I’m not dead (yet)!

As some of you have noticed, there haven’t been many updates lately. This is the result of a few things.

First, I’m one of the most forgetful people ever (shocker). This doesn’t mean I’m forgetting to update the blog. I originally scheduled Sunday evenings as blog-updating time. And while forgetful, I can remember things if they go into a mental schedule. What it does mean is that I don’t take pictures ever. I’m also extremely proud (another astronomical surprise), and I don’t like turning out shoddy product. Even if it’s just a blog only a dozen people read. So every Sunday night, I guiltily remember this blog and immediately do something completely different.

Apartment in shamblesSecond, I’ve actually become extremely busy. The real victim here is my apartment, which is slowly devolving into the genuine squalor displayed on the left (sorry, mom). This second excuse, conveniently, is also going to serve as an update.

As of two and a half weeks ago, I am now a full time student in Sogang University’s Korean Language program. The class goes for 10 weeks, and after 2.4 of the 10, it seems to be helping already. I’m now semi-competent in a restaurant, which is my primary interaction with Koreans anyway, and I can now put together bits and pieces of conversation. The goal is to create a foundation for myself that I can improve through informal language exchange and conversation.


While I’m pleased with the results, it does mean a huge time sink. Not only does it meet Monday-Friday from 10am to 1pm, but I’ll usually study from 8-9 each morning, then another hour or so after I get out of work at 7 (Monday and Tuesday) or 10 (Wednesday through Friday), and then usually for a few hours on the weekend. In all, I probably put in about 30 hours/week.

Second, I’m teaching my hagwon’s “Masters Reading” class. The students in this class are well beyond conversationally fluent in English, and operate at about the same level as a U.S. student the same age. They’re in 6th-8th grade, and we’ll be finishing The Outsiders this week, and moving on to The Secret Garden, followed by The Light in the Forest and Death of a Salesman.

It’s an absolute pleasure to teach this class. There’s 3 boys and 3 girls,  all highly motivated and extremely intelligent. The class’s focus is almost entirely on critical analysis of literature, paired with a minor element of developing their own authorial styles.

That said, it’s also a large amount of work. Not only is it a good deal of reading, but it’s taking me some time to recall how to analyze literature. I’ll admit that I’m still not quite where I’d like to be, which is far beyond my peak in 11th grade English. And though it may go without saying, teaching/leading a literature class is quite different from being a participant.

So loosely, my average schedule is:

8:00a – wake
9:40a – leave for class
1pm – gym
2:30pm – lunch/preparing the day’s English lesson
7pm (Mon, Tues)/10pm (Wed-Fri) – dinner
8pm (Mon, Tues)/11pm (Wed-Fri) – study Korean/prep English
1am – sleep

And between all that, I’m desperately trying to have some semblance of a social life (lol) and update this blog. As the latter is clearly the more important of the two though, more updates should be on the way shortly…maybe.

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Going to a barber in Korea

Not-a-BarberSo, the first time I tried going to a Barber, it had some funny windows. Very…dark. Turns out, it was actually a whorehouse. Surprise! Now, some of you looking at the photo on the left may be asking ‘Pat, how the hell would you EVER think that’s a place to get a haircut?’ Let it be known that I do not claim to be a clever man.

After much procrastination, it started to become clear that I’d put off getting a haircut for way too long. So after some brief internet research, I learned how to ask for a cleanup (‘just smooth it out, please’). I then headed out to Hongdae, where I was hoping my education might prove unnecessary by finding an English-speaking barber.

My strategy for finding a place for a haircut? Wander around until I see a place that cuts hair. Here’s a fun fact: the temperature in Seoul today was 9* F. With a sub-zero wind chill. Man, do I make great decisions. But Hongdae is a pretty busy place, so how long can it take to find a place? Long enough to lose feeling in your eyeballs. But Pat, you say, that doesn’t even make any sense: you don’t have feeling in your eyeballs. Well, that’s what I thought earlier today.

Anyway, I finally find a place called EZ-Hair that looks pretty respectable. I wander in, do the standard ‘Anyeong ha-seyo. I’m sorry – I don’t speak any Korean. Does anyone speak any English?’ Score, there’s one English-speaking barber, and he’s also the best dressed person in the place. Sidenote: good barbers generally have good style too.

My barber’s name is Gah Ohn, and he’s awesome. My favorite barber back in the States (Matt at The Grooming Lounge on M Street) used to have a 5 minute talk about what I wanted and what he thought, before getting to work. Gah Ohn’s English skills are good, but not extensive, so we go through a few dozen images on his netbook instead. I ask for a simple trim. He frowns, clicks over to something slightly bowl shaped. I frown, and we finally settle on a middle option that we both like. Awesome.

We start snipping away, and after a few minutes, there’s chattering in Korean, and an assistant pops over, snaps on some gloves, and throws some paste on my hair. For half a second, I have no idea what’s going on. Then I remember that the image we picked was a Korean guy with brown hair. In the U.S., if you pick a cut, you only get the cut, not the color. In Korea, everyone starts out with black hair anyway, so… Son. Of. A. Bitch. Too late now though, so whatever.

