saying goodbye to my student HyeonJin

16 06 2013

Love each other without expectations.

I keep thinking of what the monk told us at the temple stay this weekend.
We should be able to say goodbye without regret.
Approach your relationships knowing they will end and begin, such is the nature of life. If you can accept this, you will be closer to the way.

Dr. Seuss says:


Easier said than done.

Two years ago, I met HyeonJin, my English student, through a recruiter, and next month, we will part. I have a heavy heart.

HyeonJin was a lanky kid with a boy’s haircut and black-and-orange specs. She chattered on for 90 minutes about how she loved snakes and snails and eating live octopus and wanted to in-line skate on the moon. What a weird kid, I thought. What a weird, wonderful kid.


Over the past two years, I’ve seen her hair grow longer and her face morph into a young lady’s. I saw a few fine hairs in her armpit yesterday, and I’m glad I’m leaving before her boobs pop out. I couldn’t bear this beacon of growing up.


I’m so heartbroken to leave this wonderful child. I like my friends and my family here, but HyeonJin breaks my heart. I would teach her for free to spend time with her. I feel grateful for having met HyeonJin and her mother. They are special people, and all that HyeonJin is and is becoming is because of her discriminating mother.


The woman is my age, if not a year older. She’s a single mother living with her younger sister and HyeonJin outside of Seoul.

As far as I can tell, HyeonJin’s father is not around. The only clues to their family life are that HyeonJin’s dad is in none of their family pictures. (They once had to cancel a Saturday class, because HyeonJin’s father was sick.) HyeonJin’s mom worked for a company until ~6 years ago, when HyeonJin was five. Beyond that, I don’t know what her source of income is, though often, I hear mom telling her daughter not to marry a Korean man.

Outside of these clues, I see HyeonJin’s mom’s sensitivity manifesting in her daughter. HyeonJin has read:

Please Look After Mom

and other books her mom previews and and passes on to her daughter.



HyeonJin explaining how the devil and the angel live inside all of us, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.


said devil (dark) and angel (light)

So HyeonJin has been raised by this strong woman who loves horror movies and bungee jumping and takes her daughter to ballet, violin and English lessons each week. They are peas and carrots reading about life and politics.

Yesterday, HyeonJin talked about how unfair it is for the older generation in Korea to benefit from the labor of the younger generation. Sometimes I just look at this child astonished at what comes out of her mouth.


i’m not smacking my student. hyeonjin told me to close my eyes, so she could give me her present.

Next to Steve, HyeonJin is the most empathetic person I’ve ever met and she’s only 11.

For example, we are making a magazine together, and HyeonJin insists on both of us taking “credit” as editors.


She shares snacks when we meet for lessons, even if I tell her to finish the food. Lately, as we’re watching Mary and Max, HyeonJin has been disturbed to see little claymation Mary being teased by other claymation kids.


Maybe all children have this empathy to start, and only the ones lucky enough to be blessed with sensitive parents (or alcoholic parents in fact) develop and maintain this character.

We’ve had dinner together, HyeonJin, her mother and her aunt, and I’ve seen how easily they joke with each other and kiss and hug HyeonJin. In spite of not having a father, she is growing up in a household of strong, loving women and in spite of marathon violin practices, HyeonJin must know how much she is loved.


Gah, I love her too.

I’ve tried to be mindful of the fact that though I’ve grown to love HyeonJin, her mother pays me to teach her daughter English. HyeonJin’s mom is investing her money and her her hopes for her child in the time we spend together.

The thing is in Korea, teachers are given a huge amount of respect and gifts by virtue of their role. If you’re not a total @sswipe, you feel sheepish and undeserving and work your tail off for your students.

Of late, HyeonJin and I have worked on projects. I wish we had started sooner. As artistic as she is, HyeonJin gets bored with conventional grammar work, so we created a magazine, which she named World, and she was the chief editor.


Her latest project is to make a short movie, so we’ll brainstorm a story, and I’ll ask her to write a short screenplay and a cast of characters. *sigh* I wish we had more time.

Yesterday, HyeonJin’s mom dispensed with class and took us out for dinner instead.
I didn’t know what to say when they gave me presents. They have been too generous.

Her mother gave me a lotus-shaped lamp made of traditional paper and pointed out the lamp is tailored for use in America. It’s special, because HyeonJin’s mom has shown me a lot of Insadong and traditional Seoul, and we three appreciate the old over the new.


temple dinner with HyeonJin and her mother

HyeonJin personally picked out a traditional, lacquered pen, because she thought it was a good gift for someone going back to school. *gulp*

Most of all, I was speechless at the album HyeonJin made.
She wouldn’t let me open it at dinner, and when I opened it on the subway train later that night, I was glad.

