There's not much I can say about what it's like to try to teach English to little kids that hasn't already been blogged to death. Of course the dang rug rats was cute and all. We had some laughs and some brawls. Some loved me and some hated me. So instead of scrawling out all the details of each day and each class, I'll list out some of the high points and some of the low points.
First the low:
-Riding that motorcycle around in the cold. Worse was riding it around in the rain.
-I had one stop with a brother and a sister. Ages 5 and 3. They had no English at all. They had no interest in learning it. They had no interest in me. They roused rabble and messed around the whole time. Their mom would pop into the room (their bedroom) from time to time and yell at them. She would also tell me to yell at them and discipline them into studying. Riiiiiight.
-One day on the way to one of the classes that was quite far out into the boonies from Mokdong, I was riding the motorcycle in the motorcycle lane (you know, basically in the gutter next to the curb). As I came around a corner, a huge truck was making the same turn and came wide enough so I had to slam my brakes to keep from getting rolled under the enormous front wheel. I nearly kissed it goodbye that day.
-In class at the institute one day. The kids were teasing me on account of the baldness up top. We teased back and forth while trying to learn some words to describe each other. Things degenerated when I crossed the line and told one student (strongest English speaker in the class) he needed to work on his English. He lost it. He started bawling miserably in front of the whole class. I tried saying I was only joking, but he grabbed my cheek with his little hand and squeezed and scratched as hard as he could while screaming at me. My face hurt but I felt bad the kid had taken it so hard. He calmed down some and class ended. We walked out and there was the hagwon owner. He saw the kid's tears, he saw my red scratched face, what could I say? I put my arm around the kid and told the teacher in my slowest clearest English that this kid "is the smartest in my class." Oh boy.
-I had a private class with 4 high school freshmen. On the last day of my 3 week stint with them, they pestered the whole hour to play games. I understand why they didn't want to go through another boring lesson in the book and it likely had very little to do with it being my last day. I finally gave in and broke out some card game. Mom came in and was not pleased. She got angry with me in front of the kids and told me they were high school kids and didn't need to play games. She said she wasn't paying me to play games with them. Her English was hurtfully good right then...
I officially started substituting for JT's brother's classes after he and his betrothed left for the States. The hagwon provided a motorcycle (like a Honda Trail 90) that I rode around to different hagwons and apartments to teach. My typical routine would be:
Put on a helmet, put my hands into the huge glove/mitten things that covered the handles and kept my hands from freezing off, ride the cycle to the hagwon, enter up the back stairs, "teach" a class, leave.
When I left I would ride to an apartment where 3-5 kids would be waiting. I would work through a textbook for 50 mins, then mom would bring in a tray of treats and/or juice. We would eat and maybe play a game for 10 minutes. Then I would leave. On the way out mom would hand me an envelope of cash. Usually 25-40K Won per hour.
Off to the next apartment. Repeat.
Initially my days were not packed with classes because the hagwon owner didn't trust me yet. But it didn't take long 'til positive feedback flowed in from the moms. I made a point of greeting them in Korean and doing a bit of small talk at each visit. After each session I would praise their kids' English skills. Pretty soon I was gold.
Once a week I would ride the #5 Purple line over an hour all the way from Omokkyo to Jamsil? where I met a young lady for 2 hours of free-talking. We drank Cokes and chatted. She was a grad student and quite smart. She was studying North Korean politics and the concept of Juche. This was right at the time Hwang Jang-yeop defected. He was one of the main "architects" of Juche and so we spent hours talking about this news and about Juche. She was quite thrilled to be allowed to study North Korean politics at such an exciting time. Definitely one of the highlights of my substitute stint. She paid me 100,000 won for the 2 hours. Maybe I should have paid her? Or at least paid for the Cokes?
Camping and a raging bout of stomach flu have forced this temporary departure from the events of 1997 in Korea. Secretly I am also s t r u g g l i n g with writing about "teaching" English to little kids. So any tangent at this point really...
Have a look back at May of this year when I posted my Cherry Blossom Tribute. Notice if you will the barenakedness of my 무궁화. How sad it was back then. Here is an update.
The indomitabilityness of the Korean Spirit in blossom form: Some said it wouldn't survive. I beg to differ.
Weather today: Sunny. 98F (36.6C).
The next night, JT, his brother, and I went and saw Jerry Maguire. On the way home we noticed that Skylark Family Restaurant was having their Grand Opening. “Wanna go in and get a bite? Let’s see if their steaks are any good. We’ll probably be their first foreign customers,” JT proposed.
“OK,” we agreed.
