A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Cogito Ergo Dung

I think I may have a budding philosopher in my midst. Ever since Jake pointed out in the comments section that Joseph's catch phrase "what is the what?" is also a book by Dave Eggers, the moon-faced 6th-grader has been spouting out (unintentionally?) existential remarks.

"Teacher!" he called out in class today, "Why me born?"

The puzzling question was quickly derailed as Judy took it upon herself to provide a PG-13 demonstration of Joseph's conception, using blue and pink pencil cases to represent his parents. It was a violent affair with much rattling, and more like jousting than intercourse. I suppose that was for the best.

The topic skirted, I moved on with the lesson.

At the break Joseph sat kneading his forehead with his hand and looking like he was having another existential crisis.

"What's wrong Joseph?" I asked him.

He looked up at me, baffled.

"Teacher? Why me?"

"That's the oldest question in the world," I said. "All I can tell you is 'just because'."

He seemed satisfied enough and tore off to raise hell.

Still later, struggling to make his voice heard and stretch his arm higher than the others eager for my attention, he said:

"Teacher! I must question!" his finger raised with Cartesian passion.

An inquisitive soul indeed.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Thoughts I never thought I'd think before coming to Korea: Vol.1

Looking eagerly at a pig spine segment in my still bubbling bowl of soup and thinking, genuinely excited, "Wow, there's a lot of meat on those vertebrae!"

Monday, January 29, 2007

Hell is other pupils

Although January itself now seems a blur, lately the days drag by like sandpaper on skin. Perhaps come March, the holy "half-way" mark, the daily sanding will have worked its way through my nerve endings and I'll have stopped caring. The days aren't so bad, but every class after 6 is painful. I'd rather fight to be heard among a crowd of overly energetic students, than feel every second cut a fine line through my flesh in a class of exhausted pre-teens.

Apologies if this sounds bleak, but these days I just feel done. The day to day goes by like a song-and-dance show in Purgatory— numbing, indefinite and with eyes cast up to heaven. That goes for both the kids and me. It's hard to explain to a child what they should think is important. How do you tell an 8-year-old that studying this baffling, buttery language for hours a day is more important than Harry Potter? Their parents sure try, but in a way that deadens the message even more, with rebellious attitudes to family creeping into the cultural consciousness. I sure wish I could go back and convince my 12-year-old self that my free public education in French wasn't lame OR a waste of the valuable time I could have spent playing Final Fantasy.

This is the paradox of childhood I suppose; play or plan? Leaning too hard on either one brings its own unique problems. I feel I'm getting self-helpy so I'll box the rhetoric.

I'm just tired is all.

A dear friend (who works entirely too hard) once told me that her favorite time of day was when she could finally take off her earrings. It was the crowning gesture that everything was officially over for the day.

I didn't get it (being both graduated and unemployed at the time), but now, when I take off the watch with the worn leather strap that my Dad gave me before I left, and toss it down on the pile of ever growing change on my night-table, I totally feel her relief.

For me, it's the time of day when I can finally stop counting the minutes.

Don't worry, friends in blog-land. Some days are better than today.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"Uncle" Al

Our school employs a kindly old bus driver to pick up and drop off the kids. He has a very gentle demeanor and speaks no English, but when he first came to the school he told my boss he thought my face was very kind. Since I've been appallingly lazy and learned next to no Korean, we have no way to communicate other than through simple gestures and smiles. When I come back from my dinner break he looks up at me and makes a questioning spoon-to-mouth gesture. I smile and nod. On a particularly cold night, or when my belly isn't quite filled up by bibimbap, I'll stop by a food cart on the corner and get hotteok, which is like a pancake filled with brown sugar and cinnamon. If I walk through the door with one, the driver will give me an enthusiastic thumbs-up. It's a favorite.

I don't know a thing about him— where he comes from, if he has family or anything, but yet he has a very telling manner about him.

He'll always talk and joke to the kids, give them little candies, and I think I've even heard him "cut a few for laughs" (as apparently George W. is also fond of doing). I'd guess his age as mid to late fifties, but his character seems much more kindly than many of the beat-down looking old folks I tend to see.

