Friday, April 19, 2013

A Giant Toughness

As it turns out, spirit animals are not a foreign concept to Korea. Talking with MoonSung (again, that's not her name but my native american nickname for her) I found out that it is commonly believed that there are two kinds of women: fox women and bear women.

Fox women are what we would call two-faced: they smile and agree with whatever you say to your face, but as soon as your back is turned, they act and speak according to what they really believe. Fox women are difficult to trust, but they are also more harmonious, usually more pleasing, and in Korea, they are preferred because of those traits.

Bear women, on the other hand, say what they think and don't bother with an official face. They cannot hide their heart if they have an opinion, but barrel forward. Blunt and honest, bear women won't surprise or betray you, but they make for a contentious working atmosphere.

MoonSung and I are both bears, but as an American, my bear-spirit is a strength. For MoonSung, as a Korean office worker, it is considered a fault (at least by her, overly critical high-achiever that she is) and one she wishes desperately to remedy.

That day at work, her bear personality had caused her to save the bacon of those who work in her department at the cost to her own reputation with her boss and her boss' boss.

"But you stood up for your people!" I objected. "You saved them from having to do someone else's work; you stood up for justice!" [I am young. I am naive. I am so American.]
"They don't have power. My boss has power. And he is a fox. I can't trust anyone at work."

A frustrating situation. I like MoonSung because she is a bear - I hate the foxes in Korea - but it does make her life in Korea much more frustrating.

Maybe this is why I took exception to this heart-warming paragraph from one of my boys in composition.

"Sometimes people said I was looked like black pig. Of course I understand about that. Cause I'm fat now. But in my opinion, there something huge animal inside of me. It can hug for lonely people and can be a pillar for people to rest. Usually it is very mild but if someone attacked, it would be giant toughness. A bear . . . an enormous animal which has all harmonies and being inside me."

I apologize up front for not knowing his English name. I forgot to check today in class and only now spent five minute puzzling it out by the writing but, none of the boys in that class if fat. None of them are ugly (though several described themselves thus). None of them looks like a black pig at all.

Celine. My one girl to make the list; Celine is quiet and I absolutely love the idea behind her turtle spirit. Anyone who can convince me it's a positive thing to be a turtle inside deserves chocolate for breakfast lunch and dinner.


Jason. (Class clown. He can make me laugh simply because of how effortlessly he makes others laugh. It's skill.)

Jason made me wait until he was properly posed to take this shot. The thinker. I'm still thinking up a way to get him to do his work in class instead of zoning out.

Tom. (He's been fooling me, for sure. His writing, at least, doesn't seem very lazy or sheep-like.)

Tom, who I call Joe most of the time. He doesn't actually look like Joe at all; I just think he does.
I don't have a picture of El - he's in the theology department and so wasn't at M.T., so here is Jack, our Hamster.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

I Have a Cow in my Inside and Other Profoundities

My spirit animal, I tell my students, is an elephant. Maybe I don't look like an elephant (and if I do, don't tell me! you overly-honest Koreans, you!) but inside I am. Now, tell me - what is your spirit animal?

This may be my new favorite question to ask. The idea comes from The Golden Compass which introduces a world where every person has a "daemon," an animal that represents their soul. To me, it's both a scary and comforting idea. Comforting because who doesn't want a pet that is part of you? It would be like always having a best friend at your side who not only can do things you can't (fly, maybe), but who agrees with you. Scary, however, because everyone else knows who you really are.
Why you no use articles?! Why?

I ask this question impertinently, the way Harry impertinently asks Dumbledore what he sees in the mirror of Erised.

Jack writes:

"I think I resemble a hamster because I'm cute like a hamster. Hamsters are popular for young children. I also are popular for young children. And I, like hamsters, like sunflower seeds. In addition sunflower seeds, I like corn, pumpkin seeds and I quickly like a hamster. I'm a little urgent personality. Also I exercise like a hamster: Hamsters always turn the treadmill. I always spin the hula hoop. And my chubby cheeks that resembles a hamster. I want to live hamster for a day, view form the point, I think a lot of similarities hamsters."


"My spirit animal is cow, maybe. I think myself I am good at patience. I sit long time in the library desk. I am always doing something persistently  I work without complain. I just work and work. And I am just waiting and waiting. When I work, someone imagine the scene that cows are pulling a plow. So I have a cow in my inside."
It wasn't sickness that made students fail to attend my
class today: it was random sports competition
day/week/MONTH. Turns out this "having sports fun when
your professors are trying to educate you" thing lasts for
the next two weeks. What the what?
Why didn't I have this in college?!


"My spirit animal may be a sloth who is always slothful. I always lie down in my room, don't move very well and behave slowly. So, I think, my spirit animal is sloth."


