Saturday, March 23, 2013

"I Cannot Support!"

Pak Jae Ick is a skinny, humorous man who reminds me inexplicably of my college soccer coach whose name is Kim Jong Il (not related to Kim Jong Um or his daddy). I am a great fan of Park Jae Ick partly because he is the only Korean colleague I have who has willingly chatted with me and partly because said college coach he resembles memorably encouraged one of our players, “It’s okay, Ribbie. Next time you break her leg!” Sometimes I imagine Pak Jae Ick encouraging me with those same words after I finish with my more frustrating freshmen.

Consequently, when he recommended I tutor Keum Jin Woo, I was “impressed” as my students like to write. They really mean something like “eager to do something because my heart was touched,” but as far as I can tell there’s no English translation for that. More later about how much more in tune Koreans are with their feelings.

I walked across our campus’ dirt soccer field the next day, found Keum Jin Woo’s office and knocked. I was greeted with a short, small, elderly professor with a warm handshake and a friendly, “You can call me Jin.” A squirrel-like man in the best way possible, Jin Woo abounds with well-contained mirth and complex thoughts, communicated in a reedy wobble of a voice.

He is also a wealth of information about all sorts of Korean culture:

“It is ancient Eastern medicine ideas. Yeomso. Yeomso . . . ah . . . you know?” I shook my head; he rifled through a dictionary. “Goat! Yes. Ancient Eastern medicine idea. Goat good for women, to eat. It’s a kind of seasonal food. Goat for women’s hormones. For men, chueotang.” We looked it up. “Mudfish soup. Good for men.”

“When I was in high school, army was compulsory subject.”
“Wait—really? What did you do in class?”
“Korean high school is three years. First year do shooting and—” He gestured blocking a punch with his forearms. “—hand-to-hand fighting. Second year do—” Again, a gesture and small game of charades[1] before we figured out: “—weapons assembly. Because war with Vietnam at that time, so . . . situation . . .”
“Was tense?” I suggested.
Ne [yes]. The girls had to practice nursing.”
 “Wow. Fourteen-years old—were you boys scared because of . . . ?”
“No.” He chuckled—a squeaky, staccato cough-like chuckled from his whole, tiny torso. “We thought fun!”

Jin Woo teaches in Kosin’s design department and publishes two articles a year in Korean journals. His current research project being how design can be used in nonprofit governmental aid-type projects in economically-struggling countries. He likes to hike, dabbled in marathons a few years back, and has traveled widely with his wife. She and his two daughters live in American now; Jin Woo visits during both the winter and summer vacations, but he turned down a professorship in America because he didn’t feel his English was up to the task.

This week, the cost of health care came up.

Jin Woo said, “I was in Korean neighborhood in Chicago and I saw advertisement. It said for homesick trip back to Korea included hotel in home-town, some food, and plane back to Chicago—and! And medical check! Because it’s so cheap here. And Koreans get homesick.”

I asked if some people came to Korea for plastic surgery too, and Jin Woo said yes, citing a newscaster who, that very morning, had castigated Busan for only drawing ¼ of tourists, including those coming for health and appearance reasons. Since one of my students had flaunted her recent epicanthoplasty, I naturally pursued the subject and asked Jin Woo if his daughters wanted plastic surgery.

“First daughter wants—” He pointed to his teeth.
“—orthodontia,” I supplied, pointing unnecessarily and empathetically at my own orthodontia-ed teeth.
“And second daughter wants to be taller.”
We both laughed. He is a very short little man. I can imagine his Korean wife is also physically diminutive.
“But I—I cannot support!” he squeaked, spreading his arms wide in an open-armed shrug.

I hope when I’m Jin Woo’s going-on-venerable age, his shy yet exuberant chuckle is one of many memories about Korea that stays with me.
Going on four weeks now without a functioning stove. In order to cook eggs last week I lit the candle using a match. I blew that match out and then re-lit it using the candle and holding it with the tweezers. The final step was to hold the match a couple feet about the stove as I turned on the gas and dropped the match. Only one finger was burned in the process. But I ran out of matches this week.  What does this have to do with Jin Woo? Nothing. But writing an entire blog post about my stove woes seemed silly and yet, publishable.  So.
This has even less to do with Jin Woo, but it sums up what I consider to have been a perfect Saturday morning involving sun, letters, pinterest, coffee and not getting out of bed.

