Jiu Jitsu in Daegu

The gym is a few flights up a stairwell that smells like cigarettes. It isn’t very large, so by the time the fifteen to twenty students arrive, it will be crowded. It’s winter, so it’s cold inside until we warm up and begin sparring. The windows and mirror fog over from the body heat.

The gym is like a small apartment; Teacher instructs classes until midnight and then sleeps until the late afternoon in his office tucked into the corner of the room. It’s like we’re learning jiu jitsu in his living room, except there’s nothing but a fridge and couch in his office to make it a home. The gym has waist-high padded walls and a floor covered with thick, gray mat material. There are two punching bags and a watercooler. Outside, Daegu boasts its most ramshackle view: buildings that look unplanned, the Daegu Health College more like a shady warehouse disguised as a school.

Class begins and we form a circle. Teacher gives instructions and commands in Korean, so I just try to follow what everyone else is doing. According to my foreigner friends who recently encouraged me to try out jiu jitsu, Teacher has learned a lot more English than he knew when they first joined this gym. He seems to know some basic conversational phrases and anatomical terminology related to jiu jitsu training (knee, head, arm, etc.) and directional terms (push, turn). Thankfully, though, the routine is almost always the same, so it’s easy to figure out what we’re supposed to do next. It also helps that there are some Koreans who are pretty fluent in English and they are quick to translate if the language barrier becomes too real.

After we form our circle, Teacher sets a timer and we do push ups, crunches, and squats, taking turns counting to ten for each exercise, the Korean hana, tul, set, etc. occasionally interrupted by an English one, two, three. There are about five of us from the English Village who attend jiu jitsu, but everyone else is Korean. We go through a few more exercises like this.

And then Teacher shows us two to three moves, always demonstrating on Harry, a high schooler whose English is strong and who takes a lot of falls for the class while Teacher flips him this way and that, locking his leg and pulling him down or knocking him forward. Then we get into pairs and practice on each other.

It took me a little while to not feel awkward crawling all over a person. During my first trip to the gym when it was open mat, I had to bite back my giggles as my friend Rachel and Timmy, her husband, instructed me to kneel between Rachel’s legs. And being comfortable with someone coming at you with the intention of pinning you down also took at least a few times before I began to build any sense of aggression within myself.

This is not something I ever imagined myself doing. I have the George Michael from Arrested Development syndrome where, if someone throws something at me or generally tries to get in my face, my instinct is to essentially curl up in the fetal position (which, for your information, is an effective strategy in jiu jitsu, on occasion). But my friend Timmy wore me down into coming with them and trying it out, because I also have a syndrome that makes me bad at saying no. In this case, though, I was persuaded because I like to try new things, even if physical exertion just seems like the worst way to spend my time. I can be persuaded to do most anything if I figure I’m spending time with friends. For instance, one time I went to a barbershop concert with a friend just to spend time with her (another event in which I had to stifle my giggles and be mature about things).

So we practice the moves with each other, usually stumbling about and pausing to say something like, “And then I do…that? My leg goes here, and I sweep yours back? Wait, I’m missing a step.”

And the best/worst part of this whole experience is the position game and sparring. Either way, your goal is to just go at it and try to get a dominate or fatal position (i.e. triangle choke hold, where their head is between your knees, or arm bar, in a position where you could break their arm but don’t). This part is fun because it’s all about technique and thinking your way out of difficult positions. It’s not about strength as much as knowing how to throw someone off balance and prevent them from getting control over you. Rachel described it as chess: everyone has their own style of approaching this “duel” and you have to consider your own strategies. Even though I’m terrible compared to everyone else, I can feel myself get a little bit faster each class and use more effective strategies against my opponent.

Sparring was really intimidating the first few classes I attended. I wasn’t expecting to have the teacher point at me and pair me up with a man, Korean and sweaty and non-English-speaking. I felt very stupid not knowing even how to attack. I was dragged by my feet a lot and put in choke holds where I wasn’t sure if I had lost or not, only because no one ever goes full force on choke-holds and they sometimes just tell you to “tap out” because they don’t want to actually hurt you. I spar with at least three or four people each class. The students are a mix of ages, mostly men and a couple women in their twenties, some middle-aged men, and a few young boys who play on their phones a lot because their parents are paying for these classes.

When I stood on the sidelines that first day and looked at Timmy in panic, saying “Is this optional?!” He asked me, “What are you paying for?” So I walked up to this Korean guy Teacher paired me with, slapped our hands together and then fist-bumped (as you do to start a “spar” or “battle” or “brawl” or whatever), and then I proceeded to get dragged around and put in a choke-hold.

People seem a lot stronger when you feel completely helpless in protecting yourself. But even after just a week, I feel a lot less helpless–still really inexperienced, and I get taken down really easily, like when another supposedly “new” guy grabbed the edges of my sleeves and made it almost impossible to defend myself–but still stronger and a little more capable.

And then there’s Shin-gu, or “Bully” as he’s referred to outside of class by my friends. His big build, very pale skin, and completely hairless head, usually with sweat dripping down his scalp, is an intimidating presence. He’s a blue belt, higher than most, and his favorite pasttime is laying his entire body weight on his opponents (newcomers are no exception) and crushing them while laughing. He did this to me the first time we sparred, and the next time he spun me in circles while I tried to choke-hold him with my arms.

Which is weirdly one of the beautiful things about jiu jitsu. Not this Korean man with no hair, but the fact that jiu jitsu is a lot like dancing, an art form I miss partaking in. The moves we learn are like choreography, however violent, and you have to learn to work with your opponent like a dance partner. There’s a certain amount of trust that you grow because you’re learning from each other and testing your own skills with someone else.

But Bully’s actually a pretty nice guy. He tries to get to know the foreigners with his limited English and you can tell he enjoys this sport. He calls me “Sarah Puma”, which might be endearing or might be an insult, I don’t know. I guess he just likes to, you know, prey on people’s weaknesses and stuff. Classic Shin-gu.

When we’re finished sparring, most of us are huffing and puffing on the ground, faces red and sweaty. The gis (gees) we wear as our uniform make everything so much hotter and sweatier. We begin the exercises we did for the warm-up all over again. This time I’m exhausted and sore. We usually have to hold a plank for a minute, meaning I usually hear Teacher yell, “Sah-dah!” once or twice because I’ve taken too long of a break and am basically just napping on the hair- and sweat-covered floor.

So this is me, trying new things in a foreign country.

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Seoul: Part Two

This is the continuation of my first trip to Seoul. Read Seoul: Part One here.

