Saturday, July 14, 2007

Lead Poisoning

I have this kid who’s a bit of a little shit. Sixth graders tend to be a little spastic, but this kid displays the main symptoms of ADHD to the nth degree, in particular impulsivity. A week after I conferenced with his parents, he got mad at me and decided to empty the pencil sharpener into my can of Diet Coke in between classes. Luckily, this one kid warned me: "Teacher, um, do not drink your cola." Incidentally, and I’m 80% sure it was without bias, the squealer (one of my favs) went on to win the science fair for our class.

It was hours before I knew that this was responsible - I made the kids very late to lunch until they started naming name(s). My partner teacher found out about this episode and made him write a letter to his mother about it. A week later, she gifted me a shirt and an apology letter:

Dear [Mark],

Thank you for your concern on [my son]. [He] promised me not to do playful things any more and he felt sorry about you. I hope you will enjoy trip to Japan. I bought a T-shirt for you. If it doesn’t fit or you don’t like colors, you can exchange it at the nearest department store. Do not throw away certificate attached to T-shirt. Have a nice trip.
Indeed, I exchanged the shirt - a knitted blue and white striped number that I’d be embarrassed to regift to my grandfather. I knew full well there’d be language issues involved, but bolted to the nearest department store immediately after work today, anxious to have another passable short-sleeved shirt for next week’s field trip to Japan. The poor woman working the store, catering to all your golfing attire needs, didn’t know what to do with me. She kept repeating the same sentence - something about "exchanging" and "sizes" - altering sentence speed, intonation, and staring at me like a dog who’d just pissed on her rug, dumbfounded that I couldn’t understand. She phoned someone in who spoke pretty decent English, and then we got to the point. No, I couldn’t just take the cash: "You must exchange for same same, but different style maybe." Then she revealed the amount of cash involved. With the current exchange rate, this ugly knit shirt can be purchased for $150 ailing dollars.

I exchanged it for a slightly less ugly one that is now the most expensive thing in my wardrobe. I agonized over the exchange, eyeing every fashion option in the store: salmon checked with lilac, a myriad of greens swirled with yellows, ad nauseum. There was a nice sportscoat for $350, but even with a $150 head start I couldn’t justify that purchase. I felt like an absolute ass walking out of the store, bag in hand, with a doozie of a golf shirt - in a country where golf courses are virtually non-existent.

And the wind blows.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Peace stay with you

I’ve recently enrolled in a Korean class, meeting MWF from 7-9. I’d study by myself, off and on, every fortnight or so - or several days in a row if I was on a binge - but I’m frustrated, since I wasn’t progressing with the language like I’d envisioned I would.

On the first day of class, I was the only student for the first half hour. We were reviewing the alphabet, something I already feel very comfortable with, and this Frog radio broadcaster waddles in and plops himself right across from me. Immediately I was distracted, as he was the hairiest, nasliest motherfucker I’ve ever encountered [there’s hairy, and then there’s ungroomed hairy - the latter of which, in this case, featuring ear and nose hairs protruding a third of an inch further than they should]. Awhile into pronunciation lessons, he sneered at me and tried to correct my pronunciation for a consonant that is particularly hard for foreigners to pronounce.

"Actually, it has more of a [phlegmy, overly aspirated] sound."

"I’m aware that it’s romanized with an ‘h,’ but I don’t think that’s it either."

An hour into the class, a Chinese graduate student joined us, making it a foursome with the teacher.

Apparently, the Frenchman’s general air of superiority grated on everyone in the room, and on the second day of class the teacher came up with a brilliant plan: "You understand much. I think that you should go to Korean 102. If it is difficult, come back. But you should be ok." He agreed that he was in fact vastly superior than the two of us, and he basically hopped up out of his seat. The two of us who remained - the Chinese chick and myself - bid adieu in Korean. There are two ways of saying "goodbye" in Korean. Ours was a nonchalant "peace go with you." This was reciprocated by a sniffy "peace stay with you."

Now it’s just me and this Chinese chick. I’m keeping pace with the curriculum okay, but for the my remaining classmate it’s kinda cheating. For a rough SAT analogy: ENGLISH: LATIN :: KOREAN: CHINESE. This would be like me in a Spanish class with a Papua New Guinean. I’m holding my own, but she can understand hella more than I do, so I kinda tune out when they have their own conversations. That, and I’m still terribly slow with the script, so the Chinese chick needs something to do while I’m writing away at a kindergarten level - replete with fat pencil and quadruple-lined paper.