[1] I’m pretty sure I’m a god at guessing in charades these days. Seriously. You want me on your team at parties.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Professional Chukku

I’m not sure if it’s Korea or living abroad in general, or me in general, but I’ve recently been getting exactly what I didn’t expect. In America, if I want to go to the grocery store, it pans out pretty  much like I imagine: I get in my car, I drive for ten minutes, I buy too many cookies and not enough fruit, get back in my car, and go home. If I need to pay my bills, I pay them. If I want to play soccer, I go to any old field and shoot around for an hour.

I’ve tried to pay my bills twice today—the first time I’ve tried since November—and failed (no one was there and might not be there tomorrow; who knows?). The last time I played soccer by myself I got roped into coaching three fourteen-year-old boys for an hour in exchange for a convenience-store coffee. Today I had to hop three buses to find my local grocery because the normal bus drove by, lights off.

Busan Asiad Stadium, home of the I'Park!
Yesterday I tried to go to a Korean soccer game. My friend Candice messaged me with news of free tickets and I jumped on it, dragging my friend Kim along as well. We showed up a little late and had to sit on the endline, but we were close to the players on the field and even closer to a crowd of rabid teenage girls screaming and singing their support of our team, Busan I’Park. Like most girls in Korea, they didn’t seem to have much understanding or interest in the game itself, but the sport provided them an excuse to scream which, Kim explained, was all they really wanted. Their energy was ferocious. If North Korea ever attacks, I know who I’m hiding behind and it’s not the conscripted South Korean army of man-boys in dorky glasses.

Sometime during the first half I noticed a distinguished-looking gentleman cheering along with the girls—or attempting too. He was grinning and clapping on the wrong beats, obviously unfamiliar with the cheers, but enthusiastically so. During halftime, he approached us and asked me and Kim, in very slow, careful Korean, “Is the soccer game fun?”

This was back before the game when we figured this
was as close as we'd get to the players. HA!
I understood, but I looked at Kim to answer, since she’s the Korean of the two of us. Kim, who never hesitates, hesitated. Then she answered, (in Korean), “Uh . . . yes? I’m Korean!”

Confusion banished—maybe he’d assumed Kim was foreign because her English was so fluent?—they were off to the races chatting. I’m a student—this is my professor. Yes, she teaches English. She’s from Chicago—she loves soccer. I smiled and nodded at the parts I understood and accepted the business card he offered me that said, “From the office of the mayor of Haeundae.”

We took pictures together while the boys played (no one besides me seemed to be watching the game). We watched a video he’d had his secretary make for his grandson who lives in New York. We got invited to follow them after the game and meet the players.

You know, just because.

The girls in front of us screaming “ ,” literally, “Busan is the best!” might as well have been a Greek chorus.

Kim and I took some pictures with the players and basked in their sweaty, exhausted victory (Busan I’Park rarely beats a team as well-ranked as Seoul FC) before walking the mayor to his private car and saying goodbye. Earlier in the game he told Kim to text him so we could all meet up for the next game (in two weeks). Kim said she’d like to, but she’s a student and we got the tickets for free. The mayor told us not to worry about that. No joke.

I have no expectation.s

Ladies and Gentlemen, the mayor of Haeundae! He said one of the main reasons he comes to the games is he likes the energy the young ones have to cheer.

"Busan is best!" Kim and I didn't get the memo that this was a serious picture. Oops!
"Really, Korea?" "Why not."
Meet and greet with the coach.

This player, #4 Park Jong-Woo, is famous for the scoring the winning goal over Japan to give Korea the bronze medal this past London Olympics. After scoring, Park lifted a protest sign "Dokdo is our land." A write-up of the kerfuffle is here. What is not mentioned in the article is that for part of Park's punishment, he still has to serve military service, which no other Olympic medal-winner has to do in Korea.