He sort of stands to the academy as an endearing uncle, or a favorite custodian from a schmaltzy after school special. If he had an English name it would be Al or Joe or something like that.

It just shows the power of body language and mannerism. We've exchanged no words but we both have a plain view of the character of the other. It has no depth of course, that concept we both have of each other, but the fact remains that we aren't strangers even though we've never spoken.

Then again, he might be a spy. I'll never know.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Starving for attention; no man is a buffet.

Kimchi can stave off bird-flu (or so says popular opinion) and pretty much any other ailment the unforgiving world pelts you with. But the pandemic threatening Korea's youth is not viral or bacterial— it's one long, aching cry for attention.

Korea is so densely populated, and such a meritocracy that so many young people are left disenfranchised by failing to squeeze through such a narrow examination bracket, at least according to this article at the Korea Herald, examining the many "hells" of Korean life. The battle for recognition, academically, is something that requires diligence and pleasure delay in order to see payoff. In the mean time the struggle is for attention. MY attention. This is a theory, put out by Shane's girlfriend, as to why Korean kids are so damn whiny. Everyday is a fight to be seen (especially among so many faces) and put in a school situation without the threat of being whacked for talking out of turn, add in a funny looking foreigner, and everyone it seems, is whining just to be heard.

Teacher! Look at what I have! Look at what I can do! For christsakes just LOOK AT ME!

If patience is golden, the opposite is blackboard slate with squealing nails.

It's impossible to indulge every question, especially when a few realize they can ward off a few minutes of study time by asking if I like: Korea, Canada, action movies, pop songs, kimchi, Japan (don't say yes!), Maple Story etc. etc. Who's my girlfriend? What's my Social Security Number? Who is faster: Gollum, a frog, or Frankenstein?

Paul is a prime example of the "I will do or say anything to get my teacher's attention more than the rest of the class" ilk. His father is the director of the school and he has an impressive command of English at such a young age, so he's under a lot of pressure, and looking for quick recognition from an adult figure without having to pass a test or something.

"Teacher! I touch my buttock!" he announced today with one hand on the "Earth."

"Teacher! If you love me I will give you many dungs!"

The more audacious the remark and the harder it is to ignore. This is a formula he understands well.

Today with "wish" as a vocabulary word, Paul mimed out a solemn prayer with his palms together, muttering "Jejus, oh yes, Jejus" and then in one deft blow, out shot the praying hands like the Lance of Longinus.

"Paul?" I asked dumbfoundedly "Are you dung-chipping Jesus?"

He was indeed.

It was something no one else would have conceivable done or even thought, and as such (even if it's something I'm unimpressed with) it's something which instantly makes him stand out in the class. I think at his age, it doesn't register if the attention is earned or exasperating, as long as it delivers.

It's something I'm working to ignore, but it's pretty hard when a kid is pantomiming jamming his fingers into the Son of God's arse— so to speak.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

War & Greece

Today in Itaewon, Shane and I ate lunch at a Greek restaurant called Santorini. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy Korean food, but tasting moussaka after 4 months of mostly rice and fermented vegetables of various persuasions, is like... eating an angel or something. It cost an arm and a leg, but for the hearty bechamel and then baklava for dessert, it was an indulgence worthy of its own song and dance number. Fortunately, we were much too full to follow through as such.

The Greek kitchen is the finest on the planet and it would take a deranged Spartan serving me an uncooked, bloody goat's head on a platter to even merit suggesting otherwise.

We also visited the War Memorial Museum and gaped at the chronological triumphs of destruction, from obsidian knives, tridents and the famous Korean Turtle Ship, to jeep-toting hydrofoils and bombs the size of my apartment.

As we walked through a reconstruction of the mess hall of a Korean War era submarine, we passed a video kiosk showing images of the subs in action, and were paused not by the visuals but by a certain preposterously recognizable tune.

"How long before we hear the Pirates of the Caribbean theme?" Shane said 100% jokingly before we entered the naval history exhibit.

As it turned out, only about 15 minutes.

Just like in the footage of Samsung's robot machine-gun, the epic "Pirates" overture was here lending itself to the archival footage of the sub.

