Tattooing in Korea

Tattooing in Korea

You might hear people say, “Nobody in Korea has tattoos,” perhaps mistaking it for Japan, where being heavily tattooed was traditionally the mark of a yakuza gang member. That might have been true in previous decades, but the tides are changing now. If you take a walk through the university student-filled neighborhood of Hongdae, it’s actually harder to find somebody who’s not tattooed.

All this is strange, of course, because tattooing is technically illegal in Korea. By law, you’re not supposed to be able to operate anything needle-like unless you have a medical license. Can all these tattooed youths seriously be going abroad to Japan and the United States to be getting their tattoos?  Of course not!

The tattoo culture of Korea is really fascinating, and the doubly-underground nature of the business only adds to the appeal, in my opinion. Despite that seemingly-seedy underground nature, tattooing is just as safe in Korea as in the US, with many artists having training, apprenticeships, and going to conventions in the US and Japan.

Finding out which artist to use

With the practice of tattooing being illegal, naturally, artists and studios aren’t allowed to advertise their business in the traditional sense. They can’t (or don’t usually) have a sign that says “tattoo” outside the shop, so they have to rely on more modern ways to get the word out. (I would personally be wary of the places that do advertise outside, because that might mean that they’re targeted solely to unsuspecting drunk tourists, or that the studio doesn’t care about the government’s fines.) For my first tattoo in Korea, I asked my friend who in the area she recommended. Word of mouth, among Koreans and expats alike, is really powerful for spreading the word about reputable artists. That and Instagram are some of the best ways to find out about which artists are best. Instagram especially is a really powerful tool because you can see the artists’ work without ever going into the shop in person. (I’ve personally found a lot of artists on Instagram when they follow me after I post some illustrations or Hongdae-location-tagged pictures, but the suggestions take a few actions and give you hundreds more artists to follow over time.)  Facebook is also useful in this way. Some newer artists use other methods, like advertising their services on Tinder! “Swipe right if you need a tattoo,” they say as if they’re advertising new flooring or housepainting instead of tattooing..

Organizing an appointment

Once you’ve chosen an artist you like, you contact them via Facebook, Instagram message, text, or KakaoTalk to set up an appointment. Some artists’ English is perfect, others you might be scheduling entirely in Korean, but that’s part of the fun. As with all artists, you can give them an illustration or an idea beforehand if you need them to prepare something. If it’s a big piece or very detailed, you might need to come in for a consult first before the actual tattooing can begin.

Tattooing appointment

The artist will give you a time and place to meet, which is sometimes more or less secretive. They might give you a subway station exit to meet at, or give you an address to a building, which of course will have no sign outside to tell you that you’re in the right place. It all feels very cool and like you’re some kind of spy making a super-secret handoff. Inside the shop is invariably clean, with nice concrete floors, black leather couches, art hanging on the walls, and they usually make you a coffee or tea while you wait. The Korean tattoo parlor aesthetic is something I wish to emulate in any future house or art studio I might have. Some studios are small, perhaps just a room in a rented apartment that’s outfitted with all the tattoo accoutrements, some studios have 3 or more artists.

The rest of the actual appointment goes the same as any other, the only departure being the crazy number of photos the artist will take for their Instagram afterward. There’s no difference in aftercare advice as from American shops, insofar as that each shop has their own specific recommendations as to the timing and stuff you apply to the fresh tattoo. But everything else is basically the same: as we all know, don’t go in the pool or ocean for one month or more after the tattoo, or risk getting infection. One small Korea-specific caution is to be careful when you go to the jjimjilbang bath-house; the old ladies hired to scrub your skin off will diligently try to scrub off your tattoos, even though it’s technically impossible.

tattoo blog 2

There’s as many tattooing styles found in Korea as there are art styles in the world, so narrowing it down can be tricky. I think the most common is an understated illustration kind of style with delicate lines, often in a smaller tattoo format. The most popular ones seem to be forearm and triceps tattoos, but of course everyone has tattoos everywhere. The Korean style tends to be a little more understated, but that’s not to say that you don’t see a great many face, neck, and hand tattoos, on women and men alike.

Now that I’m back in the States, I can’t get any new tattoos from the artists I follow on Instagram, but the following are some of my favorites:

Gem Tattoo artist and namesake of Gem Tattoo Studio, specializes in bold designs with vivid gradients and strong, thick lines. (It’s worth mentioning that she is the only one on this list that I’ve actually gotten tattooed by, the others are just speculations on style. The other artists I got tattoos from don’t necessarily warrant recommendation, but she does!)  Also at her studio are artists Kay and Dasom, who both do fantastic work and attend lots of international conventions. (although not part of Gem Tattoo studio, Cho tattooer also has a similar style, but with a flair for space and pokemon designs.)

Nerd Club Tattoo is another studio I admire, specializing in the more street-style-savvy kind of small graphic tattoos. In this cohort are zzizziboy, who does fantastic black-and-neon work, and goodmorning Tattoo, who does the charming illustration-style linework tattoos.

It takes a special kind of person to do a striking realism piece, and while most people go to Inkholic tattoo in Gangnam (arguably the most famous tattoo place in Seoul, if not Korea), I think that Aran Tattooer does a great job, too. Plus, I’m sure the waiting list isn’t as long as at Inkholic.

Tattooer Nana does the most stunning bright florals I’ve ever seen, and I recommended her to a friend who liked her work, as well. Tattooist Hyungmin specializes in tiny linework tattoos and illustrations, but can do big pieces, too. Siren Ink does fantastic watercolor tattoos as well as the most mesmerizing waterscape designs. Hwangdoh tattoo does super detailed small tattoos and can do almost any style you can think of.

In Hapjeong area, there’s this graffiti near my former house that just says “Do you know vandal…?” I know it’s not referring to Vandal Tattoo, but I like to think it is. She does great designs in many different styles, from delicate to realism, but also does some of the most skillful coverups I’ve ever seen.

In the United States, I feel like tattooing is still a more male-dominated profession, but it’s more egalitarian in Korea. You find that some waifish-looking girl is out here doing the heavy lifting of designing and giving tattoos same as the “big, strong” men are. All this to say that in South Korea, tattoo culture is alive and well, and growing by the day. The process is An Experience, and not one to miss. And know that once you sit down in that chair under the needle, that you’re in good hands.

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trap city Pyeongchang

trap city Pyeongchang

It’s not just Americans who are obsessed with the Olympics. Olympic fervor had been heating up in Korea since at least the beginning of fall 2017, so by solar new year the advertisements and merch, including full-on curling-themed wraps covering the entire inside of subway carriages in line 2 trains, were in full swing.

