“What’s headache in Korean?”

“두통.” [pronounced like doo-tong] The sixth graders shouted. They love shouting…

“두 as in 두 for two?” I asked because Korean is mostly phonetically spelled but not always. Plus my ears are still being tuned to similar sounds and thirty masked twelve year olds yelling at the same time doesn’t help.

“No,” they shouted with conviction, “두 as in 頭 for head. The Chinese 두.”

I don’t know Hanja but I had some idea where this was going so I asked one student to write it in Korean for me. The spelling?


That’s right— I asked if the spelling was 두 and they said no, the spelling is 두.

Why on earth they would think I’m asking about the etymology of the syllable is beyond me, but hey at least I learned something. 두 (particle for two) and 두 (Chinese descended word for head) are homonyms!

Here’s the same situation in English:

“How do you spell ‘bat’? B-A-T as in baseball bat?”

“No, B-A-T as in bat like the animal.”

“Those are… exactly the same. B-A-T!”

Another fun homonym that my German classmate pointed out when we attended level 3 Korean class is 차례 which can mean ancestral memorial rites or… a sequence.

I’m glad that Korean also has homonyms, though. They’re kind of fun!

Curriculum Challenges

Month 2 and I still find I just don’t have the time or resources to teach my students all that they should know. Planning for my travel school has become an exercise in frustration.

Here’s an example—

At my travel school, I teach one of the three classes fifth and sixth graders have per week. This week sixth grade starts chapter 3. Chapter 3 has vocabulary like “Earth Day, field day, concert”.

Oh, and the kids are also supposed to already know all twelve months and the ordinal numbers first to thirty first. Was there any chapter that taught that? No. Did they learn months and ordinal numbers in fifth or fourth or third grade? Also no.

This book assumes the students already know the months or assumes that I can teach the chapter vocabulary along with the twelve months and the days of the week across one chapter. More likely the former is true and this book series assumes all the students attend private English classes and thus doesn’t bother to go over the basics. I had the same problem in Seoul. I remember when the vice principal told C and me that “the kids are not good at English”. Of course that really meant, “the kids don’t attend private classes to they aren’t on level with the national curriculum”. Isn’t that rather a reflection of us as teachers? I thought at the time. Teachers at other schools have echoed the sentiment and as someone from a country where all learning takes place at school, I find it sad that students are expected to take additional classes just to be at level.

That any curriculum would assume prior, private learning outside the national public curriculum is a disservice to all students.

At my travel school, I have one 40-minute period with these students for chapter 3, and a majority of them can’t read. What in the world am I to do?

The curriculum is so frustrating.

A similar situation plays out in my main school, but nearly all the students have attended private English classes since they were young. At private academies they learn grammar rules and vocabulary which is something neither school book series does. The school books are written on sentence pattern memorization. I’m surprised my sixth graders knew how to even make a sentence with a pronoun outside of “I’ since the books gloss over verb conjugation for he/she/it/they/we/you.

I joked with my friend Rachel that the textbooks are written like: day 1, ABC. Day 2, Go straight then take a left at the grocery store.

I struggled with this in Seoul and I struggle with this here. With one 35 to 40 minute class per week with my students, I’m at a loss of how to improve this situation when really the national curriculum needs to be changed.

Since I am not the government, I’ll do my best to expose students to native English and make classes that leave them with happy memories of English– they’ll need that for the future when the college entrance exam prep sucks all joy from learning a language.

Haedong Yonggungsa: Temple by the Coast

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple was originally built in the 14th century, burned down during Japanese invasion in the 16th century (actually, one or another Japanese invasion is why most Korean historical sites are not exact originals) and rebuilt in the 20th century.

It’s a functioning Buddhist temple so among the tourists, monks were conducting daily rituals and others came to light candles and bow three times.

I managed to throw a 100 won coin into the “lucky coin divination” bowl which I’m sure was not an original feature of the 1376 construction.

As it is a popular tourist attraction, many people on the last day of the school holiday were here to sightsee, say prayers, and climb rocks to pose with golden Buddhas for Instagram.

Fish cake and hotteok were plentiful and there were several good luck charms I just barely managed to avoid buying.

It’s a sight worth seeing, though I recommend you go on a weekday!

Life is too short to eat burned bread

I popped my frozen bagel in the toaster and pushed the lever again when they popped out still a little pasty.

Like all toasting situations, I forgot to pay close attention to the millisecond between perfectly browned and burned so as a result two partially blackened bagel halves made an appearance.

I thought, well only the bottoms and edges are burnt so I can scoop out the good parts and maybe I’ll save fifty percent.

Then I stopped myself. I had at least six other bagels in the freezer. I wasn’t hurting for money or food, so why was I trying so hard to salvage the bitter bagel ends when I could simply start anew and ensure a perfectly toasted and delicious bagel?

I stopped to wonder how many other burnt ends I had eaten around in life instead of simply starting fresh.

Being thrifty and economical is smart and necessary— but not to the point of unnecessary self sacrifice and lost enjoyment.

Life is too short to eat burned bread.

Which frog are you?