Goalkeeper Lee Beom-Yeong, who made four pretty dang nice saves this game to keep I'Park
ahead of Seoul through to the end. And of course, Kim, the awesome.

Kim hauled this guy off the line and asked to take a picture with him. I don't actually know his name or number, but he was very obliging. 

Feels great to feel short in Korea!

One of my former soccer teammates posts "WeirdhandWednesday" pictures every Wednesday. They crack me up because they aren't nearly as awkward as my hands are in every picture I take. Exhibit A, above.  These are some pro-level I'Park fans. I wish I'd thought to ask them to explain the offsides rule, just to see if they could.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


One of my favorite speaking class activities is making a life events timeline.

"Make a timeline of your life," I tell my students, "that includes the five most interesting, important events in your life. You have fifteen minutes: don't write your name on it until later!"

Fifteen minutes later I collect the timelines, number them, and tape them on the wall, sans names. Students have to read each other's timelines, ask questions, and figure out whose is whose. Then, when everyone's figured it out, names are written and I can give the kiddos credit for in-class participation.

It's a great activity for the first day or so of a conversation class. It's fun, low-pressure, and gives the students a chance to write and read before speaking. When they do speak, they have someone else's grammar from which to construct questions. It requires all sorts of students to speak to each other and it's a get-to-know you. On the teacher side of things,  I find out who can use the past tense reliably and who can't. Moreover, I learn about important events in my students' lives, helping me connect students to their English names.

It's also helpful with giving me perspective into the interesting, important events of my students' lives:

I worry about sex education in this country, but I'm happy at least that her
brother made the same list as her smart phone.

I enter the Kosin University: COURAGE.

I don't know what sick (or sike) tongue is, but I think the squiggles underneath are supposed to signify something pretty traumatic. 

This girl talks about her puppy in every class. And I have her four times a week. What's the Korean expression for "Please expand your vocabulary"?

Pictures are always appreciated, students. Always.

Sometimes I think my students don't realize English is a real language and that people will understand them when they speak it. 

Jason is okay now! Don't worry!

Ah yes. And there I am - right up there with new puppies, smart phones, and playing table tennis. YES.

Looking for Volunteers

In The Abolotion of Man which I have finally gotten around to reading, C.S. Lewis writes of the Tao. The Tao is a code of morality so universal as to be found all over the world and written indelibly on the heart of man. The Tao is not Judeo-Christian; it is not Muslim nor Norse, Egyptian, Roman, Hindu, Chinese, Babylonian , Greek—but all of those civilizations have ancient laws that support it. The Tao is the Natural Law of all peoples, not particularly rational, nor provable, but held naturally by all “rational” people.

At the end of the book is an appendix of examples from the abovementioned civilizations along with Native American cultures, Australian Aboriginal cultures, and so on. I was captured not so much with the uniformity of the commands[1], but with the beauty of the wording and how each culture said the same idea differently.

“Children, the old, the poor, etc. should be considered as lords of the atmosphere.”

“I have no caused hunger. I have not caused weeping.”
(Ancient Egyptian. Confessions of the Righteous Soul)

Love thy wife studiously. Gladden her heart all thy life long.”
(Ancient Egyptian)

“This first I rede thee: be blameless to thy kindred. Take no vengeance even though they do thee wrong.’
(Old Norse)

“…strain every nerve to live according to that best part of us, which being small in bulk, yet much more in its power and honor surpasses all else.”
(Ancient Greek)

“Anything is better than treachery.”
(Old Norse)

Vigor is valiant, but cowardice is vile.
(Ancient Egyptian)

Praise and imitate that man to whom, while life is pleasing, death is not grievous.

For part of my novel, I’m looking for ancient wisdom. Any old sayings or perhaps newer sayings are welcome as long as they point toward a Right way of living (of some kind). I’m being vague because most things are welcome: wisdom from any culture or tradition (poetry, perhaps? Eliot is great. Your favorite psalm?) that you find beautiful, inspiring, or profound.

Comment or message me or email me anything you’ve got: links, attachments, one sentence your mother always said to you when you were a child. As soon as you can or as late as it takes you—I’ll be collecting bits and pieces for a long time.