"My spirit animal is a hyena. Hyenas are very interesting and complex animals. They look like ugly so do i...They like to eat and hunt other wild animals but it is not true. Actually, most hyenas hunt by themselves. I don't like that someone help for me. I want to do something by myself and hyenas are weak individually, but strong in numbers. I also am very hard to do alone [note: hard/difficult is hard/difficult for Koreans; it leads to some awkward sentences at times]."

Sunday, April 14, 2013

An Ode

I bought my beloved blue netbook in the fall of 2010, my senior year of college. It was about $200, tiny and tinny and totally cute: I was smitten. A year later the screen started to flicker. A year and a half and the cord was beginning to fray; I taped ‘er up and kept her going. The silver wore away on the clicker, now faded into a fingertip-sized circle of bronze. The e key started giving me trouble. Then the t key. For a while it was the space bar. Now it’s the a.

If I plug anything into the USB port on the left side the entire computer shuts down unless it’s plugged in and it's a Tuesday. The labels on the bottom are worn away into nothing. The hard drive has been wiped by my brother-in-law and reinstated at least three times. Its functioning capacity halts if I open more than one program at a time or if I open the internet at all.

His name, this little marvel of a pc, is Johann because he’s an Asus which sounds just enough like “Jesu” that I thought of Bach. The desktop background is the Microsoft shell-on-the-beach scene because I can’t figure out how to change it. Dust and something sticky decorate where the bottom of the screen and top of the keyboard meet. The keys are stained with pizza grease, ranging from black to grey depending on their usage (the a, e, t, u, and l  and q still grey). Its once shiny blue outer cover looks like I gave it to a gerbil to gnaw on.

Last year I was certain it was on its last leg: the screen flickered like an obnoxious roadside advertisement every time I opened it. So I backed everything up once more on my hard drive, wiped it for the third time, and bought another netbook, this time for $220, as my backup. I phased my backup into greater usage last fall and waited for Johann to die.

Then my backup, an unnamed Toshiba, got stepped on by me. Johann was revived. I inherited a real laptop from my grandmother. Again, noting Johann’s chelonian processing speed and tiny screen size, I began to phase him out in favor of the full-grown model. Then I ran out of trial usages of Microsoft Word on the mama-model and found out it can't suck pictures off my Canon memory card for some reason. And so it became apparent that, until Johann’s erratic heartbeat actually stops, I’m stuck with my little blue devil of a netbook.
Me and my lover.  Four continents and counting with this baby of mine.

I couldn’t be happier.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Few of My Favorite (Korean) Things

Cute socks!

Odeng. Mostly because it sounds like "Oh dang!" But it's also pretty tasty and filling and doesn't make you feel gross, like a lot of street food. That said, I never want to know is actually in it. 

Happy hats

Toss up between ahjumma headgear and awesome Korean side dishes . . . prepared quite literally on the street, apparently.


 Again a toss-up: church friends and a veritable mound of Baskin Robbins. Someday I'm hoping to challenge myself and try to eat an entire one of these by myself. Who wants to bet I can't?
(ambiguous pronouns are killer; my students don't believe me

When it rains, the umbrellas come out with a vengeance. Luckily every store has these little buckets for umbrellas. There's always the niggling worry, however, that someone will spy your slightly fancier umbrella and walk out with it when you're not looking. Or maybe other people worry, anyway. My umbrella is never fashionable enough for me to worry about this...

Cheap tickets to soccer games! And enthusiastic (if small and sometimes uninformed) audiences to watch them with. 

Pajang and Meokkoli! I think I'm technically not supposed to drink meokkoli. Banana-flavored awesomeness.

Vanilla Latte with obligatory foam art.

Perhaps my favorite moment from our English Department retreat this year. Each of the teachers was in charge of a game. My game sucked. Moreover, none of us knew how to play it - me included. So the first round consisted of my students physically attacking one another until we got the rules under control. Every single group played it differently, according to their team's character.

How to Play Human Stopwatch:

General idea: Given a certain amount of time (under 30 seconds), a team had try to count it without the help of a clock. If they got it (margin of error, one second either side), they got the point. The other team would try to distract them.

Addendum: no physical contact ("no touching! no touching!")

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Hiking Trip in Hindsight

 Perhaps a week ago I went hiking and it was a glorious day. I meant to blog about it because I enjoyed it so much, but when I got home with my computer I realized nothing worth blogging about had happened. Indeed, nothing at all happened. At all. It was such a great day that I wanted to bring it up with people, but had nothing to bring up.

"Hey," I imagined I would say. "I went hiking yesterday."
"Oh, how was it?"

