The Last Shot

For the final discussion I’d ever have with my co-teacher we decided to drink a little bit. Obviously. Already a few bottles of Cass littered the table and steam rose off the grill as we placed another slice of meat on the kalbi grill. She was telling me I did a good job.

“Foreign teachers need to be excited and happy to teach, you did that very much this year,” she told me.

I wonder, what sorts of teachers aren’t excited to teach? Teaching isn’t a profession that lends itself to large sums of money so it seems that the people who would do it would do it out of love. When I first decided to be a teacher, I told myself that if I ever felt bored with teaching that I should quit. Students deserve teachers who care.

“Yes, but I felt like I should have done more. I’m not sure the students learned that much from me.”

“No, you can not do more. Hey, you only have very little time to teach students and you have over 1000. You can not teach them everything. We need foreign teachers so students feel excited about English and so that they can get used to being around foreigners. You did this, even when you were tired you still acted excited”

“But couldn’t you hire any foreigner for that? Who cares if they’re qualified teachers?” I queried.

I was beginning to feel that my college degree was going to waste. You don’t need to be a real teacher to do this job. In fact, that’s one of the education systems favorite marketing points ‘Teach English in Korea! Travel the World! You don’t need a teaching degree!’ The only qualification we need is to be born in an English speaking country. I guess I’m qualified then, congratulations to me. I took another sip of the Cass and felt just a little bit more numb.

“Yes, but that is a difficult job. Hey, there are not many teachers who can keep attention of students for forty minutes.”

She was trying to make me feel better. I didn’t really need it, but I guess it was appreciated. Nickelodeon programming also does a decent job keeping a child’s attention for forty minutes to an hour.

She continued “The students liked you and I could see that they became very comfortable with you. Two years ago when we have no foreign teacher the students were very scared to speak English. Now they speak lots.”

“Yah, but only really easy sentences, and most of the time they don’t even do it correctly.”

For example, ‘hello, nice to meet you,’ when I’ve met them twenty times before. Another bottle of Cass down.

“But we are very poor school. Students are excited to have foreign teacher. Especially guy teacher, it makes us think we are very special. The students are more prideful of themselves and think English is fun.”

Some people talk about fighting the good fight. Sticking it out when times are tough. But if I wanted to fight the good fight I’d move to Africa, or New Orleans. Besides, the kids who are smart learn English by studying themselves and by attending hogwans and the lower level students don’t care…who exactly am I teaching then?

“The students are sad that you are leaving,” she said as she tried to grab one of the waitresses as she ran by. I guess she had a point. Maybe I was just trying to convince myself to the contrary.

“I still don’t think I did anything that special.”

And with that we ordered one last bottle of soju.



Filed under Culture, Education, Narratives, The foreigner experience

Looking Past Korea: Series Wrap Up

Well, it’s time to wrap up the “Looking Past Korea” series. If you want to check out all the posts I did for the series, simply click the link on the top of the page. During this series I wrote about things that, although superficial, I thought were important; I wrote about things that I thought were overrated by foreigners living in Korea; I wrote about things that I thought were truly important cultural differences. I made lots of generalizations.

The one thing we have to remember is that, while I write about my time in Korea and about my observations of the culture, the people who live here are still people. As a whole they make up the culture, but as individuals they have hopes and dreams and love and hate just like any other person and they are uniquely themselves within their own cultural setting. This was the main purpose of the series. I wanted to finalize what I thought were differences so that I could finally begin to focus on what really matters, our similarities.

With that said, I have one more sweeping generalization of Korea. Korea is the middle brother of Eastern Asia. It is stuck between the power of older brother China and the baby brother celebrity of Japan. These other two countries are so powerful and noticeable that Korea, many times, is caught between them when it may be the most successful of them all given the circumstances. I’m not entirely sure.

Through this series, and this blog in general, I have tried to avoid telling people what to think with my writing. Instead of being a guide I have instead attempted to be a lamp. Hopefully I was able to shed enough light that you were able to find your own way.

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The Gum Lady

If you don’t concentrate enough the monotonous clunk of the tracks harmonizes with the sighs of the weary worker after a long day at work, melodies with the hum of the fluorescent lights, and is occasionally supplemented by the percussion of a door opening and closing as an elderly woman walks from car to car singing and selling gum.

A fluorescent light vibrates at a frequency that would make a hummingbird’s wings jealous. Their light reflected off of her and back into my eyes where my brain processed the primary colors. So it was that I saw her just an instant before I heard her off key wailing as she trudged through my subway car. She did not hear me, but she saw me.

Her eyes locked on me and I tried to look away. Her Medusa gaze was too powerful and I couldn’t help but look on, curiously stoned. The woman moved through the subway car the way a cherry rolls through honey. When she walked by me she stopped. She turned. She threw a pack of gum at me and stretched out her hand. Did I have bad breath?