The silly kid thought I might forget her.



(though my time in korea is ending, our relationship isn’t. hyeonjin and her mom don’t have skype or the internet at home, so i will write or phone. i hope hyeonjin will visit the US or spend a summer with me, when she’s older. see, it is very hard to love without expectation.)

armpits and ESL

4 06 2013

as an ESL teacher, I get to imprint impressionable young minds with my own interests (maniacal moohaha). after Nightmare Before Christmas, HyeonJin’s now watching Mary and Max. she is dead sold on stop motion. win!


my Samsung Engineering students had to read Miranda July’s Roy Spivey last month. brilliant! we had a blast.

in a nutshell, the short story’s about an OCD woman who meets a famous movie star on an airplane. the main character is so totally fleshed out, you can sympathize with her unique brand of crazy. in one scene, she goes to the bathroom to wash her armpits, so she can smell fresh to this Roy Spivey. oddball antics ensue.

my students were so confused by this.

“why does she wash her armpits?”
“I can’t understand why she washed her armpits.”
“what are armpits?”

so we had an enlightening conversation about bee-oh.
yes students, non-Asians’ armpits smell. there’s this product called deodorant, see…


we had a lively discussion about why the batsh!t but ordinary woman and the married and famous Roy Spivey might want to stay in touch. this baffled many students.

“she must have been gorgeous,” David said, although July clearly describes the character as undistinguished. i think some of the students could not imagine there could have been something beyond sexual intention between the characters.

some students speculated Spivey felt a flash of normalcy with this crazy woman and wanted to have that experience again. we talked about the expression, “two ships passing in the night.”


Roy Spivey, also included in The Book of Other People

still other students were put off by the idea of a married man talking to a woman not his wife:

“why did she take his phone number?”
“he’s married.”
“it’s wrong.”

my male co-teachers tell me about how male students take them out when camp ends and try to buy them women at the noraebang. some teachers recognize they’re being used as an excuse for the students to enjoy themselves. I couldn’t help thinking about this duality, as we talked about Roy Spivey. a few male students seemed unable to even engage in the conversation.

I asked them if it was possible to read a story and dislike the main character, even the entire story, and still learn something from it.

next month, we’re writing a 10-page circumspection on the cinematic similarities between Sofia Coppola and Richard Linklater.

*    *    *


miranda july

p.s. FWIW, I’m sorry for bootlegging the Roy Spivey pdf and will be buying a July book next month as recompense. Miranda July, we are spreading your brilliance across Korea.

p.p.s. David Sedaris reading of Roy Spivey:

life’s a b!tch

4 06 2013

my students finished Tuesdays With Morrie this month. i’m so proud of them! for many, this was the first book they read entirely in English.

there are some salty phrases in Morrie too, so i had the opportunity to introduce colorful colloquialisms like~

  • Life’s a b!tch
  • You’re full of sh!t
  • Wipe your @ss
  • A hell of a lot, as in, teacher you give a hell of a lot of homework.

My gyopo co-teachers taught me some equivalents in Korean.

  • Life’s a b!tch = 인생이 엿 같다, literally, life is like yeot (Korea’s hard-@ss, break-your-teeth squash candy). A closer translation–>life is forked.
  • Fork you = 엿 먹어, eat yeot. Don’t use this one. Really bad.

엿 the candy


엿 the gesture

ER in the ROK

31 05 2013

d@mn. now I know what 응급실 means–emergency room.
going to a hospital in a foreign country was not on my overseas to-do list.


take heed.
if you scrape your finger or toe, sanitize that digit stat.

I let my toe get infected and now I’m hoping I can keep all 10.

usually, if you scrape your finger, you let it go, right? I always do. for example, if I have a hangnail, the side of my finger might be pink and tender for a day, but my body tackles it. not this time.

I scraped my toe a week ago, and four days later, it turned red.

red toe

each day it got a little worse. I thought one of these country-@ss Yongin mosquitos had bitten it. then the top of my foot became tender, and I started reading about wet gangrene. holy sh!t.

so I took a taxi to the closest ER, and the staff confirmed the toe was nickety nasty.
next thing I know, the doctor’s sticking a gimungous needle into my big toe and jabbing it with scissors.

I couldn’t feel my toe and was afraid he might be cutting it off. (yo. I need that toe!)
in broken korean:

“커팅 하고 있어요?!”
“is he cutting?!”

“no, he’s only opening your toe,” the nurse said.
then she makes a hand motion like someone pulling open a Ziploc bag.
in spite of this, she was very kind. great bedside manner.

the doctor on the other hand squeezed my toe like a near-empty tube of toothpaste.

“고름이 나왔어요?” he asked.
“i’m sorry, my korean’s so bad,” I said in Korean.

