Korean Dating Culture: Where is the love?

Alright. A little love for the K dating culture, as promised. This post is going to involve a lot of coming clean on the Liz Persona. I have a feeling quite a few people will be quite surprised to hear some of this coming out of me. But I'm going to do my best to lay that aside, and be really honest.

1. Don't touch my bag. But yeah, I'll take your coat.

Okay. So I can admit it. I appreciate chivalry. I'm a feminist and all that, and I don't expect a guy to go jumping through hoops -- I'm just as fine with a guy who doesn't make gestures as with one who does. But I appreciate the gestures. I appreciate so-called "good manners". I was raised in the south, after all, and you can rail against that as much as you want, but a little part of it just stays with you.

I have never one time been on a date in Korea without getting a text or phone call before my taxi even arrives home asking if I've made it home safely, thanking me for my time, and telling me to sleep well. At first, this confused the hell out of me. But I've become quite used to it, and I like it.

2. Language mistakes.

Okay. You can sound the hypocrite alarm if you want to, but it has less to do with thinking anything is cute (in fact, it has nothing to do with thinking anything is cute), and more to do with the fact that I just really, really like the way second language speakers talk. I dig poetry, right? And there's something in the way that a second language speaker will come at conveying an idea at times that just strikes me as purely beautiful. They aren't trapped in language cliche or idioms, and sometimes they have to get quite creative to get their point across. I'm constantly surprised and pleased by the way this happens, and I feel like you can see a lot of a person's personality in it. I've spent far, far too much time around second language speakers to have even an ounce of condescension toward it left in me. It's admiration, if nothing else. They're doing something that I have never been able to do, something I desperately want to be able to do in Korean. I'm still floored by this, everyday. And the truth is, there's nothing I find sexier than a man I have to admit is, in any way, smarter than I am.

Of course, this isn't a part of Korean dating culture, but it definitely plays a role in inter/// dating.

3. The Korean ideal of masculinity.

A lot of Western guys love to take digs on this one, don't they? And that's fine. They're entitled to their opinions. What these particular types don't like to face is that a lot of us women are so fucking relieved to get outside of the stereotypes. I like that Korean men aren't afraid to cuddle up to their buddies. I like that Korean men aren't afraid to be cute. I like that I've noticed a tendency, by and large, to just come out with some random, whimsical thought they've just had, without any fear of being perceived as poncey or, god forbid, "gay". I like that they'll get really excited when the food comes, because it's pretty, and want to take a picture.

I also like the fact that they'll turn right around and challenge their friend to an arm wrestling match right there at the table to see who is top dog. That they'll scream and shout at each other in that way that only Korean men can sound. That they'll respond to any compliment about how big, strong, tall or tough they are as though you've just given them the best Christmas present ever.

I like both sides. I like that both sides are present and readily visible.

4. The friend zone: an absence.

This one is a double-edged sword. I hate it as much as I appreciate it, to be honest, sometimes more on certain days. For the most part, with a Korean man, you know exactly where you stand. They aren't, generally, good at being "just friends" with women, and they'll make no qualms about making it known when they're interested, in general. To them, to Korean culture, that's the way things are supposed to work, between a man and a woman. You don't get all this dancing around the issue at hand, is he/isn't he, are we/aren't we nonsense that goes down so often in Western dating circumstances. Although they may be shy, they aren't insecure, if that makes sense. They'll still act shy, but you'll know why it is they're acting that way. They're not super defensive about having an interest in a girl -- it's only natural. Nothing to be ashamed of.

5. PDA: an absence.

Look. I just hate PDA. I don't know why I do, but I do. I don't want some guy slobbering on my face in public. Not everyone within a ten mile radius needs to know that we're involved, or exactly how involved we are. For all my liberal ideas and big talking (and I do believe in everyone's right to be as sexual as they choose, without being judged for it, just to clarify), I am actually a very, very modest person. For me, there is a time and a place for everything, and, excepting the extremely rare night out with one too many jack cokes, for me the place for playing tonsil hockey is not the bar, the street corner, the coffee shop or the restaurant. I don't have a problem in the world with the fact that Korean culture outlaws this behavior. Not a personal one, anyway. And I appreciate that I no longer have to have bitchy little arguments about how I'm "ashamed" or what have you with significant others because I don't want his hand on my ass in the parking lot.

This closely relates to....

6. Taking it slow.

Okay. First of all, this is not all Korean men. I've met far more Korean men, in fact, who are more likely to beg you just get into the damn taxi with them and find a love motel than who are interested in taking you home to meet their mother. But. That's because a huge percentage of the Korean men I've met have been drunk as hell and in a bar at closing time. They don't speak for the whole, majority population. They are not looking for the same things as the men you encounter in your daily life -- the ones you meet at work, in the bookstore or at the coffee shop. Obviously. I guess that I'm just trying to clarify that this one is dependent upon the kind of situation you're dealing with, just as it would be in the West, and not give the impression that Korean men are all sexless saints. Because men are men, before they are any sub-category there within, right?

But. When you look at normal everyday life in Korean dating culture and put it up against normal everyday life in Western dating culture, in general, Korean men tend to move a lot more slowly. Physically, that is. There isn't pressure to get right into the bedroom to make it clear that everyone is really attracted to everyone else, and then try to sort out the aftermath after the fact. You can take your time, and it doesn't become an issue. In fact, it's expected. I like that. This goes back to my ideals being a hell of a lot less modest than my personal life actually is, most of the time. I certainly don't think that getting physical right of the bat removes the possibility for a long-term, healthy relationship, but I prefer, basically, to take the long way around, when I'm dealing with something serious. I think things can get way too complicated way too fast when you get into the physical stuff so soon. It puts too much pressure on the situation. And I don't need to worry about some guy either chucking me into the friend zone, or deciding to act like an asshat and make demands that are going to get him absolutely nowhere, while I'm taking my time making up my mind. In general, in Korea, the first kiss comes sometime after the first night together would come in Western culture. I like that. I like the fact that I'm free to take my time.

Okay. Now you wanna hear the really tacky ones? I'll give you two, and then I'll hit on my last two, my favorites.

7. 나만 .

This was one that came up big time when I was in Scotland. I don't like that this is the way I've become, but it is. Basically, while me and the kid were out with a couple of gentlemen, we found ourselves suddenly playing with our drinks and rolling our eyes at each other in boredom, as the two fellas chatted on and on and on about, of all things, video games.

Really? You're out with two girls and you're going to forego that situation to have the same conversation you have everyday sitting on the couch in your flat together? I looked the kid straight in the eye and said, "There is no way in hell this would ever happen in Korea...."

Korean guys are not about to let the ladies sit there looking bored. In fact, they'll rarely take their focus off of them for the entire night. They are fantastic at keeping the conversation going, making you laugh, even pulling out magic tricks when there's a lull just to keep you entertained. They'll refill your drink before you even get to the bottom, notice if you shiver or seem uncomfortable in your seat, and immediately do something to rectify the situation. They won't be looking around at other girls, and they certainly won't get lost in conversation with each other.

They're there with girls. GIRLS. They generally have an appreciation for that that I've rarely seen matched in any other culture. Call me a fucking princess, if you want, but I like it.

8. GQ as fuck.

Look. I'm just going to admit it. Looks, in general, are not that important to me. But style, while not being something I'll count a guy out for not having, will move a guy up a few notches if he does happen to pay attention to it. Am I proud of it? No. But hey, at least I'm not a height snob or something else like that, that a guy doesn't even have a chance of fixing.

What that style actually is rarely matters, so long as it's something. A personal expression, a little effort here or there. I know it's not nice. But it's true. And Korean guys have this one head and shoulders above Western guys, just as Korean women far surpass their Western counterparts in this realm.

Looks are important in Korea. Parts of that, I really don't care for. I don't give a fuck if a guy is 5'6, and I don't care for people carrying on about it like it matters. A person's external presentation has fuck all to do with who they are, and the qualities that really matter, in the end. At the end of the day, I will always take the ordinary looking guy who can keep my interest in conversation over the tall, dark and handsome mister in a suit who bores me to absolute tears when he opens his mouth. I think Korean culture, in general, takes it too far, sets the bar too high and negates too many other things in favor of the external.

But I appreciate a well-dressed man with a nice haircut as much as the next girl. And you can't swing a stick on the sidewalk in this city without hitting at least ten of them. And you can be damn sure no Korean guy is going to be showing up to a date in sweatpants without a fresh shave.

So there. I said it.

Now the two that are closest to my heart.

9. Family matters.

Yeah. I get tired of hearing, I can't come out tonight because I have to stay with my mom. I don't like that a grown ass man has a curfew and has to scurry home before a certain hour or else face his mother's wrath. But. At the end of the day, the most important thing to me is my family. And I appreciate a man who has the same values. When I see a man put aside his own desires in order to take care of his family, I feel like I am really looking at A Man. He knows what it is to value someone else's needs over his wants, and to take other people into account. And that is so fucking important when you're looking at getting involved in a relationship with someone.

