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

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Free Kills? Anybody?

While reading a comprehension passage about "why we laugh" I brought up the topic of the '"free hugs" campaign, which was only recently taken up by young Taiwanese, Chinese or Koreans looking to spread goodwill by dispensing free hugs.

I knew the kids would be aware of the idea since there's a commercial on TV where free hugs abound, and these were a gifted bunch.

Paul had cracked me up earlier in the class with an unexpected "Rreeex!" (though I've discovered that he spells it "reacks") and I tried to pass it off as a "demonstration" since laughter was the point of the lesson, and I figured if we were all serious about it, the point would stand missed.

The two sisters were confused why I found the sound so funny (as I'm sure most of you are as well) but I found myself at odds how to explain it to them.

"It's hard to explain WHY you laugh sometimes, you just do, right?"

"YES! Many times I just laugh by myself!" the cool sister said.

"Me too!" I confessed.

She was glad I did.

By this point, Paul stood up and said: "Teacher! You say about 'free hugs' but isn't there 'free kills' too?"

I laughed.

"I don't think people would be happy with a 'free kill.'"

"YEES!" he protested, "You Teacher! You would be happy!"

"No, I wouldn't want a 'free kill.'"

Paul raised both his hands, one holding an imaginary knife, and the other a sign that read "Free Kills."

"Teacher! If I give the free kills many people will come and I do this *stab* and they say *reacks* many times and you too laugh very many times!"

I've got to give the kid credit for twisted logic.

The textbook said most people laugh about 13 times a day. I stand in defiance of their science.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Hedwig in Korea (The Origin of Love) & the original (movie version).

If Aristophanes only knew...

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Does Debbie Harry have a penis? Because she certainly has a husky voice...

Allow me to explain.

Above is a video for Korean singer Kim Ah-joong's cover of "Maria" by Blondie. It is also featured in a popular Korean romantic comedy "200-pound Beauty" seen in said video. The song is also severely over-played on Korean commercials, and in turn is parroted ad nauseam by the kids at school, but of course all they sing is the chorus, so day in and day out it's "Mariaaaaa! Ave Mariaaaa!" and ooooh, it makes me wanna cry.

Recently Paul busted out the pipes and began singing it in our last class of the evening. I asked him and the two other girls in the class if they actually knew who sang the original version. One girl who is especially quirky and feisty, and is quickly becoming one of my favorites, said that she had heard it but didn't know the name of the group.

"Blondie," I told her.

"Blondie?" she said, "Teacher, the song sounded so strange! Her voice was so deep... (there was a beat of silence)... she is transgender???"

I don't know if she picked up the word off the internet, if her Dad took her to the Korean staging of "Hedwig & the Angry Inch" I saw advertised on the subway, or if they just finished an unlikely unit in public school on sexual identity, in any case, I laughed away my bad feelings about the song.

Now whenever a student hums that infectious chorus, I'll just giggle about how to impressionable Korean ears, a raspy, druggy voice can make even the most feminine of New Wave sex symbols seem like they're packing a little something extra under that mini-skirt.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Black Shadow Knows


I wrote the word up on the board, followed by a colon and "very, very, very, very scared."

"Easy," I assured the sleepy students, "If you are horrified, it means you are very, very, very *pause* very scared by something."

"Teacher, I am question!"

"Really? I though you were Joseph. Okay then Question, what can I do for you?"


"No, Teacher, I have a question!"

"Ohhhh! I see, what's your question?"

"What is 'horrified?'"

"Isn't that what I just told you? *sigh* horrified is what you'd be if you woke up in the morning and found a vampire in your bathroom."

"Vampireu?" he asked his best friend sitting next to him.

"Dracula," the friend replied noncommittally.

"Aaaah! Is scary?"

"Yes, you'd be horrified if you saw Dracula in your bathroom, or like, a giant spider that was as big as your bed."

"Noooo! I fight it! Everyday!"

"Everyday huh? Everyday you'd fight a giant spider in your bathroom?"

"Yes! Every day I fight and win!"

This sort of rountine could go on for a long time, so I just let it be, as noraebang patrons, and to a lesser extent, the Beatles, often say.

We read some short paragraphs with a few other idioms. I explained the term "make yourself at home" like this:

"Joseph, remember last week when you and Jin-hyuck kept asking where my house was?"



"And remember how you also said you wanted to come to my house and knock on my door, then when I answered the door you two would rush in, play computer games for 8 hours, and then when you were leaving you would finally say 'hello'?"

Uproarious laugh.


"Well... that's 'make yourself at home' too much."