Next blog? How I met this guy              =====> 
and his teammate, the player who lost his Olympic bronze medal for proclaiming “Dokdo is our land” on a post-goal celebration in the London semis this summer.

[1] I’ve long believed Lewis’ point that there is a human moral code shared by most people: murder is bad; generosity is good; adultery is bad; respecting and providing for family is good.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Peer Review

In no uncertain terms, my university has announced that our contract renewal will be based upon our students reviews. I can think of stupider things to do (eat broccoli deep-fried in chocolate sauce, assign Elaine 46 students in one conversation class and 39 in a composition class, for instance). However, I’m going on to graduate school and not renewing my contract, so I don’t much care. Nevertheless, filled with curiosity, I read my student evaluations from last semester. Apparently, I didn’t teach my students well enough for them to write their evaluations in English, so I had to use Google translate.

And therein, I found a blog sitting, waiting. Judge me as you will:

English Literature Readings:

1.      Classes can have hope. 
2.      :D
3.      Professors like!
4.      Was a good time
5.      : D

Average rating: 4.24/5

Freshmen Conversation:

1.      Professor too too good
2.       Well done
3.       Painting because there are many difficulties. ((회화 means “conversation” as well as "painting," turns out) 
4.       Like Elaine professor

Average rating: 4.17/5

Global English
It was a good time for one semester. Well done
Perfect challenge and test my class as much as Professor does to me
Thanks for an unforgettable lesson.
thank you ~ ~ ^ ^
Professor contribute to lively classroom atmosphere was lively and good.
I love you Elaine
Good very Gute Elanine
Lacking we teach as well as many other makers suffer ^ ^
teacher very good! English is very fun! god bless you ~
Benefits have been
Salutary lesson was
suffering has
Was able to get a good knowledge.
La Lecture of the first foreign professor and fun and a lot of tension, but I hear it was painless.
Take courses on English as fear disappear
elaine!!!! I studied very hard this semester. Thank you. ♥
Did much trouble for one semester!
 _thank you. profassor_
Professor done
Elaine ~ I was very happy to meet you. Thank you.
bye ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Average rating: 4.4/5

my personal favorite?

"Suffering has"

But turns out, it's a mistranslation (like 90% of the above, probably). "Suffering has," my friend Kim informed me, means "thank you for suffering for us" rather than "I endured much suffering." Turns out that's what my students have been saying for the past year and a half and that's the phrase I was told to repeat after every soccer game:


My prayer at the beginning of this week was that I might be grateful for my job, and boy did my students step up to the task. They're an eclectic bunch (not a word I use to describe Koreans very often) and I'm pretty sure this semester will be something fantastic.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Trip to the DMZ

We were picked up in an unmarked black SUV by a friendly driver who asked if we had our passports. After that things got a lot more normal as we joined the larger tour - perhaps thirty people in all - and drove north of Seoul to the DMZ. It was pretty bleak up there: every inch of the landscape blended into a smoggy, foggy, grey and brown smudge.

Security checkpoints, armed guards, constant warnings to "not take a photo" encompassed the majority of the morning. The rest of it was our tour guide, Michelle, who spoke in rapid-fire English punctuated by giggly yeps and rights and mhmmyeps. Every sentence started with "anyway" and often continued with "okay, now we gonna," but Michelle was knowledgeable, well-organized, and efficient. She got us from A to Zed with martial efficiency that, I imagine, would impress even the North Koreans.

There are many take-aways from the DMZ. The first is that North Korea still scares me and should probably scare everyone. My friend Ina said it well yesterday: they could do anything. We don't know. As I taught my students the other day, they're cray-cray. It was the infiltration tunnel that did it for me. South Korea has found four tunnels built for a land invasion from NK to SK. North Koreans used dynamite to tunnel into South Korean territory and, when found out, denied having built the tunnels. When pressed they admitted to digging them, but only for purposes of searching for coal, citing the black smears on the wall that they themselves left there. The geology of the region brooks no doubt that there is absolutely no coal anywhere nearby. It is estimated that another 20 un-found tunnels riddle the border. Cray-cray.