In general, because of the communal aspect of Korean society, I have found Korean men to be far more willing to listen to your point of view, or even accept things that they don't even understand, because they see that in some way something is making you unhappy or uncomfortable. In Korean culture, preserving the group harmony comes before all else -- even, in some cases, common sense or rationality. And, while I have my struggles with that as an American, I appreciate that it means that someone doesn't always have to agree with you or have the same feelings as you to take your feelings into account. What matters isn't so much why you feel the way you do, or if you should feel the way you do or not, but rather, what can I do make sure you don't feel that way anymore? That is an aspect I have struggled long and hard to find in a partner, and one that I struggle with developing in myself as well. I like that it comes almost pre-built in the Korean mindset, thanks to the culture.

This leads nicely into....

10. Gentleness.

Okay. I'm no blushing flower. A Western man is likely to take one look at me and size me up as someone who doesn't need or want absolutely anyone to lift a finger to "take care" of me. And I can get really fucking irritated with the way this just doesn't seem to register with Korean men at all. To them, I am a woman. And women are fragile and to be treated with gentle care. Which really got on my last nerve in my first few months here.

But, when it comes to those more tender moments in life, sometimes it's nice to have the external persona overlooked. When a man looks down and sees that, on a cold day, I'm wearing nothing but thin tights, and immediately you see his face strain with worry, as he automatically moves to cover your legs with his coat, without even realizing that you're already pulling away. When he overrides his own hesitation to make physical contact with the opposite sex to offer you his arm on an icy road, because you are a little unsteady on your feet and he's worried that you might fall. When he looks absolutely horrified to see you come through the door carrying a heavy box and knocks over his chair jumping out of it to rush over and take it from you. Those moments can be nice.

And they ride over into the emotional side of things, as well. Where your Western male companions are more likely to accept your masculine presentation when times get hard, throw a slap on your back, tell you to buck up and buy you a beer, a Korean man is more likely just to see a girl who's having a hard time. Both are necessary -- I appreciate both equally. It's just nice to have the option. As much as it may mean that so many other things are assumed in the process, as well.

Teacher forever Korea stay.

Right. I'm home from work for the afternoon. I'm really into dividing my posts up by subject these days, instead of mixing it all in together, because I'd like to try not to give you kind folks too many headaches. So we'll hit on two more things today. In this post, I'll finally get into everything that's going on at home, and what it means for my future here in the ROK (because I'm sure it's become obvious, at this point, that there's been some private waffling about whether or not I'll be able to finish this contract over the course of the last week), and in the next one, I thought it would be nice, after taking a few swings at Korean dating culture, to do a counter bit about what I enjoy more about Korean dating culture than Western dating culture. Just so you guys don't get the idea that I'm against inter-cultural/racial/national dating. Because I'm definitely not.

So. First up. What the hell have I been being so mysterious about this past week?

Here's the situation: Last week, after the stroke, they obviously started doing all kinds of scans and tests and whatnot, and what they found was not only something going on with the brain, but something on the adrinal gland and something in the lungs as well. We all pretty much knew what that meant, but had to wait until today(/yesterday in the States) to get confirmation. They did brain surgery to remove what was in the brain, and also did a biopsy on a bit of what is in the lungs. Of course, it came back as cancer.

While we were waiting for the results, I started to prepare myself for the possibility that I'd have to beg for mercy from my school, get my apartment packed up and make an untimely departure. Because there's no way in hell I'm letting my last few months with my grandfather pass by with me hearing about it on the fucking phone. And because there's no way I'm letting my grandmother face that down out in Alabama on her own. Part of the reason why I took this job in the first place was so that I wouldn't be so utterly trapped by my finances -- so that I would be able to be there for my family when they need me. And this would constitute one of those times. I have enough money in the bank to easily provide for myself for a year without having to work.

Now. Do I want to leave Korea? Hell no. Don't want to leave my job, my school or my students. Don't want to leave my friends or my apartment, my neighborhood, this culture, this language... this life. I don't want to. I really, really don't want to. But your family is your family. And Korea will always be here. I've made peace with that possibility already over the course of the last few days. And, as much as I love Korea, I don't know how much I would be able to go on enjoying it dealing with something like that from a distance, feeling like my heart was somewhere else entirely. I take my commitment to my school deathly seriously. But my commitment to my family will always outweigh any other commitment I have in life -- be that to a friend, a significant other, or a job. Or myself. My own interests or desires. Period, the end.

As of right now, that situation is not yet on the horizon. The diagnosis is fucking serious -- don't get me wrong. But it's not that serious, not just yet. I've spoken with my family at length today, and I've asked them to please honor the fact that I'm not there -- I can't see things for myself. I have to rely on them to pass on information and to keep me informed, so that I can make the best decisions possible. I've also told them that I need at least a month, whenever it's time, to tie things up here and assist my school as much as possible so that I'm not leaving them in dire straits. They understand that.

I get the feeling like my coworkers are all holding their breath. They've seen me come in to work everyday, and teach all of my classes, looking like hell, but being 100% present, but they also see how I come down from that after my classes are finished, and they know that something very serious is going on. I believe they are all aware of the possibilities at hand, and they've been very supportive in that. They know that I love Korea, that I love my job. But they also understand how serious family obligations are. They know I don't want to leave, but they know that I will if I have to.

I had a small heartbreaking moment in one of my C classes today. My students don't have any idea what's going on with me, so they can't be blamed for it. One of the examples in the book was, "I'm planning to go to the U.S." To explain, I told them, in October I am planning to go the U.S.

Teacher, why?

Because that is where I am from and that is where my family is.

Teacher... no. Teacher no go USA. Teacher stay Korea. Graduation! Three month graduation!

They had misunderstood -- they thought I was saying that, in October, I would return to the U.S. for good. They were trying to tell me that they'll graduate in March, and I should stay until then.

No, pretty babies. I don't mean for good. I will come back. Just two weeks.

Teacher come back Korea?! Good! Teacher forever Korea stay! Korea Teacher home!

For just a moment, my shell crumbled. What if I can't see them graduate? What if I can't keep this promise? Believe me, babies -- it means more to me than it does to you. And the fact that it means anything to you at all makes it that much harder.

As hard as things like these are, you have to step back momentarily and take it all in. There are two places in this world that hold my heart. There are people in two spots on this globe who will notice when I'm not there. There are two lives that I have waiting for me, two lives that I value and love. That makes me so fucking lucky. This situation blows. There's no doubt about that. But to be so deeply blessed.... to have realized, truly, what this life here in Korea means to me, by having to face walking away from it, even momentarily... that in and of itself is a blessing. I will appreciate every moment that I have here in Korea, every class that I get to spend with my students, every crazy, extraordinary daily mishap or shenanigan I get to face down as a result of living outside of my home culture, all the beautiful moments that come from being inside of this other culture, which I have come to love so much. Everything I would miss so much if I were to leave tomorrow.

Credit where credit is due.

Korean Blogosphere, you hear enough complaints about Korean coworkers and bosses to run with for miles and absolute miles. I'm going on the record as stating that my Korean coworkers and bosses are the best, most supportive, kindest and most understanding I've ever had. I'll explain it all when I get home today. At noon. Which will not be coming out of my vacation or sick time.


Difficult parts of Korean culture part I: Dating culture.

Tonight, there was a surprise hwaeshik that I'm still not quite sure I understand -- only a handful of teachers showed up. I think it may have been something just for the English and math departments. Anyway, New Co and I ended up separated off into another room with four other math teachers and that was that. Tonight I wasn't so good at keeping up with the conversation, perhaps because it wasn't all about our program, our students and New Co's time in the US, which are all topics I can follow along with using my knowledge of context as well. Also, just.... it's just so hit or miss. I have on and off days. I don't really understand how that's so exaggeratedly possible, but it is.

Anyway, the weather broke into warmth sometime this afternoon, and I took an easy stroll home from the restaurant, stopping in our brand new Paris Bagette Cafe to grab a cup of coffee on the way. Nice having that there. Used to be only one place to get a cup of brew around here, 30 minutes in the opposite direction, and the quality is distinctly lacking. This one's literally on my way home from school and lined with market streets up the road in the opposite direction, down from the main road. It's a nice walk, a convenient location.

So. About this question business. I'm tired. My boys were good today and I enjoyed them, but I'm really running on empty. So if this doesn't come out quite right... perhaps I should put it off, but I've got time to kill before it's a decent hour to ring the family back home.

What has been the hardest cultural difference for you to keep a
n open mind about since coming to Korea?

Let's start with the dating culture, mostly because it's the one I get the least upset about and I don't really feel like getting upset at the moment.

