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

Friday, June 29, 2007

Phallus or them

How can I possibly maintain any kind of composure when my kids are so unintentionally hilarious?

"Teacher!" Joey said this afternoon, "Why some penis [said 'pen-is'] is have a moustache [said 'moose-tache']?"

Ridiculous Freudian images bounced around in my head all day:

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar— unless of course it has a moustache.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Summertime in the Void

The Korean summer is making itself very apparent.

The days are getting steadily more humid, and you seldom see a closed window on the huge high-rise apartments.

Next to most residential telephone poles is a squirming bag of compost, which is mostly watermelon rind.

Umbrellas are out in full force, and won't go away after the rainy season. Sun umbrellas and huge black sun visors are staples of the older Korea lady's outside gear.

Ice cream is everywhere and at all times, often bought by the armload from convenience store freezers. There's no special Korean word for ice cream (that I know of...) so "ice creamu" is a catch-all term for any plastic-wrapped ice related treat— freezies et al.

When I make a trip to the bank, I'm suspicious about half of the people sitting inside aren't waiting for service, but sneakily enjoying the air-conditioning, like the way we used to loiter in the frozen food isles of supermarkets as kids.

I don't have air-conditioning.

I think I need another fan, or four.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I almost forgot...

Today I sawr [sic] a weasel.


Paul and the gang have a real talent for asking me strange questions about the outcome of wildly improbable battles.

It all started back in the winter with simple animal vocabulary books.

Obviously "vs." is immediately recognizable to most kids, but no one before me had explained that it stands for "versus", so the initial questions were along the lines of:

"Teacher! Moose vs. fox, who win?"

It was literally like this with every creature we would come across, and Joey in particular was curious which docile herbivore might knock another's teeth out.

As the kids have gotten better, their questions have become more... let's say esoteric.

"Teacher! Electric blanket fight fart, who win?"

Along those sort of lines.

Today I said we didn't have any more time for ridiculous fighting questions.

Paul couldn't resist a coup de grace.

"Teacher! Ridiculous fight horrible, who win?"

"Adjectives can't fight each other Paul."

"Adjective fight noun, who win?"

"No parts of speech can fight each other."

"Speech fight writing, who win?"

As you can see, it's these kids that give me the strength to handle the rest, some of which I'm sure make a habit of muttering disparaging remarks about me in Korean under their breath daily.

In my one-on-one class with Paul he wrote the definition of the word "challenge" as this:

"Conan the Barbarian and Jack Bauer fight."

He picks up the most random stuff. Jeremy was talking about 24, and those Chuck Norris-esque jokes but with Jack Bauer's name instead (like, "Jack Bauer could strangle you with a cordless phone") so Paul insisted on knowing all about this Jack Bauer character. I mentioned one of his random drawings looked like Conan the Barbarian, and he needed to know all about it. This kid is obviously learning oodles from me. Now I just need to hammer home the proper grammatical pattern: "If __ fought __ who would win?" Or is that more or less like requesting an umbrella during water torture?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Excessive use of exclaimation marks in Indian poetry on convenient lassies (not Scottish girls)

Today I bought a pineapple lassi drink from the convenience store down the street. It had a poem written on it:

"You are the evening cloud floating in the sky of my dreams.

I paint you and fashion you ever with my love longings.
You are my own, my own dweller in my endless dreams!
Your feet are rosy-red with my heart's desire, gleaner of my sweetest songs!
Your lips are bitter-sweet with my wine of pain."

-Tagore (1861-1941)

Pretty heavy for a yogurt drink.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Spare the antenna

One of my twice-a-week classes is with two girls who are both at a very beginner level. They are really delightful though and we've worked up quite a rapport. They are the kind of kids who think I'm hilarious, so I can clown around a bit for them and put on a show.

They are also the only two who regularly call me "Sam-Sam." I think it's sweet. The series of books I teach from mostly is called "English Time" and features the recurring characters Digger and Max. They are two dogs who do a Bert & Ernie odd couple routine at the end of each unit. They usually revolve around Max eating too much, and Digger saying his catch-phrase "Oh Max!"

When I do something in an exaggerated ridiculous way, like drop my marker then kick it away when I bend down to pick it up, the girls laugh and say "Oh Sam-Sam!"

It's a pretty fun class.

The other day however, something happened that kind of disturbed me.

It was business as usual and I was pointing at some vocabulary words with a makeshift pointer which was really a confiscated antenna from a hand-held radio. I'd flick it here and there and pretend to conduct an invisible orchestra and things like that.