After a few minutes of burning, I get shampoo’d, and hey, would you look at that – no brown hair! Everything is…smaller though. They literally melted hair off my scalp. Scary? Just a little. After some cleaning up, it actually looks pretty good. So, without any further ado, here are the results:

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Merry Christmas from Seoul!

Yeah, yeah, I know I’m late. Sue me.

Anyway, as some of you may have noticed, the world recently witnessed the glorious day known as Christmas: a Christian holiday borrowed from pagans, spread the world over in the name of commercialism

Sorry, was that bitter? Well, that’s because Christmas, a wonderful holiday celebrated in the spirit of giving, friends, and family, has been perverted in Korea to resemble the most vile of all holidays: Valentine’s Day. Ugh.

Have you ever seen somebody actually sad that it’s Christmas? No? Well, come visit Korea where Christmas is “for couples,” as any Korean will tell you.

Exhibit A:
Me: Are you doing anything fun for Christmas?
Student: No, I do not have a boyfriend…

My heart pretty much broke in half on the spot for this girl. And it wasn’t the end. On Christmas Day, another English teacher’s Korean friend joined us after dinner.

Exhibit B
Me: How was your Christmas?
Her: Bad.
Me: Oh, I’m sorry! How come?
Her: Christmas…for couples…

Nghhhhhhh. At this point, everything went red, and I don’t remember much else. But in case anyone was wondering, the Korean-Christmas:U.S.-Valentine’s-Day analogy holds true across the male spectrum too. Flash forward to earlier today at work, and…

Exhibit C
Me: Hey, how was your Christmas?
Male Korean Co-worker: Eh…I drink.

Cheers, brother. Give us Americans a month and a half, and we’ll be joining you.

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Hagwon Horror Stories

I don’t know if anyone’s heard horror stories about teaching at English hagwons (private schools/secondary schools in Korea), but they’re definitely out there.

A couple of reliable schools are CDI/Chungdahm (where I work) or YBM. Basically, a good option is anywhere franchised, where risk of the school having money problems is low. Once you get here, you might be able to learn about smaller hagwons that are also stable. But no matter where you work, you’ll start around 3 or 4 and work until around 10 or 11, since your students go to primary/public school during the day.

The alternative to a hagwon is a public school. You’d either go through the Ministry of Education’s English Program in Korea (EPIK) or it’s Seoul-based program, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE). The typical public school teacher works from around 8-4 (I think?), has a very secure job, but is paid a little less than a hagwon teacher. But ultimately, both have their pros and cons. Just don’t sign up with the underpants gnomes of Hagwons, of which there are plenty: ‘HAY GAIZ! I GOT GREAT IDEA! 1) WE OPEN UP KOREA SCHOOL THAT TEACH ENGLISH! 2) ??? 3) N MAKE TONZ OF MONNIEZ!’

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Korea FAQ’s

Q: What made you decide to teach English in Korea?
A: I wanted to work abroad, and it was the most convenient and financially viable option. The fact that Korea sounded like a culturally interesting place to work didn’t hurt either.

Q: Is Kim Jong Il going to nuke Seoul?
A: Super-short answer: no. Practical reassurance: general perception in Korea is that this kind of thing sort’ve happens all the time. Geopolitical reassurance: KJI has been shaking down the western world for ages. It is just not in his best interests to start war of any significant proportion.

Q: What is your apartment like?
A: My apartment is about 12 feet wide, and 20 feet long, and is graced with a heavy dose of ‘character.’ There is a very convenient sport for a refrigerator, but the nearest outlet is an inconvenient 10 feet away. I am lucky enough to own an in-wall air conditioner with a 5 foot cord, cleverly positioned 6 feet from the power outlet. The heat has two settings: on and off. The water leaks in my bathroom. The landlord was told about this, and I was advised that I can simply turn the main valve off, and voila: no leaks if there’s no water.

Q: Do you like the food?
A: Is that really a question? Yes, the food is amazing, but absolutely nothing like food in the U.S. That’s actually a pretty good general statement. Few things here are a whole lot like the U.S., but they’re perfectly fine in their own way. If you like rice and spicy food, you’re in good shape here.

Q: Do people speak English?
A: About 50% of Koreans, do not speak a single lick of English. They may have, at one point, learned ‘Hi,’ ‘yes,’ and ‘no,’ as novelties. To be fair, the only Korean I knew before coming here was kimchi, bulgogi, jiggae, and anyeong. The only word there that is not some kind of food, I learned from Arrested Development. Anyway, another 30% know enough to tell you that they can’t speak English. Another 15% speak well enough to carry on a conversation using lots of hand motions and pictures (notebook and pen are essential), and about 5% are conversationally fluent. Bottom line though, is that if you’re in a new country, you should probably learn to speak the damn language, so this one’s on me.

