Archive for March, 2010


Wednesday, March 31:  The first lesson in the Korean elementary curriculum involves simple greetings: hello, hi, nice to meet you, nice to meet you too.  Easy enough.  But another part of the lesson involves making introductions.  “Hello.  Eun Jung Cho, this is Gang Suk. Gang Suk, this is Eun Jung Cho.”  I tried a role play for the students, inviting volunteers to the front of the class.  I asked each student his/her name, so that I could introduce one to the other.  It came out something like this: I said, “What is your name?” The child said, “(Mumble mumble) young soon (mumble).”  I said, “Joon Young Soon?”  The class giggled and the child shook his head.  I said, “What?”  The kid mumbled something else unintelligible.  Every single time, I got it wrong and the kids snickered….When I did the actual introductions, I often botched the name horribly or forgot it altogether in the course of the role play.  It was so pathetic that I started using English names to introduce the kids to one another:  Who wants to be Joe?? Who wants to be Ann??  Then the poor kids struggled to remember the fake English names of their friends and they were as confused as I had been previously.

The first grade menagerie

The first grade menagerie

For the inept English teachers who can’t pronounce Korean names (like me), the children often pick English names.  This is totally for the benefit of the dense native English teacher.  I actually asked my fifth and sixth graders to make up English name tags.  They chose names that included Looney Tune, Curie (for Madame Curie of radioactivity fame), Ronaldo, Amy, Chloe, Jennifer, Max, Sam, Obama, Simpson, Trudy, Helena, Wonder Woman, Zinna, Tania, Holly, Sally, Gloria, Gun, Hera, and Giroro.

doggies and zebras and sharks, oh my!

doggies and zebras and sharks, oh my!

I never asked for this, but the tiny first graders at Byeokjin Elementary had already picked English names before I came into their class.  Funny thing is, they are animal names.  There is panda, shark, alligator, snake, doggie, cat, rabbit, pig, zebra, raccoon, elephant, cat, and mouse.  A multitude of little animals, a virtual zoo!  The teacher asks me each day to go around one by one and introduce myself.  In turn, I say, “Hello.  What is your name?”  An angelic little child says in a squeaky high-pitched voice, “I’m doggie.” I say, “Hello doggie, nice to meet you.”  The child responds, “Nice to meet you too.”

the little animals

the little animals

I am on the verge of crying as I do these introductions! I imagine each and every child as the animal name they have picked.  It is so funny, yet so touching.  We automatically make associations with each animal that we don’t realize we make, and when suddenly paired with a human being, an animal name gives the human a whole different dimension.  My little menagerie has totally captured my heart:-)

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Thursday, March 25: Here are some funny little tidbits about being klueless in korea:

  • Yesterday, Mr. O said, “Mrs. Cathy, the students at Byeokjin Elementary really like your style of teaching.  What do you think about this problem?”  Hmmm…. I said, “Mr. O, do you mean the students DO like my style of teaching or they DON’T like my style of teaching?” He said, “They DO like your style of teaching….. So, what do you think about this problem?”  Uhhhh… I didn’t say a word because, honestly, I don’t have a klue what to think about this “problem.”

    Byeokjin Elementary

    Byeokjin Elementary

  • One day, in usual Korean style, I was whisked away to a meeting for English teachers at the Seongju Office of Education.  Attendees were all the Korean and the native English teachers who teach English in the county.  Surprisingly, the meeting was all in Korean!!  Later, I asked Coffee-J, “What was that meeting about, anyway?” He said, “Oh, he was saying that Seongju County has the lowest level of English-speaking ability in all of Gyeongsangbuk-do province.”  Ohhhhhhh, now that comes as a surprise:-)
  • At Byeokjin Elementary, I only teach 3 classes a day, so I do all my lesson plans on the days I am there, on Wednesdays and Thursdays.  My Chojeon days are totally booked with classes, so I count on this planning time at Byeokjin.  One day while at Byeokjin, Mr. O said, “Today the teachers from Chojeon are here in the office. They will take you to Chojeon.”  I said, “But, Mr. O, it’s my day to do planning at Byeokjin.  I don’t want to go to Chojeon.” Mr. O said, “You go to Chojeon.  The teachers are here.”  He led me to an office where the 3 administration staff from Chojeon were waiting for me.  I asked them, “What’s going on?” Puzzled, they just looked at me. None of them speak English.  They motioned for me to sit.  I sat for about 20 minutes, then we all piled in a van bound for Chojeon.  I thought I must be in trouble.  What had I done??  When we got to Chojeon, the admin people told me to sit in their office.  I still had no idea what was going on.  After an hour or so, Coffee J finally showed up and said the parents were visiting the school and the principal wanted the parents to meet the English teacher.  This “meeting” of the parents consisted of me standing at the front of the auditorium with all the other teachers and bowing to them when the principal called my name.  That was it.  Two hours lost of my planning day…. Hmmm….As usual: klueless in korea.