Yesterday, I was walking out of my local subway station and ran into a couple "sisters." Not in the African American sense, but in the LSD sense. Of course they stopped me since a whitey sighting is pretty infrequent in my neighborhood. All was going well (away from the topic of religion) until we started talking about language. Somehow, and quite adroitly, this segued into God:

"Oh, wow. You study for an hour a day by yourself? That takes a lot of willpower. Have you found any good Korean books?"

"Actually, I read the Book of Mormon."

"Good book" must have triggered something in the eldest Elder Sister, and I was impressed with her conversation shift. She quite bluntly asked me about my religious stance, and she made it impossible for me not to answer the question. When it came down to it, I conceded that every Mormon I’ve ever met has been a fabulously kind person. When she asked if I wanted to learn to be that way, I was somehow finagled into agreeing to visit the Mormon homepage when I got home. A promise that I've so far broken.

This wasn’t the first time I’d found myself in a missionary position since I’ve been in this country. Months ago, I was chilling out in my bathrobe on a Saturday morning when I received a rare knock on the door. Thinking it was certainly a friend, I quickly opened. Two demure, pious-looking Orientals were there to greet me. One of the better parts of living here is that you aren't handed leaflets on the sidewalk once people realize you are white. I hoped there would be a similar language barrier in that case. There wasn’t, and she apologized profusely for not having any English language literature on her. The following week there was a sticky note on my door:

"Hi. I am the one who visited you last Saturday. I brought some English magazines for you, but you are not here. So I will leave them out your post box. I wish you enjoy reading those magazines. Bye."

Somewhere in my (new) apartment, I still have that copy of the Watchtower.

Monday, May 28, 2007


Today, I was browsing the internet to see if Ignatius J. Reilly was a direct influence on The Comic Book Guy - something that caused me to wake up in a cold sweat last night. The findings were inconclusive, but the search did yield an overly emotional reaction to the deadpan prose of a typical wiki article:

Voiced by Hank Azaria, the obese, nerdy, hairy Comic Book Guy is perhaps
best known for his sarcastic quips. He holds a master's degree in folklore and mythology (he translated The Lord of the Rings into Klingon as part of his thesis). His catchphrase is the declaration "Worst. (Noun). Ever.", which is usually
delivered with slight pauses between each word, or variants with slightly
different wording (such as "Worst. Theme Park. Ever.").

Something about The Comic Book Guy holding a master's degree in folklore caused me to simultaneously giggle and weep. One wiki link later, and I swear that my body 15 pounds ago has been wikified. There were a few dead-ringers for CBG at the folklore conferences I've been to, but I'm a little miffed that Matt Groening would've given this degree to the most. pedantic cartoon character. ever. I mean, who gets an MA in folklore?

To conclude, last weekend there was an 80s party at a friend's house. Quite the shabang. I'd spent the previous couple weeks growing a beard, coincidently, but it was getting to scratchy. So, I decided to shave it into a ridiculous 80s mustache for the occasion. Replete with an army of chest hair bursting from orange/brown velour, I was ready to go. This cute Korean chick went up to me:

Is that real?

My mustache?

No, your chest hair.

Ahha! Opportunity strikes? However, I lacked the savvy to parlay that into a phone number:

[in Korean] Do you like many body hair?

[in English] [snicker]... Not really.

Then she went back to the snack table and reported to her also-hot friends. Worst. Game. Ever.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Answer to question posed... awhile ago:

According to a couple concerned mothers who have approached me to write middle school acceptance letters for their children, middle schools in Seoul are becoming increasingly more competitive. The reason for this isn't, however, "because [I] touch [myself] at night." This is a bizarre outcome of the Virginia Tech shootings. The incident sent the whole country into mania, and front-page stories in the Korean media ran the spectrum from "U.S. shooting prompts concerns of racial backlash" to official presidential apologies. Random people on the subway offered their condolences and my sixth grade students wouldn't stop talking about it. All this, apparently, has culminated in several wealthy parents' decisions not to send their children off to US boarding schools for middle school, as is otherwise typical within that demographic.

