I am currently on Stage 4 of an unfortunate seasonal cold – the stages being thus defined by yours truly (you can trust me, I hold an M.D. from the University of Google):

Stage 1. The sore throat

This is the worst. I cannot abide a sore throat of any caliber. Like an itch that can never be scratched – lozenges, honey and warm water, painkillers, nothing can make it go away for long. You just have to deal with it, with every breath and every swallow (which you cannot avoid if you want to stay alive).

Stage 2. The nasal congestion

It is a universal law of viruses that in this stage you will only be able to breathe out of one nostril at a time. And that you’ll get a runny nose at the worst possible moment, like when you’re in the middle of a presentation and you forgot to stuff Kleenex in some discreet pocket.

BONUS! Sweating & aching

If your cold is of a particularly nasty strain, you might develop a light fever and begin sweating profusely even though you’re not doing anything strenuous. Like just sitting down at your desk minding your own business, vaguely aching and wanting to curl up in a limp ball.

Stage 3. The sinuses

Here we introduce pounding headaches and the feeling that your eyeballs will burst out of their sockets at any moment from all the pressure.

Stage 4. The chest congestion and coughing

This lovely stage may last for weeks after the other symptoms have faded out. Isn’t that nice? Your cold wants to leave you a little memento to remember it by. As I’m currently in this stage, I now have a 50-50 chance of choking on phlegm instead of speaking every time I start teaching class. It’s great fun.

This is surely the most dramatic description of a cold you have ever read, brought to you by a person who likes to dramatize all things. Especially illnesses. You’re welcome.

In other news, I was trying to tell my student to add a verb to his sentence: “You need a verb. 동사 (dong-sa).” He looked at me incredulously. “똥싸?” Then I remembered that with just slightly more emphasis on the start of each syllable (which is VERY EASY for a foreign tongue to accidentally do, might I add), the word verb magically transforms into the word shit.

I told my student he needed shit in his sentence.

*pats self on back*

His classmate did understand that I, the English teacher, was in fact asking for a verb and not human waste (flawed pronunciation notwithstanding), and the miscommunication was rapidly cleared up.

I try not to be frustrated with catatonic students, or even students who seem to have an attitude, when they tell me things like “I have academy [private lessons] until 10 p.m. today.” I suppose I wouldn’t be in the cheerfullest mood either, if I was literally in school for 14 hours.

Yesterday I asked the students what was for lunch and one of them said “Pizza hotdog!” I thought he was joking. Nope: one of the lunch items was a hotdog (not a full-size American beef frank, but thinner and shorter) on thick-pizza-crust-type bread with pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese, and some sweet corn and raw garlic thrown in for good measure because this is Korea. Paired, of course, with tuna bibimbap (what pro chef wouldn’t pair these culinary delights together?).

Okay but real talk: I ate it all. Not too shabby.

One of my co-teachers was in a car accident – she’s in the hospital with some minor injuries, and as a result I get a substitute co for some classes this week. The poor woman seems to have literally been thrown into this situation. In typical Korean fashion, a “teacher friend” (probably someone of higher rank) requested a favor (favor being “come work at this random school for 3 days”) and she had to acquiesce.

Anyway, after observing my class for the first time, as we walked out together she commented: “The students are so noisy!”*

And here I was thinking we were having a pretty good, “quiet” day.

(cue the trombone: wah-wah-wah-waaaaaaaah)

Nah, it’s okay. I already know my kids are a handful.

*She later explained that she works at a middle school with very studious and quiet students. Okay, but are they cute tho???

We were playing a True/False quiz and I asked the teams to hold up their answers (on their mini whiteboards). One of the teams had written “Talse.” Nice try kiddos, nice try. (This is a favorite ploy of many students to try to cover their bases when we play quiz games; if it’s multiple choice, sometimes they’ll write a HUGE letter A and then sneakily write B, C, and D inside the A, hoping that somehow it’ll fool me.) But anyway I love that class and I want to pinch their cute faces because they’re always so cheerful and happy about everything. Even studying.

Four times a week we have guest teachers come in to teach special after-school classes in math and English. A couple of them use “my” classroom, the English room. I’ve seen the English teacher a few times as I’m wrapping up after my last class. We usually just smile and say hi in passing, but today she stopped me and said, “Do you want one?”, holding out one of the snacks she’d brought for her students.

Occasionally weird situations (for a foreigner) come out of Korea’s culture of sharing, but sometimes it can be really sweet.


Noobish mistakes in Korea

While I’m sure I continue to commit cultural faux pas on the regular here, there are a few particularly embarrassing ones that I thought I’d share to perhaps help other noobish expats out. Or just for your amusement.

Most of them occurred very early on in my time here, so don’t judge me too hard.

