Intrepid Girl Reporter

Tuesday, 7/8: to the winner go the spoils

A good rule of thumb for shopping in Korea is, “Did I own this in 1993?” If the answer is “yes,” which it often is, the clothes are best left in the store and on Shannon Doherty in “Mallrats.” This is apparently a rule I did  not regard once this entire year, as I discovered to my chagrin during my packing, when I pulled out item after item that was either a) consigned to a box for the after-school program or b) donated to HM. HM has never seen “Mallrats,” which is probably for the best.

Such packing is part of how I would like to account for my lengthy blog absence. I also spent a good deal of the time fielding letters from my students (to be reproduced here later) and receiving a touching and bizarre array of gifts. These included:

  • a Rubik’s cube
  • five different cell phone charms (a lollipop, a rabbit in a hanbok, half a fake stone heart, and two that said “Love,” once of which came from PopSongBoy#1)
  • a bag of junk food from Family Mart
  • a snow globe with a teddy bear wearing a crown that says “King of King”
  • cross-stitched models of kids wearing traditional Korean clothing
  • a $65 purse from Fila (!!!)
  • a planner that says “I ❤ NY,” followed by the subtitle “It’s clean, and it’s easy to find everything”
  • some beautiful photos of Jeju that I think my student actually took
  • perfume from a boys’ class that is borderline unwearable
  • multiple packs of gum


I also, of course, spent a lot of time saying goodbye, which is something at which I’m pretty good by now, having had lots of experience. HS cried when I left. HB disappeared, so I didn’t actually say goodbye to him, but I’m scheduled to call home on Friday night, so I should be able to figure it out then. HM kept looking up words that translated to things like “among the missing” and “lost in a sea of doubts.” Perhaps I should have studied my Korean a bit harder.

Now, of course, I am home. The Program, instead of routing me through Seoul to Atlanta and Johnson City, sent me from Seoul to Narita to Detroit to Johnson City, which makes a lot more sense, obviously. I was concerned about culture shock, but fortunately for me I spent FIVE HOURS in the Detroit airport, which – although it almost gave me a seizure – accelerated my culture shock and helped me get over it pretty quickly. Like shock therapy. I forgot how fat we are in America.

Also, I would like to offer a hearty non-recommendation to Northwest Airlines, which made me yearn for the halcyon days when I spoke broken Korean to the understanding clerks at KoreanAir. I tried to ask them to help me get my backpack, which I couldn’t reach, from the overhead compartment and they told me to get the guy next to me to help. For a moment, I wondered if I had made the wrong decision in coming home.


PS. I would like to plug my favorite two stores in all of Seoul, if I may, one of which I visited on Sunday in an attempt to assuage my loneliness (no, really). A-Land does not seem to have a website, even though I know perfectly well that it must, but it’s like a discounted and expanded Anthropologie, with more recycled products and stationery. I’m no design expert, but I do enjoy a good one, and the products they carry never cease to amaze me. It’s near American Apparel in Myeongdong.

My second favorite store in Seoul is mmmg (millimeter milligram), which makes the most brilliant paper products in Korea, bar none. Bizarre usage of English has its place, of course, but mmmg’s stuff is genuinely cool, fun and innovative. I have spent a lot of money there. Their products are available in the store below the Kyobo Bookstore in Daegu, and there are several stores in Seoul as well; there’s one n Myeongdong that I can never find, and an easier one to locate next to the Anguk subway stop, on the edge of Insadong. There’s a list of locales if you can go to their website, which used to work for me and does not anymore.

Monday, 3/31: last night I dreamt that somebody loved me
March 31, 2008, 7:10 am
Filed under: classes, host sister, life on Jeju, skool, students, teaching

Actually, what I dreamt was a lot more mundane: that I had curly hair. And that I finished a poem.


