Archive for March, 2007

Dear Aunt Steph,

Hello from Niles Beach! It looks rainy. I think it looks a little nice. I wanted to buy this card for you. I named the swans “Heidi” and “Aunt Steph” because they were hugging. And you guys are friends. I don’t see any swans on Niles Beach today. I need the binoculars. I see the sky. Now I see a boat that was far away. I think I see a castle. Actually, I think I see mountains. I see Boston! I do see Boston! One of those buildings is where my Dad is working.

How are things going at work for you, Aunt Steph? How tall is the building you work at? What are your students’ names? What are the students learning? Are you enjoying getting to know your students? Do they have snack time?

Today I went to Gymboree with Simon and Mommy. I learned how to hang on the monkey bars. I want you to come back soon so we can go together. If you’re going to see me do it, you might have to do it next year. I want to see you soon. I’m listening to music. I’m thinking of you. I am eating pretzels. I love you and I miss you! I hope you’re doing good!

Lots of love,

Dear Madelyne,

Thank you for your letter. I love getting your letters! You are a very good writer, especially for your age. Your drawing of the fireworks in the garden was also very nice. It’s hanging on my fridge.

I still cannot find the post office so I am writing you back here. I have an Easter present for you. Hopefully, I will find a post office before it becomes a Christmas present. I hope you like it. I got it for you when I was in Japan. You’d think it wouldn’t take a month to find a post office, but I have a saying I like to use over here that goes: “one thing a day”. Meaning, if I found out how to get my pants ironed today, you can bet your bottom dollar that’s all the excitement I can handle for another week or so.

Things are going fine at work, thank you for asking. The building has ten floors, which is much taller than any building in Gloucester, but is not as tall as Daddy’s building. Daddy’s building is very tall, one of the tallest in Boston. Ask Daddy how many floors are in his building. It’s a lot more than ten. I have students named Layla, James, Jenny and lots of Jessica’s. I had a student last week named Dragon, and I have one student named Madonna. She never does her homework. But those are their “English” names. They have Korean names but I have no idea what those are.

My students are learning how to memorize things in English. Some of my students are learning that they can charm me with chocolates and A-plusses, others are learning that I have little patience for text messaging in class and not doing one’s homework. My younger students are reading a book called Simon Simple, about a boy on a train. There is not a lot to that story, except all my students call Simon “Semen” when they read aloud. Ask Mommy why that’s funny.

My older students read better books which are actually teaching me a lot of things, too, like about the Salem Witch Trials, which apparently no matter how many times you go to the Witch Museum on field trips while growing up or perform “The Crucible” in middle school, you will not retain any of that information. My oldest class read a book called “Gross Body Facts” that you would really enjoy a lot. It’s about gross things like burping, tooting and picking scabs.

Yes, for the most part, I am enjoying getting to know my students. Some of them are so cute it hurts. Some are such a pain in the ass it hurts. So it’s a toss up. Do you remember the time I asked if you wanted to go sit on your chair and you said, “No I will not and YOU will go sit on YOUR chair” and I asked if you wanted to go play in traffic? Sometimes it’s kind of like that except they are teenagers which is way worse. But they can roll their eyes and hate me all they want because at the end of the day they will still have bad acne and I will not.

Yes, they do have snack time. We have two five minute breaks during their 3-hour class. They eat some snacks similar to what kids you know eat in the US, but some are very different. I haven’t seen pretzels at all. They like some pretty disgusting things like dried squid. They do eat goldfish crackers just like you, except their goldfish have spicy chile on them. Also, most of their chips are meat flavor. “Steak” flavored cheetos are very popular here and believe me, they are not the cheetos Aunt Steph enjoys. Most of my students smell awful after breaks.

I prefer the students that eat cookies during breaks, especially the ones that share. They smell fine.

I can’t wait to see you on the monkey bars. You’re right; I will probably have to wait until next year. Maybe you could have Mommy take your picture so I can see!

I love you very much, Madelyne. Kiss your brother for me and please don’t grow up too fast while I’m gone!

Aunt Steph


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White Day

So there is this holiday in Korea called White Day. March 14th boys are expected to give chocolates to girls…apparently February 14th, or Valentine’s Day, girls are supposed to give candy to boys. So, today was our day.