    Chojeon Elementary School

    Chojeon Elementary School

  • Myrna and I went to our favorite restaurant on the ground floor below our apartments.  Most Korean menus are only in Korean, but they usually have color photos of the dishes so you can pick something fairly easily.  This menu had no pictures.  After much English chatter to the waitress who spoke only in Korean, she finally said a word we recognized.  “Egg roll.” We breathed a sigh of relief, “Yes, we’ll take it!” We pictured Chinese egg rolls.  Instead a giant omelet-looking roll came out.  Ah, yessss!!! EGG ROLL!!

    Egg Roll

    Egg Roll

  • The second grade teacher at Chojeon, who is a woman, says repeatedly to me, “Yes, sir.” “Of course, sir.” “What would you like, sir?”  I don’t have the heart to correct her.  After all, what is the alternative? “Yes, Mam??” Yikes!
  • Apparently it is frowned upon in Korea to wear sleeveless shirts.  Yet, many women and girls wear either micro-mini skirts or hot-pant-like shorts.  What’s the deal with that?  I think I’ve made the executive decision to try shock and awe.  Since I brought along loads of sleeveless shirts, I will wear them.  I wonder what will happen??
  • Korean women keep inviting me to attend church with them on Sundays.  I have invites for the next two Sundays, one at a Baptist Church and one at a Catholic Church.  I wonder, do I look like I need saving?
  • In typical Korean fashion, we are expected to remove our street shoes upon entering buildings.  In restaurants or homes, we can just wear socks.  In the school, we put on slippers.  But, here’s the thing.  We wear the slippers all day, even though we go outdoors to another building for lunch.  We don’t change back into our street shoes when we walk outside to go to the lunch building.  We wear our slippers outside.  Baffling…..
  • Funny thing is, whenever we go to any restaurant, and no matter how many people are in the party, we only get one menu.  Try having five people grabbing at the menu at once to see what to order!! Myrna gets so irritated by this that she has devised an entire system of hand gestures to insist that the waiter bring us each a menu.  LOL 🙂
  • Last night, Myrna and I went to dinner with three of her coworkers.  After all of us grabbing at the one menu to make our choices and after listening to a lot of Korean chatter, we ordered several pasta dishes and a pizza.  Myrna and I chose one creamy shrimp pasta dish.  When it came, we each took small portions so the others could have some as well.  We loved the dish!! Much to our irritation, the guy co-teacher grabbed the bowl and dumped the whole remaining amount of pasta on to his plate.  Then he let it sit there and get cold while he played with his mobile, checking who knows what.  Myrna and I looked at each other in bafflement and Myrna finally said, are you going to eat that??  Because if you’re not, we would like it!  He said he was resting, then he continued to play with his phone.  We both wanted to strangle him!!  Finally, about a half hour later, after it was thoroughly cooled, he gobbled down the whole plate of pasta.   Manners, anyone?

Friday, March 5: ON DVD-BANGS: On our first Friday night after we settle in Daegu, Myrna and I have some dinner at the adorable restaurant on the bottom floor of our apartment building.  The entire menu is in Korean, so we have no idea what we are ordering.  Finally we agree on something the waitress, who also speaks little English, describes as “egg roll.”  It’s nothing like what we imagine it will be.

the cute restaurant on the bottom floor of our apartment building

the cute restaurant on the bottom floor of our apartment building

me and Myrna at the restaurant

me and Myrna at the restaurant

"Egg roll"