That being said, I’m not a Winter Olympics person. All the sports I love, swimming, water polo, volleyball, track and field, are all summer sports. I’m living during summer Olympics time when, for a few short weeks, everybody pretends to care about swimming for a hot minute before it fades into obscurity again. (I’m sure that professional curlers feel the same way about the winter Olympics.)  Basically, I was salty it was a winter Olympics in Korea and not a summer one.

I didn’t plan to buy tickets, but a few things changed my mind: first, my dad politely ridiculed me for thinking of not going, saying that it’ll never be this “easy” to go again, nor will the Games be this close to my backyard. Second, one of the friends in the squad acquired an insane amount of tickets and offered to sell them off to us. Finally, when Aidan came to visit he was also hell-bent on going to see the Games. In this way, I somehow ended up with tickets to events on two subsequent weekends.

My dad wasn’t wrong. The tickets for Pyeongchang were chronically undersold, so it was not difficult to get into any event you wanted as long as it wasn’t figure skating. The trouble, it turned out, was getting transport to the games. After spending billions of dollars on the venues and infrastructure leading up to the Games, there should be more ways than just the KTX to get to the events. Instead, the KTX trains to the Pyeongchang mountains in the east and Gangneung on the coast were booked up for months and months. I’d thought it would be okay to just buy bus tickets there. After all, we had taken the bus to Gangneung and Sokcho last year with no hitches, so I figured it’d be okay.

Haha… nope.

I still followed the proceedings on social media eagerly. There seemed to be lots of controversy beforehand over the expense and extra trouble of the two Koreas going to the Games under one flag. Lots of South Korean athletes were angry about their places on the team being given to, in their opinion, less-accomplished North Korean athletes. In hindsight, that may have started us off on the road to peace that we’re currently navigating.

The first week, I had tickets to go see snowboarding slopestyle. As the event started at 10 or 11, and it was functionally impossible to get tickets to stay in Gangneung or Pyeongchang on short notice, that meant taking the first subway to get the first bus out of the city. I took squadmate Rachael, who was an unexpected boon in my stressed planning of this event. Her eternal calm, positive unflappability, and good humor helped when we were late to the bus station, running across the street, and arriving to be the last ones on the bus.

It’s not any great leap of logic to assume that a bus to Pyeongchang would take you to Pyeongchang, right? And that you’d be able to see the Olympic venues from there? Instead, we disembarked in a still-asleep town in front of the bus station, where there was no sign of the Olympics being held there other than an advertising standee telling about the shuttles to the events. We ended up taking a 50-minute taxi to another town, Jangpyeong; from there we would be able to take a shuttle to the slopes. I was salty AF but Rachael managed to talk me down.

The shuttle was easy, and as we already had the tickets, it was easy to get through the lines and climb up to the slopes. It was wicked cold, but at least the huge crowd standing helped to block the biting winds a bit. At snowboarding slopestyle, the spectator area is at the bottom, after the last jump, so most of the event is watched on a Jumbotron screen. Being short, I struggled to be able to see both the screen and the jump, but the energy of being at the games was infectious. We were a bit annoyed with the overly loud and enthusiastic Americans in the crowd, so we were cheering for the Canadians, saying who we thought would win. It turns out that Canadian Mark McMorris’s parents were next to us, so our cheering for him was a nice coincidence. Luckily, I didn’t miss Red Gerard’s legendary last run, despite being so short I had to stand on my toes the whole time.

We returned to Jangpyeong, and knowing that I’d be starving to death if we waited all the way until back in Seoul to eat, we found a beef BBQ place which was super delicious. It was a sit-on-the-floor kind of place with nice windows that had views of the mountains. After lunch, we were able to buy tickets and walk directly onto the bus back. It turned out later that the tickets were also good for women’s slopestyle, but because of the cold weather, that event was postponed anyway. So, no harm done in leaving early.

The next weekend with Aidan went similarly. We had tickets to men’s hockey and skeleton luge. Planning-wise I was already nervous that at the end of the skeleton event, it would be nearly midnight, and we might not be able to get back to Seoul. Once we got off in Gangneung, it was easy enough to follow the crowds of people going to the hockey match. The match was Canada versus Czech Republic, and nearly everyone assembled was cheering for Canada, with the exception of the little boy next to us, who kept yelling in Korean “Czech! Czech!” (It sounded more like “재거!재거!” Mine! Mine!) I never stopped telling Aidan about how nice it was to sit down, to not be freezing our butts off in the wind, to be able to see everything. I sounded like an old lady, but never overlook the nice privilege of having your own seat at a sporting event. Canada was pretty soundly beaten, and after we searched for food.

There’s a big events tent near the venues where you’re supposed to get food (a.k.a food-court-style dining in a big, white, noisy tent), but we bypassed that in favor of something better. Keep in mind that this was also Seollal, Lunar New Year, weekend, so many actual restaurants were closed. But after walking around for a while we managed to find a good spot, ordering up some budaejjigae and watching Yuzuru Hanyu’s stunning gold-medal figure skating performance on TV. A Korean boy, Cha Junhwan, had also skated that day, but his routine didn’t go off as hoped and he didn’t medal. His performance played over and over in the background wherever we went. Near the end of the meal, we managed to help out an Aussie family, perhaps one of the athletes’ family, with their ordering in Korean. Over coffee and bingsu afterward, we somehow both agreed that we didn’t want to have to stay for skeleton and  stand outside in the cold, so we left after that, taking a taxi and a bus back to Seoul.

The takeaways, of course, were that I was glad I went to the Olympics, winter or otherwise. I just wish they had been more user-friendly. It certainly gives perspective to all future Olympic Games that I’ll watch on TV, and of course I’ll still hope to watch a Summer Games in person one day. I’ll forever refer to Pyeongchang as a “trap city,” as will Aidan.

“Ragrets,” “Regerts,” and Rolodexes

“Ragrets,” “Regerts,” and Rolodexes

So you’re homeless sort of…  if we hadn’t raised you so we’ll I would be more nervous for you. But I’m not. I know you’re going to do just fine, and you’ll also be fine flying by the seat of your pants, much like you did when the Korean Army gave you a lift home.

Currently, I’m sitting in one of my favorite cafes in the city, which I call “Fern Café” (on account of all the ferns), reminiscing and looking ahead. This is perhaps my last time in this café and I’m thinking it’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. I had a lot of stuff to say before my family came to visit before Christmas, and then it became insanely busy in the last few months preparing for my China tour and moving out of my house.  While applying for my China visa, I hit an unexpected snag: when I was filling out the form, it asked for “home address.” What is my home now? I expect I’ll be answering that question for many years to come, but it never caused me such consternation. Were they looking for my home here in Korea, which (at the time) I was going to be quickly leaving, or my “permanent address” in the United States, which I haven’t been to in more than two years? Which feels more like home?