Since the only boys I know in Korea are ages 9-13, I did not receive any chocolates from any boys. However, my Head Instructor (girl) and my fellow teacher (girl) both gave me chocolates which only proves my theory about men and gifts. I spent the night harassing my male students like this:

Me: Kevin, did you bring me chocolates?
Kevin: (confused; slightly panicked) Wha?
Me: It’s White Day. Where are my chocolates?
Kevin: Oh, ah-no Teacher. I no bring. I bring Saturday.

Me: Mike, Tom…where are my chocolates?
Mike: (confused) Wha?
Tom: *blank stare*
Me: It’s White Day. I’m a girl, right?
Mike: (knowing smile; clearly guilty) Ahhhh-Teacher! No! I sorry! I sorry!
Tom: *blank stare*

I love how loud their voices get when they get excited. AH! NO TEACHA! Just like Owen Meaney. It’s better than any chocolate.

{March 14} dessert

I also received the chocolate pictured above last night from the women at the corner store, the ones who gave me green tea ice cream last week. This time it was wrapped in shiny paper and presented to me as a real gift. They have invited me for drinks after work on Friday night. I will bring photos from home and a Korean-English dictionary. I’m completely smitten with the whole family.

Wednesdays I only teach one class, so it is my night to relax and grab dinner. Tonight I had dinner with one of my fellow teachers, Jenny. She was born in Korea, but went to high school and college in the States. Boston University, in fact. She took me to a small place near my house that serves gamjatang, a spicy pork and potato stew that is…drum roll….cooked at your table.


This is the remains of our dinner. Probably one of my favorite meals yet. Simple, hearty and flavorful, full of fresh greens and spicy broth. The meat is tender and delicious and falls off the bones. The meal was finished with a cold glass of sujeonggwa, a cinnamon & ginger punch made with persimmons. Probably my new favorite thing ever.

I bought fresh strawberries on the way home and lingered around on the streets, enjoying the shop lights, the warm night air and the echo of my students’ laughter.

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Ease up on the kimchi, would ya?

It’s a small room and the windows don’t open.

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To Market

Today I finally went to the huge open farmer’s market near my apartment. It was a bit like stepping back in time with old wooden carts and sellers crouched around fires to keep warm while trimming root vegetables. It was strange to feel like I was out in the middle of nowhere just steps from a subway station and two blocks from a Dunkin Donuts & Quiznos. I was reminded immediately of the markets in Honduras and Nicaragua with the barrels of beans and stacks of potatoes. Only this market also had piles of seaweed & dried fish and more cabbage than I have ever seen.
{March 11} sesame
These are fresh sesame leaves; they have a touch of mint to their flavor and are delicious when served with galbi and used instead of lettuce to wrap your meat & rice.

I also walked a few miles to the next big neighborhood over and for the first time was glad to return to my own neighborhood and be living where I am. I am not very centrally located in Seoul and each time I’ve visited friends elsewhere in the city I have grown green with envy at their bustling, cosmopolitan neighborhoods which do not require two subway transfers for them to get to. But my neighborhood is growing on me more and more everyday and it was a pleasure to come home and feel…well…at home.

I’ve been in Korea one month today. As the typical travel time warp would have it, it feels much much longer.

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1) Tonight I threw a student out of class for the first time. He was so resistant to leaving that I actually had to go out to the office, get our school manager, Kelly and ask her to come get him out of the room. She came in and he still would not move. After a few questions and requests to leave (in English), she said ONE word in Korean and he got right up to follow her. Needless to say, the rest of my students were exceptionally attentive for the remainder of the class.

Oh. This disruptive student’s name is Sam. Cute, charming and a complete and utter pain in the ass who needs to be thrown out of class. Again with the irony.

2) Making friends indeed. My fellow teacher Lisa, a Korean-Australian from Sydney, is fast becoming my first girlfriend in Seoul. Even though she is living with her mom and grandmother here, she is still fairly new to Seoul. I have someone to hang out with, commiserate with and someone who will help me buy a cell phone and laundry detergent!

3) On the way home, [here is where the actual giggling starts] there was a woman sitting on the street outside one of the darkened designer men’s wear boutiques on my street. Everything closes at about 10 in my neighborhood, I’m assuming, so the shoppers can get on with their boozing. So it is typical to see street vendors set up with their one cardboard box of wares. This woman had a whole spread of bras and panties.

Problem #1: I do not speak Korean.
Problem #2: I do not speak metric system.