No photos are allowed in the tunnels, but they have an overly cheerful statue just outside. Korea loves juxtaposition.
The second take-away was one of many promptings for my previous post about jeong. All the bridges and roads along the DMZ are called "Peace" or "Unification" or some-such. I have never spoken to a Korean who does not support reunification, despite the immense danger and cost to the South. As their rocky relationship has teetered between intensely hostile and almost friendly over the past 60 years, South Koreans have alternately armed themselves and built train stations to connect Seoul to Pyeongyang. Someday, the South Koreans hope, this train station will be up and running, connecting North to South and reunifying the country.

In the meantime, they hope and pray.

If you do ever get the chance to go to the DMZ, I recommend taking either the JSA tour or a tour to the 3rd infiltration tunnel. Afterwards, I highly recommend the Korean War Museum. It's not only free but it's also one of the best museums I've ever visited.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


They called me noona and held the very definition of trepidation in their eyes as they shuffled toward me.

Where are you from?
I’m from America.
Ah. How old are you?
I’m twenty-four.
Ah. You good!

This last was directed at my soccer playing abilities. I had been skirting the edges of the local soccer field, practicing my juggling on dribbling whilst watching soccer so bad only high school boys could play it so. When they took a break (from what, I’ll never know since they took turns running during their “game”), I took shots on goal.  At one point, three shuffling fourteen-year-old boys approached me.

After the above conversation, they ran away, their courage spent. But a minute later they were back.

Coach. Us. Talk. English. Soccer. Kachi. Coach!
Your coach wants me to talk to him?

We “talked,” exhausting my limited Korean and everyone else’s limited English skills and I spent the next hour training with three gun-shy little Korean boys. I may or may not be committed to every Sunday from 5 until 6 for eternity, but I’m not entirely certain. I will go back next week, mostly because all three boys have potential and because if I have left Korea having taught three Korean boys to shoot with both feet and the concept of passing the ball and then moving to open space, I will consider my stint here on the peninsula worth it.

("arubai" is probably misspelled, but it's a Korean word meaning "part-time job." The Japanese call it "arubaito," but I've no idea why. Nor do I know if the coach really meant the "job" part of arubai or if he meant "volunteer." Only time will tell.)

Jeong II

 “And this is the ‘Coram Deo’ sign,” I explained to Will, my cousin, who is visiting me. “In case you’re not up on your Latin it means Before the face of God. It’s Kosin’s motto. Sometimes when students ask each other really personal questions and someone clearly doesn’t want to answer, the first student will say ‘Coram Deo! You can’t lie! Coram Deo!’”

I’ve been doing a lot of talking this week, babbling on about the ins and outs about life in Korea. I wrote earlier that I think I’m becoming more and more Korean as the time goes by. I used to think I’d always be an outsider here, and while I wasn’t wrong about that, I probably wasn’t right either.

When I was in Singapore, Sanna said, “I wonder how you see the city, what it feels like to you. I can’t tell how outsiders see it anymore.” She grew up in Singapore and is probably more in tune with its people than I am with South Koreans, but I understand the sentiment now as my cousin walks around my city, sees my country, interacts with my people. I’m not right about them being mine, but I’m not wrong, either.

Because of jeong.

Biscuit, one of my Malaysian and very talkative students, said, “You know jeong? That is how I feel about Korea. A closeness with—a deep, feeling like—I have jeong with its people.”

Jeong is a Korean concept that reminds me a little of the Portuguese saudade. English tiptoes around the edges of both meanings, saying “fondness” for the former and “homesick” for the latter, neither true to the emotion of the original word. Sometimes it’s as if English is afraid to put on a name on something so personal.

I’m not sure exactly what Will took away from this week’s visit, but he spent the workweek watching me juggle random classes assigned seconds before they occurred, classroom mix-ups, last-minute meetings, and the general chaos that is the first week of the university school year. Sometime between running up and down the eight flights of stairs that make up my teaching environment, this conversation:
My cousin Will at a cozy burger joint in Seoul.  Poor fellow was too
full to finish his complementary soup, so I had to oblige.