I shall omit the Getting Lost Incident, which has been previously documented.

1. The taxi incident.

I was taking a taxi to an open class observation at another school which was pretty far away from my own. After managing to get the driver to understand my feeble “[school name] ga juseyo“, I was feeling quite empowered by my clearly amazing Korean abilities. So when he asked me something in Korean to the effect of “do you mean THIS school or THAT school,” I confidently replied 몰라요/mollayo,” which means “I don’t know.”

The driver chuckled in a surprised way and repeated, “몰라요?” “네,” I said, feeling oh-so-proud of myself.

(Luckily for me, the driver knew where the correct school was anyway and dropped me off there with another little chuckle as I handed him the money.)

What I found out MONTHS later is that there are two ways to say “I don’t know” in Korean. 모르겠어요 (mollegesoyo) means “I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out/I’m sorry that I don’t know.” 몰라요, which I used, has a connotation of “don’t know don’t care.” LOL. Sorry, Taxi Driver Ajeosshi. Didn’t mean to be rude. At least he found it funny.

2. The bus incident.

I still cringe when I think about this one.

In my first couple days in the city, I decided to attempt to take a bus that I had been told would stop near my school. I wanted to prepare myself for how I would get there come Monday, my first day of teaching. I knew the general area but didn’t know exactly how to get there from my house.

Can I just say that Korean buses. are. terrifying. I can take them now, but I prefer not to for fear of being thrown into the windshield before I have a chance to grab onto something after boarding.

So I got on this bus, and after a couple of stops I realized I was now the only person on the bus. And it seemed like we were going the wrong way (not that I really had any way of knowing).

Worried that I would end up in like another city, maybe, I cautiously approached the bus driver in this empty bus and said in Korean, “Chogiyo, ajeosshi (excuse me, sir),” and then said what I now realize is the Korean equivalent of “Bus go [school name]?”

The gruff bus driver responded with a few grunts and then energetically waved me off at the next stop. He probably thought that I thought that he was some sort of taxi driver who would take me exactly where I wanted to go. Obviously I was just trying to figure out if we were going to get close to my school, but I must’ve seemed like an extremely clueless and/or entitled weirdo with the language skills of a two-year-old.

Anyway then I took a taxi and found my school and was able to work my way backwards to figure out a walking route and it was all fine.

Come to think of it, taxis saved my life more than a few times in the first couple months.

3. The Olive Young incident.

Olive Young is a makeup/beauty products chain and my go-to for buying BB creams and facial masks.

Whenever you check out they’re required to ask a series of rapid questions including “Do you need a bag with handles?”, (if yes) “It costs xyz extra, is that okay?”, “Do you have an Olive Young rewards card?”, and “If you want to return anything, you have to do so by this date.”

Nothing out of the ordinary, but the first time I experienced it, I only understood the “do you need a bag” part. When she said the part about the price, I had no clue what she was saying and just stared at her helplessly, which led to a series of even more confusing attempts at communication as I didn’t know whether to say “yes” or “no” and she didn’t know how to explain it any differently, apparently, so eventually she just charged me for it. Of course, it just so happened that half the population of Daegu was behind me in line, witnessing the whole thing.

Not that this is the most embarrassing thing to ever happen or that it’s the only awkward communication issue I’ve had, but it just illustrates how frequently you can feel completely stupid when you first arrive and don’t know much of the language yet.

Incidentally, I recently had one of the Olive Young cashiers do her spiel entirely in English for me, which impressed me greatly since the location I go to probably doesn’t get many foreigners. I know Koreans have no obligation to speak English to foreigners in Korea, so I always feel warm and fuzzy when they do. Especially in grouchy Daegu.*

*I love Daegu but it’s a little bit of a crusty old man sometimes.

4. The co-teachers incident.

I guess it sounds worse than it is, but it’s still a bit of a faux pas. When I first met my co-teachers I tentatively addressed all of them as, for example, “Kim Seonsaengnim” or “Park Seonsaengnim” (“Teacher Kim”/”Teacher Park”).

Yeah… don’t do that.

I was trying to be respectful, but it just sounds really clumsy and awkward and will probably make your co-teachers feel weird.

Honestly, you should just ask them “What should I call you?”, since some like to go by an English first name, others like to be “(Korean Name) Teacher,” and some (rarely in my experience) like to be “Mister/Miss (Name).”

Personally, when I’m referring to them to the students, I use “(First Name) Teacher” in English, or just the Korean way of referring to other teachers, which is “(Full Name)쌤/Saem.” However ‘saem‘ is technically slang and is a casual, borderline too casual way to say ‘teacher’, so don’t use it right away / unless you hear other teachers using this method. English is the safest bet.