1G – The Price is Right

  • introduced clap thing to control loud classes (i.e. I clap in a pattern and they clap back – much like Summerbridge)
  • did it work? or did it work for girls?
  • stop same kids from answering

1A – The Price is Right

  • one girl way ahead of everyone else (understood me when I said they would make me go deaf)
  • did clap thing

1-3 – The Price is Right

  • ril low…some didn’t even remember me
  • did clap thing
  • did NOT make anyone cry this week

1I – The Price is Right

  • not so hot…ACT punished them, didn’t get to game
  • did clap thing but then they mimicked it (uh oh)

The copy shop people at my school live in this bizarre alternate universe. Whenever I go to the shop, the door is always closed (“to keep in the heat”), so I have to knock –

This kid who is – I don’t think he’s special ed, exactly, because he’s in my class, but he’s allowed to wander at will and no one seems to question his total absence of work – anyway, he just came into the teacher’s office and tried to take the Punisher’s cell phone. When I attempted to get it back, he tried to play keepaway.

Anyway. So in the copy shop, they have a television and an armchair, and whenever I go in there I’m interrupting either a soap opera or some sort of game show, and they’re always just sort of sitting there, chilling out and smoking. Sometimes they will do whatever job you need. Other times they’ll show the teachers how to do it and go back to socializing and TV watching. There are three people who work there, and I never see them anywhere else. They might live there.

Saturday I went to see KES’ concert, and he was mortified to find that I had brought him flowers, as, it turns out, he was not actually playing in the concert, although he does live at the orphanage. Actually, orphanage isn’t exactly the right term, because a lot of these kids have families who are still alive, but for whatever reason they’re wards of the state. Which, as you might imagine, carries a much greater stigma than having parents who are dead. Anyway, there were a number of my students performing, including a few students whom I didn’t even realize were my students, but I didn’t have enough flowers to give all of them one, so I let KES keep them, even though he tried to give them back.

Apparently a lot of the kids at the Child Welfare Center (which is what the orphanage is officially called) go to my school, because the center is maybe ten minutes away. Sweater Girl lives at the orphanage. So does this kid whose English is pretty good, but who is not particularly well behaved. I think to myself that I wouldn’t have guessed – but what am I expecting, smudges of soot?

This particular center is rather well appointed, I think – I visited the babies there once with Host Sister, and the older kids were rollerblading around, and the people seemed nice and the grounds looked pretty, etc., and at the concert on Saturday they had soloists who appeared to be from the Jeju Orchestra or similar. Of course, it probably still wasn’t the kids’ first choice. Still, though, I’m starting to reconceptualize my notion of orphanages. The foster care system is so flawed in so many ways. We have this very “Little Orphan Annie” idea of these places in America, but are they so much worse than being shuttled from family to family?

Another surprise from the weekend: I had always assumed that Host Sister wasn’t a particularly good English writer, given her extreme reluctance to do so. But I proofed a report she wrote yesterday, one that included words like “attractive” and “consistent” and referenced the phrase “the clothes make the man.” I feel like I don’t even know her.

Thursday, 3/6: I just want some trail mix
March 6, 2008, 2:38 pm
Filed under: host mom, host sister, life on Jeju, life progress, pipe dreams, the future, U S of A

The first thing I should establish here is that I’m not going to grad school next year.

To be fair, Columbia’s rejection letter was really nice – they think my academic credentials are stellar, they encourage less than 5% of their applicants to reapply but they really want to see me again, I just need to get some more work experience, blah blah blah. And as Miguk Oma says, they certainly didn’t have to write all of that.

I found all this out yesterday morning, before I had my laptop back, i.e. sitting in the freezing living room squinting at the stupid host family computer. I was not initially fazed. I found out on Tuesday that I got an interview for the AIF fellowship, which is promising. And I’m reasonably sure that if I apply again, I not only have a good chance of getting in, but I might actually get some money to fund my poor educational dreams.

