The Superpower You Can Cultivate: Foreign Language

This morning is a Saturday, and Saturdays are always a tough day to write a blog post. I dug through my purse to find my external hard drive, hoping that going over some old pictures would spark something that I could use. I quickly realized that I’d accidentally left my external hard drive at work and there would be no access to photographs until Monday. Shucks.

So, I headed over to the Daily Post, who has been posting different prompts for NaBloPoMo writers everyday. Most of these have been much more geared towards personal blogs, and I haven’t had a chance to use a single one yet. But the most recent prompt was a strike of luck. It read:

You get to choose one superpower. Pick one of these, and explain your choice:

– the ability to speak and understand any language
– the ability to travel through time
– the ability to make any two people agree with each other

Now, as a travel/expat blogger, I’m sure you can guess which one of these superpowers I would choose. Time travel, obviously! Jokes. No, I’m convinced that being able to speak and understand any language would be the ultimate superpower, for a myriad of reasons. I’m going to tell you about each and every one of them

Easier & Carefree Travel

This is a pretty obvious benefit. You could literally go anywhere in the world and find a place to sleep, eat and sightsee with minimal effort. Your safety automatically doubles, because if you’re lost you can ask for help, you can get warnings ahead of time about unsafe areas of the region and you are more likely to talk yourself out of any potentially bad situations. You can ask about bigger towels at some tiny, cheap motel and you can read the street signs in the area. Learning the language in a country you’ll be traveling in just makes everything, all around, way better.

A good Spanish word to learn is "Peligro", which means danger. Which is also not something you'd expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.
A good Spanish word to learn is “Peligro”, which means danger. Which is also not something you’d expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.

Hear People’s Stories

Sit down with your hostel owner and a cup of coffee and learn about his family, how he came to open a hostel, what makes him happy in life. Ask the person next to you on the plane where they’re going and what they do for a living. See an elderly Jewish grandmother in Germany and be able to listen to, understand and learn from her experiences in World War II. Ask a little girl what her favorite color is, her favorite book is and whether she has any younger siblings. People are fascinating and they have incredible stories to tell, especially those that live a different life than you. And from people like that, there are endless amounts to learn.

Always Find A Job

This reason is a bit superficial, but you instantly have job security. If you’re ever, and I mean ever, unemployed, speaking rare, difficult languages will solve your problem and quickly. Where there isn’t a translation position (which there always is), there are other corporate positions that just need someone to relay information between two global units of the same company. Talk about breathing easy!

Secret Eavesdropping

Oh, the things people say to each other when they’re alone… or think that no one can understand them. This one is especially lucrative, because you can always pretend you don’t speak a native language and hear both sides of a negotiation. Of course, this also comes with a downside: people say stupid, annoying things all the time. You’ll never again have the illusion that people abroad are less obsessed with the superficial than people in your country.

This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I'm happy not to eavesdrop on.
This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I’m happy not to eavesdrop on.

Insane Dreams

Have you ever had one of those bilingual dreams, where one person is speaking English and then in your dream you’re trying to come up with the German words for your response? And then French or Korean or Spanish comes out of nowhere and you wake up super confused? No? Just me? Well, if you can fluently speak and understand every language, everywhere, then you’re going to have some absolutely crazy dreams. That’s pretty cool.

Better Informed

You know when the news only reports one side of an international story? You know when all the newspapers all say the same thing, because there was only one person who was able to translate the Cantonese and that exact translation is the same source for every TV station? Speaking every language would put an end to these limited information scenerios. You could tune into foreign broadcasts, read the newspaper in Spain and even shoot out an email to a contact in Ghana. You would be the best-informed person around.

LEARN spanish travel informed
Learning Spanish means you can read about news in all of South America, from South American sources. That’s pretty valuable.