The months of January and February, during my time in Korea and before, have always been a mad clusterfuck to figure things out, whether they be future jobs, housing arrangements, visas, or travel plans. Naturally, there’s not much time for major trips, but I did manage to sneak in two separate trips to the Olympics (more on that in a separate post) and two major visits from friends and family, in addition to steadfastly checking things off the “to-do list.”

I’d intended to write up a whole thing about my parents’ visit and hyung Aidan’s visit in February, but I think it’s more useful to put them together and contrast the two different travel styles and two different trips. My parents came to visit during some of the coldest days of the winter. They also came from knowing absolutely nothing about South Korea and Seoul, the food, and the culture, so it was pretty much Korea 101 for them. They don’t normally use public transportation and are never in a place where they would not know the language. The best way to travel, according to my parents (which I don’t think is wrong, just different from my own), is to book a long, guided bus tour through a travel agency. Everything is taken care of and carefully planned for you, and all you have to do is pack your bag and get on a plane.

For this trip, I was essentially my parents’ and younger brother’s tour guide. I tried my best to prepare them before they arrived, as well as guide them through the food, cafes, and most important sites, despite having to work some of the days and many of the places being closed due to holidays. In addition, my brother and dad were at different times really sick due to stomach bugs (I think, not due to food poisoning), so we had to navigate that as well. Nonetheless, we squeezed in a trip to the DMZ in the rain, two cooking classes, a city and palaces tour, a visit to the Arario Museum, jjimjilbang, noraebang, and some shopping. My life here revolves around walking a lot and taking the subway, but my parents were more than content to take a taxi whenever it got dark. (My brother was more daring, but only a little). The experience was pretty extraordinary for me because my parents encouraged me to think of things I normally couldn’t afford/ wouldn’t splurge on, and we would do those. In this way, we had a wonderful salmon and yukhoe (raw beef) dinner near my house that we had been meaning to try. My mom loved all the things that were cooked right at our table, watching the do-it-yourself aspect very closely. My dad seemed to enjoy the historical and economical aspects. My brother, who is just months from turning 21 in the States, was just excited to drink a beer with every meal. In a way, it’s probably fortunate for him that he didn’t come by himself because we both would have drunk ourselves to death.

In comparison, Aidan had already been to South Korea once before, on that ill-fated trip when I had first arrived here. Getting all of the big palace-things out of the way, and him crashing in my house, enabled us to have a more relaxing and chilled-out hang session. His guidelines were nothing more than “just do whatever is still on your list that you haven’t checked off yet.” As such, I took him to that huge library at the COEX mall, the StyleNanda Pink Pool Café, the Coffee Prince Café, on a hike in Cheonggyesan, and to Insadong. Somehow we also squeezed in a trip to the Olympics. This visit was much more gritty and grungy than my parents’, but I think it was more representative of how I actually live here. Aidan was perfectly content to just wander around and get lost all day in Hongdae while I worked, and if I told him to meet me somewhere at a subway station, he followed the instructions well enough to actually get there.

That being said, of the two travelling styles, while there might be one that I prefer over the other, they’re both good. The other day, I was talking with my friends Matt and Steph when we were talking about “rating” your travel style. Let’s say, 1 is the poshest most luxurious kind of traveler, who needs all of their hotels, meals, and activities planned for them before they go. 1 is the person who would book the cruise or bus tour that has all the activities planned for you. In contrast, 10 is the most grungy, low-maintenance, “let’s wing it” kind of traveler. Our friend Zach is like this, just arrive in a place and figure it out as he goes. My rating? Somewhere around 6 or 7. I like to have, say, my sleeping accommodations sorted, so I know which city I’ll be in each day, but everything else can be figured out along the way. 8-hour bus ride from town to town? I don’t mind that. Asking the hotel for recommendations or bookings? That’s good too. Memorizing the Chinese characters for that day’s destinations and getting by with minimal Chinese language skills? I can do that too. I’ve grown tremendously both as a traveler and a human while I’ve been here.

It’s been a good run. I’ve learnt and grown so much I feel like I might be nearly unrecognizable when I return. In some ways, I’m ready to leave. I love teaching in some ways, but I don’t love the Korean education system. The focus on memorization over understanding is something that I will never appreciate or like, and I don’t think it’s a great way to learn a language. I’ve never been much of a disciplinarian, except in swim coaching, where even the punishment of pushups, wall-sits, or squats still makes you stronger. You can’t do that in school, and in this last year’s school nothing seemed to motivate the kids to want to do anything. I don’t think teaching is really my calling, so the end of this contract came at a good time. In addition, I never truly intended to stay forever. It would have been hard to leave whether I’d been here for only 4 months’ study abroad or whether I’d been here for 3, or 5, or 10 years. I expected to have some breaking-point moment where I would be like “Fuck this! I can’t take it anymore! I have to leave Korea immediately!” but it never came. No going out with a bang. In the same way, I feel like I’ve done so much, that there’s really not anything I will regret not having done. I’ve “seen it all,” pretty much.

I do have some regrets, though. None of them are about things to see or do, all of them are about leaving friends behind. Once you leave your parents’ house the first time, most of your waking hours revolve around your “chosen family,” your friends. I put down so many ties here without realizing it that I will be really sad to miss all of them when I go. That’s the thing about being an expat, and why a lot of expats report that it’s really hard to make friends here in South Korea (and abroad in general, despite it being otherwise really rewarding); you need those friends to help you make it through your time here, but you will always, always have to leave them or they will have to leave you. Nobody is going to be with you forever, despite how many promises you make to visit them in Cape Town or Derry or Seattle.

My nana was well-known for being so adept at keeping in touch with her friends from high school and beyond. For decades and decades, she steadfastly exchanged letters and emails and phone numbers, updating the Rolodex each time a friend changed their address or got married or eventually passed away. I want to channel some of that ability. It’s easier than ever now with social media and internet, there’s almost no excuse. When asked about my regrets, it’s leaving behind my Geoje squad, my Canadian “parents” Matt and Steph, old coworker Jenn, brunch buddy Kevin, old man friend Gwan, and my old co-teacher Miss Tiffany. After I leave, my memory of them will be retained like a snapshot frozen in place, but in reality, many of them will quickly be scattered to the four winds. Like friends from college, you yearn for that time when everyone is still together, easily accessible, when really it was only a short time that everybody was all in one place. People leave and people change, but it’s up to the friends to keep that contact alive and keep talking. Anyway. I’m kind of a mess of emotion right now, but I would be basically nowhere without my chosen family.

 

A toast, to the families who get you through the week.

fireflies, kiln firing, and friends who break up the lonely stretches

fireflies, kiln firing, and friends who break up the lonely stretches

Lonely is good sometimes, but not all the time. I do a lot of travelling by myself these days, many of the books I’ve read in my more recent years are about solo travels e.g, Sailing Alone Around the World, On the Road, etc.) However, when you travel with someone, your experience takes on a different flavor. Instead of keeping your observations to yourself, you blurt them out to the other person. The learning curve in a new city is shorter. Two heads truly are better than one (sometimes), when travelling.