Subconsciously, however, this information started to stress me out. Basically, yesterday just sort of spun out into this sort of nunchi nightmare. Nunchi, for those of you who are not schooled in Korean culture, is the ability to sort of suss out a situation, to avoid making the sort of social miscues that Korean society abhors. I guess the news that my future is a lot less certain than I was hoping sort of dulled my nunchi, because I kept upsetting the kibun everywhere I went, including but not limited to: overextending myself at the inconvenience of other people, accidentally making Omma take me and some other teacher she knew to a really expensive eel restaurant near the Jeju Student Culture Center, accidentally sitting in the wrong seat on the bus, etc. I think the low point of my day was when I went to both E AND Lotte Marts to find some trail mix and I just couldn’t find any and I almost started crying in the store. I knew perfectly well that Korean stores do sell trail mix, but apparently none of those stores are in SinJeju, so I ended up having to buy separate trail mix components, which, for the record, are really expensive.

Despite my own discomfort, however, I want to take note of a recent source of pride: Host Sister has refused to go to hagwon anymore. Not even joking. I can’t even come up with an analogy that will make the significance of this apparent to my American readers – all I can say is that Korean students go to hagwon. They just do. To give you an idea of why, here is the Korean life plan:

  1. To be happy, you need to have lived a good life.
  2. To live a good life, you must be successful.
  3. To be successful, you should probably have gone to a good university, preferably a SKY (Seoul, Korea, or Yonsei) school.
  4. To get into a good university, you have to have done well on the admissions tests.
  5. To do well on admissions tests, you should have gone to a good high school.
  6. To get into a good high school, you have to have done well on the high school admissions tests.
  7. To do well on the high school admissions tests, you need to study all the time.
  8. To study all the time, you need to go to hagwon.

I partially credit this decision to her time in America and the fact that she saw that her life as a ninth grader does not have to be perpetually miserable. She told Host Mom that she can study just fine on her own, which is true, since she has been known to skip major family holidays in favor of studying. “Every day,” she told me, “I think about hagwon, do I go or not go. Every day.” Also in America: she got really good at SkipBo. But I played her yesterday and I still won.

Anyway, moments like this sweet SkipBo victory remind me not to feel too sorry for myself, even though maybe I will spend another whole year abroad and if I don’t who knows if I’ll get a good enough job to get me into grad school? Maybe I should see if they have hagwons in America.

Sunday, 12/16: they don’t love you like I love you
December 16, 2007, 3:09 pm
Filed under: host brother, host fam, host sister, life progress

HB is acting out in the way that only a sixth-grader can, standing in my room and declaring that he will “never not talk to me,” then staring in my mirror and refusing to leave. His ire is understandable in a sense; he’s mad because I’m spending time with HS that HS never had before. On the other hand, I offered earlier to play with him and he said he wanted to wait until after I was done with HS, and now we’re out of time. What he’s also been doing is waiting until it is obviously inconvenient to play (ex. HS says she’ll be ready in five minutes, HB wants to take that time) and then getting angry when I can’t do it. I suspect that Oma and Apa have already talked to him about not being jealous, so he’s drawing attention to his concerns in the only way he knows how – making it look like I’m not paying attention to him. Also, by making fun of my Korean, which he has never done before. Understanding is exhausting sometimes.

In the meantime, I’m writing my CV, and at this point I’m starting to wonder if I can include things like “crochet” under my skills category.

walking in the air

So I downloaded The Snowman, which is only THE BEST CHRISTMAS MOVIE OF ALL TIME*, for use in my classroom, during these last two useless weeks after exams. Playing it, I noticed that this version featured a live action introduction with a narrator who looked oddly familiar. Google reveals that this mysterious fellow is, in fact, DAVID FUCKING BOWIE. Perhaps more importantly, his presence does not improve the movie at all, aside from the fact that you get to see David Bowie.

Moral of the story: The Snowman > David Bowie > the rest of us

I’ve had the past three days off, effectively creating a five-day weekend, which was nice to say the least. “Nice” might not even be the best word for Saturday, where Aewol’s co-teacher’s boyfriend proceeded, at noraebang, to rap along with popular artist G-Dragon, as well as 2Pac. Also, his name was Steve Son. As in, “My name is Steve, son.”