Q: Does everyone think you speak Korean?
A: Absolutely. Although 3 different people have thought I’m Chinese. But generally, foreigners and Koreans alike tend to think I’m Korean. And because of the average Korean’s proficiency in English, as described above, this means that the only people who try to talk to me are Korean people speaking Korean. This will be great once I actually learn how to communicate, but for now it’s mildly frustrating. Especially when they speak to me in Korean, I abashedly tell them I don’t speak Korean, and they laugh at me, and speak more Korean. Yes, I get it: I’m stupid, thanks.

Q: Do you like teaching?
A: It’s too soon to tell. Right now, I’m having a blast trying to figure the whole thing out: every time I think I’m starting to get a handle on things, I get brutally smacked around by my kids. They started out not saying a single word, and now it’s impossible to get them to shut up. There’s also definitely a critical mass of misbehaving students where your only option is to turn off the light. There’s probably a second critical mass where the light only makes things worse, and this is something that I fear for my life.

Q: What’s the weather like?
A: Closest comparison is probably to Boston. Pretty cold right now, and it’s already snowed twice since I’ve been here. I’m getting by on a few sweaters, a good jacket, and, most importantly, a few solid scarves.

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18 things learned in 14 days

I’ve been in Korea for two full weeks now, and things are certainly different from the States. There’s the good, bad, ugly, fascinating, hilarious, and everything in between.

1. A foreign-born Korean is known as a gyopo. From what I can tell, we are looked upon in status somewhere between the homless and mentally ill. “Anyong ah seyo! <more korean>” Oh…uhm…I’m sorry, I can’t speak Korean. ಠ_ಠ

2. There is a distinct difference between barber shops with one pole and barber shops with two poles: the latter has fewer barbers and more hookers.

3. Koreans don’t really cook their own food, and there is a restaurant every other block. Some offer delicious treats. Others…do not.

4. If you don’t know what it is, eat it, but ask what it is at your own risk. Advise grading it as delicious, meh, or disgusting. (Never) order again as appropriate.

5. Korean gender roles are…no, I have no idea. Example: Korean woman is yelling at drunk Korean man who has her wrist in a death lock, and is demanding help. A friend and I remove the man’s hand from her wrist, she runs away…and then right back to him. I…whatever.

6. The water gets perfectly hot, but only if you don’t go beyond 75% water pressure potential. If you turn the water on too much, the heater can’t keep up with the water. This was discovered after one very short, very cold shower.

7. Washing clothes is an adventure. First, everything is (as you might expect) in Korean. So you push buttons and hope for the best. Koreans do not really believe in dryers, so you dry your clothes on a rack in your 12×20 foot studio apartment.

8. Drinking in public is 100% culturally acceptable, even beyond New Orleans standards. Sidewalk parties are prevalent. Recipe for making instant-friends, courtesy of Alex Lewis: bring a flask of cheap vodka, and buy cups and OJ from the nearest 7-11. Start mixing drinks for anyone interested. Also prevalent are drunk Korean men screaming what may or may not be obscenities, but for all I know they could be screaming “REFRIGERATORRRRRR!!!” Probably not, though.

9. Anyone who has ever complained about American women should go out in Korea. Korean girl at a bar comes up and says “Buy me a drink?”  Uhm, why don’t we talk for a few minutes and then we’ll see about it. Not interested. Turns to the guy next to me who witnessed the whole thing. “Buy me a drink?” The guy’s wallet is out before she’s done asking.

10.If your student gives you the Korean middle finger (peace sign with back of hand toward you), and you chew him out, he will just look at you as if he has no idea what you’re upset about. This is because you have confused the British middle finger with the Korean middle finger (“got-your-nose” with thumb between middle and index finger). You should then buy this student a snickers bar and apologize.

11. Your students under the age of 11 are extremely cute, and they know it. They will use this as a weapon against you. Do not give in to their sad-faces. Do not accept their snacks. Do not ever show any weakness.

12. If you live in Seoul, your shower will probably be in the middle of your bathroom, and just drain into a hole in the floor. Do not be alarmed. It is probably fine.

13. Just about every electronic will make musical beeping sounds like children’s toys. This goes for cell phones, air conditioners, washers, everything. This is cute the first time, and only the first time.

14. Koreans don’t use butter. It’s nearly impossible to find anything but margarine. Absolutely baffling.

15. The Korean subway is immaculately clean, and immaculately smooth. Handles are 100% optional. They also have anti-suicide doors on the platforms that line up with the train doors and only open when the train doors open.

16. Korean buses are not immaculately smooth. Do not stand unless absolutely necessary. If you do stand, grab on to something. Preferably a handle, but the nearest person’s head will do in a desperate pinch. If you do not hold on to something, you will die immediately.

17. Soju is evil (20% abv), cheap ($1 for 500 ml), and everywhere.

18. There is a 7-11/minimart/othercornerstore every 20 feet for easy soju purchasing and sidewalk party supplies.

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