5. The paying incident.

This one is an ongoing cultural muddle for me. In Korean culture, when you go out to eat, traditionally the oldest person pays for everyone in the group (part of the Confucian hierarchy, and I suppose the only beneficial part for younger people, is that older people are supposed to take care of and look out for them). If there’s a round of coffee or dessert after the meal, the younger person can then pay for this smaller bit as a way to say thank you.

There is a “Dutch pay” concept (a.k.a. splitting the bill; somehow “going Dutch” got Konglishified into “Dutch pay”), but it depends on the circumstances and who you’re with.

However, deeply ingrained Western norms about splitting the bill when out with friends or coworkers plus confusion about what is expected from me, as an often-younger yet also foreign person in Korea, make this such an uncomfortable situation for me.

I’ve had many an awkward half-conversation, half-skirting-around-the-topic with my Korean co-teachers, something like “Oh, I can -” “Oh, next time -” “Can I -” “I invited you -” “Half? -” “Don’t worry -” *awkward silence*.

I honestly still have no idea whether I’m supposed to keep completely quiet and just thank them, offer once and then shut up, or continue protesting. I suppose I should try to figure that out.

Okay, there are my Top 5 Embarrassing Moments in Korea. (I’m sure there are others that I’m forgetting at the moment.) Thankfully these days I’m a bit better at remembering to avoid most of the faux pas.

Also, though I’m grateful to all the taxis that saved me in the early days, I now avoid taking any form of transportation that is not my own two legs whenever possible. Walking is the one method of getting around that is guaranteed not to stress me out.

Classroom woes

Yesterday, I drafted a whiny woe-is-me post.

Today, I’m glad I didn’t hit publish. [nonetheless i will now proceed with summarizing said woe-is-me post, only a bit less negatively]

Every teacher goes through work stress, from misbehaving students to lesson planning to coworker clashes to administration frustrations to fighting the counterproductive stupidities that have been embedded into the “system.” I think I can safely say literally every teacher. As an ESL teacher in Korea specifically, there is another set of frustrations related to lack of communication / language barrier and lack of power (as our role is technically a ‘guest/assistant’ teacher).

Anyway, yesterday was just one of those days.

My classroom TV/computer connection had a freak-out moment and stopped working mid-class, and my co-teachers and I were running around the school looking for an empty classroom every period until the very awesome technology teacher set up a temporary fix by plugging his laptop directly into the TV via HDMI cable.

(I am seriously so thankful for our new technology teacher; since he started working at my school just about a month ago, he’s helped me with SO many annoying technical problems in my classroom, and he’s always super prompt and cheerful, AND he can speak English! If I were the boss of something, I would hire him as my personal assistant. hahaha)

(Also, insert argument about not relying on technology in the classroom here. It’s true, but in my case and the case of many foreign teachers in Korea, using PPT makes it soooo much easier to explain vocabulary or activity/game instructions without bringing in tons of realia or pictures or relying on the Korean teacher for assistance/demonstration/translation.)

Besides the technical inconveniences, I was drained of all my energy by unmotivated students. My after-school class with the 16-yr-olds made me want to drown in a pool of my own tears afterwards. Or maybe to just yell “FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, WHAT DO YOU WANT?“, as I have now tried a wide variety of formats including non-PPT-based speaking games and activities, a pop song guessing game, Hot Seat (basically Taboo), watching a short animation and making a comic, and – yesterday’s failure of epic proportions – writing a simple “poem” using the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, why). I have let them sit where they want and also made a seating chart to separate the chatty ones.


Now that I’ve recovered from that critical hit to my pride, I’ve decided to simplify the remaining lessons as much as possible and just do what every other teacher is probably doing and hurry up and get through it.

As for today, most of it was an echo of yesterday, but at the very end, just before my final class of the day, my buddy the technology teacher saved the day yet again by bringing in a guy to fix the original computer/TV connection.

And not only was I able to use my normal classroom computer for that class, but it was one of my favorite classes, a very cheerful and polite bunch of kids. The lesson was on “I can’t believe it!”, so I showed them some weird facts (did you know the average person’s forearm is the same length as their foot?) and optical illusions. They had a very enjoyable time with those.

Just one class like that is all I need to feel that the rest of it is worth it. So this Thursday is ending happily. Even better, tomorrow is Friday AND it’s Sports Day, which means no classes and the kids will be running around outside all day, doing relay races and jump rope contests and tug-of-war.


I’m feeling rather like this today:

Just pushing through.

It’s been an extremely bumpy week.