I have no idea what an 85B is because my bra size is in inches, not centimeters. Let me just say that I have absolutely NO idea what possessed me to stop in the dark at a street vendor to look at bras. I had a momentary lapse in judgement, forgetting the language barrier, thinking I’d forge through and go home with a discount bra.

I flipped maniacally through my phrase book looking for ANYTHING about prices or measurements to no avail. (Dear Lonely Planet. Please explain to me how it’s possible to write an entire phrase book for the traveller with chapters on how to have a conversation about politics or religion, but excluding all words needed to buy undergarments.) All this time, the woman gabbered at me non-stop in Korean, showing me the different materials used, the different styles of bras. A full-on sales pitch with Sales Pitch Voice, like an announcer at a carnival. As if at any moment I would suddenly perk right up and come back with a response in perfect, fluent Korean.

I said thank you and went along my way. I giggled the whole way down the street.

4) With phrase book in hand, I stopped at the corner market near my apartment. It is both small all-you-need market and tailor/steam press. The owners are lovely and noticed I had been stopping by frequently for kim, yogurt, beer and Twix bars. The breakfast of champions. They have been friendly, curious and gracious with each visit. We had established last week that I teach English and live nearby. Tonight I wanted to bring my phrase book and see what we could talk about. To say it was great would be an understatement. It made me want to learn Korean more than at any other moment since I’ve been here. We talked about many things, even about altering my pants which are a little too long, and pressing my shirts which are a little too wrinkled. Then she called her daughter who arrived two minutes later from upstairs. She is twelve and speaks English better than some of my students. Her English name is Nancy. They asked me to come back often and practice my Korean, offered me something to drink and chatted with me for an hour. True, the whole conversation would have taken only 5 minutes without the language barrier, but it was worthwhile nonetheless.

In the end, when I was ready to purchase my green tea ice cream and chewing gum before leaving, the woman picked up the ice cream with both hands and said “I present you” and handed it to me with two hands.  I said, “How much?” and her daughter said “gift gift”. They charged me 50¢ for my chewing gum and I was grateful that I knew the one word I needed to say. THANK YOU! thank you thank you thank you.

Lots of bowing and smiling ensued.

More giggling…

5) Only a block from my apartment, I started the short walk home, thinking I was done with the giggling and encounters for the night. A truck came up the hill towards me and as I cleared out of the way, I could hear singing. As it came closer, I could see in the silouhette that the windows were open and the singing was coming from the driver. It was forceful, exuberant, impressive singing with so much joy in each exhale.

My giggling turned into outright laughter, as if in a room filled with my very best friends.

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You know those days that are absolutely perfect in their simplicity, in the tiny little moments, that when you get home you find yourself laying on the floor in your pajamas with wet hair smiling for no particular reason at all? Today was one of those days.

First of all, teaching was a great pleasure tonight. Last night when I got home, I was finally able to catch up with Heidi on the phone and trade stories on teaching ESL. It was so reassuring to talk to someone who’s taught English to international students from all over the world. She not only has perspective on ESL students in general, but how Korean students differ from others. It was a relief to express my frustrations

I love these kids. I don’t mean to belittle their understanding of English. It’s not an easy language to learn and the differences between English and Korean are many & complicated. I know. I am standing on the other side of that great divide.

But I do question the methodology used and its effectiveness. The students are so obsessed with memorization that there is little room left for genuine comprehension. It’s a formula to them, a formula to plug correct answers into. And very few of my students can put an entire sentence together without a pencil and paper. Half of them struggle while the other half are held back and bored out of their minds. So…I ask: why you in the same class, yo?

Last night and tonight were my upper level classes and I LOVE them. Their English is not perfect, of course, but there is actually something to grab onto with these students. When mistakes are made, they actually understand the correction. They are eager, they remember what we talked about in the last class, they get jokes and there is an actual flow and movement to the class. We can move off-topic and are able to navigate our way together back to the discussion. It is actually a pleasure to teach them. My lower classes make me want to drill various utensils into my eyeballs.

Secondly and more importantly, I did it. I went to a restaurant all by myself and had a perfect meal, which I ordered, all by myself and paid for all by myself. There is a restaurant not far from my house that I had kept my eye on since moving into the neighborhood. Something about the way it sits directly on the corner of its small side street, something about the way it is lit up at night…I knew I wanted to go there. The other night when I was walking around in the rain, under my new umbrella with a belly full of dakgalbi, I finally took a moment to go up to the window and look at their menu. I am understandably drawn to the eateries with photos of the food on the menu and even more drawn to ones with the eerily realistic plastic 3-D models of the plated food in a showcase in the window. This one has both.