While I was occupied the girls swiped an extra pencil each from my cup and began drumming on the table. It was funny for a short time, then I plucked the pencils from their hands and they whined as if I was plucking feathers. As I made the way back round the circular table, one of the girls effectively "lost" her original pencil.

"Teacher! I'm no pencil!"

"You have no pencil?"


"Where did it go?"

"...I'm no pencil!"

"That's okay you don't need a pencil."

"I'm no pencil!"

"Yes, but you don't need a pencil. No writing."

I crossed my forearms in an X— the definitive "No" pose.

This same exchange went on for longer than it should have, and I got a little bit frustrated. The girl got out of her seat and walked up to me with her two hands held together at about the height of my chest.

I took it to be an asking gesture.

"You don't need a pencil," I said again.

"No, no!" she said, and pointed to my little metal antenna.

"You want this?"

"No, no!" she said, and mimed taking the thing out of my hand, hoisting it high above her head and bringing it down hard on her palm.

I was shocked.

"No, no!" it was my turn to say.

I know that corporal punishment is a presence in public schools, so many of the students come to expect it from any teacher— even Sam-Sam. She obviously thought she had done something wrong by jokingly hiding the pencil in her desk, and had come to me to receive her punishment. Her expression hadn't changed. She didn't appear concerned about having her hands hit with a small metal rod. She looked resigned. That's just the way it was.

When I told her no, she actually protested.

"Please!" she said, now holding her hands together in a gesture that couldn't be misread.

I actually took me some time to get across that I wasn't now or ever going to hit her, especially for something like hiding a pencil. Eventually she accepted it and we got on with our class, but for awhile she was obviously upset that the strict power structure she was used to didn't fly here. Like suddenly learning black is white... but sometimes it's black.

But I find it sad that learning you aren't going to be hit by your teacher is what causes the sudden shock to the status quo.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Bidet's the day?

My haircut has been much better received by the students this time around. Kids are naturally fickle and blunt and love to be cheeky when they know they can get away with it. So they'll combine simple words and gestures to insinuate that you look like spaghetti vomit and things like that.

The first wee one to see me today was Young-chang who is nothing short of adorable with his little perm and big curious eyes.

"Oooooh!" he said peeking into the teacher's room.

"Who are you!?"

"Don't you remember me?" I laughed.

"Teacher! *insert hair-cutting gesture* is beautiful! You are prince!"


Throughout the day I was told my "style" (the be-all personal commodity) was "cool, and very best." I was also compared to Spiderman, Harry Potter, David Beckham and a host of others. Some compliments, naturally, were simply bribery towards leaving the class for a drink of water.

"Teacher! You are handsome, and Superman and Batman and Spiderman. Okay!? I'm going water..."

Reminds me of a childhood note to my mother, to the tune of: "I love you and you love me right? Right. I would like to go bowling."

In other news, I've decided a moratorium on electronic dictionaries in class is required. The ability to find the English equivalent of anything Korean that pops into their heads generally gives more in the way of inappropriate words than anything else.

Today I got this from the relatively harmless "I get along well with............... because............"

"I get along well with penis because it is very clean."

Too much information my darlings...

Monday, June 18, 2007

Fancy Bruises

On Sunday Shane and I went out to the "Rodeo Road" district near Jamsil (not to be confused with the swanky Rodeo Drive in Apgujeong, which subsequently should not to be confused with the actual Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills.)

The occasion was my second and last haircut in Korea, and to do a little shopping as the fancy struck me.

Suffice to say, fancy got in a nice right hook. A couple.

Wanna see the bruises?

One of the dangerous things about wandering around in Seoul with a wallet full of cash is not the chance you might get robbed. Seoul (and Korea in general) is incredibly safe. No, the danger lies in your impulse to buy all the ridiculous things you stumble across, instead of candidly snapping a picture and later exclaiming to family and friends: "Look! This actually exists!" With a wallet full of Sejongs, each blending into the next, you find yourself suddenly able to say: "Look! This actually exists! And I own it..."

It can be a bad situation, but at least I'll have plenty of gifts.

First up is my new favorite magazine (from Japan):

It's essentially a Japanese glossy music and style magazine, but it seriously has the greatest name ever, and well deserving of an exclamation mark. It leaps right out at you off the rack...

Shane suggested the name might actually be pronounced "Bar-fout!" but I refuse to be swayed.

Next up is an item that Paul himself already owns, and Shane noticed before at a booksellers expo, being advertised by a three-foot-high plush dung in a mortarboard:

"Why? Dung."