There can be a fair amount of confusion when two people whose native languages are not the same converse. Even though Yongseok’s English is really strong, there were still times where we were not on the same page.

When we Skype-called our friend, Kate, on Sunday morning, she said, “Yongseok, sometimes when you laugh I think it’s because you don’t understand what I’m saying.” Kate tends to talk even faster than I do. Yongseok responded with a laugh.IMG_3221

All of this to say that, when we passed the statues on the street that led to Gyeongbukgung Palace, and Yongseok told me that Yi Sun-Sin’s ship was a “cuttle” ship, I just smiled and nodded, and when I went to look up this guy’s name later on the internet, I realized Yongseok had been saying “turtle.” Turtle ship. Ooooooooh. Got it.

We also saw the statue of King Sejong, who created Hangul so that Koreans could express themselves beyond the limits of Chinese. He was an advocate for education and technological advancement and sponsored inventions like the rain gauge, sundial, water clock, celestial globes, and astronomical maps.

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IMG_3273Throughout the day, we had stormed Gyeongbokgung Palace and Deoksu Palace, so it was late in the evening by the time we visited modern parts of Seoul. We ventured through Insadong, one of the shopping districts. There’s always so much to take in when shopping in Korea. Layers and layers of stores clustered together sell things you never thought you would need, but feel compelled to buy since it’s adorable and reasonably priced. The shops are not like those in Colorado, where everything is one level and spread miles apart. In Seoul, and Daegu for that matter, cafes are stacked on top of shops stacked on top of other shops. This first time in Seoul, I didn’t buy too much, but I did pick up a few souvenirs for my people back home (i.e. socks with Big Bang on them, because adorable and reasonably priced).

IMG_3272Insadong was also where I ate poop bread for the first time, or rather dong bang. Koreans have a fascination with poop that is lost to my Western mind, but the fried bread and chocolate, however unfortunately shaped, was quite delicious.

Taking pictures in a hanbok was probably the most unexpected thing I did during this trip. It took me a hot second to understand what was happening: What are we doing? We’re renting hanboks? Like, leaving the store with them? What? Oh, we’re taking pictures in them. That makes more sense. Do I put this on myself–okay, kamsamnida, I’m just a dumb foreigner who doesn’t know how to wear this thing. How many pictures do we take? What poses should we do? Um, obviously Charlie’s Angels pose??? Sure, also the double Korean peace-signs, of course. Wait, now we decorate the pictures on this computer? How does this work? Sure, I can put some flowers in the background. Make this as colorful as possible? Okay. Nice.IMG_3508

Lastly, we visited Seoul N(amsan) Tower. It loomed above us in glowing green light. There was a platform with a fence surrounding it that had thousands of locks all knotted together, symbolizing the love of visitors that came before us. Beyond this platform was a fantastic view of Seoul.

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We arrived around 11:00 pm to Yongseok’s grandmother’s house in Gangnam.
She greeted me at the door and took my hand in hers, rubbing it gently. This is a welcoming Korean gesture. His mother was there, too, and she hugged me hello. They were very beautiful and sweet, these two women. Neither spoke English.IMG_3319

We sat at the dining room table and his mother fed us chocolate bread, a pretzel, and warm lemon tea. Yongseok translated back and forth. “She wants to hear more,” he told me after I had practiced a few words and phrases I had learned in Korean. I stumbled over a few more phrases I could think of to try to impress her.

We sat in the living room a while before bed. The big TV, exercise bike, and pictures of grandchildren that decorated the room reminded me of my own grandmother’s living room, and it made me think that all grandmother’s had similar taste in living room necessities. Yongseok’s grandmother made sure I had a toothbrush; Koreans are very dental hygiene-conscience. I soon went to bed, though, and somewhere in a neighboring apartment, an older, male Korean actor who’s name I can’t remember, also slept.

*

The last stop, before dinner and my return to Seoul Station to take the KTX to Daegu, was at a Korean Folk Village, where we spent most of the day. It reminded me of the colonial museums in the U.S. that I’d been to when I was a kid, where people dressed up and reenacted the lifestyle of that time period, washing clothes on a washboard, milking cows, shooting cannons in the town square. Except this was a Korean version.

There were huts and small buildings scattered beside dirt paths and had low ceilings and a variety of traditional Korean roofing styles. The ancient, rural feeling of the set-up was a stark contrast to the modern, energetic Korea that we know now. It was quiet with just a few people exploring the village, the rain soaking into the dirt path and our coats.IMG_3398

We stood under our umbrellas and watched the reenactment of a traditional wedding, the man clad in a blue handbok, the woman in a red one, bowing to each other. I wondered how many times this man and woman had pretended to marry each other, and whether they were actually married in real life, to each other or to other people.

This folk village has provided the setting for some historical dramas. It was the film location for Korean movies like The King and I (2007) and Jewel in the Palace (2003). I haven’t seen either of these, but it was interesting to see this aspect of Korean culture preserved. Even though the weather prevented us from seeing some of the other performances and events, we were able to see the village in quiet, a river flowing through with purple leaves covering the ground.

We left when it got dark, a hundred new pictures on my phone.

The First Layover

Today’s guest post is by C.J. Sweetwood. Follow him on Twitter at @fearsteveswrath and/or contact him at cjsweetwood@yahoo.com.

In December of 2014, I found myself staring into the abject and disparaging face of culture shock. I had taken two weeks off of my job teaching in Korea to go on a journey through Vietnam, but my tendency to be a complete and utter miser while traveling had landed me a bad flight with a worse airline out of Shanghai. I had decided to take my seven-hour layover there as a blessing in disguise, not a major pain in my ass, since I had never been to China and could try something unusual. My problem was focus: Shanghai is the largest city proper in the world, with a population of more than twenty-four million. What do you see in such an unimaginably large place with only a few hours to spare? I needed a goal, an objective for a bite-sized adventure, and when it hit me, it seemed perfectly and moronically stupid.

This is the story of how I ate Chinese food in China.

First, an aside about Shanghai: Tokyo stretches to the horizon when you fly into Narita, but Shanghai is another beast entirely. The city is constantly shrouded in a stunning grey cloud of wreathing and writhing smoke and haze, a man with eyes agleam in a puff of cigar ash. When you pass through the veil of choking smog and brackish clouds, the city emerges as a dim and dingy metropolis that seems to claw its way to the edges of the earth. The air is tinged with the taste of tar and the scent of cigarettes, and that sense of choking, cloying atmospheric claustrophobia is entirely normal.

