Author Archives: lynnedavis2

Korean in Small Bites

At my university in Korea, there was a tall, quiet Chinese teacher from Inner Mongolia. Li Su, attractive and graceful, showed up one day when I was trying to buy bananas at the grocery store. She interpreted for me when the lady there was trying to tell me I had to buy a certain quantity.

Instead of being grateful, I was ashamed at my incompetence and envious of Li Su. How did she know Korean?

I learned later that she had already spent one year at the university and, more to the point, that the grammar of Chinese, and some of the vocabulary, are similar to those of Korean and Japanese. For these people, learning each other’s languages is like learning French and Spanish for me.

I became friends with Li Su later, when the faculty took an overnight trip to a resort area at the end of the first semester, that is, in May or June. We climbed a mountain together and were hot and exhausted at the end.

These team-building and bonding trips seemed to be quite common. Maybe that’s because they work. After that, I felt comfortable enough to join Li Su for lunch in the cafeteria. We could speak English together; she knew some, and liked to practice. But we had some exchanges in Korean too.

“Tari appayo?” I asked her when we first met after the mountain trip. I had learned the phrase in a Korean textbook. “Tari” meant leg, and “appayo” meant both it hurts and does it hurt.

“Ne,” she said with a smile. “Ne” is yes. “Appayo!” It was our shared experience. She asked me the same question back, and I also said yes, it hurts. Not scintillating conversation, but we laughed. We deepened our friendship.

Another phrase that served us well in the cafeteria was “oepsoyo,” which means there isn’t any, it doesn’t exist, it isn’t here. It’s the opposite of “issoyo,” there is, it exists, it is here.

This handy little phrase could be used in so many ways. We made jokes using it.

We joked about the food. Actually, I loved the meals in the cafeteria, which always included rice, soup and side dishes—for a good price. The Chinese people, though—there were two others—didn’t think much of it. They missed Chinese food, which was so much better, they claimed.

“Gogi oepsoyo,” Li Su would say, lifting her spoonful of soup, shrugging her shoulders. She thought the soup was thin and unsatisfying, lacking “gogi,” meat.

I could show an interest in her Chinese colleagues by asking, “Toksu isseoyo?” Is Toksu here? And she would answer, “Oepsoyo. Onul chip-e isseoyo.” She’s not here. She’s at home today. A whole conversation! These little nothings meant so much to me.

Most language learners want the whole thing, right now. I did too. I became frustrated when I didn’t understand the conversation in a social setting, when I had no idea what the bus driver was asking me, as others waited in line behind me, waiting to get on.

But I also had fun and got such satisfaction using the little bits of language I knew to get what I needed. “Chuseyo” meant please. I could go to the fruit vendor on the street and say, “Kam, chuseyo.” Persimmons, please, “tasot-kye,” and get five of them. She would hand them to me, and I would say “Kamsahamnida,” thank you—and walk away like a normal person.

I could go to a restaurant and order “Keopi, chuseyo.” Coffee was easy. I could ask for milk in it. “Uyu, isseoyo?” I could say thank you, I’m sorry, I don’t understand, and just a minute. These phrases covered a pretty wide range of daily experiences.

Of course, I still had days when shopkeepers gave me blank stares, having no clue what I was asking for, when I thought I was speaking their language. And just as often, times when strangers intervened, helping me in the checkout line, translating the simplest things into English for me. So many Koreans can speak English. They might say they don’t, but when it is clear that your Korean is not even close to their English proficiency, they will come forward and be very helpful.

For a foreign-language learner, persistence, humility and a sense of humor are helpful too.

What’s Your Favorite Emoji?

What’s Your favorite emoji?

At a holiday gathering, I asked family members if they ever have a hard time finding the right emoji.

They all said no, and looked at me as if I were crazy. But I do find emojis lacking at times.