Of course, five free days without drama is an impossibility for the Jeju Crew and for my host family too, I think. We can’t help it, really; being thrown into this immediate closeness, spending so much time together, it’s almost inevitable that we’re going to make mistakes sometimes. When you finally start to know people, it’s so much easier for you to hurt each other. I got in a massive fight with HB; I got into another fight, not as large but just as difficult, with Scooter. I didn’t want either of them to happen. But these things, they feel like fires: you can avoid them, yes, but the brush collects and blazes later. And I’d much rather burn them out now.

But later HB told me that he likes me, although he doesn’t love me, which someone told me means that he does, really. And Scooter and I went suit shopping on Tuesday and had just a good friend day – we ate pizza, and Christmas shopped, and made fun of the guy at Zini’s (who is now – if you are interested – featured on the poster outside the cafe. He is reading earnestly), and split a chestnut 빙수 (sundae). Then today I had lunch with Oregon and Transy, and went to the five day market with HM, and she told me to sleep in the car as the Weepies played in the background. Then we went out for 갈비 and 냉면 to celebrate HS’s finish with finals, and I know it’s such a tired theme, how lucky I am. What should I compare this to, my favorite pair of shoes?

Speaking of shoes: I went into Athlete’s Foot this morning to try to get a pair – I currently have NO shoes that protect me from the rain – and I asked the guy if he had my size in these shoes, and he was like, “Yes.” Silence. After an uncomfortable pause, one that went on far too long, I was like, “…Can I try them on?” Then he seemed to take it as a personal affront when they were too big. As it turns out, they’re for men. Who knew? (Not Korea. Take that, gender stereotypes!)

Now I have a personal statement to finish – I have, rather suddenly, decided to apply to what the Koreans call 대학윈 now that TFANY is out of the picture. I’m applying to Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), which is quite a long shot, but it’s also the only program I’m pretty sure I’d attend sight unseen. I don’t know if I’ll get in this year or not – if I don’t, I’ll just apply next year, although getting in this year would be pretty much unbelievable. It’s so terrifying to think that This Is What You’re Going To Do With Your Life, but as Miguk Oma (in her infinite wisdom) pointed out, one has to make some sort of choice at some point. And as the life of Miguk Apa has proven, you don’t have to stick with it.

In two weeks I’ll be home. But the days here feel so bright sometimes.

Finally, someone found my blog by searching for “burnt toast poem,” and I feel obliged to provide.

Eating burnt toast or kimchi –

The decision seems easy to me.

Beautiful it is not,

But toast don’t smell like rot.

I sure hope that this breakfast is free.

I’ll be here all week, kids.

Today IGR Recommends: The Snowman, and concurrently, bittorrenting. I cannot actually share a copy due to filesize, but I can direct you to Azureus, and from there recommend that you Google “the snowman” + torrent. And realize just what has been missing in your life all these years.

*I do not make such statements lightly.

that which we call Host Sister…
November 30, 2007, 1:55 pm
Filed under: host sister, Uncategorized

1L (boys) – fun vs. funny

  • I mean they just keep getting better and better
    • except for that kid with the X-Acto knife
  • got to board races and everything
  • also taught Tall Jeong difference between fun and funny (who knew?)

2F (girls) – movie reviews intro

  • reasonably smart but really, really annoying
  • I think girl in back is maybe class scapegoat? watch
  • good participation/less hostility from 80s Ricki Lake (is girl who sits next to her class captain?)
  • WotD: “cinema”

When I was in high school, one of my favorite books to not buy at Barnes&Noble was this name book, which I found to be terribly fascinating and hip with its snide commentary on naming connotations. Admittedly, it’s a little forced and dated now, but I still find myself wishing I had a copy now that I’ve been charged with helping HS rename herself.

IGR: You have an email, right? So when you make friends in America, you can give them your email address and keep in touch when you leave.

HS: I want an American name.

IGR: Oh.

I’m never entirely sure if HS is losing a little bit of nuance in her translations or if she’s just really blunt.