What is it with Korea and this piece of music?

Hans Zimmer should seriously talk to ROK military brass about scoring training videos to get kids more psyched about their mandatory service.

On a serious note though, walking through a war museum really struck me with the magnitude of how 50 years ago, this country was starving and decimated, and now it's standing at the forefront of developed Asia.

Walking through a model recreation of a post-war refugee camp really gave a face to Korea's frantic end-of-the-century boom of infrastructure that now covers much of the horizon in boxy high-rises. It's really quite remarkable to walk through the high-octane consumer metropolis of Seoul and think that not long ago it was in ruin after being occupied by the North Korean Army, and again shortly after by Chinese troops. All that after finally being liberated from decades of Japanese Imperial rule.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

What is the what?

So today we did an exercise in the advanced class that I think perfectly illustrates each of the students' personalities. I'll share them here to give you a better idea of the kind of kids who occasionally drive me crazy, but are almost always the highlight of my day.

First is Paul, who really needs no introduction. He is the resident dung fetishist, and single most prolific source of material for this blog. He is certifiably deranged. He is also my boss' son. He also claims his "real" name is: Paulie Polar Bear Bedison Saidison Medicine Petison Pantyson Jetison David Beckham David Birdsall Worthington D.C. Whitehouse Taster's Choice Black Coffee Beautiful Joe Powerman Columbus Edison Dungworld Earth Butt Runny Nose Appley Junior Senior.

is the only girl in the class. Her family is loaded so she always talks about her trips to Japan and Europe and how she saw Beethoven's house. She is slightly precocious and seems used to getting away with murder. Competence-wise, she is the second best student in the class. Her nickname is "Jupiter" or "Ninja Judy" as I call her occasionally when she pulls her turtleneck over her face.

is the class clown, and as I've stated before is a (mostly) lovable doofus. He has a near elastic face and thrives on the laughter of the rest of the class when he asks me intentionally ridiculous questions like: "Teacher! What is the what?" and "Am I sorry?" He is obsessed with Star Craft and frequently falls out of his chair for kicks. I've given him the nickname "Break-time" since he asks if it is yet, about a million times every class.

is adorable. He's forever doing things like sticking pencils between his fingers and saying he's an X-man, and asking me (if we're studying animals) if a moose is stronger than a coyote. He has big, blatant front teeth and the most endearing expressions of both delight and surprise. He is easily confused, but very committed. He is also the only student who has not yet cried in class. This speaks volumes of his patience for others. His nickname is "Baby Kangeroo."

, whose English name is Tyrod but I prefer to call him Minwoo, thinks I'm the coolest. This is a great boon to our relationship. He's always eager to show me things, ask me questions or do whatever I say. He's also convinced he's incredibly handsome and suffers mild delusions of grandeur. His self-described nickname is "Handsome Boy."

is perhaps the most eager student in the class. He is also the shortest. He has a charming laugh but also cries easily if the rest of the class gangs up on him which happens occasionally. He is quick to answer questions and always tries to demonstrate additional knowledge about the subject at hand. His nickname is "David Beckham" or more recently, "You."

Now let's see if you can match the story to the kid:

1. "I went a Starcraft World. There very clean. I am heros [sic] I am very strong. 99999 quadrillion vs. me. Me win. They very weak. They have many muscle. I have many many many much muscle. There live in the Acan [sic]. Acan and me fight. Me lose win lose win. I don't know. I'm win!"

2. "I went to the sea. I ride the big ship. The wind blow slowly. And I go to hill too. I saw eagle and squirrel. It is vary [sic] cute. I give the carrot to squirrel. It is very happy day from me. I want to go one more time."

3. "I am Earth king. I have very large castle. I have 99999999 quadrillion times 999999999 quadrillion people. I am very happy. I went all planets with Sam and Joseph and Dave and my any friend. It's very funny, but Joseph is die. Very sad. But I can live again because I got [sic] (I think he meant God) but Joseph is little got [sic] and sam is middle got [sic]."

4. "I went to Pool. That was frist [sic] visit the pool. It was fun. I went whit [sic] teacher and my fater [sic]. I played with my teacher. I almost kill my teacher but I dead. I was crazy. After played the game I went to pee house and pee. I was fun day."