There was a fieldtrip last Friday, to an island of some historical significance. It was cool to see Korea's answer to Stonehenge - and it's always nice to get out of Seoul for awhile and get some fresh air - but I was kinda bored at one point and thumbing around at this one temple. I saw this gaggle of females not too far away, stopping to refresh themselves at one of the communal drinking fountains that are present at every Buddhist temple I've been to. Hands in pockets, I shrugged and saddled up: "A couple of them look to have somewhat disproportionately large faces, but this will help occupy a couple minutes." I doffed my invisible cap and said a few pleasantries to these lasses. Right away, it was apparent from the spit bubbles forming at the corner of their mouths - as well as the elongated vowels of their reciprocal pleasantries - that I was just spitting game at what we in the business refer to as "special needs [high school] students." In a Buddhist temple. Bad karma?

As for the job, it's decidedly a step up from where I've been. It's a great gig, actually, it's just that the sixth grade aspect is what one would expect. I'm still trying to figure them out - and to get them to stop swearing in my class. They're learned ways to circumvent my no-swearing policy.

For example, sixth grade joke of last week:
Q: What starts with F and ends with U-C-K?
A: Firetruck.

Other variations include "flexible duck" and "five bucks." Clever I suppose, but I still hear my students casually say "oh shit!" when they drop their pencil or dislike the school's lunch offerings for the day - something of an overreaction.

In less than two months I'll be joining the entire sixth grade class for a week-long fieldtrip to Japan. Then immediately afterwards I'll be enjoying five hard-earned weeks off. I'm still thinking where to go.

Any ideas - memorable assignments or course projects from your own 4th to 8th grade years, however major or minute - that would be good to implement in my classroom? Let me know, as the school gives lots of room for creativity.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Current events

Damn, I can't believe that I haven't bothered to update this one in over a month. There's not a ton to update on, so I'll put that off another day or so. Until then, answer this question:

Why might my sixth grade mothers, who come to me asking for recommendation letters for their children, fear that Korean middle schools will become especially competitive in the upcoming year? Keep in mind that I teach at the most expensive elementary school in Seoul, so we're only talking about a certain demographic.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Life update

I asked my old job for an additional weekend to stay in my apartment, but they would only grant an additional two days. So, yesterday morning I hastily finished packing up - with the artful last-minute help of a good buddy - and was out of that bach pad with on almost a full week's notice.

Here's the part that makes me a bit angry. It's not as if my work didn't know I was getting fired, and I'd even made the call discreetly to my coworkers - "dude, I'm getting fired this month"/ "[Mark], you're paranoid..." - over a week before. The polite thing to do would've been to give me as much notice as possible. I say this was premeditated because, well, the week previous to me getting fired we had a photoshoot at work. That they asked me to cut my hair for. I consented. During the photoshoot, all 4 teachers who were later made redundant were in a seperate, "dummy" photograph. Additionally, our individual photo sessions were well shorter than those who are still employed there.

But here's the amazing news. Back in October, I blogged about my two most intriguing offers for employment. One had a really snazzy website and was promising the world - a ticket home for Christmas (received), a trip to Thailand (delayed), decent hours (later altered), etc. The other job was an innovative elementary school without walls, and wouldn't even commence for another few months. I opted for the shinier, more immediate option.

Long story short - there will have to be a seperate entry about the long story of the job hunt, the sketchy interviews (am I buying a car, joining a gym, or looking for a job?), false hopes given/received, and practicing (unknown to me) crude Korean on receptionists, who were nonplussed/pissed off - the other job that I was considering all the way back in October called out of the blue Thursday morning. I spent six hours at that school Thursday, fighting a hangover [I was on a date with a former student - against policy, but I'm no longer an employee, yeah? - the previous night until way late; she wooed me previously when she was a student, with a story about eating her pet chicken when she was young, which still tasted delicious through the tears; in keeping with longstanding traditions of Korean womanhood, she still called me three times that night between 3 and 4]. I would teach the same sixth grade students all day. Oh yeah, also with three months vacation.

Now, "sixth grade" are usually words that make me shudder in fear, as, quite certainly, 6th grade was the worst year of my life. For a short autobiography of Mark: During my childhood I was quite rotund and very sensitive about it. The summer after fourth grade I virtually starved myself and was a thin, mentally well-adjusted sixth grader for a few months. During the second semester of fifth grade I started shaving and masturbating and was becoming a guilt-ridden freak of sorts. During sixth grade, a Beavis&Butthead-obsessed generation (whose most heinous culprits will here remain anonymous, but I still remember their zodiac signs and middle names) thought it was funny to put duct tape on my legs and rip it off. And then would follow that by saying: "[Hernandef], it's hot outside. Why are you wearing long black pants?" "[In a voice an octave higher than usual; my voice hadn't dropped yet, perhaps due to the precocious regular, and hushed emissions of globs of testosterone] Shut up. No I'm not. It's hair. You're just jealous because I'm a man and you're not." Then I would promptly be emasculated by another round of duct tape... My older brother shaved his very hairy legs in eighth grade (the year before) because he was tired of similar taunting. This culminated in... nothing positive. By sixth grade proxy and deductive logic, I became known as "butt-shaver." "Because if your brother shaves his legs then you probably shave your butt, butt shaver."