I might have never paid the Muju Firefly Festival a second glance, but my friend Stephanie found it and asked me to go. After a disappointing try at teaching in Shanghai, she came back to Korea after a few weeks and ended up moving into my same apartment building. As such, we have a very college dorm-like setup, where we pop up or down to ask for favors and often have dinner or go out for coffee together.

That morning we got up early and grabbed coffee, nearly dying from lack of bathroom breaks due to so many late people at the various pickup points between Seoul and Muju city.

Before arriving at the festival grounds, we took a winery tour outside the city, venturing through a “wine cave” to get to the special wine tasting room at the back. At this point, there was supposed to be a wine footbath experience, but I didn’t have much faith in either my ability to get through that experience with any kind of speed or my ability to tolerate people touching my feet, so I opted out of that one. When we finally got to the front of the wine-tasting line, the sommelier gave Steph an extra portion of wine because she said she was pretty. Good marketing, so we bought a bottle of wine, naturally. It was sweet and very easy to drink. I could see people having weddings or cool parties in the wine tasting room of the cave; it was very secretive and atmospheric down there.

After the wine tasting experience, we were let loose on the fairgrounds. There was supposed to be a water gun fight, but as it was September, the time for comfortably walking around outside soaking wet had passed several weeks before. Neither of us were particularly sad about missing it. We wandered up the hill to see the traditional kiln-firing ceremony, which we found by following the sound of traditional dancers who were performing while they set up the kiln.

Slowly, more and more people gathered while the pottery studio people set up the food and artifacts in front of the kiln. Somehow, we had acquired front-row places to watch the ceremony. They set up fish, fruits, makgeolli, a pig’s head, and other offerings on a white-clothed table in front of the terraced kiln. It was explained to me that they have the different levels of the kiln so that different potters can use different sections of the kiln at once, rather than having to light the entire kiln every time they want to fire a batch of pottery. A white-robed priest came down the steps into the pit, sat in front of the kiln, and beat a drum while chanting a prayer. The prayer was written on several sheets of paper, which he then lit on fire and used it to light the kiln. The best part was the mayor (or some other high-ranking city official) in a bolero tie came up to greet us, and I got to greet him back in Korean. (To my chagrin, I used the less-polite form of the phrase, which still haunts me to this day).

The kiln-firing ceremony was a lot of standing, so we headed back down the hill to find somewhere to sit and some coffee. We found a little coffee outfit amongst the craft stalls and sat down on some beanbag chairs. The beanbag chairs? Ideal. Being assaulted by ants? Less-than-ideal. We relocated to a pavilion with lots of chairs, and as it turned out we happened to catch the warm-ups for the b-boy dance competition.

Heading down to the river, we witnessed a traditional Korean wedding ceremony performance as they walked across a very precarious bridge.  Then out came the jesters who contrasted the dignity of the ceremony with raucous dancing.

One or two coffees is not nearly enough for me, so we got another and ate some peanut pastries (ddang-kong gwaja, 땅콩과자),and made friends with the café’s cute dog. We got some dinner in one of the huge pavilions near the river. Since it was almost the end of the festival, there wasn’t much choice as to what to eat. It was becoming dark, so we headed back to the bus for the firefly sighting.

My home state, Pennsylvania, is renowned for fireflies, so far as to name the insect as our state bug. Nothing compares to a night around the Fourth of July when you can see all the fireflies in your backyard. We used to catch them in jars as kids, the lids perforated so that the bugs didn’t immediately die (our parents would let them out after we went to sleep). It was cold and cloudy in some farmer’s field, and we thought we might not see any fireflies at all, but we did get to see a few. The moon was full and the mood was pensive. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have never seen a firefly before. They and ladybugs are the only bugs I’m not afraid of touching with my own two hands.

We headed back to the hotel to check in. Our other roommate decided to go right to bed rather than go out again, which is a shame, because what followed was arguably the best part of the weekend. We put on more layers and headed back to the riverside to watch traditional Korean fireworks, kind of like sparking candlewicks tied to long ropes spanning the river. They resemble the ubiquitous “snow” lights that hang from in many Korean buildings, but these are way cooler. They are calming and less dramatic than the fireworks we know, but still retain the same spirit.

The best part was getting to write our wishes for the new year on big lanterns, lighting the base on fire, and watching them fly into the sky slowly. The sight of all those lanterns, all those wishes, floating slowly was incredibly inspiring and calming. We, of course, know the lanterns from the Disney movie Tangled, but people have been releasing lanterns like this in this part of the world for hundreds of years.

I slept terribly that night, but in the morning we had a beaut buffet breakfast of mixed Korean food and Western food (the western food mostly being toast and coffee). We got to see a masterful taekwondo performance. It’s cool to see these athletes who are at the top of their game do all the perfectly-timed kicks, flips, and aerials. Some boards were 10 full feet off the ground and filled with confetti that exploded into the air when broken, flying into the crowd with the force of their kicks.

There were less people on the way back from Seoul. I got two seats to myself and got a good rest. We had fried chicken and ddeok rice cakes at the rest stop, and when we arrived back to Hongdae we went to a café we’d had our eyes on a long time and got some galaxy lattes, galaxy cake, and pink tiramisu.

Overall, it’s good to have somebody to travel with sometimes. The festival would have been painfully awkward and lonely with just me, so I was really glad to have Steph there to make me do stuff. Many weekends it’s like that, one or the other of us pushing to go do something. Since then, I haven’t taken any major trips in Korea, and after Chuseok in October it got cold really fast. It’s also always fun to contrast the more traditional elements of Korean life with our life in the fast-paced capital city. Coming soon to a blog near you is my account of my Taiwan trip, and coming soon to Korea is my family (7 days!).

 

A toast, to friends who break up the lonely stretches.

Homeworld 2

Homeworld 2

2: Seoul – what is home

Georgia, after graduating the University of Pittsburgh in 2015, is nearing the end of her second year of teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Besides teaching, she has kept busy this year, traveling to Vietnam, Taiwan, and around Korea, as well as taking a rigorous Korean language course at the Seoul-based Yonsei University over the summer. We were happy to have her back at Myrtle Beach for our annual vacation this year, although the jet lag can’t have been easy. This year for Christmas, we are excited to fly over to spend time with her in Seoul and have her show us her world. As for next year, she is not quite sure where the winds will take her. A trip to China after she finishes her contract is in the works, after which she will return to America, hopefully “for good.”