Here's the thing: I accept it for what it is. Korean young people are operating on a very different level than American young people usually are at the same age. They are largely gender segregated right up into their late teens, and by the time they're around my age, they've usually only had a few years of proper dating experience. They also largely (LARGELY) live with their parents, to the extent that you find yourself shocked to encounter an unmarried person who lives on their own. A lot of the young women I've met are unemployed, or barely employed, and simply waiting to meet a husband, so they can quit their jobs.

Now. That is not the case with all, or even the majority case. But it is prevelant. And I feel like it's important to stress that I do not, in these cases, get the feeling that the women feel trapped in this situation -- in fact, I've heard a lot of young Korean women complain that Korean men are starting to expect their wives to work as well, to help combat ever-rising education costs, and that they wish they could meet an "old style" man, who would allow them to stay home and raise the children. This is not an entirely one-sided culture. Many women, upon hearing a man say that they want their wives to stay at home, feel relieved at having finally met a proper gentleman.

However, we're not talking about Korean women, are we? We're talking about me. Me who smokes, can throw back a bottle of booze with the best of them, cusses like a sailor and walks around all tattooed in t shirts and bomber jackets.

What it comes down to is this: I'm not cute. I have nothing against cute -- I like cute. I have had cute partners. I have very, very cute best friends. But I'm not cute. In fact, anything I've ever done that could be considered cute is usually something I chalk up to being just plain embarrassing and do my best to forget.

So. God I feel like I'm positively swimming in a generalization danger zone. But let's just get into it, shall we? I trust you all to know me well enough by now, and to take this in the spirit in which it is intended to be taken.

By and large, when you ask a Korean man what he likes in a woman, he will come out with "cute", at some point. Sitting in any given coffee shop on any given afternoon, you'll see the tables lined with couples, one half of which being girls talking with lisps, habitually wiping hair out of their eyes, stomping their feet, whining, "opaaaaaaaaaaah!" and puffing out their cheeks. Like this:

That's fine. But that's not me. That's not even a semblance of me, on my very, very cutest day. I'm quiet and reserved, but not in a timid way. I don't speak often in a group setting, but when I do, I tend to speak firmly. The one exception is when I'm speaking Korean. When I'm speaking Korean, I stutter. I make all kinds of ridiculous mistakes. I blush. I laugh unnecessarily. I keep my eyes down. And I obviously can't say anything too opinionated or biting. There has been more than one occasion where a guy has been literally falling out of his seat leaning into me while we're speaking Korean, when the conversation switches to English and he suddenly looks horrified. Not because I suddenly turn into a crazy raving bitch, but because that's how stark the difference is between me speaking Korean and me speaking English.

Okay. So when I speak Korean, I'm cute. That's because I speak Korean like a three year old. It's definitely not on purpose, and it's not something I hope lasts long.

All of this is kind of a mute point, because I have found many men in the ROK who like me just fine when I am speaking nothing but English. They don't have a problem with opinionated women, they don't have a problem with the fact that I'm not wearing high heels, and some of them don't even have a problem with the fact that I smoke.

But then my problems with them start. Not them, actually. But with the dating culture. Or the male-to-female culture. Or whatever you'd like to call it. Now, I'm not going to do the whole counter-balance thing on this post. I'm just going to let it speak for itself. I've largely made my peace with most of this, and it no longer causes any wrinkles in my forehead, for the most part. I'm just going to list the grievances as they have occurred and let you take it all in for yourselves. Let's switch to the list:

1. Paying.

I don't see any reason why you should pay for my pack of cigarettes. I don't need you to pay for my coffee, or my food, or the noraebang. If you want to buy me a drink, that's fine, but the next round's on me. I think it's nice that you have a car, but that's not going to capture my interest anymore than if you told me you have a bicycle (motorcycles are a different story). And, frankly, when you insist on getting my cab fare, it makes me feel like Holly Golightly in a not-so-nice kind of way.

None of this means that I'm not interested in you, as a potential mate. None of it is anything to blow a fucking gasket over. I just don't see the point. And, frankly, it makes me uncomfortable that you might think I continue going out with you because you always pick up the tab, which somehow keeps getting more expensive (you don't need to order three different kinds of anju after I already said I'm not hungry, just to make sure that it's there).

2. Planning.

I don't want to eat there. I'm sorry that you decided three days ago that that's the place we were going to eat without asking me, because it's an appropriate place to take a girl, but I don't want to eat there. I think Korean "spaghetti" tastes like crap. And Outback Steakhouse is not a place I went to when I lived in a city where there was one on every corner (not that there isn't one on every corner in Korea, these days). Also, it's really nice that you've put a lot of thought into this, but I sort of came to today's events with a few suggestions of my own. It doesn't mean that I don't like yours -- it just means that sometimes there are things that I want to show and share with you as well. Is that okay? No? Well, then, I'm afraid at this point I'm starting to get a little irritated with you.

Let me explain this one as best as I've come to understand it -- Korean women, apparently, generally expect the man to set the agenda. It's part of his ability to prove he's a worthwhile mate. It is, generally, his job to keep her entertained throughout the day's events. When you start to contradict those suggests, you send two different messages: 1. I don't like what you've planned -- you've done a shitty job at this, and I'm mentally deleting you out of my phone right this very second and 2. Why did you plan everything out for today? Did you think this was a date? We're just friends hanging out. Why are you being like this? Well, don't you just feel like a fucking idiot for getting the wrong end of the stick....

3. Texting.

Why, yes, as a matter of fact, it is a good morning. And let me just save you the trouble -- I am going to have a good afternoon, and a good evening as well. I'm eating rice for lunch. How about you? Rice, too? Who would've thought.... What am I doing right now? I'm working. That's generally what I'm doing from the hours of 8 to 5 on a weekday -- it was certainly what I was doing when you texted to ask me yesterday afternoon. It hasn't really changed since then. Yes, I am going to bed now. I will have sweet dreams, thank you. "Hi!^^" right back atcha! You're going to take a shower now? Well, thank you for letting me know. If you hadn't, I might have panicked when thirty minutes passed without a single text message coming in.

4. The Morning, Week, Month and Year After.

..... Seriously? It wasn't even ever like that. I appreciate the fact that you don't want to make me feel undervalued, but there's no need to take it this far.

5. Don't touch my bag. Ever.

It's mine. If it was too heavy for me, I wouldn't be carrying it.

6. You want me to go out in public wearing what?

This one I haven't actually encountered personally yet. Mostly because I reckon any man who's ever gotten close enough to me for it to be an issue knows exactly what would happen if he ever, ever suggested it. You all know what I'm talking about.

Couple Ts.

No. Just no.

7. Teasing.

You... sorry, what? That's not fucking funny. Stop fucking laughing. Now. You wanna take jabs at my intellect, that's fine, but you'd better be prepared for what's coming back at you. I'm not cute, as we've already covered, and I'm not going to act cute and cutely pout and giggle when you point out a mistake I've made. I'm not going to speak Korean now because you like to hear me sound like a child. Don't touch my hair or my face, and don't shove me. We're adults and we're in public. My feet are big? Well. Not in my culture. In my culture, your feet are small. And you know what they say about small feet. Oh. I'm sorry. Was that not funny to you? Guess you shouldn't have gone there.

This one is a big, huge personal thing. It has to do with my repulsively high levels of pride. I know that. It's a rare human being who walks the face of this earth who can tease me without it resulting in an immediate and concrete mood shift. I've never had this problem back home, because most people can suss that this is my personality type, and just leave it alone. Something about the way things are supposed to be between a man and a woman when they are getting friendly in the ROK, however, seems to ride right up against this.

8. "You can just call me 'oppah'."

Really? I have a full-time job, my own apartment and have lived away from home for seven years. Your mom still does your laundry. In what sense, exactly, do you reckon you're more mature than I am? Earn it, big brother. Then we can talk.

9. That's sweet. But I don't believe you.

My mother will be the first to tell you it seems like I was born with my eyes rolling. This one isn't just an issue with Korean men -- it was one back home, as well. But it's possibly more exaggerated here, because the culture of sweet-talking is exaggerated here. Really, really exaggerated.

What it comes down to is this: If you keep saying things, like how you couldn't sleep last night because you missed me so much, or how you want to take this or that romantic trip with me, or how you're going to cry when I'm away on vacation, eventually I'm just going to start completely disregarding everything you say, and then we're gonna have ourselves a little problem.

10. No, I don't want to be your girlfriend -- what was your name, again?

We met yesterday. Let's give it, like, a week, shall we? Or at least until you learn how to pronounce my name right. Nope. Still don't want to be your girlfriend. But thanks for waiting ten minutes before asking again. No, I'm not particularly lonely being a foreigner, and even if I was, that still wouldn't be a good reason for me to agree to be your girlfriend.

God bless the man who eventually makes it through all of this with me. Be he American or Korean or fucking Martian. I suppose it's not fair to blame it all on Korean culture, eh? Also, my spellcheck isn't working. Sorry, get over it, yes I shouldn't be an English teacher, etc etc etc.