I tracked down a map as soon as I passed through customs, and got a better sense of what the city was by staring at the sprawling, chaotic, ad-infested map of Shanghai. Korean city maps are concisely written, with clean lines and spotless images. The map of Shanghai is the total polar opposite. After puzzling over it, I made out that I had to take the maglev to get downtown the quickest. So I stored my bags at an airport kiosk, paid my yuan for a broken train ticket from a lady who looked borderline suicidal, and climbed onto the fastest train on Earth.

Interesting note about the fastest trains in the world: They’re surprisingly barebones. I’m not sure if it’s because they need to store more people or cut down on weight, but the seats on the maglev (and even the Korean KTX) make airport benches look cozy. I took a window seat, expecting to see some grandiose view of the countryside, but instead I was treated to views of a brackish harbor and acid rain-soaked buildings, replete with dripping stains and tattered clotheslines. It was a surprisingly bleak and dreary trip, but it took all of seven minutes. I spent most of that trying to focus on singular buildings and failing, eventually just giving up because my eyes hurt right as the train slowed to my stop.

I wandered out into Shanghai, and an apt comparison came to mind: It was the Star Wars universe. It was dirty, grimy, and lived in, but that feels far more alive and wondrous than our own reality. The city was run-down, jumbled and worn; yet it emitted this pulse of life, of breathing and burning humanity that the wide roads and subdivisions of my home could never hope to emulate. I marveled at it all, even the battered subway entrance as I slithered through the impossibly large crowds into the metro.

I walked into a subway car and immediately hit my head. The handrail was right at forehead level for me, and I drew a combination of sharp glances and comical chuckles from the locals as I rubbed my head and muttered obscenities under my breath. I rode out to Nanjing road, one of the central downtown shopping districts in Shanghai, and started out of the metro to locate an old colonial district called The Bund.

I didn’t get very far. Nanjing road is one of the busiest shopping streets in the world for a reason, and the amount of people relentlessly flowing through the thoroughfares stopped me cold. As an American from the west, used to wide places and personal spaces, this was insane. I stood there slack-jawed, staring at the teeming masses of Chinese shoppers stepping over dead rats to visit the Gucci store, at the foreigners in man buns and elephant pants taking pictures of historically significant pavement, and the touts and louts peddling prostitutes and pink roller skates. In all the travel I have done since, in all the trials and tribulation I have ever faced on the road around the world, be it waking up stranded in rural Huailen in the dead of night, getting lost in Sumida in a typhoon, or even nearly being robbed in Vientaine, nothing ever stopped me in my tracks but this one moment in Shanghai. It’s a challenge every traveler must face, the initial assault on your senses when you travel alone, the sheer realization that you are a single human in a mass of billions, a true stranger in a strange land.

Of course life never lets you rest on your laurels, and it doesn’t always allow for contemplation of the magnanimity of human existence either. I was shook out of my stupor by a man offering me prostitutes (“Long time love only twenty dollar”). I politely declined, and quickly learned that politely declining usually doesn’t work that well in Asia. The best way to be left alone? Keep walking, no talking. Unfortunately, I hadn’t absorbed this yet, and couldn’t get the touts to leave me be. To get away from a man trying to sell me drugs, I dipped into a nearby yellow building and walked smack into one of the strangest scenes I have ever seen.

Without realizing it, I had walked into an M&M’s world, during a live dance performance of M&M’s in terracotta warrior costumes, set to “Disco Inferno”. I marveled at the surreal nature of human existence and bought a magnet before I realized the drug dealer had followed me inside and I had to lose him. I lost him in the street, and remembered what I came for. I decided to turn down a nearby alley and find something to eat.

A ways down the street I noticed a small house with fish tanks out front. As I walked past it, staring at the pictures of food on the windows, a man a picnic table out front called out in broken English: “Hey! You food?”

Ahh…Fuck it.

I nodded, and he invited me inside. The restaurant was a converted house run by him and his family. His son was the cook, chain-smoking as he slaved over a wok in the back, black soot and grease stains lining the walls. The first floor was just the kitchen and some picnic tables, and I wondered if they lived upstairs as I sat down. The man produced a menu, all in Chinese, and smiled a gap-filled grin. I perused the menu, disregarding the words and looking only at the pictures until I saw an image of something any self-respecting American has had delivered a hundred times: Bell peppers and beef. I pointed to it, and the man exclaimed “Ahh…Beef Peppah.”

He gave me a thumbs up, dragging on a cigarette all the while. “Tsingtao?”

I nodded, and he produced a massive bottle of beer from a nearby cooler while his wife produced a plastic wrapped batch of dinnerware. He plopped down with a couple friends at a nearby table, and chatted in Chinese as his wife peeled open the containers and filled one with rice from a cooker on a grimy table.

I sipped my beer and watched the family: the husband gesturing at the paper and talking with his friends, pausing often to shout random things about my size-sixteen feet. The mother, smiling slightly as she showed the oblivious foreigner how to take cling wrap off serving dishes. The son, who put back four cigarettes as he whipped red chunks of beef and crisp bell pepper in a wok with sauce from a stained bottle. Finally, he produced my meal and handed it to the mother, who set it in front of me and stepped back to watch. The husband took a long drag on his cigarette as I took a bite.

I can describe that meal, definitively, as the best Chinese food I have ever eaten in my life. Nothing has ever come close. I have eaten at five-star restaurants in luxury hotels that paled compared to this meal cooked up by a chain-smoking teenager in a rundown basement family restaurant in Shanghai.

It was life changing, and I tried to convey that as best I could. The husband smiled knowingly and gave me a thumbs up while his wife relayed it to their son, who calmly popped another cigarette in his mouth and nodded with grim satisfaction. I paid my grand total of six American dollars and thanked them profusely as I wandered back into the street, still dazed and overwhelmed by the food.

I looked at my watch. It was time to head back to the airport, to my impending red-eye flight to Saigon and to the next stage of another life-shaping adventure.

Jjimjilbang: A Weird Dream I Had?

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Not Pictured: Lots of Naked Women

When I explain my first time at a Korean jjimjilbang to my friends and family, it feels like I’m describing a weird dream I had. “So I entered this room and everyone was naked. And I was naked, too. And we just sat in weird pools of water until Lee Pace showed up and asked me to marry him.” Because all of that is true…except the Lee Pace part.

I went to a jjimjilbang, called Lavender, in Daegu with four of my foreigner co-workers. Two of them had been to a jjimjilbang before, so, thankfully, my first experience wasn’t by myself. Even though seeing your friends naked is a strange way to bond, I was glad I wasn’t going alone since it’s always better to gape in confusion with someone else when you don’t understand why an ajumma is handing you a pile of used soap, or to be peer-pressured if you start to doubt whether or not you have the courage to strip off your underwear.