A week or so back, I wrote the previous paragraph for our family’s annual Christmas letter. How do you condense a whole year into a few sentences? How do you convey the utter vastness of a year’s worth of experiences in a foreign country (or several), but also convey the utter normalcy of everything? How do you put things that are so wildly different from home into terms that even my grandmother could understand? The last post was concerned with what was home. This one is focused on what is home.

My family will arrive here in Seoul in about 10 days. How do you even cram all of those experiences, all the “‘essentials,”” into a week and a half?

Image result for seoul map

My friends asked me if I will take my family outside of Seoul, and I rationalized against it (plus, although I don’t work for long each day, I still don’t have a proper “”vacation”” during that time, so we wouldn’t be able to go far.) I think that, even though it’s one of the largest cities in the world, Seoul is a pretty accurate microcosm for Korea as a whole. What will you do when they’re here, the next question always comes. Foods, drinks, palaces. Noraebang, jjimjilbang. Hikes, if we can manage it. Trying to give a sense how Seoul has both the ancient and modern coexisting right next to one another, nature and high-rises competing for space within the city, and tradition and innovation in the cultural sphere.

What follows is a Cliff Notes version of what to do in Seoul, curated by me, of course.

Food

I think food is central to Korean life for all, foreigners and Seoulites alike. It’s unique in that everybody has to choose together what they want to eat, rather than agreeing on a general restaurant and all ordering separate dishes. Most of my days are planned around what’s for dinner.

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Samgyeopsal – It’s well-documented (as I mention it in almost every blog post here) that this grilled pork-belly dish is my favorite meal. It’s filling and fun to eat, and comes with enough vegetable side dishes and lettuce wraps to mostly cut through the grease of the pork. If your little lettuce wrap “burrito” bite is well-made, the combination of flavors is nothing short of perfection.

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Duk Galbi (닭갈비) – This spicy mixed chicken dish is wonderfully filling, often cheesy, and all of the friends can eat their fill without necessarily feeling like dying at the end of the meal.

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Salmon – Technically salmon sashimi, my friends and I are kind of addicted to salmon, especially the “infinite refill” (all you can eat) variety. Usually the salmon comes with tasty sides of mixed rice, beef soup, or raw beef called yuk-hoe.

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Bulgogi – While this Korean “fire meat” (the literal translation) is gaining popularity, or at least visibility, in the West, I’ve found that I never really liked it much until coming here. There’s a place in my neighborhood that does a wonderfully simple version – just beef, green onion, mushrooms, and japchae glass noodles – that is perfectly filling and definitely worth scalding the roof of your mouth for.

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Kimbap restaurant – These restaurants, described to me as the “McDonald’s of Korean food” when I first got here, serve so much more than just kimbap, the Korean answer to sushi. In fact, I find them closest to an American-style diner: open 24/7 and serving a wide range of food from snacks to full meals. This is the best place to try a “little bit of everything” without making the commitment of going to a dedicated restaurant for each dish.

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Budaejjigae – This Korean “army stew” came out of frugality during war times, originally: the American soldiers stationed in Korea would give their extra food, like packets of ramen, Spam, and hot dogs to the Korean citizens, who would then whip it up into a filling and flavorful stew with kimchi, rice cakes, tofu, and whatever veggies they wanted. Everyone tends to favor different parts of the stew, so there’s usually little fighting over who gets the spam or hot dogs.

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Samgyetang – A dish traditionally eaten during the summer, this whole chicken, ginseng root, and jujube soup is supposed to be very good for your health. Even though it’s supposed to only be around in the summer, the dish most closely resembles American chicken noodle soup, making it good for winter, too.

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Mandu – It might not be my favorite food, but there’s no denying that the traditional Korean-style dumpling, often filled with cabbage, noodles, and meat and veggies, is one that is important to everyone’s daily life here.

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Ddeokbokki – These rice cake dumplings in a spicy sauce can be at times a wonderful side-dish to your meal, a cheeky drunk food on the street, or a meal by themselves. My first week here, without even any chopsticks to eat with, I got a ddeokbokki from the stall near my house and took it home to eat sitting on the floor.

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Hoddeok – These brown sugar and nut-filled pancakes are the most delicious dessert you can crave in the winter here in Korea. I know that there are also savory varieties, but the sweet one is the only one I go for. However, the scalding brown sugar dripping from the pancake can turn into a deadly weapon if you’re not careful.

 

Drinks

Equally important to life here is drinking, maybe even more important. Almost every person here at any given time will either have a coffee, tea, or alcohol in their hand.

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Cafes – My love of Korean cafes is also well-documented. Before I came here, I made a resolution to try at least one new cafe a week. The real average is probably closer to 1.5 or 2 new cafes a week. There’s a cafe for all tastes, whether you crave a quiet place to camp out and study, a pretty dessert for your instagram, or a kitchy environment that captivates your interest.

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Makgeolli – Many people abroad know what soju is by now, but really, Korean rice wine makgeolli is my jam. A traditional drink after hiking or when it’s raining, it’s a hard sell for some. It’s tangy like a soda but a bit milky like a yogurt, usually drunk from a bowl, and makes for a perfect accompaniment to pajeon, the green onion pancake. After trying all different kinds, I can say with absolute confidence that I prefer makgeolli to soju.

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Soju – There’s no denying soju‘s reign as the most popular alcohol in the whole world. How else could you get completely trashed off of $4 USD’s worth of alcohol? That it comes in different flavors (my favorite is the “toucan soju”), certainly makes it more palatable to many more foreigners. The unflavored kind pairs well with beer, cider, and other things.

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Beer & other things – That Gordon Ramsay endorsed Cass beer was an unfortunate debate topic for a few weeks, but it makes sense: you need a smooth, relatively flavorless beer (water-like, almost) to wash down the strong and spicy flavors you’re consuming. Everybody here, Korean and foreign alike, has their favorite “mix”: somaek, the most common soju and beer mix, soju-cider-beer mix, soju-beer-cola mix, or even soju mixed with the yogurt drink that they give to children. (My favorite is soju, cider, and beer in equal measures).

Traditional Seoul

Some things haven’t changed much in decades. You get the sense that the same noraebangs and jjimjilbangs have stuck around for years and years, the old tried-and-true standbys of Korean life.

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Noraebang – Again, my love for noraebang is no secret. The singing room is a cheap and fun way to while away an hour or two while waiting for the train to start up, or keep the party going when everybody’s a little too drunk to keep dancing but doesn’t want to go home yet. Most people sneak their own drinks or snacks in, and the theatricality of the lights and secluded room really call to me. (It’s also been suggested to me that I only like the sound of my own voice, which.. no comment). You better bet I’m going to spend this New Year’s the same way as last year, singing in a noraebang and drinking toucan soju.