I feel like it's important to note that absolutely every last one of the things listed above makes a man, in the ROK, a "good" boyfriend. If he is doing these things, then he is doing things right. And that's what the men I haven encountered have been trying to do. They are good catches. They're doing what they ought to. It's just been a long, hard road adjusting. Which was what you asked.

Good question and Little Cussin.

What has been the hardest cultural difference for you to keep an open mind about since coming to Korea?

Ooh. This is a good one. Juicy. I'll write it up when I get home from work tonight. There are two main ones that come to mind, one being obviously face saving, which I think is pretty difficult for most foreigners, and the other being how the gender expectations relate to dating culture. Maybe I'll do both."Expect it," as a Korean would say.

Also, please welcome to the cast of my blog readership my little cousin. Lord knows how he found the damn thing, but he has. I suspect my mother might have something to do with this, as my grandmother was also informing me the other day that she was reading something on my "facebook doodad" that was not from my facebook doodad at all, but rather this blog. Thanks Ma. I'm glad hospital time has turned into sharing-all-of-Liz's-dark-dirty-secrets time. Anyway. The boy's old enough now, I suppose. If he can drive a car, I guess he can read this blog.

Today's gonna be a rough one, kiddies. I've decided to put off a phone call until after work for fear that making it before might mean I can't get through the day. Say your version of a prayer to your version of a god, if you would.


Reasons, cont.

Reasons why I love Old Coteacher:

1. When she asked about the situation with my grandfather today, and I told her, she gave me a look and paused, stuttered before speaking. I looked at her and said, "You're right. I have some hard decisions to make." She nodded and patted me on the shoulder.

In other news, my students managed something they haven't for a long long while today: creeping me the fuck out. They try, constantly, but rarely achieve it. We were working on making excuses, and I was teaching them about the standard cliche line for turning down a date: "I have to wash my hair." When, suddenly, I hear them start to chime up in Korean: "I'll wash it for her!"

Gross, guys. Gughoaienklfmnelknagter.

The first graders had a full-on weoneomin experience on the street today, and the neighborhood got a bit of a show. I had stopped in a stationary store to pick up a few things for the lesson I was doing with the boys at the center tonight. When I walked out, a group of them were standing down the sidewalk from me. I turned and walked in the opposite direction, when suddenly I heard, "HEY SAEKSHI GULL!" called out from behind me.

Uh. No.

I turned on my heels. You never seen a group of boys scatter so damn fast. No.

"야! 이리와!"

They were shocked to hear some of my best Korean come flying out of my mouth, as were the ajeosshi gathered around outside the restaurants on the sidewalk. They froze, came back and lined up in front of me, with their heads down.

"누구 누구 누구!"

It was like a Mexican standoff with every boy pointing to someone different, who wasn't himself.

Now. I don't want to start off on the wrong foot with these boys. They haven't stepped foot in my classroom, only seen me around, and they don't, at this point, see me as anything other than a random persona-less foreign face. The power of what happens when they speak English to me hasn't clicked for them yet. So I don't want to come down too hard on them, or send the message that I'm some kind of fucking bitch. But, at the same time, it was the second time inside of fifteen minutes that I had had "saekshi gull!" screamed at me on the street. The sooner they realize that that's not okay, the better. You gotta strike a balance with these things. I don't want them starting off afraid of me.

So. Once I had them all lined up in a proper posture of respect, shaking and turning red, I said:

"야. 내 두눈을 봐봐. 난... 선생님이야. Sexy girl, 아니. 알겠어?"

Laughter all around at the repetition of the phrase "sexy girl". Neh. Ahlgaesseoyo.

"Did you cry?"

I've discovered another bizarre verbal tick that must be something translated directly from Korean, and the sentiment certainly isn't one that's present in my culture.

My coworkers are somewhat aware of what's going on back home, although no one but my closest friends know everything. I revealed a little more at work this morning and was asked by three different teachers, "Did you cry?"

Well. Yes, as a matter of fact I did, just a bit. Thanks for asking?

That one's going to take some getting used to. What's the expected response? Is it like, "Have you eaten rice?" or is a genuine, direct answer what they're after?

It could be months before I can get that look to stop popping up on my face when I get asked this one. Lord.


Formspring 2: Liz's first top ten.

Hi there! I read your blog daily, I love your honesty. I'm moving to Busan in April-I'm really excited but would love some solid, honest advice regarding the big move. What are the most important things to know/expect/prepare for when moving to Korea?

Well, first of all congratulations on taking the plunge -- no doubt you've been wading through endless paperwork and bureaucratic headache in the last few months to prepare.

So. General kind of advice. I'm sure there's a lot of this to be found peppered throughout this blog, or that can be wrung out of a lot of the anecdotes contained within. But let's do a top-ten kind of list, just to get some of it all in one place. This is a huge subject, and no doubt after I post this, I'll think of dozens of other things I should have included. But you must start somewhere.

1. Be prepared to tell yourself over and over again that you don't understand, even when you're completely convinced that you do.

You guys see me do that almost weekly here in this blog. It's the first important lesson I learned after moving to Korea. It has a lot to do with my personality type -- in general, I am pig-headed, stubborn and an all-around know-it-all. I have a tendency to assess situations quickly and come to a conclusion, which is rarely swayed by what anyone else has to add to the conversation, especially if I can't see their point as soon as they make it.

But this is a different culture. Duh, right? But seriously. Listen to me when I say this: even when you know this is a different culture, are doing your best to be open-minded and trying to understand, there are going to be countless times when you see something, hear someone explain something, and you think you've got it down, when you really don't at all. It's going to take months, possibly years for some things to click. I still experience this on a daily basis -- something will happen, some situation, something someone says, and I'll suddenly realize ah! I was wrong about that. I get it now.

2. Don't get caught in the foreigner bubble, unless that's what you want.

Especially you young'ns coming in with orientation groups. Don't be so quick to lock yourself into one group of people, just because they are the first people you encountered on this peninsula. Foreigners are always eager to meet and commune with other foreigners, and there will be plenty of opportunities to do that, whether you seek them out or not. But don't lock yourself into a tight-knit group too quickly, unless you're sure that's what you want. Be open to having dinner with that mild-looking co-teacher who can barely mutter three words of English to you. Invite the rowdy group of Korean university guys over to your table at the bar. Allow the ajeosshi on the train to invite you to his house for dinner to meet his family. Most of these situations will end almost exactly where they started, but they are the doorways which, after you've walked through enough of them, will really start to open your eyes to new world that's around you.

3. Don't ignore the advice of elder expats, even when it seems like they have no idea what they're talking about.

This closely relates to number one. They've had long relationships with Korean significant others, they've had long-term friendships with Korean buddies, they've been in the Korean workplace longer than you have. Hell, in most cases they've been teaching longer than you have. Even if you're sure they're wrong about something, don't be so quick to forget what they say.

4. Ignore the advice of elder expats, even when it seems like they know exactly what they're talking about.

Now to completely contradict myself. Use your common sense, your personal experiences and your gut to gauge your own situations. We're all coming at this with different agendas, different points of view and different motivations. What's true for one foreigner will not be true for another. What's terrible and unbearable for one foreigner, may go completely unnoticed by another. Korean culture is not Korean Culture, full-stop -- Korean culture is what you come to the table with, combined with how you experience the world around you, combined with Korean culture. At the end of the day, the only thing to do is just lay yourself open to it all and see what happens.

5. Accept that the dating culture is different.

No, Korean men and women don't act the same as Western men and women. Yes, this is at times charming, at times infuriating, and always just a bit fascinating. Every Korean is different, just as every foreigner is different, but there is a general set of social guidelines that are going to be followed that are not the same as in your home country, and it's going to take a hell of a lot of trial-and-error to work it all out. You're going to make huge social blunders, and so are they (in your eyes). You can, and should, talk about these things openly with your partner, figure out what you can and cannot accept, and try to work through it together, come to an understanding. But you're not going to get anywhere if you automatically condemn things as wrong, stupid, or just fucking strange.

You must remember that you have the benefit of experiencing both cultures, whereas your partner may not always have that, so you're often going to hold the lion's share of the responsibility on this one. They don't always even know that something's different or off from your culture. You're going to have to explain yourself clearly and often, ask a lot of questions and be prepared to have an open mind and change your behavior and expectations often, as well as go to bat for the things that are really important to you, in order for this to really work. Basically, all of this applies to close friendships with Koreans as well.

6. Accept that the culture of gender equality is different.

This one is particularly important for female foreigners. You don't have to like it -- I sure as hell don't. But you're not a one-woman army and you're not going to change it, all by yourself. In fact, you are a foreigner and it's not really your job to change it. Korean women (and men) are working on it, as we speak, and they are making positive strides everyday. You can speak as open and honestly about this as you wish (although it's important to remember to be respectful when you do), but you're not going to get anywhere stomping your feet and declaring that something isn't right. You're only going to frustrate yourself even worse than you're already being frustrated by outside forces.