The lows:

Monday is always a difficult day, but especially because it’s my busiest day and a day with some of my worst-behaved classes. It’s particularly frustrating for me, as someone who used to have a teaching role with total authority in the classroom and the ability to appropriately discipline students who were misbehaving, to now have almost zero power in that area. It’s unfortunate that my co-teachers often seem to have a higher tolerance for bad behavior than I do, but because their status in the hierarchy trumps mine, I can’t do anything about it.

On Wednesday I was gifted with a Korean surprise – initially I was told we were having a school-wide “open class” in the afternoon, and I foolishly assumed that meant other teachers in the area or an open house deal for the parents (which wasn’t a crazy thing for me to think since we held that type of thing last year for the parents). A bit stressful, but not that big of a deal.

BUT THEN after lunch on Wednesday I found out that it was actually a school inspection. People from the city’s office of education were coming to check out the quality of our teaching and such. This did make me feel more nervous, because by luck of the draw, the open class period happened to be one where I’d be teaching the lesson for the first time ever (i.e., no “practice” with another class).

And of course, this was the one class this semester that my planned activity totally flopped. I had wanted to just try something different, and usually even when I do try a new idea, it works out okay – but this was just that internal panic mode, rapidly-spiraling-out-of-control situation that every teacher dreads. The kids weren’t into it, they were getting restless, and I realized a couple of the questions I had prepared as part of the game were convoluted, leading them to give the wrong answer.

Thankfully, the class wasn’t filmed, and the inspectors only stayed in the room for a couple of minutes in the beginning, so no one was really witness to said disaster.

Still, it was completely and utterly demoralizing because I knew that that wasn’t my best, and even though no one actually saw the crash and burn (besides my sympathetic co-teacher), I was so disappointed and frustrated that I was near tears afterwards.

I had a double period after-school class today to make up for a missed class 2 weeks ago. The 15 kids in my class (16 yr olds) are such a mixed bag of high and low level, wanting to be there and not wanting to be there. A few of the kids spend half of the class telling me “I no English” while others are getting bored with the simple material. It’s so hard at their age because I want to / sometimes can relate to them as adults, and they have the maturity to grasp and discuss bigger topics than the 14 yr olds, but at the same time they are still kids and they just want to go home.

I’ve honestly had my hands full all semester trying to think of activities that I can modify for different levels or things that will engage all of them, with moderate to weak success. It’s freaking HARD to please a group of teenagers, man.

Today was particularly difficult due to the double period and the fact that while outside is cool, inside is sun-baked like an oven. It was okay in the end, because I purposely saved a K-pop/American pop song game for the end of the second period when I knew their patience would be wearing thin, but overall it was just a draining and soul-sucking experience. (heh heh, kidding, mostly)

The highs:

There are two boys assigned as greeters this semester, so they stand at the gate every morning to say hello to every student and teacher that enters. They are two of my faves for their cheerful attitudes in and out of class (in spite of their English skills being quite low). Every single morning, I turn the corner past the gates and am met with a boisterous “HELLO MADDY TEACHER! WELCOME TO [OUR MIDDLE SCHOOL]!” and occasionally an “I love you.” Today, one of the boys added, “Eat breakfast?” It’s very cute and it means so much to me to be able to start the day like that.

I discovered this note on my desk when I entered my classroom a few minutes before the bell. No clue as to who wrote it, but it made me smile. Also, I should really teach the kids how to spell my name, as so far I’ve only seen “Meddy” and “Mady.”


(Yes, that is an earthquake disaster information sheet beneath the note. Korea got a bit freaked out by the chain of earthquakes in September.)


I played a ‘Family Feud’ style game with the 1st graders, in which they guessed the top survey answers for questions like ‘favorite food,’ ‘favorite movie,’ ‘best drama,’ etc. (Back in August, I think I mentioned I had surveyed all the students at my school with these questions, compiled them, and created this game, because it’s more fun for the kids to guess their peers’ answers than random strangers’ answers.)

Anyway, we didn’t have time to finish all the questions before the bell rang, but a few boys lingered behind and asked if they could click on all the remaining questions to reveal the answers. It was just a cute moment as one boy clicked away and a few of his friends crowded around the TV, laughing, scoffing, or exclaiming in surprise as the top answers were revealed. Any time one of them gives up their precious break time to linger and interact with me or ask to see what we didn’t have time for in a game is touching to me.

So now here I am, 5:50 p.m., about to leave work and so, so, so thankful that it’s Friday.

Life takes stamina.

Physical stamina, yes, but also mental and emotional and spiritual stamina. It’s certainly important to build those up as much as you would your physical stamina. Push through those hard times the way you would push through a tough workout, and have faith that on the other side, you’ll come out stronger, and things will get better.

I’m not saying my own problems are so horrible; for the most part, I’m just being a baby. But I want to remind myself that all these small hurdles and frustrations and fears are chances to build my stamina, not as a body, but as a human soul.