And so we burst through the door of the building that had the jjimjilbang on a higher floor, the cold air rushing in with us. We were bundled up in coats, scarves, and hats. We took an elevator up, and then put our shoes in tiny lockers, because Koreans don’t seem to like shoes near places they want to feel clean and cozy. So we went inside, shoeless, me feeling like this was all happening too fast, and we quickly saw that everyone was clothesless. Naked women everywhere. The next thing I know, I’m naked, too. We’re all naked. Old naked ajummas. Middle-aged naked women. Young naked women. Naked children. Naked me.

We shuffled, very naked, past women who were blow-drying their hair in the mirrors and through a door that led us into the jjimjilbang itself. The room was heavy with steam, every inch of the floor wet. We strode past women sitting on little plastic seats, like booster chairs, scrubbing their bodies with cloth, basins full of cloudy water. Red lights beamed down in the middle of the room, where women were lying face-up, snoozing with towels over their junk, while other women enjoyed the pools behind them.

The first pool we entered was a perfect hot-tub temperature. It was nice to finally be submerged and hide my body while I tried to process how naked we all were. Eventually we felt overheated, so we tiptoed out and into another pool that was ice-cold. Getting waist deep was as difficult as descending into a vat of needles. Overhead, the ceiling was designed like a cave and a stream of water poured out of it like a serious roofing problem. Every drop that splashed us stung our skin. We grimaced at each other, nakedly.

Then we proceeded into a lukewarm, dark-blue pool off to the side of the room, enveloped by a translucent wall. We never found out what was happening with this water. Some kind of sea salt? Food coloring? Kool-Aid?

And then an imitation waterfall where high pressure faucets beat/massaged our skin. I stood there, under the stream, like an old dog getting its head rubbed real nice.

After almost passing out from the heat of a different pool, I ventured into another that might have been camomile- or cucumber-infused? At this point, I’d decided two things: (1) If America had jjimjilbangs, they would fill them with fruit, probably, and just be like, “Enjoy our infusion hot tubs!” and then you would float in a tub of mushy strawberries or orange slices for $200. (By the way, it was only about $6 to get into this jjimjilbang.) And (2), jjimjilbang’s are half relaxing and half uncomfortable to me, because some things, like the massage waterfalls or the blue pool, are perfect, but other features, like the extreme hotness or coldness of some of the pools and sauna rooms made me feel kind of bad about life while I was in them.

Those sauna rooms were not really my cup of tea. One was like sitting inside an oven (I think I could see the air glistening with sweat?), which is never a thing I would recommend a person do, and one was freezing cold, with an ice wall spanning the perimeter of the room and a cold floor that just made me want slippers.

But the best and worst part of this adventure was getting scrubbed. First, we used bars of soap and scratchy cloths to scrub ourselves down, while we witnessed a girl cake a carton of Yoplait onto her face. Later, we were shown to the scrubbing tables in a private corner of the facility. Like Conan O’Brien says in his trip to a jjimjilbang with Steven Yeun, the tables do, in fact, look like they could have been used for dolphin autopsies. So I layed down, very naked, on a slippery table and pretended like this was all perfectly normal for me, and the scrubbing woman, clad in nothing but granny-panties, scrubbed every surface of my body three times with a cloth that felt like sandpaper, although it was painless. I’m pretty sure the words, “Um, woah there,” came out of my mouth more than once. And I almost gagged when I saw rolls of dead skin coming off my body, splashing to the floor when she chucked warm water from a large bowl at me, and my dead skin joined that of whoever else came before me, pooling into a dead skin sea. *gag* But my skin has never been so smooth.

Wow, what a strange dream, you might be thinking to yourself. I know. I never would have expected to find myself so physically vulnerable to a bunch of other women. But this experience is real life and, after awhile, it’s easy to relax. Korean culture doesn’t sexualize this aspect of their culture. It’s a normal and healthy way for them to spend time and take care of their bodies. Once I had the confidence to join them in nudity, I became comfortable in accepting that we’re all, in a way, the same, and there should never be any shame in vulnerability and self-care.

After we were showered and dressed again, swaddled in layers of clothes to face winter outside the jjimjilbang, I had never felt so cozy and clean in my entire life. Like a baby who’d had its first bath.

Culture Shock 101

Today’s guest blogger is Jaclyn Nelson.

As we entered a little hipster restaurant in Colorado Springs, I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Something was wrong. Heather was not her usual self.

“I’m so excited about this trip!” I word-vomited as soon as we sat down. Her eyes darted past mine. She made a passing comment, one that was clearly avoiding my comment. We made small talk for a bit before she finally got down to business.

“What if I told you we might not be going to Seattle?” she asked. My heart sank. I knew it. I knew it was too good to be true. Friends traveling together rarely works out.

“I have another idea. Would you…”

The suspense was building. My head was flooded, still adjusting, preparing for disappointment. Her voice was serious. In the dimly lit café, it felt like a proposal of sorts.

“…Go to Vietnam with me?”

“Vietnam? Like…Viet-freaking-nam?” My heart was racing. I had so many questions.

“Why Vietnam?’
“Is it safe?”
“Is it expensive?”
“How long will we be there for?”
“Do people go to Vietnam?”

Before I said any of those things, I immediately said, “Of course I will. Yes. Yes!

It was that easy. Heather and I had begun to save for traveling endeavors. We had talked about perhaps going to Seattle over the summer, when it had dawned on her that she liked to travel. And I liked to travel. She wanted to go out of the country and so did I. Why not go together?

How do you begin traveling with someone? You must ask someone. Make it happen. People always say they want to travel, but rarely do they make it a priority. You have to start somewhere.

She had done her research. Southeast Asia is one of the least expensive places to travel in and she stumbled upon it when she had Googled “Safest places for women to travel.”  Vietnam was safe, inexpensive, and beautiful. What could possibly go wrong?

Over the next few months, Heather and I would meet up to solidify our travels plans and it didn’t feel like it was actually happening. We’d research hostels and try to decide which ones were safe and how far in advance we should plan on reserving nights. Most websites recommended to just “go with the flow” and figure it out when you get there. That idea terrified me. What if we couldn’t find a place? We booked the first few nights just in case.

The day we bought the plane ticket, my heart was explosive. Still, somehow, I felt doubtful that this was actually going to happen. Something must go wrong. People do not just up and go to Vietnam without consequences—that’s absurd.

The week before the trip, we got an email from the airlines informing us that our two-hour layover in China suddenly turned into a two-day layover in China.

I knew this would happen. All of our plans moving from city to city would now be delayed. The hostel we had booked would no longer work. I knew this was a bad idea.