She would not leave till I gave her money, even after I tried to give her back her gum she just sang louder and started to poke me.

This was my first experience with the Gum Lady of Line 1.

Since that first experience I am afraid to look at her, lest she notice me. My only hope is that she turns her attention towards some other unsuspecting bad breathed soul, because once she notices you, you will buy some gum. She usually only stops at one person per subway car. Sometimes I point to people who I think she should try to sell gum to, and sometimes she takes my advice.

Despite my fear of looking at her I’ve caught enough glimpses. Her face is weathered and tanned the way only fluorescent lighting can do. Her back is bent and arched from too many days of carrying bags of rice on her head to and from various locations before the creation of the subway. She may have been beautiful once. Can beauty ever die? Also, I’m pretty sure she wears the same thing every day.

The Gum Lady is always there, haunting the passengers of line 1. Always staring at you, singing off key, forcing you to buy her gum. Her life is intrinsically linked to the subway and the subway to her. It would not surprise me to discover she secretly lived there.

She is not a beggar. Beggars offer you nothing for your money besides a guilty shot at redemption. She offers you that and then some gum. I wonder how much money she makes in a day. Hopefully more than the cost of a train ticket.


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Deciphering Korean T-Shirts

We’ve all had a good chuckle at them walking down the street. Those seemingly crazy Korean t-shirts written in English that seem to not make too much sense to us not accustomed to the Korean way of thinking.

But I’ve had a recent revelation. The t-shirts do make sense. Of course Koreans know exactly what English words they are putting on their body. What kind of people would honestly cover their body with sayings they didn’t understand? However, we as foreigners are too close minded to the cleverness and sublime wit of the Korean/English t-shirt market.

So I’ve decided to help you decipher some of the phrases I’ve seen around town so that you too can be as enlightened as me. Slogans in bold, descriptions under them.

Die or surf

In the context of English conversation two options can be given in either order. For example the sentences “we could die or surf, it’s up to you,” and “we could surf or die, it’s up to you,” have very little intrinsic difference. However, when the phrase surf or die is taken out of conversational context the order of words takes on a new meaning. The specific implication being that the first option of the two is preferable and even desired, while the second is not just a secondary option but wholly unwanted. Based on this description we can determine that the wearer must enjoy dying, and consequently sees surfing as its despicable counterpart, brimming with existential and spiritual quandaries.

He Loves the Dick/ She Loves the Dick (couple t-shirt)

Pish posh on your initial middle schoolish laughter at the homosexual implications of these t – shirts. Sexual innuendo is often brushed off as taboo in Korean culture. These t-shirts are testaments to youthful rebellious masturbation. We should all be so bold to shrug off social taboos that hold society back and create stereotypes.

Remember the sisties

The Sisties were an underground popular punk rock group that toured around the greater Mason area during the late 90’s. Damn straight I remember them.

We hookied and had lunchboxes for lunch

Poetry, sheer poetry. If you can not feel the words then you do not deserve to understand their meaning.


Pee all that you can pee in the army

Trusty health advice for our soldiers on duty. I imagine that spending all day sitting in bushes with sniper rifles and exploring exotic world locations on an aircraft carrier can be difficult work that would afford few opportunities for bathroom breaks. It’s important to stay hydrated and go regularly. How many more kidney failures can we endure?

I love alcohol (my fifth grade student) –

No explanation needed. Drinking culture is strong in Korea. Who cares if they start a little earlier than kids in other cultures? We should learn to never question Korean culture in any way shape or form. As foreigners, we don’t understand anything.

Want to take pictures I’m a true modek

A clever play on words for those who design modeks for a living. A walking modek? How silly and clever.


Filed under Culture, The foreigner experience

I’m not one for too much celebrity gossip and news and stuff

but these are just two things I didn’t feel like passing up.

First, Lee Hyori proves, once again, that the only thing geeky girls need to do to become super attractive is simply take off your glasses and not carry around books.

Also, the title of her new album is Hyorish. I spent 20 minutes trying to think of a comment that didn’t revolve around the name of the album sounding like the word “whore,” but I couldn’t

Then, Miss Korea, I know it’s typhoon season and all…but damn

Anyways, that’s all I got for today. For those of you who also check me out at instablogs expect a new post up tomorrow. Not that I have anything in particular I feel like posting there but it’s been a week since I’ve written for them and I feel like I should. Since, you know, they label me as an editor and all.

I think I want Lil’ Wayne to die.

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South Korea Battle Royale: “Red Bean Paste” vs. “Things That Don’t Taste like Adhesives”

The woman handed me a small cake like ball. It was bread on the outside with a bit of cinnamon dashed on the top. Upon receiving it I felt that there was a small hole in the middle, presumably where some cream or custard like substance would be stored, which would provide a savory goodness.