So, to close out the week, I’ll just leave this here. Song of the week (month? year?).

Don’t give up, I won’t give up

I got stamina

Hweshik (회식): Redemption Round

I should’ve known that I couldn’t finish up my first year in Korea without a more traditional style 회식 dinner.

Tonight was my first time attending 회식 with my small school. (I’ve written two posts about 회식 with my main school, which is an orderly, quiet affair.)

This was the closing dinner, basically – all staff gathering to eat, drink, congratulate each other for surviving another year with these crazy kids, and say goodbye to the teachers who will be leaving (transferring to other schools, which is mandatory every 4-5 years for Korean teachers).

We went to a smoked duck bbq restaurant. The seating was traditional – long, low tables, charcoal grill in the middle of each table, and everyone sits on the floor. Once the meat came out, so did the beer and soju. Cups were filled and we had three or four toasts in a row, not including a speech by the principal which ended in a toast.

Curiously, a few of the men (as far as I could tell, one head teacher, one security guard, and one janitor-type-guy) began coming around to each table, sitting down, pouring a round and taking shots. I stopped calculating how many shots they must be taking if they were going to visit every table, but it was a lot.

The head teacher came to my table, where I was sitting with two of my co-teachers. We were drinking beer and soda. I had beer still in my glass (because I hate beer). He said, “Maddy, Maddy!” and indicated that I should bottoms-up the rest of my beer so he could pour me a new one. I obliged (did I mention that I hate beer?), and we toasted each other and he moved on.

After we had mostly finished eating (although drinking continued), two teachers came out dressed in hanbok (traditional Korean dress) and plastic tiaras and put on a show. They introduced themselves as the “Ijang Sisters” (one’s surname is “Lee,” which is pronounced in Korean as “ee,” and the other’s is “Jang”). Apparently they are the star act of every 회식 at my small school.

Spoons stuck into empty soju bottles became microphones. There were jokes. There was a quiz, and winners received 5,000 won gift certificates (about $5).

There was a raffle, and in spite of my internal mantra of “please not me, please not me,” the principal reached his hand into the box and called out my number. Of course! (Perhaps I am one of the only human beings on earth who would rather not win a raffle to avoid going up in front of everyone to receive the prize.) I had to go up and say thank you into the microphone (a real microphone this time, not a soju bottle).

Then there was singing. Not noraebang (karaoke), thankfully. I might’ve seriously considered an Irish goodbye at that point. The Ijang Sisters were doing the singing, but they also handed out the lyrics and invited everyone to sing along.

And then suddenly everyone around me was singing and crying and I felt emotionally out of the loop. Although I can totally understand why enduring a long hard school year with a group of people and then singing a moving, nostalgic song together would produce tears and feels, I couldn’t participate really. Language and cultural barriers, all that.

This was the song, by the way (a song that most of them grew up listening to, and has now been brought to the cultural spotlight again by a very popular current TV drama):

And actually, now that I’m reading all the lyrics translated into English, I can understand why they all cried.

Anyway, then there was a funny song, an original composition by the Ijang Sisters, specifically referencing situations and hardships of teaching at my small school, which made everyone laugh.

And then I started laughing, not because I could understand the song (I couldn’t), but because the head teacher was clapping in time and waving his song lyric paper around, and he was smacking it right in the face of the security guard sitting beside him, but the security guard was so drunk that he didn’t even seem to notice – his eyes were closed, face beet-red, and he was swaying and clapping along to the song (completely offbeat). It was among the more hilarious things I’ve witnessed.

Thus ended the entertainment for the evening. The Ijang Sisters made their exit amid thunderous applause.

The head teacher gave one more speech, and apparently decided that I should make the final toast of the evening. Why? I have no idea. He passed the mic my way, with an instruction that included the word “Eng-uh-lish-ee.” So I stood up and said quickly, “For happiness in 2016. Cheers” and they all said “Cheers!” which was cute. It was also somewhat comforting that most of them probably couldn’t really understand what I said anyway (due to lack of English or excess of alcohol).

And then my co-teacher drove me home, and hence I had survived 회식 yet again.

I’m not saying this was wildly crazy. It was pretty tame, really. But it was the most hweshik-y hweshik I’ve attended yet (out of the whopping three I’ve been to).

I’m just grateful I didn’t have to sing.

The end.

One of those mornings

Talk about a rude awakening.

My eyes popped open this morning and I almost simultaneously shot straight up in bed as my heart dropped to my stomach in the despair of realizing that I was not waking up to an alarm and feeling in my bones that it was way, way later than it should be.