Wednesdays I have only one class and work a total of 3 hours (!) so it had been my plan all week to go to dinner after class tonight. I stood outside in the snow examining the menu, trying to decide what I wanted before I went in so I wouldn’t have to drag the waitress outside to point at things. Thankfully, I am three things:

a) an adventurous and willing eater
b) well-versed in Korean food prior to coming to Korea (thank you, Mary)
c) well-fed at work by local eateries on nights I have two classes

All those things together make it a lot easier to identify plastic 3-D food models. But as I peeked in the window I saw that — yay! — there were menus on the tables WITH pictures (usually there is just a sign in Korean on the wall). So I went inside and made myself comfortable at a corner table and opened up my menu to find even better news: each menu item was also written in English. I have successfully found the one place in my neighborhood where I will spend my entire food budget.

I ordered dolsot kimchi albop, which is a variation on the typical hotpot rice dish. It was described on the menu as “Rice with Kimchi and Spawn in Stone Kettle”. Spawn is a less flattering word for fish roe. Hotpot rice is my absolute favorite meal here so far…it’s a mound of rice in a hot stone pot, covered with vegetables, meat or egg artfully arranged in small groups. Tonight’s dish was covered in kimchi, enoki mushrooms, some kind of delicious fresh greens, shaved radish, kim (seasoned nori) cut into thin strips, and of course the spawn. I mean fish roe. The rice at the bottom of the hotpot gets crispy and sticks to the bowl…it’s a nice little treat at the end. I meant to take a photo, but was so excited and hungry when it was served that I dove my chopsticks in and began stirring, instantly destroying the colorful & artful arrangement worthy of a photo. Another meal, another photo op.

There is nothing more romantic than sitting on your own in the corner of a tiny neighborhood restaurant, with snow gently falling outside, having a warm and filling meal. And there is no better meal than the one you successfully order yourself despite language barriers.


I bought a sugar cookie on the way home and ate it on the floor in my pajamas after my hot shower. I watched two uplifting documentaries on Discovery Channel Asia: one a heartbreaking story of a young Chinese girl who had severe tumors on her face and the British doctor who comes to her small mountain town to help her, the other an inspiring tale of what would happen if the humungous volcano beneath Yellowstone were to actually blow in our lifetime. Let’s just say it would not be pretty.

After a day like today, that volcano could blow and I would perish with a great big smile. Volcano schmolcano. I ordered food at a restaurant.

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Three weeks

Three weeks ago at this moment I was just barely off an airplane and sound asleep in the back of a minivan on the way to the countryside in Central Korea. It seems like a century ago, yet it also seems like yesterday Janelle and I were driving in her Ford Focus listening to Brit Pop.

I am fresh from a hot shower after a day of walking around in the rain. Despite the tragic disaster which beset my hair, I have never had more fun out in the rain. Seas of people with colorful umbrellas straight out of a more vibrant & less tragic Merchant Ivory film. I met friends from my training in Sinchon, a University neighborhood on the polar opposite side of the city from where I live, a full hour by subway. We had coffee over our Korean phrasebooks, trying to learn Hangul and expand our Korean vocabulary word by word. Today’s word: hotteok.

{March 4} Hotteok

It is entirely possible that I will leave Korea with language skills only qualifying me to write a cookbook. A cookbook about Korean food. OK, not a cookbook at all. A book about ordering Korean food.

After our coffees and comparing notes on our respective schools, we wandered the neighborhood, explored tiny side streets and shared a delicious lunch of dakgalbi. Our group included two Koreans, which makes eating out so much easier and builds my confidence for future solo outings. One dish at a time, I am able to better navigate the Korean dining experience. All said and done, my day totalled $12 USD, including the very nice grass green umbrella I bought for $3. My latte cost more.

Yes, Liz, yes you can really eat out for $5. And it’s more food than you can possibly eat.

Last night I also ventured out of my neighborhood and went to Hyewha, a “theatre district” of sorts that is buzzing with bright lights, restaurants, clubs, coffeeshops, street vendors and of course, theatres. It was my first glimpse of what I had imagined Seoul to be like…lights and signs that run up the sides of buildings, throngs of people, modern everything. We had galbi at a little Mom and Pop place — marinated pork ribs that are cooked at your table (I’ve not yet had a meal that wasn’t) and is eaten with red chile sauce & rice wrapped in lettuce or sesame leaves. As with all meals out, it’s served with several “banchan” (sidedishes) and everything is typically eaten communally. Even soup is shared which admittedly takes some getting used to. So if you have issues with cooties, you should plan on dining alone when visiting Korea.