5. "It's your turu [sic] (turn)! I learned English in ******* (name of school omitted) I read English book but next don't read the book so I say it's your turn so he read but reading is not fune [sic] (funny) so teacher say one more tiem [sic] reading a book."

6. "Yesterday I play with my younger brother game name is chicken fight. It was very fun. But mother is very angry. And we are very hurt. We are going room and play and I'm win. I'm so happy!"

Feel free to post guesses in the comments section, and the answers will be revealed by and by.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Whine Tasting

"Ohhhhhh! Teeeeeeeeeeeeeeeacheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer!"

Some Korean children have the power to whine with such conviction, it's almost a biological weapon.

But it's not always concentrated like blunt force trauma— they can drag a scorned whine out like a staggered length of barbed-wire.


It's like for every whine there are also three bonus whines packed into the same breath, just for good measure. It's challenging to try and describe in words, but those who know, know. Whining is just part of the inflection of the Korean language, and for most, it saturates their English like grease in a bucket of "Donky Chicken."

Sometimes you just want to whine right back at them, and today I did.

There are other ways to get my attention besides garroting a cat with your vocal chords every time you open your mouth. Try raising your hand kid.

"Teeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeacheeeeeeeeeeeeeeer! Tee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-acher!"

Okay, you can only go for so long without invoking my mock wrath.

I uncorked the metaphorical bottle, and let out the longest, most exaggerated whine that had been carefully aging in me for the last 4 months.

"Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww! Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat!?"

I whined so hard I lost my balance.

It was great.


'83 moan-trachet.

I was the sommelier of sarcasm.

And the wine jokes end here.

This lead to a short whine battle of sorts, and although I was at a natural disadvantage, I still have big, strong lungs. I finally overcame the culprit, much to the delight of the rest of the class.

"Teacher is very funny!" they applauded. One even sounded an imaginary trumpet in honor.

The taste of victory was bold and full-bodied, with a subtle soupçon of elderberries and the most vibrant, fluttering finish of eucalyptus.

Sorry, I'm done.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Luck of the Konglish

One interesting thing about teaching is that you have absolutely NO IDEA what will come out of a student's mouth at any given moment. I was greeted today by Minwoo who was the first student to arrive. After I turned on the TV for him, he looked pleased and asked:

"Teacher, you know the lu-lu?"

"Lu-lu? Is that a cartoon character?" I asked.

"No! Like ah... electric... water... come here!" and he ran off to the bathroom and pointed at the toilet.

"You mean the toilet?"


I then explained to him that I was indeed aware of toilets, and that thankfully they weren't electric.

Next to arrive was Joseph, who is perfectly described as a lovable doofus.

He skipped into the office with purpose.

"Teacher! What is the... this?" pointing to his neck.

"That's your neck Joseph."

He was immediately completely uninterested and skipped away as purposefully as he'd came. Apparently he was expecting a far more exciting word; perhaps "head's arse."

A few minutes later, the two of them came running with eager grins to spare.

"Teacher! You know um... is plant... is four... lucky?"

"Clover?" I asked "Four-leaf clover?"

"YES! YES! Watch," Minwoo said and they broke into a planned sketch.

Joseph pretended to look for a four-leaf clover while Minwoo crept up behind him with a melodramatic evil grin. Joseph bent over to pluck the imaginary clover, just as Minwoo leveled an imaginary gun and let fly— missing— as shown by an array of whooshing slow-motion bullet noises and hand gestures.

"Is lucky!" they both said together.

"And Matrix!" Joseph added, likening the bullet dodging to that infamous scene in the Matrix, which the kids tend to say as if it was a dude's name, like "Matt Ricks."

After I applauded them on their shtick, Minwoo ran off, but Joseph stayed to give a less articulate, but undeniably Joseph-like encore.

He bent over again, presumably after another clover, and said:

"Teacher! Ahhh... is strangee and plant and this... ahhh... ARSE! and middle and BAHHHHH!" the final noise being that of a self-inflicted "dungchip" Joseph gave his vulnerable backside.