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Jjimjilbang – The Korean-style bathhouse was unlike the Japanese-style I knew about previously. You get a little gym uniform and some towels and go into salt-, charcoal-, or crystal-bedecked heated rooms to sweat out your impurities. You can rest from the heat in the cold room or in the middle room, where many people take a snooze, read magazines, or eat hard-boiled eggs. When you can’t take the heat anymore, you go into the bath area and scrub off all your skin at least three times with a rough cloth, then dip into the baths. Lots of foreigners are weirded out by the nudity (even though it’s segregated by gender), but as a swimmer I don’t find it that weird. At the end you truly feel like you’ve got baby skin, and it’s quite the treat in the winter.

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Hiking – “What, you like hiking? I never noticed,” said nobody, ever. I think that the hiking culture is one of the best representatives of Korean culture as a whole. The healthy practice of hiking mixed with the unhealthiness of drinking at the top of the mountain, generosity with individualism, the tradition of monks and priests walking into the hills to meditate balanced with the modernity of taking all the selfies at the top. Everyone says “hi,” in a mixture of Korean and English, and wants to help you get where you’re going. Young kids hiking with their parents, couples, and old people all coexist happily on the mountain. (We will probably not get to go hiking because it will probably be too cold in a few weeks’ time.)

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Palaces – Seoul’s palaces are a well-known fount of history knowledge for foreigners and Koreans alike. Although there are many palaces in Seoul, two very close to one another are my top picks. While I think that most foreigners know about Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace, I argue that Changdeokgung is the best palace to visit in Seoul, as it is larger and more well-preserved (and also a UNESCO World Heritage site).

Modern Seoul

Sitting right alongside the many centuries of strong tradition are the modern high-rise skyscrapers and other amenities of city living. Arguably the best transportation system in the world gets millions of Seoulites from place to place every day and anything you can ever want is available at the touch of a button.

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Malls – Boy, do Koreans like to shop. Clothes, electronics, homewares, everything. While there are lots of malls in the recognizable Western sense, many more are underground in subway stations or under other buildings.

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Libraries – Speaking of shopping malls, there’s a huge library inside of a mall in Jamsil area. I haven’t gotten to go yet, but I’m eager to take my family, all avid readers, to see what all the fuss is about.

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Lotte World Tower – The new tallest building in Korea, this tower, well, towers over the Seoul skyline. They were just building it when I got here, and now you can ride up to the top to get a view of all of Seoul (although in my opinion, the view from the top of a mountain is better, and more well-earned). I use this building as a weather gauge each day when on my commute to work: if I can see the tower from the river, the smog isn’t too bad, if it’s obscured, the air quality is pretty bad (and certainly should not run in that weather).

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Namsan Tower – The former most famous tower in Seoul, Namsan tower is a common place for young couples to go and put a “love lock” up on the fence. You can hike up the mountain (not recommended, but that’s what I did, and on the way I met an opera-singing Italian man who was part of an international biking team), take a cable car, or bus to nearly the top. It may be a little overrated, but it’s still a cute way to see your Seoul vista if you don’t want to hike.

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Movie Theaters – Movies are something else here in Korea. While it’s a common and almost mundane part of American life, movies here retain their special-ness. You can see a 4D movie that rocks and shakes your seat or get a set that includes beer, coffee, or dried squid. I’m excited that we might see the new Star Wars soon on the big screen.

Museums

My family is also a big museum-going family, so besides some palaces, no trip would be complete without at least a little bit of outright “”educational”” experience.

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DMZ tour – Not for lack of desire, but rather all of my friends are either Americans who had already done the tour before, or non-American citizens who don’t care much to be so close to the North Korean border. It seems almost a rite of passage for many Americans who visit Korea to go on a tour like this.

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Arario Museum – Located between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces, I found this modern art museum quite by accident. It’s in the most unique building, and the maze of exhibition rooms are fascinating. It combines a modern glass building with traditional Korean hanok-style building and a 1970s office building with art pieces that really make you think. I’ve been twice already and can’t wait to go back. After you’re done with the art spaces, you can catch a coffee, dessert, and an art magazine in the museum cafe, which has a great view of the busy city life outside.

Neighborhoods

It’s hard to describe Seoul like other cities (like, say, Rome), where you have a checklist of things to see that are clearly defined. For me, Seoul is more a collection of unique neighborhoods to be strolled through at your own leisure. Each area has its own specialties and its own history, its own flavor. I usually go to different areas for different purposes, but find other reasons to stay.

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Hongdae/ Sangsu – My current home neighborhood is a young university-age area dripping with cafes and cute boutiques. I find it hard to go other places when everything I need and all of my favorite bars and restaurants are now within walking distance of my house. Hongdae is a hopping nightlife area whereas Sangsu is more of the quiet restaurant area.

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Insadong, Bukchon, Samcheong-dong, Gyeongbokgung – There’s a long walk that I like to do through all of these neighborhoods, and in it, you can take in the traditional arts-and-crafts street of Insadong, the boutiques and street food of hanok-lined alleyways in Bukchon, or the high-end shops of Samcheong-dong all in one walk. I could never give directions on this walk, but some of the best restaurants I’ve discovered in Seoul have been found on these walks.

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Gangnam – I roll my eyes, but no trip to Seoul would be complete without taking in Gangnam’s high-rises and bright lights, and yes, even the “Gangnam Style” sign that put South Korea on the map for most Americans. Gangnam may be expensive and crowded but it is quintessential modern Korea.

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Itaewon, Noksapyeong, HBC – The cornerstone for most foreigners in Korea is Itaewon. I have spent many a weekend drinking there, and many of the best restaurants I know of are in this area. My favorite cafe in all of Seoul is located in the quieter hillside area of Noksapyeong, and some really excellent restaurants line the quiet “kimchi pot” street of Haebangchon, usually known as HBC. Nestled right next to the U.S. army base, many foreigners work and play in this area, which makes it comforting in some ways and more dangerous in others.

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DDP/ Cheonggyecheon – The Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) is such an amazing sight, hovering like a spaceship in north central Seoul. Housing exhibition spaces, special events, and a design “market,” DDP is a celebration of modern creative thought. Within spitting distance of DDP are many Korean-style shopping malls (cheap clothes, no changing rooms), boutiques, movie theaters, and the Cheonggyecheon stream, which I first heard about when my urban planning-major friend, Earl, did a project on the excavation of the stream from underground and its elevation into a public park. At present, there will be a Christmas light festival going on which we will visit.

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Myeongdong – Quite frankly, Myeongdong stresses me out a lot, but it is the most typical and famous shopping street in Seoul. Geared towards mainly foreigners, the shops are always blaring k-pop songs and trying to get you to come in. The street food stalls are wonderful here and it’s always busy and bustling. The most famous church for foreigners is also located here, but it’s a bit hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Well. That concludes the Cliff-Notes. I’m not sure if it was short or concise at all, but it’s hard to keep in my enthusiasm sometimes.

 

A toast, to introducing new people to old things that you love.

