Intrepid Girl Reporter

the truth is

…that I am hungry now, and I probably wasn’t a very good sport earlier, and my room needs to be tidied firstthingtomorrow, and my blog is the first thing to come up in a Google search of the word “hotchken.” And I’m coming to peace with all of that. Today I woke up late and I ate some soup, but I’m pretty sure it’s the same soup we’ve been eating since Monday, and while I haven’t gotten sick yet, I still have to get over the mental block I have that says that cooked beef is only good for three or four days at the most. (Or do I?) Then I ate a pretzel at the new, revamped Tom and Tom’s in Sicheong (City Hall), which now features an extensive variety of soft pretzels – I can think of ten off the top of my head – and is so pleased about these pretzels, in fact, that a detailed explanation of what pretzels are (it starts by describing them as “a salted biscuit”) is permanently written on the front of the shop. Then I ate at Bagdad with Aewol (my friend who teaches in Aewol) and Transy, a Program kid out in Seogwipo who went to the university of the same name. (Incidentally, I made him my de facto brother in the second week of the Program’s training, but “Transy” is shorter.) So that’s one meal today, pretty much. Now it’s midnight and I just spent five minutes deliberating over whether or not I should make myself a piece of toast. The whole situation seems to parallel every problem I have in some deep way, but I’m not entirely sure how.

Scooter and I went to Expat Ultimate Frisbee today, which was fun, except that – if you know me personally – you know that I have absolutely zero hand-eye coordination, and also no experience with Ultimate. I was not a top pick, shall we say. The problem with me playing sports has always been that I have trouble focusing enough to be coordinated – I can do solo things better, because then it’s just me, but when I’m with other people I get self-conscious about the fact that this sort of thing just doesn’t come naturally to me, and then I’m really in a bind. Point being that at one point I forgot the rules and completely flubbed the one chance I had to do something worthwhile, and what I really wanted to do was stay on the sideline and watch some more so I could get a feel for it, but they convinced me to stay in and practice, which is difficult to do when you’re not sure what’s going on, and then they definitely felt sorry for me as The Girl Who Couldn’t Play Frisbee. (Who Can’t Play Frisbee?) And if there is one thing I cannot abhor, it is people feeling sorry for me. So I played until I could get a sub and then got out – I’m afraid that getting out, and the fact that I was visibly a little frustrated with myself (even though it’s just a game!), probably meant that I came off as a bad sport, so I’ll have to go back and redeem myself. I mean, I got back in, but I still wasn’t any good, and although it’s immature, part of me will always want to be good or go home. I need to grow out of it, but I’m thinking it might just be a part of who I am.

At any rate the Expats were v.nice – I recognized many of them, after all, from rhymeswithjeju, the mailing list for English speakers on the island – and it’s not their fault that they were concerned about a person with such appalling athletic skills.* To be honest, I think the language barrier has been getting to me a bit lately – I find myself increasingly frustrated with people who are only trying to help me, like, you know, my pottery teacher. Or my yoga teacher, for that matter. They know I speak very little Korean, and I know their English is equally limited, but sometimes they’ll just start speaking Korean and be surprised when I keep messing up, because I don’t know that my foot is supposed to be flexed or that I’m pulling the clay too hard. Maybe it’s the relatively stressful week I’ve had, although I might just need to come home for a bit.

It was a good day for Frisbee though; the sun was up, the sky was blue, it was beautiful (and so were you). Scooter coached me on some basic Frisbee catching technique after learning that I didn’t learn to catch anything until I was six, and to his credit, didn’t laugh at me too much when it bounced out of my hands. I also crashed a pickup soccer game between these two boys who were probably in fourth or fifth grade; I meant to just play, but they ended up giving me some technique tips for my kicks. Overall, it was an educational afternoon. Afterwards we went to Tom and Toms and met some Jeju National University students, one of whom is going to be my language partner. She has a puppy and the same name as Teddy Bear Barrette. Interestingly enough. Soccer’s been sick all day, so I visited her later with some Gatorade and some leftover naan, and we watched Muhan Dojeon and made one of those sewing kits that they sell at the stationery stores here – this was a stuffed cell phone charm in the shape of a bunny’s head. Mine is blue.

Here is my cool thing for the day: the New York Times wedding section. No, I don’t know why I read it, but yes, I always do.

