THE KOREA KRONICLES, PART VI: Pork-Spine Soup, Fan Mail, and Why My Life is Weird

Photo 2013-04-21 02.32.35 PMI grew up in a cedar thicket. Apparently, that’s hilarious–or maybe it’s just hilarious when I say it. IDK. I guess you’ll just have to ask David and Colleen to be sure. (Inside jokes, FTW.) But, yes, it’s true. I did grow up in a cedar thicket, or something like that. In any case, there were a lot of cedar trees around. OH MY GOD I AM TALKING SO MUCH ABOUT CEDAR TREES. Moving on now, all that to point out that I don’t have any allergies. Cedar trees are notoriously profligate in their shedding of pollen and if I can survive being hemmed in by a Hell’s Horde of them, then, well, I’m fairly confident I can inhale just about any form of pollen imaginable and not degenerate into an inflamed sinus. +15 Bad-ass Points. Every Spring, whenever I hear someone talk about how terrible their allergies are, I’m secretly elated that I managed to escape that common misfortune (knock on wood).

In any case, yes, it’s Spring here, as it is everywhere in the northern hemisphere. No, I’m not going into Autumn, as some have seemed to think. Seasons are opposite in the hemispheres from North to South, not East to West. Were I living in Argentina or Chile, yes, this would be the beginning of the Fall. Do I live in Argentina or Chile? No. Not yet anyway, but maybe someday.


korean-food-gamjatang-01Last night, I added another selection to my Korean culinary repertoire. But first, a little background: in a hilariously ironic turn of events, I am currently teaching in Korea at the same English village with not one but two people I went to college with at ORU. I referenced both at the beginning of this post: David and Colleen. The latter has been here a year and a half already and the former arrived about a month after I did. And, as if that wasn’t crazy enough, the three of us will be joined by yet another ORU graduate and friend, Alyssa, at the beginning of June, just over a month from now. As David told me, one day years from now we’ll all be together in the same room again and one will say, “Hey, remember that random time we were all coworkers in Korea?” Then we’ll have a good, hearty laugh. Totes cray, yo.

APhoto 2013-04-21 02.32.35 PM (3)nyway, David and I caught the shuttle from the village into the city yesterday and then met up with Colleen at her apartment near Yeungjin College, which has a stellar view of the city, the Geumho River, the surrounding farmland, and the mountains in the distance. The three of us plus another friend of Colleen’s she met in graduate school (who also teaches at the village) took a short stroll across the river to a tiny little restaurant where we ordered a very ancient (the recipe, not the actual food) traditional Korean dish called Gamjatang. In simplest terms, it is pig-spine soup and includes cabbage, red chili pepper, onions, and pork still attached to the vertebrae. After the soup is served, the meat is picked off with chopsticks and the bones placed on a side plate. As well, side dishes included tangy fermented radishes, kimchi, peppers, white rice, and some pasty stuff that’s usually really, really hot but was that time fairly sweet.

Now, here’s a little insight on Roy-Gene: I’m a wimp when it comes to spice. It’s not that I don’t like flavor, but if something is really, really hot then I just can’t enjoy eating it. For reference, I consider jalapenos really hot. After the food had been brought out, Colleen mentioned that Gamjatang is sometimes really, really spicy (AKA hot) and I had a moment of panic. This particular batch, however, was suited for me perfectly: just enough spice for a nice kick, but not enough to necessitate calling the Fire Department. Thank God. Chopsticks are still an adventure for me, but I’m getting better. I don’t know that I’ll ever reach a point of preferring chopsticks to Western utensils, but I’m hoping to at least one day not look like a dumb Miguki just learning how to eat. I have to admit though, the unmatched best part of the evening was watching Bad Lip Reading and Jan Terri music videos on YouTube and then spontaneously breaking out in song on the bridge over the river. Stop looking at us, Koreans; we’re perfectly normal, okay?


From a classroom management perspective, the vast majority of Korean kids are a dream. Anytime I think about the horrendous things American teachers have to deal with teaching American kids, I’m really grateful for (and amazed at) how relatively easy it is for me to keep my students on point. For example, for each class, teachers can award a group of students up to ten points, which are supposed to be given out as a measure of the students’ engagement, level of preparedness, and behavior. If a group is being rowdy or isn’t listening or isn’t prepared for class, I can take away a point or two and its beautiful how effective that tactic is. Whereas American kids would probably be like, “Points? We don’t care about points! Give us candy!,” Korean kids will say, “No, Teacher! Please don’t take away points! Give us candy!” Some things cross all cultures it would seem, like the desire for candy. But hey, taking away a point or two for bad behavior can work remarkably well, especially if it’s just one kid in the group who’s being obnoxious. The other students will ask why they lost a point and I can say, “Well, because Ben isn’t listening,” and then the kids will start yelling at Ben in Korean to tell him to get his shit together so they don’t lose any more points. I’m paraphrasing, obviously.