A frantic check of my phone – 8:28 a.m.!!! [reminder: my start time is 8:20] – led to even more frantic dashing around my apartment, grabbing clothing items, slapping on powder and mascara, sticking a toothbrush in my mouth, packing my bag, slathering on deodorant and perfume and wishing I had dry shampoo because there was no way I could take a shower. (This headless chicken method of getting ready ended up being far less effective than if I had calmly gathered what I needed.) All the while, I was repeatedly trying to call any of my co-teachers to let them know why I was late and that I’d be there ASAP, but I couldn’t reach any of them because they’re all homeroom teachers and had to be in their classrooms at that time.

10 minutes after my eyes had opened, I was outside my apartment in the blazing heat, desperately looking for a taxi and noticing (in the way one notices completely trivial things in a moment of crisis) how differently the sun illuminates the city at 8:30 a.m. than at 7:30 a.m., the time I usually walk to school.

I found a taxi a couple minutes later and we sped to my main school (thankfully it’s only like an 8 minute drive from my house) and I definitely overpaid the driver but I Did. Not. Care.

Then I had to make the walk of shame past some 2nd graders who were preparing for 1st period P.E. class outside (thankfully they didn’t seem to notice the fact that I had just clambered out of a taxi 1 minute before their first class), dashed up the 4 flights of stairs and into my office, shamefacedly murmured a greeting to my coworkers, whipped my laptop and class materials out of my bag just as the bell rang, ran back downstairs to Classroom 304, and smoothly started class like it was just a normal day.

Lucky for me, no one seems to care that I was late at all. One of my co-teachers said they’d been worried about me, but that was it. Every co-teacher I talked to about it just said “Oh, it’s okay!” or “Oh, you must be tired!” I’m sure if I made a habit of it, that would be different. But hey, I didn’t miss even one minute of my first class, so we’re all good.

But guess who’s going to be setting five different obnoxiously loud alarms for tomorrow morning?

Weekly Update

Is it Friday already? Wow.

*     *     *

What’s been going on in the halls between classes lately (besides the usual screaming and shouting and stampeding and general chaos)? Well, exuberant singing of the Korean national anthem and the Korean version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as well as impassioned chanting. We have class elections this week. They’re all super pumped.

This also meant that a ton of the kids lined up along the school driveway/entrance with signs to encourage their fellow classmates to vote for their candidate… which also meant that when I arrived at school the last couple days, I was greeted by a row of happily cheering students. I just can’t tell you how much I love these kids. I enjoy them so much more than I ever thought I would when I learned I’d be teaching middle school.

*     *     *

The 3rd years at my main school are doing idioms this week, plus the phrases “What does ______ mean?” and “How can I say _______ in English?” Which has been an interesting challenge for me, because the textbook includes the English and Korean translations of various idioms like “Long time no see,” “Help yourself,” and “I’m full” – so when I’m teaching, I have to say the Korean phrases in front of the class as part of the lesson.

My pronunciation has at times elicited giggles and mimicking from them (not malicious), but I do it anyway, because I think it’s important for them to know that they’re not the only ones expected to make an effort with the other language. I’m trying too, because I want to communicate with them and help them learn. I’m willing to make mistakes and it’s okay for them to make mistakes too. That’s not something I can really give them a pep talk about in class, but I can at least try to show them.

The bonus outcome of this is that I get to work on my Korean pronunciation a bit. The first time I taught this idioms lesson, it was kind of daunting to force the Korean phrases out in front of all the kids and my co-teacher, but by the 10th class, it’s not such a big deal anymore. A few times I even got a chorus of impressed “우와” (uwa, Korean for “wow”) instead of snickers.

*     *     *

The English textbooks here, as I’ve mentioned, are not ideal. The phrases tend to be unnatural and cliche, but unfortunately, for my main school, my lesson has to stick to the book to make sure the kids are prepared for the exam. Additionally, the CD materials (dialogues, videos) are so poorly acted, so stilted, so cheesy. “HEY BRIAN WHAT’S WRONG?” “OH HEY SUJIN. I HAVE A MATH TEST TOMORROW, BUT I DON’T THINK I’M READY.” “DON’T GIVE UP! YOU CAN DO IT!”

What I’ve found, though, is that the kids and I have been able to share a good laugh over the videos. I wish I could post them here because some of them are pretty (unintentionally) hilarious. We’ve had a dog abruptly shout at a turtle “Don’t give up!” and an alien literally saying “Bee dee ba da boo dee ba doo bee” (so the other character in the video could ask “What does that mean?”), which the kids of course imitated for a good 5 minutes afterwards.

But rather than try to make them take it seriously, I just laugh with them. Nothing like a little humor to brighten up some seriously boring textbook stuff.