*How unathletic am I? Here’s a story: The summer before my freshman year of high school, I swam competitively for the first and last time, on my neighborhood team. I had no natural talent and no experience. All the girls in my age group had been swimming for years. Ergo, I could not keep up with them; ergo, I had to practice with the elementary schoolers. No joke. But, in the crowning moment of my summer, there was one race in which I did not come in last, which meant that I was not the slowest, and let me tell you, fifth place has never been so sweet.


daily thing I like, #3

Bright Eyes – Bowl of Oranges (mp3)

Look, I know I just put a song up, but a) the link didn’t work – I’m still trying to figure it out – and b) today I really like/need this. In a way I feel like “Bowl of Oranges” has become one of those code words used by students of a certain age, i.e. one of those things that people use to identify themselves as A Certain Kind of Person who Listens to Music and Likes Certain Other Things – which might be Dave Eggers, or Wes Anderson movies, or, you know. There’s a person I don’t know anymore, but I knew him once, and he told me that when most people talk about music they aren’t really talking about music at all. (Although – for the record – I like both Dave Eggers and Wes Anderson.)

I wish my low-level weeks didn’t keep me feeling like I’m running on empty. Today 1L – probably my smartest first graders, and definitely second in my list of favorite classes, although honestly after Wednesday they’re in more like first and a half place – did a really good job speculating what they’d bring on the Mayflower, and the low-level second-graders I had were incredibly loud, but then most of them did the worksheet, which was a plus. It kind of makes up for the fact that I’m pretty sure one of my students had a seizure in class yesterday, which everyone but me seemed to know was due to epilepsy. Would it kill them to tell me these things?

same old story/in a middle school, in a city, which is every middle school in every city

from a future tense exercise:

“I will study about squirrels_____.

You will not study about squirrels___.”

A lot of the best stuff from my students comes not from mistranslation – this kid clearly knows what he wants, and the level of exclusivity reserved for that activity – but from the fact that the unbridled mind of the seventh-grader comes up with some pretty weird stuff. I like people before the filters hit. 

Despite these small joys, however, there are still, you know, PROBLEMS. Hey, is teaching hard? Wait – what did you say? Teaching is hard? Are you sure? Because I’ve never heard that before. I mean, I never even imagined that such a thing was possible.

Yes. Yes, I know. None of this is news; teaching is tough, life is rough, it’s good work but it’s heartbreaking except when your students sing in harmony or stand up and recite “O Captain My Captain” or defend you in some sort of trial against The Establishment. And these things, my readers, they do really happen, not just in the movies – the great thing about teaching is that you find these inspirational stories to be true, a little bit, in between yawning stretches of unbelievable surreality and the blackest of humor. (Between. I taught that today. It means when you have something that’s surrounded by two other things.) But I know that these highs and lows exist, so I shouldn’t be surprised when they happen to me. Right?

As it turns out, my students like me fine. Yes, there are a few who leave me bizarrely threatening notes or refuse to speak English when they clearly know how, and no, they never stop talking, but in general my class gets good reviews; I’m helping them understand the things they already know, giving them practice, etc.

My fellow teachers, however, are full of endless advice, advice that often sounds strange or ludicrous or completely wrong to my poor ethnocentric ears, advice that often contradicts itself, advice that goes counter to the other advice that I got the class before from another teacher or another teacher or another teacher before that. And PCT, as is well documented, has more suggestions than anyone else: suggestions on students, on how to run my classroom, on materials, on what I should eat for lunch. Never mind that sometimes these suggestions do not even make sense. I try to follow the best suggestion I can find, but that usually means that I have to face the wrath of the other coteacher or five coteachers or whomever, a few of whom of whom believe that my failure to follow their advice should be taken as a personal affront.

Things came to a head on Thursday when PCT called me aside to tell me that my students were having trouble retaining information without the presence of any sort of worksheet. I agree; I like worksheets; I wanted to give worksheets. But in the first week, PCT told me that worksheets meant that students wasted a lot of paper, so I gave up the worksheet idea in an effort to appease her. Now, of course, it turns out that I’ve been wrong the whole time; also, that my lessons are too simple, that having individual students answer is “boring,” that I have an attitude problem, that I cannot take advice, and that she has never forgotten when I tried to leave the light off during a PowerPoint presentation during the first week (two months ago) and she told me to turn it on and I left it off. Then she told me that of the many ETAs with whom she has worked, she has never had trouble with any – repeat: any – of them until she met me.