I said none of this. I went with the flow.

The flight was when it got really real. We were one of possibly four white people on the plane, and Air China was not kind to ignorant Americans who did not speak a lick of Chinese. I suppose it was our fault, but we hadn’t intended on leaving the airport in China until the week prior.

Side note: Air China was cheaper than most flights by a couple hundred dollars, but 100% not worth the hassle. They changed our flights last minute. The flight attendants were extremely rude. It was not worth it. It’s tolerable, but not worth the couple hundred dollars it saved us, even if that money could buy you weeks of travel in Vietnam.

We arrived in China very, very late. We were told the airline should cover our costs for the layover, considering they changed the flights last minute, but despite our pleading, they sent us out with nothing. Heather had booked a hostel in Beijing, just in case, but now the tricky part was trying to figure out how to get there.

We started asking questions about the cab fare. We quickly realized the expensive cabs were lined up first, and as you moved down the row of cabs, they got cheaper and cheaper. We had a round-about idea as to how much the cab should cost to our hostel and kept repeating it to the drivers. Eventually one of the drivers signaled over another driver and we got into the cab.

We showed the driver where we were heading. We had written the name of the place in English. That was our first mistake. The driver is Chinese—he doesn’t read English—he reads Mandarin.

Heather and I just looked at each other, trying to hide our panic. After spending a few minutes fretting, trying to figure out exactly what we were going to do, she remembered she had written down the telephone number of the hostel. She gave it to the driver. Looking back, it was very kind of him to call that hostel. That’s not in his job description—we didn’t know what else to do.

We began the drive in absolute silence. The nerves were settling in. We had researched areas in Vietnam, but we hadn’t China. Heather had booked a place that had high reviews on Lonely Planet, and we had just went with it.

Looking around us, I began to feel sicker and sicker. Graffiti everywhere. People walking in the streets late at night. The closer we got to the hostel, the more unsafe I felt. It didn’t help that the driver was going in circles around this square. Was he trying to rake up the miles and charge us or was he really that lost? I was unsure. All I knew is I could barely breathe and Heather wasn’t mumbling a word.

Finally, the driver motioned us to get out. He pointed down a dark alley. “Go,” he said, using whatever English he could muster. We refused. He drove around the block again, then motioned us down the same alley.  He pointed down the alley and to the left.

I don’t know how or when we mustered up the courage to trust him, against all instinct, but we began making our way down the alley. There were lots of people (what we would later find out to be primarily tourists) walking down this street. For now, we were just jet lagged, hungry, and desperate to find the hostel.

“There it is! There it is!” Heather exclaimed. I would never have seen it, cleverly hidden between other businesses.

We made our way inside, still barely speaking. We were starving, so we walked back outside to find food. Still uncomfortable, we decided to go back in almost immediately and travel by daylight. We ate granola and listened to the noises of our anxious stomachs.

I knew this would happen. I knew it.

The next day, we were still riddled with culture shock. The hostel was beautiful, covered with plants and flowers and connected to an adorable little restaurant. It was pricier than Vietnam would be, but at least there was food.

We spent the morning taking in deep breaths of relief—finally revealing how scared we both were the night before. We were not in a bad part of town at all; the “graffiti-covered walls” were the doors to stores, opening as a garage door would.  We were in a nice district, close to many tourist attractions, such as Tiananmen Square, a large city square in the center of Beijing. The people were incredibly kind.

The first night Heather and I were at the hostel, I sat at a community table and wrote in my journal. One girl from the hostel, Miko, asked if she could join me. I immediately confessed that I knew little to no Chinese and told her a little about the culture shock Heather and I experienced. She taught me a couple key Chinese phrases such as “Wo Chi Su” or “I eat vegetables,” the closest phrase to saying “I am a vegetarian” (this was of course after I accidently ordered an omelet with ham in it and had no way to explain that I didn’t want it).  

Miko was staying in the hostel in Beijing with her family as she waited to go to school to play the harp. Her mother showed me pictures of her playing a harp that was bigger than she! Though her mother spoke no English, we spent an evening connecting through smiles and hand gestures.

Soon others joined us. A traveler from Amsterdam saw us laughing and enjoying ourselves. He, too, began opening up and telling his stories of how far he’d traveled and how long he’d been away from home. At the time, I was amazed. Now, after meeting so many travelers, I cannot recall where he had been, only that he had dedicated years to self-discovery, something I desperately wanted to do.

And this is how I started. No, it wasn’t for months or years at a time, but everyone’s journey is different—and mine, for now, would take me to Vietnam.

Culture shock wouldn’t get me twice.

Seoul: Part One

Traveling to Seoul was like leaving the U.S. for Korea, minus the dramatic goodbyes, 100 pounds of luggage, and about 20 less hours of travel time. So, basically, it was nothing like leaving the U.S. However, that feeling of sweet independence and anxiety returned as I navigated my way from Taejon Station, where the English Village shuttle dropped me off, to Dongdaegu Station, where I took the train for the first time to Seoul.

I like traveling on my own, but I don’t relax easily because it doesn’t happen very often. I set my backpack on the floor by my feet, plugged in my headphones, and tried to sleep while the train raced down the tracks, passing the city I was getting to know and rushing towards snow-sprinkled landscapes of cities I have yet to encounter.

*

I met my friend and Seoul tour guide/translator/photographer, Yongseok, at my graduation party a few months after I accepted the position to teach in Korea. He was a foreign exchange student at my best friend Kate’s university. They made me a chocolate cake, and Yongseok decorated it with words in Hangul. He also gave me a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge and wrote on the back: “See you in Korea.”

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I think God puts people in our lives for a reason. I was both terrified and beyond excited to go on my own to South Korea for a year, but I felt more at ease when I knew I’d have a friend to visit when I got there. Someone who, you know, understood Korea. So meeting Yongseok before I left for Korea was one of those things God planned to reassure me that everything was going to be a-okay.

*

You know how sometimes when you go to an art museum, you’re like, “This stuff is pretty cool. What does it mean? Oh, crap, I’m going to have to use critical thinking to interpret the mind of the artist”? Well, try experiencing this in a museum of a foreign culture. I’m saying a lot, I’m sure, went over my head.

The first place we went after Yongseok helped me get a phone plan*** was an art exhibit in the old Seoul Station, which hasn’t been used for transportation since 2004. As we walked around the building, we typed words that were printed on the floor (like “crossing”, “technology”, and “shopping”) into an app on my phone, and it asked us survey questions that would, at the end of the exhibit, tell us about how we identify with the city we live in. It was an interesting concept, although we only answered about 20% of the questions while we explored, so the results, that I really, really love shopping, were not super accurate.