 

Homeworld 1

Homeworld 1

1:  Rivendell – what was home

It wasn’t until last year that I failed to make it home for Thanksgiving for the first time. I spent the whole Thursday (illogically) mopey, sad that my Korean and Canadian friends wouldn’t ask me about why Thanksgiving is so important to me. I had one of my favorite dinners, samgyeopsal, with a big group of coworkers, followed by a tinder date, and still nothing seemed to fill the gaping hole in my chest where usually I had an overfull heart at this time.

A few weeks ago, I was skyping my mom, and she seemed genuinely shocked as to why Thanksgiving is so important to my brother and I. Why some arbitrarily chosen holiday, Thanksgiving, rather than Christmas, or Easter, or the Fourth of July? Why did we seem to choose this one to stake all of our fondest childhood memories on this one holiday? Just go shell out for some overpriced Thanksgiving banquet, my mom agreed, since I had told her there were many such events at American-owned restaurants in Seoul.

But, of course, it’s not about the food, is it? (I’m already sad enough to miss my mom’s cooking, but that’s not the point.)

It’s not about that p r o b l e m a t i c history of the holiday, tied into all sorts of Americana and patriotism. I know for a lot of Americans there is not a lot to celebrate, either because their rights and lands are being actively undermined, or because there isn’t much to celebrate in the way of family.

My family, then, is a superb rarity. Where everyone actually wants to see each other, there aren’t any blood feuds or big arguments, and everyone on both sides of the family comes together over food and tradition.  Thanksgiving is about family, really, about spending time with those who you love. It hit me right in the heart last year to see all the pictures of all the family members I was missing.

It’s not just a meal. We wake up early to do a “turkey trot” race, at least half of the family do. It’s only a 5k, but it makes you feel better about all the food you’re about to consume. After everyone is showered and in warm clothes, and usually after we’ve consumed a few gallons of salad between us all for lunch, that’s when the real work begins. Mom and the aunts prepare the food, and it’s my job to set the table. Or at least, it was. The last year I was there for Thanksgiving, I tried to teach my brother how to do it. I doubt he retained any of the information, just passing the duty along to one of the aunts or cousins instead. Dinner begins at 3 or 4, depending on when all of the family members arrive, and there’s a brief interlude in the middle where some dishes are cleared away and everyone rests their stomachs for dessert. Dessert is, after all, my mom’s favorite part of the meal. There are often up to 20 people who come to each Thanksgiving, and nobody goes away hungry. The best part, during and after all of this, is the talk. We almost never get to see so many family members at one time, except for at Thanksgiving. After long chats, some family members leave that night, some leave the next morning, and some might stay until sometime in the weekend. In past years, I would have to get up early to work or go to swim practice, but I even enjoyed this part of the experience, getting ready quietly to make my triumphant return later when most of the family members had only just woken up.

That was home. I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but sometime during my time at university, the feeling when I came home became more and more temporary. This is not a lack of feeling welcome, to be clear. Like Frodo and the Fellowship staying over at Rivendell, they wanted to stay forever but the feeling was the same: “You cannot stay here. Your destination is farther on. You must move on.” That Rivendell feeling accompanied me every time I went home after that, no matter how long or how brief the stay.

What is home? Is it merely a place to rest your head and keep your stuff? Is it, as my fellow millennials say, “the place where the wi-fi connects automatically”? (If so, then I have scores of “homes.”) Is it the place where you don’t have to explain yourself to others? I’m still exploring this, even now. I’m not sure whether my home for 22 years feels more real and tangible than my home for the past 2, even though I’ve fought so fiercely for the past few to keep it and keep on living here.

After all of those negative emotions surrounding my favorite holiday, I was fully prepared to have another horrifically sad Thanksgiving this year. Instead, I had a good little dinner with my best friends here, went to bed early, woke up early and cleaned my house, grabbed Starbucks for breakfast, and skyped my family over breakfast on Black Friday morning (in my time). It was right in the middle of dinner, and my heart was so full seeing all my family gathered there, so normal. You almost expect, when your own world is so different from what it was before, that everyone else’s lives are irreparably changed, too. So it’s at once jarring and comforting to see everyone in the same old way, gathering in the way they always have, and hopefully continuing to do so when I get back, too.

A toast, to continuity.

(Homeworld 2: Seoul, what is home, or beginner’s guide to Seoul).

on the other side of the desk

on the other side of the desk

It’s become the dead of fall, giant leaves crowding the sidewalks and crunching underfoot. Winter is nearly here. But there’s still one more experience to recount from this eventful summer, full of beach getaways, international vacations, and smaller things like hikes and Pride. That’s not what colored the atmosphere for most of the summer for me, though. What really occupied most of my thoughts during this time was my Korean class at Yonsei University. While I learned a lot of words and grammar forms, I learned some more valuable things from my time there, which can apply to more places than just the Korean-speaking world.

Let’s take it from the top.

We started with a placement exam. When the results came out, I was floored by getting put in level 5 out of 8 levels (I was hoping for a solid level 2 or 3 after a year of study and a year of living here). So yeah. I was shook.  And throughout the entire class, while the other kids (I say kids, I was the youngest in the class by 5-10-20 years) seemed to have learned most of the grammar before, I was scrambling to pick up the pieces. I communicated mostly through jokes and baby sentences, but I was able to communicate.

We got to talk about such awesome things! Like ethics and politics and attitudes towards a lot of things. This isn’t the baby class in university going over things like “What is your name?” “I’m an American.” “I’ve lived in Korea for 2 years,” kind of things. This kind of class, we were talking about friends with benefits or sugar mama situations (no sugar daddies, luckily), alcohol tolerances, and regional differences.  This class was so fun and so challenging that I would definitely say it was the best decision I made this year.

Not only learning Korean, I learned a lot about teaching a second language from our professor. It was my first time being “on the other side of the desk” since I had started to teach, after all.

1. Anything that’s worth doing, it’s worth doing again.

Your entire grade is based on the results of the final exam. While I was most nervous for the speaking (as within the context of the class, my speaking was decidedly the worst), I should have been more nervous about listening. Listening has never been my strong suit. That was the only section I failed. A month later, I headed back for a retest (side story: I sat in the auditorium with all the other kids thinking they were all there for a retest. But in reality, they were coming to take the placement test for the next semester. So much wasted time.) I did pass the second time, and it felt more rewarding to go back and do it right than just let that failing grade stick with me forever. I don’t get a certificate or put any kind of certification on my transcript because of this, but it feels good to “do it right.” In addition, I promised myself that I could only buy that Yonsei letterman jacket if I passed. So.