“The Two Frogs” from Aesop’s Fables:

Two Frogs were neighbors. One inhabited a deep pond, far removed from public view; the other lived in a gully containing little water, and traversed by a country road. The Frog that lived in the pond warned his friend to change his residence and entreated him to come and live with him, saying that he would enjoy greater safety from danger and more abundant food. The other refused, saying that he felt it so very hard to leave a place to which he had become accustomed. A few days afterwards a heavy wagon passed through the gully and crushed him to death under its wheels.

Moral: A willful man will have his way to his own hurt.

Above Ground

Living as a visible minority in another country has taught me a lot about race, colonization, and globalization.

Something else it’s shown me is the delicate underground web we may take for granted in the suburbs.

Everything here is closer to the visible surface— income inequality, pollution, garbage, consumerism, animal cruelty, effects of war.

Sometimes I pass someone old enough to be my grandmother carting a rickshaw full of cardboard. Social security was only recently established and elder poverty is a huge problem. I see grannies selling gum for a dollar outside department stores selling $500 padded jackets.

Sometimes I see elderly without limbs, or I see a set of retirees talking to each other in sign language.

My friend lives with her divorced sister and two young children in a one bedroom townhouse in the countryside.

I see people walking their ridiculous, tiny, mean, purebred dogs and then I see happy mutts tied up to a six foot chain all day. I see puppies in the countryside I can’t save. I see cats without tails and birds without feet.

I know exactly how much garbage my neighbors and I produce, and I often fight for walking room in the alley with overstuffed garbage trucks.

I see water bottles and juice boxes and beer cans floating in the surf during the summer. I see abandoned takeout coffee cups on street corners.

American suburbs have these same problems— but we never have to confront our consumption or excess because we have the space to pollute and the land to fill with our out-of-sight, out-of-mind, no-questions-asked garbage bags.

Sometimes people come to Asia and complain that it’s dirty. Is it really dirty or is it simply lacking the land mass to hide trash? Not to mention, America has been shipping its garbage to Asia for years.

The world complains that China is a huge polluter— and it is, and needs to face that reality. Yet the rest of the world also exports its manufacturing to the cheapest location possible then in the same breath berates the location for causing pollution.

I worked for a medical company that moved its manufacturing of catheters from the Midwest to Mexico and China, then complained about a decrease in quality and opaque manufacturing agreements.

Color me surprised. I don’t know which Aesop’s fable is best suited for this—the eagle and the arrow? But that suggests some modicum of self reflection.

Despite its own complaints, the company did not move manufacturing back to the US. It was explicit about maintaining the maximum profit, which has seemed to be the driver for every medical company I and friends have worked for, even at the detriment to the consumer– the patient.

It’s not comfortable to look directly into the eyes of a system in which I participate and also helped create. I have to confront the consequences and at the same time parse out the helplessness of feeling so insignificant in a system so vast.

No place is inherently better or worse than another. Every place, however, has varying degrees of smoke and mirrors to cover the less savory effects and history of being human and it’s not always comfortable to see the mirror in the landfill reflecting me.

“You speak Korean so well!”

I stumbled upon the famous Talk To Me In Korean channel many years ago but just found this video today and genuinely laughed out loud. Three Korean teachers reviewed Korean-learning memes and this was the meme in question that struck me as a particular, lived experience:

To explain:

A intruder, labeled as non-Korean, is looking for a Korean stranger. In order to find the person in hiding, the intruder calls out “hello?” in Korean and the Korean says, “You speak Korean really well!” and we assume, meets an untimely demise. It’s analogous to the “shave and a haircut, two bits” scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It simply can’t be helped.

If you’ve kept up with this blog, you know that it is almost a knee-jerk reaction for a Korean to compliment a non-native speaker on his/her language prowess, even upon hearing a single word. The bar is… very low. This exact exchange, sans the murdery aspect, has happened to me countless times.


“Wow, you speak Korean so well!”

There was even a time where I only said “yes” with very good pronunciation and the whole class of students gasped and exclaimed I could speak Korean.

Memes About Learning Korean | Korean Language Amino

I love having my ego stroked but I’m also a little disappointed that the expectation is so low. Imagine if all expats were shamed into learning just a bit more than “hello, I’d like one kimbap please.” Then I wouldn’t have to think about disowning them on a semi-regular basis.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s very sweet to hear and I love that Korea is cheering me on. (Even if the cheering ends when I’m competent enough to hold a conversation but not enough to set up banking on my own. Ain’t no teller cheering me on when I’m holding up the line trying to understand account forms on my own.)

I just sometimes wish the bar were a bit higher, but until then I WILL keep floating high on the (unearned) praise. Lord knows us language learners need it!


South Korea went from being one of the poorest countries on Earth to the world’s tenth largest economy in less than 70 years. Korea has almost all the luxuries of American life, plus benefits my home country lacks: universal healthcare, cute school supplies, and extensive food delivery that UberEats only dreams of being.

But seventy years is not a long time and even through through the Miracle on the Han River, age cannot be hidden.

American culture seems almost ashamed of the elderly– put them in nursing homes until they are forgotten. I never really saw age until I got to Korea.