I’m going to let out a little of my teacher side, now. While it’s probably impossible to learn all of the 6,000 or 7,000 languages in the entire world, it’s totally possible to cultivate a little slice of this superpower. Just by virtue of being able to read this, you’re already able to communicate with nearly 10% of the entire world (a little over half of those people speak English as a second language). If you learn Mandarin, just one second language, you’ve just upped your percentage to 20-25%, depending on that ESL overlap. If you learn Spanish, with 406 million native speakers, you’ve just racked up another 5% of the world with whom you can have a conversation, not adding in second language learners.

You see what I’m saying here? You can actually have 1/4th of a superpower, if you want. Yeah, it’ll take a few years of hard work and looking like a fool (with your pants on the ground! Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) And true, it’s not something you can mindlessly do, you’ll have to put in the time and effort. But you could have one fourth of a superpower! Isn’t that awesome?

That’s why I’ve written a language resource page for Korean and shared other updates on my life, while studying other languages. If other people are inspired to study a foreign language, then they are actively making their own lives better. I’ve experienced these benefits firsthand and they are real. They are significant.

And for me, all of those reasons are what keep me going in my own language studies, be it German, Spanish or now Korean. It’s always, always been worth it. And I can promise it would be for you, too.

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You Know You’ve Been in Korea Too Long When…

As an expat, Korea is a great country to live in. As an ESL teacher, it’s even better. Free housing, excellent pay, a low cost of living, a job that isn’t completely time consuming, other foreigners that you can relate to. The list could go on for ages. But it’s also a country that vastly different than the West, and if you don’t go home frequently enough, then it becomes easy to lose track of social norms and the correct spellings of complicated words. The slope gets even more slippery when you notice how easy it is to sign for a second year, or skip that visit home in exchange for a cheaper, more adventurous and booze-filled vacation in SE Asia.

So yeah, a lot of us (myself included) find ourselves in Korea maybe just a tad bit too long. Here are some tell-tale signs that you need to fly home and reacquaint yourself with Western culture, before it’s too late.

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You give your expat friends money with both hands.

Once you get into this habit, it’s hard to get out. I guess it can’t hurt to be extra respectful to your friends, even though you just look weird. Thank goodness your friends are expats and understand your struggles; you won’t find the same understanding at home.

You take “selcas” in public and send them to your Western friends. (And you call them “selcas”, not “selfies”.)

Everybody and their grandmother takes selfies in Korea, sometimes people take selfies with their grandmother. After a while you stop watching marathon selca sessions and start to just accept it. Then you try it out yourself. Then you like it. Then it becomes a problem because you don’t have anyone around you who’ll give you weird looks or just tell you to stop being so obsessed with yourself and put your damn phone away, you’re at the gym.

I can't be entirely sure, but I think that selfies with your dog are still culturally acceptable, though.
I can’t be entirely sure, but I think that selfies with your dog are still culturally acceptable. Right?

Excluding sleep, you haven’t spent more than an hour of the last day not looking at some kind of screen.

Good morning, check your phone. Open the computer with breakfast. Walk to work, or commute to work with your phone. Get to work, use the computer for things. Take a break and read a little on your Kindle. Remember that you haven’t played that cell phone dragon game in two days. Answer messages from a friend. Write a blog post. Go home and edit some photographs. Relax before bed with a Kindle. Oh my gosh, I need to get out of Korea before my brain turns to mush and my eyeballs stop working!

You become passionate about Dokdo.

I’ve read about the historical nuances of the territory dispute, and I get that it’s just a giant rock but in a strategic location. And I agree that based on the history, Dokdo should probably belong to Korea. But if you are not from Korea and feel really passionate about this subject, then you probably need to take a breather from propaganda and read about mass murders by drones or something. It’s still just a rock. And if you’re a foreigner, it’s not even yours.

You use the world “delicious” (or, worse, “deliciously”) without irony.

The word “delicious” used to sound kind of creepy, when not used in the correct context. Now I don’t even know what that context would be. I can’t even think of an alternate way to describe food, except for “good”. Last week, I wrote the word “deliciously” in one of my updates and I’m wondering if I should be ashamed about that, too.

Also unacceptable, the word "yammy".
Also unacceptable, the word “yammy”.