Then what? About the only other thing worth mentioning was the podcast I spent the entire five hours on the mountain listening to: a nerdfest podcast about The Hobbit, part literary analysis and part love letter to Tolkien by this guy.

No stories about adoptive Korean parents (the full story of what happened the last time I tried to climb Geumjeongsan) this time. Pics instead.

Old fortress wall.

This sign commanded me to take a photo.
The beacons are lit! Gondor calls for aid!

And now the part of the blogpost in which I indulge in my love of close-ups, texture shots.

If you look not carefully at all, you can see the self-portrait that this accidentally is!

At the time of this picture, the podcast said, "Now, I'd like to take an in-depth look at each and every one of the riddles in the dark." Fun!

Doors are great.

Om nom flower.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


My freshmen were wonderful yesterday. Snoopy and Matthew sat together talking about last night’s game, the first time I saw Snoopy (a sophomore) engaged with one of his younger classmates. Sophia and Gina came up at the end of class to check they had a grammar point right. The rest worked hard on a Friday afternoon, a feat perhaps unprecedented by a freshman conversation class.
This is Sunny. The only female cab driver I've ever
heard of - and she's in MY conversation class. After
her kimchi gift, I'm working up the courage to ask for a
taxi ride in a woman's cab before I leave.

Sunny, though, I thought, was surely going to steal the show for the day. She made me kimchi and rice and bought me an entire bag of applies. “Three minutes” she said, especially insistent. “Rice. Three minutes. Korean rice is so delicious.” As that’s a good tenth of her vocabulary, I was not only pleased but honored to eat her kimchi and rice last night for dinner.

But Kaká topped them all. He waited patiently until everyone else was finished before approaching with a painstakingly written note, which he read to me, pointing to the words he spoke one by one.

“Last class, I helped teacher with the radio. I’m sorry. I think it was a mistake.” He looked up at me, checking if I understood.

Radio? I thought. Who uses a radio? Which teacher? Did it make him late last time? I don’t have anything marked on attendance . . .

He said “radio” again, even more insistent than Sunny, and pointed to the spot where, two weeks earlier (our last class in this particular room), he had tugged the class boom box (radio) out of my hands, even after I’d told him not to.

“Oh. Yes. The radio.” I nodded, remembering the frustration of the moment.

He nodded. And then he pointed to the last word on the page.


Then he pointed to his heart.

I can’t put a name to whatever welled up in me as I realized what his apology meant: gratitude, I suppose; surprise certainly; pride for him; and deeply, peace that my anxieties had been understood by both God and by Kaká.
Patrasche. Named after Patrasche, dog of Flanders.
I don't understand either, but it's memorable.

You see, Asia has damaged my ability to relate to men. There was BoomTiger, memorably, and an over-sized sophomore named “Panda” or something who pressed me for a date. YoungBoom, another soccer boy, wanted me to ride to church with him every Sunday and listen to his favorite songs on his phone, sharing ear-buds after a 45-minute acquaintance. Sometimes students will call me pretty or cute, or say “I love you” but it’s an awkward cultural mistranslation, an eagerness to please, inappropriately phrased, stuck somewhere between meaningless and offensive.

Drunk ahjusshis will ask me if I’m Russian (often considered synonymous with “prostitute” among the local Busanites). Middle school boys giggle when I walk by, practicing their just-learned “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” and “I love you.” No, you say it to her! No, you! Say it! Ha ha.

Patrasche, dog of Flanders. Still don't get it.
I refuse to confine myself to the Korean expectations for women when relating to the opposite sex—relegated, it seems, to either cutesy, sexy, or frumpy—but I find myself unable to retain American expectations, either. Misunderstandings like Kaká’s happen all the time. It’s rude in America and in America, I would let a boy know he was being domineering, particularly if he were my student or friend. But I can’t do that here because Kaká was being helpful and sweet—according to Korean standards for men. Moreover, as my senior, he was honoring our relationship as older brother to younger sister. Nothing sexist or domineering about it: seniors have a duty to their little siblings.

I both “get” that and reject it.

I’ve lost my point of reference. It’s not culture shock—nothing shocking about it, after a 18-month dearth of equality-based relationships with men. It is culture disorientation and it’s tough. It’s tough to be twenty-four and forced to consider yourself asexual for the time being, somewhere between Korean and American, unable to hold standards and unwilling to let go of them.

And then, for a bright shining moment on a beautiful, boring Friday, there was Kaká, apologizing. For one moment, my point of reference came back, a gift from a boy I’d previously considered bull-headed. A boy who had wrested a stupid little yellow boom box out of my hands to help me.

I am still amazed that he read the tension of my reaction; I thought I had hid it, at least from him[1]. He overcame the cultural gap—the gap between our ages and relative positions of authority, overcame gender differences—to understand not perhaps everything that was wrong, but that there was something worth apologizing for. He was “stricken” for a harmless—beneficent, even—mistake he’d made.