I use these little faces and pictures quite often in texts and emails. They’re fun, a quick way to add a smile to the communication. Or a teary eye, or a thoughtful frown. I use the smiley more often than anything. A smile at the end of a text can mean I like you, I’m happy, etc. I sometimes substitute a smile emoji for an exclamation point, which I am inclined to overuse.

Sometimes I just can’t find the appropriate emoji. I scan through, but I don’t find an emoji conveying frustration, hope, overwhelmed-ness, joy, or “Ick.” On the other hand, there are some that I never use, because I just don’t like them—the red devil, for example.

And there are quite a few emojis that I don’t understand. There’s one with a big smile and a tear in one eye, another with a big smile and tears coming out of both eyes. Are they the same, to different degrees? Or is the first one happy-sad, the second laughing till you cry? And what about the one with two blue paths going down the face; what are those paths?

I rarely use the ones with a big mouthful of teeth—too aggressive. I don’t know whether they’re super-friendly or friendly-angry.

Sometimes an emoji really works for me. If I’m confused, I like the upside-down face. If I’m excited, I can use a happy smile and a party favor and a woman dancing flamenco. Other times, I can’t find an emoji that expresses the feeling I want to convey. Then it’s time for the last resort–words.

Do you have a favorite emoji? Or other thoughts on emojis? I’d love to hear them.

Ann-Margret Guests on Kominsky Method

The other night I saw Ann-Margret on Michael Douglas‘s Golden-Globe-winning The Kominsky Method.

The Netflix show appeals to me because Michael Douglas still looks good at 74, and also, the show jokes about physical aging.

Well, make that men’s aging. Sandy Kominsky (Douglas) takes Viagra for sex, and Flomax for other prostate issues. He talks to his friend Norman (Alan Arkin) about these geezer problems, and he always has to pee.

But here’s what gets me: the women on the show. Kominsky is dating his student Lisa (Nancy Travis), probably twenty years younger—blond hair, beautiful, with a teenage son. Sandy’s hair may be thinning and grey, but no grey-haired woman for him!

Norman’s wife has died, and he is still grieving when her widowed best friend asks him out. Reluctantly, he goes. And get this. It’s Ann-Margret! We see her at a table in a restaurant with Norman. He’s not ugly, but he looks his age. Whereas Ann-Margret is drop-dead (sorry) gorgeous. She does not look her age, which is an unbelievable 77! Strawberry blond hair, peaches and cream complexion, oozing sex—and she wants to be with Norman?

(Maybe she, too, has urinary incontinence. Is she doing Kegels under the table?)

I like The Kominsky Method. Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin make a good comedy team. And Sandy’s daughter Mindy, played by Sarah Baker, is a great character. But where are the other normal women?

It just seems a bit sexist.

Korea First Days, Bread

March 23, 2000

The student who got his head shaved over the weekend tracks me down after my conversation class.

“Professor, do you have class, Professor?”

“No, I just finished.”

“Oh Professor, thank you, Professor.  Later I will bring you bread.  Last night I baked bread.  By the way, Professor, I am hotel baker at my college.  Hotel baker.”  He beams.

“Right, I remember that.”

“Professor, let’s meet at twelve o’clock.  I will give you bread.”

I say okay, but I don’t know if I will eat the bread.  Yesterday when he showed up in my class with his head shaved,  I went to lunch with him because I had promised–even though I was feeling a little sick.  As we left my building to walk to the junior college cafeteria, he obliged me with an explanation of his shaved head:  “Dandruff, Professor.  Berry, berry bad dandruff.”

I ate cautiously, trying not to look at his head and what might be flying off it, into the air, across the table, into my soup.

The cafeteria, almost empty, was clean, each table decorated with an artificial rosebud drenched in dew.  At a nearby table, a sophisticated woman with a cap of dark hair, the signature dark lipstick, wearing a long, straight suit, sat eating alone.  She gave me a quiet smile.