A "science comic" on the the process of digestion and the history of human feces, as narrated by an anthropomorphic turd with strange little antennae.

A must have for any respectable member of the Global Village.

Shane bought this initially, but sensibly had regrets several hours after the purchase. I snapped it up at a handsome discount, figuring such a thing really did have to been seen to be believed.

Lastly is a ridiculous t-shirt found in a vast sea of ridiculous t-shirt street vendors:

I just can't grasp what ties together even a few of the many elements of this shirt. An "Armadillo Christmas" is bizarre enough as it is, but has the world really had occasion to celebrate seven of them? Do the festivities somehow involve "Quality Paint"? Am I already thinking ten thousand times harder about this than the designer's Mad libs-style production formula allows?

In any case friends, here are the photos so now you know these things actually exist. If you ever need something more tangible, look me up, because for better of worse, these things actually exist, and I own them...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Armadillo Christmas

Tomorrow: photos of recent ridiculous purchases.

The title is a hint.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


“Now you understand the Oriental passion for [ice cream bars]" said Japhy. "Remember that book I told you about the first [bar] is joy, the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy.”

- Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


This evening as Paul and I were leaving the school to get our dinner, we got gassed. Us and a pack of high school students who ducked inside the glass door entry way of our building to avoid the fumes. It was coming from a passing truck. You'll find out why that's funny at the end.

The truck was driving through the city streets, blasting out some kind of mass insect repellent. It would have been funny because the way the gas was shooting from the contraption on the back made it look like the truck was being propelled by a bunch of fire extinguishers. It turned out being not funny because we got it right in the face.

The smell was like a nasty chemical bouquet of OFF! and the vapor from boiled Dettol (I would imagine.)

We took shelter behind glass until the truck had gone.

"What was that?" I asked Paul.

"Teacher!" he said delighted, "It is a farting situation! Don't you know? That was a fart truck!"


Monday, June 11, 2007

Mr. Beefly

Paul has a new name.

It is the greatest name ever.

He has absorbed the word ridiculous, and now he uses it at every available opportunity. It has become less of a novelty and more something he aspires to.

He wants to be "ridiculous boy."

As such, while I was teaching him some simple writing techniques, he signed his short essay "Pauly Beefly." Later amended to "Ridiculous Pauly Beefly."

That's Beefly as in relating to beef, not like bee+fly.

I totally lost it.

"Paul, why Beefly? What is Beefly?

He grinned.

"Teacher, it is just ridiculous word."

The "essay" he was writing was about the ninja frog Dororo, from the cartoon Keroro which I mentioned before.

He looks like this:

Anyway, the essay was insightful, and ended with the conclusion that Dororo "is a cool brain, and handsome beefly."

I'm now curious about the implications of this new word "beefly." Is it an adjective or a noun? A muscular situation or a redneck culinary evaluation?

"How's them tenders?"

"They's too beefly..."

"Aw spit."

One thing is for certain. It is ridiculous.

Paul has that in spades.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Fresh & Minty

Time for a cool new summer look.

Bonus Milk

In Korean grocery stores I frequently see little "bonus" items taped to products to make them more desirable. Looking through the refrigerator aisle of the local K-Mart or i-Mart (but not E-Mart, they're too classy, read: close to 'A') you see these boil-bag spaghetti dinners with cans of Pepsi stuck to the side with packing tape. Also there will be 1L cartons of milk with small packages of processed cheese slices attached.

It's a fairly reasonable assumption that someone who likes milk would not be opposed to bonus cheese, at no additional cost to them. Pepsi and instant spaghetti obviously compliment each other nicely. This is just the small grocery chain's answer to "service", like when the swanky department stores give you a free box of instant coffee tubes when us bean-heads shell out $24 for a bag of Columbian.

Who doesn't like free stuff? Why have one thing when you can have two? Who cares if the second thing is something you wouldn't have necessarily paid for in the first place. The store obviously already new that and liquidated it accordingly.

This is not a consumer philosophy I subscribe to. I definitely don't disregard sales, especially when they involve certain ice cream bars, but on the whole, I just want to buy what I want to buy. I'm a very single-minded shopper.

Working under that set of values, it becomes hard to avoid "bonus milk."

This is an interesting phenomenon where EVERY available carton of your preferred brand of milk comes with a mini bonus carton taped to the side. Sure, it gives the illusion of added value, and makes you feel like something of a milk tycoon, but I go through milk slowly enough as it is. A splash in my coffee from time to time, or a bowl of cereal is all I ask of it. In fact I'm sure I need to reevaluate my casual relationship with milk, since its not one for waiting around until you feel like using it. It's a spiteful creature that I think actually curdles faster if ignored. This makes bonus milk a problem, albeit not enough of one to make me switch to less "fully-featured" brands like Einstein or ESL Milk. I'm a Seoul Milk man myself.