I guess those lucky clovers can go both ways.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Paul made the computer say "dung." Laughter exploded like a simile best left unsaid.

The great Earth/Arse mishap of 2006 has taken a hilarious new spin. It's since gone full circle, so now, instead of referring to the Earth as an arse, the kids now refer to an arse as "Earth." Needless to say this drew some interesting geographical parallels.
Today I was peacefully preparing a lesson plan in the teacher's room, when Paul wandered in and, as is his prerogative, began talking about dung and how much he loves it. He grilled me on the proper English term for what was, in his words, "Earth-ache" (read: arse-ache). I told him there wasn't really a word for such a specific ailment, but he persisted.

"Teacher! Really, there is no word for when your... this... hurts?"

The 'this' was accompanied by him bending over and pointing to his... well... butt-crack for lack of a more dignified term.

He then made a remark at which I had to use all of my willpower to force-in that terrible encouraging laughter— the bane of my teaching career.

"Teacher! If this is the 'Earth' then this is 'equator'?" again, gesturing to aforementioned crack.

Let's give credit where credit is due. For an 8-year-old to make that kind of word association in a foreign language is pretty clever... in a latrine-y kind of way.

Which brings me to last night when Paul laughed harder than I've ever seen in the last 4 months.

I was perusing the internets on my free class after dinner on Thursday, and left the computer to make some green tea. When I got back, Paul had snuck into the room and looked up at me with a borderline diabolical grin.

"Teacher, do you want to seeeeee?" He drew out the last syllable with ominous... ness?

I braced for the worse and craned my head around the desk to get a look at the computer screen. Paul had apparently stumbled on an English pronunciation website via Naver (the Korean search engine) which provides a one-click audio sound byte of particular English words.

He clicked.

"Dung," the computer said neutrally.

Paul erupted as if he hadn't laughed since he'd been born. Tears streamed down his cheeks and he fell, twitching, onto the keyboard.

I dragged him away from the chair and resumed my online idling. I made the mistake of turning my back to the monitor to get a textbook from the shelf, while leaving an open Wikipedia search page within reach.

I heard giggles and key-clicking and knew what was being done.

"Teacher?" I heard before turning around, "Guess what?"

"What Paul?" I sighed.

"COW DUNG!" he roared, pointing to the screen.

And again with the waterworks.

This child's self-described "love" of dung is just shy of worrying. I have 8 more months to make a conclusive evaluation. That's one golden reason to keep reading folks!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

"Hey Freakazoid, you wanna go out for a Mandu?"

Le Freak, c'est chic:

There's a big TV mounted to the ceiling in the foyer of my school, and the kids who arrive early spend their time gazing transfixed at Sponge Bob videos. Problem is, there are only two tapes with two episodes on each tape, so it's the same episodes day after day. When I realized I could follow along with an entire episode by remembering the dialogue as heard from the teacher's room, I decided it was time for an alternative. So one Friday I brought my trusty lappy to school and showed the kids my favorite childhood cartoon: "Freakazoid!"

I realized a lot of the jokes and dialogue would be over their heads (those Spielberg produced Warner Bros. cartoons of the mid-90's had a lot of under-the-radar comedy aimed at the parents) but watching a red bespandexed weirdo put his hands over his head and pretend to fly by making wooshing noises? That's a cross-cultural kind of funny. Especially with the Ed Asner-voiced Sgt. Cosgrove on hand to take our hero off on a random diversion at a critical plot-point: "Hey Freakazoid, you wanna go out for a mint/see a bear ride a motorcycle/go to the Honey Harvest Festival in Acton/Yakov Smirnoff Film Festival?"

Needless to say, the show was a big hit. Now, much to my delight and amusement, I'll catch one of the kids humming the theme song to themselves on breaks.

After watching the first cartoon, Joey asked me why Freakazoid had a lighting bolt in his hair. Before I had a chance to answer, he had a strange pop culture cross-over epiphany and stood up and asked frantically: "He is Harry Potter's Grandparents!?!?" referring, I guess, to the lightning bolt scar on Harry Potter's forehead. Maybe he's onto something there...