Skylark keeps a full staff of servers, bussers, managers, and cookers working hard until 2 a.m. Most of them have day jobs too but they all need the extra money so help is not hard to find. No sooner had we taken our seats but a smiling server in a pink dress with white apron dropped off three menus, not before honoring us with a deep bow of salutation: “Hello. How are you?” Five different girls came up to our table one at a time, bowed and said, “Excuse me. Can I take your order please?” We hadn’t even had a chance to look at the menu. Girl number six was worth waiting for. Shy, shortish, with a traditionally beautiful egg-shaped face, her nametag read "Young-Sook."
“Excuse me. May I take your order please?”
I said, “Will you be my friend?”
Secretly I was only acting in my role as Love Finder for JT.
I opened my Sharp electronic address book and planner and slid it over to her. She looked at it, a shy and confused grin started to creep onto her face but she quickly covered it with her hand. My planner prompted her for her name and then phone number. “Young-Sook is a popular name,” I said. In my mind I was thinking back to my first Young-Sook 10 years earlier.
“Yes it is,” she said. "Is beep-beep OK?"
"Sure, just don't fake me," I said.
She responded with a blank stare. You know the look.
“May I take your order please?” Skylark Young-Sook asked after an awkward silence.
“Give me a beefsteak with steamed rice on the side, friend.” I said it with a smile.
A heavyset Edmontonian girl at the party convinced us to share a taxi with her down to the Hong-Ik area to go dancing. We went to one of the newer of several Western-style nightclubs with a full bar and without the exorbitant table charge for beer and fruit common at other Seoul area drinking establishments. Inside, the hip-hop thumped and the part Korean, part American crowd smoked, drank, and danced. We didn't last long there before we both decided it was time to head home.
We took the Green line to the bus exchange and the bus over the bridge back to the Green line (thus circumventing the Green Line portion that collapsed into the river), all the way to the Purple transfer. The last Purple had already gone so we decided to cross over to the market area where an old woman was cooking up fried egg sandwiches. Crossing at the same time was a beautiful young Korean girl whom I caught staring at JT. She didn't flinch, didn’t giggle and cover, didn’t even stop staring. She confidently scrutinized my woman-starved friend. She stopped just across the street and started to hail a taxi. At this late hour, the taxis are all full but drivers try to pick up solo riders to pocket the extra fare. However, finding a taxi that isn't full of people that also happens to be going where you want to go is a difficult prospect.
JT and I ordered one egg sandwich each as I told him how that girl had stared at him so. The old egg sandwich woman lightly buttered both pieces of bread, toasted them next to the frying eggs, and finished the process by sprinkling liberal amounts of sugar on the eggs and coating the bread with ketchup. I ordered mine without sugar or ketchup, and, at JT's bidding, went over to spark up some conversation with the girl. I asked if she was trying to catch a taxi to her boyfriend's house. She said she didn't have a boyfriend. I pointed at JT and told her my friend thought she was cute. She looked at him and waved. He came over with two egg sandwiches and stood next to her with that cheesy tooth-filled grin of his. Through me he asked her name. "김 보연," she said. JT turned to me and told me to get her beep-beep. Young hip Koreans all have pagers because they get can in trouble when their friends of the opposite sex call them at home. With a pager they can take calls whenever and return the calls without fear of parental interference. I asked for her beep-beep and without a word she tore a page out of her planner and wrote her name followed by her pager number. JT grabbed it and looked, it was a 015 number--one of two prefixes that all pagers use. He smiled at her and said "친구." A taxi pulled up and she yelled "영등포" into the window. "Ride," the driver said. Off she went.
Next day, JT still smiling at the prospect of getting carnal, beep-beeped 보연. After dialing it twice without getting the prompt to enter a message or number, he dialed again and handed the phone to me, "Tell me what this says." A woman's voice, monotonous like a recorded operator, told me in Korean that this number had been disconnected or was no longer in service. I broke the bad news to JT. "Faked," he said sadly and took the scrap of paper with her name and number on it and placed it on his desk under the glass top with other souvenirs of his world travels.
We followed James up the Omokkyo Station exit number One which opened up in front of a 24-hour convenience store. "Stop here for some beers," James advised. "The party's just down that sidestreet. Go in that door there by that full-sized cardboard Korean Air Flight Attendant. Up to the third floor above that billiard hall and that's it, walk right in."
Inside the 24-hour store JT and I couldn't decide between Cass, Hite, or OB Lager (the Budweiser of Korea). "Remember that time you went to Oregon and brought back that box of Weinhards for my birthday because we couldn't get it where we lived yet?" JT asked.
"Let's get OB Lager," he suggested. "There's this commercial on TV for OB Lager with this funny guy. I don't know what he says or anything, but it's funny and the kids love it."