As an ESL teacher, as an American, and as a person, I’ve found the politics of naming to be more than a little dangerous. The problem with renaming people according to one’s own culture is that one risks charges (and cases) of cultural imperialism, especially when the person in question comes from (ahem) the most dominant country in the world. The unspoken corollary is that Your Korean Name is Not Okay, But This American One Is. It’s kind of a problem, especially because America – while its politics are not hugely popular – remains this sort of glamorized dreamland. Even among my savviest kids, there’s no sense of any “Well, I’d really rather go to Sydney or London because it’s a little more diverse and less explored, you know, a little more fashionable” sentiment. I’ve taken an informal straw poll of a lot of them, and when I ask them if they want to go to America they look at me like I’ve asked them if they like breathing.

And, as always, personal – and hardly rational – experiences shape my own views on the subject. I posted about this on the blog I’m not allowed to connect to here, the one that makes my name and identity really obvious, but my own history makes it difficult for me to look objectively at the subject. Since childhood, I’ve been obsessed with names, their sounds and connotations; they’re the only thing I really collect, and I have a running list of my favorites (all of which have earned their place for widely varying reasons). My family doesn’t even really have a name; my father’s original family name (another convoluted story, for another post) was lost when his first stepfather adopted him and his siblings, and as a result the name I carry has no real resonance. I sort of picked it up by accident, it seems. But to lose it – and its Caucasian identity – in favor of something more closely tied to my own ethnic heritage would be, in a way, to distance myself from my Caucasian mother, to tell her that her culture is not good enough for me.  Is it any wonder that I have the urge to name my child something ludicrous, just because I can?

So HS is convinced that her name is too hard for Americans (it’s not really, although it’s not easy). Ergo, I find myself browsing these baby name sites, all of which are laden with popups and unimpressive design. Even the promisingly named has nothing real to offer me – no insight on the added layers that come with all names, no suggestions on whether Jane is plain or chic. I just want to make sure that she doesn’t, like a girl I knew at Orientation, rename herself Eddie. And to fight that temptation – the temptation to tell her that yes, all the girls in America are named Hortense. I’d just show her the Top 20 Names List from the US Census, but I can’t let her name herself Makayla or Nevaeh. America. I’m ashamed.

he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

IGR: When you go to America, we will have a party for you, too.

HB: Yes. All of America.

IGR: All of America will have a party?

HB: Yes.

IGR: Like a holiday?

HB: Yes. When I come, it will be a national day.

1G (boys) – fun vs. funny

  • had to cut some material to keep their interest
  • probably best behaved ever but still kind of noisy
    • good behavior probably due to the presence of Scooter in the back of the room after I had told him how horrifying my students can be
      • way to make me look bad, kids
  • WotD: “hilarious”/quiz: “What holiday was last week?”
  • no worksheets – printer issues

1H (boys) – fun vs. funny

  • tolerable
  • same work as 1G
  • no worksheets

1F (girls) – fun vs. funny

  • surprisingly bad (My Best Student told Visiting Co-Teacher that they had been rough all day)
  • didn’t get to scared vs. scary but did hand out worksheets for the first time
  • TBB did some work again, which was good

1E (girls) – fun vs. funny

  • okay
  • got to scared vs. scary but not to board races

2D (girls) – movie reviews intro

  • probably the best I’ve seen them in a while
  • lots of mid-level girls in low-level class (like that girl with the angular face in the back)
  • dialogue with Short Jeong went surprisingly well; he is unexpectedly expressive and the girls ate it up

Today I got up early to go see Scooter’s advanced morning class at his school; his boys were adorable, even though they had no desire to talk about the given topic, only about me. Which was fine, as they were much nicer to me than my own students tend to be. Both at his school and at mine, of course, I had to go through the “NOT my son, NOT my boyfriend, like my brother” spiel, which they seemed to accept (which was good, because I wasn’t inclined to share any further information). How they would ever get the idea that we were parents of each other is completely beyond me. As he left, one of my students came up to me and told me to tell my father that he was very handsome.

The most exciting news about today, however, is that Host Sister is FOR SURE coming to America – she passed her visa interview. !!!!!

Today, IGR Recommends: getting your visa.