I met with ACT on Sunday to discuss the whole thing. She remains, as always, an angel sent from Heaven specifically to make my life in Korea easier. (Yes, I have a personal angel service. Don’t you?) She told me that she didn’t know what to tell me, but then she gave me a hug, which is the Korean equivalent of donating a kidney. Then she sent me an encouraging email with praise from the other teachers. It turns out that they don’t all think I have an attitude problem, and they haven’t all been complaining about me – that’s just PCT. Which puts me more at ease. PCT is leaving after this semester, so I’m just trying to get over the fact that she hurt my feelings and that she was really incredibly rude, even though things happen like the following incident: in which she failed to tell me that my schedule had changed, even though she knows I cannot read the schedule, even though she has told me before when my schedule changed, so that I was late to my own class because I didn’t know it was there. Then she told me that without a copy of my original schedule she cannot tell me when things change, even though she has done it many times before – maybe there was some sort of superpower that she lost? – and told me to put my schedule on my desk so she can see it, and then told me that we should have done that before. Now I am sitting at my desk in the teacher’s office trying to surreptitiously eat chocolate-covered hazelnuts, because I don’t feel like sharing, and pretending that no one can see me.

Things appear to have blown over now, for the most part.

in which…part 2

A series of stories.



I didn’t intend to see a horror movie simply because it was close to Halloween. Things just worked out that way. It was my sweet, gentle Oma who chose the movie (more on Oma’s likes and dislikes in a minute). It was entirely in Korean, of course, but you know the old adage: sadistic torture knows no language. There was something about an ugly necklace, some sort of supernatural hand that appeared periodically, and some women in court clothes who kept pulling all sorts of medieval/Guantanamo-style treatments on each other (or maybe just on one woman. I don’t really know). I fell asleep for part of it. Oma kept her hands over her face the entire time. Fun night!

Saturday Albuquerque had organized this festival for some little kids at a program at this church that one of her students attended, and most of us had signed on to help, so I found myself hauling thirty small prizes* and a 24-pack of toilet paper across the island.  Oma and Apa were headed to Seogwipo anyway to help with a wedding the next day, so I caught a ride and ate lunch with them and the wedding party, where I received a gift bag containing detergent and brown sugar. I met up with my friends and headed over to the festival site, where we were confronted with an immediate problem: Scooter, in a rare burst of enthusiasm, had invited some of his students, all of whom were at least five years older than our target audience. So we had to make some activities up, most of which consisted of us encouraging them to tell the goriest ghost stories possible (in English, natch). For the little kids, there were mask making, face painting (with poster paint and WATERCOLORS – thanks for not having party supplies, Korea), and various relay race activities. Then we all ate fried chicken and were very happy. Except that, during the haunted house, some of the students spat in Scooter’s face. Oops.

Somehow Hallim (or G) and I ended up back in Jeju-si, running through e-Mart at 9:00 on a frantic search for tofu and bananas and other barbecue supplies, in large part because I am pathologically unable to let anyone do anything for me. After some help from a kindly Anglophone meat clerk (who nonetheless alerted the entire first floor that there were two eccentric foreigners floundering through the groceries), we made it back to my apartment, where we dressed to represent the fair state of Kentucky (I was a cigarette, she was barefoot and pregnant). In retrospect, I should have donned a fat suit and a Philip Morris nametag so I could have been Big Tobacco, but there’s always next year.

We made it out to the pension in Hamdok Beach around 10:00. Here’s where things get – and will stay, for your purposes – a bit blurry. There was fun, and there were adventures; we ate grilled chocolate-stuffed bananas, made friends with a Korean family, watched Africa cook chicken adobo (as Scooter said, “After eating this, I’m gonna wife her”). Oregon had brought a college friend whose name was – and I am not making this up – Ricky Martin. And then there was a campfire, and grass seeds that stuck to our clothes, and an accidental but somehow inevitable discussion with a certain person in my life, one fueled by throwaway comments and cheap Hite beer and weeks and weeks of the unspoken. It happens. We’ll be stronger after this, but it’s going to take a while. To imagine that here I would learn how to depend on others, and at the same time so well how to be alone…well. I didn’t. But now I can, and I count my happiness and my sadness on each hand, and I keep the transcripts to myself.

The next day I woke up on the floor next to Hallim, still wearing a cigarette costume (having forgotten to bring pajamas), still with pampas grass in my hair, and we headed home.


feats of strength

If you have never been to a Korean wedding, let me just say this: Imagine the part in the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” where the synthesizer kicks in. Now, instead of recollecting that as music, try to picture that as flashing plastic chandeliers. Add a fog machine. Welcome to the wedding hall.