In conclusion, this is probably the most asinine anecdote I've ever written, but this is what I think about while alone in Korea.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The View

This is the view off two sides of the mountain near my apartment. Even on the scenic side, you can still see the layer of haze under the blue sky:

This is the other side:

Now here's Mahone Bay:


Friday, June 08, 2007

That potato-head kid

Despite the cultural grudge against the Japanese that is bred into many Korean kids, it could never keep them from watching Japanese cartoons. No amount of indoctrination can keep kids from cartoons of any persuasion. That would be like dropping a steaming plate of Yaki soba in front of a starving Korean patriot and expecting them not to swallow it— pride and all.

The most popular are the omnipresent Yu-Gi-Oh! (with accompanying card game), Keroro Gunso (think Invader Zim meets Keroppi, where alien frogs who intended to overthrow the Earth are instead foiled by an average family) and of course, the squealing, bulbous-headed Crayon Shin-Chan, known to the Koreans only as Jjangu:

This character drives me nuts.

The fact that he is everywhere, and that I have no way to judge him but by how he looks and sounds, makes it that much worse. I'm sure like most Japanese cartoons, it's well-scripted, story-boarded, and squirming with cultural quirks like a unagi buffet. But given the fact that its obviously not broadcast with English subtitles, it takes on the more unfortunate qualities of a mosquito in the ear.

The Korean name Jjangu (짱구) apparently means "protruding forehead" so the kids always lose it when I refer to him, in Peanuts fashion, as "that potato-head kid."

It assumes the "Dr. Katz Professional Therapist" quality of animation that is irritating because it is bad on purpose. The fact that Jjangu himself seems like a weiner, dubbed by a voice actor who is whiny-like-only-Koreans-know-how, doesn't help.

Shane understands the pain.

I can't really go into much detail about why I find this creature so annoying. Maybe this is the same sensation felt by the parents of our generation who thought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the stupidest thing they had ever heard of, and were forced to endure their toothy figure-8 smirks on toys, Halloween masks, pajamas, lunch boxes, action figures et al. for the better part of a childhood.

Apparently Adult Swim in the US airs a more adult-oriented English version, which takes advantage of frequent fecal plot-lines and Jjangu's tendency to drop his pants and wave his arse about.

Cultural grudges aside, these are things we can all share. If so, Paul is preaching the gospel.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

There are Ngels in your Angles

Here is a sample of the most ribald Korean late-night TV has to offer. As far as I can gather, this show is called "TV Ngels" and takes place on a sexy beach nowhere near Korea. The contestants are sexy girls locked in mortal, yet sexy combat, in a reality-TV situation where they compete for some guy's attention by acting... sexy.

The show seems to represent everything that I think is decisively unsexy about Korean popular culture, while attempting to be the exact opposite.

Since virtually no English literature exists about the show online, I can only go by what I observe. The deal, as it seems, is that this guy is equipped with some sort of device with which to measure the sexiness of the soft-core stripteases the girls act out. The rating system seems similar to the US Terror Alert Level, running the gamut from a yellow bashful beagle, to an orange pig who can barely believe his own sexy fortune, finishing with a red monkey who is so overcome by sexiness that his eyes have rolled completely back into his head, in a sexy coup de grace.

Shane tells me that the device is actually rigged up so each stage springs corresponding to the guy's heart-rate. I think that's pretty intense because it eliminates the possibility of pity points, which would seriously undermine the quality of the sexy, currently being flung about like a big, wet fish.

The thing that I find completely drains the sexy from this pointless exercise, is the constant whooping of the two hosts.

"Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Ahhhhhhhh! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

Who could possibly think sexy thoughts with those two hemorrhaging lawnmowers going off?

And what's with the riff from "Paranoid android" that plays like 3/4's of the way through? Nothing says sexy like sadly staring at your shoes.

Somewhere down in the crust of the Earth under the Korean peninsula, Confucius is summoning up an earthquake to put a stop to all this misdirected sexy energy.


Monday, June 04, 2007

Another kind of Madness

Korea has us beat (badly) on at least three fronts.

The first is obviously personal technology like cellphones, electronic dictionaries and portable TVs.