If you can explain something by even a limited anecdote, it tends to sink in a bit more. Mostly though, it's in one ear and out the other, so I'm always pleased when the kids can show me they've learned something.

Towards the end of the class as I was erasing the whiteboard, the boys' chattering suddenly came to a hushed stop.

"What?" I asked.

"Black shadow!" Joseph said.

"Black shadow?"

"Yes, Big Teacher walk by the door!"

The boss of our academy sometimes makes his rounds through the hall and peeks in through the top of the small window in the door. He is very tall and almost always wears a three-quarter length black coat.

"Black shadow..." I chuckled to myself.

"Is horrified!" Jin-hyuck said with a big grin.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

By any other name...

The other day Paul came bounding into the teacher's room to excitedly tell me about this or that.

He was wearing a blue and green knitted glove on his left hand.

"Paul, why are you only wearing one glove?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said, looking down at his hand as if to ask how did that get there?

"You look like Michael Jackson," I teased.

"Who is that? Famous comedy man?"

"Well, not on purpose," I thought.

"He's an American singer," I said, "Here, I'll show you a picture on the internet."

"Oh! Teacher is like me!" he said with glee, seeing Jacko's one white-gloved hand.


Later that day, Paul was still wearing the glove so I said "Yes, Michael?" when I called on him in class. The rest of the bunch were confused so I had to explain the situation.

Immediately tired with his new moniker, Paul proclaimed to the eager audience, "My name is TP!"

I laughed. "Paul do you know what TP stands for?"


"Toilet paper."

Howls of laughter.

One of Paul's many other aliases is "Polar Bear Friend" so he announced that if he were to add both "Toilet paper" and "Michael Jackson" to his initials, he would become "PBFMJTP."

"You know," I said egging him on, "one of Michael Jackson's nicknames is Jacko."


Howls of laughter.

"Teacher! I am Toilet Jacko and I throw the toilet!"

I think So-so man has a new nemesis.


Digging through some papers in my desk this afternoon I found a note I had written down at school and completely forgot about.

There was a reading passage in class about Martin Luther King Jr., and Paul's father's English name is Martin so in keeping with Paul's original outlandish alias, he (with a little help from Joey and Judy) decided that his father's real name was:

"Martin Luther King Jr. Jacket Jackson Girlfriend Girlfriend Freakazoid Bear-riding-a-motorcycle Bee Festival Super Gollum King Polar Bear Nose Hair Noodle Boy."

Yeah... I'd be bored with just "Kim" too.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Middle finger climb

"Teacher! You can speak the dog sound?"

"Um... I could if I wanted to... why do you ask?"

"Outside, there, in the street I see a..." he took a moment to confer with his classmates in Korean, looking for the proper word:

"A dung dog!"

"A dung dog? Like, a very dirty dog?"

"Oh yes teacher, so dirty! Korean say 'dung dog!'"

"NOOOOO!" another piped up, "Teacher! It is not dung dog, it is 'lost family dog!'"

"Oh... stray dog."

"Yes! Yes! Stray dog! I see a... that... in the street and I make middle finger climb!" the first student says, and fake flips a double-bird.

"You showed your middle finger to a stray dog?" I asked confused.

"Yes! Two time, and he liked it very much."

"How do you know he liked it?"

"I don't know... it was just his mind. His tail moving."

I had to suppress the image in my mind as the story was being told to me. When I finally got out of the class, I fell into a fit of laughter imagining this floppy haired 10-year-old in his red and white Hapkedo uniform, wandering through town flipping off stray dogs. It was just too much.

Learning swears and rude gestures in another language is a focal point for any student. When I was a kid, I remember the brouhaha caused by the first person in French class who learned the word merde. It really hit the fan.

Likewise with flipping people, creatures, and inanimate objects off. There is something ridiculously funny about someone emphatically, and repeatedly giving the double finger to something/one. As with most things, it's even funnier when Korean kids do it.

So the next time you see a "dung dog" wandering the street, flip it off, and make its day.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Ratatatat & Co.

Literature has always struggled with conveying circumstantial sound. Sure, grammar mongers try to sort it all out with their inflections and m-dashes, carving up words with surgical precision, but what I mean is real, understandable and unapologetic onomatopoeia.


The "Bof!" "Splat!" "Gak!" and "Zok!" of Batman fame, or the refrain from my treasured childhood book Herman the Helper: "Oof! Ugh! Ick! Urk! Ouch!"

