Thank heaven for little girls

Think back to the first semester. You know, those halcyon days when seeing a traditional temple was still a novelty and the mention of an organised trip didn’t send a shiver of revulsion down your spine. Back in first semester we were still busy trying to navigate our ‘flexible’ timetables, how to order in restaurants, and the seeming neon maze of downtown. All that adjusting and gallivanting didn’t leave time for much else, so extra-curricular activities extended to loitering on the street outside Gogos with a cocktail in a bag.

This semester we’ve got our shit together (to a greater or lesser degree) and we’re all making a conscious effort to be more proactive. One of my own efforts was joining a local non-profit, cultural exchange/mentoring programme that pairs native English speakers with Korean teenagers. The programme has provided me with a reason not to fester in my apartment watching old episodes of Made in Chelsea, plus  the novel opportunity to interact with that alien species: the Korean teenage girl.

Working at an all-boys school has its perks and I’m pretty fond of the little toads. That being said, it can get a little Mad Men around here at times, which is down to the prevailing Confucianism philosophy that governs Korean society.


Despite evidence to the contrary (which I routinely plaster across the TV screen and wave beneath their noses in the form of handouts) a lot of the boys I teach would have me believe that their female counterparts aren’t in possession of brains or courage or strength, and that their passions are aesthetic only.

Despite admonishing my boys on a regular basis I realise now that I too was beginning to form my own uneducated ideas about Korean teenage girls. I’m ashamed to admit this but after eight months adrift in a sea of testosterone I crashed into the rocks of lazy ignorance. Based on a toxic blend of the boys’ warped depictions, fleeting glimpses of Korean teenage girls out in public, anecdotal stories from other NETs and the back catalogue of Girls Generation  I constructed my notion of a Typical Korean Teenage Girl.


So meeting my mentee was something of a revelation.

For our first date I took her to the Cat & Dog Cafe, imagining that the chance to manhandle adorable balls of fluff over a cup of hot chocolate would send her into shrieks of delight. Well, the only person shrieking was me. Somewhat confused that she hadn’t been compelled to join me in cooing over the fantastically obese siamese cat darting in out of our legs, I presented her with my trump card: a hot-pink, be-stickered scrap book. Surely this girlish confection would inspire a TKTG reaction. In fact, her eyes did not moisten, and she refrained from clapping her hands together like a cartoon seal. Rather, she calmly accepted the gift and thanked me sincerely.

Since our first meeting she has  continued to resist the role I was trying to force on her, going on to cooly discredit each and every one of my students’, and my own, silly assumptions, and remind me that people – especially teenagers! – are too complex to be typical.



Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween

Me and my super cute mentee, Kyueun as cats for Halloween

Speaking tests round two

The time has come once again for speaking tests, an announcement that was met with audiable groans and the slamming of foreheads against desktops. And the boys weren’t alone in their grief.

At once the memories of vacant expressions and long silences broken only by the sound of another student enthusiastically relieving himself in the nearby toilet came flooding back to me. The only difference this time around is that rather than sweating out the torture in the steadily intensifying spring heat, I’m suffering it swaddled in multiple layers to combat the encroaching winter freeze.

But its not all bad. Yes you will have to repeat the same half a dozen questions at least 616626728 times. And in return you will receive a variation on the same half dozen or so answers, or simply a blank stare. But, it is worth it for these moments:

Me: What do you hope to do?
Stude: I hope to do a dung

Me: What do you hope to do?
Stude: I hope to find the confidence inside to talk to a girl. These days I freeze

Me: What do you plan to do tonight?
Stude: I plan to go home, wet my body, lie on my bed, looking at my phone (pronounced ‘pon’) and watching many videos

Me: What are you pretty good at?
Stude: I’m pretty good at breathing

Me: What are you pretty good at?
Stude: I’m pretty good at massageee. I show you teacher?

Me: What are you grateful for?
Me: I’m grateful for my mother, I’m grateful for my duck, I’m grateful for my friends
Me: Sorry…did you just say your duck?
Stude: Yes
Me: Er…right…well, why are you grateful for your duck?
Stude: She make me happy

Dog day afternoon


This photo of my students taking a break from walking the local shelter dogs makes a charming frieze. But it belies the reality of the situation.

For instance, the photo fails to convey both the quantity of poop I was compelled to scoop, and the multiple road traffic related doggy deaths I scarcely managed to prevent. It also gives no clue as to the looks of pure, unadulterated horror on the faces of the park’s resident OAPs at the sight of a pack of dogs and teenage boys charging towards them. Or the similarly horrified expressions on the students’ faces when they were informed that they would have to carry their flagging canine charges.