2. Put good in, get good out.

In a language learning setting, both routine and good attitude are key. One of our classmates would always come in late, and then stopped coming to class altogether. I suspect it was the lack of regularity that got to him. Especially in an adult language learning setting where you can’t really get the students to do homework, the routine of going to class is all you’ve got. In addition, good attitude is the other half of the equation. If you’re not interested in the class, it will be hard to do well and learn anything, but reframing it with better intentions will put you in the right mood to jump in constructively to the conversation.

3. Don’t be a Matthew

A parable: I have a student named Matthew (I always refer to him by name because the contrast between him and my friend Matt, an insanely gifted language learner, is intensely ironic to me) who never listens in class. All of the other girls in his fourth-grade class make an effort, or will ask questions when they don’t understand. They are willing to talk about anything if I can open up the conversation in a constructive way. Matthew listens intently perhaps 10% of the class, therefore learning and absorbing way less. It’s not possible to pay attention all the time, but many times listening and following along in the book are half the battle to understanding what the teacher is saying.

I learned the same thing in Korean class. You will understand more if you’re dedicatedly listening and paying attention as much as possible in class than if you’re zoning out. You can’t get back that lost time of not listening, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up the thread of a conversation that has taken a new turn in such a fast-paced class. Thus, just listen and a lot more things will come naturally, like learning and understanding. (NOT easily, just more naturally.)

4. You don’t have to understand every word.

Another pitfall I learned to avoid is not getting hung up on understanding every word of every sentence, or even every sentence. Many times, I might get hung up on a word and lose the meaning of the whole rest of the sentence, or even more as I frantically tried to look it up. (Sometimes our professor would write the word on the board to make that easier). Instead, much like looking into binoculars, you must focus a little wider on the meaning and feel of the sentence as a whole, how it fits into what the person is saying. I also did not understand a lot of the grammar forms that were being used, but again this zooming out really helped me to get the gist of things.

It turns out, in communication (which is kind of what learning languages is all about, after all), you just have to understand “enough,” to make an appropriate response and show the speaker that you’re listening and understanding. It doesn’t matter that the professor is a fluent speaker basically talking to a third-grader-level speaker like myself, if you have a mind to express those ideas and you have a willing listener, try your best.

5. Different learning philosophies are not necessarily or better or worse than one another.

In our class, we had 2 Taiwanese students, a Japanese guy, our Korean professor, and 2 Americans including myself. This often led to lively discussions about cultural differences, but one day our professor commented on the different ways that Eastern and Western students learn. I’ve also encountered this divide teaching ESL for the past almost-2-years here in Korea.

In the U.S, the focus is on understanding and applying the knowledge. This sounds stuck-up, but the exact grammar forms aren’t as important as being able to get your ideas across, as being able to manipulate the equation to be able to do what you want it to do, or being able to explain something. It’s teaching bigger concepts rather than individual points. There’s a lot more focus on explaining, elaborating, and discussing things than getting everything exactly correct.

In Korea and the East, it’s all about memorization. My little students last year had a speech that was a couple minutes long, that they would memorize word-for-word from reading and listening to my voice recording, together with adding carefully choreographed gestures and expressions. At a college level, this leads to the students taking diligent notes or taking pictures of the board or powerpoint slides and feverishly studying a stack of notecards ahead of the exam.

This is not to say that one style is better than the other, just different. Western students may come across as less smart than their Eastern counterparts because they have less-correct answers, perhaps, when their understanding is better suited to essay tests than their Eastern counterparts. Perhaps a little bit of both sides would make for the best language learner.

6. Talking is just as beneficial as “real” instruction.

While you buy a book to participate in the class and hope to learn most of the material from it, often jokes and real-life talks are better than strictly sticking to the book. I don’t remember the days where we just practiced grammar forms and new vocabulary words. I don’t really remember the grammar from those days, either. Instead, the days that were more fun and really stuck with me are the days where we talked about our actual lives, our homelands, where the professor would listen to the details of our drinking escapades or dating lives with all the relish of a saucy aunt. So I can say from real experience that talking about things that students actually care about and getting interested in their lives really gets them excited to talk.

(On the subject of jokes, I’ve also learned that not being afraid to make fun of yourself as a teacher is incredibly valuable and humanizes you to the students in the best possible way).

7. Gestures, sound effects, expressions are more than half of communication.

You don’t come to a class setting to only learn from a book. You don’t come to a class to listen to a CD recording. Communication is about a lot more than reading and listening, even more than just talking. Real communication is kind of messy, as I’ve learned from my bilingual attempts to talk with my first graders. It involves a lot of dramatic, mime-like gestures, sound effects (seriously considering starting a podcast or radio show I like my sound effects so much), and silly facial expressions convey almost more than the words themselves. You pick up other people’s expressions, too. From talking with my coteacher, Miss Tiffany, last year I’ve picked up a lot of facial expressions, and I learned a great deal more from the Korean professor, too. It’s a delicate art and a big joke at the same time, communicating, but there’s no one right answer.

8. Load on the examples.

The more examples, the better. This is also a function of comedic timing. When explaining a new concept, it’s so important to have as many examples as possible, and writing them down so that the students can follow the pattern is incredibly important, too. When my fourth graders and I played “Fannee Doolee” last year, we filled an entire whiteboard with the things Fannee Doolee likes before the students caught on that it was a spelling thing rather than a spoken thing. The humorous frustration when learning a language is all part of the game, but providing enough background knowledge for the kids to form their own connections is also important.

9. You get what you pay for.

Let’s say these days I work for a significantly cheaper hagwon then I did before. Now, the best students can learn from bad instruction, but the middling to struggling students won’t be able to learn in these ineffective settings. In the same way, at the college level instruction you will also reap the rewards from less-effective instructors. Perhaps you’re paying for the name, but perhaps you’re paying for more effective instructors who better know what they’re doing, and better materials to boot. If you want to go to a free language exchange, it might help, but having the formal direction of a class is more useful to guide your studies and learning, at the very least.

10. Any learning is better than no learning.

That being said, any effort towards learning a language is commendable. I know people who have lived here for a long time who, so far from being fluent, can barely string together a single sentence. Much of the Western world insists that immigrants learn English when moving to our countries, when in reality we are not willing to do the same when the reverse applies. I’m not saying you have to be government-level proficient in whatever your current country’s language is; any effort to learn and better yourself is commendable, no matter how small it may seem. Any way you choose to learn is also good. If you learn best from listening to music or podcasts, watching movies, reading books, magazines, or twitter, whatever is best for you is good. I don’t want to cast aspersions on different learning styles, but just that you should do it earnestly and be a good listener or reader, whatever you do to learn it.

 

Anyhow, I’m indebted to this class. I can’t necessarily say I’m miles better than when I started, but I’m more confident. I learned so much. It’s the badge of a language learner to realize how little you know, and I’m still discovering the gaps even now, doing my best to patch them up.

A toast to language learning, teaching, and communication, with all of their twists and turns.