This week I began teaching at my school, and I am learning a new kind of tired. I will, I’m told, get used to it and for that I am grateful. My students are bright and have a good working knowledge of English already, so we are not talking alphabets. We are talking subject-verb agreement. I am teaching 5 classes and each class meets twice a week. Unlike most English academies, my school has 3-month terms instead of the standard month-long program. This means a little more time to really develop a relationship with each student, to see progress or problems and address them. It is much easier than I thought. Not to say that it’s easy or without its challenges, but I am discovering the natural teacher within me. I guess all those years of playing school in my parents’ basement paid off. I always thought that was practice for film directing, as I was much more interested in the props, set decoration and character development in my version of “school”. And as you can imagine, I like my version of school much better.

I have some exceptionally cute students and some exceptionally quiet ones, some exceptionally distracted students and some exceptionally zitty ones, as we move from elementary to middle school levels. I have a student who chose Madonna as an English name and another named Stella. While I have a difficult time taking these students seriously with names like that, I thoroughly appreciate this flair for the dramatic. I have a student named Sam with A.D.D. who I’d like to strangle most of the time and no amount of irony has been lost on me. I have a student named Tim who repeats my “Excellent!” every time I shower accolades on another student, making me uncomfortably aware of how often I use the word. But I can’t refuse a man in glasses, even if he is 10. I find it absolutely charming.

The other day when doing a vocabulary lesson on the word “often”, explaining the difference between Always, Often, Sometimes and Never, the students were asked to finish the sentence “I often go to eat at…” Most students said things like “my grandmother’s house” or the generic “a restaurant”. One little boy kept finishing the sentence with something I could not understand “outapuck”. Outapuck. WTF is he talking about? Other kids, sensing my confusion, began enthusiastically helping: Outapuck, Otapuck. I finally got it.

Outback. Outback Steakhouse.

I give a daily lesson on the use of “ph” in the English language, as I prefer not to be called Step-hunny. This begins first as a conversation about the fact that my name is not “Teacher! Teacher!”

ME: Is my name “Teacher”?
CHORUS OF STUDENTS: No! Step hunny! Step-a…ahhhh, a-hunny.
ME: Step? Is that how you say it?
STUDENTS: No, no! Ffffffff. Stepfanie.

The “p” never goes away entirely, but it’s a vast improvement over being likened to a staircase.

More tiny observations:

* Train (and bus) drivers make announcements with a voice that is like they are trying to get the entire train into bed. It is entirely too seductive.

* My favorite thing so far is seeing friends and families all linked up arm in arm on the streets. Whether a mother & daughter out shopping, a bunch of old men walking home from a bar, two young boys or a pack of high school girls, it is quite common to walk down the street arm in arm, arms draped over shoulders or holding hands. I love love love it and wish we did that more often at home.

* Lining up for subways is so insanely orderly and efficient. There are footprints imbedded in the platform floor which tell you where to stand and people form lines to wait for the train. By the time the train arrives, two straight lines have formed to either side of each door. The people get off the train straight through the middle and then the two lines file on after. Quite remarkable.

* I read a website before coming to Korea that described it as “a nation of boozers”. I have to say I did not expect this of Korea. In so many other ways it can be very conservative. But I am here to say yes, indeed they are a nation of boozers. Soju is passed like water at meals. While Parisian subways smell of body odor and New York subways smell of piss, to ride Seoul’s subway is to smell what everyone did last night. It emanates from the pores of every man I pass on the street like teenage boys reeked of Polo in the 80’s. Everyone I know who’s been here for some time tells me of seeing 60-year old men barfing on the streets at 2 in the morning. And for being a nation of boozers, they’ve got some pretty crappy options for getting hammered. Bad beer or bad soju…your choice.

* Seoul is unbelievably & absolutely friggin ginormous.

Last week, I took a two-day trip to Fukuoka, Japan to obtain my work visa. It was magical. I will write more later about the trip, but for now you can see the photos here.

More about Japan, more about my love for Korean Air, more about my school in the coming days.

For now, sleep trumps just about everything.

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