“Egg roll”

me eating some "egg roll," basically an omelet rolled up

me eating some “egg roll,” basically an omelet rolled up

After dinner, Myrna and I check out videos in a DVD-bang (pronounced bong). This particular DVD-bang is like a cozy version of Blockbuster…. It’s dimly lit, but inviting.  Someone with a sense of style, an artistic flair, has definitely had a hand in creating this hole in the wall…  Myrna and I wander in, browse the video titles, and rent a movie, Vicky Christina Barcelona, which also happens to come with a private room.  The room has a big screen TV, a couch built for two, and a big fuzzy blanket with a picture of a tiger on it.  It also has its own special heater that looks like what in the US is a rotating fan, but it actually puts out heat….. It is so cozy in there, Myrna almost falls asleep during the movie.

Myrna gets comfortable at the DVD bang

Myrna gets comfortable at the DVD bang

me in the DVD bang

me in the DVD bang

Later, I tell some of my Korean friends that Myrna and I went to a DVD bang.  They find this hilarious beyond belief:  This place is supposed to be for couples who want to be alone!!  It’s like a drive-in movie without the car and a lot more privacy!  The people who run this bang must be wondering about these two foreign girls who come in to watch movies on Friday nights.  I even went one night by myself…. that must have been truly baffling to them.

Vicki Christina Barcelona

Vicki Christina Barcelona

This is the amazing thing.  We CAN baffle. We can confuse people or make them scratch their heads in wonder. We are in a foreign land!!  We get to experience foreign things…. People might think us odd, but they will forgive us because we’re “aliens.” We can create the selves we want to be!!  We can be oddballs; we can be nerds, we can be cool; we can be anyone or anything we want.  Thus we venture into strange and unusual places…. including the world of the bangs

Happy Myrna

Happy Myrna

A “bang” is simply a specialized room.  Wikipedia describes bangs as such:  In modern South Korea, the concept of a bang has expanded and diversified from being merely a walled segment in a domestic space, to include buildings or enterprises in commercial, urban, space.  Some examples are a PC bang (internet cafe), a noraebang (a karaoke, or “singing,” room), sojubang (a soju room, i.e. a pub), manwhabang (“manwha room”, where people read or borrow manwha – comic books) and a jjimjilbang (elaborate Korean public bathhouse).

Monday, March 8: ON NORAEBANGS: On Monday night of our second week of school, all of the teachers of Chojeon Elementary go out for a teacher dinner.  The principal and the vice principal, in fact everyone, keeps busy filling my glass with soju, or beer, or Fanta.  Other teachers pile reams of barbequed duck on my plate.  Mimi, the young woman who runs the school cafeteria, painstakingly tells me the Korean names for each and every food, which I can’t understand, and even when I do, I promptly forget them.

Dinner with the Chojeon teachers

Dinner with the Chojeon teachers

Coffee-J and me at dinner

Coffee-J and me at dinner

After drinks and dinner, we all go to a private room called noraebang, the “singing” room.   Everyone takes turns singing Korean songs, some rockin’, some lovely ballads, some classical songs.  I try my voice out as well… botching terribly the Doobie Brothers’ Listen to the Music.  I thought I knew that song, but apparently not!!  My words are something like… blah blah blah, listen to the music, duh duh duh, listen to the music….

I sing my version of "Listen to the Music"

I sing my version of “Listen to the Music”

Later, after another beer and a little more soju, I sing Maggie May and Hoobastank’s The Reason.  I don’t think these are half bad…. lol…. who knows what the Koreans think.  I even get a serenade by Coffee-J: Top of the World.  All the while, everyone who isn’t singing dances and plays tambourines around the periphery of the room.

the Chojeon teachers at the DVD bang

the Chojeon teachers at the DVD bang

Mr. Yun dances with his jacket

Mr. Yun dances with his jacket

the principal of Chojeon Elementary, a very dapper man

the principal of Chojeon Elementary, a very dapper man

Coffee-J holds up the song book

Coffee-J holds up the song book

the 6th grade teacher at Chojeon sings a song

the 6th grade teacher at Chojeon sings a song

Mimi, the cafeteria manager at Chojeon

Mimi, the cafeteria manager at Chojeon

Wednesday, March 17: ON PC BANGS: Finally, my most frequent bang experience has been the PC bang.  I go to the PC Palace, on the 5th floor of a dirty building around the corner from DaVinci Coffee and about 2 blocks from my apartment.  It is a dark and noisy and smoky room filled with brand spankin’ new computers, purple pumpkin-shaped lanterns, white brick walls, gleaming glass cubicles and shiny red grottoes filled with vases of pussy willows.  It’s filled mostly with college kids from Keimyung University right across the street, and with teenage boys playing loud video games.  Because I haven’t had internet in my apartment for over two weeks, this is the place I frequent for my internet fix.  I am by far the oldest one in here… but alas, this seems to be the story of my life!!  I actually feel quite young and hip here:-)