The second is cuteness, but the kind of cuteness that's for sale. I'm talking about notebooks, erasers, and stationary (Dongchimee notably excluded...) that are saturated with bashful clouds, cheerful rainbows and adorable puppy eyes so swollen with moist tears of friendship that they're in danger of popping like a overripe lychee fruit.

The third and perhaps least expected, is domestic ice cream treats. Obviously handmade Italian ice cream can't be beat, but if you put an Orange Creamsicle, arguably the apex of the North American frozen treat freezer, against its natural Korean adversary, the Creamsicle would meet its maker as a neglected, curdled puddle.

Two words people: Honeydew Ice-Cream-Bar.

Shut up, it counts as two.

Regardless, these things are amazing.

Worthy expats should already know about this 50 cent taste sensation. If not, you have marching orders for your neighborhood Family Mart. The summer has only just begun, and already I have had a vision of how I will survive— it involves a white sheet tent, an open fridge, and 1,000,000 won worth of ice cream bars.

Madness will come naturally, and without resistance.

Sort of like this (at 6:55), but without the zero G.

Bring it on humidity. I have my beloved ice cream bar.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Comrade of the Monsters

Every week I go to the bank down the street for some pocket money and in so doing pass a Noraebang called the "Young-Gary Musig [sic] Park." It's in the basement level of a cavernous-looking building and above the sign outside is a large, plastic bust of Godzilla.

Or so I thought...

I figured the proprietor of the "Musig Park" (the g and k sounds are interchangeable in Korean, so to some it's kimbap, and others it's gimbap) was a fellow named Young, maybe with the English first name Gary.

As I learned recently from Joey, "Yonggary" is Korea's guy-in-a-rubber-suit monster movie gift to the world.

Here's the handsome fella in his original form:

I'm quite delighted I came across this information, since I'm a big fan of all things B-movie. Inspired by the Toho's Godzilla franchise, Korea coughed-up "Taekoesu Yonggary" in 1967. Yong is the Korean word for dragon, and Yonggary appears accordingly, only with a prominent laser-shooting nose horn, an appetite for gasoline, and an apparent weakness to ammonia precipitate. According to IMDB reviews, this weakness brings about one of the most grizzly, and realistic rubber-monster demises in the genre, what with the melting, the chemical burns and the hey-hey-hey it hurts me.

As it turns out, at the same time Godzilla 2000 was being produced, Korean director Shim Hyung-rae, produced a flashy new Yonggary in 1999, with an all-American cast, English scrip, and eyes for foreign distribution:

This is exactly how Yonggary appears above the entrance to the "Musig Park" so I'm inclined to believe that the owners bought a set piece in a studio fire-sale after the movie obviously bombed (Korea has since figured out how to do monster movies quite well).

After a little digging I discovered a the far more interesting story behind the North Korean monster movie "Pulgasari." It's generally well-reported that the Dear Leader is a movie fan. As the story goes, he had his secret service abduct South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok, and make him Pulgasari, where a jailed pacifist blacksmith dies in prison but first makes a tiny doll out of rice from his daughter, which, on contact with blood, turns into a metal hungry dragon that rebels against the tyrant King but then turns on the villagers. One scene even features 10,000 extras from the Korean People's Army.

So now we have a guy-in-a-rubber suit championing himself as a state-sponsored-metaphor-for-unchecked-capitalism, a sub-genre of "Gojira-rama" which you can understand has not had much in the way of follow-up...

As a bit of trivia, the Japanese actor who played Godzilla from 1984 on, Kenpachiro Satsuma, was also recruited into donning the Pulgasari suit. Satsuma was apparently critical of the Hollywood CGI Godzilla (I know you're wondering... HOW!?) and was pleased at Pulgasari finally being shown outside North Korea, more than a decade after it's 1985 release.

In my searching I found this gem of info at the IMDB trivia listing for 2004's "Gojira: Fainaru uôzu":

"As a treat to die-hard Godzilla fans, the namesake title monster from the much-maligned Hollywood box-office fiasco, Godzilla (1998) (directed by Roland Emmerich), makes an appearance in this film as Zilla (or Jira, short for Gojira), an assassin monster engineered by the aliens from Planet X to kill Godzilla. When director Ryuheu Kitamura announced this at a press conference in late August, he said that he named the Hollywood version Zilla for his film, because he felt that the 1998 film "has taken the 'God' out of Godzilla." The fight between Godzilla and Zilla takes place in Sydney, Australia, and is computer-generated, just like in the Hollywood movie."


Those with time to kill, and a high tolerance for terrible audio and video quality can watch Pulgasari here in its entirety.

I guess you never know what you might find walking down a street in Korea...