Of course, it is always up to you what you will and will not tolerate in regards to your personal treatment. I sure as hell don't let anyone push me around, and it's one of the rare things I'll take a firm stance on, often declaring that my culture is just different, rather than trying to do things the "right" way. That's my choice, and I pay the consequences of that choice. But I have come to an understanding that gender equality in Korea is different from gender equality in the U.S., and that's the way it's going to be tomorrow when I wake up, as well, and if it gets to a point where I can't tolerate it, I know where the airport is. Which isn't to say that that's the way things should be, but rather just the way that they are.

7. Accept that the work culture is different.

This one is really important to me. And it's one place where I will get really judgy about other foreigners.

Look -- you're coming to Korea to work. You've accepted a job in a Korean workplace. If you've done your research properly, you know that, from a Western perspective, the Korean workplace is hierarchical, not particularly valuing of contracts, and demanding in the sense of riding over into your personal time and life. It's also really, really disorganized.

It's going to drive you absolutely crazy, and you're going to want to slap the face of the next person who looks like they're even thinking about muttering those infamous words we've all come to know and love: "When in Rome....."

But. It's not your school's job to reorganize itself around you and your culture. They've got far too many other things to worry about than the foreign teacher. It is part of your job to adjust yourself to Korean work culture -- not the other way around. You wanted to come and work in a foreign country -- well, guess what. You're here. And it's different and it's hard to understand and it's frustrating. Welcome to life. Get ready to dig in and start adjusting. Stop blaming your co-teachers, stop blaming your students, and stop blaming your higher-ups.

Of course, you're going to get furious at times. You're going to rant and rave and nearly lose your cool. It's not an easy task, and you're admirable for taking it on. But, take it up with the other foreigners after work with a beer. Get it all out -- scream, cuss, rant and relate. And then laugh. And relax. And move on. Because you're here, working abroad, which is not a privilege than many people in this world ever get to experience. Don't turn it into something negative when it doesn't have to be. Tuck your head down, roll around in your own humility and get ready to learn some of the hardest lessons of your life. And be grateful for the experience, because it will make you a stronger, wiser and more tolerant human being.

8. Keep your cool in the classroom.

This one speaks for itself, but I can't stress the importance enough. Never get emotional and never fly off the handle. It won't end well for you. Face saving culture is intense, even with children, and when you flip your shit in the Korean culture, you've lost respect. And it can take a long, long time to get it back. Don't do it. Even when you can't stop yourself from doing it, don't do it.

9. Eat the food. Eat ALL of the food.

Again, self-explanatory. Food is, as far as I can see and next to family, literally the most important thing in Korean culture. You will be offered much and often. Your eating habits will be asked about and commented on incessantly. If you put extra gochujang on your bibimbap, you will have moved up two levels (I'm not kidding) in everyone's respect and regard for you. No matter how bad it smells, how slimy it looks, or what disgusting bug-like creature your culture would never put in your hands, let alone your mouths, it comes from, just eat it. At least once. At least a little bit. After some time around your co-workers and Korean aquaintances, you will have earned the right to say, "I don't like that," without it turning into a mourning ceremony about how you don't like Korean food, you don't like Korean culture, and you don't like Korea, but up until that point, just make things easier on yourself -- chew, swallow and smile.

10. Be stupid. Open yourself up to getting hurt.

I've had a lot of struggles since I've been in Korea with forming relationships with Koreans. Enough to fill a book, maybe, but let's not do that here just yet. Koreans come in all shapes and sizes, with all different personalities and agendas. But, the truth of the matter is, you're going to have to do some real work to find Koreans who can really accept you at the core for who and what you are, and do so just because they like you, as a person, and not because of some outside motivation or influenced thinking. Sometimes an invitation to dinner will turn into can you teach my kids English? Sometimes what looks like a date for coffee will turn into, and I'll invite all of my friends because they've never met a foreigner before and isn't this all really funny? Sometimes even when a person really wants to get to know you, really wants to understand and accept you, their lack of life experience will get in the way and you'll realize they just aren't ready to break through that barrier yet. Sometimes the gaps will be too wide, the basic communication just too difficult. Sometimes you'll just grow tired of trying, making excuses for someone, and overlooking small hurtful things to make it worth it with that particular individual anymore.

That's okay. It's going to happen and it's going to hurt. And there are going to be moments when you want to just say, to hell with all of this -- I give up. It's impossible.

But, sometimes you'll get there eventually. Sometimes you'll meet someone who's never been off this peninsula who looks you square in the face and sees absolutely nothing but another human being. And you can never know when one of those people are coming. And you can still have valuable experiences with the ones who don't, in the end, quite work out.

So, as hard as it is, don't give up. Don't stop trying, even when it seems like the stupidest fucking thing in the world to continue on. You'll end up cheating yourself. And cheating others out of a chance to get to know you for who you really are.

Formspring: Why are you in Korea?/Older foreigners.

Well, I have nothing to say today that I feel like saying publicly. Most of it's been tied up in what's going to result in a horrendous phone bill at the end of the month. Love you kids, but my heart and my head ain't here this weekend -- they're drifting around a big old house down by a creek in Alabama.

Now seems like as good a time as any to think about a question like this, though, huh?

HI So what made you do this. Move to Korea and become a teacher and do they pay well and do you like it? How old are you too, im 32 and I would think this is for the younger peeps

What made me become a teacher and what made me move to Korea are two pretty different stories, although obviously related.
What made me become a teacher was what makes anyone become anything, which was that I needed some way to pay my rent. This happened in New York. I was working a job I hated for absolute peanuts with a total jerkoff for a boss (more like a series of jerkoffs, really, minus our head boss who was this tiny blond woman from the Bronx who talked like an inmate and rode motorcycles, but that's a different story entirely -- anyway, she was cool as fuck). Graduation was soon approaching, and since the head boss had taken a shine to me, and taken me as her personal assistant, they were starting to talk about offering me a permanent, real life managerial position. I took one look around at what that would mean for the direction my life would veer off into and said, nuh uh no thank you I'd rather starve to death. And started looking for work elsewhere.

I had a friend who was working at the international center as a tutor for foreign students. She said, why not? I said, because I'm awkward as fuck, I don't generally get on well with strangers and I don't know the first fucking thing about teaching. I mean, I taught kids before, but adults at a university level, ESL? No that looks like a royal cock-up just waiting to happen. But I didn't have many options given my full-time school schedule, and the pay level I'd jump to after I had my degree was appealing, given the fact that I was currently making $7 an hour. So I went in for an interview, where the boss made an innapropriate joke about "positions", but got and accepted the job anyway.

After a while, I realized I had kind of a knack for this, and that I actually kind of liked it. My schedule started to fill up with students, and I began to get quite close to quite a few of them. They were almost exclusively Korean, with the odd Chinese, Japanese, Pakistani, South American here or there. It was my Korean students I became closest with, however. I began to meet many of them outside of work, and became quite involved in listening to their stories -- their struggles as foreigners, as outsiders, as people trying to build a life for themselves in a language they were only just becoming confident in. I heard a lot about their families, their hometowns, their home culture. They took me to Koreatown, brought me homemade Korean food, and started to teach me small phrases here and there in their language. A pack of Korean cigarettes. A bottle of Korean beer. They always came to our meetings with something in their hands.

I learned about their art -- how it compared to the art going on in Korea at the time. I learned about the mandatory army service in the ROK, what it was like to drive an army truck through dangerous mountain territory at the ripe old age of 19. I learned about how Korean men would jerk away from you suddenly if your accidentally brushed your leg against theirs under the table, or how they would turn bright red if you layed your hand on their arm to comfort them about a mistake they had made. I learned about how Korean women would call themselves your older sister, and hold your hand as you walked together down a crowded city street.

Although my pay level was good, I was limited in how many hours I could work. New York is not a joke, financially, and I was getting tired of struggling to make ends meet. I was getting tired of making those phone calls home at the end of every month, shamefully asking my family if they could spare the last $100 of my rent. Getting tired of eating eggs and bread all week, not being able to see a movie, not being able to buy a new pair of shoes. Getting tired of trying to find a way to make $20 stretch the two weeks until the next pay period.

I had to find another job. Which wasn't a big problem -- I had a strong resume with jobs stretching back to the time I was 14, strong references about how I had worked at each place for years, had always shown up on time, never unnecessarily called in sick, and worked hard. The problem was that in order to find a new job, I would have to quit my old one. I went in for an interview for a job I'm still not sure I quite understand -- something about photoshop, the Library of Congress, art.... nothing I actually wanted to be doing. But high profile, high paying, good for the resume. Required you to wear proper clothing, commute into Manhattan in the mornings. I was offered the job on the spot, and told to let them know in the next couple of days whether or not I accepted.