One day this week, Paul found a pair of black wrap around sunglasses on the floor of one of the classrooms. He put them on, took one look in the mirror and one and me and cried "Teacher! I am the Freakazoid!" and wooshed through the hallway with his arms over his head (this time with no intent to spring a "dung-chip").

Impressionable minds must be made the most of, after all.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Dirty Deeds Dung Dirt Cheap

Korean kids have a trademark move that I've seen performed often, but only learned the name of today.


At least that's what Paul referred to it as, and taking his word on such matters is dubious at best (today when selecting the part of either Diego or Monica for a practice conversation, he chose Diego by reasoning that it sounded the nearest to "dung").

But laboring under humorous misconceptions seems to be what blogging is all about, so permit me to continue.

The dung-chip goes down something like this: the purveyor of the move (herein called the "chipper") sneaks up behind the receiver (let's call them the "chipp'd"). The chipper holds their hands together at the tips, as if in prayer— which must be the misdirect— and when they're close enough they jab the chipp'd in the middle of the... well... arse.

I know it's not a move unique to my kids, because Shane has reportedly both witnessed and fell victim to a sneaky chipping.

It's a common preoccupation for the kids to give each other "the treatment" during their short breaks between class. They have, at times, tried to play chipper to my unsuspecting back, but usually a stifled giggle gives me time to take a few steps forward and turn to see a pair of astonished eyes and the denied pose of their fingers held forward like a spearhead.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Sneakiest Little Tower in the World

Time for the weekend photo dump!

Here is Seoul Tower, seen ominously through the cloudy sky after the big snow we had last night. Shane and I took a cable car up and it totally rocked our socks. We were worried with the wind and blowing snow that it might not be a good day to see the sights, but it was beautiful to watch as we slowly rose up the mountain, and over all the newly snow-frosted bare trees, like jumping over a really, really big herd of moulting caribou in a blizzard. Poetic n'est pas?

Here's the deal with Seoul Tower— it's a big sham! The structure itself is not especially impressive as far as towers go, but they've skirted the demands of architectural achievement by building their shit on top of a mountain. That's right, in the tourist literature and on various merchandise in the gift shop, they show it as ranking next to the Eiffel Tower, the CN Tower and the other vertical feats of the world, because they count the mountain as part of its height! Is it just me, or is that totally cheating?

Nothing too special here, just a nice, snowy pavilion on the top of the mountain. There was a cadre of business types having a group photo taken nearby, and I wanted to run down and join in but I figured my fate to follow would have involved a barrel and that caribou herd we jumped to get there.

I insisted we eat lunch at the grand-sounding "Restopia" but it was mediocre at best.

Here's Shane next to one of the tallest standing Buddhas in Korea, ironically situated across the street from the country's largest mall.

One of the various buildings of the Bongeunsa temple complex. There was something overpoweringly calm and peaceful about this place at dusk. We walked around silently and listened to a monk pound away at a giant outdoor drum. The gray clouds, bright lanterns and echoing rhythm of the drums all created such a powerful ambiance. We were maybe a hundred feet away from one of the busiest streets in the city (the tower on the right is the Seoul World Trade Center) and you couldn't hear the slightest suggestion of traffic. The wind was rustling through hundreds of paper prayers hung on hundreds of paper lanterns. The sky was dark and the insides of the pavilions were golden with candlelight and polished statues. The only things to suggest that we weren't hundred of years in the past, were the full parking lot, and the face-mask on the drumming monk...

I was dumbfounded when I saw this sign, as Shane and I wandered through the newly renovated portion of the COEX. I took a few pictures before one of the saleswomen ran out and crossed her hands at the wrist in an "X" meaning: "No pictures!" Seriously guys, if you advertise your clothes as being "made by Jesus" you'd better expect some due attention. I'm still baffled by the rationale behind the sign. Was it a mistranslation? Some kind of attention grabbing mad-lib with names of shocking significance? Maybe the store was owned by an expat Latin-American designer named "Hey-zeus." I have no answers for you, but feel that "Christ Couture" may make a sudden, and significant explosion in North America. Be ready.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Sweetness Follows

Today I was overwhelmed by a surprise gift from Paul.