my son Alex standing outside of a PC bang

my son Alex standing outside of a PC bang

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March 14:  Myrna’s Korean mom and I are sitting on the edge of a hot tub at the Korean spa. We are both naked and dripping with milk – white droplets all over our faces and bodies. It’s a funny and almost surreal sight.  She tells me this is the final step in our 2 hour spa experience: the milk bath.  We will sit covered in milk, then we’ll shower, dry off with our tiny hand towels, get dressed and head out for street noodles in downtown Daegu.

The feast after the spa

The feast after the spa

But now we are sitting, and she says in her limited English, “I’m 57. How old are you?” I tell her my age, which is younger.  She says, “I am ‘onee.’ You are ‘yo dung tang.’” Onee is older sister and yo dung tang is younger sister.  Age is always relative in Korea; it’s not an absolute.  If I was older than her, I would be the older sister, and treated with due respect.  This is why my chances of dating a younger guy in Korea are slim to none.  A younger guy would have to spend all of his time bowing to me!!

In the spa, we already went through an involved ritual.  Bathing with a washcloth and soap, pouring water over ourselves from the hot tub using a small tub, sitting in the hot tub, going into the various sauna rooms: dry heat, hotter dry heat, hottest dry heat, wet heat, cold shower, and more wet heat.  Myrna, Onee, and I are sitting in the wet heat on white resin chairs.  Onee says to Myrna, “Cathy has style that is….. um…. charming.” Then she laughs and pats her round belly.  “Korean woman, no!”  She is saying, I think, that I have nice figure, that I don’t have a big belly like she does.  I beg to differ; my belly is plenty round!  But I say “Thank you! Thank you very much!  Kamsahamnida!”  If she thinks I look good, so be it.  She is, after all, my big sister!

more Korean street food

more Korean street food

Myrna and I have to exit the wet sauna.  Our hearts are pounding and we can hardly breathe.  Onee has already said the wet sauna is her favorite.  We fear she will want to stay in there forever.  So we leave, about to faint from the heat.  We then perform a ritual of rubbing ourselves viciously with a scouring pad until dead skin is in piles around us.  I scrub myself, Onee scrubs me, I scrub Onee, Myrna scrubs Onee, Onee scrubs Myrna.  This goes on for what seems like an hour.  My skin is pink and raw.

Myrna wears her one piece bathing suit the whole time, while Onee and I are naked.  Onee keeps poking and prodding at Myrna’s bathing suit, making gestures that it should be removed, but Myrna is headstrong and won’t be swayed.  In the spa, various women, all naked, poke and point at Myrna’s bathing suit, making gestures.  Myrna, I am coming to know, is a determined young lady.  She knows her mind and sticks to what she believes.  I admire this about her!!

Korean street food ~ our treat after the spa

Korean street food ~ our treat after the spa

On the bus from Incheon airport to Jeongju University, Myrna, who is El Salvadoran, and I discover that we have both been on the same trajectory.  She made a stop in Egypt on her way to Korea.  Not only that, but we were on the same flight from JFK to Cairo on Thursday, February 12, delayed one day by the east coast blizzard.  We stayed in Cairo the same number of days.  Then we both got on the same flight from Cairo to London on Tuesday, February 16 at 9 am.  We stopped over in London Heathrow for 8 hours and then got on Asiana Airlines headed for Seoul.  We did not know each other during these flights.  I didn’t even know this Myrna person existed!

Myrna eats a Korean egg roll

Myrna eats a Korean egg roll

Who else on earth would make a stop in Cairo on the way from the US to Seoul?? After all, it is the wrong way around the earth!!