“pus. pus come out?” he asked again.
pus sounds far less disgusting in Korean.
no, only water came out of the toe. idk if that’s good or bad. so four shots and an antibiotic IV later, I was told to return the next day.


I went to a hospital in my hood after work today.

the PA gave me another antibiotic IV, examined the toe and told me to come back again tomorrow.

I asked:

“what will happen tomorrow?”
“we’ll look at your toe tomorrow.”

“will we be finished after tomorrow?”
“you’ll have to continue to come back.”

I’m getting nervous now.

“will there be any cutting tomorrow?”
“we have to see.”

I want to keep all my piggies!

English interviews at Daewoo Construction

9 05 2013

I finished a job at Daewoo Construction last week.

Over three days, three other teachers and I level tested more than 540 young Koreans at the start of their working careers. Sometimes I have to pinch myself for the learning experiences I’ve been able to have here in Korea.

Interviewing is done quite differently here in Korea vs. the States.
For starters, you’re not even considered for a job unless you submit a resume with your picture and DOB. However, resume pictures here are all Photoshopped and enhanced, until every applicant has the same skin tone and face shape, rendering the picture pointless, not to mention unjust to start. Maybe that’s the point, that everyone looks alike.




the one fella who smiled in his resume pic

The applicants were much more handsome and interesting in person—some with wide faces, some with skinny noses, some with darker skin, some with dimples at the corner of their eyes when they smiled, somewhere I’ve never seen dimples on a white person. Some had the largest heads I’ve ever seen in person. I know what Merv Griffin said, but that only works on TV.

Candidates interview together.
While waiting in my interview room, I saw groups of 8-10 applicants escorted by a Daewoo employee. They’d enter a room and be interviewed together by a panel. The English interview was the only interview the young men and women would complete individually all day. The interview was a three-step, all-day process.

This is so different from what I’ve experienced in North Carolina. There’s no comparing F4K to Daewoo Construction. Still, I think the process is typically to select the applicants you want to interview and interview a small group of people individually at designated times, for example, three people for one opening.

Daewoo didn’t seem to give a d@mn about the applicants’ time. Many of the young people I interviewed said they’d been waiting for 2-3 hours past their appointment time for their panel interviews.

After interviewing more than one hundred 24-27-year-olds, I made some generalizations.

Dark navy suits are the uniform de rigeur for men. Save three men who wore dark charcoal, light grey and black, every other man wore navy suits with a white dress shirt, conservative tie and polished timepiece.

The women wore black skirt suits with a navy or ivory blouse buttoned to the top, minimal makeup and jewelry.

Architectural engineers had the highest level of English proficiency among the disciplines of engineers I interviewed. My co-interviewers said Architectural Engineering is a more prestigious and competitive field here in Korea.

The women’s English outshone the men’s. Maybe women are better listeners, on the average anyway.

If the interviewee was one of three kids, the birth order was girl—girl—boy.
If their were two kids in the family, the mix might be boy-girl, or boy-boy. Not once did I meet someone from a family with a birth order of boy-boy-girl. Hello, gender preference.

I asked the applicants about their families up front.

I wanted to lob them a softball, so they’d feel comfortable. Also, hearing about their families individualized each applicant for me, so I could focus on them fully. I tried not to let my personal feelings color the interviews. Frankly, the boys who had older sisters and talked lovingly about them, I liked these applicants best, or as much as the gals who talked adoringly about their younger brothers.

The male applicants who talked condescendingly about their younger sisters, well…

One of the applicants complained that his younger sister wasn’t talking to him. This guy had spent a year abroad and traveled a lot after college. His younger sister just graduated and now also wanted to spend a year in Canada to improve her English. The brother told his sister she should get serious and get a job now, and he had no idea why she wasn’t talking to him.

The Daewoo gig was outstanding really.

The opportunity to interview so many young people in a concentrated period of time was a boon. I glimpsed a bit of family and business culture here, which is so different from the US, but I also met kids at the beginning of their careers and got to see that their anxiety and expectations aren’t any different than those of our kids back home.

Daewoo Construction passive racists

19 04 2013

I picked up a job next week.
For three days, four other teachers and I will be level testing college seniors on their English proficiency. Daewoo Construction is paying for the job. Together, we will see 540 seniors in 7-minute sessions over three days. 

I asked my recruiter why I was hired at the last minute. Daniel told me it was a sad story:

ME: “What happened?”
DANIEL: “At the last minute, Daewoo decided not to hire one teacher, because he’s black.”
ME: “What?”
DANIEL: “Daewoo said some of the students might feel scared or nervous, because the      tester is black. It’s not right.”
ME: “Don’t those students know if they work for a global company, they’ll be working with different kinds of people or they’ll have to go abroad?”
DANIEL: “Yeah. But it’s Daewoo’s decision. It’s still Korea you know, so I understand.”