"OK," I agreed.
At the door to the party was a huge pile of shoes so big the door wouldn't shut all the way. We fought our way through it and went in. The apartment was mostly filled with Canadians with only a few Koreans. James was on the couch next to a tall Korean beauty. Both were laughing and drinking. I got close enough to hear James trying out his unstrong Korean on her. JT came up, "I'm better looking than that guy and he's got Korean Love. See he speaks Korean. That's all it takes, I know it."
"He's a geek. Maybe Korean babes dig geeks," I offered. "I know geeks, you're no geek. Besides I just heard him ask her old she was by using 연세 for age not 나이. 연세 is only for older people. His Korean is not so strong as it seems."
"She laughed," JT pointed out.
"True." She had laughed, but I wasn't sure if it was because James's blunder was cute, or because she was being polite, or if she was just drunk. Could have been a combo of all three.
Four hours and two more trips to the convenience store later, the OB Lagers gave JT the courage he needed to spark up some conversation with one of the three Korean girls at the party. JT’s cheeks always get a little flushed when he’s drinking, and he’s quite proud of the fact that he’s a lightweight. His eyelids sag and his grin shows the top row of his cosmetic teeth. I’ve seen that look a thousand times and it always makes me laugh. He thinks it’s irresistible. He really needs to get that level of self-confidence back full time. Too bad the girl he is hitting on is living in this very apartment with the Canadian guy hosting the party, who by the way, is sitting with a scowl on the other side of her from JT.
Being a Love Finder is going to be a full-time job...
Mr. K and his wife came in. Mr. K didn't say anything to me, just stared briefly, walked into JT's bedroom and shut the door behind him. A minute later he called JT in and closed the door again. JT's brother looked at me and shrugged. Mr. Kim's wife--that would be Mrs. H--smiled, giggled, and sat down at the kitchen table. She silently fidgeted with her bangs, which had been sprayed to stand almost straight up like some wall of fear.
Five minutes of hushed conversation passed in the bedroom. Mr. Kim came out, extended his hand for an unfirm shake, curtly introduced himself and left. His wife dutifully followed.
"What was that"? I asked half afraid of the answer.
"Oh, nothing really," JT said.
"Then why did he snub me like that?"
"Well, he's got this idea of what an English teacher should look like, he's really into image. I told him not to worry and go out there and be polite."
"Didn't work," I said. "If he doesn't like me he can find someone else if he thinks he can." It was a semi-bluff and I knew I didn't mean it as soon as I said it.
"It's going to be OK," JT assured me. "He was just surprised that you were a little balding up top there. That's all."
"I can't help it. You know it's not like he's flawless or something. He's short. I don't like short people. You know what else? His English sucks. I hate Korean institute owners whose English sucks. And he can help that, it's called studying. It's not like if I studied harder I'd grow more hair or something. Know what I'm saying? The punk."
"Mellow out man, a little touchy about the dome or what?"
"No, I just, how about a chance first? Ya know? I mean I can't help my genetic physicalities now can I?"
That night, a tall, fully bald-headed Australian fellow named James met us at the Omokkyo Station underpass to show us the way to the foreigner-only party.
"James, are you teaching English here in Seoul"? I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"But you're bald..."
"I know," he said with a look on his face that spoke volumes.
When JT's brother came home from teaching class that night, we decided to celebrate my arrival by treating me to some Soju and delicious, spicy, marinated chicken with noodles. We walked to their favorite place, took off our shoes, and sat on the floor around a hot bed of glowing coals. As soon as the Soju was poured, JT said: "White, you have got to find me some Korean Love. These women are so beautiful, but I can't seem to get anywhere with them."
"Have you got your eye on anyone?" I asked.
"A couple different babes, but I thought you could help me meet some new blood too."
"Sure. But are you ready to put on that old blue collar, punch in on the time clock and do work? Unless times have changed drastically in the last ten years, you shouldn't have much trouble if you put in the time.
I was not entirely comfortable with the situation or his request, but JT seemed so sincere and desperate at the same time. At that point I must've faded out of the conversation because I was vaguely aware that I was no longer speaking out loud but was lost in a haze of fond reminiscence and jetlag.
JT picked up on my absent stare and changed the subject. "Anyway, there's a foreigner party this weekend over by Omok Bridge. Only foreigners are invited, but mostly it's just Canadians. I want to go check it out. And tomorrow night I want to go see Jerry Maguire. You feel up to it?"
"OK. If my jetlag is gone."
"Well, if it isn't my old roommate I've got to go all the way to Korea just to see." I greeted him with a hug.
"You want to take a taxi, bus, subway, what?" JT asked.