I think of this as I try to convey in letters a hilarious noise that Paul has taken to doing. Like the comic book death knells "Funghaaaaaaaa!" "Nyaaaaaagh!" and "Blurgh!" Paul has his own noise to emphatically describe the death of something. It never fails to crack me up. I guess it sounds sort of like this:


It's by no means your standard "retch" from being hoofed in the guts. It has a certain je ne sais qua. I think it's in the "x."

I know it's a nearly impossible task to explain a funny noise in writing, but this has made me laugh so many times today I can't forgo mentioning it.

It's like a dog trying to say its name while throwing up— surprising, and unintelligible.

I can't recall the first time Paul made the noise, but it's made even funnier by the way he grins while saying it, with his missing front tooth. This, of course, makes it even harder to describe why it is actually funny, and yet I can't just write it off as a "you had to be there" type of funny.

I think I'm drawn to the noise for epistemological reasons. Seriously though, before it just sounds like I'm talking out of my arse equator. I find it interesting the different ways various cultures announce surprise, victory, frustration, and comic death. Korean kids tend to shout "Asa!" when something good happens, like they win a game or get a question right. Think of all the sounds we use to express success: "Huzzah!" "Yee-ha!" "Whee-la!" "Woot!" "Yipiee!" "Boo-ya!" "Yahoooo!"

The list goes on and on.

I just find it interesting the way Paul thought to end someones last utterance with "x." It just seems so inglorious to go out on an "x."

If Caesar had bought it after "Et tu Brutix?" you can be sure no one would be inclined to parrot his last words today.


Paul said "Rreeeex!" and I laughed.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Teacher..." -A Day in Quotes II-

"Teacher! Why gentleman is do this? *doffs an imaginary tophat*"
-Joey's first words to me this afternoon.

"Teacher! But everyday I think 'bitch!'"
-Joseph's rebuttal to my demand that he stop saying "bitch" in class.

"Teacher! I am trying to see your 'sense.' It is your best sense!"
-Paul trying to get me to laugh so hard that I take of my glasses and rub my eyelids. The kids call this "sense" and it is their ultimate goal.

"Teacher! I want to see your head-bang!"
-Eunji, after watching another student do his best impression of a DJ who is really into it, scratching with the plastic cup holders built into the table.

"Oh my God!/ Oh my Mom!/ Oh my baby!/ Oh my Santa Claus!"
- Ji-won, filling in the blanks after my saying, "Oh my..."

"Teacher! Hug please!"
-Jane, Paul's little sister, said smiling after I came in early to find her studying to English tapes by herself in the listening room.

"Joseph: Teacher! I want to make a... the head cancer!

Me: How will you make it?

Joseph: Well!

Me: That's not what I meant..."
-Joseph and I in an unplanned tribute to the age old "my dog has no nose, how does it smell? awful" type comedy of misunderstanding.

My days are often unbearable, but seldom boring.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The boy they call "Baby Kangeroo"

"I am the race car! I am very fast, and fast and so, so cool!"

Joey is one of my favorite students for a variety of reasons. One being the fact that he can entertain himself by saying things like that above, while tossing his head back and pretending to be the Mach V.

He never teases, belittles, provokes, or tries to humiliate any other kids. He's not whiny or manipulative. He's just a total original, and a genuinely nice kid.

He also has a surprising knowledge of Western pop culture and science. Plus he invented So-so man and Hammersoup!

"Teacher! You know the McQueen?" he asked after recovering from his race-car impression.

"Steve McQueen? American movie actor?" I said, kind of taken aback, having almost finished a biography of the Man himself.

"He is very tough guy?"

"I don't think they had a word for tough before McQueen."


Sometimes I forget I'm being a little too candid.

I've also been repeatedly surprised by Joey's questions about Stephen Hawking, Lou Gehrig's disease, Einstein, Edison and the Ford Model-T.

A hungry young mind.

Or just hungry for packages?

He's come a long way, and they makes me feel very good.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Lose not the petticoat!

Verbal diarrhea not withstanding, the Korean kids I've come to know are a very modest type.

Certainly not in regards to dung jokes, and even less so regarding their character and ambitions, but the impulse as I've seen it, is to immediately cover any measure of exposed flesh with pencil-rendered clothes.

Today for example, I was teaching a class of five 10-year-old girls. We were using a textbook called "Very Easy Reading" and the reading in question was a story about taking a bath. It was accompanied by an illustration of a boy in a bath tub, with his legs and chest sticking out from the bubbles. It wasn't especially racy, but as I was writing on the board and the girls all opened to the page, there was quite a squealing. As I turned around, every one of the five was drawing shorts, a t-shirt, or even a complete black diving suit over the offending nude skin.

It was very funny.

Kids will be kids anywhere you go, and most of them find kissing gross and giggle at the word "panties."