The exhibit displayed pieces from the physical structure of the original station, but mainly there were a variety of projects created by artists. It focused on typography, which was interesting given the knowledge I gained from a print design class I took in college. The exhibit had sections that explained the font styles that have been used on street signs and on businesses, displaying the unique personalities of different parts of Seoul. There were also books hanging from the ceiling on string and little sculptures one artist had created to represent each Hangul character. 

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IMG_3208***If you don’t speak Korean, you’re going to have a bad time attempting to get a phone plan. Tip: Find a Korean buddy and have them do the talking. Then you can just sit there with your dumb, foreign face and nod as if you totally understand what’s going on. You can nervously peel the rubber from your “LifeProof” case. You can hope when the guy behind the desk laughs, he’s not laughing at your dumbness. You can get excited because you’re finally going to be able to connect to wifi reliably and have data. Oh, technological-dependence, you fickle mistress.

*

“I think you like Korean food?” Yongseok told me as we ate mandoo, which was spicy dumplings, noodles, and mushrooms in a red broth. Based on our friend Kate’s previous reaction to Korean foods, I think he was expecting me to dislike the degree of spiciness in the food. However, the soups we had in Seoul were so good that I’m hoping to be able to find restaurants in Daegu with similar dishes.

So I tried a lot of traditional Korean soup, which was fitting for how cold the weather was.

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Seolleongtang (stock soup of bone and stew meat)

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Mandoo

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Soup with a whole chicken in the broth!

So, yeah, Yongseok. Korean food is delicious.

*

The palaces are sites I’d like to see again the next time I’m in Seoul. They were really beautiful, but we didn’t get to see as much of them as we would have liked due to the timing of my visit. We walked a short distance from the old Seoul Station to Gyeongbokgung Palace, on the way grabbing some traditional Korean candy called yeot from a man who was chopping it into little bits on his cart. The candy is rock-hard at first, but it softens into a taffy-like consistency as you chew it.

Gyeongbukgung Palace is especially beautiful because the mountains loom in the background. It’s majestic, an iconic part of Korea standing its ground while a modern city grows up around it. Such a stark contrast between architectural styles and hundreds of years of progress.

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This palace was closed for tours, unfortunately, but we were able to see inside the National Palace Museum of Korea. There was a lot to take in at the museum. Even though most of the explanatory text on each exhibit label was in Korean, most had English titles and Yongseok was able to interpret the rest for me. Some of my favorite parts of the museum were…

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The Screen of the Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks

This screen was always positioned behind the throne of the Joseon king (see final picture). Fun fact: “Joseon” was actually what Korea was called during this dynasty, instead of the current name, Hanguk. The nature imagery symbolizes the universe and the cycle of life.

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A Self-Striking Water Clock

This is a restored version of the original water clock created by King Sejong. Based on the flow of water through a basin and pipe system, the clock will chime at certain intervals to note the time of day or night. We were lucky to be looking at this part of the exhibit just a few minutes before it was supposed to chime, so were able to see one of the figures at the top beat a drum, sort of like a cuckoo clock.

*

I saw Deoksu Palace at night. It was built during the 16th century, and it’s the place where King Seonjo lived after returning to the capital in 1593. The Japanese forces had just withdrawn, leaving all the main palace compounds burnt to the ground.

Imagine entering through the front gate, heavy with the end of a war. You spent a year and a half in hiding in Uiju (long before it belonged to North Korea, of course), all the while knowing that your enemies are destroying your city. Peace finally comes, and so you arrive at your relatives’ home to live there temporarily.

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Deoksu means “virtue and long life.”

We walked the palace grounds in the dark with layers of leaves beneath our feet, the trees creating a canopy above us. We peered inside a silent, shadowed throne room, and a dining room exposed to the outdoors. Many of the tourists were already gone, so the palace grounds were still and peaceful, despite the loudness of life that bursts through the city which has rebuilt itself over hundreds of years, taking on modernity like a warrior.

Blood and Guns

DSCN2294I’ve been teaching for five weeks at the English Village, and I’m adapting to the differences between Korean protocol and American protocol. When I first started teaching here, there were a few things that caught me off guard: the absence of fear when it comes to blood and guns.

The very first class I taught at this school was the Orientation class, where the kids pick their English nicknames and we review classroom rules. These are all the same as classroom rules in the U.S. (be nice to each other, no eating food in class, no running in the classroom, etc.) As I was working one-on-one with a student to help her choose an English name, the kids started motioning to me, “Teacher! Teacher!”

I walked over to a small group of boys and they all pointed at the drops of blood on the ground. One of the boys was clutching his nose as it dripped down his fingers. If one of the kids needs medical attention, you can get a Village Guide for help, I remembered from the week of training before. So, I went outside my classroom and said to one of the college students who herds the kids from class to class, “Um, one of the kids in my class has a bloody nose. Could you take care of him, and is there, like, someone who can clean the blood off the floor?”

Partly this was me being dumb, but from the two years I worked at a daycare center in the U.S., I remembered that touching blood is a no-no. And the kids were currently attempting to mop up the blood themselves with tissues, each coming into contact with someone else’s bodily fluid. So I thought to myself, They need to wash their hands, and we need to get somebody with gloves and bleach STAT! AIDS and stuff! So as the village guide left to help take care of the problem, I returned to the classroom and sent the kid to the bathroom to clean himself up. The Village Guide then came into the classroom and wiped up the blood with her bare hands and a wad of paper towels. She probably thought, Wow, this new teacher thinks she’s too good to wipe up a little blood. What a diva. But, really, all I was thinking was 23-19! We have a 23-19! RED ALERT. RED ALERT. RED ALERT.

Dear Village Guide (whose name is forever lost to me. Sorry about that, too.), I’m so sorry that I inadvertently treated you like a peasant and had you wipe up blood when I had two perfectly functioning hands. 

So, yeah, blood is just not that big a deal in Korea, as additionally evidenced by the nurse who took our blood in the hospital with nary a glove.

But the difference that caught me off guard the most hit me as I entered one of the many classrooms (actually, just about all of the classrooms) that face the outside hallway with floor to ceiling glass. We sometimes joke about how it feels like we’re in a zoo enclosure, and the kids are all pounding on the glass, trying to get us to look at them while they wait to be let in at the start of class. Hello, teacher! Teacher, hello! Come out from under that desk, teacher! We’ll toss you cracker! Dance for us, monkey!