*     *     *

I love my last class of the day on Friday an inordinate amount. It’s one of those classes where the kids will not only respond and participate, but go above and beyond that in terms of asking me extra questions, talking with me about something other than the key expression, and self-policing the other kids. Today I was trying to start an explanation of a game and one of the kids shouted “BE QUIET PLEASE!” which instantly silenced the class somehow. It was quite funny.

This class has unofficially added a rule to our list. We always review the class rules in the beginning, and I always elicit them from the students rather than just saying them myself. So I asked what the rules were a week or two ago and someone said “Be cool.” That was not one of my rules, but the kids in this particular class keep listing it as one, so I guess now it is. Why not?

We were also playing a guessing game to review and I let one team answer the final question even though another team had their hands up as well. When I went over to the losing team and said “Sorry, maybe next time,” one of the kids looked at me and said, “It’s okay. Be cool.”

Be cool.

Moments from today

This morning I walked into what I thought was my class (at least, it was my class at that time last week!)… then one of the kids said, “Teacher! Social studies.” “Really? Now?” “Yes.” “Oohhh… um, bye!” Whoops. Guess my schedule changed again. At least the kids shooed me out quickly, before the social studies teacher got there and I further embarrassed myself.

*     *     *

I was given a delightful Korean surprise today regarding my first after-school class. I had been under the impression that it would be only 3rd years, but was informed 1-1/2 hours before class that it was actually 1st, 2nd, and 3rd years with mixed levels – meaning 12-year-olds to almost-15-year-olds, some of whom may speak very little English and some of whom may be nearly fluent. And after-school classes don’t have Korean co-teachers, so it’d be just the kids and me.

Cue frantic tearing apart and rebuilding of lesson plan.

Cue panic.

Cue despair.

10 minutes before my class, a student came up to me in the office (this never happens) and said, “Teacher… you have class?” “Yes.” “Unlock the door?” Cue further panic as I tried to figure out which of my non-English-speaking coworkers had a key to the English Room. Thankfully one of my co-teachers came along and found one, and I got into the classroom on time at least.

The lesson definitely wasn’t as good as it should’ve been, but I managed to keep things running for 45 minutes. The kid who came to get me about unlocking the door turned out to be my only 3rd year today (of the 14 students on the class list, only 9 of them showed up today, mostly 1st years) – hence, he was the oldest in the class and suddenly appeared extraordinarily mature and big compared to the 1st and 2nd years. Since he’s a 3rd year, he’s also been in my regular class a couple times already.

He not only helped me out during the class by translating a bit for the younger ones, helping me read their Hangul names, and volunteering to go first for activities, but afterwards he told me, “Teacher, you had good class. Fun class,” and we actually had a bit of a conversation for a couple minutes. He’s a really sweet kid, but not the kind that stands out during one of the big classes amid the whir of noise and activity that 36 fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds can make. In that environment, the loudest, boldest, and most boisterous kids win out. With this smaller class, I’m really looking forward to being able to talk with the kids more and see their personalities come through.

One other thing I like about the after-school class is there’s a sense of teamwork going on (at least for now) in that it’s just them and me. No translator, no mediator. We have to figure out what the other person is saying together; we have to create our own classroom culture together. It’s challenging, but in a good way.

*     *     *

Okay, this actually happened a few days ago, but I’ll include it here anyway: as I was leaving school, a group of boys waved, “Hi Teacher!” I waved back; then one approached me and said, “Teacher, I am… handsome guy.” I agreed, repeating “Okay, you are a handsome guy,” which sent him whooping for joy down the sidewalk.

Getting Lost in Korea (literally)

This would happen to me.

Day 1 in Daegu: I met a few of my new co-teachers for my two middle schools here. One of them drove me to my apartment and literally spent about 4 hours helping me settle in, taking me to my school to look around, taking me shopping at the local E-Mart (which is basically the best store ever, by the way; it’s huge and has everything you could possibly want or need and then some), and even setting up my internet router for me because the instructions were all in Korean. I felt a mix of incredible gratitude and incredible guilt at my helplessness.

This awesomely kind co-teacher was very worried that I wouldn’t be able to find my sister’s apartment and meet up with her, so she then offered to drive me there. I reluctantly agreed (at this point very conscious of how much unpaid time she’d given up to help me out). My sister’s apartment is a straight shot from my place, about 10 min by car and about 30 min walking. When my co-teacher asked if I could walk back to my place on my own, I said yes because I didn’t want her to have to do anything else for me.

After all, it was just a matter of walking straight back up the road for about 30 minutes, right?


I left my sister’s apartment around 6 p.m. because I wanted to walk back before it got dark. Started walking up what I believed was the same road I’d come from… and 25 minutes later I realized nothing looked very familiar and it was getting very dark very fast.