You not only drink the instant coffee, you like it.

If you were trained as a barista at some point, then this one applies doubly to you. There should be no circumstances in which sugary, milky, chemically not-coffee is drinkable. Unfortunately, us expats in Korea know that indeed, such circumstances exist and they no longer feel shameful.

You’re no longer upset that beef at the grocery store costs $10-15.

It’s outrageous. And if you’re not upset about it anymore, then you need a vacation. It’s outrageous, I say!

You group text your friends about grammar, because you can’t tell if a sentence is wrong or just awkward sounding.

You know it’s bad when you’ve been out of an English-speaking environment so long that your internal mother-tongue radar needs a recharge.

You stop giving warning to friends about upcoming events.

Everyone knows about Korean propensity to tell you ten minutes in advance about extra classes, cancelled classes or huge life changing events that are about to take place. When it’s rubbed off on you, that’s when you know you have a problem. Your friends back home will not appreciate this new trait if you don’t get it together and fight your urge to notify people of things at the last second.

"Hey guys, I'm going to Germany tomorrow, so can someone take care of Mary for the next two weeks?"
“Hey guys, I’m going to Germany tomorrow, so can someone take care of Mary for the next two weeks?”

You never type “haha”, only ㅋㅋㅋ.

Especially if you’re typing in English… you have to actually switch keyboards on your phone to do this. If this is you, please schedule your visit immediately.

When you want to search for something, you use Naver.

I rest my case.

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By virtue of even being able to make this list, I think I qualify as having been in Korea too long. Time to go home.

[In July 2014, did. It’s been hard.]

What kinds of weird quirks have you picked up that make you realize it may be time to get out of Korea? Do you disagree with any of these? Let me know in the comments!

You can find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page, on Twitter & Instagram or you can subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

Working in a Small, Private Middle School in Rural South Korea

I haven’t talked a lot about my job in South Korea, because beaches and pictures and weird flavors of Pringles just seem more interesting to me. Who wants to hear about my boring 9-5, everyday gig? And I’m realizing that, probably, you do. Because you don’t work here. It’s not boring for you. It’s exciting and foreign and mysterious! So I’m going to take you into my professional world, today. To kick this post off, here’s a short video:

Now, let’s get started. I’ve decided to interview myself with questions that I’ve heard from my friends and family over the past year or so. Because interviews are great, and I don’t have any on my blog yet. Who better to start with than yours truly?

Aren’t Korean kids better behaved than kids in the USA?

No! Did you watch that video? Do you think that only happens between classes and then magically, as soon as the bell rings, the students gracefully sit up straight, have their pens poised and ready to go and shut their mouths? Eyes eagerly looking forward, waiting to learn? Does that sound ridiculous? Great. I’ve conveyed my point. Kids are kids are kids. Don’t believe anyone who tells you differently.

What’s the difference between a private and a public middle school?

Just from walking around or observing classes, nothing really. They have the same curriculum and school hours, uniforms just like every other school and there’s nothing remarkable about the school building. So from the students’ perspective, I don’t know what the difference is, really. From the native English teacher’s perspective, it just means that I wasn’t required to go to orientation (a blessing and a curse), I filled out a lot less paperwork (no EPIK forms) and my contract is much more flexible than Korean government contracted teachers. I renewed for six months and was able to negotiate half the benefits, something other EPIK teachers don’t have the freedom to do.

Yeah, they're angels.
Yeah, they’re angels.

Do you know all of your kids’ names?

Yes and no. I know all of their English names, but I only know maybe 20 of their Korean names. I tried to memorize all their Korean names, but it was taking too long and compromising my authority as a teacher. It’s hard to get a rogue student’s attention when you can’t even say their name! So English names it was. And I learned all ~130 very quickly.

Are you friends with your co-workers?