There is however a certain Confucian element to the bashfulness in Korea regarding anything even remotely sexualized.

I was showing an episode of Freakazoid to the early class, and when it reached a scene involving a kissing booth Minwoo recoiled in shock and averted his eyes.

"Oh no! Teacher, this is age 18 plus!"

Paul on the other hand has repeatedly made me pinky-swear that I will invite him to my future wedding, so he can see my wife and I kiss, and then said it will be "very niiiice" with a Borat-type inflection.

Paul however is hardly typical.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"Teacher..." -A Day in Quotes-

"Teacher, if you tell I am here I will throw you the arse-shake medicine, and your arse will shake and your house will fill with many dungs."
- Whispered by Paul, before he started sneaking up on his father.

"Teacher! So-so Man is die! He have stomachache and is very much beer and crash the car, and the car is a model T!"
- Joey, telling me in detail about the death of his made-up superhero "So-so Man." Nothing was said about So-so man's nemesis, "Hammersoup."

"Teacher's hair style was yellow broccoli!"
- Sang-won on the history of my hair. When I told them it was "curly" and not "perm-u" they took curly to be like "broccoli."

"Teacher! I like shark dung!"
- Random uttering from a portly student in a turquoise sweatshirt with a picture of Charlie Brown on it, and the words: "When do the good things start?"

"Teacher! Tomorrow is White Day and you will say your friend: 'Hey! Please kiss me! I love you! Marry me!' and she say 'No, buddy! Go away and drink another your mother's breast water!"
- Paul being Paul.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Love in the Time of Cholera

Wednesday is White Day.


Let me explain. The whole Valentine's concept is segregated by gender in Korea and Japan. On Valentine's Day the girls give chocolate to the boys, then on White Day the tables are turned, and the boys give candy to the girls. It is then followed by the unofficial Black Day where lonely singles eat black bean noodles (Jajangmyeon) alone or in small pity parties.

The kids enthusiastically brought up the coming of White Day in class today, and I mentioned that my sister's birthday also falls on March 14th.

One very curious, but not especially gifted student asked: "Teacher! Sister... ahh... what's your name?"

"What's my sister's name?"



"Co-lera?" she squinted up her face.

To her ears this was a valiant attempt. As for me, I heard it as "Cholera" and promptly broke out laughing.

They always get a kick out of my... let's call it "colourful" laugh. Some refer to it simply as "happy noise." Many hold it as a personal point of pride if they can make me laugh. Others, less game for laurels just ask me if I can laugh on the spot. Another recent request is that I "do shooper mario song!"

It was discovered— I can't remember how— that I could hum and whistle the iconic Super Mario Bros. theme music and it's now much requested. Reaction can be mixed with things of that nature. When Mario was brought up in another class, Joey gasped as if I had said "Jehovah" in The Life of Brian.

"Teacher! Mario is Japan game!"

Horror of horrors!

I can be pretty sensitive about these things. I'll call what I otherwise knew as the "Sea of Japan" the "East Sea" in the company of Koreans, but suppressing my love for the Japanese and their video games is a concession I can't make.

Sorry K-Land.

Friday, March 09, 2007


In memory of the recent passing of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, I offer the following:

A men's wear shop sign in Apgujeong seems a fittingly absurd epitaph for the anti-consumerist social critic.

Life's new design?

Whoever has the most suits at the end, wins.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Hair apparent

Sorry for the lack of posting lately. I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed with work and K-life. This too shall pass. Over the weekend though I at least let some weight off my scalp, if not my shoulders.

About 7 months worth...

I had a haircut last August before my Visa was processed, and that about gets you up to speed.

Saturday was my first haircut in Korea, since arriving on September 16th. It wasn't that I didn't realize I needed one. I had enough innocent teasing from the kids to know I was getting more than slightly unkempt, i.e. "Teacher's hairstyle is bvfuuuuuunk!!" The sound being one of a small bomb going off, complete with hand gestures and wiggling finger shrapnel arching out in both directions.

My procrastination was because off all the horror stories I'd read on ESL message boards of uncompromising barbers basting people's heads with their clippers and leaving many horrified expats with lame bowl cuts, and a style best dubbed "the sad sheep."

On arriving in the neighborhood back in September, my boss recommended a place near our school where I could get a cut for 5000 won (5ish bucks). He was very enthusiastic about the good deal I could get, but I was more worried about quality knowing that at home 5 bucks is too cheap even for the army base barbers and the skittish Beauty School newbs, with lazy eyes and shady pasts.