The student did as other students do, served me the food.  Then he dug in himself.  He slurped his soup, and I was glad that I knew, from reading, that this was a common Korean habit.  So it didn’t gross me out as much as it could have.

We ate curried vegetables and rice, zucchini with sort of rubber chicken chunks, and piles of kimchi.  I said it was “delicious,” because it seems like Asians say that rather than just “good.”

“Oh, Professor, I am glad to hear you say ‘delicious.'”

I finally got away and began walking toward my apartment at the bottom of the hill, where I could take cold medicine and a nap, before it was time to return for evening classes.

He came up next to me in his strange, Chinese Communist-style uniform of black cotton shirt and pants.  “Professor, are you going to your home?  How can you get there?  I crave to help you, Professor.”

“Oh no,” I assured him.  “It’s very close, very easy.”

“Oh, Professor.  Well–”  He paused.  “Well, Professor, I would like to attend your class.  I really appreciate your lecture and dialog.”

I wouldn’t call it that, I thought.

“But Professor, tonight I have to bake bread.  I am hotel baker at my college.”

“Okay, well, I’ll see you tomorrow, maybe.”

“Professor!  Do you like bread?”

“Yes.”  I was thinking of dandruff, like gentle rain.  Barely perceptible.  White.  White as flour.

“I will bring you bread, Professor!  Tomorrow!  I will come to your office at twelve o’clock, Professor.”

*        *        *

He didn’t show up at noon the next day.  A relief.  I waited ten minutes, and then I left.  I had to eat lunch.

When I returned to my office, there was a big black plastic bag stuck in the transom above the door.  The bread.  I took it down.  I would take it home, and then I would decide what to do with it.

He was at my afternoon class, apologizing.  He had gotten there late, after his lunch.  Did I find the package?  I said I had.  I thanked him.

The class was terrible.  So big–forty-five students.  One boy talked constantly in Korean.  Three girls were gesturing wildly, saying things I couldn’t understand.  When one finally said, “Toilet!” I understood.  Then all three left together.  The class laughed.  I was embarrassed.

After that, two night classes–pronunciation, in which I boringly had them parrot vowel sounds, and another class called Language Practice, the purpose of which I have yet to discover.  I played a game with them and tried to learn their names.

Dear God, just let me get through this night, so I can go home and sleep.

Finally, the class ended.

“Davis, do you want to go eat something with us?” one of the students asked me.

“Oh, I–”  They were so nice, and cute.  But I was exhausted and wanted my bed, more than anything.

Interpreting my hesitation as lack of comprehension, he made the motion of eating rice from a bowl.  But of course I understood.  This was an advanced class; he was speaking English.

I thanked him, explained my tiredness and declined.

At home, I put the plastic bag on the table, opened it.  There was a plump loaf of fresh bread, and a note, written in pencil:  “Professor, please take a bite!  I am sorry to be late!  Professor, I baked this bread.”

I set it on the cutting board.  Suddenly realizing I was famished, I sliced off a hunk with the very good knife the university had provided me.  I ate one piece, then sliced off another.

Fresh bread.  It was, in fact, delicious.



Korea First Days, Teaching–2

March 9, 2000

Funny thing today.  I am never strict (to my detriment, sometimes)–but by mistake I seemed strict to my students.  I went down my attendance list, marking only absent people.  I happened to pick up a red pen, so I used that.  I marked absent names with F, because I thought it was Friday.  (It wasn’t, though; it was Thursday.)  Later, a girl who was absent came to my office to say she was sorry for being absent, and her friend had told her I marked an F next to her name.  They both thought it meant Fail!  She was so contrite.  It was great!

I forgave her, but I shouldn’t have.  Her story was lame.  She said she thought class started at 10:30, not 9:30.  I don’t think so.

March 10, 2000

Last night, I was getting ready for bed.  I was thinking how funny it was that one guy in Language Practice III said he will be either a furniture salesman or a movie director, he’s not sure which.