After we arrived, HS and HB in tow (they had to wake us up, as we’d fallen asleep on the bus), we were immediately escorted to the nook where the bride waited, where we – not my family, just Hallim and me – had our picture taken with her. On the bride’s camera, not ours. Then we were escorted back to our seats, where I was immediately summoned by some of Apa’s many ajushi cousins to sit with them; despite the fact that none of them spoke English, they all managed to ask me to call them “opa” (older brother; yeah okay). They called me by my host fam’s last name, which was cute, and they kept speaking to me in rapid Korean, which was not. Then we saw the wedding, which involved, in addition to the aforementioned elements, bubbles that shot out at random intervals, a troupe of toddlers dressed like Cupid who performed an interpretive dance, and a push-up demonstration by the groom, who was cheered on by an announcer and his bride. I should mention at this point that none of this appeared to have been rehearsed. At all. Then it was picture time; first the bride and the groom were photographed, and then the bride and the groom and their families, and then the bride and the groom and their mothers, and then the bride and the groom and their friends, and then the bride and the groom and everyone on one half of the room. Hallim and I fell into the last category. We were shoved to the front of the wedding pictures. I felt a little like a trophy wife. Trophy foreigner?

That’s all for today. More tomorrow. There is more, of course. In the meantime, I’m going to take a bath, revel in my newly purchased Time magazines, and try to forget the fact that I have mosquito bites on my hands.

where the wild things are
October 23, 2007, 4:52 am
Filed under: ESL, games, miscommunication, okay seriously Korea, PCT, skool, students, teaching, the authorities

Some will win

Some will lose

Some were born to sing the blues

– Steve Perry sings about my lesson plans

My students are lurking – lurking – outside my classroom, which I am loath to leave until the bell rings and lunch is over, since my lock has mysteriously disappeared and I can’t ask any of the teachers where it is, as they’re all running around like crazed headless chickens in preparation for this gender-equality exhibition that’s being held here today. I don’t have to stay. As a matter of fact, I was told that I should not stay, because it’s all going to be in Korean, and nothing has changed significantly regarding my language skills since my last post.

I tried to move from describing places to describing ourselves today, which didn’t really work. We were supposed to play “I Love My Neighbor,” which is a lovely and affirming variant of camp favorite “The West Wind Blows,” but it didn’t work; in one of my classes I had Mr. Kang, who is lovely but who didn’t show up until halfway through, and in one I had Short Jeong, who is almost but not quite worse than having no co-teacher at all. This is proof positive that the problem isn’t in the interesting-ness of my lessons; I took Short Jeong’s advice and made them “more interesting” (who doesn’t like games? or running? or talking about themselves?), but the students didn’t KNOW, because they wouldn’t listen long enough to figure it out.

Right now I am wearing clothes that are too big for me; I’ve lost so much weight here in Korea* that I’m back to the size I was when I was sixteen, which is great, except that nothing fits. So I feel really gross. Actually, I feel like Mademoiselle Croket, my high school French teacher, who was always cranky and negative and who taught us French with a thick Midwestern accent. It was the rare Michigan dialect of French. Despite the fact that she was only in her late twenties, she always wore these really baggy and frumpy clothes, which is what I’m wearing today, as PCT called me at 7 AM and told me to dress up in case I ran into some visitor for the exhibition. So that probably contributed to my class failure today, the fact that I felt like a sack of sack sack sack. But I really need to figure out exactly how to deal with my low-level second graders; I’d like to rely on my co-teachers for discipline help, but I’m starting to think that they’re just not going to change, and that I’m going to have to do it on my own. At the workshop one of the Program extendees suggested that we learn our students’ names as a disciplinary tactic, and I think it would work – I’ve seen a change in the students whose names I’ve learned – but I can already imagine the conversation I’ll have when I try to get a photo roster of my classes:

IGR PCT, can I have a copy of the photo roster of my classes?

PCT What?

IGR You know, the paper with all the students’ photographs on it.

PCT You have.

IGR No, I just have a list of names.

PCT So you can learn from them.

IGR But that doesn’t have their pictures, so it’s much more difficult.

PCT Co-teachers, they should know students’ names.

IGR But they should not have to do all the discipline. I would like to help.

PCT In that case. There are so many students. It is very hard to learn the names. Even I have trouble. So maybe just call their numbers.

If our discussion doesn’t closely parallel that, I will be very, very surprised.