Myrna at the DVD-bang: where you rent a video and watch it in the special movie-viewing room.  Myrna discovered this!!

Myrna at the DVD-bang: where you rent a video and watch it in the special movie-viewing room. Myrna discovered this!!

Fate has thrown us together.  I don’t know the reason for this, but I think it will reveal itself in time.  In Jeongju University, we were not roommates, but our dorm rooms were next door to each other.  When we got our assignments in Gyeongsangbuk-do province, we were both assigned to teach in Seongju, a rural area west of Daegu, Korea’s third largest city.  Seongju is home of the yellow melon.  It is basically miles and miles of “vinyl houses,” what we in the USA call greenhouses, for growing this yellow melon.  Myrna was assigned three elementary schools in Seongju and I was assigned two.  When we arrived in Seongju, we found we are the groundbreakers, the first native English teachers ever to be assigned to these schools.  There were no apartments for us.  Our co-teachers, Mr. Smith and Coffee J, are friends, and they worked as a team to get us situated.  We now live in apartments across the hallway from each other on the west side of Daegu, near Keimyung University.

I am learning much about my new Latina friend…. I like her very much… J

Stay tuned for the continuing adventures of Myrna and Cathy in Daegu!!

March 14, 2010Coffee-J:  I could write a book about him!  He is simply AWESOME!  He is my Korean co-teacher and his real name is Kim Jun Hyun.  He told me to call him Coffee-J because he LOVES coffee.  Finally he admitted most westerners botch his name, calling him “Hun.”  He said at school I should call him Hyun; he made me repeat it several times to make sure I got it right.  So now, to his face, I call him Hyun.  When he’s not around, I call him Coffee-J.

Coffee-J at the school teacher dinner

Coffee-J at the school teacher dinner

Like all native English teachers in the Korean public schools, I am paired with Coffee J as my Korean co-teacher; he manages me while I am here.  The co-teacher helps me with everything from getting situated in my apartment, to getting the elusive “alien registration card,” to getting internet and phone.  He is my main source of communication with everyone who doesn’t speak English.  In the elementary schools, this means most of the staff, including the principal and vice-principal.  As my co-teacher, Coffee-J gives me my schedule, co-teaches his 4th grade English class with me, provides me my textbooks and other materials, and helps me with basically anything I need help with.  Right now I have a toothache, so I’ll need to ask him how to find a dentist.

Coffee-J at Chojeon Elementary

Coffee-J at Chojeon Elementary

As an English major in college, Coffee-J’s English is very good.  He’s been the driving force behind getting English teachers in Seongju.  He has been working toward this for three years and I am the culmination of his efforts.  I feel a lot of pressure to meet his standards for the vision he has.  He loves the English language, loves English literature.  And he can spout off more English idioms than any native English speaker I have ever known!

In discussing how many Korean won I should contribute each month to the carpool, he said, “We need to have a heart to heart.  Let’s just call a spade a spade.”  He asked how much I think is a fair amount.  “Fair is fair,” he said.  This is how he talks.  One idiom after another.  This is such a high level of English speaking….unheard of in Korea!

Coffee-J sings "Top of the World"

Coffee-J sings “Top of the World” at one of Chojeon Elementary School’s noraebang sessions

I told him that he is the man with the plan!  He gets things accomplished in record time.  In one Friday afternoon, he found Myrna and me apartments in Daegu.  On Saturday, we had all our furniture bought and delivered.

Coffee-J, Myrna's co-teacher and Myrna buying furniture for our apartments

Coffee-J, Myrna’s co-teacher and Myrna buying furniture for our apartments

On Sunday, he took us for a shopping spree in E-mart to purchase necessary household items such as dishes, pots and pans, drying racks, hangers, etc.  This is a man with reams of self-confidence and assertiveness; he knows how to get things done.

In gratitude for all the work it took for them to get us settled in, Myra and I treat our wonderful co-teachers to samgyeopsal at What?  Samgyeopsal consists of thick, fatty slices of pork belly meat (similar to uncured bacon). The meat, usually neither marinated nor seasoned, is cooked on a grill at the diners’ table.  Usually diners grill the meat themselves and eat directly from a grill. It is often dipped into a spicy pepper paste (Wikipedia: Samgyeopsal).