I thought, I would love to have someone at home to tell that story to, to laugh with.  Wouldn’t it make work more enjoyable, to have someone to talk to, share with, laugh with?

. . .

Yesterday I saw a nice sight on my way home.  It was about 5:15, and I passed a man sitting on a bench in the little patch of woods between the administration building and my office building.

I’d never noticed that pair of benches, in the woods at the top of the hill, facing away from the path.

What a nice pair of benches, I thought.  I could sit on one of those benches in the woods, thinking, not-thinking.  Taking a breather.

March 11, 2000

In four of my seven classes, the books I ordered are not available in Korea.  So, I have no books.  But I’m not devastated, just a little scared.

It was Ji Yeon Park’s suggestion not to make the students buy a book.  I’m not sure why.  Save them money?  Or maybe she feels–as she said!–that a book is unnecessary.  Although I felt that was easy for her to say, when she didn’t have to teach the class, I realized she’s kind of right.  They need to talk.

But they need something to talk about, and I can’t provide that kind of ongoing stimulus.  I will use Family Album USA for my basic structure.  I found a copy of the video series in my office cabinet.  What luck!  I’ve used it before and I like it a lot.  Students like it too.

Korea First Days, Teaching–1

March 6, 2000

Yesterday, walking around campus, I saw a poster on the door of a small building.  I sounded out the hangul (Korean writing):  Ping.  Pong.  Oh!  I was surprised that I could understand.  It made me smile.  I think the students will make me smile–and laugh too, I hope.


March 7, 2000

Where can I eat dinner?  That’s my real question.  I teach from 1:30 to 3:30.  So, maybe after my afternoon classes, I’ll come home and have a noodle cup at 4:30 or 5.  Then I teach night classes from 6:55 to 10:10, four forty-five-minute classes, with five minute breaks between them.

My first class yesterday was two fifty-minute periods, 11:30 to 12:20, then 12:30 to 1:20.  It was a big class, 23 students.  Today’s section will be bigger, 41–but at least it’s only one fifty-minute period.

Then I have Freshman Conversation, 2:30 to 3:30.


March 8, 2000

I have to go to Taejon today, alone, on the bus.  Lara was going to go with me, but at the last minute, yesterday morning, she told me she couldn’t, because some friends of theirs are coming to visit from Moscow.  I don’t want to go alone, but I will because I want to get my passport back.

Yesterday was a nightmare.  “Boot camp” was the phrase that came to mind as I was trudging to and from campus–tired, freezing.  Walking up and down that hill is killing me.  I hate it.  I hate the blaring music in the morning, hate the students walking in front of and behind me, chatting merrily in Korean.  Hate that the buildings are absolutely freezing in the hallways, and in some of the classrooms, hate that they make me work from morning until late at night, giving me humungous classes.  Hate that my textbooks are not in, so I had to wing it last night for three hours and fifteen minutes straight.  Hate that I’m not sure how many copies I can legitimately ask the office to make.

I actually had two Freshman Conversation classes, day and night sections.  The first one, at 1:30, had 45 students.  The next one, at 2:30, had 42 students.  I don’t know how I’ll teach such large classes–for conversation.  I prepared my evening classes and checked email, went home and ate quickly at 5.  I went back and taught two classes, 6:55 to 9:20, with two five-minute breaks, then 9:25 to 10:10.

I got a ride home from some students.  I was catatonic for forty-five minutes, then went to bed.

I wonder why I left my comfortable life to go to a place where everything is different, difficult.  I don’t know if I can stay here.



First Days in Korea–10

March 4, 2000

When you are in a foreign country and you want to learn the language, you have to do things.  I just do little things, though.  Yesterday, I had nothing to do at the office, so I walked around, looking for a post office or mailbox, to mail my letters.  I saw a convenience store behind a classroom building, just perched there behind it, on the hill, along with another small building that looked like apartments.  And it had outdoor tables.  I went in and just looked around at what they were selling–stationery, tea, chips, snacks, soups, noodles, banana milk, some office supplies.  I said to the woman working there, “Eol ma ye yo?” (How much is it?), and she could understand just eol ma (how much).  And I picked up a box that seemed to be tea, so I asked her in Korean, “Cha?”  “Ne.”  (Yes.)  It was.