I’m at-work friends with some of my co-workers and on friendly terms with everyone. But the majority of them are older, with families and kids and we don’t have a ton in common. I don’t think any of them have ever lived abroad, some have never left Korea. Most of them can’t speak English well enough to carry a conversation. My co-English-teacher is the closest thing to a “friend”, though I’m pretty sure we’re from different planets. She’s 25 with a minister husband, new baby boy and never-been-stamped passport (if she even has a passport?). So while I enjoy working with my co-workers, there aren’t any friendships there that I’ll be keeping up in the long run.

Are there any other foreigners where you live?

Ehhh, yes and no. In walking distance? Definitely not. In the nearby town? Plenty. I just need to hop in the car and drive 25 minutes to see them.

Delicious food for dinner helps soothe the pain of half an hour drives.
Delicious food for dinner helps soothe the pain of half an hour drives.

Since your school is so small, do you have less work to do?

No. While I teach fewer classes per week than my other native English teacher friends, I have to teach new material with much more frequency. So while teachers working at a big school can teach the same lesson over and over for a week or even just two or three days, I only have two classes before it becomes repeat (unless I reuse a lesson on different grade levels). So the hours that other teachers spend in the classroom teaching the same lesson, again, I spend at my desk making new lesson plans, again. It’s different work but it’s no less.

Are your classes graded?

No. I created a sticker system to create some semblance of rewards for doing well, though. So you could say that my classes are graded by the potential for getting candy at the end of the semester.

How do you keep your kids disciplined?

Sometimes I don’t, and candy. My classes are my own, so it’s just me and a bunch of kids. Considering my lack of cred as a disciplinarian (I won’t hit kids with sticks), sometimes they get a little rowdy. The key is just to have an interesting game or change activities a lot during class. Or bribe them with ten minutes of Sherlock at the end of the lesson, whatever works. Sometimes it doesn’t, that’s just life as a teacher. And candy.

The only surefire teaching method: bribery.
The only surefire teaching method: bribery.

What do you like about your job?

I like the relaxed atmosphere and the freedom I’m given inside my classes. We can cover literally anything in the lesson, as long as the kids are being exposed to English words. I also like my middle school students (mostly), because unlike elementary school, they are going through hilarious and awkward growth and puberty spurts and crushes on girls. I can also tease them without provoking tears and sometimes they even catch my sarcasm. Lastly, living a three minute walk away from work has serious advantages.

What do you dislike?

I don’t like that I’m so remote and far from friends, because it takes away all of my spontaneity. This also means I can’t enjoy a beer after work with anyone, or ever with friends, because I’ve driven there and have to drive home. (And don’t tell me “just one beer is fine” because driving in Korea is all kinds of crazy when I’m sober.) So everything about my school is great, except for the location.

Do you feel like you’re making a difference?

Yes, but not in the way you’d think. I don’t think my students are learning a lot of English and I don’t think they’re picking up on my accent and fixing their pronunciation. (Even though I try so hard!) But, I think that the exposure to someone from the USA/Western world has been good for them, because they see that I’m human. When we talk about Christmas or Halloween or any other cultural subject during class, they listen and are interested. So while they’re not becoming fluent in English while I’m here, they are being exposed to a lot of information about the West that they’d otherwise not know. And they see that I’m a normal, breathing person who likes to eat ice cream and has friends outside of work. So my hope is that they see foreigners not as a weird class of people, but a group of individual people, not so different from them.

Can I have some candy?

Yes, Sally, since you just went through such a long and detailed interview with yourself, I’ll give you some candy. Oh, readers, you want candy too? Sorry, I ate it all.

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If you have any questions of your own for me on this subject, go ahead and write them in the comments below and I’ll add them to this post / answer them. Wouldn’t want to hog the interviewee!

You can find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or sign up for the email list, if you’d like.

