably have to overwrite years of test prep to relearn conversation from the basics, as many of my adult Korean friends and coworkers have had to do.

July 5, Look Into My Eyes

I muttered to myself sometime during 6-5, “y’all are funny”. In the classes that have proven a little difficult, I brought out the class rules. Respect, listen, prepare. They were reminded of my expectations and thus were able to curb the worst of their impulses. It was a much needed refresher!

My pre-pubescent little goblins were engaged and hard-working today. After a chat during an Avatar (The Last Airbender) streaming party with some other experienced teachers, I’ve leaned away from doing so many active games. Teacher needs a break, too!

The last chapter of the sixth grade textbook is all about appearance. But to keep vocabulary simple, the book restrics descriptors to: blue eyes, brown eyes, long hair, short hair, curly hair, straight hair. As someone who fits hardly any of those characteristics, I decided to expand.

I taught my kids “wavy” along with “hazel” as big chunks of the population have one of these characteristics. They absorbed the information very fast and were in awe that I have hazel eyes.”Really?” they all asked. I looked closely into the eyes of students who were curious and they all, no matter the class, exclaimed. “Oh my gosh, they really are hazel!”

I admit, it’s a cheap party trick. Hazel eyes aren’t really special in the U.S. but I’m not against using my students for a small ego boost!

Surprisingly, the kids have varying shades of brown eyes. Some wanted confirmation that they really couldn’t say “black eyes”. No honey, your eyes are dark brown. I’m looking at them right now.

One boy was able to name several European countries to all our astonishment. That kid later commented to another that Oliver ssaem had made a video about “black eyes” and how “brown eyes” should be used instead. Curious, I searched for it later.

Oliver ssaem is my favorite YouTube English teacher for Korean audiences. He’s a nice Texas boy who keeps videos short and sweet. There are no English subtitles but even I can understand his explanations.

I remember doing this lesson with the Seoul fifth graders.

It did not go down as smoothly.

Having higher level kids who are mostly behaved makes such a difference! I got to talk to them about eye color statistics and other factoids that really interested them.

I also explained in Korean that my dad and three brothers have hazel eyes. Mom has green/blue eyes. They all muttered in amazement. One boy later commented that I was good at Korean, I think because I used specific family terms. I did puff up a little with pride.

Korean designates different words for older and younger siblings (which also change depending on if you are a sister or brother) as well as the order of siblings, which makes talking about family much easier, in my humble opinion.

The 6-3 teacher also chatted with me in English briefly, which now makes half of sixth grade homeroom teachers who have made an effort to talk to me. It’s a good feeling, they’re definitely getting one of my “end of semester” goodie bags.

Even though my office coworkers have been rapid firing away in Korean for hours in the afternoon, gossip from what I can glean, they’ll get a gift, too. I feel isolated when they talk so comfortably in Korean but there’s nothing to do but study harder and eavesdrop better. Cue Daft Punk.

Maintaining relationships is especially important in Korea and often a small token is just the ticket to let people know you’re thinking of them.

I’m still racing to the end, multiple tabs open, to finish planning summer camp and keep on top of lesson plans. I’ve started a special project for fifth and sixth grade to end the semester.

Friends and family have volunteered to send in self-introduciton videos which the kids will watch and answer questions about using the real English they heard.

I’m excited to share it with them!

July 4, Ancestral Rites

The weekend was wild, and certainly not how I’d imagine I’d be spending America’s independence.

I drove to my friend Rachel’s house in Gimhae to hang out and celebrate her “housewarming”. Her house isn’t new, but her family was able to buy the unit on the first floor and now the whole villa is theirs. I’ve never seen lodging of that size in Korea– the first floor has three bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. Upstairs there is also a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom.

I had planned to buy her an acceptable Korean housewarming gift which is traditionally laundry detergent or toilet paper. Historically these things were expensive, and also held a secondary meaning: the many bubbles of detergent symbolize growing prosperity while the endless roll of toilet paper promises long life.