All joking aside, though, I stood in that classroom, writing on the board and preparing for the next group of students, and I thought Oh, man. Where are we supposed to hide the students if a shooter comes in the building? With the floor to ceiling glass, there would be no faking that the classroom was empty, that no scared kids are hiding against the wall, their knees pulled up to their chins, silent, the lights off.

I think all of us from the U.S. have experienced this tension, whether or not we were so unfortunate enough to actually have a shooting happen at our schools. We had drills in my middle school and high school. We’d get a call from the office or the speaker system would issue an alert, and the teacher would hustle to the door, lock it, tape black paper to the window, turn off the lights, shush us. Maybe for Americans there have been bigger scares, too, like when everyone in my high school had to sit in the gym because of a bomb threat, the administration thinking a big open space would somehow save us.

And then other times, like when I was in 3rd grade, we didn’t lock doors, but everything got very still when we heard the news about the twin towers. Students went home early with their parents. We watched the news broadcasts and prayed. We continued class despite the heavy tension that weighed us down so that we wondered, Does this even matter right now? Why are we learning about how to divide fractions when cities are splitting in two?

But vulnerable classrooms? Koreans just don’t seem to worry about it. Precautions aren’t taken because there aren’t guns to worry about. There’s violence in school, yes, but you can’t ban children’s fists and you can’t ban students from suicidal thoughts, though you can instill values in their minds so that they see each other’s lives as precious. And that’s something we’re still working on in every culture, in every country everywhere.

So I’m noticing these differences. It struck me that if I was going to worry about the glass rooms, the only concern I need to have is that tours of parents and potential investors are going to pass by and the Korean staff is going to frown at me for showing a YouTube video for five minutes instead of molding minds through active learning. And I view that as a privilege–one that I hope and pray every student and teacher will be able to experience.

On Being Called “Brave”

A co-worker called me “brave”
when I shimmied through a foot-and-a-half wide gap
between walls to get inside a room.
Locked doors in basements are made to be entered.
Darkness at the end, long-legged spiders,
no light except my phone.
This school building in Chilgok, big and silent.
Fear smaller than curiosity.
“Brave.”
I laugh because I am not this.
I laugh because I never have been brave
before.

“You’re so brave,” a girl at church, my age, told me.
She came to Korea for the first time, too.
Out of the country for the first time,
but she has her husband.
“Brave” because I came alone.
I laugh because I have never been brave.
Just curious.
I cried often before Korea.
Packing, praying, surprise parties, goodbyes,
and tears.
You can cry and still be brave, I guess.
Sometimes it’s brave to even cry.

When they called me brave,
I peeked my head out from under insecurity blankets.
Say what?
Maybe
it’s because my best friends
traveled alone to other countries
and shimmied through gaps between walls.
I have timidly followed them through
those gaps so many times
by now I can follow through on promises
I tell myself.
Sarah, you will travel.
Sarah, you can be alone.
Sarah, don’t sit on the sidelines and
watch life slip through the gaps
and leave you behind with no mystery
and still, sometimes, spiders.
Brave Sarah. Brave Sarah.
Like learning a new word from a new language.
Brave. “Yong-gamhan.”

I side-stepped through the gap in the walls,
wandered through dark rooms,
switched on lights.
I unlocked the door to let my friends inside.

No Country for Ajusshi: A Short Drama About My Naivete

CAST OF CHARACTERS
Sarah: A naive, single woman in her early 20’s
Austin: A quick-witted man in his early 20’s
Dianna: A spunky woman in her early 30’s
Ajusshi: A middle-aged Korean man, single and ready to mingle

SCENE I
The ground floor of Home Plus in Chilgok, South Korea.

SARAH and DIANNA stand in a grocery aisle with a cart full of their purchases: bedding, tailored pants, winter coats, hangers, soju, chips, candy. They look tired from their afternoon of shopping. Austin is in a different aisle, pacing back and forth, wondering what soju to add to his spoils.

An older Korean man, the AJUSSHI, approaches SARAH.

Ajusshi: Where are you from? Americans?

Sarah: Yes, we’re from the United States.

Ajusshi: Which part?

Sarah: I’m from Colorado.

Ajusshi: I know Colorado! They have professional baseball team, yes?

Sarah: Uh…probably. I don’t really know sports. Baseball? They probably have professional baseball…I don’t really know.

Ajusshi: [guffaws] You don’t know!

Dianna: I’m from Wisconsin.

Ajusshi: Oh! Oh! Yes, yes. Wisconsin. I think I know Wisconsin, too.

[All smile and nod, like ya do.]

Ajusshi: [to Sarah] How long have you been in Korea?

Sarah: About three, four weeks now.

Ajusshi: Are you single or married?

Sarah: …Uh, um, single? [Looks at DIANNA uncertainly.]

DIANNA shakes her head “no.”

AUSTIN approaches the shopping cart.

Ajusshi: Do you have a boyfriend? [He looks at AUSTIN.]

SARAH blinks at AUSTIN.

AUSTIN blinks at SARAH.

SARAH blinks at DIANNA.

The AJUSSHI blinks at SARAH.

Sarah: Uh, yes. Yes, boyfriend. [She points at AUSTIN.]

Austin: I’m her boyfriend.

Ajusshi: Ah! Oh, yes. Wonderful! Wonderful. [Quickly exits stage left.]

Sarah: [to DIANNA and AUSTIN] I’m the worst at lying when I actually should.

Dianna: Yes, you are. [laughs] And you’re flushed.

SCENE 2
On a bench at Gumi Station, shopping bags lined up at their feet.

Austin: Well, Sarah, I hate to say it, but I think I’m going to have to break it off.

Sarah: How could you do this! Our love only just began.

Austin: I just feel used, you know?

Sarah: But you were there. You were there! When I needed you most!

Dianna: [on the edge of her seat] I feel like I’m watching a K-drama!

Austin: You can go on without me. We just don’t need each other anymore.

Sarah: You’re right. But, Austin?

Austin: Yes, Sarah?

Sarah: Thank you. I’ve learned so much through this relationship. The next time an ajusshi tries to pick me up, I now know what to say.

Austin: What’s that?

Sarah: “Yes. Yes! I have a boyfriend. He’s in the military. We have couples’ outfits and everything, so it’s very serious.”

[Both gaze off into the sunset.]

Dianna: [clapping and wiping tears from her eyes] Atta’ girl! Atta’ girl!