Photoessay: Camping on Hagampo Beach

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This Saturday/Sunday, my friends and I went camping on the beach. Koreans love camping, so it was especially lucky that we not only found a nice stretch of beach to accommodate all of us (over 20 people!) but also had the beach almost entirely to ourselves. We all set up our tents, located all of our bags and cracked open a beer (or wine, or soju + juice) to enjoy in the sunshine. The communal environment was relaxing; we all shared pork, beef, ramen noodles, vegetables and drinks of all kinds and our laughter echoed over the empty beach for hours. Freezing as the water was, the brave few swam and the majority of us waded only as far as our calves. We played frisbee, “cricket”, soccer and hiked to the part-time island (low tide/high tide) to climb over rock piles and see the other side of the beach. After sunset, we built a huge bonfire on the beach and sat in a circle, warming our tired legs and soaking up the heat.

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Thanks for the memories, Hagampo.

About Hagampo (학암포):
Hagampo is a beach located about 20km Northwest of Taeon (태안), in Chungnam Province. A local bus runs to Hagampo a few times each day or, alternatively, a taxi will cost about 26,000₩.

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You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. There’s also an email list, if you’d like to subscribe.

Photoessay: Cherry Blossoms in Korea

In Korea, this past month, it was an important time of year: cherry blossom tree blooming time! Japan may be most famous for cherry blossom trees, but Korea definitely doesn’t disappoint. Because the trees only stay flowered for a few weeks, if you’re lucky and it doesn’t rain, it’s important to pay attention and not miss it.

So, one weekend in April, I researched the cherry blossom tree festival in Seoul and made solid plans to go. I didn’t want to miss out!

I woke up early, packed my bags and camera and headed out to Seoul. Two hours and some wandering around later, I found the park and festival. Imagine my disappointment (with myself) when I forgot to pack the battery for the fancy camera. Even more disappointing, though? The trees were barely blooming! What?! And it was still crowded… go figure, Seoul. Continue reading Photoessay: Cherry Blossoms in Korea

Weird Noms: Pizza Ddeokbokki + the Resulting Food Poisoning

The culprit.
The culprit.

Note to readers: I wrote this post shortly after eating this meal. Little did I know the true havoc it would wreak on me. The next day I woke up vomiting and spent all day with agonizing stomach pain. I had to see a doctor, who diagnosed me with an intestinal irritation (which was likely brought on by this, perhaps also the fact that it was followed by ice cream) and I was forced on a liquid/sludge/soup diet for the better part of a week, about 6 days. I now know the Korean word for diarrhea. Im taking medicine and am not allowed to eat or drink anything colder than room temperature. For your own health and safety… never eat pizza ddeokbokki.

Continue reading Weird Noms: Pizza Ddeokbokki + the Resulting Food Poisoning

The Eight Month Mark

As of the 23rd, it’ll be eight months since my plane touched down in South Korea and I started my first “real” job. There’s nothing special about why I picked the eighth month to write about and not the ninth or the seventh; it just happens that I decided to count recently, as I’d lost track of the time. So here I am, eight months in, and (as always, as everyone always does) wondering when all eight of those months passed me by, exactly.

A lot has changed since that month of June. For one, working with my students has gotten infinitely easier. They’ve gotten used to me being a teacher, I’ve picked up some actual teaching skills and I’ve gotten accustomed to what it’s like to work in a private middle school in Korea. No doubt, I’ll have surprise after surprise still sprung at me (as usual), but that’s okay. I’m flexible. I’ll figure it out. Continue reading The Eight Month Mark

it’s official: I’m in a blogging funk

and a writing funk, and a studying Korean funk, and a getting out of my superbly warm bed in the morning on these cold winter days.

and I’ll probably be in this funk for another week or two. because that’s how these work… they suck the life out of you until you stop and recuperate. so I need to do that.

upcoming fun:

CHRISTMAS, OBVIOUSLY Continue reading it’s official: I’m in a blogging funk

Christmas is coming!

and before I get started: happy birthday to my other, older, apparently cuter brother! (my students weighed in on it…) I love you!

Korea and Christmas aren’t really best friends the way USA and Christmas are. there’s no week off of school or extended holiday break because of it. there’s not a strong tradition of buying everyone multiple presents and filling up the tree with boxes and boxes. no one will pay me to wrap all of their presents for them, this year. families don’t gather together from far and wide. Continue reading Christmas is coming!