About a week previous, due to the fact that I had my resume up online, I had been contacted by a recruiting agency for jobs teaching EFL in foreign countries. Did I want to go abroad? I could do that? That was possible? I can't just pick up and leave New York, move to a foreign country... that's insane. I like teaching, and I don't want to let it go, but, come on....

On the train ride home from the interview, I started thinking about how my life would change. Health insurance. A new wardrobe. Working in Midtown. All of that was fine, but what about my students? What about teaching? What about everything I had gotten out of that job, had learned and experienced vicariously?

When I got off at my station in Sunset Park that night, walking back to my apartment I stopped in at the local bodega to forage for something cheap but somewhat sustaining to cook for dinner. I rang my mother. How did the interview go? Great. I got the job. Um, I think I'm moving to South Korea.....

In the end, I didn't want to give it up. I didn't want to become another 20-something with a boring daytime job in Brooklyn -- one that required me to stutter to come up with an explanation when someone asked me what I "did". I wanted to teach. I wanted to see what it was like to be a foreigner. I wanted to see something else, do something else. I didn't want to keep trying to balance my financial stability with my happiness, subtracting points from one to add to the other here and there.

That's why I'm in Korea. I was 23 years old when I moved here, one year out of university and I'm now (as of a couple of weeks ago) 25. I suppose I can see why someone might think this is only for the young, but me personally, I wish a few more older, more responsible and experienced people would show up here every now and again. It shouldn't be just an adventure, in my opinion -- it is a job, afterall, not a backpacking vacation. Personally, I look up to the older foreigners I meet here quite a bit, and I take what they have to say -- their advice and their life experience -- to heart. Especially the ones who have been here longer than I have, and especially the ones who have married and started to make a family here. They have generally mellowed out, aren't on the prowl for action all the time, not interested in partying. They take their jobs seriously, have the best advice for how to move up in the work place, and have started the serious business of finding a way to be accepted into Korean society. All of which I find intensely valuable.

I think having a few more older foreigners around would bring a much-needed stability to the community, and perhaps help to raise our profile in the eyes of our Korean counterparts. Which is not to say that older automatically equals wiser, but it doesn't hurt. Older people are more likely to have had serious work experience before, are less inclined toward bitching and moaning, and more geared toward taking their job to heart. I also do think that sometimes making the adjustments necessary to acclimate into a new culture can be a bit difficult the older you get, but this is all, all entirely dependant upon the individual, of course.

Any other questions? I like this formspring stuff....


Small world.

The nurse who's looking after my grandfather is from the ROK. She's married to a soldier and has been in the States for about six years. I taught my gramps a few greetings to give her when she comes in.

"Bop mow-so-go-no? Bop mow-go-yo-so? Bop logo oh no? ... Bop Yoko Ono."

Haha. Cute. Just make it your own, Gramps! Say it with confidence. I trust she'll be able to work out what he means, whatever he comes out with when she comes in.

It's a small world. Unfortunately, just not small enough at the moment.



I feel like I'm living inside my phone.

Let me just say to you, this man is like my father. This man is my father, has been my father in place of a man who just fell short.

We fought through everything that came before. But I don't know how we're going to get out of this one. Neither does anyone else. One thing no one has ever heard in the voices of my family is doubt. But it's there now. Or the opposite of assurance, determination that everything is going to be fine.

And here the fuck I am. Halfway around the world. I'm not taking my shift at the bedside, slowly edging my grandmother toward the hospital room door, assuring her that taking a shower won't shave fifteen minutes off of his life. I'm not standing over the sink cleaning the dishes while the nighttime window fogs up from steamy water, the meal that my family had together. I'm not sleeping on my aunt's bedroom floor, curled up next to my cousin -- both of us too big and old to be doing this, because we believe it will stop us from having bad dreams.

I'm pacing an empty apartment clutching my phone and trying not to disturb much-needed sleep out of anxiousness. I'm scrubbing the same spots on the floor again and again just to have something to do with my hands, and because I'm used to keeping a house for five people when something like this happens.

Tomorrow I will wake up (if I sleep at all) and do those 108 bows. It's not so funny anymore. I'll put all of my heart into them, every ounce of a plea for mercy I can muster. I'll clean my house because I can't clean myself and I can't get rid of anything I think could mean The Universe could say no to me this time. Because that's the only thing I know to do. It's the only thing I can do, from here.

I feel like a child, because I have only childish thoughts. I want to be with my family. Why can't I be with them? My heart is breaking.

Smooth sailing couldn't last.

Boy, they decided to pay me back in hellfire for yesterday's kindness, I guess. Not the same students obviously, and here within lies the problem. My first afternoon class was beautiful. We missed our lesson last week due to parent-teacher conferences, and the private school teacher told me they had been bugging her about when we'd get to meet again. Heartwarming.

The second one. This is the class the private school teacher has been going on most about. I've only taught them once so far this year, so I wasn't sure how much of that to take seriously, since she also claims our 3-5 class is out of control, always falling alseep with terrible attitudes and behavior, and I haven't seen a lick of that out of them at all. She's right about this other class, though. I've got three of the top Jjang's cronies in there, minus the Jjang, which means typical out-of-control behavior, given that their head student isn't there to keep them in line, combined with another three morons who like to run their mouths.

Walking down to the classroom, I asked the private school teacher to tell me the names of the students she was getting the most trouble out of. We're gonna whip this situation into shape to-day. Super Fun Time is over.

I started the class with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. I forgot to mention that our school's kitchen's boiler is broken, so we had to eat bread and bananas for lunch today. I started out with a small speech: "It's Friday, right?" Neh! "It's six class, right?" Neh! "We had a TERRIBLE lunch today, right?" NEEEEEH! "WHO WANTS TO GO HOME? RAISE YOUR HANDS!"

Hands shoot up all over the room. "ME TOO! ME TOO! I WANT TO GO HOME! Okay, listen. We are going to work hard. Number one: learn vocabulary. Number two: worksheet. Number three: GAME! Everybody ready?"


Here we go!

They shouted out answers enthusiastically during vocabulary. I caught one guy snacking on something during listen and repeat and squeezed his mouth open, which got them all laughing. "It's okay. It's okay. We had a terrible lunch today. I understand you."

Worksheet. They got the concept down quick as lightening, gave me all the answers to the example question in record time, worked out the meaning of the other questions with pure enthusiasm. Great. We're doing great. Time to do the worksheet.

And then the nonsense starts. Level 2 nonsense I can handle. Level 7 nonsense is okay. Level 10 nonsense kicked in and it was time to take a moron out into the hall for a little one-on-one. Of course, alone in the hallway, he's full of neh neh choiseunghamnida. We get back into the room and, to cover the embarrassment in front of his friends, he instantly busts out with, "I WIN!"

Whoa. Say that again?

The whole class falls silent. "Say it again. You win?"


"Did you win?"


"Who won?"


"Who won?"

".... Teacher win."

"That's right. Ooh, you better be careful...."

Nonetheless, Nonsense Level 9-10 pretty much continued, off and on, and we didn't have time to get to the game. I stopped class five minutes early. Eyes, eyes, give me your eyes.

I turned to the rest of the class, purposely not making eye contact with the trouble makers.

"Listen to me. I want to talk to you. You all are good students. You've worked hard today. You deserve to play the game. These guys here made trouble. There is no time for the game. I didn't get to answer all of your questions. I'm very very sorry to you. You must be tired of them, right? You can't study with them making trouble. I promise you today is the last day. It's finished. Over. The end. I promise you. Next class, I will answer every question. If they start talking, they can go away. We will study without them. You deserve better. I'm very sorry. You've worked hard. Have five minutes of free time. You six, one two three four five six, come with me."

I've been down this road, kiddies. I'm not doing it again. I've fought and fought and fought to keep classes together before in the face of students like these, and all it results in is frustration on my part, and a loss for the students who actually want to learn. I'm not giving into the chaos this time. Clear expectations and clear consequences. Some students just cannot be reasoned with. And I don't have the luxury that the private school teacher does when she claims that she just has to "punch" them to keep them in line. So, we had a little translated chat in my office. You don't want to be in my class, that's fine. I want you there, but I'm not going to let you hurt the other students. Next class, three warnings. After number three, you're out -- up to the office, and we're contacting your homeroom teachers. I want you in class very much -- you are fun students, and I like talking to you, but it's too much. Three warnings and then you're out. You don't have to be in my class if you don't want to.

That's not the end of it either. Whoever gets thrown out of next class (and I fully expect there will be at least two or three) will be staying after school to compose an apology to the class for wasting their time in English, which will be read in front of the beginning of the next class. Rinse and repeat for as many times as it takes. Enough is enough.

Lord, sixth period on a Friday, too. That time of day will make the most docile class lose its shit. Why me?