What? ~ a Korean restaurant in our neighborhood

What? ~ a Korean restaurant in our neighborhood

Myrna and I treat our co-teachers to dinner at the restaurant What? after all their hard work.

Myrna and I treat our co-teachers to dinner at the restaurant What? after all their hard work.

Coffee-J is married with two children, 6 and 10.  He is happily married, but he also has that yearning to be free.  He wants both worlds and straddles the two to the best of his ability.  He likes to be in the company of westerners, but he has his Korean guy pals with whom he drinks soju frequently.  And on weekends, he is faithfully at home, being a good father and husband.

Coffee Jay & Sunny: I don't think she's pretty.  But I like her.

Coffee-J & Sunny: “I don’t think she’s pretty. But I like her.”

At dinner one night, Coffee-J asked our fellow carpooler, Mr. Sun, what he thought of Coffee-J’s wife.  Mr. Sun said she is very beautiful.  Coffee-J said, “I don’t think she’s pretty. But I like her!”

Thursday, March 11:  My apartment is located in a crowded and bustling commercial area on the west side of Daegu.  It sits across a wide highway from Keimyung University.  Because it’s next to the university, the area is always bustling with fashionable-looking students wearing black coats or miniscule skirts you can barely see.  Within walking distance of my apartment are numerous restaurants, coffee shops, DVD bangs, PC bangs, convenience stores and small neighborhood markets.  Like most typical Korean cities, this neighborhood is a cluster of multi-storied buildings with bright primary-colored signs covered in Hangul lettering.  Here’s a little tour of my neighborhood, my apartment, and Keimyung University.

Crossing the street to my neighborhood from Keimyung University

Crossing the street to my neighborhood from Keimyung University

Crossing another busy road to my neighborhood

Crossing another busy road to my neighborhood

Daegu, which means “large hill” in Korean, was formerly spelled Taegu and is the fourth largest city in South Korea after Seoul, Busan, and Incheon.  It is the third largest metropolitan area in the nation with over 2.5 million residents.  The city is the capital and principal city of the surrounding Gyeongsangbuk-do province, although it’s not legally part of the province.  The total population of the province and city combined is over 5 million.  The city is in south-eastern Korea about 80 km from the coast (Wikipedia: Daegu).

students bustling about on the streets

students bustling about on the streets

in my neighborhood, off the main streets

in my neighborhood, off the main streets

Myrna's apartment is right above this restaurant and mine is on the back side

Myrna’s apartment is right above this restaurant and mine is on the back side

up the stairs to our 2nd floor apartments

up the stairs to our 2nd floor apartments

My little apartment which is like a dorm room with a kitchen

My little apartment which is like a dorm room with a kitchen

my little "wet bathroom"

my little “wet bathroom”

my kitchen area

my kitchen area

Keimyung University (KMU or colloquially known as Kei-dae) is a private university in South Korea. The university was founded in 1954 by the leaders of the Northern Presbyterian Church of the U.S. as a Christian university. Its motto is ‘For the Kingdom of Truth, Justice and Love’. KMU is composed of three campuses in Daegu, South Korea. They are named for their locations within the city; Daemyeong, which is near the downtown area, Seongseo, which is in the western part of the city, and Dongsan campus which includes Dongsan Medical Center (Wikipedia: Keimyung University).

Keimyung University campus in west Daegu

Keimyung University campus in west Daegu

Keimyung University

Keimyung University

Keimyung University

Keimyung University

on the campus of Keimyung University

on the campus of Keimyung University

The campus that is nearest my apartment is Seongseo.  I can’t tell you how many times I had to tell taxi drivers where to take me in my very limited Korean: “Kei-dae Dong Moon,” which means the East Gate of Keimyung University.  However, if I said “dong” in the normal way that we in English would say “ding-dong,” the drivers always took me to the Main Gate, which was quite a walk from my house.  It took me awhile to figure out that when I said Dong, I had to make my mouth into a circle and have the sound come from deep within me, sort of like the deep-gonging bell you would hear in a Buddhist monastery.  When I said it that way, they understood what I meant.  Ah, the tribulations of communicating in a foreign language.

the view of west Daegu from Keimyung University

the view of west Daegu from Keimyung University

another view

another view

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