I’ll update more on the conference later, maybe. Despite the rough day, I’m still going pretty strong. Now I’m going to go watch “The Office” and take a nap before I have a dinner meeting with the teachers. Oh my.

*WHY I HAVE LOST SO MUCH WEIGHT:  I feel that today’s eating pattern is a good example. I woke up, wasn’t hungry enough to eat breakfast so early/didn’t really have time, got a bottle of 녹차 and some “chewy sesame bread” (about the size of a roll) during one of my breaks, and then took the students who won for their classes’ poster contests to get Popsicles. I ate one of those. Then I went to lunch, which was tonkatsu, which I like, but this was not good – it wasn’t pork, it was, like, pork patty. So that’s what I’ve eaten today. And later I am going out for dinner with the other teachers, where I will undoubtedly be coerced into eating lots of meat that not only has not had the fat trimmed, but actually appears to have had fat added. But that’s only one meal in the day.


This game is an excellent icebreaker, and it also works in any group discussion on tolerance, prejudice, and self-esteem.

1. Students form a circle, with one person in the middle.

2. The person in the middle says, “I love my neighbor who…[speaks two languages, loves the smell of cat food, is lactose-intolerant].”

3. Anyone to whom that characteristic applies has to run across the circle and take someone else’s spot. There will be one person left out, and they have to stand in the middle and start again.


A. Today PCT criticized me, in front of the class, because this student who already had a ticket* was upset because I wouldn’t call on him, because, you know, he already had a ticket.

  1. Other teachers have asked me to not call on students who volunteer all the time, so everyone gets a chance
  2. The students will not take me v. seriously if they see me getting called out by another teacher
  3. Given the emphasis on “face” and the saving thereof in Korea, I can’t help but suspect that she maybe did it on purpose

B. I locked my classroom and closed the windows when I went to lunch, only to come back and find out that my students know how to jimmy the lock and BREAK IN. One of them left me an empty Popsicle wrapper accompanied by the legend “Here is my gift. Hillary <3”

  1. At least it was in correct English?

C. I’m pretty sure that my vice-principal was making fun of my walk today.

At least the weather is still beautiful and I have yoga tonight. Then pizza, because Oma got a raise. I’m really sick of Korean pizza.

in which: my students break out the blazers, I can’t do anything right
October 10, 2007, 12:20 am
Filed under: Jeju crew, life on Jeju, miscommunication, music, PCT, Pop-Song, skool

The day is not mine, Trebek.

I hate to be off to such a bad start so early in the morning, but here’s the thing: I lost my classroom keys. Except they weren’t my classroom keys, they were PCT’s classroom keys that she had lent me so that I could in fact get into my classroom, which puts me in PCT’s bad graces, not that I wasn’t already there. I can’t find them anywhere, which means that a) I cannot lock my classroom, b) I look (am) extremely irresponsible, and c) PCT hates me. But I don’t blame her, because I kind of hate myself, too.

I think the PCT problem started when she told me that I had to cut the numbers for PopSong and that she would help me, and then told me the next day that she couldn’t help me because I didn’t understand how busy she was, without giving me any guidance as far as how to make the group smaller without a working knowledge of the Korean words for “If you’re slacking, you can’t stay here.” I was frustrated. It probably showed. But I felt like I was being given an impossible task, and I wanted them to know that it wasn’t going to be done well, because I didn’t know what to do. Now I have tried to make it up to her – even though I don’t feel like I should have to – by going out of my way to talk to her, to ask about her, to bring her pastries from Paris Baguette, but this is not the woman who grabbed me in the airport and told me that we were now sisters. Somehow, somewhere, I botched it. At least ACT still loves me – and that is a relationship I work hard to cultivate.

Speaking of PopSong: vacations have meant that we haven’t been able to meet regularly, and numbers have dropped for serious. I need to make a schoolwide announcement. I also need to get “All You Need is Love” into a key my kids can actually sing. I also need to stop feeling like all of this is futile.

This is, at heart, my fault, and I know it. I’ve been in a funk ever since the weekend, and I know what I’m afraid of: that what has been good can’t stay. We’ve got a rhythm here on the island, we’ve all gotten comfortable with one another, and I guess the return of the other Program kids reminded me how easily it can be disrupted, that maybe our little group is good enough for me but not good enough for everybody. And bending over backwards to keep it all together isn’t intuitive for me. I don’t know if I’m cut out for this friend captain thing, after all.

The fall uniforms are out in full force though. I kind of want one. And by kind of I mean a lot, specifically the jacket.