My 짱.

There are a couple of students whose respect I've had to work hard to earn. There aren't many students who start in with the attitude with me to whom I give a second thought, other than embarrassing them in front of their friends a bit to get them under control (and to keep them from gaining allies and taking my recruits over to the other side), and just moving on. You don't like me, cool. I'm not here for you to like. Just sit there and be quiet and we won't have any problems.

But occasionally a student comes along who seems a little different, like they're just not someone who follows another person just because they are supposed to. Part of me really respects that, although I'm the person who's respectability is in question. So I try a little harder, for a little longer.

One of these students and I almost came to blows in an afterschool class last year. By that, I mean, I made him so angry that I genuinely thought there for a hot second that I was about to have a massive fist planted right in my face. He was that angry. And despite the fact that I was actually kind of bricking it (he's six feet tall and an easy 180 lbs), I didn't flinch or back down. In the end, I got my way.

At the beginning of class the next day, he came in and slung himself into his seat, tossing his bag across the table. I walked over and stood in front of him. "Hey.... HEY."

He looked up at me.

"You're getting really tall, you know that? Every day when I see you, one more centimeter, one more centimeter. What are you eating?"

Pure confusion. And then a strange half-smile. And that was all it took. He has been my absolute number one C student ever since that day. He sits right up front in the middle, by choice. He answers every single question, whether he knows the right answer or not. I've found out since then that he is one of our school's Jjangs -- not the top Jjang, but one of the top.

What the fuck's a Jjang? in Korean means "best". In the case of a school, the Jjang is sort of the school king. Usually, it means he has fought all other challengers and come out on top. Basically the best fighter, also usually handsome and totally full of crap. You can spot the Jjang by looking for the group of boys all wearing matching jackets and finding the quiet one at the center. Usually they don't make too much trouble in class themselves -- it's all their little cronies that kick up a fuss.

This obviously all sounds really stupid when it falls upon adult ears, but it's no joke to the other students. If the school Jjang is a vicious character, then all of the other boys have to watch their backs all year, giving up money, food and even expensive things like mp3 players or shoes to the Jjang's little gang to keep from getting the shit kicked out of them. They have to move out of the way in the hallway, lower their eyes and basically cowtow to these morons all year long.

I had two classes with Jjangs today -- the top Jjang, and my lower Jjang student mentioned above. In the first class, one of the Jjang's little asshat friends decided to call the other teacher "미친년" while I was standing right fucking there. I always find it really hard to make sure I don't slip out with a few profanities of my own when I hear something like that.

"F... Excuse me? What the.... what did you just say?"

Shock and surprise as they all realize I know what that word means. Ahni ahni ahni.....

"What did you just call a teacher? Say it again. Hey. Say it again. No? Don't want to?"

At this point, Jjang, who was sitting silently back in his desk, as he always is, suddenly leaned over and smacked the shit out of the back of the offendor's head. "Ya gaesaekkiya!" The offendor lowered his head and that was the end of that.

In the second class, there are four distinct groups: Baby JJang 1's group, Baby Jjang 2's group, one group of lower students with nasty attitudes, and one group of lower students who are just nice boys who happen to test low. This is one of my favorite classes, because both Jjangs are actually really good boys, and both groups are a lot of fun -- they accept the lower nice boys into their group activities and treat them as equals, although the nice boys are always a bit nervous. There's just that one lower group with bad attitudes to contend with, but My Jjang, my afterschool boy, always keeps them in line.

Today, we were playing a game which required picking a team name. My Jjang had been riding the bad groups' asses all class already because they were horsing around and taking forever to finish the worksheet. He was already mostly fed up, and getting irritated with the other Jjang's group as well, because they were doing comedy hour over on that side of the room and distracting me from helping him and his group with their papers. Now, on top of everything else, they were taking forever to give team names and we were running out of time to play the game. Which was evidentally very important to My Jjang.

I got to the trouble-making team and asked for their team name.

"Pink pig," the private school teacher translated, laughingly, without a clue.

Liz, keep your cool girl. You don't know everything. You don't know everything. Misunderstandings happen every day. My eyes drifted over the students and landed on My Jjang, who had lowered his eyes and was quietly telling the trouble-makers behind him to shut the fuck up, that they were going to die later. The other Jjang's team started to quiet down on the other side of the room, trying to figure out what was happening. My Jjang raised his eyes up to mine and that was all it took for me to understand that the group knew exactly what they were doing, despite the fact that the private teacher didn't.

I called the class to attention. "Hey. Sit down. Be quiet. Everyone look at me. Hey, you!" To the student who came out with the team name. "Pink pig means American, right?" His face immediately turned dark purple and his eyes dropped. "Right? Hey look at my eyes. Right? It means American? Like me?"

The private school teacher fans her hands in the air. "Oh! It does? He didn't know! He didn't know that!" She pats the offending student who is now about to cry, and is cursing his deskmate (who apparently was responsible for the suggestion that he unfortunately gave voice to) under his breath. I ignored her.

"Hey. Why can't you look at me? What's wrong? Pink pig? It means American. Foreigner. Like me. Your team name is Pink Pig. Okay." I wrote it on the board. "Okay! Everyone ready to start the game?"

My Jjang gave me a huge smile and a wink from the front row. I done made him proud.^^


Just in case you're living under a (Korean) rock. 박재범 화이팅!

Tonight's hwaeshik turned into a bit of a surprise birthday party. Not ready to go into it yet, but it's been a hell of a day, and it was a nice way to end it -- only the old, regular English teachers showed up to dinner, so we were nice and comfortable. I'm beyond exhausted, running on zero sleep and looking like death warmed over (sick as well), so for the first part of the evening, I couldn't make the words in Korean string together to create meaning, although I was catching them, if that makes sense, but eventually I settled into a groove and was able to participate (in English, obviously). Something else weird happened, but I'm not in the mood to trust that yet, or give it any effort of thought at the moment, so we'll get back to that later.

I had my roughest classes today, but my boys rallied around as the absolutely always do when they can tell something is wrong, and performed beautifully, smacking the shit out of each other when anyone got the least bit out of line. Love 'em to death. And it's been decided by the other teachers that Seokhee, my South African student, now considers me a Noona rather than a teacher, given that he marched straight into my office today and asked if he could charge his mp3 player on my computer, proceeded to sift through my music, decided it wasn't up to date enough, harrassed me about it and then put new songs on my mp3 player to get me up to speed.

They were talking about him tonight at dinner, and the old English teacher who taught his class last year said she was surprised to hear how close we had become because he would be awful in my class at times last year. His new homeroom teacher, my new co-teacher, was quick to jump to his defense (which I couldn't do, given that I'm the magnae and she's the head teacher, and also this was all happening in Korean) by saying that he just wanted to have my attention and be close to me.

He's also an awkward teenage boy. They have mood swings sometimes for no reason. Nearly every single one of my students, no matter what their usual demeanor, have had off days where it's nothing but pure nasty attitude. It's nothing to take personally or get worked up about. Honestly. Just wait for them to get their panties back out of a twist, and don't hold it against them when they finally do.


Oh, I've caught them.

Student 1 to Student 2 in Korean: "How do you say [horrible bad word] in English?"
Student 2 in English: "[Horrible bad word.]"

The idea is that I hear nothing but radio static from Student 1, when Student 2 suddenly comes out with a profanity in English with me standing right there, which obviously catches my attention. I don't know how long they've been doing this. Obviously, it will still work from time to time because I can't hear Korean as "automatically" as English, meaning if I'm concentrating on saying something in English, the Korean is still likely to buzz right past my ears. But today I caught it anyway.

Clever little bastards.



Reasons why the fact that the produce vendors only sell strawberries in huge open styrofoam crates is okay:

1. Because you will pass a dozen of your students on the walk back to your apartment and only make it home with half of them anyway.


Had a slight scare yesterday, babies. I didn't want to mention it here until I knew exactly what we were up against, but apparently my grandfather had a slight stroke and they were all set to go in and do brain surgery. But the doctors have decided it's not necessary. He's lost the use of his left arm from the elbow down, but that should recover after some time.

It makes you think, doesn't it? I know a lot of foreigners here in Korea, and a lot of my other friends living abroad have had experiences like this that really make you question your choice to live so far from home. We get precious little time with the people that we love, and life is fragile. What can you do?

Well. Hopefully none of the Koreans who consider proximity to their families so precious (and rightly so) decide to say anything insensitive to me about choosing to be so far from my family this week. They're well-intentioned, genuinely confused comments that usually roll off the back, but I don't think it'd go down too well just now.

At any rate, I didn't get too much sleep last night and I think just startled the shit out of my grandmother trying to have a mumbled, pre-coffee conversation on the phone. It went a little something like this:


"..... What? Are you okay?"

"Okay. Coffee. Mmmuhgettinreadyforwork. [Cough cough.]"

"...... Are you sick?"