Luckily, these difficulties will be avoided as a sixth grade teacher. Korean sixth graders don't - in general - have to deal with the frustrations of puberty. Sixth grade here is the final year of elementary school. This school is among the most prestigious elementary schools in Seoul - the only(?) to offer an English immersion program alongside the government-regulated Korean curriculum, and has a 10% acceptance rate for Seoul-born fetuses whose parents are of gentle grooming. So, vastly more than in typical situations, these kids want to be here. Also, I am now a proud, relatively well-adjusted member of a hirsute community - albeit in a time when hirsuteness is only truly celebrated in small pockets of the gay community. Also-also, the school I would be at is a - gasp! - respectful environment.
  • anecdote 1) At one point at my last job, my fake-titted British boss said: "Mark, I know that you have a Mahstah's degree and that you made very high marks in school. I don't care. The reason that we hired you as that we liked your picture that you posted on [ESL job website]. Dave [school owner with hairplugs and fragile ego who wasn't even there to fire me in person] saw your picture and said 'See this guy? This is the guy we want...'" "Um, certainly I wouldn't've gotten this job if I had a C average?" "What's that, a 2.0 [GPA]?" "Yeah..." "That'd be ok."
  • anecdote 2) When the future job called my last place as a reference, he summed it up to me as "it painted a picture for what kind of Ken-and-Barbie show you were working at before. I wanted to be ruder, but didn't for your sake. But I really wanted to ask her what her personal philosophies of education are." Apparently, the last job said they wouldn't hire me again. When asked why, she only cited my longish hair [before I had to cut it for the dummy photo shoot] that went down so egregiously to my collar, and the fact that my stubble alone caused the company to issue orange level terror alerts. Future supervisor laughed it all off and called a reference from when I was more legitimately working as a college writing instructor. Then hired me a few hours later.
  • anecdote 3) A former manager was once instructed to tell me to shave more often (multiple times a day?) because I "look like an Arab" - the words of the owner, not the manager.

Do I sound bitter? I'm really not. Did I mention the vacation? There's also a pay increase. And, oh yeah.... real teaching in an environment that would respect my efforts and ignore my stubble.

There is still a very slight issue. Apparently, the Korean immigration board mandates that transcripts offered for visa issuance be signed along the seal of the envelope. Mine are so egregiously unsigned. Luckily, DHL express international shipping and a few late-night urgent phonecalls to a registrar's office - "uh, this may sound funny, but I'm homeless in Korea and only you can help me" "North or South?" - will remedy this situation. I'm set to become unhomeless and reemployed within the next couple weeks. Assa!

Friday, March 30, 2007


I was just fired. For the first time in my life. They fired four teachers today, and the person filling in for me today (the last day of the term) was instructed to tell my students that I'm sick. Then I'm supposed to just disappear, as in I have to be out of my apartment in five days.

The company's lost a few million $$ already, and it's so puzzlingly, frustratingly mismanaged that the date of the company's failure will only be determined by how deep the owner's pockets are.

I'm not angry, and, truthfully, I've felt like my whole life was/is being filmed for an upcoming reality TV show. More than half of the teachers so far have been booted off the island. We all collectively refer to the workplace as "the show." I haven't properly written about work yet, out of paranoia - I've been reading a lot of Paul Auster lately, and he fucks with your head - that everything I do is being documented. Like the movie "Sliver," except there's a Korean/wannabee-American pushing the buttons. And he has hairplugs. And still aspires to be a Hollywood movie producer. In the action genre, "you know like Arnold Schwarzenegger type movies."

So I'll be homeless - again. My life keeps on repeating itself.

I know how to say "I'm unemployed." For men, the term translates to "empty hand." For women, "swan," as if they stay at home all day licking their plummage. "Baek su im ni da. hajiman nunmul eopsseoyo." "I'm unemployed. But don't have eyewater." The other man's ricecake is looking bigger.

Wish me luck.