I popped the whole thing in my mouth. But what to my wondering taste buds do appear, but an awful taste and a chewy, gooish mixture.

It’s bad form to spit out food that you were given by somebody in any culture, but I had to know. What the hell was in my mouth?

Upon a quick excusal to the bathroom I found that within my mouth was a reddish substance. I guess it tasted kind of sweet, but the texture was thick and I found it hard to swallow. When I returned I asked the woman what it was. She told me “it is delicious.” I doubted that “delicious” was the name of what I was eating so I set out on a mission. It was not long before I discovered that the reddish substance was “red bean paste.” It is a popular dessert filling, and I can see why kids like it. Children are, after all, the same demographic that enjoys eating glue.

This was 10 months ago.

Fast forward to today and I still have not acquired a taste for the paste. I’m the same person who once referred to kimchi as similar to the seaweed found between the baleen plates of blue whales, and now I have a tupperware container filled with it in my refrigerator. Red bean paste has yet to find a way to my heart.

So I approach every dessert with a new trepidation. Every time there’s a fifty percent chance that what I will eat will be delicious chocolate or custard filling and a fifty percent chance that I’ll immediately want to remove it from my mouth and throw it at the person who gave it to me.

The astute observer could point out that I could simply open up the confection before eating. That way I’d know what I’m getting into. However, once I have opened up the dessert and put my hands all over it I am left with the three options of either eating it, putting it back, or throwing it out. Two of these three things are not kosher. The third one is simply undesired by me.

So, instead I guess. Four out of five rice cakes that contain something contain red bean paste, which is like injecting rubber cement with red glue. Little bread cakes are a different story. With them I have no idea.

If this is what Russian Roulette feels like

then pass me a glock.


Filed under Culture, Narratives, The foreigner experience

Loud and Proud in a Society of Silence

South Korea doesn’t keep statistics on its gay community so it’s difficult to officially tell if it’s growing or shrinking. History seems to suggest that it’s neither. Instead it is simply “coming out,” for lack of a better term.

Korea has an overall “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to homosexuality. Sex as a subject in general is taboo, so it is no surprise that gay sex is even more so.

It is common for members of the same sex to enjoy physical contact such as holding hands and hugs. Living with a member of the same sex before marriage is also very common, but these are all seen as friendly gestures. The real difficulties come when marriage looms in a culture where marriage is not always an option so much as responsibility.

Although being gay in Korea carries no official legal ramifications, the societal ramifications are immense. Separation from family and friends, difficulty securing a good job and threats against a person’s life are obstacles to being openly gay. So while the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has not created any laws openly barring homosexuality, it has also not created any protecting it.

As of now, no mainstream Korean politician has advocated gay rights. The term “political suicide” comes to mind. However, there are indicators that the gay rights movement is gaining steam. As Korea continues to progress and the younger generation takes over more of the society that the starkly conservative generation before left them, gay rights is gaining a foothold. Albeit a rather small foothold.

A magazine has just begun that focuses on the gay and lesbian community in Seoul. Recently, a famous actor was tagged to play a gay man on a Korean historical drama. Indeed, there is even a park where gay teens go to congregate and be themselves. While these advances are few and far between, they are advances none the less.

Society in general tends to move two steps forward one step back in the direction of acceptance. To look at it from a different angle, ten years ago foreigners in Korea were not common. To see a westerner working and living in Korea was an anomaly. Today is different. While still a small percentage it becomes more common everyday to see a foreigner walking up and down the streets. The older generations may still stop and stare at an interracial couple but kids are more accepting, and it is the kids who are the future.

This trend mirrors that of gay acceptance. What starts as an anomaly eventually becomes more the norm. A yearly gay pride parade started 9 years ago and has grown every year. In fact, many of the aforementioned foreigners are vital cogs in the growth of the community. If Korea truly desires to enter into the world community it will eventually need to accept people of all differences, not just ethnic but religious and sexual as well.

There is a danger however in the quickly expanding gay community. People tend to think of it as a revolution, but it is not. Revolutions happen quickly and gay rights will not happen over night. The movement needs to come along slowly and surely or else it risks alienating the younger generations who will eventually become its lifeblood.

The day after the gay pride parade a friend of mine had this to say,

“In today’s world of controversy regarding gay marriage and equality, the celebration of anonymous sex, drug abuse, and irresponsibility has inspired me to stay at home. Certainly there are exceptions, but, sadly, they are few and far between…(giving) ammunition to bigoted preachers who, in turn, spew frighteningly-accurate stereotypes from pulpits. I refuse to participate.”

So, while there is progress there is also trepidation and caution to be had. Korea has been defending its culture and blood line for thousands of year and a magazine and televised drama are hardly the defining moments of a cultural shift.

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