Sometimes, when I get a group that has a reputation for being bad, I’ll adopt a strategy I’ve dubbed “The Call to Repentance.” I think particularly of Group 17 from last week, which, while good kids, weren’t taking their experience at the English camp seriously. There had been fighting and hair-pulling and desk-defacement and just general horse-assery going on in this group from Day 1. After looking through the notes from other teachers in the group’s Blue Book, I brought all the kids in, had them sit, and began learning their names. As I would get to a name with a negative note written next to it, I’d say, “Oh no, James! It says here that you were fighting. Is this true?” or “Oh no, Harry! It says here that you were pulling Jane’s hair. Is this true?” It got real quiet when I started doing that. Sometimes, the kids forget that teachers talk to each other and know who the crazy students are. After going through all of their names, I read the kicker to them, “It says here in Blue Book that girls are wonderful!” I gave the girls a thumbs up and a big smile; they were glowing. “But, it says here that boys are terrible!” I gave the boys a thumbs down and a frown; I got the deer in the headlights for a response. Then, I said, in both a firm but friendly and inviting tone, “If in my class boys are terrible, zero points.” After a second or two, one of the boys said back, “Okay, teacher.” I got the feeling that they understood so we proceeded with class and they turned into one of the best groups I’d had all week. In the end, I gave them 8 points, but more important are the ones I earned: +1500 for masterful bullshitting.

My first fan mail.

My first fan mail.

Last week was also when I got my first fan mail from a student, and I even remember the student. When the kids are in the Post Office, they write letters to their favorite teachers at the English village and I was both mystified and honored that I received a postcard from this particular student. She was in one of the worst groups I had all week. The Call to Repentance had absolutely no effect on this group and I ended up giving them only 1 point as they basically refused to listen. Korean kids are smaller than American kids by far, but this particular girl was small even among Koreans. And she had a mouth too. She clearly wasn’t in the habit of taking shit from anyone and I can only guess she was appreciative of how firm I was with the boys in her group, who were, by all accounts, atrocious. On the back of the postcard, she drew a night sky and stars (I love stargazing) and on the front she drew the rainbow. Were she any older and more aware of the fight for LGBT rights in the U.S., I’d be inclined to think it was the Pride Flag. But, then again, maybe it’s okay if I just call it that anyway. She’ll never know.


No guys, I’m serious. I was giving this some thought the other day as I was drinking an Americano on the rooftop patio of a coffee shop in Daegu. I’ve since conclusively determined that my life is, in fact, really strange. Let’s look at the evidence, shall we?

  1. To begin, I randomly moved to South Korea to teach English at a camp in the mountains outside the city of Daegu. I knew very little about Korea before making the move and can’t understand anything anyone says. The biggest culture shock will probably be going back to the United States and understanding people’s conversations on the city bus, at the bank, or in the restaurant. Even so, I haven’t regretted the decision for a moment. And, the most ironic thing is that I’m not terribly adventurous. Imagine that.
  2. I have been proposed to twice, once by a man, once by a woman. Enough said.
  3. Last week, I added another person to the list of famous people to whom my family is related. In addition to Reba McEntire (who’s a cousin by marriage), Alan Jackson’s drummer (who’s a cousin) and President James Buchanan (distantly, through a several greats grandmother), it has now been discovered that I am a maternal direct descendant of Davy Crockett. Go figure.
  4. I met both the Metropolitan of the American Orthodox Church and the grown members of the boy-band Hanson at the same time. There’s a whole story to go along with this one, but, three years later, I still can’t get over just how weird and cool that experience was. Just another day in my life.
  5. A random guy I met at the bar after I’d been in Korea for three days insisted on buying me a birthday cake, which he did. He put us in taxis and, as we were waiting for him to pay outside the bakery, a teacher colleague and I were accosted by a prostitute. I just started laughing at the absurdity of the situation, which made her really confused. Join the club, sweetheart.

These were just the top five that came to mind. I could spend all day talking about the crazy situations I seem to always be finding myself in. For some reason, I attract the weirdos, which is both a blessing and a curse, particularly since there are both good weirdos and bad weirdos.

In other news, I managed to secure prime vacation time this week. I can’t speak with any certainty about something that far off, but it looks like I’ll be back at home in America for Christmas this year. That’s gonna be a trip, both literally and figuratively. People have the wrong idea about culture shock: the returning home is a far more potent form of shock than the going away. In the meantime, there are a lot of things that need to happen. I need to explore Seoul and Busan, I need to go to the DMZ and take a picture with a South Korean soldier, and I need to go to a real Korean karaoke bar. More weird experiences are undoubtedly on the way and I’ll surely keep you posted. You can count on that. Peace.Photo 2013-04-21 02.32.32 PM

3 thoughts on “THE KOREA KRONICLES, PART VI: Pork-Spine Soup, Fan Mail, and Why My Life is Weird

I know you have opinions. Make them known.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s