The local mart only carried toilet paper in ridiculous Costco-sized packs of 30 or more so I quickly searched for a modern alternative. “Dish soap and paper towels are also acceptable”. Okay, paper towels it is! An easy three pack. I bought a cake from the local bakery whose owner definitely knows who I am and headed over.

She made me pasta and did my nails and we just hung out chatting in Korean. My brain didn’t feel squeezed like the last time I visited her, which signals some small modicum of progress. The day felt like the warm memories of high school, until she proposed another activity.

“Do you want to see 제사?”

“Of course!!!!” I will never pass up an opportunity, and how many times will I actually see a family do ancestral rites?

And so her mom, her unfairly good looking father, and I rode in her car to her uncle’s house. Funny enough, I’ve already been to her uncle’s house, so half the family knows who I am. I finally saw her cousin Gabi again, and met his mysterious younger brother.

We all sat on the floor of the empty but cozy living room which I am only realizing now, many days later, would be very strange to the American eye. What, no couch?

There were a few more additional aunties, and the ones who knew me commented that I had lost weight. “Your face is smaller!”

Everyone keeps saying that, maybe the constant mask wearing has just squeezed my head into a narrower shape.

I lounged on the floor, messing with Gabi and trying to kick his phone out of hand with my foot while his younger brother said very little.

I decided to amend that.

“So, what’s your name?”

“I’m Ingi,” he started, then suddenly switching to English and pointing to Gabi said, “his young brother.” Rachel scoffed at him while Gabi corrected immediately, “it’s ‘younger’ brother.”

I ignored this and soldiered on in Korean. If the rest of my friend’s extended family could understand me and vice versa, I would make Ingi talk.

“How old are you?” I asked, the representative Korean question. Culturally, it’s okay since the level of politeness you use with someone depends on your age differential.

“29,” he answered in English.

I paused and asked in Korean, “why… English all of a sudden…?”

“Because I want to practice.”

Well, Ingi, I’m the only one having a conversation here so I don’t know how much practice you’re getting! I gave up on him and turned to the young woman past his shoulder.

She told me her name and I complimented her dress, which immediately made her shy. She clearly felt a little uncomfortable in her boyfriend’s home while I, the unruly foreigner, felt no such qualms. That’s the thing, though, about being a foreigner. I have the opportunity and the curse to straddle the line– I am not Korean and will never be thought of as Korean, but on the flip side, I don’t have to live up to Korean expectations. She hung around the corner of the kitchen trying to be useful, a feeling I know deep down in my core is a woman’s universal experience.

I helped out as best I could too, but sat down when the aunties told me to sit. There’s no one I’m trying to impress!

Finally, around ten, a short polished wooden table was drug out of the master bedroom and set up in the middle of the living room. The aunties suddenly exploded in activity like an anthill that had been kicked over and the table was loaded with more food than 20 people could eat. The uncle brought out a colorized photo of a woman in hanbok, clearly from decades ago, and a framed photo of an old man in a suit. He leaned each frame against the TV so that the two could look over the table. Rice and chopsticks were placed in front of them and incense was lit.

Gabi, Ingi, and the uncle began the kow towing process. Women don’t bow but instead make the food.

Rachel, her mom and dad, all the aunties, and I sat in the kitchen. There was more bowing, and then the brothers disappeared while only the uncle bowed. Everyone in the kitchen kept whispering away until the uncle, changed into a white get up that screamed “Miami Vice” more than “memorial service, shouted at everyone to be quiet.

Rachel’s dad, not the blood relative, and the aunties tittered at his abruptness, and not five minutes later a pop rock ringtone cut through the silence.

We all burst into silent laughter while the uncle stared daggers at us.

And then, a few more bows later, the uncle’s phone rang. This time, he answered it. A business call? Who knows.

Many long minutes later, the ceremony was abruptly over and there was a rush to move all the food from the decorative bowls to plates so that we could feast. The aunties encouraged me to eat more and the uncles let me drink soju, which led to an impromptu sleepover at Rachel’s house.

It was the kind of accidental extended weekend I love the most, even if my digestive tract had a hangover from plates and plates of lovingly made Korean food.