Sometimes I’m stunned by how blatant racism can be here in Korea. Not all Koreans are racist of course. Those who are I’d guess, just like people anywhere else, haven’t had the interactions with different people that would force them to think differently.

So this is a huge forking wasted opportunity. I hate the tail wagging the dog.
Who’s paying for this level testing anyway? Daewoo. Not snot-nosed, hypersensitive seniors who’ve never met a black person in their lives. It falls on adults to guide students, and this could have been a positive interaction.

Shame on Daewoo for either cowing to students’ stupid requests or blaming students for their own bigotry. 

(Yes, I am aware how hypocritical it is for me to b!tch and be taking this job.)

Samsung Engineering

15 04 2013

fond memories from March teaching English to Samsung Engineering employees~


some of my students fell asleep. (not really. this is break time.)
Phillip from Los Angeles class


Kony from my homeroom class Durham


joined by Steve, who looks just like Sigourney Weaver, but you’ll have to take my word for it.

we were housed in clean dorm rooms with pillows filled with plastic popcorn.

the food, which makes or breaks an overnight camp teaching job, frankly, was awful. one week, the entire staff of five teachers fell ill with what i think was MSG poisoning. three hours after breakfast, vomiting, diarrhea, heart palpitations and rashes ensued and endured for the week. in my best Dave-Chappelle-does-Rick-James-voice: “MSG is a helluva chemical.”

oddly, none of the Korean students were affected. perhaps they are all pickled.


i had a wonderful birthday celebration, thanks to the students and my co-teachers. the following day was White Day, for which the other female teacher Julie and I were feted with chocolate and other candies from the basement 7-11.

(White Day is men’s answer to Valentine’s Day, on which women are supposed to give their men candy. on White Day, March 14, men return the favor to their ladies. to take it further, yesterday was Black Day, when the unattached are supposed to eat Chinese black bean noodles jja jjang myeon.)


Tom from Los Angeles class and co-teacher Julie


this camp was a wonderful cultural experience. i learned

  • Korean men unabashedly love pink.
  • jokbal, marinated pigs’ feet, is not very delicious. but if you dip anything in salty shrimp sauce and place it in a lettuce leaf topped with soybean sauce, it’s going to be edible.
  • lower level students may have the best attitude. oo-rah for underdogs.

Los Angeles class thus practiced for their oral final exam out loud with their partners in class far more than upper level classes did. LA had a mix of personalities led by three no-shame-in-our-game students Jack, James and Tom.


Eric and Jack from Los Angeles


Cody (right): “Hello, Lee Automobile. How may I help you?”
James (left): “Hi. I would like to rent a mid-size car please.”


snowboarding Tom and his partner Richard


Durham’s incentives board: choco pies for good shiznit, 100W penalties for speaking Korean, etc.

our students came to this camp to learn subjects like Business English, my class, and Conversation Strategies, but the truth is, they were all there to increase their OPIc scores, because their bosses told them they had to. the OPIc test is a computerized language proficiency test with 15-16 different questions about topics ranging from self-introduction to hobbies to sports to pop-up questions like “tell me about a farmer in your country.”

employees whose jobs haven’t required them to have a high level of English proficiency are sent to camp to increase their score by one level in 30 days. then, they can be promoted and/or sent overseas.

the students’ levels do increase, if for no other reason than they are immersed in English for 8+ hours each day, but i wish increased fluency were the goal rather than a score on a computerized test.  it’s a stick vs. carrot approach.

the majority of students weren’t expected to “level up” as the students say, given a combination of the very high expectation and the very short runway.

we saw many of the students back at headquarters after camp finished. some felt good about their OPIc scores; some didn’t. everybody said they were happy to have camp behind them and were positive about the whole experience, so we shamelessly milked them for free coffee~


teachers Jae, me, Julie and student Sean from Seattle class


thanks for the coffee, Eric


Durham’s mascot, perpetually-perspiring Dean


Richard, who says he will practice English speaking with his young daughter, Eric and Julie

finally, my homeroom Durham class celebrated the end of their month of suffering with, what else? pork neck and pork belly accompanied by several rounds of soju bombs.


elder statesman Brandon, architectural engineer Louis and his roommate Dean



Kony, Jae (teacher) and Brandon


see? Sigourney Weaver!


Louis, Dean and Julie


(i take a tiny high five for this night, because i wanted to say “no” to avoid being the only English teacher at dinner. i didn’t want to make my guys uncomfortable speaking English all night and don’t like being the center of attention.

but i didn’t chickensh!t.

then two hours before dinner, teachers Julie and Jae decided to tag along, and it ended up being a wonderful night, one of my favorites.)