I think there's a competitive streak in the swell of little novelty pens and things that he and Judy have been giving me this week, but realistically speaking, that's a better kind of rivalry than gnawing at each other in the classroom.

Anyway, this afternoon Paul waltzed into the teacher's room with a broad envelope that had my name on it. Inside was a thick mauve card with a picture of a cartoon bee playing a large pink flower like a flute. At the bottom was a small motivational message translated from *gasp* Japanese: "I want to convey my feelings to you with my voice because I want you to know more about me."

Sounds reasonable.

I expected to open it up and find a steaming rendition of dung world, but instead was a message so thoughtful that I almost teared up.

"To Sam," he wrote at the top:

Sam Teacher Hello. Sam I will study hard forever. Ok. I love you.

Then, underneath that, he wrote "I love you" again, but big enough to cover the bottom half of the card.

It was just one of those moments where all the deaf talk and vacant stares and whining and groaning melt away and it feels like I'm really doing something that touches the lives of these kids.

Of course, this sentimental moment wasn't without its quirk. When you open up the card, there's a small speaker, obviously meant for recording a voice message which plays when you pull a small tab on the side. However since the card is made by "Japan Flora 2000" and the recording directions on the back are written in Japanese, Paul obviously couldn't figure out how to record a message because when I pulled the tab, I heard what was either a Japanese test marketer, or a savvy Korean card shop browser saying "Ah-Ah."

It was still a very sweet sentiment from a boy who later in the day asked me enthusiastically:

"Teacher! Is there a breast that is 9 million millimeter!?"

I almost expected him to follow up with:

"Teacher! Could Jejus microwave a burrito so hot, that he himself could not eat it?"

From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step. Never have I known this to be more true than in Korea.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Happy New Year to you too Mr. Kim...

One of the strangest things about adjusting to life in Korea is suddenly being an object of spectacle.

In a country of genetic hegemony, a green-eyed, curly-haired, blonde(ish) Canadian sticks out like a parasite in your kimchi. Today for some reason, everyone seemed to think I look like Harry Potter...

I have a difficult time explaining to the kids that I don't have a "perm-u" and that my hair is naturally curly and has been so since birth (although strictly speaking this is a lie, but it's easier to relate than explaining how my stark white, smooth straight locks turned ash coloured and curly in junior high, perhaps to emulate the tense coils of puberty).

Growing up in bone-white Nova Scotia, my next door neighbor was Lebanese, but I hadn't seen many people of other ethnicities until a visit to family in South Carolina at age 6, when I tugged on my mother's sleeve and innocently told her, matter-of-factly, that I had seen 14 black people since leaving the airport.

Even in a small city like Halifax there is ethnic diversity, and it's something you come to appreciate as a norm when you find yourself on the flip-side, alone and gawked at in a human sea of Koreans.

Sure there are times when it can make you feel unique and even respected for no good reason, but to tell the truth, most days I feel like an outsider and an object of others amusement. I know the staring and the giggling isn't malicious, and in most cases is probably just nervous curiosity, but be they from a bashful teenage girl or a suspicious old man, stares have a way of sticking to you— each one layering over the last like gig posters on a telephone pole. Eventually you feel like you're carrying around a second skin of other people's shifty looks.

Then there are little sunshine moments that make you forget you're even a foreigner. Like when one of your favorite students gives you a smiling lion eraser as a gift for no reason in particular, or when you walk into the local bakery and are greeted by: "Hello Mr. Sam! Happy New Year!"

Then the stares start to peel a little.

I, Turnipite

Interested parties should definitely check out my pal Shane's new blog, which showcases not only his funny words, but his fine comic penmanship.

Check it. The link remains steady planted in my "hot list" to your right.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Coming back after the long New Year's weekend, the kids were especially cranked— full of balloon juice, as my High School Math teacher once said.

After some ribald claims from Paul in the first class of the day—"Teacher! I invented the pee hole! Don't you believe me!?"— I didn't think things could get much more manic in the early afternoon. That was, of course, before Joey and the usually shy Peter started marching through the hall, wearing yellow post-its on their chests with circular breasts drawn on them, chanting: "Breast Men! Breast Men! Breast Men!" with each left-right step.