Just very small things.

Shopping at the grocery store, on the other hand, is a trip, one that I do not like.  I can’t understand the food!  Everything looks different.  They don’t even have normal coffee.  Sorry.  I mean the kind I am used to.

I was waiting to have some apples weighed at the store, when a woman walked up and introduced herself as a Chinese professor at the university.  She helped me, told me the woman wanted me to add one more apple, so I did.  She asked where we were from.  Miguk (the United States) and Chungkuk (China).

The Chinese professor was friendly and nice.  She told me, then, where to pay.  I knew that, though.  I just didn’t know what most of the vegetables were, how to ask for meat, where to find parmesan, how to get coffee for brewing–not instant, and what lots and lots of things were.

Oh well.  I can’t get everything I’d like, but I’ve got food, a roof over my head, and electricity.  I’m going to live another week–and I did get delicious ginger tea, and Diet Coke!  (It’s lighter than ours, but good.)


March 5, 2000

Culture shock is a kind of not finding the usual grooves to slip into, so you feel kind of unclear, ambiguous, floating, hazy.

You really can’t walk into a grocery store expecting to find everything on your list.  You can bring a list, but don’t be set on it.  You will find some of the things, and some things that are similar, but not exactly the same.  In Korea, you can find bread easily.  But sometimes it will have corn in it.  I don’t care for that.  Koreans seem to put corn in strange things.  They love it on pizza.

Some things you won’t find.  Some things will look totally different or have a higher (or lower) price than you are used to.  Many things will be new to you, totally foreign.  But it’s all right.  You don’t have to understand everything now.  You don’t even have to have everything you think you need, not really.  Just make sure you have some things to eat and drink when you leave the store.  And for sure, something you really like, something special for yourself, to cheer you up, even if it costs a little.

I was in a rut.  And now my rut is gone!  I have no ruts to walk in.

Almost every time I ask what time or how much, I can’t understand the answer.  So it’s mostly an exercise.  I have to remember that, an exercise, a learning experience.

March 3, 2000

Yesterday we had to go to the President’s office, to get formal, bound copies of our contracts.  At first it was intimidating, all those men in rows, like government officials.  But then it was funny; instead of standing and waiting our turns, we all scooted along the benches.  When my turn came, the President pointed to my name in English, and smiled at me.  And he read Igor’s (the pianist who will be teaching music) name out loud, because he gets a kick out of those Russian names.

Then he spoke to the faculty, and he spoke warmly, like a father almost.  His voice was soft and very kind.  Once in a while there was, apparently, a little gentle humor.  I understood nothing, of course.  Afterward, I asked Professor Park what he’d said.  He said to be kind to the students, that their parents don’t love them.  Really? I said.  Well, they are a disappointment, because they couldn’t get into the really good universities, in Seoul.  I loved his attitude.

Culture shock list:

  1. In my apartment, there is a drain in the bathroom floor.
  2. In public places, often the toilets are in the floor.  Sometimes both kinds are available, and you can choose.  Also, toilet paper is a rare item in those bathrooms.  On the plus side, stall doors and walls usually go down to the floor, giving more privacy.
  3. Everyone has a cell phone, everywhere.*
  4. Many girls wear fancy shoes with heels, even climbling a mountain.
  5. There are so many outdoor markets, with vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, and various street foods.
  6. Coffee shops with odd English names–“People,” “Coffee and Tomato.”
  7. Driving is crazy, at least in my town.  People drive as if there are no rules.  Stop lights are not necessarily paid attention to.  Pedestrians beware!  If I see a monk crossing the street, I try to walk next to him or her.  Drivers respect monks!
  8. Shoes off indoors, including in restaurants.  People sit on floors, which are often the warmest places, due to ondol, the toasty heating system running under the floor.
  9. No tipping!  This is simply wonderful.  You don’t have to tip at restaurants, in taxis, anywhere.
  10. Newscasters on TV bow at the end of their show.  So do train conductors at the end of the trip, and they wear gloves.