My freshmen are marvelous.
Chuck gave this year's best answer to two of my hardest interview questions: "How can I pray for you?" and "What is the best job you can ever have?"
"To be a good father."
My freshmen are rockin'.
Foreground: Kelly (left) and Alice (right). Both are smart but very soft-spoken.
Friday's haul: home-made kimchi, rice, apples, lemon/limey crackers, Angel-in-Us mocha, and an entire box of honey tea. Like Asian Christmas!
P.S. I now know what causes the highlighting. And I can't fix it.

[1] My students are much more attentive to my attitudes, I realize, than my words.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


I’m not positive, but this might be one of the longest amounts of time I’ve neglected my blog ever since its infancy. Good thing it’s not a baby, amirite?

But seriously, apologies. Want to know why I didn’t blog for a week and a half even though I traditionally, neurotically bordering on pathologically post at least on a weekly basis if only to have an outlet for the adverbial adverbage swilling in my head? Me too. Got no idea, especially considering how impossibly awesome my students are this semester.

Bowen: smiling
For reals.

I’m not a gushing person by nature, but they're fantastic. And this is why:

Last Wednesday I first got wind that this Thursday would be another English department soccer game. I vaguely looked forward to it, but in the back of my mind was the isolation that comes with being the only American. The only girl. I remembered the first time I tried to play at Kosin and was sent away since no one had told me it was a student-only game. The weekend went by.

This Tuesday afternoon, I was walking up to my office when I met Bowen, coming down the stairs. Bowen is a third-year and built like a brick wall, expressionless even when he smiles. Even when he's talking, I don't think he actually moves his mouth.

“Five o’clock,” he said ominously, holding up a spreadeagled hand. “Five o’clock Thursday.”

Yesterday, I was rushing off to class, perpetually late to morning freshmen English, when third-year Daniel skittered by. Daniel’s a shorter guy, an excellent student with a dorky laugh. He often skitters, but he can also skitter around a full complement of defenders, all a good foot taller than him and land a shot from the corner of the eighteen. “Oh!” He starts a lot of sentences with ‘oh!’ “Oh, Thursday! Five o’clock! Bye!”

Today, the much-anticipated Thursday, I finished off 9 am freshmen English and stayed at my podium as my students swarmed forward, rather than out of the doors. Chloe--tall, bright, perpetually late to class--checked her attendance record. Grace, with big dreams to become a cartoonist, always gives me a personal goodbye. El--my elfin student who loves fairy tales, once brought me pictures with which to decorate my office, and picked and personally brought me the most perfect pink lotus flower I’ve ever seen in my life--stopped by to tell me that when her boyfriend visits from Seoul she wants me to meet him.

Matthew--skinny as a beanpole with one of those smiles that proves “exuberance is beauty”--and Kaka--an older student, fresh home after his military duties, hard-working and aggressive--hovered nearby.

Skinny Matthew.  Not his real smile.
I raised two eyebrows at them, half-smiling. They’re both soccer-mad and the last time the three of us played together we connected on a few nice passing plays. I knew what they were about.

Kaka, the “hyung” or “older brother” in this situation, looked to skinny Matthew, who speaks pretty good English for a freshman.

“Um, at five o’clock, we are playing soccer. Together-?”
“Yep, I’m coming!”

Truth was, I was waffling about it--it’s been a stressful week, I needed to relax--until that moment. Matthew grinned and Kaka broke out into his “Okay!” that sort of means, “Great/I agree/Good idea” all at once. Heartfelt, impromptu, double high-fives are my favorite.

The day passed in a high-stress, high-energy blur. By five o’clock I’d had a nice, throbbing headache for the past three hours and knots in my neck. My voice was disappearing from trying to control a 46-person conversation class.

But it was Thursday. Five o’clock. And  Brick-wall Bowen, Skittering Daniel, Skinny Matthew, Okay! Kaka, and all the rest of the soccer mad English boys were there: Hoon, Gerrard, Torres, Snoopy, Matthew2, Kevin, Steve, Jacob, Mike.

We didn’t win the game. I didn’t play well. But I think I’m starting to understand the power of Korean group mentality, the power of inclusiveness even on an avowed introvert. And it's great.

**For the record, these pictures were taken somewhat under duress (ala most things I do to my students here). During our English department retreat, I passed my camera around the circle and told them they had to take a self portrait. They hated it because they couldn't look at themselves as they took the picture like you can with a smart phone. Consequently the picture quality suffered because the kids were super awkward with my digital. Also, I promised the kids I wouldn't post the pictures on my blog. Sorry, Hannah. I lied.