"All roads lead to Seoul, baby."
"Subway it is."
The number five line, the purple line, was one of the newest in Seoul at the time. It runs from out west of the airport clear across the huge sprawl of Seoul. The purple line is still clean and doesn't yet smell like garlic, piss, 소주, or puke. It also runs right through the neighborhood where JT lives and works. It's almost never crowded, it’s perfectly safe, it costs less than 50 cents for a one way ticket, it's a great way to commute.
"Our stop is Omokkyo. An easy way to remember it is, this is line five, get off at Omokkyo, and take exit number five. Five is the magic number. OK?"
"OK." I didn't feel like telling JT that Omokkyo also means "Five Tree Bridge," another magic five, but I was certain I could find my way around.
It was evening in 목동when we came up on to the street from Omokkyo Station exit number five. Immediately there on the left was Skylark, an American style family restaurant still under construction. Another half block down on the left, near a video store no larger than a minivan, was a basement bar called "Green." JT was intrigued by Green because he had followed a beautiful girl down there once and was denied entrance at the door by a man who said nothing, just shook his head. In the smoky dark of Green, JT had seen TV screens with what looked like naked Korean girls on them so I promised we'd go on a fact-finding tour after I got settled.
Seoul, South Korea
As I waited for my overstuffed backpack to show up on the luggage carousel of Seoul's Kimpo International Airport (this was well before Incheon International was even a glimmer in some Korean slogan-maker’s eye), I scoped out the Customs lines where Koreans returning to their home country were getting the third degree and a complete search. I'm a little anal, and a lot protective of my personal stuffs, so I am always anxious about some scowling customs 아저씨 rifling my backpack. When my pack finally came through I put it on and, acting like I was overly exhausted, walked to the initial checkpoint, surrendered my passport, and tried to look as tired as possible. The angry-looking customs official slowly scrutinized me up and down one time, more tired than I perhaps, and simply said, "가." As if I were a child, or a dog, or a drunk. Just that one curtly uttered syllable.
Given the circumstances of my previous sudden departure from this place, I was surprised and more than a little bit relieved. I walked out, but my ears and brain were still buzzing from what was left unsaid beneath that brief imperative. It said, "I know why you're here, you. I know you brought your poison culture to bespoil our traditions, you're probably smuggling drugs, you'll work illegally selling us your mother tongue, try to take our women away with you, give us AIDS. You are 100% bad."
A travel agent with a smoker's raspy voice booked me on Singapore Airlines from San Francisco to Seoul, non-stop. I had never heard anything about that airline before. But she assured me it was a "really nice carrier," and since it was comparably the cheapest ticket--just over $600 round trip--the decision wasn't a difficult one. We chose a departure date that would land me in the Land of the Morning Calm with a few days to de-jetlag myself before I had to start teaching. Since I also had to lock in my return date, I tentatively reserved a seat on a return flight some 87 days after that. I figured I could easily move my return up if I wanted. Oddly, the thought of doing the reverse never occurred to me.
I called JT, told him when to expect me. As for packing, all I needed was my new passport (my original one had expired and I hadn’t left the USA in 10 years since), my tourist Visa, a sleeping bag, clothes, toiletries, and my cliché but trusty Lonely Planet Guide to Korea. I crammed it all in my North Face backpack and was ready to go. Before I left, however, I heard from several friends in the same social circle as JT and me. I was charged with a serious calling.
"When you're over there, find out the scoop on JT's sexual preference. You know, I mean, see if he's gay or what. I mean, my wife wants to know, you know."
Yes I know. Your wife is still pissed JT told everybody that he could have slept with her while she was engaged to you.
Bearing that unheavy burden, I left for the airport. It didn't take but five minutes on the plane to realize that my travel agent had not lied about the quality of Singapore Airlines. The plane itself was huge; 11 seats across each 3-section row, but not 1/3 of the seats were occupied. I chose a 5-seat middle row near the back all for myself, took off my shoes and put on the purple courtesy socks provided. I figured that the courtesy socks were purple to match the interior color motif of the plane, and not due to some Donny Osmond influence, at least I hoped.
No sooner had I gotten comfy than a friendly attendant was offering me my first glass of free wine and we hadn't even begun to taxi yet. On the seat back in front of me--in front of everyone--was a personal-sized TV screen. My own headphones, my own remote control, my own viewing options. Every two hours a new movie, Seinfeld re-runs, countless music choices, Nintendo Golf and car racing, updated flight info including speed, location, ETA, weather and time at destination, all in three languages. In that plush and distracting environment, with all the free-flowing liquor, the 12 1/2 hour flight went pretty fast and soon I was touching down at Seoul's Kimpo International once again.