In spite of the massive economic growth, sparkling chrome skyscrapers, and never-ending construction, Korea still has a touch of the old country left.

There are women who probably lived through the war, their backs bent unforgivably towards the ground like a comma, their canes the only thing keeping them from falling forward entirely. I see women with bow legs and out-turned feet that just don’t look quite right. I see women so small and wrinkled but still selling vegetables or carting a rickshaw towered high with collected cardboard. Occasionally there are old men, skin so weathered and thick that I can’t see their eyes; missing arms or legs; arguments in sign language with their friends on the subway.

They live until they die.

They also don’t have a choice: Korea’s social security system wasn’t developed until later and many elder Koreans live in poverty while also having an extremely high suicide rate.

I look at some women and wonder if they lived through Japanese enslavement, separation from their family at the 38th parallel, the Gwangju massacre. I wonder if they are filled with a hundred years of knowledge, or if they would just tell me I need to get married.

They say aging is a privilege. To see it is another entirely.


On a long bus ride home, several people avoided sitting in the empty seat next to me, less because I smelled (probably), and more because sitting next to a foreigner can always be a little bit scary.

Finally, the bus was too full to ignore me any longer and two very tall college boys got on. One gestured to his huskier friend to take the seat next to me but that friend insisted on standing.

The first guy sat down in defeat.

The seats were too small to avoid touching thighs even though he gripped the seat edge and sat rigidly straight on turns to avoid bumping shoulders.

There was an animal something in me that enjoyed the closeness and reveled in his discomfort because I knew it was unintentional and therefore safe. Maybe I should have tried my experiment then:

“Ha, wow this bus is pretty crowded right?”

“……yes.” He says, eyes darting wildly, silently begging his friend to save him from English small talk.

COVID has made me aware of how much physical contact I used to have and how little I have now.

I’ll take it where I can get it.

These days I don’t have student hugs or high-fives or puppy piles. My school training handbook even mentioned to be aware of “close proximity culture” in our Korean kiddos.

I have to make do with playing with Freshman‘s hair or petting the corgi when she feels like being pet.

Korea gave me all the platonic physical affection that America never could only to take it away six months later.

I know that Americans like to think that they are very touchy because they hug others. And while hugging is seen as overly intimate among acquaintances in Korea, America lacks the casual and daily platonic “skinship” that defines much of East Asia.

I think I’ve always felt a bit odd with hugging strangers which made me feel like there were no other avenues for physical affection and left me at a bit of a touch deprived dead end in America.

American friends don’t exactly hold hands or link arms or play with each other’s hair or pat each other on the thigh. Nearly all touching seems to be reserved for romantic partnerships, in which case you may go hog wild.

But it is a bit strange, right? Americans think kissing on the cheek as a greeting is weird or two boys holding hands that are not dating is weird but instead expect two near, or actual, strangers to press their bodies together.

There’s nothing like the tight warm, tight hug of someone you care about fitting your jagged pieces back together and nothing quite so diametrically opposed as the cold, awkward side embrace from everyone else.

I remember years ago I told one of my coworkers from Eastern Europe that I was leaving my position. She grabbed my hand, held it tight, and asked if everything was okay.

I’ll never forget how important and special that kind of platonic touch was, and how tightly I gripped her hand back, unaware of the anchor I needed until she reached for me.

Sometimes, unbeknownst to us, we are someone else’s life raft, however briefly.

Today, a woman on the bus let herself lean a little into me on sharp turns. I didn’t mind. Maybe she’s like me: maybe she just needed a little point of contact in this new, contact-less world. A reassurance that we are human, and that we need just same. A float to hang on to for a single breath of air.

Chuseok Extra

Rachel recounted to her cousin as we were en route to the mulli fields how sometimes Korean men start using casual language* with me from the start which we both find incredibly rude and disrespectful.

I imagined the cousin going pale in the backseat— he had been using casual language with me from the start.

However, I barely noticed since I had presumptuously done the same. He was an easy person to be around so I never thought of it as assumptive like certain Seoul men.

I actually started using casual language with Rachel this week at her suggestion and it carried over when I met her cousin. I used casual language with both of them, which was probably incredibly rude of me since the cousin is older and a stranger, but Busan seems to operate on a more casual setting in general. As a result the three of us spoke in casual language from the start.

I switched back to polite language toward the end of the second day feeling embarrassed at my bad manners.

We pulled into a coffee shop later and while Rachel was in the bathroom, he asked me a question, then remembering our condemnation of bad manners, clumsily tacked on a “yo” in an afterthought. It’s something I’ve only seen in a drama and I laughed to myself then took pity on him.

“You can use casual language with me.”

The cousin is a nice person who is a lot like Rachel and I never perceived him as being presumptive. In fact, I appreciate his attempt to be polite after hearing about my bad experiences. We support good men. And manners.

*Korean has various speech levels which can read about here. In brief, casual language eschews all verb endings (요 yo is basic polite ending) and is the most informal level which is reserved for use between people of the same age or older to younger people. When meeting a stranger or in professional settings, one never starts with casual language and among new friends permission must be gained before “lowering” language.