THE END

Be Nice, Listen, Speak English, No Sleeping: Teaching English to Korean Children

12065617_907615582642412_6275626084768841933_nTomorrow morning, the start of my third week teaching Korean elementary and middle school students, the children will arrive in semi-straight lines, boys keeping each other in friendly choke holds and girls hanging on each other’s elbows. “Hello! Welcome!” we call out, standing on either side of them as they walk to the gym, dragging their suitcases along. They wave back, sometimes with both hands, and abandon “Anyang-haseyo” for “Hello” for the next five days.

The students give us gentle high fives and some teachers tease them by stealing their hats or greeting them in a high-pitched, falsetto voice. Every Monday morning the same jokes, different kids.

When I’m told that my group is ready, I go to the gym, taking with me the students’ passports (an imitation passport that they use to take notes and record their English nickname) and a folder that teachers use for learning background on the group (names, what school they’re from, etc.) and making comments. I then lead my group to a classroom for a quick pretest. I ask them, “Where are you from?” Most often they reply with “Korea,” sometimes adding their city name. Other times they just blink at me, look back at their friends who are watching, and laugh nervously. Sometimes, if the student is more advanced, we can ask things like “What’s your favorite animal?” And they’ll say, “My favorite animal is a cat.” We’ll ask, “Why do you like cats?” They’ll reply, “Because they are cute.” That amount of dialogue is not very common, though. This is why it’s a challenge teaching kids when they only understand a small percentage of what we’re saying.

People asked me when I was preparing to leave for Korea, “How are you going to teach kids if you don’t know Korean?” The answer to this is something I’m still learning. First, I’ve had to accept that they just aren’t going to understand most of what I say. Because that’s not the point. The benefit of immersing students fully in a foreign language is that they’re obligated to really pay attention or be completely lost, which does, unfortunately, happen. But even if they don’t understand everything, they learn to pick up on signals, like tone of voice and gestures. We use a lot of gestures. I’m probably going to come back to the U.S. and open and close my hand anytime I use the word “talk” or “speak.” I also use a lot of thumbs up, because the sound we make when we say “good” is similar to the word that means “finished” for Korean speakers. Basically, speaking slowly and simply, using gestures, and employing lots of repetition is what guides these kids through our classes.

Orientation is their next class and follows a short opening ceremony in the gym where the kids get pumped up and discuss general rules for the week–Do your best! Speak English! Ask questions! Orientation is where we get to pick the students’ names if they don’t already have a name in mind, which is often the case.

Me: We’re going to pick your English nickname. English nickname. *pointing at the words “English nickname” in their passport* You can pick one of these. *Circling motion around a list of English names* English nickname. Do you know which one you want? Do you want me to pick one? *Pointing to myself* What English name? Like, “Sally”, “Kathryn”, “Jessica”…Nickname? I will pick one for you?
Korean child: ???????

As difficult as it is for the student to understand what’s going on, especially on the first day, it’s fun to pick their names for them. There’s a certain power in coming up with these names if the student can’t decide. If I want to name the kids after my family and friends, I can do that. If I want to name them after all the characters on Arrested Development or Firefly, I can, and will, do that. The administration has had to remind teachers in the past, though, to stick to the names on the list because it can get out of hand sometimes. I was told that one student insisted on being called “Lucifer” (presumably after a video game he liked) and when asked where he was headed in the airport situational, he replied, “TO HELL!” Funny, but not so funny to his parents when they found out we called him Lucifer all week.

Also, we’re never supposed to call them “Johnson” or “Daisy”, because the kids are aware (even though I wasn’t???) that “Johnson” means “dick” and “Daisy” sounds like “dwae-ji”, Korean for “pig.” But it really doesn’t matter how normal of a name you give them because they will probably laugh at it, anyway, just like they laugh at the way you mispronounce their Korean names. You know you effed something up when they repeat the way you said their friend’s Korean name and giggle. A teacher I observed my first week gave a kid the name “Clive” and he dropped his jaw dramatically to pronounce the “ive” like the word was too big for his mouth. The kids busted up from how hilarious that word sounded to them.

At some point, you have to reign the kids back in so that you can set expectations. At the beginning of each class, we’re supposed to go over the rules.

  1. Be nice [Because the kids wail on each other as a part of their friendship. The boys will tackle or choke each other and the girls will slap the boys with all their strength–but, most of the time, they’re not doing it maliciously. I’m still trying to figure out the difference between “play” fighting and bullying…mostly I just intervene when it becomes a distraction or someone starts crying. *Teacher of the Year!*]
  2. Listen carefully [Even though you don’t understand almost everything I’m saying.]
  3. Speak English [This is America. We speak English here…wait…?]
  4. No sleeping [Because the kids stay up late talking to their friends and about mid-week start sprawling on benches and openly napping in the middle of class. They’re all set for college.]

The classes I’ve taught at this point are Video Store and my academic class, Music Genres. It takes a lot of lesson plan-adjusting as I learn more about what works and what doesn’t work for students of different English levels. For instance, when we played musical chairs in the first few Music Genres classes I taught, it went pretty well overall. And then I got a class that didn’t understood half my instructions, so when I played the music they just stood next to their chairs and kind of danced around to “Sugar” by Maroon 5, which they love here. (I can’t escape it. I just can’t.) No matter how many times I made a circle motion with my arm and tried to show them how to walk in a circle, they just ignored me and it became a matter of who was too into their dancing at the time the music stopped that they didn’t grab a seat. It was chaos, but I was laughing really hard at them when the DGEV photographer came in and wanted an action shot. So I’m pretty sure those pictures were of me dying of laughter while the kids formed a mosh pit to music that had out of control volume. *Quality education brought to you by Sarah Teacher*

Anyways, I might need to pick a different game for the kids who are more clueless and the middle schoolers who think they’re too cool for musical chairs and basically fought over who was free to stop playing the game and who was forced to march in a circle.

The kids craziness and unpredictability is what makes teaching fun here, though. They have a sweetly naive way of making sense of us foreigners, too. I’ve had many a Korean student stare into my heterochromatic eyes and ask, “Teacher, contact lens?” I’ve been asked a few times if I was married to the teachers I was observing the first week, and then asked if I was the teacher’s younger sister because of our age difference. The children ask “Same same?” and point at YouTube videos with white girls in them and then point at us, because, yes, all white girls look the same. Any female teacher with blonde hair and a braid will be called “Elsa” and there’s always a boy who stops the class at some point to sing, “Teacher…Do you wanna build a snowmaaaaaaaan?” Thanks, Frozen.

When class ends, I shout above the throng, “Sign passports! Sign passports!” And suddenly there are fifteen suspiciously-stained passports thrusted into my face and I circle how many points each student earned for participation and content and sign my initials. And then I release them to their Village Guide and wait for the next group to appear, waving “Hello, Teacher!”

So this is my life now.