*In 2000, when they were rare in the U.S.

First Days in Korea–8

February 29, 2000

Yesterday Dan Lavelle took me to Taejon, to Immigration, to register.  Good thing he took me!  I would have been lost.

We take a taxi downtown, walk to yeok (train station), wait for the train.  The gate and time are posted, and the train is announced.  Car and seat numbers are printed on the tickets.  Lots of people are taking the train, even on Monday.

Trains have uniformed employees coming through with snack carts here:  crackers, cookies, oranges, various drinks, maybe dried fish.  It’s nice.  I try to listen for the announcement of our stop.  It’s better, Dan tells me, to check the time of arrival for your stop; the trains are on time here, so that really works.

We had to take two trains, changing at Ch’onan, a decent-sized city an hour away.  On the way home, we stopped there, and went to a store called Carrefour, a kind of French Wal Mart, as Dan described it.  There, I found out that my shoe size is 245.  It sounds big, and in fact, is probably the largest woman’s size.  I feel like an elephant here.

In Taejon, we were able to do our immigration business easily.  Then we ate lunch at a restaurant in the tiny but brim-full student village next to Chungnam University.  Outside, the place looked abandoned.  Inside, we were the only customers.  One room had low tables, for sitting on the floor.  We chose one of two tables with chairs in the other room.  A man put a small grill on the table, where he cooked pork.  He showed me how to take big lettuce leaves and small sesame leaves (rough-textured, with serrated edges and a sesame taste), then on top of these leaves to layer pork, onion, kimchi, sance, raw garlic and other raw vegetables, then fold it into a little package and pop it into my mouth.  Delicious!  And he was so kind.

Nothing is extremely difficult here, and people are so willing to help.  I make it through, one day at a time.

First Days in Korea–7

February 27, 2000, continued

Because of the no-shoes thing, you have to dress in a different order to go out–which feels weird, and really is disconcerting.  You can’t put your shoes on until you’re wearing your coat and hat.  Coming home, you remove your shoes, then take off your coat, then  put away your briefcase and the groceries.

I was doing email in my office for about two hours, and it got cold.  The wind was blowing noisily outside.  Before I left the building, I used one of the “eastern” toilets, in the floor, balancing with one hand on the tile.  I managed okay this time, but I don’t know how it could be done with a dress and pantyhose.  I’m not going to try it.

There was no toilet paper, but I had Kleenex.  And there were no hand towels, but I had my men’s handkerchief, thanks to Janet, who suggested buying a supply of them at Wal Mart before I left.  An excellent suggestion!

I think I am going to like it here–except the young people are so well dressed, sleek, thin, feminine women with beautiful hair and long fitted jackets.  And the ubiquitous cell phones.  Yes, I should have invested in them, as that investment broker at home suggested.

I went to the coffee shop again today.  I love it–a couch to sit on, coffee, nice relaxing atmosphere (except the rock music), people to watch, be with, and a great place to read.

My young waiter spoke English shyly, and it was sweet.  He said, “May I please have your order,” or something; I couldn’t quite hear him.  When I said excuse me, he quickly switched to Korean, something ending in “chuseyo”  (please).  I didn’t understand, so he went back to English.  I said thank you when he brought it.  Smiling, he ventured, “You’re welcome.”

When I left, I decided I had to be brave and try Korean, so  I bought a loaf of bread at the bakery on the corner.  I said “Kamsa hamnida” (thank you) and “Anyong hi keseyo” (goodbye).   This is fun!

I miss my daughter though.