Will: So, how many classes do you have today? Two? Three?
Me: Three. Ermmaybe.
Will: Maybe?
Me: I might have two classes at the same time. And I might have to cover someone else’s 10:00.
Will: Maybe. School motto.
Me: No, that’s Coram Deo, remember?
Will: Coram Deo. Right. Latin for ‘…maybe?’
Me: *snort* Latin for ‘what the hell is going on here’ more like.

I've got a golden ticket!
In fact, that might be Korea’s motto: Coram Deo. Chaos. Call it what you want, I both love and hate it. Hate it when my classes are thrust upon me in the form of 60-student class-lists and ripped from my fingers the next day after I’ve warmed the class to me. Love it when my students almost crucify their new teacher because they’ve become so—randomly—attached to me. Hate it when individual initiative gains you nothing but condescension. Love it when Lotte Department store sends me a $100 gift certificate wrapped Willy Wonka-golden-ticket-style. Hate it when responsible preparation never pays off. Love it when the owner of a burger joint randomly serves up two free cups of pumpkin soup.

Love it and hate it, familiarity and fondness: jeong.

Monday, March 4, 2013


On the way back from Singapore my laundry detergent leaked all over my bag. I’ve had grits leak into my bag and orange juice, once, and I think I much prefer the detergent. My bag smells great! The sniffer beagle at the airport gave me an appraising look when it noticed that I claimed the green backpack off the belt, as if to say, “Good on you.”

That is, if the dog speaks English like an Australian. If said dog speaks Korean, he said closer to, “잘한다!!!!! ㅋㅋㅋㅋ But I hope she spoke English.

I wish I could say I’m rambling more than normal here, but I’m not. Ever since I got back to Korea my mind has been . . . pollinating. Back in NZ, Sam and Pete’s farm was situated on some kind of bee highway. Further down the road sat a type of tree irresistible to the bees and former on the road was their hive; in between were me—protected by my hoodie hood—and the flower garden, inundated with the bzzbzzbzz of bees going back and forth, hither and yon to this flower, that flower, tree, to hive to flower.

That’s what my brain has been doing ever since I got back to Korea. To-do lists are wrapping their tentacles around my cerebellum, inhibiting my comprehension of being back in Korea, living my life here, riding on Daewoo buses and eating kimchi and ramyeon and spilling that blasted red stuff on a new shirt.

The first two days I was back I don’t think even once I sat down and focused on one thing for longer than twenty minutes. I was in Pollination Mode, preparing for the new semester, for my cousin’s imminent visit, and reinserting myself into Busan life.

After two and a half months of my daily worries consisting of how to get from point A to point B while feeding myself, the myriad of tasks was a little overwhelming. In a good way. Do bees get drunk from the pollen they carry? There is something intoxicating about busyness, competency, efficiency. Perhaps it’s not my drug of choice (COOKIES) but unlike my drug of choice (COOKIES), busyness gives me energy.

Manic energy, that is. It took two days before my brain stopped stuttering things like:

“Unpack. Bo-ring. Do laundry. Need money. Switch computers. Need key. Pay bills. Not open. Chocopies! Go to store. When? Now? No. Later? Yes. Now? Now lesson plan. Class what? Okay! All the clas—clean window too? With? Soju? Hmm. Letters. Post office. Closed. Hurple? Clean all the things—”

And then it stopped. The bees went back to New Zealand and the beagle stopped speaking Korean in my head. Enough things were finished and enough things were not that I was able to sink back into the grind where knowledge that “‘all the things’ will always need doing” is common. It helps that I’m memorizing Ecclesiastes 3 right now.

It also helps that I took a helluva Sabbath yesterday, hung out with my church family, ate choco pies, watched The Newsroom, and read some C.S. Lewis and Neil Gaiman.

The bees are humming again. It’s Monday, the first day of the semester, the first day of the craziest week of the year. According to Ecclesiastes 3, “There is a time for everything,” not “there is time for everything.” Strangely, I find that comforting.

I have a ton of pictures from my trip and I keep writing stuff that needs/has no pictures. So, I'm going to combine the two. Apologies for picture/post combos that make no sense.

Kid art project in KAWAKAWA. (best town in NZ)

The Hobbiton crew.

fat sheep. mwo?

Maori art.