Sorry, Grams. I'll get it together. I promise.


어떻게 알죠?

Today was full of, "Teacher here! Present!" which means my pockets ended up overflowing with the last pieces of taffy in a packet, little squares of gum, cough drops and choco pies. God bless 'em. Yesterday was a rough day, because it's always a rough day at a boys' school when the weather gets stormy. I mean that literally. If we start out with sunshine in the morning, but there are dark clouds by lunchtime, you can be sure the teachers are going to be wandering around praying for shelter. They're worse than wild animals when it comes to how tied their unified moods are things such as that. They get full of beans when a front is moving in, and yesterday was a top-quality example.

The private school teacher made a "joke" at lunch that she has to "punch" the students to make them respect her. I'm not too sure how much of that was actually a joke, but I didn't laugh. If I see anyone ever punch one of my students for any reason, they'd better be following that with a quick duck. Not on. I've come around to a lot of the corporal punishment I've seen since I've been here in the ROK, and I myself was raised with a strict and very active "spare the rod, spoil the child" policy. But the point of corporal punishment is that it is controlled -- it is never administered in anger or with emotion. If it is, in my opinion, it crosses the line over into abuse. And that's not something that has any place in a school, or anywhere else, for that matter. Almost all of the teachers I've worked with thus far have had a clear understanding of that. They've even gone so far as to explain to me, being the magnae of the bunch, that even lecturing when you feel genuine anger is not appropriate. In order to punish adequately, you have to remove yourself from your emotion first. If you are not able to do that, you pull in another teacher who is not involved in the situation to handle the matter until you are. That is their way of doing things, and they, in my opinion, are 100% right on this one.

You flip your shit, and your shit is flipped. If you know what I mean. And no one can properly run a classroom (or anything else) with their shit flipped. It's not a respectable state to be in.

The A Level Assholes have come out swinging this week. They're getting a real kick out of rising to the bar I keep moving higher and higher for them. And it's only going to get more intense. They are separated out from weaker classmates now, so I don't have to worry about keeping it all together and leaving anyone behind. I can push them -- hard. I explained to them this week that their younger brothers in grade 2 were able to stand in front of the class empty-handed and answer seven questions in English when I asked them, after being given five minutes to prepare.

But Teacher how can remember five minutes?

Because they aren't remembering, boys. They are speaking. There is a difference, and you are at the level where we need to start working on that difference. Which means this week, you're answering questions I just gave you on a worksheet. Next week, there's going to be an extra question that wasn't on your worksheet. The week after that, there will be two or three. Get ready.

Because we're working up to a chapter about opinions, and by the time we get there, I want them to be prepared to have a debate. That means they're going to be speaking spontaneously in English to give their side of things, and responding to each other's opinions spontaneously as well. I was able to pull this out of my third graders last year in their mixed classes, and they were not nearly at the level these boys are at. It was a one-word-at-a-time ordeal, but it was the most thrilling week I've ever had teaching, because those boys realized for the first time the power of being able to understand and speak a foreign language on the spot. It was one of the only weeks I've had so far where I didn't have to rein (!) everyone in and call the class to attention every five minutes, because they were all fixated completely on what was coming next. I have high, high expectations for these boys on this one.

Today we had a fun little lapse in curriculum in a B class, as they were working on their group activities. One of the students saw me read a name off of a name tag and write it down in English, and turned to his friend and said in Korean, "The native teacher can read Korean?" I looked up at him and said, "Of course."

OH. MY. GOD. She understood what I said!

This captured the attention of the entire class, and the student proceeded to quiz me in Korean for a few minutes, with everyone watching. I answered each question in English, but I answered correctly.

Teacher! How?!

I'm studying too, guys. I can understand how you feel. I know how hard it is.

The final question was how long I had been in Korea. You know how long I've been in Korea, guys. I've been here since the day before the day I met you. What are you talking about? Crazy boys...

They had decided that, since I could read and understand some Korean, I must have been here a long time before I came to their school. I told them that a. Korean is a lot easier to learn to read than English and b. I have a chance to practice all the time -- it's not the same as it is for them. I should speak a lot more than I do. But I will keep trying, and they have to keep trying, too. Which means, stop asking me questions in Korean and get back to work on your projects.


Yellow dust plus snow.

For all of those not on the peninsula who may be wondering, this is why I lost my voice on Saturday:
In the spring, in Korea, Yellow Dust blows down from the north in the form of giant clouds of sand and dirt from the Mongolian deserts, which then sweep over China picking up and carrying with them toxic smog and pollution. The whole world outside turns apocalyptic and no one can breathe. It's one of the many meteorological joys of living on the peninsula, the other main one being monsoon season, which I'll start bitching about again come late July, when I begin my month-and-a-half stretch of being pure soggy and not being able to get my jeans to dry.

The strange thing this time is that a huge Yellow Dust weekend has been followed up by a blanket of snow this Monday. Whacky shit. All my favorite things at once. Really. When will the nonsense let up? All I want to do is sit in the sunshine in a park not sweating or hacking for like two weeks. Korea? Please? Make my dreams come true....

Love letter.

This morning I came in to find this on my desk:

From: Kim dukbum

I think that the relation between human and human is important. That is 'Endless smile'.

Underneath in Korean on the envelope: "내 마음.. 받아줄래?" -- Will you receive my feelings?

Inside, a long letter. All the other teachers were carrying on about how I had received such a bold gesture in the form of this love letter left openly setting on my desk all weekend. Of course, no such a thing had occurred. In fact, it's a note from Beethoven -- my favorite student from last year, telling me that he has no time for email but prefers if we are "penpals" instead. He's making one of his dongsaeng shuttle the letters back and forth. Quite a lovely surprise.

And just now, six of my boys from last year came in wearing their handsome new uniforms, carrying on about how their new weoneomin has a big ass and is always angry, so they like me better. I mean.... I'll take half of that, anyway. Boys. I'd probably be angry all the time too if they were constantly going on about how big my ass was, though, to be fair.

It almost makes up for the fact that it's MARCH TWENTY FUCKING SECOND AND it's snowing. Again. And I have to walk all 40 lousy minutes to the station tonight after work to get to the study room.

I hope we really are going to see a movie tonight.

108 prostrations.

That shit is no joke. But, I've sort of committed to starting the day this way for a while, to see how it is. You wouldn't think something so simple could end with you drenched in sweat, limbs trembling with exerted effort. But as you hit around 30 or so, you feel your mind blank out and your breathing settle into a rhythmic pattern. Full concentration. Centered. The only thing is, I need to get a bigger mala to work through, because the beads on the one I have are too small and take too much concentration, and the counting is distracting.

Why 108 bows?

There are a lot of reasons given, and the number 108 has a lot of meaning. But my favorite is that there are six senses of perception (the regular five you all know, plus thought), three states of time (past, present, future), two conditions of the heart (pure and impure), and three attitudes (indifference, like and dislike). Six times three times two times three equals 108. 108 paths to take. 108 ways we can go wrong everyday. They are bows of repentance.

Now it's time to hit the shower and get this week going.


나도 사랑해.

The point of the game is to tell each other, "I love you," without laughing. The fantastic awkwardness created by the fact that they can't laugh was particularly palpable the first time I saw this, because I had no idea what was going on, other than the fact that Jaebeom had kim stuck on his teeth and they were all bizarrely sitting there in a circle saying that they loved each other, for no apparent reason.

The beauty of watching television in another language without subtitles.


Well, I'm officially sick. Poor, poor me. Peppermint tea and no talking for the duration of the weekend. Not that I really can talk anyway.

Which is fine. This weather is abominable. It looks like the end of the goddamn world outside my window.


You might want to check on the difference between "reign" and "rein."

Yeah, I know the difference. Habitual mistake. Just like I always leave the second "r" out of "embarrassing", only spellcheck catches that one.

Um.... thanks?

Just wanted to say, I love reading your posts about your students. You sound like an amazing teacher. When I feel like a shitty teacher, I read your blog and it inspires me to work harder at learning Korean and to try different things with my students.

Thank you very much. I'm far from an amazing teacher, and I still have my classes that totally flop, or take a while to dig out of the gutter. I'm just an egoist who doesn't like to write about those as much. Although, if you check the earlier entries, there's quite a bit of that in them.

We're in quite a peculiar situation to other teachers, for many, many reasons. It can take some time to figure out what we need to be doing. The one thing that completely turned me around as a teacher of a foreign language in the target language, was taking a Korean class in Korean. All kinds of shit just started clicking when I was on the receiving end. Definitely the most valuable experience I've had since I got here. Even if you're not interested in learning Korean, I recommend trying it for at least a couple of sessions, just so you can get the full impact of what it's like for your students.

Thank you again for the positive feedback. It'll keep me going on those days when I also feel like a shitty teacher (and God knows we all have them).

The song I'm currently working on. Stuck. In. The. Head.