 Or the disgruntled looks on the dog’s faces when they got carried like this.


Breaking point

It’s mid-term time so for the past three working days my day has ended at noon. Yesterday I took this opportunity to make a trip to Seomun Market (서문 시장) with Main Co. So far, so painless…

After picking up a cute animal-eared bonnet for my friend’s baby, I was ready to escape the bustling rabbit warren that is Seomun Market when MC invited me along to her appointment at a traditional Korean medicine clinic. As part of my pre-Korea research I read about the practice of traditional Korean medicine (한의학) but in the seven months intervening I haven’t seen very much evidence of it’s popularity. Being a waygook in Korea you occupy a specific bubble, detached from a large part of the culture – although you catch flashes you never get the full picture. MC knows this so she makes a point of inviting me along to any specifically Korean things that she thinks might interest me, and these little forays into ‘real’ Korea generally pay off. My visit to the traditional Korean medicine man, however, did not.


As I followed MC out of the market I envisioned turning down a narrow, deserted alleyway and ducking through an unmarked door that would open onto a dark, cavernous room heavy with the scent of ginseng and unidentifiable herbs. The walls would be lined with endless weird and wonderful items, bottled and labeled. There would be rows of ornate Chinese medicine cabinets with thick, dusty tombs detailing the human anatomy stacked on top of them.  Every other surface would be covered in scales, pestles and mortars, test tube racks, perhaps a bubbling cauldron or two.

Basically I was prepared to walk into Potions class

Well I was right about the ginseng. But for the most part my expectations were about 70 years out of date. It turns out that traditional Korean medicine clinics are pretty much identical in appearance to western clinics, right down to the dogeared womens’ magazines. I think MC could sense my disappointment as we took our seats in the noticeably comfortable, well-lit waiting area. She encouraged me to think of a medical complaint so that I could join her in the doctor’s office and receive a traditional diagnosis of my own. Intrigue restored, I mentally composed a fictitious ailment and followed MC into the doctor’s office.

As in the reception, there was a distinct lack of cauldrons inside and the doctor himself looked suspiciously like a regular doctor. I began to wonder if MC had duped me. MC went first and I took a seat to observe proceedings. First the doctor asked her some seemingly routine questions. MC said 네 (yes) a lot. Then he seemed to take her pulse on both wrists for an inordinate amount of time. This was followed by more questions, then MC stuck out her tongue for inspection. More questions, many more 네s. Finally the doctor prodded MC’s legs for a bit before closing her file and pronouncing his diagnosis – “Acupuncture.”

With me in the hotseat the doctor went through the process again, aided by MC’s translation. I was informed that I have a comparatively weak heart, lungs and stomach. “What should I do doctor?” I asked eagerly, hoping to be prescribed some exotic, vitalizing concoction. “Acupuncture,” he said. MC was nervous because she hadn’t had it for many years and she thought it might hurt but I was unconcerned. As I told MC sagely, a friend had recently had acupuncture and had reported that it was entirely painless, we had nothing to fear. I practically skipped into the treatment room.

Instructed to lie down on adjacent beds, curtains were drawn between us. In broken English the doctor told me to lose my skirt and advised that what was to follow would “hurt probably”. Still I was unconcerned, and so was entirely unprepared for the acute pain brought on by doc viciously stabbing me in both thumbs and big toes with a hat pin. After squeezing about a pint of blood out of my wounds the good doctor set to work covering every visible portion of my flesh in needles via a disconcerting and unpleasant jabbing, wiggling motion that made me shiver all over.

Satisfied that I resembled a pin-cushion, the doctor placed a type of hot water bottle over a free patch of abdomen and a heat lamp over my feet before disappearing. I now have no doubt that under torture I would confess and surrender all of my friends and family immediately. Over the next 30 minutes I considered throwing in the towel on at least three occasions. The doctor needn’t have told me not to move, if I so much as attempted to shift my weight my muscles twinged in protest. Glancing down at the forest of needle ends made me feel sick and the panpipe music offered little respite as it was overpowered by regular sharp intakes of breath as the doctor set to work on other patients. Finally, needles removed, MC asked hopefully, “Do you feel well?” I rubbed my aching legs and eyed my blotchy reflection pointedly.

After paying for our torture session we were given an infernal brown liquid to drink. It tasted not dissimilar to the tortoise jelly that I had the delight to sample in Hong Kong.


And drinking it produced an identical reaction, which MC, the receptionist and the random pair of ajummas got a big kick out of.

 Korean medicine has officially been ticked off of my to do list.