Okay, no big deal. I’ll just turn around and go back to my sister’s apartment.

Aaaand 25 minutes after THAT, I realized I was 100% undeniably lost. In a foreign country. Without phone service, without the contact information of any of my new coworkers, and most importantly, without even my home address. My co-teacher had written all these things down for me… and we’d left them at my apartment.

Panic started to set in a little bit because it was very dark and very cold. It felt a little nightmarish, like This is not happening to me. After a few more minutes of helplessly wandering around and imagining the news story the next day about a foreign girl dying of exposure to the elements on the streets of Daegu (no, this was not a rational thought; I was sort of freaking out), I decided hailing a cab was my best bet. No, I didn’t know my address, but at least it was warm.

Thank God that there is no shortage of taxis in Korea. The old ahjussi inside smelled like smoke and when I hesitantly, feebly told him the name of my apartment building (a name which, I now know, was incorrect and unhelpful), he said “Eh? Where?”

*Please note: Although I will recount our conversations in English, everything this taxi driver said was in Korean. My communication with him consisted of broken Korean and some random English words. In the end it worked quite well. And it turns out I know more Korean than I thought, in terms of listening and understanding anyway.*

With some difficulty and my limited Korean vocabulary, I made him understand that A) I was lost, B) I’d just arrived in Daegu today, C) I didn’t know my home address and D) my phone didn’t work here yet. Basically, I threw myself on his mercy.

He started driving me in the general direction that I pointed him in, and then I thought of telling him one of my school names. He took me there, and seeing that I still had no clue how to get home, he pointed out a Daegu police station across the street. He then proceeded to take me there, saw that it was closed, told me to wait in the car, got out and called the police to come to the station and help me out.

The two police officers spoke even less English than the taxi driver (aka none). However, the taxi ahjussi explained my situation in Korean, causing looks of bewilderment and consternation on the cops’ faces that I would’ve found funny if it weren’t for my extreme embarrassment and general state of cold, hungry exhaustion.

The taxi driver told me he would leave me with the police now, and took me outside to check the meter and pay him. 11,200 won (about $11) in exchange for not freezing to death on my first night in Daegu? I consider that a good deal.

Back inside, I gave my passport to the cops so they could find my name, and managed to explain (in Korean) that I’m an English teacher for so-and-so schools. This led them to somehow contact one of my co-teachers (not the one that took care of me today). I then had a cringe-worthy conversation with her in English about the fact that I was lost and at the police station.

Yes, that’s right. I haven’t even started my job yet and my employers have already received a call from the police about me. I’m off to a great start!

Co-teacher: “You’re lost?”

Me: “Yes. I’m so sorry.”

Her: “It’s okay. Do you know your address?”

Me: “No.”

Her: “Okay, can I talk to the police officer?”

About 10 seconds later, the cop hung up the phone… and said nothing to me. So I sat there for a few minutes wondering if I was going to get picked up by my co-teacher like a juvenile delinquent being picked up by a parent.

Then I saw the map on the wall behind the desk, which looked really familiar to the map my co-teacher had shown me earlier. The cops noticed this and ushered me behind the desk to point at where I thought my apartment was. (As it turns out, the place I pointed to was almost exactly where my apartment actually is, although I didn’t know how accurate I was at the time.)

The cops then guided me to their car and said (in Korean) they would drive me around what was hopefully my neighborhood. While they were doing so, a small miracle happened. My phone picked up a smidgen of somebody’s open WiFi and a few Kakao Talk messages popped up from my co-teacher (the one who went shopping with me). One of them included my address in Korean.

I showed this to the officer, they showed it to a local shop owner, and minutes later one of the cops was escorting me to my front door. He then proceeded to write my address on a sticky note and give it to me. I apologized and thanked him in Korean and hurried my humiliated self into my apartment. It was 8:20 p.m., almost 2 1/2 hours after I’d left my sister’s place.

To top it all off, about 30 minutes later my landlord and an administrative official FROM MY SCHOOL (not the school they called – the OTHER school that wasn’t even supposed to know about this) show up at my door to check if I’m okay because “they heard I got lost.” The admin guy came over on a Friday night to check on me. It’s both sweet and embarrassing. So basically, everyone knows. Everyone. Knows. I have branded myself as the waygook (foreigner) who got lost before she even started.

Well Daegu, I’m here! I’ll be in the corner memorizing my address.

Lessons learned from this fiasco:

1) NEVER go ANYWHERE without my address written in Korean. And English.

2) Korean people are so kind. The taxi driver could’ve taken my money and made me get out, but he didn’t. This was just one example of the genuine kindness and desire to help that I’ve seen here already.

3) Did I mention the importance of knowing my address?