I turned to advice from Shane (as I'm want to do), who warned me implicitly to avoid all generic barber pole jobbies, after the traumatizing experience of getting both the worst haircut of his life, and being made to wash his own hair afterwards. That's what 5 bones gets ya— plus a punch-card for yer 10th one free!

Being "affluent" English teachers, we headed to a neat little shopping street near Jamsil in Seoul, and on to a European-named Salon that Shane's ladyfriend recommended. It proved to be a real winner.

We went inside expected (having even been called ahead about, after we had a stupidly difficult time finding the place that was right in front of us the whole time) and were greeted by two smiling hair dressers, once of which took me to a small locker room to hang up my coat, safely store my shopping bags and outfit me with a gown type deal. No one in the place spoke any English, but I conveyed the cut I wanted with the picture taken from my Foreigner I.D card, which had a passport photo from the time of my last cut, way back. I was something of a spectacle with my loose association of curls, and I think the woman who cut my hair had fun with them. My worries melted away with each snip. I even got a free glass of delicious peach iced-tea while being worked on. Shane got two, and he was just a spectator. Service!

After the great shearing I was very pleased with what she had done, but was a little confused when she wheeled over a strange looking rubber-spiny contraption.

"Shampoo," she explained.

I thought it was a little odd, since they had already washed my hair before the cut. Were they going to do it again right here in the chair?

She held aloft the device.

It sort of looked like the love-child of a power sander and one of those vacuum cleaner attachments that you never really use.

As it turned out, it was a scalp massager, and I was promptly lathered with zesty lemon shampoo and felt the rubber nibs jive over my brain for a good 2 or 3 minutes. It was great!

After the deed was done, I stood before the mirror carefully washed, cut, massaged and styled. The hair dresser smiled and said something in Korean which I didn't understand, but I think was along the lines of: "you look much better with short hair!"

The cost was 20, 000 but compared with fancy treatment back home, $20 is still a bargain.

After having made you read all that, you deserve a before and after. As an added bonus, I'll give them cheeky titles:

"Loup Garou."


"Apostle of Tousle."

The kids hate the new cut.

HATE it.

I think they mostly enjoyed the novelty of me having big, funny, curly, clowny hair for them.

Monday at school was like shock and awe. There were nooks and corners of many wide eyeballs I had never seen before, for lack of such profound surprise.

"Oh Teacher! You cut the hair!?"

"Well I didn't steal it off of someone else," I thought.


"Is very ugly!!!!!"


"You look like grandfather!"

Jeez. Tough crowd.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Today is Garbage Day, act accordingly

When comfort with language is more important than strict repetition, sometimes a little classclownism helps the learning process along.

That's bullshit of course, but it certainly makes a numb, classroom silence into something better resembling enjoyment.

I've written in brief about moon-faced, Star Craft obsessed, lovable doofus par excellence, Joseph. Sometimes his antics are all that disassociates teaching from the tedium of the grave. I exaggerate of course, because it's fun.

Joseph is the kind of palooka who will forget to bring his book to class, then when I make him a photocopy of the single page we'll be studying, put it on the table in front of him and open my mouth to start speaking, he'll raise his hand, and with a goofy grin say:

"Teacher? What page-y?"

Starting to get a picture?

He does it for laughs, and plays up the bone-headedness that all class clowns make the foundation of their routines.

Tonight was one of those last-class-on-a-Friday-so-let's-power-through-this-and-go-home kind of mentalities all across the board. If we all had laser eyes, the classroom clock would be but a smoking memory for all the longing stares.

However many things would be different if we all had laser eyes, so let's move on.

We finally reached the end of our canned textbook conversation where slick 80's guy Paul gives his permed teacher Mrs. Martinez a box of candy ("Oh! Candy! I love candy! Thank you very, very, much Paul!" blah blah blah...) and we packed up to go home. Joseph had left his photocopied sheet in two deliberate halves on the table.

"Teacher! I rip the paper!" he announced, perhaps expecting a medal.

His be-backpacked back (damn fine writing...) was facing me as I crumpled up the torn page into a ball.

"I have a present for you Mrs. Martinez," I said to him as I unzipped his backpack and stuffed the ragged paper inside.

"Happy Garbage Day."

He wheeled around and let out a kind of moan-laugh combination.

"Oh, candy! I love candy! Thank you very, very much Teacher!" he said holding the ex-worksheet in his hand like a box of bonbons.

We had a giggle and I headed back to the teacher's room to put away my books and get my umbrella.

Joseph and his chum made the universal "free at last!" boyish dash down the stairs, calling out as they ran:

"Goodbye Teacher! Happy Garbage Day!"