They were somehow struck with the word "breast" over the weekend (I can't imagine it would lay dormant in them for this long...) and it may prove to be the end of concentration as I know it... which is as a sad memory.

Apparently not satisfied with the plebeian side of breast citizenship, the two— now joined by mop-haired Minwoo— proclaimed themselves the "3 Breast Kings," and established perhaps the world's first three tier Mammary Monarchy.

Joesph, out of all of them, was visibly distressed by this gender-bending breast parade. He was whining and scrunching up his face like the endearing doofus he is. "Teacher! Nooo!" he wailed, "I am not breast man... I am... ARSE MAN!"

I seriously created a monster with that arse remark. If Joey, Peter and Minwoo are the 3 Breast Kings, does that make Joseph an Arse-Duke? I'm not too savvy with the Anatomical Gentry.

I wonder how you say "too much information" in Korean...

Monday, January 01, 2007

I Heart Canada & the Internet

Thanks to the glorious collection of tubes that is the internet, I am able to sit here on New Year's Day in Korea, and listen to CBC's "Definitely Not The Opera" year end podcast and hear Sook Yin-Lee sing a duet of Tony Bennett's "Rags to Riches" with former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson.

I feel a burning desire to run through the streets singing "O Canada."

Clouds but No Rain

Now that you slow pokes back in the West have caught up in terrestrial rotation, (NYE is soooo 13 hours ago guys...) Happy Nü Year!

According to the Korea Herald scholars have termed 2006 as mil un bul u (in Chinese: "very cloudy but no rain"). The phrase is used to illustrate frustrated and ultimately disappointing anticipation. In other words, the year of clouds with no rain was one of worry without release. Another Chinese proverb picked to sum up the year was gyo gak sal u ("Killing the cow by trying to adjust its crooked horns").

Sounds pretty bleak n'est pas?

I follow the Korean news pretty superficially. Since I don't care about business or education reform, I've already eliminated about two-thirds of the Herald, so that leaves a neglected arts section and North Korea, which about a month ago could have warranted the paper to change its name to The Kim Jong-Il Alarm.

The article, and the proverbs colour 2006 as an anxious year for Koreans. People are fed up with the blank-faced knob leading the country, worried about North Korean missiles, loaded news reports about reviving militarism in Japan, housing-costs, declining birth rates; boy howdy, that's a lot that demands worrying!

(On a swerving side, Shane and I have a running joke about how Bush has a limited stock of "boy howdies" he's able to speak during a fiscal year, and each one after that drives the US further into debt:

"Boy howdy that was a dry-ass meeting, huh Condi?"

"Mr. President I must advise you that the national "boy howdy" reserves are at a critical low."

"You're cutting my boy howdies?"

"Sir, you're only making it worse."

"What if I just search up boy howdy on the Google?"

"That's -2 Mr. President."

"C'mon now, these vapid cowboy affectations are all I have left!"

"Pardon me sir?"

"I needs my boy howdies!"

"Please Mr. President, that's -3! The Bank of Zurich just repossessed the state of Maryland. They're airlifting it as we speak."

"My kingdom for a boy howdy..."

"Sir you must control yourself... one more boy howdy and we lose your presidential cuff-links and the city of Hoboken! Consider the deficit sir!"

"Hells a deficit?"

etc. ad infinitum.

That rambled on longer than planned... where was I again? Oh yes, clouds but no rain...)

My message of hope is to ride the clouds with clenched teeth for the next, say, 31 years, when Paul is of a respectable age to explode onto the political scene with his vibrant new Dung Party. Unfortunate choice of verb?

2006 definitely had a long stretch of lows for me, but the beauty of shitty experiences is that they are a constant bench mark forcing you to appreciate what you have now. Even the most brain-crushingly terrible day working at my school seems like paradise next to slaving away at the Athens.

My personal resolve is to make 2007 a year of new experiences, travel and personal growth. Mostly sunny with a chance of showers? I think it loses something without the Chinese...

Happy New Year, and thanks for reading!